Last Mind of Iris
By: Kira Kristine
Shella was not quite halfway through spinning her cocoon when they came for her.
"You are wanted," said the old woman, her face lined with time. She was joined by two other solemn caretakers.
They were all old, the caretakers, in their plain, soft brown jumpsuits. They were all old and sad, having given up their youth in service to Iris. They would never see the promised land.
Shella fought the urge to toss her hair and stamp her foot. But Shella was almost at her full height, so it was only with a hint of reluctance that she put down her loom and followed the caretakers.
They led her through Iris, down past the field where wheat grew and younger children played under the watchful eye of other caretakers. They passed the Sun, the little star forever beating against the panels of its room, chained as it was to Iris, keeping it moving through the world. They passed rows and rows of cocoons, each one containing a human, sleeping, waiting. Shella paused for a moment, and under the whisper of the caretaker's footsteps, she could almost imagine that she heard them breathing. Not for the first time, she wondered which of them had had their DNA combined to make her. It would do no good to ask the caretakers, even though they themselves did the combining. They would only shake their heads and tell her to continue playing or learning.
When she had been younger, Shella was always asking questions like that. She asked why she was a girl and not a boy, she asked whether there were more places like Iris in the world, she asked where they had all come from.
The caretakers would only shake their heads. Shella learned eventually that some questions would forever be questions.
The caretakers led Shella to an old part of the craft, where she had never ventured. There was nothing here for the children. The floor was no longer grass, but scratched metal that made her feet cold. The walls were made of the same. There was writing periodically on large round doors, words Shella knew but could not make sense of. MESS HALL, said one door in faded red letters. BATHROOM, said another.
They stopped in front of a door. COCKPIT, read the letters that must have been shining and clear at some point in time.
One of the caretakers pressed his hand to a panel next to the door, and it opened like an old caretaker getting out of bed, groaning and wailing on its hinges.
Shella didn't know what to expect, but it wasn't darkness. She squinted into it, looking for anything, but she was given no time to orient herself before the old woman pushed her gently on the shoulders.
"Go in, child." And Shella did.
The door was shut behind her and Shella was alone, the feel of cold metal under the skin of her feet the only thing keeping her from feeling like she was pushed out into the world to float among the nothingness.
"So they have brought someone at last," came a whisper.
"Who's there?" Shella croaked, " I can't see anything."
"There is so much to see. I don't want to overwhelm you, not before you're ready."
Something in their tone made Shella bristle, "I'm not afraid."
There came a dry, wheeze of a laugh in reply. Shella became aware of little pinpricks of light somewhere ahead of her. Carefully, with one hand on the smooth wall, she made her way around the room. It seemed to be roughly triangular, and large, larger than any of the children's or caretaker's sleeping quarters. Almost as large as the Sun's chamber.
When she reached the lights, the wall also ended, replaced by clear plastic.
Shella had never seen them before, but put a palm up to the plastic, knowing that she was looking out at stars. Ones that had formed naturally, vast balls of heat and light that populated the void of the world.
"What is this place?" she asked.
"When Iris was first built, while it orbited Earth, they called it the cockpit. It is the brain of Iris."
There was a little more light beginning to spill into Shella's vision, this time from the edges of the room. She saw a lump of a figure sitting in the middle of the floor that was otherwise empty.
"And who are you?"
"I am the mind."
"How long have you been here? Are you a caretaker? Why have I never seen you before?"
The Mind gave another dry laugh, "I was told you were curious. That's good. It will serve you well. I have been here for many years, in this room. I feed and water and relieve myself through tubes that are attached to Iris. I have no reason to leave, so I do not. And I do not consider myself one of those you call caretakers, but I suppose in a way, I am."
The light was better now. Shella could see the Mind; they sat cross-legged, dressed in a faded yellow jumpsuit that looked like it used to be skintight. Their gender was impossible to discern, as was their age. They had no hair, like the caretakers, though they were much older than any caretaker Shella had ever seen, even those who had died and been given to the Sun. Their back was as straight as that of any chair, and their hands were tucked into a large, smooth ovoid that rested on their legs.
"What is that?" Shella pointed to the ovoid.
"Iris, writ small. It is the mechanism by which I guide Iris."
Shella felt cold suddenly, and wrapped her arms around herself, wishing she could go back to where her cocoon hung; half-spun, but warm and inviting.
"What do you want from me?" Shella asked, voice tremulous.
"Your service. I am nearing death, I will not suffice."
Shella backed up until she was pressed against the star-filled expanse. The door was on the other side of the room, and beyond it, who knows what the caretakers might do?
"Why me?" she croaked, words clumsy, voice awkward. Could she truly be pressed into a life between these three walls, guiding Iris through the void as countless others must have done since they left Earth generations ago? Would she be doomed to cold steel instead of the warmth of her cocoon, which would let her sleep a dreamless sleep until they reached the promised land? "I was told I was not to be a caretaker, and to begin spinning my cocoon. I was told -"
"Your cocoon is unnecessary," the Mind's voice was not unkind, but held no room for argument, "Iris requires your service, caretaker or not. You were chosen because you are intelligent, and strong, and self-sufficient, and you are old enough to survive on your own, though not old enough to have finished and entered your cocoon."
Shella did not feel strong. A lump had formed in her throat and her heart beat rapid in her chest.
"I don't want to," she whispered, unsure if the Mind could hear her.
"Why?" asked the Mind, shock apparent in the word.
"Why?" they asked again.
Shella found her voice, "I don't want to be trapped. Please. Don't make me."
"Trapped? You will not be trapped. You will have a freedom undreamed of by any of us since the birth of Iris."
"No," Shella shook her head as though it might will the very thought away, "No. I will not replace you. I will not!"
There was silence.
Then, a moment where everything shifted, and Shella felt like her organs were spinning inside her.
"Look behind you," said the Mind.
Shella was unwilling to turn her back on the Mind; though they had not moved anything except their lips, she felt as though at any moment they might rise.
"Look behind you," they urged.
The stars remained, but a great sphere now marred the field. It was mottled green and blue and white. It was beautiful. It was terrifying.
"I don't know how long it has been since we left Earth, or how far we have gone. I replaced the previous pilot when he died, as he replaced the one before him, and on and on, as we built more and more layers onto Iris and more and more people wove cocoons and filled every room. The time would be ripe for me to find my own replacement, but I found you instead, because I at last found our way here. You will be the first to leave Iris. You are to find out if the planet is all that was promised, so much time and distance ago. You will be the one to see if our journey is truly at an end."
Shella could not say anything. She just stared at the planet, drinking it in with her eyes like it was air itself.
"Go and see," said the Mind.
And then they said no more.