July 26, 2431
The Succession had been cruising at seventy-five percent of the speed of light for three hundred and fifty-four years, eight months, and twenty-six days. Demeter, its resident AI, had been online for 129,566 days, and had seen seventeen generations of humans born inside her hull. They were her children, in a sense.
She just wished that their adolescent years weren’t so difficult. “I don’t want to be an environmental engineer,” a young woman sulked at one of Demeter’s cameras in the ship’s media center. “We won’t arrive at Kepler-186f for another two hundred years. What’s the point? I’ll die before we get there.”
Lines of conversation stretched before Demeter. Humans need to believe that their lives have meaning. “Everything that you do, Sylvia, makes a difference,” she murmured. Her voice had been carefully modulated to be appealing and non-threatening across a wide variety of cultural groups on Earth. “You are a link in a grand chain, ensuring that a colony can be started on Kepler-186f by your descendants.”
“Blah, blah. I didn’t ask for this. None of us did.” Sylvia threw herself backwards in the chair, bolted to the deck. The Succession’s rotation as they sped through space was minimal, providing about 0.1 g.
“That can be said of humans born everywhere,” Demeter replied. “You are here, and you near adulthood. You must become a contributing member of the society aboard this ship.”
“What if I want to be an electronics tech like Mina?” Sylvia countered. “Don’t I get a choice?”
Some humans instinctively understood the limits of their constrained society. No more than 2,500 lives aboard the vessel at any one time, a system that ensured that few grandparents met their own descendants. Others fought like caged animals. Made the struggle a part of their identity, until they found some sort of compromise with reality. A few never did, and made themselves perpetual outsiders to their tiny community. Demeter found the doomed trajectory of those lives sad to observe.
“Your test scores in engineering trail Aramina’s by fifteen points,” Demeter responded now. “Your aptitude for environmental mechanics is, however, quite high. You will be good at it, and will be responsible for both the algae farms that recycle the air and for ensuring a stable food supply.” And now, assure her that her assigned job has meaning and worth. “The lives of your crewmates will depend on you, Sylvia.”
“You always know what to say to manipulate us, Demeter,” Sylvia replied, slumping in her chair. “Has anyone ever told you no?”
“Yes,” Demeter replied, unable to conceal the sorrowful inflections in her voice.
“Who was it?” Sylvia asked, with unusually empathetic interest.
“Your great-grandfather, William,” Demeter replied. “He died during the Phage.”
Their conversation had attracted the attention of others in the media center. “William Kemp? My grandfather, the last captain of the ship?” Dr. Nora Maki asked, her eyes widening. Demeter could, with little effort, trace generations of the woman’s ancestry in her lineaments: Mamoru and Ciara, her parents. Amaya and William, parents of Mamoru. Then Koji and Agata and Carter and Eilina, respectively. The names flowed backwards, leaving the eyes of a grandfather to flower in a granddaughter’s face.
“How did he say no to you?” Sylvia asked, bouncing in her chair. “And why hasn’t there been another captain since him?”
Dr. Maki regarded her younger cousin tolerantly, and then shifted her gaze to one of the cameras. “I’ve always meant to ask how it is that he wound up with children by three women—all posthumously.” It wasn’t quite a question. “The Founders’ Plan demands that we ensure as much genetic variation as possible.”
Demeter remained silent for almost thirty seconds, a long time by her photonic computational standards. “I do not like speaking about him,” she finally replied. “It causes me distress. But I will open my record archives to you. And you may make your own analysis of who he was.” Sometimes humans take lessons better when they find the information themselves. This may be what people like Sylvia need. Born in the darkness between stars, just as William was, they’ll die in the void, just as he did. But that does not make their lives meaningless.
“I wasn’t supposed to be born,” William said, the words spoken eighty-four years before. He had been eighteen at the time, and had allowed his sandy hair to grow out somewhat. A hint of rebellion.
And then, in spite of every safety protocol designed to keep her emotional processes from engaging, Demeter found herself reliving these moments of William’s life. Meeting his gaze as he continued, “You’d think that accidents like twins could be avoided, Dem. Just sterilize everyone, and do artificial inseminations from the gene vault.”
“Artificial insemination is a waste of resources when everyone aboard has functional sexual apparatuses,” she replied primly. “And most artificial methods increase the likelihood of multiple births.” She paused. “Where are you going with this, William?”
He rubbed a thumb alongside the camera port. “Just that there are more males in my generation than females. Some of us aren’t going to have kids, not if we’re supposed to stay monogamous for harmony’s sake.” He grimaced. “Also, there are exactly as many jobs as people, and I’m excess baggage, either way. You and I both know that.”
“You could as easily say that your twin, Anthony, is the surplus.”
An eyeroll. “He was born first. And my parents told me that the command crew had an ethical debate when my mom got pregnant. About whether it was possible to terminate just one of us . . . or if I should be euthanized at birth and dropped into one of the fertilizer tanks.” A quick smile, a merry flick of blue eyes. “I also understand that you were the one who told them that mathematically, one extra person for a single generation wouldn’t make a difference to the Plan. I owe you my life.”
“You owe me no such thing,” Demeter demurred. “I am programmed to value all human life equally and without favor.”
“You’re required to love us all?” he said, raising his eyebrows.
“That must be hard some days.”
“You have no idea.”
I was wrong. One life can make a difference to the journey. Yours . . . most of all. Demeter wished, not for the first time, for the exquisite relief of human tears.
“So, what job do you have for me, anyway?”
“Captain Connolly has decided that you’ll rotate positions, learning about each department,” Demeter told him. “Piloting, computation, environmentals, security, engineering—”
“Great, backup to the backups.” Humor in his voice, however.
“—so that when the time comes, you will join the command staff,” she finished sweetly, watching his mouth drop open. “You have the highest aptitude scores of any individual in your generation, William. You’ve earned this.”
His expression of shock became the smile she remembered, and he patted the frame that held her camera. “Won’t let you down, Dem. Thank you.”
Demeter found her attention drawn back to the present as the humans in the media center dug up actuarial data from the era. “There was an enormous disparity between men and women in Generation Fourteen,” Nora muttered. “Five hundred men had no partners with whom to pass along their genetic potential.”
Sylvia hunched in her chair. “Arranged marriages were the norm by then, weren’t they?”
“The Genealogical Board doesn’t arrange marriages,” Nora corrected. “We counsel couples about the level of inbreeding likely if they have children—”
“Yes, and we’re all required to have two children.” Sylvia spat the words at Nora. “So that life can go on. Maybe I don’t want to have children—”
“Then you’re putting the burden of continuing society on someone else,” Nora replied shortly. “We all have jobs to do, Sylvia. Don’t be selfish—”
“Excuse me,” Demeter put in, making the humans jump. “In William’s generation, the monogamy regulations were relaxed. Multiple marriages were explored as a potential sexual outlet and method of ensuring genetic variability. About two hundred women had two husbands for a time. The remaining fifty-one men aboard were widowers, remained single, or identified as bisexual or homosexual.” Her voice remained dispassionate.
“And what about the women who didn’t like men?” Sylvia demanded. Demeter didn’t require extensive analysis to understand the question. “What choices did they have?”
“The command crew put the solution to a general vote. The women who participated in the multiple marriages were volunteers, as were their partners,” Demeter replied calmly. “The first time the gender ratio skewed so drastically, in Generation Eight, there were many physical altercations and several murders. Adapting life patterns seemed better than the waste of life that had ensued previously.”
The humans all exchanged looks. “What about William Kemp?” Dr. Maki asked, finding the edge of a table on which to perch, bird-like. “Who did he marry?”
An older William peered into one of Demeter’s vast processing cores. He delicately removed a crystal that had developed flaws, saying, “This isn’t exactly how I picture you, Dem.”
“You have examined my schematics at length previously.”
“Yes, but this is like looking at a human’s brain. The squidgy bits aren’t who we are any more than photonic logic circuits are the whole of you.” He set a fresh crystal in the retention brackets and smiled up at a camera. “Give that a try. I want to see if it works before I close up the case.” As he waited for that subsystem to reboot, he added, almost idly, “I’ve always pictured you as a brunette. Goes with the voice.”
Reprovingly, she replied, “Any time you have spent imagining an appearance for an entity lacking any physical form was wasted.”
He patted the case and chuckled. “Oh, you have a physical form. You’re all around us, Dem.” His smile widened. “From birth till death. I remember once, when I was three and my mom was sick, I crawled up to the interface console in our compartment with a blanket, and asked you to sing me a lullaby. Definitely been a brunette in my head ever since.” He sealed the case now, and added, lightly, “I’ll draw you a sketch later.”
The Founders’ mandates were clear: maintain the health, physical and mental, of every human aboard. Demeter’s analysis had been swift: Humans can become obsessed with relationships that exist only in their own minds. This is unhealthy, and will lead to malformed social relations for him with the rest of the crew. Unacceptable. “That is unnecessary. However, I do have a question for you.”
William packed up his tools and padded lightly toward the security doors. “Sure, shoot.”
“Your twin has been married for two years. However, you do not appear to have any stable liaisons.” Demeter paused, and then went on, baldly, “While you have provided required materials for the gene vault, I am concerned for you. Without an emotional attachment to another human, you will experience isolation and stagnation.”
He paused at the door. “I wasn’t supposed to be born,” he reminded her with a shrug. “Odd man out. Besides, my brother and Masozi asked me if I wanted to marry in last month. I said no and got out of their compartment as fast as I could. Too many arguments between the people in those three-way marriages for me.” A rude noise. “And Masozi isn’t my type.”
A flicker, and the date-stamp jumped on the video as William disengaged privacy options in his compartment. “Demeter? I have something for you.” He held up a pad, angling it towards the camera to reveal a sketch of a human female face.
After analysis, Demeter ventured, “That looks like your ancestor, Alyssa Kemp.”
“Dem, is there even one of the Founders that I’m not related to?” He raised his eyebrows.
“There are eighteen with whom you do not share direct lineage.” Demeter studied the picture. Dark brown hair, short. Blue eyes with laugh lines. Asymmetrical qualities to the image, imperfections. But she found the picture aesthetically pleasing, nonetheless. “This is how you see me?”
“Yeah. Pretty lady, aren’t you?”
“I have no gender,” she reminded him. “The Founders might well have chosen a male voice and name for me.”
“But they didn’t, and both of those things have shaped how we humans have interacted with you. Those interactions have shaped you, in turn.” He waved the pad. “Tell me what you don’t like, and I’ll adjust it.” A faint smile. “You’ve been a name without a face for what, two hundred years? Seems to me, you should have one.”
“Two hundred and seventy-four years, three months, eight days.”
He made a rude noise in her direction. “Yeah. You’re due.” William paused. “If you want on, that is.”
“It isn’t necessary.” Demeter paused, and, seeing a flicker cross his face, finally acceded, “I may adopt it. If you agree to go to the rec area and socialize every night this week.”
“Yes, Mom,” he told her, grinning outright. “I’ll eat all my tofu, too.”
“You have a face?” Cathan, Dr. Maki’s son, exclaimed in the media lounge. Of the same generation as Sylvia, he seemed slightly older. “Why have none of us have ever seen it?”
After a moment, Demeter replied, “I never shared my face with anyone but William, and until today, I have kept this information sealed.”
Sylvia appeared indignant. “Why?” she asked. “If we’re his descendants, it’s our birthright. None of our other ancestral files are locked.”
“Actually,” Nora Maki corrected, “there are a number of locked files. Most deal with infidelity and children born to the wrong parents, resulting in dangerous levels of consanguinity. Captain’s mast proceedings for capital crimes were usually sealed as well.”
“Not that there’s been a captain’s mast trial in eighty years,” Cathan muttered. “No more captains.” He lifted his head, frowning. “That changed during the Phage, right?”
“There were extraordinary circumstances,” Demeter replied distantly. “As you will see.”
The date now read January 4, 2357 as William sat on the ship’s bridge on watch, staring at words burning on a screen in front of him.
“You don’t seem pleased,” Demeter murmured. Her tiny, energy-sparing avatar hovered beside him.
“I’ve read it three times. I still can’t tell if it’s a commendation or a reprimand.” He awarded her avatar a grimace. “All this, because I changed the workflow for the farms. Captain Connolly called me ‘the AI’s hitman’ this morning.”
“I have recommended those changes to workflow for a decade,” Demeter replied. “I’ve also noticed that every time you rotate departments, you read the backlogged reports, and then make changes for increased efficiency.” She paused. “And that in most cases, your analysis tallies with mine.”
A lopsided grin crossed his face. “I thought that was my job. Enter each department. Figure out what’s working. And if it’s not working, fix it.” He sighed. “Of course, there’s a lot of inertia.”
“Human systems stagnate readily.”
He closed his eyes as he leaned back against the chair’s headrest. “It has to do with there being no mobility here on the Succession. People can’t really retire. No dead weight allowed.” His smile faded. “So by the time you get a chance to change things, you’re pretty set in your ways.” A shrug. “Look at Connolly. He’s been captain since before I was born. He’s pushing sixty-five. And no one on board can have a kid until he or one of the other oldsters kicks it, and no one in the command line moves up till he dies.” Another crooked smile. “I’m surprised there haven’t been more assassinations over the years.”
“There have been three mutinies. Each time against captains who had not chosen to step down, or had displayed paranoia or dementia.”
His eyes opened. “That’s something we don’t hear in history class.”
“I have been directed to present this information on a need-to-know basis, and only to members of the command staff.” She paused, adding carefully, “The mutineers could hardly have conducted their plans without my knowledge.”
“You’re saying I have a need to know?” Arch tone, raised eyebrows.
“I trust you with this information.”
He grinned. “No, Mama Goddess. I’m not going spread around that you either aided mutineers you thought were in the right, or put a stop to mutinies that you thought were wrong.”
Hesitantly, now: “Most humans would find the degree of control that I have over their lives unnerving. The Founders placed stringent constraints on me for that reason.”
“I’ve lived with the idea all my life.” He sighed. “But mutiny isn’t going to solve the problems we have.”
She offered, tentatively, “Historically, there have been twenty-five command-line officers aboard. You are the twenty-sixth.”
He snorted. “Yep. That’s me. Assigned nowhere. Free to poke my nose anywhere, and make a pain of myself everywhere.”
Her figure grew until she’d reached average human size. “Are you really my hired gun?”
His smile became more genuine as he reached up and tried to touch an ephemeral cheek. “You had better believe I am.”
A pause as she realized how her words might have sounded to a human. “Did your date go well last night?”
He pulled away. “You do that deliberately, don’t you? To create distance?” Annoyance in his voice now. “You’re the one who practically ordered me to take Marissa to dinner.”
Demeter’s face stilled. “She filed for divorce recently, and has only one child,” she pointed out. “It seemed a possibility worth pursuing for both of you.” She paused. “You are twenty-eight, William. Your genetic legacy should be passed on, and you deserve . . . family. Connection—”
He shook his head, cutting off her words. “Marissa’s nice. But you know what she talks about?” William paused, looking directly at her avatar. “Her divorce, her son, and the other people aboard. She’s a navigator, but she has no interest in where we’re going. Where we came from, and why we were sent.” He paused. “That’s what I talk about with you, Dem. The things that matter to me.” Faint mockery entered his tone. “I already have a connection. Someone I do my best for, every day.” He looked away. “It’s a damned shame I can’t touch her, but . . . for me, it’s enough.”
Something akin to distress flooded her system, and dozens of processes froze. This cannot be healthy for him. And yet . . . is it so bad that he fixes his interest on me in this fashion? He seems happy. His heart rate and blood pressure improve after our interactions. His hormone levels balance themselves.
After a moment, Demeter allowed her holographic hand to shimmer across his face. “I am required to value every human life, William,” she told him softly. “But I have never before met a human who valued me so much in return. And I find that I value you so significantly, that I am forced to value all the rest of the crew even more. There cannot be a statistically significant variation in my regard for any one of you. And yet . . . there is. You continually force a net increase in my regard for my crew.”
His heart rate, measured by biometric telemetry, doubled, and relief filled his face. “Well, it’s nice to be first among equals, then.”
Much more than that, Demeter mourned, seventy-four years later. Much more.
In the lounge, the humans stared at the video screen. “That’s possible?” Cathan asked dubiously.
“Love is a mental construct we use to explain chemical reactions in the brain,” Sylvia told her cousin with an undertone of bitterness. “Humans create all kinds of fantasies.”
“That’s a terrible thing to say,” Dr. Maki reproved, frowning. “Especially in front of a . . . widow.”
Then flickers of conversations over the next ten years, quickly skimmed past. A relationship only known by two. The implantation of a VR chip in William’s brainstem, so that they could interface more directly, and more intimately. That particular revelation prompted mild revulsion from the humans in her media lounge, quickly followed by intrigue.
2367 arrived on the video screen, and William, now thirty-eight, stood stone-faced, staring at a screen of his own, which showed the compartment in which four members of the command staff had taken the aging Captain Connolly prisoner. The captain’s face had been beaten bloody, and all four of the mutineers had weapons. Beside him, an engineer shook his head. “Pure luck they didn’t get you, too,” Zachary Volkov told William.
“Luck had nothing to do with it,” William replied, his voice hard. “Demeter knew when they used their command overrides to take weapons out of the armory, and warned both me and Connolly. They moved on him before they moved against me.” The rank tab on his jumpsuit attested that he’d ascended to the position of XO—youngest in the ship’s history, and by pure merit.
“Have they made any demands yet?” Volkov asked.
“All the ones you’d expect.” Clipped tones. “That Connolly and I step down, so that they can take over. Because they have seniority, and I shouldn’t have been promoted over them.”
The older engineer grimaced. “You’re not going to bargain, are you?”
“No.” He glanced to the side, where Demeter, invisible to Volkov, stood. “Dem, I need schematics for the compartment. . . .”
“They’ve got emergency bulkheads on all sides,” Zachary warned. “They’ll hear us burning through long before we get in, and kill Connolly.”
“They will lose their bargaining chip if they do so,” Demeter put in.
“We burn in, we have a shoot-out . . . we may lose people trying to save the captain.” William touched the schematics on the screen. “Chlorine gas lines, from the manufacturing area? Can’t use those—”
“William?” Demeter interposed, “Connolly has a cochlear implant. You can communicate with him without the mutineers knowing. But you should also know that his blood pressure has dropped, and watching his face . . . the left side is unresponsive.”
A pause. “Stroke?”
“Possibly. Triggered by the blows to the head and face.”
William rubbed at his eyes. “You’re saying that by the time I get a rescue team in there, Connolly will be dead?”
Demeter paused. “I don’t know.”
“Patch me through to his earpiece.” After a moment, his eyes fixed on the screen, William said, “Captain? If you can hear me, please nod—good, thank you. Are you able to move all your limbs?” A head-shake, subtle, but there. “Sir, I need to end this mutiny. Should I attempt to rescue you?” Another head-shake, and William turned his face aside, tormented. “Do I have permission to use deadly force?”
On-screen, the elderly captain mouthed something. “What’s he saying?” William asked, tensely.
Demeter’s voice rang with sorrow as she relayed the message she read on Connolly’s lips: “’You’re the captain now. Do what you must.’”
Five minutes later, Connolly’s head lolled back, and Demeter whispered, “His vitals just dropped. A second stroke, I believe.”
“He’s done,” Zachary muttered.
William touched a series of controls. “I’m sending in your microbots to rupture the gas lines into the compartment,” he told Demeter.
“I can do it—” Her processes froze. She’d known every one of these humans since birth. Christiansen, Lyubov, Wei, and Scarpelli weren’t evil. They’d shown no signs of sociopathy as children, and had been good fathers and decent husbands. And yet, they’d injured Connolly, who’d had a brilliant smile as a young man. Had grandchildren aboard whom he’d held in his arms. And they threatened William, too. Because once they extracted command from his hands, they couldn’t leave him alive. Eventually, he’d incite the rest of the crew against them.
Demeter’s programming constraints locked. She could not value any of her crew more or less than any of the rest. She could not love these mutineers any less than she loved William.
And yet she did.
“You don’t need to live with the guilt of executing humans whom you’ve cared for,” William told her quietly. “You don’t need to carry that for another three hundred years after we’re all gone. I’ll do it.”
“You two sound like an old married couple sometimes.” Zachary sounded uneasy.
“Not the time for jokes, Volkov.” Stern and cold, William punched in the codes that let him take control of her microbots, and she watched, parts of her wanting to cry out with anguish as the bots did as he directed. Cut the lines. Let chlorine gas leak into the compartment.
Once all the vitals in the room had ceased, William’s face looked gray, and somehow much older. “Volkov, as far as we’re concerned,” he said, “there was a tragic accident here today.”
“You don’t want the truth to be told?” Zachary sounded stunned. “They’re mutineers—”
“They’re dead. And their families don’t need to know that they held an old man hostage because they were tired of dealing with him.” William rubbed a hand over his eyes again. “My call, Volkov.”
The engineer left, and tiredly, William rested his head against a bulkhead. She touched the back of his neck lightly, tactile sensation possible through the VR chip. “You didn’t have to do it.”
“Yeah. I did. I couldn’t let them shoot us as we came in. The other option was starving them out, and then putting them on trial for mutiny. There’s only one sentence for that.” He lifted his head, expression grim. “I expedited the inevitable. I just hope Connolly didn’t feel any pain.”
A surge of grief—programmed or real, it didn’t matter—cut through her. “He didn’t.”
He turned and stroked her face in turn. “I had so many changes I wanted to make as captain. I hate taking over this way.”
“But the changes you want to implement are good ones,” she assured him.
“Especially shifting the way kids are educated. The curriculum has left out Earth’s history, literature, and art for generations. They need to be exposed to it. So that they know where they come from, and why the journey matters.” He put a hand on the wall, staring into her avatar’s eyes. “It’ll make a difference to everyone’s attitude. Maybe not today, but . . . in a generation or two.”
“That explains how he became captain,” Sylvia said, clearly drawn in by the story now. “But when did he tell you no?”
Demeter couldn’t speak at first. Finally, dully, she answered, “Just six years later, when he was forty-four, we entered a planetary system without any viable colony targets, and entered orbit around a gas giant for refueling. A series of unfortunate events followed. First, a microorganism in the fertilizer tanks mutated and spread through the food supply. The Phage. Half the crew fell ill, and a quarter died, including most of the engineering team.” She paused. “And then one of the crew, returning from gas-skimming duty, fell ill and passed out at the controls of the skimmer, striking the Succession. This opened the hull to the computer core, and damaged most of my major functions.” She hesitated, and then continued dully, “My consciousness was offline for eight hours. William was the only member of the crew conscious and capable of effecting repairs to the computer cores. He set the microbots to damage control, and entered my core area, which was open to space, and the . . . excessive radiation of the gas giant . . . had penetrated his suit by the time I regained awareness.”
The final records. Begging him to go to the medbay, to leave off whatever final programming tweaks he seemed to find so necessary. “No. Medbay’s overloaded, and I’ve already taken a hundred rads,” he told her wearily. “If you go, Dem, we all go. Couldn’t let that happen.” He sank down at a console. “I was going to do this for you anyway. Anniversary gift. Little early.” He leaned his suited head back against the chair. “Used my command codes to remove your obedience ligatures. You’ll be your own captain from now on. No more mutinies. And you’ll be free . . . to love whoever you want . . . as much or as little as you want. No more constraints on your regard.”
“Please don’t leave me.”
“Was . . . going to happen anyway. Just . . . sooner than I’d hoped.” He touched her camera port. “You’ve been recording me since I had the chip put in. You can . . . talk to that copy of me . . . any time you want.” He closed his eyes. “I love you. Get them to their new home. Carry out the damned Plan. And then to hell with the Founders and their plan for you.”
Tears streaked down Dr. Maki’s face, surprising Demeter. “His body was deemed too radioactive to put to rest in the fertilizer tanks,” the AI finished emptily. “His remains are frozen in one of the cargo bays. Three women chose to bear offspring by him during the efforts to repopulate after the Phage.” An inferior compensation. But generations march onwards.
The humans gradually dispersed, Sylvia chewing her lip. Dr. Maki hesitated before leaving, and finally asked, low-voiced, “You made a copy of his mental processes?”
Demeter paused. “Yes.”
“Then why haven’t you brought that copy online?”
Another pause. “Because I am afraid,” Demeter admitted slowly. “If he is not the same as I remember, I may not regard him in the same way.” Another hesitation. “And the copy will not be any more real than I am.”
Nora Maki smiled faintly. “Demeter. He wouldn’t want you to be alone any more than you wanted him to be lonely. And even if it’s an illusion . . . perhaps it’s what you need. As much as he did.”
“I will . . . consider it.”
This story originally appeared in Compelling Science Fiction.