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‘Any time we gather to return someone to the ship—’ Captain Elize Cahun said as she cast her gaze across the sparse audience. The handful of mourners were spread out across the internment room as though embarrassed to be seen sitting next to each other. ‘—We each share the same, mixed, emotions. On the one hand the person we knew, Cam . . . Camille’—she drew a deep breath—‘Senior Engineer Camille Visconti, is gone forever. But on the other hand, we know she will forevermore be closer to us in death than she was in life. Today, we return her to the ship from whence she came so that she, as all who have walked and worked these halls before us, can continue to push us towards the stars.’

Elize stammered her way through the rest of her speech, words like duty and privilege and honour hanging in the air as she spoke them with a conviction that had long since dulled from overuse. She was grateful for the familiarity. She must have performed this service dozens, hundreds of times over the past eight years, but those had been almost exclusively for the elderly or those for whom the suffering of genetic conditions had become too great for the ship to bear. This was Cam—they should have had decades yet to repair things, for Elize to say she was . . .

She spoke her concluding remarks, highlighting Engineer Visconti’s distinguished operational record. She leaned on the ceremonial podium before her, her knuckles whitening on the sides of its upturned screen.

‘I know Camille distanced herself from her crewmates more and more during the final years of her life, but those of us who knew her—we here today—will always remember the warm and gentle person she was beneath her professional façade. We’ll remember her for who she was, and who she could have become if she’d had the opportunity. Thank you all for coming.’

The thin crowd dispersed completely as Elize stood there, still leaning on the podium and focusing on her breathing. When she felt she could, she turned and gathered the few things that she’d brought with her; the black-brimmed hat which matched her crisply pressed ceremonial uniform, the screen which continued to light up with the never-ending stream of alerts and notifications that came with her position, and a small slip of paper neatly folded and addressed to Elize by Camille’s own hand.

‘The ceremony’s over,’ she said, her back to the near-empty room. She returned the slip of paper to its customary resting place beneath the neckline of her uniform and turned her head to look behind her.

In the front row, sitting in the only seat reserved for family, Professor Manuel Visconti sat as he had throughout the entire service. He was slumped forward in his seat, his hands clasped together past his knees and his head facing the floor. He played the part of a heartbroken father almost well enough to convince even her.

‘It’s not over yet,’ he rasped, not looking up.

‘What I mean is, you don’t have to be here anymore. Everyone else is gone. Whatever point you were trying to make has been made. You can get back to your assessments, or your students, or whoever’s life you’re ruining these days.’

‘You don’t understand,’ he said. The knuckles of his hands whitened as he wrung them together. ‘I wasn’t there for her when . . . this is my last chance to . . .’

Elize glanced down, noting how her own knuckles mirrored the professor’s as she clenched the brim of her cap. Ignoring a decade’s worth of better judgement, she straightened and stepped from the shallow podium, seating herself in the chair beside him. She faced forward, towards the narrow metal box that dominated the front of the room.

‘You’d be surprised how much I do understand,’ she told him softly.

‘I just . . . I want to be with her a little longer. Before she’s gone forever.’

‘She’s not going to be gone,’ Elize said, mostly out of reflex. ‘She’ll be all around us, in every part of the ship that—’

‘You know what I mean.’

They sat together in silence for a few minutes.

‘Would you like me to assign someone to help with her things?’ Elize finally asked.

‘No.’

‘It’s just, with her crew and workspace still under quarantine it’s going to be a bigger job than usual. And given your personal history, I’d understand if—’

‘I said it’s fine,’ the professor said, more forcefully. He spread his hands, flexing and inspecting his fingers as he spoke. ‘I saw you’ve already cleared me for access to the inner decks, so you can’t be that concerned about the quarantine.’

Elize considered her response. ‘Obviously, we’re bound by certain protocols, but I’m confident you’ll be fine to enter her workspace.’

Acute bronchiolitis,’ Professor Visconti said, rolling the words around his mouth as though speaking a foreign language. ‘The only indication of a possible infectious agent the ship’s seen in nearly two generations, but you’re confident.’

Elize shifted in her seat. ‘There’s always a chance Cam stumbled across something dormant while she was working in a less frequented part of the ship, but as far as I’m concerned, we have less nebulous dangers to worry about.’

‘This ‘silicates shortage’ of yours?’ the professor scoffed. Elize frowned at his dismissiveness.

‘I’m serious,’ she said. ‘We need every element we can reclaim from her personal effects—especially from any tools with compound components. Circuitry, ceramic or . . . well, anything else she might have printed.’

‘We can’t be so short on silicates that a mug or two are going to make a difference. And didn’t Doctor Lee solve the problem for you, anyway.’

Elize set her jaw, reminding herself that she was talking to a grieving father.

‘Doctor Lee has a habit of thinking up short-term solutions to long-term problems,’ she answered. ‘We’re better making do with what we’ve got before we think about lassoing passing asteroids like some sort of deep-space cowboys. The ship needs her items back.’

Professor Visconti grunted. ‘I’ll make the rounds tomorrow.’

‘I’d prefer you start immediately. I need to assign someone to Camille’s maintenance tasks sooner rather than later, and they’ll require a clean space to work.’

‘Fine. I’ll start once she’s gone,’ the professor said, raising his head to look at the coffin for the first time since Elize had entered the room.

She pursed her lips. ‘This isn’t like reclaiming a half-eaten meal or a burned-out circuit board,’ she said. ‘It’s going to take hours to break her down and send those elements to the parts of the ship that need them.’

‘You think I don’t know that, Lizzy?’ the professor snarled, looking directly at her. His face was contorted in a mask of disdain. ‘You think this is the first time I’ve had to sit here and watch a woman I loved disappear into nothing?’

She returned his gaze with an icy calm she didn’t feel. ‘You think I don’t know that, Captain,’ she corrected. ‘And don’t you dare pretend you were there for anyone when your wife was reclaimed. I was there too, and I remember which one of us stayed for Cam and which one of us left the moment Captain Argon finished his speech.’ She brushed an imaginary speck from her pressed pant leg. ‘But I can’t stay for her this time. I have other responsibilities—we both do.’

‘I don’t care about responsibilities! This is my daughter we’re talking about!’

Elize clenched her jaw so tightly she could hear her back teeth grinding. She stood, slamming her cap on to her head.

‘If you actually mean that, then I’d say the sentiment is about eight years too late.’ She took a deep breath, staring forward. ‘As Captain, I expect each and every member of this crew to attend to the needs of the ship at all times, and above all else. I would think that you, of all people, would appreciate that.’ In her peripheral vision, she saw the professor move as if to speak, but she held up a warning hand. ‘As Captain. But as Camille’s . . . friend, I’m going to grant you this indulgence for her sake. Under one condition—I want every single item of hers back in the ship by this time tomorrow. Is that clear?’

‘That’s barely any time at all!’ the professor protested, shooting to his feet as well. ‘How am I supposed to go through everything to find what’s important and what’s not?’

Elize turned and strode out of the room.

‘You had thirty-four years to figure out what was important to her,’ she snapped as she left him to his vigil. ‘I doubt a couple of days is going to make a difference.’

*****

Manuel had fucked up.

The trip along the Final Hope’s curved corridors between the Visconti family berth and Camille’s personal quarters was shockingly short—a fact Manuel would have known if he’d visited her once during the near-decade she’d been gone. Even now, he was taking the walk out of necessity, not by choice. He’d forever missed his chance to choose.

As always, the ship’s narrow corridors were pulsing with a steady stream of crew fulfilling the never-ending tasks which kept her running. Engineers and electricians, on their way to perform the hundreds of maintenance checks and patches which kept the Final Hope spaceworthy; botanists and scientists, tending to the ship’s recirculation systems and the many printers and reclamators that kept the crew alive; educators and entertainment officers, instilling the next generation of crew with their responsibilities and ensuring their continued mental health. Each and every one of them focused on their own tasks and their own duties and, thankfully, ignored the aging historian and selections officer who passed through their midst—ignoring his own responsibilities for a day so he could destroy his dead daughter’s belongings and thus erase her presence from the ship for all time.

‘Professor Visconti?’ a young voice called as he passed an intersecting corridor. Manuel turned, and saw Cixin Tan squirming through the crowd. In the middle distance, Manuel could see the flash of student uniforms as Tan’s fellow classmates were led to whatever section of the ship they were working in today.

‘I’m afraid I’m rather busy, Mr. Tan,’ Manuel replied, continuing in the direction he was heading.

‘Sir, it’ll only take a moment. I just need to talk to you regarding my vocational assessment.’

‘If you want to dispute a ruling then you’ll need to bring it to me during my consultation hours. As you can plainly see, this is not that time.’

‘I just—’ the kid continued, pushing his way through the hallway to match Manuel’s stride. ‘I don’t know if you appreciate how much biogastronomy means to me. If you’d reconsider my aptitude scores, I’m sure—’

‘You don’t have any aptitude for biogastronomy, Tan,’ Manuel said, his fragile patience shattering. He stopped in his tracks, eliciting minor curses from the press of crew walking behind him. ‘Anyone can make something to eat through the ship’s printers, and you have consistently failed to show any interest or ability in perfecting their use to minimise resource drain.’

‘I know, but—’

‘This isn’t some sort of pleasure cruise, Mr. Tan. We’re out here for the long haul, and we have a duty and a responsibility to leave sufficient resources for those coming after us. And yes,’ he said, forestalling the inevitable, ‘I saw the cakes you so helpfully supplied with your vocational application. The amount of unnecessary ornamentation on them was frankly shocking.’

Some surge of emotion flashed in the kid’s eyes. ‘I worked really hard on those,’ he protested.

‘I don’t doubt you worked hard on them, Mr. Tan. That’s part of the issue. You could have spent your time programming new algorithms to incorporate better vitamins and proteins into the product, or better utilised the printer’s time to produce a greater volume of simpler cakes. Instead, every choice you made was pure frivolity.’

‘My councillor says we need to enjoy what we do, sir. How am I supposed to enjoy repairing toilets and cleaning conduits?’

‘How is anyone? But if not you, then who, Tan? Who’s going to do it?’ Manuel stepped forward, towering over the child. ‘Manual engineering is a duty of this ship that needs to be done—and since you’ve shown me you don’t have the capacity to work within the boundaries of what’s expected in other fields, that’s where I’m going to continue recommending you.’

‘That’s not fair! I—’

Life isn’t fair, Cam!’ Manuel exploded. He was distantly aware that movement in the corridor had ceased. ‘I don’t care what you’d rather be doing, or who you’d rather be doing it with—engineering is where we need you, so that’s where you’re going to go. You can’t just strut through life taking up resources and never giving anything of real value back to the ship! You need to stop this . . . this nonsense about what you want to do and start focusing on what you have to do!’

The boy’s lip started to quiver, and Manuel realised he’d been shouting. He stepped back, and the terrible silence of the corridor seeped from his subconscious into his notice. He looked around and saw the startled and horrified expressions of his crewmates staring back at him.

‘Are you all right, Professor?’ A woman wearing the bright blue epaulettes of the entertainment corps stepped forward, placing a comforting hand on Cixin Tan’s shoulder and gently guiding him behind her.

Manuel turned and shouldered his way through the crowd without further comment and continued to his dead daughter’s room.

*****

When Camille’s mother had died, and it had been just the two of them living out of the Visconti family berth, Camille’s side of the quarters had been a kaleidoscope of colour.

She’d stamped her personality on everything. She’d printed a multitude of paints from the ship and turned the walls and ceiling around her bed into a gargantuan mural. She’d learned to crochet and had sewn coloured geometric designs into her blankets. She’d even bedazzled her personal screen.

The ship’s councillors had told him it was her way of coping with the loss, that he should leave her, and she would eventually move through the phase. But as the years stretched by and the designs on her wall only grew more and more intricate, he’d realised he’d let her wallow in distraction for far too long. After their final argument, when he’d returned to find she’d taken her things and left, it had taken him days to scrub the berth clean and feed the pigmented water back into the ship’s reclamators.

He opened her door with the security override the captain had given him and stepped inside, expecting to find some similarly gaudy nonsense. But it seemed like the councillors had been right. There was nothing of Camille in this place—just the cold, steel-grey walls of the ship and the rumpled, unadorned linens of the bed she’d died in. Whatever phase she’d been working her way through, it seemed she’d left it behind just like he’d hoped she would.

Why, then, did that realisation leave him feeling so cold?

He paced across the spartan room and wasted no time bundling her linens together and placing them by the door for later transport to the high-volume reclamators in this level’s disposal room. He had to force himself to breathe as he fought to ignore the dark red speckles of blood sprayed across her pillow and the top half of her sheets.

The cupboards around the berth’s kitchen unit were almost bare, filled with only the standard necessities that came with every room; cups, plates, silverware—all which could be left for the next occupant. Her handful of hygienic items were easily stacked in the room’s own reclamator and it seemed she owned no clothing beside three identical copies of her work uniform. Apart from her screen, she had no personal effects to gather.

He stood beside the reclamator, absently running his fingers over the unadorned screen and remembering when its sides had been vibrant with colour, with . . . Camille. He chewed his bottom lip and, ignoring the chime that told him the reclamator had finished processing and was ready to dispose of new items, then crossed to the bed and sat on the stripped mattress.

Surely there’d be something of her in here, something of the person she’d grown into over the past decade that could counteract the creeping wrongness of this empty room?

He keyed in the same override code that had opened the door, and the screen lit up with Camille’s files.

The screen was almost ship-state new.

He scrolled through her access logs and personal settings. It seemed she’d barely used it for in-berth entertainment beyond accessing a slew of ship’s technical reports and research papers by her fellow engineers. Even the preferences were still set to default—not even he was that boring.

He tapped into her personal messages and scrolled through the list. It was the same story; every message she had sent had been to fellow engineers, and each communication was regarding some clarification of results from a report, scheduling for future tests and maintenance requests, or other work-related enquiries. The messages were as cold and impersonal as the ship itself. Except one.

At the top of the message chain, there was a single conversation recorded between Camille and the captain. He tapped on it—the time stamp showed the communication had been in the middle of the night before she’d been found in her room.

I’m sorry, the message began. It had been initiated by Camille.

Cam? Oh my god, it’s been years! Are you okay? Is something wrong?

I just wanted you to know I’m sorry. I should have reached out. Said something. I’m sorry for wasting the time we could have had.

Are you okay? Did you want to meet up? I can be there in less than an hour, just let me tie a few things up first.

No, it’s okay. I just wanted you to know.

Half an hour—are you at home?

I’m working. Please don’t come. I’m sorry. Don’t come.

Okay. I’m always here, Cam. And I’m sorry too—talk again soon?

There was no further communication.

Manuel went to lower the screen, but as he did so his own name caught his eye. A single message sat in Camille’s draft folder, addressed to him.

Holding his breath, he tapped the message and it came up on the screen.

Dad,

That was it. He checked the time stamp. She’d started this right after contacting the captain.

Had she been too sick to finish, or too unwilling?

He looked up from the screen and around the empty room. Everything in here painted the same picture: a picture of a serious woman who lived for her job—for the ship—above all else. Exactly the person he’d wanted her to be.

It wasn’t Cam. Not the riotous, cacophonic girl he remembered.

He stood, filled with a sadness he didn’t know how to quantify. He placed her screen in the reclamator—easier than tapping through the menus to wipe the unit—and gathered her uniforms and sheets together to take to the reclamation room. As he straightened, he felt something small tumble from a crease near one of the uniform’s cuffs. He looked down and saw something had fallen to shatter on the berth’s cold metal floor.

He lowered the linens and knelt to examine it. It was a small lump of grey material, almost the same colour as the ship but infinitely more brittle—it had broken so completely on impact that the metal where it had landed was covered in a fine coat of powder. He frowned. It wasn’t like anything he’d seen before.

He gathered the broken remains in his hands as best he could and waited for the reclamator to finish breaking down Camille’s screen, watching as the readout tallied the amount of plastic, silicate, metal and organic material recovered by the process and piped them away to the nearest storage tanks. The process didn’t take long—although the screens were fairly complex as far as technology went, generations of shipboard innovation had reduced the variety of materials required to print them, and thus they broke down relatively easily too. When it was finished, he opened the unit and scraped in the strange particulate material from his hands. He set it to reclaim, and went to turn back to the linens when something he hadn’t noticed before caught his eye.

He reached out and dragged a finger along the top of where the reclamator jutted out from the ship’s wall. His finger came back grey, coated with the same fine powder.

‘What the—’

The reclamator chimed unexpectedly fast, and he glanced at the readout. He stepped back from the wall.

‘Oh, Cam. What did you do?’ He asked, looking at the grey powder dusting his fingertips, then back at the readout.

It read as 100% silicates.

*****

After the shock of Camille’s almost empty personal quarters, Manuel didn’t know what he’d been expecting to find in her workspace—but he hadn’t expected to find himself feeling dizzy.

Academically, having spent decades teaching the history of the Final Hope to her upcoming generations of crew, he understood how the cylindrical design rotated in order to produce the artificial gravity he’d been living in his entire life. But in all that time, he’d never had a reason—or the clearance—to access the inner decks. Almost exclusively confined to the ship’s engineers, these decks rotated at progressively faster rates than the outer habitation zones did and as part of the senior team, Camille’s workstation was close to the ship’s weightless central engines.

Manuel found himself stumbling as the unpredictable gravity pulled him in uncomfortable directions every time he turned his head. At one point he vomited and watched as the contents of his stomach arced gracefully towards the far wall in a spiral, rather than falling towards the ground. The entire experience left him feeling completely disoriented.

Is this what I condemned you to every day, Cam? Did it get easier to bear over the years, or was it always this horrible?

He inched his way forward, clinging to the claustrophobic access corridor’s walls as he finally made it into Senior Engineer Visconti’s work zone.

Even in his current state, it only took seconds to see that while the room was cluttered with ship’s reports, blueprints and small items in various states of repair, it was almost empty of personality.

‘No, no, no,’ Manuel begged as he shifted an interlocking section of coolant pipes to one side and scrabbled fruitlessly in the jumble of repair components which lay underneath. ‘This can’t be all there is. This can’t be all there was to you, not after all these years.’ Where was the Camille who’d fought him so hard for her individuality that she’d moved out of their berth after his recommendation to the vocational board? Where was the Camille who’d refused his assignments of breeding partners through the partnership board so vehemently she’d applied to officially cut all ties with him? And where had that silicate material come from?

He tapped through the duty logs on her workstation’s screen, and frowned. She’d logged a lot of her time over the past few weeks as ‘working from berth’, but if that had been the case, surely her room would have looked a lot more like this space: cluttered with fragments of half-repaired ship components, tools, and engine grease. But apart from that strange dust, her room had been practically empty.

If she hadn’t been working from here, and she hadn’t been working from her berth, where had she been spending her time?

He scrolled farther back through the logs as he considered the possibilities. The volume of the discrepancies was staggering. As far back as the beginning of the screen’s records—from the moment she was promoted to a senior position—she’d been splitting her time between her duties and ‘working from berth’. It was a staggering number of hours, far beyond what would be taken up by anything as pedestrian as an affair or simple indolence. In fact, if laziness had been the motivating factor then this would have been a terrible way to do it—Manuel could only imagine how efficient she’d have had to be during her actual working hours for this time away to have continued to slip beneath notice.

He thought back to something he often said during his lessons: It’s amazing what history records, yet is completely forgotten until someone has a reason to go looking for it.

He chewed his lip as a thought struck him, and he tapped his way through the screen to a completely different set of menus.

Living on the Final Hope, there were certain things that were simply the background elements of life, and thus beneath your notice. The constant hum of the ship’s engines, vibrating through the floor as the decks revolved. The press of your crewmates around you and the miasma of human sweat and breath as you moved through the corridors. The cameras that recorded your movements almost everywhere in the ship.

Considering what passed for privacy out here in the space between stars, the idea that your movements were known at all times was something of a given factor. It wasn’t something you tended to think about, and nobody—usually—had a reason to go through the recordings to verify you were where you were supposed to be.

Manuel opened the workroom’s last month of footage on the screen and scrolled through to just before a time Camille was supposedly ‘working from berth’. His breath caught as the image of his daughter filled the screen.

She looked so different to how he remembered her.

She was bent over the same screen he was now, finalising her report for the day. Her hair was pulled back into a severe bun, and she sat with her back ramrod straight, a visual parallel to the crisp lines of her uniform, speckled with engine grease around the cuffs but otherwise in a state of supreme cleanliness. His heart broke as she adjusted a set of narrow glasses she hadn’t required the last time he’d seen her. He watched as she stood, turned and, coughing, stepped out of the room and into the corridor beyond.

He picked up the screen and followed in her footsteps, toggling between the room’s camera and the hall’s. He reeled. Moving through this section of the ship with his head down immediately caused his gorge to rise, but he swallowed, determined to chase at least this fleeting connection to his daughter. He watched as she wended her way through the ship’s internal corridors, moving ever closer to the centre of the ship. In the recording, as in Manuel’s present, this section of the Final Hope was virtually abandoned compared to the crowded outer decks—neither he, nor she, passed another soul before they reached their destination.

He watched as Camille stopped by an ancient and apparently insignificant access port. He looked up from the screen to find himself standing before it as well. He steadied himself on the nearest wall and watched her pull the manual lever and swing the hatch open. She clambered through, pulling the hatch closed behind her, and to his surprise—disappeared from the ship. No matter how many visual recordings he toggled through, he couldn’t find her anywhere.

He turned off the screen and examined the hatch more closely. It was one of the early engine access ports—used during the ship’s construction to transfer engineers between the rotating sections of the ship and its stationary core, later superseded by more modern conduits and subsequently falling out of use. He copied the sequence of levers she’d pulled to access the portal, and the door swung open.

He peered into the long, dark access tube beyond. What had she been doing in there? He looked at his hands and noticed that where they had touched the inside of the hatch, they had come away coated in a thin film of the same grey powder he’d found in her berth.

If he wanted to find out what she’d been doing—what she’d been hiding—then there was only one way to do so.

*****

Manuel floated through the other end of the access corridor and into the vast and weightless space beyond.

At first glance, the area appeared less of a room, and more of a gap between the ship’s engine compartment and the giant, rotating habitation decks. Based on what he knew of the ship’s construction history, he imagined this space had been created when the two components of the ship, built separately, were combined into a single pressurised superstructure. But even that was hard to tell, since his vision in nearly every direction was occluded by Camille’s art.

She was everywhere. Not the antiseptic, false Camille that he’d seen in her berth, her workspace, and in the recording he’d followed to get here. The real and vibrant girl that he remembered. Her painting adorned the walls with swirling clouds of colour, both captured within framed canvas and splashed across the metal of the ship itself. Swathes of netting were affixed to the sides of the room, holding down countless wooden carvings, furniture, pendants and specialised artist’s tools. Some of these had come free of their bindings and were floating lazily through the weightless air—Manuel moved to one side as what looked to be a cast bronze replica of an ancient Greco-Roman figure sailed past his head.

But in the centre of the room, its suspension in the space ensured by the multitude of ropes and cables that anchored it to the ship, was Camille’s masterpiece.

It was an enormous statue of the Final Hope, but unlike any version of the vessel Manuel had seen in its schematics. The outside of the ship’s cylindrical hull was barbed and spiked, as though coated in a layer of thorny vines. From the centre—not from one of the non-curved ends, but erupting from the ship’s side in a representational shower of rent steel—a gigantic woman strained to escape, one hand pressed against the side of the ship, and the other reaching towards the unseen stars above her. In that outstretched hand, the room’s light reflected off a multifacetted crystalline globe with seven spiny protrusions bursting forth from it. An ancient symbolic representation of a star. Apart from that shimmering centrepiece, the entire statue was made from the same grey silicate material that Manuel had found in Camille’s berth.

And at the foot of the statue, oriented in the directionless space so that she was looking ‘up’, Captain Cahun floated with her arm hooked around one of the statue’s anchor lines to keep her in place.

‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ the captain asked him, not turning from her appreciation of the gargantuan sculpture.

‘It’s Camille,’ he answered, looking up at the statue’s face. The woman’s features didn’t look anything like his daughter’s, but they were somehow more her than even she had been. The statue’s cheeks were wet with carved tears and in that detail, set beneath the fierce determination in those same eyes, he felt he finally understood something about the person—the artist—his daughter had been. He saw the hatred, and the passion, and the resigned sense of duty all wrapped up together. He saw her desperate need to reach out, to escape, and yet the inability to conceive of a destination beyond the ship’s goal. He saw the girl who defied the very ship itself, and the oppressiveness of the metal walls that still clung to her waist, unwilling to let her go.

He drew a breath to ask the captain about the statue, and doubled over in a fit of red-faced coughing.

‘Ah,’ the captain said, turning and tossing something in his direction. ‘You’re going to need one of these.’ He reached out and, with blurry eyes, snatched the tumbling apparatus out of the air. He inspected it as his coughing fit subsided, and he saw it was some sort of breathing and filtration unit. He looked up; the captain was already wearing one.

‘It’s a breath mask of sorts,’ she told him as he pulled it over his mouth and nose. ‘I found one hanging by the door and scanned it into the system to print that copy for you. I don’t know if she made the schematics for them herself or dredged them up from somewhere in the archives, but I wouldn’t rely on them for too long either way. I imagine by the time the concentration of silica particulates in the air here got bad enough for her to notice that nagging cough it was already too late for her lungs, but you never know.’

‘It wasn’t—’ Manuel rasped as he adjusted to breathing through the strange apparatus. ‘It wasn’t some disease that killed her, was it?’

The captain shook her head. ‘No. I had to do some digging through the archives myself, but after I found this statue I started to wonder. Advanced silicosis of the lungs—it presents almost identically to bronchiolitis, and used to be a common complaint for stoneworkers on Earth before the invention of these sorts of things.’ She tapped the front of her mask. ‘And even then, terrestrial gravity would have dropped a lot of the dust to the floor, not left it whizzing through the air like in here.’

Manuel looked towards the nearerst light and noticed for the first time how the air almost seemed to glitter. ‘How long have you known about this place?’ he asked.

The captain shrugged. ‘The place? Decades, at least. This is where Cam and I used to come when we were still . . . when we were close. I had no idea she was still using it though—I certainly had no idea she was using it for this.’

‘Did you know this was here yesterday? When you gave me a damned day to go through all of her things?’

‘Don’t be dramatic. I didn’t think you’d find this place; obviously, this wasn’t included.’

‘And yet you printed me a mask.’

The captain didn’t respond. Manuel manoeuvred his way to one of the anchor ropes and used it to haul himself towards her. When they drew even, he saw that she was blinking back tears—a difficult task, given the lack of gravity meant they beaded around her eyes, unable to roll down her cheeks.

‘I just . . .’ she said, swallowing hard. ‘I wanted to be with her a little longer. Before she’s gone forever.’ She sniffled and wiped her eyes clear with the cuff of her right sleeve. ‘I never thought I’d come back here, you know? Not since the last time, not after you nominated me for captain through the vocations board.’ She looked down, twisting the wedding band she wore on her left hand. ‘Not after I had to tell her everything this position would entail. She wasn’t ready to accept doing what was best for the ship. I thought, when I saw she’d been promoted, that maybe things had changed.’ She looked back up at the statue. ‘I guess she never actually did.’

Manuel followed her gaze, to the woman bursting free from the confines of the ship. At this distance, he could see that the statue wasn’t carved from a single block of silicate, but rather from thousands of small blocks pressed together.

‘She must have printed the blocks from her workstation,’ he said, thinking aloud. ‘She worked in a senior position so she’d have her own space to print them out with nobody noticing. Then she carried each of them here. It must have taken her years.’

The captain drew a shaky breath. ‘I wanted to move on. I shut the door to this place and I never looked back—only forward, only to the needs of the ship, and my kids, and all the next generation of crew. But Cam . . . she came back. She came back here again, and again. She spent her life wallowing in her grief and her pain, and she turned it into this.’ She swept her arm around the room, encompassing it all.

Manuel didn’t know what to say, and so he said nothing. They floated for a while, simply appreciating Camille’s statue. But the silence couldn’t last forever, and it was he who eventually broke it.

‘We’re going to have to destroy this, aren’t we?’ 

The captain barked a short, humourless laugh in response.

‘You can see why a supply of silicates that was supposed to last the ship over a millennium is sitting at crisis levels right now,’ she said. ‘We couldn’t figure out why. We even went back to the initial mission parameters and the ship’s blueprints, trying to track back the centuries of incremental design change we’ve madew to the printers and find where the wastage was coming from. You know, the shipbuilders tried to account for everything we might run into out here when they were figuring out how much raw material we’d need to get the ship to Kepler. Malfunction, unexpected collision, weight to thrust ratios, all of it. But all their calculations assumed we’d be using our silica for electrical and computing components, maybe to replace the occasional mug. They never accounted for something like Camille.’

‘No,’ Manuel said, feeling a surge of some emotion he didn’t know how to express. It tugged the side of his mouth into a quivering smile. ‘I don’t suppose any of us did.’ He paused for a moment before asking, ‘Doctor Lee’s idea of topping up our supply of silicates from that asteroid we’re going to be passing doesn’t still have a chance, does it?’

The captain sighed. ‘Honestly, there’s so much wrong with that idiotic plan I don’t know where to begin. Even if it worked exactly how Lee wants it to, the deviation it’d require from our current course would add decades, maybe centuries to our overall flight path. And if you think this shortage is bad, try seeing what the ecosystem of the ship looks like if a future captain has to nudge us out of the way of an unexpected comet in three hundred year’s time and adds another century or two to the trip. The reward just isn’t worth the risk. Not when we have a ship’s worth of silicates right here in front of us.’ She straightened her posture and looked at Manuel. ‘As much as we disagree on . . . basically everything, you’re right about one thing, Professor. The ship comes first. It has to come first.’ She returned her gaze to the statue. ‘Even if it means we have to lose her twice.’

Manuel chewed at his bottom lip. ‘We might not have to,’ he said. ‘Not if she becomes part of the ship.’

‘Fuck off, Professor,’ the captain snarled. ‘I know you think even less of that ‘part of the ship, always with us’ nonsense than I do.’

‘I don’t mean physically,’ Manuel clarified. ‘I mean . . . Okay, look, what’s going to happen when we walk out of here and you report this to the ship’s board?’

‘An investigation, certainly,’ Captain Cahun said with a sigh. ‘The statue and all of the other artwork in here will be broken down, reduced back to their component elements and stored for use around the ship. We’ll be able to relax the silicate restrictions now that the shortage is over, and life on the ship will get back to normal.’

‘Not quite normal,’ Manuel said. ‘Because now there’ll be something as much a part of the ship as those physical components. A memory. Everyone is going to remember the first time the ship came within real danger of running out of materials.’ He looked back up at the statue and the faceted star in the woman’s outstretched arm. ‘People are going to be talking about this for generations. People are going to be telling their children to be careful with the resources they use, lest they turn out like Camille Visconti, who’s recklessness nearly doomed us all. I know they’ll be talking about it, because I’m going to turn it into a history lesson.’

The captain’s eyes glistened with sadness and rage. ‘You never understood her at all, did you?’

‘No,’ Manuel admitted. ‘I didn’t. But I do understand this ship. Sometimes, what we want to do and what we have to do are two very separate things. I want to keep this statue. I want to keep this last bit of her for as long as I can. But we can’t, so we settle for the next best thing.’

The captain again fiddled with the ring on her left hand. ‘They’re going to hate her.’

‘No,’ Manuel replied. He looked up at the towering statue, so much larger than life itself. ‘They’re going to remember her.’

*****

Thank you for reading Forgotten by Terence MacManus. This is the Standard version, which does not include the author’s reflection on the piece. You can unlock the Premium version of the publication for FREE by subscribing to Terry Talks Fiction using the link here.

Subscribers not only get access to the author’s reflection—where I describe how my archaeological approach to fiction writing influenced the choices I made in this story, and how perspective is important when considering the scope of a project—but also get access to an .epub version of the story for easy offline reading, and access to the full back catalogue of short stories published to the site throughout 2019.

*****

Some of the characters in this story are named for the real people who helped inspire them.

Camille, the sculptor, is named for Camille Claudel, a french sculptor born in 1864. Camille sculpted in bronze and stone, and worked in seclusion for much of her life. Her art was moderately popular, but was widely condemned for its sensual nature. In her later years, Camille’s mental state deteriorated, and she destroyed much of her own work—erasing it from history. She is still remembered as one of France’s greatest sculptors.

Manuel Visconti is named for the Count Visconti, who is credited with naming the syndrome of Silicosis, the fatal deterioration of the lungs due to inhaling microscopic silica dust. Although this element of his character was ultimately downplayed in this version of the story, it will feature more prominently in next year’s novella release.

This story takes place in the Silicone Universe—the fictional world where the majority of my science fiction is set—and occurs approximately 250 years after the events of Intelligentsia and In The Soft, Fragile Place Between Being which were released on the Terry Talks Fiction website in January and March 2019, respectively. Although these stories are no longer available on the website, you can read them by subscribing to Terry Talks Fiction for free.

Special thanks to my extremely talented wife Mikayla for her excellent photography on the front cover! You can see more of Mikayla’s work on her Instagram page.