6460 words, short story
Calf Cleaving in the Benthic Black
The technical term is “generation ship cascade failure.” Cryogenic collapse. Millennium drive breakdown. Failed ship-in-a-bottle revolution against the corpostate hegemony. I call all the outcomes whalefalls, though. Because that’s what they are: the carcasses of something that used to be alive, floating slowly down through the black.
I guess that makes me one of those blind fish that flit around in the dark. Those pale monstrous things with teeth like needles. Me in my nullsuit, carrying my ripper as I clank around on the outside of the hull. This is one of the smaller generation ships we’ve tapped. The size of a station, maybe. I wonder how big whales are.
I’ve never seen a whale before. I’ve seen pictures, though. Some of them from data caches in the whalefalls I’ve breached. The guys who fund generation ship programs are always real concerned with preserving history. All those ancient animals from the homeland. I never got the point of it. By generation three a narwhale is basically a unicorn, right? Just a picture on a screen.
Seam calls me a callous fuck. She says that history’s important. I just think the whole thing is impractical. We need raw material out here, not linguistic datasets and pictures of oceans that are so far away as to not exist. But what can I say, I’m nine generations removed from the homeland—that’s Europa for me, where the first shipyards were constructed. I’ve got blue-collar nobody in my bones. Guess that’s why I’m out here.
“Think I found a better breach point,” Seam says over the radio. “Starboard, midship. Scans indicate general higher ambient temperatures. Might have some live systems and databanks. Maybe a nerve center?”
I raise my ripper inches from the hull. Seam wouldn’t be telling me this after drop unless the new breach point was particularly interesting. Most puncture sites are usually identical, so “better” was probably an understatement. I don’t like losing the time, but I trust Seam.
“Copy that, pick me up for rendezvous?”
“Walk, bitch,” Seam says, followed by a staticky laugh.
“I’ll see you in two weeks, then.”
I holster my ripper and wait. Soon the blue needle-nose of our ship is looming over the side of the hull, and I smile even though Seam can’t see me.
Seam and I go way back. Same crèche on Saint-Seb Station, before the whole place got scrapped for parts and everyone still on board was liquidated. We were lucky. We got out a couple of days before the corpo-mandated deconstruction began, the proud owners of our janky little shitbox and a jump drive, fifty million credits in debt. For the jump drive, I mean. Not the shitbox. The shitbox was stolen from Saint-Seb, but there’s no one around to call us out on it anymore.
The shitbox veers low. Seam opens the airlock and throws down a line. I tether myself, cutting the magnetization to my boots. Seam pulls me up. I close the airlock to the hiss of sweet oxygen. Mostly nitrogen, actually. We’re running a little low on the ox, we have to top up somewhere soon. We were supposed to be back at Weaver Station by now, but we got the call that this generation ship had been spotted, and that it looked to be unbreached. We were lucky enough to be the closest in the sector.
An uncracked defunct generation ship floats through once every thirty years, maybe, loaded with enough supplies to sustain a colony for years. In the next twenty-four hours, this thing is going to be swarmed by every single other pale blind fish in the area, ready to start tearing chunks of flesh. It’ll be bloody before it gets boring. First all the small, rare, expensive stuff gets scraped, then the months of hauling supplies, and finally the decades of carving the ship up into its component parts, all of us in our little shitboxes darting like mayflies.
But right now it’s just Seam and me. We’ll make the first breach and load up the shitbox with goods far nicer than we usually carry and knock off thirty million credits from our debt. Maybe more, if we find anything really interesting. Exotic tech. Historical artifacts. Anything made of wood.
Sure, they grow trees for decorative lumber on stations. But there’s something about homeland wood that people will pay for. It smells different. We found a cache of lumber on one of the whalefalls we disassembled, a few years back. I took a little chip as a souvenir. I keep it in my pillow and it makes my sheets smell strange and fragrant.
Seam swings us around to starboard midship. The heatmap proves her right: there’s a blood-red hotspot. Live electronics, probably. Some sort of core system. The last piece of the generation ship still running.
They took the white core of Saint-Seb apart last. It was like watching a soap bubble burst, all the little specks of the center being hauled away in sections. I think they reused some of the disassembled parts for the Accord Ring Station. We visited once, a few years ago.
“Right there,” Seam says, pointing to a blip of cool blue in the center of the hotspot. “That’s our entry point. But we need to hit it precise.”
I pick my helmet back up and sling the ripper on my back. The shitbox isn’t good at precision. I’ll have to make the first cleave manually, and hopefully the cool spot leads into a service hallway rather than some sort of air duct. I want this to be fast. If we’re lucky, we’ll have landed near the mother lode and if we hustle, we’ll have time to make two runs before the rest of the fish get here. Twenty million credits. I’m salivating for it. But we have to do this clean.
“Are we expecting live bogeys?”
Generation ships die in all sorts of ways. Some of them go fast—mutant virus strains that rip through the population. Targeted, well-planned bloodbaths by some sort of anarchist cell. Cryotube failures. Catastrophic hull breaches. But other ships malinger. Sometimes there’s just not enough genetic diversity to sustain a population long term. Or just a psychological, chronic apathy toward procreation. Deaths of despair, I guess. Like the guys who put a ripper in their mouths before Saint-Seb broke apart. But some people are too stubborn to die, even when everyone around them offs it. Some people live out of spite. Or hope.
You’re supposed to kill the stragglers on generation ships. It’s just practical. They’re usually hostile, or crazed by isolation. There’s a reason that scavengers work in teams. Sanity is an important commodity.
And most importantly, if you leave anyone alive, if they manage to make it off the ship, and if they manage to register on the intrastation system, then they have automatic legal claim to the entire fucking whale.
Kill the stragglers, and the ship quietly becomes free real estate.
“Not sure,” Seam says. “I wasn’t picking up any distress signals on the broadband, and it doesn’t seem like a life support system, from the shape of the hotspot. Other than that, no idea.”
“Black box. Very fun.”
“Yep. I’m coming down with you.”
I look up from where I’m rezipping my boots. Seam is calmly pulling her nullsuit on.
“Mica,” she says. She makes a complicated facial expression at me. I make a complicated facial expression back.
“Fine!” I say.
She grins. Her white teeth are the last thing I see before she puts her helmet on.
Seam and I float out the airlock. I flip the magnetization on and my boots sink me down. Seam lands heavily near me and crouches to draw a crude, person-sized box before stepping back. She gestures. I nod.
I worked exostation construction before Saint-Seb got taken apart. Zero-grav welding. They didn’t have any of the local boys working on the deconstruction, though. I think the corpostate buyer was scared we would riot. Point being—I easily carve a neat oblong into the hull. Sparks fly. The top drops down. Interesting. Internal gravity field must still be on. Means that Seam was right about the hotspot being tech. There’s still life in this thing.
First breach. When a whale dies, a temporary ecosystem sets up around the corpse as it sinks. I wonder how they know how to find it. Sharks can sense blood in water up to one part per million. But that’s not the sort of animal that savages a whalefall. It’s the scavengers. The opportunists.
Early humanoids cracked marrow from bones pulled from animal carcasses killed by something larger and more dangerous. Seam told me about that. She took a class on archaic human evolution, in the crèche. The black marrow of the breach point could hold anything. We’ve never done a first breach before.
“After you,” Seam says.
I roll my eyes even though she can’t see me. I drop down into the black.
We drop into the end point of a hallway that seems to be surrounded by a server farm, barely visible through dark glass walls. This was likely the source of the heat signature. I pull out my ripper and patch the breach point with the heat from my blade even though I’m not sure there’s breathable atmo.
“What do you think caused it?” Seam says. “I’m putting my money on mass murder. Rogue agent. Nerve gas released through all the vents.”
I turn away from my slipshod patch job. Down the hallway, there are soft chemical lighting strips on the ground that glow green-blue. But other than that, the whalefall is unlit. At least our helmets have night vision. I start walking. Seam walks next to me.
“Or maybe a biological agent,” she continues. “Some sort of disease that got them all. Or got enough of them so that the survivors couldn’t repopulate. And their frozen genebanks all melted because of a power failure.”
The corridors are empty. Nothing here we can haul back, although I suppose we could strip up some of the metal railing on the sides, remove the plate glass, and carefully float it back out. Or we could break the glass and remove the servers—computational parts go for fairly large sums, especially ones that are fully functioning, but neither Seam nor I have the knowledge to sell generation ship tech without getting a little grifted by the buyer. It’s alien stuff. It comes out of about seven different generations of history and three solar systems. But if it’s online, then maybe we can find some ship schematics or something useful like that, find the storage caches. See if there’s anything worth taking—an antique ox scrubber is still an ox scrubber.
That’s the sort of practical thing we’d usually take. But today we’re the first scavengers on the scene, and so we have first pick of the exotica. I know that Seam wants to find a library or living quarters. Hopefully the rooms of someone high class, who has a lot of small, expensive objects. Books with interesting diagrams, and videos in languages familiar enough that our translators will smooth everything over. If we’re really lucky, then we might find a dead garden or shipboard greenspace that has rare biological material we can transport back. Wood would be fantastic. Seeds would be stellar.
But all we see are racks and racks of servers sliding past and things that look a little like big generators, still humming. They look too large to just be powering the servers. Hopefully this means we’re near one of the nerve centers of the ship.
“Or maybe they had a massive cultural schism and a civil war, this place is big enough for a civil war, right? We’re going to get to the main area and see a three hundred–year–old bloodbath. C’mon. Play with me, Mica. What do you think happened? We’ve never gotten to see the ships fresh.”
“There’s no point in speculation. They’re dead now.”
The corridor widens, branches out. The little luminescent tracks on the ground multiply. Arrows that lead in different directions. Labels in a language I can’t read. I mentally map out the ground we’ve covered. I take a left, on a hunch. I think we want to go nearer to the generators.
“Am I making you sad?”
“Sorry,” Seam says. “This place is creeping me out a little. It’s just so dark. And cramped.”
I stop. Seam stops. It’s impossible to see her expression through her helmet. It’s also impossible to see mine. When we work with other people, we have to rely on body language and the tiny bit of tone we can glean over the radio. But I know Seam.
“You can go back up, if you want. I can handle whatever I find down here. You know me.”
“No,” Seam says. “But do you mind if I keep talking?”
“Just not about what killed this place.”
We wander through the dark corridors.
“I think we’ve got a good chance at three or four runs if we get the schematics and smash the system before anyone else gets here. We can probably loot a bunch of the good bits first. Knock about twenty million creds off. Maybe thirty.”
The signs on the wall multiply. Some of them are pictographic. Big Xs. And some sort of spindly spiderweb-looking thing.
“I know I’m always on about paying down as much of our debt as possible, but how do you feel about taking maybe a million creds and blowing it on something fun? Spend a couple months on a terraformed asteroid, or something. And we’ll get a new ox scrubber. That’s practical.”
I think maybe I’ve steered us wrong. More spiderweb signs. This place looks like it might lead toward danger. Not expensive goods.
“Mica, you can talk back. I know you like doing the ‘stoic exowelder with the ripper’ thing on the job but there’s no one else here. And I think we’re going in the wrong direction.”
But the faint trail of luminescent markers ends at a door. It has the same spindly spiderweb thing on it. I frown.
“What do you think that is?”
“Stylized snowflake,” Seam says.
“You know, snowflakes. Snow. Frozen precipitation. It’s a weather thing. You’ve seen snow—remember that video I showed you? The one with the glaciers? I mean the big slabs of ice.”
I remember now. Seam had pulled the video in a swap meet. She liked to go trade data with other scavengers, and she always came back with new media. Clips of alien shores. Home video of people long dead. Holographic family photographs where everyone is wearing outlandish clothing. Sometimes books or audio dramas produced by foreign stations. She played them while flying. I listened while doing maintenance on my ripper and our nullsuits.
One of the video clips had been of a man dressed in bright gear that looked a lot like my nullsuit, climbing with crampons on a monstrously large column of ice and rock. There had been drifts of white all around him like scoops of shaving foam.
“That doesn’t look like snow,” I say, gesturing at the symbol.
“It’s pictographic. Represents the individual snowflake crystals.”
It’s not worth arguing about linguistics with Seam, especially since she’s given me the context I need. There’s only one thing we could find inside, and it’s either going to be dead or alive. I’m not really looking forward to either. But everything about the hallways, the generators, the servers that we walked past, all of it makes sense now. And there’s sure to be a console inside, which we can use to access the ship’s schematics.
I raise my ripper and cleave the door open, revealing the cryotube chamber and the rows and rows of tubes crowned with broken, glinting glass.
I feel absurd relief. So I’m not going to have to kill them all, then.
We had adequate warning when Saint-Seb Station was liquidated. Three months’ notice. That was generous for a station that was about to be stripped for parts. It had been coming for a long time. Saint-Seb was an old mining colony, back when they did mining out here. Back when there was anything to mine for. We’d stripped most of the surrounding sector. Saint-Seb was falling apart.
The corpostate that bought Saint-Seb for scrap was relatively humane about it. They offered cryotube shuttles off the station to anywhere in the surrounding seven sectors. It would cost a few million credits or a few years of indenture post-arrival. And they weren’t guaranteeing timeframe. Still, most people agreed. But a solid few hundred refused. I didn’t understand why. There weren’t better options. I would have taken them up on it if Seam hadn’t come up to me with the jump drive and a plan to steal the shitbox.
I imagine I could still have been happy in the universe where I took the first shuttle off Saint-Seb. I’d be asleep, and then I’d be working exostation construction for the corpostate a few sectors away. I would have left before the station was taken apart. Instead, Seam parked the shitbox three kilometers away and we watched our hometown get disassembled piece by piece.
In that world, I wouldn’t be walking next to Seam right now. We carefully pick our way through the cryotube room, trying not to step on the broken glass as we look for the terminal that controls the cryotubes. A lot of our job is based on assumption. We assume there will be a terminal that connects to the cryotubes and that the shipbuilders would have placed it near the physical objects it controlled. We assume the terminal will be connected to the wider ship network. We assume it will be possible to access a ship-wide map from the terminal. Ordinary human logic. Probably the same sort of assumptions people were making thousands of years ago. They had glass thousands of years ago, too.
The night vision in my helmets isn’t good enough to identify what’s inside the cryotubes, but I imagine that it’s either dust or mummified corpses so I just let my gaze slip past and concentrate on the patterns instead. The glass fell around the cryotubes in radials. The breaks in the tubes look like deliberate puncture wounds, made with something sharp. The radial glass patterns turn to smudged floors and wide sweeps of empty space with the shards shoved into drifts as we walk. There was some sort of struggle here.
The animal part of my mind, the part that jumps at sudden noises and likes to have the light on when I piss at night, is losing its shit. I stuff that part of me in a box. Everything organic on the ship died centuries ago. Nothing is going to jump out at us. Whatever technician went berserk in here, he’s got to be dead by now. I’m still holding my ripper with the safety off, ready to unsheathe the bright blade as we walk through the dark.
Broken glass. Smears. Tube after cracked tube. Then, the relief of seeing a terminal and two human-sized slumps tangled in front of it.
“Oh thank God, corpses,” Seam says. She strides over to the terminal and immediately begins trying to get the thing online, jamming a skeleton key into the likeliest port. The skeleton key slithers in and I hear the whirr of the terminal starting up.
“Hitting the lights,” she narrates for my benefit.
Bank after bank of white light turns on. And I see it instantly, behind the two slumps of debris that used to be human. The perfect column of it. The pristine body, blue-white with cold. Seam hasn’t noticed, yet. She’s still looking at the terminal, typing intently.
“Seam, one of them’s still online.”
“Well shit. Go ahead and smash it,” Seam says, absently.
I hope that the radio is smoothing my voice out for Seam, because I sound strangled to my own ears.
“There’s a kid inside.”
The kid isn’t exactly a kid. I’d put him at about fifteen, old enough that he’s mid growth spurt, but young enough that he still looks a little unfinished. There’s nothing archaic about his features, just a vague exoticism that could be passed off as one of his parents being from a couple of sectors out. He looks like any other stationer kid.
“I pulled the schematics. We’re on a cryo transport ship. Total jackpot. Most of this place is storage, and I’ve pulled the inventory list. It looks like the place was manned by a skeleton crew, and they manually decanted new techs every few decades,” Seam calls from the terminal. “Ready to go? Did you crack the canister yet?”
We can’t leave the kid alive. He has legal claim to the entire ship.
“I’m going to check the rest of the cryotubes first,” I say. “Do you know who he was? Tube 785-B.”
“I’m not looking him up. That’s morbid as hell. Mica, just close your eyes and break the glass. He’s basically been dead for centuries.”
“Let me check the other tubes first.”
I do a loop around the chamber but the original murderer did a thorough job. The kid’s cryotube is the only one intact. I return to the terminal and the kid’s glass coffin. I step over the two lumps that used to be human and inspect the shielding more carefully. It has the faintest hairline fracture that mustn’t have been deep enough to puncture the cryochamber. The kid came very close to dying. Behind the glass, he looks like he’s just asleep.
“Mica,” Seam says.
“Seam,” I say.
“If we don’t kill him, someone else will,” she says, voicing what I’m already thinking. I know. Soon this place is going to be swarmed. Even if we don’t leave him alive, there’s no world where he opens his eyes and gets out of the tube. He’s too much of a liability. And in the nonexistent world where he gets onto station and claims the ship, he’s a fifteen-year-old, hundreds of years out of time. He’ll be killed as soon as it hits the headlines, before he has the chance to appoint a legal heir. And then the whalefall will be public property again. He’s been dead since the beginning.
“Just make it clean. That’s the kindest thing you can do for him.”
I grimace reflexively.
“That’s what you said last time, Seam.”
The sharp intake of her breath is loud enough to hear over the radio.
I killed a man to get the shitbox. He was going to die anyway. It was a week before the liquidation, and the man had been a conscientious objector. There were a lot of those at the end. It was strange to be on the station with them. They were very calm, and Seam and I had been jittery with nerves. Everyone else had plans to lay down and die, politically. We had plans to steal a ship.
The man I killed had owned a service station bolted onto the station proper, and the shitbox had been his engineless antique that served as an extra three rooms. This is why he ended up dead. Seam showed up at my doorstep cradling the jump drive and said, Mica, don’t ask me where I got this, do you want to run away with me?
And I said yes, because Seam and I had grown up together and I loved her. Which then led to my attempt to cleave the shitbox’s airlock from the station, which led to Seam’s neighbor storming out at us and nearly throttling Seam, which led to me putting my ripper through his chest.
I didn’t mean to hit his chest. That part was an accident. I meant to scare him but he moved too fast, and then he was dead.
“You made it clean,” Seam said later, when she was comforting me on board the shitbox, after we had managed to cleave the airlock and attach a new door. While we were watching Saint-Seb’s white core being taken apart. “That’s the kindest thing you could have done for him. And he would have been dead now, anyway. So you didn’t really kill him, okay, Mica?”
And I didn’t say what I was really thinking, which was that we could have just told him about the jump drive and we could have all left together.
I said, “Okay.”
That was almost a decade ago. I don’t know why I’m thinking about it now.
The hairline crack in the cryotube glass is the obvious shatter point. It would be easy. The kid is as still and pale as a statue. He’s not really alive, right now. Cryofreeze is suspended animation. A temporary death. I’ll wedge my ripper into the crack and the last thing he’ll remember is falling asleep.
Footsteps behind me. I turn. Seam and I speak at the same time.
“I don’t want to kill the kid.”
“It’s okay, Mica. I’ll handle it.”
A pause while we try to parse what the other has said. I can’t tell what Seam is thinking. All I can see is the bulky lines of her nullsuit. I don’t think Seam’s ever killed anyone before. Not up close.
“There’s a storage room if you make three rights after the fork,” she says. “Go start tagging things?”
I feel absurd relief. I feel like a coward. Seam’s giving me an out. She’s always had a stronger stomach than me. Even when we were kids. Seam went through a homeland phase, when we were teenagers. A lot of kids go through that sort of thing. It’s usually Egypt or Mars or the Plutonic colonies though. But Seam’s big thing was civilizational collapse. Ancient Rome. The Late-American Empire. Roanoke. Mesoamerica after European landfall. Seam really got a kick out of telling me about all the ways people died. She’d whisper the stories to me when we were supposed to be asleep. Plagues. Invasions. Assassinations.
The difference between civilizational collapse and a generation ship collapse is that a generation ship collapse is insular. A dead ant colony. And sure, sometimes there’s a couple of ants that manage to run around for a bit. But the colony is still dead. An ant doesn’t survive on his own.
Seam and I are kind of our own little ant colony. A closed system. We have to get along to survive. I begin to walk away. I tell myself that the kid’s colony is dead, so the kid is dead. The kid’s going to be dead in four to six hours, so it doesn’t matter if we kill him now.
“Wait,” Seam calls back. “Give me your ripper.”
I stop and hold out the hilt of my ripper. I tell myself again: the kid’s been dead since the beginning.
Seam grasps the hilt. She tugs. When Saint-Seb fell apart, it was nothing like the movies. It didn’t make me feel any better that everything was dead after I killed the shitbox’s owner.
“Let go of the handle, Mica.”
I don’t want to let go of the handle. Seam likes stories, data, and dead things. Seam never looks up the names. Seam’s never killed anyone. I take care of a lot of things for Seam.
“Mica, I’ll take care of this.”
I don’t let go of the handle. The kid isn’t a story yet. This kid is alive now. Here and now, the kid is alive. His cryotube is whole and intact. I don’t want to kill the kid. Against all odds, I want the kid to live.
“I’m serious, Mica.”
She’s tugging wildly now, jerking the handle to try and loosen my grasp. There are a lot of ways to crack a cryotube that don’t need my ripper. I fold my hand gently over her wrist and pry it free. She lets me.
“We don’t have to kill him,” I say. “I’m not going to kill him. You don’t have to kill him, either.”
Seam is quiet. If Seam was crying behind her helmet, I wouldn’t be able to tell.
“Someone else will get to him, if not us.”
“Not if we let him out,” I say.
Seam laughs, all high static. “Mica, we’re fifty million credits in debt. It’d be idiotic to leave him alive to claim the whole stupid ship. And even if we did, the moment he gets on station someone’s going to try and off him, anyway.”
“Yes,” I say. “So, swap me with him.”
“Swap me with him,” I say again. The plan falls into my head fully formed.
“We stick him in my suit, we put me in the tube, we alter the ship’s data so the kid’s info matches mine, you call in a favor to swap my bio idents for the kid’s data in the intrasystem. You and the kid take the tube and the ship’s data back to Weaver and decant me there. I pretend to be the kid to the authorities and we claim the whole damn whalefall as ours.”
Seam stares at me. I stare at her. I can’t tell what she’s thinking.
“Okay,” she says, and sniffs.
I knew she was crying.
It gets complicated after that. We have to move fast, but there’s a whole cascade of checks we need to make before taking off. We have to get the cryotube decoupled from the main server and loaded in the shitbox before anyone else gets here. We have to check if there’s an internal battery and make sure it still works so we won’t just shock-thaw the kid by decoupling. And if there isn’t, or if it’s degraded from centuries of disuse, we have to grab a portable generator from the shitbox and hook the tube up through our universal adapter, so we have to hope that when we were promised universal, our tech guy really meant universal. And we need the adapter regardless, if we’re hooking up to the ship’s power supply. I’m not too worried about that, we’ve used the adapter on older ships before. This isn’t our first time transporting living biological material. It’s just the first time the material has been sentient.
What I’m really worried about is the cryo passenger exchange. They build cryotubes to last, in most ships, but it’s old tech. I almost want to suggest we just wake the kid up and hide him, instead of doing a swap. Sure the tube will be convincing on the station, but we could make do with recordings and physical evidence. I don’t say any of this to Seam. I remember checking the ox a few days ago. I do some mental math while following Seam’s instructions as she reads them off the terminal. Clip these wires. Loop these tubes. Every weird noise makes me flinch, and I lose my train of thought and have to restart my equations. I give up. I’ll think about oxygen when we’re all safely back on the shitbox. We’ve got less than an hour before other scavengers touch down, if we’re unlucky. We have to go fast. We have to do this clean. But we get lucky. We test the adapter and its indicator lights up clean. The battery hums steadily. I get a trolley from a supply closet and we do our best to wheel the cryotube down the hallways and back to our hull breach. I repuncture the hole and climb out, turning the magnetization on my boots back on.
Outside, every passing bit of space debris catches my eye. It’s irrational. There’s no point worrying. Scavengers could be landing on the opposite side of the hull and I’d never notice. The only thing to do is move fast. It’s a careful winch-and-pulley situation to get the cryotube through the hole, and an even more careful float of the cryotube over to the airlock. We’ve transported big cargo a thousand times, but I’m still sweating in my nullsuit by the time we get the cryotube into the shitbox. It’s a relief to get inside, into the familiar comfort of the shitbox. Seam beelines for our electronics box, rifling through and pulling out a data chip. One of our media storage ones. I frown. Seam makes sort of an apologetic face.
“There wasn’t enough room for both the cryo program specs and the kid’s info,” she says. “I’ve got to go copy and swap it out. This is our second biggest storage, sorry.”
“It’s fine. Be quick.”
Seam nods back and picks her helmet up.
“I’m sorry that you always end up doing the dirty work,” she says, pausing before she opens the airlock. “I never said that before, right?”
“Well, I’m sorry,” she says. “I rely on you too much, I guess.”
The airlock hisses as Seam leaves. I immediately go look at our ox meter. I grimace. Even lower than I expected. I take out a tablet and do some math. There’s no world where three people get back to Weaver without suffocating. Plan A, then. I crouch down next to the cryotube and start initiating the thaw sequence.
“Just you and me now,” I say to the kid. The kid doesn’t say anything. There’s condensation forming on the inside of the cryotube as it rapid-thaws.
“I think this will work out,” I tell the kid. “I think it’ll all be okay in the end. We’re going to do right by you, mostly. As right as we can. There’s enough money in the ship that we’ll all be okay for a long time.”
The kid is going to wake up and everyone he knows is going to be dead, and everything that he knows is going to be four hundred years out of date. Maybe it would be kinder to kill him. But I would rather be alive, if I were him. I was glad to be alive when Saint-Seb died.
The glass facing pops open. Cold vapor hisses out. I wriggle the door all the way open. The kid has some color to his skin now. I unhook him from the life support and put him on my bunk. I wriggle him into an old pair of my sweatpants and a sleep shirt. He doesn’t wake up. He won’t wake up for a few more hours. By then we’ll have jumped out of the whalefall’s airspace.
Later, we’re going to have to figure out how to communicate with him. Later, we’re going to have to convince him that we haven’t kidnapped him. Later, he’s probably going to cry on Seam and me or try and break something in the ship or try and run away or something. Later, we’ll explain our plan and hope to God he’s on board. Later we’ll feed him his first meal in centuries.
Right now, I sanitize the inside of the prone cryotube with bleach. I check all our flight systems. I strip and step inside the cool metal. I attempt to make the necessary hookups, because I’d rather do this alone than with Seam watching. The hiss of the airlock proves my efforts in vain. Seam steps through, carrying my ripper on her back and a vacuum-sealed package in her arms.
“I’m ba—Mica, let me help.”
She puts the package down and walks over, shedding pieces of her nullsuit as she comes. First the helmet and boots, then the gloves and the outer jacket, leaving her looking a little silly in just the pants as she crouches down next to me and bats my hand away from the port lines. I sigh and lean back into the tube and suffer indignities. Her hands are space-cold against my soft bits.
“So he’s alive?”
“He’s alive, just asleep.”
Seam finishes hooking me into the life support and sits up. I tilt my head so we’re looking at each other. She frowns, as if just realizing something.
“Why are you getting into the tube now? We should freeze you closer to the station.”
“We don’t have enough ox for three,” I say. We were iffy even for two, when I checked. And we don’t have the time to go searching the whalefall for their ox scrubbers or gas reserves.
“You didn’t need to unfreeze him so soon, then! It’s a month out to Weaver!”
“It’s so you’ll have a month to get the kid used to the idea that everyone on his ship’s dead,” I say. That, and the kid’s smaller than me. “I figure he could use some time to acclimate.”
“I could get in, instead. We could go drop my info in the ship instead of yours. You’re the one who wanted to unfreeze him. You deal with him.”
“Seam,” I say.
“Mica,” she says. She makes a complicated facial expression at me. I smile at her. I love her. Seam’s not getting in any ancient cryotube while I’m around. She’s not going to be the target of every merc after the whalefall, while I’m around. She sighs, and leans forward to run her hand through my hair.
“His name is Alex. He’s from the homeworld homeworld. North America, California, before the floods. Near the ocean. You could probably make him tell you about whales. And dolphins. All sorts of fish.”
I close my eyes and lean back. “You’ll be okay without me for a month, Seam. Hit the cryo.”
“Mica,” she says again. I crack an eye open.
“Thanks for stopping me, earlier.”
Seam leans down and kisses my forehead. I grin. She loves me too. I push her away and pull the glass door of the casket down.
“Hit the cryo,” I say again. I close my eyes.
“See you in a month.”
The world goes dark and muffled around me. I imagine this is what it must have been like in the first spaceflights. Dark and strange and cold. That must be what it’s like at the bottom of the ocean, too. A whalefall is a good thing in the benthic zone. It sustains everything for a little longer in the black.
The air grows freezing around me. I imagine Alex waking up in my bed and wondering why there’s a piece of wood in it. I imagine explaining and then asking him about California, and the ocean, and whether he’s ever seen a whale before.
My extremities go chilled, then hot, and then numb. It’s hard to think, now. Everything feels slow. I’m almost gone. I imagine Seam telling me about the month I missed and kissing me sweetly on the mouth. I imagine waking up, and all of us alive.
Isabel J. Kim is a Korean-American science fiction and fantasy writer based in New York City. When she’s not writing, she’s practicing law, and when she’s not doing that, she’s co-hosting Wow If True, a podcast about internet culture. Her work has been published in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.