My big toe was the first thing I noticed. It didn’t hurt exactly, not like an injury might, but it existed in my mind in a way that it hadn’t a few seconds ago. There was a throbbing ache, a call to action, which radiated from this one spot in pulsating waves. Each swell of sensation moved a bit further, painting in my foot, knee, and groin before cascading down my left leg as rainwater might crest an invisible damn.
I waited patiently but not without a growing curiosity as my physical world expanded. I had an abdomen, a chest, and two arms. There was hair on my skin, I was breathing, and my heart, my miraculous heart, beat like a drum in my ears. My neck felt stiff and uncomfortable. There was an itch at the base of my skull, a sense of wrongness, which I felt needed to be corrected but for which I had no mental tools to address. I should have been afraid, terrified even, but I suspect fear depends on a singular awareness, a knowledge that there is a world outside of yourself, and this was a gift I had not yet opened.
Noises, reverberations of twisted air, found my eardrum and moved like buzzing flies around my developing consciousness. I tried to ignore them, to withdraw from their insistent drone but found it a vain effort. Each sound was an annoyance, an insult to the tranquil peace of my island of personal existence, inexcusable evidence that there might be a world outside myself. Why was this needed? Why did anything other than my personal reality exist? I turned my head, trying to push the noise away and felt the itch in my skull blossom into petals of insufferable pain.
Alarmed, I opened my eyes.
Light, blinding pain, color, and movement. It was too much, too beautifully overwhelming to describe. It was as if a door had opened, and an entire ocean had rushed through it. Drowning, panicked beyond measure, I screamed and heard only a feather-soft moan escape my lips. I tried to squint away the light, to push back the sea of images, but something had attached itself to my lids, and so it was impossible to close my eyes. I tried again to move. I was being held in place. I felt the metal straps, the bands across my arms and legs.
I was trapped, a prisoner in a world I did not wish to believe existed. I had been nothing more than a toe, a throbbing ache, and now I was a body of senses, of fears, and of pain. Anger, an orange magma of rage, replaced the calm lapping waves that had built my world. I did not ask for this, had done nothing to deserve it, and vowed revenge on whoever had created me to suffer.
There were others? My mind struggled with the concept, rejecting and then recapturing it, examining the thought as one might a delicate butterfly. If I existed, so might others. Were they like me? Were they being made to suffer? Or were they my cruel tormentors? Could they explain what was happening? Could they make it stop? Questions filled my mind, scratching and clawing at the tender flesh of my brain, demanding release.
Instinctively, I formed the words. “Where am I?”
“Hello and welcome, Karl,” said a voice. It was feminine, maternal and calm. Different from the jumbled noises, there was meaning buried in this sound. I was meant to understand it. “It is quite normal to feel disoriented and confused. The light is painful, and my words will take time to process. You feel afraid and angry. These are natural responses. Don’t try to understand everything immediately. Trust that the knowledge is there, waiting for you to access it, but that your mind is not ready to accept what it knows to be true.”
“What is true?” I licked my dry lips.
“You are alive. You exist. You are not alone.”
I focused on the light. The angular pieces of color and shape matched my thoughts but seemed out of synch. I stared and waited as my perception aligned itself, settling like a shimmering cloud over the objects in front of me before pulling them into focus.
I was in a curved white room, strapped to a molded plastic bed, surrounded by hundreds of identical beds with people, men and women, dressed in gossamer sheets of cloth. They looked at me, their eyelids held open by long metal wires. Our beds were vertical so that we were standing upright in them. I could see my questions reflected in their minds. Who was I? Why was I here? What was I expected to do?
My name was Karl. The voice in my ear, my Mother for lack of a better term, had told me as much, but I also knew it to be true. She was speaking to each of us, answering our questions, waiting for us to comprehend. The discourse we heard would differ depending our personalities and skill sets.
“How long?” The words stung my tongue, crawling urgently from my throat before my thoughts could restrain them. I did not want to know, not yet. It could wait. I needed more time to synchronize my body and mind.
“Two hundred and fifty years,” came the calm synthetic voice. “Five solar arrays were damaged during the trip and so it took longer than anticipated to manufacture a stable habitat. Human printing was not initiated until oxygen and food sources reached sustainable levels.”
“Two hundred and fifty years,” I repeated the words, trying to capture the meaning behind the sounds. The fifty made sense. Fifty years was what I agreed to when I signed up. The computer was mistaken. “Fifty years?”
“I will uncouple your flux cable now. It will sting.”
The pain at the back of my skull had cooled, dulling to an annoying itch. Now something new happened, some unlocking and retracting of an internal mechanism that was so deep it felt as if my brain were being sucked out through my spinal cord. The download link retracted like a slimy black snake from inside my head, the hole it left oozed blood that felt sticky on my neck. “Operational status?”
“On hundred percent,” answered Mother. “Earth would like to talk to you once you have your bearings.”
“Release me.” The words were coming easier now, responding to my desires like loyal soldiers.
The metal bands slid smoothly away from my body. The eyelid wires retracted invisibly fast. I blinked and took a step forward. The soft cushion of my printing bed clung to my newly formed flesh, and it took me a moment to break free. Around the room, I saw my companions struggling to do the same. We had been selected and trained for this.
The floor was warm, heated by electromagnetic coils. The air was crisp and smelled faintly of mint. I felt the room sway, my vision faltering momentarily. I waited, and my equilibrium returned. I took another step, turning my neck experimentally and stretching my shoulders. This was my body, my skin, and my bones; printed from cells I volunteered over two centuries ago. I licked my lips again, savoring the sensation, the simple pleasure of touch.
The woman next to me broke free of her table, took a hesitant first step, and then fainted as she tried to walk.
I reached for her, catching her in my arms before I realized how slow her fall had been. Gravity was different here, weaker. Even if I hadn’t reacted, she wouldn’t have been hurt.
Her hair was the dusty amber of honey, her skin a polished brown, and her face was hauntingly familiar. I knew her. I loved her. She was as much a part of me as my newly formed legs or heart. “Janine.”
Her bright dark eyes opened, seeing me, knowing me as I knew her, and her lips parted in a smile that released a melodic laugh. “Karl!”
She reached for me, pulling my lips against hers, her eyes filling with tears. I felt a hard knot in my chest develop and release. It was a relief, a worry that I had not known I had, dissolving like a soap bubble on the pavement. We had done this together, hoping against hope that the program would work, that this day would come. “It worked.”
“We did it.” She pulled away from me, her arms spread wide above her head, her face as radiant as any star. “We did it!”
Everyone in the room looked up. The joy in Janine’s voice was contagious. It fanned the ember of hope we each held in our hearts, feeding it, daring it to match her own.
But, had we done it? Had it worked?
I needed to know.
taking Janine’s hand, pressing my fingers into the delicate folds of her own, I led her toward the curved bleached wall of our room. A spiral staircase rose from the warm floor to an oval hatch in the ceiling. We climbed it together, our hearts bursting with anticipation, with hope for what lay beyond our plastic womb.
I looked down and saw my companions, my friends, looking up at me. They were smiling, joyfully sharing our enthusiasm.
I raised my hand to the code panel and hesitated.
Two hundred and fifty years.
It was too long.
Too many things could have gone wrong. The scientists could never have planned for this. What if I opened the door only to be flash frozen, our pocket of unnatural atmosphere sucked out in a silent hiccup that killed everyone in the room?
I felt Janine’s soft body press against me, hugging me. “It’ll be alright.”
I nodded, holding her with one arm as I pressed my free hand against the smooth panel.
Warm air smelling of fresh cut grass and overturned soil spilled over us. The air tasted of life. Tears clouded my sight as I climbed through the hatch.
We stood on a small hillock.
Emerald grass, swaying trees, and rows upon rows of corn, wheat, and vegetable stretched for miles in every direction.
Laughing, I bent to help Janine. “It’s amazing!”
She pushed me to the ground, and we rolled like children down the grassy hill, our faces pressed close, our breath mixing as if we were a single soul.
Others joined us on the surface. Some wept, others prayed, but everyone knelt and dug their hands in the rich fertile earth. This ground was our lifeblood, our future, and it spoke to us. It told us we were home.
“Look!” Janine pointed to the sky where a dove flew, pure white against the midnight black of outer space.
I laughed with joy and kissed her.
We lay there, looking up into the barren universe through a crystal clear dome.
Over 6 billion kilometers away, the light from our star lightly kissed our cheeks. Its rays were weaker here, its warmth less encompassing, but it was still the sun I was born under, and I loved it.
We were the newest brand of explorers; the next generation of adventurers and the pride I felt for our species made my heart want to burst.
Sitting up, watching the last of my friends climb out of the hatch, seeing the wonder and relief on their faces, I knew this was just the beginning. If we could send a colony to Pluto, print our bodies and successfully download our stored memories 250 years after our original bodies died, we could send explorers beyond our solar system, to places we had never imagined.
Janine pulled me close, knowing my unspoken thoughts. Together, we dug our toes into the dirt and grinned like fools.
We had done it!