2016-07-21 10:00 fiction short-story flash-fiction science-fiction

Dead Reckoning

The exposure had to be just right. It was a world in a box. She tried to be careful, but accidentally strummed the attached wires which made an electrifying noise, at a frequency that gave her goosebumps. If she didn't get it right, she'd have wasted that week, the next station would have to start over. She packed up the results, tying it precisely, wrapping it above then below with the prescribed magnetic twist.

They would unwrap it. With care. But not sanctimoniously. After all, this was work. It was the responsibility of the next station to continue exposure.

They'd done this a long time. They kept it for the pilot. This was the tradition. Some felt more connected to the task than others. Regardless, it had to be done.

She packed it up. A particular feeling of distance after the fact. Everything she'd known or thought or seen was in that box, along with a thousand other generations. Together, like paint, mixed. This was them. Even after she was gone she knew she'd still be in there. Diluted, perhaps, but an element that added to the whole. Like her mother before her, and her mother before that.

They were traveling, their ship was the world, the world a ship they called Genetrix.

Each station had their responsibilities. It was in the charter. But each must record the journey, their particular impressions, the totality of their experiences, and twice a cycle pass that along to the pilot for proper reckoning. They'd leave the box at the archway, where the indicator, after a time, would change from a circle to a square. Then the next station would pick up the box.

Of course she wondered about the pilot. The first one, long ago, must be dead. If it'd been a person at all. There were some who supposed pilot was artificial. This made sense to her, but she would never say it out loud. Those kind of people try to be clever. The kind of people who say their ancestors were engineers. Some imagined the pilot as an old man, with a big white beard. That was ridiculous, she thought, to assume age or gender. But she kept quiet.

The wheelhouse was connected by a series of latices and storage modules. If you went up to the forests you could look back at it, in the distance, like it was following you. She would stare at it sometimes and daydream.

Once, it was said, the lights there flickered. She'd never seen anything like that.

The forests were quiet, you were only allowed up there on work calendar, but she enjoyed it. Some preferred to stay below. She couldn't really blame them, nobody was allowed to live up there anyway, and there was nobody to talk to. Work shifts happened in pairs, or singles. She chose a singles shift. She was sure it had already been built into her profile.

She was always exposing. She took it seriously. Dead reckoning, she'd read about that once.

To understand where you're going you need to know your direction and speed. Back on the home world there had been some animals who did that, who knew, instinctively where they were going, they knew automatically where to go. They were dead reckoning machines.

To do that you needed to be simple. You needed to reduce. Noise would get you lost. You needed to flush out the tangled bits and pieces. You needed to be effortless. In part, this was what the exposures were. They took the things that happened and compressed them. For storage. For later, so they could all be effortless and move instinctively across space. This is why the pilot had no contact with the rest of the ship. He would become polluted and confused.

This is what she believed anyway. She looked out, past the trees, the blackness of space felt impenetrable and the few lights illuminating the superstructure embedded in the darkness spread out into the distance. They felt temporary and small even though she'd seen them her entire life. A bird's cry, behind her, like those dots of light, a momentary navigation, determining their direction.