“First Mother’s Fear” by Hayley Stone

Somewhere between her third and fourth alcohol stimulant, Devyn decides the best way to celebrate her twentieth birthday is by hacking into the fertility module on M-deck and playing god. The synthetic wombs are still functioning, and as long as she’s smart about what genes she pulls from storage, she can avoid any risk of inbreeding.

It’s a brilliant plan. Flawless.

Then the stims wear off.

“Well.” Devyn takes in a strained breath in through her nose, standing before a wall of fertilized organs. “Fuck.”

* * *

Kivan‘s powerful engines generate a shiver through the deck every twenty minutes, but it’s hardly noise. The spaces on the ship formerly filled with words and laughter are now empty, the carbon cut out of the air. All that life, gone.

Sometimes during the night cycle, she thinks she hears noises, but she’s run the scans. There’s no sign of any other life. Only Devyn. Even the ship’s AI stopped communicating with her months ago, victim of some systemic failure Devyn isn’t equipped to fix. She’s tried.

She wishes she remembered a time before Kivan to hold close in these lonelier moments. But all she knows of Earth is its final moments: blue skies pockmarked by alien invaders, whole cities ashed in moments. Survivors fleeing to the last of the unlaunched ships with only whatever they could hold in their arms—clothing, pictures, a child—turning to catch one last glimpse of home before being jostled through an airlock.

These were the stories her first mothers told her, over and over, while they worked on a weapon that would allow them to fight back the next time. Other mothers spoke glowingly of new stars they would discover, of the great colony they would create inside a tiny corner of the swirling cosmos. Hers only toiled in a lab, obsessed over what had been lost.

Maybe those grim recollections were meant as a warning. Her mothers aren’t around anymore for her to ask.

* * *

Every day Devyn resentfully checks on her children because that’s what her own mothers would do. Supervise. Fret. The fetuses turn over in their plastic pillows like restless sleepers, refusing to be delivered even though it’s been months. The machines monitoring their life signs insist nothing is wrong, but that same diagnostic equipment has erred before.

“You can come out now,” Devyn says in a bored tone. She’s started talking to them as if they can hear her. Maybe they’ll grow faster this way, like plants with classical music. This whole thing was such a stupid idea, made stupider by the fact she’s sure she made a mistake during gene selection. Ten months is way too long for normal human gestation. “It’s safe.”

Probably. For a while, Devyn worried she might be an asymptomatic carrier of the same virus that took out almost everyone else on board, but her family never sickened. They died during the panic. She would have too if she’d been with them in the cafeteria during the riot, but she wasn’t. When the alarms sounded, she grabbed an oxygen mask and hid until the smoke cleared, like she was taught. Like her first mothers had done on earth to avoid strafing runs of gas and fire.

That was three years ago. After, Devyn searched for survivors. She found no one, though several of the lifeboats had been launched, jettisoned into deep space. That seemed as much a death sentence as staying, but desperate people make desperate choices.

Within weeks, Kivan‘s maintenance bots had erased all evidence of the conflict on board. Devyn never found out what the AI did with the bodies of her parents and everyone else, but for weeks afterward the tomato plants in the horticultural hub that had been struggling to grow in the nutrient-weak soil suddenly shot up, producing the juiciest fruit she’d ever tasted.

* * *

Another four months passes before the first child slides into Devyn’s arms. Its body morphs as it meets the air of the ship, changing like the meat of a rapidly oxidized apple. Soft claws scrape at her arm. A purple tail wraps around her wrist, squeezing gently.

Devyn stares down at the infant’s jelly-clear eyes, prickling with fear.

No babies have ever been born on Kivan, but she’s seen enough in archived vids to know they’re not usually purple with claws and a tail. More than anything human, this babe resembles the invaders from her mothers’ stories. She’s seen them in the vids too.

Some of the genetic material Devyn drunkenly grabbed from storage must have belonged to this species, kept for testing. That could’ve been how the virus came into being too—from her mothers’ efforts to feel safe, building a disease to conquer the immune systems of their enemy. Except they’d made a mistake.

Like mothers, like daughter.

Devyn pulls the babe against her chest slowly, experimentally. “Hi,” she says, letting it hold one of her fingers in its claws. “Hello there.” She doesn’t know if she can love this tiny creature, but it’s hers now. She has to try. She’s afraid, but so were her mothers.

“Somewhere there is a world for us,” she tells her child. “That’s where we’re going.”

She won’t tell them of the destructed Earth, or the invasion. Those stories—her mothers’ stories—are not ones she wants to revive, planting them in other bodies to live their grief again.

Devyn exits the fertility module, plus one. She doesn’t know what will happen now, but she still pauses to listen as she often does, even after all this time hoping for the AI’s motherly reprimand. Advice from someone who might know better.

But Kivan is silent. Hushed. Expectant.

Metal shivers underneath Devyn’s feet as the ship labors to reach a new star and whatever warning she expects to hear, it never comes.

Hayley Stone is an award-winning author, narrative designer, and poet best known for her weird western, Make Me No Grave, and the post-apocalyptic sci-fi series, Last Resistance. Her short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and more. Hayley loves connecting with readers at her website: hayleystone.com.