Ama drank in the professor’s lecture as she rested on a stone slab in the Japanese Garden. Fittingly, the topic was botany. Fertility, to be precise.
Ama listened from a distance. Under a hilltop gazebo, university youths clustered around the professor, whose signature shock of dirty blonde hair made him easy to pick out of a crowd. He, like his audience, was young.
Ama was young, too – she was of their age, but not of their time.
“What a difference that has made!” – Ama felt the thought and let it pass.
She let her head fall back to rest on her stone slab. The slab was part of the walkway bisecting a large, circular depression that had a flattened floor of gravel, stones, and wildflowers, mounded up all around by a concave funnel of thickly grown earth, secured by grass and vines and trees.
Ama felt a special energy at that location. From the first day that she had found the depression, it had felt connected to all her selves – past, present, and future. It was a place of spirit, where she could pass between worlds.
At first, she had thought the sensation was a novelty, but the feeling hadn’t changed from visit to visit. Some days she would stand there and turn slowly, watching, or with her eyes shut. Others, she would stroll slowly across the pathway, sensing the ebb and flow of the energy.
Today, she lay on the slab at the center and breathed deeply, her fingers interlocked over her swollen belly. No one seemed to mind. Certainly not the professor or his class. No one seemed to notice. She closed her eyes and let herself be carried away.
A dull rapping sound stirred Ama from her reverie.
She swung her feet down and settled them on the gravel path. She sat up, leaned forward, rested her elbows on her knees, and beheld a patch of blue-eyed grass that grew among the stones and gravel set before her park bench.
A baton rapped once more on the plastic bench slats before it was abducted by a retreating pair of hairy, ghost-white legs. Ama stretched, reaching for the sky before collapsing back into her contemplative hunch.
A park botanist droned dense facts that dripped out and escaped from sentences stretched across great voids without punctuation until little remained beyond the monotone voice, but Ama, after the voice faded, rummaged around, mopped up the words, and installed them, polished, into her consciousness, and embraced comprehension.
She stood and walked the paths of the park and observed the flowers through the lens of her newly gained knowledge. A bit past noon she became hungry and left the park, which had felt cool in the breeze under the shade of massive pines and oaks. Outside the park, surrounded only by clumps of withered wild grass and low, clinging scrubs, she felt the sun beat down on her as heat rose off the bare clay and stone earth. She could feel the pressure of the sunlight on her brow.
Ama took refuge under a plastic shell built to shade citizens who awaited a bus. The interior of the shell was blanketed in advertisements. “Surrogates are the Future,” proclaimed one poster. “Become a Surrogate Today.”
Ama wiped the sweat from her eyes, which only made them sting more, and she shook her head with half-hearted violence. Moments later the bus arrived, and she embarked. She waved her palm over the quantum dot reader, which glowed green, and then she made her way down the aisle to an acceptable seat. She let her eyes rest as she slouched in the bus chair, but she did not fall asleep, not entirely. She replayed her new knowledge, watching the grasses and flowers blurred by the semi-opaque windows, listening to the hum of the electric engine and the friction of rubber on asphalt.
In her state of half-meditation, time seemed to either stop or go infinitely fast. By the time the bus reached her junction and slowed to a stop, jolting her from her reverie, she felt that a lifetime had passed. The park was long behind her. She stepped from the side-door of the bus and walked to her train. A train ride and a short hop on a trolly later, she walked a few blocks of footpath, surrounded by tall, irrigated wild-grass and lush shrubs, until she reached her box.
Yes, Ama lived in a box. It wasn’t an ordinary box—it was a rather high-tech box, made of alloy, with translucent windows, stacked with other boxes. When she’d arrived in Dillingham with no relations, still too shell-shocked to be happy she’d survived the floods that had washed away her nation, she’d been given a card, tattooed with a few quantum dots, and sent on her way. The card contained instructions in ten languages, most of which she had since learned to read. The quantum dots had got her on transit; the card had guided her to her box.
Ama’s box was a cube of about four meters into which were artfully crammed a couch and holo-screen table, washroom, bedroom with long wall closets, and kitchenette and counter with stools, all running along the walls of the cube as she peered in from her door. She walked straight ahead, past the counter and into the kitchenette, opened the half-fridge and retrieved yesterday’s leftover lunch, a half-eaten chicken salad sandwich with pickles and potato salad on the side, a real treat. She ignored her counter and plopped down on her couch, devouring the sandwich greedily while swiping one hand over the table sensors to activate her holo-screen. She glanced, frowned, and swiped again, and the holo-screen blinked back into oblivion.
Ama slowed her chewing and relished the leftovers bite by bite, finishing up by eating the potato salad slowly, one potato at a time. She fought the urge to go to bed. It was still early afternoon. She knew the consequences of an afternoon nap too well. She wasn’t built for siestas—a nap came with depression, a feeling that the day had been wasted. The same thing would happen if she wasted the morning or didn’t get out of the house during the day. There was quite literally nothing to do—but doing nothing hung behind her eyes like a millstone.
She made her way back outdoors and weeded for a while around the perimeter of her box—really, her corner of the little stack of boxes that comprised her block. She kept a tiny, shaded garden that, for the most part, her neighbors left to her to harvest, which would provide some additional variety to contrast with her usual fare of bland nutrient bars, if her garden was not killed by the sun. When she was finished, she sat in a plastic Adirondack chair and watched children playing along the footpaths and in the tiny courtyards between the stacks of box homes. She watched an elderly woman who, across the alley from her, had cleared away forty or so square meters of wild grass and had taken to farming it. Ama felt a bit of envy and quite a bit more admiration. The old woman sang, not very in-tune, in a language Ama did not recognize.
The old woman’s garden was an obvious violation that had tacit approval. Cops and code enforcement had come through and talked with the Fugis and went on their way. People seemed to understand that being out of work, is hard work. A woman needs agency, a purpose—the garden was hers.
The sunset really didn’t quite end that night, nor for any of Ama’s summer nights; instead, the sky glowed in twilight when she slept and greeted her in gloaming when she arose. Dillingham was just under the Aleutian trunk of Alaska, and in the summer, the sunset stretched out and reached for the sunrise, and the great glass towers of the megapolis shimmered through the night, torches lit from beyond the horizon. Ama retired to the cool of her box, her studio.
Ama would have preferred to rise with the sun. That had been her custom before arrival in Dillingham. But even during the fleeting months of regular circadian light, Ama’s box prevented it. Her bedroom was in the interior corner of the Fugi stack, and she woke to the squawking of an alarm. It was completely unnatural, and she hated it. She dragged herself out of her apartment and collapsed in the Adirondack to watch the daylight gather. As the grass glowed golden-brown and the candled skyscrapers burned down to their bases, Ama came alive. She felt the sleep fall away from her heart, and she quickened in the brightness and humid heat of morning. She stretched, arms to the sky, legs pressing her Adirondack onto its back legs, and then rose and retrieved her coffee and breakfast from her apartment.
Then she was off to the bus, the train, and the bus again, until she found herself once more at the Dillingham Botanical Gardens. She sat on a bench by the orchards and listened to a caretaker present a tour to a busload of children. She shifted and lay down on the bench, exhaling slowly, closing her eyes, folding her hands below her chest, and reached out with her mind to hear the tours and lectures going on about her. She did this until the baton clanked against her bench once more.
Ama swung her legs and dangled them over the edge of the footpath as she sat up, her fingers still interlaced over her belly. The professor’s lecture had ended, and she could feel the footsteps of scholars approaching. They filed by her, all in a line, without really seeing her. She looked up at the professor and smiled, and he shifted his path a bit further to the side, away from her. He nodded with deference.
And then the crowd was gone, and Ama was alone, at least for the time being, in the cool, damp morning. She sighed and stared past her fingers, towards the tips of her toes, which swung in and out of vision. She pulled her legs onto the walkway, knelt, then carefully stood, and then walked out of the Japanese Gardens and along the village footpath until she arrived at her home.
Here home on this world was very much like her Fugi box, except that it stood alone in a field of blue-green grass and wildflowers surrounded by a few well-placed shade trees—and it had a porch.
Ama walked past her Adirondack and through her front door. She sat on her couch and activated her holo-screen to check for any alterations in the day’s schedule. Then, she rose made her way to her bedroom, and set her windows from transparent to translucent as she changed from her loose dress into an airy long-sleeved shirt, hood, and coveralls.
This had been her request—a home with floor-to-ceiling windows all around, set in a field, out of view of other homes, and near the colony gardens. It was an unusual enough request that there had been no problem honoring it. When she’d awakened, she had been transported straight to the home, given a few map-cards and a few new quantum dots, and instructed to report within the week. That had been five months ago by her calendar’s reckoning.
Ama fought the urge to take a nap. The logical part of her mind told her that her appointments were not until the afternoon, and she was fatigued, and the sleep would do her good. She laughed a bit. Logic! Some people called that logic or intellect, but her deeper, more powerful rationality knew it for what it was.
She made her way outdoors and tended her garden, which stretched all around her little house, interrupted by the porch. As Shamash rose high into the shale-blue sky, her sweat drenched her shirt and coveralls, and she guzzled water from a bottle strapped to her belt. Properly fueled by the waters of labor, her getup began to do its work. The hilltop breezes carried away the moisture and the heat, and her sopping getup evaporated, cooled her, and protected her from Shamash above and the dirt below.
By evening she had returned from her appointments and set off to the gardens. She staked a claim on a rough-hewn wooden bench near a gazebo in the midst of the roses. Tonight’s University lecture involved the rootstock and grafting of ornamentals, and she was interested in how the knowledge might apply to her own efforts to bring Earth gardens to flourish on Ekur.
The techniques had certainly worked well for the roses, which infused the darkening sky with their sweet scent. After the lecture, a string quartet crowded into the gazebo and played, hushed by the vine-laden trellises and hedges, so that when Ama rose and walked through the pathways of the rose garden, the music surged and hushed among the scents, like a conspiracy. Ama found herself strolling slowly through the Japanese Gardens, not quite certain whether the dialogue between the violin and cello was a whispered resonance or a memory, and then found herself walking the path through the depression slowly, her fingers interlaced over her belly.
Ama woke to the rapping of the baton on the plastic plank of her bench. Although, she didn’t so much awaken as become more aware. A scent of fallen, rotting apples washed over her and reminded her that she was in Dillingham’s botanical garden orchards.
Until the intrusion, her universe had become the even, lulling voice of the pomologist, who at the very moment of the tapping of that baton had been enlightening a group of horticulturalists on the subject of apple orchard propagation.
But with the hard sound of composite on plastic, her mind opened to the sounds of the students who crowded around the lecturer, shifting and fidgeting, whispering among themselves, and to the sounds of insects and birds, and to the wind, and to the scents of the gardens.
Ama swung her legs off the bench and sat upright, stretched, arched her back, and reached for the sky. She yawned long and deeply, before letting her arms fall onto her thighs, with a loud sigh. The naked white legs had not yet carried off the black baton.
“Do you have a place to stay?” inquired the disembodied voice above the legs, to which Ama responded, “It’s not that—I am here for the lectures.”
There was a pause, then, “Ah,” or “Eh,” said the voice, whether in acknowledgement or realization, Ama did not feel sure, but Ama imagined that the face carrying the voice must have nodded before the legs wheeled around, showing their bulky calves, and marched off.
Ama pressed her fingers against her eyelids and sighed again, then leaned over with her elbows on her knees, her eyes shut, and focused on the pomologist’s discussion of budding and grafting.
Her mind drifted back to her holo-screen messages—the ones she had glanced over yesterday while wolfing down the second half of that luxurious chicken salad sandwich. Application denied, admission denied, denied…everything had been denied. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it still didn’t go down easy.
She tightened up as if a creature were trying to scratch its way out from her stomach into her throat, and she swallowed a lump. She shook her head. It wouldn’t do to let her mind drift like this. Job or no job, University or no admittance, no-one had stopped her from taking in a lecture.
Later, sitting outside her metal box, reclining in her Adirondack, she glimpsed the old woman again. Ama shrugged, stood, and made her way over to the woman. She didn’t speak the woman’s language, but she managed to make herself understood. The woman nodded to her and knelt between the garden rows, motioning to Ama to come and observe. She did, shuffling along the rows with the old woman, imitating her motions, and learning to see what the old woman’s eyes saw. She hummed along with the woman until she learned the words of her songs, and then she sang with the old woman.
As the dirt ground under her fingernails and into her pores, she supposed that, perhaps, one could understand a song without understanding its words. And then the old woman stood, smiled, gave a little bow, and ducked inside.
Ama stood under her shower for a long time as the water carried away the dark dirt from her toes. She leaned facing her sink mirror, her back practically against the towel rack in the cramped washroom and scrubbed her pores clean. She dried her crinkled hair and gathered it back into her bonnet and collapsed into her bed and was asleep.
Ama paused at the center of the depression in the Japanese Garden and slowly spun around, enjoying the sensation the place held. It was a nexus, she felt, a union of times and places. She breathed in and out, deeply, drawing the energy of the place into her through her lungs.
She was delighted with her hilltop home. For the first time in ages, she rose with the sun—ah! Shamash it was, here on Ekur. She allowed herself to get lost in the delight of it for several days. For her, Dillingham was a few days ago; for the colony, Dillingham was almost forty years ago; and for the stars—well, she hadn’t asked.
She took the footpath to the train station and glided into Enkum by nightfall. It was a town of maybe fifteen thousand souls—it was nothing like Dillingham. It had no need of square miles full of skyscrapers or sprawling Fugi towns. It featured laboratories, a few tall buildings, the planet’s space port, a stadium, and a strip of bars, restaurants, and dormitories. During the winter months, Ama was told, Enkum’s numbers could swell to maybe twenty or thirty thousand souls as the work settlements emptied for inclement weather.
But this was spring, and the town’s numbers were thus at their low point as even its regular residents fanned out across the globe to ramp up the season’s projects. Ama wandered a deserted strip until she happened on what was, apparently, the only bar open that evening, and fell in alongside a single party that, with her, comprised the bar’s only patronage.
“Whiskey and water,” she ordered, waving her quantum dots over the bar-pad. Her stipend was not meager, but it would not sustain carousing. Still, she’d manage.
She laughed to herself, realizing she’d not be using her allowance in this way for long. The bartender sat two glasses before her. Ama tasted the whiskey and poured in water until she got the taste exactly right. Then, she collected her whiskey glass and sauntered off to the corner table to sip her whiskey and watch the group of young colonists.
They were all about her age, and from their demeanor she could tell that they were colleagues. Not her colleagues, of course—she was still an outsider, having only arrived on Ekur a few days ago.
A dark, soft-skinned woman from their group returned from the restroom and, in doing so, looked straight at Ama, and saw that Ama had been watching. She approached.
“New in town?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, it’s better once the summer arrives. Right now, everyone’s on temporary assignments to spring projects. I’m on my way out tomorrow morning, bright and early.”
Ama nodded. “Enjoying one last night on the town, then?”
“Something like that,” the woman said, brushing back her tightly curled hair as she spoke. “Name’s Octavia, by the way,” she said, extending her hand over the table.
Ama took her hand and squeezed it briefly. “Ama,” she said.
“I’m enjoying one last night on the town, as well…” The thought echoed loudly in Ama’s mind as she waited for it to pass.
By the time it had, Octavia had settled into the chair across from Ama. Eventually, Ama stopped waiting for Octavia to go away, and enjoyed the conversation.
The conversation eventually turned to Octavia’s work, which happened to be in Ekur’s orchards. Ama was unable to hide her interest.
“Say,” Octavia continued, “what if you joined me to see the orchards? You’ll get to see a bit of the place.
Ama wriggled a bit uncomfortably, but she knew Octavia had seen her eyes light up at the mention of the orchards. Of course, she wanted to see the orchards; of course, she would go to see the orchards. There simply wasn’t another answer.
In the morning she rose from the dormitory bed Octavia had secured for her, dressed, and made her way to the station by the appointed time. A little group was there, wearing rain gear, lugging small suitcases.
Octavia tossed Ama a light raincoat. “You won’t need it on the train, of course,” she laughed, “but before you get back home, you’ll be glad to have it.” Ama nodded her thanks, tossed the raincoat over her shoulder, and followed them onto the train.
Ama couldn’t resist the opportunity to engage the tiny group of orchardists. Her informal self-education had prepared her well to engage on the subject. She felt the mental high that came from discussing topics she understood well with people who understood them at least as well as she did. It was rare, and it was exhilarating. She lost herself in the rush, a mind that knew nothing of fear but only of passion for the raging waves of knowledge that threatened to overwhelm her.
And, just like that, it was over.
She got their addresses for the future and said farewell on the station platform and turned to re-enter the train, but when she swung her arm over the gate, it flashed red. Octavia saw, but not the others. She swung her arm over the gate, which flashed green, and she pushed Ama through, following after her.
“I’ll sort it later,” Octavia said. “How is this…?” she asked, her question fading as Ama, her eyes wet, glanced towards the sky and turned away, crumbling.
Octavia squeezed her shoulders. Shielding Ama’s hanging frame from the others, she hugged Ama from behind, holding her up from under her arms as Ama looked out over the orchards that stretched far away from her, further than her eye could see, further than the horizon. Octavia stood there with Ama until the others were gone, until Ama’s knees resumed the hard work of standing.
“Don’t be a stranger, kid,” Octavia whispered in Ama’s ear, and left her to find her peace.
Ama walked to the far end of the platform and missed the train. There would be another, and no-one was waiting for her. She sat on the edge, dangling her legs, and looked out over the orchards. These were the orchards of her new world, and of her old world. The trees were mature. They’d been planted by the first generation, nurtured by the second, and would be tended by the third. The work was done. She buried her eyes in the palms of her hands and sobbed.
It began to pour. She wrapped herself in her raincoat to keep the water out.
Ama awoke to the blaring of her alarm and for the last time cursed the little box she called home. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She packed nothing. She sat in her chair for a few long moments until the old woman emerged across the footpath and began gardening. She stood, walked to the old woman, and locked her in a long embrace. The woman brushed Ama’s hair from her forehead and blotted a tear from Ama’s right eye. Then, Ama was on her way to quarantine.
The colony ship was a paradox. It was massive, but it was small against the deep blue pearl of Earth. It would hold five thousand colonists, but it would birth a colony of fifty thousand or more. As the shuttle approached the ship, Ama could make out its name—Inanna.
Five hundred or so of the colonists seemed to be the representatives of every imaginable profession—pilots, engineers, doctors, chemists, teachers, agronomists, cyberneticists, jurists, security, and more. When Ama perused the manifest, she felt an uncomfortable surge in her back and chest, a cross between fear, frustration, and sorrow, but only for a moment.
She turned her attention back towards space as the shuttle clanked against the colony ship and docked, but now the ship was too massive to make much of it. She followed the ship’s nurse from the airlock and into a long, low bay stacked from floor to ceiling with columns and rows of pods. Ama sighed—these would be forty-five hundred colonists, each a strong, healthy, young woman; the other five hundred were experts, situated in small groups around the ship. The five hundred would explore and secure their new worlds; Ama would lay stacked in her pod until she was awakened once more.
The nurse stopped in the aisle and pressed a control panel that stood waist-high at the end of a row of pods. A pod lowered from the ceiling and opened, and the nurse turned and nodded to Ama, who smiled nervously, climbed into the pod, and lay on her back as the nurse connected tubes to catheters that had been implanted into Ama’s arms and legs. The nurse smiled down at Ama and spoke soothingly to her as the pod anesthetized and enveloped her.
Ama awoke abord the train to Enkum. She’d stuffed herself into her seat sideways with her cheek pressed against the window as the freshly plowed fields raced by, mile upon mile. It was done. All of it.
She looked around the train and saw a familiar marquee— “Thank a Surrogate Today.” She felt a glove of ice grip her heart, and she passed out, drained, exhausted by the sorrow of it.
A few days later Ama made her way to the Enkum Fertility Clinic. “You’re a few days late,” announced the receptionist, tapping the calendar on her screen. Ama shrugged, took her number, and sat in the waiting area, without a word. It wasn’t as if they could do anything about her tardiness.
She stared at the floor. Intellect is only a shadow of the rational mind, so comprehension is no antidote for emotion. Dillingham had been a dead end—a never-ending sea of rejection and delay in a city that, for all its genuine humanitarian sentiment, simply could never keep up with the great waves of Fugis.
Here—ten or fifteen years spent bringing the last generation of the Inanna’s vast stores of embryos to birth—and after that, she could choose. Forty-five hundred women had made that choice along with her, Surrogates every one, stacked in that bay until their times came.
But by luck she had been awakened among the last. The work was done. The future was secured. The promised frontier was lost!
How she envied the Surrogates who had been lucky enough to awaken first, when survival was not guaranteed, and with the joy of a fight! What mark would be left to make when Ekur was finished with her womb?
Ama leaned back in her chair and waited for her number to be called – waited to be poked and prodded and prepped for her first implant.
She shut her eyes until the red faded to black and then until she felt that she could see the orchards stretching out before her. It may have been moments or an hour. As far as her eyes could see, mile after mile, to the horizon in every direction, the orchards bloomed with the promise of spring. She sat on the hard metal of the platform, the memory of Octavia’s touch on her shoulder.
“Like God burying Moses just outside Canaan,” she heard herself mutter, bitterly, just barely aloud, but they were the sort of words that carry, however loudly or softly they are spoken.
From across the waiting room, a reply: