By Matt Cowger, (c) 1999
I saw it happening every minute. Each time I made the mistake of leaving the safe room, into the sterile white bathroom, and leaving waste in the self-sealing disposal, the bit of silvered hull looked at me. Time was counting down.
I ran the instrument diagnostics, watched the stars, and checked the life signs on the sleeping embryos. As I was taught, as I had been chemically and verbally instructed to do. I measured nutrient into waiting human cocoons, I set the temperature right, kept it all smooth until aphelion, turn around and the long descent to the new world, inhabited though it may be, but our world to claim with fire and force and will.
I walked the line of the tanks. In the endless (sometimes I thought, in spite of the teaching…then felt horrible afterwards) rows the bodies grew. They were male and female; perfect to their jobs, like me, one and all made for the creation, the making of a world when the stars shown down on it in our landing. I smiled then, looking at their compact forms, so different from the gangly, spidery multi-limbed body I had. My body built for just this, but not for the crimson world of their creation. I was a creature in between, with dim stars through glass, and blinking lights.
Hands reached for the dials. I refused such thoughts, much like I refused the flashes of a night before. Not part of the conditioning is madness. I had been told we were designed for mental stability countless times during both my creation in the lab-farm and my indoctrination. Madness is not part of our make up, not even a word we should know, (although a teacher let it slip once and I, made for time and distance, remembered). We are told endlessly of our clocks winding down. We aren’t made for the entire trip, us. Just the last bits of the homeworld, sloughed away as fire and death and the borning cargo of our craft reach new worlds.
I awake and realize my brief sleep cycle took over long. Again I saw the flashes out of the portholes, I should know them for the Doppler lights and not anything else, but still I am afraid. Yet another of the things I should not feel. Eighty-five hours and still I feel tired, I can’t imagine the brief chops of darkness my genetic ancestors must have known. Still, the longer sleep cycles are a sign my time is about done here. Eventually, I will not waken; it is how they built my DNA.
I think it was then, after the few first glances of light outside, after only black, streaks and then solid lights (I can’t say I imagined them now), that I decided I didn’t want to die. I knew I was wrong. Wrong in a fundamental level that went beyond describing. We were born, beyond that, made to die. Solitary, woven DNA human spiders meant for the long sailing of the void. Countless of my brothers and sisters took the children of the pure DNA out into the darkness, into the fertile empty worlds out in the greater black. Ferrymen on River Nox.
I did the same. Created, I remember the first of the learning rooms, telling me why I was different and why I must be that way and, most important, why I must die for them. I knew it for Absolute Truth then, know it still, when I look at the growing and sleeping faces of the tanks. When I oil and prepare the weapons of landing, I know it is true. It is in my code, chemically etched onto my neurons. But it is when I saw the flashing lights outside the hull, almost questioning those lights, then, then I ask myself.
Those lights are so bright, and asking.
I adjust the temperature of the tanks. They are so wonderful, perfect of form, strong and waiting for the weapons I make. Bilateral, two and two and human, human, human. So gorgeous. I touch a tank and look at the man within, born 76 years from now, during the fire of landing and knowing all he will need to know. He will take the armor and weapons and destroy everything that is not human or usable by his brothers and sisters in his path. He is perfection. I look out the porthole.
A flash! A cluster of lights again. I know I am not seeing untrue, the lights, the cluster some how keep pace with us, then vanish, in a dark cover. I wish, looking out and trying to adjust my eyes, that I could see where they went. The lights are beautiful. They leave like words I haven’t heard for 124 years. The last words from my placer.
“Keep them well.”
I know I am winding down. I know I don’t want to die. Ninety-three hours of sleep this time. The clusters of lights were visible again, pacing along with the ship, I saw them clearly for the first time, in the unknowable distance, knew they weren’t errant stars, they kept along side, curious, flashing in reds and greens and spectrums my eyes followed into the high ultra-violet. I placed my two largest hands on either side of the glass and pulled myself forward. Occasionally the lights would be occluded, something moving between them and I. I cried out, the first time my voice had been used in over a decade, it was a croak.
“Closer, closer ” I pressed my face against the cold glass.
They vanished and I pushed myself back. I thought I had sent them away. I let myself spin in free fall and felt my face grow damp, the front feeler touched my cheeks and came away with water. I went to check myself for illness.
I float gently by the engine controls. The fission furnaces that power the generator that rips our way through space hum quietly. The hum is comforting, and I feel the vibration in the air. The indicator blinks at me, at hasn’t changed in many, many years, and then only for the thirty years it took to navigate around an unexpected gravity anomaly. I watch the play of the readouts, monitoring everything. Power generation stable, consumption among systems stable, the generator operating within expectations. After forty-eight or so hours of watching I let myself, with a slight push, drift up to astrogation.
It takes a few hours to get there. I watch the walls slide by, the colors, muted gray, the same as always. I let my eyes follow the lines as I move.
Astrogation, a dark bubble. With a flick of fingers, the graphic overlay appears, showing the familiar distances and vectors, a red dot showing aphelion, my end, not so far now. I think of my earliest lessons, the tubes in my veins, the words and images impressed upon us. Long before the minutiae of our technical instruction, these were the weeks of The Indoctrination. When we were given our truths.
“You will care for your charges, they are the future and are prized above all, they are your life, more, they exceed your life.”
“Stand by your duties, your pattern is what makes you whole, without your pattern you are nothing, lost without salvation.”
“What is salvation?”
“Fulfilling your purpose.”
Then came the training of the mind: the rewards for stillness, for watching. The constant words, the constant chemical feeds. All of us the same, we nod in unison, answer in unison, the teachers reward us well, only a very few vanish during the lessons, they are never seen again, more, they are never thought about again. There are only the truths. The Indoctrination. Nothing is more important, nothing even exists.
Above me are the stars and the light of the graphical overlay. Suddenly, a cluster of the lights appears again. With a second wave of the hand the overlay vanishes. They are closer, but it is only one group now. I strain my eyes, and make out the faint line of a shape in the distance. The stars it causes to vanish behind it as it moves only delineate the form. It is large, nowhere near the size of the ship, but goodly sized, I estimate that it is slightly larger in size than myself. Then with a sweep it is gone. The lights had blinked at me though, almost as if in recognition. I clasp my feet around a rung and turn about the astrogation dome, but see only stars.
More hours pass. I float in the dome and the stars slowly make their way towards the red dot. The lights don’t reappear and I feel something odd inside of me. I search back through my mind, but can’t pin words and thoughts to the feeling I have; it is empty some how, and something I don’t understand. I consider it as I drift and watch the stars. Finally, sixty hours later I stop. I have no word for this emptiness and I do not like it. There was to be nothing inexplicable in the world I was made for, nothing within myself at any rate. I sent myself towards the sleep chamber thinking thoughts that were not in keeping with my purpose, I was distracted. Sleep was another thirty hours in the coming.
Almost one hundred hours of slumber, I dream deep and unusual dreams. I am falling down towards the planet. The Pure Strain are arming themselves, and I am with them. Strapping on the armor and weaponry that will clear the way for the ships that will follow ours, covering the planet with wave after wave of humanity. This cannot be right, I thought in the dream. My body cannot withstand the gravity well of the planet, besides, I will be two hundred years dead by the time the ship enters orbit. I will be just more debris destroyed while entering the atmosphere of that distant world, halfway around the galactic rim from the world of my birth.
The dream continues despite my protests. The Pure Strain do not seem to notice the obvious differences between themselves and me, and talk with excitement about the conquest ahead. “Was there any signs of intelligent life in the initial scans?” They wonder. Many hope so, as it will make the taking of the planet more of a challenge. And they do so love a challenge, with the endless line of years ahead of them (barring any catastrophic accident) the Pure Strain were seekers of the struggle and their leaders have decided the only logical outlet for this need was to conquer the stars.
Many spoke of the battles of history, exchanging plans and ideas for the taking of this world. These conversations were lost in a blur to me, discussions of history and warfare had been left out of our training. We had been told that we weren’t alone in this universe and that almost from the beginning of our exploration of the stars it had been constant warfare with one race of beings or another. There was no worry of attack on our ships, the very nature of how we traveled through space was supposed to prevent any sort of contact with other species. The ship ripped through the sky, leaving flaming bits of itself behind, finally, with a soft thump we landed. The hatch opened, I blinked at something I had not seen in centuries, sunlight.
I tore myself awake. In the distant corridors of the ship an alert was going off. I could hear the soft pinging noises. Disoriented, I still felt caught in the bits of the dream. It was the first time I had dreamt in over fifty years. I brought the lights up low and gathered myself. I was in my sleeping cocoon, one hundred hours almost to the minute had passed. I gripped the handholds that rang around the door and triggered the systems panel. I had the source of the alert. It was something that should have been impossible, it was a proximity alarm.
I wake. I crawl out of the cocoon, and push off toward astrogation. I drift forward and the clock unwinds.
The stars glare down. I look at them, finite unlike they. My minutes each are lost. My hands hold myself underneath the dome, I look up,the stars, merciless in glare, stare back. I tear my voice loose.
“Damn you!” It is the crudest word I was taught. The stars seem without meaning I thought. I looked up.
I coughed. My voice didn’t see much use. I closed my eyes. Time passed and colors such sweet colors! They hit me. I opened my eyes. Right before me, through the dome an angel! The word came to me through the recesses of my training. I waited, watching. My wonderful angel flapped its dark wings. The colors that comprised its head shifted, I followed them into the infrared. It was gorgeous. I yelled.
Instantly the far end of my vision was filled with meaning. It was attempting to signal. That much was obvious, but I didn’t understand its language. My lower hands crossed the keypads, firing external cameras, recording. I set the mighty system that ran the ship to analyze the patterns. As I watched the angel vanished, simply there one moment, gone the next. I blinked, stunned. I fired up playback. It was there, floating before me, then gone. At least I wasn’t hallucinating.
The computer informed me that it would be some twenty hours before it had any information, while it translated, I let myself drift back to the tubes. The faces of the invading force were faintly visible through the glass. I watched one, her eyes closed, she had been developing slightly ahead of the others. I looked at the monitor near her. The stream of data fed into her brain via electrodes. When those eyes opened she would be a trained destroyer. Reflexes honed to perfection, body designed for clearing the world that waited at the end of the flight. She might even be the one who instructed the computer to eject my remains into space.
I floated there for awhile, looking at them as they slowly gestated. All my life, so long, spent caring for them. I asked myself, why do they deserve eternity, the genes of their bodies self replicating and repairing. While my kind were built to die. I didn’t feel envious, I didn’t know how to feel. The angel was making me think odd thoughts. I went to astrogation and stared out at the stars.
I had stared for countless hours, the dreams of my sleep cycle echoed to me. Lost, I knew, my body couldn’t withstand the gravity well of a planet. I would be long dead before the ship arrived anyway. It was a foolish dream, promising the impossible. I closed my eyes.
When I opened them, there it was again. Just outside of the dome, hung impossibly in space, flashing its lights at me. Quickly I instructed the computer to record the flashes, also, to flash a light out side of the hull, three blinks, just to let it know I recognized its intentions. It gave two long flashes then vanished again.
The computer informed that it would be another few hours with the additional data. I had it display the route map again. The red eye of aphelion glared at me. I hated it, hated with every fiber of my being the finality of my existence. The perfect bodies in the tanks, I looked at myself, Six armed, two legged, all limbs possessing grasping appendages. Gaunt and designed for zero gravity. Was I not in my own way, perfect? I was built for space, designed by scientists to thrive in space and work effectively there.
The computer sounded a tone. I had been lost in thought longer than I had thought. I had it play back its translation.
‘Go not to this world, it is ours. We will offer you a trade in exchange for your avoiding this planet. Signal us if you receive this message. We do not want conflict.’
I thought, Not angels after all, another race, but wonderful just the same. I had the computer fire off the signal asked for. It was a brief space of time, then they appeared. More than I could have imagined, and such lights! I had the computer translate the lights into words. I listened to the play back, stared at the angels (I couldn’t help still thinking of them as such). I thought. I finally signaled them back that I needed time to think, they were willing to wait. In a few moments they vanished. Their offer, what I realized now I craved. I drifted back to the tanks.
The girl dreamt of the world she would create. Biology and technology married in a miracle of devastation. Why did they deserve what I could not have? I wondered if any of the other navigators had these sorts of thoughts. Training began to kick in and I found myself activating the ship defensive systems, then deactivated them.
Enough of training, enough of breeding. I wanted to be free, I should be free. To be adrift in space, to see the quarks and supernovas, to look at the destruction of a black hole, pulling in space and time around it. The remote scientists that sat over my creation had never seen the fragments of an unformed star drift around them. The children that would occupy the world I was sailing to would never look on the stars I saw. I knew the bargain I was going to make, if only the angels could hold their end. I returned to astrogation and signaled.
They returned with their characteristic speed. What I asked was possible to them. I gave them my word and they promised to return to carry out the bargain. I went to the ships recycling system. Their were no safe guards against what I wanted to do. Evidently the scientists never considered that a navigator would ever rebel, would ever want to live past its determined time. After all, they built perfection; they were never wrong. Until now. With a command I jettisoned the tanks into space and prepared myself for eternity. The universe waited for me.