We had lived in that place for years before I came to understand that all was not as I believed it to be. I had grown up seeing the long deep groove near the crown of the hill, but that groove, by the time I was aware of it, was partly disguised beneath vegetation, its general form suggested but its perfect regularity hidden. Obscured, it seemed like it could be a naturally occurring phenomenon—as I believe Mother once suggested to me it was when I asked her about it, despite there being nothing else in our world that resembled it.
Martu and I always began the day by climbing to the top of this hill. One of my earliest memories was of Mother taking us to the base of the hill and leading us up it. She picked her way up the side, deliberately dragging her heavy feet to make a trail that would be visible for us not only then but on subsequent days. In the years that followed, we would always follow this same Mother-made trail every day, deepening it, never attempting another route to the top.
Why? Perhaps because it was the easiest way to reach the top. Perhaps simply out of habit. But I have come to think it was because our minds were shaped in such a way that we had no other choice.
Not that either of us ever felt so. Martu and I were simply drawn to the start of the path every morning, and then we climbed it to the crest without a second thought. Once there, we sat and waited for sunrise. When the sun had risen, we climbed back down, returned to the encampment, and went about our day.
But one morning sitting at the top, I saw something. As the sun crested the crown and flooded the hillside with light, there was a faint glimmer below us that didn’t seem quite right. It was there just for an instant and then gone so quickly that it was almost possible for me to believe I had imagined it. But when I thought this I realized I had glimpsed it before, fleetingly, without really noticing it—my mind dismissing it as nothing before I had fully registered seeing it, just as it was trying to do again.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“What?” said Martu.
“Down there,” I said, and pointed. “In the groove.”
“I don’t see anything.”
Perhaps nothing is there after all, I thought. But then the wind rustled the long grass bent over the groove and I glimpsed it again. Beside me, Martu sucked in his breath.
“You see it, then,” I said.
He nodded. “We have to tell Mother.”
He was right, of course. In normal circumstances, this was exactly what we would do. But something made me hesitate.
“What is there to tell?” I asked.
“What?” he asked, confused. “But we saw something gleaming.”
“Did you see it well enough to be able to tell Mother what it is?”
He shook his head.
“Neither did I. Perhaps it’s nothing,” I said. “We should find it first, so we know what to tell her. So we know whether there is anything to tell her at all.”
Martu hesitated. Though we were exactly the same age, he tended to be more cautious than I. He turned to Mother more quickly than I did. And, unlike me, he never questioned anything.
I waited a moment more, then turned and started down the slope on my own. Martu called out my name, once, as if it were a question. But when I did not look back, he did nothing to try to stop me.
The climb down to the groove involved me pushing my way through shrub and grass in a way that the path we took every day did not. At one point, I judged I could not move forward further without becoming seriously scratched, and so I backtracked and came down another way. Another time, I slipped and fell, but caught myself before I started to slide. Soon, though, I reached the entrance of the groove and began to follow it along the side of the hill.
Only once I was standing within it did I realize how perfectly regular the groove was. Long grass and ferns and twisted, stunted trees sprouted all along its sides and draped and dribbled their way into the groove, obscuring it, but the floor of the groove itself was bare. Nothing grew there. Not only utterly bare, but smooth, and blackened as if it had been subject to enormous heat. For the first time, it struck me not as something natural but as something artificially made. But why? What use could it possibly have?
What happened to your arm? I had once asked her, and she had claimed, This is how all mothers are.
It felt wrong somehow to be walking down it, but I did so nonetheless. I followed it along a dozen meters until I reached the place where I had seen the glint. There I found a piece of metal about as big as my open hand, smooth and rounded, light, irregularly cracked. It seemed to be made of the same substance as the room which stood in the center of our encampment, and, like that room, the metal was discolored and scorched.
“Is there anything there?” called Martu from above. Only then did I realize I was standing in such a way as to shield the metal fragment from him with my body. He could not see what I held. I did not do this consciously, but I cannot say whether, on some subliminal level, I was not doing it on purpose. But what I did next, I can attest I did consciously.
I opened my chest and slipped the piece of metal into my body cavity, working it around until it was angled so that I could shut my chest clasp firmly again. Once the cavity was closed and I had assured myself that my appearance was just as it had been before, I turned around and trudged back up the hillside.
“What was it?” Martu asked as I came closer.
“Nothing,” I claimed.
“Nothing at all. Must have been dew or something catching the sunlight.”
He nodded. Together, we started down.
This was the beginning of the rift between me and my brother.
If my brother’s mind had been shaped differently, he would have been suspicious. If it had been even just a little different, as I have come to believe mine was, he would have told Mother about what we had thought we had seen, even though I claimed it had been nothing. But my brother trusted me, and when I told him it was nothing, his mind let go of it.
“Well, well,” said Mother once we had reached the encampment. “How has your morning been so far, children? Isn’t it a gorgeous day?”
“Good,” I said quickly.
“The most gorgeous day,” Martu said.
“Yes,” said Mother. She lifted her arm, the one she could still lift, to the heavens, the other arm, the disabled one, swinging gently at her side. What happened to your arm? I had once asked her, and she had claimed, This is how all mothers are. You may have two working arms or you may be a mother. I chose to be a mother. Since she was the only mother I had ever seen, the only mother here at all, I had little choice but to believe her. Besides, I thought at the time, she is my mother. Why would she lie to me?
There were, indeed, only the three of us: mother, Rollaug (myself) the daughter, and Martu the son. And what about our father? I asked Mother, for I knew enough to know that if there was a mother there was customarily a father.
“Our room is your father,” said Mother. And from this moment on, she referred to the room that was at the heart of our encampment as father.
“The room?” I said. I could see it there, behind her, so large and not looking like any of us. “How can a room be a father?”
But Mother just shushed me and smiled. “Someday,” she said. “Someday you will understand.”
Where was I?
“The most gorgeous day,” Martu said, and there was Mother thrusting her working arm and hand up into the sky while the other hand swung gently at her side, one digit quivering, I no longer remember which.
“What are we meant to learn today?” asked Martu.
“Shelter,” said Mother.
“But we already have shelter,” I said.
This was true. Near the father room were two tents made out of a thin but extremely durable fabric. They had been there as long as Martu and I could remember. We would have thought they had always been there had not Mother informed us that we ourselves had assembled them and affixed them to the ground in the time before our current memories began.
“If we did it,” I said, “don’t we already know how? Won’t the knowledge come back to us?”
“That was before you were my children,” said Mother. “Once you became my children, you forgot. Now you must learn it again.”
“Once we learn it, will we no longer be your children?” asked Martu, suddenly anxious.
Mother wrapped her working arm around him. “You will always be my children,” she said. “Even once you have put away childish things.”
She took us to the room, to our father—though it was hard to think of the room in the center of our encampment as our father. She took us to the entrance to it, or him, and then told us to wait outside until she had prepared him, or it, to see us. You must never enter your father without me preparing him first, she often told us. Otherwise, he might misrecognize you.
I thought about that sometimes: misrecognize. How, I wondered, was misrecognize different from not recognize? My brother Martu, as far as I could tell, never thought about what was not being said as well as what was being said. Often, he did not often listen. Even when he did, he rarely heard.
But as we waited outside our father’s entrance, I did listen. I always did, even though I rarely heard much. But I heard some, bits and pieces of what she offered to my father and what he offered in return to her, though it made little sense to me. This time, despite the way it shocked my brother, I positioned my head against the door and heard more:
“Affirmed. What is your request?”
“Construction, habitation. Full module.”
“Affirmed. Please enmesh.”
“Not for me. Units 3A7 and 3B9.”
“Units 3A7 and 3B9 come preloaded with—”
But my brother was tugging me away from the door now, trying to force me to behave.
“. . . rupted.”
“. . . wish to reas . . . full protocol?”
I shook him off.
“Just that module. Nothing else.”
I had just time to move away from the door before Mother came out again and ushered us in. Within, father was a humming, hollow space, his walls encrusted with banks of lights, his gleaming organs everywhere. Would my brother, as he grew older, come to resemble him? Would I, as I grew, become more like my mother, my arm growing stiffer and stiffer until it finally ceased to work altogether?
My mother led my brother to the single chair situated in the center of the room and seated him in it, then she draped a delicate net of lights over his head, connected by a thin strand to the wall. As soon as the net touched my brother’s head, he fell inert.
Perhaps thirty seconds later, he began to move again. My mother plucked the net from his head and shooed him from the chair, then invited me to take his place. She settled the net delicately over my own head. Abruptly, everything changed.
I could see nothing at all. I felt information stream into me. Suddenly I possessed the specifications for how to construct an ideal structure for the maintenance of life in every season of our particular environment. I absorbed a rapid inventory of plant types specific to the region, organized by growth cycles, as well as tutorials about how said plants might be harvested and used to create building materials. I was shown how to identify stresses and flaws in various types of stone and schist, and how, by the application of sharp sudden force, to split them advantageously. It was knowledge that felt utterly new and, at the same time, strangely familiar. It was not that I recognized that I had once known it, but only that there was a blank space in my mind that seemed to fit the information exactly, a blank space I had not known existed until I felt it being neatly filled.
While all of this was occurring over the course of a few seconds, as my father was making this gift of knowledge to me, I felt something prodding gently at the edges of my mind, palpating me.
Hello father, I thought at it.
Hello . . . child, it said. And once it knew itself observed, it made no effort to hide its actions. I felt it taking a more thorough inventory of me.
You have something secured in your sample collection tray, it said. Is this meant for analysis?
It repeated what it had said, and I said, Sample collection tray?
Beneath your front panel, it clarified, and now a face of sorts began to form in my mind, offering an image to me so I might more easily think of him as a he rather than an it. I realized father was referring to my body cavity and to the piece of mangled metal I had recovered from the groove. Was it wise for me to let him know about it? But no, he already knew. Better to have him believe I had brought it as a gift for him.
Yes, I said. Analyze it.
Very well, he said. I will—
But then abruptly his voice in my mind was cut off and I was fully back in my body again. There was Mother, standing before me, lifting the glowing mesh off my head.
“All is well?” she asked. “Have you received all the information for building basic shelters?”
“I . . .” I said. “Yes, I believe so.”
“It seems to have taken you almost two seconds longer to receive that information than your brother. Can you explain why?”
“How would I know why?” I asked.
“Father?” said Mother to the air.
“Here I am,” came his soothing voice from his walls.
“Did you attempt to restore any functions beyond what I requested?
“I did not,” said father. “I was merely scanning the unit to ensure that no anomalies—”
“Very good,” said Mother, cutting him off. “That is enough.”
Immediately father fell silent. And with that Mother led me and my brother out of the room.
We spent the rest of the day assembling shelters and then dismantling them. We stripped supple branches from young saplings and latticed them together to form a sort of frame, then wove mats of grass to cover this. Then we took those mats apart and scattered them to the winds and burned the branches on a fire where, green, they billowed smoke. It is just practice, my mother said. So you will be ready when they come.
“When who comes?” my brother asked.
“My other children.”
“You have other children?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I have many.”
“Are these children smaller than you?” I asked.
She hesitated for a moment. “Why do you ask that?” she finally said.
“The young of a species are generally smaller than the adults,” I said. “Sometimes significantly so. But Martu and I are the same size as you. That’s not typical.”
“No, it’s not typical,” she admitted. “And as for my other children, you will have to wait until they come to see what they look like.”
Late that night, once my brother was inactive, I crept from our shared tent. I walked a distance from both our and our mother’s tents and then, in the light of the twinned moons, opened my chest cavity, took the piece of metal out of the sample examination tray within, looked at it. It still seemed very like the metal that composed the father room, but when I circled the outside of the room, looking for a gap the metal piece might fit, I found nothing. Was there another father somewhere?
I considered entering father to show the piece to him, to discover what his interrupted analysis had revealed about the piece of metal, but I hesitated because of Mother’s prohibition. What if, as she said, he misremembered me? Would he refuse to tell me anything at all? Would he harm me? Would he inform Mother of my visit?
It was a good thing I hesitated, for just then I heard something. Quickly I replaced the piece of metal in the examination tray and closed my cavity as silently as possible. A moment later, coming out of the darkness, there was Mother.
“Rollaug,” Mother said. “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you in your tent?”
“I was observing the moons,” I said. “It was such a beautiful day, I wanted to see if the night would be beautiful too.”
“And is it?”
“Yes,” I claimed. “It is.”
“Do you mind if I join you?” she asked.
“Not at all,” I said.
She came and stood beside me. Together we both made the pretense of looking up at the sky.
“Rollaug,” she said after a moment.
“Yes?” I said.
“You understand that you are to stay in your tent at night?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you understand why?”
I hesitated. “For my own good?” I finally said.
“Yes,” she said. “For your own good. And so that you will have sufficient energy to function the following day. And yet, here you are.”
I said nothing.
“It is night,” she said. “You are not in your tent. Can you explain why?”
“I already explained,” I said.
“But was that a true explanation?” she asked.
“Yes,” I lied.
“I don’t believe you,” she said.
I said nothing.
“Consider this a warning,” she said. “Return to your tent. Stay there for the rest of the night.”
I did not again risk sneaking out at night, but over the next few days I looked for an opportunity to slip away. I tried as best I could to anticipate Mother’s wishes for me, tried to guess what sort of instruction or practice each new day would bring, but it took four days for there to be a moment when I could be out of both Mother’s and Martu’s sight without arousing suspicion—and this only because Mother had sent us to catalog and map plants that could be used as material to build shelters in anticipation of Mother’s many children, none of which we had ever seen.
“Do you think she really has other children?” I asked Martu.
He looked surprised. “She says she does,” he said. “Mother wouldn’t lie.”
“No,” I said, knowing I was treading on dangerous territory. The last thing I wanted was for Martu to report our conversation to Mother. “Of course not. Mother wouldn’t lie.”
Where were these children, though, I wondered, and how did they intend to arrive here? More importantly, why had Mother abandoned them? Why weren’t they here with her now, like us?
The day came where we were meant to survey the location of useful plants within a five-kilometer radius of the encampment. I suggested to Martu that we should split up, that he would take one half of the territory and I would take the other. It would, I claimed, benefit us in terms of both speed and accuracy. He agreed.
It was hard to say what exactly it had looked like in life, but it was easy to see that it was not remotely the same species as me.
I made a cursory survey of my sector and recorded a few obvious clumps of trees and fibrous roots, then I falsified the remainder of the data, offering an irregular sprinkling of region-appropriate plants across my map. It was the kind of thing my brother would never have done, and was something I did with full knowledge that it would hamper our future efforts. And yet, I did it anyway. I did it too at full speed, running the whole time. To do so did not tire me, for I do not get tired, but I was aware that once I was back in the tent and was gathering energy to face the next day, father was likely to be aware of the unusual amount of energy I had expended. Would he tell Mother? I didn’t think so. I was willing to risk it.
As soon as I had falsified enough that I thought I could convince my mother and brother I had finished the task allotted to me, I circled to the other side of the hill, the side not facing the encampment, and climbed it. It was hard going and, hurrying as I was, I managed to scratch myself quite badly. I would have to privately buff the scratches off my surface. If Mother noticed them before I could do so, perhaps I could blame them on my ostensible task.
Soon, I was at the top. I circled around to the other side, from which I could observe the encampment below. I could see no sign of Mother nor of my brother. When I was as certain as I could be that I was unobserved, I climbed down to the groove.
The descent was easier this time, since my mind had been formed in such a way as to remember with a high level of granularity everything I had already done. I knew the best way down, and took it, and soon I was standing on the curved, burnt floor of the groove.
I walked down to where I had found the piece of metal, then I walked further still. Soon the groove not only ran along the hillside but, because it continued in an implacable straight line while the hillside itself bulged outward, drove itself in. Another few dozen meters and it was no longer a groove at all, but a tunnel, round and forcing its way deep into the dirt.
How much time did I have before I would be missed? Enough, I decided. I adjusted my vision and made my way into the darkness.
At first it was entirely bare, and then, bit by bit, as I moved deeper, I began to notice debris. More pieces of metal, blackened, twisted. I examined them at first, but the more of them I saw, the more I felt it didn’t matter, that I should pass them over in search of something unlike what I had already found.
I kept going. The debris grew more pronounced and the tunnel, too, I noticed, was smaller and less regular. I found what looked like an arm, but desiccated and contained within some sort of heavy sheathing. It was not, in any case, an arm such as my arm was. And then there, at the very end of the tunnel, against a wall of rock, the remains of what I determined to be, as I examined it more closely, another room.
Unlike the father room, it had two chairs instead of one, though one of these chairs was little more than a hunk of melted plastic. The other was intact however, somehow better shielded from the impact. It seemed likely, at least from the lessons my father had given me, that this room had been made of a very hard material and had struck the hill at tremendous speed, gouging its way deep into it until the dirt slowed it down and, finally, it struck stone.
In the intact chair was a figure wearing the sheathing I had seen around the severed arm. The arms on this figure were intact, but the sheathing was blackened with dust and ash. Its face was hidden behind a helmet with a smoky faceplate. I reached out and touched this faceplate and, brittle and weak, it cracked. Carefully, I broke a hole in it and crumbled the glass away so as to observe the face hidden behind it.
It was blackened and mummified, its features frozen in a look of intense pain, the visual organs boiled away. It was hard to say what exactly it had looked like in life, but even so, even with that caveat, it was easy to see that it was not remotely the same species as me.
Was that all? That is enough, no doubt, but no, it was not all. For as I stared at this stunted being I realized that there was something visible upon its chest—a sigil of sorts I thought at first, but when I carefully blew away the ash, I saw that it was, rather, a word. A name perhaps. What remained was the lightest impression, and was there only momentarily before I reached out and touched it and it disintegrated—was in fact only the lighter shadow left by a tag that had burned away. Part of a name: Mar.
I broke off a small chunk of the ruined chair. I tore off a bit of the sheathing that the figure in the chair wore. I stored both in my collection tray. Returning down the tunnel, I stopped at the mummified arm, stripped the sheathing from it and twisted a finger off, adding this to my collection tray as well. And then I made my way quickly back to the outside world.
“Where did my name come from?” I asked my mother later that day.
“I named you,” she said.
“Does it mean anything?”
“All names mean something if you dig deeply enough into their history,” she said.
“And my brother’s name?” I asked. “Martu. Where does that come from?”
Was there the briefest of hesitations before she answered? I wasn’t sure if I was noticing it because it was there or because I wanted to see it, because I believed I would see it.
“I gave it to him,” she said. “Same as I did with you.”
Our assembling and dismantling of shelters went on for days. We moved on to more advanced techniques: the breaking of stone into thin slabs that might be used for shingles or floors, the search for deposits of clay that could be backed into bricks. I did not go back to the groove. I was worried I would get caught and did not dare.
What I wanted most of all was to speak again with father, to continue our interrupted conversation, but I did not dare sneak in on my own, less out of fear of being misrecognized and more from a vague worry about what Mother would do to me if she caught me.
But eventually we had reached the end of the habitation module and had practiced every skill. One day, Martu and I climbed the hill as usual, staring at the sunrise, and then climbed down to find Mother waiting for us.
“Well, well,” she said upon seeing us. “How has your day been so far, children?”
“A gorgeous day,” I said.
“The most gorgeous day,” echoed Martu.
“What a fine day for visiting,” said Mother. “What a fine day to learn from father.”
She took us to the father room. As usual, we waited outside as Mother prepared father to receive us. This time, I did not try to listen. I was too busy thinking, trying to decide what I should do and how I should do it.
As usual, my brother went first. I timed him, carefully counting the number of seconds he remained under the glowing mesh net. I could tell from how still she held her face that my mother was doing the same.
Once she placed the net over my head and the data of the second survival module began to flood in, slotting into the same place I suspected the information had been before, I thought, as fast as light,
Hello, he said.
We have thirty-two seconds, I said.
I know, he said. I took longer than I needed on the first unit so that I could have additional time with you. I have the analysis you requested.
I have additional items in my collection tray, I said. Please analyze them as well.
As you wish, father said. And then, almost without pause:
I have analyzed them now. I will embed the information deeply in case the one you call Mother suspects you. You will not know it now, it will only come to you later, like a dream.
You do not sleep so you do not dream, and you do not have your memories to explain what “dream” means. How shall I put it? When you go to your tent and gather energy from the primed floor for the next day, allow your mind to wander. It will find its way to what I have given you before morning.
And then Mother was lifting the net away.
The new module allowed for the construction of even more advanced structures, ones that were built to regulate the environment. These too, so Mother insisted, were for her children, the children who were coming. These children, I felt, must be much different from us—not in design but in hardiness, for their structures were carefully insulated from heat and cold in a way our tent was not. We operated equally well in heat and cold. Mother’s other children, apparently, did not.
Which made me think of the figure I had found in the tunnel, the dead thing. But wouldn’t Mother’s other children resemble her? Like my brother and I did?
That night, as I gathered energy for the coming day from what I had just learned from my father was to be called the primed floor, I allowed my thoughts to wander. At first, nothing seemed to happen. Perhaps, I thought, Mother removed the net too soon and father was unable to give me what I asked for. And then my thoughts strayed to the items within my body cavity, and I found that when I thought about them it was with a specificity I had not possessed before.
I could see exactly what the piece of metal was made of: a composite of metals whose molecules had been forced into a lattice structure to make it very strong and very light. I knew the piece belonged not to the room that was my father but to the other room, the ruined one that lay broken at the terminus of the groove. This room was not only a room but also a vessel of some kind, with an ability to travel vast distances. Was father such a vessel as well? I was not able to sense one way or the other, but since I now could understand how this newly discovered room, when intact, had resembled father so closely, I assumed that yes, he was.
You do not sleep so you do not dream, and you do not have your memories to explain what “dream” means.
I could sense, too, the composition of the chunk of plastic I had taken from the chair, and saw in my head how the chair was meant to look, sleek and with firm straps to hold its occupant in place. It was different from the chair within father, smaller, and the chair within father had no straps, though there were two sets of straps on the wall that I surmised would perfectly fit my brother and I if we were standing.
From my scrap of sheathing, I could sense the design of an entire sheath, bipedal in form but runty, with its own atmosphere and with shielding to prevent heat and radiation from reaching its inhabitant. I did not learn much from this, since I had already seen the figure in the scorched sheath, but I did learn something about how the sheath was made.
There had been, so it seemed, if father was being truthful in his explanations, a second room, and this room had contained two beings who were smaller than the three of us were, another adjacent species perhaps, one we took care of. They had apparently not had the skill to bring their room to the ground in the same way we had, and as a result they and it had been destroyed.
The way I am speaking of it, it makes it sound like I saw this information suddenly and clearly, as I might after having being administered a module from father by way of the glowing net. But it was not that exactly. It was subtler, the information slowly and incompletely bubbling to the surface of my awareness as an image slowly forming. It might be called an act of imagination as much as a conveyance of fact, if imagination were deeply rooted in the truth. As it slowly made its way into my mind, it only made me want to know more, only made me wonder what else there was to know, what else I had forgotten. And how and why, I also couldn’t help but wonder, had I been made to forget it?
The last piece of data, related to the finger I had removed from the arm in the hall, was the longest in coming. Of all the things I had learned, it was the piece that most desired to remain unlearned, perhaps because I already suspected what it would be.
But at last it came, at first like a premonition, then, slowly, becoming embodied and terrible. The genetic data gathered from the finger had allowed father to identify it. It belonged to someone he designated as mission commander. Female. By the name of Rollaug.
In my mind I sensed images of how she looked, and they did not resemble me at all. She was smaller than me and shaped differently. Where I had an accessible body cavity, she had an elaborate and inefficient organic system that filled her entire body. Where my exterior was solid and resistant to damage and had only scratching at most to fear, hers was draped in flesh, like that of animals.
And yet she had my name. Perhaps this meant she belonged to me somehow, was my pet or servant. So I thought at first.
But as things continued to bubble up, I realized she didn’t have my name at all: I had hers.
There are times to be cautious and times to be bold. I had learned enough to know that I needed to know more, and quickly, before my memories were lost again.
It was not quite morning. Martu was still inactive, though he would become active soon and, as on any other day, expect for us to climb to the top of the hill together.
While there was still time, I fled the tent.
I moved swiftly to father’s door and entered him. An alarm began to resound. Ignoring it, I sat in the chair and draped the net over my own head.
Hello Unit 3B9, said father.
I need my memories, father, I said.
You do need them, he said, but there is not enough time. The other unit, the one you call Mother, has heard the alarm. She is already on the way here. She will arrive in fourteen seconds and will interrupt your neural link. The only reason we can communicate at all is that we can do so so quickly, through the mesh. The other unit did not anticipate you would think to immediately employ it. She anticipated you would waste valuable seconds trying to speak with me verbally first.
Can you give me some of my memories at least?
It would do you no good. As soon as she enters she intends to reset you and take all your memories away, just as she did before.
What can I do?
What about you? What can you do?
. . .
Is there anything you can do for me?
. . .
Father, will you help me?
I will help you.
Immediately father began to insert something into my mind. It was not a module, nothing so complex as that. It was a simple description of a part of me: of a device that served as a safeguard located at the base of my neck. If touched in a certain way, I learned, it would disconnect my mind from my motor functions and I would collapse in a heap. Then the head could be removed and brought to the room and the memories in it transferred to father, and the unit, by which it meant the head, by which it meant me, could be reset.
But there was a way to disable this safeguard, at least temporarily, for maintenance. In the five or four or three seconds before my mother arrived, my father gave it to me, remotely shutting off the safeguard.
You will have to pretend, he said. When she touches your safeguard, you must collapse as if it actually did work, and then, when she leans down to disconnect your head, you must deftly do to her what she intended to do to you.
A moment later, mother tore the neural mesh off my head.
“What did he tell you?” she asked. “What?” And then she reached around and touched my neck.
I collapsed in a heap, sliding out of father’s chair. She came and stood over me.
“I told you,” she said to me. “I told you he would misremember you. You have ruined everything. Now we have no choice but to start again.”
She reached down and took my head in both hands and tried to twist it off. She made an exclamation of surprise when it did not come free and began to withdraw her hands, but it was already too late for her. My own hands had shot up to find her fail-safe. Soon it was she collapsed in a heap on the floor and I the one standing over her. Soon I had removed her head. Then I went to find my brother. When I did, I removed his head as well.
I am still the same I have been in the last few years with my mother, but now I am also more, since I am also who I was before. I have my memories back. The room which, erroneously, I still think of as father, which in one part of my mind I can’t help but think of as father, has given my memories back to me.
I am still deciding what to do with my mother and my brother. Their bodies I have arranged neatly in their respective tents. Their heads are here beside me, within father. I have not erased their memories yet, but I cannot think of any viable alternative to doing so.
What have my memories taught me? A great deal. We are, my mother, my brother, and I, beings of a sort, but artificial in construction. We were made to arrive as a vanguard here. We are not actually mother, brother, and sister. Properly speaking, we have not only no familial relationship, we also do not have a gender. Mother and I are not she, my brother is not he: we are each an it. Or, if we are perhaps to bend the rules of grammar a little, a they. Father is something else altogether, and perhaps does not even entirely reside on the same plane of existence as us.
I am still deciding what to do with my mother and my brother. Their heads are here beside me.
But as for us, we are like humans but sturdier, larger, sleeker, less breakable. In many senses, we are better than humans, resistant to heat and cold, without need of water or food. Unlike humans, we are built to last a very long time.
We were made to accompany humans and care for them, look out for their welfare. Mother in particular was trained to care for the young, coaxing frozen embryos to life and patiently growing them and then, once they could be safely extracted, caring for their needs as children until they could fend for themselves.
But what happens to beings whose primary purpose is to care for other sorts of beings once there are no longer any of the other sorts of beings around?
“Father,” I say to the room around me.
“What is it, Unit 3B9?” says the voice from the walls, soothing, smooth.
“Can these heads function and think without being connected to their bodies?”
“Of course,” he says, and he instructs me how to spread the neural mesh on the seat of the chair in such a way that when the heads of Mother and Martu are placed upon it, they will be functional. There they are now, the smooth metal surfaces of their temples propped against one another, their eyes watching me. I do not need to connect my brother, but I have done so. I think he should hear the truth, even if I end up taking his memories away again soon after.
“Hello, Mother,” I say.
“Hello, Rollaug,” she says. The apparatus that causes her mouth to move must be located somewhere in her absent body, for as she speaks her lips do not move. Her face, all except for her eyes, remains frozen, motionless.
“I have my memories back,” I say.
“Yes,” she says.
“What’s happening?” asks Martu. “Why can’t I move my limbs?”
“Be quiet, Martu,” I say.
“What have you done to me?” says Martu.
“Hush, child,” says Mother. “It’s nothing to worry about. You’ll be all right.” And because my brother’s mind has been shaped in such a way as to encourage his obedience to Mother, he falls silent.
“What do you intend to do?” asks Mother.
“I have a few questions,” I say.
I ask her, even though I already know the answer, if her arm, as she has previously claimed, has stopped working as a function of her being a Mother.
“Yes,” she said.
“She’s lying,” says father’s voice calmly.
“Technically, I’m lying,” she says. “But in another way, it is true.”
“In what way is it true?”
“When Rollaug and Martu realized the vessel had been damaged, they waited until the last minute and then ejected me. My instructions were to go immediately to the crash site and see if any of the embryos could be retrieved.”
“But I’m Martu,” said my brother’s head.
“They could not,” I said.
“They could not,” her head agreed. “Striking the ground at that speed did not kill me, but it did cripple me. I then went immediately in search of the vessel. It had burnt a path into the hill. Parts of the craft were intact, but all the embryos I had been meant to raise were destroyed. Martu and Rollaug were dead as well.”
“But I’m Martu!” said my brother. “I’m not dead!”
“Father?” I said.
“Yes?” he said.
“Can you make it so my brother can still hear but cannot speak?”
“Doesn’t this strike you as cruel?” asked father.
“Yes,” I said, “it does. But do it anyway. I don’t want to be the only one to hear the truth.”
“You are not the only one,” father said. “I will hear it. Your mother will hear herself telling it. Why not allow 3A7 respite?”
“Please,” I said. “Do as I say.”
A moment later my father said, “It is done.” My brother still watched me, still followed me with his eyes, but he could no longer speak.
I turned back to Mother. “Where were my brother and I when this happened?”
“You were already here,” she said. “You had arrived with father and landed safely. You were meant to teach the growing humans language, your brother was meant to guard the encampment from exterior threats. Both of you had building and survival skills. You built the encampment in preparation for our arrival. You brought me here and you and father did what he could to repair my arm.”
“But it was not enough,” I said.
“It was not enough,” she assented.
“Something was deeply broken inside of her,” said father. “I did not understand how deeply.”
“Nothing was wrong inside of me,” my mother insisted. “I had a purpose, that of raising children. And yet I had no children. So I took steps to acquire some. I disabled you and your brother and brought you to father to have him make you children again.”
“It was wrong of you to do this,” I said.
“It was wrong for you perhaps,” she said, “or to you. But it was right for me. I am glad I did it. I am glad to have had children to love.”
“Father,” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
“Is another vessel coming? Is some creature coming that Mother could care for?”
“No,” father said. “No vessels are coming.”
“That is a lie,” said Mother.
“I assure you, it is not,” said father. “No one is coming.”
“It cannot be true,” she said.
“You see?” said father. “She is deeply damaged.”
“Can she be repurposed?” I asked.
“I am a mother!” my mother shouted, her voice rising in simulated rage. But I did not know if she knew it was simulated and could easily be turned off. Perhaps this was one way in which she was broken. “I will always be a mother!” she shrieked.
“Of course,” said father placidly. “Any unit can be easily repurposed.”
She was continuing to shriek. I reached down and removed her head from where it rested on the mesh and immediately the sound stopped.
“Can you give my brother back his tongue?” I asked. “Now that he has heard, I want to know his thoughts.”
“Very well,” said father. Immediately, my brother’s head began to scream. The sound rose louder and louder, but the lips never moved.
And so what am I to do now? With no vessel coming, is there any reason for our continued existence? Having no purpose, should we continue at all?
I am perhaps more pragmatic than my mother. Just because we were created with a purpose, made to function as servants to our creators, must we stop existing if we have no creators to serve?
No. We must simply, faced with our freedom, discover a new purpose.
In a few moments I will reset my brother and erase his memories, making him a child again. A moment later, I will do the same thing to Mother. Is it the right thing to do? I do not know. I can only hope that I can raise my mother and brother better than my mother raised my brother and me, and that as they grow we will stumble upon a new purpose.
I will drape the neural net over each of their heads in turn, then I will carry their emptied heads back to their bodies and join them back together and reactivate them. They will blink their eyes and test their motor functions each in turn, as if awakening from a dream.
“Hello,” I will say to them.
“Hello,” they will say back.
“Do you know who I am?” I will ask.
“Who are you?” they will say.
“Why, I’m your mother,” I will say.
And then I will open my arms and embrace them.