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Prima Mater

by Holly Jahangiri

Thea marveled at her first sight of the Leonardo, docked at the International Space Station XII.  She had seen photographs, but nothing in her training had prepared her for the actual sight of it.

“Thea,” the Voice interrupted her reverie. “We will be docking in less than ten minutes. Are you prepared for your journey?”

“Yes,” she whispered. A slight catch in her voice belied her words as she watched the shuttle dock effortlessly. She waited for the Voice to call her on it, but for now it chose prudence and restraint. After all, there was no turning back. The Leonardo was to be Thea’s home.

Forever.

A small thrill ran up Thea’s spine. She was ready to embrace the challenges – the clean, wildly adventurous newness of her life in space. There was nothing left for her on the wasteland below. But Thea knew she was also staring at her own tomb. That sobering thought surfaced as the crescent of the sun widened on the Leonardo’s smooth, seamless, glasslike hull. “I’m ready,” she said. This time, her voice was clear and strong.

As the docking arm clamped down on the couplers, Thea felt only a slight, dull thud. It might have been an echo of her own heartbeat. The airlock opened with a faint hiss, as if the ship itself gasped in surprise at the sight of her. The operators on the ISS XII – two men and a woman – were careful to conceal their thoughts. Thea sensed that there were questions they had been ordered not to ask. “Why?” was probably foremost among them. Even now, the people she left behind on a rotting planet saw her as brave.

Silently, the operators – the last humans Thea would see for a while – led her to the Leonardo.  “I am Nellie,” said the woman. “This is Sol,” she added, jerking her thumb towards the taller of the two men, “and that’s Burt.” Burt gave Thea a quick, shy smile. “We’re to go back after we see you off, but we see the data from here – can’t help but wondering if there’s any point to it.”

“To going back? You mean—you’re not coming with me?” Thea felt an irrational twinge of panic rise in her throat like bile. Did they really mean to send her off, alone – without a human crew or company? They’d never spelled out the conditions; until now, it hadn’t even occurred to her to ask.

“There won’t be any more shuttles. We take the one you came on, or we stay here and die.”

As terrified as she felt right now, the alternative was an unspeakable horror. Thea was one of the few whose mind fully grasped the awful truth of it; even now, the majority of the people she left behind had no idea just how dire the situation was. Most would not survive. For the ones who did – if any did – it wouldn’t be a blessing. It was going to be an extremely long, dark winter – not unlike that prehistoric era called “The Ice Age.” The time for preparing was long past, and few had the imagination to understand just what it was they were preparing for. Just as well, thought Thea. The end would come quickly; it might even be relatively painless.

“You go back, you’ll die,” she whispered. “Come with me. We’ll manage.” She knew how much the Commander hated any change of plans, but sending these three off to certain death didn’t sit right with her, and by the time the Commander learned what she’d done, it would be too late for him to stop her.

Sol shook his head. “Not an option.”

“Why?”

“There’s only room for one.”

“What he means,” whispered Nellie, “is that the bots will only allow you on board. They would terminate us if we tried it. Strict population control on the Biolab until the Leonardo is within one light month of an M-class planet.”

Thea nodded. “The one they call Dacia.” She had done her homework. Dacia was a “theoretical M-class planet candidate” located some forty light years from Earth. The term “astronomical number” was roughly synonymous with “can’t wrap my brain around it” in Thea’s mind. A fairly simple time, rate, and distance problem, the mathematical calculation required to answer a simple, “Are we there yet?” was a job best left to the bots; if Thea allowed herself to ponder it, a large black door appeared in her mind, with a sign posted on it that warned, “This way to the crazy train.”

Forty light years. Intellectually, Thea knew exactly what that meant. Emotionally, it made her want to vomit – to scream and run and maybe pop open the air lock and end it all now.

Instead, she focused on her breathing. Slowly, slowly, Thea exhaled. She thought of children. Though the ship’s computers carried the sum total of human thought and knowledge, it would be Thea’s job to teach the children the one thing the bots could not – how to be human. Gently, with one hand on her abdomen, Thea inhaled. Nanny to a new civilization – there were worse ways to spend a life. The bots would run the ship; her job was much simpler: ensure the survival of life on board it.

“Let’s hope.” Nellie looked away.

“Hope?”

“You do know what ‘theoretical’ means, don’t you?”

Thea shivered and swallowed a sound that threatened to become a hysterical giggle. Really, what was the alternative? To hunker in a bunker full of spam and shotguns, gas masks and iodine pills? What were six months of canned goods and no fuel in a world where the tropics would be a balmy hundred degrees above absolute zero? Thoughts of it bubbled to the surface of her dreams; Thea no longer slept. If the Commander had realized it, or if he had heard her screaming herself awake, he might have aborted the mission altogether. He could have left it to the bots, as he had been inclined to do. He could have left Thea to die. “Yes.” Thea nodded and ventured a smile. “Technically, gravity is just a theory, too.”

Nellie led Thea into a partitioned room and explained to her about the Habisuit and the nanobots. “You will need to conserve your resources in a closed system.”

Nodding, Thea stepped out of her clunky spacesuit and donned the Habisuit. The material looked like a thin veneer of brushed metal, but it was flexible, stretchy, and felt like a second skin. It would maintain her body temperature perfectly, regardless of the temperature of the Biolab. “It does not need to be washed; it cleans itself,” explained Nellie, “and you.”

“Me?”

“Yes. You’ll need to drink plenty of water, stay well hydrated. Baths are a luxury and so long as you remain in the Habisuit, you won’t actually need one.”

“I feel naked.”

“That’s normal.” Nellie handed Thea a small, black tablet and a glass of water. “Take this.”

“What is it?”

Nellie hesitated a fraction of a second too long. “That,” she said, wrinkling her nose, “is the nanobots.”

Thea threw the tablet into her mouth, closed her eyes, and washed it down with half a glass of water.

Nellie stared at her, open-mouthed. “You are the most fearless woman I know.”

Thea had given an impassioned speech to the Universal Council of Nations. She had argued, using ancient psychological studies, snippets of history, lurid images and film, and impossibly imaginative  folklore, that humans could never be successfully raised by the coldly calculating, relentlessly logical, utterly unemotional bots. Unlike plant life, Thea argued, human babies would need nurturing and guidance, if they were to survive infancy with their sanity intact. Without a human “mother” to guide them, might as well wake the wolves, first, and let them suckle the infants – if they didn’t eat them before the cubs managed to latch onto a teat. Maybe Romulus and Remus had been aliens, and the founding of Rome, a mission not unlike Thea’s own. Madness.

And Thea had just swallowed about ten thousand nanobots. In one gulp. She mentally grabbed hold of what was left of her sanity and shook it back to consciousness. Focus. One task at a time. She fought an urge to vomit.

“Those will scour your body for any trace of illness, virus, unhealthy bacteria, or disease. They will monitor and correct all your vital functions – but only within normal, human parameters. They will not make you immortal, Thea,” said Nellie, forgetting for a moment to call Thea “ma’am.”

“I know that.” Thea nodded. The only thing she felt on hearing it was relief.

“The nanobots will clean your teeth while you sleep – you needn’t worry about brushing. All of your bodily waste will be recycled—”

“Oh, God, I’m going to end up drinking my own pee, aren’t I?”

“On Earth, we end up drinking everyone else’s, eventually – is this really worse? You’ve probably been drinking dinosaur pee for years.” Nellie’s eyes twinkled as she grinned at Thea. “It’s all processed by the bots, run through the Leonardo’s ecosystems, filtered through artificial rock to be remineralized—trust me, it’s better than that twenty-dollar-a-bottle spring water back on Earth.

“There are more tablets aboard the Leonardo, for the children.”

“Okay.”

“When they are no longer needed,” said Nellie, carefully watching Thea’s eyes as she spoke, “they will recycle themselves. And you.”

Thea again fought the urge to vomit. She suspected that the nanobots were aiding her in the fight, hanging onto her innards for dear life. A small, involuntary giggle escaped her lips like a hiccup. In her head, a chorus of children sang, “The bots crawl in, the bots crawl out, the bots play Pinochle on your snout…” Thea wondered, vaguely, if anyone but worms and bots knew what Pinochle was, or how to play it.

Nellie touched her arm. “Are you ready to move into your new home?”

Thea nodded.

Home. “To move into her new home” meant only to cross the threshold and allow the bots to undock the Leonardo – to say goodbye to Nellie, Sol, and Burt – and goodbye to the last remnants of a dying planet. Thea nodded, silently reminding herself that this was exactly what she wanted. In fact, she had never been so desperately persuasive in all her career. Most people stammer when they are nearly paralyzed by fear; sheer terror drove Thea’s tongue to eloquence. And so she conned her way off Earth, before it could be plunged into blackness and ice, convincing the Commander of the Universal Council that the mission needed the services of a nanny, and that she had the experience, the intelligence, the maturity, and the mental stability to do the job. She had almost convinced herself. Until now.

“Everything you will need is already on board, ma’am. You’ll be fine.”

Nellie’s eyes glistened with tears. Thea wondered why it was so hard to say goodbye to this woman she had met less than an hour ago. She stepped out of the partitioned room, looking alien in her gleaming silver skin. If it had an effect on the men, they were careful not to show it on their faces. Thea took a step backwards, into the open airlock that joined the ISS XII and the Leonardo, and quickly slammed her palm against the control panel. It sealed shut instantly. Thea blinked; her eyes felt hot and grainy.

Inhale, she told herself. Stepping into the Leonardo, she was struck first by its awesome beauty. She was surrounded by concentric circles of impermeable glass – a special type of glass that could only be formed and hardened in space. There were few seams or joints that Thea could make out – other than the airlock. The floors were made of the same material, darkly tinted to make them opaque. It was like standing on black ice.

Thea looked up and around, trying not to dwell on images of cracks and frozen free-fall. The view was breathtaking  on all sides.  Beneath her feet, she realized, the deeply tinted material provided an illusion of solidity – a familiar “floor” on which to stand. All that obstructed her view of the Milky Way was a breathtaking little rainforest that reminded her of a giant terrarium and made her feel both very small and very big, all at once.

“Welcome aboard, Commander Thea Nathanael.” The Voice spoke. It addressed her, now, as Commander – Thea realized, with a start, that she was now the ranking human aboard. Protocol demanded that the bots address her as Commander. Not that they were likely to forget their place and try to overthrow her – to what end? That sort of thing only happened in old sci-fi movies—the sort where bots were endowed with artificial mammary glands to make them look disturbingly humanoid. Thea wondered if she would eventually learn to suspend disbelief and come to think of the Voice as company. “Track lighting will guide you to your quarters. If you need anything, you have only to ask aloud.”

“Thank you.” To say please and thank you to the Voice was to keep her own humanity alive within her, Thea realized. The bots didn’t care and wouldn’t think less of her if she ran up and down the hallways naked, brandishing a sword and calling herself Napoleon.

Thea’s job was to tend “The Ark,” the nickname several of the builders had given the Leonardo, and to sow the seeds of life – if she could survive the journey and find a place to plant them.

The Leonardo’s Biolab held all the basic building blocks of life. Every species of life ever catalogued could be created aboard the Leonardo. There was no need to load up the animals, two by two. Billions of them fit into tiny tubes, neatly packed away in the freezer compartment in the Leonardo’s lower levels. Periodically, of course, it would need to be brought to life and “freshened.” No one was sure that DNA kept in cryostorage for more than fraction of a light year would be viable.

Thea was expert at using the tiniest blocks of DNA like Tinker Toys to build new life. The bots—ultimate pragmatists that they were—could carry on her work, but they lacked originality. Able to repair themselves and others, even to perform upgrades as they “learned” more efficient ways of doing their tasks, the bots would last forever.

Given time – and there was nothing but time, aboard the Leonardo—the bots might eventually attempt to upgrade human DNA, to make more efficient people. There was little doubt that the bots could eventually create a race of superhumanoid beings, but people wondered if the bots might eventually discover the root of the human soul – and deem it inefficient. Expunge it from the genetic blueprint  altogether. Thea thought they might. She wondered if she would ever be able to explain the intrinsic value of the human soul to a bot, and made it her mission to try. She would die knowing that the bots would never deem it an “irrelevant bit of code.”

There was, of course, one little problem.

Thea was merely human. She was young, yet, at twenty-nine. But humans – even in the year 2612 – did not live light years. Their spaceships did not travel faster than light. The Leonardo could glide through space forever at a leisurely 42,892 miles per second, its stellar-cell engines powered only by the unimpeded light energy of a surrounding field of stars. But that would not be enough to carry Thea within sight of her destination. Thea’s optimism allowed her to believe in infinite possibilities; she hoped to teach her “children” what it meant to be human, and to die certain that they would do the same for theirs.

But Thea knew she would never reach Dacia. And she wondered, looking back at the ruined planet that had birthed her, if she might inadvertently do her job too well.

18 Responses to “Prima Mater”

  1. Dan says:

    Very interesting…. looking forward to the next chapter!

  2. Mitchell Allen
    Twitter:
    says:

    Brilliant. Hope and despair doing the tango to the tune of Holly.

    Happy New Year! Way to end 2012. The Mayans failed, but you nailed it.

    Cheers,

    Mitch
    Mitchell Allen would be over the moon if you read Sisterhood of the VoidMy Profile

  3. Manuela Tosi says:

    Mi è piaciuta. Tantissimi auguri di buon anno.

  4. amidiabetic says:

    Sounds lit a hit. Cant wait until the novel comes out

  5. geoff says:

    Really nice short read, had me going places and thinking in multiples, great goings Holly

  6. Thank you Holly for fixing the problem!

    I’m not sure if I want our future to look like that, but nobody I know will be here at that time anyway. So it’s not a pressing question. :-)

    From the entertainment point of view I may say you are a great writer. I enjoyed reading this gem.
    George J Lloyd would be over the moon if you read George J LloydMy Profile

    • Thank you, George. That means a lot to me, especially given you had to try three or four times to get past this site’s “bouncers” to leave a comment. I am really grateful for your patience in helping me to fix that issue. Please let me know if they are anything but courteous and welcoming in the future. ;)

      It’s interesting that you should say, “I’m not sure if I want our future to look like that, but nobody I know will be here at that time anyway.” I set the story a few centuries ahead, rather than a few decades, for a couple of reasons. First, because of the number of fairly contemporary. literary works whose predictions I’ve already outlived and now find a bit “dated”; second, because I thought it a more realistic timeframe for an apocalyptic scenario or for some of the massive undertakings that would make any sort of “escape” possible, for anyone; and third, because I also find it depressing to envision everything coming to an end so bleakly in my lifetime, or my children’s. Still, looking back in time, the story isn’t set so far out in the future that you can’t feel the stirrings of empathy and cringe a bit at the thought. It isn’t so many generations distant – if you’ve read any history at all, or had your imagination stirred by any event of the past 500-1000 years, that you can’t imagine it touching you or your descendants. Given the scale of time it’s going to take to reach her destination, it’s a blink of God’s eye, really.
      Holly Jahangiri would be over the moon if you read Prima MaterMy Profile

  7. Miriam says:

    That was very interesting and thought provoking, you are an awesome writer!
    Miriam would be over the moon if you read The Year 2012 is Coming to a CloseMy Profile

  8. Wow, nicely done. I felt the fear and hesitation along with her; no one right answer, loneliness either way.
    Mitch Mitchell would be over the moon if you read Les Misérables: My Movie ReviewMy Profile

  9. Gary Brewer
    Twitter:
    says:

    Brilliant great stuff keep up the good content!

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