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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

The Things They Were Not Allowed to Carry

Helena Bell lives in Raleigh, NC where she is an MFA candidate in Fiction at NC State. Previously her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, and Electric Velocipede. This is her third appearance in Daily Science Fiction.

Year Zero
Pilot Martha Stevenson could not bring her mother's piano, its keys yellowed and stained. Her husband chided her as she brushed away the dust, telling it goodbye.
"You never play," George said. "You won't miss it."
Martha's fingers hovered over the C minor 7th chord, her fingers perfectly spaced, wrists up. It was not a good piano; it was not a bad piano. It was not an heirloom, strapped in the deep belly of a cargo ship to be rolled out stateside with so many other immigrants. There were dozens of things in the room with more sentiment squeezed into the spaces between their molecules: photographs, hand-painted pottery, a child's bed. The piano was not special, and yet the immensity of the object drew her in, its physical space in excess of its value. Years of neglect and scratches, poorly tuned strings, a missing music rack were evidence of Martha's effect upon the world she would soon leave.
"Even if they let us," George said, "where would we put it?"
Martha's hands found the F major scale, its lone flat hovering like an electron in Hydrogen. They moved to the opening of a sonata, to the chorus of a Christmas carol, to other songs she could not remember learning. Perhaps she'd had it wrong all these years; it wasn't her muscle memory which pulled and pushed in rhythms and skipping distances between her fingers, but the piano itself. All those notes and songs quantumly entangled between instrument and player.
But when I am a million miles away, you will feel infinitesimally small. An atom, a quark.
Her fingers faltered: a missed note, then two, an errant sharp. The ecstasy of automation gave way and Martha smashed her hands down, followed by arms and elbows, forcing as many notes as she could into the cold, dry air of the storage unit. They disappeared one by one, each according to the mathematical weight of their frequency. Gone.
Year One
Mission specialist Charles Kirby could not bring his 1971 Chevrolet Corvette. He could not bring the leather seats, the cold of the steering wheel in winter. He could not bring the sand dollar he kept on the dashboard for luck, or the name of the first girl he kissed. He could not bring the things he did not want to bring: bug spray, chapped lips, a fish hook half buried in his palm when he jumped at her touch.
When he first saw Martha Stevenson floating in the hallway between shifts, he imagined she was the girl. He imagined they were still on their class camping trip, unrolling sleeping bags between the sand dunes. Salt in their hair from the ocean. The stars were so close; they were so eager to be on their way.
Colonist Rebecca Dale could not bring her collection of stuffed bears, nor her favorite blue smocked dress. She could not bring her best friend Bethany or the three pages of math homework left unfinished in the hospital. She could not bring one quart of her bone marrow, nor her brother nor her father. We'll take the next flight, they said. You'll see.
On her first day, she was given a thin gray uniform with her name stitched just above her left breast. All the ship members had them: the same color, the same stitching. All were equal, each with the same rations proportioned in size to their age and weight. Rebecca was given five specially designed meals a day. They were small and flaky and if she was not careful, bits of them floated away to be sucked into the vents.
Of the ten, Rebecca was the oldest child brought on board the ship. Each, save Rebecca, was allowed to bring his or her full set of parents. They were not given jobs or tasks, but told to flit from crew to crew. Your job is to learn, to adapt, to survive, it was said.
Year Two
The things they were not allowed to carry were related to weight and size and necessity. They could not bring more than what was required even if it was small and precious. If every engineer, captain, and scientist were to ferret away a box of photographs or wedding bands, if every city planner or physician were allowed a handful of dirt from their hometown, then the ship would have to grow exponentially in size. Pets and trophies and dog-eared books, hunting rifles, jewelry, and perfectly broken-in chairs were counted and measured and found to be part of an equation of undiminishing capacity.
Tangible and intangible things, real and imagined were petitioned and overruled. Geologists Staebler and Garcia wanted to bring the smell of dirt roads after a thunderstorm. No one can carry this, it was decided. We will leave it behind.
Rebecca said it was good to be unburdened; the spirit can only be free, be pure, be adaptable if it is not distracted by society's obsession with material possessions. She and the other children made up vows and created new, unburdened names. They bowed their heads and invented sins and contritions: it was not good to bathe not because water was a precious resource (as their parents supposed) but because the ship did not clean itself. The grime, the stink, the slow accumulation of residue was earned: a measure of time, like rings within a tree.
One day, Rebecca thought, an alien god may crack open their ship like an avocado and find all their lives intertwined within. What will he think of us? she wondered. What lesson do we teach?
Year Five
A finite amount of digital memory was reserved for knowledge: science and technology, history and language, music and art. It had been carefully scrubbed of personal reference to any crew-member or colonist for it was believed that if they began to miss what they had left behind, the temptation would be to stop. Turn around. Go back.
What are the opening notes to Mahler's Fifth Symphony?
What is the name of the principle that states an object is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces?
And the computer would answer.
What was my mother's birthday?
Whom did my husband marry after I left?
Did I make the right choice?
And the computer would not answer.
There were some things they were forced to abandon along the way.
The adults, more slowly than the children, gave up their sense of smell and shame and personal space. When Charles Kirby pressed his hand into the flesh of Martha's hip to gently guide her out of his path, she did not twitch. In another space, where gravity and clean air and programmed responses wrought all its marvel, she would have found the movement forward. Presumptuous. Flirty. She would have perhaps apologized for filling the inches or meters or cubic feet through which he needed to pass. Instead, she silently let him guide her, push her, and she felt nothing.
They debated, briefly, what to do with their dead: cold and raw and leaking. There were some who believed the bodies should be wrapped up and stored until they reached their destination. Instead, the bodies were pushed out into black.
It was not quite burial at sea, Martha thought, where the body would not be lost, but degraded, transformed by the ocean and those that lived within it.
There was a beauty to conservation, the containment of their collective between thin walls of metal. They were so small already, barely a pulse against the fabric of space-time. What would become of them once each had been expelled: would they retain their momentum, following in the wake of the ship? Would they hang suspended: shining stones marking the path from whence they'd come?
Year Ten
Charles Kirby ran every day. When he closed his eyes he was almost on the beach. Martha was ahead of him, pulling her shirt up over her head. He threw his feet against the treadmill hoping this would give him the traction he needed to reach her, but each time it ended with his body slowly floating up and away. When he opened his eyes the ship's physician wrote the numbers on a slip of paper and handed it to him. Numbers were all anyone possessed anymore: three wrenches borrowed; two hours since his last bodily evacuation; five lectures to the children who were no longer children.
Martha no longer owned a watch, but decided time could be carried by counting in perfectly spaced increments. The beginning and end of each of her actions fell with the tat-tat-tat of her internal metronome. The climb from bunk to cockpit, her inhales and exhales, adjustments to course, the length of her ablutions. In this way time was a pressing weight to be check and rechecked whenever she began to doubt its existence.
She faltered only at night. Strapping herself into bed next to George she felt his breathing was ever so much faster than hers. His tossing and turning was arrhythmic and unpredictable. She lost count again and again, uncertain whether to match him, to ignore him, to move to another room.
Looking at him in the dark she wondered how many months she had lost. How many years since she last washed her hair? Since a warm shower? A private argument? Sex?
When she whispered these things to George he tried to pull her closer to him but always their angles were wrong. Ask the computer, he murmured before falling asleep with his hands tucked beneath his head.
Ten years. Ten years and one day. Ten years and two. And three and four.
And how many for Earth? Martha asked.
As the cursor blinked and blinked, Martha wondered how many lifetimes could slip away in the space of a decision. How many children could she have had, how many lovers, divorces, degrees, haircuts. How many drinks, how many snowstorms. An entire civilization could have sprung forth, dissolved, reformed. A thousand patented technologies. Perhaps even now other ships, faster ships were racing towards them. She spread her hand against the keyboard. How lovely to be a photon. To sit perfectly still while the universe rushes towards you, tearing itself into pieces in its excitement.
Year Twenty
Rebecca and the other children who were no longer children glided through the ship like gods. They did not wear clothing. They touched themselves and each other and the ship freely. They no longer believed they came from Earth. Surely they had been born on this ship, bred for this existence. They had no past: no record or photograph, no ten-second video of their bodies turning end over end on the bank of a river. They had been engineered. Hatched from a jar of embryos. We have seen the room, they said, the incubators and the robotic uterus.
The youngest child began a rumor that Earth did not exist at all: it was a myth, an origin story created by the computer. It was a fantastical dream which they hoped to one day create in its own image. You could not prove otherwise, he said. We are the first people, the only people, heading to the first planet, the only planet.
The adults shrank away from the children in their fragile, collapsing bodies. They wore layers and layers of clothing though the sleeves hung down past their wrists. They hoarded silver containers, pencils, scraps of paper on which things were written or not written. They found needle and thread and sewed a dozen patches and pockets on their suits filled with their small treasures: shaved hair, a spare bolt.
"Mine," they said when they bumped each other in the hallway. "Mine," they said to the treadmill, to the weights, to the wrenches.
"Mine?" Charles Kirby said when he bumped Rebecca in the hallway, his fingers reaching out to trace the outline of her lips.
Rebecca pulled his hand close and breathed in his years. She wavered between two dreams: a planet known by this man and a planet known by no man.
"I swam in the ocean once," he said to her. "I spent the whole day outside, lying on the bow of a ship. No space suit, no helmet. I had hair then, shampooed and conditioned. I ate fish. There were no walls."
Charles dropped his hand to her stomach, her pelvis, her thigh.
"I swam in an ocean once," he said again. "I swam, I swam, I swam."
"You will again," Rebecca said and led him back to his cabin.
As penance for an inward feeling of vanity, Rebecca slept beside him until it was time for his shift.
Later, as he pulled on one uniform, then another, she asked him: "Why did we leave?"
"It's what we do," he said.
Year Fifty
The planet was blue and green. It had a moon, a yellow sun (though the computer tells Martha this is impossible; suns burn white). Yellow, she tells it. It was yellow and gold and sometimes red.
The calculations tell Martha they will arrive soon. A blue and green planet. One moon. A yellow dwarf that burns white. White is not a color, she thinks, in the same way that space is not a color.
Martha thinks people will be waiting for them, though the computer does not agree. It shows her photographs of concerts and protests, a wedding video, a collection of snapshots.
Are these the people you mean?
"Yes," Martha says. "Yes."
These people are all dead.
Not all of them, she thinks as she touches a spot on her fourth finger and knows there was a ring there once. Round like a compass, a sundial, things she cannot remember seeing but the words come to her unbidden. She knows she did not invent them, but she cannot help but feel ownership. A hula hoop, a sand dollar, a holy wafer.
Time moves past them, through them. They cannot touch it or see it. Martha sits in the cockpit and wonders if her body has known anything else. She thumbs through record after record of the place she once called home. My body did these things, she thinks. She does not remember.
The computer plays music, a piano prelude, and her hands run along the buttons of her control panel in an almost familiar pattern. "Scales," she says. "Arpeggios." There, in the corner, she sees the long brass foot of a dampener. It is an imperceptible weight, a touch on her consciousness.
The planet, their new home, is a flickering on the screen, a small dot when her husband straps himself into the chair beside her.
"Will you miss it?" George asks, gesturing to the controls, the ship, the space rushing towards them.
She cannot yet decide. As she reaches for his hand she wonders where children come from. There is knowledge there too, she thinks as her muscles twitch. A flash of light, then gone.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 20th, 2014

Author Comments

This story was a response to an article I read years ago about what happens to individuals' sense of identity and self when stripped of their personal belongings. The article included studies of mental patients who would collect anything they could (pencil stubs, wrappers, buttons) and would go to great lengths to claim physical spaces as their own. This reminded me of the excellent story, "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien, which also explores how identity can be tied to objects. Thus I wanted to examine individuality in a reverse situation: what remnants remain with us, when we can't bring the object (tangible or intangible) along for the ride?

- Helena Leigh Bell
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