“Mark died yesterday, Margery.” My tone was patient, sad but not distraught. The time for distraught was past, I thought.
“Coral, don’t joke about those things. He was right here a few minutes ago.”
I found a serious expression in my database and displayed it for her. “It’s not a joke, Margery. He left us yesterday morning. We’re saying goodbye as soon as you’re ready for the ceremony.” Margery wore her work uniform–a faded blue jumpsuit–and had her thin, white hair pulled up in a small bun. The jumpsuit no longer fit her well. It had been made for a younger, rounder woman. I knew she prefered more formal attire for funerals.
“Where is he going?” she asked.
“Into the biomaterials recycling system.”
“Well that seems premature, he’s not dead yet,” Margery said.
“Mark died yesterday, Margery.”
Margery frowned at me, then looked down at the lower panel of her workstation. It displayed five hundred and seven rectangles of streaming data. Each rectangle represented a former inhabitant of the colony ship Ishtar. All except one: Margery herself. She, Mark, Shinji and Elise had stayed behind when the Ishtar reached its destination. They had been too frail to make the one-way journey to the planet’s surface. They had all been left in my care for their final years, and Margery was the last.
There was a second display above the panel of rectangles. It showed live video of aerial landscapes from our six satellites in orbit. Of the six, only one landscape featured squares. The squares were farms. They were near a coastline on the edge of the largest continent. Zooming in on them, one could see buildings, thin ribbons of trails, and sometimes smoke. At the highest magnification, a coffee cup held to the screen could obscure the whole colony.
Margery sat here every day, monitoring the colony. It was her job. Human attention wasn’t strictly necessary, but it made her feel useful and gave her a reason to get out of bed every day. I think it also made her feel closer to her friends and family.
She stared at the small, square farms in the sixth satellite feed, frowning.
“Are you ok, Margery?” I asked.
“Of course I’m ok,” Margery rushed the words to me without eye contact. She looked down at the rectangles on the lower panel and her eyes rested on the one with Jenna’s name on it. Her daughter.
“Would you like to wear something nice to the funeral?” I asked.
“We’ll have to let his kids know,” she said.
“They know. I told them yesterday. They send their condolences.”
“Hmph.” She looked away again, up at the live satellite feeds of the planet’s surface. The coastline of the colony was clear, forest to the west bright green and water to the east bright blue. We both watched it for a moment, in silence.
“They should be here for Shinji’s funeral. They really should be here,” Margery said.
“It’s Mark’s funeral.”
“Oh. That’s right. You said that already, didn’t you.” I took it as a rhetorical question, and said nothing. “I guess that means it’s just you and me now.”
“Yes. But you’re excellent company Margery. I’m glad I have you.” I found a comforting expression with a slight smile.
Her own faint smile answered. “I’m glad I have you, too, Coral.”
“Shall we get ready for the funeral? I’ll help you get dressed.”
“I guess we better do that. Ok.” She stood slowly, one yellow, age-spotted hand on the lower panel for balance. She placed her other hand on the back of her workstation swivel chair. I grabbed the back of the chair to hold it in place before it could swivel out of her grasp. I offered my arm to her for balance. She gripped it firmly with both hands and I rolled, at her pace, toward her room.
I’d be happy to explain why I was on a generation ship, if you want to know. I could tell the story of the engineers in California who wrote my program. How they beamed it to the Ishtar, back when Earth still sent us data. I could explain in detail how a team on the Ishtar assembled my body from spare parts. I could tell you how a branding copywriter came up with my name at a pub, while thinking of the sea. I could tell you anything you want to know about me, but not right now. Right now, I want to tell you about Margery, and what happened to the colony. So please, put your questions about me aside. I’m not important.
Most of Margery’s activities these days were napping. While she napped, I monitored her workstation. I couldn’t sit on her chair, but I could have the data fed directly to my central processor. I analyzed it while resting near Margery, or patrolling the halls. The halls were always empty, silent, and dark. I didn’t need light to see them, so there was no need to use the Ishtar’s power.
The night after Mark’s funeral, I paused by a window in a dark corridor. I could still see the planet through the window’s century of scratches. It was daylight below. White swirling clouds hid equatorial sea.
I wondered what rain felt like.
The clouds, I realized, were the edge of a vast storm forming. I double-checked the satellite data. The storm was nowhere near the colony. Same ocean, but much farther south. Three years of aggregated data told me the likelihood of it disturbing the colony was low. Less than two percent.
I sent an update to the surface, just to be safe, and asked the Ishtar to monitor the situation. I continued my patrol of the dark hallway.
Moments later, the Ishtar sent me an update. The likelihood of the storm reaching the colonists was now three percent.
I decided to check on Margery.
She was upright in her bed, leaning against a pile of pillows, eyes closed. She was very still, and the skin of her face and arms was yellow and waxy. I knew her blood pressure, heart rate, temperature and oxygen levels from across the room. She was sleeping.
I didn’t want to wake her. She needed rest.
I thought of lowering the Ishtar’s gravity again, and decided to wait until she woke. I wanted to make sure it was what she wanted.
I thought of raising the Ishtar‘s oxygen level, but if it went much higher it would pose a fire hazard. There were few parts moving on the Ishtar these days, besides myself, but even I could create a spark on accident. Oxygen was already much higher than Earth’s atmosphere. The risk of going higher didn’t outweigh the temporary boost it would give Margery.
I thought of Margery’s memory. There was not much I could do to help the decline of her faculties. I could remind her of things, though. It was part of my job to remember. I remembered the past ninety-one years on the Ishtar with perfect clarity. I also had access to significant amounts of information about Earth, up to the day we lost contact. I knew about Margery’s childhood on Earth from her own stories, and things her long-gone parents had told me.
Yes, I could remind her of almost anything. She would enjoy that, I thought.
On the bed, Margery stirred. Her yellow eyelids fluttered open and her clouded blue eyes rolled toward me. “Coral?”
“Yes, it’s me.”
She murmured something unintelligible. Then, with great effort, she sat up straight and moved her legs, inch by inch, until they hung off the edge of her bed. Her bare feet were swollen and red. They had been like that for years.
She stared at me with a blank expression. “I thought you were a coat rack for a minute.” Before I found a response, she said, “I’m teasing. I’m not senile, you know.” Was that a wry smile? Or a regular smile? Or a smirk?
I found a relieved smile in my expression database and displayed it for her in response.
“Margery,” I said then, “how would you like to go through some old files with me? I have many recordings of important moments in your life. I thought you might enjoy reminiscing.”
“Not right now, dear. I have to go to the bathroom.”
I held out my arm for her and rolled, slowly, toward the small room in the corner. It was few steps for her, but each was slow. Her feet looked like ripe red potatoes, and must have been as hard to balance on. At the door of the room, she gripped the counter, and pulled herself along the edge of it to the toilet. She didn’t close the door. I turned away.
She muttered to herself as she dealt with the appropriate devices. I wondered what would happen if she fell. Although I was a machine, she would likely be embarrassed if I had to help her. Mark and Shinji were both mortified the first few times I helped them in the bathroom. Elise had never needed me for that.
The possibility of injury was real, though. Two years ago, Margery’s left knee had given out as she rose from her workstation chair. I wasn’t close enough to catch her. Shinji was there, but too slow. Margery had needed my help walking ever since. That was the first time they allowed me to lower the Ishtar’s gravity for them.
“Coral, can you lend me a hand?” Margery’s voice came from behind me, in the bathroom. “This is so silly, but I’m having trouble getting my pants back up. Can’t seem to reach that far.”
We sat (she sat, I lowered my display to her eye level,) in the old lounge area. It still had three tables that the colonists had left behind, and four lounge chairs. The upholstery had been patched and re-patched several times since leaving Earth.
I swapped out my face for a video.
“Do you remember this day?” I asked Margery.
My display showed a well-lit corridor, two people standing by a clear, clean window with a view of solid black. If the camera exposure had been different, the window would’ve shown a field of stars. But it was set for faces, and these faces happened to be kissing.
The woman in the video pulled away. She had long, wavy auburn hair pulled into a ponytail. Her skin was smooth and light, and her figure slim. She was smiling. The man was darker, with straight black hair, a clean shave and a lopsided grin. The woman opened her mouth to say something.
My attention was diverted then, but I kept playing the video for Margery.
The likelihood of the storm on the surface reaching the colony had reached 45 percent. I composed a warning for the colonists and sent it.
“Of course I remember that day,” Margery said. “That was the day I told Shan I was pregnant with Jenna. He was fit to be tied.” She looked away from the video, then toward me. “Where did you put your eyes, Coral? Bring back your eyes.”
“I put my face away so I could show you the video.” I brought a casual smile back to my display. Margery nodded approval and looked at my eyes.
“Margery, it wasn’t Jenna. It was Urma. Jenna came three years later and she’s Bloom’s child. Not Shan’s.”
“Well yes, that’s true. Jenna is Bloom’s.”
“You just said that the video was from when you were pregnant with Jenna. But it was actually Urma.”
“Urma died,” Margery said, as if to remind me.
“Yes, I remember.”
“Why did you show me that video?” Margery’s expression became a frown. I had done something wrong, but I wasn’t sure what.
“You were happy in the video,” I said. “I thought it would be a positive experience for you to remember.”
Margery sighed. “Coral. Sometimes happy things make people sad, if the happy thing reminds them of something they lost.”
“I think I understand, Margery.”
“Let’s move on. What other old memories do you want to dig up?”
“How about this one?” I replaced my face with another scene, from New Year’s Eve twenty years ago. The setting was the lounge we sat in now, but it was far more crowded. There were tables and sofas, coffee tables, side tables, lamps and people. Men and women stood and talked and drank sparkling wine. Children chased each other and ate cake.
I wondered what each of them was doing now.
Eighty-five percent. The storm approaching the colony was now the biggest we’d seen since entering orbit. The colonists made emergency preparations on the surface. I sent them tutorials about how to prepare shelters for high winds and pile bags of sand to keep out the sea. I helped them back up all their data to the Ishtar’s main memory. If needed, they could go inland, but travel was already dangerous in the high winds. They would have to leave behind everything they couldn’t carry. The crops could be replanted, and makeshift shelters could be built from scratch. Communications equipment and generators were a different story. If those were lost, the colony would be unlikely to survive a generation.
A call came from the surface. I saw Jenna’s face, tanned dark from the planet’s star. The sky was gray and swirling with leaves and dust behind her. “Coral,” Jenna said, “put me through to Mom.”
I was already next to Margery, who had fallen asleep in her favorite chair in the lounge. “Hi Jenna,” I replied without making a sound in the room. “Your mom is asleep right now. Can you call back later?”
“No, Coral, this might be my last chance to talk to her if communications go down in the storm, just wake her up.”
I turned my attention to Margery. Her breath was calm and low and steady. I could tell that she was dreaming. I didn’t want to wake her. “Margery,” I said softly. No response. “Margery,” I said again.
“Urma, Mom’s napping go play somewhere else,” Margery said, her eyes still closed.
“Margery, Jenna wants to speak with you.”
Her eyes finally opened, and searched the empty room. “Where is she?” Margery asked.
“She’s on the planet.” She had been there more than three years.
“Already?” Margery frowned. “I wanted to spend more time with her.”
“She’s on a call right now, waiting. She wants to speak with you.”
“Oh, oh. Ok. How’s my hair?” Margery asked.
I reached an arm up to her face and tucked a feathery, white strand behind her ear. “You look lovely, Margery.”
She smiled. “You’re too kind, Coral. I know I look awful, but I don’t suppose Jenna cares much. She never has.”
I displayed a smile to match hers.
“I’m ready. Put her on,” Margery said.
Jenna’s face replaced mine. Her salt-and-pepper braids flapped around in the wind. “Hi Mom.”
“Hi honey. It looks like you’re having a spot of weather down there.”
Jenna shook her head. “A spot? Haven’t you been monitoring the displays?”
“Of course, it’s my job.”
“Well the storm’s been coming for days.”
“Days? No that’s not right, I was just checking the weather this morning.”
Jenna looked dumbfounded. “Jenna,” I said to her privately, “Your mom hasn’t been able to tend her workstation for several days. I’m afraid her health has been poor.”
Jenna took a deep breath and started to say something, but Margery spoke first. “Jenna, how are my grandkids? Enjoying the beach? You know I used to live by a beach when I was their age.”
“Mom, when you were their age you’d already been on the Ishtar half your life.”
“Well, close enough. I meant great-grandkids anyway.”
Jenna sighed and rolled her eyes. “Look, mom,” she said, impatience in her voice. “I just wanted to say that communications might go down so… I don’t know. If there’s anything you want to say to me or anyone else before the storm hits…” she trailed off.
“Oh, yes. Well, tell those little rascals to stay out of trouble. And their gramma loves them.”
“Ok Mom. Take care OK? I love you.”
“Are you hanging up on me already? You know I have all the time in the world up here.”
Jenna looked frustrated. “Mom. I just told you there’s a massive fucking storm coming at us and we have to evacuate and get everything ready. There’s a lot to do so no, I don’t have time to chat. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know what I did to make you so upset,” Margery said to her daughter.
“Aaaarg, Mom look I gotta go. Take care of yourself. We’ll talk again when this thing passes. Bye.”
“Bye, sweety–” Jenna hung up, but Margery wasn’t done with her sentence, “–love you.”
A day later, there was no data from the colony. Their communications equipment was damaged or destroyed–impossible to know which. Clouds still covered the entire region.
“Have I ever told you about the time Jenna got lost when she was a little girl?”
“No Margery,” I lied.
“She was about this high,” Margery held her hand just above where her knee would be if she were standing, “and oooh she was a troublemaker. I’d gone over to Hardy’s–or wait–no. No, it was Hardy. Well, I was just going to have dinner with him, but things, well you know. And I’d left Jenna with Tazkiyah for the day. This must’ve been in the ‘70s.”
“If Jenna was that high, it could only have been 2056.”
Margery squinted at me, with a hint of smile. The first I had seen in a few days. “So be it. ‘56. Well that was a long time ago, wasn’t it?”
“It’s all relative, Margery.”
“Why do you always have to be so… right?”
“Margery, do you want to finish the story?”
“The one about when Jenna got lost. She was at Tazkiyah’s and you were with Hardy.”
“Oooooh right, yes, well. I got a call from Tazkiyah the next morning, and she was so upset. Jenna had gone missing! Well I jumped right out of bed, leaving poor Hardy there, butt naked and startled, and I ran off so fast I barely got my clothes and shoes on. I didn’t even tell poor Hardy why I’d left.”
“He must have been upset.”
She giggled. “I think he was! Well I almost had the whole ship looking for her before I finally went back to my apartment, and would you know it? There was little Jenna sitting by the front door. Mad as hell at me for leaving her behind at Tazkiyah’s! Can you believe it?”
I found an expression with a big, amused smile.
“I guess thinking back on it, I should’ve let her know I was going to stay the night as soon as I realized. But you know how things happen sometimes. Or maybe you don’t. You’ve never been on a date, have you, Coral?”
Margery giggled again, then said, “I wonder why I thought of that story just now? Isn’t it funny how memory works?”
“You must have been thinking about Jenna. Are you worried about her?”
“Oh, of course not,” Margery answered, quicker than usual. “Not in the least. Even if we can’t find her right away, she’ll turn up. Maybe she’ll even come right home.”
“Is that why you thought of that story? Are you hoping she’ll come home?”
“What story is that, Coral?”
“Margery, you know the colonists can never come back up. The landers were only built to get them to the surface.”
She was quiet for a moment. All laughter gone, gaze far away. “We were all supposed to go,” she said. “Or die first. One or the other.”
We were both silent. I didn’t know what to say.
Finally I spoke up. “Margery.” Her gaze returned to me when she heard her name. I summoned a comforting, sympathetic expression. “I’m worried about Jenna, too. And everyone else.”
Her expression didn’t change.
Day broke again over the colony. The clouds had finally thinned and the coast was visible to the satellites.
A smear of debris stained the coast where there should have been a colony. The square farms were now amorphous puddles. The buildings were smears of scattered wood and metal. The paths, gone. I could not zoom in far enough to see if there were bodies.
Margery was asleep.
I would have to tell her.
Or would I? I remembered how Margery reacted when I reminded her of Urma’s death. Perhaps she wouldn’t want to know.
If I told her, the emotional shock could affect her health.
If I didn’t, she would keep asking. She would wonder why I wasn’t telling her. She might lose her trust in me. The stress of that could also affect her health.
Anyway, she would find out herself the moment she checked the data.
…Unless I erased the data.
But part of my duty was to preserve all our data in tact. When Margery was gone, it would be my only duty, forever.
I made a decision.
I rolled to her room, and waited for her to wake up.
She didn’t notice me at first. Her eyelids opened halfway and she looked around, squinting, in the dimmed room. She mumbled for the lights. It was an incomprehensible mumble, but I knew what she wanted and I had the Ishtar raise the light slowly for her.
Her head turned in my direction, and her eyes passed over me, unrecognizing. I waited a few more minutes, motionless. Finally she reached forward and used both hands to shove one leg out from under the covers. It tumbled off the side of the bed, and the other leg followed in same manner. Both her swollen feet rested on the floor, and her hands curled around the cliff-edge of the mattress. She paused, head hanging from arched spine, to catch her breath. Then, with great effort, she pushed herself into a precarious standing position.
“Aah!” She spun to look in the direction of my voice. Her eyes aimed at the spot on the wall above and behind me, where a human face might have been. She lost her balance. I moved fast, extended my arm for her to balance with. She missed it, and fell back onto the bed.
She held her hand to her chest. Her heart was racing, but not dangerously. Her oxygen levels were OK. She was just frightened.
“Dammit Coral!” she exclaimed after finding her composure. “You nearly gave me a heart attack. How did you just appear out of nowhere like that?”
“I was right here waiting for you to wake up.”
“I thought you were a piece of furniture.” Was that an accusing tone? She had never used one with me before.
I had no response.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said. There was anger in her voice, and embarrassment.
“Let me help you.” I offered my arm.
“No, you’ve done enough already.” She fidgeted before standing. “Oh drat. It’s too late.”
I helped her clean up in the bathroom. I helped her get dressed. I helped her put on her shoes, which stayed unfastened to fit her swollen feet. When her thin, white hair was pinned up in a bun the way she liked it, I held out my arm for her. She grasped it, and we moved, slowly, to her workstation in the control room.
At the entrance to the room, I said to her, “Margery, there might be data in there that you don’t want to see. You don’t have to go in if you don’t want to.”
“What are you talking about, Coral? I have to get in there and do my job. The colony needs their weather report. You’re not trying to take my job now are you?” She raised an eyebrow at me, then continued, “I’m joking. You know they used to say machines would take all our jobs, back on Earth. I wonder if that ever happened.”
We got to the panels. Margery sat down and looked at the lower panel. “This damned thing isn’t working. There’s no data for anyone.”
“Communications went down in the storm.”
“Oh. Well, I’m sure they’ll be back up soon. We’ll just ignore that panel for now.”
She examined the satellite imagery on the upper panel. She was quiet for several minutes.
Her voice came out tight and low. “Coral, call me a crazy old woman, but can you explain why it doesn’t look like there’s any colony at all down there?”
I rolled up beside her so I could see her face in profile. She was staring, and frowning with deep intensity, at the smear on the coastline where the colony had been.
“It is supposed to be right there, right?” she asked.
“It used to be there.”
She turned now to look at me. I didn’t know which expression would be right, so I wore none. I threw a looping animation of swirling fog on my display, instead. It probably wasn’t right, but it seemed better than a face. Maybe I didn’t want a face just then.
Margery’s voice was a whisper, cracking at the end. “What in the world happened?”
“There was a storm.”
She stared at me, her eyes searching around my fog-face angrily. I tried a human face back on, one with a mournful expression, but she looked away the moment we made eye contact.
“No,” she said quietly. Then she said it again, firmly, “No,” and again, with determination. “No.”
After a long silence, she turned back to me. Her stare was strange. An expression I had never seen before, on anyone. “Coral, my mind isn’t what it used to be. Tell me I’ve imagined this.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Tell me I’ve imagined this, Coral. Please. And take me back to bed. This is a bad dream. It’s a bad dream.”
I met Margery when she woke up, and helped her get ready for her day. I held out my arm and we traveled, step by step, wheel rotation by wheel rotation, to the control room. She sat, slowly and carefully, in the swivel chair in front of the display. It displayed five hundred and seven rectangles of streaming data. Each rectangle represented a former inhabitant of the colony ship Ishtar. All except one: Margery herself. Margery and I had been alone on the Ishtar for a year.
The upper screen displayed six videos from satellites. One of them showed a coastline. It was sandy white between green forest to the west and blue ocean to the east. In a section of green near the beach, we could see the tiny squares of civilization. The date, displayed in small white digits in the corner of the video, was eighteen months ago.
“Yep, looks good,” Margery said. “This little planet was a good choice for a colony.”
We monitored the data for about half an hour, then Margery was tired, and I rolled her back toward her room.
“Do you think Jenna will call today?” she asked. She gripped my arm and lowered herself into her favorite chair. I’d pushed it all the way into her quarters when she couldn’t walk to the lounge anymore.
“Jenna called yesterday,” I told her.
“Oh.” She sounded troubled.
“She told you how proud she was of you for staying up here and keeping me company, remember?”
Margery had told me to say that. I said it every day.
“Oh Coral. You really are the best robot an old lady could have, do you know that?” Her eyes shined. She only said that sometimes.
“Thank you, Margery. You’re my best friend, do you know that?”
She smiled warmly.
No one had told me to say that.
I patrolled the empty Ishtar every day. All the lights were out, since I could see in the dark and no one else needed them. The gravity was off, since I could move without it. The air no longer circulated, since there was no one left who needed oxygen. The control room was dark–all the data from the satellites fed to my central processor. My display panel was dark. There was no one to make faces for.
I was in a residential hallway, passing the empty quarters of humans I’d once known. I watched the morning’s satellite images while I patrolled. It was daybreak on the empty coast, and the water sparkled with light from the system’s steady, bright star. The terminator inched across white sand, hit the forest’s edge, and made the trees glow green, one by one. They began their photosynthesis for the day.
Deep in the forest, many kilometers from the coast, near a river, I noticed something new. A single, immaculate, brown square.
Thea Boodhoo is a writer based in San Francisco, California. Her previous work has appeared in EARTH Magazine, Art + Marketing, JMWW, The Offbeat (forthcoming) and others. She is a 2018 workshop graduate of The Writer’s Grotto in San Francisco, and has been accepted to the 2019 Futurescapes workshop in Utah. When she’s not writing, Thea enjoys nature photography and gardening.