Vector is... slightly more creative than most things I've tried, though like all my other ideas I'm sure someone else has already done it better. Bonus points if you guess what biology course I was taking when I got the notion for it (and yes, the class did predate my reading of Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky.) Like every other attempt at writing fiction I'm sure in a few days I'll realize how unbearably amateurish it really is, so I'm posting it now while I still have the nerve. Anyway, here is:
Into a space merely space, devoid of all but void, micrometeor-pockmarked, immeasurably long mineral oblongs drift toward a spot defined only by the cancelling out of the pulls of astral bodies. One lurches less certainly than the others, flank riddled with metallic excrescences. Within these, frail monkey-things by the hundreds huddle expectantly, counting the seconds between this life and the next. Anoplura’s breath spurts raggedly, coiling in the sparse oily hair of the crouching figures packed before her. Her hands wrap bony knots around her swollen belly. At her side the male grips her forearm (protectively, possessively, preposthumously) as the explosive bolts fire and the capsule lurches out of the ruptured construction bay, one of many, each ripping out of their communal mineral shell in the direction of another. Some will hit; others will float forever onwards, long after the apes within them have ceased to struggle. Anoplura, despite lacking any clear notions of divinity, prays for hers to be one of the few lucky ones. Count the moments, the breaths, the beats as momentum settles into subjective inertia, a myriad sibilant leaks leaking nothingness into the hull. We are away. Heartbeats fight the air up spasming throats. A new vessel, a new home, a new world, awaits.
A slam of magnetic grapples interrupts two heartbeats with a slight grinding crunch, slight tangential slip of the containers’ surfaces, just enough to make ears feel like bleeding in protest. Anoplura pushes off the others’ bodies and clings to the freezing hull as the nonessential half of the party secures their entrance. The flare of cutting torches burns a few shades of blue out of their retinas through their eyelids, through their palms. The slam of sledgehammers accompanies a growing centrifugal momentum. She counts the seconds again, before the entire flimsy pod will be shaken off. Past generations said anywhere from thirty to fifty, but they were merely repeating the words of generations past. No human eyes within a hundred lifetimes have seen this moment. The stars corkscrew as their target begins to spin. Wedges are driven into the soft outer metals to reach the inner ceramics. These shatter quickly enough. As choking, unbreathable air begins to hiss through the growing scar, now-masked figures are already crawling through the opening. Blood floats thinly from where inadequate jury-rigged spacesuits meet the jagged fringe of metal. Anoplura pauses for a second then balances a bit, props her feet against the capsule’s interior and shoulders the figure before her with all her weightlessness. He screams, red eddies flowing from his thigh, his voice tinny and sparse in the rapidly escaping gases. The others grab him from inside and push him onward, handing him a cutting torch. The capsule’s clamps begin to squeak as it is emptied of canisters, cultures and condensed packages meant to last half a generation. Their muscles burn. One man collapses. He is thrown aside, gasping as the mask is ripped off his face. They look away from his last lingering flailing. As the world spins ever-faster, the walls of the entry chamber are already beginning to soften and flow, crystallizing around the aperture. A new layer of ceramic hardens behind the diggers as they tear a new door into the second wall. Anoplura huddles with her sisters in the center of the room, low against the mounting centrifugal enmity. A careless male steadied himself against a wall for too long. He begins to scream, his arm now a permanent fixture of the outer shell, the seed of a pearl. Anoplura exchanges a few glances with the others. They stand on his struggling form, on the wall now centrifuging into a floor, and rip the precious gas-tank from him before the wall can claim him. He suffocates long before the ceramic begins to polymerize over his face, smoothing out his incongruities.
They sound the walls until another hollow reveals itself and dig their way deeper into their new world, crawling, a hundred comical quadrupeds crowding through rapidly re-sealing port-holes. They know it when they see it. The texture of the walls, their shape, their color in the weak glare of electric lamps. They cheer. They cry. They crush through into oxygen. Heating elements are uncoiled and portable generators grind into action. They curl up in the microgravity, passing out from exhaustion, from relief, from the dementia of survival. They’re home. Life begins anew. Life squirms in Anoplura’s belly, yearning to breathe. Few males were brought and even fewer survived, but enough to father a new generation. Every female pregnant. None other allowed on the lifeboats. Life within life within life flows down through incipient ancestry. It is a time of renewal in the endless cycle.
Fasciola flicks off the heating element within the pipe embedded in a chunk of water ice a hundred meters on each side in the next chamber. The farm tubes have enough for today. It won’t do to take so much as to wake the walls into panic. Flapping in layers of cloth, bundled against the eternal chill of the outer hull she crawls among the tangle of pipes, tanks and tubes, all familiar after a lifetime of work. From one end of the world flows water. From another, phosphates. From yet another, ammonia. The vector captures and separates each from the others, purifying them for its own use. The monkeys tap in, take only a little, only what they can without scuttling their world, only enough to breathe and to warm themselves and to feed this chamber. The farm tubes twist slowly, centrifuging out impurities, continually exuding a thick brown slurry of algae. Once upon a time existed primates which climbed trees and sank their teeth into bright colorful fruits, but Fasciola knows nothing of them. She cannot know how grotesque she would look to her forebears, flattened, nearly toothless, impossibly short, condensed, a flabby torso with sticklike limbs diverging into spidery digits, a bouncing low-gravity snowflake of an anthropoid. She merely brachiates languidly among the farm tubes as she has all her life, caressing them, directing her younger farmhands among them, feeding the rancid culture vats that they may feed what is, as far as she knows, the entire human race. Through Faciola’s demesne the effluvium of the living quarters metamorphoses into new life, to feed life, to feed life.
Dimly, she recalls her grandmother’s long-retold story of the breathtaking boarding, but as her few wispy grey hairs continue to drop from her head, she’s now one of the last to have heard even a second-hand account. This suits her fine. None needs to hear of such terrors. It is a time of plenty, of gorging on the vector’s bounty.
Trichinella digs in. Expertly, she torches apart the vector’s walls and wedges and wrenches ceramic slabs or extruded pipework into the wounded girders, sheeting and struts, diverting the fuming sheen of metal and the glossy, bubbling ceramics exuded by the vector, tricking it by proofs of its own structural materials into repairing itself into novel directions. Soon as the first layers cool, Trichinella’s flimsy, deft fingers scratch out new points of weakness, bring her tools to bear once again tearing new gashes into the damaged wall, wedging it off, isolating repair channels and clamping off their severed ends inside the growing alcove she’s shaping into the vessel’s interior.
For several sleep cycles she digs into the stubborn, protesting mass of the wall, altering patterns which would otherwise have repeated for a million generations of her people. At last, lungs burning, skin singed with the mineral refuse of her struggle, she taps away from her work with two fingers and lets the minimal downward pull settle her lithe form onto what passes for a floor. Her bulging, troglobitic eyes glimmer in pride of her very own cyst. Her new home. She will sink plumbing tubes into the waste pipes lodged along the corridor’s walls. She will mate. She will twist valves onto the clamped-off veins. Then, nestled within the cyst, she will spend the rest of her life draining raw materials from them, pouring them into moulds, pounding and lathing, crystallizing them into the myriad mechanical components vital to the farms, vital to the crèches, vital to the control center. The farmers will bring her food. The males will sniff her out and clamber into the smooth perfection of her cyst by turns. The nursemaids will carry her infants away. Endless supplicants will seek her out for the magnificence of her works, the hair’s breadth precision of her edges and conduits and the millennial resilience of her casings, struts and rivets.
But there is time for all that. For now she catches her breath and dips nimbly through the eternally twilit passage to curl up inside her new home. Just for a bit. Just for a taste of things to come. She hovers her papery skin along the curving wall, basking in the still blisteringly molten beauty of the wound she’s inflicted and sighs in tune with the vector’s vibrated protests, its unknowing collusion in nursing her for the coming lifetime, and nursing her daughters for generations to come. Up and down the endless hallway, the rasping and groaning sounds of other construction signal her sisters aren’t far behind her. From within their cysts, Trichinella’s brood will engineer their race’s entire future. It is a time of growth, of perfecting the infrastructure to fuel their perfusion, pervasion and perversion of the vessel.
Cordyceps pinches the overactive axon slightly, watching the displays for any results. Unsatisfied, she screws down the clamp locked onto the fingerlike metal cylinder and waits. Then she launches off through the jungle of tubes, twisting and sidewinding gracefully past a hundred, a thousand metallic creepers, all tagged and painted and catalogued according to function. She lets herself drift through the nonexistent pull here at the ship’s processing core, insinuating herself among the densely packed tangle of tubes by mere reflex, a lifetime’s practice letting her blank her mind to intuit where the requisite connections might be. Checking the tags on various weld-scarred synapses, she locates an inhibitor and reaches her prod out cautiously. A seconds-long, barely audible rumble emanates, sending painful shivers up her hand to her shoulder, resonating in her skull as in the inhibitor. Languidly, in response, the tube’s pressure rises, its flow increases, claiming more of the problematic circuit’s input and causing it to power down.
Glancing at a nearby pressure gauge, Cordyceps huffs in approval and backtracks to the center of the immense space, to the monitors displaying their ship’s every notion and need. There’s little hurry. The vector functions on a timescale utterly incomprehensible to human life. A single desire, a single fear, might take a hundred human sleep cycles to wax or wane, and its wants are simple enough. In lifetimes past it desired to move toward certain small concentrations of mass, to consume them and bring new matter into its world. The keepers before Cordyceps allowed this, even encouraged gluttony to a certain extent. Yet her own tenure in the control center has been plagued by a desire to return to its harbor, and it is not yet time. Not enough hundreds of ape generations have passed for their numbers to require dispersion. The vector cannot be permitted to retreat to the interstellar void.
Cordyceps has little idea of this grand scheme of things. She merely follows the scriptures handed down from times immemorial, the habits and dictates of her forebears etched in paper-thin tablets carried from boarding to boarding. User’s manuals. And something nudges at her attention. Of the scores of gravity wells recorded along the vector’s meandering path over the many generations since the boarding, the latest stands out. She calls the other controllers to the main monitor banks. They doubt. They debate. They sleep many times and wonder and ponder and finally they dare to hope. They hold a reading of the sacred scriptures, intoning the spectroscopy data (though none of them have ever seen the stars) with academic rigor, and matching the possible sources to the scripture’s dire warnings and signs of the Open Ship.
A consensus is reached. There is no need to consult the rest of the vessel’s crew. The controllers spread among the hydraulic neural net, diverting it, focusing it. Cycle by cycle, Cordyceps watches the vector’s minutely tuned sensors drift ever more faithfully back time and again toward the nearest star, growing fixated on it, hungering for it, addicted to its pull, more and more deeply in love with one of the tiny specks of rock rotating about it. Cordyceps does not know why she wants the vector to want this any more than the vector itself knows its desires are not its own. Nevertheless they carry out their respective programs, to spread and multiply. It is a time of searching and of hope.
Taenia stretches out along the corridor, peeking drowsily into the crèche. She tries to remember how many of the tangling youngsters are her own, and caresses her bulging stomach apprehensively. She watches the little ones swarm vigorously through the microgravity, wrestling and chasing each other, occasionally clustering around an adult to be taught or entertained by their stories.
Taenia takes her time when it’s her turn to teach. She recounts the timeworn legends of The Boarding and of The First Farm and of The Master Artisans of Old. She tells the usual lies, that times of old were times of plenty because the ancients were more skilled in drawing forth the Vector’s bounty. She does not tell them she does not believe the stories, and so the youngsters never say so either. She knows her face is more gaunt than that of her mother. She knows that since the time of her grandmother, the reactors’ lower and lower output has increasingly driven the ape tribes inward to the heated center. She knows the tools they have now are just as good as those of old, but there is less and less to draw upon. The vector, the world, is failing.
There have been riots, and skirmishes, and food hoarding, and cutters weaponized and expendable men and old women drilled into defense forces to attack the others. The apes have splintered, yet they still listen to the promises from the control center. They will reach the Open Ship. They have no choice. Too many generations have passed since the decision was taken, since the vector was turned from its course for the mating grounds. No chance now of building more pods, of braving the emptiness in search of a new world, of another Boarding.
And still their numbers grow. As old passages grow cold and are abandoned, as they dig deeper and deeper into the vector’s mineral wasteland for resources, as each new generation grows smaller and thinner, the apes’ numbers grow. It is a time of despair and desperation.
Anopheles lacks the conscience of her acts. Yet something in her dreamlike presentience howls at the wrongness of her fall. Her light receptors shrivel under the glare of the overly bright star only light-minutes away. Her insides ache, cored through by the endless wriggling alien mass beneath her skin, within her bowels, tugging at her brain. Too weak, too consumed by illness to pull up, her senses inundated by a mass she should never have approached, she strains her gravitational locomotory apparatus in vain as she hits the planet’s gaseous outer shell.
Anopheles cries. As her flesh burns, as she is torn apart, the infestation in her brain reinforces her desire to pull up, up, up, to abandon this impossibly heavy hell. Too late. She manages enough resistance to slow the descent, unknowingly protecting her cargo. She scrapes against the surface, a kilometer at a time of her body breaking apart, the control center stove in, streams of apes thrown loose to splatter viscously against the landscape. Finally, her corpse comes to a rest.
The apes pour forth from the carcass. The older ones collapse and gasp, as countless others have in countless other vectors which sought to make a victim of less hospitable worlds. Though the planet rates only a portion of the gravitational pull of long-forgotten Earth, it proves too much for their microgravity-adapted metabolism. They choke their last in the rarefied air mere minutes after landing.
And yet… there is oxygen. There is light, and heat, and water. A scant few thousand children crawl, breathless and half-mad with fear and pain, from the wreckage. They are greeted by a world inhabited by microbial mats, coating the rainy surface in sugary slime. Those naturally born with tougher bones and stronger hearts, with shorter limbs and more eager lungs, with intestines better able to digest their new environment, will survive. They will learn to walk, then scavenge what they can from the vector’s wreck. They will mature and breed. They will build, and spread, and consume, never remembering the planet of their origin, eventually never even remembering their closer ancestors’ more recent voyage through space. And, as surely as it happened before, a hundred thousand years later the teeming swarms of their descendants will scrape the world of life and look to the void for deliverance to a new host organism.
It is a time of renewal in the endless cycle. Already the planet shudders under their touch.
Here, the infection grows anew.