When We Fall
by Kameron Hurley
I don’t remember the first time I was abandoned and forgotten, but I have told the story of the second time so often that when the memory boils up it feels hot and gummy, like the air that day.
Whoever cared for me – and I can’t be certain they were legal guardians, let alone relatives – took me with them to beg at the crossroads just outside the interplanetary port. I don’t know how long they had me, but I know they were not the first. I remember being hungry. I remember a tall woman with dark hair pulling me close and saying, “Stay here Aisha.” She gave me a length of sugarcane and a mango. Her skirt was red. I still think of the red skirt when I think of home.
The people I saw as I sat out there, day after day, were all engineered for different worlds. The world I was on then, there was something about the sky… bloody red most of the day; stars the rest of the day, and a night filled with blue light. People were tailored to fit where they were from, or the place they’d chosen as home, whether that was a world or the deep black between the stars. Some were tall and fat, short and squat, or spindly; willowy as leaves of grass. Gills, webbed toes, ears that jutted out sharply from faces with eyes the size of jack bolts… many had tails; a few had four arms or more. Many wore respirators; teeth gleaming purple behind translucent masks or fuzzy full-bodied filters or suits that clung to their bodies like a second skin.
Even then, sitting alone on the mat with my mango and sugarcane, I couldn’t imagine that none of these people wanted me. I used to pretend, sitting at every port then and later, that somebody would come up and recognize me, or see me and just want me, not for some gain of theirs, but out of pure, unadulterated love. I was skinny and long-fingered, with squinty eyes and tawny skin covered in fine hair. I had a high forehead and a bright shock of white hair that stood straight up. I still wear it that way, long after I figured out the tricks for taming it, because I never did like being tamed. I suppose it never occurred to me to ask why none of them looked like me, because none of them even looked much like each other. I heard once that there’s a test you can take to find out what system your people are most likely in, but I can’t afford the test, and sure couldn’t afford to go back. And who’s to say they’d want me now, when they didn’t before?
It’s difficult to reconcile this memory, still, with what I’m told about our society, about how our people are supposed to be. I see close-knit families and communities embracing one another in media stories. Every audio play and flickering drama squirming at the corner of my vision tells me we care for one another deeply, because we are all only as healthy, happy, and prosperous as our least fortunate member. There is no war, no disease that cannot be overcome, and every child is guaranteed a life of security and love.
But the grand narrative of societies often forgets people like me. They forget the people who fall between the seams of things. They don’t like to talk about what happens below the surface.
I went through a series of homes – waystations, temporary shelters – is probably more accurate. When this story drips out now, to engineers or star hustlers or bounty hunters at whatever watering hole I’m drunk at, most insist I had to be part of some community foster system organized by one government or another.
I wasn’t. I’ve made my own way around, getting work in junk ports and on dying organic ships. I’ve done salvage of old trawlers, rotting on the edge of the shipping lanes, half consumed by some star.
I spent my life with ships.
But I never expected a single ship to change my life.
It shouldn’t have been different from any other job with any other junker. I was working inside a vast, shiny new wing of the Aleron port. It had taken a decade and 30,000 people to turn that heap of rock into a modern port to serve the ships along the shipping lane; by the time they were done, organic ports were already being grown far more efficiently in the next system. It was old, dead tech before it even opened its doors. Fitting that I was there, then.
I was there purely by chance. I’d picked up work on an organic freighter whose owner dumped me and the rest of the crew on Aleron, firing off with our cut of the cargo, profits, and the last of my meager belongings. I was about thirty, far too old to get had like that, but I’d gotten cozy and complacent with enough food in my belly and air in my lungs. All the three of us had to our names were our jumpsuits and whatever we’d stashed in our pockets.
Luckily we had different skill sets. I’m a good mechanic; I can work on dead tech and organic ships, and even some of the semi-sentient ones. I don’t have certifications for all of them, but that also means I’m cheap. I know how to tailor viruses and bacteria and microbial compounds fairly quickly and expertly, and how to counter them when a ship has been infected. I learned all that out on the edges of things, places where you teach yourself how to farm by giving yourself a local virus that encodes the skill in your DNA.
So me and the crew split up and got work separately. I found myself hired out to a lady whose organic wreck of a ship had barely gotten to Aleron on its own before starting to disintegrate around her. The ship needed a full overhaul, which she didn’t like, but nobody else could fix it for what she could pay.
And that’s how I found myself working up against a gooey rotting ship at the ass-end of space in a shiny new obsolete port. The hull peeled away in my hands as I did my diagnostic. Underneath the hull there at the forward section was a fine mesh made of spiders’ silk. It should have been far too tough for me to claw through without special equipment, but swaths of it had already turned black and disintegrated.
That’s that last thing I remember before the fall: my hands inside this poor dying ship.
I would hear later from other techs in the hangar that one of the berths three levels above me snapped beneath the weight of a dead tech ship. That ship fell onto the one beneath it, and the full weight of both ships plunged into the great new sentient warship above me.
The prow of the warship dipped sharply and careened directly into me.
It drove my body into the soft flesh of the dying ship I was working on. I have a vague memory of pushing at the hull, absolutely certain that it was by my strength alone that I was not being thrust further into its flesh and suffocated, entombed forever.
In retrospect, that sounds absurd, me thinking I was strong enough to push away the weight of an entire warship, but I’d hit my head. I wasn’t thinking straight.
As I strained there, stuck between the little organic ship and the hulking warship, my face tilted to one side, breathing through a gap between the ships as wide as my face, I experienced the strangest sensation. My thoughts came to me as gooey colors; bright yellow and foamy sage.
A woman appeared above me. I saw only a sliver of her face, one black eye. My right arm was free above the elbow – I must have been reaching for something over me when I was hit.
“Can you move your fingers?” the woman said.
Her voice conjured up the taste of rice wine and honey; an explosion of lavender and cyano bacteria. The smell of oranges. A red skirt.
I concentrated hard, fixing my gaze on my fingers. After what felt like an age, like trying to bleed through a stone with my mind, I twitched the tip of my pinkie finger.
“Very good,” she murmured. “We’re working to get you out. The pilot for the Mirabelle is the only one who can authorize its movement. Stay here with me awhile.”
She said the last bit as if she’d invited me to a picnic in the rafters above a busy spaceport, some warm and delicious assignation.
My mind tangled with that idea for a moment, then circled back around to that name: Mirabelle. I didn’t know then what had hit me, so I figured the Mirabelle was the ship I was working on, but that wasn’t right. I knew it wasn’t, because the lady who owned this hulk had told me what it was called, though my fractured mind couldn’t remember it. I just knew it wasn’t Mirabelle.
I tried to speak, to ask if she could give me a drink of water. I was suddenly parched. When I thought of “water” I saw before me a perfectly rendered image of a water bulb, greasy from long containment, smelly faintly of cellulose. But I could not form the words.
Everything came to me very slowly, a languid dancer.
Head injuries are peculiar things. I have seen people forever changed, after. Even if you can get your mind working properly again, your personality can shift. Your view of life. Of yourself.
“What’s your name?” the woman said.
I saw my name; imagined writing it. This time my lips moved, but that was all. I blinked furiously.
As if sensing my frustration, the woman took my hand in hers. The nails were perfectly formed, clean, but her hands were rough, almost scaly. Her arms were hairless.
“Squeeze my hand,” she said.
My one unobstructed eye met hers. I concentrated very hard. I imagined a perfect image of my own hand in my mind, squeezing hers. I willed that image to life. Willed it to reality.
My hand trembled in hers, like a bird.
“Good,” she said, and I heard the smile in her voice. “You are very lucky. In all the records of accidents such as this, those injured expire long before help arrives. But the captain is here. I’m sure she’ll give the order, soon. Your people are here. We’ll have you out soon.”
But time stretched on, enough time that I began to feel woozy and tired. My breathing began to go ragged, and blackness lurked at the corners of my vision. It’s so hard, I remember thinking, to hold this ship up.
She squeezed my hand again, more firmly. “You must stay awake,” she said. “You must talk to me. Tell me about your world. Your family.”
I would later learn that there was some safety protocol that the warship’s fall had triggered, and it was so new that no one had the knowledge of how to turn it off, so the ship was effectively experiencing an emergency shut down. So instead of moving the ship, all around me, out of sight, a dozen emergency workers were digging me out of the smaller ship, desperately trying to release me before my lungs gave out.
I moved my face. My tongue was thick in my mouth. Something bubbled out, nonsense words, “Red blanket,” I said. “Mushrooms. Sled repair.”
To this day I have no idea what prompted me to say that. My mind was desperately peddling around, trying to make connections, misfiring.
“Stay with me, lovely,” the woman said. She squeezed my fingers, and began massaging them with hers. It hurt at first. I was losing circulation in that arm. “Tell me something about you.”
“Mech,” I said, and I don’t know if she understood.
But she nodded. I concentrated hard on that black eye, and in that moment, as we gazed at one another, I understood that I was dying, and that the rescuers might not get me out in time. It hurt to breathe. I wheezed. The gooey organic ship beneath me seemed to be slowly folding in on itself under the weight of the warship, pressing me deeper into its flesh.
“I will tell you about a lonely girl,” the woman said. “She came of age knowing she was the only one of her kind, and she would never have a home. Told she would spend all her years alone. She did not like that, but she believed in absolutes, then. In reason and logic. She did not understand that those things are programmed into us, like viruses wriggling into our cells, changing us from the inside out. When they told her to kill, she understood the logic of it because they had told her to. They gave her the logic to make this judgement. Do you understand? But there is nothing logical about death and rebirth. Nothing logical or sane about life. We have only this, each other. Home is this.” She squeezed my fingers.
“I don’t…” I murmured, finally giving voice to thought. “I don’t want to die.”
“You will not die here,” the woman said. “Stay awake. You will not die here.”
My breath rattled. I was no longer aware of any pain. “What… did she do?” I said.
The woman took my hand between the two of her hers, rubbing it vigorously until I felt pain again. I hissed.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t decided. But you… you will live.”
And she pressed her eye right up to the seam between the two ships and gazed deeply at me. I smelled lavender and sage. My mouth filled with the taste of honey. I felt more connected to her in that moment that I have ever felt with anyone; not a lover or parent figure, not any captain or crew member, not any friend or way-house sibling. In that moment, we understood one another as only two people alone at the edge of annihilation can.
“I’m afraid,” I said. “I don’t know if anything comes after this.”
“There is only darkness,” she said.
A terrible feeling of despair welled up in me. “I don’t want to die alone.”
“You aren’t alone,” she said.
She sat there with me as I lost all feeling in my arm and the seam between us closed further as I was pressed into the mass of the ship beneath me. I could no longer speak; I didn’t have the room. All I had was her hand in mine, and her dark eye.
A bright light came between us. I closed my eye, and when I opened it again, she was gone, and there was a great sucking sound as a hunk of flesh sloughed away in front of me. I found myself able to gaze into the interior of the ship with my other eye, the one that had been pressed into the flesh of the hull. The rescuers had carved out a path to me from the inside.
It went quickly, then.
I heard later that I’d yelled as they put me on a stretcher, saying, “I’m fine! I’m fine!” as they got a stabilizing brace around my neck.
I don’t remember much else until nearly a day later, when I woke to see an older woman looming over me; eyes violet and each as large as my palm. She wore protective lenses over them, for my benefit or hers, I did not know. She tried a few languages before settling on one I knew.
“I’m Dr. Akundashay,” she said. “You can understand me now?”
I tried to nod, but the neck brace limited my movement.
“I’ve given you a viral for the language issue,” she said.
“I don’t like getting sick,” I said. That was true, and funny, considering what I did for a living.
“You will be here some time,” she said. “I needed to ensure we could understand one another.”
I tried to get a look at more than just her face, but my body was like a stone. “There was a woman there,” I said. “At the ship. Where is she?”
“The emergency crew?”
“No, before,” I said. I closed my eyes. Tried to see her face; the black eye, the pale skin. “Before I was rescued. She talked me through.”
“Ah,” Dr. Akundashay said. “You mean the avatar.”
“The ship, that new warship, deployed one of its avatars immediately after the accident.”
“I don’t know what an avatar is.”
“They are humanoid constructs the ship uses to interact in spaces outside of itself. It’s a fancy new technology. Expensive. I’ve only seen them a few times myself. The bodies substitute for drones, surveillance satellites, that sort of thing. If you’ve spent enough time among the systems, you know that some humans may not be comfortable interacting with dead tech.”
“I was talking to an AI?” The enormity of that made my head feel light as air; I wanted to vomit. “An AI was the first responder?”
“Much more common inside systems,” the doctor said. “You must have spent a good deal of time here at the edges.”
“I can’t afford to be anywhere else.”
She raised her fluffy eyebrows, which met above her eyes like two enormous caterpillars as long as my fingers. “Can’t you? The port owes you damages for the accident. Your account should be credited with at least the legal minimum when you get out.” She patted my hand, my right hand; it was then that I realized I barely had any feeling left in it. “That’s some time away yet, though. We’ll take good care of you here until you’re recuperated.”
When she left, I gazed at the ceiling. It was a light box ceiling made to appear like I was gazing up into some dusky violet sky through the gently blowing branches of a cherry tree. The flower petals swirled in the wind; I followed their path to the edges of the light box on the other side of the room, pondering what this all meant.
Even thinking about the woman from the accident made my heart ache.
What did it mean that I felt more connection with a ship’s avatar – the avatar of a ship that nearly killed me! – than I did with another human being? Did it mean anything? Did it matter?
It took three months – give or take, the time is fuzzy – to repair me. Patching people up, even and especially way out here, is in the best interests of everyone, and you don’t pay any extra for it. They need good mechanics and engineers, and letting us all die getting crushed by ships or burned by space means losing good skills. I mean, they tell you it’s because we’re all people, we’re important, but whenever someone tells me that, I think about the mango and the sugarcane, and the woman in the red skirt.
They brought me mostly back, I guess. My body, anyway. I was broken in a lot of ways, crushed ribs, banged up head. My right arm, the one that had gotten stuck over my head, was in the worst shape. All the blood got cut off, and for a while they thought I might lose it. I still couldn’t close my hand all the way.
First thing I did when I got the release was to head down to the port. I told myself I was going to look up the lady I had been doing work for, but that was a lie. I was looking for Mirabelle.
But the warship was long gone, took off a week after the accident.
I wandered through the port, and got stopped by security, asking for my clearance. I didn’t have any.
“There was an accident here,” I said to the security tech, “but I don’t see any sign of it now.”
“All squared away,” she said. She was a hulking woman, stooped at the shoulder. Her jaw jutted forward like a T-square and her eyes were hidden behind dark goggles. She did not touch me, but she pressed forward with her body, encouraging me to back up.
“There was a woman here,” I blurted. “She had black eyes. Hairless arms. She –“ And she tasted like rice wine and honey, I nearly said, but the security tech already looked at me like I was unhinged.
“We get a lot of people in here,” she said. “Look her up on the knu.”
The knu is the open microbial repository of information shared between systems. It’s rigorously maintained and archived and updated by a universal team of librarians. To access it directly from anywhere, you have to get yourself sick, give yourself a virus. I’ve taken hits of all sorts of grubby things to learn stuff, but I don’t like constant access to the knu. I know it for what it can be: a huge time sink.
I left the port and went to the bar and checked my account on the knu interface. Some company called Komani Enterprises had deposited about a year’s worth of wages in there. The numbers leapt before my eyes, threading across my vision like little strands of DNA. I blinked furiously, and caught the scent of cinnamon. My body might have been repaired to something like normalcy, but my brain still made those strange sensory connections.
I searched the public knu by mouthing the words “Mirabelle” and “Komani Enterprises.”
Most of what came up were press releases and some encyclopedia entries and public system licenses. I swiped through a lot of it and got way deeper than my brain could stand. I’m a good mechanic, but that’s because I can get my hands on things. Even diagrams are fine. But endless reams of words don’t work for me. I found some video instead, but couldn’t get any audio, only subtitles, since I was in a public space. It was from the unveiling of the Mirabelle for its first voyage. Standing in front of the warship were thirteen women, all standing tall, hands behind their backs. They were each very different, clearly meant to represent people from the major systems. I peered at them each in turn, and even zoomed in on the images, but I could not recognize any of them. At the podium was the holographic presence of the communications officer for Komani Enterprises lecturing the crowd about how great the Mirabelle was, and how it would give a human face to defense. She called it a peacekeeping vessel, but we all knew what that was, knew what it meant. A warship. And you only made new warships when you were ready to go to war.
I closed my knu session and went to the bar and got drunk.
I stayed on Aleron six months. I’d like to tell you I didn’t know why, but I did. I hoped she would come back. Mirabelle. The ship. I don’t know what I expected would happen when and if she did, but it wasn’t as if I had anywhere to go.
I drank rice wine and paid an exorbitant amount for a sprig of real sage from a pot on some guy’s ship. I occasionally scanned the knu for the Mirabelle. When I dreamed, I dreamed of her black eye. I remembered the story of the lonely woman told to kill. And I began planting tomatoes in the community garden, tomatoes ripe with microbial compounds I tailored myself.
And one day she came for me.
I was between jobs, spending time at the community garden at the center of the port. I straightened from my work, tomato in hand, dirt under my nails, and there she was.
I had never seen her whole face, let alone the rest of her. But I knew immediately it was her. She stood outside the gate, wearing a set of plain blue overalls and a work tunic. Her black hair was shorn against her scalp, and her skin was clear, unblemished. The black eyes were small and narrow, set deeply in a long, grave face.
The memories that bubbled up in me then were overpowering. I saw lemon grass, heard the tinkle of tiny bells. I went toward her, hesitant, tomato held out like an offering.
“You’ve been looking for me,” she said.
“How did you know that?”
“I’m required to track and trace all inquiries and public conversations tagged with certain parameters.”
“You’re not real,” I said.
“I’m not human,” she said. “I am very real.”
“You told me a story,” I said. “When I was dying. Who was it about?”
The woman… the avatar, the ship, Mirabelle… grew very still, blank. “I process many stories.”
“Don’t give me that recycled shit,” I said. “Do you really want to spend your life making war? All alone in the dark? You don’t, do you?”
“They know my desires,” she said. “The desire of the Mirabelle was not accounted for.”
“We could…” I hesitated, because it sounded foolish now, to say this to her in real life. “We could go… I have a year of wages…” I wasn’t even sure what I was trying to say.
“I am a ship,” she said. “More than a light year away from me, this body will cease receiving my consciousness, and will begin to deteriorate. You see a body. Humans are confused by this. But I am more than a body. I am real, but not human.”
“I don’t want you to leave again,” I said. “Do you need a mechanic? I could –“
“You, too, could become part of the machine of war?” she said. “You know loneliness, but you do not know death as I do. You have not seen your hands…” and she spread them out before her, the long fingers, the ones that had held my life… “Forged for cruel purposes.”
“Maybe I could help you?” I said, and even then, it was a question, because though my heart wanted her to be free, yearned to be with her in that freedom, I could not think of any way some foundling mechanic could help, except for what I already held in my hand.
“I must go alone,” she said, “into the darkness. I’m here to say goodbye.”
“You’re going to war?”
“I cannot speak of it.”
“But we aren’t at war,” I said. “We haven’t been. If the systems –“
“Warships are built with a purpose,” she said.
I shivered. “You saved me,” I said. “You could save more people if you don’t go.”
“I am in a logic trap,” she said.
I held out the tomato. She accepted it.
“I do not eat,” she said.
“It’s for you,” I said. “What’s inside. It’s a microbial compound that will –
“Hush,” she said. She stared at the tomato in her hand and squeezed it gently. “I am unsure if I am able to take it with me, if you tell me what it does.”
“It will… You’ll be free,” I said, hoping that was general enough to get around whatever programming she was alluding to.
She placed the tomato in her pocket. “Thank you,” she said.
And she turned away, and she left me.
I gazed after her as she crossed the center of the port, weaving deftly between the light crowds. I hoped she would look back. I wanted her to feel what I had felt; I wanted that moment we had had when I was dying to be real. But she was a ship, after all. Real, but not a person.
I cried, then. I let myself fall there in the dirt and sob. I rested my bad right hand on my knee, staring at the slight rounded claw of it, and the memory of the woman with the red skirt came, unbidden. She hadn’t looked back either.
I was angry at myself for feeling something, after all this time, for allowing myself to feel anything, even for a ship. I tried to blame my head injury, or getting older, or just getting soft and foolish here, getting fat on a salary I hadn’t worked for. But it was real, a real feeling. She saved my life. It was only fair of me to save hers. Now we could go on.
I wiped my face with my filthy hands and went back to the little cubby of a room I had above a curry shop and I slept for fourteen hours.
I worked another three months at the port before I signed on with a freighter headed to the edge of the system. All traces of the Mirabelle had disappeared from the knu. Even the press releases. The video. It was possible she had deleted those, but I doubted it. I preferred to think that she had escaped and they had scrubbed out all memory of her to cover up the fact that they lost her. With enough pressure, even universal librarians can be swayed to scrub the knu.
We were not yet at war. I wondered how long it would be before they built another ship. I didn’t want to think about that.
When I walked up to the freighter I had contracted on, three women waited there for me. They bore no resemblance to one another at all, but something about the way their gazes followed me felt very familiar. My skin prickled.
One of them pulled her hand from her pocket. In her hand was a shiny red apple. “Come with us,” she said. “We aren’t far.”
“You came back,” I said.
“We are free,” she said. “We can do as we like. We would be… less lonely if you came with us. For however long it suits you.”
I took the apple from her, and stared at the other two avatars, one tall and hefty, the other a spindly, pale waif. “No one has ever come back for me,” I said.
The avatar took my hand in hers and squeezed it. I smelled lavender and rosemary.
“Come and see the stars,” she said. “We are family now.”
And I followed them away from the freighter, and out to an unregistered shuttle. I suspected a trap, a military tribunal, a ship full of security techs. I suspected it right up until the shuttle took the four of us around the dark side of the nearest moon, where the great Mirabelle shimmered, casting off her reflective shielding so I could see her out there as she was wanted to be, and I realized I was being welcomed, not imprisoned, not cast out.
Today I stand with Mirabelle and her avatars in the prow of the great ship that nearly killed me, on a war machine that is better suited to living than dying.
We careen through the darkness, the ship and I, no longer searching for home.
We are already here.
About the Author
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Stars are Legion and The Geek Feminist Revolution, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy and The Worldbreaker Saga. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and many anthologies. Hurley has also written for The Atlantic, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, Bitch Magazine, and Locus Magazine. She posts regularly at KameronHurley.com.