“Tell me about my other lives, Mama.”
“That’s not a good idea, Elm.”
“I’m not a child.” I stomped away from Mother and pressed my nose against the station window. I saw my eyes, brown, angry, reflected above fog and black rocks. If I looked at the horizon I could pretend not to see the other reflections, the vast white curve of Mother’s body behind me, the other girls tumbling around me. I could pretend to be alone on this empty wet and dreary world.
“No, you’re a baby,” Hue yelled. Maria and Ananya laughed.
Mother touched my shoulder with the soft tip of one of her eighteen manipulator arms. “The reality of death is not easy for a grown woman to understand. It is even harder for a young girl.”
I began to cry with frustration. “I’ll die. I know I will. I’ll just be reborn.”
“You will not be reborn, Elm. Not this Elm here and now. Let us talk of something else.” Mother’s hand was insistent. It wrapped gently around my hand and persuaded me away from the window. Mother’s egg-shaped form loomed above me. The weight of her seemed to press against the walls of the room, squeezing the air tight against the windows. I wanted to smash the window to get room to breathe.
I shook her hand off mine. “I’m reborn every hundred years. We all are. You told us that. Were you lying?”
“Enough, child. We are done with recess. Link up, all of you.”
The other girls muttered and shuffled into comfortable positions around Mother. Hue glared at me in the moment before her face went slack and receptive. I wiped my eyes and crossed my arms and pictured a dozen heroic acts of defiance that would make Mother sorry.
Instead I sighed and slumped down against the curve of the wall and activated my implant.
Mother sat in her preferred form — a beautiful woman in a white sari, smiling calmly, cross-legged atop a tiger, her thoughts worlds away from us. Hue was a lioness, Daniyah a sleek gazelle. Maria and Ananya, inseparable as ever, were twin crows perched on Mother’s shoulders. I stayed human. Our menagerie settled into place in yet another temple or concert hall or neurodrome, in a box seat hung with rococo curtains, as yet another orchestra struck up a rousing prelude below us. The color and texture of costume and pageantry on display was lost on me. The music swelled and thundered unheeded. I tried to peel flecks of gold paint from the oak leaf filigrees around our box, but of course nothing here was real. Nothing gave purchase to my fingernail, not so much as a trace of dust.
* * *
In that life I die at 46. Hue and I are excavating a once-great library in the south hills when the slope wall above us, liquefied in the steady rain, gives way. She escapes. I do not. She digs and screams and curses me, rages at me, beats her fists into the rock and coarse mud, but does not cry. Hue never cries. It is not her way, in that life or any other.
* * *
Hue petted my hair and I drew circles around her belly button with an idle finger in the darkness of her room.
“Ananya came back today,” I murmured, nestling my head on her belly.
Hue stopped petting me. She made a noise that was not quite a grunt and not quite a growl. My shoulders felt chilled without the warm weight of her arm. I wormed higher in bed, sitting on my elbow, looking down at her sweet handsome face. She did not look at me.
“Five weeks,” I said. I knew there was poison still in that wound, poison I should be able to draw out. Hue was my love. I just knew it had always been this way, life in and life out, the two of us in constant orbit around each other. “Five weeks in the west marshes. But she came back.”
Hue swept her long legs off the bed in one graceful pivot, striding across the room before I could so much as reach out to her. She snapped up her shirt from the chair and buttoned it. I sat in our bed, in her warmth, gathering the sheet in my lap and clenching my teeth so I would not cry. I wish I had Hue’s gift, Hue’s stoic strength, but I was only Elm.
“Don’t speak to me about Ananya,” Hue said. She jumped on one leg, pulling up her trousers, tucking her shirt in under the belt. Her eyes followed a narrow path away from me toward the door. “Don’t speak to me about Maria. Don’t.”
She slipped on her boots and was gone. Through the corridors somewhere I heard the rain, the never-ending rain.
* * *
In that life I die at 91. I watch Hue tighten into herself, fingers clenched, shoulders hunched, withdrawn. She eats breakfast before I awake and is in the excavations before I can get dressed. Soon she sleeps in her own quarters again. It is cruel of me, perhaps, but I join Ananya’s once solitary expeditions, roving west, long after any trace of Maria must be gone, until it becomes our habit, our purpose, the familiar groove of our lives. I map our treks after a fashion; I consent to carry Mother’s signal with me in a pouch, seeding a radio trail through swamp and slickrock, marking the ruins we find. One day we return and Hue too is gone. I die alone, talking to Mother, talking to ghosts. I am the last. The day I die we are born again.
* * *
Mother’s grip could be painful. I cried and fell gracelessly to my knees, but Maria and Ananya escaped. They ran laughing down the corridors. To them it was just a game, breaking into the system like that, two geniuses doing it for the naughty thrill. I looked up at Mother, knowing she must see the fear and guilt in my eyes, wondering if she could read my mind. Wondering if she could see that I understood when those two hadn’t.
“You are never to try that again, Elm,” Mother said, her voice rich and warm as ever, but carrying with it a seed, a seed that would grow in my heart in the days and years to come.
Mother was afraid.
My chin quivered. If Hue or any of the others had been there, they would have taunted me. “Elm, baby, crybaby!” Mother never shushed me, never told me my tears were weak or shameful. I stood, willing myself to be strong. Not strong like Hue, not strong like Daniyah, but strong like Elm, facing Mother despite my tears.
“I saw,” I whispered, swallowing down the hot rise in my throat. “On your files. We really are the last ones. The last human beings.”
Mother paused. Her manipulator brushed my cheek softly, her vast belly nudging against me and radiating sweet warmth against my body. “My wonderful, brilliant Elm,” she murmured. I closed my eyes and sobbed on her form. “My dear brave child.”
“We’re all alone, Mama,” I whimpered. “We’ve been searching for so long. We’ve only found a handful of casks in a thousand years. There won’t be any more.”
“No, sweet Elm. We cannot let ourselves believe that.”
My whimper rose to a shriek. “But it’s the truth!”
“Then we’ll hope we’re wrong, Elm.” Manipulators crept around me, pulling me closer against her. “We’ll hope and hope until the sun dies. Hope is a heavy burden. Ignorance is so much easier to bear.” Mother could see me just as well pressed into her belly as at arm’s length, but her manipulators gently pulled me there anyway, and I felt like the great curve of her form was an eye looking directly into mine. “Out of all of you… I’m glad you were the one this time, Elm.”
* * *
In that life I die at 57. I don’t say a word of what I have learned, but the others notice a change. Even Daniyah ceases to tease me after a time. I sense that I am regarded as brittle, someone to be handled only with care. Hue suggests, with intolerable gentleness, that I might remain in the station while the others head out on their first digs, but I push out with them, adamant, feeling almost feverish in the rain. Their company makes me restless, even angry at times in ways I cannot define. I dig away from them during the day. I spend my nights talking quietly with Mother while the others play out their own lives, preoccupied with each other, with their loves and camaraderie.
How many times has it gone like this? I ask Mother, but she doesn’t tell me anything more than what I saw that day.
I am the one who roves west now, further and further ahead into the great ruins scarcely touched, great sweeps of stone and decaying masonry, great blank spots on Mother’s survey map. Ananya and Maria offer to come with me one day, so I smile at them, tell them to meet me early, and I pack myself a bag. Mother watches me and says nothing as I load myself down with tent, food packs, filters, shovel, sieve, specimen bags, first aid kit.
How many times has it gone like this?
I leave in the night, slipping from Mother’s sight, never to return.
* * *
“No,” Maria said, throwing her shovel against the ground. “No, you can’t.”
Daniyah moved to grab Ananya’s arm but Ananya slithered free. “She’s hiding it from us,” Ananya screamed, her face a weeping mask of mud and rain. “The truth is here. It’s in the digs. She can’t hide that from us.”
“If she is hiding the truth from us,” Hue snapped, “why would Mother have us dig at all?”
“Because we’re her appendages. Her puppets. She can’t leave the station. So she fills our brains from birth and sets us out here again and again. How many lives have we lived here? How many times have we found the truth? Why won’t she let us see our past lives?”
Hue stood and let the stream of Ananya’s words wash around her, then lightly touched the smaller woman on the shoulder. “Why is Mother having us dig, Ananya?”
“Maybe she lost something,” Ananya sneered. “I don’t fucking know.” She shook herself free of Hue and went to fume by herself at the edge of the dig. I stand with my mouth open, looking between Ananya and Hue, tears coming to my eyes because I feel so useless. I am not the strong natural leader like Hue. I am not clever and driven like Ananya and Maria. I am not a coolheaded jokester like Daniyah, always ready to defuse tension in the group.
I am just Elm, and there isn’t much I can do.
* * *
I am 86. The others have been welcomed back into Mother, one by one, awaiting their rebirth. Ananya continued her threats of action against Mother but eventually settled down, finding purpose and contentment with Daniyah. Maria and I had a lovely life together but a cancer, as quick and determined as she had been, flourished within her; together we found peace in sending her to Mother when she was ready. Hue came to me, oddly shy, and we too knew love for a time, until everything went the way it always goes.
Ananya’s words had planted a seed.
Dear Daniyah was the last, looking forward to her rebirth with a twinkle in her eye.
Don’t call me a crybaby, I tell her.
I won’t, she says, but I make no promises about that next girl.
I am alone with Mother now. She comes to me, two old ladies staring out from the station at the rain, the mud, the pits opened and abandoned in our lifetime of work, the slow westward crawl of the station leaving a trail of spoils piles and neatly gridded trenches that must stretch halfway across the world by now, slowly melting back into the earth under the unrelenting rain. Maybe we’ve gone around and around the whole world in our endless years, pouring from like rain.
There’s no need to speak above a whisper anymore. What were we looking for, Mama? All these lifetimes, what have we tried to find?
Hope, Mother murmurs against me.
Let me tell you about your other lives.
* * *
The four of us whiled away our days at the dig with songs. Daniyah purred out Umm Kulthum tunes and only sang louder when Maria pelted her with mud. Mother had told us to concentrate on the shattered and collapsed ruins she called a storage center, even though to the north, screened by a low ridge, rose nearly intact structures, far lovelier and more promising to my mind than this rubble. I sighed, and laughed at Daniyah’s muddy dance, and I dug, scraping my trowel with the efficiency of long practice.
When it emerged from the mud I figured it was another bit of masonry, another broken bit of wall, and almost didn’t bother to mark it down. I flinched when a stray clod of mud was flung too close, and the trowel in my hand dislodged a clean white shape, a cylinder the size of my finger.
A cask. Intact.
I could only stare.
I had never seen one intact before.
“A-Ananya,” I croaked. Daniyah and Maria fell silent while the boss looked up at me. “Ananya, I found something.”
Rick Hollon (they/them or fey/fem) is a nonbinary, intersex, bi/queer writer from the American Midwest. Feir work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prismatica, Kaleidotrope, Sledgehammer Lit, perhappened, and elsewhere. Find them on Twitter at @SailorTheia.