In the morning after your reclamation ceremony, I fab my breakfast in the kitchen assembler. Call it my first mistake.
Pea, the chubby little ball-shaped hoverbot I built for a duty project, keeps me company. Strictly speaking, I was supposed to scrap her, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Now, she bobs around the gleaming kitchen, curious, while I down a stale muffin and drink some bland tea. Everything tastes like paper since you died.
I scroll through the Feed as a distraction, or I won’t be able to eat without gagging. People are excited about the big celebrations coming up: Shoulder Day, the aerobatics tournament, and, of course, Arrival Day. Our last Arrival Day. The actual Day of Arrival. It’s as distant to me now as it was years ago, when I first learned-but-didn’t- really-learn about it.
To learn, one must first fail to understand. (Aphorisms 1:45)
Topic of the day: why the Arrival Day celebrations have not yet been made public. The Praesidium must be planning a big surprise, some say. Others think we celebrate enough and should just get on with it. Duty above pleasure, and all that. I haven’t paid much attention to it, to be honest. Pioneer training and aerobatics take up most of my time. Or did, before. I steer clear of the other topic of the day—the topic of every day: your death.
Mother checks in on me. The house notified her when I got up. She’s on high alert since it happened, and here she is, loafing around the kitchen, feigning some chore until I’m seated at the table.
“Are you okay, sweetie?” she asks. She works hard to sound casual.
I shrug. I don’t know how to answer the question yet. Fine-but- not-fine?
“You don’t have to go. If it’s too much for you, you don’t have to go.”
“I have to go, Mother,” I tell her. “We arrive soon; only a couple of Convents left. And I’m not ill. I’m sad.”
“I know. I’m only giving you a way out if it’s what you need.” She tinkers with something that doesn’t need tinkering. Then a deep breath. “Have you talked to Joshua after... you know?”
My turn to feign casual-ness. I shake my head. “Was going to last night, but he had Praesidium duty.”
It’s a terrible attempt to bypass a much more complicated question, but it’s what I’ve got. Fifteen days after you died, and I still haven’t spoken to him. He did send me a mote last night, after the reclamation. We were both there, obviously, but I couldn’t face him or anybody else. I came, I sat, and I left.
Do I feel terrible about it? Yes, but then I don’t know how I could feel good about anything anymore.
Joshua asked without asking if I wanted to come over. It’s what he does, circles around his intentions like a bird eyeing a crumb near someone’s foot. When I didn’t invite him, he eventually gave up and finally moted:
>See you at practice tomorrow?
I guess he’ll never know how much more there is crammed into that tiny little word: yes. The millions of things I could, and probably should say. But I don’t know where to start. It’s as though my intentions have drowned in the background noise, and let me tell you—the background noise after your best friend kills themselves is deafening.
Mother loves Joshua. I think she secretly resents you and him being together. And her jealousy by proxy made her doubt you at times. Maybe now, with you out of the picture, Mother spies a chance to shape my future. Which is funny, in a way. My whole generation seems like it was born and bred to fulfill the desires of our parents.
In a way, we are, I guess. To arrive, make landfall, set up colonies, and populate a new planet. It’s why we’re here, after all. A thousand years ago, Conestoga set sail, as it were, left a dying Earth behind, and began its journey across the stars to Alamea, the second planet out from the star we call Wakea. Mankind’s new home. Compared to that, one death seems like a trifle.
It’s painful to think like this. I didn’t use to be this... dark.
Pea zooms in on my face with an audible whir. “You look tired,” she says.
“Thanks. I made an effort.”
When Pea was younger, a couple of months ago, she would hover close to my face while I ate, peer into my mouth, and ask all sorts of questions about why I have to put things in my mouth and chew them and where they went from there. Eventually, it was easier to give her access to the Verse and let her look stuff up for herself. She also takes great interest in sleep. Anything biological excites her, and she can be very blunt about it.
It was you who named her. You considered her, still an infant then, and said: “You should call her Pea.”
“Why?” I asked.
“She looks like one.”
I gazed at the patchy, beige-yellow blob and said, “More like a
melon. Same size too. Melon would be a better name.” “I think Pea,” you said firmly.
Pea bobs up and down happily now, like she’s nodding. She only recently started doing stuff like that. Nobody except me and my tutor, Maester Fletcher know this, but her learning algorithms don’t have any restraints. Other bots have fixed limits to their learning—when they reach a certain level, it stops. Nobody knows what happens without a limit. I like to think of Pea as the first of her kind.
Funny how a bunch of electronics inside a bioplastic shell can develop a personality. Then again, the grey, fatty lump of organic tissue in my head can too. Humans are no less of a mystery than robots.
After you died, three different Welfare Officers came to our house. They studied me with a mixture of fear and sympathy written on their faces. I don’t blame them. It’s been two hundred and seventy-six years since the last suicide. I guess the Travelers have always feared a resurgence of the dark age as we inched closer to Arrival. And I understand the need for talking and figuring out and understanding. But it’s not for me. People who have lost friends will understand. Others will not. It’s the way it is.
There’s been plenty of talk in the Feed. Some consider your act unforgivable. They say you don’t deserve to be grieved. They call you selfish and spoiled and wonder how you got to be a Pioneer in the first place. Some call for better screening and selection. Speculative minds in the Connieverse wonder if we’re witnessing the run up to a rash of young suicides. You might have opened the floodgates.
I think you would have enjoyed all this.
And they ask if I knew. If you and I had a pact. Some even go so far as to slap a due date on me. At dinner, a tenday or so after it happened, Mother put her fork down and looked at me in the way adults sometimes do when they think they act natural. I was pushing the food around on the plate rather than eating it.
“Did you have an arrangement?” she asked.
“Don’t,” Father said softly, warning.
”You’d tell us, right?” she went on.
”Of course not.”
Mother gasped, and Father put his fork down. ”What do you mean?” he said.
”If we had one, I’ll say no. If not, I’ll say no, too. Either way, you won’t know until it’s too late.”
”Imogen!” Mother cried.
”It’s only logical,” I said. ”But why would I wait a tenday and then kill myself?”
The shock in their faces was grimly satisfying, but then came the threats and the pleading, and I had to solemnly swear that we did not have an arrangement of any kind.
But what irks me the most isn’t having to deny it. It’s that I have no idea why you did what you did. Whenever I think of you, the same question screams inside my head, basically every minute of every day: Why did you do it? Why why why why why why why why? It drowns out everything else when I try to sleep. It’s there when I wake in the morning. It loops in my head like the incessant notes of a catchy refrain stuck in your mind.
There’s lots of things I don’t know. Things I will never understand. But I know I can’t go on unless I know this.
I can play along. Be Imogen Hart, the Pioneer. Imogen Hart, the aerobatics champion. But all of that comes second to my most important mission: to learn why Ellinor Bowman died.
I finish the tea and muffin and dispose of the crumbs and tea leaves like a good Traveler. That’s when it happens. I glance down into the recycler sink and everything stops. More to the point, my guts go through the start/stop routine that makes me frantically grasp the edges of whatever receptacle that will soon host my barf.
Here’s the thing.
When they sealed Conestoga and her passengers up and set it on a thousand-year voyage across interstellar space, they created a closed system. The stuff they put inside her had to last a millennium. So we recycle. It’s one of the first things I learned. Growing up, we learn about how the system reuses everything. Breadcrumbs and egg shells and nail cuticles and sweat and poop and trash are all carefully collected. If I cut my finger on a knife, every drop of blood is gathered. Every scrap of paper, every strand of hair, every drop of liquid, every mote of dust. Every building has a recycler and a small army of miniature ant bots to take care of
Down the drain it goes into the molecular furnaces, and then it ends up in the resource network.
The reason for this, I learned, is entropy.
We eat, drink, defecate, walk, run, swim, fly, work, and sleep inside a gigantic cylinder hurtling through space. All those activities require energy. Now imagine there’s a machine in my kitchen that makes my food. Every time I open the machine, there’s a muffin for me to eat. It doesn’t conjure up muffins out of nothing—I have to work for them, and for every muffin I gulp down, I have to put in a certain amount of work to earn a new one. As I work, my body converts the energy I got from the first muffin to muscle movement. In the process, my body produces heat and sweat. I can’t put heat back into the machine to make new muffins, so every time I work, some of the energy I got from the first muffin is lost forever. It’s still there, because energy can’t be destroyed, it can only be transformed, but it’s useless to me and the machine.
The energy has become powerless—its entropy has increased.
Eventually, because each new muffin means a small amount of energy is lost, the system won’t have enough high-grade energy for the machine to produce new muffins. The system has reached a higher level of entropy. Now we have to add new energy from the outside. Which we can’t do.
In brief: we have to recycle everything so we don’t die.
So. Human bodies are essentially vast collections of very valuable resources. There’s a whole bunch of useful stuff in our bodies, and it would be insanely wasteful to not recycle them after we die.
Bodies are recycled down to the last molecule, all their various acids and proteins and compounds and whatnot finely separated, bottled up, reused, like everything else. We call it reclamation. They tried their best to phrase it in a way that didn’t make people queasy. I should have prepared for it, of course. I know all this. I went to Grandmother’s reclamation, and I know what happens to a body after death. But somehow my mind hasn’t yet made the final leap, and when the truth hits, I take it right between the eyes.
Very soon after your death, before it could begin to decompose, your body was chopped up, disintegrated, spread out as atoms in a thousand-year-old circle of life. Somewhere, the molecules that belonged to you are being used for something, and my tea leaves and crumbs are right now joining them.
Maybe the muffin I ate had parts of you in it.
Okay, lesson over. Back to me, retching over the sink.
My legs are stuck. My hands shake and I can’t breathe. Pea works herself up, because of course she does. She doesn’t understand this new, strange behavior and can’t identify it as anything other than interesting. Through jellied vision, I see her rotund shape floating above me, asking questions I can’t hear.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Mother says, by my side so fast she’s a blur. She reaches out for me and I wave her off. She’s too huggy. The tears burn scars in my face as they roll down my cheeks and fall onto the countertop, big and splashy.
“Oh sweetie,” she says. She ignores my flailing arms, puts hers around me, pulls me close. “I’m so sorry.” She holds me until her warmth pierces through the cold armor of sadness and I stop shaking. “Are you okay?” she whispers.
I wipe some spit from my chin. “Fine. I’m fine.”