Published in PEREHELION magazine, November 2014
It was an honour, they said, as if she’d had any choice in it. She was their greatest hope. A hero, if the expedition succeeded. A martyr if it didn’t. She would be remembered in their new world or mourned until the end of their decaying one.
She didn’t have much of an opinion either way. She had a job to do. That was all.
She had been born in a lab, donated half by one street woman underpaid for the transaction and one volunteer man paid handsomely in magazines. To prepare her for the solitude of the journey, she was raised by the tender arms of a remote controlled robot, watched through cameras and spoken to by automated computers and speaker boxes. Her childhood friends were a Rubik’s Cube and a textbook with teethed edges. She had grown up a genius, a certified astronaut and astrophysicist at age fourteen, and she had grown up almost completely alone.
Her name, as far as she could tell, was Subject.
‘The subject will prepare itself for travel,’ a voice advised. It was the only human voice she knew. Calm, soothing, almost serene. But always distant. There were never any words of comfort or concern. Even today.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ Subject replied. Her voice was one note, expressing nothing. She’d found the voice responded to her better when she made herself sound more like a machine. She’d cried once, as a grown up – or what the invisible people behind the camera had considered to be grown up – and the voice had disappeared for eight days. She’d never cried again.
Stretching, Subject pulled on her boots and jacket. She’d dressed hours ago, while the light simulator was still tuned to nighttime.
‘Is the subject ready?’
There was nothing else she needed to do. She owned nothing of sentimental value, nothing she’d need to take with her. She’d been bred for this very moment. ‘Yes, ma’am.’
The door, which had been sealed fast all her life, opened into a small chamber.
Subject stood, bouncing to get the feel of the boots, and settled into a confident walk to the door.
But as she passed through the doorway, she felt a pull. It was invisible, illogical, but stronger than anything she’d ever felt.
She looked back at the apartment. Her whole world: stainless steel and rounded edges, no windows, no natural light, no noise but the voices and the adjustments of cameras following her every move.
Her breath caught.
She didn’t want to leave.
‘Wait,’ she gasped.
The doors slid shut with a soft click, plunging her into darkness.
‘Is the subject afraid?’ the voice asked, after a moment’s hesitation. A note of something had crept into it. Not concern. Never that. But something else. Fear. The voice wanted Subject to console her, assure her she was what she’d always been: a science experiment, the end result of billions of dollars meant to find them – the elite them – a new home.
‘No,’ Subject whispered. ‘Why isn’t the door opening?’ She knew, logically, that she was caught between the two air locked doors between her apartment and whatever lay beyond. They would have to have precautions in case the experiment failed and she had ever tried to escape.
‘The subject’s heart rate is too high. It must calm itself.’
A rebellious thought ran through her head. She should work herself into a panic, buy herself another day to say goodbye.
But to what? Her cold apartment, the cold voice? There was nothing in her apartment, and the voice would be coming with her. She was being irrational.
Putting one hand on her belly, and pressing two fingers of the other to her carotid artery she breathed deeply, counting the beats.
Dumdumdumdumdumdumdumdum-dum-dum-dum-dum… dum… dum…
The air lock hissed. The door opened into her apartment.
‘Did I do something wrong?’ she asked.
‘The subject will proceed into her new lodgings. The expedition will commence in thirty minutes.’
Subject took a step inside. The ship was identical to her own apartment, save for a new opening in the ceiling and a ladder leading into it.
‘The subject will proceed to control.’
Subject balled her shaking hands into fists to hide them from the new cameras and took a moment to gain control of herself.
‘The subject will proceed to control.’
The voice was getting angry at her, the soothing tone turning clipped. Subject was jeopardising the mission, condemning humanity to certain extinction.
Opening her steadier hands, she climbed the ladder. Simulation control had been at the end of a hallway in her apartment, but in every other regard it was the same. She eased into the horizontal seat, strapping herself securely down.
‘The subject will begin launch protocol.’
Subject went into autopilot as her fingers flicked across the control board, brain numbed by the familiarity.
A shaft of light blinded her even through the tinted windows as the shutters cracked open, retracting to reveal blue sky ahead. Subject covered her eyes, heart pounding. The sky. So that was it.
‘The subject will gain control.’
She turned her head to look out the side windows. At the very edge, she saw the ground, littered with tiny figures crowding some distance away. Some held signs too small to see, some waved their arms, some waved fists.
‘What are they?’ Subject asked.
The voice was silent. She repeated herself, insistent.
‘They are human.’
Other humans. They were real after all. Logically, she’d known it. But now. Here. Her voice cracked, moved by the crowd. ‘They look so small.’
‘They need you.’
It was the first time she’d heard the voice refer to her as anything but an ‘it.’
She took one last look at the people, etching them on her mind, and turned her eyes back to the sky.
‘The subject is ready,’ she said, forcing herself to sound braver than she felt. ‘Prepare for launch.’