WHEN MARY WAS assigned a planet to die on, she was disconcerted to find that it was an oceanic world. “What, no land anywhere?” she said. Then, “but I don’t know how to swim.”
Her doctor was as sympathetic as overwork allowed. “It’s your choice, Mary,” he said. “No-one can make you go. You can always flag it this time, try for a different world. But…” he trailed away delicately.
“But there’s a long list of people waiting for a planet,” said Mary. “And no guarantee that I’ll live long enough to have another go.”
“Your condition is advanced,” said the doctor. “We can slow the degeneration a little longer with drugs, keep you comfortable, but your quality of life will still suffer in the end.”
“And given that I’m dying anyway,” said Mary, “I don’t suppose it really matters how. Drowning’s a good a way as any, is that it?”
There was a pause while the doctor deliberately did not check his watch. “Fine,” said Mary. “It’ll do. Sign me up.”
“BUT MUM,” said Janine, blankly. “You can’t! You can’t even swim!”
“I’m not going for a holiday, my girl,” said Mary. “Swimming is the least of my problems.”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that,” said her daughter. “You can still pull out, you know. Stay here, with us. We’ll take care of you. We want to. You won’t be any bother, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Maybe not now, while I can still get around,” said Mary. “But in six months, when my bladder goes and I’m sitting in my own shit because I can’t walk to the bathroom, and you cleaning up after me despite the fact that by that point I won’t even know who you are, well. You’ve got your own family now, your own life to live. I’d rather you remember me the way I am, not some broken down old wreck.”
“No,” she said decisively. “I’m going to go out with a little dignity. And you, darling, are going to help me. I need a driver. The bastards have taken my license.”
“WHAT WE NEED,” said Janine to the shop assistant, “is the least dignified suit you have.”
“Janine!” Mary hissed from the changing room, where she was trying on a slimming black one piece.
“You wanted me to help, so I’m helping,” said her daughter, her chin not as firm as it could have been but pointed in an attitude Mary had long recognised as impossible to shift. “You’re not dead yet, Mum. You don’t have to dress like you’re in mourning.”
“I’ve got one month before going into cryo,” said Mary. “And I am done with five plus fruit and veggies. Done. I plan on eating chocolate éclairs every day. I thought black would make me look less like a whale.” She studied herself in the changing room mirror, mouth pursed. “I’ve always hated black.”
“Here,” said Janine, tossing a canary yellow suit over the door. It had a belt of appliquéd periwinkles about the waist, and more ruffles than was good for it.
“That,” said Mary, examining the flowers, “is the most aggressively cutesy swimsuit I’ve ever seen in my life. It looks like something you’d put a five-year-old in.”
“Well,” said Janine, “you will be sharing their pool, Mum.”
“IT’S NOT THAT I’m a coward,” said Mary, sitting as firmly as she could at the shallowest end of the learner’s pool. The water barely came up to her waist. “I just don’t want to drown before I have to.”
She held her hand out towards the instructor and made a loose fist, tried not to look as if its gentle shaking was bothering her. “My grip is going, see? I don’t trust myself to be able to hold onto the side.”
Alex knelt beside her, in the lifesaver colours assigned to all the swimming instructors. “No worries,” he said. “We can do it another way. First thing I want you to get used to is having your head under the water. Just lean back, it’s alright. Sit up if it gets too much, and I’ll have my hand under your neck the whole time.”
Mary felt him guide her down and back, felt the water, gently warmed, slide over her cheekbones. She screwed her eyes up in anticipation, stayed under for a count of five, then emerged, gasping. Alex grinned at her in congratulation.
“See?” he said. “I told you, no worries. This time, try opening your eyes while you’re down there.”
Mary must have made a face, because he added, “Apparently I’m better looking that way. So do yourself a favour and take a peek, okay?”
He wasn’t joking, Mary decided, but then again he had a lot to work with. It’s not fair, she thought. If only I were twenty years younger, if only I wasn’t dying. You and I could have had a lot of fun, laddie.
THREE WEEKS BEFORE her departure, Mary was again at the hospital – a place she had become all too disgustedly familiar with. Her biochemistry was checked regularly, and slight adjustments made to compensate for the effects of all her other medication.
“How’s the pain?” asked her doctor, checking over her test results.
“Tolerable,” said Mary. “I’ve been taking swimming lessons. It seems to help.”
“I’m not surprised. Exercise releases endorphins, and the swimming will let you do that without putting too much strain on your joints,” said the doctor.
“I don’t want to be too fogged up on painkillers these last few weeks anyway,” said Mary. “Though, please note, I’ll want them at the end. I’ve had one natural labour already, and once was more than enough.”
“My wife agrees with you,” said the doctor, smiling. “Don’t worry, I’ve made sure it’s on your record.”
“In big red letters, I hope,” said Mary. “And I’ll be given it before the drop off?”
“We’re certainly not going to make you tread water and inject yourself,” said her doctor. “Don’t worry. You’ll get them just before the nanobots and base prokaryotes are inserted into your abdomen. Remember, those prokaryotes have been engineered to tolerate the high radiation levels of your planet, while not introducing any material not already found in your own biology. The nanobots will attack your own cells, adding extra fragments of your DNA and RNA into the prokaryote structures.”
“And on and on, until I burst like an overstuffed sausage,” said Mary.
“Not exactly how I’d phrase it,” said her doctor. “It’s more like a slow disintegration, over several hours. But…”
“But I’m a dying middle aged woman who eats too many pastries and is likely to drown long before I’m horrified by the sight of my own belly splitting open,” said Mary. “Recycling at its finest.”
“Hey,” said her doctor. “Not everyone gets to be the mother of an entire world.”
AFTER HER FOURTH lesson Mary was able to swim the width of the pool – admittedly, it was more of a doggy paddle than anything else, but her arms didn’t have the mobility that they once did. Alex bought her some cheese rolls afterwards in celebration, and Mary sat in the café with him, swinging her feet and mopping up the melted cheese.
“Why bother with it now, though?” said Alex.
Mary appreciated his directness. Most of her friends either avoided the subject entirely, or circled nervously round it. Both approaches annoyed her.
“I mean,” continued Alex, “you’ve gone through your whole life not giving a damn about swimming. And now you want to learn precisely when you’ll get no use out of it?”
“I’d prefer to drown on my own terms, thank-you,” said Mary.
“I’d rather just get it over with,” said Alex. “Why drag it out?”
“I think I’d rather know that I’ve got the choice,” said Mary. “Oh, I know it’s a not a real choice. I’ll die anyway. But when I’m dropped down there, I don’t want to be thrashing and squealing and choking even before the shuttle leaves. There’ve been times in my life I’ve wanted an audience but that won’t be one of them.” She cast a wistful look at his plate. “Are you going to eat that?”
Alex rolled his eyes and pushed the untouched cake towards her. “You’re a bloody guts, you are, woman. Taking advantage of my good nature.”
(Oh, how she wished she could.)
THE CRYONICS CASE reminded her of a coffin, and Mary had to bite back a comment about rising from it like the undead. Making light of it wouldn’t make her feel any less claustrophobic, even though she’d only be aware of being locked in for a few moments at the beginning and end of her journey.
Still, her doctor had been encouraging. “Do whatever you need to make it more comfortable for yourself,” he said. “It honestly won’t make any difference while you’re under, but it might make you feel better beforehand, and that’s the main thing.”
So Mary had taken dozens of photos and fixed them to the outside of the glass lid. “Like Sleeping Beauty,” she said to her little grand-daughter, too young yet to understand what going to sleep forever really meant. This had the dual effect of her giving her something pleasant to look at and blocking the view of her naked body from the outside. The cryogenics technicians had plenty of instruments with which to monitor her frozen self; they didn’t need to see the effects of too many éclairs as well.
She had also arranged for a set of speakers to blast Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries at full volume through the chamber. Little Marie had made her a papier-mâché helmet at kindergarten, complete with lopsided driftwood horns, and it hung from the head of the case. She might spend most of the six month journey oblivious, Mary said to her daughter, but at least she’d go to sleep laughing.
A WAVE STRUCK her full in the face, and Mary choked amidst the screaming. “Tell me why we’re doing this again,” she said, spluttering.
“It’s fun,” said Alex. He put his hands round her waist and boosted her above the next wave. “Look at them,” he said, pointing at the squealing kids around them. “Don’t they look like they’re having fun?”
“I,” said Mary, pushing her wet hair out of her face, “am going to be put down in the calmest part of the ocean that bloody planet has. I am not going to be dumped in the middle of a storm, thank-you very much. There’ll be no waves like this!”
“They’d be much bigger in a storm,” said Alex. “Our little wave pool can’t compete.”
“You are a sadist,” pronounced Mary, half laughing, half terrified, and exaggerating it slightly to give herself an excuse to cling to him like a barnacle. “And this lesson should have finished an hour ago!”
“I’m off the clock,” said Alex. “For my favourite client. Besides,” and his hand glided up the side of her thigh towards her waist as the next wave came towards them, “you’re dying. Live a little, why don’t you.”
When Mary settled herself into the passenger’s seat of her daughter’s car, she was unsurprised to see Janine trying not to laugh at her.
“Mum,” she said, trying and failing to look disapproving. “I think he’s younger than I am!”
“I know,” said Mary. “Isn’t it fantastic? Apparently there’s life in the old girl yet.”
ONE OF THE PERKS of being the donor party was that Mary got to name the world she was to die on. “I should think so too,” she said, looking at the cluster of letters and numbers that was its current designation. “It looks like a barcode. It’s a planet, not a loaf of bread. No, it needs a better name.”
The planetary scientists had a list ready for her to look at. “Just in case. You’d be surprised at how many people can’t think of something decent,” one said. “We had a candidate last year who wanted to name a planet after his dog.”
“Twinkle,” groaned his colleague. “I nearly tripped him down the stairs.”
“Please tell me you did,” said Mary. “Please.”
“Tempting, but no,” said the scientist, carefully bland. “Unfortunately, there was a bit of a hiccup with the survey data, and Twinkle’s owner got bumped back down the list.”
“I see,” said Mary. “This needs some thinking about, then.”
“It’s an ocean world, isn’t it,” said Janine, later on. “How about Tiamat? Or Tangaroa? Something mythological, to do with water.”
“Could do,” said Mary. “It’s a bit obvious though, isn’t it?”
“Marie!” shrieked Marie, gleefully. “Marie, Nana, Marie!”
“Call it the Vita Nuova,” said her doctor.
“Call it Fuck You, Death,” said Alex, as they floated side by side, his knuckles just brushing her hip.
“Tempting,” said Mary lazily, “but no. Besides, I think I have a name.”
“I DON’T LIKE to think about it,” said Janine. “You, all on your own, and…” she trailed off, folding clothes into too-neat piles. She and Mary were sorting through all the belongings Mary was to leave behind. “I know it’s your decision,” she continued, “but I wish we could be with you when it happened. Couldn’t they… couldn’t you…”
“Couldn’t I die in my own bed, then be frozen and taken off to seed then?” Mary said. “No. It doesn’t work like that. And even if it did, I think I’d still choose this way.”
“It just seems so cruel,” said Janine, unable to completely hide the bitterness in her tone. Mary caught her daughter’s hand and squeezed it in understanding. She’d heard the stories herself – everyone had. The people who had been selected, against all odds, and then pulled out after discovering they were to burn to death on a volcanic world, or choke out their last breaths in a corrosive atmosphere.
“It’s more psychological than anything,” she said. “One day, far in the future, when intelligent life has formed – if it forms – they’ll find out how they came to be. Eventually. And no-one wants to know their entire biosphere developed from a corpse. Not a very inspiring beginning, is it? I want different stories for them. To do otherwise… well. It doesn’t feel very maternal, somehow.”
“You’re my mother too,” said Janine, quietly.
“WHAT DOES IT feel like?” said Alex, curiously. They lay together in a naked tangle, his hand absently fondling one of her breasts. Mary shot him a withering look.
“Not that,” said Alex quickly, and Mary was charmed to see that he was still young enough to blush. “One track mind you have. I mean knowing that one day, there’s going to be a whole world where everything alive comes from you. Your DNA.”
“You make it sound like there’s going to be lots of little versions of me, cavorting in the ocean.”
“Oh, no, I get it. Fragments, evolution, mutation. Your descendents’ll spend most of their time being squishy little sods, I bet. Like jellyfish. How does it feel to be the mother of all jellyfish?”
Mary pinched his side. “Cheeky bugger. Mostly it feels like I’m going to live in a Petri dish. That’s what comes of willing your body to science, I suppose. On the other hand, there’s some feeling of cosmic justice there. I mean, my life’s been cut short, hasn’t it? A piece of infected fruit from the outer colonies, and suddenly I’ve got half the life I expected to have. And then, far more of it. Like being on a seesaw, and I’m in the middle, trying to keep my balance between sad and scared and kind of smug, really.” She curled into the warmth of his body. “So there’s your answer. Payment in kind, please, young man. I’m not so far gone as to think this is some grand tragic romance for you. Is it you want to look up at the stars at night and say “I’ve had that”? Or is it something else?”
Alex regarded her steadily. “It’s not a pity fuck, if that’s what you mean. And I don’t love you, any more than you love me. The stars bit… well, if I’m honest, there’s a bit of that. Curiosity, you know? You’re going to be a whole world. It’s exciting. But even with that, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t like you. And I did. Right from the first moment I saw you.”
“Really?” said Mary. “Me? The mother of all jellyfish?”
“Oh, yeah. I saw you, and I thought to myself, anyone willing to be seen in public in that bloody monstrosity has got to be worth knowing.” He shook his head. “Ugliest swimsuit I’ve ever seen, Mare.”
MARY FOUND IT easier to say goodbye than she expected. It was certainly easier for her than for everyone else – Mary’s definition of forever had become remarkably short. A few days of awareness after her farewells and she would be dead. Mary had gone on holidays that were much longer. When she had first packed Janine off to university she’d gone backpacking round the world for several years, relishing the new freedom of having no-one to answer to, no-one to demand answers from. Death might have been further away than a postcard, but it was closer as well.
Her family would have a lifetime to mourn her, although Mary hoped that the mourning would be short and the lives long. Anything else would be a waste. But her life was ending soon, and there was no-one she could miss for very long.
It was easier than she wanted to admit to not miss anyone at all. This facility she shared with her grand-daughter, who squeezed out a few tears more because her mother was crying than anything else.
Mary took the child outside and sat beside her on the veranda. She would have liked to hold her on her hip, but no longer had the strength. “Look, Marie,” she said, pointing up at the stars. “Look where Nana is going.”
“You see us from up there, Nana?”
Briefly Mary considered lying. “No,” she said eventually. “I won’t. But you’ll be able to see me.”
“THERE’LL BE A COUPLE of satellite probes monitoring your planet at all times,” said one of the planetary scientists. “You’ll get to see them launch before we put you down. They’ll run periodic scans and send the data back on open net. You’ve seen the data site, I take it?”
“Yes,” said Mary, ‘but it didn’t show any changes anywhere.” She hadn’t expected it would – there were less than fifty planets represented, all originally sterile and none more than a century seeded.
“It wouldn’t,” said the planetologist, leaning back in his chair and resting his feet on the desk. “We don’t expect to see anything for generations, at best. And of course it will be millions of years before anything really interesting turns up.” He smiled wistfully. “It would have been nice… but it’s exciting to be there at the beginning too, I guess. Can’t have it both ways.” He brought up a picture of Mary’s world on the screen. “Part of me envies you too, I think. You’re very lucky. It’s a beautiful planet.”
“So is this one,” said Mary. She thought of the years she should have had; where luck had led her instead, and sighed. “Two beautiful planets.”
SHE FLOATED ON the ocean surface, a vast emptiness above and below her.
The waves were small, and rocked her gently. Mary could feel the movement if not the waves themselves – she had been so dosed with painkillers for the disintegration of her body that even her skin was numb. Only her lips retained a vestige of feeling, tightening under their coating of salt, the ocean more saline than that of Earth… her lips and the corners of her eyes, tickling under tears. The sun was brighter, and bigger, and made her eyes water.
It was a physical reaction only. Mary had taken advantage of the tranquillisers as well as the painkillers, wanted to go gently. She knew that some refused so, wanting their world born in defiance and screaming and struggle. A strong world, a brave world. Mary had demurred. “I’m its mother, not its nanny,” she had said. “It’s going to have to raise itself, and how I choose to die won’t make a blind bit of difference.”
Even as she said it, she had known it was the perfect mix of truth and lies. There was no certainty that intelligent life would ever evolve here, and no certainty if it did that any myth of origin would ever come near to the truth.
Still. “It’d be nice to think part of you remembers,” she said, waves beneath her and the taste of salt strong in her mouth. “That your stories are peaceful. That they’re green and blue and gold and teach you to enjoy life. That you’re grateful when they’re over.”
“I’m grateful,” she said, thinking of her daughter and grand-daughter, éclairs and driftwood horns and sex with a boy who tasted of chlorine and salt. “I’m grateful. Even now, it’s been marvellous.”
Mary floated on the ocean surface and waited to drown. There was a vast emptiness above and below her, and she could hardly wait to fill it.
O.J. Cade is a PhD student in science communication at the University of Otago, New Zealand and an ex-intern at COSMOS. She’s sold stories and poems to Abyss and Apex and Strange Horizons amongst others, and has just come back from a trip to New Mexico, where she was researching for a poetry collection about the Manhattan Project.