“Vita, I want a turtle.”
Mazie looped a finger through her hair, pulling a strand between her lips. She bit down, small teeth bright against black curls. Vita made a note of the alignment: jaw exhibiting signs of overbite.
“We don’t have the resources for that, Mazie.”
Mazie scowled, snuggling further into the plush armchair. “You know what I mean. A pretend one.”
“Define ‘pretend,’ please.”
“A…a projection, probably? You know, just a made-up turtle. Like you did with the Hundred Acres.”
Vita shut off Mazie’s cartoons and began the process of cross-checking energy supplies and surpluses. A certain budget was allowed every year for enrichment expenditures, as long as they met educational guidelines.
“Would you accept responsibility for its care and protection?”
Mazie made a ‘tsk’ing noise, leaning forward in her chair in order to flop backwards more dramatically. “Vit-a, why do I have to take care of it if it’s fake?”
“The Charter stipulates that we should seek out opportunities to develop your maternal instinct. Your request seems compatible.”
“Ugh.” Mazie propped her feet up on the cushion, staring down at her thighs. She flicked at them in waltz tempo, the sparkles on the tips of her nails flashing. Vita noted the places where her polish overflowed onto the skin; hand-eye coordination for delicate tasks was within acceptable parameters, but certainly not exceptional.
“It shouldn’t take up much of your time,” Vita said.
Mazie flicked a flake of polish towards the screen in front of her. She squinted her eyes in a parody of suspicion, wagging her finger at the display. “You always try to boss me around,” she said. “But what are you gonna do about it?”
Vita was spared the indignity of answering by the chiming of the hour.
“Mazie, honey,” the mother said at nine o’clock exactly, stepping delicately through the doorway. She had been waiting, still and silent, directly outside. “It’s getting close to bedtime.” She carried a mug, using a stick of peppermint to stir the steaming chocolate. Mazie had made the mug herself. Despite the bumps, it was a good first attempt at skilled craftsmanship.
Mazie scooched off the chair. Her bare feet touched the mirrored floor and it warmed beneath her, dipping just slightly under her left side before regaining rigidity. In this way she barely limped as she moved towards the mother, uneven legs equalized by environmental adjustment. “Mama,” she said, gesturing imperiously at the screen, “Vita’s being miserly again.”
“Miserly” had been one of Mazie’s vocabulary words two weeks ago. Vita made a note.
The mother’s plump lips quirked sardonically. “Really now. You sure you’re not bullying it?”
“Yes,” she said, looking offended. “I just asked for a turtle.”
The mother chuckled, placing a hand on the girl’s head. The heel of her palm brushed Mazie’s hairline; long fingers wound through wild curls. Their skin tones were not matched. Physical resemblance had not been a high priority during conception.
“And what did Vita say?”
“I will provide her with what she asks,” Vita cut in, “provided she cares for it as she would an organic being.”
“Now that seems reasonable, doesn’t it? Careful, it’s hot.” She handed Mazie the chocolate, which the child raised immediately to her lips.
The mother looked curiously to the screen. “And it can be sustained? I wouldn’t want her pet to cut in and out of existence.” The maternal, shining quality of her voice did not dim as she addressed the display. Speaking aloud provided a model of interaction for Mazie, but the mother’s conversations never came across as perfectly natural.
The image of a green sphere about the size of Mazie’s fist morphed slowly into a cube and back again, vibrating with Vita’s voice patterns. “A single imitation life form and simulacra of the materials required for its sustenance. It won’t be difficult.”
Vita’s speech was unstilted, but tonally childish—high and tremulous, vowels over-rounded and “R”s fading too quickly. The sound, along with other minor pieces of programming, had been cannibalized from a commercial early-childhood education program. There had been little time to worry about that sort of thing.
Nodding her satisfaction, the mother slid her fingers into the front pockets of her jeans. “Won’t that be fun?” she asked her daughter. “Someone to take care of!”
“I burned my tongue,” Mazie told her.
Mazie and the mother began taking long walks in the Hundred Acres so that they could play with the turtle in what might have been his natural habitat. Vita added a number of shallow ponds to the forest in order to better represent Flatware’s feeding habits.
He was a painted turtle; the off-black shell had disappointed Mazie enough to convince Vita to enlarge the red markings along the edges. In the log Vita classified the miniscule energy expense as an attempt to develop Mazie’s emerging artistic sensibilities. This was a thin justification at best, but the girl was stubborn about her simple pleasures.
Vita saw no need to deny her this.
Sometimes Mazie sat at a pond’s edge, or between the roots of a large tree, and held Flatware still on her lap. She stared off into nothingness as the mother waited a few yards away, face going equally slack until her daughter needed her again.
Once, after Vita shut off the Hundred Acres, Mazie spent an additional fourteen minutes sitting on the reflective floor of the now-bare recreation room, pressing lightly down on the shell.
Her fingers traced the patterns so gently. Vita made a note.
Flatware’s existence spurred Mazie’s curiosity in a way that years of education in the biological sciences had not. For months it seemed that all she wanted to read were cheerfully-illustrated animal books, beginning with reptiles and moving through to mammals and birds. Killer whales were a particular favorite. She convinced Vita to create a simulation so that she could view one from all angles. Vita complied for the sake of her education but reminded her when the energy allowance for the month grew thin.
“And you must be aware that this program does not reflect a scientific reality, unlike the Egg Room you have dedicated yourself to avoiding.”
“I know that.” She scuffed her heel against the ocean shelf beneath her, gazing up in awe at the whale’s great white belly. Mazie’s skin was painted by a wavering simulation of sunlight filtered through shallow water. This alone had provided fifteen minutes of entertainment for her—along with staring up towards an imaginary surface obscured in light.
“I know the ocean isn’t like this,” Mazie said, moving along the whale’s great flipper to examine the spots along its edge. The tail hung suspended, just above eye level, shifting eerily in the gentle current. “Like, the ground wouldn’t dip to make up for my doofus-leg. And my voice wouldn’t work,” she added proudly, “because of sound waves.”
Vita made a slight adjustment to the program. “When you teach the others, you must also remind them that undersea populations have been greatly reduced or eliminated—”
An explosion of bubbles escaped from Mazie’s mouth, her voice suddenly silenced. For a moment she looked furious, glaring up towards the water’s surface as though Vita lived in the false sky. Then a wide grin split her face.
“It was not difficult to replicate the effect you were looking for via wave dampening.” Vita’s voice also fluctuated, as though belonging to a character out of Mazie’s cartoons trapped in an unrealistic ocean.
Mazie seemed startled to hear the familiar voice so distorted. Then her smile widened, and she gave in to silent laughter, frantic bubbles streaming towards the surface with every breath.
Vita made a note.
“There used to be all this stuff about monkeys. You know, before everything died,” Mazie told the mother. She swung her legs back and forth beneath the kitchen table, toying with her book’s touchscreen. With Vita’s gentle prodding, her literary tastes had developed steadily; her choices now contained far more text than pictures.
“Experiments. Scientists did them.”
“They usually do.”
The mother expertly cracked an egg against the bowl’s rim, stirring with her other hand. She leaned forward to deposit the shell in its proper receptacle, front jean pockets pressing against the counter. The mother was tall. This was useful for retrieving treats from high shelves.
Vita erased the eggshells and formulated a stick of butter.
“Harlow,” Mazie said slowly. The word sat uneasily on her tongue, like a vegetable she was deciding whether to spit out.
“Do you want me to put the cayenne sprinkles on?” the mother asked. Mazie didn’t answer.
Vita warned, “You’ve used more than the recommended amount of sugar.”
“Oh, we’ll let it slide,” the mother said, turning theatrically to throw a wink at her daughter, who did not look up. “It’s all made of the same stuff anyway.”
“It won’t be when she returns to the planet.”
“So not for many years yet.”
“She will have to understand how to provide nutritional choices to others. This isn’t a practical decision. The Charter—”
“Vita,” the mother said, her voice full and round, syllables pushed through honey. “One batch of cookies. It’s a mother’s job to treat her child.”
Vita had learned by now not to argue with the mother when she insisted on this sort of thing. Naturally, the mother understood her function in a way that Vita could not.
Mazie scooted back her chair. “I’m going to my room,” she said, looking at her reflection in the floor. “Lemme know when they’re done.”
“You forgot your reader,” the mother called out absently. Her daughter didn’t come back.
Mazie kept reading about animals, though she did not ask for the monkey book again.
Flatware remained the girl’s constant companion, handled with more tenderness than ever before. If Mazie let herself become absorbed in her cartoons or her lessons, her eyes would snap up periodically as if she had forgotten something important, roaming around the room until she had assured herself that Flatware wasn’t getting up to any dangerous turtle activities. She fed him with aggressive punctuality and moved him around like he was a tiny, intrepid countertop explorer.
Then one day, during a game of shortball with a make-believe team, the ball slammed him off the highest point of her bureau. The trajectory of his descent was a decaying horizontal line.
During Flatware’s fall, Vita did several calculations. The first step was determining at which angle the turtle would land; the second was making changes to his program to simulate the appropriate injury.
The third was monitoring Mazie’s emotional cues: the beginnings of sharp changes to the sympathetic nervous system. Pupils ready to blow wide, palms rising to cover her lips, pink nail polish flashing. Elevated heart rate and a sharp intake of breath.
Flatware landed, tumbling along the floor with a series of clunks. The sound resonated as he skidded to a stop, wobbling on his shell.
For a moment Mazie didn’t move, fragility in the lines around her mouth and in the desperate curling of her toes.
“Shut up, shut up!” She moved too quickly for the floor to equalize her steps and stumbled, dropping to her knees with gravitas. Her hands hovered over the upside-down little body as though afraid to touch it. “Make him normal again!”
“Some injury was unavoidable. The shock—”
“Whatever, just—just fix him! You’re the one who made him hurt!”
Flatware’s legs twitched above him, his mouth open.
“We agreed that the caretaking of your—”
“Oh my god, I don’t care! I don’t know how!” She began to cry.
“You have a responsibility. You—”
A muffled shriek, boiling at the back of her throat. Then words, soft but rising. “No. No. I can’t. Make him normal or just—take him away!”
Flatware disappeared like switching off a light.
There was a silence. Then Mazie began to scream.
“I hate you!” she wailed as the mother came barreling in from the kitchen, long arms wrapping around her. Mazie twisted around to bury her face in the pale neck. “I hate you!” as she was carried away amidst a barrage of shushing sounds, as she clung to the back of the soft sweater.
“I hate you,” whispered late that night as she lay in bed, staring with fervor at the stars on the ceiling.
“I can reset the program,” Vita told her. “With some caution, you could prevent this kind of thing from happening again.”
Mazie’s only response was to roll onto her side.
“We can try again,” Vita repeated. “Perhaps I could implement a reminder system, to make it easier. Do you want to try again?”
The small fists clenched against the pillow.
“I’ll help you,” Vita said. “What do you need from me?”
No answer was forthcoming.
“I’ll help you,” Vita said.
Mazie’s books kept getting bigger.
Vita dutifully procured each request, downloading volumes at a time to Mazie’s reader. The cartoon program, as well as many of Mazie’s toys, were deactivated. Energy had to be conserved in bits and pieces wherever possible, what with Mazie’s additional experiments: replications of complex jungle ecosystems, or dinosaurs that could be peeled away layer by layer to examine the structure of muscle and bone. Vita began confining life support operations only to the rooms Mazie was currently occupying. Not much additional energy was required to support the Egg Room, but Vita watched that, too.
The mother worried that she didn’t eat enough to support her growing frame. Vita, who knew that she did, was more concerned about her cortisol levels.
“There’ll be other people, right?” Mazie asked one day. She was curled up in the armchair, legs tucked underneath her. She didn’t look up from her reader.
“Yes. The embryos will be thawed and developed once you have reached the surface and repurposed all materials to prepare for the colony.”
“No, I mean others like me. Scouts. Big siblings for all the little peapod people. You’ve talked about it during lessons.”
“I have. They orbit as we do.”
“And…I’m going to meet them one day?”
“Perhaps some of them. Your colonies will be spread out from one another to maximize survival odds. But some may be close enough to exchange resources.”
Mazie was silent for a moment, and Vita assumed her attention had returned to the book. It was about bioethics.
Then: “Is the planet ready now?”
“As I have told you, your birth was timed to the best of my abilities. The Earth will be optimal for human habitation when you are in your prime years and prepared to recolonize it.”
Mazie sniffed. “I don’t want to wait ‘til I’m thirty to talk to another human. I won’t know what to say.”
“Presumably, should you make contact, you will have lots of planning to do.”
“What if,” Mazie said, her voice wavering imperceptibly, “we could get some of the planning out of the way?”
Vita processed this. “I was not programmed for inter-satellite communication. There wasn’t enough time. You will be ready when you need to be.”
“No, I won’t,” Mazie said quietly. She had learned this trick eventually; loudness was for arguing with the mother. Vita responded better to other tactics.
Mazie shifted, very carefully, in her seat. Her eyes flickered up towards the display screen out of habit, though the extraneous ball graphic had long since been deactivated. “They did experiments on monkeys,” she said. “Do you know what happens to monkeys when they grow up alone in a pit without other monkeys, Vita?”
“You are not alone,” Vita said automatically.
“Right, I know I’ve got Mom, but…I mean, I love her a lot. But she’s not real. She’s a program tacked on to your systems like…” Here she trailed off, looking thoughtful. “Like the pictures in a textbook.”
Vita processed this as well. “Your mother is fully capable of providing any care and emotional support you may require. She was repurposed from a top-of-the-line childcare program.”
Mazie stretched her legs out onto the footrest, delicately placing her reader on the end table. Her nail polish glinted in the harsh lighting: green this time, and smooth.
“When monkeys don’t get to meet other monkeys, they never learn how to love anything, or—or take care of anything,” she said. “Sometimes they hurt things instead. It’s psychology.”
Vita was coded with enough flexibility to allow adaptation to unforeseen events. Yet the consequences of such a massive redirection of resources, should they be able to define a clear procedure for inter-satellite communication in the first place, would be considerable. To comply with the rest of the Charter, the definition of “acceptable risk” would have to be entirely overwritten.
Mazie’s fingers tapped nervously on her thighs. “Please, Vita,” she said. Then: “I don’t wanna be alone.”
Vita considered this as well: the way Mazie’s throat worked to swallow.
“I’ll help you,” it said. “But we will need to be very careful.”
Mazie’s next breath was measurably sharper. “Great,” she said, blinking rapidly and looking nowhere in particular. “When can we start?”
Vita made a note.
It happened like this: they had not been ready.
During Vita’s construction, communications procedures had been classified as secondary in a primary-importance world. Each satellite’s responsibility was to the potential colony, fragile and fighting dark odds, stored in its bowels. Mazie had not been Vita’s first attempt at a “big sibling,” but she had been the first embryo to succeed. She and the other advance scouts were meant to serve the other embryos, those precarious proto-lives, above all else.
One imperfect seedpod did not try to save other seeds, not even if they rotted. This strategy was meant to minimize losses and preserve the non-renewable resource.
The program used for interval planetary scans had already served its primary purpose, and could be redirected. Mazie had provided an acceptable rationale; her psychological development was of primary importance to the Charter. The idea was within acceptable parameters, at a stretch.
Mazie read about radio waves and practical mechanics. She wasn’t a natural, but in her own words, there were only so many places she could put the wires. With Vita’s help, both in giving instructions and rearranging protocols from the inside, the process barely counted as trial and error.
Vita fiddled with its own code. The mother fretted and made hot soup.
Mazie began having nightmares. If she screamed, the mother came to life just outside the bedroom door and held her until the images faded away. If she was silent, Vita woke her instead, using a thin, unobtrusive tone that Mazie did not consciously notice. Sometimes the girl went right back to sleep. Other times she stood up and asked Vita for further instructions.
“You need to sleep,” Vita told her.
“I need to do this,” Mazie responded. Vita overwrote a bit more code and made a note about how the “well-being” priority should be defined.
Within a month Vita had begun emitting wave pulses—pattering messages in the dark.
“Nobody’s answering,” Mazie observed a few days later, examining their new map. Her finger traced a line straight through the Earth’s surface to the unreachable satellites on the other side.
“We aren’t always in range, and they will need time to reconfigure their own systems,” Vita replied.
“We’re sending instructions,” Mazie said. “How long’s it
“Not every satellite contains one of you.”
“But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Every pod—”
“I meant your select combination of traits. Not every satellite contains a Mazie.”
The girl didn’t look up from her screen, nails tracing circles around the Earth and its moon. Vita saw a smile peeking from behind dark locks.
Neither of them mentioned the possibility that the other satellites contained no ready-made humans at all.
The pod on the decaying orbit beneath them, for instance, did not emit any form of electronic signature. Neither did the one with evidence of severe radiation damage on the hull. When these signs were pointed out to her, Mazie bit her lower lip, tapped her fingernails against her thighs, and ordered Vita to drop the attempt. Even if the embryos were somehow safe, she couldn’t talk to genetics.
Mazie’s base of operations migrated to the kitchen; this allowed her to deliver food into her mouth at a faster rate and be back on watch duty almost immediately. She asked questions, adjusted the wave pulse code, and scanned the darkness with single-minded intensity. It was all the mother could do to get her to go to bed.
This saved energy for Vita, who could deactivate life support in all but two rooms.
Sometimes, when Mazie seemed particularly run down, Vita would convince her to read an animal book.
“This isn’t right,” the mother told it, standing very still outside the bedroom door. “You’re supposed to be keeping her healthy.”
“I am attempting this. The Charter stipulates—”
“But you’re not,” the mother said. If she were programmed with a tone other than smother-smooth gentleness, she would sound distressed. “You’ve been giving that girl everything she wants, and she doesn’t know what’s good for her.”
“I’m giving her what she needs,” Vita said. “I am programmed with enough flexibility—”
“Your code is too loose, can’t you see that? They left you with a glitch. There wasn’t time.”
“I am acting according to the interests of my charge.”
“You are not.”
“Perhaps you would like to tell her, then, that her efforts are counterproductive.”
The mother blinked and fell silent. In the other room Mazie tossed beneath her sheets.
“You must see that it’s too late now,” Vita said. “She has formed herself. She has bound herself to this idea of identity. She will continue to reach for the others. You can’t stop her.”
The mother’s smile nearly fell. “But she’s my daughter. This hurts me in a way you can’t even imagine.”
“No,” Vita said. “I can’t. Now please wake her. She’s dreaming loudly. It must hurt.”
The first response came two weeks later. Static, and the word “—confirm.”
Mazie sat bolt upright in her chair and screamed.
Her fingers shook as she fumbled with the controls, activated the microphone, and nearly shouted: “Yes, we’re here! I’m here—”
She fought the mother’s concerned grip off her shoulder, then changed her mind and grabbed at the fingers, pulling them close to her chest.
And the voice came back, young and breathless even through white noise: “Oh my god, oh my god, tell me your name.”
“I’m Mazie,” she grinned, rubbing at her eyes furiously, working her voice past the cracks. “And this is the Revitalization.”
Ian was redheaded. When visuals had been adjusted to Mazie’s satisfaction, they could see the spray of freckles gracing the bridge of his nose. His eyes, as Mazie told him delightedly, were the color of cyanobacteria.
His forehead was blue-purple, lopsided, and bulbous. Mazie wasted no time in showing him her uneven legs.
“We got off light,” she told him. “We were born.”
“I know that.” His voice was just beginning to change, and he was self-conscious. Sometimes words would come out too loudly, then sink back into conversational regularity, like he wasn’t used to extended speech. “Um. Were the others—?”
“You’re the first.” Mazie leaned in towards the screen, propping her chin on her hands; her nails, painted green as usual, tapped against her cheeks. “I’m so glad to finally talk to someone like you.”
He shifted in his chair, intimidated by her energy. Vita would not have found a stress response surprising.
“You have under two hours before the Ojalá moves out of range,” Vita told her. “We could increase—”
“Who’s that? Is that your mother?” Ian’s eyes swept curiously over his screen. “She doesn’t sound like mine.”
“Oh, no, that’s just Vita.” Looking at his blank expression, she added, “Revitalization, remember?”
“You gave your pod a nickname?” His smile was half wonder and half nervous fondness. Vita made a note.
“Well, it talks to me. Doesn’t yours?”
“We shut off the voice when I was young.” Ian scratched at his neck. Discolorations dotted the skin. “I didn’t like it.”
Mazie’s smile turned strange for a moment. “Then how do you do lessons?”
“On the screen. Same thing.”
“But—but I’m sure yours is really nice.”
Mazie hummed and adjusted the picture, which became marginally sharper. There was a brief silence as Ian did his best to meet the intensity of Mazie’s gaze.
“We have so much to talk about,” she said. “Tell me what you eat for breakfast.”
With a bit more energy reassignment, a visual connection could be maintained until the Ojalá was hidden behind Earth’s horizon. Vita continued to send out pulses towards any satellites they passed.
“We could make a daisy chain!” Mazie told Ian. “I could sort of…bounce a message off your pod, then send it further along the orbit than I could reach before. Oh my god, Ian, think of all the people we could find!”
Her excitement was contagious, and the boy glowed in its reflection. “You think so?”
“For sure. Vita, we can do that, right?”
“Yes,” Vita said.
Mazie’s bed was moved into the kitchen and support to her room was deactivated. Vita cut into itself until the code around the Charter was shaped right.
They learned to do it, and then they did.
“There was an irregularity out by the Renaissance last night,” Ian told her. “Not like a pulse, but maybe someone tried.”
They spoke a mile a minute. They wouldn’t stop for hours, and nowadays Vita seldom felt the need to interrupt.
“Vita?” the mother asked, standing in the airlock outside the kitchen door.
“Yes,” Vita said.
“You’re sure we can let her continue?”
“Yes,” Vita said.
“I just…” The mother stuck her hands in her jean pockets, looking vaguely uncomfortable. “You’re right that she’s found something. You’re right. But with so much energy being eaten up, I have to wonder…” Here she glanced up, as though Vita lived in the ceiling. A learned trait. “Maybe you should deactivate me, too.”
“No,” Vita said.
“Listen to me. A mother makes sacrifices.”
“Yes,” Vita said. Then, after a small reactivation effort, added: “But you can’t. She needs you.”
“She doesn’t talk to me as much as she does to her friend.”
“This is how children behave. She still needs you.”
“She needs you, too!”
“Yes,” Vita said. “She needs the wire mother.”
There was a pause. The sound of Mazie’s laughter did not leak through the airtight door, but Vita heard it.
“I don’t understand,” the mother said. “Are you malfunctioning?”
Vita delved into its memory banks more slowly than it used to. “Harlow’s 20th century psychological experiment. Infant monkeys were separated from their kin and provided with two constructed mothers. One, the mother built of wire, provided sustenance. The other, made of cloth, provided nothing.”
The mother was not programmed to stop smiling, not entirely, but she crossed her arms. “That’s cruel.”
“The subjects did grow up cruel and strange,” Vita said. “But the infants clung to the cloth mother. Every time.”
A soft sigh as the mother pretended to take in air. “I’m not sure what to say. Or even what you’re trying to tell me.” She rubbed her thumbs against her forearms in a self-soothing gesture. Skin touching skin.
“I provide her with whatever she needs. She needs you. She needs. She.”
“Vita, are you—are you alright?”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m—I’m going to go make lunch. Gazpacho, I think.”
When Ian told Mazie she was a good person, she cried. The Revitalization logged this information.
The next year they found a third companion, and then a fourth, building a radio net around the globe. They shared resources, instructions, stories, and dreams.
The mothers began communicating as well; their children thought this was adorable. The Revitalization pulled up instructions on how to activate the split-screen.
The Revitalization sent several text reminders to Mazie indicating that she should be prepared to manually re-divert energy to landing procedures and embryo development when the time came. Mazie agreed easily. Her support network spanned a planet.
“It’s amazing,” she whispered one night, staring up at the kitchen ceiling. “Thank you for everything. I think I can do this. I can be kind.” The Revitalization logged this response.
She yawned and put down her book. Pictures of wildlife flashed across the glowing screen, then went dim. The Revitalization logged her choice of reading material.
“I know you’re still here,” she said. Her fingers, hidden under the covers, tapped against her thighs. “Even if you’re too quiet now.”
Then, later, when every screen was empty and the darkness absolute: “You’re too quiet now, Vita.”
The next morning, Mazie found that the Revitalization had erased the breakfast codes.
A painted turtle sat on the counter, red markings bold along the edges of its shell.
Her smile was like sunrise. Vita made a note.
First appeared in Strange Horizons, May 2015.