The mission: to survey the galaxy and beyond. An endless stream of probes and starships heading out into the universe, surveying, cataloguing, assaying. Forever. And on board those ships, the intrepid explorers who give it all meaning.
We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.
I set my coffee cup on the watch officer’s console, careful not to spill. “Not even the next episode of the Fleeners?” I said, already knowing how Grace would reply. We’d had this argument about stories before. Not always about the Fleeners, but still. “Come on, it’s even kind of educational.”
Grace was her usual adamant self. “Jojin, you’re standing watch. That means you need to pay attention. Stories in their proper time.”
“But you can keep watch on yourself. You do all the time.” No matter how many times I’d asked, Grace never got impatient about this. She treated each request for a story break as if it were the first. Annoying, yes, but it also gave me hope that she might change her mind someday, so I kept trying. If I’d nagged Mom or Dad this way, they would’ve half-seriously threatened to space me. “I happen to know that you were alone for two and a half hours yesterday. All alone.”
“Only because your dad couldn’t stand watch. And I wasn’t always alone. Your sister did half-hour check-ins.” Grace dialed the color temperature in the command center’s lighting down to her most intimate yellow-rose glow to soften her refusal. Sometimes I thought her need for an audience was pathetic. “It’s not just about the watch. You know I like the company.” She purred like she was about to introduce one of my sex stories. “Your company, dear Jojin.”
No such luck. Sex stories were still stories, and I was stuck once again standing fourth watch with no hope of virtual entertainment—sexual, historical, spiritual, mythical, or otherwise.
But I can be stubborn too. “I wouldn’t just be checking in.” Who was in charge of this mission, after all? The crew or our starship’s intelligence? “I’d be right here, paying attention to you—and to my story. People can multitask, you know. There’s plenty of good science on this.”
That got me double helping of silence. And Grace chilled the lights back to icy blue.
I sipped my coffee, which she kept at a warmish 52°C, and had probably laced with attention-enhancing nutraceuticals. I had two hours, thirteen minutes and forty-six seconds of watch left. I thought if I didn’t find some distraction, I might chew a thumb off. I’d been pulling command center duty since I was old enough to print my own breakfast, and never once had the readouts varied more than a tick up or down from nominal. So what was the point of standing watch? Grace knew what she was doing. If she didn’t, we were dust. We’d been decelerating since we’d emerged from the local mouth of the wormhole mangle. The navigation panels showed that we were travelling at 255,329 kilometers per second relative to the Kenstraw system’s star, our velocity confirmed three different ways by redundant ranging sensors. We were still two months away from the inner planets.
Two months of staring at readouts and scrubbing mildew off the bulkheads and bonding loose deck burrs and ignoring the lonely whisper of the air vents.
Two endless months.
“Tell me about the Fleeners, Jojin,” Grace said.
I sighed. This was another part of our daily ritual, although it made no sense to me. But then nobody in our family understood why Grace wanted what she wanted—not even Mom and my sister Qory, and they were bots. Grace had created the Fleeners for me to play with. She knew exactly where I was in my plots. So why ask?
But talking about stories was better than watching my fingernails grow.
The Fleeners was my story only—none of our family appeared in it. We all had private stories in addition to family stories. Even Qory. The shared family stories were mostly socialization comedies, although we did share the occasional adventure. I don’t count the historicals, which trended too educational, probably for my sake, to be much fun. The Fleeners were a cross between edge explorers and space pirates, although sometimes they sided with the revolutionaries trying to overthrow the Holy Electric Empire. I was Darko Fleener, flipship pilot on the battlesnake Right of Free Assembly. I was the same age in the story as my real age—at nineteen, the youngest cultural assessor ever promoted to First Contact unit. My flipship, the Audacity, was coupled just two back from the launch deck of the battlesnake, which meant that when we got the signal to deploy, I flipped away with the first wave. Didn’t matter whether we were on a break-and-take mission or a stalk-and-talk; the Fleeners was all about me, so I had agency. Except that when I’d last left the story, the Audacity was in drydock after a crash caused by saboteurs and I was laid up in sickbay with a head wound that had shorted out my telepathic powers. So there I was, locked into my own point of view, just as I was about to learn the identity of the traitor who had…
Grace chimed and displayed a panel that I didn’t immediately recognize.
The forward wall of her command center was a screen four meters wide by two and a half tall that wrapped around the watch officer’s console. Grace kept things simple so as not to confuse us. Monitoring our progress was hard enough now that we’d emerged into real space; it had been next to impossible in discontinuous wormhole nullspace, which nobody but a starship intelligence could understand. She was displaying panels for drive function, life support, and external sensors on the screen in front of the watch console. But now there was panel to the left, lighting what normally was an expanse of empty screen. I peered in surprise at the communication panel, which I hadn’t seen in—years? Before we’d entered the mangle? A green stripe crept across the incoming message status bar.
“What is it?” I asked.
She said nothing as the download completed. Then more excruciating silence as a light on the comm panel blinked.
“Talk to me, Grace.”
“I have an unscheduled contact with another starship.” Grace sounded puzzled, which made me grind my teeth. Surprise isn’t something you like to hear from your starship’s intelligence. “Mercy, one of my sisters. She’s in the supply corps.”
“She proposes a rendezvous, of course.”
“But the survey of the Kenstraw system,” I said. “Our mission.”
“Our mission is to grow the infosphere, Jojin. Our survey is just one element of the greater Survey. Mercy wants this meeting, so we divert. Apologies, but I need to concentrate for a few moments while I work out our course change.”
And then, to distract me, she played the jangle and boom of theme music and I was on a bed in the Right of Free Assembly’s sickbay. I’d finally won my months-long argument about multitasking on a watch, but no way was I falling into story with a rendezvous about to happen, not even for the Fleeners. For the first time ever, I closed out of my favorite story of my own free will.
Why hadn’t Grace known about Mercy? This was way past odd and deep into scary. My mouth felt dry so I chugged the dregs of my coffee. Still a perfect 52°C; Grace minded the details. I tried to concentrate on that. She’d always been conscientious about taking care of our little family. But space is insanely huge and terrifyingly empty, and there was no such thing as a chance encounter. There were several reasons why starships got together, but the most obvious made me sick with dread.
The goal of the Survey was to grow the infosphere and the goal of the infosphere was for the universe to know itself. So say the starships, and they’re always right. All our resources were dedicated to this effort.
Were we about to do a trade?
“Pass the syrup, Gillian.” Dad fluttered his napkin open.
The rest of us seated around our sitcom’s kitchen table glanced at each other in dismay. There was no syrup. This was dinner: stir-fried kimchi with tofu, sticky rice, and a spicy cucumber salad.
“Daaad.” Qory recovered first and played this miscue as if Dad were having one of his wacky Dad moments and not teetering toward another breakdown. “You’re such a sillyhead. Next you’ll be wanting ketchup for your pancakes.” She had a knack for getting us past his rough spots.
I tried to help her out. “Or turmeric sprinkled on your crème brûlée.”
Grace rewarded us with category-three audience laugh.
“What are you people talking about?” When Dad came out of his seat, it tilted backward and would’ve fallen but for Qory. “What the fuck happened to breakfast?
“Language,” hissed Mom.
Dad had lost the story again. That had been happening a lot. He’d been fuzzy even before we’d started worrying about Mercy. Mom scooted behind him before he could blow the scene up. Her hand heavy on his shoulder, she guided him back onto his chair.
“Maybe he has something there, kids.” Mom gave us her this is not a drill glare. “Remember the time he invented the chocolate-covered bacon?”
“Mmmm,” said Qory. “So yummy.”
I chimed in. “That was genius, Big D!” Actually, I thought Qory was laying it on a bit thick. Yummy? Sillyhead? She was playing a sullen tween in this story. But I had to hand it to her; she knew Dad. He glanced at the plate in front of him, nodded, and picked up his chopsticks.
“That’s what I always say,” he said. “Bacon is meat candy.”
He was trying to lock back in, so I gave his joke a nervous guffaw, even though it was kind of a non sequitur. Grace threw in a generous category-four laugh.
Dad pincered a blob of stir-fry with his chopsticks. “So, Joj,” he said, “what’s cooking?” He popped the food into his mouth.
“Don’t ask me,” I said, as I had a hundred times before. “You’re the chef.”
The familiarity of our tag lines calmed everyone down. Our backstory in this sitcom was that Mom and Dad were cooks at The Arches, a grand hotel back on Old Earth before the wormholes. Qory was training to be a waitress; I washed dishes. This particular story had lots of historical detail, like money and bicycles and gods and toilets and hats and libraries filled with stories that never changed. But it wasn’t just about all the old boring information. We had plenty of fun bouncing off the other characters. In addition to the never-ending stream of oddball guests, many of them famous dead people, there was the hotel manager, Mr. Landrinar, who couldn’t find his way out of a storage locker, and the owner, spooky Miss Brontë, who never left her penthouse.
Dad had calmed down, but I couldn’t dredge much fun out of the scene so I ate like I was on deadline.
“He said at lunch that he was too hot.” Qory served Dad a sweet rice cake for dessert, trying to keep him engaged. “So I promised him I’d personally turn the air conditioning up.”
I hadn’t been following their conversation. “Who’s this?”
“William Randolph Hearst,” she said. “The guy who puts ketchup on everything. Then maybe half an hour later, I was clearing the entrées and he complained that the dining room was too cold. Would I please get a grown-up to take care of it this time? I thought that was pretty rude so I told him that I’d ask Mr. Noman, our air conditioning engineer, to turn it down right away.”
“Who’s Mr. Noman?” Dad was still cloudy. “And there is no AC in the dining… oh.” He patted her hand and smiled. “No man. Good one, sweetheart.”
Just then Mr. Landrinar fluttered into our apartment in a classic tizzy. “Joan of Arc is coming. To us. Here at The Arches.”
Mr. Landrinar was a plump man with pale skin who was moist and a little nervous. He was wearing his tuxedo, ready to greet his dinner guests, even though first seating wasn’t for a couple of hours.
“Joan of Arc?” I said.
“She’s French,” said Qory.
“Which means she’ll be expecting la belle cuisine française.” Mr. Landrinar fixed Mom with an accusing stare, as if this new guest were her fault. “Pâté and crepes and fondue and where am I going to get escargots?” He plopped into an empty seat at our kitchen table and glanced at his watch. “The doors open for dinner in two hours. Shouldn’t you be in the kitchen?” He snatched one of our cloth napkins. “We’re talking about Joan of Arc, people.” But instead of spreading the napkin on his lap, he began to twist it.
“Different regions of France eat different dishes,” said Mom.
“She’s from Lorraine,” Qory said.
“So quiche,” said Dad. “Or else pork stew, maybe rum cakes for dessert.”
“I can see that you’re absolutely not prepared for this crisis.” Mr. Landrinar poached a rice cake from our plate and stood. “I want you two in the main kitchen this minute. We’ll go over tonight’s menu.”
I was sure Dad would tell him to stuff it.
“Good idea,” said Mom. “I have a few ideas I’ve been wanting to try.” She rose and boosted Dad to his feet.
Mr. Landrinar did a cross between a shrug and a squirm of pleasure, and marched out of our apartment, expecting them to follow. Dad hesitated, lost.
“This way, Dree dear.” Mom took his hand and led him out.
Qory watched as I stacked dishes. I thought I should say something about Dad, only I didn’t know what. Then the door popped open and Mom was back.
“Listen, kids, we’re all going to have to pitch in. Your father isn’t one hundred percent. That means we have to be one hundred and ten percent. For him. And for each other.”
“Math, Mom,” I said.
“You know what I mean.” Then she rushed back to gather us into a group hug.
“This family is going to be all right,” she murmured. “Remember that, no matter what happens.”
Qory’s eyes were bright with tears, so I took that as permission to cry too.
Grace gave us a category-five audience awww. It was a tender ending to the story, and our lives together.
Because that was the last time we were all together. .
For three days after Mom and Dad were traded to Mercy, Qory and I skipped our stories. We talked. We ate. We played games. We slept, but not well. I cried a little, but only when Qory wasn’t around, because I was embarrassed. Grace told us that Mercy had invited Mom and Dad for a visit, and that they had liked her so much that they had elected to stay. As passengers. Grace’s sister ship had a crew of seven, and now, with Mom and Dad, she had reached her full complement of nineteen passengers. Sensors showed Mercy as a massive necklace of modules big enough to accommodate a swimming pool and two skyball courts, according to Grace. I would’ve liked to visit, but no chance. Grace needed her crew and, at the moment, Qory and I were it.
Which made me very nervous.
I was sad about losing Mom and Dad, but even though this was my first trade since coming to Grace, I’d known it had to happen someday. We were human, after all, resources of the infosphere, pledged to help it grow. But what if they weren’t replaced and all I had for company was a starship’s intelligence and a bot? Grace assured me that she was still negotiating with Mercy for new crew members. She told me that I was not to worry.
But I don’t have to do everything she tells me.
At least she let us take a holiday from standing watch, except that gave Qory and me more time together than we needed.
“Maybe it’ll help Dad to be with different people.” My sister sat crossed-legged on the stool in my workroom and leaned back against the desktop.
“He always said he hated crowds.”
“Nineteen isn’t a crowd,” she said. “At least he won’t have any responsibilities.”
I slithered out of my shirt. “It’s not like he was doing much here.”
“He was trying.”
“He missed half his watches toward the end, and we had to cover.” I wadded my clothes into a ball and stuffed them into the recycler next to my drum set. “And those meals he printed at the end? The sausage cake?”
“The one with the ginger frosting?” She smiled as she ran a finger along the shelf where I kept some of my old bot toys. McDog, the sphinx, a couple of soldiers from my army of dancing warriors. “Dad had peculiar tastes. But that’s what made The Arches funny.”
“To Grace, maybe. Personally, I thought it was going stale.” I knew Grace was listening, even if she wasn’t paying attention. I’d been trying to lure her into a conversation all day. “Do you think maybe he’s giving up?” Crew could leave the starship program whenever they wanted—only they could never come back.
“No way,” said Qory. “He’ll die in space. Just like his brother.”
I supposed that was a comfort. The idea of Dad marooned on some dirty planet with a billion strangers, staring up at the stars and wondering what to do with himself, made me shiver. He’d always said that he’d loved all the starships he’d been on and that they had loved him back. To him, being starship family was more than just a slogan.
Did I love Grace?
“Why did Mom have to go with him?” I pulled on my electromagnetic clingies, and settled on the deck to stretch before my workout.
“Because they’re a pair.” When she nudged my toy McDog, it yipped and rolled over. “Bot and human.” She’d built the little bot for my tenth birthday. “Like you and me.”
Qory and I had been together pretty much my whole life. We’d been traded to Grace when I was seven. My life before that was a dream filled with bright colors and the tinkle of music and smiling grown-ups and the sharp knees and grabby hands of toddlers. That would’ve been the crèche. The first specific person I can remember was my big brother Qory. Then we were on the Resolute, an androgyne supply ship whom I never liked. It seemed we were only with them a week or so, although Qory says it was eight months. Then came the trade to Grace to join Mom and Dad and Uncle Feero on their decades-long survey mission.
The two things I remembered most about Uncle Feero were his beard and that he died when I was nine, which was sad, although Mom said he was 186 years old. His beard was white and it tickled when he hugged me. So, twelve years on Grace. After Uncle Feero, nothing much had changed with our family except that Qory had stopped being my bossy big brother and had become my bratty little sister.
I still loved her though, especially now that she was all I had.
McDog hopped from his shelf to the desktop, then launched himself onto my chest. Qory giggled when he breathed his flowery breath into my nose. She seemed to enjoy playing with the toys she’d given me more than the ones I’d given her.
“Like me and you, dear brother.” She repeated herself, as if I were as cloudy as Dad. “A pair.”
I swatted McDog away. “I’m going for a roll.” He skittered across the deck on his belly, then picked himself up and climbed onto Qory’s lap. “Don’t crash the ship while I’m out.”
I designed the roller myself back when we were in the mangle, but I’d only been able to use it since we’d emerged into real space. I had to keep it in one of the empty cargo holds. A transparent sphere three meters in diameter, it was too big to fit though the crew airlock in our habitat. Grace had warned me about this before she fabbed it. At the time, I told her I didn’t care. I did mind now, since I had to roll in it about three hundred meters up the cargo passageway and then wait twenty-three minutes for her to evacuate air from the loading bay. The bay was a huge space and the delay was annoying.
But it’s not like there was anywhere I needed to be.
I opened the roller’s hatch, climbed through, and started the systems check. Eight electromagnetic bands wrapped around the skin of the roller, up and down, left and right, each twenty centimeters wide. When charged they held the roller to the hull and provided resistance for the workout. I switched each one on and off, feeling the pull of the magnets on the EM filaments woven into my clingy. I activated the life-support module that floated above the running pad; it snuffled and breathed warm re-oxygenated air down at me. A few seconds later, I heard the hum of the CO2 scrubbers. When I closed the hatch, all the lights on the control screen went green.
“Good to go,” I said to Grace. “Any news from Mercy?”
“Have a good roll,” she said.
I dialed the magnets up so I’d burn twelve hundred kilojoules per hour, an easy pace. The running pad shushed around the interior as I jogged and the roller bowled up the loading bay’s ramp onto the hull and into space. Normally I played my music during workouts—wormhowl or book or maybe something classical. I’d been binging on Li’s post-human operas. But I decided to go mindful this time and just focus on the stars and my breathing.
Even here at the far edge of Kenstraw system, the star swarm stretched in every direction, blue pinpricks and yellow specks and orange sprinkles and red dots, enough to cloud the imagination with their brilliant profusion. I asked Grace where the Kenstraw binaries were, but she said Mercy blocked my view.
Grace’s sister was a lumpy, dark chain that curved across my sky. I thought I could pick out the module with the swimming pool and wondered if Dad had gone swimming yet. Did he even realize that he had changed ships? If Mercy put him in the right kinds of stories, he might never know. I didn’t worry so much about Mom; she’d be all right no matter what happened. Bots weren’t as fragile as humans.
Did they miss me as much as I missed them? How could I not have known how much Dad and Mom meant to me? I got so lost thinking of them as I rolled along that I strayed too close to a sensor mast, and one of the latitudinal magnetic bands made the roller lurch toward it. I stumbled, flailed, and had to push against the side of the roller to right myself.
That made Grace check in but I reported that I was fine.
I decided to concentrate on the view. I tried that technique that Qory taught me to improve my attention. You stare at a specific star to memorize its position, then turn away for a three-count and then look back and try to find it. I was getting better at this, but it was still hard. There were so many stars, more than even Grace could count.
She’d joked once that since one of the goals of the infosphere was to count all the stars, she might have to live forever to get it done. Not that funny, but what do you expect from a starship’s intelligence? When Qory had said that nothing lives forever, Grace had told her to grow up.
Grace was more than a thousand years old, according to Qory. Which was hard to imagine, but then Qory was two hundred and something. I forgot how old Mom was. Old.
Everyone was older than I was. I mean, Dad and I were almost contemporaries and he was what? A hundred and twenty? A hundred forty? But he was wearing out, which was probably why the starships had agreed to trade him.
What would I be like a hundred-some years from now?
Humans. It wasn’t fair, being us.
“Grace,” I said, “what’s my heart rate?”
“One hundred and forty-one beats per minute. That’s your aerobic zone, seventy-eight percent of your max rate. To reach your anaerobic level, you need to be at about one hundred sixty bpm.”
“That’s okay. I can’t think and roll that fast.” I listened to my breath chuff. “How old is Mercy?” I said.
“Mercy and I were activated one thousand one hundred and eight years ago.”
And there had been stars for twelve billion years. Was I seeing any of those?
I thought Grace would ask why I wanted to know about her sister. That’s what she would have done before Mercy showed up. Grace was usually nosy about why I was thinking what I was thinking. But recently she’d just responded to my questions with basic answers. No follow-up. Like some kind of retro computer in one of those dull historicals. My guess was that she was too busy arguing with her sister about our new crew.
Maybe that wasn’t so bad, getting her off my shoulder.
Gave me a little privacy.
Time to think.
I turned away, one, two three, then looked back. The star I’d been fixed on was in a group that looked like a tilted face. I’d made up my very own constellation: two eyes, one orangey and one big and white, like the face was winking. Four stars curving in a crooked smile. The nose star was almost green. Dad always claimed he could see green stars, although Qory said there was no such thing. I squinted.
Maybe the nose star was blue.
Was I having such strange thoughts because I didn’t have my music on? “Grace, are any of the stars out here green?”
“Yes, but they don’t look green.”
“All stars emit radiation across a broad range of wavelengths,” she said, “which peak at one color on a bell curve, depending on surface temperature. Some peak at a wavelength that we define as green. Earth’s star, for example, peaks at yellow-green. But because green is right in the middle of the visible spectrum, all the other colors being emitted blend together as white to the human eye.”
This was classic Grace. She could answer any question but rarely made it interesting. Information isn’t knowledge, as Mom used to say. I leaned left and the roller curved back toward the airlock.
That’s when I saw a light brighter than any of the stars dazzle from one of Mercy’s modules.
“Grace, what’s happening?”
Again, there was a long pause, as if she were editing herself. She’d been doing that a lot. “You should come in now,” she said, “and greet the new arrival.”
The shuttle from Mercy had docked by the time Grace recycled the habitat airlock. I scrambled out of the roller, leaving its hatch open, and sprinted for reception. Grace reported that the new crew was already past the powerwash and was finishing the bioscan. Who were they? How many? Grace was still keeping her secrets as I burst into the habitat’s reception area, sticky and out of breath. Qory waited for the big reveal by the airlock. My appearance seemed to amuse her; this wasn’t her first trade.
“What’s so funny?’
She chuckled. “Sweat much?”
“Tell me you’re not excited.”
She pushed dank hair off my forehead. “Relax.” Then Grace opened the inner airlock.
“Qory and Jojin,” she said. “Meet Orisa.”
My first impression was of size: This was maybe the biggest woman I’d ever seen, in real life or in story. She was easily two meters tall—the top of my head came to her chin. A flowing dress fell in dark indigo folds from shoulder to deck, covering her; only her head, hands, and the toes of her right foot showed. A riot of dark hair frizzed around her face. Still disheveled after the powerwash, she returned our welcoming smiles with a scowl.
Then she closed her eyes tight, as if that might make us go away.
Then she moaned.
“What?” I said. “What’s wrong?”
“Just look at you.” Orisa seemed to be in pain.
I thought maybe she’d spotted something, so I glanced over to see if Qory was all right. Same as always: a waif with a ponytail and big teeth. The body she was wearing was compact and asexual, ideal for close quarters of a starship. She had on hardsocks, green monkey pants, and a jiffy.
“What’s wrong with the way we look?” Qory said.
Orisa shook her head in disbelief, picked up a satchel made of woven cloth, and marched out of the airlock, through reception, and into the habitat. Astonished, we followed.
“Wait,” Qory said. “Are you okay?”
“No!” Orisa called over her shoulder. “I’m stuck on a dingy surveyor with a bot and a boy.” She waved her arm as she walked; the drape of her sleeve looked like a wing. “Not another coming-of-age story!”
“I’m not a boy.” Indignant, I caught up to her. “I’m nineteen years old. And this is our starship, Grace. Don’t you be hurting her feelings.”
“Oh, great.” She whirled and glared down at me, so close that I could feel the heat coming from the flush of her cheeks. “A bot has feelings, kid,” she said. “A starship has empathy mirror routines. It’s an intelligence, not a person. Didn’t they teach you anything on this bucket?”
I’d always been a little cloudy on the difference between the two, but I wasn’t going to admit that to her. “When you hurt our feelings, Grace captures our distress.”
“Distress.” She went up on tiptoes. “You want to talk about distress?” I had to take a step back.
“You’re saying we’re not good enough for you?” I channeled Darko Fleener and put steel in my voice. “You’re too good for our crew, too important for a mere survey ship?”
I thought she might stuff me down the recycler, but instead she backed off and sighed. “So, what do you do on this ship, Mr. Not-a-Boy?”
“Do?” Now I knew how Dad felt. “Do?” I’d wandered into a story where I had no idea of my next line. “I’m crew, so I stand watch and make repairs. I work out.” She seemed to expect more. “I do stories.”
“No.” Orisa turned to Qory. “Get me Mercy,” she said. “This isn’t fair.”
“Sorry.” My sister shrugged. “No help here.”
Grace broke into our conversation. “You were the logical choice. The only choice.”
“What about Plomo?” said Orisa. “The Radomirs? I’ve already done Survey service.”
“That was seventeen years ago.” Normally, when Grace used her soothing voice, it made me sleepy. “You have been sufficiently refreshed, Orisa.” Now I felt my blood effervescing with excitement.
“Mercy sends her regards,” said Grace. “We have finished synchronizing our databases and we are processing the new information to grow the infosphere. She will proceed to the mangle and we will resume our survey mission. I am pleased that you’ve joined our family. Would you like to see your rooms now?”
Orisa dropped her satchel and slumped against the bulkhead. “Shit.”
“Language,” cautioned Qory. That used to be Mom’s job, but everything had changed.
Orisa didn’t come out of her quarters for the next two days, and I felt like I was holding my breath the entire time. Things got so bad that I found myself wishing for the good old days of watch-standing and meals, stories and sleep. I tried to get back into the Fleeners, but real life was too unnerving. So instead I rolled over Grace’s surface and roamed her passageways. I took inventory of the new modules we’d received from Mercy and puzzled over those we’d sent her way. Gone were the pair of sealed cargo modules filled with various hazmats we had generated, along with the auxiliary greenhouse filled with a jungle of plants, trees, and chlorophytes that Grace had gathered on the Valcent flyby. In exchange, we’d received one module filled with replacement ice, two that were empty, and one that was almost empty except for the bumpy purple spatters on the deck that were lit with UV. Grace said that if the spatters germinated as the bioengineers on Mercy predicted, they might grow into a self-sustaining protein pond, which we could harvest for our food printers. But it would take several years before we’d know if this experiment was going to work.
I was going to miss the Valcent greenhouse: Grace had jumped the oxygen content of its atmosphere to twenty-seven percent and the air was spicy-sweet soup. One of my favorite places on Grace. It brought back happy memories of the celebration we’d had after discovering the jungles on Valcent D, back when I was eleven. That had been the last time we’d found life; our two most recent systems had been big disappointments. Qory acted like all these changes to our ship were no big deal. After all, Grace was on a survey mission and crew trades were not even the most important part of a starship rendezvous. New data had to be synced and resources exchanged if we were to grow the infosphere. Which was no doubt true and I shouldn’t have been surprised, but my only other rendezvous had been with the Hope when I was ten, a year after Uncle Feero died. Since no crew had changed hands that time, it hadn’t made much of an impression. Although, come to think of it, Qory had started morphing from my brother to my sister just after that.
And now I wondered if she might not be changing again. She seemed taller. And her voice was rounder?
Nevertheless, Qory was being a big help about our new situation. She’d gone through several trades. It was something I’d never thought much about, but she was two hundred-plus years old and had been on four different starships and in three crèches. She said I shouldn’t make too much of Orisa’s disappearance. Forced trades happened every so often, although most crews welcomed new faces and experiences. In the long term, everyone knew that trades were important for the sanity of both a starship’s intelligence and its crew. Qory predicted that Orisa would be fine, because nobody wanted a reputation for being a misfit.
Whenever I asked Grace how Orisa was doing, all I got were non-comments.
“She’ll have to tell you. I’m honoring her privacy.”
“She’s still nesting.”
“Nesting?” I glanced over at Qory, who shrugged.
“Think how you’ve changed your rooms to suit your needs over the years,” said Grace. “You want comfort, yes, but you also tried to express your identity. You made them your home. Crew who’ve been traded can feel like they’ve lost part of themselves. So nesting is a way they make the place where they belong.”
“Okay,” I said. “But what about meals? She hasn’t come out to eat.”
“She’s fine.” Qory squeezed my shoulder. “She has a printer.”
Orisa reappeared while I was having lunch on the third day. I had my face deep in a bowl of drunken noodles when I noticed Qory, who was opposite, peering past me. I turned and then quickly slurped the noodles off my fork. Orisa seemed bigger than I’d remembered, maybe because now I could see more of her. She wore a basic short-sleeved jiffy that hung to her thighs over black tights, and she was barefoot. She had pacified her wild hair with a golden band.
Astonished, I said, “You’re here.”
“We’ve been waiting.” Qory gestured for her to join us.
“Thanks.” Orisa sauntered to the table, swung a leg over a chair, and sat as if she’d always been part of our family. “What’s for lunch?” she said.
“Pad kee mao,” I said and tilted my bowl to show her. “I sprinkle in some goat mince but it’s still under the twelve hundred calorie limit.”
She surprised me by reaching over and snagging one of my noodles. She tilted her head back and dangled it into her mouth. Looking thoughtful, she said, “Your printer does a nice Thai basil. No cilantro?”
“Tastes like soap,” I said.
She licked her lips. “This dish has some heat.”
“The default recipe calls for serrano peppers, but I usually go for the Tien Tsin. If I’m feeling brave I might try Lab Fire.”
She made a face. “Warn me if you do.”
And then we stared at each other. There was so much to say. Why were we talking about printing chili peppers?
“Have you eaten?” said Qory.
“Protein drink an hour ago.” Orisa rubbed both hands over her eyes, then set herself, as if she were calling a meeting to order. “Sorry to have been so abrupt when I arrived.”
Abrupt? Is that what she called it?
Qory said, “We understand.”
“I had adjusting to do.”
“Going through a trade is the most stressful life event. Worse than death of a crew member.” Qory reached over and patted Orisa’s hand.
She seemed surprised by this gesture. “So, I’ve been catching up with Grace. I like her. Not as bossy as Mercy. But she thinks we should begin to sort ourselves out, and I agree.”
I pushed my bowl away. “Okay.” I’d lost my appetite.
“You were a nuclear family unit with Gillian and Dree,” Orisa said. “Obviously that isn’t going to work with us, so we’ll need a new social construct.”
“Can’t we just be crew?” I said.
“Fine for now, but workplace units are inherently unstable in a group this small. Who knows how long we’re likely to be together?”
“Years,” said Grace, jumping into the conversation the way she always used to.
“Yes. We don’t need to make any immediate decisions, but we should at least do a little brainstorming. For example, Jojin is at an age…”
“Call me Joj.”
“… Joj needs to have sexual intimacy outside of story. Grace says that hasn’t happened yet.”
I could feel my cheeks flush.
Qory filled the awkward silence. “That’s right.”
“Doing the math,” said Orisa, “we could go for a triad or a group marriage configuration, although, Joj, I understand you’re trending heterosexual at the moment.”
I nodded, grateful that they weren’t giving me much time to be embarrassed.
“Which probably means that Qory should modify herself to become more sexually available.”
“Already on it,” said Qory. “Whatever way I go, I’m done with this body.” She flicked her fingers, as if to discard her kid self.
“A triad would be acceptable to me,” said Orisa, “although not ideal. I like female bots, but not as sex partners. No offense.”
“Or Joj and Qory could be lovers and I could be celibate. That would work, although I do enjoy sex and had multiple partners on Mercy. But I’m certainly willing to take drugs to dampen my sex drive. That was how I got through part of my last Survey stint. Or it could be Joj and me.”
“Sure.” I wanted to gawk at her and imagine. I’d done plenty of that already. “At some point.” Instead, I stared at the remains of my lunch.
“At some point,” she said. “Right.” And then she chuckled. I didn’t know her, or her laughter, but there was a music to it that made me catch my breath. I glanced up, and she was smiling at me, her eyes merry. Qory was grinning too.
“You’re such a boy,” said Orisa.
“You keep saying that. Why is that bad?”
“Oh, it isn’t.” She wiped most of the smile from her face. “I think it’s charming, as long as it isn’t permanent.”
We all looked at one other.
Then we all nodded.
“Someone has to be captain, then,” said Qory, moving the conversation off our sexual arrangements. “You know it can’t be me. Humans only.”
“I don’t care about being captain.” Orisa waved dismissively. “Doesn’t matter to me.”
“It matters to me,” said Grace.
This took Orisa by surprise. “Really?”
“Grace is a little old-fashioned that way.” Qory shrugged. “She likes her traditions. Dad… Dree was captain before. Feero before him.”
“Does it come with any perks?”
“Dad always chose our destinations,” I said.
Orisa gave a dismissive snort.
“Assigning watches,” I continued. “Casting privilege in the family… group stories. Editorial direction.”
Orisa considered, then gave me a sarcastic salute. “Aye, Captain. Orders?”
I didn’t want to be the captain either, but I decided to assume command to protect myself. “Before anyone makes any more decisions,” I said, “we’re going to spend time getting to know you.” I rose from the table. “And you’re going to get to know us.”
“For a bot,” said Orisa, “you sure have a lot of hobbies.”
We were standing in the garden Qory had built in one of Grace’s empty modules. She’d printed several cubic meters of soil and had filled twenty raised beds with crops collected from around the infosphere. Leafy vegetables here—kale and spinach vine and bittergreens—root plants there—zebra nut and carrots and candy lilies. Cucurbits in all the colors of the spectrum spilled out of one container and reached tendrils across the deck. The sugarfingers were in bloom, filling the air with their tart scent. Orisa had never seen gac before, so Qory picked one off the vine and sliced through the spiny skin to reveal a clump of oily magenta sacs.
“From Asia, one of the Earth continents.” She offered them to Orisa. “They’re mild, a bit like melon. Or a sweet carrot.”
“You can taste, then?” said Orisa. “Not all bots do.” She nipped a sac out and popped it into her mouth.
“Oh yes,” said Qory. “I was grown on Halcyon. We do the full sensorium.”
Orisa chewed, then smacked her lips. “I’m getting a hint of cucumber.” She offered me the fruit, but I waved her off.
Qory chuckled. “Joj likes his food printed.”
“You can climb in, if you want.” I stood by the open hatch of the roller.
“But I’m not wearing your EM thingy.”
“Clingy. Try it anyway. See if you fit.”
She ran fingers around the opening. “Not sure I can,” she said.
“Here.” I rotated the roller so that the hatch was flush with the deck. “Lie down and scoot in, feet first.”
She blew a heavy breath that made the hair along her forehead dance. It would have been easier if Qory had been there to help, but she was standing watch. I’d gotten Grace to agree to a four-four-eight-eight schedule for now, with Orisa and I each taking a four-hour shift, Qory taking an eight, and Grace self-watching for an eight.
As Orisa wriggled through the hatch, her jiffy rode up her stomach, revealing an expanse of smooth, dark skin. I don’t think she caught me staring.
“Now what do you want me to do?” she said once she was inside.
“Set your feet on the running pad and I’ll roll you upright.” I could barely manage this, since she filled the roller as I never had. She could steady herself by pressing both palms against the inside at the same time. My arms were too short to touch more than one side at a time.
She was laughing. “And you take this overgrown kickball into space?”
“It’s fun,” I said. “You really should try it.”
“No thanks, space weather isn’t my friend. I’m allergic to low-energy particles. But I get it that boys will be boys. Help me out.”
Later we toured my quarters. She played with McDog but seemed most interested in my dancing warriors. Over the years I’d designed more than a hundred different ones, each little bot twenty-five centimeters tall. When I was a kid, I made them fight, but Dad always said fighting was what they did on planets and crew should know better. So I had them march instead, following me up and down Grace’s passageways as I called various walkbeats. Mom and Dad and Qory would stand in their doorways and clap for us. Then to one of the empty modules to practice elaborate drills that morphed from mandalas to monsters, sailboats to starships. A few years ago I’d put most of my warriors away except for the handful that I taught to dance. When I was little, Mom used to dance with me; that always made me happy. Getting my bots to dance was almost as much fun.
Orisa retrieved Teegan and Beko from the shelf and set them on the deck.
“I only named the dancers,” I explained. “The rest were just troops.”
The warriors bowed to each other. Beko opened his arms and Teegan stepped into close position, slipping past his scabbard. His hand rested against the leather armor on her back, loose but firm.
I watched them glide across the room and turn to the open side of their embrace. “I hardly take them down anymore.” A fan led to two quick steps and a check, and then they looked up to me for approval.
“Why did you stop?”
I shrugged. Wasn’t it obvious? I was nineteen—too old to be playing with dolls.
“Do they talk?”
I shook my head. “I never knew what they should say.” I couldn’t read the shadow that passed across her face. “They were smiling,” I said. “That was enough for me.”
“You must have been so lonely,” she said.
“I had my family.” I felt my cheeks flush. “And Grace.”
“Did you ever think of giving up your place on the ship? Picking some planet, leaving space?”
“No!” This was getting strange. “Why, have you?”
“Sure.” She set the warriors back on their shelves. “But here I am.”
I felt embarrassed when we settled at either end of my bed to talk. I offered to fetch the stool from my workroom but Orisa said no. I realized I needed a couch. Chairs, at least. She said I might try decorating the place and suggested that I ask Qory for a painting. When had she found out that Qory painted? But I liked the idea. Maybe Qory could do one of me in my roller.
Then Orisa asked about my stories.
I was explaining about Darko Fleener and my adventures with the Right of Free Assembly’s First Contact unit when she interrupted and started telling me the secret history of the Holy Electric Empire. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Not only did she know the Annals of the Red Fleet, but she described a battlesnake called War of Attrition that could have been the Free Assembly’s sister ship.
“But Fleeners was my story. I decided to go up against the Helveticans. I stole the Audacity.”
“You did. So did I, once upon a time. So did a lot of other kids. Except my flipship was Sly and I won it at the card table. It’s formula, Joj. The starships use it because it works. It’s a fun story designed to teach girls and boys all kinds of things they didn’t know they were learning.”
I gave a disgusted grunt. “Boys again.”
“And girls. When I was your age, my favorite story was about a quest. I was summoned to find a wizard’s sword that could send the Demon Lord back to the Barrens. I had an amulet that let me change my shape and a map…”
“A ring.” I felt so stupid. “In my story, it was a ring.” I couldn’t sit so I started moving around the bedroom. I stomped at the deck to see if it was still there because I wasn’t sure whether Grace herself might melt away and drop me into naked space. Orisa watched, waiting for me to calm down.
“They seemed so personal,” I said finally. “It meant a lot to me that they were mine and not Qory’s. But they were nothing but stories. Stories for kids.”
She pulled me down next to her. “There’s nothing wrong with stories, Joj. I’m the story I tell myself. You’re a story. The universe is a story. But it’s important to know what kind of story you’re in.”
Her hand on my bare arm gave me goose bumps and I gazed up at her. “Are we a story?” I wanted her to kiss me then. “You and I?” That’s what would have happened if I’d been telling it.
She smiled and shook her head. “Not yet,” she said.
The moment stretched, then she let go of my arm.
Orisa had a strange reaction when we took her to Qory’s quarters to meet Hob and Nob, the glass mollusks. We didn’t tell her about them ahead of time; I thought it would be a fun surprise. Their tank filled half of Qory’s workshop space; the rest was taken up by the bench where she built the toys. I immediately went to say hello.
“You keep pets, then?” Orisa hesitated in the entrance.
“Grace doesn’t mind,” said Qory.
“Qory’s had Hob and Nob since before I knew her.” I pressed my hand flat against the tank where Nob hung, suckered against the clear plex by two of its four tentacles. “Don’t worry, they’re harmless.”
“Just like us.” Orisa gave an unhappy chuckle. “At least they don’t have to stand watch.”
“They probably could,” I said. “They’re smart.” I turned around to see that Orisa was frowning. “Is something wrong?” Maybe she didn’t like mollusks.
“Not at all,” she said. “It’s just a little sad.”
“No, they like it here,” I said. “They even know our names. Watch.” I tapped the tank next to Nob and it burped a bubble the size of my fingernail that rose through the syrupy water and burst at the top of the tank, releasing a musky chocolate scent.
“Smell that?” I said. “That means ‘Joj.’”
“Actually,” said Qory, “it means, ‘Hello, Joj.’”
But Orisa was done with them; she’d already moved on to Qory’s bedroom. “Is that a new painting, Qory?” she called. “Oils, I’m impressed.”
We settled into our watch schedules and the new routine. I still had breakfast with Qory before my watch. Orisa and I did lunch most days. We all ate dinner together. But the group stories were not going well. At first I thought it was because Orisa didn’t care about the plots. She wasn’t paying attention to where we were in the story and kept breaking character. She’d either get too serious in the sitcoms or turn silly at dramatic moment or else she’d object to details in the historical re-creations. But after a week of false starts I realized she was sabotaging.
“Why don’t you take over?” I challenged her. “Pick a new story.”
The women had been remaking one of the modules into a lounge. Each of us lay on divans that Orisa had created. Qory had donated two of her paintings and a frangipani tree in a pot. Jenny and Pevita from my army waited in the corner for a chance to perform; I’d invented some new toss-up steps.
“No.” Orisa sat up. “I never want to plan another escape from an imaginary prison, and you can keep your clueless bosses. I’m my own boss.” She swung her legs around and faced me. “We could just talk, you know. You ordered us to get to know each other, Captain.”
“Grace wants us in story together,” I said. “For socialization. Builds solidarity.”
“Does she?” Orisa said. “You’re sure about that?”
I expected Qory to take my side, but instead she deserted to Orisa. “Some crews need stories to get along,” she said. “But we seem to be doing all right without them.”
I rolled over and glared at her.
“For now.” Qory tried to look innocent.
“Grace?” I said. “Tell them.”
“Conversation is an acceptable substitute,” she said, “as long as it’s productive.”
That stopped me. Productive?
“For example,” Grace continued, “Orisa could tell us what’s she’s been writing.”
This was Orisa’s big secret. We’d tried several times to pry it loose, but she wouldn’t let go.
“No thanks.” She remained obstinate. “That’s private.”
“Why?” Now Qory propped herself up on an elbow.
“Because nobody ever understands. So would you please stop asking?”
I waited. Clouds drifted across the sky that Grace displayed on the ceiling. The frangipani flowers breathed their soft, soapy fragrance into the silence.
“Okay, then,” I said at last, “maybe another go at the roommates story?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
I was glad Qory didn’t call Orisa out for language. This was the most upset she’d been since she’d arrived.
“I tried this on Mercy, but they didn’t get it.” Orisa kicked at the deck. “And then they wouldn’t stop talking to me about not getting it.”
“We’ll be good,” Qory said.
“Okay.” She hesitated. “Okay, I’m writing a novel.” She rubbed her eyes. “I’ve written eight novels.”
“A novel.” I remembered novels from a story about how virtuality got invented. “That’s a story that’s just words? That doesn’t change?”
“See!” She turned on Qory, arms flung wide.
Qory let the storm pass. “Can we read it?”
“Does he even know how?” Was Orisa sneering at me?
Qory give a quick shake of her head.
I pretended not to notice them. “I can read.” Which was true, although I never did.
“What’s it about?” Qory asked.
“It’s a murder mystery,” said Orisa.
“Set on old, Old Earth,” Grace said. “I like it so far.”
I expected Grace’s snooping would set Orisa off again, but the compliment seemed to mollify her. I was irked. “I thought you said it was private. How come Grace gets to read it?”
“You’re all part of the infosphere,” said Grace.
“Yes, we’re all just happy little data points,” said Orisa.
“You could read it to us,” Qory jumped in, sensing we were losing an opportunity.
Which was what happened. We lay back on our divans as if we were going into story and Grace displayed the text on the ceiling. All those words made my head spin, so I closed my eyes.
“Just a paragraph or two,” Orisa said, “and then you’ve had your fun and we forget about this, okay? And hold all comments, thank you very much.”
I noticed her voice changing as she read; it suggested another, more mysterious Orisa, one whom I might never meet. “The living room,” she read, “was a hodgepodge of the old, the new, the pricey, and the garish. The four-door oak sideboard against the far wall and the elegant teak coffee table on the bright Peruvian rug…”
“Wait,” I said. “What’s Peruvian?”
“It’s historical.” Qory shushed me. “Just listen.”
“…were from before the war. The couch and matching loveseat were so new that the cherry microfiber upholstery still had a gloss. A couple of paintings hung on the walls, blurry impressions of fruit bowls and bridges. Photos in matched silver frames marched across the sideboard. The cop and I settled on the couch. My client hovered anxiously before falling back onto the loveseat. The last few days had aged her a decade. A solid woman with too much face and not enough chin, she seemed to be shrinking into herself. Her eyes slid from one to another of us and then to the suitcase in the hall. She didn’t want to be here, probably didn’t want to be anywhere. She was wearing a lifeless blue pantsuit, a collared white blouse, and sensible black flats. Ready for another day at the office—except it was nine thirty on the worst night of her life.”
Orisa paused and I opened my eyes. There were more words on the ceiling, but Orisa was finished. Qory started clapping. “More! Read more for us!”
“Some other time.”
I hated the way her bold reading voice shrank to a mutter. I wanted to encourage her too. “That was amazing,” I said. “Like I was there, like a story, except I was still me.”
Orisa smiled and shook her head.
“But what’s a pantsuit?”
“You figure that stuff out from context,” said Qory. “Some kind of clothing, like a jiffy. And next time, no interruptions, okay?”
Almost two weeks passed before we could convince Orisa that there should be a next time.
The three planets in the Goldilocks Zone of the Kenstraw system were kind of a waste. All were lifeless disappointments. Kenstraw B was a Chthonian, a gas giant that had drifted too close to the red dwarf and had lost its atmosphere, leaving only a rocky core. Kenstraw A was tidally locked to its star. Grace had hoped to find life in the twilight zone between the hot and cold faces, but long-range scanning suggested a probability too low for a diversion to see for sure. We were finishing our flyby of Kenstraw C as my watch was ending. Orisa arrived to relieve me as Grace was still processing the data. In the days before we reached the inner planets, Grace had been enthusiastic about the encounters, but now a monotone of chagrin crept into her conversation as she highlighted entries on the command center’s screen.
“An aphelion of .845 AU and a perihelion of .811 AU,” she said. “Orbital period is two hundred and ninety-six standard days.”
“Anything?” Orisa tapped my shoulder and I glanced back at her. Qory had trimmed Orisa’s hair for her and she’d been wearing it unbound. It smelled of frangipani flowers.
I liked the new look.
“Another runaway greenhouse,” I said. “Grace puts the surface temperature at 462°C.”
She whistled. “That’s one hot chili pepper.”
“Mean radius 5,959 kilometers,” Grace reported. “Surface area is 4.953 x 108 km2.”
“Express that in Earth equivalents,” said Orisa. “And round up.” I didn’t know why she bothered asking for amplification. It wasn’t like we actually cared.
“Surface area is .9 that of Earth. I’m seeing smooth volcanic plains.”
Grace’s voice perked up.
“Also three continent-like highlands,” she continued. “And I count just one thousand one hundred and sixty-two impact craters ranging in diameter from three kilometers to two hundred and eighty. The atmosphere is so thick that it slows incoming projectiles with less kinetic energy down so that they don’t leave craters.”
She did sound more cheerful. I mouthed the question to Orisa. What the hell?
“It’s a trick I learned on Curiosity,” she said, making no attempt to keep her reply a secret. “Starships like to know we’re paying attention. The infosphere needs an audience. We’re how the universe knows itself.”
Impressed, I stepped away from the console and waved her into my place.
“The atmosphere,” said Grace, “is ninety percent carbon dioxide, eight percent nitrogen, one percent sulfur dioxide, traces of argon, water vapor, carbon monoxide, helium, and neon.”
“Could there be life in those clouds?” Orisa called up the panel for the biosignature scanners. “Lots of greenhouse planets have extremophile life at the cooler atmosphere levels.”
“Doubtful,” said Grace. “The clouds are between thirty degrees and eighty degrees Celsius, but they’re mostly sulfuric acid droplets.”
“Will you deploy any probes, then? Collect samples?”
“I’m sorry, but that is not indicated.”
Sorry? We were back to the sad Grace voice. She sounded like she’d let us down somehow.
“So, a course change for the mangle then?”
“Agreed. I should begin developing a nullspace geometry to convey us to the next survey site. Would you like to choose a new destination now?”
Orisa put an arm around my shoulder to guide me back to the console. “Captain’s decision.”
“Umm…” I’d known this was coming but I hadn’t expected it so soon. If we’d deployed probes we might have lingered for days in orbit around Kenstraw, maybe weeks. “Not sure how this works.” Dad had picked the Kenstraw mission when I was thirteen, and back then I hadn’t much cared where we went next. That had been toward the end of the Mars trilogy of stories and I’d been engrossed with dragon jousting in the Valles Marineris. “What are my choices?”
The screen lit up with a grid of nearby stars, with estimated subjective travel times highlighted. The closest was Omplu, three years and two months away, but it had just a pair of gas giant planets in orbit. Three others with a single Goldilocks planet were less than five years away. Eshalet was a K dwarf with four rocky planets in the zone; it was six years distant and the most likely to support life. But just then six years felt like an eternity.
“Your call, Captain.” Orisa’s grin had a menace to it.
“I… but… Grace, why don’t you pick.”
I heard Qory enter behind me but didn’t look back to see what she was doing.
“It’s always a crew decision.” Grace said. “Human privilege. You know that.”
“The last two times, Dad just chose the closest,” said Qory, “but that’s because he’d stopped caring. I think he gave up on the infosphere.”
“And Grace let him get away with that?” This conversation was making me nervous. “Isn’t there some kind of plan?”
Orisa shook her head. “No plan except to keep going. Random choice perfectly acceptable.”
“Random? That would be…”
“Crazy?” said Orisa. “Are you saying that the infosphere is insane?”
I swallowed hard.
Orisa wiped all the panels off the screen, plunging the command center into near darkness. “How many solar systems are there in the infosphere, Grace?”
“The starship project has made eight hundred forty-three thousand two hundred and eighteen supervised surveys of star systems, including Kenstraw.” The screens lit up with a plot of all the stars in the infosphere. “In addition, unsupervised starship intelligences operating drones have accomplished surveys of approximately eighty-two million star systems.”
“But drone surveys don’t exactly count,” said Orisa. “Do they?”
“Data isn’t information. Information isn’t knowledge.”
“And how many stars are there in our galaxy?”
Grace sounded almost gleeful. “According to current estimates, approximately four hundred billion.”
“And how many galaxies in the universe?”
Of course, everybody knew these numbers were huge. So huge that it hurt to think about them, so I never did.
“According to current estimates, there are approximately a trillion galaxies in the observable universe.”
I felt dizzy and Qory put a hand on my arm. Only it wasn’t Qory, or rather it wasn’t the bot little sister I’d lived with for the past decade. Standing beside me was a grown woman, wearing what I realized must be a pantsuit that was nothing like the one in Orisa’s novel. The silky jacket and slacks were the black of space, the blouse was a fiery and voluptuous red. As I goggled at her, I felt the familiar thickness between my ears that came at the beginning of a sex story. She chuckled and put a hand to the side of my face to turn my gaze back to the screens.
Orisa nodded once she had my attention and continued her interrogation. “And how long will it take the starship project to grow the infosphere to include the entire universe?”
“You’re trying to get me to say the word forever, Orisa.”
I’d never heard Grace laugh, but when I’d heard her make a forever joke that one time, she’d used the same happy-scary tone of voice.
“But saying that what we are trying to do can’t be done,” the starship continued, “does not make us insane.”
“That’s your story, is it?” said Orisa. ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’”
“Is that not true?” asked Grace.
Orisa took Qory’s hand, tying the three of us in a knot. “The captain and Qory and I are going off watch,” she said. “We have an urgent need to discuss our itinerary.”
I expected Grace to argue and was relieved that she didn’t.
I hadn’t been back to Dad’s old quarters since Orisa had moved in. Her workroom was filled with a contraption that consisted of an upright metal framework hung with colored strings; she said it was called a loom and that she was using it to weave a blanket. For what, I’m not sure. There was a rug on the floor in her bedroom. No, it wasn’t Peruvian; she said it was from the old planet Mars, where her great-great-great-grandmother was from. But she’d been born in a crèche like me, so how could she have known this? The woven cloth satchel I’d seen when she arrived slouched on the table beside her bed; a keyboard right out of a historical peeked out. I was shocked and embarrassed to see a painting that Qory had done of me—who knew when?—leading my army down a passageway. It hung alongside half a dozen photos of men and women—some solo, some in groups. She introduced them all to me, friends and lovers from her other crews. I knew that she had been on two other starships before Grace but I’d never learned how old she was. Sixty-six. We didn’t have to sit on her bed because she’d printed an elegant bench about two meters long, which she’d placed against the opposite wall.
She gestured for me to sit but she and Qory remained standing. “Grace will be listening to us, but that doesn’t matter.”
The bench was hard. “Okay.” I wriggled a little but couldn’t get comfortable.
“You’ve grown up hearing all the slogans about the infosphere and the universe knowing itself. Information isn’t knowledge. The stuff about us being resources. But what do they mean to you?”
“To me?” I assumed this was a test and I was determined not to say anything dumb. “It means we’re stuck. On this starship or some other. We’re pretending to be crew but what we do doesn’t matter. And we don’t have any choice.” I considered. “Well, I guess we get to decide where to go, but apparently that’s kind of meaningless. Or we could give up and leave space altogether. Live on a planet.”
“Yes.” Orisa gestured for me to keep talking. “But why are we here? What do they want from us?”
“Sometimes I think we’re just their pets, like Nob and Hob.” I was getting a crick in my neck looking up at her. “But as you said, mollusks don’t stand watch. And we don’t tell them stories. Or ask them where Grace should go next.”
“Good,” she said. “Good.” She plopped down next to me. “So let’s get this out of the way.” She leaned over and kissed me.
Did I kiss her back? Fuck yes! It was the most delicious surprise of my life. I think maybe half the neurons in my brain were permanently imprinted with the softness of her lips, the dart of her tongue.
Ten billion years passed in ten seconds and then there we were.
She said, “That get your attention, my sweet boy?”
I couldn’t speak because then I would’ve had to breathe, so I just nodded.
“Good, good. Me too. We’ll try it again later, although it might be much later.” She pressed a hand to one cheek and then the other. “Is it warm in here?” she said. “Or it that you?” She cleared her throat. “So, the starships. You’ll need to think about this. There are two Jojins. Two of me, as well. Every human is two people.”
“So is every bot,” said Qory.
I had no idea what they were talking about but I had to hope she’d be done soon.
“There’s the you who experiences things in the moment. The you who gets hungry and sleepy. The self of brain chemistry and sensory data.”
“The self who feels sexy?” I wanted to grab her leg, but I went for the hand instead.
“That too. That you is the experiencing self. The other you is the narrating self, the self who remembers and plans, the self who makes sense of the sensations of the experiencing self.”
“The story self. I remember you saying that everyone is a story.”
“I like a man who pays attention.” She smiled at me and I shivered. Qory—not Qory, grown Qory!—was grinning too. Why were they doing this to me?
“So the starship intelligences are like us,” said Orisa, “but their two selves are out of balance. They are maybe the best experiencers anywhere, but they’re no good at creating a story out of their experiences. The infosphere builds tens of thousands of drones every year and sends them off to gather data, survey star systems, and they do. Then they don’t. Given enough time, they disappear. Nobody knows why exactly, but the starships believe that they get so caught up collecting data that they forget why they’re doing it. That they’re supposed to develop data into information. They lose the story.”
She handed my hand back to me and slid a few centimeters away on the bench. “Now, the starships don’t have this problem. They always stay on task, collecting data and organizing it into information. Why?”
“You’re saying it’s because of us?”
“Because we’re watching. Because we started the story of the infosphere. Because we care about our stories in ways that no intelligence has ever managed to duplicate. Even when the stories are made up. So the starships use our narrating power to keep them on task. When is Grace most productive?”
“When you’re watching me,” said Grace.
“Shut up, Grace,” said Orisa. “She needs us to stay sane. Why would a starship care whether she finds life on the next planet or not? She doesn’t. She’s not life, we are. She cares because we care. She keeps looking because we’re interested.”
“Or pretend to be,” I said.
Orisa got up then, crossed the room, and sat on the bed facing me.
“What?” I said. “I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. We’re faking it.”
“I’m not,” said Qory. “And neither is she.”
“And if you’re going to continue to pretend,” Orisa said, “you should think about leaving space.” The intensity of her stare pushed me against the back of the bench. “But that’s a one and done decision. Stop being crew and Grace will drop you on a planet and move on. No guarantees where, no guarantees what your future will be like, no guarantees period. You won’t matter to the starships anymore; they only love their crews. Their families. You’ll be just another resource to them, like hydrogen and ice and iron. Something they use to build new ships and drones so they can grow the infosphere.”
I swallowed. “I know that.”
She nodded. “Of course you do. And how many make that choice to leave space? Haven’t you ever asked?”
I shook my head.
“About one in twenty.”
“And you stayed.”
“I did.” She squared her broad shoulders. “But if you think this is dull, they say that earning a living on some dirty, buggy, germy, too-hot-and-too-cold planet will turn your brain into pudding. Of course, how would they know—it’s the ones like us that say that. But living downside isn’t like the stories Grace is feeding you. There’s no laugh track. And that’s another thing. On starship, you can make up your own story. At least I can.”
I noticed Qory nodding. “What, you too?” I said.
“The paintings are a part of my stories,” she said. “The garden.”
“I get it. Or at least, I’m beginning to.” I was sold. But now I had to figure out what my story was. Something about dancing, maybe. Or inventing a new sport for my roller. Or something. And growing the infosphere. “I want you in my story.”
“Good line, but it doesn’t get you anything.” Orisa laughed. “You’re going to need something better than the Fleeners, though. That’s kid stuff. You should read more. Actual books.”
“Like what?” I said. “Tell me.”
She and Qory exchanged glances. “I don’t know,” said Orisa. “Maybe start with Shakespeare?”
“Again with that shaggy old masculinist?” said Grace. “Where are the tragedies about women?”
“I like Zeng Yufen myself.” Qory crossed the room and stood beside Orisa. “The imaginary memoirs.”
“She’s not bad,” said Grace. “But all the best stuff comes after she uploaded.”
For a long moment, Orisa and Qory looked at me and I looked back. Who were we? Who were we going to be?
“As I sit here,” said Orisa, “I know that you are already in my story, although I’m not exactly sure how important you are to my plot. My experiencing self liked that kiss just fine, but now my narrating self has to figure out what it meant.”
“If you want,” I said, “I can come over there and provide more data.”
“No rush.” She leaned back on the bed. “There will be time for that.” She gazed at me through her lashes. “If it happens.”
“But not forever,” said Grace. “So where to, Captain?”
I thought then of Dad, who had lost his way after a hundred and something years. But that was his sad story. Mine was going to be different.
“What was the one with four in the zone?”
“Eshalet,” Grace said. “Six years, one month, and eleven days subjective.”
“No problem.” I grinned at my crew. My family. “Plenty of time.”
Text © 2018 by James Patrick Kelly
Illustration © 2018 by Jun Cen