Science Fiction & Fantasy

IntheNightWood-Banner_Final_Lightspeed Oct 2018

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Fiction

The Right Place to Start a Family

Yuna searched the colonization vids for a world Oliver would find appealing. Of the half dozen people she was dating, he was her favorite, and the only one she’d really want to bring with her for the centuries-long trip to the colonies. There were seven destination planets to choose from. “What do you think of this one?”

Oliver shrugged. “They’re all too expensive. Honestly, I think we’re better off staying here. Once the ships launch, the overcrowding won’t be so bad, and we could move into one of the arcologies. Rumor is they’re even going to lift the ban, so we can have those kids you always wanted.”

“Earth isn’t a good place to raise kids. Not any more.” Yuna was older than Oliver, and she remembered what Japan had been like before the collapse. As a child she’d gone hiking with her parents through the forest of ancient cedar trees in Yakushima, and snorkeling off the coast of Ishigaki. In the summertime, they’d let her eat ice cream made from actual milk. The colonies wouldn’t have those things, obviously, but they were pristine new worlds, a fresh start. “We aren’t meant to spend our lives cooped up in bunkers and arcologies.”

“We aren’t meant to do anything,” Oliver argued. “When the environment changes, we adapt, and the environment is always changing. It doesn’t matter whether you stay or go, you can’t recreate the world you grew up in.”

“Of course we adapt. Where we live changes who we are, especially when we’re young—that’s why it’s so important to find the right place.” Yuna dreamed of a planet where her children could run across grassy fields, and climb trees, and swim in open water. A place that was wild and a little unpredictable, where her children would be challenged to reach their full potential, instead of stagnating in a carefully controlled artificial environment.

One of the vids showed a simulation of Gliese 667 Cc, a super-Earth planet with dramatic cliffs and flowing rivers. There were three suns in the sky. Yuna couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen the sun as more than a faint brightness in the smog. The ship traveling to Gliese 667 Cc was a generation ship the size of Hokkaido, crewed by unaltered humans who would spend their entire lives on board. Yuna didn’t want to die before reaching the colony planet, but there were stasis pods available as well. She liked the idea of being suspended in a bubble outside of time, tended by humans rather than an AI.

“I really like this one,” she said. “We could fall asleep orbiting Earth, and wake up to explore a brand new world. Look at the rivers, aren’t they beautiful?”

“It’s a simulation. Nobody knows what the planet will really look like.” Oliver turned off the vid. “I was sure I’d be able to talk you out of this. There are so many unknowns. Sure, Earth has problems, but we evolved here, this is where we fit. Besides, the place isn’t the important thing. Home is where you make it.”

“This planet is a mess and as much as I’d like to fix it, our biggest problem is overcrowding. Some of us need to leave, and I want the adventure, the opportunity.” She took Oliver’s hand. “I’d love for us to go together, but if you won’t come, I’ll go alone.”

“Our families are here,” he said.

Yuna squeezed his hand and let it go. “I’ll miss my brothers—and you, of course—but my future family isn’t here. It’s out there somewhere.”

• • • •

An oversized four-legged flesh-colored spider hovered over Yuna and she screamed. She tried to bat it away, but her arms refused to function. The spider backed away and rose up onto its hind legs. Away from the warm orange lights, it looked less brown and took on a bluish tinge. The color reminded Yuna of the ocean on a stormy day, a mix of blue water and churning brown sand.

“Sorry to startle you,” it said. “The ship is at Gliese, and my job does wake the sleepers.”

Sensation and motor control returned to Yuna’s body, her limbs tingling and burning, her eyes sore and dry. As her brain cleared, she could see that the spindly-legged creature in the room with her was not a giant insect, but an oddly altered human child. “Are your parents part of the crew?”

“My generation run the ship.” The spidery human grinned at her. “We don’t grow to sleeper-size. You call me N-17, okay yeah?”

It took a little less than three thousand years to get to Gliese, and Yuna had known that the crew would change somewhat in the hundred or so generations that lived and died en route. She just hadn’t pictured how drastic the differences would be. “You seem very changed, more than I expected.”

N-17 leaned in closer. “This isn’t random. We pick our evolution paths. Small is the best fit for ship cabins. We do other changes too. Come with me, see the mermaids, yeah?”

Mermaids sounded exciting, albeit a strange choice for humans traveling between the stars. Yuna was dying to see them, but she couldn’t move around well enough to leave her recovery cabin. N-17 came back the next day, and the next, helping her regain her strength. By the third day, Yuna was able to maneuver well enough in the low gravity to explore the ship.

“Can we go to a replicator bar?” she asked. N-17 had left her a stack of nutrient bricks to eat in her recovery cabin, but the colony recruitment vids had advertised much better food.

N-17 frowned. “Better not. We smell like food if we hang around in there. Disgusting, yeah?”

“Don’t you get tired of those nasty bricks?”

“Oh, we don’t eat.” N-17 spun upside down in the low gravity to show off a port sticking out of one leg, just above the knee. “Nutrients go straight in. We get you one of these, yeah?”

“Maybe.” Yuna could wait and eat a brick when she got back. Maybe someone else would be willing to take her to a replicator bar, if she ever met anyone else, and if the replicator bars even still existed. “Where is everybody, anyway?”

“Crew mostly don’t like sleepers. Too big-sized for good sex and too back-then brained for conversation.” N-17 blushed. “I know you can talk okay. That’s just what the crew think.”

Yuna studied N-17’s blue-brown spidery form. She couldn’t tell if her companion was male or female or something else entirely. It would be hard to start a relationship here if the crew wasn’t interested. For the first time since waking, she thought of Oliver. She wondered what he was doing back on Earth, then realized he’d almost certainly been dead for a couple thousand years. “What about the other sleepers?”

“Most go back to sleep. They hope for a better planet next time, yeah?” N-17 shrugged. “Gliese is super-sized, like you. Big planet with big gravity. That’s why mermaids did make themselves into swimmers.”

N-17 led her into a chamber that was dominated by an enormous tank of green water. From the look of it, the tank extended up and down beyond the current deck of the ship. Dark shadows drifted in the murky water. Yuna put her hand on the clear barrier that separated water from air. Drawn by her presence, the shadows loomed closer.

Yuna could see why the crew called them mermaids. Their bodies were covered head to toe in iridescent scales and their feet were large and flat, like flippers. Their chests rose and fell as they breathed, taking in water instead of air.

“Gravity too strong down there to live on land, but oceans are good, yeah?”

“Isn’t anyone going to live on the surface of the planet?”

N-17 laughed. “Gravity crush everybody the same, delicate crew or big sleeper. You want to go down, you got to go fishy.”

Yuna studied the tanks. Most of the mermaids were small and delicate, like N-17, but a few of them were larger, Yuna’s size. She wasn’t sure what they did to transform people into mermaids, and she didn’t really want to find out. Her body was part of the environment in which her mind existed. Her physical form was critical in shaping who she was. She’d left Earth behind to avoid being stagnant and safe, but this was too much change, too much risk. What kind of life would this planet give her descendants, submerged in a frigid alien ocean, too fragile to pull themselves onto land and bask in the light of the suns? She wouldn’t condemn her children to that.

Living on the ship wasn’t a good option either—she’d be shunned by the crew and doomed to die before reaching the next destination. She liked N-17, but she had to move on.

“I’ll go back into stasis,” Yuna said. “This planet isn’t right for me.”

• • • •

Yuna didn’t panic the second time she woke, not even in those initial moments when her mind couldn’t quite make sense of her surroundings. This time, her body was encased in an exoskeleton or maybe a spacesuit, complete with a helmet that was surprisingly comfortable for all that it was a little claustrophobic. The suit was made of a material she didn’t recognize, solid and strong but surprisingly flexible.

She was alone in a cabin not much different from the one she remembered, yesterday for her and some unknown quantity of time for the ship outside of stasis. Had it been another three thousand years, or had the crew found some way for sleepers to live on the continents of Gliese after all? Yuna sighed. Perhaps she had been hasty in passing on Gliese.

She felt vaguely nauseous. Hungry, she realized. There was no sign of anyone else. She released the buckles of the harness that held her in place and propelled herself toward the door. Last time there had been a moderate amount of gravity, generated by spinning the ship. This time there was only the faintest tug, so faint that she could not be quite sure that it was real and not simply her mind attempting to make gravity line up with what was clearly meant to be the floor of the cabin.

The corridors were empty. She wasn’t sure who had called her out of stasis, or why. Feeling a little foolish, she called out, “Hello?”

“Greetings.” The voice was flat and came over the speakers inside her suit. “If you turn to your left, the corridor will take you through the airlocks and into a sector of the ship that still has functioning replicators. We apologize for not coming to greet you. We are between bodies at the moment.”

“All of you?” Yuna asked. The ship was technically capable of continuing on its course without a crew, but—

“There is only one of us. We woke you because your stasis pod was failing.”

“How long was I in stasis? Where are we now?”

“After departing Gliese 667 Cc, you were in stasis for approximately eighty-one thousand six hundred and forty-four years.”

So much time. Everyone she’d ever known was surely dead. Her family back on Earth, and Oliver—they’d probably been gone on her last waking. Now she’d lost N-17, the crew, and the mermaids, too. This would happen every time she slept and woke. Jumping into the future meant leaving the past behind. If she kept going, she might become the last human being alive, or at least the last one still recognizably human. “Is anyone currently in stasis?”

“Three thousand and twenty-seven individuals exist in stasis at this time. Of those, approximately seventeen percent are from the original group that departed from Earth. The remainder come from subsequent generations, some as recently as thirteen thousand years ago. Many of the pods are due to be decommissioned in the near future. If you desire a companion, you may select one and I will initiate the recovery process, but I cannot guarantee consent or compatibility.”

Yuna considered the proposal. This might be her last opportunity to have a relationship with a human who had lived on Earth. If she convinced the AI to wake all the sleepers, she could ask them to join her. They might be able to build a community, form families here on the ship. “When will we reach another planet?”

“Our destination is another world that was colonized by the initial ships from Earth—Kepler-452b, the most distant planet of any that were selected for colonization. It would already have been a long trip, but the crew miscalculated, and we need to make course corrections by slingshotting around a series of several stars. Barring the discovery of a more efficient route, it will take thirty-two thousand years to reach our destination.”

“Has it become possible for me to live that long?”

“Not in organic form, although your descendants might, if you choose to repopulate the ship.”

“That didn’t work before. Whatever happened to the old crew would surely happen again, even if we woke all the sleepers and somehow managed to produce enough children to maintain a stable population. I don’t think three thousand people is enough for that, anyway.”

“We are the crew, and also the ship. Would it be so bad to join us, sometime in the future?”

Yuna shook her head. She didn’t know. This seemed even further from what she wanted, even less like the childhood she’d had herself, and what she had dreamed of for her children. Maybe she should have turned herself mermaid and let her children swim in the oceans of Gliese. Would what came next be better or worse? Their destination was a planet colonized by humans, but with the vast amounts of time that had passed, the inhabitants would either be massively evolved or extinct.

“You revived me because my pod was failing, but there are other pods that still function. Can you put me back into stasis?”

“Of course. There is no need for pods now, your suit can be programmed to produce a stasis bubble. I can assist you with the parameters.”

Yuna decided to risk it one more time. Whatever her next awakening held, she would stop this endless skipping forward and put down roots.

• • • •

Sensory tendrils burrowed into Yuna’s skin, a gentle warmth on all her senses. Her mind was flooded with yellow-tinted light and the smell of miso soup and the heat of water from bathhouses back on Earth that had long ago crumbled to dust. The creature that stood over her had vaguely human features, all subtly wrong to Yuna’s eyes. Ears delicate and thin, like an elephant’s, wavering gently in the low gravity of the ship, arms that ended not in hands but in fractal dividing branches, terminating in a fan of tendrils.

Tendrils that burrowed into the bare skin of her torso like worms. They writhed beneath the surface of her body as the creature tried to merge with her. She pushed at the creature’s arms and tried to pull away. Sensations of warmth were replaced by sensations of pain across all of her senses—blinding light, cacophonous sound, burning skin.

An impossible breeze cooled Yuna’s face, and the illusion of a turquoise sky stretched wide above her head. She was breathing the planet’s air with no assistance, sitting on a patch of lime-green moss. Its thin threads reminded her of something, but she couldn’t quite remember what. She brushed the delicate plants with her fingertip, and a clump detached from the rest and scurried away in the direction of what looked vaguely like a forest of cedar trees.

Yuna shook her head. No, this wasn’t right. She had been on the ship a moment ago, and there was too little gravity for this to be the surface of a planet. Tendrils were embedded in her arm. The creature was touching her again. The images in her mind felt like a question, an invitation. Slower this time, Yuna pulled away. The visions of the planet faded, but without the blinding pain that had accompanied the previous disconnection.

“Stop that,” Yuna said.

The creature didn’t answer.

“Ship, are you still functional?” Yuna asked. “Where are we?”

The ship did not respond. Yuna had no idea where she was, or what had happened to her stasis suit. She edged past the creature with the tendrils and started searching the rest of the ship for someone, anyone, but she most wanted to find someone else who had slept their way into the future, as she had. Some link to the familiar past. The corridors were filled with creatures that had human faces but bodies that looked almost aquatic, their tendrils trailing behind them like jellyfish tentacles. Several reached out to her as she passed, but she kept a quick enough pace that none managed to burrow into her skin.

Finally she found a small circle of humans, or close-to-humans, huddled in one of the replicator rooms. Most of them were spiderlike and small, remarkably similar to N-17. One of them held an infant, swaddled. Yuna joined their circle. The infant addressed her in a language she did not understand.

The largest member of the group studied her for a moment. “Zay-child says we are invited to the planet. We will go together. You also?”

Yuna was so happy to hear a voice speak her language that she nearly cried. She’d promised herself that she would stop skipping through time and settle down. If the visions from the tendril-creature were true, the planet had a beautiful open sky, and the surface was covered with plants, albeit strange ones. There was even a small community of people she could partly understand.

The infant continued babbling, and the spiderlike human that held it sang a wordless lullaby, rocking the child until it slept. Another member of the group leaned in and stroked the infant’s cheek. They did not seem concerned by the not-quite-human creatures that wandered the corridors of the ship, or the myriad of potential dangers on the planet below. They had each other, and they were content.

She had been focused on the wrong things. Oliver had been right all along—home is where you make it. Children grew and thrived in all kinds of places, and by the time a few generations passed, everything changed anyway. “Yes, I’ll go to the planet too.”

• • • •

Yuna brushed her fingers against the nursery web, letting her children sense her presence. They were small and only partially formed, a hundred tiny beings tightly woven together, drawing energy from the afternoon sun. This was not what she had envisioned, when she left Earth all those many millennia ago—the oceans of Kepler-452b were too acidic to swim in, and the trees were citizens that resented being climbed—but the planet was wild and unpredictable, with plenty of room to run.

One of her mates pressed their tendrils into the skin of her shoulder. They shared a vision of the children, exploring a mossy clearing beyond the nursery web. The images were overlaid with worry and doubt, and hope, and love. There were no guarantees in being a parent, no matter when or where you were. Starting a family was a leap of faith, the beginning of a story where you don’t know the ending.

Yuna sent reassuring thoughts back to her mate.

This was a good beginning.

Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim has written over a hundred short stories. She is a Hugo and three-time Nebula Award finalist, and her fiction has been translated into several languages and reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including twice in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her debut short story collection Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories came out with Fairwood Press in 2016. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.