11840 words, novelette
The Amusement Dark
Contact: Lost Colony. Vessel: The Intention
The man and his geezix stepped out of the burned hills in the pitch-black morning. Machines towered in front of them, caught in the lights of the floating handhelds, and Cal listened to the geezix make its way carefully over the pebbles of an ancient wash and tried not to love it.
The files were all wrong. This was supposed to be a military outpost.
“Daddy,” the geezix said quietly.
Two lights floated in front of them, directing most of their shine outwards so as to not blind Cal or the geezix. There was a fence structure that stretched off in both directions. Large, rounded animals towered over it, weeping strips of rust from their eyes and ears.
“It’s not what we thought, is it, Daddy?” The geezix said. Cal’s chest tightened.
“I told you. Don’t call me that.”
There was a moment of silence in which Cal could feel the geezix’s sadness behind him like a swelling wound.
“No,” he said finally. “We thought it would be a military base.”
Cal gestured at the handhelds panning their lights slowly over the floating animals.
“What is it, Daddy?”
“I don’t know.”
Cal felt the geezix’s hand upon his wrist and he realized he’d stopped walking.
“So do we get to leave?”
Cal looked down. The geezix’s eyes were round and swollen with tears, and the flesh around the left one drooped a bit, revealing bone.
“No. They sent us. We have to catalog it. Make the record right.”
“I want to help, Daddy.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.” He set down the sensor kit he was carrying and lifted the lid. The pod floated out, its muted lights glowing.
“Follow it that way, toward the tower. See it?”
Cal pointed out past the towering animals, at a distant shape in the darkness.
“OK,” the geezix answered softly.
“Don’t worry. It’s easy. Just follow the sensor pod. It will tell you if it needs help taking samples or anything.”
The geezix looked out at the darkness and the tower, a darker wound in the black.
“Don’t be scared,” Cal said. “This place is abandoned.”
“Empty. No one’s here but us.” Cal pointed. “To the tower. I’ll find you in an hour.”
“Daddy,” the geezix said.
Inwardly, Cal sighed. He knew what would work, but it hurt to say it.
“Be brave, honey.”
It looked up at him and smiled, revealing half a mouth of teeth, the rest a mush of blood clots and old food.
The geezix walked off into the darkness.
Cal activated his own sensor kit and followed it the opposite direction, through the gate, under an iron pig striped in rust at its bolts. Small empty structures stood under the animals, thick layers of dust on the windows reflecting the light from the handhelds right back at him. Past the gate a cobblestoned path split. The remnants of a large garden clung together at the split. Cal stopped and listened to the geezix’s footsteps rasping quietly off into the darkness, and he slid a small flask from his hip pocket and drank from it until the warmth inside him matched that of the flask’s metal.
“Tell me more,” Cal said to the sensor pod, which was hovering outside of the dead garden.
“Human colony, seventh wave. First colony records list it as Amara Station. Population unlisted. Organizational structure unlisted. After the war began the designation was changed to a military installation. Most recent records denote research and a mech garrison.”
“Human still, or First Ones?”
“Human. Then First Ones.”
Meaning the machines had come through and scoured the colony.
“If it belonged to the First Ones, shouldn’t records still exist? You won the war, after all.”
The sensor pod paused.
“The records pertaining to this system were destroyed in a raid on thought pool structures in a nearby meteor cloud.”
Cal smiled. It always made him feel good to remember times when the First Ones had lost something in the wars. You couldn’t deny that the First Ones were superior. They’d won the war. Their thought pools were so smart that it sometimes seemed like they could tell the future. As if to rub it in, they called themselves the First Ones, as they were as distinct from the life that had created them, humans, as humans were from primates. They were the first true intelligence.
With arrogance like that, how could it be anything except nice to remember that they’d suffered in the war too?
“Let’s go, then,” he said, and the sensor pod moved off into the darkness. It followed a contour in the ground, its dim lights revealing dead grass edging the cobblestones, and out in the darkness to the right were the edges of large cylinders, faded by time into a neutral plastic color.
“Machines that stimulate the nervous system by creating motion,” the sensor pod said.
“Rides,” Cal said, wondering what such a thing would be doing on this empty rock. As he thought about it a strange anger at the sensor pod for assuming he wouldn’t know what a roller coaster was arose in him. The memory was right on the edge of a darkness within his mind that he should know not to walk into, but still . . .
“Valia,” he said involuntarily. The sensor pod was smart enough not to answer.
“Children loved rides,” she had said. “There were whole parks full of them on old Earth.” She had a been a historian when they met, and was enrolled in a university that, ever since the war ended a hundred years before, was led by a First One thought pool. The students were all given research assignments, but only the most oblivious among them could be happy with it; the simplest research component on any thought pool could out-reason the brightest student. It was, like so many things, a way for the First Ones to keep human beings busy.
Cal had said as much about rides too, when she brought them up all those years ago.
“P’shaw,” Valia had responded gently. “You don’t believe that.”
He knew what she really was asking—do you still want to have kids? Even though they’ve placed us on a deep space research vessel, which isn’t really so different than being a researcher in the service of a thought pool at a university, as thought pools from different jurisdictions sent these research vessels out to map colonies that had been lost during the war. For posterity, thought pools would say, which is an endeavor that humans and First Ones share.
He’d been young—from this moment in time, with whiskey burning his throat, in the darkness, listening to the geezix laugh or call in the distance—he’d been so impossibly young. He’d smiled at Valia when she asked about kids.
“Of course,” he’d said.
She was pregnant when the ship launched, and Elena was born as they mapped their second colony. The ship’s medbay with its computer assistants had done it all while Cal waited and watched the metallic arms and the bright circles of the surgical lights move over his wife.
Cal dug the flask from his pocket and drank from it and almost ran into the sensor pod. It had stopped.
“Substructures exist ahead,” it said. “They run beneath us, as far as the adjacent trees.”
“What is it?” Cal asked.
“Unknown. The substructures do not appear on any description or remaining text that mentions the installation.”
“Maintenance, gotta be,” Cal said.
“It is not,” the pod answered. “It is of unknown purpose and must be explored.” It paused. “Your daughter is hiding nearby.”
The pod panned a light over the trees. In the hard phosphorescence they looked as if they were made of paper, as if even his eyes passing over them would leave small scratches. The geezix’s face appeared in the light. It was smiling its swollen, lopsided smile. It laughed. The sound ringing through the dead trees unsettled Cal.
“Shhh,” he said.
The geezix shook its head and walked toward him over the gentle slope.
“You didn’t see me, Daddy.”
“I told you to go all the way to the tower,” he said. “Where’s the pod I sent with you?” The sensor pod floated out of the trees, its lights coming on.
The geezix paused a few feet from him.
“This is a place for kids, Daddy. You didn’t tell me that.”
“Maybe it used to be. But our job today is to explore it and write a report.”
“I saw what was called a roller coaster.”
Cal couldn’t tell just what the geezix was about to say and had the odd fear that it would ask him in a completely neutral voice to ride the roller coaster with it. A broken, ancient roller coaster, a battered geezix that broke his heart every time he looked in its eyes, all in the dark. He spoke first.
“I found a substructure. I have to check it out.”
“Goodie. I want to help.”
“Three meters that way,” the sensor pod said, its light shifting to indicate a path through the dead trees. Cal followed it and the geezix followed him.
“How come there’s nobody here?” the geezix asked.
“They all left in the war.”
Cal shook his head. The sensor pod was hovering between two trees, bathing the patch of ground beneath it in amber light. Cal kneeled. The ground here was a fine dust that seemed to him to be more than a type of dirt, the final stage in some decomposition process. He swept it away, and the geezix leaned to help. As they swept they revealed a metallic panel beneath the dust, and Cal noticed that the geezix’s fingers seemed looser in the flesh than they should be, as if its skin was ill fitting.
“This is an access point to the substructure,” the pod said.
“Yay,” the geezix said.
“No, go sit by the tree, um—honey.”
“But it’s lonely.”
The sensor pod sank closer to the hatch, its utility arm extending. As its light got closer to the hatch it shrunk from the darkness around them, and the weight of the abandoned orchard seemed to grow. There was loud grinding and a pop, and then the hatch was up. An odor came out of it, foul, but nothing that Cal recognized.
“I mean it, honey, stay there.”
The geezix deflated, laying its head upon its knees, then looked up again, with her eyes coy and playful and sickening to Cal.
“Stay there,” Cal said one last time, and he lowered himself into the dark hallway. The pod had already moved to a corner of the hallway and it seemed to be weighing which way to go.
“The substructure is sizeable and consists of at least three levels,” it said.
It went silent as it considered the data its sweeps were producing. It could read space only and would be looking for open areas, computer cores, access points.
“No structural weak spots,” the pod said. In an unexpected kind of levity, it continued. “Choose a direction.”
Cal moved off left. His handheld light pushed the darkness back, keeping it a steady twenty feet from him, like a moving wall. He walked for ten minutes and finally found stairs.
“Computer core fifty meters from your present position.”
Ah good, Cal thought, wake up the computer, figure out what the substructure was for, and then back to the ship, and leave.
He followed the pod’s directions and in a minute his handheld lit up a cavernous room. Dead consoles covered the far wall in a concave stretch that made his neck hurt to look at it. A single empty chair sat in front of them and Cal settled into it and pulled the portable power plant out of a side pocket. It hummed and established a field. After a minute or so the screens blinked to life.
Three Years Ago, on The Intention
They tell you First Ones-constructed ships are big, but you really don’t get it. After six months on The Intention, Cal still hadn’t seen half of it. He’d walked all of the engineering decks first, the command deck and the quarters, all of them empty except for theirs, and then below those, a deck that was filled with a vast forest.
“They say it’s good for us,” Valia had said one day as they stood next to the river that ran through the forest. Well-placed lights shone through the trees so diffuse noontime hung around them like peach jam spread through the air.
“To be outside,” Valia said.
“A forest in a spaceship.”
“We’re animals,” Valia said, something in her voice like humor. “We need trees to sniff.”
Cal looked up and saw Elena looking out from behind a tree, just her eye and a fringe of her hair. He turned and looked toward the water.
“Valia, this time I think she might really be gone,” he said.
“Yeah. Elena has this pony, see, that can ride through space.”
“Oh, of course.”
“This ship is boring, this forest is quiet . . . ”
He heard Elena’s foot on the grass just behind him, and then she leaped with a shrill roar and fell on his shoulders. Cal staggered up, screaming, fake-terrified, and finally laughing as she ran off into the trees again.
Later, Cal had killed that forest. He dug into the oversight programs and burned anything that looked like it kept trees alive and water running. Still it took them a year to die; they hung on, quiet in the dark, full of will.
A kindness, Valia had said. A kindness.
The computers were ancient, but once the field saturated enough of the control room the screens come to life. The room around them was early First Ones design—the floors swaled in weird ways; a door to his left was a foot off the ground.
Cal set the power plant aside and looked up at the sensor pod.
“Well? What are you getting?”
The sensor pod floated along the far wall, silent, panning its light.
Cal thought of ways he might ridicule the sensor pod, but only out of the tired reflex of a lonely man. He’d gone through a phase when he’d screamed at the screens in the command center of the ship. He’d killed the trees. He’d tried to crash the ship. None of it had worked.
“The structure is planned out in three chambers,” the sensor pod finally said. “Diagnostics are present for all of them. It is a medical facility.”
“What?” Cal asked. He’d always heard that First Ones unplugged old or sick members of their race, ground them up, and used them to make new technology. He walked on dead First Ones every time he walked down the hall. The table he ate breakfast at every day was ground up First Ones.
“Medical facility? Explain.”
The sensor pod said nothing.
“Well, we have enough to list it, right?”
“No,” the sensor pod answered.
“That’s it? No?”
It went quiet again, dragging its light over the walls.
Cal got up close to the screens, but they were impossible to decipher. It was all the First Ones’ language.
“Tell me where these chambers are,” he said.
The Intention, Three Years Ago
The trick was variety, and the spaceship knew it. Every morning there were lists of things to fix, and Cal fixed them, even though the comp drones could do it better. One day, a year or so after launch, the ship’s computer had sent Cal out into the forest to look for what it called a gratuitous passenger. A stowaway? The sinking terror of a stranger being on the ship, unseen.
Cal looked through the forest for two days, ready to kill. But he found nothing, nobody.
Like so many things, it had just been to keep him busy.
Like so many things, Cal had thought a few days after his daughter was born. Like everything.
When Elena was seven they came out of light speed near an abandoned series of military installations. The Intention didn’t really have shuttles. They were more like crewed artillery shells shot at a planet. Cal and Valia slid down a ladder into one and it sealed up behind them, leaving Elena to read books in her quarters. When they were strapped in it fired off and they roared down into the atmosphere. It landed in the mountains outside the colony. The walk out of the mountains was long, and neither of their hearts were in it, but finally they were crouched on a ridge looking down at the colony.
It hadn’t been badly damaged, and Cal’s heart leaped when he saw a person walking down one of the streets.
“Shit,” Cal said. “It’s still inhabited.”
Valia whistled, and Cal laughed.
“This is us, honey. We make contact with a lost colony. The pools task us to be the experts on it until one of the expedition ships arrives. We go back to Earth and get teaching gigs at university.”
Valia turned to him and smiled. That smile—so perfectly hers—a mix of joy and exhaustion. Her eye socket leaped away from her face and she stared at him, still smiling, and then leaned forward and caught herself with her hands, and she puked, and fell flat, dead.
Cal didn’t know what he did next. He might remember being by the shuttle, holding Valia under the arms, but not looking at her face. Maybe a pistol roaring in his hand. Maybe dead colonists in the gulley where the shuttle had landed. He was sure he dragged Valia back into the shuttle. And back on The Intention he remembered very clearly holding Elena as the med bots worked on Valia, and she cried quietly, the brave girl, and he was proud and heartbroken, and only later he thought that he might’ve covered her eyes or taken her away so she couldn’t see the med bots moving around her mother, leaning close with their faces full of optics, irrigating a wound they knew they couldn’t fix.
“Early First Ones were largely corporeal,” the sensor pod said, and they moved down a ladder into the first chamber.
“They would’ve moved throughout this station via the tracks you see placed throughout.”
The ladder led down into a simple room. There were old, overstuffed chairs. A few plates left on the table. The food that had been on them had long since turned to powder.
“This space was clearly not used by First Ones, which of course have no need for sustenance of this type,” the sensor pod said.
“Humans, presumably,” it answered.
Stating the obvious, Cal thought, and knew that meant that the sensor pod was as lost as he was. It shined the light on a hatch in the middle of the floor as if politely suggesting that Cal go through it.
He slipped his pistol free and gestured.
“I’ll open, but you first.”
The hatch came up easily under Cal’s hands and the sensor pod lowered into it, the blackness inside swallowing it up.
After a long pause, the sensor pod spoke.
“Biological material is present.”
In Cal’s mind, the months following Valia’s death were clear and perfect and dark. It was as if he came into focus when he lost her, and even during just walking the narrow hallway of the ship it was impossible to lose himself, to forget for even a moment that she was gone. It’s because of beginnings and ends, he’d thought at the time: Anytime I start walking on this ship I’m moving toward or away from Elena, my girl. Valia’s girl too.
Elena cried herself exhausted, and then worse than the tears, he caught her staring at him at weird times. As he was raising a fork to his mouth, maybe, and in that stare he could see that Elena knew he could fix it. He was her dad, and he should be able to bring her mother back.
So he drank, and sent inquiries into the pools to see if he could come back to Earth, and received the refusals, and drank, and began to sleep in the forest.
His darkest moment was standing in the trees, catching a sound on the false wind, and realizing that it was Elena, crying. And staying there, knowing that he couldn’t face her.
Then there was a day, two years after Valia’s death, when he woke up and walked through the command center, got a cup of coffee, and topped it off with whiskey. He stood thinking. Or no; letting the cold rush of silence that had become his mind hiss through him. A thought floated through the silence: Elena would be hiding, waiting to scare him.
He walked the halls, looking for her. She wasn’t there and she wasn’t in her room and finally she could only be in the forest. And yes she was, in the river, wedged into a knuckle of fake rocks, her forehead gently bruised where she’d fallen. Drowned.
The biological material was survivors.
They were thinly stretched between striated metallic frames.
It took Cal a moment to understand what they were; at first he’d have said that they were meat, and as his mind tried to make sense of it, he’d say that they were some kind of bio scaffolding that the pools had used for something.
As with Valia, her eye having leaped away from her face; as with Elena, knowing she was in the dark forest; as with waking alone on the ship every day since; as with the moment the geezix appeared, smiling, the perfect countenance of his daughter: there was an edging horror.
They were people.
“How,” was all Cal could say.
“Stasis fluids,” the pod said. “Very reliable and straightforward. They are grown in the above vats and leaked across the biological material to maintain it against degradation.”
“Yes. It is unclear, however, how the stasis vats are powered. Likely a solar source, perhaps a satellite we did not detect, or a collection point on a moon.” The sensor pod paused. “The separate power source indicates the importance of these biological specimens.”
Specimens. Three of them. It was like looking at stretched anatomical drawings. The feet disappeared into metallic clamps and the legs were peeled in all directions, stretched muscles, flesh flayed in open deltas. The guts were more complex, hanging in heavy arrangements and supported by discrete, sturdy frames. The arms were flayed like the legs, but the heads were masterpieces, opened in all directions, like flesh supernovae. They were all damp with the moisture trickling down across them from the vats above, the droplets making slow, predictable journeys across the bone and muscle, and finally disappearing into the foot manacles.
They were looking at him.
“Congratulations,” the sensor pod said. “This colony is inhabited.”
Later, Cal pulled himself out of the access hatch and into the still air. The sensor pod had stayed below, and Cal stood in the darkness above ground, waiting for his eyes to adjust. They didn’t, and finally he felt the geezix’s hand in his own, leading him away from the hatch, and helping him sit down on a stone.
“What did you find down there, Daddy?”
Cal listened to the trees shift above them.
“Will you tell me the truth about something?”
The geezix’s head settled on his shoulder, a perfect approximation of how Elena used to do it.
“Your voice, Daddy. You’re sad.”
“Just tell me. If I kill you, you’d come back, right?”
“Daddy,” it whispered.
Sometimes, in the dark forest, Cal thought about the First Ones’ sense of humor. The First Ones’ thought pools were brilliant and could tell you things about why you loved a certain humble woman named Valia, and why it turned you on when she shook her head and smiled kindly and in response to your own joke she said so cute, so dumb, but when they tried to joke it always fell flat. There was something about humor, and also about comfort, that they did not understand, these both being emotional moments that reach from one person to another. Bridges, in a sense.
Thus, the geezix.
He could feel it watching him in the darkness.
“So do we get to stay here?” it asked.
“You want to stay?”
“I know you do.”
Do I? Cal thought. That old, sodden animal that had become his mind ran futures: Running the ship into the sun with him and the geezix on it—wonderful, freeing. Burning the monstrosities below, putting them out of their misery—right. Staying and studying the colony until a survey ship arrived—procedure.
“You must be hungry,” Cal said.
The geezix came to its feet.
“Yes, Daddy. I am! Can we eat something?”
I’ve never asked it that before, Cal thought. It doesn’t need to eat.
“Sure. Follow me.”
The geezix laughed and followed him.
Cal walked out of the park, past the floating animals, and into the hills. The shuttle was on a flat plane, and inside it he flipped the overheads on, turning the dark world outside into a flat black sheet, with the geezix standing in it, smiling at him.
“I like han-gerbers.”
“I know. This shuttle only has little things, though. Simple things.”
Cal collected a portable heating cell, and enough food for both of them, and carried it all back into the park, the geezix following, kicking rocks. They sat by the access hatch and Cal unfolded the heating element. It bathed them in light, and more slowly, warmth. He peeled the foil off of two meals and handed one to the geezix.
“The right thing to do, honey, is burn them.”
The geezix looked a little concerned.
“Isn’t it dangerous to burn things?”
“They’ve been suffering for a long, long time.”
“Then let’s do it.”
Its voice had exactly that determined quality that Elena’s sometimes had. Cal looked up and saw it smiling and chewing, holding a hand to its cheek to keep the mashed potatoes from falling out of the hole in its face.
“But you’re right, anyway. We can’t burn them.”
“But you said we should.”
Cal imagined the pod dashing back and forth in panic as he tried to light the monstrosities below on fire. He caught himself.
“Not monsters. They’re people down there.”
The geezix nodded, trying to take another bite of food.
The pod floated out of the hatch and settled into a slow orbit around them.
“You’ve completed full diagnostics on the systems?”
“Yes,” the pod answered.
“Can we move them?” Cal asked.
“It will be very difficult. There is risk to the patients.”
Risk? Have you seen them? And just imagine the descendant of the First Ones that did this to them in the first place saying with a straight face risk.
“How much risk?”
“An acceptable level.”
“All right. Send the shuttle back up for the med bots. Bring them all and tell them to bring as many supplies as they can carry.”
The pod did not answer, which told Cal it was thinking about what he said.
“You have a problem with that order?”
“The survivors are most valuable in situ.”
“Their arrangement. The historical importance of the devices.”
“They might have something important to say, right? They’re not going to talk all strung up like that.”
The pod said nothing.
“I’m getting them out of there. Try to stop me if you want to.”
Cal knew it was an empty rebellion on his part. The pod wouldn’t have to stop him. It could just tell the med bots not to come down. He’d be left here in the darkness, angry, staring at the geezix.
But for some reason the pod didn’t push the point.
“Understood. Remote launching shuttle now. Med bots will be on site within the hour.”
“Yay,” the geezix said. It was watching something crawl across the ground.
“Did you find a bug?” he said, then added, “honey.”
The geezix looked up at him, its eyes glowing.
“Yes, Daddy. Have you ever seen one like this?”
Cal leaned over. The bug trundling between the geezix’s feet was a round, heavy beetle.
“Yes, I’ve seen them before.”
“It looks like a button.”
The day the geezix had arrived, Cal had reached the end. That was how he thought of it, as if his life until now was a tunnel, and he’d reached a dead end. Valia dead. Elena dead. And the worst part was knowing what kind of father he’d been to his little girl since Valia died.
Had it been a week since he’d found Elena drowned? Maybe. Time had changed. It was pain now, and when he was awake he mostly just tried to stop it with booze. After a little while he wasn’t even awake when he was awake. There was a fire smoldering inside his skull. He was dead bodies sewn together, a bunch of dead memories in a cold soup swirling around the fire in his head.
He was in a hallway he didn’t remember, deep in the ship, walking. The pistol was in his hand. A ship this size, once it arrived back at Earth—how long would it take to find a body way down here? Would they ever?
He sat down, leaned against the bulkhead, gritted his teeth, and lifted the pistol.
The voice was soft. Elena’s, definitely. And there she was, ten feet down the hallway.
Something wonderful washed over Cal. Peace, relief, forgiveness. It was like waking from a dream to realize that the world itself is not as cruel as your mind is.
He stepped toward her, knelt, and took her in his arms.
He knew right away. Maybe it was the smell of her; maybe it was the look in her eyes. He shoved her and ran away from the sound of her crying for him.
Later, in the guts of the ship trying to avoid the geezix, Cal did his research from a computer terminal in the databases. It hadn’t been touched in a year, given the fuzz of dust covering it. He learned that the First Ones sometimes re-tasked biological matter, too. It was the best substrate for something biological-looking. Valia and Elena had been melted down and turned into something that was meant to keep Cal going. A geezix was the slang. The official name was long.
Cal avoided it for weeks. Which is to say he hid.
But it kept coming, calling Daddy through the hallways, crying to be tucked in, crying that it was hungry, crying that it was scared. Lonely. Cold.
Finally, he walked out of the depths of the ship and found his geezix.
It turned out to be even harder to rescue the colonists than the pod had thought. The stasis protocols were hardwired to exactly five outside power sources: A collection point on a moon, two satellites, a bank of batteries, and a terribly ingenious First Ones device that used the minute movements of the specimen’ internal organs to power the stasis tech. If the moon failed, if the sun failed, if the batteries failed, still the tormented hearts of the specimens would keep the tormented hearts of the specimens alive.
There were exactly five security protocols, too. The minute the med bots starting unscrewing panels, messages fired off to old First Ones military installations and dead comms centers. There’d be no answer, of course, and the pod bored Cal with the info it was digging up in the archives. The military installations and defunct comms centers that the stasis protocols were contacting were part of an offshoot from one of the core First Ones’ civilizations, the one that had left observable space after they won the war. Nobody really knew much about them, even the First Ones who had stayed to rule over humanity’s old colonies and the home system.
Each colonist was tied into so much that, as Cal watched the med bots work, it seemed that rather than removing the colonists from the station, they were taking the station apart. Where each colonist was, webbed across the odd stasis protocol frames, was at the top of large columns that stretched down into the structure. The med bots disassembled the ceiling and Cal hovered the shuttle over the open structure to slowly lift each column out. Only once they were removed and laid across the dead grass outside, now under massive phosphos that the med bots had brought down from the ship, did they dare try and separate them from the machinery.
Cal sat in the darkness outside the range of the phosphos and watched as the med bots worked. The geezix sat next to him. It had the beetle and would lift it to eye level, drop it, and capture it again before it could get away.
“Let it go,” he said, when he couldn’t take it anymore.
The geezix mashed its palm onto the beetle. When it removed its hand only a wet spot was left where the beetle was. The geezix sniffed its palm.
“Get to the shuttle,” Cal said. “We’re leaving.”
Three hours later Cal was in his bunk, thinking about drinking enough whiskey to go to sleep. Being asleep didn’t sound any better than being awake, though, and he lay in his bunk waiting for the motivation to do one or the other.
A pong sounded next to his bunk.
“The inhabitants are aboard.”
“Yes,” the med bot answered.
“I’ll be right there.”
Something moved in the corner.
“Are we leaving, Daddy?”
Cal’s gut fell, and he sat up quick, banging his head on the low ceiling above his bunk. He held his forehead and stared at the geezix as it stared back, smiling.
“How did you get in here?”
Cal went over the memory of coming back—he’d been tired, but he’d seen the geezix walk off toward the forest. He’d walked in the room alone.
“I came in by myself.”
The geezix stood up and walked to the wall. It opened a panel and there was a short, dark tunnel behind it. Cal had no idea it was there.
Instead of answering, Cal washed his face and jogged the three decks up the medbay. He lost the geezix after just a few steps and it called out for him, but he kept jogging, until its voice was lost in the maze of ship’s passages behind him.
In the medbay, three beds were folded out from the walls. Each was covered with a sheet.
“Wait. Are they alive?”
A med bot lowered from its place in the ceiling struts. It had three slowly rotating lamps for eyes. It didn’t look at Cal, but instead at the bodies on the tables.
“Oh yes. All three inhabitants survived. It was a complicated task, but made simpler by the quality of the original workmanship.”
Interesting moment to compliment your ancestors, Cal thought.
“Their musculature was peeled off of their bones, but carefully, as to retain most of the nerve connections. It seemed important to the designers that they feel everything. There were also a great deal of aesthetic considerations in the work.”
“What do you mean?”
“The peeled muscles were placed and trimmed in ways to produce symmetry in presentation.”
“I cannot be sure. Given the concern over nerve connections, and symmetry, I’d think of them as pieces of art.”
“They were people. Colonists. Prisoners of war.”
“Of course, and excellent sources for historical data, I’m sure. You must be very proud and excited to get to work. My own work was largely successful, although I fear they will not be the people that they once were.”
“If they’re alive, why did you cover them in sheets?”
“Their wounds are unique. Steps were taken, but they still might be difficult for you to look at. And there is the matter of their skin. It was completely removed. I have replaced it with a self-replicating bio scaffold that, given enough time, should produce something much like their original skin.”
“What’s their mindset like?”
“Two of them are deeply dissociative. They will need a great deal of time to recover, if they ever do. The third seems responsive. I will medicate him in preparation for your discussion.”
“Don’t do that.”
“He is responsive, but has been in a terrible state for a long, long time. He may not talk to you.”
“That’s his choice.” Cal paused. “Did you put it together?”
The med bot looked at him.
It paused. It had not expected the question.
“Your daughter was shaped using the medbay technology, which includes the capabilities of units like this one.”
Forget it, Cal thought. You already knew all this.
“Wake up the colonist. I want to talk to him.”
Beside the medbay was a small rec room. It was attached to the cafeteria by an automated tunnel system, and as Cal waited for the first colonist to come in, he ordered two coffees. But did they even have coffee on the colony? He thought about summoning the pod and asking it to comb the records, then decided not to.
He heard a soft scuffing sound outside the door.
The door slid open. The figure that came through wore loose scrubs, the same kind the geezix had worn when it first appeared. The scrubs were damp from the inside, blossoming here and there with moisture.
The head was covered too, in a tailored paper mask. Cal could see the edges of exposed red flesh through the eyeholes. The mouth slit widened when the figure saw Cal.
“Sit down. Are you hungry? Thirsty?”
The figure moved slowly to the chair and lowered itself.
Cal turned to the panel next to him.
“Water,” he said. “Twelve ounces. Room temperature.”
A moment later the panel opened and a glass of water was there. Cal placed it on the table.
“Do you need help?”
“Are you in pain?”
He shook his head.
“I asked the med bots to make sure there wasn’t any pain.”
The colonist stared at the deck beneath his feet, then finally up at Cal.
“What is happening?”
“You’re on a ship called The Intention. It’s a long-range exploration vessel. Our mission right now is to rediscover and catalog installations that were lost in the wars, or forgotten about after.”
“Our best information is that you were on a military outpost. What’s your name?”
The man blinked slowly.
“Nice to meet you,” Cal said.
Jonathon looked at the glass of water and then at his hands.
“What is happening?” he asked again.
“You’re on my ship. We discovered your outpost and we stopped to see if there were still people here.”
“So we won the wars?” Jonathon asked.
What can I say to this? No. We didn’t win. That might terrify Jonathon.
“You’re safe now.”
Jonathon was still looking at his hands.
“What did they do to me?”
“I’m not sure.”
I’m not trained for this, Cal thought. Valia would be so much better at this. He could imagine just turning her loose on Jonathon—help him, he’d say, and then accept that he himself wouldn’t know how to. He’d disappear into the vastness of the ship.
“What am I wearing?”
“You can walk, right?”
“Come with me,” Cal said.
The dead forest stretched out into the darkness. On the bank, Cal helped Jonathon lower himself onto the dry grass, and then sat next to him.
“Still no pain?”
“Sorry. I haven’t talked to another person in two years. I probably wasn’t great at it even back then.”
“You’re alone? Out here?” the man said. “Where is everyone else?”
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Lights in the sky. And there was this roaring. It was. We . . . ”
A kind of deep sadness settled into the man, and he settled back onto the grass.
“I’ll just be honest,” Cal began. “I found your outpost a week ago. Records say it was a military base, but I think the First Ones took it over. It’s not a military base anymore.”
“What is it?”
“It’s been made to look like an ancient Earth amusement park.”
“It’s a place that people took children. There were rides, they called them—big metallic structures—and they accelerated the riders, and had loops, drops, that kind of thing. They were exciting.”
The man reached slowly for the water and lifted it to his lips. He took a small sip and moaned.
“I’ve been thirsty for so long.”
“Can you confirm that your outpost was a military base?”
There was something in the way the man said it that Cal recognized. He was trying to lie.
“Look, we lost the war to the First Ones a hundred years ago. Any secrets you swore to keep don’t mean anything to anyone but me.”
He sipped again.
“We housed a mech wing.”
Something moved in the dark trees. The man reflexively lowered his hand to the grass, as if looking for something.
“Am I on a ship?”
“Yes. An exploration vessel.”
“With just you on it?”
“There used to be three of us. My wife and my daughter.”
Something flashed in the trees; it was the geezix’s eyes.
“What’s out there?”
“People call it a geezix. It’s made of biological material. Made to look like my daughter.”
“Made? Is it a bot?”
“Like one. A bot made of flesh.”
The geezix stepped slowly out from behind the tree.
“Daddy? Is this one of the people we found?”
“Can I talk to him?”
“But I’m bored.”
“Go out into the forest. Find something interesting.”
The geezix smiled.
“OK. I will.”
It turned and walked into the darkness.
“Her name was Elena,” Cal said. “She drowned two years ago. Just after, they sent the geezix.”
“The First Ones think we need things to keep us busy.”
“Or we’ll fight again,” the man said, with a certain satisfaction.
“No. I don’t think they’re scared of that. We’re zoo animals to them. The ship, the tasks, the geezix. They know I loved Valia, my wife, but they also know that I loved Elena so much that without her I wouldn’t make it. So they gave her back, in their way.”
The man raised the water to his lips and sipped.
“How long will it stay out there?”
“It’s probably watching us.”
A long moment of silence passed, and Cal focused on the darkness, trying to see the flash of the geezix’s dull eyes. The motion of the branches and leaves occasionally fooled him—a slight, almost invisible twitch, and he’d think here, it’s coming back. But then nothing would emerge from the darkness and he’d realize it was just the trees slowly rotting.
“What did you call it? An amusement park?”
“Why did they turn our base into an amusement park?”
“I don’t know. If I had to guess, it’s like a museum. A way for the First Ones to learn about humans.”
The man lowered the cup and his hand went again to something that he was used to being at his side. A gun, Cal imagined.
“Don’t lie this time. What did they do to us?”
I can’t do this, Cal thought. Valia would be better. All I can do is give him the truth.
“I don’t know for sure. The bots won’t say. But I think the First Ones turned you into rides.”
“Like the machines?”
The First Ones would slide themselves into the nervous systems of those people and ride their nerves, flash through their brains, thrill at their sensations. They’d become their sensations. And the park above was a museum piece. An antechamber to the real rides.
“I don’t know for sure either. But you’re free now, Jonathon. They’re gone and you’re free.”
The man’s energy didn’t last long. After sitting on the dead grass and looking out into the dark forest for a few more minutes, he asked to go somewhere he could sleep. Cal helped him stand and they went back up to the medbay. The bot was waiting at the door, hunched over, its eyes slowly rotating. It was motherly in a way that made Cal’s palms itch.
With the man resting in his cot, Cal went to the databases a deck up. It was a huge room of data cores stretching the whole mile-height of the ship. Most of it was inaccessible to Cal, but there was a single table set aside.
He sat down at the table and a screen emerged.
The colony was easy to find. The last records were as the pod had reported—a human military establishment, likely a launching pad for a division of mechs. Ten years before the end of the war it fell behind the advancing First Ones’ lines, and ten years after that, the war ended.
The last detail in the database said no survivors. As Cal watched it the writing changed. Three survivors, it said. Cal was listed as the planetary authority, and The Intention was listed as a research platform, not an exploratory vessel.
I have to change that, he thought. I have to get these people back to Earth. There’s no way they’ll want to stay near Amara.
Cal stood and stretched. He needed sleep too, but of course he could not go back to his quarters, knowing now that the geezix had a secret way in. How many times had it snuck in and watched him sleep, or listened as he suffered through nightmares, trying to capture words to use on him, trying, with its little part-robot, part-corpse soul to figure him out?
Cal walked into the databases and lay down next to one. It was warm, and after a moment his thoughts fell away, and he went to sleep.
The next time he saw Jonathon he was not wearing the paper mask. A shiny, tender skin had formed over the material that the med bot had placed over him, and he was sitting in the rec room adjacent to the medbay, a plate of food in front of him.
“Mind if I join you?”
“Sit. I’m trying to guess what that bot made.”
Cal sat down and placed his own tray in front of him. He had slept for a very long time, and was hungry, but something told him to wait for Jonathon to start.
“It’s supposed to be mung bean cake.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“Well then, you won’t be disappointed. It’s nothing like what it’s supposed to be.”
Jonathon pawed the table for his fork, found it with his somewhat weak, numb hands, and slowly lifted it. He cut a corner off of the mung bean cake and took a bite. Cal chopped his in half and ate it quickly.
“You like it?”
“Sure,” Jonathon answered.
“They make other things. Don’t order any meat, though. It never tastes right.”
Jonathon placed his fork on the table and leaned back in his chair. He looked exhausted already, although he must’ve just woken up. Cal wondered how close he looked to how he had in life. Although his skin was a little shinier than Cal had seen on another adult, Jonathon was handsome.
“You know what whiskey is?”
“You kidding? You got any?”
Cal pulled his flask from his pocket and slid it over to Jonathon. The man slowly lifted it to his lips, sipped, and sighed heavily.
“Who are the other survivors?”
“I don’t know,” Cal said. “We can try to wake them up soon. Maybe you know them.”
Jonathon sipped again.
“Of course I know them. There were only two hundred people on the base. Half of them flew mech swarms. The rest of us ran the base.”
Us—that meant that Jonathon wasn’t a pilot. Cal would’ve guessed he was a commander of some kind. Maybe of the whole base. Records in the databases had indicated that the mech wing was a naval unit. Cal struggled to remember old naval ranks.
“You’d be an admiral, then.”
Jonathon laughed, coughed, and laughed again.
“I programmed the mess bots.” He smiled painfully. “I was the cook.”
Cal laughed too and gestured for the flask.
“Maybe you can help with ours.”
“What did you mean, earlier, when you said they made us into rides?”
Shit, Cal thought. He realized that he was hoping that Jonathon would drink some of the whiskey, would begin to talk about life in the colony, maybe tell stories about what it’s like to control a flock of robo-cooks on a base where everyone else flies a wing of combat mechs. Cal had been hoping he wouldn’t want to talk about where he’d been found, and how.
“Like I said, it’s a guess. This outpost was overrun ten years before the wars ended. The First Ones travel in discrete communities, like cities, but huge. Swarms of cities. The one that took your outpost disappeared after the wars, so we don’t know much about them. That’s probably why they sent me out here, to see if we could learn anything about the vanished cousins.”
“Yeah, I remember,” Jonathon said, taking the flask back. “Pilots used to say when you pick them up on the sensors it’s like you’re looking at a wall of ships that goes forever in all three dimensions.”
“Yeah. But like I said, we don’t know much about the ones that took Amara Station. We know that some of the First Ones were not corporeal. They were more like bursts of electricity. Like, I don’t know, thoughts. Given how they left you in there—nerves intact, conscious, kept alive—I’m thinking that they tried to turn you into a roller coaster. Maybe so they could understand amusement parks.”
Jonathon took the flask back and sipped.
“They rode your nerves. Your ganglia. Your memories.”
“Why?” Jonathon breathed, trying to grasp what Cal was saying.
“I don’t know. To understand you, maybe. Do you remember anything about the wars?”
“Yeah. We were killing them. The same pilots that told me about the First Ones’ swarms told me that a good mech pilot could filet them like a fish.”
“Maybe they were scared of you.”
“Does that explain what they did to us?”
But maybe it did. Cal had read about ancient wars in which fierce enemies were hung from walls, or turned into myths, or eaten.
“If you were killing them, how did they take Amara Station?”
Jonathon sat quietly for a second.
“I remember now. A distress call. They sent the mech wing out to investigate. They knew it was a risk. They were saying it when they were leaving. The First Ones must’ve hit us when all the mechs were out.”
Jonathon raised the flask again then set it on the table, empty.
“Gotta be to win drinking contests with mech pilots.”
Cal wanted to ask Jonathon what he remembered about after the First Ones took the station. He’d been turned into something terrible, but the First Ones had clearly cherished him, in a way. It was hard to imagine how to begin that question, though. But of course Jonathon would be asked eventually—either by the pods, or the med bots, or by the First Ones and human hangers-on that would come to study Amara Station.
“What was it like?”
Jonathon stared for a long moment.
“Dark. I thought I was dead. And then I drifted. Sometimes I was there just enough to realize that I had died and that I was wrong about everything. Hell was real. It is dark and it hurts. But then I drifted again. Everything that came before seemed like a dream.”
Jonathon stared at his feet.
“You’re safe now,” Cal said. “As soon as they let me, I’m taking this ship back to Earth. I’m taking you home.”
Jonathon raised his head.
“I am home, Cal. My home is Amara Station. I’m an officer there, not on Earth.”
“You were an officer,” Cal said, then caught himself. “I’m sorry.”
The other man sighed and slowly raised himself to his feet.
“You’re right. But you’re wrong too. The army I was in got killed off. I was captured. I was tortured.”
Jonathon looked down at him, and there was something in his eyes that seemed very unlike a cook’s. My eyes used to look like that, Cal thought. Those are the eyes that Valia would’ve fallen in love with. I lost those eyes in the forest, in the geezix, in the emptiness and silence of the ship.
“But they’re gone. And I’m still here.”
Jonathon walked slowly into the adjoining medbay. Before he went inside he looked over his shoulder.
“I want to go to Amara Station tomorrow.”
That night Cal lay down by the computer cores again. It was warm, almost like sleeping next to a living thing, and it felt private. He’d never seen the geezix here. Perhaps it could not find him in the databases.
But he couldn’t sleep. His mind was sharp and running, flicking back and forth between the past and the present, all the while mourning what he was now. A man stuck in a ship, rotting away in orbit around maybe the sickest place he’d ever seen.
And Jonathon wants to go back down there?
I’m sober, he realized. That’s why I can’t stop thinking.
Without whiskey numbing him to it, Cal could see that his thoughts were a separate living thing inside him. They roared on and on in the dark, dead forest decks above him, and he knew that when he finally did fall asleep, they’d still be up there, haunting the dead trees.
Cal sighed and stared up into the darkness. He tried to let it fill him, to let it pour into the dead forest behind his eyes, to blind him to it.
You love forests so much because you are basically a forest, Valia had said once.
Wait, not once. It was their first date.
Cal could remember thinking a long time about where to take Valia. She was smarter than him, and beautiful, and had a way of looking at him that felt like she could see everything in his future, and it made her laugh a little. He’d chosen to take her on a hike after considering everything else, knowing that she’d either hate walking through a forest together—or, he hoped, love it. She did, and as they trudged up the trail she talked about work, her passion for lexicography (“Words’ secrets,” she’d said, although he still didn’t exactly understand what it was), and her favorite books.
At the summit of the mountain she’d asked him why he decided to take her hiking.
“I don’t know. I love forests. I thought you might too.”
“What do you love about them?”
“The trees, and the way the light falls through them . . . ” Cal struggled to put words to it. “And the leaves. A thousand little blades of light.”
“Oh, I get it. You love forests so much because you are basically a forest.”
Cal hadn’t understood what she meant, but she had that future-look, so he didn’t ask questions.
“Daddy,” a soft voice said.
Cal could see it standing in the darkness, its hands crossed shyly.
“There’s doors everywhere,” it said. And then almost apologetically: “I know them all.”
“It’s OK, honey.”
Cal propped himself up on an elbow.
“Go back into the forest. I’ll see you tomorrow. We’ll go down to the planet.”
The geezix stood there, looking at him.
“There’s no one anywhere on this ship, except the sick people,” it said. “It’s just . . . There’s no one except us.”
“Come here,” Cal said.
The geezix walked to him and lay down. In the darkness he could see something. In his daughter he would’ve called mischief.
“What did the daddy tree say to the baby tree?”
“Leaf me alone.”
It laughed, holding both hands over its mouth, as if it was embarrassed.
“Go to sleep, honey,” Cal said, and settled in next to it.
When Cal woke up, the geezix was gone. He walked to his quarters, took a shower, and made coffee. Taking his first sip, turning around in the small cabin, he saw the geezix standing on his bed.
“Daddy, one of the sick people is waiting by the shuttles.”
“He’s already down there?”
“He talked to me. His name is Jon.”
“What did he say?”
“That he knew how to make pancakes, and if I knew what they were.”
“Shoes, right Daddy?”
Cal blew on his coffee, gulped it down, and found his pistol.
“You’re coming to the planet, right?”
The geezix angled its head and affected a silly voice.
“Why are you joking so much?”
“’Cuz you like it.”
Cal walked to the shuttle bay, and the geezix followed. It sang songs as they walked, which Cal couldn’t remember it doing before. Maybe talking to Jonathon had inspired it somehow; maybe it has been bored all this time. Maybe it hates being on this ship as much as I do.
In the shuttle bay, Jonathon was standing next to the shuttle that they had used the most. It was striped with scorch marks from going through the atmosphere, and Jonathon stood there, running his finger along the border of one of them.
“Good morning, Jonathon.”
He turned. His skin had taken hold and looked almost entirely natural. He was a young-looking, rugged man.
“I’m ready to go.”
“Are you? You’ve eaten?”
“What am I, your patient?”
“Yeah. You’re my patient.”
“No I’m not. I belonged to that annoying med bot.”
The way he said it got Cal’s attention.
“What about the med bot?”
Jonathon returned his attention to the scorch marks. Finally, he answered: “I put it to sleep.”
“Well, who is taking care of you three?”
“No one. Who’s taking care of you?”
Cal shook his head and cued the shuttle door open. The geezix, who had been hanging back behind him, rushed past into the shuttle, and Jonathon followed it. Cal followed. Inside, the computers had raised stacked displays of numbers and trajectories. Amara Station hovered in the middle of the space, spinning slowly, a small throbbing icon where the actual station was. As the door closed the shuttle sank into the launch bay.
“You’ll want to sit back in that seat,” Cal said. The geezix had already arranged itself in its own seat and was kicking its feet back and forth in excitement.
Jonathon settled himself back, and so did Cal. When the countdown finished, the displays around them dimmed, and the shuttle leaped out of the ship, thrusting to the planet below. Cal felt himself mercilessly pressed into his seat.
It left the ship, and after the initial burn, rolled over. The overhead panel peeled back and they could see the planet below as the shuttle passed onto the permanent nightside of the planet.
The shuttle slowed and descended toward Amara Station, the graphic of the planet turning also, to indicate their progress.
Finally they set down in the hills. When the doors opened the geezix leaped out of its seat and ran out into the darkness.
“She’s been on that ship a long time,” Jonathon said. Cal didn’t know quite how to answer, so he followed the geezix, pulling his pistol belt straight.
They walked over the same ancient wash of pebbles that they had when they arrived, the geezix kicking at them just as it had before.
The lights that the bots had erected over the structures illuminated them, an island of light on the dark planet: the large metallic animals hung there, staring down at them as they approached.
“What in the fuck,” Jonathon said.
“Those weren’t there when this was a mech station?”
“It was all underground. Invisible from here.”
Jonathon looked at the geezix and smiled.
“I used to hike out here sometimes. There were wild lupas.”
“What?” the geezix said.
It kept staring.
“You don’t know what a dog is?”
The geezix shook its head and Jonathon crouched, as a dog about to run would.
“Lupas have this beautiful fur, and long legs, and you can feel them watching you. If you get close enough you can see their eyes look like your mom’s.”
Whether Jonathon had meant it as a joke or hyperbole, the word mom froze the geezix.
“Oh yes. And they talk. Not much, just a couple words, but when you get close, hey, they say. Hey good man. You have food, good man?”
“How’d they learn to talk?”
“They just listened.”
The geezix stared out into the darkness.
“Those lupas died a hundred years ago,” Cal said. “The First Ones attacked this place. They scorch planets. Nothing on the surface lives.”
Cal walked ahead and under the large metal animals into the pathways below. The landscape was stripped open and illuminated by the bots that had removed the three colonists. Cal stood on the edge of the pit. One of the bots was still working on the old computer cores down below, releasing the occasional flash of phosphor torchlight.
“Daddy, I’m hungry,” the geezix said.
“There’s food over by that tower.” He pointed out in the darkness.
The geezix walked off into the dark slowly.
“Why’d you lie to her?” Jonathon asked, suddenly standing closer.
“Her? It doesn’t need to eat, Jonathon. It just says things like that so I feel closer to it.”
Jonathon was quiet, so Cal continued.
“It’s not a kid, Jon. It’s a robot. A corpse.” Jonathon was still quiet, so Cal tried to say it more nicely. “She’s a made thing, Jon.”
“Yeah. But she is what she thinks she is, too. Like me and you and everybody else.”
Jonathon held his gaze for a moment, and then followed the geezix out into the darkness.
Cal spent the rest of the afternoon watching the bots in the pit excavate the old base. A couple hours after they parted company, Jon returned with the geezix, carrying armfuls of vines and an odd, dark fruit. They dropped them a few feet from the edge of the pit.
“Amaran water plums,” Jon said. “Come try. I used to gather them. We had a bot that could make a crumble out of these that would make you cry.”
“Cry?” the geezix said.
“Because it was so good.”
Jon looked at Cal, and Cal realized he must’ve had an odd look on his face.
“See?” said Jon. “They scoured it, but not everything died. Takes more than fire to kill these water plums.”
The plums were sweet but hard as tensed muscle. The geezix ate five of them, smiling as the juice dribbled down its chin. Cal ate two. Jon juggled with the plums that were left, and the geezix screamed in joy.
Back on The Intention, Cal went to the databases and lay down next to the warm computer core. His mind was still racing—from the dead forest above to lupas calling Jon a good man to the First Ones scouring a planet then saving three people to worship in their odd way. It was all so terrible.
Cal sat awake until he realized that he was waiting for the geezix. It did not come, and somehow the darkness in the databases made him less tired, so finally he left the databases and walked up to the medbay. It was empty, and the three med bots were standing in the corners, powered down.
He found Jon, the other two patients, and the geezix next door eating mung bean cake.
Jon greeted him as if he’d just entered his restaurant.
“Hey, Cal. Have a seat. This is Dr. Yuro Weirnan, Chief Medical Officer of the station, and Alex Pietro. Mung bean cake?” A little quieter: “And you have any whiskey? The doc and I could use it.”
Cal sat across from Alex, a small boy, dressed in the same damp scrubs that Jon had been in, down to the tailored mask, and a woman with large eyes. She stared at him, absently running her hand over her smooth head.
“This is my daddy,” the geezix said.
“Call me Cal. I’m the human element of the crew.” He thought about how to tell them what they needed to know. “Have you already talked to Jon?” he asked finally, taking his flask out and passing it to the doctor first.
The doctor sipped the whiskey and struggled to find words.
“Thank you for freeing us.”
Cal shrugged. He wasn’t sure what he could say to express the fact that he hadn’t come looking for them, or even chosen to be here. If it was up to me, I’d have gotten back into the ship and left and never have found you, Cal thought.
The doctor shuddered and sipped the whiskey again.
“My daddy is the captain of this ship,” the geezix said. “He’s been on it for a thousand years.”
“It’s a bot, right?” the doctor said.
“Looks biological. I’ve never seen one like it.”
The boy shifted in his chair and put his head down on his arms. The doctor leaned forward.
“I’m going to take him back to bed. But I want a tour of the ship.”
Cal nodded. “Sure. You can go anywhere.”
“Jon says it’s big.” She smiled. “I want you to give me a tour.”
Cal accepted the flask from her, and she led the boy from the room. Jon and the geezix started playing some kind of guessing game. The geezix laughed each time it got something right, and after a few moments Cal got lost watching it leaning forward, smiling, its hands on its knees. Self-consciously it touched its cheek where the flesh gaped and wiped away a bit of spittle. For just a bare second it seemed like a real child.
Cal stood up, fetched a cup, and poured a finger of whiskey into it.
“Here, Jon. You need anything else?”
The man looked up, startled.
“All right. I’ll see you soon.”
“Bye, Daddy,” the geezix said, smiling hugely at him.
Cal met the doctor outside the medbay. She didn’t seem to have any destination in mind, and didn’t seem to want to talk much, so Cal took her through the hangars first. There were ten, and all but one were empty. Similarly, there were ten decks of quarters, all empty, and Cal took her through each. After they’d walked for twenty minutes she stopped for a second and placed her hand on the wall.
“I have to sit, Cal. That whiskey. I’m light-headed.”
He led her to the bottom of the ship. There was an old view portal, a room with a translucent floor looking out on the featureless world of Amara. Cal helped the doctor sit on the one bench in the room, which was rounded so two observers could look down at the planet while sitting across from each other.
“It didn’t used to look like that,” the doctor finally said. “It was green. There were so many forests on Amara there was a base rule that you couldn’t leave the base alone. You might get lost.”
“Jon said he used to go walking.”
She smiled weakly.
“Everyone loved him. He did anything he wanted. And he’d always bring back those water plums.” She paused for a moment, and her smile drew back into her face. “Milena would go with him.”
Of course he had a daughter, Cal thought.
“I can get you off of this ship, I think. The thought pools will probably let you go back to Earth.” The doctor stared at the world below her. “I offered Jon the same. He wants to stay.”
“What’s Earth like now?”
“Well, compared to this . . . ”
“Yeah. Compared to this, the only place that isn’t crowded is Amara.”
The doctor let another quiet moment pass.
“I don’t know, Cal. I don’t have anything back on Earth. Even back then, a hundred years ago . . . ” she breathed those words out as if they engendered vertigo. “Even then I was raised on an orbital station. I never felt at home on Earth. I don’t know what I’d do there. I suppose I’ll stay here and work with Jon.”
“Work with him?”
“You didn’t know? He told me first thing this morning. There’s an amusement park down on the planet. The First Ones built it. He’s going to rebuild it. Make it beautiful. Maybe people will come.”
She raised her eyes to his.
“After what’s happened, and where we are, what do we really have?” she asked. “What else can we do?”
Cal nodded and offered the doctor the whiskey again. She took it gratefully.
That night the geezix found him in the databases. It talked to him about what it had done that day—seeing the planet, picking the plums, walking all over the ship with Jon and the boy, Alex.
“He feels better, Daddy. You should see. I think they’re forgetting what happened to them.”
“I hope so.”
“Did you know Jon had a little girl?”
“Yes, I know.”
“Are you going to help with the roller coasters? Jon is going to make them work again. He’s going to bury the old base. He’s going to bring plants down and raise them and let them spread. He says that maybe in a long long time the lupas will come back.”
“That’s not going to happen, honey.”
The geezix’s smile faltered, and it shook its head, knowing it had to agree with Cal.
“Yes, Daddy. Yes. It’s a stupid thing to think.”
It stopped talking then, and they both sat in the dark stillness of the databases. He felt the geezix breathing next to him and thought, why not help rebuild the park? What have I done for years now except hide in hallways? I don’t want to go back to Earth either. I want to stay here and see Jon and Yuro every day eating mung bean cake. I want to try and bring the dead forest back to life.
It’s not stupid, he thought. There’s no stupid. There’s no impossible. There’s just the darkness and what we’ll do with it. He opened his mouth to tell the geezix he would help with the park, and that as much as his broken heart could, he loved it. He loved her.
But he couldn’t say it. After a moment of trying he heard the geezix snoring lightly.
Cal put his head back against the warm computer core.
Tomorrow, he thought. Tomorrow I’ll be able to say it.
Mike Buckley is a widely-published short story writer whose work has appeared in national journals such as The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Southern California Review, and Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Escape Pod. His work has been anthologized numerous times, including in The Best American Non-Required Reading, 2003, and the upcoming Red Hen LA Writers Anthology. His debut collection of short fiction, Miniature Men, was released in 2011.