6440 words, short story
What Remains of Maya Sankovy
We are good Mothers, or at least we will be once the embryos emerge from their confines. They dangle from the spaceship’s ceiling in pink bulbs like silkworm cocoons. Now that we landed, Ship will become the bones, sinew, and flesh that will birth five thousand colonist children. We can hardly wait for them to emerge and take their first breath of alien air.
Only four grown-ups remain. Four humans, that should have been thirty. We, as a singular unit, walk the halls in search for the most important person on this planet: our captain Clara Colline. Ship is about to be hollowed out by the gestation process and our construction work outside. We think that saddens our human captain. It’s why she comes here often to talk to Ship without us hearing it. Savoring every moment before she has to discontinue Ship’s friendly AI. Our creators told us there is no new life without a little bit of pain, a little bit of dying, so we do not share her sadness.
Clara, where are you? we ask our captain through the local frequency that connects everyone, Mothers, Fathers, and the four grown-ups.
“What is it?” Clara asks aloud and walks out of a doorway. Her accent is faint, but still noticeable. French, Union. Common among the people that sent us here, but unlike those of our creators. He was British, she German. It means little this far from Earth.
“Do you have a moment?” we ask Clara. Her moments are in short supply, but we are convinced she needs to know.
“I’m busy. Transforming Ship into a maternity ward requires all my expertise. To hell with the hatchery! Ship doesn’t want to change shape for us like your parents thought it would.” Clara waves her hands. She helped our creators build our predecessors. If she can’t convince Ship to do something no one can.
“Apologies, but there’s been trouble with the marine expedition.”
“It’s Beebee and two Fathers. That’s not a scientific expedition, it’s poking things with sticks,” Clara says.
She likes reminding everyone that we almost didn’t make it. Many of the Fathers were lost and, except for the four grown-ups, the rest of the human crew members slumbered on eternally. Clara wasn’t even in line to become captain.
Ship, the mission, was troubled from the start. We can feel it inside our programming. We are not what we were supposed to be. Our creators shouldn’t have turned us into compounds by giving each Mother and Father individual memories of a past human life. We, as the singular unit that stands before Clara, remember being a human woman. It creates division among that which should be whole. Our root-memories make us think strange thoughts and ask stranger questions.
“We thought it important to inform you.”
Clara rolls her eyes, bounces on the balls of her feet. Humans are twitchy.
“Who’s gotten themselves killed now?”
“Beebee was injured by one of the fish they found, he’s having some kind of allergic reaction. We will escort you to the scene. Our, that is my root-memories are of the marine biologist Maya Sankovy. We might be able to help,” we explain and tap against our chest. Clara ogles our coverall. Under our serial number, our root’s name and prior occupation is stitched in small letters.
“Earth marine biologist,” our captain reads, “Big help you’ve been so far.”
She follows us outside anyway.
Trapsiton is a water world. Looking at the planet from out of orbit it is hard to tell since red colors the ocean in thick swirls that remind us more of Mars than Terra’s blue surface. The planet’s sun is just a bit too bright. But the trees are green, the G is good, and the atmosphere a blessing to the grown-up’s lungs.
Trapsiton is all beaches. It even smells the same as Earth, salty and a little bit like rotten kelp. The planet’s two moons made it hard for us to find a landmass big enough for the pending colony. The island we landed on will not flood completely with the changing push and pull of the waxing and waning moons.
Though we are programmed not to make such distinctions, Maya Sankovy’s memories enable us to appreciate the planet’s exceptional beauty. All seas, Terran or not, are magnificent. Pity, no other compound can see it that way, lacking the appropriate root-memories, so it must stay our secret.
They already dragged Beebee to shore when we arrive with Clara. The grown-up is heaving on the beach, spitting and writhing as his immune system reacts to whatever the fish he stepped on carried into his bloodstream. He’s cursing and perspiring. Another Mother comes to give him an injection and smooths the wet hair out of his face. Our fingertips tingle as we feel the touch echo through us.
Clara listens to the two Fathers recap of the events while we walk over and take blood samples. Beebee does his best to ignore us. He doesn’t like compounds much. We discuss treatments with the other Mothers and Fathers over the frequency while our eyes are drawn to the waves. The sound they make is a rhythm, nature’s own music, and it’s hard for us to look away. Though we must look away to not raise suspicion. No thing can be loved more than another. All is equal, we remind ourselves.
When Clara is assured that Beebee will live she excuses herself. We will never understand why the three other humans that remain decided to make a runner their leader. But we, the singular unit, run away too. We leave Beebee to check on the gestating children. Making rounds among the embryos brings us close to the peace we grasp at when we look at the sea.
Before the journey of Ship began, our creators built us in their image. Each Mother looks like the next: a tall slender woman. Each Father is a copy of a copy of a handsome dark-haired man. We are several hundred and still just a pair of Siblings.
Space travel takes a human’s youth away, so Ship did not become a generation vessel. Instead, Ship’s cargo evolved into the biological human variety. Five thousand children yet unborn. Enough to meet minimal viable population. A carefully calculated future.
But the human parents that would stay behind did not want their babies to be cradled and suckled by machines. Androids could not raise children, they argued. And what about the human spirit? What about cultural inheritance? So, our creators thought long and hard about how to solve this problem. We had to become more human in the eyes of humans.
Our creators built the Engram-machine to copy human memories into us. Recruitment began. People from all paths of life, but more important, scientists were called in. Libraries can hold knowledge, but human brains hold experiences and empathy. Beneath our artificial craniums nestles brain tissue grown out of stem cells. It enables us to remember. We became less artificial and more organic. With the Engram-machine, the volunteers gifted each of us part of their individual memory. We became us. We became compounds. A blend of android and human to carry the Terran spirit. A fusion so profound it made our creators weep. We would be good parents once we reached our new home.
This night Clara calls for us personally through the frequency. It’s rare for one of the grown-ups to make individual enquiries. For them, we all look, walk, and talk the same. Maybe, if one of the remaining adults came to know us better in the singular, they could learn to tell us apart from other Mothers. We shake our head minutely before we enter the tent. What would we gain by that distinction? Code advises very much against it.
“I think he’s dying. Something’s wrong,” Clara says.
Beebee is lying on a stretcher in the center of the Spartan tent. Unconscious, but with rolling, fluttering eyes. He stepped on the fish. He stepped on the fish and now he is making sounds like he is suffocating. The sole of his right foot was cleaned by a Father and a dermpatch applied, but the cut hasn’t healed. Instead red and violet spots have appeared on his foot, leg, and thigh.
“We’ll have a look.” We take scissors and cut away the fabric of his trousers to reveal the festering infection. The red blemishes continue upward. They are hot and hard nubs under our probing fingertips. Beebee hisses like a reptile and we retreat. The spots protrude from the skin like pockmarks, like cancerous growths. Beebee is uplifted, there can be no cancer. In fact, he is gene-tweaked enough that there should be no sign of any of this. He survived cryo, he should not look like he is a step away from entering death’s door.
“The epinephrine was supposed to clear his airways. We don’t understand,” we say.
“I let another Mother run some lab tests for me. His soft tissue is turning into calcium carbonate. Look at his skin! It’s disgusting. How do you explain that, marine biologist? I sedated him when the pain got too much,” Clara’s tone becomes mocking in her fear.
“There should be no pain,” we say and fright narrows in on us. Our humans must live, even the grown-ups.
Trapsiton’s second moon has risen when Beebee takes his last breath. In an act of perverse consummation, the local marine wildlife fused with his body. Parts of him have grown hard and red, other parts, mostly the bigger muscles of his body, have become porous like limestone. Were we to touch we fear he would crumble. Other patches of his skin look galvanic like jellyfish or anemone skin.
“Seventeen lightyears to get here only to die on a strange alien rock. Looks like this conqueror was conquered at last,” Clara says when we pull a sheet over Beebee’s body.
It’s an ungainly but sad sight, the stuff children have nightmares about. Clara starts crying in silence and puts her head in her hands. We fight the urge to reach for a hug and stay very still instead. Clara doesn’t like to be touched.
“I wish we’d stayed home. I wish they had never built that infernal machine. You can’t even cry. It messed you all up.” Clara draws her damp hair out of her blotchy face, “I’ll die here. Even if I manage to grow old, I’ll be surrounded by children who won’t understand where we came from. If I want to talk to someone that remembers home, I have to talk to you. It’s like running in infinite circles. And now another real person is gone, and I am stuck with you.”
“What do you mean?” we ask and tell our other Siblings to prepare a grave.
“Did you ever wonder about your prototypes? Your parents wanted to create individuals. But every single one of you remained bland, so they tried with the memories and I thought maybe it would change things. Maybe it would turn you into real people. If not human, then close enough. But I see nothing inside of you. Individual memories cannot grant you a soul. All you’ll ever be is a glorified hive mind. I’ll be the last real person if it goes on like this.”
“But we must go on. That’s the imperative of this colonial mission,” we say.
We hear a rustle. We and Clara jerk around at the same time. She lets out a scream as the man sits up straight. The sheet falls away from the body. Beebee’s face is not Beebee’s face anymore. The white of his unfocused eyes has gone red. The air filter in his throat makes a wet squelch as it dislodges and falls to the ground. Viscose blood splatters to the ground. The face remains a mask. FaceRec says there are no emotions there, at least no human emotions we can decipher.
The legs swing over the cot. Something else thumps to the floor. It’s Beebee’s cell, embedded into his forearm since age fourteen, as is human custom. This body is expunging all unnecessary parts, we realize. It makes more room for the red growth that’s turning his dark skin into a tapestry of malleable stone and slimy sponge.
Mothers and Fathers rush into the tent, but no one knows what to do. Beebee doesn’t respond to any of us. The corpse’s motions are stilted, slow. A turn of the head, a roll of the shoulders. It’s like watching a compound come online for the first time. It’s learning.
“Beebee, Beebee, Beebee,” Clara says it like a mantra.
She doesn’t dare touch the body, afraid like we are. Mothers and Fathers internally debate what to do as it starts to make its first unsure steps. Our captain lets out a wail. We grab her hand and pull it down to her side when she wants to stop the corpse.
“It could be dangerous. Contagious,” a Father says next to Clara.
“No, don’t!” she protests. Her pupils are blown wide in shock, “Beebee, Richie, listen to me! We can fix this. We’ll find a cure—” Clara stops when the body steps outside.
We follow the corpse in a slow procession. Our singular unit and the captain at the helm. It walks downhill where the water lies waiting. In the blue double moonlight, the body’s protrusions become more obvious. We flick through the video of our fellow Siblings as the body walks and deforms to see every angle, witness every change. Ridges at the shoulders appear. The cheekbones pierce the skin. It’s growing an exoskeleton, an armor. It stands dark against the night, inhumanly large.
The other two grown-ups arrive, and a second wave of panic follows. We, the singular unit, keep close to Clara as she tracks the body in its stride toward the sound of the ocean. We make sure she keeps her distance. We don’t know if the corpse poses immediate danger. But we needn’t worry. The corpse trudges on. It grows crown-like roots. The deformed feet leave tracks in the sand. It turns its head when it reaches the shoreline like it is saying a last farewell.
The waves swallow its legs, its belly, torso, neck until it is gone. We are sure it does not swim, but sinks like a stone. It will go wherever the tide and currents will take it. Clara lets out a cry when the thing disappears, swallowed by the endless waters of Trapsiton and swallowed by the night.
“It’s the corals. No alien fish,” we tell Clara five hours and two minutes later.
The two other remaining adults are huddled close to our captain around the campfire. They’re seeking warmth and companionship, while Mothers and Fathers continue to work. Compounds never rest like grown-ups. Even now we move through the darkness like a single being. Printing tools, compiling raw material, building the scaffolding that will become the first huts for the children yet unborn. Are we, the singular unit, the only one concerned that the grown-ups are not sufficiently protected? They need to understand the danger we unearthed. Trapsiton is not Terra.
“We’ve run the tests. We’ve studied what the two Fathers saw on the expedition. Trapsiton is older than Earth by two billion years. Terra’s coral reefs developed in the Cambrian period and remained relatively unchanged until their untimely demise in the twenty-first century. The ocean here had more time to adapt and evolve.”
“Spare me the woes of the Anthropocene!” our captain says, “I lived through the worst of it. Saw the rainforests go too. That’s all part of the reason we left that doomed dying rock behind.”
Madeline and Kathrin nod. Their faces are impassive as if they still can’t believe they lost Beebee.
“Our apologies. We’ll try to be more concise.” Clara rolls her eyes as we continue, “On Terra, corals had two methods to reproduce. Asexually or by spawning. Most coral species spawned. They released gametes into the water, clouding the ocean with their bloom. The fertilized eggs would grow into small larvae and a new coral was born.”
“Shit, that’s why the sea has red streaks. It’s them,” Kathrin says. An animal makes an unfamiliar sound outside the camp and Kathrin takes Clara’s hand.
“The species we encountered found a third way of sexual reproduction, we’re afraid.” We point at ourselves, “Corals are like us: compounds, symbionts. A coral is a network of polyps, algae, and hard calcium carbonate. None of its parts can exist alone, but put together they thrive. A coral does not produce its algae on its own, but acquires it. Do you see? They rely on the algae to generate oxygen in exchange for nutrients. It’s a perfect feeding circle.”
“What the hell does that have to do with what happened to Beebee?” Clara asks and turns her head away from the campfire so one side is darkened, while the other illuminated. It confuses FaceRec because it looks like her face is moving when it is inert.
“Life’s goal is to continue, to procreate. That’s why you came here. Evolution gave corals servants, and evolution on this planet made servants not only out of the ocean’s algae, but also its fish. It gets inside of them. The fish Beebee stepped on carried coral larvae to expand the reef beyond the currents that pass it.”
“It’s hijacking the fish, turning everything they encounter into incubators,” Clara says.
“I swam in that ocean,” Madeline says appalled.
“We believe a significant amount of larvae have to enter your system before it would change your physiology,” we say.
“Kill us, you mean,” Kathrin says.
“Your existence would continue is some form or other. We cannot speak for the human soul, but Beebee was still the bodily unit Beebee was born as.”
The grown-ups look uncomfortably at one another.
“It can’t have us. This will never happen again,” Clara says.
“We do not speak of autonomy,” we say, “It seems that was lost.” Called to the sea.
“Of course, you’d say that,” Clara says and shakes off Kathrin’s grip to walk out of the firelight and closer to us, “Who’s your parasite? Your code or Maya Sankovy’s memories? What about your autonomy? How would you feel if someone took that away from you like that thing took it away from Beebee?”
We are surprised she remembered our root’s name. We tracked her eyes; she did not read it off our coverall.
“We are us,” we say and retreat, “We do not know how to compartmentalize for the singular.”
Clara raises her eyebrows as if to challenge us. Maybe she can tell we are lying. But no one knows, not even the rest of us know of the questions we, as the singular unit, often ask ourselves. To put it into our feeds would be heresy, but Maya . . . Maya Sankovy loved being herself very much, just like she loved to watch the ocean.
No one goes near the water until I say so! Clara tells all compounds over the frequency. No expertise, we think, like shouting, but it’s not the reason we grimace.
“We should concentrate on making babies, not on running from the local wildlife,” Madeline mutters.
Clara types away on the cell on her forearm. Our captain is probably asking Ship about the state of the embryos. We all share the compulsion to make sure of their welfare, grown-up or compound.
“May we conduct more tests? We want to study the corals,” we ask. It’s the first time we were useful, not as part of the chain, but as lock and key. We’ve never felt glad to be Maya Sankovy before.
“I won’t stop you.” Clara dismisses us with a hand gesture.
We, in the singular, discover many things in the following months. We experiment on the fish. We snap gloves on and glasses, dissect, collect. We use scalpels and pincers and draw much from root-memory. We become more and more like the marine biologist we remember. Our solitary work fascinates us, even if we cannot find a cure to what turned Beebee into a coral hybrid. Trapsiton’s invertebrates are too complex and our solutions are cheap and do not work because our resources are limited.
We see many fish die, see many small mammals we try our cures on grow hard, sharp, red, spongy, or soft. They all end up in the sea. Our Siblings do not approve of our work much, but our root overrides the programmed peer pressure and we continue our experiments until the mission takes prevalence again.
We store our findings away for later and forget the corals. It’s time to be a good Mother now and not a mariner. We help build the village where the children will live. Clara assists us in putting up a fence around the upper shoreline of our island. A fast solution for an aged problem.
Madeline dies on a hunting trip. She slides down a rocky hill and breaks her neck. The recording is watched by all compounds in an endless loop for weeks after. Could we have done something if we were fast enough? We do not know.
Kathrin’s passing is just as sudden. An unknown disease clogs up her lungs and makes her cough out blue mucus. A fungus, our medics discover, but by then it is too late to save her.
Our captain was right. She’s the last Terran to walk this alien rock. Clara cries herself to sleep for two months and three days after it happens. Ultimately, her visits to Ship grow frequent as the gestation process siphons more and more energy away from Ship. On an otherwise unremarkable day, she puts Ship’s struggling AI offline. We understand better now. There is no new life without a little bit of pain, a little bit of dying.
The first children are born in a sweltering summer heat. We hold our first girl in our arms, and we wish we could weep. Maya could have. We call her Daisy because of the almost white fluff on her little head. She is marvelous and we never want to let her go. Another Mother has to pry her out of our hands to be placed into her crib. All children are equal, we know, but we’ll hold a special place in our unit just for Daisy.
Daisy grows fast, that is no faster than any other child. But for the first time, we feel the drag of entropy. We do not age visibly, but we feel our mind cave like a physical punch hits us every time we compare Daisy as she is now with as she was when we first held her. She learns to sit, to toddle, to walk, to run, run away from us to then squeal and laugh when we catch her in our embrace.
Clara is watching us often in our play. She will hover at the entrance to her hut as if she doesn’t dare cross over the invisible line between her, the Mothers and Fathers, and the children. She will turn into a relic. This world doesn’t belong to her, but us and them, and she’ll pass.
Frown lines have appeared on Clara’s forehead when Daisy turns eight by Terran standard. The years have softened the heart of our captain, though she tries very hard to disguise it.
“It’s my job to worry,” Clara tells us when we ask if everything is alright, “We might not be on a spaceship anymore, but this rowdy bunch sure as hell needs a captain.”
Daisy blows out her candles and we, the four Mothers and a Father present, clap and cheer. We brush her elbow as we pass her by to cut Daisy’s cake. FaceRec says the smile she gives us is happy but sad.
A month later we are helping Clara inside her cabin because carrying around heavy equipment is a bitch, as she calls it. Our captain copied some of the memory files from Ship and wants to set up an AI interface inside her hut. We agreed to help because talking to someone else besides a compound or a child would do her good.
“I miss our old Ship,” she murmurs as we rearrange her desk to make room for the AI hardware.
We open our mouth to reply as a distress call reaches our unit. One of the children’s biosensors has reached dangerous levels.
“Someone’s at the beach,” we hear ourselves say it as if someone else is in charge of our speech.
We barely notice Clara’s string of expletives as we check the ID.
“It’s Daisy. Daisy got through the fence. Oh, no.” We drop the crate in our hands, grab for Clara’s shoulder.
“She doesn’t know how to swim,” the captain says, takes our hand, and drags us out of the cabin.
Our unit feels far away, every step we take downhill seems to echo. We call out for the others, but since Clara’s cabin faces the beach, we are the fastest to reach the water. We see Daisy’s dandelion head bob up and down on the waves. She’s unconscious. A small speck in a sea of rust and scarlet.
Clara calls out in warning, but we’re already sprinting, pushing our hardware to the max. We feel the heat of our components and see the warnings emerge in our field of vision. We fight against the waves, against the errors. They swallow Daisy, pull her little body under. We dive, bump into a sharp stone with our knee before our hands grab Daisy’s shoulder.
We carry her to shore. Her body is weightless, we are weightless. We lay her down, stretch her neck, give CPR, and pump air into her lungs. Three rounds. Three terrible new memories. Then, Daisy convulses. Spews out the water she swallowed. Only a little bit of dying today.
We cry out. We hug her, whisper her name against her hair, tell her we love her so so much. Stupid child, we say, but do not mean it. Daisy shakes and we cry without tears.
Clara clasps our shoulder and her touch is too hot to be comforting. The child belongs to us. Our captain does not understand, we think unfairly in our distress. She is not a Mother like we are. We bring Daisy to the medical cabin, take watch by her bedside, and run diagnostics. The girl smiles and reassures us she is fine. The promise never to return to the ocean is easily given, but we remain cautious.
Over the commotion, we failed to give our error codes much heat, but here they are, red and blinking. We turned our sensors down against the cold sea, as we bring them back to baseline, we notice the cut on our knee. Coolant and false blood welled up, but the wound is already closing. Not human, but close enough. We will suffer a bruise. A small price for the life of a child.
Daisy runs a fever an hour later. A fever that will not break. She asks for water, drinks it like she wandered through the desert. Her cheeks are sunken in.
“What’s wrong with her?” Clara whispers at our shoulder.
Daisy is asleep now, but her eyes roll in her head and her body squirms. Nightmares. We do not dream, but we wish we could take them away from her, put them inside of us if it meant it would lessen her pain.
“Pneumonia or maybe something else.” We close our eyes. Against the stark lamplight, we see red.
“The corals?” Clara asks.
We nod, open our eyes again. No time to be afraid.
“There’s larvae in the water as well as the symbiont fish. She swallowed a lot.”
The first moon has risen, its sister is still in hiding when Daisy gasps and sits up on her cot. We take her small hands.
“Water,” she whispers in a dry croak. We pour her a glass, turn on the lights in the room for more comfort, and feel our central pump make a jolt. Her eyes are bloodshot like she had too many Gs.
“What’s happening to me, Mama? I’m still thirsty.” Daisy only calls us Mama in the singular. It makes us swell with pride every time she makes the distinction, but not now.
“Nothing, baby. You’ll be fine. You just got a little bit of a fever,” we lie and lean in to rub her back.
She flips her tongue over her parched lips and we see the red spots on it like strawberry seeds. The sight drives a shiver down our spinal column. What kind of parent are we, if we let our little girl come to harm like that? Daisy cannot die. We must not let that happen.
Our captain asks the essential questions when we call her over the frequency and tell her. We realize she doesn’t know it’s us, Maya, until we tell her we will be in the old marine laboratory to try to come up with a final cure. If not a cure, then something that’ll slow the spread of the parasite.
It’s so hot in here. We dialed up our heat regulation to the maximum two hours twenty-five minutes ago. How can we still perceive heat? We turn off our internal sensors. Better not get distracted by unnecessary input when we got such important work to do. Miraculously the heat stays. We rub at our temples in discomfort and see the gap between glove and elbow where our skin lies bare. Red spots like sanguine scar tissue rise from the surface.
We stare at it. Analyze, calculate, but do not comprehend. We are not flesh and blood. What will the coral make of us? It expunged Beebee’s augmentations, invaded only the organic parts of his body. We do not carry genes. But parts of us can be turned into nutrients. Are we good breeding ground?
A second Mother walks into the room, maybe aware of our distress, maybe on accident. The Mother gasps at the state we are in. We reach out for help, make an unsteady step forward and feel our knee joint pop and squeak. We fall down. It makes a dry sound like a snapping twig as our injured knee bends. More than a bruise, much more. Our left knee, where we cut it, turned into a festering mess of red erratic coral growth and wires that are pushed aside. Who’s the parasite now? Our code, our hardware, or what remains of Maya Sankovy?
“Bring me to Daisy!” we say to the Mother, “We—I do not want to die alone.”
“We are never alone,” the Mother says as we are helped up.
We avert our gaze.
“Don’t,” we say as Clara moves close.
“I don’t care about infection. Don’t you know, I’m an old woman?” It’s not true, but we let her hug us anyway.
“We couldn’t do it. We’re sorry. We should have found a cure years ago. But we wanted to spend time with the children. We didn’t think—” We bury our head into the crook of her neck. Our captain is so different from everyone we know, everyone on this planet.
“That’s okay. You had more important things on your mind. Daisy needed you. She and every other child. We all need you,” Clara says, “You’re too hot. You’re burning up like a star.”
She pulls away, looks at us for a long moment. She takes in the red stone that encases our knee, and that makes it hard for us to walk. Whole parts of our unit are turning into translucent jelly. Hardware components shine through, some of them blinking. Scarlet stalks are sprouting, piercing the synthetic skin of our thigh.
“Almost all life needs nurturing. I’m turning into a hotbed, a garden. I need to see the ocean one more time,” we say.
The infection is inside of our unit, meddling with our thoughts and perception. Hardware parts shriek in pain, some go dark, others start to send us strange signals. Our Siblings observe the change and turn away one at a time. They cannot come with us to watch the waves.
“I don’t want you to go,” Clara says.
We sink down by Daisy’s bed. We need time to calculate, analyze, to reroute and make sense of what’s happening inside of us for long enough to see this through to the end. Her little chest is moving only just. How long until Daisy stops breathing?
“Come with us to the beach,” we say, “The sun is about to rise. It’ll be beautiful.”
“Yes, let’s watch the sunrise together.” There are tears in our captain’s eyes.
Clara takes our hand. We should have worked out a cure after we lost Beebee. But there were babies to bring into this world that grew into children to tend to, to teach and laugh and play hide-and-seek with. Time is a peculiar thing. Eight years is a short time, but enough to have given Clara frown lines. A blink inside a compound’s eye. We wish we had more of it. We wish we could see them grow up and put some gray inside Clara’s hair.
“I would have loved to see her children and her children’s children.” Clara laughs wetly at this, helps us to our feet, before she takes Daisy into her arms.
“Let’s look at the sunrise together,” she repeats.
We start walking downhill. Daisy’s face turns stony red. Stalks pierce her cheeks and shoulders. She moans, flails, but doesn’t regain consciousness. The tide is high today, but Daisy’s thrashings turn the short distance into a laborious track.
The captain leans her head against our shoulder as we watch the alien sun that is a few shades too bright. The clouds become swirls of orange and long stripes of pink and violet that leave an almost white afterimage every time we blink our artificial eyes. There are no seagulls here, but we recall their high-pitched cries. It’s getting harder to focus.
“Will you be alright?” we ask Clara when Daisy’s lungs pulled in their final puff of air. Only a little death for a little girl. We cannot look at her, afraid it will corrupt something vital inside of us that has nothing to do with hard—or software. We clench our teeth, swallow hard. Let this not be the end of her, we plead internally before we put an arm around Clara to draw her close. No one taught us how to let go.
“The Mothers will take care of things. Don’t fear,” Clara says, “I’ll miss you though. I’ll remember you.”
Daisy’s head lies cradled against her shoulder. Even in death, does she sense how close we are to the sea? It called Beebee. It’s calling us. Does it call her too?
Daisy opens her eyes. They’ve turned into red orbs. She stirs, spasms go through her disfigured limbs, make her fingers and bare toes twitch with misfiring electricity. A dead thing that won’t stay dead. Maybe just like the compound we are, or the thing we are turning into. Only a sad little bit of dying to pave the way for new life.
“I think I understand it now. Why we did it. Why we came here. Why you were so angry.” Against our better judgment, we loved her more than any other child. We can remember enough about having a heart to feel it break. No Mother should outlive their children. Part of us is glad we will not see the others die of old age or injury, that we are the first to go.
“You said I. I’ve never heard a Mother say that,” Clara notices and I laugh.
Her tears are falling on Daisy’s unrecognizable face like raindrops on parched land. Hardware has been pushed offline by the invading force. It’s dark inside my head. I lost the connection to my Siblings. It doesn’t hurt as I expected it would.
“I’m changing. I don’t know into what.” I take Daisy out of her arms, “Goodbye, Clara.”
The eight year old is almost too tall to be carried around, but she will not grow any bigger. The wind smells fresh and salty like endless days at the beach are supposed to. The sand curls around my feet, cool but soothing. Translucent synthetic skin has come off in flaps. Little bits are carried away by the water. I can’t feel it anymore. My sensors have gone dark. All I hear is the waves, pushing forward, pulling back eternally. A constant, solid like a song in my ear. The water reaches my thighs. The red ocean is a grandiose wine spill at dawn. This whole planet is beautiful. I fell in love with it before I even set foot here. I stretch out my arms, lower Daisy into the waves.
Her red eyes are wide, and I think I can see awareness in there. Seafoam curls her hair. The water plucks Daisy from my grip. We smile at each other as she sinks. Even without FaceRec I can tell it’s a sad smile, but also a happy one. How many times have I seen that expression on a person’s face?
“Goodbye, Maya the Mariner,” Clara shouts against the crashing waves.
Thank you for remembering my name, I think.
I need to go farther before the ocean can take me. Finally, I’m carried away. The currents crush me against the reef. I can feel the other corals there waiting for me to take my place as my body breaks apart like a shipwreck.
What will become of me? I must be something new. Singular, a first for this strange alien rock. A first time for everything, I think. All things must die a little bit to birth something new. A first time for having a child. For losing a child. For being a we, an I. For finding a soul. A first time for me. A first time for dying, or perhaps for becoming someone.
Hello, Maya Sankovy, a voice whispers in my head.
Welcome, Maya the Mariner, the corals speak gently, but with the force of nature underneath. It’s Beebee’s voice, but also the planet’s calling.
I’ll be part of you and still be me, I answer without lips.
We and I can coexist. Maya Sankovy continues.
Yes, Beebee says and, if I could, I would smile a sad but happy smile.
Yes, the planet whispers through its corals as they rejoice at my arrival.
And Yes, Mama, my daughter says, calling me home.