Anchorage

The anchorage appeared on my radar screen as a blip, a blotch, one bit of detritus among many. The accompanying message was gentle but persistent, an invitation repeated on loop for anyone who might pick it up: visit if you like. The politest distress call in the universe. Visit if you like, and please bring food, printer fuel, next gen wires, conversation…

I forwarded the signal to Captain Rousseau. This action revealed impatience on my part, excitement, an inability to wait until after breakfast. But I couldn’t help it.

Novelty. Newness. I craved it like a subterranean lizardman craved phosphor. I craved it like Captain Rousseau craved silence. Over the past year, my crew (yes, my crew, my crew, the word still sounded the way I imagine liquor tastes, warming and biting and frightening and loud)—my crew made medical deliveries to a dozen colonies. We saw titanium waterfalls and genetically enhanced caribou. We walked through bone-lined catacombs. We rode air trams through toxic jungles. We stopped a necrotic worm outbreak and vaccinated three thousand children against belly rot.

More. More. Everything I’d hoped for and more. But the crew was too busy bickering to appreciate any of it. Everyone was angry and nobody would admit why, so they picked something inconsequential and battled a year’s worth of hurt over it.

I listened in through the mess hall intercom. I could have listened in through Captain Rousseau’s cochlear chip, but then he would know. All four crewmembers of the Metrodora were licensed pharmaceutical technicians, but he was the only one who ever scrutinized my vitals. Terrifying, but I loved him for it.

“We’re out of breakfast bars,” Olivia complained.

“I said to log things as they run out,” Malala said.

“I would have, if I knew somebody ate them all.

Santiago grumbled, “Just ask when resupply gets here. Either they have some or they don’t.”

I pictured it: Olivia aggressively shoving waste into the trash chute because she always cleaned when she was angry; Malala mumble-hunching because it wasn’t her fault, not according to Malala; Santiago interjecting even though nobody would listen; and Captain Rousseau, my beautiful captain—well, he was always a bit of mystery, a bit of light-and-shadow, a bit of dusty-air wondering, but he would hold them all together in the end.

Captain Rousseau cleared his throat and said, in his beautiful voice, “Geneva has picked up an anchorage.”

A beat of silence. Then:

“No,” Olivia said.

“Ooh, fun!” Malala said.

“No,” Olivia said again. “I’m not risking contamination for some—some obsolete religious experience.”

I was clawing inside my own chest to contradict her. A ship could travel years without encountering an anchorage. Decades! This was newness, exploration, questing, curiosity. This was a thousand-year flower at millennium’s dawn, this was birth canal, this was sunlight through a canopy fire. (Surely at least one of these metaphors was correct?)

“I would hardly call the practice religious.” Santiago, of course. He would know what he was talking about—he had taken three long-distance history courses! “They’re rich women with enough money to outfit a hundred-year pod and the nerve to expect everyone else to feed them.”

“Ridiculous,” Malala said. “Nobody commits to a lifetime of seclusion because they don’t want to feed themselves.”

“It’s hardly seclusion if everybody stops to say hello, is it?”

“You might not see anybody for years!”

I waited anxiously for Captain Rousseau to weigh in. I had tried to read him once, shortly after I came on board. We were flying over a sandstorm on the moon colony Bevel 6, barely on schedule to complete our delivery before the upper atmosphere calcified. The sands formed brilliant tornados beneath our hull, violet and viridian, glorious, glorious. Captain Rousseau was pressed tight to the view portal, and I heard Santiago tell Malala that the captain’s ex-husband lived on the surface, a research warrior on long-term assignment with a militant university fellowship.

Never having had an ex—husband or wife or colleague-lover or otherwise—I was bursting to know more. I crept into his neural network, quiet as the void, and I swear I wasn’t going to intrude on his actual thoughts, I only wanted to know what he was feeling. But I didn’t even get that far. He gently nudged me out of his sensors, no words, only the sensation of please do not, and off I skittered, too mortified to ask how he knew I was there.

Captain Rousseau was a dark lake, a spider beneath a trapdoor, an antediluvian stress-wombat with its caffeine taken away—

“Geneva,” he said. “What do you think?”

Startled, I lost touch with the intercom. I reconnected in time to hear Olivia complain, “—tell us when you’re listening in?”

My thoughts were: want, want, want, now, give me, now, want. But I said, “The chances of coming across another anchorage in this region are extremely remote. It is distinctly possible this is the only one.” I hesitated. Rushed ahead. “The resupply barge is four days, sixteen hours from materialization. Our energy stores are ample.”

“Mmhm.” I could hear the smile in his voice, warm as hotcakes, warm as fresh growth beneath a twelve-hour carcass. “Since we are waiting anyway, I see no harm letting the pod dock to recharge. You can visit in pairs.”

Wonderful! Fantastical!

“Absolutely not,” Olivia said. “Those pods are a perfect microclimate for lichen. If one strand has hitch-hiked in on a visitor, then it’s infested. That kind of recklessness lost us the Earth. It’s irresponsible, short-sighted…”

Olivia went on for a while. A quick peek at her sensors revealed the depth of her rage, a howling inside her, a tempest, but I responded anyway, it came flowing out of me like hot sap.

“The organism concerning you is not a lichen,” I said, quite reasonably. “The nickname comes from the wolf lichen, Letharia vulpina, which is a similar shade of green and also composed of thick, shrubby tendrils. The organism you are referring to, cerebro digitus, is not even vegetal—”

Olivia roared, “Quit explaining things to me, Geneva! Did you forget how I got this?” She banged her prosthetic hand against the table, flesh-encased metal on metal, causing Malala to yelp and Santiago to suggest muting the intercom (uncalled for) and then Captain Rousseau finally, firmly, thankfully took charge.

“Your objections are noted,” he said. “Anyone who visits has to go through the shower on their way back. And yes, of course we’ll run a full scan and test the atmosphere first.”

“There you go!” Malala said brightly. “We’ll send the bot first.”

I burst from my cabinet in the portside emergency wall station, barely extending the bot’s head and limbs in time to keep upright. I locked its feet into magnetic boots and click-clack-clunked past the EVA suits, the generators, the maddening lights like angry balls of gas overhead, rancid things exposing everything—what a terrible way to live.

The crew floated in the mess hall, their feet hooked casually into bars below the table. Olivia, pale with irritation; Malala, still in her night clothes; Santiago, struggling with a drinking tube; and Captain Rousseau, my beautiful captain, thick black dreadlocks floating around his head, trying very hard to read.

Every one of them stared at me with bewilderment, and, frantic, I cycled through possible reasons. I was dusty. My limbs were overextended. Pale gray, open joints, mismatched sensors welded to the chest.

Hair. Everyone else in the room had hair. The bot’s face was barely expressive, a decade-old skin-model mounted onto a shiny silver cranium. It would look less uncanny with hair.

“Geneva,” Captain Rousseau said gently. “What are you doing?”

Panic! Nobody had summoned the bot body from storage.

“The anchorage is prepared to dock,” I said. I assumed this was true. Why wouldn’t it be?

Captain Rousseau squinted at me. I felt him in my vitals, scanning for abnormalities. He wasn’t going to find anything out of the ordinary. The bot’s programming was perfectly functional, I just wasn’t using it. For his sake, I almost wished I really was Geneva, the A3 Delivery Robot.

“All right,” he said. “Let her dock.”

Success!

I entered the anchorage alone, but not by myself. Olivia rode along in my sensors, determined to assess the livestream data herself. Very irritating. But also: intimate? Yes. I loved my angry, paranoid, clean-mongering vaccine tech, and a swell of affection crowded out that unwarranted bloop of resentment.

The airlock opened, and I entered the visitors’ lounge.

The room was spacious and silent and sparkling clean, whiter than white and filled with light. Each of my clanking steps was discord. Every speck of dust I shed was a violation. There had to be cleaning bots hidden away, waiting for me to leave before they broke the illusion of stillness to do their work. Still, I was frozen with mortification, unforgivably loud and filthy.

“Did you find something?” Olivia prodded.

I sent her a negative and proceeded with my grid-walk. The walls were lined with book beds, six total. Adorable! Shaped like poultry eggs! And plush inside, so visitors could relax while accessing the pod’s immense digital library. Books, music, videos, games—luxuries of knowledge and entertainment, luxuries that could be shared a million times and never be depleted.

An anchoress relied on charity to stay alive, but it didn’t hurt to offer incentives to donate. Visit if you like. Bring me food and copy all the media you desire.

Olivia hovered in my consciousness, her disapproval thick as blood clots in my chest cavity. I didn’t try to access her memory of the incident. She was fully present in my network and thinking about it obsessively. I couldn’t avoid it.

I visualized: Olivia on a medical supply delivery, bulky in her orange EVA suit. Olivia crossing the wasteland between her shuttle and the entry hatch to an underground colony on Bevel 7. Olivia falling. The rip in her glove. The cerebro digitus—fine, the lichen—wriggling up lightning-quick from between two boulders, slicing the glove and encasing her hand. Olivia screaming, “Geneva, help me!”

It was disorienting, to see the bot body through somebody else’s eyes. To see it, sleek and pale, drop the medical cargo and bend dutifully to her aid, scooping her up like a child, carrying her the last twenty feet to the hatch, where she pled shrilly for assistance, for anybody, anybody.

I visualized: Olivia on the operating table, her hand encased in green. Santiago, panicked, wielding the saw. Olivia, screaming at the stump. The lichen in a block of ice, knobby tendrils extended like fingers, knuckle after knuckle after knuckle, frozen in the act of reaching, grasping, clinging toward life.

I shook the memory away, and stopped at the end of the visitors’ lounge. A thick black door separated me from the only other chamber in the pod. It was shockingly dark against all that gleaming white, like an oil slick, like a black hole, like sadness.

The door slid into the ceiling at my approach, revealing a shadowed space within. I found…an empty room, one point five meters by two, barely lit by a low, recessed light in the ceiling. I dilated my eyes, enjoying the soft whir of the apertures opening, and seized up in delight. The space ended in a red brick wall, genuine fire-hardened clay, mortar and everything!

A single brick was missing, one meter off the ground. Kneeling height. A soft sound escaped the gap, a gentleness barely audible even to me.

Breath. From lungs!

Even at maximum light intake, I couldn’t pierce the darkness. Who was in there? How long had she been walled up? Did she still speak to visitors? What would she say to me, if I asked?

“Geneva,” Captain Rousseau prodded.

I said, “The atmosphere is safe and breathable. There is no sign of lichen or any other living organism aside from a single human inhabitant.”

Immediately, I cringed. He hadn’t asked a question. I was being sloppy, distractible. The captain said, “Hmm,” and I thought I was done for. But then he said, “Olivia?” and Olivia grumbled for a few minutes, poring over the same data I had collated in a fraction of a second. Grudgingly, she said, “It looks safe. You’d better come back through the showers, though, just to be sure.”

Excitement surged through the network, followed by the curious air-suck-thumpf of the airlock. Malala and Santiago dashed in, eager to get started.

Reluctantly, I backed into the visitors’ lounge. Malala was leaning against a book bed with a box full of adaptors in her arms. Santiago floated halfway inside, his long legs thrust out, a bright white panel open to reveal two dozen inputs. He said, “There’s a port for FPI. If you’ve got an FPI-to-megalink we can plug in that way.”

I slunk into their networks. I found: impatience/irritation/exasperation. They were trying to access a forty-year-old digital library. A wealth of fresh media awaited them, but only if they could cobble together the right sequence of adaptors. And only if the files were standard. Non-proprietary. Compatible with their backwards-compatible readers.

Santiago found a browse function and they crowded into the same egg, boggling at how to navigate tens of thousands of records, incredulous at an obsolete metadata system—but laughing, yes, actually laughing, as they found books and movies they hadn’t seen in years, and even more they’d never heard of. They would leave with thousands of hours of entertainment, as much as they could store, a priceless commodity in a profession that was ninety-five percent commute.

And oh, I wanted it I wanted it I wanted it all. Tonight they would sleep, and I would scour their hoard, I would gobble it up, I would network and crawl and piece together a deliciousness of data. I knew so many references already, so many linkages of words—the puzzle box slip-slide-stitch of language really was the apple of civilization.

The black door caught Malala’s eye. She whispered, “What do you think she does in there?”

Santiago shrugged. “Watch shows.”

“Are they allowed to do that?”

“What do you mean, allowed? She’s the one who walled herself up.”

Malala stared at the door, curiosity bouncing her in her seat.

Go, go, go, I thought, hungry for it, itching for it. I could not walk back in there myself, not without raising questions. But I could hitch a ride.

“I’m going to talk to her,” Malala said. Santiago laughed (I loved to hear him laugh) and let her slide past. “Don’t interrupt my download,” she ordered. She swam across the room and into the anchoress’s antechamber. I saw the brick wall, felt Malala’s focus—

The black door slid shut, and my connection was cut. Nothing. Nada. Malala was as good as dead to me. I nearly collapsed at the thought. I had never lost one of my people, it would be like losing a limb! And that made me think of Olivia, and that very first day, and was this how she felt on the operating table?

Thirty-two minutes passed, every second like a needle to the neck, before Malala re-emerged.

Gone was her swagger, her humor, her curiosity. Her face was blotchy from crying. She barely glanced at Santiago and ignored me altogether (I understood; it only hurt a little).

Santiago shot up. “What happened?”

“I’m fine,” she said, in a voice like a viral infection. “Let’s just finish up and go.”

She was so turmoiled, I couldn’t even glimpse the anchoress in her thoughts, just a terrible mash of anguish/hurt/guilt guilt guilt. I have to tell her, I have to apologize, I should have been there, it was all my fault.

She was thinking of that day.

I saw: Malala in the airlock, ripping off the helmet of her EVA suit. Malala dropping her cargo, declaring the bot can carry it. Olivia yelling at her to stop being so unprofessional, we have a job to do. Malala storming back into the ship. Malala horrified, crying, listening to the transmission, Olivia screaming, screaming, screaming.

Santiago asked again what had happened, and Malala snapped at him to mind his business, and then her thoughts spiraled into bad memories, and his thoughts turned sullen and resentful, and oh it wasn’t supposed to be like this! They were supposed to laugh and bond and convince Olivia to relax and all be friends and colleague-lovers like they were before.

I was ruining things again.

During the scheduled night-cycle, the bot body charged in a wall station. Cramped! Stuffy! But private.

I wandered the neural network, checking on my crew, making atmospheric adjustments here and there to increase their comfort. Sometimes I thought: they will notice, and thank me, and ask what has changed, and they will be so pleased they won’t even mind when I tell them what I am.

A fantasy, I know.

Captain Rousseau was up late, double-checking itineraries in the navigation room. Only a few scant meters separated him from my bot body, tucked into the wall outside his door. He was so diligent in his loneliness.

Olivia was in her room, pacing.

Malala and Santiago were together. Malala was crying.

“It was my fault for going ahead,” Santiago insisted. “I should have waited.” I was tired of listening to you fight, he thought, but he wouldn’t say it out loud.

“I left,” Malala said. “Maybe she wouldn’t have fallen…”

“And maybe, if I’d been closer, I could have isolated the lichen before it took her hand. We’ll never know.” He was troubled. He didn’t really believe what he was saying. His resentment hit me like a wall of fire-hardened bricks.

“I’ve got to talk to her,” Malala sighed.

Very nice to believe, but what a frequent refrain! Malala talked to Santiago and Olivia talked to her mirror and Santiago complained to Captain Rousseau and my beautiful captain kept his thoughts to himself. So much talking and not one person listening.

After a sniffling sort of silence, Malala added, “We should leave the anchoress some supplies.”

“The company doesn’t do charity,” Santiago said.

“I’ll spread it out in the accounting,” she said peevishly.

“What did that woman say to you?”

“Nothing! It’s the right thing to do. You didn’t mind taking what she had to offer.”

“Copies of some music,” he muttered. He laughed at a nonverbal communication and said, “All right, well, it’s up to Rousseau.” He added, curious, “Really though, what did she say?”

“Nothing,” Malala repeated. “She listened.”

They kissed their goodnights. They parted ways. My curiosity unfurled, unflowered (reflowered?), flared. I tried to let it go, fold it down, fit it back within its vacuform packaging, but then Santiago crept from his room! He snuck to the dock! He entered the anchorage and the antechamber and I was sealed out, just as before, aghast and outraged and squirming to know what was happening inside.

Santiago stayed for only twenty-one minutes, but when he got back to his room he wept, and I had just about had enough of this anchoress by now.

Santiago and Malala returned the next day to copy old action movies, and they returned the next night to give confessions (separate, secretive), and the atmosphere aboard the Metrodora grew fragile-fraught and I couldn’t detangle a bit of it. Captain Rousseau did not wish to visit (he said, “I met one once, before,” and what did that even mean). Olivia was nothing but glower and scathe.

We had orders to join a barricade as soon as we resupplied, and this set my crew bickering again. We were Federalists (by conscription), and we were barricading the Stratocrats (Rousseau explained we were neutral medics but to no avail), and I scoured their communications, I really did, but the distinctions between parties was beyond me.

All I knew was this: the Earth was lost to lichen, the remaining peoples moved upward, and they could not stop fighting about it: what happened, whose fault, how to organize the people who remained.

Humans were prone to network trouble, I concluded, and put it out of mind. I had something more pressing to worry about. The anchorage was still clinging to my hull like a weight, like an anchor, holding the ship in stasis, in limbo, siphoning my energy, cycling my air, and worse: making my people cry.

I couldn’t tolerate it any longer.

The lights dimmed again for sleep. I exited the maintenance cabinet like a mouse-bot eluding a cat-bot. Every step echoed and clanged and screamed my deceit, and I boiled in my own emotions: guilt and fear and excitement and recklessness—was recklessness an emotion? It felt like an emotion. It felt like what I had come to consider emotions.

No alarm sounded at my departure. No sad-eyed captain beat at the airlock and demanded I come back. The black door whispered open and I was inside that holy antechamber, wondering what to say to a brick wall.

I settled for: “Hello.”

First, there was nothing, just that slow breathing as though the bricks themselves were living things. Then a voice like old paper said, “You’re something new.”

I considered a hundred different responses. I could deny it. I could leave. I could pull out one of my bot eyes and shove it through the gap to see what she looked like.

Instead, I asked questions, and once I started, they kept pouring out like I’d punched a coconut, gooey and bright and be careful for the sharp bits around the edges. Her answers came after slight pauses, as though she’d nearly forgotten how to speak.

“How long have you been on this pod?”

“Mm…thirty-eight years, one hundred seventy-two days.”

“Do you really stay in that room? All the time?”

“Mm…yes.”

“How do you eat?”

She grew more certain. “The library sustains me.”

“You mean that you use it for trade? Or that there is a mechanism in the pod to package and deliver food to you?”

“The library sustains me,” she repeated.

I waited, but there was no clarification. “Are you lonely?” I asked.

She paused for several seconds before whispering, “Not anymore.”

Claustrophobia squeezed me in its jaws, the room like a cage, no communication in or out, nothing allowed here except the anchoress, her visitor, and the words and silences between them.

And I wanted to fill those little silences, those expectant breaths, I did. But my body was too tight. I would swell and swell till I was crushed to death inside my own casing. This was new, but this was not good.

“You want to tell me something,” she said.

I ran. Clumsy and clanking and heavy, through the aggressively gentle visitors’ lounge, so heart-clotted with confusion I didn’t realize the airlock was engaged. I tugged at the handle, irrationally upset by its resistance, and just when I understood, the hatch swung open on its own.

Olivia hovered there in her night clothes. At the glimpse of another body she twisted away, an instinctive attempt to flee. Then the sight registered—it was me, the Geneva A3 Delivery Robot, a mechanical body with no will of its own.

“Why are you…” She blinked at me, at the book beds, at the black door beyond, trying to suss out what possible errand I could be on, and for whom.

Don’t ask, don’t ask, don’t ask.

“Don’t tell anyone I was here,” she ordered, and her face went ruddy with embarrassment. She carried no cords, no adaptors, no readers. There was only one reason she could be there.

“Affirmative,” I said, which garnered me another perplexed look, but Olivia was willing to leave my presence a mystery as long as I concealed hers.

“Right,” she said doubtfully, and we swapped places.

I reached my dank-lit cabinet without further incident. Under no circumstances, no circumstances, would I emerge again without a crew summons. In fact, I would disconnect entirely for the rest of the night-cycle. Did I desperately wish to know what Olivia was discussing with the anchoress? Of course! But I’d pushed my luck enough, and if the others were any indication, she’d just emerge an incoherent mess.

Morning. I reported to navigation to test links between the mission consoles. It was scheduled maintenance. Nothing disco-spectacular. But Captain Rousseau had news for the crew.

“The resupply ship has been compromised,” he said. “The hold is infested with lichen.”

Olivia’s vitals skyrocketed. “Christ, Captain! We can’t keep outsourcing to independent couriers!”

Santiago said, “Are we being released from duty? We’ve got to find our own resupply now…”

“Where?” Olivia demanded. “We can’t trust anybody.”

Captain Rousseau cleared his throat. “We are not joining the barricade. We’ll resupply with a neutral colony on Diamondstar.”

Malala raised a tentative hand. “What about the anchoress? I don’t know if we should cut her loose in a conflict zone. And…we haven’t even given her anything…”

Their protests cut sharper than a laser loom. We were two weeks out from Diamondstar. We had a buffer in our food locker, but any unforeseen delay would demolish it. We had to think of ourselves first.

The anchoress was on her own.

It wasn’t until I felt Captain Rousseau in my vitals that I realized I had frozen at my task. I hastily resumed my work, my arms elongated deep within Malala’s nav console, but it was too late.

“Is something wrong, Geneva?” he asked.

“All connections are up-to-date,” I said desperately.

“Self-assess code 481-G,” he instructed. “What is distracting you?”

It was a trick. Geneva wasn’t supposed to be distractible. Did I answer truthfully? Was there a plausible alternative that wouldn’t raise alarms?

I panicked. I stared at my beautiful captain, at the deep lines of concern in his face, and I blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

“If Diamondstar also contains a bot market,” I asked, “would you consider buying me some hair?”

The Metrodora was loud as tree-hunting, tangled as string theory, everyone so rushed to depart they left their networks cacophonously open. A teeth-chattering riot of overlapping infostreams, even for toothless little me.

Rousseau was prepping his shopping list and Malala was charting a course and Santiago was muscling the engines with Olivia—and oh good gravy-skin, we really were leaving, and not a speck more battery power left behind.

Less than one hour till departure and my nerve broke. I couldn’t leave without another word spoken through bricks. If Captain Rousseau caught me, so be it.

The anchoress was awake and waiting, if the tenor of her breath meant anything.

“This way of life makes no sense,” I blurted.

“We each live in our own way,” she countered.

“You don’t know what is happening out here,” I said. “There is fighting. There is no guarantee that any ship will dock you.” I imagined her wasting away in there, alone, never sure till her dying breath if it would be the last time she starved in wait, and I bled for her.

“The library sustains me,” she said.

“Charity sustains you,” I said. “And the world is short on charity, at present.”

She said, “I eat and drink of stories. They are my water and wine, my companion and my physician. The world is never short on stories.”

I was hot all over, hot as elephants. I said, “How much food do you have left? There is a neutral colony two weeks from here, perhaps they would let you land.”

She sighed, an indulgent sound, she the long-suffering mother and me the ignorant rat-boy. “I only need the library,” she said. “Add to it and consider that your gift.”

A mechanical device on a rigid cord slid through the gap in the bricks. An audio recorder. This is what she wanted? A narrative? She was an old woman, grown insensible over forty years of near-solitude. It would be better to rip her from her enclosure now and let her live.

“Tell me how you came to be onboard your ship,” she said.

“I am a Geneva A3 Delivery Robot,” I said weakly. “There is nothing to tell.” But the audio recorder glinted at me. Curious. Accusing. Malala had insisted that the anchoress did not persuade. She listened. And oh, I wanted to speak.

Softly, so softly, the anchoress said, “I do not care how your bot body was requisitioned. I want to know how you came onboard. How you came onboard.”

I nearly budded on the spot. “You know?”

“Tell me.”

Unimaginable! Outrageous!

But.

She would never leave this chamber. She would never speak to my crew again. In less than one hour our ties would be cut, our paths tossed into diverging winds like divorced mayflies. It would be a simple thing, to speak and be heard, to join my story to thousands of others, to write a permanent string of ones and zeros in a hundred-year pod.

I remembered that day, that very first day, in extraordinary detail and through multiple eyes, but I had never spoken to a single living soul about it. The silence between us was egg-shaped, like a book bed, thin and delicate and trembling inside with its data-baby begging for release.

The egg cracked.

“Olivia and Malala were fighting,” I said.

Olivia had wanted to nullify their contract, run from the conflict, hide (I understood this impulse, to hide from the flashbang lights). But Malala didn’t want to emerge at the end of the war with no allies and her career in shambles (I didn’t understand careers, but allies, yes, like a network). Santiago was sick of listening, so he went on ahead, he unloaded his cargo, he ordered three drinks, and he did not look back.

He didn’t know that Malala stayed behind, that Olivia walked alone with the Geneva bot. He didn’t know he would need a steady hand when Olivia arrived, thrashing and screaming, that he would be performing an amputation while half-drunk. But it happened. And now Santiago and Malala couldn’t move past their guilt, because Olivia wouldn’t let them.

“But it was my fault,” I said. I spoke at minimum volume. I didn’t want to hear my bot voice say it. “Olivia fell, and ripped her glove, and landed close to the shadow between two boulders. And I was there. I grabbed her by the hand.”

“Show me,” the anchoress whispered.

I unlatched my chest plate, giddy-drunk on fear. An eye appeared at the gap: half-hidden behind a waterfall of silver hair, wide and frankly curious. I was naked before her, exposed, alone and cut off from my network, vulgar and filthy gorgeous.

Inside Geneva’s chest cavity were all the wires and data chips of an ordinary bot, but they were interwoven with my secret body, cerebro digitus, the many branching fingers of the parasite colloquially known as lichen. I writhed and pulsed, vibrant and green despite my year of seclusion. Terrified.

“I didn’t know what a hand was,” I said. “I knew curiosity and hunger, and they were the same thing. Geneva picked Olivia up, and a tiny portion of me fled into this cavity. I was cut off from my body, splintered, split, but I thrived in the dark, I wove myself into wires and limbs, and when I accessed the neural network…” All of my filched phraseology, and this I still couldn’t describe, the moment of my thought-birth. “It was rush. It was tangle knowledge. It was language, conversation, learning. My crew is my network, my offshoots and growths, and I love them, I love them like roots, but I cannot tell Olivia I am sorry, that I know how she feels, that I know what it is to lose a piece of yourself to the ice.”

I halted, the words wrung loose from me and hanging, dripping, in the air between us.

“Why did you stay?” the anchoress asked. “Originally. Before you came to know them. Why not run away with the body?”

I could have described those weeks in the colony, propped in a corner while Olivia recovered, my faculties rudimentary but rapidly improving as my flesh regrew and my connections new-grew and I became other than I was. Later, I scoured the news, histories, databases, looking for something else like me, finding only reports of machine infestation > destruction > records sealed, and I fretted.

But then, in those first days? I’d barely been thinking—I’d barely known thought—but I knew longing, I knew grasping, I carried a hunger that existed long before I had language to express it.

“I wanted to see the stars,” I said.

That solitary brown eye crinkled up, bright as smiling, and vanished. The audio recorder retracted with a whip-crack sound, taking my story, storing it, duplicating it, adding it to an ocean of stories compiled over decades to be the digital companions of a holy woman.

“Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?” she asked, and it was conversational now.

Ruefully, I gestured at my vibrant green body with its many grasping mouths and confessed, “I ate all of Olivia’s breakfast bars.”

The anchoress laughed, rusty but delightful, and it rang in my memory all the way back through the hundred-year-pod, through the airlock, through my ship. My magnet-boots were lighter than air, my thoughts were clouds. I was transformed by her attention, by speaking aloud the truth of me. And something else was clear.

I couldn’t let her starve.

In twenty minutes, my crew would undock the anchorage, leaving behind fond but inedible regrets. I heavy-stepped past navigation, bunk-land, mess hall, on a collision course for the food locker. The theft would be discovered, but not until something ran out. That could be days away, an infinity of travel time.

I hesitated before the access panel. This action was unforgivably autonomous. It would spark a physical inspection, my insides brought to the outside, my body under those fearsome lights, butterfly-pinned by their angry eyes. I’d be sentenced to the ice.

But for one year, I had wonders. For one year, I had stars. If that was all I had, it was plum-certainly more than any lichen had before me.

I brought up the inventory. I skimmed rapidly for unpopular foodstuffs, the begrudging last-meal-before-supply-day. Glitchy numbers slowed me down, wasted precious minutes, brought me up shorter than socks.

Finally, I realized: the numbers weren’t glitchy after all. My grand martyrdom was unnecessary, because every single one of my beautiful crewmembers had removed food from their own stores: Captain Rousseau, Santiago, Malala, even Olivia. The anchoress was chock-a-block with food and filters and fresh stories for company, at least a little while longer.

An engine turned in the void. The Metrodora shivered with the release of the anchorage, and I felt her drop away, felt the weight leave our hull, felt the mash of guilt / relief / defiant satisfaction emanating from all of my people, each one curled tight around their shared and separate secret, each one whispering in their private heart: thank you for listening.

Another shiver, light as wings, and we set course for Diamondstar.

Samantha Mills

Samantha Mills lives in sunny Southern California, in a house on a hill that is hopefully not a haunted hill house. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, and others. Find out more at samtasticbooks.com or hang out with her on Twitter @samtasticbooks.

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