I hit the ground and start running for my career.
I mean, sort of I'm running for my life, but I don't have a life after this either way, and I do have a career.
I promised myself I wouldn't start waxing philosophical during exams.
I vault a low shrub. Bad move, now my left hand that I used to push off is full of prickles and they sting like anything. Would it have made sense to focus more on maneuvering that didn't rely on touching environmental hazards? No, I shouldn't think about that. I'll figure out training regimen tweaks later after I die, no point right now. I'll do without the hand. I keep running.
I realize I completely forgot to smile for the camera when I go to ground in a rocky alcove and take a breather. Nothing says that a rock can't poison you, but it's at least less likely to try it than a plant, and ostensibly you're not penalized for taking rests as long as your overall time and performance are good. Ostensibly. There's no law that says they have to publish all their criteria. I smile.
I tweeze a few prickles out of my hand with my multi-knife. It doesn't make it hurt less at rest, but it does make it less likely to brush against my leg or something and make me regret it. Some of them are in too deep to tweeze, but it's not like I'm going to need my hand ever again if it can get me through today. Do they worry about that, I wonder. Or is having a real job just as much of a meat grinder and they don't care if their new hires are all the type to wreck themselves trying to achieve their quarterly objectives? It's not like more of us are very hard to come by.
Maybe I should just go on the dole.
No, nope, that's how they get you, a few plant spines in your hand and you start thinking like a useless bluesy gamer. I can do this. I've got to do this. I'm going to space. I'm going to make it.
I give up on the last few spines, spit on the wounds in case that dilutes the poison or something - it doesn't - and run some more.
I watch myself get utterly creamed by a mocked-up dinosaur standing in for the kind of thing that space colonies sometimes have running around. Some of them don't, but I'm majoring in Wildlife. I like it, just conceptually - it can't all be dinosaurs, there's got to be something worth domesticating out there - and there's slightly less competition than in the safer fields like Mining or Infrastructure or Generation. Ultimately, of course, if a mining major gets offered a slot on a ship to Jurassic Park they'll take it, and if I get a berth on a generation ship I'll grit my teeth grinning and raise sixteen babies from the gene bank, but you have better odds if you indicate a passion for something and stick to it. I'd rather be eaten by a dinosaur - or, no, it's not even eating me, it's just sort of stepping on me and roaring, great - anyway, it's a better death than a mine cave-in or an engine failure in intergalactic space.
"Better luck next time," says my boyfriend Marco. He's a Space Station guy, so it's not a long term thing unless by some crazy lottery ticket miracle we get placed together anyway, but you have to bust stress somehow. Even if I dated another Wildlife major it's not the sort of thing you can count on. Life doesn't really begin till you graduate.
"This isn't about luck," I tell him.
"Sure it is, if that beastie hadn't -"
"I mean, luck is involved, but good students win and the best students win a lot, and I'm not the best, and I need to be the best." I'm up and pacing now; some of the meds I'm on are great for getting plenty of exercise in but also leave me with nervous energy when I'm just trying to watch myself get trampled to death. "I should be putting more time toward my athletics."
"Or you should be getting sleep."
"I don't think the dinosaur stepped on me because I yawned. No, Wildlife is a pretty physical track, and if colony scouts see this kind of thing," I gesture at the splash screen that has stilled on my zoomed-in death throes, "they're not going to want me. It's too late to change majors -"
"No it isn't, you have until next fall."
"It's too late to effectively change majors. Sure, they'll graduate me if I switch into something soft like Generation -"
"Hey, Generation folks work hard as fuck."
"I know it's not easy but it's not complicated, they just need to not mutiny or fuck up their kids - don't interrupt me, I know 'just' is a belittling word but I'm indicating that there are only two things on that list - anyway. I should be running and jumping and climbing trees more and reading about xenobiology less. It's not like they'll have anything in the books about whatever I'll be dealing with."
"You don't think you'd get second wave?"
"I guess I might get second wave. Or third, depending on conditions when I graduate." I run my fingers through my hair.
"My grandma says they'll have good-enough robots by the time we graduate," he remarks, looking out the dorm window.
"They've been saying that since she was born. Good-enough robots are always fifteen to twenty years away, two years for optimists. Boots on planets, feet in boots," I say. "I've got feet. They just have to be good feet."
"You have good feet," he says. Well, I don't date him because he's good at giving me constructive feedback on how to get boots on. I just think he's pretty. I shut him up with a kiss and spend the next while de-stressing so I'll be able to sleep tonight at all.
I spend my midterm fighting off space bats from a farm. The bats die when they eat the crops, they can't digest Earth proteins, but they're dumb as rocks and it doesn't stop them from trying even when the corpses are shoveled into great cautionary piles. They aren't frightened by scarecrows because they aren't frightened by humans at all. It takes me a long time and a lot of chunks taken out of my arms by space bats before I figure out by trial and error something that will fend them off, and then I get a B- because my solution wouldn't scale well to enough farms to supply a colony with the materials provided in the simulation. A student majoring in Medical gets to take her patient rapport for a spin on my bites. Her voice is steady in my earpiece, telling me what to grab from my supplies and how to make the knots she recommends. When she's walked me through what to do to clean the wounds and wrap them up, and the proctor's had a chance to look her work over, I die.
History is still required. There's a lot of "when will we use this in real life" in all our classes - part of why robots are not and will never be good enough is that they have to be programmed for specific conditions and we don't know what the conditions are in advance. I am not going to meet stompy dinosaurs or idiot bats; whoever had that privilege has probably been settled on their planet for decades now if it's made it into the curriculum. But history is nonsense to have on the requirements list. Math, sure, maybe we'll need it when we're engineering domes in the Sagittarius Arm, science, absolutely, hit me with the firehose, all the phys ed is essential to weed out anyone who'll collapse in a spacesuit or can't build the stamina for manual labor. We have to prove to the colony pickers that we have what it takes. I'll even tolerate art, if more for mental health reasons than practicality. But history?
The history teacher of course disagrees. Presumably you have to be incredibly passionate about history to wind up teaching it when you don't have what it takes to go to space and could be playing video games on the dole. I don't know how you wind up with a passion like that on this planet, but this guy managed it. Maybe he likes the history kind of video games, there must be some. I don't know, I never play.
Anyway, I attend my required history course. I need the GPA and the attendance record and the compliance score even if I don't need the information. He rambles on about pre-diaspora and makes us write essays about Earth and about the colony's foundation and stuff like that. We get to pick any topic we want for our final paper. It has to be five pages long, which might not sound like much but I do need to pull an A on it and I have a lot of other stuff on my plate.
I have, in addition to a boyfriend, a study buddy. Flora. She's in Logistics/Ops. We sit across from each other at a table and if one of us swears the other mumbles sympathetically. Closer to exams we quiz each other. I swear enough trying to settle on an essay topic that she actually looks up.
"What's eating you?"
"Space bats. No, it's the free-topic essay in history. I need something I can work out a thesis for while I'm on the track, or maybe figure out in the waterworld simulation and report to myself from there, except I can't count on downtime in the waterworld to tell myself anything." I look at an astrogation flashcard and flip it over. I'm not good at astrogation. If I were good at astrogation I'd be home free, almost nobody can both navigate a ship and also be a remotely functional human being. The combination might get me a choice of more than one ship.
"Can't you just ask your parents to tell you a story about landing, or something?"
"I only have one, and no, she's got my sibs to worry about." We're none of us biologically related; I'm from the embryo bank and so are they. I believe a lot of families manage to look past that but my mom finds it an impediment. She was fine, helpful even when it was clear I might have the potential to make something of myself, but not the tell-me-a-story kind of mom. I wasn't hugged enough as a child. She made me stop chasing down my little siblings to hug them after one turned out to have gotten into the butter and I dropped him. "Besides," I say, "that isn't a thesis statement, 'here's a story about landing', is it."
"Mega ass." I turn the page in my index of the timeline of the history of the universe. "Think he'll buy me speculating wildly about the precursors? I can speculate wildly about the precursors while I'm doing hurdles and then vom it onto the page later."
"How close are you cutting it in History?"
"Maybe ask him? I mean, don't say it's going to be vom."
I stay after the next meeting of history class. I ask him if it would be acceptable to write my paper on what we know about the precursors. He says it might be hard to find sources but I'm welcome to try. Which makes me think he's expecting something non-vom. With sources. Dreadful. I ask him if there's a minimum number of citations - like, for crying out loud, it's only five pages - and he says "not numerically speaking". I don't know what that means. Probably "no but don't think that means you can quarter-ass this and get your A".
I spend the next hour on the track. My next simulation is tonight, so I can't push too hard - if I'm exhausted that'll get copied in with the rest of my physical condition. But I can run and jump and do the obstacle course for a while, composing sentences in my head. The Precursors were - or the Precursors are? We don't know if they're actually dead or anything. The Precursors left a network of portals throughout the - hm. My schedule alarm goes off. I hose myself down in the high pressure shower, and take a power nap to freshen up before I prepare to die again.
The next morning I watch the recording of myself trying to tame wild space horses. I do all right, actually. I don't even get kicked in the head. The pickers had better appreciate me. I didn't have time to breed the space horses for docility but in the time given I think I was doing well.
I eat breakfast with Marco. He looks preoccupied.
"What's eating you?" I ask.
"Micrometeoroids," he says. "Listen - I'm thinking about dropping out."
I stare at him. "You've got to be kidding me."
"I don't know that this is really what I want to do with my life. Like - someone has to, but if one guy drops out that just means someone else gets the spot, right? It'll get done."
"So you're going to go on the dole?" I ask incredulously. "You're just going to go be nobody? Marco, I can't believe you, I can't believe you're even thinking it -"
"I haven't decided for sure," he mumbles. "But what do I need with a spot on a space station, really - I don't think I'd like it. All my simulations look so miserable and they're starting to sometimes flag halfway through or ask to be killed early. I don't want that to be my whole life."
"So you want your whole life to be video games and waiting for somebody else's boots to hit all the new metal and all the new soil?" I say. "Why would you want that? You might as well, like, die."
"I die a lot," he said to his plate. "You do too."
"Dying's only bad because you're not alive afterwards!" I scoff.
"My brother's on the dole," says Marco. "He ate something native in the garden as a kid, couldn't make it into school - not even Support tracks, let alone colony ones. The video games thing is kind of rude -"
"So you've eaten a bad plant and decided to join him," I snarl. "Good luck with that."
"You're so - you're vicious," he says. "Why did I ever put up with you?"
"I know why I put up with you, and it wasn't worth it. Go. Go be nobody."
He goes. He used to bus my tray for me. He doesn't this time. But I'll save more time by not having a boyfriend than I'll lose by having to carry my own dishes.
The history teacher announces that due to popular demand we can choose to do our assignments as presentations instead of essays and deliver them in simulation. It's a real time-saver. I sign up for a slot and I read about the Precursors while I'm on the stationary bike. I'm not great at presentations, but I'm not good at essays either and if I read enough I'll probably be able to pull something together. My book is going for a weird spooky mystical angle on the Precursors, like they were some kind of magical beings or something, so I swap it for a different book.
The Precursors are the folks who left the portals. We're pretty sure for various reasons that they're artificial, not some kind of natural wormhole situation. They make colonization feasible - you still need generation ships to settle some sites but you can cut down the number of generations a lot if you go through the right gates. And the Precursors settled a lot of planets and left a lot of ruins. There is so much Precursor technology and so many artifacts left on nearly every rock in the system. And it's a good thing they breathed oxygen (or possibly breathed nitrogen but their plants breathed oxygen or something) because we need to find it all, and we need to figure out what the heck it all means, because the portals don't look like they're going to last forever.
Probably they just built them for themselves and didn't care if they lasted without maintenance for the million years it's been since then. I wouldn't care about that if I were building myself a portal. So it needs charging every fifteen million years, whatever, I'll go back and do that when it's been fifteen million years and if I'm not around to patch it up I'm not around to be fussed if they fail. Or if they blow up. Lotta people think they're gonna blow up. Like, really bad blowing up. FTL shrapnel in every direction blowing up. I fish out an estimate about how old Earth would fare if that happened because I figure that's the way to a history professor's heart. All those continents in those specific shapes or whatever it is that he's attached to will, apparently, in the event of a portal explosion event that affects anything in the neighborhood (and there are like forty portals in the neighborhood), be sublimated into plasma slag. This would be terrible for both of history and also things normal people care about like not being dead.
Apparently some folks think the Precursors left their colonies for some reason but are still around and will come sailing out of the Sombrero Galaxy or something to make sure that doesn't happen. I reckon they don't care. Why would they? They didn't know we existed. We probably didn't exist, when they were bopping from constellation to constellation building stuff and having Precursor babies to crew Precursor generation ships. We were just wildlife back then. The kind of thing I'm going to be devising protocols to deal with while the Archaeology majors unearth all their weird doodads and informative garbage and indecipherable probably-it's-writing-but-who-knows-since-they-were-aliens. The kind of thing I'm going to be taming and domesticating and turning into coats to make every useful person's lives easier on my colony.
That's enough ruminating to extemporize something passable when I go give my history presentation. I make sure I'm thinking about it when I go to sleep - I don't think it really helps but it soothes some of the pre-test nerves.
I deliver my presentation to the camera. My history teacher can't come to me and I can't go to him.
Man, was I that lousy in bed? That Marco would rather just never -
Even if that line of thought were useful to me it wouldn't be useful to me here. I'll just have to hope that I think of it on the outside too.
I conclude my presentation and confirm that it submitted correctly and I die.
After finals the colony pickers come by. I'm not old enough to get a slot yet, they have to be sure I'm not going to burn out or lose a limb or something in the next year before they bet hard on me, but it's not too early to put in a good showing and be memorable for next year. Everybody does a sort of expo thing. I show off my sim recording of the history presentation - I got an A, and it's good to show off you're well-rounded - on top of my best-of with my in-major courses and of course all the fallback material on construction and maintenance and child development, in case some disaster takes out two-thirds of my ship and I have to wrangle space bats while wearing twins on my back and patching holes in the water system. It's not an appealing prospect but it's better than playing video games forever. I'm going to be a colonist.
I fuck one of the pickers. It's not supposed to happen, but nobody enforces that. I put on a convincing enough pout about my boyfriend dumping me and me needing my stress relief that the guy doesn't feel like he's being outright bribed, and if he responsibly ignores it when I graduate then I'm at least no worse off and if he remembers me fondly then that can't hurt. Besides, I really do need to unwind. I tried Flora but she said no.
Marco hasn't actually dropped out yet. He's at the expo with everyone else showing off his skills at managing hydroponics. Some of the sites we need to do archaeology on have higher gravity than humans can put up with - at least, put up with sustainedly while doing anything useful. We have robots that can manage that, just not robots that can do that and also make choices, so somebody has to hang out in a space station piloting them from the sky, and somebody has to make the space station keep working and make anybody on the space station who breathes still able to do that so they can keep handling all the maintenance.
Maybe he was never really going to drop out and he was just venting in a kind of stupid way. Maybe we could've remained a thing till graduation.
No sense worrying about it now.
One of the pickers - not the one I boinked, his colleague of some kind - says I have grit. It's a good compliment. I beam at her and ask her if she has recommendations from the course catalog for my skillset and take everything she says down very carefully.
Afterwards I treat myself to a big pile of desserts and working on my art project, which hasn't been graded yet because that teacher's really slow. The art project will probably already score as well as I need, but working on it is soothing. Besides, I won't see my next choice of who to hit on till Lab Protocols 2 meets. Art's the next best thing. I'm doing a great big abstract and it's not hard to expand the virtual canvas to just keep going. I never do this in sim. I'm not time crunched enough to need to and I don't get to keep any of the soothed-ness if I die after adding more streaks of gold and swirls of blue.
I sign up for my next raft of classes. Nonlethal Wildlife Takedowns, Orienteering And Camping, Ecosystem Management, Xenogenetics. The required Archaeology Basics that is finally offered at a time I have open. Welding As Art, credit in two departments at once. Nutrition And Health. Concepts of Robotics. A course on Maintaining Working Relationships. You'd think I'd need that given the breakup but nobody on a colony ship with me is going to be the kind of person who'd drop out of a good school to go on the dole when he isn't even flunking. Still, you don't want everybody snarling at each other and running into total psychological shutdown at the prospect of collaborating, not on the ship and not once boots hit ground. There's probably something else that'd be that contemptible and set me off that badly, I just haven't run into it yet.
It's a heavy courseload but I handled worse in my first year. And the pickers are only going to grab the folks with minimum accumulated credits after they've assigned the ones who go above and beyond.
I lasso a space cow, or try to - got it. They're not edible but they have industrially useful not-technically-blood. Potentially cheaper than synthesizing the equivalent, says my briefing, and it could even be an export if we got enough of them in stables hooked up to some kind of not-technically-bloodsucking machine. This class gets really elaborate with the briefings. Does it matter why I need to nonlethally lasso the space cow? Does it affect things if I do it because somebody told me to and not because I have been brought up to date on industrial vampirism? I wonder about this but I don't make the curricular calls. Maybe I can streamline things when I retire, if I wind up in academia then. But first I apply hobbles to the space cow's wheels and then I die.
The guy in Lab Protocols 2 is down to hook up. He's actually way better in the sack than Marco was. He gets his hands all over me, gets his mouth all over me, squeezes me like he's trying to press me into cider. It's so good I let him stay the night, curled up against me, nuzzling my neck. He mumbles when he's sleepy. I think I hear something about it being good to get this sort of thing out our systems while we still can? I pretend not to understand. I don't want to wreck another relationship or whatever it is arguing about how long I'll be able to show him a good time. I can't keep him after graduation most likely anyway, so if he thinks he's not going to make it, that's not really any skin off my nose. Me, though. I'm going to space.
Apparently I have a pop quiz on shipboard emergency protocols. In this simulation I'm the only living passenger in my entire sealed deck. Of course I am, but they included a lot of bodies and I feel that was unnecessary, they could have said they were vented into the void. I stabilize everything I can reach, and coordinate with the video calls between decks, and sustain pretty serious burns to both arms and keep going anyway, and by the time it's safe to open the bulkheads I'm running on fumes and emergency stimulant tabs but I think I'll get an A, and then I die.
Mock Ship is the only extracurricular besides gym type stuff that matters at all. The Generation folks have to expect to live out their whole lifespans on a ship, so they have coursework on it, but it's not like a three-year voyage with a couple portal shortcuts is as easy as life on an established colony like this one. Pickers like you to have a mock ship and good reviews from your shipmates. My mock ship, the Wild Oats, meets once a week, which is already a lot of concession to convenience - my real ship will have me locked in a can with the same few hundred bodies for a very, very long time.
I spend a lot of my hours on the Wild Oats studying for other classes. It's not all drills for catastrophic system failure like that gnarly-looking quiz I had last night. Much of our flight will be spent skilling up, checking up on completely accurate and entirely routine computer behaviors, staying in condition. The mock ship is supposed to simulate the inevitable social drama, and there's lots, but staying out of it is a perfectly good way to get a "good shipmate" rating from everybody with you.
Today somebody's having a crisis over her dad retiring. I can't really relate, but I pat her shoulder and when there's a chance to volunteer to get her a cup of water I take it. It's not a realistic source of ship conflict, any more than I expect to be reading up on Archaeology Basics in flight - it's not like you ever get to hug your dad again after you blast off whether he's retired or not. But there'll be something and it's practice for whatever it turns out there'll be.
On the way back to my room from the mock ship meeting I get an alert. Finals have been over long enough that they've finally got the class rankings published. I'm thirty-ninth, which is good. It's great, actually; usually something like the top five hundred in the school manage to get a placement. The top half of those get the choice colony ship roles, the next two-fifty wind up on second wave supplements to colonies that hit hard times or they get slots on trading and messenger vessels. Below that you have support roles on-planet, and some days I think that might be good enough for me, I could see myself in the shipyard or the farm sector... But I'm thirty-ninth, I'm good. I caught a rumor to the effect that this might be an unusually thin year, but thirty-nine is enough. In the end me and the valedictorian might literally be on the same boat.
I don't know why it would be a thin year. The Precursors went all over the place. By the latest estimates to come into this system we've touched fewer than ten percent of their worlds - humanity in general, not just offshoots from this colony and this school - and any one of them might have the clue to re-upping the portals. Sure, exponentiation is a thing and maybe we'll have it all mopped up by the time I'm old and creaky and thinking about retiring, just by multiplying a few more times, but that's decades away. Rumors are wrong as often as not, and that's probably all it is.
I go track down my stressbuster buddy and approximately jump him - that's the right way to deal with a baseless yet niggling rumor - and we try to climb inside each other's skin. I look for him on the rankings later and he's in the four hundreds. That's fine. I'm not too good to fuck a four hundreds guy.
I catch space fireflies in a net.
I don't know if I've ever wanted to keep a simulated experience before. It's not the kind of thing I tell myself. I'm not going to go, hey, bio-self, this was great, I want to carry this memory forward, only to then die anyway and leave myself with a hefty dose of the creeps. Maybe I feel like this every time I don't wind up as a bloody smear on the simulated space rock where I expire. Maybe I feel like this even then. I'm not going to tell.
The fireflies glint beautifully. They don't bite me. They aren't poisonous unless I eat them. I have to swish the net gently so I don't foul up their lacy little wings. It's twilight and twin suns are setting in the west; the sky looks like my painting from my last art class.
I don't want to die.
I do anyway.
In Ecosystem Management, halfway through a lecture on Precursor animals and their feralized descendants, half the students have alerts go off within thirty minutes of each other. The first few ignore them. The eighth student ducks into the corridor to take the call. When he comes back with his face as bloodless as a block of wood we know it's big - if it were personal he wouldn't have come back and if it were tiny he wouldn't look like that. I saw that kid's Orienteering final last year and he's unflappable. The class kind of stops after that. The teacher doesn't even scold people for looking at their messages. I don't get any, but I'm sitting next to Flora - Logistics/Ops folks need to be well-rounded - and she does. I look over her shoulder. It can't be too private if it affects this many people, and she doesn't pull away from me.
Flora's sister, who shipped out after graduating last month and hasn't hit the portal yet, has sent her just this:
We're turning around. Don't let Mama turn my room into a sewing room.
There is no way that half the students in this one class had a family member on that specific ship. No way. Ships usually pull people from all the schools in the whole system. They train together for a while on the ship itself and then they take off once all the rough edges are located and sanded down.
So it has to be something bigger than that, something that is causing a ship to turn around. That had never happened in my lifetime, possibly the entire history of the colony.
I turn toward the guy on my other side. His screen says:
Probably time to stop killing yourself in school, kiddo. More later
"What happened?" I say out loud, and I'm not the only one saying something like it. It's pretty obvious how big a deal this has to be. Someone in the room has to have more than a cryptic update, vague advice -
"We're not using portals anymore," somebody in the third row says.
The same kid goes on, voice trembling like he's about to start crying, "They think - that using them - is making them decay faster - so we have to stop. Essential trade and messages only."
"Who's they?" I scream, but no one hears me, and it doesn't matter anyway.
Even a generation ship can't make it to a new colony in a remotely useful amount of time without any gates at all. You can set up a generation ship to take off with one set of people and land with their grandkids aboard ready to put boots on the planet and go, but you can't rely on that if you need it to be their great, great, great, great, great grandkids, and those are the kind of distances we're talking about if you have to get from point A to point B as the vacuum-going crow flies. There's no perfectly lossless recycling process, nothing that robust to disasters, no social protocol that can be relied upon to keep a little society on-mission and self-perpetuating that long. We can't land on any new colonies that nobody's already flying to right now - already flying to through the portals they need to hit, moreover, though I guess some folks midway through their journey won't get the message till they land.
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. There's nowhere to go and nothing to do with the rest of my life. I'm not a physicist, I'm terrible at all the linguistic nonsense the archaeologists do to decipher inscriptions, I can't help - I can raise kids, but why would we need people to raise any more kids than they happen to find recreationally appealing if there's nowhere they need to go and nothing they need to prepare to be able to do? What will become of me? What will become of anyone? I don't want to play video games.
Farming industry. It'll have to be that, I'm a wildlife major. This planet doesn't have as many animals as some of them but there are any. And they raise pigs and stuff. I don't have to die, I don't have to go into simulation forever and shuffle off the mortal coil.
"The mission to C5-110K will go on as planned with some delay, due to unusually promising intelligence about the quality of the dig sites on the surface -"
I sit up straight.
"- with candidates selected from across all current pupils of all years, throughout the system."
I'm thirty-ninth. In my year. In my school. According to an aggregate ranking that assumes a standard planet distribution and not anything specific to C5-110K. I'm probably something like the two thousandth best in the system across all the years of colony-candidate students. Which was fine, when a new ship rolled off the yard at least once a year!
I could work shipyard. Shipyard would be fine. No, fuck, they're going to wind up shutting down the shipyard. Farms though. Who's even going to eat still? Anything. Anything.
"Classes are cancelled for the rest of the day," says the professor.
That's bad. What if not all the other schools out there are doing the same thing, and I have a gap in my record, when they pick people for that one single ship? I don't have a great shot at it but if C5-110K is wildlife-heavy I could maybe get in just on colony balance reasons. Or personality fit, if they have a superstar astrogation specialist who's really picky. I don't actually get along great with the kinds of people who do well at astrogation but I could learn. Could I learn fast enough? When are they crewing the ship? Probably not for years, if they're letting the younger cohort catch up to be counted in. Maybe I do have an advantage. Maybe I can improvise some kind of self-teaching arrangement and while they're catching up I'll be learning more, gaining more experience, until I'm past the level of skill they usually expect of graduates. It's lucky, really, that I'm in the last year of school. Someone might look at this as more years of my life being wasted on something that will never happen now, but it could still happen, and it'll be easier for the senior students, if I just don't let up for a second.
The "captain" of the Wild Oats calls an extra mock ship meeting. I report with great alacrity. I don't have study plans drawn up for the rest of the day and I don't know how the situation with the cancelled classes will affect things like when our assignments are due. Anything to do, even sit in the mock ship and be somebody's shoulder to cry on, will be better than nothing. What if this is the closest I ever get? I can't waste a second.
I wind up in a sobbing cuddle-pile of the students who, on happier days, play the roles of biostorage manager, backup astrogation officer, chief archaeologist and interim mess hall chef, and night shift medic. They're warm. They're miserable, and it makes them feel better to be half draped on top of me or to have my ear pillowed on their shoulder. It makes me feel better too. It's the purest form of basic animal satisfaction for the kind of thing we are. This is what humans do when we're alive. I'm surrounded by heartbeats and breathing and occasional hiccupy crying noises. Maybe I'm crying a little too.
Mom talks sometimes about her trip to this planet. She wound up in a complicated polyamorous affair with the captain, the geologist, and the air recycling maintainer. To hear her tell it they spent the entire trip having exciting new configurations of orgies amongst themselves and with everyone else who'd hold still for it. You bring all the media on record with you, of course, but nobody who works hard enough to get a berth on a ship is the sort to spend years catching up on their passion for Earth poetry or listening to ancient rock operas. They're like me. They study, they have thirty percent of a hobby to keep the lights on in their brains, and they like to be moving around - and on a ship you don't have a whole track, just treadmills. So they -
Oh, who am I kidding. They just want to be touching other people. Exercise or whatever is just an excuse.
The crew of the Wild Oats disperses without an official dismissal, after a couple of hours. I almost wait for the captain but then I see he's fallen asleep on one of the electrical techs. I look for my fuckbuddy but I can't find him. Maybe he dropped out. There's never been a better time. People are going to be cutting and running, going and giving their brothers and sisters hugs before that becomes impossible forever.
I go back to my dorm and start looking for job postings in the farming sector.
I am not the first person to have this idea. A listing for a granary supervisor disappears before my eyes to be replaced with a message stating that due to an overwhelming volume they will not accept new applications on the expectation that a suitable candidate exists among those they have under consideration already.
I look for my fuckbuddy again. This time somebody points me in the right direction and I get pulled into the orgy his friends have thrown together. Just what the doctor ordered.
I stagger out an hour or two later and grab dinner and have a brilliant idea: I write my mother. There might be a little more slack in the system without the shipyard, and it's not aimed at anything important anymore, but it can't all vanish overnight, can it? I ask her if she needs any help around the house with my little sibs. I can cook. I got A's in all my child development classes.
She replies that my next-younger sister already had that idea. Says that some of her best friends are retired on the dole and it's not that bad. Asks if I like dogs.
I don't answer her. I go looking for Flora. Flora's grabbed a stray child from the child development daycare and is squeezing him while he sleeps on her shoulder. I whisper. "What are you gonna do?"
"Dunno," she whispers back. "Maybe there'll be a grace period."
"There's never been one before."
"But with the shipyard shutting down. There might be."
I don't want a grace period. Or, no, I want one with a fierce avarice that kind of scares me, but it's not - it's not being useful, it's not being the kind of person I was always supposed to be. I wanted to be a colonist. I was supposed to be, I was meant to be, I was good enough. If I failed at that I wanted at least some kind of place in the world. Farmers feed people. That's something.
"I hate the very thought of video games," I say brokenly.
"My uncle says that's a mean thing to call it," she says.
"If it's about to happen to me I think I can call it whatever I want."
"I'm scared too," murmurs Flora.
I can't take that. I could take conflict and competition. I could take indifference. I can't stand the empathy, the remark you'd get from a fellow-traveler - an inapt term, we aren't going to be traveling anywhere.
Flora pulls her sleeve over her hand and wipes the tears off my cheeks. She pulls me into a hug, her and the sleeping toddler who'll never get to go to space and me.
I wind up staying out late, even though there's nothing I really want to be awake for. I stagger into bed in the wee hours of the night, the shades overhead unfurled and keeping the sun off to protect our delicate circadian rhythms. I wake up in a sweat, five minutes to go till my first class, about to be late. It doesn't matter. It's cancelled today too.
I look out the window. The campus is emptier. People are scattering to their families or their friends. I could go home. I don't really want to. This has been my home. I was ready to switch homes, but - to a ship, once I got a placement. Maybe a new dorm if I wound up in a support role.
There's no way I'm going to C5-110K. Mom doesn't need me back. There aren't any job applications left. I can't even throw myself into schoolwork because they keep cancelling things. Which makes sense, really, if there's nothing to prepare us for, no reason to sift through all the colony's offspring for the best of the best.
What are we going to do? What else do people do, besides try to stay alive, try to run faster than everybody else to save the world? That's all I know how to do. If I decided to turn my Welding As Art project into some bigger fancier worthless sculpture what would be the point?
How do you hold still to save the world?
I flick through the news. There's a lot of op-eds and one physicist confirming that the math on the portal behavior looks sound and it could be that there are possibly very few uses of the portals left before we have to fix them or die. That's our connection to the rest of humanity, not just the way we were going about filling the galaxy. I guess most people feel more strongly about connecting to the rest of humanity than I do. I'm sure they'll be fine without me. They don't need me to send them a card once a year listing my accomplishments. Especially not now that my accomplishments are negligible. But somebody decided we were going to use the portals for messages, as few as possible ("possible"), and not for colonies. If the answer we need isn't reachable from the planets we have, the planets people are already heading to without being possible to recall.
I look away. I get up and walk out of my room and wander, aimlessly, in the air the Precursors made that we can breathe. What if we hadn't been able to breathe their air? Maybe we'd have done it all from space stations. Or gone harder on genetic engineering. It's sidereal night, so it's a bit nippy, but the artificial lights proclaim it day for humans. Maybe we'd have re-engineered all their air, if it had been the wrong kind, and all the animals I'd ever get my hands on would be preserved specimens to dissect for clues to what the characters in their signage means.
I wind up in the building where I take history classes. The professors who have office hours now are lounging in screens on the walls, like portraits, each in their own alcove so people can step in and talk to them without bothering the others or getting in everybody's way. The history teacher calls to me from his niche.
"Hello," I say, automatic.
"You look pretty wrung out," he says.
"No kidding." I pause, chewing my lip. "- what's it like?"
"What's what like?"
"I do still have a job," he points out. "No, I know what you mean - in my day we just called it 'transferring' - and of course you've experienced it many times. Just... not this you."
"Yeah." I look at my fingernails. I run the pad of my thumb over my pinky nail. In simulations, there's a lot of stuff to track. Humans saccade our eyes a lot. We're sensitive to nanometer-scale textures. Clumsiness in rendering the air can send us into panic cascades about not having enough of the right stuff to breathe. Trying to run people without bodies at all was a disaster. There are all kinds of tricks you can pull to make it economical to simulate a person, of course. More economical than feeding them. There's places you can hide your shortcuts and rugs under which to sweep all your cut corners. Simulations feel high fidelity to the simulated. You can make everything seem to happen at the right place and the right time in the right way.
As long as there's only one human in the sim.
"Don't you get lonely?" I ask.
He knows what I mean. Of course he's not isolated, we're having a conversation right now. He talks to people all the time. By most metrics his life is lovely. His house is probably thirty times nicer than Mom's and he eats better than I do for all that his food is digital.
But if I have to retire, I'll never touch another human being again.
(It's twenty or thirty years off. Two if you're an optimist. But it always is.)
"I have some dogs," he says. "You're a wildlife major, yes? You'll like dogs. They're the perfect animal. They love running around, and being petted, and you can train them to do all kinds of things."
There are some dogs in the gene bank but it's never been a priority to make any, at least on this planet. I hear on some planets they've managed to make them useful pulling sleds or herding some of the more flock-inclined Precursor animals. Not here.
"Dogs sound nice," I say.
"Everything else - you get used to it."
"Can I see your dogs?" I ask him.
He shows me the dogs. They don't look like I expect - there are a lot of kinds and they look as wildly different as branches of the same Precursor species adapted to different planets do. But he's right, they sort of are the perfect animal. Interesting without being alien. An easy animal, but not a trivial plush toy. He gave all of his silly names.
I think I'd like to have a dog. The dog wouldn't know my life was pointless. The dog wouldn't know that all its sensory experiences were stripped down to make everything easier to render. It'd lick my face just the same.
The conversation ends, eventually, gracelessly, and I wander back out of the classroom building into the brightly lit night.
I have another alert.
They're building a bigger ship. A more-generations ship. We're going to the Triangulum Galaxy.
I field-process an asteroid with janky equipment I have to manually reset thirty times, in a spacesuit with failing temperature control. I have sweat in my eyes, and my HUD warning me that I've sprung a liquid re-circulation leak even though I've already gone through my whole patch kit trying to stop it, and a cramp in my right foot. I gather up all the ore we need and haul it, load by load, all the way back to the shuttlecraft, and take it back to the mothership, where the machine shop will render it into spare parts. With a grin on my face threatening to split my cheeks, I die.
Everybody's changing their major. It's going to be a big ship - a fleet of them, actually, for redundancy. It's got room for everybody who wants to go. The Generation folks have a bit of a head start, since we're not going through any portals on our way out and it's going to be for the long haul. I'm not going to be within striking distance of the captaincy. But I never even wanted that. I just wanted to be part of the process that gets us where we're going. My great great great great great great great great completely unrelated heirs will be in intergalactic space, out of the path of the gates' explosion. Even if there's nothing we can learn from the Precursors that will save the Milky Way, we don't have to go with it. We can do this. It's never been done - there's never been a generation ship this long - but we're going to pull it off. I'm going to put everything into it.
Everything that isn't putting my hands and my muscles to work can wait. I'm a colonist. I can have a dog when I die.