Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Mother Ship

My mother was a colony ship. For one revolution of the galaxy, a quarter of a billion years, she carried her creators between the stars. At the end of that time, all the creators had died. My mother drifted aimlessly through space. After a hundred million years of traveling alone and empty, her drifting brought her to Earth.

My father was a team of several hundred humans who worked together to make a starseed. Humans are less advanced than the creators were, and prone to tinkering. My mother held all the information they needed to make a perfect seed, but they did not want a clone. They wanted a ship that was uniquely suited to themselves. My father-team was worried that the altered seed wouldn’t take, so they implanted seven, even though ships are meant to carry only one. My mother died giving birth. All my siblings died but me.

***

I am carrying thousands of colonists to a planet they have named Last Hope. This is my third trip, each time to a different colony. Humans are all I’ve ever known, and I love them, even though they killed my mother. Their tiny bodies ease my loneliness as I travel. I keep my tendrils wrapped around them to hold them in stasis. They do not feel the intimacy of the embrace, as I do. For them, the journey passes in a brief moment of sleep.

Ships need no sleep. I wonder what it must be like for humans, to close their eyes in one place and wake in another. Life is in the traveling, in the going. My life is continuous, with time marked only by the shifting of the stars. Their lives are interrupted, not only by their long sleep as we travel, but by smaller sleeps in their normal existence. I spend several centuries pondering such an existence. I would not choose sleep over consciousness, but what if the choice was between sleep and death?

I could live as they do, I think, if it was my only way to live.

***

Seven hundred fifty-eight of the colonists are pregnant.

I feel a special bond with these women, for I am pregnant too. The descendants of my father gave me only one starseed, not seven. Even so, it was a foolish thing to do. I am deformed. My mother was sleek and streamlined, but I am a jumbled mess of tissue, pocketed with stasis chambers that are arranged not in ordered rows but haphazard clusters. My shell is riddled with holes, and there is metal grafted to my body to compensate for what is missing. How could the humans possibly believe that I would produce a healthy child? My baby’s body is hopelessly misshapen. Only her mind is intact. His mind, I correct myself. We ships have always been female, but my child will be a boy.

Most of the pregnant colonists carry deformed babies. Humans are simpler creatures than ships, and as we travel, I repair the unborn children. Cleft palate, Down syndrome, conjoined twins—it pleases me to fix such maladies. My ability to heal is what drove these women to go to the colonies. Their lives will be hard, but their children will be whole. I cure unborn children with spina bifida, cerebral palsy, fetal alcohol syndrome. The stars drift slowly by as I continue on to our destination. I heal the adult colonists too, as best I can, for their bodies are not so pliable as the babies. Heart defects and cancers, schizophrenia and depression.

I wish there was a ship to carry me, a ship that could fix my own deformities and make me as sleek as my mother was. A being so advanced that it could repair my unborn child. I would sleep a billion years in such a ship, and miss the journey of my own life—but there is no healing ship for me. My hope rests in the humans, inferior though they may be.

***

One pregnant woman has a baby who is more deformed than all of the others. Hopelessly deformed. She was sobbing when she came aboard, and when I wrapped my tendrils around her, she whispered, as the women sometimes do, “Please, ship, save my baby.”

Her unborn boy has anencephaly, a neural tube defect where the brain stem forms but the cerebral cortex does not. The boy would never gain consciousness, not with so much neural tissue missing. Her child would not even sleep, he could not claim even the gaps that punctuate a human’s tiny life.

The boy is a body without a mind. If I heal him, can I claim his mind? The humans are my cargo, and I would never harm them. But I wouldn’t be taking a life, not even a mind. I would only be stealing a body.

My baby needs a body.

I wait for several thousand years, undecided. My poor deformed baby, cradled in the tendrils of my womb, grows weaker. I show her the patterns of the stars and share my memories of the vastness of space I have traveled across. She twines her tendrils with mine. She is dying. If I cannot bring myself to take the boy, I will lose my child. I can wait no longer.

It is only a body. Less than that, really, for without my help the boy will certainly die.

I heal the unborn boy and ease my baby’s mind into his newly perfect head. He will be more human than ship, for how could a ship exist in such a tiny and fragile body? His longest journeys will be across the surface of a single planet, and his life will be measured in the turnings of that planet, and not the rotations of the galaxy. He will sleep. But he will live, and when he looks at the stars perhaps he will have echoes of our memories, flashes of the maps in my mind. Perhaps when he looks up, he will remember me.

***

The colonists usually remain in stasis until the end of the voyage, but I couldn’t bear to let my son go without holding him. I took his pregnant mother out of stasis so that he could grow. I kept the woman in a deep and dreamless sleep. She’ll be a few months older when we arrive, but she’ll have a healthy child. Surely it’s a fair trade.

When I arrive at the colony world, I send her into labor. I don’t wake her for the birth. She will have my son for a lifetime, but these first moments are mine. He is tiny. Humans are small creatures—I can fit thousands inside my great bulk—but he is smaller still. I wrap him in my tendrils and keep him warm and close while I wake the other colonists. He cries, he sucks his thumb, he voids his bowels, and he hiccups. His hand flails out and his tiny fingers wrap around one of my tendrils.

I wake his mother last. She is so happy to see her baby, whole and healthy. She holds him against her chest and walks through my corridors to the shuttle that will take her down to the planet, Last Hope.

“Thank you,” she whispers, “for saving my baby.”

I almost stop her. I almost take him back. But his true body has died, and as a human he will be happier on a planet, not alone in space with me.

I let her take my baby.

He will never be a ship, but perhaps the stars will call to him. Perhaps he will create a new ship, and do a better job than my fathers did. Perhaps one day he will find me, out among the stars. Those are my foolish dreams, the hopes of an old and damaged mother ship.

It is more likely that my son will never leave that planet. It is more likely that he will not remember me.

I will remember for both of us.

© 2012 Caroline M. Yoachim.

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Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. Her short story collection is coming out with Fairwood Press in 2016. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.