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Mothering in Space: A Primer
by Trevor Doyle
Janis floated above the command panel, her finger poised above the slider that would trip the hatches.
She could die, Janis told herself.
The blaze had started as an electrical short in a coupling running through life support; the ship’s power grid had been compromised as a result. With the fire suppression system crippled, the flames were spreading, putting the carbon recyclers in danger; without the carbon recyclers, they would run out of oxygen in approximately nine days, two weeks shy of the nearest Lagrange depot. Because the rest of the crew was in the hab ring, Janis was the only person who could put out the fire.
If she didn’t trip the hatches, she might be able to extinguish it herself, but getting from the command center to life support would take almost two minutes, and that was without suiting up. She activated her comm link.
“Simmee?” she called. “You awake?”
Simmee responded, as always, in the voice of a small child. “Yeah Mom, I’m active.”
So she didn’t know. Stifling a sigh, Janis asked Simmee how quickly she could transfer herself from Computer Bay 2 to the ship’s backup bank.
“I can move my conscious self in, like, forty seconds,” Simmee replied. “But my core will take longer.”
“How much longer?”
“Close to three minutes. Why?”
“No reason,” Janis said, trying not to sound nervous. “It’s not important.”
Biting her lip, Janis flicked through the panel’s cam views until she reached Bay 2. Simmee was in there, hidden in several of the black boxes bolted to the longest wall.
Janis had purchased and uploaded Simmee to the Europa Express before her second run as the ship’s commander, six months after she’d granted her husband a divorce. She didn’t have any biological children, and although she’d frozen a number of viable embryos, her chances of becoming an Earth-bound mother were slim. Simmee was supposed to be a companion who would keep Janis grounded, nothing more than that, but over the course of eight years in space, the AI had grown to be much, much more.
Locked in a box, bodiless, Simmee’s neural net had to be fed daily, so Janis told her stories about Earth, stories about her own parents and grandparents, and stories about her childhood friends. She traced out patterns on a touch screen, teaching Simmee how to draw the flowers, horses, and trees she would never see, and they talked together for hours at a stretch, whenever Janis was off duty. Eventually, Janis realized that trying to imagine a life without Simmee on board was impossible, like trying to imagine herself without arms or legs; she’d grown to love Simmee as only a mother could.
Janis had friends among the rotating crew, but they weren’t a part of her the way Simmee was. They weren’t imbued with an aural and visual record of her daily life, nor did they carry with them a comprehensive account of her life experiences. The limited impressions they did have of who Janis was, of her troubles and triumphs and the life she’d left behind on Earth—these impressions would die with them thirty, forty, or fifty years from now, while Simmee would carry all of this and more with her into the permanent cloud the day that Janis died.
But in spite of all of this, Janis knew what she had to do; she didn’t have a choice.
Swiping her finger across the panel, she pushed off, maneuvering hand over hand to get to the emergency locker. A series of thudding and popping sounds cascaded through the command center as hatches were closed, atmospheres were sucked out of closed cabins, and hatches were re-opened. The last hatch to close would lock the remnants of the fire in Computer Bay 2.
Grabbing an extinguisher from the locker, Janis pushed off again, steering toward an exit tube. She tried to count the seconds as she made her way through the central shaft, but she kept losing count; when she finally reached Bay 2, she felt as if hours had passed instead of minutes.
She peered through the glass portal. The smoke had been siphoned out at the end of the sequence she’d programmed, but there were still bits of burnt plastic and shards of blackened insulation floating around the tiny room. Janis punched in a code to restore the atmosphere, waited anxiously for the green light to ignite, and unlatched the hatch when it was safe to do so.
She held her breath as she swam inside. The ship had switched off the alarm, which meant that she’d succeeded in putting out the blaze, but she was certain that the fire’s black smoke had penetrated the delicate electronics housed in the boxes on the nearest wall.
Sweeping a blob of melted plastic away from her faceplate, Janis cleared her throat.
“Simmee?” she called. “Simmee, are you all right?”
“Of course I am,” Simmee replied. “What’s going on, Mom? The ship won’t talk to me at all.”
Janis reached out to stroke one of the black boxes with her free hand. Tears were rolling down her cheeks; a great weight seemed to slide away from her, leaving her relieved but worn out, as if she’d just run a race she wasn’t ready for.
“We had a fire in life support,” Janis explained. “But it’s out now.”
“Everyone is safe?”
“Yes, everyone is all right.”
Simmee hesitated, as if she was thinking something through.
“Can you maybe take off early, then, so we can play a game?”
Janis smiled. “In a little while, my love. In just a little while.”
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