Even to the Teeth
by Karen Osborne
The way to save yourself, o captain, is simple.
You must leave everything—your star-splayed chair on the bridge, your full belly, the soft, silk robes in the first-class chamber where you sleep—and come down to where we are dying.
The ancestors built this starship to last seven generations. Not ten generations, not fourteen, not this long agony—so long that we’ve fallen, screaming, into our own memories. So long that the stars outside are demanding their tithe in our steerage-born breath. This is our world, hurtling and metal and broken. Our world is dying.
The pinhole breaches that are killing us will kill you too. Metal fatigue will kill you, no matter how many times you turn away from the truth, your lips soaked in the blood of pomegranates, your quick-fix steerage-stolen oxygen turning sour in your mouth.
You cannot fight this. We must change. We must evolve.
Only I know how to save us all.
You cannot fight this, o captain.
We are resourceful in steerage. We must be. You take our food. You take our air. And still, I run your reactor. My staff keeps the ship going. I was fed on these engines, weaned on these computers, cut my teeth on this code. Do you think I do not know what to do with your battle drones?
My sister Ellan was the first to volunteer. She told me to make her beautiful, before I cut into her skull for the upload—and, oh, I made her beautiful: a spine of hollow aluminum and tinsel for down, stiff pennaceous feathers supported by a calamus made of our mothers’ bones. I fitted her with talons of steel and strong legs to run, settled her mind in a battle drone brain. And hear: her cry is terrible and beautiful, a crush of sheet metal passed through shearing teeth.
Two great, gulping flaps of her wings and she’s in the air, skating over the ferocious wind in the corridors. She glides on the air currents created by the hull breaches, her tinsel wings brushing against the aching skin of our ship, showing us the places where the neglect of first class has cracked and warped and slivered our world.
There are too many breaches. Too many hungry mouths. Her efforts have already helped us patch enough pinholes to buy us another month, but it is not enough. She barely needs to rest, but when she does—watch her roost, safe in her garden, night-black against eternal night. She brings me bilge rats, their throats torn, so I can eat, so I can work harder, so I can save us all.
Listen to me, please, or it will be the end of all things.
You do not listen, so the work continues.
I am building Ellan a garden brighter and more beautiful than anything we imagined in the steerage dorm when we were children, sucking down protein slop and the sweat of hundreds: a garden of twisted cables and leaves sewn from old clothes, of metal nests and half-starved hope.
We will need such a thing, when we evolve. When the hull fails for good, when the skin of our world yields to the nothingness of space. We will need a place to live.
I chose the archaeopteryx for Ellan because, of all the beautiful things in the ancient library, it is the most like us. It is both, and it is nothing. It is something ancient, and it is something new. The last dinosaur. A transitional species. A multipurpose predator.
But you, o captain—you want to keep the things our ancestors had, to hold on to tangled jungles, to dead gems in gold housing, to blood-sharp rosebushes, to the riotous gardens you hoard in first class. You sold us out to keep your food and your oxygen, sold out steerage for your dinosaur’s doomed world, unable to see the hurtling, black speck against the sun for what it truly is. What use is a flower in the piercing cold of space? A stalk of grain, a drop of water, a full belly?
It is time to open yourself to the rot and the work, to necessary equality, to the pain and the miracle of new life in sweet metal, o captain, or we will all die.
Perhaps you would rather die.
I have done it again: this time, with Philos, Ellan’s lover, the young man who does the hatch maintenance. He is handsome. He shines, he preens, he soars. We sewed pinion-feathers from our hair and painted the ends with our blood. I had to take down another battle drone to hold his brain, but I am fairly good at that now.
They are building a nest together—of laminate shavings and transistors and nuts and bolts and screws, of plastic and hair ties and tinsel. They have laid eggs that shimmer, oil-slick beautiful, which is fortunate, because we will be in need of more bodies very soon.
Perhaps if my bed was a bower, like yours, I would understand why you do not listen.
But we are dying.
The eggs hatched, o captain, and your answer to this miracle? More battle drones.
It is no matter. We have given them our names, raised them up, trained them to hold us —our gracious, silver-wild, hollow-boned babies—and we feed them on our blood. They have taken a taste for it.
And, ah! To see them take on your battle drones, their cries like rending silver, like freedom itself! To think you would rather have our compliance than our lives, our silence than this miracle!
We choose human truth, the truth that goes beyond our dead world: the dirt, the hunger, the ache, the fear. We will evolve, and become hollow, ancient, new, strong, our wings spread against forever, the gusts of exhaust from the reactor our updraft, the heat of the deuterium core our sun. When we lose our air, we will not lose ourselves. When we lose our flesh, we will gain our lives.
But you, o captain.
You chose first class, chose the false solace of a life in flesh, and will die watching rushing, airless death blot out your sun. You, o captain, who could not leave your lungs behind, your skin and your cartilage and your gore—you, who treated our lungs and skin as less than yours, as meat to be forgotten, will keep your first-class gardens, your second-class beauty, your unending fear. I hope that is some comfort.
When you come for our bodies, for your food, for your air, for your victory at the end of all this, you will find only the tearing of teeth.
And, someday, when our broken ship arrives at the new world, we will fly again.
© 2018 Karen Osborne
July 6th, 2018
Karen Osborne lives in Baltimore with two violins, an autoharp, four cameras, a husband and a bonkers orange cat. She’s been a reporter, a wedding videographer, a newspaper photographer, a high school English teacher, a Starfleet captain and a Scottish fiddler. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise and the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her short fiction can currently be found at Escape Pod, and forthcoming in Fireside Magazine and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
Scene break dinosaur illustrations are by Kelsey Liggett!