EPIC POEM: Our World Is A Lifeboat
I - Stranded
Our world is a lifeboat.

This was once metaphor

for all humanity,

back on ancient Earth,

back before the push,

back before the spread

of all humanity

to every corner of the cosmos,

to every habitable world

beneath every sky.

Our world is a lifeboat.

Outside is a world,

not habitable,

not safe, not ours.

So close, on the other side

of our pod's glasteel ports,

so close and yet so far,

too close for comfort sometimes

when the tempest rages

and the hull shakes

and we toss and twist

upon the surface

of the sea.

The autoevac

did its job

as best it could

with the materials

available.

No plotted worlds within range,

nor any habitable ones,

it put the survivors down

in a planet-sized puddle

we could almost survive.

The exosurveyors speak of

the Goldilocks zone;

just the right distance

from just the right star,

everything just right,

just like the old story

that only survived

because exosurveyors

still tell it to explain

about the zone.

The only tell half the story, though.

Sometimes, Goldilocks

shows up and the porridge

is thin and runny, or already gone.

Sometimes the bears are home when she gets there.

Sometimes there is no home.

The world outside is in the zone,

but it feeds us watery gruel indeed.

Warm but not the right warm.

Wet but not the right pH.

Life, but not the right life.

It can't grow inside our bubble.

We can't live in its world.

It can't live in ours.

We cannot cultivate it.

It cannot sustain us.

The replicycle

does its job

as best it can

with the materials

available.

It filters the water.

It filters the plants.

It filters the wriggling

fish-like organisms

that have never encountered

a single artificial object

in their brief lives

and have no reason to fear it.

The water tastes like ionized nothing.

The food tastes like stale nothing.

The nutritional supplements taste,

but like nothing good.

Our world is a lifeboat,

bobbing on the surface

of a world we can see

but not touch,

a world that

will never

be ours.

II - Fruitless

Our lifeboat consists

of the core capsule

of an interstellar ship,

shed of its superstructure,

devoid of its drive.

It contained just enough

to get us down safely.

It contains everything

we need to survive

on any habitable world.

It has to.

We left on a one-way trip,

our destination determined,

yet wherever we landed

was bound to be home.

No resupply vessel would follow.

No rescue vessel will come.

No other ship

will pass this way

within our lifetime

and far longer.

Panic is immediate,

despair is slow.

We have the lab,

the engineering bay,

the mining probes,

the autofacts,

and the replicycle.

What we need,

we can make.

When we can't,

we can make do.

It is our creed.

It is our way.

We have the training.

We have the expertise.

We are doctors.

We are scientists.

We are technicians.

We are problem-solvers.

We do our jobs

as best we can

with the materials

available

but the materials

available

prove too few

to help.

Given sufficient minerals

we could expand our habitat,

build vehicles, exosuits,

surveyor drones to search

for more minerals

to expand our habitat,

build even more,

each step in our expansion

extending our grasp.

Yet we still must take that first step

Given sufficient resources,

we could become self-sustaining.

This was always the plan.

It hasn't changed,

only become more urgent.

Given sufficient materials.

Given, given, given....

We have been given so little

We were prepared for any habitable world.

yet we were not prepared for this one.

Wherever we landed would become our home,

yet we detect no land in any direction

save for down, several kilometers.

All the mineral wealth we could need may exist right under our noses,

but for all the good it does us, it may as well be on another world.

III - Fruitful

Our world consists of three decks.

It holds room enough for fifty hands

though we have to count the ones

on the ends of our arms

to make up that number.

You might think it capacious, at half capacity.

You might think that, if you never tried to live it.

Our world is small

and it is crowded,

and it is due

to get more so

in some thirty-odd weeks.

Not much to do

in our hermetic world,

and none of us are hermits.

Not much to do

and little of it fruitful,

so might as well

multiply.

The arguments against it

were as swift and as fruitless

as our attempts to engineer

a rescue from our predicament.

Our resources are strained

feeding the adults.

Medical supplies are finite.

Our world is, too.

We have space

for one generation more,

and that only just,

and then come

the hard choice.

Are we prolonging the species,

or only the inevitable?

The arguments for it

are less reasoned

but no more refutable:

We need closeness,

we need comfort,

something to do,

hope for the future.

Whether anyone means

to be pregnant,

it's bound to happen.

Barriers break,

control schemes

break down,

No argument carries the day,

no reasoned discourse wins out.

The debate ends

swiftly as it started

when first a pregnancy is kept.

We are pragmatists. We understand the question is not now

if we will have children, but what we can do for them.

IV - Benediction

What kind of world

will we leave our children?

We do the projections.

Atmospheric filtration

will degrade steadily

for one hundred years

or so, and then

fail completely

within two lifetimes

of our landing.

The skin of our world

is strong, but already

it accretes lifeforms

like barnacles

that secrete substances

like stomach acid,

inimical to its integrity.

It might not outlast the air,

though the air in turn

will not long outlast it.

The replicycle runs overtime,

all the time, filtering

and capturing nutrients,

neutralizing toxins, transforming

foreign bodies into food.

It was never designed

to function so,

to race endlessly

against our starvation

under hostile conditions.

It has broken down twice.

Each time we repair it,

we do what we can

to extend its efficiency,

but we can only do so much.

We do our job

as best we can

with the materials

available.

We feed the cycle every bit

of ourselves we ever shed,

knowing every ounce,

every gram,

every precious dram

of Earth matter,

every speck of humanity

it consumes

is that much more matter

for its matrix,

that much less material

that need be taken onboard,

need be translated for our tongues,

transubstantiated into our daily bread.

We take of it

and eat of it,

for it was our bodies,

and it will be again,

as it ever was

and ever shall be

our world without end,

amen.

V - Malediction

We were not always

so ruthless, so efficient.

We were sentimental once.

Thirteen crew made it

to the core before

the core became

the lifeboat,

thirteen who did not

make it to the surface.

We left them in the lock,

a baker's dozen bodies,

and we cycled it,

commending their souls

to an unfathomable sea.

The world that cannot be ours

became their graves,

and their flesh and bone

and protein and calcium

and iron and trace elements

passed beyond human reach

and human knowledge.

It was a mistake, we all know,

and a costly one to make,

feeding so much of ourselves

to a world that feeds us

so little, so grudgingly.

We curse that day, and we say

we will not make the same mistake

when the next one of us dies

if one of us dies

before catastrophe

claims us all.

More than a waste of material,

the loss of the thirteen

was a wasted opportunity,

one we know we will not see again.

The replicycle was meant

for grander things

on greener worlds.

Given sufficient material,

its matrix may become self-sustaining,

a smaller bubble within our bubble,

a functional ecology within

our dysfunctional one.

Difficult to guess how much

is enough, when much of the inputs

must be processed and filtered

as harshly as our harsh host dictates.

Maybe the thirteen would have been enough.

Or maybe we could have fed all of them

and two dozen of our living bodies more

into the maw of the matrix

and it would not be enough

to long improve the life

of the one who remained.

If we were dying

and not by degrees,

perhaps we would draw lots

like sailors of old.

Perhaps we would feed

ourselves one by one

into the replicycle

until we found

the tipping point,

if we found

the tipping point.

Perhaps some among us

would be so noble

or so desperate

to volunteer.

But we die so slowly

it looks like living,

and none among us

are ready to trade that

for a quick, clean end,

and however inevitable

our death may be,

it is yet so distant

that forcing the issue

looks more like murder

than euthanasia.

VI - Posterity

What sort of world

will we leave for our children?

One sealed, starving, shrinking,

spiraling steadily towards

oblivion?

A world of hard surfaces,

hard choices, hard lives

and little worth doing

save for begetting

another misbegotten

generation

to do it

all over

again?

A whole world lies outside

our windows, outside

our reach.

A world lush with life,

young life,

sparse life,

fragile life,

but life,

vibrant,

beautiful,

tempestuous.

Deadly for us,

dangerous, perhaps,

for anyone.

It can never be ours,

our children.

But maybe,

just maybe,

it could

one day

be yours.

None among us remember

who first floated

the idea.

Perhaps it came to us

all at once, so logical,

so inevitable the conclusion.

The question is not now

if we will have children,

but what we can do

for them.

Our world is a lifeboat

never meant to land here.

Our world was dying

from the moment

it became our world.

Outside is a young world,

ripe with resources

we cannot reach,

food we cannot eat,

seas we cannot swim,

water we cannot drink.

We are doctors.

We are scientists.

We are technicians.

We are problem-solvers.

We engineer solutions.

We engineer the future.

We engineer you,

our children yet unborn.

This world cannot be ours.

This world will be yours.

We will give it to you.

The children as yet

conceived must be born

within our world,

for we must bear them.

We will rear them,

teach them who we are

and where we came from,

teach them our names,

give them our names,

so they will remember,

so something of us

will remain in their world

after our world has ended.

This is what children are.

This is what children do.

This is what children are for.

It is an ancient taboo

in the genetic arts:

to not make new life

for the sake of new life,

to propagate no new species

just to prove you could,

just to say you did.

Whatever else they may be,

our children must be ours,

or we must be damned.

We do not meddle in life's domain

simply so these seas

may have something of us

swimming within them,

but so that we may

in some sense

survive.

VII - Titanomachy

The schism comes swiftly

as did the accord.

It is an ancient taboo

in the genetic arts,

but some among us argue

this is no time

for meek adherence

to mere tradition.

What a waste, they say,

to blend our own biology,

to find a brittle balance

between our dying world

and the living one beyond.

How much better, they say,

to start from scratch,

to build with the blocks

of the world outside.

Our children,

born to live

in both worlds

and raised in ours

would struggle

to find their way

outside.

The heretics say

we can do better,

we must do more.

The question, they say,

is not if we will have children,

but what we can do for them.

Our children need not inherit

what they may instead conquer,

need not struggle when they may thrive.

Unconstrained by the limits

of our biology or morality,

we might beget a breed

to sit at the apex

of the world outside

our windows.

The children we have designed

will be strange to our eyes,

yet beautiful, as they must be

for us to raise them.

Those the heretics propose

would be terrible, terrifying.

They could not live with us.

They could not learn from us.

They could not take our names.

They would not know of our world,

nor of the one we left behind.

It is monstrous

to breed monsters

to say we bred monsters,

but the heretics say

if we must make our mark

upon the world outside,

we must make sure it lasts.

There is no protocol to guide us,

no authority the heretics recognize.

We are bound by strictures

they will no longer abide.

Our work takes months

and generations after.

Theirs can be done

in stolen moments

and guarded hours.

While we debate

what is to be done,

they do it.

Before we know it,

their larval progeny

is seeded into the seas,

a stain upon the world

that cannot be erased,

an arrow released

that cannot be retrieved.

And we know when our children leave our world,

they will not be alone in the seas.

And we know fear.

Our world is a lifeboat.

All life within it, sacred.

It may be a mistake,

suffering such treachery to live,

but ending the lives of the traitors

to feed the replicycle

would be too self-serving

to feel like justice.

We do our job

as best we can

with the materials

available.

We confine those who transgressed

against nature and our children

to a portion of the lowest deck.

We do not speak of them.

We do not think of them.

We focus on the future.

We focus on our children.

VIII - Flowering

Our world is a nursery.

We must remain fruitful,

for but a brief window,

but we are very fruitful

within it.

We've crunched the numbers.

We've run the simulations.

We know what we must do

to avoid a bottleneck.

Each of us who can breed

breeds with each of us

who can breed with them.

Even those who can't,

contribute genes

and time and ideas

and compassion.

Each of our children becomes

the child of all of us.

It's not what we're used to,

at least, not all of us,

not exactly,

but it is how it must be,

how it will be for them,

how it must be for them.

We are careful to teach them

nothing of partners,

nothing of pair-bonds,

modeling one big happy family

so when they move out into the world

they will continue our work.

Our children are strange to our eyes,

and yet beautiful, fluid, graceful.

Languid on legs, agile in water.

We flood two compartments

so they may safely swim

in a semblance of the sea

that will one day be theirs.

When they are older,

they will swim outdoors.

The locks will not stand

to the outside environment

for long with constant use,

but they will not need to.

When our children are grown,

they will swim away.

They must swim away.

We tell them this often,

imprint the necessity upon

their young brains.

They protest, they object.

Their world has been this lifeboat

for as long as they have lived.

They cannot leave it behind.

They cannot leave us behind.

We know they will.

We know they must.

We do not push.

We teach them all we know

of their world to come,

every bit of data

gleaned from samples

and scans and sensors,

every hypothesis formed

and fact extrapolated

and inference made.

We teach them all we can,

too, of the world we left,

its history and stories

and songs and sagas,

what we can remember,

whatever it may be.

We do our job

as best we can

with the materials

available.

Was there ever a big apple

or a city of lights?

Did a baby blue ox ever play

such a sport as baseball,

and is he the reason

red socks are unlucky?

We don't know.

We don't know

why thirteen

is a baker's dozen.

We know Goldilocks.

We tell them everything we know.

Some of it may even be true.

IX - Awakening

Our children are growing.

They have begun to explore

the world outside and each other.

They do not know this,

they cannot know this,

but their adolescent awakening

has started a countdown.

One thing is paramount:

the second generation

must not be born here.

The genetic alterations

we gifted our children

run deeper than somatic.

The children they get

will be less like us

and more like them,

in all of the ways

they are less like us.

We have tried to be good parents.

We have tried to show them love.

We wonder what they will make of us,

when we cast them out.

We have done

the best we can

with the materials

available.

We have shown them love.

We have taught them well,

as well as we could.

We have told them their parents

have not always been perfect.

We have tried not to mar

their youthful existence

with the burdens

of our troubled past

and our fears

of an uncertain future.

They do not know about the others

confined within quarters,

fed and watered by remote.

We do not know what they have guessed

about the quarter of the world

we keep locked away and never speak of.

We have warned them about the others

who wait for them among the waves.

We have told our children

their cousins are clever,

as clever as themselves,

and their cousins have a head start.

We have told our children

they will need to be clever,

as clever as they can be,

and we have given them a head start.

Our children have language,

they have each other.

They have society.

We must give to them

no technology

they cannot make

for themselves,

so they will not be

like us, dependent

but we give to them

technology itself.

Our children will have

the idea of tools

and the knowledge

to make them.

Our children will have

the tools of ideas,

society and language.

We pray that it may be enough.

X - Foreboding

Our children are not thriving.

We knew it would not be easy,

our amphibious children,

strange and beautiful to our eyes,

born with one foot in our world

and one flipper in the next.

We expected you to struggle.

We did not want you to suffer.

Time grows short, the day grows closer.

Yet you are not ready for your world,

or your world is not ready for you.

It does not nourish you as it should.

It does not welcome you as we'd hoped.

You go forth for far longer each time,

yet find less of worth each time you do.

You return to us tired and hungry,

hearts sick and limbs sore.

Is there too much of us in you?

It must be so. You must be ours.

We could do no different.

We sought to meet the world halfway.

We thought that would be enough.

This world is not ready.

This world is too young.

Or else our data is too old.

We had thought our replicycle,

sluggish, unreliable,

was simply showing its age.

It takes in less and less.

It works more and more.

We check the logs.

We check the figures,

we check them again.

We realize the truth.

The oceans are empty,

and emptying more

all the time.

Young life, fragile, is fading.

Your world cannot sustain us.

It will not sustain you.

We did our job

as best we could

with the materials

available.

But the materials

available

may not have been

the best.

No.

The fault is not

with our data,

but within ourselves.

There is a variable

we did not account for.

It is an ancient taboo

and a recent sin,

years old now,

older than you,

our children

but somehow, still,

too fresh a wound

to bear examination.

This world has been invaded.

This world is out of balance.

The others, your cousins,

the children of the heretics.

Our world is a lifeboat.

Your world has been breached.

Perfect predators

without competition.

Perfect survivors

without compare.

A young ecosystem,

unsophisticated,

no defenses.

Your world is dying in the womb.

Our hope is dying on the vine.

XI - Temptation

To any god who hears our prayer

or any soul who finds our record:

We sought to make children

who could live in this world.

We never sought to change it.

It is another taboo,

only slightly less ancient,

to not remake a living world

in our own image.

But having had children,

the question could only be

what we can do for them.

The world outside was never ours,

but no longer is it wholly its own.

Invaded, ravaged, wounded, dying,

our children doomed to die along with it.

Whatever path it might have followed,

however it might have flowered and grown,

its fateful strings were fatally severed

by talon and fang of monsters we loosed.

We no longer stand divided,

the faithful and the heretical.

We have opened the doors.

We have reconciled.

We have forgiven,

and been forgiven.

As two worlds stand on the threshold of death,

understanding comes too late to both sides.

We who stayed the path

understand too late

the temptation,

having made our children

by prudent half-measures

and knowing they must die.

What wouldn't we do now,

if only it would save them?

Those who went astray

understand too late

their transgression,

knowing their children

and ours alike are doomed

to suffer slow starvation

amidst the world they wounded.

What wouldn't they do now,

if only it would change things?

What wouldn't we do?

We are doctors.

We are scientists.

We are technicians.

We are problem-solvers.

We do our job

as best we can

with the materials

available.

XII - Apotheosis

Our children are grown.

Our grown children,

some of them,

are with child.

Our jobs we did

as best we could,

but now our jobs

are finished.

There is one more task to be completed.

One great commission we must fulfill.

For three long months,

too short a time by half,

we have labored, all twenty-five

united by one common purpose.

We have checked our figures.

We have checked them again.

We have run the projections

a hundred thousand times.

Can it work?

Almost definitely.

Must it work?

Most assuredly.

Will it work?

The replicycle

does its job

as best it can

with the materials

available.

With sufficient materials available,

the matrix may reach critical mass.

Fifty hands, fifty arms,

fifty legs, fifty eyes,

twenty-five heads and torsos,

twenty-five adult human bodies.

One thousand, seven hundred

and seventy-seven kilos,

living bits of a dying world.

We cannot be sure

it will be enough

matter to matter,

but if we were to mix it,

intermingle ourselves

with dwindling life

brought in from outside?

Perhaps not too late

we have realized the truth:

an egg must be fertilized.

A seed must be pollinated.

Our children of two worlds

cannot live in one world

unless that world

is born of two as well.

Enough matter in the matrix

may yield an ecosystem,

self-sustaining,

yet not self-contained,

not if we say so,

our aging replicycle

and its matrix

tied to our computers,

our genetic sequencers,

keyed to the amphibious biology

of our amphibious children.

A month should be enough,

the projections say,

for us to find the final truth.

One short, scant month,

thirty long, interminable days,

time enough to fail,

time enough to live,

time enough to know.

We pad it by a third

for safety's sake,

tell our children

to go and not come back,

not for forever, not yet,

for they might not listen

and they must listen,

but to not return

for forty days

and forty nights.

The sheer specificity of it all

placates their worries,

forestalls their fears.

They may not ever forgive us,

when they return and we are gone.

But they may live.

XIII - Exegesis

In the end, we do draw lots

not to determine

who will feed the machine,

but who must stay behind,

not for who shall be first

but who shall be last

to enter the matrix.

Someone must guide the process.

Someone must make adjustments.

Someone must take the ship down

when the work is done,

must drown our world

bury it certain fathoms deep

beyond the reach of our children

but not so deep to crush

the nascent world

being birthed within it.

Our world is a lifeboat

that must be scuttled

when our children are scattered

Our world must die

for a new world to arise

from the ashes.

I am the chosen.

I am the last.

I said goodbye to friends,

lovers, enemies, everyone.

Our world is a tomb.

Our world is a womb.

Alone with my thoughts,

I do my job

as best I can

with the materials

available.

The matrix blossoms with biomass,

more matter than it knows what to do with.

Our aging replicycle

must be throttled down,

lest it choke on sudden largesse.

Will the matrix become stable?

Will the circle be unbroken?

I can't say.

It has not yet.

I make adjustments,

tinker with programs

fiddle with machines,

smooth out inefficiencies,

correct errors.

I cannot think of our children,

out there, alone, betrayed

and not yet knowing it.

What will they think of us

when they return unerringly

to a spot that holds naught

but memories and empty waves.

I think of their children instead,

those who must soon be born

and those who will come far later.

What will they think of us?

What they will remember?

What will they know?

What will they believe?

Will they believe there ever was

a baby blue ox who played baseball?

Will they believe all life that lives

came from a single boat, bobbing

on the stormy surface of their world?

Will they believe their parents

ever fought and feuded

and cast each other into darkness

before reconciling at the end?

Will they believe they were created

by parents who loved them,

and who only wanted the best?

Will they believe they were cast out

of an innocent existence

and scattered across stormy seas

for some sexual sin?

Have any of their cousins survived?

Will anyone remember they existed?

What will they think of us?

What will they make of us?

In ancient times, people believed

individuals make children

to propagate their own genes.

We know this to be nonsense.

Genes are no respecters of persons.

Within scant generations,

they become so mixed, so muddled

no trace of any individual remains.

We made our children to remember us.

We put as much of ourselves into them

as we could, and we hoped for the best.

We fed them hopes and ideas,

dreams and stories and memories.

We taught them language,

and their profit on it

will be unrecognizable

to the world we left behind

within scant generations.

Was it all for nothing?

Was it all vanity, all hubris?

Have we been screaming into the void?

Perhaps it is so, but if it is so,

it is no more so than it has been

for any parent since the first.

We have done our jobs

as best we could

with the materials

that were

available.

The time has come.

I guide the ship down,

all programs transferred

to automation.

Our world is a lifeboat,

no more.

XIV - Coda

The matrix is not complete.

It hovers, tantalizingly,

always on the threshold

of self-reliance.

It needs only one more push, I hope.

It needs only a bit more mass, I pray.

I would have gone to it regardless.

I cannot live here long, but then,

I could not have lived here alone.

Yet I had hoped to live to see

the matrix blossoming,

our plans and hopes and dreams

sparking into self-fulfilling fruition.

I had hoped to go into the dark

secure in the knowledge

our children were saved.

It is not meant to be.

We made our children well.

We taught our children well.

They will remember us,

at least something of us,

so long as they live,

however long they live.

If they live long enough,

they may grow and prosper

and learn and adapt

until the day comes

they have the tools

they need to dive

certain fathoms deep

and find the truth

of where they came from.

If another ship should chance

to pass this way again

and it should happen to detect

a power signature,

faint and feeble

from a long-obsolete vessel,

and it should choose to come down,

it might meet our children

and hear their story

of where they came from.

We may well be remembered,

or we may well be discovered

in the history of the world

we left behind or the history

of the world we birthed.

If it should be,

whatever is known,

whatever believed,

I hope it is said

that we did our jobs

as best we could

with the materials

available.