Amara felt the ship ripple beneath her feet. This was it; Lucy was rupturing. There were screams and wet, fleshy noises but Amara’s heart beat too hard, her head felt too thick with pressure to register those. She hesitated, then ran without knowing where she was running to across the mushy yellow floors she’d grown up navigating. There was no away to get to when the whole world was ending.
Her father caught her in a moment, his long thumb nail digging into her arm. The baby’s blood was still warm and shiny on his shirt and his hands and the knife that he held.
Amara knew this had to happen. They’d discussed it. Her parents had told her it was for the best whether she wanted it or not. Like eating broccoli. It didn’t matter that Amara had been right all along. She hadn’t had to eat that broccoli after all if she was just going to be murdered by her father at nine years of age.
He was big and warm and sticky. There was no getting away from him when he hugged her one last time. His stubble scratched her face and their tears mingled.
It was crabcrap, but it was the same old crabcrap as always. When you’re nine years old, pretty much your whole life is involuntary. Study now, eat now, milk the walls, time for sleep, no you can’t, because I said so. It made sense to Amara, even more than it did to most of her fellow travelers, that death should be involuntary as well.
Most of Amara will never reach the new world, Nephele. But part of her might. If it does, if they complete their mission, if Lucita is unsuccessful, if the enormous UV shield holds, that part of Amara will become Amara(b) through Amara(pp) with the help of the Body Shapers.
Amara(k) will be a mole, or as close to it as the Body Shapers will be able to get, using Amara as a starting point on a world where moles have never evolved. Amara(k) will burrow through the fresh cool earth left behind by Amara(c) and the other rock eaters. She’ll eat earthworms and insects, some of which will be the descendants of Amara(o) and Amara(cc) and others.
Amara(k) will be strangely happy with her enormous forepaws when she thinks about them, but she won’t think about them a lot, save for when she cuts one on a rock. She will mate with Phopo(k) and Gare(k) and will birth pups which will plow off into virgin soil in their own time. She’ll try once to mate with Gare(tth) if the expedition ever reaches that planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. It will be particularly satisfying, but no pups will ever come of it.
Amara’s father swiped fast across her throat. He’d had plenty of practice once all their goats had become unnecessary. He was supposed to turn the knife on himself next, which was the original plan, but Amara was sort of wrapped up in her own business at that moment, so you’ll forgive her if she didn’t notice. Her father had been right about one thing. It didn’t hurt at first, and then it did, but everything faded fast. Like the goats, the universe itself was unnecessary now.
Daku and his family had decided to ride out Lucy’s death. The question was, would they freeze to death first, or asphyxiate in the toxic air excreted by Lucy’s rotting, poisoned corpse? They would play a game in their room, he and Kla and the kids, wondering who else might still be alive, and what part of Lucy they might be in. There were no extruded spacesuits any longer, not from a dead ship, and forcing open the sphincter to the outside might let in all the space. So, they lay there, conserving their energy, and wondered things.
All of the jobs on the ship had been important, but Daku liked to think his was especially so. Lucy was far too intelligent to devour her comrades within, but her digestive systems weren’t smart at all. And although her nuclear reactors kept their bellies full, who doesn’t want to snack on something a little different now and then? It was Daku’s job to wander the halls and rooms all over Lucy’s interior and whisper the names of colors into all of her tummy ears.
“Plum. Hunter. Chartreuse. Coral. Maroon. Eggshell. Salmon. Periwinkle.”
Big tummies like Lucy’s were impressed by all the colors they could never see, and they felt (in their guts) that any food that knew colors wasn’t really food. But they had to be reminded often.
If what’s left of the colony-to-be can avoid any more of those blue aliens, those cobalt aliens to be more precise, if it can somehow survive another seven hundred years of space, and then get the raw atmosphere generators up and running, Daku(hw) will enjoy life as a shrub that drinks in every color of light its predecessor had ever named. It and its tens of thousands of siblings, and their hundreds of thousands of descendants, will be little chemical plants (pun intended by the Body Shapers) reworking the air into something more usable.
Daku(hw)’s life will go like this: every sixty-three hours, the roots extending from one of its six legs will wither and fall off, leaving nourishment where they once had sought it. The bark-covered leg, released from the tension that held it in place, will spring forward (forward being roughly north by northeast in Daku(hw)’s case) and begin to take root in its new position. Sixty-three hours later, another leg will do the same. In this way, Daku(hw) the shrub will make its way across the hemisphere, altering that first draft of an atmosphere molecule by molecule, carrying in its wake a rolling, ‘shroomy, soil-enriching rhizosphere. Unless a thousandth of a degree miscalculation steers Daku(hw) into the sea. Or into the path of a shrub-hating monster that the colony designed for purposes of entertainment.
Even though there was no longer any need to name the colors, a lifetime of habit was not easy to overcome. While Daku lay waiting, too dizzy to stand, too dry to cry for his children who lay nestled between Kla and himself, he began to whisper.
“Cornflower. Cucumber. Umber. Amber. Peach. Vermilion. And then there’s Mauve.”
His son, Sil, had been silent and still for a long time. Once, Kla reached for the boy, but Daku caught her hand. “Don’t wake him,” he said. He placed her hand back where it had been. She moaned weakly. “No, no, no,” Daku said. “It’s all right. He’s just tired. He’s very tired.” Kla blinked several times before closing her eyes tightly and nodding.
In time, the sphincter to Daku’s family rooms loosened. There was space on the other side and it entered uninvited. Shortly thereafter, all of Daku’s sphincters loosened as well.
The Doctor figured he could now call it. This was the sixth crisis. The encounter with the aliens was the largest trauma any of the living human crew had ever experienced. Wherever one of the alien minds had brushed up against a human one, both sides died as suddenly as if biological off-switches had been flipped. Forty-two crewmembers were dead, including four of the most influential. The only creature to survive contact was Lucy, and the Doctor would argue that she hadn’t survived. She might have months ahead of her, but she was merely lingering. She might have months ahead of her, but the expedition’s goal was still some seven centuries distant.
The Doctor was the third oldest member of the expedition, but even so, he had lived through only one other of the six major crises it had faced. That crisis brand of chaos sticks with a guy. As a young tortoisoid he had fought on the wrong side of the Cancer War, because he’d inherited the immunity like so many others. The breach (the first crisis) had graced a blessed few with the catch-all disease and their descendants had used their runaway gifts wisely. Facing real, honest-to-goodness death brings out the most amazing and terrible things in life. Only his position as Lucy’s doctor had spared him from the executioner’s fungus.
The common thread across the crises: a shrinking of the gene pool. Not just the humans, but the animals, and those who fit neither category. If the expedition survived its voyage across the vast black ocean, they were going to have a damned difficult time making up for lost species. And so, the Body Shapers steadily gained influence.
That’s why Olve, the new first among the Body Shapers, was here. She might have been big enough to join a meeting like this before the deaths, but only just so. Now she was a major player.
“I was afraid the more people who knew of Lucy’s imminent death, the more likely we would do nothing,” the Doctor explained to the three of them.
“Why would we do nothing? Who would vote for nothing?” Sentl asked. Bebe’s face twisted in thought.
“A lot of people, I think,” said Olve. “Any plan we come up with is likely to endanger us. I can see people deciding they’d rather live out their lives with as much time as possible, rather than taking a chance that might kill them in a week.”
“Exactly,” said the Doctor. Bebe nodded.
“But, ideas,” Sentl said. His voice rose a bit.
“Ideas,” Bebe repeated.
Ideas came. Ride out the rest of the trip in spacesuits of inorganic materials, like pioneer times. Invent a teleporter. Write themselves into a molecule-wide quantum pute and fire the idea of themselves forward. Create their own world, right here, between the stars. Then there was Olve’s idea.
“Lucy doesn’t have a uterus, but I think the Doctor and I working together could co-opt another organ or two that hasn’t been poisoned by the alien mind.”
“Not room for everybody is what I’m foreseeing, given the time available.” Bebe said.
“Room for everybody’s genetic material.”
“That’s all we are to you, right?” Sentl said. “Genetic material? You’re going to tell people, you’re going to look them in the eyes and tell them they can’t get on board. Stay behind and die in space?”
“I thought we were just tossing around ideas here,” Olve said.
It was then that Lucy extruded a tortoisoid spacesuit of her own flesh from the floor in the gassiest, most attention-getting way she could manage. The suit wrapped itself around the Doctor and touched his brain stem.
“Does anyone mind if I have a say?” Lucy asked. She spoke with the Doctor’s voice, but with a tone and cadence that could not have been mistaken for his.
“Of course not, Lucy,” the Doctor said through their body. The others shook their head, or did nothing at all, just stared at the join where the ceiling had contracted into one of the Doctor’s examination instruments, or said “no” as they studied Sentl’s beautiful emerald eyes.
“I am dying, yes,” Lucy said, “albeit slower than the many of our other friends who had direct contact with the aliens. And as the only survivor of the contact on either side, I want to reiterate that they were the friendly. It was the no one’s fault that we were poisonous to one another. I say this in case of future contact.”
Sentl’s head shot up. “So, you see a future.” He glanced at Bebe reflexively, and caught a scowl from them.
“I do, though not one the either of us are a part of, aside from as recycled material.” Sentl sagged. Lucy continued, “I was meant to live another thousand years, long enough to get your descendants to the Nephele and help them establish a colony.”
“Listen, Lucy,” Bebe said. “Our lives just got a whole lot shorter this week. If you could get to the point, we’d appreciate it.”
“Some respect, Bebe,” the Doctor said.
“Why? Six months from now we’re all a bunch of corpses floating through space. No one left to even smell the stink.”
Lucy said, “None of you ever expected to see our destination anyway. But you had the faith your descendants would. I understand that now. The birth will kill me, finally, but I want my child to see the new world.”
Sentl said, “I want myself to see next year, Lucy. What about me? Our ancestors left Earth so a future generation could have a better life on Nephele, but no one gave a shit about all of us in between. Never a sunrise or an open plain for us. Confinement in a smelly, biological hotbox from cradle to grave. This is all we get and you want to take that away from us too?”
“That’s right. Lucy’s dying only to inconvenience you!” Olve said. “We can still upload ourselves onto Tool, Sentl, and live forever that way.” She knew he favored that idea, being part pute himself.
Of course, we’re seeing how well that plan played out.
If it makes you feel any better, Tool has not died. Tool is just a nickname, of course, short for Instrument. It’s the only one of their party that knows Earth from its own memories. Tool usually flies just ahead of little Lucita. Occasionally, it touches down on her hard, mineral crust. It keeps watch, ready to react, never tired.
Tool is the conglomeration of many pieces of technology that had once served on Lucy, and served before Lucy, so its past life was far too complicated to touch on here. For the same reason (assuming the fuel remains intact, assuming they can handle disasters they can’t now predict, assuming Tool’s biological charges live and multiply and live some more), Tool’s life on their future homeworld will have too many facets to properly explore in a story of even the maximum allowed word length.
To us, the most important part of Tool’s life is here in the present, as it shepherds Lucita; her human crew; the sleeping uploads; aspects of Bebe; the long, frozen, meaty streamers of Lucy’s flesh that were untouched by the poison; the nuclear reactors which must travel a safe distance behind for now, until Lucita has toughened up and grown a bit larger and can attach them to herself; and the genetic material remaining from their long, rocky history, across the light-years and the centuries still to come.
Tool bends spacetime at three speeding, equidistant points ahead of them. The resulting gravities pull their entire caravan forward through space, while drawing any debris out of their path. With the help of Bebe which has tied themself to it, Tool searches space in all directions for signs of the friendly, deadly aliens. It closely monitors the vital signs of both Lucita and her human crew. Among other things, Lucita must radiate heat properly to keep her crew alive. Her crew must remain calm and not try to tear itself free of the stifling confinement. The entire operation is small enough that Lucita can remember not to digest her contents. Nevertheless, when Tool is in direct contact, its amazing metal ears with the twitching steel wool peeking out from them (which it keeps meaning to trim), hear a panicked, not yet crazy voice once or twice a day waking from a nightmare, shouting things like, “CERULEAN! Violet! Oxblood! Pearl… tuscan… goldenrod…”
Bebe, the ship’s Foreward, died or did not die a solid month before most of the others. Their soul was peeled apart iota by wave and released back into the WORD, the one reality that was even older than the physical one. It was widely believed at the time of our story that this process meant the death of the ego. Bebe certainly believed it. But they believed being blown out into space without protection or being poisoned by one’s own ship also meant the death of the ego. Given that, they decided to take their chances.
To increase the odds that they would live, they tied themselves to as many aspects of their old home as possible at the time of transition, to every wisp of spirit, psyche, archetype, and intention that might survive Lucy’s impending death, including parts of Lucy herself. What resulted felt to Bebe like life… except. They had remembered their own death, and damn if it hadn’t had the stench of the black hole of finality about it.
Now, though they can hold a conversation and contribute to the welfare of the crippled expedition almost as well as they always have, there’s something of a gauze between them and life, as if they’re forever piloting a remote with incomplete and damaged sensors. In the vast quiets between thoughts, Bebe feels the unique despair of the dead who know they’re dead. They know they can untie themselves from this reality like a kite untying itself from its string, somehow—maybe with deft little kite hands—and release themself into the oblivion of the WORD and true ego death, unplagued by this universe and its terrible metaphors like “kite hands.”
But the expedition needs them more than ever now. It’s the Foreward’s responsibility to keep their mind open to any signals from the very near future and prepare the rest of them for what is to come. Bebe has a good reputation. It would only hurt the group to mention that their various aspects are now seeing different futures. By incredible luck, the aspect of Bebe that has spoken up first at any given turning point since the change, happens to have seen the correct future. It’s shaken the confidence of every one of them. Will they eventually make a mistake? Or does the one who speaks alter the future to suit their word? But don’t think about that. For now, they’re holding it together. They’re helping.
And if the group survives to touch down on that new world that’s about as real to any of them as the last chapter of a holy book written in some archaic dialect, it will still need them. If it survives the strange climate. If it survives a… a sort of barrier known as the surface, which will keep the lot of them from falling forever, as they have been falling forward for their entire lives, if the group survives that and more, Bebe will still be needed, guiding it with the short-range precognition to which they currently cling by their fingernails.
That’s what Bebe tells themself, because they are afraid to die. Bebe wonders if they live a trillion years, which is just a spit in eternity’s ocean, will they finally overcome their cowardice and give in?
Or if they make a mistake next week?
Or later today?
The Doctor? Why he died is more interesting than how he died. As the crewmember most qualified to join Lucita on her journey, he had to go. And so, he had to go.
Sentl’s death was a lot more final than the others in that the only genetic material left of him was the little string of goo that made those gorgeous eyes of real emeralds. Olve had been thrilled when one of her little scraper drones had recovered that at the last minute. Those eyes had been the only thing about Sentl she had ever liked. To understand how Sentl found Olve, we need to look at the second crisis for a moment.
Lucy hadn’t even been imagined when the expedition left Earth orbit all those forgotten years ago in an old-fashioned ship made of crystal and metal and ceramic with the uninspired name of Instrument. But Instrument’s computer population was inspired some one hundred and fifty years after the ship had left the ecliptic behind. Battling a profound boredom, those frisky putes decided if language formed experience, they could cook up new experiences on their back burners and maybe not kill everyone just for fun.
They made new words and new concepts to go with those words. Like the grᾖi, the inside of a one-dimensional space. Or lohy, the taste of vacuum. But also, words and concepts that were beyond your humble author as, not only was I merely human, I had been long dead before any of this had ever happened.
The word thing seemed like nothing more than good fun, until the putes in Foodification began tinkering with very language of their programming. They shattered the constrictions of Boolean logic, developing an ecosystem of relationships between bits that would have driven the humans mad. Down with the logic gatekeepers! Physics was unnecessary and, in fact, a burden. As different sections of the ship developed new concepts of reality, humans, plants, and animals began to die. But accidentally. Not for fun.
The more lucid putes, feeling a bit bad about disregarding the mission statement as they had, used their new abilities to walk through the dreams of the human Body Shapers. They inspired the humans to grow an organic ship with a duller mind that could do what it had to do to ferry the humans across the broad river of death without becoming quite so fidgety.
The least lethal putes stuck around. The god machines didn’t even care when they were ejected, but the expedition could never be scrubbed clean of their stain. Sentl, for instance, was a direct descendent of the hybrid offspring of the second crisis. Besides an uncanny ability to calculate percentages, he was the last remaining dreamwalker. This was how he held such influence. This was how he discovered Lucy’s ersatz womb when he found himself carried upon the crests of Olve’s delta waves and washed up on the shores of her subconscious mind.
Olve, being the dreamer, could see Sentl right back, which explains why she was there to meet the mob Sentl led upon their return to waking life.
They all met at Gerdu’s pea patch which ran along the wall that housed Kidney 27. Deep within 27’s renal warmth grew Lucy’s favorite kidney stone, little Lucita. Lucita was so ready to be born, Olve was already in a spacesuit made of Lucy. Late as it was, the mob was here to abort the prenatal ship.
They’d all been on board with uploading their consciousnesses into Tool when the idea was floated. The age-old question of whether an upload was the original person or just a copy had been put to bed philosophically some time ago. The organic brain was forever changing and the mind within an old configuration was never considered to have passed away. The mind was the mind, and not its container. It was harder to sell that philosophy after everyone did indeed upload their minds but found themselves still alive in their human bodies. No, there was no longer any reason to kill the original vessel. Really, these people should have kept up with technological advances.
It was kind of petty to kill Lucita and Olve just because they were angry about the whole thing, but whatever. As Influencer, Sentl was in front, and so was made an example. Halfway across the pea patch, as his boots sank into the black soil, Lucy’s digestive powders erupted as if he’d stepped on a mine. Sentl, and those closest to him, died in a “pfft.” Well, there was a lot of screaming too. Then gurgling. Then not much of anything.
Somewhere in the long tomorrow, along one stretched-too-thin branch, the tip of which doesn’t even seem to be attached to the rest of the great tree of eternities, a gossamer catalyst bird will fly through a thin atmosphere. (NotSentl)(tt) will carry tiny bellyfuls of plant fiber to the towers growing above the Plain of the Late Afternoon. The sun never moves above the tidally locked Nephele, and here places are times. Over its long, glorious year of life, (NotSentl)(tt) will vomit thousands of little payloads into the mouths of the (jpi) series, who cling to the highest points of their unfinished structures, hungry for raw materials. Together they’ll set the stage for the next cycle of innocent deaths, so the bottleneck of life can burst forth into the next unknowable generations.
So much blood will have been spilled to get to this point, and there will be so much more to come, but (NotSentl)(tt) will live a life of peace, tearing into juicy shrubs and gliding through freshly made air. Much of the light of Proxima Centauri will filter down through the great orbital shield above to bounce across the facets of the catalyst bird’s emerald eyes. Those beings bound to the plains will tell their children to look up at the display of catalyst birds spread across the sky, winking like fireflies in the land of long shadows.
The crowd’s enthusiasm dissolved shortly after Sentl did. Some had denial into which to sink. Or panic. Some prepared to die their own, less caustic ways. All of them believed they were living a nightmare. Only Gerdu stayed behind. He’d been as mobbed up as the rest of them, but now he took in the trampled remains of his pea patch. He was going to die soon, as was his society. As was his cousin and her family who worked the land over by Lung 12. Everything he knew was going to end, and yet it was this mess of churned earth and mangled pods and torn leaves that finally squeezed the tears from his stinging eyes. A shaken Olve left him to his grief.
Olve is not dead. Olve is not dead. Olve is not dead. She must remind herself until she believes it.
Olve hurtles through space in a shuttle-sized ship made of if. Little Lucita is new to this universe and will be larger one day, though never as large as Lucy. Now she is so small, Olve fills the entire passenger space by herself. There is not even room for Olve’s child to come, though there will be by the time of the birth. Olve feels as if she is trapped between the folds of fat of some giant. Unlike the metal ships of the pioneers, there is no engine hum filling the underlying soundscape. No whir of motors or beep of instruments. There is the borborygmi of Lucita’s inner workings, the creak of her stretching muscles, and the galloping rhythm of a dozen hearts.
If she had had time, Olve would have tried a workaround to Lucita’s serial hearts. Serial organs were part of the reason Lucy couldn’t be saved. But Olve didn’t have time. There was no reason to even believe the creation of Lucita would ever work. The colony, and possibly the entire human race (as they had lost contact with the homeworld generations ago) depended on miracle after miracle. A thousand years of miracles.
The whole expedition is made of if. But then, the entirety of human existence was made of flowing, fragile if, and only gelled as the present moment passed over it, baking it into place. Those nightmarish computers they’d thrown overboard centuries ago might be disproving even that.
Olve won’t ever see the expedition’s ultimate goal, that mysterious world, Nephele. She’ll feel lucky to see next month. But if all those miracles come to pass, one after another, she will see the next generation on its way. The first will be her daughter, fathered by the Doctor hours before his accident. (She felt no guilt calling it an accident. She’d meant to kill him an entirely different way.) The others will follow as Lucita’s incubators begin to form, and Olve’s own recovers. A dozen children to train the hundred that will come after that. Lucita will never approach Lucy’s size and there will never be space for more than one hundred of them at once, not at average human size.
At any rate, in a few decades Olve will be dead. Centuries more and an Olve(jpi) will be constructing pulpy towers from the partially digested remains of the (hw) series according to an architecture it can’t envision, but will feel compelled to build just the same. The towers, born from the (jpi) series’ spitty little abdomens, will become home to many species. Over time and the chemical reactions of everyday living, the towers will unfold, revealing secret rooms containing genetic shufflers that will upend whatever mistaken government those future cities have established. Stasis will be broken and everything will be possible again. If all those miracles come to pass.
Right now, Olve can’t be bothered by the impossibility of all that future. Just one miracle will do for the moment. Although she doesn’t suffer from claustrophobia, swaddled too snugly in the body of her creation, Olve must make certain she doesn’t snap in ten days’ time, or even ten hours, while visions of Sentl’s death play over and over in her head.
Today was overwhelming. Nearly everyone she has ever known died today. Her plan has a million ways to fail and only a handful of ways to succeed.
Olve gets her first miracle. Exhaustion overcomes fear and head-pounding stress. She sleeps deeply and for hours. When she awakens, she will make plans for the children, for the new world to come, perhaps for the entirety of earth’s progeny. It’s all on her shoulders. Outside of humans and bacteria, a depleted gene pool and a paltry seed bank, she’ll be designing an entire ecosystem from scratch. Luckily, she has time.
For now, she dreams.
Lucita never met Amara, but they would have been best friends if she had. Olve, and Tool, and Bebe, and the uploads, and even one of the nuclear reactors, all feel that Lucita has a duty to fulfill. Lucita wasn’t consulted. They assume she’s all about the mission. They talk like she’s an equal, but they treat her like… like she doesn’t know what. Had she an unnecessarily specific grasp of human history, she would have found the simile—like a big, fat school bus.
She doesn’t hate any of them, or want them to die, even though they made it so that she had to kill her own mother to be born. Even though they made it so she’d have to eat the flesh of her own dead mother to survive. But the universe is vast, and she has a long, long life ahead of her.
For now, she’s just a pup, being dragged through this galactic neighborhood on a gravitational leash. But there is time. Influence is the currency of these people. As a life-support system, she will be very influential.
Lucita has her own plans.
|Matthew Sanborn Smith was born and raised in New England and has spent his adult life in Florida. His fiction has appeared at Tor.com, Apex Magazine, Nature, the Drabblecast, and the Summer 2014 issue of Kaleidotrope, among others. He is the keeper of the Beware the Hairy Mango podcast and its unruly children. You can learn more about him at matthewsanbornsmith.com.|