“But am I still me, Marmee?” Beth asks, over and over, a subroutine that has become as much a part of her functioning as the ones which allow her to think and communicate.
Marmee says yes, yes, of course, with eyes clear and voice as soothing as the purr of Beth's beloved cats. She swears she knows her sweet Beth forever and always, and tells her how glad and grateful she is to have all her girls with her on this journey to their new home, until the face in the monitor loses its worry lines and her daughter's shy smile reappears.
And oh, she is glad and grateful. When Mr. Laurence approached her and offered to complete the project begun in memory of his own lost granddaughter, to exchange Beth's failing flesh-and-blood frame for one of wire and code, she did not hesitate. As her Jo would say (and did, when informed of the plan), better to fight heroically to the last than stand by and do nothing while their dear one slipped away.
In some respects, she thinks, the transformation has almost been a blessing. Back on Earth, when her sisters excitedly pressed for updates on when the government might allow civilian emigration to Pax, Beth would grow even quieter than usual. Leaving sooner might have preserved her physically, but after the girls were asleep, Marmee and Father would whisper their concerns back and forth about what the move would mean for their most emotionally fragile child.
Now, the boundaries of Beth's little world have expanded without her ever needing to step outside it. She knows that even the greatest and most seemingly terrible of changes can be borne.
Just in time, too. For as much as Marmee cherishes her girls' closeness, she suspects their reunion with Father after landfall will be short-lived. Meg and her handsome young colleague will establish a homestead with children of their own to teach. Jo, heedless of Laurie's inevitable distress, will take up her pilot dreams and fly away, with no telling where or whether she will settle. And Amy, who even now bemoans the delay in fashion news from Earth, is just as likely to conclude a dying civilization is better than none as she is to embrace the romance of pioneer life. Their departures will not seem such a blow to a Beth who can truly be with them with just a keystroke, as fast as the speed of light will allow.
But still, some nights, when the ship is in one of its power-conserving cycles, Marmee shuts the door to her private quarters and switches off the sensors for a moment. She wraps her arms around herself, holding in the fading memory of a particular embrace. And then, silently, she begins to cry.