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A Child's Apogee in the Black

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One Apogee was so much like another, in those years around the gravity spindle now, out of all sound except the comforting humming of the engines I sometimes remember a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether the asteroid belt cut us off from communications for six days and six nights when I was twelve or twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

All the Apogees roll down toward the two-windowed bulkhead prow, like a cold and headlong comet streaking across the space in which we flew; and they stop at the rim of the observation deck, and I plunge my data jack into the static of memory and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into those whirling columns of code, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the safetybots.

It was on the afternoon of Apogee Eve, and I was outside Mrs. Prothero's quarters, waiting for cats, with her daughter Jane. The asteroids were whizzing past. The asteroids were always whizzing past at Apogee.

There were no seasons while we traveled through the vasty black, though we maintained vestiges of Earth-that-Was, counting seven days in a week though no one lived whose parents or parents' parents could remember sea-salt tides or changing moon. There were no months save the words on the ship's calendargrid which ordered and differentiated our days. But there were cats.

Patient, cold, and hopeful, our hands cosied in fingerless gloves, we waited to offer protein shreds to the cats. Sleek and long as coiled cables, mincing and pouncing, they would glide and goosestep over the heating ducts, and the cyberenhanced hunters, Jane and I, imagining ourselves in spacesuits barely-tethered to the ship's pockmarked exterior, would proffer our leftover protein shreds as though to alien lifeforms on an uncharted planet. Preferring the mice they tracked, the wise cats never appeared.

We were so still, grav-booted astronauts in the muffling silence of the eternal blackness around us -- eternal, ever since our grandparents' grandparents set forth from that unrememberable globe -- that we never heard Mrs. Prothero's first cry from the beverage replicator in the interior of their quarters. Or, if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like the far-off yowling of our quarry, the cats we so yearned to stroke and hold. But soon the voice grew louder.

"Fire!" cried Mrs. Prothero, and she pressed the emergency button.

And we ran down the corridor, with protein shreds in our pockets, toward their quarters; and something white and wispy, indeed, was drifting out of the beverage replicator, and the alert message was yodeling, and Mrs. Prothero was announcing ruin as did the NASA operatives behind their thick corrective lenses in our history vids. This was better than all the cats on the ship standing on the heating pipes in a row. We bounded into their quarters, laden with anticipation, and stopped at the open door of the kitchenette.

Something was singed, all right; perhaps it was Mr. Prothero, who always slept beside the beverage replicator after the midday meal. But he was standing in the middle of the room, saying "A fine Apogee!" and waving at the smoke with a data pad.

"Where are the safetybots," cried Mrs. Prothero as she mashed the call button. There was no fire to be seen, only a haze of cinnamon-scented steam and Mr. Prothero standing in the middle of the room, waving his tablet as though he wore motion sensors.

"Do something," he said. And we ran out of their quarters to the comms interface in the hall.

"Let's call station security," Jane said.

"And the medbay."

"And Kwesi Alexandrov, he likes emergencies."

But we didn't call anyone, and soon the safetybots came and glided silvered and shining into the room and Mr. Prothero got out just in time before they sprayed anticombustion gel all over everything. And when the bots ceased their spraying and everyone stood silent in the dripping room, Jane's parentsib, Mx Prothero, came in and peered in at them. Jane and I waited, very quietly, to hear what zie would say to them. Zie said the right thing, always. Zie looked at the three chrome-faced bots, lights blinking amid the dissolving foam, and zie said, "Before you vacuum the mess away would you like to recharge?"

Years and years ago, when I was a girl, when there were genetically fortified goats in the starboard pens, and birds the color of orange spacesuits whisked around the biodome, when we chattered and keypadded all night and day in quarters that smelt like air recycled a thousandfold, when we dashed, like dots scattershot on a screen, around the gravity ring, the asteroids flowed and they flowed. But here a small girl says, "They flowed last year, too. I painted them with brush and ink, and my brother cut my painting into a paper snowflake, and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."

"But those were not the same asteroids," I say. "Our asteroids were not only shaken as though from a snow globe in the sky overhead, they came rushing out of the empty vastness and swarmed our hyperspace corridor like angry bees; asteroids proliferated like the atoms in a coalescing star, streaked across our windowed skies like fireworks in ancient digital movies, like a dumb, numb data storm of scrambled code."

"Were there databursts then, too?"

"Translucent holograms and flattened recordings, or text that scrolled at nearly lightspeed, leaping the unimaginable emptiness between our ships. But all that the children could hear was the singing of circuits."

"You mean that the databursts arrived and the circuits sang?"

"I mean that the songs the children could hear were inside them. There were instruments, too."

"Inside them?"

"No, no, no, in the spare corners of crawlspaces, packed between the interstellar necessaries of seeds and chemicals, woolens and animal feed. And they rang their tidings through the oft-patched ship, over the soldered surfaces of the catwalks and the water treatment plant, over the engine room where the great turning coils glowed like cats' eyes in the dark, the hydroponic farm and the air filtration room. It seemed that all the fiddles wept for joy outside my quarters; and the silverflutes sang for Apogee all through the ship."

"And were there presents?"

"And then the Presents, after the databurst. There were the Useful Presents: homespun tunics and upcycled sweaters and silvered gloves for the cold corners where the subzero outside seemed to enroach on our carefully-heated air; from parentsibs who always wore thermasilk next to the skin there were silky and slithery vests that made you wonder how they bore the assault of sensuality without squirming. And hand-me-down datasticks in which astronauts, though warned with diagrams and stern words not to, would wrongly-cable their umbilical cords and float into the endless black; and datasticks that told me everything about uterine replicators except why."

"Go on the Useless Presents."

"Recycled pencils and comic books stitched together from the shreds of ancestral memory and a pretend pilot's glove and a board game that referenced placenames and penalties no one remembered; and a silicone alien which made, when you pressed it, a most prosaic sound, a flap-toothed flibbertigibbet that an ambitious five-year-old might make who wished to be rude; and an old touchscreen paint game in which I could make the ship, the cargo, the control panels any colour I pleased, and still the dazzling purple goats are grazing in the white pen under the mural of rainbow-streaked gaseous skies. Sesames, hot radish candies, rosedrops and allsorts. And Easy Hyperdrive Games for Little Physicists, complete with instructions. Oh, easy for Einstein! And a packet of hash-sticks: you put one in your mouth and you stood at the intersection of your corridor and the lift shaft and you waited for hours, in vain, for an old lady to descend upon you shrieking because oxygen was irreplaceable, and then with a smirk you ate it, because it was only carob. And then it was breakfast under the silver balloons."

"Were there Parentsibs like in our house?"

"There are always Parentsibs at Apogee. The same Parentsibs. And on Apogee morning, with carob stick and silver tape, I would scour the tin-swatched ship for news of the far-flung Fleet, and find always a dead mouse by the ship's pantry, presided over by a proud paw-licking feline who would regard me with slitted purple eyes. Women and men and genderfree strolling back from service, the morning's hymns still reflected in the screens of their handhelds or scrolling across their visors. Paper cranes hung hovering in all the quarters; there were soy nuts and crackers by the dessertspoons; and cats deigning to be petted watched the replicators; and the replicators spat, producing tea and beer and ice-wine. Some few tall women sat in the front parlors, without their insignia, Parentsibs almost certainly, trying their new nicopatches, holding them out judiciously at arms' length, returning them to their necks; and some few men and genderfree sat on the very edge of their chairs, sipping tea jazzed with ethyl and gossiping."

For dinner we had protein shaped like brisket, and currant pudding, and after dinner the Parentsibs sat in front of the silvered wallscreen showing now what they called a roringfyr. Dosie had to have three acetyl tabs, but Hannah, who liked ice-wine, stood in the middle of the corridor, singing like an orange-breasted shiprobin. In the rich and heavy thirdwatch, sleeping Parentsibs breathing like rumbling engines and the asteroids sparking past, I would sit among festoons and origami lanterns and nibble soy nuts and try to follow the Instructions for Little Physicists, and produce a misshapen warpship with half its hyperdrive upside-down.

Or I would go out, my bright new boots squeaking, into the metallic world, on to the portside hill, to call on Jane and Dov and Jhumpa and to pad through the still halls.

The silent asteroid-laced heavens revealed the speed of our travel. Now we were ancient lunar explorers in imagined jumpsuits, 'one great leap for humankind,' bounding as though we had the clearance to turn the corridor zero-gee. We returned home through the tin-trammeled hallways where only a few children spun toy tops and palmed ancient currency and cat-called after us, their voices fading away as we trudged up the gravity spindle, into the cries of the shiprobins and the low tones of elevator shafts humming their cargo away. And then at tea the recovered Parentsibs would be jolly, and would lace their tea with rum, because it was only once a year.

Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the wallscreen as shards of ancient ice streaked past the bulkhead windows. Emergency planetfall and shaggy mammoths, aliens with limpid eyes who refused us quarter, the once upon a time when Apogee meant the longest night in the year and night's duration changed subtly day by day. And I remember that we went wassailing once, when the main connector cables between the gravboot and the generator were failing, and the ship went on backup power and only scant lacings of LEDs lit the greymetal halls. And no one wanted to press the call button outside the council's quarters, but the door glided open all the same and startled we scattered back to the seed-storage stacks, drawer after cryogenically sealed drawer receding along the long corridor to infinity.

Always on Apogee night there was music. A parentsib played the fiddle, a cousin sang "O Star," and another parentsib sang "Earth That Was." It was very warm in our quarters. Hannah, who had got in to the apricot brandy, sang a song about the planet where we would someday enter orbit, though no one really believed we would make planetfall; it seemed as impossible as the light of a new sol streaking through nontoxic clouds.

And then I went to bed. Looking through my porthole, out into the blackness and the unending spatterdash of stars, I could imagine the lights in the windows of every other farflung ship in the fleet and hear impossible anthems drifting across the empty vacuum of space. I thumbed the thermo down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy vacuum, and then I slept.