It had been three weeks and Mars High Orbit still just felt wrong. The sensors all checked out. Gravity was right, air mix was good, temperature was fine. Still something undefinable felt off. Maybe it was the fact that Mars was such an industrial world, not bound by the same rules that made Earth’s various orbital unions so clean and beautiful. Mars orbit was riddled with riffraff trade ships, derelict stations, various debris that formed a sort of muddy ring around the once red planet.
His name was Baker and he had another three weeks to wait until Mars was in the right position for him to start back towards Earth. Orbiting Mars was like being in one of those month long winters in cities near Earth’s poles he read about. He could quite shake the feeling of being cold, no matter how much he fiddled with the environmental controls.
As much as he hated the orbit, he couldn’t go down to Mars to sleep anyhow. Too expensive, too foreign, too crowded, too scary. His little ship was his home, anyway. His womb, his world. 90 meters long by 10 meters wide, split into three even 30 by 10 meter sections. Control and Engineering in the front, Sleep and Entertainment in the middle, and in the back was Food and Medical as well as Waste.
It was in that aft section that “she” waited.
A few weeks ago his boxy vessel was connected to a half a kilometer chain of cargo freights. Things that couldn’t go through a hyperspace jump and things from people who couldn’t afford one of the big freight companies’ prices. Heavy metals for complex scientific work, art, wine, even a few tons of pressurized coffee beans. Shipping them all from Earth to Mars got him enough credit for supplies that will last him two years. It also bought her.
She came in a cheap tank. The material was like those big bottles of water he got when he was in flight school. Perfectly smooth, very strong, but it gave if you pressed on it. Totally transparent. Soft blue lights on the top and bottom, even during night cycle. Red alphanumerics on the top on the tank that read 96:24. Ninety six hours to go.
The tank was warm, 38°C, which was just a little over his own body temperature. He liked to watch her float and he leaned against the warm plastic at night. Two weeks ago it was just a tank full of cloudy liquid. Then a little tadpole looking thing floating dead center. Then an embryo, a fetus, all the cycles of pre-life, just like the holos in school. After 100 hours she looked about four or five. She would age faster as it went on, rushing towards her preprogrammed maturity.
Some nights he would wake and the weight of loneliness would feel like it was crushing him and he would curl up at the base of the tank and sing the old songs from the mining colonies he heard his mother sing when he was a child. Corporate hymns that read were once religious, when such a thing was allowed. The words had changed a thousand times.
It had been years since he’d had a real conversation with someone. He’d been going hard on the trade routes from the mining colonies in the Asteroid Belt where he was born to Mars and to Earth. He had to fly a company rig for about four years when he made enough to get his own ship.
It was a hard life out there. He was always waiting. Waiting for planets to line up so he could fly the millions of kilometers between them. Waiting for people to load up his ship. Waiting to figure out where he would go next.
At T-10 hours she looked like she was in her early teens. Her hair floating around her in a little curtain of dark brown. Age was such a malleable thing now. He didn’t want a child, but he didn’t want to wait much longer. Either way she was really only a month old.
As the clock ticked down, Baker spent all of his time back there, watching. It wasn’t a thing anymore, it wasn’t a little girl either. She was in her mid teens now, her breasts forming. Her areolas brown circles tipped in little nipples. The cleft of her sex pulling his eyes down every time he looked at her. Shame had disappeared some time after his first interplanetary flight. Time and loneliness killed shame first.
The reality of it was coming on. Soon she would be there, warm and his.
At 30 minutes her eyes opened and she watched him. She had a peaceful smile. She moved her fingers experimentally and stretched as much as she could in the confines of her tank. He touched the plastic and she touched the place where his hand was on the plastic. Her hair floated around, shoulder length and as long as it would ever grow. She reminded him of a holo he watched as a kid of a mermaid.
She was not Harriet Boyer-Chung. She was not an astro-navigator. She did not have three lovely children who grew up into fine people and went off to have beautiful children of there own.
She was not Harriet Boyer-Chung, but she did have her memories. Well, some of them. The images and sounds and recollections were held back by the thinnest membrane deep inside of her. It was like accessing some external device, some psychological peripheral. There was this silent spinning latency when she thought of the memories of the person who she was not, but there was no real time delay, just some strange internal temporal adjustment, just some imagined nanosecond of jet leg.
If she wasn’t Harriet, then who was she?
In the first days questions came and went in her head. Some were answered by her half remembered other life, some were answered by some internal compass that told her what was true. She knew she was still unborn. She knew she was in a tank. She knew she was being grown for someone. She knew all this in the way children knew about the tooth fairy. It was something that she believed with all of her heart, but would feel a lot better about once she actually got some evidence.
Later, things came to her. She remembered that she knew languages, it was like imagining a door and then opening it to find a whole other room of your house that you had forgot about. Basic Eastern, Basic Western, Miner Common and a wealth of High Orbit creoles and trade pidgins. It was all there, but not quite “there” yet. It was like knowing all the rules of baseball, but never having actually held a ball.
When the clock inside of her started swelling, making her heart beat fast, making her face flush, she knew the next step was coming soon. Her breath came quick, taking in the water around her, which was still rich with vitamins. She felt warmth in her face and then saw white, red and finally gray. Then, there in front of her was her man. It was the easter bunny, santa clause, an angel. It was proof that it all wasn’t just a prolonged dream.
When he put his hand on the glass, she touched it with hers, feeling the warmth through the thin wall of plastic.
When the pain started, when the amniotic fluid with its little nano helpers and vitamins and soothing drugs finally became nothing but water, she panicked. Her lungs weren’t able to get as much oxygen from the liquid now and soon it would drown her.
What came next was an odd mix of things. It was part birth, part opening a present on Christmas morning and part wedding night. He couldn’t wait for the tank to drain. It was only water now anyhow. He pulled at the bottom of the plastic tank when the clock ticked down to zero. The water spilled out onto the floor of the aft section. It pooled around his feet for a moment before circling down the drain in the center of the room, the manufactured gravity pulling it towards the ships center like a tiny black hole.
She came slipping out of the bottom of the tank with the water and Baker knelt to catch her. She turned to face the floor and coughed wetly, spitting water and fluid from her lungs and then she took deep gulps of air.
She clung to him like a wet and frightened cat, shivering and naked. He wiped the hair away from her face and she stared at him. Her eyes were huge and gray. She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. She instinctively held on to him, slipping her naked arms around him and hugging him tightly. He hugged her back.
He didn’t know why, but he felt some dam in him break. He started to cry against her and they cradled each other on the the wet floor of the ship.
He wouldn’t be alone anymore.
He closed his eyes for a second and thought about the room, the hardware in his head he told the ship to turn the heat up 10 degrees. He turned down the humidity and he felt a hot dry breeze float over their wet bodies.
When they finally parted, she looked into his eyes and smiled. Her smile was so full of joy and her eyes were shining with curiosity and hope, he had to laugh. And then she kissed him. A soft kiss on his lips, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. He closed his eyes and kissed her back. She tasted like nothing he could explain. Like skin after a hot shower; clean and new and perfect.
She was in the arms of the one who she was for. The one who meant everything. His arms were warm and his body was solid. She looked into his eyes and he looked huge, intelligent, strong. He held her as she shivered and then as he cradled her the world grew less cold and then warm. He smiled and she started to relax.
“Is this my life?” she wondered, her heart swelling. “In his arms, with a warm breeze on my body.” She couldn’t imagine anything better. Harriet’s memories, behind their invisible curtain didn’t show any happiness greater. The girl felt the warmth flowing through the ship and saw, in half opaque memories, summer days and sun kissed beaches.
She wanted to tell him. She wanted to tell him everything, but her mouth didn’t know how yet. Her head, knew, but her lips couldn’t yet form the words. She just looked at him, his gray eyes, his stubbly face, his large expressive mouth and she smiled. And then she was moved forward, pushed by pure instinct and then his lips were on hers and the world became nothing but the taste of him and new swirling warmth inside of her.