Back in the old times, when everyone still lived on Earth, the pain of birth was a curse uttered by some god. Now, god and curse are almost forgotten. Elders, when they remember occasionally, chuckle about it, the way you would smile at a two-year-old’s tantrum. How silly and ignorant of the world’s ways!
The Elpis is ready, ready for the birth of a new child. It doesn’t happen that often, and this one is special, perhaps more for the ship than for its people. They don’t know; just as they’re in the dark about the ship’s true nature, they’re in the dark about how well Gemma, the mother, understands the ship. She hadn’t invited nor anticipated this understanding. With her aristocratic blood, she had seen other destinies for herself than to be a lowly crewmember. After the rebellion though, demoted to machinist’s helper, how well, how naturally had she adapted to her new duties! Not like others, who kick their sleeping platforms when they get stuck folding out, or Frederic, one of the engineers, who constantly curses the generators when it is he who has not adjusted them properly.
Gemma’s first job: polishing the generator casings. Even the first time, she did it right. She understood why—because dust outside would eventually creep inside. She did it quickly; she did it thoroughly. Now, wherever she goes, she leaves contented materials behind her, and machinery that works, that wants to work. On Earth, there used to be animals called horses and legend has it that some people had a special way with them. Horse singers, they were called, or was it horse talkers? It’s hard to remember these stories exactly, without access to what little written information still exists. But that’s what Gemma is: a ship singer. What a shame there’s not a human onboard who knows!
Gemma does not truly understand how good she is for the ship and to it. Only The Elpis does. It will be a long time yet until the humans the ship carries are ready to grasp that it can do such a thing as understand, feel, bask in the loveliness of a ship singer.
But for now, The Elpis is ready. Ready to witness Gemma bring this child into the world.
The pain of birth is an honour. Training for this honour starts in a girl’s infancy when she sees and learns the unka-gat, the greeting given to a woman on her menses. Early on, she comes to understand unka’s various ascending levels: unka, kar-unka, kat-unka, pa-unka—pain during menses, great pain during menses, ovulation pain and finally, the pain of giving birth. She sees the special reverence towards women who have experienced kar-unka and kat-unka, a blessed way to prepare themselves once they reach the great and unusual honour of labour pain. Gemma has never had kar-unka or kat-unka but what is that in comparison with moving through the greatest honour of them all—giving birth?
Three midwives are with her as is customary, one born male, Alvay, one female, Shast, one of self-chosen gender, Nin. On Earth, people called priests used to hold similar positions but they were wasted on the irrational worship of gods—non-existent, make-believe entities. Fortunately, such nonsense hardly exists anymore. It is inconceivable that anything deserves worship but the creation of a person inside another and its triumphant birth at the end. Perhaps one day ships will be birthed like this as well, with the same glorious pain.
Gemma has been graced with three hours of labour now.
“Pa-unka! Pa-unka! Pa-unka!”
The midwives sway, and during the ebbing of the pain, their well-trained voices sound just below a whisper. Even at this quiet level, their pronunciation is clear and the melody fills the birthing room with a gentle hum.
Gemma’s eyes widen; her mouth opens, “Aaaah!” The pa-unka grows louder and Shast moves to hold the birthing woman’s right hand. She knows the sign; the next phase of the birth has begun. Soon a head will crown the opening of Gemma’s birth canal. It is time to ask the question:
“Do you have a name?”
“Solomon,” says Gemma, panting, a smile lighting up her face.
“What if it is not a boy?”
Gemma shakes her head.
She knows it is a boy. She just knows. The Captain of the generation after this one has to be a man, that is what is written in the Scrolls. Woman, man, self-determined, that is always the sequence. After the rebellion, they stripped away Gemma’s powers. Now Komen is the Captain, self-determined, who has chosen no gender at all. But in twenty, twenty-five years… a boy… Gemma will find a way for him. She will take her rightful place again, as the mother of the new Captain.
The hopeful thought mingles with yet another bulging wave inside of her, heightens the ecstasy of the exquisite sensations pulsing through her womb.
And the ship pulses with her. Hardly perceptible: in the tanks, the waters slosh ever so gently to one side, then the other. Voltage varies just slightly; no-one pays attention.
It is the midwives’ sacred duty to be so finely in tune with a birthing mother that they can sense her every contraction, no matter how mild or short. “Pa-unka, pa-unka,” they translate it for the Karuna, The Elpis’s Helm. “Pa-unka, pa-unka”—and the Karuna pulses the ship to the rhythm. A new child is coming!
Some Helms are more attuned to these rhythms, others less. For this birth, the harmony is perfect. With each contraction, the Helm directs an increase in gravity, with each release, the Helm returns it to the regular 9.8G.
“Shast,” Gemma pants, “tell Karuna what a great Helm she i–” and another contraction. They are coming one after the other now.
Indeed, Karuna is a good Helm. But today there is more to the ship’s exquisitely consonant pulsing with Gemma’s body. And the only human who could ever hope to know why is convulsing in agonized ecstasy.
Just Alvay and Nin sing the pa-unka now. Shast squats behind Gemma, her powerful arms and legs a perfect birthing chair for Gemma. Years of training allow her to stay in this position for hours on end. She is naked, just like Gemma, two bodies entwined, making the kind of love that brings forth a life, not nine months later, but here and now. Shast’s almost-white skin has been rubbed with a special salve that prevents the two women’s bodies from becoming too slippery with sweat. They are beautiful to behold together, Gemma’s ebony skin against Shast’s white.
“Push!” The woman-like-a-chair half chants, half shouts.
“Pa-unka, pa-unka, pa-unka…” the ship throbs, heaping gravity onto every “un”.
Karuna beams. “I love how effortlessly I can direct the ship. My first birth! I had no idea how easy this would be!”
The Elpis throbs on. Pa-unka, pa-unka.
Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, Gemma knows that her bloodstream is flooded to bursting with endorphins and oxytocin, her glands feverishly producing these hormones to aid in childbirth and to turn suffering into… no, pleasure is not the right word. Deep, satisfying, ecstatic joy. And from somewhere inside, her soul passes the joy and love, in a tireless relay, onto the son making his journey from womb to world. Pa-unka, Solomon, pa-unka, Solomon, pa-unka, Solomon…
Her cup runneth over. The water has long burst but there are still trickles here and there to make the passage safe and slick for the little human destined for great glory.
The water is caught by the soft nest of cloth underneath the birthing mother. But not all of it. Drops escape here and there, form a little puddle, and from it a trickle seeps away. No one pays attention to it.
The Elpis laps it up. Pa-unka, pa-unka. Just as Gemma lovingly protected and nourished the tiny being inside her, the ship lovingly collects and saves each drop of Gemma’s mother-water. There will come a time, it hopes in a vague fashion, when this precious essence can also mingle to create more…
And another contraction.
“Pa-unka, pa-unka, pa-unka, pa-unka!”
“Solom-o-o-n!” With a passionate, delirious scream, Gemma pushes again, and the boy’s head crowns.
Sweat drips into her eyes. Alvay comes over and wipes it off. His gesture, soft, careful, reverent, sparks another outpour of oxytocin into the mother’s bloodstream. She is consumed by fire; love the fuel, pain the flame, and everything turns into fuel and flame as she pushes again. Nin crouches before her now, softly mumbling “pa-u, pa-u, pa-u” as they gently palpate the child’s head to make sure it is in the right position.
Shast kisses Gemma’s ear and whispers, “One or two more pushes, my sweet, and your child will be born. Your triumph, darling, your honour, my queen, my precious.”
A birthing mother is always a queen, be she Captain or machinist’s helper.
Gemma’s heart beats heavy with the pa-unka. The Elpis feels it. The ship wonders, longs to know what goes on in Gemma’s mind. Oh, it knows what longing is, although it cannot express it, not now, maybe never. With the trickle of the mother-water and the pa-unka, though, it is as close as it has ever come to pulsing life, right there where flesh is born of flesh. But the ship also knows it can never truly understand. “I know that I don’t know,” one of the Earth’s wise men is said to have told his students. The ship remembers the first time it heard those words, how it perceived somewhere deep in its aluminum cells that those were words of wisdom.
And a scream, ship-shuddering, a scream of victory: “Aaaargh!” followed immediately by another voice, “Caw, caw waaaaaaw”—a boy is born, with healthy lungs.
Alvay receives the child. He checks the umbilical cord. It’s long, so he can lay the infant into Gemma’s arms right away without having to cut the cord this instant.
The three midwives murmur on, “pa-unka, pa-unka, pa-unka,” as Gemma’s womb works to expel the placenta. The child caws.
As is custom, the Helm manipulates the ship so that the two last pulses are so strong, they can be seen and felt a long way through the universe, for other ships to notice. Karuna is proud of how clean and strong she manages the pulses. What an omen!
The ship imagines a smile. Even if it wanted to, it would not interfere with Karuna’s pride. It doesn’t matter. “Pa-unka, pa-unka,” The Elpis hums. A child is born!