Size / / /

The ships are dying.

Everything is perfect.

The ships are built from bone and coral, algae and moss, bacteria and fungi, packed carbon-tight. The interior fittings are cornstarch plastic, and the thin polymer that Project Control painted on before launch, to protect the ship from cold, flakes off behind them. Watching the other ships through the front viewscreen, it looks like snow.

No one sees it but Mira.

Project Control sourced terraformers from the deserts and the tundra, as if they could bear it better.

(Piotr was working at a Scottish port, but originally he came from Murmansk. She found it on a map; the whole city seemed ready to topple into the Barents Sea.)

Mira was in California, working Systems at the Allen Array. She'd been there six months, just up from Arizona, and Mexico the year before that.

The Project Control guy didn't mention he'd traced her from a line of bounced mail. He must have been used to it.

"It's a more serious endeavor than you've previously been able to handle," he said, "but we thought you'd be interested."

There was a pause before "interested" that meant "acclimated," as if Mars was going to be just like the rez, except without oxygen.

The view from the Array would look better on Mars.

"Sure," she said. "I'll go."

When they step onto the red dust for the first time, the Basin looms around them like a gaping mouth. The ships have blasted little craters from the force of the landing, blowing out the sand down to the bare rock.

"Just like home," says Piotr.

The ships start to decay, balancing on the ten coral legs that hold them off the ground, leaking carbon dioxide and nitrogen and oxygen out of every gnarled bone. Every once in a while the ice falling from the generator glances off one of the ships and picks up some seeds, and the biologists watch a green ice cube bounce into the horizon and cheer.

After five years, some algae—the tough kind, the one the seapods pulled from the underwater volcanic rim—is already holding fast in the shade of the ships.

The civilians try to catch glimpses of the fuzzy shadow gripping the rocks. They might never see more change than this; they want to remember the difference they made.

Project Control cross-sectioned; each ship had a tech, a mechanic, some think-tankers, biologists, medics, bailiffs, civilians. There was one pregnant woman on every ship.

"We're just covering bases," they said, when someone asked.

"It only makes sense," said Lewis, like anyone had asked him.

The fifth year, Mira gets a message from Project Control.

Investigate all ships planetside. Perform full physical and tech scan. Record all frequencies.

All findings are to be considered confidential and proprietary, and are to be reported at once to Project Control.

The exposure suit and the scanner bring her to Earth gravity. She doesn't like it; the station's at Mars gravity, and she can run through the hallway like in a dream, toes barely touching the floor. If she pushes off, she can fly a hundred feet.

"The Olympics here someday are going to be something," Piotr always says.

Sometimes she catches him staring out the porthole like he's made a big mistake.

Outside, it might be day. It's hard to tell; the ships block so much light that it always seems the station is in the shadows of redwood trees.

The ships have no viewscreens or equipment left (they were cannibalized for the parts of the station the astronauts hadn't finished), and with the empty sockets the ships look like old jack-o-lanterns on sticks.

Mira charges up the scanner and sits under one of the ships to wait; the scanner has to warm up until the condensation inside the display burns off.

Piotr called the Handel "The Handout," because so much went wrong that the two of them spent half the trip out of stasis, tending to one thing or another.

"This is what happens when you build a ship out of leaves," Piotr grumbled.

She knew he didn't really mind; they all suited up knowing what the ships were made of, and he treated the ship like a baby when Mira wasn't looking.

Mira landed on Mars two years older than everyone else, because she stayed awake for a week at a time, sitting on the nav bridge, feeling reckless, listening to the whirrs and clicks of the machine that was bringing them to the red dust of home.

"Must have been lonely," said Piotr, planetside, when she told him what she had done.

"Must have been," she said.

She doesn't feel like it was; she never felt alone, not once that whole journey, no matter how many times she sat awake on the bridge, the buckle of the harness burning frostbite-cold into her stomach.

Five years have sandpapered down the Handel; the wind scatters flakes of coral across the planet.

Someday, when the air is ready, there will be water here. Centuries after she's dead, someone will be sitting where she's sitting, their feet trailing in a lake.

When Mira was young, her mother told her stories at night. Later, in the dark, Mira tried to capture the words, as if she knew even then that the stories—that her mother—wouldn't last.

She loved the creation story of the whirlwind and the mirage and the black metal old man and the spider, who lived separately before the earth was made, and realized at last that they were alone and had no home to unite them, and discussed how to build a world.

Mira thinks that must have been the last civil discussion between more than two people.

The first year, they're dizzy: from the recycled air, from low gravity, from terror. They compare themselves to the Pilgrims, until one of the medics remembers Mira and changes the subject. They break ground on the solarium, and treat their bruises, and form a community that will survive.

("This place reminds me of a playground," said Piotr. "Or hostages," said Mira.)

The second year, the settlers realize they have trapped themselves in a glorified shipping warehouse for the rest of their lives. Panic attacks are treated by the medics, who have more sedative than all other medicines put together. Mira never sees an upset medic.

The second year the broken ground seems like one of the potholes from the cities they came from, some horrible fixless pit. Lewis, a think-tanker, composes sestinas about the hell of being confined with those who can't understand his genius. After the third one, Project Control asks him to stop.

The third year a kid gets sick. They quarantine his family, and everyone wears exposure suits, even indoors.

It's the first time Mira is really afraid; she respects the power of a virus. She had wondered, awake alone on the Handel, if they were carrying their diseases with them in the little pollen spores. Now she knows.

The kid lives. The medics say it's meningitis, a freak case, but they inoculate everyone with something, so whatever it really is, childhood vaccines didn't cover it. When the family comes out of quarantine, they're quiet and diligent, as if they let the community down by allowing one of their children to get sick, and are determined to make amends.

Mira starts sleeping with Piotr that year. Fear gets to everyone.

He has a way of saying her name that makes the hair on her neck stand up.

"It means 'the one who sees'."

He nods quietly, considering that, looking her over like he's trying to fit the name on her. He takes things seriously.

She doesn't tell him anything else about her. That's childhood. It's Earth. None of that matters here.

The next time they sleep together, he tells her, "My name means, the rock."

She doesn't know if he looked it up, or if this is just him doling things out slowly so she'll keep coming by; if it's just him hoping they last.

"That explains a lot," she says, grinning.

He gets a look on his face like she's betrayed him.

Eskaminzim, Mira's mother called her. Big mouth.

The display lights up when it's dry, and Mira starts the scan.

All she sees at first is the decay. When she points the scanner at the belly of the ship, it records that the top shell is thinning. (It's designed to blow away before the legs crumble and kill anyone who's stargazing in the yard.)

The scan shows nothing: the ship's bio-monitor clicking like a heartbeat; some static from the blowing dust.

The static would be normal, if there was any wind.

All findings are to be considered confidential and proprietary, and are to be reported at once to Project Control.

Mira uploads the scan, writes a note apologizing for the static.

High winds, she writes.

The fourth year, she stops sleeping with Piotr.

They stay friendly. They have to; the others have formed knots, and outsiders need to keep tabs on each other just in case one of them has a bad day and sucks himself out into the desert.

Or in case one of them shoves Lewis into an airlock, which is possible. He claims two of the pregnancies that year. Paternity tests show he's nobody's father.

(They keep close tabs on these kids. The next batch of terraformers is coming in six years; as the gene pool widens, they'll relax by degrees.)

Lewis picks a fight with one of the biologists, and the bailiffs get to throw someone in the brig for the first time. Everyone throws a party.

Even in her room, the noise reaches Mira. She misses the silent weeks on the ship, half-sleeping in the soft cold dark, watching the little red marble roll closer and turn into a clay coin, into a desert without end.

The last time she went to a powwow, she was in college, and she hadn't been back to the rez in two years.

There were more tourists than nations in the crowd, and the mishmash of dances (fancydancing, folklorico, hoops, shawls) seemed stretched thin somehow, and sad, like the last refuge.

When the men took their places for the Crown dance and the drum began, her mother shifted her weight from foot to foot, stepping quietly in time.

The clown dancer came with the bull-roar in his hand, and made way for the directions: north, south, east, west.

Mira was exhilarated, sad, uneasy. The dancers were drawn into themselves, and those who watched had given themselves to the trance of the bells and calls, their breath falling into the rhythm of the drums. In the crowd, people were moving in place like her mother, connected in some way Mira saw but couldn't feel.

So much of it was impossible to understand, unless you could feel the pull, unless you grasped at it. She didn't know how to want something that way. She didn't know what to do if she reached and failed.

Onstage, the dancers lifted their heads, threw their arms wide; they were the birds that covered the world.

The fifth year, the government agents gather them for announcements about the next terraformers.

Everyone assembles in the situation room once a month. It's built like a bank vault, but the crowd looks like they're at a high school basketball game.

The new terraformers will settle across the Basin. Their project for the next five years is to build a tunnel big enough for a range vehicle to get through, to foster communication between settlements.

Some of the astronauts and biologists have been confirmed; people make fun of the ID pictures, which look like they were taken in someone's basement.

The new ships have sections that snap together like childrens' blocks; a settlement ready-made, since there are no astronauts coming ahead to construct anything.

"What about the rest of all those ships?" asks Mira, feeling uneasy for reasons she doesn't know. "What will they be made of?"

"More information as it becomes available," they say, like they can't hear her, and everyone is dismissed.

That year the message comes for Mira, asking her to look at the ships, record everything just in case.

After she reports the scan, she leaves the suit in decon. Piotr's in the hallway outside, fists pressed to the bulkhead on either side of the window.

After a second, she asks, "You all right?"

"Just Lewis," he says. He looks her over. "You were out a while today."

"Project Control."

They circle the station twice. From time to time he tells her something, so she pieces together how Lewis accused Piotr of sabotaging the station so Lewis's room gets less oxygen.

"I would never," Piotr says. "Unfortunately."

She says, "I know."

Their feet skim the floor as they walk, their shoes never quite meeting their shadows.

"Sure," she had said, "I'll go."

First, thought cynically they must have been trying for a quota; that they were looking for enough diversity to impress any SETIs that stopped by.

During the biology classes the techs took, she thought they were picking people who could keep a gene pool going until reinforcements came.

After six years of training they put her in space, and looking down at the sleeping faces of the strangers she'd be living with forever, she only hoped Project Control had chosen people who weren't predisposed for psychosis.

After five years on the station (and two secret years in space), she's seen enough to guess how they were chosen.

They knew to look for people who had wandered, who were desperate for a new start, who were willing to try it anywhere. They had offered a home to those who didn't have one; that was all.

It's pitch-dark outside the station; besides distant Jupiter, and Phobos and Deimos floating dully above the horizon, there's no light at all.

It doesn't matter. The algae is phosphorescent, lighting up the Basin for a quarter-mile.

The climb up the leg of the ship to the nav bridge takes half an hour, but the whole way is illuminated for her, like a twisted staircase of stars.

She never slips; she's always been a good climber.

Inside the ship there are holes where the stars creep in, and through the screen socket she can see Olympus Mons. She wonders how far you have to go before you can't see Olympus Mons.

She sits on the floor, avoiding the patches where cold bleeds through the decay; she could fall two hundred feet if she's not careful.

With the missing screen it's as though she's looking out from the mouth of a cave, from the belly of a whale.

She tries not to think about the journey being the last time she was happy.

It's an hour before she feels the pull. She wouldn't notice it, but she's so empty that she knows all that quiet concentration isn't hers. It's the concentration of a dancer summoning the past.

It's the ship.

Carefully, she flattens herself along the floor, spreading her fingers. The helmet presses into the coral webbing, her field of view swallowed up by the dark.

It's awake. The ship is awake.

All findings are to be considered confidential and proprietary, and are to be reported at once to Project Control.

They're alive.

She feels like there's no air in her suit, no air anywhere; the ship has sucked it all away, breathing in and out. Her ears fill with the sound of the bio-monitor clicking like a heartbeat.

Sorry for the static. High winds.

Mira can't sleep that night, thinking about it. The glow from the ships is as bright as the moon used to be, when she was awake at all hours.

Does Project Control know? Has some ship on Earth woken up? What will they do?

She makes rounds of the station, pushing off and sailing forward a hundred feet at a time, landing silently.

Every once in a while, the Handel comes into sight through the porthole, like a castaway looking in.

They assemble in the bank vault for announcements.

Lewis has found a girlfriend, somehow, and he takes forever finding a seat so everyone sees her. Mira feels sorry for her.

The government agents take the platform and cue up the hologram projector. People cheer; they love pictures.

There's the usual run-through of new faces. Someone asks why good-looking people can't go into space.

Cargo update. The medics have requested more sedative.

Tech-mech updates come last, because by then everyone else has stopped listening. "The new ships will be built of portable pods, in conjunction with carbon-rich organic material that will join our decay process."

Mira raises her hand. They don't look at her.

Piotr says, "Mira has a question."

They look at Piotr, not at her. They say, "We have no further information at this time."

"What's wrong?" Piotr asks, when they're alone.

She tells him.

For a moment she worries he'll dismiss it, say that it's just some biological remnant. He thinks about it, his face turned to the window, where the afternoon sun is blocked out by the giant shade of the ships.

"Poor things," he says, finally.

Project Control has a protocol in place, should terraformers find signs of life. You never knew when a methane-breathing insect was going to come scuttling out of the dust. There was an observation process, but the initial sighting was to be recorded as soon as possible.

SUSPECT SENTIENCE, she writes, so they know, so they understand how important this is. They can't send more ships; they can't send something over just to die.

Negative, writes Project Control. Sentience not detected on Earthbound ships. Environmental/terraformer interference is the most likely cause of anomalous readings. Project Control will monitor the ships in drydock and alert you of any changes.

Please describe all interaction with the decay ships. Note: any unauthorized contact with the ships will be recorded as breach of contract.

She shows Piotr the message.

"They know," she says, rage choking her. "They know and they're going to send more ships. That's murder."

Piotr shakes his head. "Who's going to prosecute the people terraforming their new world?"

"I can tell everyone here."

"They're waiting on sedative and hydroponic squash and the gravity generator. They don't care about the ships."

"They will—if someone tells them, they —"

"You'll get a week in the brig and some sedative," Piotr says. "We can't make a world without these ships."

It's true. She sits on the bed beside him, not touching him. "What sort of world are we building, then?"

"Same as the old one," he says.

He's a quiet guy, but she knows what he sounds like when his heart is broken.

"Mira," he says.

She stays the night. These are lonely times.

She climbs up the next night; if she's in trouble for doing it once, she might as well get in trouble for doing it as much as she can, as long as there's something left.

There's a hole in the wall to her right, and she looks over the backs of the other ships. They had seemed like trees, before, but now she sees a herd of magnificent beasts who are swiftly decaying, to leave room for the next wave that will be brought to Mars and dry out and die.

She doesn't cry—tears fog up the helmet—but she feels as hollow as the Handel.

The terraformers are working too hard to spare sympathy for the ghost of intelligence in the ships. They're trying to build a home that's better than the one they left, a home they can stand. There's nowhere else for them to go; whatever happens here, they must win.

After a while, the emptiness tires her, and she lies down, looking through the skeleton roof at Phobos and Deimos and a canopy of strange stars. Piotr will come looking for her if she's gone too long; he'll know that she's here.

She presses her palms to the floor. Absently she thinks about pulling off her boots, pressing bare feet to the floor like she did when they were flying here. She wonders if she had guessed even then, if she had been keeping the ship company, without really knowing.

The ship seems to breathe under her; it's the wind, it's just the wind, but she curls the tips of her fingers into the floor.

This wakefulness, this life in them, has no physical place. It will scatter as the ship scattered, and be gone.

But back in the beginning, even before the earth was made, when there were no souls and no home to rest them on; still, the black spider had lived in the empty dark.

The ships would decay into nothing, every cell would scatter; but the flicker of life would be carried on the wind, the wakefulness spreading over the red desert, their dreams caught in the ebb and flow of the planet below them.

She taps a slow rhythm with her fingers, tilts her face to the sky.

They are the birds that will cover the world.

Genevieve Valentine's fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Apex, and other magazines, and the anthologies Federations, The Living Dead 2, Teeth, and more. Her first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, is out now from Prime. You can learn more about it at the Circus Tresualti site. For more about the author, see her website. Her previous appearances in Strange Horizons can be found in our archives.
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