The Matriarchs11 min read


Lois Mei-en Kwa
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Child in peril, Surgery

Narrated by Bobbie Chet

—after Loh Siew Kee, Ngo Koh Hwee, and Nai Nai



The pilot of the psychopomp skiff moves through space so swiftly that time begins to speak to her. The message she receives from time is not something she can comprehend intellectually. The message does not bear information in any recognizable language. The message she receives as she begins to travel through time in a manner that reflects its true form is threefold: if she speaks, she will be heard by the storms of time—the storm will hold, protect, and translate her message—and on the other side of the mystery to which she has dedicated her life, her message will be received.

Only through the psychopomp’s vocation—the sacrificial routine of flying the skiff, the occult practice of surrendering to its technology—can the pilot speak and listen at the same time. She lies down in the synapse chair and begins coding the parameters of her message into the console. The intended recipient is a captain of what was once known as a creche ship, and the scheduled arrival date of her message is three thousand years ago. She has trained for this all her adult life. Her hands shake.

Since the invention of the skiff, thousands of pilots have flown into this conversation, in which any pilot is one among numberless voices calling back from the farthest-flung margins of darkness and light. A pilot must knowingly remove herself from the specific time and space that, when bound together, form the momentary fabric of her personal, mortal life. She must exclude herself from her first home for the sole purpose of delivering messages that would otherwise never be received. She wakes every day to the freezing, limitless fear of what it could mean to change the course of all the lives she will touch. She becomes, somehow, willing to change the world, despite this fear.

The work is simple, and the sacrifice is, too. This pilot’s descendants will come of age, grow up, and grow old without ever knowing her name. Some will not know that she ever existed. While some pilots maintain loving threads of remembrance—if not actual relationships—with their families, this pilot’s children are among the many on her home planet who dogmatically disapprove of the existence of the psychopomp skiffs, of their ability to enact irrevocable historical change, and of the manner they do so. This pilot’s children have disavowed her. Her children’s children will not be given the chance to hold her memory in their minds or to carry the full inheritance of her love in their hearts.

The pilot has confirmed this fact. Once, she took the risk of sending a message back home. The message was sent through standardized space-time—unremarkable in every way but for the grief that drove her to compose it. She had been flying for seventeen years, so lonely her heart felt it might explode if she allowed herself to cry. The intended recipient was the son of the son of her daughter, one hundred years away. The message was brief, simple, and complicated. She has not yet received a response, though it is true that if one of her descendants wished to contact her, they would need to have become a pilot, themselves, to speak with her. She has traveled too far from their time by now.

The chances had been too narrow from the start. She had sent that message to her great-grandchild anyway.

Outside the skiff’s window, stars appear to flow past so rapidly that she can no longer perceive them as individual points of light.

The psychopomp pilot lets herself close her eyes and begins to compose the message she has been tasked with sending into the past.



At first, the captain of the creche ship misses the New Message notification in her inbox. She is too busy managing the crisis that has exploded in her ship’s mainframe, too busy trying to prevent the impending deaths of the thousand children in her care.

This is a simple problem with a devastating outcome. The navigational system dropped offline during an unfortunately-timed system update and upon reloading, the navigational program reset and can no longer resync with the new operating system. Now, out of range of the comms beacon network, the ship cannot find its bearings in time to execute a safe landing on the planet. It is a first-generation interstellar creche ship, created and launched out of collective desperation, outfitted with every technology its inventors could imagine in the three years allotted to the survival of their dying planet. The vehicle is held together with mechanics of hope that no engineer had a chance to test in the field. Now, the ship captain and her thousand sleeping children are hurtling toward their new home planet like a glass sphere thrown from the top of a building.

Please, the captain prays. Let us make planetfall. Let me bring these children ashore. I will change my life for the better, I will do anything that I can to be better, after that.

The captain does not know who she is praying to. It is not any god she was raised with. She has never willingly given her trust to any authority figure, a fact for which her family disowned her, which made her choice to captain this voyage less difficult than she had anticipated. She is not calling out to any entity who would remove her fear, but to one who knows what the fear feels like and might help her hold it without feeling that her heart might explode inside her. She is calling out to any entity who can hear the language of her howling heart.

The creche ship is three hundred hours from its destination. Its precious inhabitants are still unconscious, but not for long. As soon as the alarms went off, the captain made some rapid-fire calculations and adjusted the hormonal profiles of every cryochamber. Their occupants will gain consciousness within three days. They might wake to chaos and terror, but if there is a chance that they will survive an emergency landing, they will only do so if her charges can self-regulate their bodies to some extent and this means that she must wake them and tell them the truth when they wake. The captain looks down at the violently flashing constellation of lights on the ship’s monitor and begins to pray again.

Up until now, the work had been simple and its execution joyful. The captain is fifty-seven years old, and despite the complex, grueling difficulty of managing and administrating the ship’s systems, the caretaking of the creche children has been no more difficult than the care she provided to the rest of her adoptive father’s family when she was a child. The captain was adopted by her parents to provide care for their biological children. She had been mothering eight other children by the age of twelve.

The work had been simple when the future seemed certain. It was not until the monitor lit up as if it had caught flame that the future, and its work, became excruciating.

Her hands contort into feverish shapes over the control panel. The ship tumbles through space without a destination to hold and be held by. She shoves, adjusts, resets, and punches buttons, screens, and dials. Nothing works. She slams her fists on the monitor in frustration. The New Message notification from her inbox flashes again, taking up space on the viewscreen that she cannot afford to lose at this moment. She swipes the message open, ready to delete it to make space for her workflow. The impossible time stamp catches her eye. She skims the message in disbelief.

Input these coordinates. Give these children a new future. I promise that you can do this.

A bizarre code sequence follows, unscrolling down the screen in no programming language she has ever seen, even though she is fluent in every engineering dialect that has ever been required to pilot an interstellar vessel.

The code could be malefic. It could wipe out her entire operating system. It could crash the creche ship before she has a chance to go down with the ship on her terms.

The creche ship is already crashing.

The children onboard the ship are already waking up.

Before she can think twice and delete the terrifying, hopeful, impossible message, the captain feeds the alien code into the command panel.



The network operant clocks in and locks the sliding door of her basement cell. She eases her body into the hole in the floor, slides the cell lid shut over her head, and sinks into the tank’s thick neural gel. Her work console brightens into focus on both sides of her peripheral vision.

Every day for the last three years, she has been working on the impossible crisis of the psychopomp drive. She takes three deep, deep breaths: one to fill her lungs with the synaptic fluid that will allow her to continue working at near-instantaneous speed; one to force herself into a state of something that resembles calm, which she needs to endure another day spent facing an impossible problem; one to let go of the fear that has been tugging at the margins of her heart since she left the apartment this morning.

Today was supposed to be like every day that had passed before it, but this morning as the network operant was leaving for work, her youngest son emerged from under the kitchen table where he and two of his brothers had slept the night before. Her son seized her hand and pulled her down so that he could whisper blurrily into her ear. He told her that he’d had a bad dream, one in which the network operant’s great-great-great-great grandmother had snatched razor-sharp asteroids and flaming satellites out of the night sky with her bare hands and flung them far away from Terra to protect the children of the world. He said that he knew this really old grandmother would have fought by their side to help make their world a better place than it was right now. Her son told the network operant that he loved her, and he would try his best to grow as old as possible so that he could protect her from the patrols and the collectors and the police and the company guards outside her basement cell. Before the network operant could find something comforting to say, her son had slipped back under the kitchen table and curled up beside his brother to return to sleep.

Every supervisor she reports to has made it clear that if her programming team does not decrypt the code to multilinear information exchange, her people will run out of breathable air, drinkable water, and the inherent right to continue accessing both as denizens of Terra. The planet is burning from the inside out, and if the psychopomp drive is not invented soon, nobody will be able to connect to the people in the future who might share the answers to Terran survival, let alone restoration.

The work is simple. Its urgency is unspeakable. Despite the desperation that locks her to her purpose, the network operant’s mind continues to lurch back in time, all the way back to this morning, to the hopeful look on her son’s face when he told her of his dream. Her heart shudders, unsteady with exhaustion. Her eyelids flutter against the lukewarm pressure of the neural gel.

The work is simple, but it is also impossible. The technology she has been fighting to bring into this world needs a physical home—a body. So far, all of the possible designs the programmers have offered have failed even the most rudimentary of simulation tests, despite each of the designs demonstrating stability, rigor, and rigid locationality. Lighthouses, cathedrals, fortresses, and silos have all been tested as potential design cores and then failed spectacularly upon being tested. For three years, she has struggled to pour a multilinear directive into a fixed vehicle and although her math is exquisite to the point of invisibility, no container she has conceived of can seem to hold it. She shakes her head slowly and violently in the gel, trying to escape fatigue. She directs another stimulant shot to her external neural drive and buys another three accelerated hours of scraping away at the problem. She was, in theory, supposed to take a break five hours ago. She has not taken a break during a shift for three years.

She reaches the end of her hours-long coding sprint. She has gotten nowhere. She opens her eyes and screams silently into the airless dark of her cell.

The stream of bubbles that emerges from her mouth spirals slowly, slowly to the surface of the tank. In despairing rage, the network operant watches them move through the thick connective fluid that allows her to communicate with the tank, the network, and the world at the exact speed of thought and feeling. Because of the viscosity and synaptic charge of the neural gel, the bubbles move less predictably than they would through a more conventional liquid. They eventually arrive at the surface, but first, they spiral, shifting ever sideways, against their predicted trajectory. Every bubble eventually circles back to every lateral position it passed through before, the only constant shared between them the absence of linear formality.

The network operant gasps and inhales a new lungful of gel. It does not hurt. It has not hurt since she passed her apprenticeship and scheduled the operation with the surgeon who installed the gills in her throat. She could not do this work if she had not gone through the procedure, which enables her to breathe underwater, an ability that has also changed her relationship to vocalizing in open air. None of her children have heard her communicate audibly—she speaks with them in sign language. She speaks with her coworkers in synaptic dialects that flow between their connected basement tanks. Now, as the true shape of the psychopomp vehicle that she knows she will design unfolds in her internal console like an electrified flower, the network operant gives passionate thanks for the changes her body underwent, for every day that by nature of its passing brought her to this day, and for every person in the universe without whom this moment would not have come to pass.

The psychopomp vessel will not be fixed in place. It will not be a thing that can be fenced in, chained to the world, or locked in a vault to be stored up by those who would claim ownership of it. The technology that will help her people find a new world will never be stable or predictable—for the psychopomp vessel will be precious beyond valuation, and should it be sought by those who would exploit its gift for gain, a stable and predictable object would be all too easy to govern. The only possible solution to the problem of communicating outside the known limits of space and time is to set the technology free. And for this to be the case, the vehicle must be able to leave behind the world that would restrict its freedom. The vehicle must embody freedom through literal structures of care. The vehicle itself will not be housed but must be able to house and protect the people who operate it.

The vehicle will have wings. It will fly through the stars at the speed of thought and feeling.

The network operant breathes in deeply. She opens her mouth, exhaling a tiny wave of fluid like a miniature tide she is releasing into the world. All at once, she receives exactly what she needs. It comes to her like a message in a language she does not recognize and does not need to. All of a sudden, she feels that she has always had some sense of exactly what the future needs from her.

The work is simple. It always has been.

  • Lois Mei-en Kwa

    Lois Mei-en Kwa is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, horror, poetry, and tarot non-fiction. A Kundiman fellow from Singapore and Cincinnati, she works and lives with her family in Southwest Ohio. She can also be found at

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