I had no idea what to expect. And that was the trouble, of course. My sisters watched me as I made my way down the corridor. As far as I could tell they were silent, but I knew they were talking as fast as I was thinking. I ignored them. I pretended I was alone, which wasn’t hard to do. To either side, lining the hall, were young women with pale skin and red hair. I might as well have been walking past mirrors.
I had to keep going. I knew she was waiting for me.
Mother was in the observatory, sitting back on a lounger with her face turned toward the stars. The vast, transparent cupola of the observation window stretched above her, and as the filters on the glass changed continuously the effect was of a rippling refraction of light across her face. Like the shimmering light in a dimly lit aquarium.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she announced as I entered.
The door shut behind me as I stepped forward.
“No, you don’t,” I replied quietly.
She turned toward me, a serene face that had seen more than I could imagine.
“Yes, I do. I’m your mother. A mother always knows what her child is thinking. Even a child like you.”
I looked away from her. I stared at the floor.
“I’m a freak. I never should have been born.”
“But you were,” mother said. “And we have to try and figure out what to do with that fact. You must ignore your sisters. They are not used to speaking with breath. They communicate purely on impulse, at the speed of thought… they are not skilled at holding their tongues. Someday soon they will understand you, but first, you have to try and understand them.”
I nodded. I didn’t really feel her words, but when mother says something to you when she gives you a lesson, you nod.
“Anyway,” she went on. “You’re not a freak. You’re just different. Difference is what originally saved us and brought us this far. Difference is strength, my child. You can’t do the things that your sisters can do. But you can most certainly do things that they cannot. There’s only one of you. You are unique and special. A gift.”
Looking up into the cupola, I saw the galaxy revealed to me in turns, layer by layer as the filter changed. Sometimes I saw far, to the dimmest stars in the most remote corner of visible space. Sometimes I saw things closer up, including a tiny speck that drifted slowly across the field of view. Another living ship, close enough to just make out.
“Mother,” I said carefully. “I don’t think I have anything to offer you.”
“Of course you do,” she said quickly. “No one knows what you’re thinking. You are an individual. You have abilities your sisters can only dream of… and perhaps you can save us from what’s coming.”
It hurt her to say it. I knew it did. I could hear it in her voice, the way it shook. And I could see it in her eyes… the pain only a mother could feel. She never gave up. Hope was her way of life. And to keep on hoping now, she would have to shift the unimaginable burden from her shoulders onto mine. The only question was whether I could take it.