3010 words, short story
The Uncurling of Samsara
Mother prints the ceremonial wheat berry pudding. I want to cook it the traditional way, but Mother insists it takes too many resources to print the ingredients separately, and the Samsara isn’t equipped for cooking. I know all this, but it’s for Gram. What I should have done was finish the recipe Gram was working on before she got sick. Cherry pie. I had months to get that final taste of her experimental genius ready, but I’d been distracted, wallowing in childish fear about her inevitable death. So now I hold a metal cup of grainy pudding, knowing it will be too sweet and not quite crunchy enough where the walnuts are supposed to be. How my mouth knows what real ceremonial wheat should taste like is beyond me. But every funeral, I’ve known it was wrong. Still, I’ve always choked it down. Not today, though. Not at Gram’s funeral.
The cup warms my icy fingers as the chaplain marks memories of Gram’s contributions to the ship. He calls out the mantra of thanks, giving a low hum of, “Feeeee,” that we answer with “Fieeeee.” The tears crackling in my chest prevent me from humming along.
Then it’s over and time to say goodbye. Gram’s withered body lies naked in a large refuse trough. Its sterile metal reflects the once brown, now graying wrinkles of her skin. When I lean down to whisper my final farewell, I tip in my still-full cup. The small pile of moist kernels disappears along with her when the bottom gives out and sucks her into the belly of the ship.
Later, unable to sleep, I keep imagining the processing. The grinder is like a huge, slow-moving screw in a metal sleeve. It will rip her apart, churning her with the rest of the day’s organic material. Then she will be dissolved, separated by weight through centrifugal force and added to the appropriate nutritional vats. When I eat breakfast tomorrow, the strength of her muscles will fill my protein needs. And her soul? Her mind? Will I consume those, too? This isn’t the first time I’ve had these thoughts—the curse of being a nutrition tech—but it is the first time I don’t have Gram in the next bunk to reassure me.
I close my eyes. For me, she was a pair of hands at the keyboard. The coils of the snake tattooed on her left wrist slithered as she typed, always experimenting with the recipes, never afraid that something might go wrong.
“So what if it tastes bad? Spit it out and try again.”
“But the energy used for trials . . . ” My voice was higher then. I was still studying, only allowed to clean the lab equipment.
“Is worth it.” She spun to face me, her eyes wide with conspiratorial intimacy. “Humans need novelty. They will starve in the staleness of repetition.”
People say the grief should come in waves, but mine doesn’t lift. It drowns me.
“You need to eat.” Mother sets a tray with a bowl of lentil stew next to my keyboard. It isn’t on today’s menu. She must have programmed a special meal for me, which isn’t technically allowed, but is a perk of working in the nutrition lab.
The rich scent of garlic and fried onion hits my nose and my stomach leaps for the flavors. I swallow, my mouth wet. I usually love the way the small beads squish between my teeth, but when I pick up the spoon, my fingers shake. Gram is definitely in the system, being pulled on as necessary to fill the needs of the living. When I checked the levels of the vats yesterday, I saw the spike in vital nutrients that always comes after a death. I set the spoon down.
Mother sighs and drops to the stool next to mine. “Annessa, eating is one of the ways we honor our ancestors.”
“Gram is not my ancestor,” I say through gritted teeth. Ancestors are people who are gone. I’m not ready to change Gram from my tutor to my ancestor.
Gram hadn’t known Earth, but her Gram boarded the Samsara at the age of ten and passed her stories through my Gram’s eager ears and off her faithful tongue into my heart. I sometimes wonder how much a ten-year-old can actually remember about a planet. The kids on the ship are still in basic education, learning history and culture and primary physics. They haven’t even specialized yet.
“Were children more mature on Earth?” I once asked Gram. I was in my final year of internship, ready to become a full tech in the lab.
“No.” She paused in adjusting the molecular structure of a meatloaf and pinched my cheek. “They were allowed to be children.”
I leaned forward and pointed to a few letters that would return a crystalline effect. “Did you mean to make it crunchy?”
She laughed and hit a button that printed a small test-run of the program—just enough for a taste. The crunchiness came out in layers, making the moist meat feel almost flaky in my mouth.
“What do you think?” she asked.
I spat the bite into my hand and pushed it into the refuse, shaking my head.
“Sometimes innovation is clever, and sometimes it’s a mistake.”
“Definitely a mistake.”
We both laughed, and she deleted the line from her programming.
I itch to open her files and read her notes—to take over programming new foods, but Mother doesn’t trust me with that kind of work during my grief. Instead she has me checking vat levels and printing daily menus. Stable chores meant to calm my mind. It doesn’t work.
I fill my tray, not because I’m hungry, but because it’s expected. Potato stew. A tomatoey mush with occasional bits of toughness that are supposed to emulate Earth potatoes. Of course, no one on the ship has ever eaten Earth potatoes. I don’t understand why we have to copy their shortcomings. Nostalgia for a home we’ve never known, or a way to keep us tethered to a planet that didn’t want us? I say we should at least improve on the old dishes or even cut the umbilical and design new food altogether. Mother says I’ll understand when I’m older. I hope I don’t.
Georgi has already thanked the ancestors and started shoveling large spoonfuls of stew into his mouth. I plop my tray across from his, skip the prayers, and proceed to my now-daily ritual of pushing the food around.
“You should eat.” The observation comes out with a stray bubble of the stew.
I let my spoon fall, clicking on the edge of the metal bowl. “Mother’s gotten to you, too?”
He slurps another spoonful. “Promised me an extra slice of fruitcake if I could get you to eat.”
I roll my eyes. “How about I make you some cookies, and we never have this conversation again?”
He sets down his spoon and licks the corner of his mouth. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Georgi stop eating during a meal. “How long has it been?”
Calculating is easy. It’s been ten days since Gram died. I say nothing and shrug.
“Is this some kind of hunger strike?” he asks.
Another shrug. But I realize that’s exactly what it is.
“It’s not like starving yourself will bring her back.”
His words should make me angry, but I’m distracted by a flicker of light in the corner of my eye. I turn too fast, and a sharp pain pierces my temple. I wince.
“You aren’t looking good,” Georgi notes. “Want my cupcake?”
Georgi never shares his food, and for some reason his sympathy enrages me more than his callousness. I’m overcome with the urge to smash the cupcake into his face. Instead I pick up my tray and huff out of the cafeteria, dumping my uneaten meal in the recycler.
I follow the curve of the central hallway, my fingers trailing along the panels, imaging the molded plastic as large scales. Samsara the serpent, curled around on herself, so large she can hold enough people to populate a new planet, each of her scales larger than me. So large I could fit between the cracks, sink into her coolness, and listen to her heartbeat.
There. Another flash of light. I know it’s just in my mind, but I speed up, as if I might catch it. Soon I’m jogging, then running through the mostly empty hall, not caring what the people I pass think about me. Their pity is thick, but I push through it. My lungs ache and my head pounds.
The flash feels more distant. Impossible to catch. I stop and rest my back against a panel, sliding down to the floor. I let myself slide into my memories.
“Why would they name a generation ship for suffering?”
The cancer was eating Gram’s energy and wasting away her flesh. “What else would they name it? What we’re experiencing isn’t life. It’s a necessary stasis, the snake eating its own tail as a way to survive until it finds a new world where it can stretch out and redefine itself.”
“You’ve always said we need to grow.”
She was blurry from my tears, but her voice was clear. “We need to innovate within our limits. If the Samsara uncurls too soon, it’ll starve while chasing a new identity. For now, we need the stability of the past. We consume it, regurgitate it, and change ourselves scale by scale until it is safe to unravel and see what we’ve become.”
For Gram, I try. I set an alarm and go to the nutrition labs before anyone else is awake. I lift the roller panel to reveal one of the processed vats of nutritional liquid. This batch has a pinkish tint, which makes me think of blood even though I know it’s just the UV lighting reflecting off the high iron content. I press my hand to the plastic and think of Gram’s iron. Her failing liver. The liver spots on her gnarled fingers. I turn away and boot my computer.
A few clicks brings up a 3D model of Gram’s unfinished cherry pie, the code sprawled on the left side of the screen. She was close, but it’s hard to get pie crust flakey. Then there’s the filling. Cherries are particularly difficult. Everyone makes them either too sweet or too tart.
I scan her code. Here’s the line that leaves the crust moist. Here’s where the jelly filling begins. Here are the spherical globs of processed sunshine. Here are the intricate crisscrosses at the top.
I bite my lower lip. What does it need?
I pull up the recipe for cherries. We have three kinds on file. Gram’s original inspiration was obviously the Bing cherries. Her changes are subtle: a slightly higher acid content to get the right flavor—the taste of sunshine and fresh air, as told through generations of now-dead people.
Staring at the code will only tell me so much. I hit the test button.
The pumps attached to the vat whir to life. Centrifuges spin, catching the nutrients of various weights and passing the needed liquid on while returning the rest to the vat.
The crust comes out in thin layers of a thick high-protein paste. Each round layer dries by the time the pipette reaches the other side. Then it begins again.
The room takes on a sweet scent, and I sit close to the printer, inhaling the perfection of Gram’s crust.
The pipette retreats when the circle is almost a centimeter thick. A second nozzle takes its place, pumping out a thin red jelly. It smears across the golden dough like blood streaking across skin.
I close my eyes and hear the whining of the machines like tiny screams. When I open them again, two nozzles are working in an intricate dance of jelly and plump cherries.
The tray is covered in congealed red. Dark. Like a nosebleed. Like Gram’s rotting innards those final weeks.
I hit cancel, slam the button that opens the refuse chute, and vomit into it, but only bile and spit comes out. I lay my spinning head next to the opening, the light suction cooling my sweating face.
“You think it’s a coincidence that it’s a snake?” Gram had asked as I traced the serpent on her wrist. “That the ouroboros isn’t some other animal? Why can’t it be a lizard? They have tails to swallow, too.”
I was too sleepy to follow her words, and only murmured in response. The snake on her wrist had become large, taking up the bunk room we shared. Soon it would be the size of the Samsara, and I’d be in its world of dreams and magic. Of possibility. Somehow, Gram’s words still reached me there.
“When a snake grabs onto its tail and swallows, it only pulls off what is already dead—what is useless to the creature. It’s sloughing off its decay and using it to make something new. Isn’t that beautiful?”
And it was beautiful. In my dream, the circle of the Samsara unwound itself from the gravitational core and stretched among the stars. I sat near its head, hugging my small body to its plastic scales, flying from planet to planet, which were only seconds away from each other when Samsara was fully stretched out, not lifetimes like they were when she was a ship.
“I can’t do it, Gram.” I dump her unfinished pie in the refuse chute and close it.
Mother’s been threatening to take me to the med lab and let them force feed me. I just shrug. Doesn’t she realize I don’t care? This isn’t about food.
That’s a lie. I’m a nutrition technician, prepared to feed Samsara’s slice of humanity from birth. When I was small, Gram would take me to the lab and bake me cookies. I believed they were a secret treat before I understood about the logs and records. Everything is accounted for aboard the Samsara. There isn’t a wasted cell.
I’m irritable and dizzy all the time. I hit the panels of the ship just to feel my numb hands tingle. Just to be angry. I snap at Mother. I haven’t talked to Georgi in days.
I don’t want to talk to anyone.
That’s another lie.
“Gram!” I hiss through gritted teeth when the anger swells in me. I throw her pillow against the wall of her empty bunk. Always empty. I punch at the pillow until I collapse on her blanket. I still haven’t let them take it away. Someone else could actually use it. But it smells of her, and I need that.
I bury my nose in the blanket. Inhale. She smells of skin and a sweet sweat. I lose myself in that scent, let myself float from my body into the memory of her smell.
But it’s not her wrapping her arms around me. It’s the muscles of a snake curling tighter and tighter until I can barely breath.
“Samsara,” I whisper. It’s an accusation. You are repetition. You are suffering. You are a beast eating your own tail.
“My child,” she answers. It’s an acceptance. She is survival. She is hope. She is the ship that takes us to our future.
She squeezes, and I lose consciousness.
I wake with tubes taped to my wrists. One snakes up my nose, down my throat, to the hollow of my stomach. Everything hurts. The room is too bright, and the people are just shadows.
“You’re okay,” Mother coos. “You’re in medical.”
I touch the tube taped to my cheek and tucked behind my ear. My voice comes out hoarse. “What happened?”
“I found you passed out.” She squeezes my hand. “I . . . can’t lose you, too.”
I feel stronger, even lying in the med cot. Maybe Gram floating through me has already changed me. I feel her reasonable nature. Her acceptance of our shadow life on Samsara. Whatever it is, I realize Mother’s right. I can’t let myself waste away. If I die now, who will pass on Gram’s stories about cherries that taste of sunshine?
I squeeze back, my hand aching where the IV slithers beneath my skin.
“Can I get you anything?”
I motion to the tube, to my wrist. “I want a tattoo, like the one Gram had. The snake. To remember her.”
“Of course.” Her eyes tear up. It was the wrong answer. She wants me to eat. To drink.
And I will. Gram’s already in me, after all.
I’ve been home for two days. They took the tube out shortly after I woke up and started feeding me a nutrient mash that wasn’t much different from what they pumped through the tube. But it was on a spoon, and I was bringing it to my mouth, letting the lukewarm paste settle in the grooves of my taste buds. I barely kept from crying with every swallow, but I did. Swallow. And I got stronger. And it got easier. And they released me to Mother’s care. Today she even lets me back in the lab.
“We should improve the flavor of the nutritional paste they use,” I tell Mother. “It’s awful.”
“It’s not meant to taste good. It’s meant to get you healthy.” There’s a twinkle of amusement in her eye. She likes seeing me feisty again.
But I don’t bother pulling up the recipe for the medical diet. I know what I was tasting in the sludge—a high fat content. Fat that tasted almost sickly sweet. And wet. And plump. And with the right balance of acid, how I imagine sunlight feels.
I pull up Gram’s final recipe, position the cursor, and change the fat content of the cherries to give them a firmer burst. Real cherries might not have had fat, but we’re drifting curled in space, playing fugues on memories of Earth.