Anne awoke to a crawling itch behind her ear. It had been months since her subdural alarm had triggered, long enough that she’d almost forgotten what it felt like. The boys? Even as she struggled to unwind herself from the bedcovers, then from William’s leg that had somehow gotten tangled up in both of hers, she was conscious of a stab of cold annoyance—the boys aren’t my concern any longer. Still, the habit of years kept her in motion—she emerged victorious from the bed and staggered over to the console, fumbling for the panel switch.
But the message alert wasn’t from the creche. She stared down at the text scrolling silently across the screen, eyes uncharacteristically wide.
She started—she had almost forgotten that William was there. “I have to go,” she said over her shoulder, and strode across the room to the untidy heap of her coveralls on the floor.
“What? Now? Why?” His voice had sharpened.
She spared him a glance as she yanked the coveralls up her legs. “Meteorite.” She paused long enough to smile thinly at his quick intake of breath. “A skipodder spotted it coming down. It’s pretty far out though, so—”
“Can’t someone else go?”
She stared blankly at him. “Why should someone else go?” His eyes narrowed and his mouth compressed. Oh. “I’m sorry.” She tried to inject some regret into it, but her voice sounded mechanical even to her own ears. Perhaps it was better to just be blunt. “I want to go, William.” She finished fastening up her coveralls and headed for the door.
“Anne, wait—please.” The last syllable made her stumble a little, then drag to a halt—William wasn’t a man who usually said please to anybody. Her fingers actively tingled with her desire to grab the door latch, but she made herself turn around and face him instead.
He hesitated; his mouth had relaxed a little, but his stare was still sharply trained on her face. “Yes?” she said, as patiently as she could manage, though her jaw had begun to ache from the effort of keeping her teeth ungritted.
“I—” His mouth firmed back into a line and he sat up straighter. “You know—I haven’t had my kid yet.” Anne blinked at him. Had she known that? William was a good fifteen years her senior, one of the second generation of the ark ship Genesis’s colonists—the first generation to be born on the planet—as Anne herself was third generation. She might have just assumed he’d gotten that out of the way before she’d ever taken an interest in his personal life, or she might’ve just not cared enough to think of it at all. “And—I realized that it was well past time—I knew that already, of course. I just—the Outpost. My responsibilities—” Anne nodded, managing to dredge up a little genuine sympathy at last. Responsibilities had been the entire reason she’d borne her own child as soon as she’d been medically cleared to do so after puberty. And speaking of responsibilities—she cast a yearning look at the door, which judging from the sudden rigidity of his posture, William didn’t miss. “I’d like to have it with you,” he finished in a rush.
Anne realized after a second or two that her mouth was actually hanging open and snapped it shut. There was always a list of names posted at the creche, of men looking to fulfil their own responsibility to produce a child for the Outpost; Anne had borne a second child for one of them, as soon as her first had been weaned. She had imagined her proactivity in doing so would spare her ever being confronted with a scene like this.
But William was undeterred. “I know you’ve already had two, but you haven’t opted for sterilization yet.” She started to nod impatiently, then stiffened up herself. “And yes, I did look at your medical history—I have the clearance to do it.” There was the William she knew, the Outpost Commander at his most autocratic—irritation had steadied his voice and squared his shoulders at last. “I had a good reason. The mother of my child—”
“—is not going to be me. Ever. My God, how could you think I’d go through all that again?”
“You had easy pregnancies—”
“Easy!” She stared at him. “I see you did read my medical records,” she said after a pause, dryly. “And you’re right.” She had hated the pregnancies, every second of them, but they weren’t the reason she’d been so relieved to be done with the whole business. “But I didn’t opt out of sterilization. I just hadn’t gotten round to it yet.” There hadn’t seemed any urgency—though obviously she’d been wrong about that. “I’ll schedule it as soon as I get back from the salvage site.”
Anything else he had to say was cut off by the door slamming shut behind her. Anne broke into a jog down the corridor outside her quarters, rounded the corner, then stopped in her tracks—she had gone the wrong way; the whole debacle with William had set her feet mindlessly down the corridor in the direction of the creche instead of the skipod hangar.
Creche-side, the Outpost was nearly close enough to touch one of the ramshackle rock formations that littered the surface outside. While the planetary weather system was mostly as bland and featureless as its terrain, the occasional dust storm had been destructive enough to make locating the creche in the most protected area of the Outpost the obvious choice. The hangar, filled with skipods requiring unimpeded access to the planetary surface, had needed to be built on the opposite side.
Anne reversed course, but didn’t slow her pace; while it seemed unlikely that William would go so far as to suspend her access to the hangar, she hadn’t thought he’d try to talk her out of going, either. But the hangar doors opened for her without protest. She squeezed between the rows of waiting skipods, their long cylindrical bodies gleaming black under the high bay lighting. The feel of the exterior hatch rungs in her hands was positively pleasurable—it had been a long time, too long—she scrambled easily up her own skipod’s curved hull, balancing atop it just long enough to pop the top hatch and slide down into the skipod’s interior.
Its cabin was fabricated to match the height of its operator, but was nearly three times as long, a dimly luminescent tube densely packed with control panels, display screens, and sensors. She spent the next twenty minutes running pre-start checks and making sure that her heated compression suit was properly stowed—if the meteorite had churned up the terrain beyond what the skipod’s repulsors could handle, she’d have to go outside on foot—then settled herself in the cockpit. The skipod purred to life around her, the vibration almost imperceptible through her cushioned seat. She spun it around neatly and pinged the inner airlock doors, letting the skipod glide toward them on its own stored inertia.
As soon as the inner doors closed behind her, the airlock’s lights flickered out, leaving only the display imbedded above the outer doors shining in the claustrophobic darkness. Pressure 101.3 kPa, Temperature 20.2 oC, Concentration 21% O2. The numbers began to drop, slowly at first, then in a whirling blur until they abruptly stilled—44.7 kPa, -5.1 oC, 6% O2—and flickered out, shifting to red letters large enough to fill the display: PLANETARY ATMOSPHERE. With a tortured howl audible even through the skipod’s muffling walls, the outer airlock doors began to open.
The sky beyond them was nearly unrelieved black, its few small stars twinkling coldly down on the slumped and frozen landscape stretching out to the horizon. Anne barely glanced at it—it never appreciably changed—before folding the cockpit seat away and pulling the exoskeleton up from its floor compartment. She locked her hands and feet into the exo’s padded grips, took a deep breath, and broke into a long, loping stride.
The exo’s display flared to life, showing her pulse rate and blood oxygen levels along with the power she was feeding the skipod’s repulsors. Fully charged, the repulsors were good for eighty hours run time, but it was better to use the exo assist to extend their power reserves. The view from the cockpit swung smoothly northward as another display blinked on, showing the uneven terrain reduced to flat rectangular grids, with a deep orange avatar on the very edge of the screen. The skipod fired its triangulation laser, pulled the meteorite’s estimated trajectory from the Outpost’s central data core, then threw up its best guess at its distance beneath the meteorite’s avatar.
The strong, smooth motion of Anne’s arms and legs in the exo faltered. Theoretically, the repulsors could manage a 1,200-kilometer round trip, though she didn’t personally know of anyone ever actually testing that theory out—but she’d have to run the exo twelve hours a day at a minimum to make it. At the skipod’s top speed, she might be able to reach the meteorite in three days. Three days, twelve hours a day every day in the exo—and then the whole trip to do all over again, just to get back to the Outpost.
But not going wasn’t really an option either, no matter what William might have said. William himself had shown her the real numbers once, back when he’d been courting her. She grinned humorlessly down at the display. Well, he’d been right about the sort of conversation that would pique her interest, hadn’t he? Without a significant increase in the influx of new organic material, the next Outpost generation—not four, three, or even two more down the road, but the next—might be the last.
Unbidden, an image of her sons rose behind her eyes. She pushed it away impatiently and turned the skipod further north until its nose was in perfect alignment with the tracking display’s route markers, then set off.
Anne pushed the skipod all through the night and well into the following day, until Current Completed Run Distance: 253 km shone redly down at her from the meteorite’s tracking display. She stripped her sweat-soaked coveralls off and chucked them into the skipod’s tiny reclaimer unit, then pulled the folded cot out of its side compartment and rolled onto it, eyes already closing.
Anne dreamed of her sons. She tried to fight the dream off, even sleeping—they were alive and well, her waking mind knew; she’d have been informed if they were otherwise. There was no reason for her to dream of them now.
But her waking mind was not in control and the dream gradually swallowed her whole. Memories of that first childbirth, red with agony, followed by the cessation of pain so acute it was nearly ecstasy, morphing into the gray drudgery of the work assigned to nursing mothers, the dull ache in her neck and shoulders that never seemed to subside, and the grinding buzz of her subdural alarm pulling her back to the creche, every hour on the hour—the baby is awake—the baby is hungry—
The waking Anne had forgotten most of those details, had deliberately forgotten them; the waking Anne saw no reason to dwell on things that couldn’t be helped, that were past and unchangeable. Like the way her sons had screamed after her as she’d left the creche for the very last time, her body oddly weightless as she stepped through its doors, empty of pregnancy, of milk, of children’s hands clinging to hers—
The blare of the six-hour alert she’d set on the skipod’s panel kicked her into sluggish consciousness. Moving stiffly, she dug a tube of organic concentrate out of the stores and washed it down with some water, then clambered back into the exo.
But by the time the sky had begun to lighten once more through the skipod’s viewports, she had to stop again. She untangled herself from the exo and collapsed onto her knees, forcing herself to breathe slowly and deeply. Vomiting directly into the skipod’s reclaimer unit was a dicey proposition at best, and a lifetime of conditioning to never waste organic matter of any description did fierce battle with the nausea of dehydrated overexertion. Conditioning won; she finally crawled back onto the cot, pausing only long enough to hook one of the skipod’s hydration needles to her bare arm before collapsing into unconsciousness, thankfully dreamless this time.
When she awoke, the pallid sun was sinking below the bottom edge of the skipod’s viewports. From her vantage point she could see the tracking display, shining in the gloom of the skipod’s interior—Current Completed Run Distance: 407 km: 125 km to target. At least the skipod’s laser had finally found something to bounce back from, more likely than not her meteorite. Her hands shook as she curled her fingers around the exo’s grips; there were deep tremors in her legs, and the muscles in her arms and back screamed as she pushed off once more.
She had set the skipod to retarget the meteorite every fifteen minutes, pinging her subdural implant with each successful attempt. Her eyes mechanically shifted from console to displays to the skipod’s viewports, then lingered on the last—the endless, monotonous sweep of lumpy, grayish-brown terrain under the skipod’s floodlights was hypnotic.
The skipod jerked—it righted itself immediately, but Anne snapped out of her haze of fatigue and realized, with a surge of panic, that the skipod hadn’t pinged her for far too long. She found the skipod’s tracking display and stared at it in shock—the meteorite’s avatar was gone.
Anne wrenched her hands out of the exo’s grips and slammed them palms-down on the console, fingers moving so fast across the panels they blurred. Lost signal, the skipod insisted, and Anne’s stomach lurched. Diagnostics menus flashed past beneath her frantic hands, then she sagged back in the exo’s frame, lightheaded with relief. The signal was still there—it was just buried in the background noise of the terrain itself, which had somehow increased three orders of magnitude over what it had been at the journey’s start.
It was there, that was all that truly mattered. She quickly reprogrammed the laser to take a full baseline reading of the terrain. After several minutes, the console beeped and her gaze darted back to the tracking screen. New baseline established, it informed her serenely. New target acquired.
“What?” Anne muttered, hunching over the console. “I don’t want a new target, I want the old target—”
Existing target: 51 km. New target: 7 km. The now-familiar, irregularly shaped lump of the meteorite’s avatar shimmered into existence on the rescaled display, quickly followed by another, larger shape, strangely symmetrical on two sides and only one grid square away from the skipod. Anne recalibrated the laser for analysis and once more fired a pulse out into the darkness. Minutes later, the display threw up a barrage of text. New target composition: ALUMINUM. TITANIUM. GRAPHITE. FULLERENE (C60). FULLERENE (C80)—she stopped reading even as the letters continued to scroll past.
The fates of two of the ark ship Genesis’s four original Outpost automated base units were well known. The first one had soft-landed sixty years ago, right where it was now—home. The second had come down some forty kilometers southeast of that—not softly, and its organic remains had been the main reason their own Outpost had survived as long as it had. But no skipodder had ever found so much as a trace of the other two Outpost base units, and they had never been able to afford the high risk of permanent organic resource loss to the Outpost by going out blindly searching for them. Every time a skipodder failed to return from a salvage run, the Outpost’s projected overall population survival trended a little further downward—and the farther out the trip and the less certain the target location, the more likely that was to occur.
Every skipodder had memorized what the analyses results from an Outpost’s original, unadulterated hull might look like. Their own Outpost’s outer hull no longer read like that, of course; they’d long ago stripped every atom of carbon out of it and fed them into the fabricators. But every skipodder knew what to look for, and that was what was scrolling past Anne’s unbelieving eyes now.
Anne ran an integrity check over her heated compression suit and rebreather helmet one last time, then stepped out of the skipod’s rear hatch onto the uneven, rocky ground. Fifty meters away was the raised lip of what the skipod thought was the leading edge of a ravine, with the new target buried behind it. She hurried over to it, as fast as she dared without risking a trip and fall that might damage her suit. Easing herself up the lip, she gripped its top edge and hauled herself the last meter or so to its top.
The sheer scale of the wreckage that met her eyes baffled her first attempt to even comprehend it. The uncrushed half of the tortuous metal behemoth embedded in the ravine below her was easily twice the size of the entire Outpost. Stretching out from that strange, sinuous metal body were two arching arms, reaching blindly for the ravine’s wall. What might have once been matching arms on its other side were now nothing more than mangled debris littering the ravine floor.
But whatever it was, it wasn’t an Outpost, living or dead—she didn’t know which she’d hoped for more, but it hardly mattered now. Her nose and eyes stung sharply, her breath hitching hard in her chest—stop it! she snarled at herself. It’s still a partly organic thing, a salvageable thing; more of us can come back, with better tools—the truth of that calmed her and she began to pick her way down the ravine wall. Whatever it was, it had crashed a long time ago—though obvious traces of the burning rage of its descent remained, the jagged, blackened chasm it had gouged in the planetary surface had long since refrozen into the dead stillness of the rest of the terrain.
Anne lost her footing halfway down the ravine—arms windmilling for balance, she barely managed to skid the rest of the way down on her feet rather than her rear end, and finally staggered to a halt directly under one of the wreck’s massive, unbroken arms. The light from her headlamp reflected back a sharp white glare from its metal arch overhead—what? She stilled, and the headlamp’s beam froze in place on the underside of the arch. She hadn’t been imagining it—there was something etched into the battered hull, in letters so large she hadn’t quite realized what they were at first. Anne craned her neck back as far as it would go in the compression suit.
No, she thought stupidly.
She knew, everyone knew that the Genesis itself had never been intended to land. The Outpost’s central data core had always been vague on what exactly had happened to the Genesis after the colonists had abandoned it, and it hadn’t mattered anyway—the Genesis had been too decrepit to take them back home again, and that was all anyone had cared about. She’d said as much to William once, in the early days of their relationship, after overhearing an argument about its possible fates. But William, with his Command access to the restricted parts of the Outpost’s central data core, had told her that it had mattered, because the first colonists had originally intended to use it as a satellite, a concept he’d then had to explain to her. It would have helped them out a great deal, he’d said, in tracking the precious meteorites that so infrequently struck the planetary surface, in communicating with scavenging skipodders—perhaps in even more ways they’d never had a chance to explore. But the Genesis had never responded to any attempts at contact with its automated onboard systems.
It must have crashed soon after the Outpost itself had landed—nobody would have noticed what must have been a visually spectacular descent, or cared even if they had, in those first, difficult years. An almost superstitious awe gripped her as she stared up at it. This was the Genesis—their progenitor, this dead monstrosity that had carried them all here and then spat them all out onto this sterile hellscape to die—
A flicker of movement on the very edge of her periphery, the faint reflected gleam of light at an angle her headlamp couldn’t possibly have reached, alerted her too late. She started to turn around, but before she had time to do more than shift her weight from one foot to the other, something exploded with agonizing force against the back of her helmet and all the lights abruptly went out.
Anne’s first conscious awareness was of pain—her head throbbed mercilessly and something had dried to a tacky, pulling unpleasantness on the back of her neck. She automatically reached back, then froze when her fingers encountered not the edge of her rebreather helmet, but her own matted hair.
She pried her eyes open, squinting in anticipation, but the light surrounding her was dim, strangely yellow, filtering down from somewhere far above. She tried to tilt her head back to look, but her stomach revolted at even that tentative movement; she stilled, breathing deeply through her nose, waiting for the nausea to subside.
“You’re probably concussed,” said a harsh, grating voice. “Sorry about that—but better concussed than et, eh?” Faint aspirating sounds followed that remark—laughter? Anne’s eyes snapped fully open as she struggled upright. A wild look around revealed weirdly bent walls, stretching upward into the gloom, and scattered pieces of what might once have been machinery—and a man crouched down barely a meter away from her, completely naked, staring intently at her from small black eyes lost in a sea of wrinkles.
Anne fought for analytical detachment in the face of her hindbrain’s bewildered terror. He was old, clearly, but more than that, something else was wrong with him, like nothing she’d seen before—the quantity of loose flesh hanging off his face and the one skinny arm he’d raised to point at her were grotesque. She hoped she didn’t look as revolted as she felt; if he’d been the one that had hit her over the head, she should probably try to not do anything to make him want to hit her again.
He wheezed laughter again. “Stinks in here, don’t it?” Apparently he had noticed her disgust, but hadn’t successfully deduced its cause. “I know where you’re from, girlie—we’ve had a few of you wander in here, over the years. Most of who’s left is too stupid to ask questions first and et later—I gave up trying to convince ‘em after the last one, I don’t remember how many years ago it was. But you know, the others was all men—I seen you and I could tell you was a woman, and I—” His voice choked off abruptly. “Maybe they wouldn’t just et you first, and I—I didn’t want to see it!” He shrieked the last, then looked around in obvious terror—but the silence that fell around them after the echo of his shout faded remained unbroken, and his bony shoulders relaxed.
Anne hadn’t known it was possible to understand every word someone else was saying, yet not have the faintest idea what they were talking about. Something about a smell, had been the first thing he’d said—she inhaled cautiously through her nose. It wasn’t any worse than the interior of her skipod after a full day’s run—but this wasn’t a skipod, inhabited for only short bursts of time and unable to support the sort of hourly reclamation cleaning intended to capture and recycle every last molecule of organic waste for recycling. “Why does it smell so, ah…” She trailed off, still wary of offending him. “Is there something wrong with your reclaimers?”
The old man jerked, startling a flinch out of her. “Wha—ha! Reclaimers? This is a spaceship, girlie! We wasn’t ever supposed to be awake long enough to need reclaimers.” Suddenly his eyes flooded with tears. “Wasn’t ever supposed to be—I been awake aboard for a long time all right, a long time—” His voice caught.
Anne was briefly swamped with unwanted pity, and something else—not ever supposed to be awake long enough—”Were you—” It seemed impossible, but the old man stiffened, his eyes nearly vanishing in his wrinkles. “Were you…part of the crew? The original crew?”
His face pinched and he drew back from her, though his stare didn’t leave her face. “And what if I was?” His voice was like broken glass.
She finally understood the extremity of his appearance, though. He wasn’t ill; he was simply old. Not old as she had always known it, in the Outpost’s earlier generations—the thinner, stringier, but still vigorous activity of early- to mid-sixties, before productivity declined to the point where personal organic consumption was no longer justifiable, and the pressure to voluntarily enter the Outpost’s reclaimers began—but old. Eighty years old? Ninety? She was finding it hard to comprehend him at all as a living, breathing human being—his impossible age, his filth, his hair a wild explosion cascading over his shoulders instead of trimmed short and fed into the reclaimers. Yet there he squatted before her, irrefutable.
But if there weren’t any reclaimers on the Genesis—and no reclaimers probably meant no fabricators too—”Didn’t you—did you have any supplies at all, when you first landed?”
“Some,” he grunted, settling back on his heels. “From when we was supposed to be awake on board looking at all the different planets we was supposed to fly past, to see which ones was best suited for a colony. All the different planets, ha!” He spat out the last syllable. “When we all woke up three thousand years too late, out in the emptiness between the stars, no planets, nothing—”
Anne knew the story. The old records in the Outpost’s central data core indicated that the Genesis’s crew hadn’t spent much time trying to figure out exactly how or why they had drifted so incredibly far off their planned course—they had been far more interested in where, and that answer had been terrible. Somehow the Genesis, instead of heading up the Milky Way’s Orion-Cygnus spiral toward the galactic center, had cut straight across it and away instead, into the flat black void stretching thousands of light-years between its arms.
But that void hadn’t been quite as empty as it had first appeared—a few stars had been there, hidden behind the light-absorbing dust clouds scattered throughout it. One of them, a mere light-year distant, had been a yellow dwarf with a single terrestrial planet, and the Genesis’s analyses had confirmed an Earth-standard average density and an atmosphere containing non-negligible amounts of oxygen and water vapor. Only one oddity had stood out—the Genesis had failed to find any trace of organic compounds in either its surface or atmosphere.
The old man had hunched in on himself, shivering. The air in whatever disused part of the wreckage he had dragged her to was noticeably chilly; Anne was glad of her heated compression suit. She cast a quick look around for her helmet and spotted it just a meter or so away, an ugly crack running down its crown. It would still be better than nothing, if she could just get back outside the ship—she inched toward it, keeping a wary eye on the old man. “So,” she said, hoping to distract him, and because she found she couldn’t help herself, “with no reclaimers—after the supplies ran out and what you said before about, ah, being et—I guess that’s how you’ve managed to survive this lo—”
It was the wrong thing to say. He suddenly lunged toward her and she scrabbled sideways and back, ending up as close as she could manage to her precious helmet. “Don’t you judge me!” he screamed, then clapped his hands over his mouth, casting a terrified look around. Anne took advantage of his distraction to fling herself the last half a meter over to the helmet, shoving it quickly behind her back. After several seconds, he relaxed a little, though he was still glaring at her with an enraged expression so exaggerated it was almost comical.
Anne raised her hands placatingly. “I wasn’t—I really wasn’t,” she said rapidly. “If we didn’t have the reclaimers and the fabricators, we’d have probably ended up doing the same thing. I mean, we do do the same thing, right? Just with a lot more steps in between the dying, and the…” She trailed off, because the old man was staring at her in unmitigated horror.
His lips flapped, but no words emerged at first. “You,” he whispered finally. “You…put each other in the fabricators…to make food?”
“Well…yeah, that’s what they’re f—”
“That’s not what they’re for!” he screamed. “You were supposed to use them for the soil, to enrich the soil with proper nutrients so that Earth plants could grow here—you were supposed to make this world green like Earth, didn’t you know that, why didn’t you do that? Why—” His voice choked off into great whooping sobs that shook his emaciated frame.
Anne tried to shout over his hysteria, why the original colonists hadn’t done that—because they couldn’t; because those long-ago designers of the Outpost automated base units hadn’t envisioned a world with no plate tectonics, no seismic activity, no moons, no asteroid belts, nothing to seed its static, frozen silicate surface, to contaminate the sterile purity of its atmosphere.
But he clearly wasn’t listening. Broken words and phrases emerged from between the hands he’d buried his face in—knew an Outpost was there and thriving, those boys looked healthy enough—with another lurch of nausea she finally realized that she now knew the fate of at least a few of the Outpost’s lost skipodders over the decades. Thought someday they’d ALL come here and save the KIDS, the poor little KIDS!—she really didn’t want to know what that meant, and was just about to risk climbing back up to her feet when his head jerked up and he fixed her with a look of cunning so grotesque that she physically recoiled.
“You know why the others keep me alive, girlie?” His tone was suddenly, weirdly conversational. “Ain’t nobody else left who knows how to run the ship’s reactor—I was engineer’s mate. No fancy education but they took me on ‘cause my wife wanted to go too. So I done it, I kept the reactor in good shape even though—even though—” His chin shook as if palsied, then stiffened again. “Because if I didn’t, I knew the reactor’d blow. I knew the Outpost was close enough for men to reach us—it could blow, and then maybe it’d wipe out all the life in the Outposts too, the good life, the civilized life, not just this HELLHOLE—” He shrieked the last up, into the shadowy dimness above them that Anne’s eyes couldn’t quite penetrate. His attention returned, abruptly and fanatically focused on Anne’s face. “But now I know, girlie. You ain’t any different from us at all. I should’ve just let the others put you to work on your BACK bearing the next generation of DINNER!”
A shout, a harsh bark of sound, echoed from somewhere outside their cavernous space—the old man’s eyes, already wild, lost what little sanity they’d had left. With an agility Anne would never have thought him capable of, he whirled around and fled; Anne scrambled to her own feet, staggering as her numb legs tried to collapse under her, then froze as a long shadow fell across the floor where the old man had been seconds before. Instinctively she flung herself backwards, rapping her already sore head on a panel leaning drunkenly against the wall—she darted behind it, jamming as much of herself as would fit into the narrow space behind it.
Seconds later, someone shuffled into view, shaggy head swinging back and forth on a neck invisible beneath snarled layers of beard. He was as naked as the old man had been—she supposed all the clothing had worn out long ago—but far younger, maybe even younger than Anne herself, though it was impossible to tell for sure under all the hair and filth. Not someone she was likely to be able to fight her way free of—Anne hunched in as tightly as she could behind the panel.
After several excruciating minutes, he turned around and ambled back the way he’d come. As soon as he was out of immediate sight, Anne eased out from behind the panel and pressed herself back against the wall—she could still see him, making his way towards what a quick look around seemed to confirm was the only visible exit in this vast space. With a spasm of pure adrenaline terror, she remembered what the old man had said before he’d fled—was it possible he’d gone to destroy the ship’s reactor? Who knew how insane he had already been even before he’d happened across her, and how much further he’d cracked now?
In spite of the chill air, she was sweating—her palms were so soaked with it that perspiration squeezed out of her compression gloves and trickled down the rebreather helmet now clutched tight in her hands. She forced herself to breathe slowly and evenly as she crept across the floor towards the doorway that the shambling hulk was just disappearing through. If he happened to look back over his shoulder—if he saw her—
But he didn’t look back, and she trailed after him, as far behind as she could manage without losing sight of him entirely. The exit led into a narrow corridor choked with debris, blackened wires dangling at odd intervals from its torn plating. It was only irregularly lit, by long, yellowed tubes—she was glad of it; she would be at least a little harder to see, hugging the wall as she was. Then he suddenly vanished from sight—he must have turned a corner that she couldn’t see yet.
She dared to step up her pace then. As she drew nearer to where he’d turned, she started to hear something, sounds—faint and muffled, but getting louder—voices? Anne had the uneasy, crawling certainty that she was heading the wrong way, deeper into the bowels of the Genesis, but she didn’t know what else to do. If she backtracked to the room she’d awakened in and failed to find another exit, and ran into yet another wandering resident—
She finally reached the bend in the corridor. A lightning-quick peek around the corner confirmed that the corridor beyond it sloped in both directions. The muffled voices were coming from the downward slope; Anne leaned back against the very edge of the turn and angled her head as far back as she could to see the upslope. She couldn’t make out more than a few meters of it; it might be nothing more than a dead end.
There was no reason to look the other direction, though—she could hardly go that way anyway, towards the voices and almost certainly where the shambling hulk had gone. You don’t have to look—she found herself peering around the edge into the corridor’s downslope. It opened up abruptly, just beyond the turn, into a room with an oddly familiar layout—medical bay? Just like the one in the Outpost—a hot wave of stench struck her in the face and she gagged soundlessly. You don’t have to look! But she couldn’t stop herself from leaning out just a little more, a little farther—people! Seven, eight, maybe more—it was hard to see in the gloom—were crouched in various corners or sprawled out on rotted piles of material.
Then a flicker of movement caught her eye. One of them was struggling to his—her feet, Anne realized sickly as she turned towards Anne’s hidden vantage point, her belly a hard, rolling mound under tiny, flaplike breasts. She couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen, at most—but Anne had known, of course, as soon as she’d seen how young the second man had been, that the Genesis had a breeding population. Or she should have known—
Put you to work on your BACK bearing the next generation of DINNER!
…just like you’ve done for the Outpost already?
Anne recoiled from that jeering mental voice, almost relieved when an abrupt, metallic rattle drew her attention back to the girl. Anne’s gaze followed the sound down to a heavy metal chain wound around the girl’s ankle. The other end of the chain was fastened to what appeared to be a…surgical table? Just like the ones in the Outpost, right down to the integrated blood supply unit flashing busily away at its head…so the Genesis did have fabricators after all, of a sort. Though the blood supply units were highly specialized fabricators, only able to force living blood cells into temporary, rapid replication, and they were just as restricted as any fabricator in their inability to produce an organic substance without an organic raw material—and more restricted than most, as the only organic source they were able to utilize was a living patient’s own tissue. But the lower half of the table appeared to be empty—as her eyes adjusted to the noisome, flickering dimness, she was finally able to make out what it was that was strapped down at the table’s head, nearly lost beneath countless quivering coils of intravenous tubing. Something far too small for its fragile, sticklike legs to reach even halfway down the table’s length—
Anne bolted for the upsloping corridor, not even trying to muffle the impact of her suit’s heavy boots on the floor plating. Deafened by the pounding, roaring thunder of her own pulse in her ears, she didn’t know if anyone was coming after her—they had to have heard her by now—but all she could do was flee, blinded by the unstoppable tears that scorched her eyes like acid. The corridor steepened sharply, turning into the stuff of nightmares, each bounding leap wrenched back by gravity, as if she were running through a thick, invisible sludge.
She rounded the next turn at top speed and nearly slammed into a hard, unforgiving but unbelievably familiar sight—an inner airlock door, so like any of the dozens in the Outpost that for a long, crazy second she wondered if she was hallucinating it. But no, of course it looked the same—it was the same—the Genesis and the Outpost had been designed and built together. Skidding to a halt, she jammed the rebreather helmet down on her head, then clawed the airlock’s manual override panel open.
There was a gap, a sizeable one, between the edge of the outer airlock door and the lip of the ravine. She backed up a few steps, then ran and blindly jumped and somehow found herself on her hands and knees on the other side. Her ankle throbbed brutally—she must have twisted it without realizing it, but she staggered back up onto her feet anyway and hopped-ran to the skipod, still sitting fifty meters away from the ravine’s edge, serene and unmolested.
Her hands shook so badly that she couldn’t get the rear hatch open—her back crawled, jittering, but she didn’t dare pause working on the hatch to look behind her. Finally, the hatch hissed open and she flung herself inside. As it closed behind her, she wrenched off her helmet and compression gloves and scuttled across the interior on her knees to the front console. She slumped down into the cockpit’s cushioned seat as the onboard systems swung the skipod back in precisely the same direction they’d come from. Back, back, go, RUN—the repulsors hummed and the skipod shot forward, away from the Genesis.
A bare moment later, a tremor rocked the skipod. Anne stiffened in her seat, gaze darting to the skipod’s rear camera display. A flicker of movement against the sky above the ravine—she rubbed her eyes hard. She might have imagined it—it was colorless, faint, more like a puff of vapor than anything else. A puff of vapor—the first faint exhalation of a reactor core with all its safety systems stealthily taken offline…?
You ain’t any different from us at all.
“We are different,” she whispered, into the skipod’s warm, dim silence. “We are—”
Her own voice, answering: I mean, we do do the same thing, right? Just with a lot more steps in between—put you to work on your BACK bearing the next generation of DINNER!
Duty, ever since she could remember—the duty to survive and reproduce, just enough so that there would be someone left for Earth to find and save someday, as everyone knew they would because they had to, because otherwise their entire existence was nothing but a slow and pointless death. And if not in time to save them, their children or their children’s children or—
She had never wanted to bear those children. She had fought a grim, years-long battle to care as little for them as possible. She had known other people felt differently about their own duty, their own children, and many of them had disliked her for it. And William in particular had misunderstood her entirely. Though she supposed she couldn’t blame him—she hadn’t understood herself, not really. Not until now.
Anne switched off the rear camera display and huddled in the cockpit seat. She couldn’t just stay there, though; the skipod couldn’t make it back to the Outpost without the exo assist. It was going to be a close-run thing even with it. Though maybe it didn’t matter anyway. That puff of vapor—and then they’d ALL come here and save the KIDS, the poor little KIDS!
Anne forced herself to her feet, broke down the cockpit seat, and raised the exoskeleton in its place with hands that felt like they belonged to someone else. She had to at least try to get back to the Outpost. William would want to save the kids, and salvage the remains of the Genesis, too. With all that new organic influx, those ugly numbers, the Outpost’s organic supply versus consumption curve, would level out once more…almost. For a while.
The tremor that shook the skipod that time was impossible to ignore. Anne closed her eyes, locked her hands and feet in the exo’s implacable grasp, and pushed forward blindly into the night.