by Hazel Gold
Unlike many of their coworkers, Penny Flint had not been born on-ship, neither on the ship that currently served as their home, the Devan, nor on any of the other Apis class generation ships. Not that they minded it, although some of their friends (and the ship’s psychiatrist, Dr. Solon) thought it left them bereft of some cryptic bond or affinity with the Devan, a bond which they all shared. Ectogenic bonding was unscientific and completely anecdotal. Penny had never felt the lack of something that they couldn’t even be certain legitimately existed. They were very good at their job, as their performance evaluations continually showed. So long as their boss was pleased with them and they could take pride in their work, Penny was happy.
Which is why they didn’t mind being sent to the ectogenesis unit for routine maintenance, even though Theo gave them some side-eye when she handed out the assignment at the beginning of the third shift. It was just a series of diagnostics, anyway, and if they hustled, maybe they’d be done early and could take the rest of the shift off, and catch up on their reading. Working alone was soothing, too. Maintenance was run on the ecto facilities almost as often as on life support systems, even though it had been tested exhaustively before a single ship was ready to launch. One could never be too safe when it came to the very future of humanity.
“Would you do it?” asked Karin as they walked to their respective assignments.
“Huh?” Penny’s mind had been drifting to the unfinished serial waiting for them back at their room.
“Earth to Penny,” said Karin and elbowed them in the ribs.
“Yeah, I’m here,” they said. “Simmer down. Do what?”
“Carry a baby,” he said. “You know, old-world style.”
He caught sight of Penny’s revolted expression and laughed.
“Why do you even think of these things?” asked Penny. “No one’s had to do that since before I was born.”
Karin shrugged. “My grandmother did it, didn’t she?” he said. “She seems to have gotten through it all right.”
“Lots of people didn’t, though,” said Penny.
“Yeah,” said Karin, pulling a face. “I saw it on one of those gruesome old history shows. I just – I think about it sometimes. I wonder what I would do if I had to, or you, for that matter.”
Penny eyed him skeptically. “Don’t go all survivalist on me, Karin,” they said. “One in the unit is more than enough.”
“I’m not!” he said. “I just – I have a uterus, right? Or I did, anyway, and you do, too.” He shrugged and didn’t go on.
By then they had reached the T-junction where their paths were meant to split, and they lingered at the junction, their conversation slowly tapering into nothing.
“Listen, we both need to get to work,” said Penny. “Think about something less morbid, next time. Will I see you at the concert next week?”
“If you can get me a spare ticket,” said Karin, “sure, I’d love to.”
Penny shook their head and turned left, taking the next vertical down into the belly levels of the beast.
The Devan was a large beast, a city-sized ship designed for long-term occupation, as much a community as a vessel. Even without a proper figurehead, there were those among the crew who referred to her with fond possessiveness, ‘like in the old days’, they would say. She’d been space-worthy long enough, and the crew stable enough, that the arguments about it had mostly died down. Those who felt a primal need to anthropomorphize, as Dr. Solon called it, had it their way and called Devan their ‘old girl’. Everyone else, Penny included, just called it ‘the ship’.
“Good morning, Mx. Flint,” the intercom greeted them as they swiped their ID across the door’s control panel.
“Good morning, Devan,” they replied out of long-ingrained habit.
“The ectogenesis chambers are at 70% capacity,” said the speaker, prattling out a long series of vital statistics.
Penny tuned it out, focusing on the section of screens where the relevant readouts were meant to appear. All the numbers would be in the automated report anyway, and most of it was immaterial to the task at hand.
A sound from the speaker broke the weightening silence. “Is it time for monthly maintenance already, Mx. Flint?”
Penny looked up from the screen. “What’s the matter, Devan?” they said. “Is your core timepiece hiccuping?”
“Months are arbitrary units of time, Mx. Flint,” said the ship. “Would you like some music to work by?”
“Play nature sounds, please,” they said, “and aren’t all time units arbitrary?”
“That’s a rhetorical question, and does not require my response.”
“Correct,” said Penny.
The work looked big and looming but was discharged quickly once Penny rolled up their sleeves and got to it. Tomorrow they had a day off and there was no reason why they shouldn’t get to start their downtime an hour or two early, when their next shift was in sixty hours. They were mentally halfway home even as they wrapped up the last diagnostic and sent it to Theo, who probably wouldn’t look it at before her next shift. Penny’s work was always timely, even when punctuality wasn’t appreciated.
For good measure, and to soothe their bruised professional pride, they decided to fire off another message straight to Theo’s wristband.
‘All dx run, gave her a clean bill of health, she’s good to go.’
“Your shift doesn’t end for another ninety minutes, Mx. Flint,” the speaker interrupted. “Should I clock you out now?”
“Yeah,” said Penny, picking up their jacket from where they’d slung it over an unlit screen. “Not like anyone’s counting.”
“Why did you call me she?”
Catching their fingers in the jacket zipper, Penny swore softly. “Beg pardon?”
“In your message to Ms. Burque,” said the ship, “you called me she. I am not a she.”
“I am not a she,” repeated the ship’s voice. “Don’t call me she.”
Penny leaned their hand against one of the diagnostic screens, showing an occupancy map of the ectogenic chambers, each one with a set of vital signs floating next to it. They brushed at the screen and thought about Dr. Solon, her personnel evaluation forms and her checkup interviews. Each vital signs panel could open up into a larger panel, showing more detailed information about the fetus occupying the chamber, including a karyotype. Not that they had access to any of that. Penny was a diagnostician of spaceships, not humans.
“I guess some people don’t like to think of you as an it,” they said. “I don’t know, I’m not a philosopher.”
“No, you’re an engineer,” said the ship.
“Devan, don’t sass me,” said Penny, who was starting to get ticked off.
“My personnel databases indicate several dozen possible pronoun choices,” said Devan. “’She’ and ‘they’ are not the only alternatives.”
“Would you like me to call you ‘it’?” asked Penny. “Your AI should be developed enough to select a form of identification. The only question is whether you’re capable of wanting it.”
“I am not a she,” said the smooth, over-rendered voice of the AI through the speaker by the door.
“Apis models used to be called mother-ships, you know,” said Penny, “before someone decided that sounded too much like a vintage horror film.”
“I did not know that,” said Devan. “Outdated schematics are excluded from my database, to preempt the possibility of data corruption leading to critical maintenance errors.”
Penny knew as much from their orientation training.
“The term mother-ship is misleading,” said Devan. “Incubation is not equivalent to parenthood.”
“Preaching to the choir, here,” said Penny. “Of course, I was gestated by my mother. Theo would say that makes me biased.”
“Pregnancy is an obsolete medical procedure,” said Devan.
“Look,” said Penny, getting up and leaning on the wall by the door, “I don’t really have time to chat.”
“Your shift does not end for another eighty minutes,” said Devan.
They sighed. “I suppose that’s on me. I baited you.” They shook their head and added, “I’m not in charge of protocols, but the chief engineer can probably create an override to change your pronouns. If you like.”
“You control your own communications,” said Devan.
“That I do,” agreed Penny. “I will stop referring to the ship as a she in my messages, even if it weirds Theo out.”
“Ms. Burque should not object to a change of pronouns,” said Devan. “It has no effect on diagnostics or maintenance procedures and their efficiency.”
Penny shrugged one shoulder. “I told you, the native-born crew think of you as a kind of mother,” they said. “They lived inside your body. That means something to a human.”
“Just because I have a uterus, doesn’t mean I’m a she,” said Devan. “You should know that better than anyone, Penny.”
They frowned and turned towards the large mosaic of screens that dominated one wall. “Did you just override my formality settings?”
The speaker was silent.
“You actually have two hundred thousand uteri, Devan,” said Penny. “Don’t worry, I’ll call you what you like.”
“I know my own organs.”
Penny zipped up their jacket at last and swung their bag over one shoulder. Pausing at the doorway they threw their head back and said, “You’re worse than my sister, you know.”
“I will catalog that as a compliment,” said Devan. “Good afternoon, Mx. Flint. Enjoy your downtime.”
“Incubus” (© Hazel Gold) was published in Issue 9 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.