by Arthur Sánchez
"Chang, you tell her," Maria said, her dark eyes flashing as her hand unconsciously tried to brush back a lock of auburn hair she no longer owned. She and Jonathan had shaved their heads earlier that morning in preparation for their long cryogenic voyage, and it would be a while before she remembered not to bother.
"Don't look at me," Chang said defensively. Not wanting to get dragged into the argument. He was making his weekly check-up call from the Health Clinic and hadn't expected to find Maria or Jonathan still there. He also hadn't expected them to be arguing with Mother Perkins. "I couldn't even convince her to move closer to the Clinic when they closed down her section. You know how," he glanced respectfully at Mother Perkins, "firm she can be."
Maria glared at him for his lack of courage. She then turned her attention back to the old woman who sat next to her on the sofa. "But why not? Jonathan knows people in the government, Mother Perkins. He can get you on the next transport out. By the time you got to New Kenya we'd be ready for you. Don't you want to come with us?"
Mother Perkins looked at the two of them and then at Chang, who sat nervously in his office on the far side of the complex -- and she smiled. A network of laugh lines crept across her chestnut-brown cheeks and her eyes sparkled with pride. How they've matured, she thought. Not at all the clumsy, confused, or angry young people she'd taken in five years earlier -- but intelligent and caring adults about to embark on an adventure. She was glad she'd gotten a chance to know them and she was proud of who they'd become. "No children," she told them in a voice coarse with age, "I do not want to go."
"But why?" Maria demanded, making no attempt to hide her disappointment.
Mother Perkins did not approve of Maria's tone but, given the circumstances, forgave the child. "Because the stars are for the young, or haven't you seen the advertisements. I'm too old for space travel. I'd barely survive the physical, let alone pass it. She turned and pointed at the young man on the Vid Screen. "Chang can tell you that." Jonathan and Maria turned to look at their adopted brother as he reluctantly nodded his head. It was part of his duties: to certify émigrés fit, or unfit, for travel. The government just didn't have enough ships for everyone.
"No," Mother Perkins said gently, not wishing to upset them further, "the stars are the future. I belong here -- with the past." Her gaze shifted beyond them and to the room in which they sat.
Mother Perkins' unit was small, but she'd worked hard to make it a home. The walls were paneled in real mahogany. The rug was made of organic silk and cotton. The sofa, in complete contradiction to current tastes, was a large overstuffed monstrosity that stood in the center of the room like an ancient gargoyle. A wilting dandelion grew in a pot on her mantle. Every nook and cranny was filled with the possessions of a lifetime: of glass and porcelain, metal and plastic, wood and stone. Piled high and layered deep, Mother Perkins had spent a lifetime collecting, preserving, and caring for all things Terran.
"This old world may not be much now," she continued, "but she was quite a beauty once. She's cared for and nurtured the human race for millennia, and now that she's past her prime, humanity is ready to move on. Well, only natural, comes a time when all children have to move on." She pointedly stared at them.
"When you get as old as we are," she said, including the world in which she lived, "you come to understand that. I was born on this world and I intend to die here. We old ladies have to stick together."
Maria and Jonathan exchanged worried glances, and for the first time Jonathan broke his silence. "But Mother," he said, putting on the reasonable face of a Biologist, "almost everyone is gone. What will you do?"
"Do?" Mother Perkins' pale gray eyes sparkled with humor. "Why, I'll do what I've always done. I'll live until I die. I'm a hundred and thirty-five years old, Jonathan. There can't be too much left for me to do."
"Now you're being morbid," Maria chided. "You'll outlive us all."
But before Mother Perkins could respond, the room reverberated with an announcement. "ATTENTION! ATTENTION! ALL EMIGRES TO BOARDING ZONE. ALL EMIGRES TO BOARDING ZONE. ATTENTION! ATTENTION!" The announcement was as loud and as intrusive as its designers could make it. It bludgeoned them with its message. Maria began to cry. Jonathan glanced at Chang, who shrugged his shoulders. There was nothing they could do.
"Time to go," Mother Perkins said softly, "mustn't be late for your new life."
Maria made one last attempt to change her mind, but Mother Perkins stopped her with a raised finger. "Time to say goodbye." And she rose slowly to her feet. "Chang," she said, turning to the Vid Screen, "will you join me for dinner tonight? Won't be many opportunities for me to see you before you take your ship." Chang nodded that he would. "Good. Now Jonathan," she said, tugging at the big man, "help me find my camera will you? I want to take a hologram before you two go."
It was a ploy but a good one. Maria forgot her tears and instead fussed over the image. In the end there was barely enough time for a few brief hugs. After they'd all gone, Mother Perkins placed the hologram on the mantle next to the images of all her other adopted children -- most of whom were now in transit or resettled. The sea of smiling faces that looked back at her was impressive.
* * *
A month later, as Mother Perkins hobbled home from the Community Center, it happened. She'd gone to the Department of Family Services offering to volunteer her time. But there were no more children for adoption, no more adolescents needing attention, no teenagers needing a firm hand. "Don't you know they're all emigrating?" She was told. "We're taking care of them. You go home and rest," they said, "there's nothing here for you to do."
Mother Perkins thought about that: nothing here for her to do. What a terrible thing to say to a person. They were right, of course. Soon everyone would be gone and then what would she do? Mother Perkins' mind turned to the bright yellow pills she'd been issued. The government thought they were a kindness. They would help her join those who could not or would not emigrate. She suddenly wondered what it would be like to die.
"Excuse me," a soft voice called from just behind her.
Mother Perkins jumped. She'd almost reached her unit, and it had been a long and lonely stretch. There hadn't been anyone else in the dimly lit corridors for quite a while. Slowly, she turned and looked behind her. The long serpentine passage appeared empty. She glanced around and began to wonder if she wasn't hearing things when she noticed someone standing in the shadows of a few large induction tubes. At her invitation, the figure timidly stepped into the light.
Mother Perkins eyes went round with surprise. The child who stood before her was no more than ten years of age. She was petite and had large almond-shaped eyes. Her skin was dark but her hair was blond and it fell upon her shoulders in long, gossamer curls. Natural, Mother Perkins decided. In vitro children were too homogenized for this. No, this child was conceived in pleasure and birthed in pain. This was a real child. But what was she doing here?
"Do you have the time?" the girl asked. Her voice was thin and airy. Mother Perkins heard the question and was surprised again. Time was an archaic term in a subterranean world of marks and segments. That a child so young would know what it was, let alone ask for it, was remarkable.
"Don't you want to know if I have the mark, child?"
The imp shook her head. "No, the time."
Mother Perkins smiled. It must be a joke. Something the girl and her friends came up with in order to tease old people while they waited for their transport. No doubt there was an entire gaggle of the young travelers lurking among the pipes, stifling their urge to laugh. Well, she'd show them. "Do you want it in Euro-Serbo or Pacific Rim keeping?" She was certain that the unfamiliar terms would make the child waver.
"Either, thank you," she said calmly. Mother Perkins was impressed. She was a fine little actress.
"Well then," Mother Perkins said, pulling out her grandfather's time-piece. "The LCD says that it is nine o'clock, Euro-Serbo time." She watched the child's eyes, expecting to see confusion, but the girl seemed to understand her well enough. She just stood there and stared at her.
Mother Perkins waited, but when neither the girl nor any of her hidden friends said anything else, she concluded that the joke was a bust. "Well, Miss," Mother Perkins asked, "is there anything else I can do for you?" The little girl shook her head. "No? Then, I guess I'll be saying good night."
The child did not move but lowered her eyes to stare at the floor. Mother Perkins paused. Oh dear, she thought, I really did spoil the joke. Probably made her look foolish in front of her friends. Children hate to look foolish -- old people too, for that matter.
Mother Perkins reached out and stroked the girl's soft curls. "There, there, little one," she said in a whisper, "don't fret." Then, loud enough so that her friends could hear: "You must be exceptionally bright to know about time. Did they teach you the old mark-keeping methods in school?" There, Mother Perkins thought, the compliment should redeem her somewhat among her friends.
"There's no-one else," the girl said without looking up. She spoke so unexpectedly that she caught Mother Perkins by surprise.
"Children," she responded, "there are no more."
Mother Perkins became alarmed. "Do you mean to tell me that you're all alone?" There was a momentary fluctuation in the overhead lighting. For a brief instant, the corridor became much brighter and Mother Perkins saw the girl's jumpsuit. It was orange -- Orange for Orphan. That explains it. The new ones often ran away.
Mother Perkins pretended not to notice but instead made a show of searching the corridor. "Well, I don't know what you are doing out here all --" That's when the child gave a violent shudder from the cold. "Why, you're freezing!"
All questions were suddenly secondary as Mother Perkins quickly removed her wool coat and wrapped it around the girl. The child looked like a rag doll in Mother Perkins' huge coat, but she smiled warmly at her. "Thank you, mother."
Mother Perkins smiled back. "You're most welcome." It was too late to return the girl to the orphanage. The doors would be locked. The only thing to do, Mother Perkins concluded, was to take her home and wait till tomorrow.
Mother Perkins smiled at the girl again. "I'll bet you're hungry," she said to her. The little girl nodded her head. "How would you like a peanut butter sandwich and some warm soy milk?" The child nodded enthusiastically. "Well then, we'll just have to get you some, won't we?" Mother Perkins took the child by the hand, and together they walked down the remainder of the corridor. The girl never asked why Mother Perkins was taking her in and Mother Perkins didn't feel the need to explain.
As they traveled the silent passageways, Mother Perkins wondered about her little foundling. What was she doing here? What happened to her family? It was odd how she hadn't noticed the orange jumpsuit when she first saw the child. Old eyes, Mother Perkins reminded herself, old eyes don't see so well anymore in these dark tunnels.
Mother Perkins spared the child a sideward glance. She looked healthy enough. Healthy children were usually placed with foster families, unless the government considered her ineligible for emigration. That thought twisted Mother Perkins' heart. That meant she was alone -- or soon would be.
When they got to Mother Perkins' unit, the child immediately went into the parlor as if she knew the unit by heart. Mother Perkins let her be and set about getting the milk and sandwiches. When she went in to the parlor with the food, she found the child staring at the holograms on the mantle.
"Are these your children?"
Mother Perkins glanced at the images. Three dozen faces looked back. "Yes, they are."
The child's eyes went wide. "All of them?"
Mother Perkins laughed at her reaction. "Oh no, not all of them. I..." Mother Perkins searched for the right words. "I took care of them. They didn't have any mothers or fathers, so I was their mother. In some cases I was their father too." Mother Perkins laughed again but the child remained silent.
"Where are your children, Mother? Where have they gone?"
"And how do you know they're gone?" Mother Perkins asked, placing the tray of food on a low table.
"Aren't they?" The girl's eyes were filled with childlike directness.
Mother Perkins smiled sadly. "Yes, you are right, they are. They had to." Then to distract her inquisitive little guest, she offered her a mug of warm milk.
The little girl crossed the room and politely took the white porcelain mug Mother Perkins offered her, raising it to her lips. "Well?"
"Where are they?" The mug remained motionless before her, and the steam floated upwards like a veil.
Mother Perkins shook her head. She'd forgotten how stubborn children could be. Placing her own mug down on the table, she moved over to the viewscreen. The tall, steel-blue panel stood against one wall and seemed oddly out of place in her home. It was the only modern piece of furniture she owned. Mother Perkins never got used to living in a world without a sun or stars. The viewscreen allowed her to see the sky. With several light touches she directed it to display the far side of the planet. The cold night sky appeared on the screen. It hung above a pale-gray landscape that was devoid of life.
"There," Mother Perkins said, pointing to a glowing point of light on the screen, "my children have gone to New Kenya -- a small planet near this star in Orion's belt. It's a water world, you know, they're going to fill it full of fishes. Won't that be exciting?" The little girl drew close, her mug clutched in her hands, and stared at the point of light. "Why didn't you go?"
Mother Perkins looked at the child. The note of sadness in her voice was unmistakable. Was that it? Was she abandoned when she was deemed unsuitable for emigration? It would explain her being alone in the tunnels, her curiosity about Mother Perkins children, the sadness in her voice. Mother Perkins tried to make light of the question.
"Oh, I think it's much nicer here. You can stay with me if you like?"
The child seemed to consider the offer but then shook her head. "I can't."
Mother Perkins pursed her lips. She'd hoped the child would accept her offer. The orphanage was a sterile place and if she was defective, the government would be happy to get rid of her. But she had to give her consent first. "Well, If you ever change your mind," Mother Perkins said, "I'll be waiting right here."
The child looked thoughtfully at her and then turned her attention back to the screen. "What if they don't like it?"
"What if who doesn't like what?"
"Your children... New Kenya... What if they don't like it?"
"Well, I suppose they can always move. There are other worlds."
"What if they don't like any of them?"
Mother Perkins was convinced now. The child was abandoned. It was obvious that in her own child-like way she was asking if her family would ever come back. The odds of that though were not good. Earth was dying. The planet's slowly decaying rotation had ended the seasons and devastated the surface. The subterranean cities were fine for the short term, but without hope of improvement the human race had to move on.
Mother Perkins was not easily angered, but anger flared up in her like a beacon. Damn them! Damn whoever it was that abandoned this child. How could they do such a thing? Mother Perkins' lips drew themselves into a hard line, and she answered the question with vehemence. "Well, if they don't like any of those worlds then they can always come back and visit us. 'Cause we'll be right here waiting for them."
This seemed to brighten the child, and she began to nod her head. "Yes, yes, they must come back," she said in a whisper.
The look of hope on her face took the edge off Mother Perkins' anger. "Come on now, enough of that. The milk is getting cold and it's time we had something to eat." She drew the child away from the viewscreen and toward the sofa.
The child though didn't seem to hear her. "They must be able to come back," she muttered. "Someone must be here for them."
"Of course, child," Mother Perkins responded positively. She sat down on the sofa and patted the cushion next to her. "Now come sit next to me."
"Would you care for them, Mother?" The girl asked, placing her mug on the table and climbing onto the sofa. She still wore Mother Perkins' coat and had to pull up the sleeves so as to free her hands to grab the armrest.
Mother Perkins laughed, giving her a boost. "What, care for all 50 billion of them?" Mother Perkins had meant it as a joke.
Mother Perkins shook her head slowly. "No child, even I can't do that."
The child peered at her intently. "What if you could?"
Mother Perkins eyed the bright young child warily. She sounded so serious, as if it was actually possible to care for 50 billion souls. Mother Perkins was about to tweak her nose when the child began to change. There was a blurring of the features as if a heat devil had risen between them. When it cleared, the child wasn't a child anymore. Mother Perkins blinked her eyes. The girl looked as if she were thirteen or fourteen years old now.
"You can care for all of them. If you truly want to."
Mother Perkins suddenly felt dizzy and raised a hand to her head. "Oh, I-I don't think so. I don't have nearly enough peanut butter." Mother Perkins tried to laugh but the dizziness only intensified.
The girl slid off the sofa and stood up with a gawky awkwardness. The coat, which had been like an enormous comforter around her, barely hid her legs. Mother Perkins knew this wasn't possible. "Child," she said as calmly as possible, "I don't feel right. I-I want you to call the doctors." But the girl did not move.
Mother Perkins didn't hesitate. She hadn't lived a 135 years by being unprepared. If the child was too frightened to act then she would have to. With her right hand she groped her left wrist until she found the emergency bracelet Chang had given her. Tapping on it lightly, she alerted the medical facility to the emergency. "Don't be frightened, child," she said confidently, "everything will be all right."
That was when the girl touched her lightly on the cheek and the haze that had hung before Mother Perkins' eyes was lifted. "There isn't much time now, Mother," she said in a voice that was quickly growing mature, "and I need your help."
Suddenly, Mother Perkins was afraid. Never in all her life had she seen anything like this. The child was literally growing up before her eyes. "W-Who are you? What are you?"
The child became a young woman, tall and slender. She held all the grace and beauty of a dancer and her eyes were ablaze with an inner light. "I am who I am, and who I am is what I am." Then she laughed in a voice that was like the tinkling of glass. "It's not much of an answer, I know, but I'll try to explain." Mother Perkins nodded her head, grateful for not having to ask for the explanation.
"In the beginning," the young woman said in a solemn voice, "there was nothing. Then we were sent out, beings of light, each to claim a tiny bit of the universe for themselves." As she spoke, a sense of power began to radiate from her. "A billion stars did we form and countless worlds to fly in their orbits... and we cherished them. But not even the gods are immortal. So as we ceased to be, and with no one to care for them, many a world grew dark and cold in the vastness of space. I am one such being. I made this world. I gave it life, nurtured it, and saw it blossom. But eternity has an end and my time is almost over." Mother Perkins gaped. She'd lost her mind. That was the only answer. Senility had struck with a vengeance.
"Why do you not believe your own senses?" The woman asked.
"Because, what you're saying isn't possible. Life isn't created, it evolves."
"And what is evolution!" The woman demanded. "But a word meant to describe an event few, even now, understand. Life isn't an accident. Life is not simply a chemical reaction. It is a gift -- a gift that must be protected, cultivated, and cherished." Then her voice softened. "But you already know that, don't you. When you get as old as we are, you come to understand such things."
Mother Perkins was stunned to hear her own words spoken by this person. She watched as this woman did indeed grow older. Her hair became streaked with gray and her stance lost its proud bearing. The woman sat next to Mother Perkins and took her hand. Mother Perkins' fear drained away.
"But if it is true?" Mother Perkins asked. "If you really did create this world and the life upon it, why is it that no-one knows of you? Why is it that the world is dying?"
The Star Being smiled. "Oh, you've always known me, you've simply forgotten that you know me. And the world is dying because I am dying. It takes more than most can imagine to care for an entire world -- and humanity has always been a handful," she said with a laugh.
"Did we?" Mother Perkins began hesitantly. "Did we harm you?"
The Star Being shook her head. "No, child. You took only what I gave you. And as any parent would, I gave you all that I could. But now it is I who am in need."
Mother Perkins became alarmed. "What... What do you want?"
"Nothing more than what you have already given."
"I-I don't understand."
"Don't you?" she said, peering into Mother Perkins' eyes. "You're so close, so close to the next step. Few ever achieve such understanding."
Mother Perkins tried to pull away but the old woman's eyes were so compelling. "There is another plane of existence -- one that you can reach, one that will allow you to continue to care for the children. I can help you reach that plane. But you must be willing to -- sacrifice." Mother Perkins nearly laughed. Hasn't she always done that? There were always so many for which to care. There were always those who were lost, or afraid, or who just needed to be held. She was never able to turn her back on them. She tried to care for all of them.
The Star Being nodded her head as if she'd heard all of Mother Perkins' thoughts. "That is why I came to you. It takes a certain will to care for a world. Mine is nearly spent. But you...." She allowed her voice to trail off as she reached out and held Mother Perkins' face with both hands. Her touch was as warm as the purr of a kitten and as hot as a desert sun. Her fingertips were as smooth as raw silk and as sharp as an eagle's talons.
"Will you care for them, Mother Perkins? Your time will not be long -- not when measured against the stars -- but it will be enough to care for those who do not go... and for those who may come back to the shelter of this world. It would be long enough so that they can all find new homes."
Mother Perkins stared into the Star Being's eyes and understood. She understood the question and what her answer would mean. It was frightening to her while at the same time thrilling. It was a chance to care for the children, all of the children. She hesitated for only a moment. "Y-Yes, I will."
* * *
Chang raced down the poorly lit corridors. He told her this would happen. He begged her to move closer to the Medical Center. Damn that old woman's stubbornness! Behind him, Petrov, his technician, ran wheezing under the weight of the field pack. Chang only hoped it would be enough. The door to the apartment slid open at his touch. Inside, he found what he feared most. Mother Perkins was sitting on the sofa -- apparently asleep.
"Oh, wow!" Chang turned to find Petrov standing in awe in the center of the room. He'd forgotten to warn him. "Is all this stuff real?" Petrov asked in amazement.
"Yeah, it is," Chang responded. "But don't touch anything! The Department of Antiquities has first dibs and they'll know if anything is missing." Petrov looked insulted by the suggestion that he'd take anything. But both he and Chang knew better.
Chang turned his attention back to Mother Perkins. She was still warm but a quick check told him that he was too late. At least, judging from the smile on her face, it wasn't a painful end.
"Hey, look at this!"
Chang turned to find Petrov holding Mother Perkins' potted dandelion. "Didn't I tell you not to touch anything?" He snapped.
"Yeah, but, it's a plant... a real one."
Petrov hadn't notice how annoyed Chang had become. He was too excited, like an eight-year-old on a field trip. "I've never seen one outside of the gardens before and this one's got a flower on it."
Chang looked at the dandelion in Petrov's hands. It was in full bloom with bright yellow petals. It was the healthiest dandelion Chang had ever seen. "Yeah," he said, "Mother Perkins was good that way. She knew how to care for things."
For the first time since they'd entered the room, Petrov seemed to realize why they'd come here. His eyes left the plant and he looked at Mother Perkins' body. "The old lady is deceased?"
Chang nodded his head. Petrov put the dandelion carefully back on the mantle. "Sorry, I know she was a friend of yours."
Chang fought back tears. "More than a friend," he replied, "she was our Mother."
Story copyright 2003 by Arthur Sanchez firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration "Impostable" copyright 2003 by Romeo Esparrago email@example.com
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