Author's note: unlike some of the dark and gloomy tales I have written for this blog, the story below is suitable for reading to a young child. I'll have more dark and gloomy tales at a later date.
Marina Terletsky, age 11, woke up one morning. It was a beautiful morning. Every morning was a beautiful morning, because the weather never changed where Marina lived.
Marina went outside, and looked up at the sky. She did not see any blue, nor did she see any clouds. Looking straight up and squinting, she could just barely see people 200 meters away. All she saw were the tops of their heads.
Marina lived in a spaceship, which was traveling between the stars. The spaceship was a gigantic hollow cylinder, 1000 meters long, and 200 meters wide. On all parts of the inner rim of the gigantic cylinder lived more than 700 people. Even though the spaceship was far away from any planet, there was a gravity just as strong as the earth’s gravity. This was because the hollow cylinder was always spinning. Because of centrifugal force, this spinning caused an artificial gravity, just as a giant spinning wheel used for an amusement park ride creates a gravity-like force for the people on it, pushing away from the center of the wheel.
The gravity always pressed away from the center of the hollow cylinder, to any of the curved land inside the cylinder. So anyone walking along on the inner surface of the gigantic hollow cylinder would feel a gravity, pretty much like the gravity on Earth. Marina could walk along and see grass and trees and ponds. But one thing was very strange about this hollow artificial world. Since she lived inside a curved cylinder, if Marina kept walking in a straight line, she would come back to exactly the same place that she started walking.
One day Marina’s mother was showing her some pictures. “This was me when I was your age,” she said. Marina looked at the photograph. The girl in the picture looked exactly like her. It was like looking in a mirror.
“Do all daughters look exactly like their mothers?” Marina asked. “I mean except for the difference in age?”
“Of course not,” Marina’s mother said. “Far away on the planet Earth, most daughters look a little different from their mothers. But you’re not an ordinary daughter, Marina. You’re a clone.”
“Oh yeah,” said Marina. “I remembered hearing about that in biology class. But I’m still a little fuzzy on that. Can you explain that to me again?”
“A clone is an exact genetic copy of another person,” explained Marina's mother. “You were made when they took one of my cells, and started to duplicate it. All of your genes – the things that make you who you are – are exactly the same as mine. That’s not the same as being a regular daughter. A regular daughter starts out as a combination of the genes of her mother and her father.”
“So I don’t have any father?” Marina said.
“Exactly,” said Marina’s mother. “It’s kind of like I’m both your mother and your father.”
“And there are other clones on this spaceship, right?” Marina asked.
“You bet,” said Marina’s mom. “Every single person on this spaceship is a clone. That’s how they organized it, when they set up the great interstellar expedition many, many years ago.”
“Why did they do that?” Marina asked.
Marina’s mother began to tell the strange story of how the long space voyage had began.
“A thousand years ago, the Global Earth Empire organized the first expedition to another star, to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to the sun. You’ve probably read science fiction books in which spaceships travel quickly from one star to another. But that’s just science fiction. In real life, the distance between stars is incredibly vast, so great that it takes light itself five long years to travel from our sun to the nearest star. The scientists knew that any voyage from our sun to the nearest star would take a long, long time, even with the fastest spaceship they could build. It would take more than a thousand years. The Global Earth Empire decided to build a multi-generational spaceship, one that would travel through outer space for more than 50 generations, for a journey lasting more than a thousand years.”
“But that’s much longer than a lifetime,” Marina noted. “How did they get anyone to agree to go on such a long mission?”
Her mother continued her explanation.
“It was very hard to get people to enlist. All of the first generation that lived on this spaceship knew that they would never see Earth again, and that they would die while traveling through outer space, before the spaceship reached Alpha Centauri. But the mission designers offered a kind of bonus or incentive to the original crew members. They were promised: you will be cloned while you are on the spaceship. And that clone will be cloned. And so it will continue, century after century, until finally a clone descended from you (a person with your name, who looks exactly like you) will eventually be alive on the spaceship, when it finally reaches a planet revolving around the star Alpha Centauri, after a journey of more than a thousand years. That promise encouraged lots of Earth people to sign up for the voyage.”
“Wow,” Marina said. “No wonder I got kind of hazy on that. So I am a clone, and I am also the clone of a clone?”
Marina’s mother made some marks on a paper, and then took a deep breath. “Here is the precise truth: you, Marina Terletsky, are the clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone. They all looked exactly like you when they were eleven years old, and they were all named Marina Terletsky. And all of these clones were genetically identical to the original Marina Terletsky, who once walked on the planet Earth. She was the brave one who lived a thousand years ago, and signed up for a spot on the long voyage from Earth to the nearest star. None of the clones of the original Marina Terletsky have ever seen the planet Earth. They have only seen this spaceship, our home.”
“So what version number am I in the Marina Terletsky line?” Marina asked.
“You are the thirty-seventh Marina Terletsky,” said Marina’s mom. “I am the thirty-sixth Marina Terletsky. My mother was the thirty-fifth. And the little girl you will one day raise, who will also be a clone with no father, will be the thirty-eighth Marina Terletsky.”
“Wow,” Marina said. “So I guess the original Marina Terletsky was very important to you and me. Why don’t we have a picture of her somewhere?”
“We don’t need one,” said Marina’s mom. “Just look in the mirror, or at me, and you can see exactly how she looked.”
“Will I ever see the distant star we are journeying toward?” the young Marina asked. “I mean, like, one of the planets that revolves around it?”
Marina had asked this question before, and remembered the answer she had got, but hoped that maybe this time the answer would be different.
“You can see Alpha Centauri through the telescope when we tour the astronomy bay,” said Marina’s mom. “But I’m afraid you will never walk on one of the planets that revolves around that star. Our spaceship is still too far away.”
“Mom,” asked Marina, “which Marina Terletsky will be able to walk on one of the planets that revolves around Alpha Centauri?”
Her mother looked at her rather sadly. “I’m afraid we will not get to Alpha Centauri for about another 500 years. I’ve calculated that it will be about the fifty-fourth Marina Terletsky who will be the first cloned Marina Terletsky to walk on a planet.”
Young Marina looked very sad now, and her mother tried to cheer her up.
“Don’t feel sad, Marina,” said her mother. “We have a nice artificial world to live in, our spaceship. It’s nice and cozy. And we don’t have to worry about things like floods and earthquakes and wars. Although you will never travel beyond this spaceship, you can take comfort in the thought that one day a girl who looks just like you will experience the exciting day when our spaceship finally arrives at Alpha Centauri.”
Five Years Later
Life continued on the spaceship just as it had always been. But one day something astonishing happened. Another spaceship approached from afar, and pulled up right next to the spaceship in which Marina Terletsky lived.
Marina and her mom were very anxious as the silver-colored spaceship approached.
“Maybe they’re aliens here to steal all of our food,” Marina said. “Or who knows, maybe they’re here to eat us!”
Out of the silver-colored spaceship came two figures in space suits. They started to take off their space helmets. Marina was very scared. Would they be monsters with green skin, and yellow, bulging eyes? Or would they be even more hideous?
But when the figures took off their space helmets, Marina was surprised to see that they were handsome young men.
“Hi there!” said one of the men said, a man named David. “We’ve heard all about your spaceship. You’re the first spaceship sent to travel from our sun to another star. But you know what happened, while your ship was taking centuries to travel 75% of the way to the nearest star? Mankind figured out how to build much faster spaceships! Our spaceship travels at half the speed of light. We were able to travel from Earth to your ship in only 8 years, even though it took you centuries to get this far away from Earth.”
“So we have an offer to make to you,” the other man said. “If anyone wants to transfer to our spaceship, we can take you to the solar system of Alpha Centauri in only 2 years. I think that is better than spending the rest of your life on this slow-moving cylinder world.”
Marina was so excited. It meant that rather than living the rest of her life in the spaceship, she could actually get to the planet near Alpha Centauri, and live on a planet, just as the first Marina Terletsky had done. It meant that the first Marina Terletsky to walk on the distant planet would not be the fifty-fourth Marina Terletsky – it would be her, the thirty-seventh Marina Terletsky.
An old woman Marina knew decided to stay on the spaceship Marina had been living on, as did many others. They said they were used to living there, as they had all their lives. But Marina, her mother, and 200 others transferred to the other, faster spaceship. And off they went, traveling towards Alpha Centauri at half the speed of light.
After two years the silver-colored spaceship arrived at Alpha Centauri. It came to a beautiful, blue-green planet revolving around Alpha Centauri. “It is here that man’s first interstellar colony will be created,” the captain of the ship announced dramatically.
Marina asked, “Will we have to always wear spacesuits if we live down there?”
“No,” a crew member replied. “The atmosphere is just like Earth’s. So we’ll be able to live regular lives down there, just like people live on Earth.”
A shuttle craft took Marina and some others down to the surface of the planet, to start the first colony on another earth-like world. Marina was now eighteen years old.
The moment Marina would never forget was when she first got a chance to run around on the surface of the planet. With David and some friends of hers, she ran through a huge meadow of grass. Marina found it so amazing that she could run and run and run, without ending up back at the same place where she started out. When a gentle fragrant breeze caressed her hair, and she felt the first breeze she had ever felt, she wept a tear of joy.
Looking at David, Marina asked rather nervously: “So that rule followed on the cylinder spaceship I was born on, the rule that every woman has to raise her own clone, rather than mating with someone else – do they still want us to follow that rule on this planet?”
“No,” David answered softly. “The promise made a thousand years ago to the original Marina Terletsky has been fulfilled – her clone reached Alpha Centauri. So there's no need to follow that dusty old rule any more. On this planet we'll make babies the old fashioned way.”
He held Marina's hand, and she smiled.