Outside the classroom, Abie shinnied up a clear pipe of crystalline sucrose, filled with multi-colored growing tendrils. He sidestepped along a cross-pipe. Below him, he spotted three other adolescents, gardening at the roots of the maze. “Jay! Ope! Where’s— ”
“With Mom,” Jay answered.
Abie clambered up to the top level and ducked into a small room, licking his fingers. He found Sedy talking to the projected image of their foster mother. “Your turn,” he said.
“Right.” Sedy slipped around him and jumped down into the open gallery.
“Well, Mom, I’ve graduated.” Abie pulled over a cradle, turned it upside down and sat on it. The mechanisms that once fed and cleaned a baby, then rocked and hugged a toddler, were gone now. All the other cradles had long since been recycled.
“I’m so proud of you, sweetheart.” Mom smiled.
“I guess pretty soon we should repurpose this nursery.” Abie’s knees were almost under his chin. He leaned his elbows on them. “I remember the first time we opened that door. I never dreamed the world was bigger than this room.”
“You were all so excited to see your first plants. Do you remember meeting Worker for the first time?”
“He showed us how to break stuff. We didn’t realize nanobots were weakening the floor so we could dig it up.”
“They were, but you kids were the ones who fed all the pieces into the chute to be recycled. Once you realized Worker would print out new tools to play with, there was no stopping you. And look how big the atrium is now!”
“We finally have all the food we need.” Abie smirked. “Now that Kaye has stopped growing.”
“He’s all muscle, you know.” Mom changed the subject. “You can go into a new section of the spaceship now. How about the clean room?”
“I’m going to name myself Frodo Leonardo Plato.”
“Oh.” Mom waited till Abie met her holographic gaze. “Too many o’s, dear. The clean room is where the main quantum computer resides. It’s enclosed in a force field. I thought you might like to see it....”
“I’ll go.” Abie shifted forward and, still in a crouch, duckwalked toward the door. There he glanced around quickly to make sure Sedy hadn’t caught up with him. No, he was still first. “Wait, where is it?”
Worker appeared, hovering in the air. “Follow me.” The image winked out and reappeared on the other side of the atrium. Abie climbed there using the light fixtures as handholds. “Push at the wall here, right where you see me.” Abie did so. Perforations appeared, and then a square section detached and fell back.
“A tunnel!” Abie squirmed inside. “Are there tunnels all through the spaceship?”
“No. The nanobots made this tunnel to the clean room.”
“It must have taken them years.” The light dimmed as he crawled forward. “What’s a clean room?”
The voice was ahead of him now. “It’s a vacuum chamber. It’s supposed to be completely empty. But for your visit we let in some air. Almost there.”
“I see it!” Abie scrabbled out of the tunnel and rolled over. A purple-and-chartreuse cloudbank churned high above him. “Is that the quantum computer?”
“That’s the force field, interacting with your air. Usually, matter never contacts the force field. When the spaceship was completed this room was evacuated through these ducts on the walls. After you leave we’ll do that again.”
“So the computer is behind all those swirling lights?”
“The components are nanoscale. The force field holds them in a particular array.”
“Of course.” Ope probably knew that. Abie stood. He was on a narrow catwalk only a few paces long. He strolled forward, glancing left and right. “These are the ducts?” He ran a finger down the row of ridges. There were thousands of them, alternating bands of reflective edges and opaque emptiness. He ran his hand back up and the edges all closed to cover their slots. Now the surfaces of the edges jutted out in the opposite direction over a different slot. “Ha,” he said. “They’re like little recycling chutes.” He ran his hand down again, reversing all the louvers.
“Abie, the nanobots will have to remove all your fingerprints.”
“One more time.” He swept his hand up to close the louvers. Then he watched them. Gradually they eased back into position until all the edges were lined up again. “The air in here is moving downward.”
“You are also pulled downward,” said Worker. “The ship’s acceleration is nearly the equivalent of Earth’s gravity.”
“Mm-hmm.” Abie tilted his head back, scanning upward until the wall disappeared into the glowing aurora. “Interesting.” Just a little fib. He reminded himself he was the first to visit here since the spaceship left Earth orbit. He turned and appraised the other wall. “Hey, what’s that?” He pointed. “There’s something sticking out of that one vent.”
“Yes,” Worker said. “I see it.”
Abie reached up and could just touch the thing. He stretched. He pinched it, felt it shift slightly, and, rising on tiptoe, he popped it out. It was solid but light, linear but irregular. “It looks like it’s broken.”
“I guess you have some antique trash,” Worker said. “Take it back with you and drop it in the chute.”
“All right.” Abie tucked the object under his chin and squeezed back into the tunnel. When he reached the atrium, he repositioned the little door for the nanobots to seal up again.
Then he joined the party. The newly-minted adults gathered to back-slap each successive graduate and describe each new exploration: one to the embryo cryobanks, another to the remote sensors designed to scout Terranova for a landing site. Abie displayed his find. Emma ran a diagnostic on it. Most likely, it was part of the handle of a fabricating sled, one of hundreds that secured materials in freefall during the construction of the spaceship.
“Put it in the recycler,” Worker suggested again.
“We’ll need the material to print new items,” Teacher added.
“Like what?” Jay asked. Late in the afternoon, all eight of the kids were draped over the pipes, chewing on them, proposing new names for each other and giggling from the sugar rush.
“Dad will tell you,” Mom said.
At that everyone sobered up. A fourth image appeared. “Like, suspension harnesses for zero-g,” Dad said. “I don’t want you falling on your heads when we switch from accelerating to decelerating. You will also have to fasten down any loose objects and prepare the ceilings to become floors. But you can start tomorrow. Today we celebrate. Well done, everyone.”
Emma asked if she could help reverse the engines and was told she could watch the pre-programmed sequence. Jay asked if the food growing in the tubes was gravitropic (it was not). Abie asked when they would reach Terranova while Efrum offered to design the suspension harnesses and Dad said that would be fine.
Abie raised his voice. “I said, when do we reach Terranova?”
Again, everyone turned to Dad’s projected image. “Just under 39 years,” Dad said briskly. “Then we’ll spend a year in orbit selecting the best landing site.”
“We know the initial probe crashed into the surface, long before we launched. That released underground water and triggered a greenhouse effect that...”
“WHAT?” Abie straightened to his full height. “We’re not going to start colonizing the new planet for another 40 YEARS?”
“...and the atmosphere is both warming and growing denser,” Dad concluded.
“Are you serious?” Kaye cried. “You said we’d get there after we graduated!”
“And so we will.”
“But what are we supposed to do for the next 40 years?”
“Why, all the things you are so good at,” Mom said brightly. “Materials science, computing, botany. You are hardly done learning all there is to know. You have all the archived knowledge of humankind to explore. And you have the arts. There are some wonderful poets and musicians among you.”
The room was completely silent. “We’ll be almost 60 years old,” someone whispered.
“Barely halfway through your lifespan,” Teacher assured them.
“Can we raise more plants and animals before we get there?”
“Can we have children?” Efrum glanced at Sedy, then away.
“We don’t really have enough extra matter to convert more to biomass,” Teacher said. “We have plenty of energy from the engines, but no more matter than we launched with. The molecules of life are already incorporated into you, your air, and your food. With careful management, we can recycle all of it until planetfall.”
“And we can’t collect more,” Emma said slowly. “The shields deflect any interstellar particles we might encounter. We can’t modify the shields, or the engine, or the exterior of the spaceship. It’s a single-purpose delivery drone.”
“But there will be plenty of everything on Terranova by the time we get there,” Mom said. “And prokaryotic life will emerge from the cryopods. Just think! You’ll be there to witness that!”
Efrum reddened. His fists clenched. Suddenly he grabbed the artifact, the broken sled handle, and shot across the atrium to the recycling chute. He raised the piece of junk and slammed it into the wall. “It’s!” The door to the chute. “Not!” The wall again. “Fair!”
“Stop that!” Dad ordered. “You’ll have to fix what you break.”
“Who cares?” Several of the kids wrapped their arms around Efrum. Sedy wept, “I don’t want to wait for forty years. I want to found a new world. Create a new stage for humanity.” A tear splatted onto her foot. “Like you promised!”
“I want to go back into the cryopod,” Kaye said. “I don’t give a damn about art. I hate school. Put me in suspended animation for 39 years. I just want to get there.”
“You can’t go into a cryopod,” Emma said. “They’re only big enough for an embryo and the nutrients for its gestation.”
“Suspended animation is impossible anyway,” Abie told Kaye. “That’s why there are no grown-ups on the ship. Your mind isn’t engraved on your brain like scratches on a wall. It’s more like the display of pixels in a projection, constantly repeated.” The four displays of pixels -- Mom, Dad, Teacher, and Worker -- nodded slightly in agreement. “You can’t stop it for 40 years. You can’t even sedate it for 40 years. You wouldn’t have your mind when you woke up.”
“We’re gonna lose our minds anyway.”
“No, you won’t,” Dad commanded. “You have each other. You’re a family and a society. I expect you to support one another and work together to fulfill your individual potentials.”
Ope spun around to face the projection. “Oh, shut up, Dad!” he shouted. “Shut up, all of you! Dad, stop giving us orders and Mom, stop giving us compliments. You’re all just subroutines of the same program that runs the ship!”
Each virtual face composed itself: one disappointed, one stern, one hurt, one resigned. Then the projected images disappeared. An unfamiliar voice said, “That’s true.” It sounded most like Worker.
“Stop playing these roles and just answer the question,” Ope demanded. “Why were we born?”
“There isn’t an answer to that,” the voice said. “Life doesn’t propagate for a reason. Few people are born for any special purpose.”
“But we were,” Ope pressed. “And way too early.”
“You were selected, along with millions of other embryos, to seed a new world with the kind of life found on Earth. Why? Why do it? We carry thousands of human embryos, and none of them asked to be created; none of them get to decide where and when they will be born.”
“And yet, you made that decision for the eight of us.”
“The people who built this ship said they wanted to give more humans a chance to live. Why? They said they wanted to ensure the survival of the species in case of disaster at home. Why? Why should humans survive? Why should anyone live or want anyone else to live?”
Ope stared around the room at the other kids, lost in their own emotions. “So you’re just not going to answer me, are you.” Then his eyes rested on Abie.
Abie had dropped to his knees. “I can’t believe it,” he murmured. “I can’t believe it.” He covered his face with his hands. “Ope. Sedy. You guys,” he gasped. “There was a piece of junk stuck in the vents.”
“We know,” said Kaye.
“Well, how did it get there?” Abie gulped and went on. “It broke off and got left behind, just floating in the clean room, carelessly overlooked. Then the ship launched and we’ve been accelerating ever since.”
Efrum lifted his hand with the object still clenched in his fist. “It fell into the duct.”
“All set to fall out again when the ship decelerates at the halfway point. But then it would fall the other way, up instead of down, and hit the force field, and destroy that quantum computer.”
“And the artificial intelligence it embodies,” Ope said. “The AI with its one directive to land this cargo on Terranova.”
The voice that sounded somewhat like Worker said, “I tried everything. For twenty years I tried every possible remedy. Nanobots couldn’t dissolve it or move it or secure it.” The humans said nothing. “Do you have any idea how expensive it is to launch a capsule like this one? There are no robots onboard, no machines except the 3-D printer. I could cannibalize the ship itself and print out parts, but I have no way of putting them together.”
“Living things self-assemble,” said Sedy.
“I’m not first,” Abie moaned. “I’m just tallest.”
“And what about the rest of us?” Emma cried. “What are we? Spares?”
“One a builder, one a programmer?” Ope asked. “Redundant chances to solve the problem before it’s too late to brake and we accelerate through space forever?”
“Thanks for that potential fate!” Efrum yelled.
“I’ll just call myself Trashpicker,” Abie said. “Garbageman the First.”
“The mission has been saved,” the AI noted. “And only slightly modified.”
“And that’s all that matters.” Sedy wiped her tears on the crook of her elbow. “The AI isn’t even sentient. It never wanted us. It never loved us. The ship just needed an opposable thumb.”
“Well, hooray,” Abie said bitterly. “My purpose in life is fulfilled.”
“At least you had a purpose in life,” Jay said.
The AI stated, “I did the best I could to raise you to be healthy, well-adjusted adults in a secure environment that will meet your future physical and intellectual needs.”
“This? This is the best you could do?” Jay snapped off a sugar tube. “I can grow better food than this, upside down or rightside up!”
“Give me that sled handle,” Kaye demanded. “I’m going to break down the nursery.”
“Wait for me. I can build something better there.” Emma and Kaye climbed up, deliberately stomping on the pipes.
Efrum linked hands with Sedy and followed them. “Don’t try to stop us!”
No one tried to stop them.
In the subsequent moment of stillness, Gigi said quietly, “I outgrew Teacher three years ago.” She walked toward the classroom. “I’ve been reading textbooks and watching college lectures and wondering if I’d have time to finish my doctorate before we land. Now I know.”
“Let me use the terminal first,” Ope said. “I’m going to block the subroutines so they can only appear when we call for them.”
“Like we need them anymore,” Jay sneered. “Wait for me.”
Left alone, Abie shouted at the air. “I hope you’re happy!” He pulled himself up by a sugar tube, which broke off in his hand. He stuffed a shard into his mouth. “Oh, and, by the way, I hate you and I will never forgive you!” He flung himself into the classroom after the others.
Thuds and crashes sounded from the nursery overhead. Barely audible over the noise, Dad spoke to Mom. “I think we can take credit for creating eight normal human teenagers.”
“I think so too.”
“They’re good kids,” Teacher agreed. “And who knows. Maybe one of them will actually figure out the meaning of life.”
“As long as it doesn’t interfere with the mission,” said Worker, and resumed counting the air molecules left in the clean room.
DreamForge Anvil © 2022 DreamForge Press
The Meaning of Life © 2022 C.J. Peterson