Escape Pod 749: Key Component

Key Component

By T. R. Siebert

The first thing you need to understand is that you don’t have a body. You are a body.

They pulled you from your mother, kicking and screaming, and you haven’t found silence since. You are too much.

Too much to handle, too much to hide. They tell you as much, with words and in a myriad of other ways. Too large to overlook, too obscene to see. You fold yourself into yourself and cannot escape the confines of it.

The ship wasn’t built for you like you were built for it. In most hallways you have duck to not hit your head on the ceiling. You avoid chairs with arm rests because you know you won’t fit. You haven’t slept comfortably in a bed since you were ten years old. Back then, you had nightmares in which you never stopped growing until you pushed against the hull of the ship, bursting through it into the never-ending void of space.

You move, and the world breaks around you.

Engineered before you even found yourself in a womb, predestined to fulfill the role for which you were created.

They formed you with their own hands and called it barbaric. You’ve read treatises on your very existence, written by the same people who brought you into this world. They all end the same: If only there was another way, if only they could have found a different solution. Then there wouldn’t be the need for you at all.

Here’s the second thing to understand, the truth behind it all: Every ship needs a pilot. They were designed this way, flawed. But 374 years into the journey, there’s no alternative. It’s not like they haven’t tried. You read all about the failed attempts, the AI and robotic substitutes. They work for a while, but never well. Without a proper pilot, the ship cannot survive. Without the ship, the people on it cannot survive. And what is a generation ship without its generations?

What is a ship without its pilot?

What is a pilot without a ship?

They made you this way, both of you. When you were a child, you used to think of the cockpit as a hungry mouth, biding its time. Waiting to devour you.

“At least when they finally strap you in, there’ll be a lot of you to burn through,” a boy told you once, fishing for a mean thing to hurl at you and catching a phrase he’d overheard his father say. “That’s why they made you ugly like this.”

The night before the rest of your life, Iri insists on shaving your head herself when she sees your trembling hands. She’s been there through the worst of it–the shakes and the seizures. All the flaws of a brain that wasn’t built for a human body.

You sit on the floor as she walks around you in circles. Strands of hair fall to the ground or find their way onto your skin, underneath your clothes. It itches but you don’t dare to move. Iri is down to the razor, her fingers tracing the smooth skin it leaves in its wake.

When she reaches the nape of your neck, her movements grow careful, hesitant. They installed the interface there years ago–standard for any pilot candidate. The scarring has long since faded, but you know it still freaks her out. Not because of the way it looks but because of what it represents.

Once she’s done, she stands in front of you, cupping your face in her small hands. The way she looks at you is something you’ll never forget. Intently, as if committing the image of you to memory. Somehow, her looking at you doesn’t hurt as much as the others staring. Somehow, her gaze feels like being worthy of it.

She brushes some leftover bits of hair from your cheek. You know the words she wants to say are burning on the tip of her tongue. It’s nothing she hasn’t told you a thousand times before.

You don’t have to do this. You can still change your mind.

She’s pale now, even more than usual. They all are lately. Withering away right in front of your eyes–closer to death with every day the ship is without a pilot.

Last week, the oxygen cut out in Hangar C. The week before, two workers died when the temperature in their living quarters dropped to -40°C. Nobody has been to the arboretum in months because the doors won’t open.

The ship doesn’t mean to kill them. It’s just missing a key component.

It’s been 102 days since they pulled the body of the last pilot out of the cockpit. Or what was left of him, anyway. You know that Iri can’t get the image out of her mind. Not like you can either.

Outside the windows of your apartment, the artificial daylight gradually grows brighter, mimicking the gray 5 a.m. light of a world none of you have ever seen. In a few hours, they’ll come for you.

You reach up and pull Iri close. She lets you bury your face in the soft fabric of her shirt, her hands on your shoulders, an anchor.

You think of Ebrahim who serves you tea in your favorite shop every Tuesday. You think of the woman who lives in the apartment next to yours and whose singing you can hear through the pipes connecting your bathrooms. You think of the boy who used his father’s words against you once and who is now a father himself. You think of Iri.
You think of a planet, still generations away. Of wind and sun and wide-open spaces.

The emergency lights bathe the cockpit in a reddish glow that is already giving you a headache. The walls are a mess of monitors and cables, switches and pipes. It’s not a mouth at all, you think, as you follow Dr. Waite inside. It’s a heart.

The pilot’s seat is more of a pod than a chair – its curved chrome and glass reflecting the blinking lights that count down to the ship’s demise. When you sit in it, you realize that for the first time in your life, something was made to fit you.

There are restraints to hold you in place, electrodes stuck to your freshly shaved head. The IV in your left arm stings, but you stay still, waiting for Dr. Waite and his team to finish their work. They move quickly. They’ve done this before. When you keep your eyes on Iri in the corner, you can almost ignore the fact that you’ll never stand up from this seat again.

“Now, remember,” Dr. Waite says as he checks the placement of the electrodes one last time. “Once you’ve established connection to the main computer, you need to focus on life support first.”

You nod. You’ve memorized the order. Life support. Emergency repairs. Navigation.

“This part might hurt a bit.” He connects the final plug to the interface at the base of your skull, his face grimacing with the anticipation of pain he won’t feel.

It comes, fast and hot as your nerves fight against the wrongness of it all. This is where this body ends, they think.

We cannot go further than this skin.

They’re wrong, of course.

You must have screamed. Iri looks as if you might have. You want to take her hand, but you don’t know how to move now. Perhaps it’s for the best.

“What’s the status of the neural connection?” Dr. Waite asks.

“Primary connection complete,” a tinny voice answers from the speakers above. You think it’s the doctor’s assistant, Nea. But you’ve lost count of all the people who’ve probed and prepped you for this. “Two minutes until completion.”
Your nerves are raw, tingling with anticipation. Your heartbeat is loud in your ears. If you move the world breaks around you. If you move…

“Hey.” Suddenly, Iri is there. Her fingers are on your cheek, your forehead. “Are you still with me?”

You’re sweating, burning up. You tell yourself she’s seen you in worse conditions than this.

“Yeah.” Speaking feels strange, like your mouth isn’t quite your own anymore. You try to smile and the intention doesn’t make it all the way to your muscles.

She looks like she wants to say more. Somewhere behind all the frustration and grief, she knows you’re right to do this. That there is no other way to save the ship. But admitting that would push her to a place from which she could never return.

She shouldn’t have to live with that on her conscience.

You want to take her hand. She takes yours instead.

“One minute left,” the voice that might be Nea’s says from above. There’s not enough time. There’s never enough time.

“I was born for this,” you say with that mouth that isn’t yours now. Nobody scored as high on their synchronization tests as you. Nobody’s neural patterns were as perfectly suited for this as yours.

Iri never cared about any of it. “You were born to live.”

You will. In a way. For a while. It’s worth it, isn’t it?

What’s a pilot without a ship?

What’s a pilot without…

“Ten seconds.”

You can’t feel your legs and squeeze Iri’s hand just to make sure you still can.

“Five seconds.”

You close your eyes. You’re still here.


You’re still here.


You’re still here.


The first thing you understand is that you don’t have a body. You are a body.

Thousands of tons of metal and glass and plastic, rotating and working in perfect synchrony. You are engines and fire, pushing yourself forward through the darkness. You are millions of measurements and calculations and decisions. A thing of beauty and terrifying improbability.

You are also a man with kind eyes, brewing tea in the back of his shop. A woman singing in the shower with abandon after a long day at work. A man lifting his son up to sit on his shoulders, an old shame pushed deep into the back of his mind. And somewhere in the heart of you, in a small room filled with cables and monitors and lights turning green again, a girl holding the hand of what used to be you. You see them all, the thousands of lives clinging to you, trusting in you. Hoping that it will just be enough to take them home.

Outside, there is only the vastness of a galaxy and the light of a billion stars. There’s nothing to constrict you, no confines to break. For the first time in your life, you move boldly. You are the world. The lives of thousands hum in your veins. You take up space, you breathe it in, and push yourself against the emptiness.



Host Commentary

By Mur Lafferty

Making babies “for” something is often played as a bad, unethical thing. Just as ‘You’ are created to become the ship, some people have a child who needs transplanted bio material, and only a sibling will do. So the parents have another kid. Some people think that’s terrible, but think having a kid just for the first kid to have some company is fine. I can see the difference, but there’s an element of sameness. You’re having a child for A Reason. Many children are born due to no reasons, or as an unplanned mistake. Ethics and childbirth are a minefield of discussion, and I honestly don’t know what the answer is.

This is a story about the self, of who you are, of why you are. It touches on fat-phobia and the cruelty of children, and the concept of a body that is yours occupying a space that isn’t yours. The world has so many ideas about who owns the space around us, namely there are poisonous accusations that women should take up as little space as possible, and fat people definitely don’t deserve the space they occupy.

There’s so much ownership crammed into this short story — ownership of self, of body, of space around you, that I had to read it several times because every time I read it, it hit me harder, and I hope it does the same to you.

“The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” -Leo Tolstoy
“…including your own.” – Mur

About the Author

T. R. Siebert

T. R. Siebert

T. R. Siebert is a speculative fiction writer from Germany. When she’s not busy writing, she can be found attempting to grow vegetables on her balcony or looking at pictures of cute dogs.

Find more by T. R. Siebert

T. R. Siebert

About the Narrator

Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Abra Staffin-Wiebe loves optimistic science fiction, cheerful horror, and dark fantasy. Dozens of her short stories have appeared at publications including, F&SF, Escape Pod, and Odyssey Magazine. She lives in Minneapolis, where she wrangles her children, pets, and the mad scientist she keeps in the attic. When not writing or wrangling, she collects folk tales and photographs whatever stands still long enough to allow it. Her most recent book, The Unkindness of Ravens, is an epic fantasy coming-of-age novella about trickster gods and favors owed. Enjoy an excerpt here:

Find more by Abra Staffin-Wiebe