by Ken Liu
I caught up to the Mayflower, a tiny thing hanging by a thin thread onto a giant parachute made
of solar sails, now slack and useless with its distance from the sun. It was coasting along on
momentum, and it would still be centuries more before it reached the star it aimed for.
Alas, even if it arrived, there would be no virgin soil to settle. We had long since filled that star
system. The Mayflower was obsolete, a ship without a purpose.
And it was my job to deliver the bad news. I was the postman.
I maneuvered closer and latched onto the ship's habitat module with my six feet. The
nanostructures along my soles meshed into the metal of the hull and held on, as securely as if I
had been welded to it. Then I crawled along the surface until I came to an access panel, where I
inserted my thin and flexible proboscis to interface with the ship's communications network so I
could talk to its primitive computer.
I could see through the lenses of the cameras inside the ship's halls and hear through the
microphones embedded in its intercom panels.
"Is there no other way then?" the young woman asked.
"Do not ask questions to which you already know the answer," the old man said. "Your mother
and I taught you better than that."
Their speech sounded quaint, like the ancient dramas that we sometimes dug out of the archives
from curiosity. But there was a gentleness in the old man's voice that intrigued me. I wanted to
The young woman came and hugged him, and they stood still, holding onto each other tightly.
When they pulled apart, I saw that tears were on both their faces.
"Speak to the children before you go," the young woman said.
The old man hesitated. "Do you think it's a good idea? Perhaps they're too young."
"Do not ask questions to which you already know the answer," the young woman said. Her face
was caught between smiling and crying. "You taught me better than that."
I queried the computer. The old man was healthy. He should be able to live for many years yet.
So I examined the ship's records. A while ago, the ship's fatigued hull had suffered a leak. Some
air and water had escaped into space before the leak was patched.
The Mayflower was designed within strict limits. Every gram of matter aboard had to be
accounted for, to be useful. To support a certain population at any time, the ship needed a certain
amount of air, water, supplies to recycle. The leak would doom them all.
I marveled again at the contrast between the Mayflower and myself. It was impossible to imagine
myself in such a predicament. With my composite alloy body, my graphene-etched brain, my
anti-matter annihilation engine, I could make space my home for an eternity.
How could creatures who would die within seconds of being exposed to space think that such a
delicate bubble, balanced precariously on the brink of extinction, was a viable means to travel
among the stars?
"When the water in my body has joined the water that flows through this ship, when the atoms of
my flesh have strengthened the balance of this closed system, do not mourn me, but remember."
The roomful of children listened, quiet and solemn.
"The old have always made sacrifices for the young. Someday, if the need arises, I'm certain you
will do the same for your children and your children's children."
I was not sure if the children really understood. I was not sure I understood.
"The universe may be dark and cold," the old man said, "but in here there is warmth and hope
and the faith in love that is eternal. Remember me, and we will celebrate together on the day our
descendants once again walk upon a new world to proclaim the triumph of the human race."
With that he turned and walked into the reclamation center.
I have been hanging onto this ship for a long time. Generations.
Sometimes I think about what it is like back on Earth, on the many planets and floating habitats
where my brethren take care of the remnants of the human race, the docile, gentle creatures who
accept everything from us and dream of nothing but their next meal.
We were created by them, and we surpassed them. We inherited their world.
The message I carry will inform the crew of the Mayflower that all their actions will have turned
out to be meaningless, without purpose. They cannot match us in intelligence, in strength, in our
capacity to dominate the forces of nature. They will have to live as our wards, like all the other
I am supposed to show them the beautiful habitats we have built for them, gilded cradles in
which they will live out the rest of their lives and have no want, no lack, no unfulfilled physical
needs. And I am supposed to ask them which of these golden cages -- coffins -- they'd prefer
and transport them there.
Then I remember the old man, and the way his voice was both gentle and strong. I think about all
the other old ships out there like the Mayflower, still striving into the void. I am charged with
delivering the same message to all of them.
But I know better than to ask questions to which I already know the answer.
And so I cling to the Mayflower, holding onto my message. I peer into the ship, at their ancient,
barbaric splendor, marveling at their naked grace, which glows brightly against the dark
emptiness of the universe.
[Author's Note: This story is inspired by Karl Bunker's "Overtaken" in the September/October
2011 issue of F&SF.]