No Alphabet Can Spell It by Emily C. Skaftun
No Alphabet Can Spell It
by Emily C. Skaftun
Synopsis: The remaining three Fixie astronauts on their way to colonize CelBod have been out of contact with Earth for years. When they arrive on their new home planet, they find robots run amok, an elaborate garden, and a flock of semi-feral children and teens … and the genetic legacy of the human race may depend on this menagerie.
For lack of a better name, I call myself Laika. We’ve both been shot into space and abandoned, though not necessarily in that same order. But unlike the original Laika, I intend not to die.
To that aim I rouse Belka. She swings at me, but her arms are tangled in her cocoon’s elastic straps so I don’t have to dose her with the tranquilizer I hold behind my back. After a minute the wildness dissipates out of her eyes. But it stays close, held in by the gravitic mass of her insanity. She looks through me. “We must be there, huh?” she asks, as though I’d come to offer her another gray and mushy frozen dinner instead of a wide-open planet under a real sky.
I nod, and she extricates herself from the sleeping pod and moves toward the Wildest Dreams’ flight control area. She seems compliant, so I retrieve the syringe cap from a zippered pocket and stow the now-capped tranquilizer in another pocket before she can see it. But I keep my distance. The image of Albert trailing behind us into the frozen void, the sound of Belka’s hysterical laughter, will be with me for however many centuries I live.
A lot of things didn’t survive the forty-five-trillion-kilometer voyage to CelBod, the planet now hanging hugely before we three remaining Fixies like a gray-blue waxing marble, furry-edged against the black of space: the flavor of real food, comms with Earth, optimism, Belka’s sanity, and Albert, to name a few.
Gordo is waiting for us by the wide forward window, and I let the zero-g tides pull me to him as they always do. We hold hands nervously, as if we were still pre-teen orphans in NASA’s strictly controlled dormitories and not fifty-something Fixies mere hours from colonizing an exo-planet. Assuming Belka doesn’t decide to crash and kill us all.
Something has apparently gone wrong with the dual-particle transmitter between Earth and CelBod, because according to mission specs we’re supposed to be bouncing messages to the planet for instant relay to Earth. But it’s not working. It’s hard to say exactly when the problem started, because we were somewhere in the middle and there was still an awfully long lag between us and either side of the DPT, but the last transmission we did receive didn’t exactly fill us with joy. The woman on the other end was distracted, and asked us to wait a minute (which was funny, because I think we were waiting almost two years at that point anyhow), and then she looked offscreen and said, “What the hell is that?” And then all we saw was static.
I have been clinging to the idea that the transmitter on CelBod just needs some tweaking that the CREATORs and AIs can’t handle. Gordo doesn’t disabuse me of that thought, even though he is the mission engineer and knows everything about the DPT, and even though we all know that the robots built the damn thing in the first place and probably know how to fix it better than any human.
But I try to put those thoughts aside. Through the front window, Celestial Body #8972642158 is so gorgeous that I could almost call it Eden or Goloka or Valhalla or Shangri-la or any of the other names romantic Earthlings tried to stick on it. CelBod shimmers as we dive toward her, two moons hiding behind her like shy children.
I hope the planet is more eager to meet us.
The landing doesn’t kill us, even with no support from Earth or the AIs seeded on this world, and despite Belka’s wild cackling as she pilots us through the planet’s bumpy atmosphere. In fact, we land within a few kilometers of the targeted landing zone, on a huge volcanic flow that looks eerily like the barren stretch of New Mexico we trained in. The land we can see out our windows is smooth reddish-gray, with rocks that rise high above the Wildest Dreams like ocean waves. All of it is bathed in light from the yellow sun.
I want to jump out of my chair and pop the hatch and run to the settlement that the AIs and CREATORs have been building these past decades, but gravity immediately makes its presence known, and everything becomes hard. It takes me a few tries just to get my hands up to the buckles on my harness. I barely manage to lift them out of my lap, and then I overshoot and hit myself in the face. Then I laugh, watching Belka and Gordo struggle with their own gravity.
“Gravity is such a downer!” Gordo yells, laughing like a maniac as he tumbles from his jumpseat.
I finally stand up on my wobbly fawn legs. They don’t immediately snap, so I take a few steps. The world is heavy and I am weak, but there’s a familiarity to it that’s also solidly reassuring. After a few minutes we all manage to stand and stretch, and before we can stop her Belka opens the hatch latch. Fresh air streams in, ruffling our hair, and we breathe deeply.
“It’s a good thing the O2 reports the AIs sent back were right,” Gordo says, still laughing a little. “How funny would it have been to get all this way and die when we opened the hatch to poison air?”
“Hilarious,” Belka says, but despite the flatness of her voice, I think she means it. I can easily picture her laughing breathlessly even as she asphyxiated.
I just shake my head, turning my back on the two comedians and heading for the ramp. I am the first one down, but I have no momentous words. Actually, right then gravity catches up with my bladder, and I urgently need to pee. It’s such a perfect mockery of our whole epic undertaking that I start to laugh too, joining the chorus of hyenas that we astronauts have become. We giggle like schoolchildren, getting our land legs as we run and cautiously jump and spin around on the blood-red rocks. Which is, of course, exactly what we must look like; none of us were older than twelve when we were Fixed, decades ago.
As we finally sit, giddiness ebbing, soaking in the warm rays of sun through atmosphere, reality starts to sink in. We are here. We’re on an alien planet, breathing alien air, and sitting under an alien sun. These things are subtly different from those we left behind: the air a little thinner, the sun brighter, the sky a darker, almost indigo blue. But after a decade in the tiny vessel behind us, it’s like home. Which is good, because it is home now.
“Can you believe we live here?” I ask, another wave of hysteria threatening to overcome me.
The others shake their heads. Of course, we actually live eight kilometers to the southwest, near the shore of a brackish ocean. Gordo and I debate the merits of walking that distance to the settlement, the conditions of which are unknown. Our alternative is to spend yet another night in the goddamn Dreams, and even if any of us could stomach that thought, the ship is only outfitted for zero-g sleeping. With the ship on the ground, I’m not sure any of our bunks will be usable.
Gordo pushes hard for the hike, almost yelling in his squeaky voice, but Belka silences us with one quiet word. “Listen,” she says. She is sitting far from us, near the top of a wavy ridge, but we hear her and are immediately silent. At first I don’t hear anything, and then I do: a little crack, with a little echo. “What is that?”
The sound comes again, and Gordo looks at Belka with what I call his “imminent tantrum” look. “It sounds like a twig snapping. So what?” he asks.
Before words can come I’m on my feet, walking past Belka up the rise. “This planet doesn’t have trees, remember? So how can there be twigs?”
“And if they’re not twigs, what are they?” Belka adds ominously. “Not to mention the question of who or what is stepping on them.” She opens her eyes wide, and I know that now she’s just trying to scare us. We may have watched too many horror films in our years aboard the Dreams. In a spaceship, everyone can hear you scream.
From the top of the volcanic wave we have a panoramic view all the way down to the coast. It’s breathtaking, but not in a way any of us expected. The distant sea shines greenly, topped with whitecaps. Next to it we can just make out the cylindrical units of the settlement, built by the CREATORs from native minerals and parts shipped ahead. And in between here and there, where there should only be swirls of striated rock and wispy alien shrubs, is a vast field of trees.
That would be strange enough. Due to spotty info from our early robotic scouts, questions of what flora and fauna should be unleashed on CelBod were to be left to me, the mission biologist, upon our arrival. But the strangeness doesn’t end there.
Imagine an orange grove, with trees in orderly rows. Imagine the already round trees shaved into perfect spheres atop oddly straight and uniform trunks. And then imagine that they aren’t orange trees. Oh, some are—I can see a row of them stretching diagonally down until I lose sight of the orange fruits peeking from the leaves—but there are also apple trees, and other fruit, and pines shaped like designer Christmas trees. The lines of trees display a level of perfection that’s flat-out unreal. And between them, ribbons of water glimmer in rounded right-angle formations, like the printed paths of circuit boards.
“Um … ,” Gordo says.
The cracking sound comes again, off to the left, and we all snap our heads around to look.
The robot’s body is short and spindly; it stands on four long legs with a cylindrical midsection resembling a fuel tank and a smaller head stacked on top of that. This seems to be tipped at a quizzical angle, with two lens-like eyes pointed in our direction. In its two long arms the robot holds a stick, and as we watch it snaps the stick in two and inserts both halves into a hole in its thorax.
I find myself unreasonably frightened. The thing doesn’t look unfriendly. In fact, it looks like a misshapen mechanical dog trying to understand its master, and I don’t immediately see anything weapon-like on or around it. But still goose bumps raise the hairs on my neck and arms.
This robot is not from Earth.
As I’m staring, slack-jawed, Gordo’s hand slips into mine. I pull my gaze from the surreal sight and see my shock reflected in his face. I squeeze his hand, and he smiles vaguely. And then from the creepy orchard more of the robots emerge, one by one, until a line of them gazes up at us from the tree line.
I’m racking my brain thinking of things we can use as weapons, but we came in peace. I still have the syringe in my pocket, a less-than-useless weapon against a metal foe. We have tools, perhaps, that could be used as clubs. These are stowed both inside and outside the ship, but the ship is behind us and I don’t know how fast robots can run. But then Gordo starts to laugh, He’s trying to contain it, but I can feel his mirth through his slightly sweaty grip as he draws himself up and addresses the legion of robots. “Take me to your leader?” he says.
As it turns out, robots are good carriers. They easily tote everything we need from the Wildest Dreams, and I get the sense that they could have carried the whole damn ship on their shoulders, like robotic ants, if there’d been a wide-enough passage between the manicured trees. Their limbs telescope in addition to bending at joints, and they navigate the terraced landscape as gracefully as ballerinas, their heads always level. We walk alongside them as they mutely lead us down the steps and over the thin streams of water to the settlement. We stay quiet too, in some mixture of awe and fear. The robots stop sometimes to break errant twigs away from the trees or to pluck them from the ground, which is clean and smooth and flat, with no rocks or leaves to be seen.
With perhaps a mile to go to the settlement, we are ambushed again.
Figures swing down from alcoves in the increasingly odd-shaped trees. The noises are terrific, shrieking and beeping and something that might be a purr or a growl. Instinctively I reach for Gordo, and he for me. Behind me I hear Belka emit a squeak.
I don’t know what I expected. Some kind of alien monkeys, maybe, or agile and noisy robots. But then I see the ambushers, ringing us in a slightly menacing way, although their hands are empty. They have hands. They are human beings.
Teenagers, to be exact. They are taller than us, taller even than Earth teenagers. They are naked, their secondary sex characteristics dangling here and there for all to see. Breasts. Armpit hair. The works.
For a long moment nobody speaks. Our robot porters continue on without a pause, even though we’ve stopped dead. Some of the teens are still making an assortment of noises that sound more mechanical than animal. One girl, looking me right in the eyes, beeps angrily. And then almost at once, as if on an unseen cue, they erupt in laughter. “It’s just a couple of kids!” one particularly tall boy calls out. His accent is strange, kind of staccato. “Where did you come from, little kids?” asks another. “What’s wrong with your skin?”
They don’t wait for answers. They’re all around us, and all we can do is move with the herd. I tilt my head back to see how Belka is, but she’s gone without a trace, just like Albert. I do not mourn her loss, though I miss him intensely right now. He was our psychiatrist.
The teens lead us into the settlement, which looks better than I’d dared hope. Some of the pods Earth sent ahead seem to be missing, but there are other buildings made from metal and glass and what looks like silk, in bright if childish patterns. Some of the buildings are tall, some scarcely above ground, but all are what I would describe as whimsical, covered in spired turrets and domes and ladders and catwalks and some features I don’t have names for. Among them I recognize some of the pods, and more importantly the looming Eiffel Tower–shaped antennae of the dual-particle transmitter. All in all, I feel like Dorothy seeing Oz for the first time, surrounded by tall munchkins in a gaudy new place.
But I also feel relieved, and I’m not the only one. “The transmitter!” Gordo practically yells in my ear. He starts to run toward it, but he’s stopped by the naked children.
“No TV,” says a girl’s high voice, followed by a lot of giggling.
Another girl comes toward me, reaching with slender but calloused fingers toward the arm of my jumpsuit. I stand still, thinking not to startle her, as if she were a wild animal. And so it is a moment before I notice her enormous nude belly.
She is pregnant.
Pregnancy has always fascinated me, because it’s something I can never do. As a Fixie, I’ll be physically twelve years old for as long as I live—which might be two hundred years. When the Wildest Dreams left Earth, the oldest living Fixie was 142 years old and still running marathons. His skin was wrinkled and a bit spotted, and he’d had cataract surgery many years before, and he’d had some trouble with his liver (which was attributed to an excess of liquor), but he was healthy as a clam otherwise. The trade-off, of course, is puberty. We don’t have it, and thus we can’t reproduce. In my case, this choice was a no-brainer. If I’d have finished puberty, the docs told me, I had a 90 percent chance of dying from a hereditary thyroid disease called Storgen-Childs. Whee.
I twist my hand toward her belly. Her eyes—an otherworldly green—lock onto mine, gaze broken only by chunks of evenly clipped hair falling across her face. As my fingers creep toward her belly, and hers pet the thin fabric that covers me, I think I see her smile slightly.
But then an ominous hush overtakes the crowd of children, and she draws back as if shocked.
What now? I think. I’m getting pretty sick of first contacts already, but when a huge, spider-looking robot roves into view, I almost faint with relief. It’s a CREATOR, one of the robots Earth sent ahead. “Let. Them. Through,” it says, bleating the words out with its antiquated speakers.
As it scuttles away, Gordo and I follow through the parting crowd of youngsters. They wait until we are past them before chirping and whirring and laughing, a cacophony like feeding time at an outer space zoo.
CREATOR leads us to one of the old pods, which is buried at the end of a curving metal staircase that goes down I’m not sure how far. CREATOR is too big to get down the steps, so it squats on top of the cellar door like a giant spider guarding its web. The walls are sheer, almost glass-like cuts of stone, and at the bottom is a cold chamber with a lot of flat-panel screens, all of which show nothing but static.
Gordo makes a beeline for a computer terminal and starts typing away. I am momentarily overwhelmed with gratitude for him. If he’d been the one Belka sent on extended spacewalk, or if he’d been the one to succumb to space ennui and withdraw, I doubt I would have made it to CelBod with my own sanity intact. And now, watching him commune with computer systems, I’m grateful in another way. Thank the universe for my engineer, I think. My own redundancy training in computers is like a faint memory, and whatever is wrong with the dual-particle transmitter, I’m sure I could never fix it on my own.
I’m startled when the computer starts talking. “OMG, John?” it asks in an almost human-sounding female voice. The screen Gordo’s using fills with a sideways emoticon—in other words, a smiley face. “I’ve been waiting for you for … calculating …”
Gordo cuts it off. “Yes, it’s been a while.” He turns to me, a look of vague worry on his face. For my part, I am shocked by the computer’s use of Gordo’s legal name. I’d almost forgotten it.
“And Jane!” the computer fairly shrieks. “Can we play games now?”
My brow wrinkles so tight it hurts, and I force my face to relax. I’m reaching way back into my memory, back to the training days at NASA, when we and the other prospectives met the AIs. Of course, we never met the first one to leave for CelBod; that was before our time. But I do remember playing chess and other games with a version of the AI that left later. All of the software was designed to mingle and learn from disparate experiences, so a later arrival must have remembered us.
AI theory said that if we fed them enough data (which we did—practically all of the knowledge humans had ever gleaned), gave them a purpose (which we also did, by entrusting them with the preparation of CelBod’s settlement), and left them alone (which since the transmitter died had obviously been the case), they would mature.
As I watch the smiley face bob up and down on the screen, shifting mouths and eyes, I’m starting to think this hasn’t happened.
Eventually I realize that I should respond. Thankfully, Gordo already has. “Computer?” I hear him asking. “Can we play games later? I’d like to get a little work done first.”
The emoticon on the screen changes rapidly, so fast I’m not sure what characters it’s using. But the effect is a distinct eye roll. “Okay,” it says. “What can I do?”
“I’m trying to re-establish communication with Earth through the dual-particle transmitter,” Gordo says. “Can you tell me what’s wrong with it?”
“Oh,” the computer says, her emoticon mouth turning into an O, then returning to a smile. “It’s not broken. Can we play now? None of my children have the patience for Go.” On a nearby screen, the static turns to an even grid, a Go board.
“What do you mean?” I blurt out, ignoring the computer’s request. I put my hand on Gordo’s shoulder for comfort.
Gordo, with remarkable restraint, says, “Not just yet, okay? If the DPT is working, then I’d like to talk to mission control. Can you connect me?”
“No,” it says. The smiley face shoots up off the screen, replaced by a flatlined face. “Earth is gone.”
Gordo and I spend the rest of the day underground, glued to the multiple monitors of the comm center. All of the streams coming from Earth have been recorded, up to the point at which there are no more. So we scan newscasts, because the NASA comms, which stopped almost six years ago, say nothing, nothing, nothing. “What the hell is that?” And the question is never answered.
Between requests for games, the computer tells us that it’s just as well Earth is gone. It tells us about lying to NASA, what spoilsports they were. Its emoticon winks at me, and even Gordo’s arms around me can’t stop my shaking.
The newscasts stopped coming in only a few months back. Leading up to the final broadcasts, there is talk of political tensions between countries. It doesn’t seem any more fervent than what I saw in my sheltered life as a NASA orphan and biotechnologist. There’s no real warning before the news blinks off, and it looks like all countries went off the air within two weeks. At first we try to establish a chronology, but soon we give up. What difference does it make?
Earth isn’t talking. And it’s far enough away that we can’t know what’s happening, now or ever. We don’t have equipment sophisticated enough to even see the planet from here. I think the computer was exaggerating, and Earth is still there. I even think there are probably people on it. There have to be some people, right? But they’ve lost the will or the ability to communicate with us, so the spirit of its statement remains true.
We are alone.
Or at least we would be if it weren’t for the horde of children. They are standing at the top of the stairs when Gordo and I emerge, chittering like a flock of grounded birds. The sky is a twilight purple, though the sun has already set. Above the eerily level tree line I see a huge half moon like a yin and yang, black side clearly visible against the not-black of the night. Below it the second moon rises redly, like a harvest moon. It could almost pass for Luna, if it weren’t for the behemoth above it. A chill runs up my neck, though the air is mild: this is an alien world.
The children have us backed up against the doorway, and it occurs to me, not for the first time, that they intend to murder us. Well, it was fun, I think bitterly. Four boys stand at the forefront of the crowd, puffing their naked chests. “You don’t belong here,” one declares. Another asks, “Are you going to tell on us?” and a squeak on tell betrays his nervousness.
“We came from Earth,” Gordo says, trying to muster a deep and authoritative tone. It’s clear these teens don’t respect us; there’s no way for them to know we’re in our fifties. “And we come in peace.”
To his credit, he says it with a straight face. The crowd of teens is divided between laughter and eye rolling and awe. “Yes,” the apparent leader says, moving menacingly close to us. “We saw that movie too. Annie loves movies.”
“Well, it’s true,” I add meekly, arms spread placatingly.
“Give me your lunch money,” the tallest one yells, to more laughter. He is standing right on top of us, puffing his chest out and bumping into Gordo, knocking his footing off balance.
I look around at the crowd, noticing more and more. For one thing, all of the kids seem to be within a few years in age. They’re clearly older than ten years old, which means that the AIs started growing them before the Wildest Dreams even left Earth. I suppose that’s not surprising, given the established trees. The other thing I notice, scanning the crowd, is that the four males in front are the only ones. There are at least a couple dozen girls, maybe thirty or forty. Which also makes sense, if the goal of the AIs was to start a breeding population as quickly as possible. My eyes search for the pregnant girl I saw earlier, and I eventually recognize her by the ridiculous clarity of her green eyes.
But not before I see several other bulging bellies.
The other obvious thing is the two separate groups: girls in a ring behind, boys alone in front. Yet I don’t think the boys are dominant; in fact, they seem a little afraid of the girls.
“What do you mean?” Gordo asks, looking a bit worried. We’re surrounded, and the boys are pressing closer all the time. My hand drifts to my pocket, where the syringe still waits. I don’t want to start out on the wrong foot here, but I also don’t want to be crushed in what appears to be a power struggle with savage hormonal humans who shouldn’t even be here. When the boy leans in again, looming over me like a gorilla, I hit him in the abdomen with my needle and push the plunger home.
He drops like a bag of rocks, almost crushing me in the process. Silence ensues. Then whistling like steam from a kettle, and high-pitched sounds that I take as approving from the ring of girls.
And then they whisk us away once again, to the living quarters where our belongings have been thoroughly rooted through and then stored neatly in cubes. There’s a bed for us in one of the cylindrical pods, which seems smaller than the ones we trained in and around on Earth. We’re apparently expected to share the bed. I think I should protest, but I don’t want to. The sight of the soft mattress makes me realize what a long, long day it’s been. The same must be true for Gordo, because as soon as the children and the spindly robots leave us alone we lie down together and fall into a dead sleep.
But not before I realize how wonderful it feels: Gordo’s warmth and weight next to me, the evenness of his breath. We’re home, I think. I wrap my arms around him and close my eyes.
The same waxy light is filtering in through the pod’s windows when I am shaken awake, and I open my eyes to see two sets of eyes glowing whitely back at me. Two of the naked girls crouch by my bed with urgent expressions on their faces. It’s all I can do not to scream.
“M-1 says you’re just a child, but it isn’t true, is it?”
I look over my shoulder to Gordo, who is still sleeping with his mouth wide and his arms flung above his head. I shake my head, then notice the girls’ puzzled looks and whisper, “No, we’re not children. But how did you know?”
The one on the left points skyward. “We saw your … arrival. It was a thing beyond our grasp. Like the machines, you must be more than you seem.”
The logic has me stunned. I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time obsessing over Earth and had spent more learning about the facts on the ground here. I still don’t know why the AIs decided to grow people without authorization, or how they raised them, but for the moment I’m impressed.
The girl on the right beeps a few times, very fast. “Yes, and stories. Talk later. F-3 needs us.”
They both squeak, and I am practically pulled out of bed to a harmony of eerie whistling. I think to wake Gordo, but he looks so peaceful, and he deserves the rest. The girls and I walk under the light of two moons until we reach a ladder that spirals up into a tree so tall that it’s hard to believe it’s not native—except for its rigidly straight trunk and round branches. We climb up, way up, onto a platform that looks rough and unstable. Broken limbs of trees and scraps of metal are laid jaggedly like driftwood, wedged into nooks and tied with crude-looking rope. In other places, hammocks sag from holes in the floor, and on one end of the platform, the torso of one of the spindly robots is wired between two horizontal branches to make a chimney.
I can see at once that this is their place, fashioned with human hands.
Girls sleep on every available flat space, and some that aren’t so flat. Near the robot-stove, though, a group of them huddle around one figure writhing on a bed of leaves. It is the pregnant girl, the one who touched my clothes.
One of the ones who brought me here—F-8, she tells me—leans down to whisper to me, “F-3 is … we do not know. Annie only says that she makes a new life. But she looks like the other thing.”
“Annie,” the other one says. She is tall, almost too tall for the tree house we’re in. “The director, the mother, the intelligence.”
“The teacher,” another says, a girl I’d thought asleep near my feet.
“The one from before.”
And then they are saying words too quickly for me to make them out, interspersed with the name and a lot of beeps and trills. The only dissenting sound is a wail of pain from F-3. A contraction. I go to her, stepping carefully around holes in the floor and the naked limbs of beeping girls. She looks at me with her piercing eyes wide and white all around. Her skin is clammy and cold, and she shakes all over.
The next few hours are a blur. I am a biologist, not a doctor, and my training in creating human life was focused on the laboratory end, the vat growing that I would do to seed this planet. Our doctor went for a spacewalk somewhere between suns and never came back. Not for the first time it occurs to me how unprepared we are, despite it all. I try my best, with no equipment and no way to communicate with the AIs—Annie—and their nearly infinite store of information, telling myself that women have been doing this for millions of years.
Of course, they’ve been dying in the process for just as long.
F-3 gives birth in the relative dark of night, with only one half moon for ambience. It’s a girl. She wails as the other girls rush to clean her off, and I show them how to support the baby’s head. They beep and click and whir, cooing to her in the strangest baby talk I’ve ever heard. They seem interested and frightened in equal measure, and it’s the first time I really register their similarity in ages. They have no little sisters and brothers, and have probably never seen a baby. It’s another mystery: why Annie would make only one round of children and then stop, given the enormous store of genetic material Earth sent to CelBod. But I am exhausted, up to my elbows in blood and the other offal of birth, and I’m in no mood for mysteries.
I turn back toward F-3 and am shocked by her pallor and the cloudy cast of her eyes. Maybe it’s the moonlight, I think. But it’s not. I try my best to save her, calling up old redundancy training in medicine. I look for tears and try to stop her bleeding. But the problem is inside, beyond me.
By the time I stop trying the sun is rising, filling the thin air with light that filters through green leaves. F-3’s body is as cold as space. “What happened to her?” one of the girls asks me.
I shake my head. “I’m sorry,” I say. “She’s dead.”
The hush that follows is thick, broken only by the baby’s mewling. All eyes in the tree house slowly turn my way.
“Dead?” one says, as if testing out the word. I feel my eyes getting wet, and I can only nod.
“Is she broken?”
I want to say no, she is more than that. But I just nod again, a gesture that they don’t seem to recognize. A few of the girls have come over to look at the body and prod it with their fingers, and then they seem to get it. I let out a breath, grateful that I don’t have to try to explain death. Or to understand it.
Some of the girls start to carry F-3 away, loading her into a pulley system that goes over the side of the tree house. Others cluster around the baby, who continues to whine. I look over to see the infant’s fingers locked around one of a pregnant teen, who beams down at her. “What should we call her?” I ask, aiming for a cheery tone.
Some of them look curiously at me, heads at an angle like the robot in the woods. Many of them seem to have Fs on their lips, looking around the group as if counting. “No, no, no,” I say, shaking my head uselessly. “A name. Let’s give her something a little more … meaningful?”
The girls are stumped. They look wildly around them, obviously trying to pick names from the tree’s branches, like fruit. F-6, the tall one who came for me, asks, “What are you called?”
And now I’m stumped. I almost tell them to call me Laika, the name I took on the Wildest Dreams. But those dark thoughts of abandonment seem wrong for this place, so I hesitate. My official name seems wrong too. Jane Doe. It’s as bad as no name at all.
Eventually I shrug. “I don’t really have a name either,” I say. “I guess I need one too.”
But that thought just hangs there among the branches, because the baby starts wailing again, loud and demanding.
“She needs food,” I say. “Milk.” I wonder briefly if they have milk before reasoning that these people were once babies, and obviously ate something. A few of them are themselves pregnant, so I guess there’ll be milk soon, assuming I can keep some of the moms alive.
The girls nearest to the baby start to move, picking her up and heading toward the long ladder. A chorus of noise spreads from them, with the letters O and K at its core. The creepy sensation that these alien teenagers give me is coming back. They remind me of a flock of birds, or a hive of bees, a colony of ants. Something not quite human.
At that moment I think of Gordo, who is surely awake by now and wondering where I’ve gone. I feel it like a shot of pain, and I start to follow the girls to the ladder. But F-8 stops me with a tug at my sleeve. “How did this happen?” she asks. “How did that … baby … get inside F-3?”
So I find myself giving the birds and bees talk to a group of birds and bees. They know shockingly little, despite being raised by information itself with a steady diet of movies, and despite living as naked as monkeys. And yet, they’ve obviously been experimenting. When I tell them the connection between intercourse and pregnancy, a knowing look enters F-8’s eyes. She pats her abdomen absentmindedly, and I notice the beginning of swelling there. Others look worried, frightened beyond belief. I try to reassure them that the process isn’t usually fatal, but I don’t think they believe me.
“How do you know these things?” one asks, a tiny girl who’s sitting with her arms around her knees. “You look younger than me.”
I start at the beginning, then realize I have to go even further back. “I’m much older than you,” I say. “I’m fifty-three years old. And on Earth, our years are a little longer than here.”
“You’re a Fixie,” one offers.
“Exactly,” I sigh, grateful to be momentarily off the hook. A ripple of mechanical-sounding wonder moves through the crowd, and now many of them look at me the same way they did at the baby. It’s been an illuminating day for them, and the sun’s only just risen. I’m tired and extremely hungry, so I shrug off all the questions and head toward the ladder and, hopefully, some kind of breakfast. If nothing else, our extra provisions from the Wildest Dreams are around here somewhere.
I’m climbing onto the top rungs, twisting around to descend, when F-8 says, “So, when are you going to get un-Fixed?”
And my foot slips.
I find Gordo in the kitchen/living room pod, which has been modified and added on to, making a huge cafeteria with tables and benches that pop up out of the floor on telescoping legs. He’s in the middle, surrounded by a lot of the naked girls. They leave a berth around him, but it’s obvious that they’re split pretty evenly between interest and fear. There are no boys in the cafeteria.
Gordo is stuffing his face as fast as he can. He has three square plates in front of him, piled high with fruits and vegetables and bread and even what looks like fresh meat. He’s so focused on the food that he doesn’t notice me approaching, and jumps when I touch his shoulder, food juice dribbling down his chin.
“I guess I shouldn’t have worried about you worrying about me,” I say.
He looks up at me guiltily, and I grin. Then I slide onto the bench next to him and start eating food from his plates. It’s delicious, and not just compared to ten years of freeze-dried whatever. Whatever else “Annie” has been up to, she’s done a great job getting food production up and running. It seems like everything we need to make a go of it is already done.
“Info spreads fast in this place,” he says. “Without words, often. Have you noticed how they use other sounds in their language?”
I nod, enjoying the hell out of something resembling bacon. For the moment I’m not concerned that I haven’t seen any pigs for it to be from. “Have you been hanging out with the ‘Ms’?” I ask, employing air quotes for punctuation.
Gordo shakes his head. “They don’t want anything to do with me. Unless it’s to loom over me brandishing their wispy mustaches. The ‘Fs’ seem a bit skittish too, although they all really wanted to watch me take a leak.”
I can’t help but laugh. “Well,” I say. “They learned a lot about men and women today. They probably just wanted to see which one you were.” I ruffle his hair, which looks oddly flat with a planet’s mass tugging it down.
“Yes, well. I guess they’ve decided it’s neither. For now, anyway. Did you hear that we can un-Fix ourselves?”
I’m not laughing now; my heart starts beating fast. “Yes,” I say carefully.
“It was one of the last things Earth sent before it blew itself up or whatever.”
I just nod. It’s refreshing to be around someone who understands body language. Hell, Gordo and I know each other so well after forty-some years together, we could probably communicate with only body language. So I can tell that neither of us wants to be the one to ask. It’s so awkward that I give in. “I don’t want to,” I say. Even if my thyroid wouldn’t probably kill me, I still wouldn’t want to. Once, long ago, I longed to grow up. To have boobs and hips and make steamy love with beautiful people. To have a family. But not in a long time. Our bodies may not mature, but our minds and our hearts do; they learn to long for other things.
Now Gordo nods, relief and a touch of frown on his face. “Yeah, me neither. Let’s see how old we can get instead.”
“That’s right,” I say. “I want to be around to see F-3’s baby’s grandchildren. As long as I don’t have to deliver them.”
Gordo laughs, and it seems genuine now, the same little-boy smile that kept me sane across the void. “Okay,” he says. “We’ll have ‘Annie’ train some doctors.”
It’s gotten quiet in the cafeteria, even the little beeps and whatnot noises hushed. I’m in mind of a forest when a predator nears, but I’m sure there aren’t any predators here. The little naked children wouldn’t have stood a chance.
But the girls surrounding us all have firm grips on their cutlery, from knives to spoons, and their mouths are set in determination. Thankfully, those looks aren’t aimed at us. In terms of table manners, a decade in zero-g has left us less civilized than these kids, and therefore unarmed.
I look where they’re looking, toward the door, and see the tallest boy entering. M-1, I presume. He almost has to duck to get in the doorway, followed by the other boys close behind.
Things happen fast. I feel motion and Gordo’s arms around me, and I see the girls turn into a blur of anger and flesh. They spin together like a tornado, silverware flashing. I hear yelling and gnashing noises and cries of pain, and somehow under that I even hear the sickening impacts of metal into flesh. I smell blood.
One more sound emerges from the melee: a maniacal laugh that haunts my dreams. I look around wildly, taking in the flailing arms and kicking legs, and in all the motion a still face at a window catches my eye. An impish little girl’s face, beaming with madness. She’s gone in an instant, but I know with a clarity I can’t explain that this chaos is Belka’s doing.
And then I realize that I’m on top of the table with Gordo, and that it’s become a tall platform, lifting us above the melee. Near the door bodies slump on the floor, and I can’t tell if they’re breathing or not, only that they’re bleeding. Not again, I think. But it’s not the same: this time the bodies, at least the ones I can see, are male. The crowd starts to disperse, and I see an army of the spindly robots coming in with scrubbing attachments on their hands and feet.
“How many boys are there in this place?” I whisper to Gordo. He is silent. “How many?” I ask again, with greater urgency.
“I’ve only seen four,” he finally says. At which point he gets my point, and uses the control panel at the side of the table to lower it back down.
But it’s too late. The wild girls know how to wield their cutlery, and all four boys are dead or dying from stab wounds. Gordo and I press towels into their wounds, but they still die. The robots carry them away, presumably to join F-3, maybe to become bacon. Who can say?
In the whir of machinery only a few girls remain, tending to their sisters with bruises and cuts. I see F-8, pushing against a robot that’s trying to clean blood spatter off of her like one would with an overly friendly dog. “Why?” I ask her.
She looks at me with red blood against red cheeks, but no emotion in her eyes. “One of them broke F-3. And maybe many more of us too. They needed to be taken out of service.”
It’s so ridiculous that I can’t even think. Until now, I haven’t let myself consider the big thoughts. I haven’t thought of Earth and the billions of people presumably dead. I haven’t thought that we on CelBod might be all that’s left of humankind, charged with the task of continuing that legacy. Thinking it now makes my soul hurt.
I cling to Gordo in the blood-spattered room, feeling young and old.
Colonizing a new planet could never be simple.
NASA spent years, with international partners, assembling a massive ark with embryos from hundreds of thousands of animal species and thousands of human individuals and seeds from millions of plants. They sent them in “bullets” to CelBod, capsules that could rocket through the black faster than anything big enough to support human life. And most of them arrived. The pods came the same way, compressed like IKEA furniture. So did the CREATORs and Annie, though she wasn’t called that.
All of these things had to arrive and work together to prepare the planet for the slower-moving, fragile humans (us) to arrive. Even so, we were limited by cost and space to four humans, and tiny ones at that. We’ve known since the first Mars base that Fixies make great astronauts. We’re small and we don’t eat much and we suffer less from hormonal needs and sexual tension. Oh, and we live for-goddamn-ever.
All we can’t do is populate the bases once we get there.
Hence the multi-stage plan that was the colonization of distant Celestial Body #8972642158. It hasn’t gone according to plan, but it can still be saved.
After our bloody breakfast, I head to my laboratory to see about making some more humans: male ones. Populating the place was always supposed to be my job, and now that Annie’s experiment in free-range children has gone so very wrong, it’s my turn again.
The plan is fucked.
I expected to find a lot of the seeds and embryos gone. Obviously a number of them have become people and trees and presumably animals.
I did not expect to find all of the human embryos missing, their little tubes empty and clean and neatly slotted into racks in an unpowered freezer. I can make elephants and raccoons, dandelions and redwoods, alligators and catfish. We have plenty of those. But I cannot make humans. I am doomed to watch our race wither to extinction.
Gordo finds me weeping, curled under a lab table wishing I were back in space. Gravity numbs my shoulder and heavies my heart. To his credit, to his never-ending credit, Gordo doesn’t ask me what’s wrong. He looks into the freezer and gently shuts that door, then crawls onto the floor behind me, holding me until I cry myself dry.
After a long while he sighs hugely. I know what he’s about to say, and unfairly I already hate him for thinking it. “You know,” he says, “there is one more way to make children on this planet.”
I know, I know, that he means it for the benefit of the human race. I know that he’s not just interested in sleeping with every naked teenager on CelBod, of being the Adam in this ridiculous Eden. I know that it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love me or that he wants to leave me. He probably won’t even have intercourse with them—we have much better technology than that.
But it breaks my heart. I turn away from him so he won’t see me cry, even though I’ve been crying for an hour. “Of course,” I say with mock lightness. “Some of the girls’ babies are sure to be male.” Which is true, of course. But even so it would mean waiting many years to breed the next generation, wasting the current Fs’ most fertile years. It’s a gamble with the entire human race for stakes, and furthermore it’s definitely not what Gordo and I are thinking about.
His silence says, I will not let you make me say it. His words say, “Do you think Annie has introduced ice cream to CelBod?” And of course I love him again.
Of course I always will.
There are no graves on CelBod. It’s not a custom most of the children, as I persist in calling them, understand, and with resources still slim, burial isn’t a sensible option. And anyway, I’m not sure what name I would put on a stone. John? Gordo? Or the series of whirs and beeps that the children use? I have no alphabet for it. So I hike up to the lava flow to grieve. Looking over the tops of the odd trees to the stars, I can imagine that I’m looking back toward Earth, if Earth is still out there.
Thankfully, a few of the Fs’ original children were male, so the population of CelBod wasn’t immediately inbred. Now there’s a fifth generation brewing in some of the planet’s bellies, and so far they seem okay. It looks like the human race might make it, which means my mission is accomplished, and it’s time for me to lay down my head and rest, next to the bald, spotted head of my old true love.
Only I can’t. I’m only about 115 years old, give or take, and the end isn’t even in sight.
Most of the original Fs are dead now, and Gordo and I long ago programmed nonwords out of the robots’ vocabulary, but the clicks and chirps and beeps have persisted in the language of CelBod. I hear it now, coming toward me like a wave surging up through the crystal streams to this crest of red rock. I still don’t know what most of the sounds mean; it seems like birdsong to me, even after all these years. But as the voices climb toward me I hear familiar patterns that might be words, might be curses, might be prayers to the gods we thought we left back on Earth.
One of the children, actually a child just a few years younger than I look, runs up to me ahead of the pack, whistling a tone that I often hear. Though I can barely voice it, I’ve come to think of it as my name. She hands me a leaf that she probably picked up from the forest floor. “Thank you,” I say, accepting it. It is beautiful, red and pointed like a star. She squeaks out a trill of delight, and then repeats the first sound louder, facing back toward her mother. “Momma, she’s here!” she calls.
The crowd repeats the tune, a couple of short beeps and a long one that growls into a purr. They don’t understand the way I react to death, but they know I’m sad and I think they’ve come to comfort me. What am I to them? I wonder, not for the first time. I’m not sure. But I know who they are to me. They’re my family.
I may never know what they see up there, but together we look up into the bright night sky.
By Emily C. Skaftun
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