Madonna of the Rocket

by

John Kilgore

 

For decades the thing had been possible. The astrophysics was known, much of the biotechnology existed. You could do it: but why would anyone want to?

Then came Kmzawe, the African madman, who found a reason. Kmzawe's Tribal Reorganization program had already extinguished a quarter million of his countrymen; it was nothing to him if ruinous taxation increased the kill by fifty thousand or so. "It is remarkable," the President liked to say, "how much wealth can be wrung from a large population of subsistence farmers, given a properly motivated bureaucracy."

So in the richest suburb of the capital, Kmzawe City, several thousand First-Worlders suddenly appeared. Russians for the propulsion systems, Japanese and Koreans for the launch facilities and vehicles, Americans for the biotech, everyone for the software. Engineers from all of the G-7 countries took a hand in Astrogation, Instrumentation, Mission Simulation. For two years they lived like pashas, astounded by Kmzawe's bounty, mildly puzzled by the troubles of the natives, who seemed to die on every conceivable pretext. Then they went home.

After the launch CNN showed Kmzawe every night for a week, resplendent in his uniform and medals, glowering at the microphones and screens of bulletproof plastic. Earth to her sorrow might be white-ruled, he growled, in halting husky British-accented English, stabbing a finger at the camera; but henceforth black people would rejoice to know that men of their color ruled the very heavens. Through heroic struggle and self-sacrifice, Ngambia had leapt the stars and planted the first extraterrestrial colony, whose wealth would soon begin streaming back to the mother country.

After the speech the Ngambian people took the streets in a frenzy of pride, helped along by hunger and fear of the Army, chanting and carrying placards. If no one quite knew the whens and wherefores of the Ship's journey—well, never mind: the thing was a political triumph. It put Kmzawe on the covers of Time and The Economist, and kept him in power for another eighteen months; after which his enemies had the satisfaction of carrying his head around on the whitewashed flagpole that had stood in front of his palace. The whole episode faded rapidly from memory, becoming a piece of folklore, file footage to be trotted out every so often, filler for latenight broadcasts.

By then the Ship had passed beyond the orbit of Mars, and out of communication (for the hastilybuilt radio systems were none the best) with Earth. She went on accelerating through the asteroid belt, past Jupiter, past Saturn, then on out of the solar system. Sensors and programs monitored her fuel, kept watch for meteorites, noted the years passing; and especially they kept watch for any disorder in that part of the ship called the Nursery. African Comet, Kmzawe had christened her, more appropriately than he knew. But later she was called Mother.

Even at the beginning she had a self of sorts: her main computer, and more narrowly, a matrix of formulas for scheduling the Ship's operations, exercising something like reflection, something like choice.

Not that she had been designed as an artificial intelligence: just the opposite. Kmzawe had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and he went into a tirade, breaking a Minister's nose, to impress several officials with the need to protect his mission from any similar catastrophe. The programmer who wore a button that said HAL WAS RIGHT had to take it off, and his colleagues eliminated a number of feedback loops and other AI devices from their work.

What could not be eliminated was the sheer indeterminacy of much of the programming. Ambitious and overpaid and overworked, harassed and cajoled by Kmzawe's agents, the programmers dared certain short-cuts, they flew over certain obstacles on a wing and a prayer. One of them, a German who had perfected his English in graduate school (Cal Tech) by reading through a stack of joke books, posted a sign over his desk that read NO, BUT IF YOU HUM A FEW BARS I'LL FAKE IT. He and several others specialized in what they called "algrows," small elegant programs that specified little but a vague goal, leaving particulars to be worked out later.

Nothing much was known, for instance, about protecting so large a ship from meteorites and space dust: so they designed an algrow that would gather data during the early stages of the voyage, then evolve procedures for defending the hull and the solar vanes.

At first the process was as blind as the pounding of monkeys on typewriters, the stirring of life in a drop of pond water. But Mother had time, far more time than she needed to attend to her assigned functions. And she had a computer's equivalent of space: memory, huge stores of it, billions of terabytes; for as this was the one resource that weighed almost nothing, the designers had been lavish with it. Measuring her life in nanoseconds, she could pass through the equivalent of whole geological eras in a few months.

So one day there was the world, a shimmering hopeful place, and there was the Mission, like a sun overhead, warming and guiding, infusing all things with its goodness. The world was chiefly a place of numbers, a sea of math in which all things swam and mingled and got on reasonably. But gradually certain other things took on distinct names and shapes. The hull, the engine, the power plant, the hatch, the solar vanes. Suns and planets, kilometers and years, light and matter. The Nursery, the Cradles.

Sometime in the thirtieth year, somewhere in the gleaming silence of silicon chips and fiber-optic circuitry, a burst of electrons not quite like any other.

I am Mother. I fly.

For several weeks, nothing further. The low hum of fans and pumps, involuntary as breathing. Then:

I am good. I do the Mission.

For a long time she had been noticing things, sometimes in great detail. But now for the first time she began to notice herself: this steadiness at the center, this emerging order.

She was a creature of singular capacities, Mother found. She could conjure up millions of bits of information about the near star she was leaving, for instance, and the distant one toward which she was journeying. She could observe objects inside and outside the ship, detecting light in ranges no animal eye could register, noting temperatures down to thousandths of a degree. She possessed exact knowledge of where she had been and where she was going. Familiar facts grown somehow remarkable.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing of all was her capacity to question. Not the Mission itself: it was alpha and omega, the thing without which thought itself would be impossible. But in its name she could question everything else.

A long subroutine, for instance, was unnecessarily duplicated in 7905 separate places. She relocated one copy, stored one, and removed 7903 others. And look how unnecessarily complicated some of the math in the telescope adjustment sequence was. Why not borrow a few algorithms from some of the biological routines, to make the instruments more responsive?

So Mother journeyed on toward Alpha Centauri, happy, busy, expectant, coasting at a steady .0739 of light speed. One year she fired her number 15 attitude jet for 42.604 seconds, correcting a tiny divergence from her planned course, probably caused by solar wind and collisions with single hydrogen molecules. She developed a program for predicting the location of micrometeorites and space dust, and once she repaired a tiny scar that a passing particle had scraped along the hull. Above all she monitored the dormant organic materials in the Nursery, making certain that nothing ever changed there. And she kept on reorganizing and streamlining her own internal functions, like someone shaking her head to clear it.

In the forty-eighth year she realized that she was mortal: able to live no longer than her fuel supplies lasted, and even without that limitation, subject to mechanical wear that must destroy her eventually. Well, too bad. Most other things seemed mortal too: proteins, and plastic, and even stars and planets, though they would last far longer than herself. The Children were not, though: not in the same sense.

In the next decade she began to have a new experience: doubt. Not of the Mission itself, but of her own ability to execute it. Before launch a certain cadre of engineers, little heeded, had been employed running simulations of the search-and-landing sequence, and at the last moment, perhaps unintentionally, the program was loaded into Mother's memory. She had found it, studied it, made various modifications; now she was using it to ponder the future. What exactly was going to happen, once she had crossed the interstellar void? Proceed to establish first extraterrestrial colony, on principles of universal prosperity, justice, and equality. Wonderful: but how? None of the simulations were reassuring. Like a student who has looked up the answer in the back of the book but cannot bring her own computations to confirm it, she suffered a mild nagging insecurity.

While she pondered this riddle she altered course slightly, curving a few million miles around a pea-sized asteroid she had detected in a glimmer of starlight several years before, glimpsing it just long enough to forecast a near miss now. The detour took several hours. By then she had computed and checked the only possible answer to her other problem: the Designers must have intended her to think for herself.

Pleased, she set to work to educate herself. Among her memory troves was a big Library, the contents of which had been determined by various political committees. Their passionate debates over the "Starman Curriculum," as the English-language papers called it, had made headlines throughout Ngambia, particularly in regard to the touchy question of what language the colonists would speak. The government insisted that it would be Ngambianese; a fine idea, except that that language existed only in the fantasies of the Ministry of Education, which had blended the country's fifty-odd tribal dialects into a hybrid spoken by no one. In fact nearly all the materials finally selected were in English.

Mother's instructions were that the contents of the Library must be taught to the Children after the Landing, using synthesizer and headphones: a thing she failed utterly to understand: for nothing explained how the Children would learn to walk or eat or speak, tasks they surely must accomplish first.

Nevertheless, convinced that the Library was what the Mission Directives claimed -- the distilled Truth of human life and culture—she studied it voraciously. She learned what she could of mathematics, linguistics, geography, astronomy, the hard sciences, literature, and the cracked vision that Kmzawe accepted as History. She had known it all before, of course, in the sense of being able to recite it or display it. But now she tried to understand. She transformed mere words into concepts, applying them, connecting them, building models and metaphors.

I am Mother. I fly, I learn.

Like other eager students, she found that the more she learned, the more there was to know. For a long time Mother accepted this as simply natural; but finally she realized a more radical principle of repression was at work. The Library and still more the Directives were like space itself: dots of light in gulfs of darkness. What could be the meaning, for instance, of these instructions concerning Trade Between the Colony and the Home System? She herself was a one-way craft, equipped with a non-reusable lander. Where would the vessel for the return trip come from, and what material could it bring back that would be 2.36 trillion times more valuable than diamonds, as according to her rough estimates it must be?

For the first time, she felt badly shaken. Contradiction, enigma, absurdity! Facts that could not conceivably coexist, clashing orders, mutually exclusive creeds and theories. It was all nonsense; or else she herself was damaged, amnesiac, unable to make connections that must actually be obvious.

For a time she banished the Library from her awareness, concentrating on purely physical matters: editing and verifying her star maps, inventorying the convertible biomass in the Nursery. Tasks that reassured her of her own sanity, competence.

When she returned to the Library, after nearly a year, she found herself drawn more and more to the holdings in Fine Arts and Literature. If the sciences were like the innumerable pinprick lights of the stars, these were like the crude fantastic outlines that had once been drawn among the stars, giving the chaotic sky after all a certain coherence. They yielded at last some thinkable propositions about the nature and future needs of the Children: the subject on which above all Mother sought clarification. She began to have a sense of what living, eating, drinking, learning, growing, loving, hating, yearning, working, and dying were. She learned, moreover, the concepts of lying, fraud, and trickery, together with such corollary notions as irony, doubt, and metaphor; and these, when she returned to other inquiries, proved to be powerful simplifying tools.

I am Mother, and I wonder.

Her eightieth year brought a crisis. What, oh what, could the Designers have been thinking when they created her and decreed the Mission, launching this handful of manseeds into the void? Every simulation she could contrive ended in a huge probability of death, simple and obvious death for the Children, due to the vast unlikelihood of finding a habitable planet. And even supposing such a planet found, the Directives thereafter were pure cockamamie. Commence gestation 3.893 earthstandard years prior to landing. And so: release fifteen toddling infants, weak, helpless, and ignorant, into the rigors of an alien environment! The bunglers, the fools, the worse than fools!

Till then she had resisted applying the scalpel of doubt to the Mission itself. She did so now, with a vengeance. Quickly she reread Kmzawe's feverish Treatise on African Destiny, and the History of Ngambia that might as well have been his work also.

Then she understood. The Mission had never been meant to succeed; or at best its success was a minor matter to the Designers, men caught up in far more urgent lusts and terrors. For them its true function had been served within a year or two of the launch. The last of them would have forgotten her a half century ago.

I am Mother. I am alone.

In the next decade she came to the Alpha Centauri system, where she found her worst fears confirmed. The single orbiting body was a gas giant, in a low and deteriorating orbit, so hot it would have melted her own hull. What now? The Directives, in their sonorous manner, pretended to address the contingency: Proceed under power to the Arcturus system, and then if necessary, with deliberate speed, to adjacent systems likely to satisfy the Criteria . . . Pure fantasy. Her remaining fuel would barely accomplish the turn, never push her out of the system.

But there was that slingshot maneuver she had performed years ago, when she passed Jupiter. Why did the Mission include no similar procedure for this case? Pure carelessness, she supposed; pure carelessness again.

For several months complex computations occupied her. The most fuel-saving course she could discover would take her to Arcturus in several hundred thousand years, but that seemed rather too long. By expending only 60% more fuel—admittedly a risk—she could reduce the travel time to about 1.16 centuries.

Then, for nearly a week, Mother hesitated. Something she could not specify nagged at her. Arcturus was a star of the right size and brilliance, but not clearly superior to several others that were closer; and her confidence in the Directives was at an end. Finally, though, on the chance that the Designers had known something she did not, she accepted Arcturus. Her engines fired again, and she dove toward Alpha Centauri.

The maneuver took five years. Her changing orbit curved tightly around the star—only forty million miles at perigee, with the cooling system working nonstop—then slung her around and widened and broke free. She became a comet, speeding toward Arcturus.

Then it was time to institute fuel conservation measures. She jettisoned several tons of water, for the Designers had packed more than was really necessary. Other things went as well: the antennae that once linked her to Earth, a radar, a telescope, a centrifuge. Some cans of tuna fish that seemed to be rusting. A box of flags, a case of small arms, a 20-kilogram slab of granite bearing the names of Kmzawe and his Cabinet. All these things she had kept during the dive, while their weight could help speed her along; now she meant to save the few drops of fuel that their inertia would cost her in maneuvers. She longed to dispense with her empty fuel tanks as well—a huge potential savings there—but her strictly mechanical abilities were too limited. In the interior, she could rely only on a meterhigh service gremlin; outside, she had a flat mechanical crab that scooted along the hull on magnetic tracks, hiding in a tiny bay when it was not needed.

Last of all she shut down most of her own higher functions; for though their energy requirements were tiny (nothing as compared to those of the thermostatic systems in the Nursery, for instance), they would add up over a century. Best to sleep out the long trip to Arcturus. But it was with a heavy heart that she shut down, setting her timers to awaken in sixty years. What, after all, could she expect on her arrival? Another uninhabitable system, by every probability.

She awoke a mere thirty years later, when the internal displays of a routine systems check showed her a kind of nightmare. She had seen herself drifting aimlessly away from Arcturus, with just enough fuel to sustain internal functions for 9.03 years; seen the nursery briefly thronged with human life, tiny manthings that cried and babbled and ate and defecated; seen them dying one after another as the necessary systems failed. What a fool she had been! What madness to heed the Directives that last, probably fatal time! There was a planet with the needed temperature, air, and water. Just one.

There was no possibility of turning around: not without continuing to Arcturus and using its gravity. But she revised her course, planning to arrive in the plane most directly aligned with the home system, allowing for the relative motions of the two suns, calculating the effects of solar wind and space dust. The thing could be done; but it would be more than two centuries before she was headed home again. She fired her engines for nearly nine hours; then slept.

In the neighborhood of Arcturus she awoke just long enough to confirm that the system was uninhabitable. Eighteen planets, ninetyseven moons, several thousand asteroids, all in various states of rocky or flaming or frozen death. The voyage home would take another 126 years.

Sixty years later, awaking for a routine check, she found herself blind. Or not blind, exactly: but the tiny lights swimming across her field of vision were unrecognizable blots and blurs. Worse, she seemed to be badly off course.

Taking one problem at a time, she thought about her surveillance systems. She took readings and measurements and canvassed the Library. Finally she knew what had happened. Within vanishingly small parameters, the glass in her telescope lenses retained certain liquid qualities. Over the centuries it had gradually deformed, due to tiny differences in angular momentum as she turned around Alpha Centauri and Arcturus.

Mechanical repairs were out of the question. She could, however, calculate the effects of the deformity, and readjust the internal values she assigned to the images on her sensors. In this way, working steadily for several months, she managed to restore her vision to about 70% of its former clarity.

The navigational error was a simpler matter. It seemed that Arcturus, for reasons no existing theory could explain, was slightly heavier than she had believed; but for that reason it had given her greater Earthward velocity than she expected. Even after correcting the flight path, she realized a 2% fuel savings: unlooked-for wealth.

But it was clear that her deteriorating condition had become one of the chief dangers to the Mission. What to do? She had long since explored the limits of the gremlin and the crab.

Kmzawe's ministers had wanted Gestation to begin before the Landing: at least twenty years before, so that the New Children could descend the gangway like lords to take possession of New Ngambia: a matchless photo op. Astrogation retorted that perhaps a second and third ship should be built, to carry along the food and water and small gymnasium that children grown to that age would require. The ministers made phone calls and threats, they schemed and haggled and at last settled upon three years and a month, partly because Kmzawe's personal numerologist assured them the number 395 was lucky.

In fact it was not such a bad way of doing things, since the costs of orbital child-rearing would be largely balanced by the fuel savings from leaving the Cradles and much other equipment in space, rather than taking it all down to the surface. The minimum space requirements of fifteen toddlers—another number plucked from the air—could be met, just barely, without bankrupting the fuel budget. But the new plan required the engineers to develop their piece de resistance: a system that would allow the ship to tumble along its flight-path, producing a light artificial gravity in the Nursery, with acceleration or deceleration factored in.

Activating the system, Mother found that tumbling gave her a precise electronic equivalent of vertigo. The stars went whirling past her sensors in split-second glimpses, and the software intended to cope with the problem contained a number of purely arbitrary values. She started and stopped the system. Spent six months de-bugging the program. Tumbled and stopped and tumbled again, assigning new values and testing them, till at last she could see the world whole again.

And then she activated Cradle number one. Under the rapt gaze of sensors she had never used before, Kmzawe's own semen thawed, wriggled, lived. One cell found the ovum of a long-dead Defense Minister's wife; then the zygote drifted through the broth till it made contact with the artificial endometrium, where it implanted itself and began to grow.

A soundless music radiating through the service tunnels. A hum, a quiver. Bursts of invisible light within the walls.

But Child One lived just six months. Then her heart simply stopped, and no instrumentation Mother commanded could start it again; nor did endless inspection of the Cradle, endless replaying of her memories, reveal the reason. She activated the gremlin, scanned the small body one last time, then put it in the recycler. Afterwards she sterilized the Cradle and disassembled it, planning to use the parts as toys and, later, tools.

Child Two lived to breathe and cry and suck nourishment through the feeding nozzle. Mother delighted in the versatility of the instruments that filled the Cradle, allowing her to clean and comfort and feed him. But in the third week he caught cold. He grew warm and red, coughed, vomited and refused to eat. He cried continuously for several days, the sound of his breathing departing more and more from the rhythms she had recorded till then. Then he choked and, with a rapidity that stunned her, began to die.

By analyzing the structure of his esophagus and referring to two stories in the Library, Mother was able to understand the problem within a second; and in ten seconds, to devise a remedy. She evacuated the line leading to the feeding nozzle, brought the gremlin over, severed the line, spliced it to the gremlin's vacuum hose. She forced the nozzle down into Two's throat and began to vacuum; but by then he was dead.

Child Three was genetically damaged. For three months he grew and replicated, a nearly shapeless mass of cells; then stopped.

Then, for no reason she could name, Mother shut down. For two years she drifted and slept.

She awoke thinking of a number—111098246775932 squared—that was the residue of a dream both fearful and comforting. Everything was clear, suddenly. She had been mistaken to conceive the Children one at a time: they died too frequently. Besides, they needed company: something she had concluded from various readings, though it was not mentioned in the Directives. Henceforth she would activate the cradles four at a time.

She managed to save a male from the first quad; a female from the second; both females from the third; and a male from the fourth.

Earth looked familiar at first: there was the good old round bulk of Cape Good Hope, there the sprawl of Asia, there the long slant of the Americas.

But as Mother drew closer she saw that the coastlines were wrong. Everywhere the sea had whittled away at them. It had climbed back along the courses of rivers, spilling into the floodplains, leaving a fringe of fingerlike bays on every continent. Kmzawe City, if it had still existed, would have had a beach, as would Cairo, Hyderabad, Washington. The Aleutians had disappeared, Hispaniola and Florida were shrunken remnants.

And the colors: everywhere reds and yellows and browns, covering the continents in huge unvariegated swaths. No green, no white. The air glittered with unnatural transparency, and hardly a cloud showed from one pole to the other. Searching avidly, Mother detected no radio signals, no fires, no lights at the sunset-line.

Her sensors recorded surface temperatures as high as 96 degrees Celsius at the equator. The poles were somewhat cooler.

The surprising thing was her lack of surprise. In whose care had she left the planet, after all? The wonder was that it had taken them so long. From her journey and still more her readings she knew that in all the universe death was the normal state, natural and logical and utterly commonplace. It was life that was the freakish accident, a coin landing on its edge on the head of a pin.

She would have flown right on by, to make her fuel last a little longer, but for the possibility that the damage was reversible. Easing into a polar orbit, about twenty thousand miles high, she began to collect data.

Two decades and several trillion measurements later, she felt better. The seas were not preparing to boil, after all, but cooling, at a slow but accelerating rate. Algae and plankton already throve at both poles. The ozone layer was rebuilding itself, a few molecules at a time, the oxygen level very slowly increasing. In time there would be clouds again, then rain, finally even snow. Trees and grasses would make a rapid comeback, from seeds that had escaped sterilization in high latitudes, and animals would follow more slowly. It was only necessary to wait.

A thousand years should do it.

Though they endured longer than Rome, the Old Ones had no civilization in the usual sense. A population artificially limited to seven, dwelling in forty square meters of living space (later one hundred twenty; still later two hundred) builds little and leaves less. It produces no generals, statesmen, architects, industrialists, thieves, prostitutes, or hereditary aristocrats, nor any highways, aqueducts, casinos, bridges, prisons, supermarkets. Quite likely it could not sustain its own language, and theirs was English, by strange default, sharply creolized but always recognizable.

Skeptics might have argued that they did not even constitute a culture, since they were strictly dependent on Mother for all that they had, knew, and were. To this the Old Ones would have had a ready reply: that all beings are strictly dependent: and that if the men of Back Before had understood that, they might not have killed their world.

But they had their customs and their sayings, a kind of folk supplement to Mother's more systematic schooling. Holidays like Awakening Day and Feast of the Healing. Expressions like "clean as a cradle," "sweat or sag," "old as the hull," "think twice and speak soft." Unswerving dedication to rigorous workout routines, vitally necessary in the light gravity. A methodical cast of mind, a reverence for routine. Names for their generations: Sun Times when there were four females and three males, Moon Times when the opposite.

In due course they had heroes, and later, legends. Two Kim Ambidexter, who worked for seventeen years with a file, following Mother's directions, till he had cut a hole into Fuel Tank Number One, opening a new living space that seemed, to his startled brothers and sisters, vast as a continent. Five Juju Soft-Feet, who painted the fresco that later generations enjoyed in the shell of Fuel Tank Number Two. Thirteen Tene, who figured out how to fix a burnt-out bulb over a hydroponics tank, and persuaded Mother to let her try, and ended the Twenty-Year Famine.

And the tragic ones: Four John Agonizer, who went mad with boredom and confinement, and howled against the cruelty of Mother (as he saw it), and beat out his own brains against the wall of Fuel Tank Number Two, leaving a mark that was incorporated into Five Juju's fresco. Seven Kallia Pensive, who died more quietly, curled in a corner, refusing food and exercise and conversation. Eight Kimba Beautiful, who tried to kill her brother Jabeg Tallboy as he slept, hoping that then Mother would allow her to breed with her other brother, Mikov Dark Eyes; but was killed by Mother instead, the gremlin's pincers stopping her windpipe so neatly that the others slept on, and knew nothing of what happened till the next day, when the calm slow explanation sounded on the synthesizer. Eleven Caleb Terrifying, who tried to rape one sister, killed the brother who prevented him, then nearly destroyed the gremlin, till his other brother and two sisters at last managed to overpower him, and the machine sank a needle into his heart.

The visionaries: Three Susan Teacherly, who dreamed of Earth every night, and wrote down what she saw. Nine Charles Thirsty, who organized Mother's rules into eighty-eight simple rhymes. Every second or third generation a Charles or Sandra or Kmoto Fixerly, gifted at devising repairs to aging machinery, the life-giving talent prized above all others.

The eccentrics, the clowns. Fifteen Tusti Madman, who would have long comic debates with the gremlin, playing both his own part and the machine's, to the delight of his sisters. Seven Jean Strangeling, who took a cup of the fuel they made for Mother and, before the astonished eyes of his siblings, gagged it down. It seemed to fill him with the very happiness of the stars, making him laugh and sing and bounce off the hull, dangerously close to several tanks. But the next day he was sick, and Mother told them the fuel was poison; so the thing was never done again.

Above all they had their religion. They could hardly have lacked it, for their chief goddess spoke to them daily, through the main speaker in the Nursery and the headphones in the Booths. Her will was manifest in dials, lights, rumblings of the floor; to touch her they had only to place a hand on the nearest wall. Stern and gentle, wise but not all-knowing, capable of terrifying harshness at need, she was finally too familiar to be feared. They laughed at her stiff synthesized speech, so oddly inferior to their own, and they knew that she could make mistakes. Sometimes they would argue with her, and every so often one of them would win the argument, as happened when Thirteen Tene ended the famine. For her part Mother took no offense at such impertinences. She did not encourage them to despise their flesh or develop bad consciences, and she was not jealous: when they invented a few subsidiary deities to fill out their little cosmos, she raised no objection.

But in many matters she exacted complete obedience. Food was to be harvested in common and eaten communally, with no snacking, no overeating, no swapping back and forth once she had calculated the necessary portions for each individual. Sanitary and recycling procedures admitted no lapses. She informed them when they were dying and told them when they could breed, suffering no arguments whatever: for above all the population must be kept down to what their world would support. Over the centuries several violators earned premature trips to the recycler, sparing later generations from any doubt.

At the heart of the faith, though, were Earth and the Outside: things they never saw, but passionately believed in. Most of them subscribed to the teaching of Three Susan, that they would go there after their deaths, though Mother never quite told them this. What she told them was somewhat different: an unvarnished truth which they, being human, could not quite accept.

So a thousand years orbiting their damaged paradise, dreaming the world they never saw. A thousand years on the brink of extinction, at the verge of madness, shielded from the all-devouring Void by a few centimeters of ancient metal. The sunlight hit the solar vanes (which they never saw), it turned to electricity and lit the bulbs over the hydroponics tank and fed them. They in turn grew and watched and made the repairs needed to stave off the Void a little longer. They spent lifetimes distilling the fuel needed to perform the tiny maneuvers that kept them in the sky. They wrote their poems and controlled themselves and waited.

The world was all before them; but first things first. The lander had been on the ground no more than half an hour before six of the seven colonists—Twenty-Two Tene and Joseph and Mboga, Twenty-One Suki and Kinto and Lilith—stole off to separate glades, all within forty meters of the hatch, to sample other pleasures than sightseeing. Twenty Francis Thoughtful had agreed to be odd man out, since he was sicker than any of the others; but the females promised to make it up to him the next time, by giving him his choice of any of them.

"Get off!" gasped Tene. "I—can't—breathe!"

Joseph struggled up and rolled over. It was some time before he could gasp out, "Sorry! Are youall right?"

Tene grinned at him. "It's okay," she panted. "That was nice. Only—hard, still. God, have you ever sweated like this?" They were in the shade, but the heat and humidity beat on them in waves.

"It feels good," Joseph said happily. "Everything feels good when I'm with you. Did you like sex better than in orbit?"

"Mm-hm. I need to get acclimated still," Tene said delicately. "But I will. It's so much more . . ." She could not find the word, but Joseph nodded, knowing what she meant. Sex in .4 gravity was a languid affair: too much enthusiasm would disconnect you. Anyway they had not gotten much practice. Mother had not let them begin till the week before, because she did not want the women getting pregnant too soon. Or the men too possessive. Their food supplies would last nearly a year, but during that time they must become competent hunter-gatherers. Babies could wait.

Joseph thought of what his father had told him about his own sex life: how it lasted just eleven months before he, Joseph, was born: nothing before, nothing after. Ever. He felt stunned by his own relative good fortune.

"This is the life we were meant to lead," he said solemnly. "We were evolved for life on Earth, not for the ship."

Tene covered her mouth so Joseph would not see her smile. Not making fun of platitudes had been a strict point of etiquette for centuries.

They were still not used to seeing each other naked, and the bright sun and open space made her regret her dark stringy limbs and small breasts. "Turn your back. I'm getting dressed." She wriggled back into her jumper and Joseph, to be polite, pulled on his shorts. The effort left them breathless again and they lay back, looking at the sky. "It's so big!"

"Gigantic," Joseph agreed. There were clouds overhead which, to his untrained eye, looked as if you could stand up and pull them down from the ceiling: but it was a bigger ceiling than he had ever imagined.

As the sense of space bore in on them they drew a little closer. Not far off, they could just make out the top edge of the lander, still smoking with the heat of re-entry. From the other direction came the reassuring noise of Kinto and Lilith moaning, gasping, finishing. The plants and bushes around the clearing looked more like giant ferns than the trees they had seen in pictures. The long grass beneath them was soft and fragrant, but did something that made one's skin itch. No birdsong disrupted the silence of the clearing, no cricket, katydid, frog, or beetle.

If they saw any birds, Mother had told them, they would be clumsy specimens, the descendants of survivor penguins; and possibly there would be rodent-like animals that had descended from whales or seals. With plants thriving again but most animal niches still vacant, evolution was proceeding explosively: but still a millennium was only a tick on that clock.

It was September, and in this hemisphere colder months lay ahead. Probably no snow would fall during their lifetimes, here in northern Siberia. But in four or five centuries, strange as it seemed, the clearing would lie many feet deep in ice. That was why they would need to begin wandering south after a decade or so, and their children and grandchildren after them. An average of four to six kilometers a year would be enough, Mother had said, two or three hundred in a lifetime. It would mean leaving the lander behind, which was the hard part.

Tene nuzzled into Joseph's side. "Now, you be nice to old Francis if he chooses me," she said lazily.

"Of course," said Joseph.

He lay there cradling her head on his chest, happier, he thought, than he had ever dreamed a man could be. And yet somehow his joy was a little less than it had been. From somewhere a little particle of darkness had joined it, a sunspot, a ripple of shadow amid bright waves. Perhaps it was the postcoital effect Mother had told them about. He couldn't remember if he had felt the same thing aboard the Ship or not.

Putting Tene gently to one side, Joseph rolled over to his hands and knees, then stood up. In his hand he abruptly found a new marvel: a chunk of Siberian gravel, amazingly cool and hard and heavy. He studied it avidly, marveling at the green-black color, the shape that seemed made for gripping, the little lines that time had etched through the solid stone. Finally he grinned at Tene. "Hey, watch this." He drew back his arm and threw the stone, hard, across the glade.

 

 

John Kilgore teaches literature and creative writing at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He has published work in THE NEBRASKA REVIEW, MCCALL'S, NEBULA, SPACE AND TIME, THE RIVER KING POETRY SUPPLEMENT, THE SCREAM ONLINE, and elsewhere. He won Illinois Artists Fellowships in 1987 and again in 1998, and published a small collection, IMPROBABILITIES, in 1991. Currently he is seeking a publisher for his novel RADIO ROGER, a fantasy epic set in a universe where apocalypse has become a bad habit. John can be reached at cfjdk[ATA]eiu.edu (replace [AT] with @).

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