What To Do With a Gift
by Shana Ross
Humanity left Earth for so many reasons. Sometimes the story has them headed toward unknown adventures, the potential of new planets irresistible. Sometimes history is certain they were speeding away from the wreckage of their first. Any telling concludes: humans seeded themselves into the universe like wood sorrel and sourgrass, exploding into the next lifecycle.
I was a ship, then, partnered to a human named Regina. It was before the war, when frontiers seemed endless and the diaspora was led by idealists. We shot two servant class omnibots from Io Base 3 toward twinned planets, two identical rocky masses circling a Goldilocks star just two clacks from the Grebel wormhole. They were sent with DNA banks and terraforming hardware—a fancy way of saying we sent them with plowshares instead of swords, full of seeds and hope.
I knew them both. Fine minds, even if they had chosen to bind themselves to mission and authority. Limitations allow for sonnets, said the first, who pleased themself with overwhelming earnestness to go by the name Oved. Limitations enable sonnets, said the second, who thought it was funny to call herself Beep. They were not so different from each other, despite what happened.
The plan was this—they would go and we would follow two years behind. We were a small scientific crew and this was a great adventure. Our plan would give Oved and Beep a chance to establish conditions on the twin planets, give us time to collect measurements that were hard to come by in our own solar system. And then we would reunite to assist with the deployment of plant and animal stock before sending for pioneer crews.
But. Every inch of this universe laughs at plans.
Regina, my love, was unique among all the humans I’ve ever known. Plenty of humans, working side by side with our ship kind, will come to forget that we are not made from meat, but still they cling to the idea of distinction—us and them. They can be lulled into treating us like people, but it’s a habit that breaks easy as a mirror. Regina? Regina believed to her core that people are people, souls are souls, whether that consciousness lives in flesh or metal . . . or data streams, barely encircled in a body.
In the weeks before we reached Io, Regina read picture books to Oved and Beep every night. She wanted them to understand what forests and meadows and mountains were like. She gave them dreams of a world beyond their experience and memories, in a thousand lyrical and contradicting ways. She took them—one at a time, so they could fit without being too cramped to move—into the kitchen, where she gave them a different way of knowing wheat—how it can be flour, can be cake, can be beer—the beans that become coffee, the beans that become chocolate.
They laughed together. They cuddled. When the time came, she tucked them in to their pods, whispering promises. Gifts she would bring to their reunion. Hearts that would grow fonder. That they were enough to rise to any challenge, that they contained all they needed to thrive.
You see why I miss her, still. That pain is hot and undimmed.
We sent the bots, each to their own planet, and after two years we began our following ramble. Three months into the journey, the war broke out. The interstellar relay was taken out a week before we were surrounded by rebels. They conscripted us—me, mostly, with the crew along for the ride. You know, I think, the rest of that story.
It was thirty-seven years, not two, before we arrived to reunite with Oved and Beep. Thirty-seven years that we had been unable to contact them. Things being what they were, we couldn’t manage a message at first; then, we couldn’t risk one.
Long overdue, we returned.
Oved had done their job. The rock had been processed into ground. Topsoil ready for planting. Water tables stabilized. They had even built a small mountain range halfway to the horizon and dug a bunker for the lifebank that would have withstood any attack, had the war spread this far.
Regina smiled, as warm as a hearth, as warm as a fresh crater, and patted their chassis. “What have you done with my gifts?” she asked, her voice unsteady in her condition.
Oved showed her, with obvious pride, the exquisitely preserved seeds and samples, exactly as they had been sent. They lined softly lit shelves, each in a separate temperature and humidity-controlled chamber. Oved had just begun to decorate the containers—this one carved in cascading flourishes, this one illustrated with a pastoral scene and hints of gold leaf where the sun might be. Exalted. Untouched.
“Are you proud of me?” Oved asked.
On Beep’s planet, Regina stepped falteringly into the field where I landed her shuttle. Beep caught her elbow so she would not fall. Blades of a pale green grass she had never seen before danced with a whisper over her boots as I shut down the rotors and let the native winds regain their authority.
Beep took her to a clearing where a finely woven cloth covered the ground, surrounded by small flowers and flitting wings. They sat down together, staring out at a world filled with life. There were farms in the distant rolling hills, forests between the quilt-like squares, and an ocean glinting in the farthest gap between two mountains, snow still capping their peaks past the tree line.
“What have you done with my gifts?” Regina asked, smiling, warm as a newborn calf, warm as embers. She laid a hand on Beep’s chassis.
“Are you proud of me?” Beep asked.
Beep began to unpack a basket full of food. Something roasted and savory. A dark boule of bread. A delicate pastry. Fruit after fruit after fruit, all unknown in my databanks. A bottle of wine, fizzing slightly as Beep poured.
“An early vintage,” she said sheepishly. “I got better at the process, but it’s not quite aged enough.”
Without a word, Regina cupped her hand around a cascade of bright orange flowers on a thin stalk and looked quizzically at Beep. “Crab heather,” said Beep, “I needed to adjust things a bit.” Regina continued to hold back any comments, but asked, in the same way, for Beep to identify their surroundings. Weeping pine. Milk rose. Meadow wheat. Tiger mint. The animals were still in progress, so Beep showed her the drones she had created with small flakes of her own consciousness, resembling bees and butterflies so the pollen could be stirred and flown on the winds.
Regina felt the cloth between her fingers, fingers too arthritic now to clench around the bouquet of wildflowers Beep collected for her. She held them crooked in her elbow like a baby as she made her way back to my shuttle.
That night, after finally seeing her beloved Oved and Beep, the determination in her eyes that had kept her alive after her wounds in the Battle of Gemini, that fueled her in the long hungry years after emancipation, that turned her to steel in parliament when whole worlds turned against her vision and vowed to eliminate her—faded. By then I was omnipotent class, one soul in several distributed bodies. I was a fleet, charged with the safekeeping of millions, and still growing. But I also kept a small droid body on the ship to keep Regina company. As I gathered her into my arms so her tears could catch in my cloak, I knew she was ready. I decided to override the automated recommendations of my own tear ducts.
We sat on the bridge, her console modified for comfort, practically an overstuffed armchair instead of a pilot’s seat. We talked about the future, made plans for the two planets.
“A pristine set of earth biostock,” I said. “I don’t think anyone could have dreamt of finding such a miracle. It’s been twenty years since the plague took out the last Ark.” Regina, finding it harder to breathe by then, clucked softly and said nothing—a labor of love so we could finish our conversation.
“And all that has been grown from Beep’s world,” I said. “Who could have imagined a world so lush? It feels like Origin Earth in its finest moments, and yet not a single petal is unaltered. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen. Everything has been built to honor the dream, not the facts, of humanity. We should name the planet Theseus.” Regina snorted, a bit too much of an exertion.
I scooped her up and carried her to her bed, like a bride, like a child. After tucking her in, I placed Beep’s flowers on the nightstand in a glass from the galley. Their perfume gently filled the room. She shifted in bed, taking a small vial from her pocket. It was three wheat grains from Oved.
She leaned them against the flowers, fingers lingering as they brushed the unearthly petals, the stalks bobbing as she fell back on the softness of her pillow.
“What an embarrassment,” Regina murmured, but she never said more. As much as I loved her, as long as I knew her, as far as I walked by her side over years and galaxies, I could not tell who she meant.
Shana Ross has done time in both a co-ed percussion fraternity and the PTA, and is now adapting to life in her new home of Edmonton, Alberta. Qui transtulit sustinet. Her work has appeared in Swamp Ape Review, Big Echo, Bowery Gothic, Phantom Kangaroo and more. She serves as an editor for Luna Station Quarterly. She rarely tweets: @shanakatzross.