By Julie Pascal
The Ship was all that Malene had ever known and she knew it very well. As an infant she learned its sounds, the motor hums, droning fans, snaps and pings. The constant low vibration of the main drive sounded to her as the blood coursing through a mother’s arteries sounds to the unborn.
In toddlerhood she learned the spaces, the nooks and crannies. She learned the places of safety and the places of danger and what to never touch.
As a small child she learned to read and to understand, to use the computer consoles, to tend the plants and protein vats. She learned where her fathers went when they left, and she learned where the new fathers came from. The placard next to the door said, “Cryonics Bay.”
She went there now because she missed her old fathers. If she stood on her toes she could see their faces through the small window in each plasteel and ceramic cylinder. She had no memory of the first two fathers, but she’d asked and found out who they were. Ensign Joshua Davis and Master Sergeant Drew Matthews. She looked at their stiff cold faces, one and then the other, and tried to imagine them warm and moving and talking to her, holding her in their arms.
She remembered the next two fathers. Sergeant Wayne Butter was in the first row next to the door. He was a stern and unhappy memory, angry words and yelling. But her other father from that time had been funny and played games with her. Father Wayne hadn’t liked the games. So now father Bernie was gone. She’d found his cylinder, warm and empty. She passed a sad hand over it and moved on.
Her next two fathers were beside each other toward the back of the long room. Corporal Ted Butler and Lieutenant Frank Mark. Father Ted taught her to read and to write. Father Frank taught her to fight, to kick and to punch. He taught her about privacy and modesty and the need to be alone sometimes for some things.
Two more warm empty cylinders. Sergeant Mark Schneider was up in the control room where she had just had a lesson about reading system displays. Later he’d drill math and astronomy. He was kind and liked to tell stories. Sergeant Vlad Jones was waiting for her at hydroponics to explain the cell structure of plants. She didn’t think father Vlad liked her much, but he was also teaching her more about fighting and she did her best for him.
Soon. Soon it would be time to get new fathers. There were six more fathers waiting. She went from one little window to the next, staring at the gray, frozen faces. Who would it be? Would they be nice or stern? Would they know how to help her through puberty, whatever that was? She’d heard Vlad say to father Mark that he was glad to have missed that part. She hadn’t got up the nerve to ask what it was.
Father Mark talked about the cryogenic process and how each cylinder had to be matched with the physiology of the person who would be in it or the person would die. For the first time she asked why she did not have her own cylinder. Father Vlad explained that this kind of ship, a military ship, didn’t usually have any children on board and that was why.
She’d been about to ask him why she was on the ship, if military ships didn’t carry children, but his face was closed and cold and she knew not to ask any more.
“Malene, child, there you are.” Father Vlad’s voice broke through her reverie. “I should have known where you’d be off to.”
“Father,” she asked. “Who is going to be next? And how soon?” He seemed in a good mood and it made her bold. “I have so many questions that I want to ask.”
“And you can’t ask me?” he said.
“Well,” she hesitated. “You sometimes get mad when I ask too many questions.”
He began to frown at her but instead he managed to smile. “I… you are right. I’m sorry. But please ask anyway. I’m beginning to realize that I’m going to miss your growing up–frozen in here. So I’ll try, even though I’m not very good at it, Okay?”
“Well, okay.” She looked at him very seriously. Her fathers had talked often of where they were going; a green planet called Verdal with millions and millions of people where there were unbelievable wonders around every corner. “Where did we come from? Where did this ship start out?”
“It started out at Verdal.”
“Then, if children aren’t usually taken on military ships, why didn’t you just leave me there? Why did you take me along with you?”
“We didn’t take you with us,” Father Vlad said softly. His eyes looked far away. “We found you. Come with me.” He held out his hand and she took it. He looked grimmer and grimmer as they made their way up to the control room until she was frightened and regretted asking him, but too late now.
Father Mark smiled at them when they came into the control room then looked at Father Vlad. “What is it? Did something happen?”
“Bring up the remote visual displays Mark, let’s have a look at the cargo frames.”
Father Mark’s head jerked around and he stared at Father Vlad. Malene stayed very still. Father Vlad was gripping her hand too hard. She bit her lip and tried to wiggle her fingers.
The visual display was as tall as she was and twice as wide. It stretched across the bulkhead above the chairs and consoles of the duty stations. Father Mark entered the commands and the display became a star field. Malene picked out the brightest stars and named them to herself. Then the star field slid in a great blur. The bright fire of the star drive pushing their ship through space washed the stars away for a moment and then dimmed and she could see the great bulk of the ship itself. Then the display slid again and she was looking at the cargo frames of the ship, just like the schematic diagrams she had memorized, except that something nestled between them. Another ship.
Father Vlad finally dropped her hand and she walked over to the controls. Father Mark moved from the seat and she sank into it. Her feet almost touched the floor. Malene pushed the controls without thinking. It was as natural to her as walking and she flew the remote camera around the little ship examining it from all angles. Finally she backed away again until she could see the entire cargo frame surrounding it.
“This one isn’t in the data catalog.” Her clear girl voice spoke into the silence.
Father Mark shot a questioning look toward Father Vlad. “You are right,” he said. “We’ve never seen a ship like that before. We don’t know which colony made it.”
“You found me on this ship?”
“Can I see inside?”
“I’m sure that Father Mark can set that up for you.” The two men looked at each other for a time in that way that meant they didn’t want to tell her something and then Father Mark nodded. Father Vlad smiled grimly. “And aren’t you supposed to be showing me what you know about the nutrient uptake of Soybeans just now?”
Malene rose obediently and with a single glance back followed Father Vlad out into the corridor. After that her lessons included learning as much as she could of the new ship.
A short time later she said good-bye to Fathers Vlad and Mark and watched alongside her new fathers, Captain Chuck Castway and Lt. Otto Sams as the warmth bled from her old father’s faces and the Cryo-tube’s windows acquired a hint of frost.
She cried alone, later.
Father Chuck was the one who ended up having to explain what puberty was and why, though it didn’t actually become an issue until her next set of fathers. Father Otto liked to set her puzzles to solve and taught her to play chess. Without knowing he taught her the trick Father Mark had used to limit her explorations of the inside of the strange ship and she discovered the chamber where the bodies lay frozen in neat rows. But the little ship had no Cryonics Bay. Those frozen people would never wake to take their turn as fathers, and now that she understood reproduction, as mothers. To ask which of the bodies were her first parents would have given away her secret, so she didn’t ask.
She visited those frozen dead almost as often as she walked through the Cryogenics Bay to run a hand lovingly over the frosty cylinders there. Her next fathers were Sgt. Axel Trent and Pvt. Robert Strong. Father Robert liked to play games on the large display. Sometimes they flew fantastical ships and tried to blow each other up. Other times they explored enormous virtual worlds filled with strange monsters. Sometimes they appeared as costumed people who fought hand to hand. And sometimes Malene even won.
The one time she tried talk about the changes in her body Father Axel became so embarrassed that she determined to rely on Father Chuck’s explanations and the files he’d marked for her in the data catalog, and deal with it on her own.
Her next fathers were Corporal Travis Brownsburrow and Major Albert Jorgenson. She freely explored the data catalog these days and her fathers only occasionally checked to see that she was studying her Calculus. She knew more than they did about the hydroponics systems, though Father Travis led her through and made her memorize every part of the ship’s environmental recyclers. Major Albert was a difficult Father and she mostly avoided him. Though she admitted avoiding him might be partly due to her second secret.
She had found the visual recordings of the day they had found her on the small ship. Major Albert had almost caught her looking at them but she switched at random to another visual file that turned out to be a movie of men and women naked together that made Major Albert very angry when he saw it.
“We haven’t allowed you to watch most of the recordings in the library because we didn’t want you to be confused,” he explained when he’d calmed down. “You don’t have experience to know which parts of them are real and what parts are made up.”
But what she had discovered was most certainly real. Included in the visual record of that day was Major Jorgenson arguing that they were not equipped to care for her. That whoever stayed awake to care for her would lose irretrievable years of his life. He even suggested that it might be best to let her die. And she would have hated him for that except that some of those who had agreed with him in the recording had been the kindest of fathers and had helped her the most. She felt a profound sort of insight could be hers if she could find a way to understand why that was so. She watched that part of the record again from time to time.
Her favorite part of the visual recordings, though, were those of a frightened Ensign Joshua Davis sent to secure the passages of the ship. His voice quavered as he reported each corridor secure, his helmet light shining a beam through the darkness. When the beam crossed one of the dead crew he would jump and the picture displayed on the screen would jerk around. It made her laugh. She counted his steps, that portion of the record memorized, as he came into the cabin where he found her.
A woman lay dead on the bed and Malene gazed at her with warm affection. This would be her first mother, who had prepared for her when she’d known help was on the way but would arrive only when there was no air left to breathe.
Ensign Davis’ step woke the baby within the bubble next to the dead woman on the bed. That’s me, Malene thought. The crying was weak. The visual angle changed as Joshua crouched down for a better look.
“I’ve found someone alive.” The frightened quaver was gone. He sounded quite calm and rather awed. “Do we have the atmosphere check yet?”
A voice came back. “No pathogens, all clear there. Not enough oxygen but the pressure is fine. What are you up to Davis?”
“Tell the Captain I found a baby.” There was a click and a soft alarm began to beep as he broke the seal on his suit. A hand slid into the sleeve and glove that were part of the bubble and touched the squalling infant. Ensign Davis’ hand. He rummaged around in the blankets and came up with a bottle and popped it into Malene’s open mouth.
Later he would be the one holding her as the other men argued about what they would do. He was the one who hotly declared that he’d stay awake himself for the whole trip if none others cared to lose years.
When they reached Verdal she would be the same age as Ensign Davis. She realized that Ensign Davis was kind and would certainly be her friend but that he hadn’t spent the last three years falling in love with her as she had with him. And after a while she even accepted it.
She continued to visit her fathers in their frozen sleep. She gazed at their faces and touched the windows fondly, tall enough now to do so without stretching. But when she was done visiting her fathers, she also visited her friend.
Previously published April 2016 at synova.blogspot.com