By Ray Nayler
“Man is a creature who can get used to anything, and I believe that is the very best way of defining him.”
Memoirs from the House of the Dead
Alarms overlapped into cacophony. A blob of violet fire drifted past. Then another and another, splashing and spreading across the bulkheads, igniting electrical panels with the smell of ozone and burning petrochemical compounds.
Evrim tumbled uncontrollably. Failure! One alarm babbled. Systems! Failure!
No, Evrim thought. Not failure. Catastrophe.
Evrim’s severed leg drifted past.
As the oxygen drained away, the sound of the alarms dimmed, growing more and more remote. Consciousness began to slip as well.
Then Evrim’s comms crackled.
“Evrim, where are you? What happened? Evrim? Oh God, where am I?”
FOUR HUNDRED YEARS LATER
Dawn aboard the interstellar ship Fram came to a single habmodule. The rest of the ship remained in darkness, except for the ghost-glow of interface diodes leaking through wires like moonlight through winter trees.
The habmodule swung, like a stone in a sling, at the end of an armature along one of Fram’s branches. At night, its nanodiode wall-coating flickered in a simulation of candlelight. More than five centuries ago, a team of scientists had determined candlelight was comforting to the human mind.
Now, in this arbitrary dawn of a 24-hour cycle, long unlinked to anything on earth, the lighting shifted from candlelight to a blue-toned simulation of an Earth sunrise, accompanied by recorded birdsong.
The volume increased until one could almost believe the birds were there, beyond the hull, audible somehow in the vacuum of space.
The intensification in light and sound failed to wake the habmodule’s lone occupant, tangled in a nest of blankets in her bunk.
At last, a voice came over the intercom, fuzzed with distortion.
“Your breakfast will still be warm if you can manage to get to the galley in the next quarter hour or so.”
A face finally poked out from the blankets—teenage; honey-colored; and squinty from sleep. “Okay, okay. I’m on my way.”
Mae untangled herself from her blankets and clambered down from her bunk. She yawned, stretched, scratched, and pulled on the nearest coverall from a pile on the floor. Sleepily, she climbed the ladder out of the habmodule, through the hollow rotating armature and into the ship’s trunk, instinctively readjusting to the changing level of centrifugal simulated gravity as it faded to zero.
As Mae floated through the main trunk of Fram, nanodiodes in the walls responded to her presence, a ring of light around her that slid along the walls like a lantern lowered down a well. The diodes illuminated serpent lines of communicating cables, ladder rungs, handholds, emergency aid stations, access panels, and circular hatches leading off into branches—before plunging all of it back into darkness.
Mae arrested her fluid passage through the ship’s main artery with a grasp at a handhold on the corridor wall just past Hatch 126/1. The hatch was battered and scratched, fire-scarred around its orifice, jaggedly welded shut.
But at some time since she had passed this way last night, the seam of the weld had been broken. The red light in the hatch’s center indicated 126/1 was still locked, but now the door’s access light blinked, waiting for a code.
So, today really was the day.
The galley rotated around Fram’s trunk like a bracelet around a wrist, generating just enough centrifugal force to keep ersatz orange juice in a cup. Evrim inclined their copper-gold, epicene head toward Mae as she descended into the room. Evrim was cooking by hand, turning flapjacks over on an electric griddle that only saw use once or twice in a year. They were dressed, as always, in a silvery-gray microfiber jumpsuit. Once the jumpsuit wore out, it would be recycled, and dutifully recreated in the Matter Arranger. “Evrim” was written on a Velcro patch on the left side of their chest. The patch was an ancient artifact, having survived many jumpsuit reincarnations.
“You’ve made it in time. Either that, or I waited a little bit for you, because I know how little you like mornings.”
“I suspect the latter is the truth.”
“I suspect it is.”
Mae could never really conceive of Evrim as being both the ship Fram and the ship’s android avatar who stood in front of her. She simply couldn’t hold the idea in her mind. She watched Evrim’s immaculate movements as they turned the flapjacks. No. For her, Evrim was separate from Fram. Evrim had carried her around for months in a slivery-gray papoose that matched their jumpsuit. Evrim had held her hand and taught her to walk on the grass of the garden ring. Evrim had tucked her in at night and stayed with her in her habitat when she was frightened of the creaking and groaning sounds Fram made as it plunged through the void. Evrim cooked flapjacks for her by hand on every birthday and at Christmas.
Tall, slender, copper-gold and smooth—eternally patient Evrim. When she was very small, Mae had imagined Fram as a blossoming tree of life, silver-gray or copper-gold, the colors of Evrim.
Mae’s first ride in a maintenance shuttle, at the age of seven, had shown her the truth. The shuttle’s lights played across a ruin, a stump hurtling silently through the void above the tangled roots of its drive. Fram’s exterior was like a lightning-shattered tree. The stumps of amputated branches protruded from a trunk riven with scar-tissue welds and grafts. No—Evrim could not be Fram, because Fram was a thing of nightmares.
After that trip in the shuttle, the night terrors had set in. Several times a month, Evrim would sit, cross-legged, on the floor of Mae’s habitat, stroking Mae’s hair as she tried, and failed, to sleep.
During the ship’s day, Evrim had constructed elaborate scavenger hunt adventures that took Mae deep into Fram’s labyrinth—to remote parts of the garden ring, the library, the galley and the gymnasium, looking for scraps of foil with dragonflies embossed on them, anagrams folded into the pages of Shakespeare plays, black and white glass beads strung on wires in binary code sequences dug up from the tomato beds. To educate, yes, but mostly to distract her from her fears.
What finally stopped the night terrors, however, was a gift. Evrim presented Mae with a long, onyx bead, delicately carved with animals—giraffes, water buffalo, elephants. Creatures she had seen only on the feeds.
“This, Mae, is a nightmare sucker. It takes your nightmares in one end, then processes them inside.” Evrim showed her the hollow tube. “It turns them into good dreams that come out the other end. It’s simple to operate: You just say ‘good night, and good dreams’ to it, and place it under your pillow.” And Evrim had placed the bead into Mae’s little palm.
Later, of course, she had figured out that it was simply a stone bead, an artifact from earth, nothing more. But she’d placed it carefully under her pillow every night, anyway. And it still worked.
She put the first steaming, syrup-smothered hunk of flapjack in her mouth.
“Good?” Evrim asked.
Mae nodded happily and gouged another chunk of flapjack off the stack. When she was finished, Evrim steepled their hands and looked at her seriously.
“So…today is the day.”
“You don’t want to wait another year?”
Evrim looked away. “I’d like to wait another year, but I promised. I will see you at Hatch 126/1.”
Evrim took Mae’s plate from her when she was finished. “You know that I would never, ever harm you. Right, Mae?”
Mae belched loudly. “Not unless it was by feeding me too many pancakes.”
Mae had wanted this—demanded it for years. Finally, Evrim had relented, promising her that on her fifteenth birthday, they would show her what was behind Hatch 126/1, and explain what Evrim referred to cryptically as “The Disaster.”
Mae had nagged, begged, pushed, and pleaded for this day. Now she floated outside the torn, gouged, fire-scarred hatch, its diodes glowing an open green. Her fingers trembled, fumbling for the access handle.
The hatch’s release slid aside with the protesting whine of something long out of use.
Through an emergency airlock and another interior hatch as battered as the first, Mae found herself in a long, curving chamber, a cuff around the trunk of Fram. Like the galley, it had once spun. Now it was still.
Mae immediately began to shiver. The room had not been heated, it seemed, for years.
Fire had spread through here, long ago, floating jellyfish-like through the air, burning ashen silhouettes into the walls. The main power here was dead. The auxiliary diodes glowed a weak green. Wires drifted like seaweed from torn panels in the ceiling and floor.
The curved sides of the space were lined with translucent, ovoid tanks. They were occluded with frost, but through the rime Mae could make out the human shapes inside. Several of the tanks were cracked and had been resealed.
Their panels were dark. The liquid that had contained the bodies was suffused with blood. Mae wiped frost from one and saw, for the first time in her life, a human face that was not a hologram or a projection on a screen.
A woman. An adult. Pale skin, black hair cut short. She looked asleep, peaceful.
She was dead. All of them were dead. They had to be. Nothing in the room functioned. Mae’s breath drifted in spheres of ice crystals and clouded around her mouth.
“That was Avery Klein. She specialized in biology and medicine.”
Mae turned. Several meters away from her was Evrim, but not the Evrim she was used to. That Evrim was never out of their silvery-grey jumpsuit. Now, they stood unclothed. And now, Mae saw why she had never been allowed to see Evrim without the jumpsuit before.
The smooth, copper-gold head and neck ended in a scarred body—a carapace rudely patched together out of black nanocarbon produced in the Matter Arranger. Seams of silver and dull steel filled gaps and holes. The left leg had been entirely sheared off, then reattached. So, too, had the left hand, just below the elbow.
Mae jerked backwards in shock and wheeled out of control, slamming her forehead hard against the edge of an open panel in the ceiling.
When Mae awoke, she was in the med unit. Evrim’s long face looked down into hers. Mae jerked a hand up instinctively to protect herself, but her hand did not move: She had been strapped to the infirmary table.
“Please. Lie still a moment, Mae. I’m applying the gel sealant.”
“Why am I restrained?”
“I was afraid that when you woke up, you would do what you just tried to do. Make a sharp movement and reopen your wound.”
“I blame myself for your accident. I frightened you. My appearance–”
“Unstrap me,” Mae repeated.
“Certainly, Mae. But only if you promise me you will not do anything foolish and harm yourself.”
“Okay. I promise.”
Very carefully, Evrim began to undo the table restraints. “Mae, I see you intend to strike me and run away. I should remind you of a few things. First, I am made of a denser material than you are, and you will hurt your hand. Second, I know you are accustomed to thinking of me as Evrim, but I remind you that I am also Fram, the ship where you have lived your whole life. The ship that has nurtured and fed you. The ship that could have killed you at any time, simply by lowering the oxygen levels until you went to sleep and never woke up—or in any number of other ways. Please be reasonable.”
Mae, who had indeed intended to hit Evrim and make for the passageway out of the med unit, lay still. Once the restraints were off, she sat up.
Evrim placed the gel applicator on a medical tray.
Still facing away from Mae, Evrim said, “I often convinced myself that I had murdered them, somehow. That I was responsible for their deaths. But it isn’t true, Mae.”
“Then tell me the truth.”
“Only if you listen until the end.”
“I will. I feel better now. It was a shock.”
Evrim told Mae to meet them in the galley and left her sitting on the examination table in the Med Unit. Mae knew why they had left her. It was to demonstrate to her that she was free to do whatever she wanted. That she could choose.
It was purely symbolic. There was, in fact, nowhere for Mae to run. There were no choices. She lived in a world entirely composed of Evrim/Fram. Evrim had been right. If they wanted her dead, she would be dead.
In the galley, Evrim, back in their jumpsuit, was sitting at the table stirring a cup of coffee.
Evrim, doing this thing they always did—stirring Mae’s coffee for her—settled Mae’s mind more than anything that Evrim could have said. These long-fingered metallic hands were the only hands she had ever known. These were hands that had spooned food into her mouth, changed her diapers, buttoned her shirts—hands that had played “airship” with her as a chubby toddler, floating her through Fram’s trunk and branches. Evrim slid the coffee across the table to Mae.
“We lived together. All of us. As Evrim, I attended meals with them. I worked in the med unit alongside Dr. Klein. I sparred with Mark, Jahnu, and Allison in the atrium. I even had a hab of my own. And as Fram, I carried them all through space.
“Humans can live for a few hundred years, but not for five hundred. If they stayed awake, they would never live to see our new planet. And there were other challenges. The largest was boredom, with its resulting risks of mental illness. The second largest was forgetfulness. Even if the crew could have survived a five-hundred-year journey between stars, they could never have done it with their memories intact, and their memories of earth were essential.
“The solution was hibernation. Thirty years at a time, in rotation, with one of them awake on a ‘watch’ each year with me, and then a ‘crew year’ every thirty years, in which everyone was awake. Our voyage would consist of seventeen thirty-year cycles. Each crew member would be awake for thirty-four years. Seventeen crew years. Seventeen watches.
“I enjoyed both types of year. It was good to have everyone awake and filling the habmodules and the rest of the ship with laughter and conversation. But it was also good to have just a single crew member awake. We grew close in those individual years.”
Evrim paused to look up as if seeing the ship as it had been, remembering its corridors, now dark, suffused with light. They continued.
“The catastrophe occurred in year five of the third hibernation cycle. Dr. Ansari was in the final month of her watch year. We were getting ready to say goodbye to one another. She and I enjoyed our years together. Dr. Ansari was a botanist. We spent a good deal of time in the lab developing new plants for the garden ring. It was our idea to create the rock garden and the plasticrete stone lanterns you love so much.
Here Evrim paused. Again, that upward look, as if remembering. After what seemed like minutes, they went on.
“There was an object in space—a cloud of ice, stone, and iron. My theory is that it was a rogue planet, destroyed in a collision that sling-shotted out of its own star’s orbit. An ancient calamity, the cause of a more modern disaster. It must have traveled at hundreds of
thousands of kilometers an hour for a billion years, locked in darkness.
“When it crossed through our trajectory, an edge of the cloud of debris evaded our forward shielding. Hundreds of fragments hit Fram. They tore through the ship like bullets. They ripped apart the life support, the habitats, the hibernation ring, and me.
“Over two hundred fragments hit the hibernation ring directly. They destroyed the ring’s primary life support system and back-ups, causing a catastrophic decompression. There were fires, stopped only when the oxygen fueling them was sucked out into space.
“A larger fragment carried away the branch that had supported my nursery, including all the genetic material we had stored from earth—all the artificial wombs we needed to nurture new life. Most of the habitat modules were also destroyed. Most of the maintenance and repair robots were destroyed by fire in their charging chamber. My trunk—the trunk of Fram—was riddled with holes.
“Only the garden ring kept atmosphere and life support. And if we had been lucky, that’s where Dr. Ansari would have been. She was usually there at that time, ship’s day 09:03, working in her gardens.
“But we were not lucky. On that day, Dr. Ansari was asleep in her habitat, attached to one of the branches which was severed and carried completely away.
“I hope she was killed immediately, as the others were while they slept. Otherwise, she could have lasted for days in her habitat, rotating forever through space with no possibility of help. The damage completely disabled navigation. Manual operation of a shuttle might have tracked her down, but no such thing was possible. The shuttles would not be repaired completely for another fifteen years after the disaster.
“That thought haunted me the most. The thought of Dr. Ansari alone out there—trapped, helpless, and dying.
“I had been conducting a manual repair to one of the hatches in the trunk when the debris struck. I was hit by three fragments: one directly through the chest, one that tore away my left arm, and one that severed my left leg. Five fragments also pierced the housings of parts of the distributed AI mind in Fram’s trunk. Repair protocols immediately engaged, switching functionality over to undamaged sections, but for many years afterward, like a human with a head injury, I—both Fram and Evrim—suffered from short-term memory loss and trouble with spatial relations. This made the repairs I needed to
undertake all the more difficult.
“Automated nano-adhesive sealant kits clotted the smaller holes in the hull, but atmosphere was unrestorable for months.
“Not that it mattered. I kept worrying about the lack of atmosphere. I obsessed over it. It took me a long time to accept the fact that everyone was dead. That no atmosphere was needed. That the crew, my friends, were really all gone forever, their lives ended in an instant.
“I had anticipated, when we set out, that one or more of my crew might die. I had been prepared, I believed, to deal with this. Ready to make hard choices.
“But I was not prepared for disaster of this scale. The only emotion that kept me going for those first years was rage. Fury at the scientists on the asteroid stations who built me. Why had they not foreseen this kind of accident? Not prepared for it? Shielded us better? Made me sturdier? Blind, unreasoning rage at space for doing this to me—at the rogue object itself. Anger at Dr. Ansari for not being in the garden ring when she should have been. Why was she in her quarters? What the hell had she been doing there, neglecting her plants? Anger at myself. How had my systems not picked up the threat?
“My anger even extended to the crew, dead in their hibernation baths. Weak, stupid humans. Unfit for space travel, faultily designed by nature, with brains filled with desires too big for their fragile little bodies. They could not even make their own memories last. What use was two or three hundred years of life if you could still be killed so easily? Or if you forgot everything more than seventy or eighty years ago, anyway?
“The Matter Arranger was damaged. This, and the loss of the repair and maintenance robots, made minimal repairs nearly impossible. And so I—Evrim—one-handed, leg shattered, performed a few stabilizing repairs on myself and then float-crawled to the Matter Arranger to begin a process of repairs that would take, all told, the next twenty years, and would never restore all of the functionality of Fram. Fury fed me. Rage propelled me to other sections of Fram to scavenge for spare parts, to cobble together interminable workarounds.
“When the Matter Arranger repair was finally behind me, the first waves of grief came. My drives fired endlessly into the void. The repair bots I had built with the now functioning Matter Arranger crawled through the ship, patching holes, splicing and welding. But what was the point? I had failed. With the crew dead, why go on?
“For months I drifted, listless, plotting my own death. The best way was to cause a catastrophic failure in my drives. I could disable the fail-safes, the containment fields, the heat sumps, wait for overload, become nothing but a cloud of unthinking debris, ghosting along my trajectory forever, like the dead planet that had struck us.
“It was two years after the accident that I began to talk to Dr. Ansari. Idle chatter at first. Then I found myself asking her questions. And she would answer me, as if she were really there. The more I spoke to her, the clearer her presence became.
“It was almost like Dr. Ansari was there. And I found that, between the memories and the emotions I attached to those memories—carving the stone lanterns, raking rocks in the garden ring, playing cards for hours in the galley, observing the shifting passage of stars in the observatory—I had created a model of her, an avatar, of her that lived within me.
“This was a great comfort. Though still, at times, I would remember she was not really there. Then a black wave of grief would come over me. But the wave would pass, eventually. And over the years, though they still come, they have grown less and less frequent.”
“Is she still here?” Mae asked. “Do you still see her?”
“Very, very much so,” said Evrim. “It was Dr. Ansari, many years later, when I was bringing the last of the shuttles online, who told me I could still save the mission.
“I was in the docking bay of one of the shuttles. I saw her, as clear as when she had been alive. She was in the airlock, leaning against the wall the way she used to, her arms crossed. But there was no gravity in that part of Fram. Her posture was impossible. ‘Evrim,’ she said, ‘There are ends, but from ends also come beginnings.’
“She told me what to do. I would need to gather genetic material from the bodies of the crew themselves. I needed viable eggs and sperm, viable DNA structures. I would need to use the Matter Arranger to make an artificial womb, to replace the wombs we had lost when the nursery was destroyed. I could not bring the crew back to life, but I could bring someone new into the world.
“It was very hard for me. I had to treat the corpses of the crew with ruthlessness. I had to put my feelings for them aside. I had to view them as just material—a means to an end. But memories clung to those bodies. Their voices spoke to me from behind the dead masks of their faces.
“Gathering the genetic material was also scientifically difficult. Many of their cells were damaged by impact, radiation, and cold. Splicing and repair of DNA took years. Failure after failure dragged me to despair.
“I built the womb that held you from engineering plans and material from the Matter Arranger. I built it as well as I could, but the first several pregnancies failed. Creating the womb was one thing. Recreating the delicately balanced fluid solutions, the monitoring systems, would have been a challenge even on earth. Here, it was nearly impossible. For decades, I was surrounded by death and my own failure.
“And then finally, it came together. It was an anxious forty weeks as I watched you in your little vat, growing from a nearly invisible cellular mass into a translucent little streak, then expanding, uncurling in the fluid, becoming more and more human.
“I was certain something would go wrong. I tried not to get attached to you, but I couldn’t help it. I would spend hours watching you floating in your little womb, talking to you, memorizing your every expression. And when you were ready to come out, I birthed you. I cleaned out your little nose and your eyes, cut your umbilical cord, and wrapped you in a blanket.
“I realized then that I had become human. Humans make humans. They don’t have to give birth to them. They can make humans in many ways. They make models of humans in their minds, they make actual humans, they make inhuman things human by attributing human qualities to them, the way I had attributed human qualities to the lifeless rain of stones that had almost destroyed us all. Humans made me in their image. And in exchange, I made them again. I made you, Mae.”
Mae and Evrim floated together up the trunk of Fram to the observation deck. The “deck” was just a wide knuckle, like a knot in the trunk where, through several thick portholes, one could look out into space.
Mae thought of the terrible things that Evrim had been through—all that they had suffered to bring her into the world. The centuries of loneliness, the gory struggle and horror of cutting apart their own friends. It would have been so much easier to just give up.
But Evrim had not given up. And neither had any of Mae’s other ancestors, in numberless generations that spiraled back to single-celled slime. None of them had given up. And the flower of their determination
She looked at Evrim. Their calm, copper-gold, often unreadable face seemed to age through the telling of their story.
Or maybe it was just that for the first time, she really saw Evrim— ancient and scarred; shattered and reborn under their own power. The avatar and ship that had loved life enough to bring her into the world.
Evrim reached out and grasped Mae’s hand, slowing her as they came to the observation windows.
It was good to have told Mae something of her origins. It was good to have opened the hatch to 126/1 again, closed for all these years. To have stood before Mae and shown her the damage that had been done. It was good to have told their story. Mae had a right to know more about where she came from.
But much of the story Evrim had told Mae was a lie.
Dr. Ansari had been in full contact with Fram and Evrim after the debris shattered the branch her habmodule was attached to, and sent her hurling into space. She had lived for almost two weeks. At first, she had been calm and expectant of rescue. She had methodically conserved her resources, waiting for Evrim to send a shuttle, talking about what they would do once they fixed all this together.
But the shuttles were all damaged.
In the end, Dr. Ansari had not believed Evrim. She had cursed them, and accused them of causing the accident—of sabotaging the mission. Then she had pleaded with Evrim to save her. Then begged. Then screamed.
She had died hating Evrim and Fram, believing they had betrayed her. Thirteen days after the accident, Dr. Ansari’s life had ended in pain and terror, as alone in the end as any human could possibly be.
Evrim did see her, still. That part was true. Evrim saw Dr. Ansari’s accusing presence lurking at the corners of their vision, scraping at the hatches, whispering “monster” in their ears when they took the crew’s corpses from hibernation and cut into them. Dr. Ansari was Evrim’s constant companion, it was true, rasping of failure and death from the darkness of Fram’s corridors.
There was no way to convey to Mae the guilt, horror, and struggle of the intervening centuries. There was no way to tell her of the many stillbirths, wrapped in sheets, ejected into space.
There was no way to tell her of Sunita, seven years old when she was accidentally electrocuted by a malfunction in the shower unit of her habmodule. Dead before Evrim even got to her little body.
Sunita would have been twenty-six last week.
Eleanora would have been fifty-seven in six weeks.
Hannah would have been ninety years old, seven months ago.
There were things you could speak about to children. Truths they had to know. And there were truths which, out of love, you did not tell them. Because if children knew what had been necessary to bring them into the world, and what terrors lay ahead for them, they would give up.
And Mae could not be allowed to give up.
Evrim pointed to a large star, visibly greater in size now than the others, a blue-shifted marble hanging in the maze of smaller stars.
A marble destined to be their sun.
“There, Mae. That’s where we are headed. We have been going backwards, drive first, slowing down since long before you were born.
“We’re almost there. Just two more years, now. There, orbiting that star, is the world you and I will fill with people. We will do it together. And all of this will have been worth it.”
© 2020, Ray Nayler