By Bruce McAllister
I wasn’t present in the Comm Nexus on Work Level 73 when the ancient starship arrived in the Lock —or should I say “tried to arrive and somehow succeeded"?— but I felt it. Everyone did. The entire Station, two hundred levels of it, shook. Why? Because the starship shouldn’t have gotten in, I was told later. It registered, by its proton profile, as a Highland Class A, one of the first designs— which it was, or had been once, though it was bigger now, bigger than the newest classes. When our starlock and its concentric tokomaks accepted the ship’s jump, the stress of it cracked viewing plates throughout the Station and the Lock itself spit out rivets trying to hold the thing that had appeared suddenly in its embrace. 
When you are a ship that has been traveling the galaxy for a thousand years, and the nanomechs have been repairing your outer skin for those thousand years, you have a lot of scar tissue. Your outer hull is twice as thick. The starship-class identifier just doesn’t know it and you get a go light. It thinks you’re the same size you once were and realizes too late you’re not.
Had the ship collapsed, its pilot would have died in the implosion. Had the Lock ruptured, the Station and its five thousand citizens would have died. Somehow neither gave. It was like a strange homecoming, one that both pilot and Station community wanted even if they didn’t know it, and so the Lock took the ship in.
 “Sidha!” the starship pilot called out on a hundred frequencies, a cry. He called out the name the instant his ship materialized in the Lock, and he kept calling it, like a beacon, as the ship sat there. Or should I say the ship called it out, since the pilot had, over that millennium, become the ship. They had been a single thing for a long time.
Sidha! Sidha! Sidha!
It was a forename, not a surname, and one the Station knew. It was a common first name. Hundreds of women had it, and I was one of them.
That he —that it— the pilot and the ship was calling for me and not any of the other Sidhas, became clear only when the scanners bio-scanned the starship, found a tiny sample of genetic material on a slide in an empty, lonely lab, saw that it was tagged to the name being called, and realized which Station Sidha it most closely matched.
He —it— had once known a Sidha who’d had many of my genes, including those associated with personality, minor emotional pathologies, and the likelihood of certain behavior. He’d known her well, the Station administrators concluded. “He loved her in the way human beings loved then,” they told me when Protocol on Work Level 127 called me in. “The way we cannot afford to love if the Station is to survive...if it is to prevail.”
“He knew a matrilineal ancestor of yours,” they said. “Someone who used the same forename and shares to a remarkable degree your gen-profile. Someone who was important to him, one of the initial workers on the Station. He is insane —because any millennial cyborg, after all that radiation and interface bleeding must be insane— and he has come back to find her.”  
“Why?” I asked.
“As I said, he ‘loved’ her.”
“’Cyborgs don’t experience love,’” I heard myself quoting.
“This was from before. His first assignment as captain was to take the ship out into the galaxy from this very Station, this very Lock, when it had only five hundred citizens. Its brief maiden voyage, one without other human occupants. He was here, Memory says, for two weeks before he did that and must have met and spent emotionally and physically intimate time with her then...He was human, a trained pilot, and still a discreet human body. He must have gotten lost, the ship malfunctioned, communications failed, and the ship kept him alive by taking that discreet body and making it something else...a part of it.”
I tried to imagine what it must have been like and could not. No one on the Station could. No one would ever be able to, I knew.
“Did you tell him she isn’t here?” I asked quietly.
“Yes, but he insists that she is.”
“Because he has scanned us, too. He has scanned the Station, and he has found here a genetic profile he believes is hers. You must have realized by now —by our calling you for this meeting— whose profile that is.”
“I do not wish to do this,” I said quickly.
“You are afraid,” the Protocol deputy answered, her broad face so much like mine. 
Yes,” I said.
“We cannot indulge your fear. You must do this for others. For the Station.”
When I saw that I did not have a choice —that we never really had a choice on the Station— I felt something different. Something new.
An excitement.
What is love? It is, scientists tell us, what it needs to be to serve human beings in whatever circumstances they may find themselves. To serve them by providing connection to others in the formation and function of a “tribe,” and to nurture emotionally —because millions of years of evolution on a distant home planet cannot be overridden in mere millennia— the individual who must operate within that “tribe.”
“Romantic love” as it was once experienced in other “circumstances” occurs occasionally on a Station like ours, but it does not serve the operations and survival of the Station as it may have once served small, planet-based communities or a societal economy based on consumption of cultural “stories” and values. On this Station, if we feel a “romantic” love, we are told, it should be for the Station itself, the greater cause and purpose of it, and not for another individual with a forename and surname and number. “Romantic love is selfish,” they tell us, “unless it is for a higher purpose.”
Have I ever “loved” another discreet human on this Station? No. I have never needed to. Why would anyone here have that need? In my units on the Domicile levels (I have lived in four) I have had sex in order to nurture body and psyche, those relics of evolution, but that is not the same. I may have felt affection for my sexual partner, whose face was attractive, but that is not what I mean by “love” as the Protocol staff used the term in our meeting a few hours ago. I have had more than one long-term, shared-cell partner in my life of thirty-three standard years. I am of course attracted to the human body, but that isn’t “love.” Though partnering may generate comforting emotions simply by a routine of a psychologically safe intimacy that may or may not involve sex, partnering isn’t “love” either.
I have often wondered whether human beings, still the children of that evolution, need love of a more ancient kind in the circumstances we have made for ourselves so far from our planet of origin. I do not have the answer for this, and the scientists on this Station seem unable to provide the answers, though I have asked many times. I have, in fact, recently been told by my work supervisor in Health Services to stop asking. “Constant questioning may reveal a dissatisfaction with your identity and service to the Station’s operations,” she informed me. “I do not want to have to send you for testing. That would reflect badly on us all.”
I understood what she was saying. It had happened before, and I’d been warned. I was unhappy, and all the scientists could say was that it was “genetic,” a “coded proclivity,” perhaps Station inbreeding, and not “situationally determined.” It could not be fixed, they were saying, and I could not argue. They had prescribed medications —the psychotropics many of us take on the Station— but these had made me feel nothing, as if I were not alive, and I had stopped them without confessing it. Some do not mind that feeling. It may help them. But I did not want to feel that way. 
I can remember being unhappy when I was little, when my caregivers would use the word “discontent,” and even the toys —the miniature plastic Station and miniature Lock and the little figures of a medical assistant (what I would become someday, they insisted) and her professional colleagues and sexual partners (all in a plastic clinic you could carry in your arms)— did not bring me joy, though later I would argue with the assignation, to no avail. When I was eight, I had a friend, a girl, who made me laugh, and that made me happy. But we were separated when the relationship analysts determined that I’d become “too attached,” and my assigned parents agreed.
Why the Station is willing to oblige the cyborg pilot, who has asked to see me, I do not know. They could refuse him, citing the same reasoning my supervisor cited for my endless questions: it would be “destabilizing to Station operations.” Perhaps it is because of an old law. Or simple courtesy. Perhaps it is at the request of the Station’s behavioral scientists. Perhaps only the “curiosity” of someone at a supervisory level, though why resources would be spent satisfying that emotion I do not know, especially if the cyber-consciousness running the ship is, as they claim, “insane.”
I spend time on the Station’s computers as I wait to be called again. I spend it wisely, but what I find myself looking for surprises me, though perhaps it shouldn’t: What is “insanity”? Can it be fixed, and even should it be? And this too: What is it that really lies beyond the Station and Lock? What is “the universe,” “the galaxy”? How can something that is dark and endless, so blind, also be full of light and wonder and seeing? How could one be unhappy out there?
This is curiosity, I know, and it creates problems, the behavior analysts say. I have been reprimanded before.
When the time comes later in the day, the Protocol staff escorts me through three quarantine-styled mini-locks (they have tested for microbial contamination and there is none) onto the starship. We walk for an hour from one deck to another, our bootsteps echoing, a strange energy everywhere, and finally we reach the bridge, which is smaller than I imagined it would be for such a vessel. I have never been on a ship before. Few of the Station’s citizens have, though a dozen ships pass through the Lock every standard day.
Standing on the bridge, they show me a hand-held hologram of what they imagined he would have looked like as a discreet body. Pale skin, pale hair, brown eyes without an epicanthic fold, short but bigboned. A uniform of the kind the interstellar fleet officers once wore. The hologram is small and doesn’t move. It tells me less than what I need to know. Than what curiosity would want me to know.
“Where is he now?” I ask.
“On the other side of that wall,” a staff member answers. “It was once sleeping quarters, but was long ago refitted to contain, oxygenate, feed and rejuvenate a human body to whatever degree the ship’s resources were able. You could say he is sleeping, but he is quite awake, and waiting for you. If you speak, he’ll know it is you. We’ve synched your voiceprint to the gen-profile.”
“Hello,” I say to the air, not knowing what else to do.
We are not wearing suits. The ship makes its own oxygen, stale though it smells, and the Station’s own vast system is ready to supplement if necessary. I can hear the breathing of the six Protocol staff members near me, and I can hear my own. 
“Hello, Sidha!” a voice booms suddenly. The software is old and the voice like an ancient transmission from space, from another corner of another galaxy. It is strangely androgynous, neither man nor woman, or both, but for some reason it makes me happy. 
“Hello, Captain Salceda.” I have been given his surname and told to use it. It was a name from three of Earth’s continents, from a strange world where the people often spoke more than one human language and traveled from continent to continent when they were able.
“Let me look at you, Sidha,” the voice booms. I let it. 
“Don’t move,” a staff member has whispered beside me. “Let him see you.”
“You do not look the same, Sidha,” the voice says at last. Is it disappointment I hear, or do I imagine it?
I want to ask him what she looked like, and why I look different to him. Is it my height (I am short, too, by the Station’s average)? My skin? We are all the same color basically on the Station, with only occasional regressions. My face, its features? The shape of my head? It is round, and perhaps was not.
I don’t ask him because he is saying:
“You are older. But you are still my Sidha.”
What does he see with his ship’s sensors that I cannot see in the mirrors of my unit?
A sharp look from a staff member is meant to remind me how insane the captain is.
“We were together for only two Station weeks, Sidha,” the ship is telling me. “Not long enough for two people in love. Would you like to join me on my next mission? We will be going to ‘The Goblin,’ to 2015 TG387, which should have been visited long ago. I’m not sure why it wasn’t, but your Station’s records show it unexplored, and what an insult that is, wouldn’t you say? There is a berth near mine. You can sleep there, my Sidha.” 
Did I expect to feel at least something from his words? Do I feel something? Is it simply curiosity, that ancient impulse, or something else— something that can make you spend hours in Station Memory?
Is insanity contagious? Is there something in the conditioned air of this ship that is making me feel what I would not, were I sane, feel?
“Tell him ‘no,’” the staff member whispers at my side. “We must end the meeting but keep you available to him so that the scientists and technicians can continue to study the anomaly.”
Would the pilot and the ship he has become allow me to leave?
The staff member guesses my thought:
“The Station will override any objection from him.”
I am quiet for a while, and then, instead of a “no,” I say:
 “Yes. I will go with you, Captain.” That is what the first Sidha, the one he knew, would say— the woman I am to him. 
The staff member nearest me, in his clean smock, steps back, shocked. The other members stiffen, looking at each other, trying to decide what to do. It has taken them completely by surprise, but they are not Security. They are not trained in physical restraint.
“They are trying to override your self-protections, Captain,” I announce loudly, not knowing the right words to say it. 
A Protocol member has grabbed me by the arm, and I do not struggle at first.
“I know what they are trying to do, Sidha,” the captain’s voice booms. “They will fail.”
“I will go to your L-15-2002,” I hear myself say quickly, and the member who has my arm lets go in disbelief.
As I waited for this meeting, I found the Highland Class A blueprints. They were easy enough to locate in an information system stretching back thirteen hundred years, one of the Station’s prides. I knew, because it was logical, that, despite the changes to its hull made by assaults of objects in space and the repair work done by the nanomechs, the ship’s interior structure would probably be unchanged.
“They cannot stop us this time, Sidha,” the voice booms. “You wanted to come with me. You fought to come with me. But they beat us. They drugged you and locked me in my ship. They made me go. I pray that you have forgiven me for not fighting harder. They made me leave you, Sidha, to a life on this Station, and I have not forgotten. I will never forget.”
I found nothing about any of this in the system. Why would I? It was personal, a discrete body’s life and feelings. That is not what the Station’s computers hold.
I jerk away from the Protocol member, who, despite lack of training, has grabbed me again, and I avoid the hands of others as I run from the bridge into a passageway, then into another, and another, bootsteps behind me.
“Take the next one,” the ship’s voice whispers, and I do. The bootsteps begin to fade. I am breathing again.
The ship has started to shake. It is, I know, getting ready to jump. Will the Lock let it?
“Yes,” the voice whispers, as if we are together already, our bodies the ship, my thoughts his, and his mine.
The starlock must let him leave, I realize. It must help him jump. If he were to destroy the ship in the Lock, the Station would be destroyed with it, and everyone would die. How can one Station citizen, a useless ancient ship, an insane captain and a single burst of energy from the tokomaks compare to such losses?
I run, falling twice, getting up, the voice telling me where to go even as the engines grow louder, the shaking steadies, and the ship begins ever so slightly to grind against the Lock, to loosen itself.
When I stop running because the voice tells me to, I am at a small room whose four sealed doors the captain opens for me one by one, and then closes again behind me. I am safe.
The ship is about to launch into Lockspace. I feel it. It is positioned where it needs to be. I remember this from the research, too. Our Lock is almost ready to send us to another Lock among distant stars. That is what the research says.
I know how it will go. What will happen to me. I can hear the captain whispering again, telling me.
It will go like this, my Sidha, he says:
When we have jumped a thousand light years to the next Lock and its Station, we will exit that Lock and come to rest in Real Space. He will guide me to the bridge again, and I will walk there, my breathing calm. At the bridge, I will stop by the bulkhead, the one on the other side of which he sleeps and yet is awake, speaking to me whenever he wishes from a dream that is not a dream.
He will tell me what I must do to join him. He will tell me what berth to go to, and all the things I can do on this ship as we travel the stars, talking like people who’ve known each other for years.
Will I feel it? Will I feel anything like what he feels for me, or felt once, his body still flesh and blood, for the woman whose name I bear? 
I do not know, and I do not need to. I will feel something
Something new
I will feel alive, and isn’t that what love should always make us feel? 
DreamForge Anvil © 2021 DreamForge Press
Sidha  © 2021 Bruce McAllister