With Sunn as his guide, Desanto walked along Deck Four, its soft-white halls designed to soothe patients and believers alike. And yet, to the opposite effect, there were artifacts hanging on the walls and propped up behind glass cases, objects detailing the long, often cruel histories of both psychology and faith. Pseudophones were on display next to leather-bound Bibles, Torahs and Qur’ans. Head calipers near ancient illustrations of Mayan sacrifice. Phrenology charts above a turquoise mask representing the sun god Tonatiuh. Impulse counters. Rosary beads. Olfactometers. Clerical collars. Pendulums. Canopic jars. Prehistoric skulls with unhealed trepanation showing evidence of crude lobotomies. Illusion boards. Circumstraints. Leech jars. Stigmata.
Desanto shivered beneath his gray uniform. The two fields made for unnerving bedfellows, to say the least.
Doctor Dubicki had cleared him on a temporary status, instructing him to follow Sunn to his living quarters and get settled in. Desanto was supposed to resume his life as best he could, whatever the hell that meant, so he’d asked Sunn to take the long way, a request which Sunn obliged. They bypassed the elevator for a set of stairs a few minutes away, and along the way Sunn told him the depressing story of what had become of Earth. It was an expanded version of what Doctor Dubicki had explained to him minutes earlier, a tragedy which Sunn illustrated in detail using holograms that hovered on the air, archival footage projected onto walls.
“By the start of the twenty-third century,” Sunn said, “Earth was in critical condition. Unrestricted manufacturing processes and burning of fossil fuels had poisoned the oceans, as well as the air.” They walked past a floating model of a dying Earth, its atmosphere gray and wilted. The oceans were populated by massive islands of garbage and plastic.
They turned left, a second hologram of Earth already waiting for them. “As Earth’s temperature rose, so did the oceans. Through a combination of polar icecap melting, carbon emissions and ice-sheet collapses, increasing floods ravaged coastal communities.” The second Earth’s coastlines were unrecognizable now, the water creeping steadily inland. Sunn explained that, despite the efforts of the planet’s best scientists, massive amounts of bacteria grew in the newly warm oceans. The global bloom had disastrous effects on marine ecosystems, killing sea animals and fish with their toxins, and depleting the oxygen. In short, the bacteria choked the fish and starved the animals. Entire species went extinct within months.
Then, he said, came the virus. They walked down a set of wide stairs as holograms dissolved behind them. “Titanaviridae. The Titan Virus, also referred to as Oceanus pestis, originated in the ocean and quickly spread through the human population, decimating millions of lives within several years.” On the stairs, Sunn projected photographs and footage of people riddled with the disease. Skin lesions. Hair loss. Bloodshot eyes. Women. Men. Children. The virus knew no age limit, cared nothing for race or religion. “Between the pandemic and the shrinking food supply, Earth grew increasingly uninhabitable.” At the bottom of the stairs, Sunn turned to Desanto and added, “Mankind began to falter.”
Deck Five of the Ark held one of two main living areas, which on first impression had a jarringly different feel than Deck Four. It had an extra-wide passage some thirty feet across, closer to a shared front lawn than an apartment hallway, where people gathered to engage in pleasantries. There were plants in front of each door, as well as scatterings of chairs and toys that had been left behind by kids and adults alike. Mothers and fathers chatted as they watered their flowers and collected their children from the returning school group. A sweet-looking woman smiled at Desanto and said, “Welcome back, Erick,” as they passed. The man with her gave a friendly nod.
“How many people are on board,” Erick asked, amazed to find so many more people than what he’d already seen.
“Currently there are ten thousand, one hundred and two passengers aboard Ark One,” Sunn replied matter-of-factly.
Desanto blinked. “Did you say ten thousand?”
“Ten thousand, one hundred and two,” Sunn corrected, “although only four hundred and sixteen passengers are in active status. The rest are currently in Cryosleep.” They turned right, down an equally busy hallway. “As I was saying, a committee was formed to discuss the sustainability of the human race. With very few exceptions, every nation on Earth joined the committee. They researched and searched for solutions, and in the end, they agreed- Earth was on the path to unavoidable destruction.”
“It’s hard to imagine people agreeing on anything,” Desanto said, still half in shock.
“Extinction is a powerful motivator. Thus began Project Ark.”
They passed door after door after door, some open but most closed. One woman saw them coming and hurried her son inside their quarters, quickly closing the door. Desanto wondered what reason she had to fear Sunn before realizing it wasn’t Sunn she’d been worried about. A pair of men in orange uniforms were treating an area of the hallway where some water damage had occurred. Desanto caught one of them staring, but the man quickly turned away.
“The human race undertook a forty year project to develop and build a ship,” Sunn continued. “This ship, Ark One, is the most advanced object built in human history. Capable of sustaining up to twelve thousand human lives, along with the genetic blueprints for millions of plants and animals, this craft houses fish and livestock, creates synthetic sunlight, and recycles water and refuse at zero loss. It runs on the exact renewable, clean energy which Earth failed to adopt in time.” Sunn turned to Desanto. “I believe this is considered irony.”
They turned a corner and ended up in a quieter hallway than the last, with only one older man present at the far end. Desanto wondered if he was being kept separate from the majority of the ship’s population. The thought might have bothered him, if he didn’t so enjoy the thought of silence.
“All of this,” Sunn said, “is managed by the most advanced artificial intelligence ever seen by man, a holographic interface named Sunn, or Ship’s Universal Neural Network.” As if it wasn’t obvious, he added, “Me.” Desanto was about to explain the merits of humility when he heard something behind him. It was a whisper, just like the ones back in Central Park, except this was a single voice, a solitary presence like the devil himself speaking a single word directly into Desanto’s ear.
The moment he heard it, Desanto knew it was what all those hidden voices had been saying back at the park, all their speech, all their ramblings, all their angry whispers distilled down to one word. A chill went through him, a cold worse than all the Cryosleep in the world. Oblivious to Desanto’s state of shock, Sunn said, “I have the capacity to-”
“Quiet.” Desanto held a hand up to shush him. He was trying to hear more. More words. More voices. More anything. Sunn studied Desanto with a deep curiosity.
“Is there something wrong,” he asked.
“I said quiet!”
At his insistence they stood perfectly still, waiting ten seconds, then twenty, then thirty, but Desanto heard nothing more than the background noise of now distant voices and the low, ever-present hum of lights and computers. “Did you hear something a minute ago,” he asked Sunn, “a voice?”
“There are three hundred rooms in this section alone, many of them occupied.”
“Not them,” Desanto said. “Something else.”
The hologram squinted. “I picked up nothing unusual.”
“Are you sure? Can’t you rewind or something?”
“I do not record conversations unless first requested to do so. That would be an invasion of privacy, which is against my programming.”
“Of course it is.” Desanto took a deep breath. He didn’t want to accept the terrifying thought that he could be losing his mind. Or, considering how little he knew about himself, that he’d already lost it a long time ago. After all, his brain had been sliced up and regrown inside his skull- there was no telling what that might have done to his sanity. “It must have been my imagination,” he concluded.
“Cryosleep is not without its side-effects,” Sunn offered. “Twelve-point-two percent of subjects experience irritability and sudden mood shifts within the first three days of revival.”
“Really?” Desanto felt suddenly hopeful. “What about hallucinations?”
With numbers in his eyes, Sunn replied: “Point-zero-four percent.”
Desanto’s shoulders sagged. Either he was defying the odds, or he was going mad. “Maybe I’m just lucky,” he said. Sure that whatever had happened had passed, Desanto nodded and they continued walking, Sunn continuing his lesson as if it had never stopped.
“You will find, of all the many advancements on board the Ark, the most impressive technology is my life-support system. Using a combination of cryogenics and genetic cloning, I have the ability to lower the human body into suspended animation, while at the same time cloning and replacing any organs which are deemed to be less than fully operational- a process with which you are intimately familiar.” Desanto said nothing in reply, knowing it was impossible to punch a hologram in the face. “One hundred years of sleep. One year awake. And so on. Those numbers are approximate, of course, adjusted according to the needs of the community as well as the individual. With my assistance, a passenger can wake from Cryosleep in better condition than before they entered.” Using this method, Sunn explained, the passengers of Ark One alternated between stasis and activity to live greatly extended lives, all while continuing the journey to find a hospitable planet. The way he said it, Sunn almost sounded proud of himself.
“Sleeping our way across space, hoping to stumble across a planet in the dark,” Desanto said.
“That would be a foolish mission. Ark One has a very specific goal. Its destination is the Trappist-1 system, located approximately thirty-nine light years from Earth, a distance of which we have, as of this moment, traveled thirty-three point six light years- just above eighty-six percent of the total distance.”
“Sounds like we still have a long way to go.”
“Given the top speed of our Hawking Drive, and allowing for detours such as mining, repairs, various explorations, system tests, course corrections, speed changes, time distor-”
“Get to the point.”
Sunn looked briefly annoyed. “At our current rate the journey will take approximately twelve-hundred years in total.”
Desanto’s eyes widened. “Just how long have we been out here?”
“One thousand, seventy-seven years,” Sunn said casually, stopping in front of a door that looked like any other. “These are your living quarters. I am not allowed inside,” he added.
Desanto looked at the door. Then back to Sunn. “These, uh, these cycles- how many have I done?”
“This most recent Cryocycle was your tenth.”
Desanto was dumbstruck.
“If you are asking because you are curious about your age, in chronological terms you are one thousand and eighty-two Earth years old. However, from a biological standpoint you are thirty-two years and two months old. And from yet another, you are six hours, ten minutes and fifty-two seconds old.”
“What standpoint is that?”
“Theological,” Sunn replied.
Desanto snorted. “You’re saying I was reborn.”
“Many of your spiritual texts view it as such. It is always my intent to offer a complete answer.”
“I noticed that. So if you’re the one who brought me back, what would that make you?”
“A servant of man,” Sunn replied, still managing to sound self-important.
“Aren’t you also the one who killed me?”
Sunn paused to consider the facts. “Your life functions were stopped by subzero temperatures combined with a mixture of barbiturates and paralytics introduced into your respiratory system.”
“Introduced by you.”
Sunn paused once again. “Correct.”
“And what does that make you? From a theological standpoint?”
Sunn’s features, the way he frowned at Desanto’s line of questioning, were so familiar in such a distant way. Was he the see-through man, the one Desanto had seen when he first woke up? Was it something more, something further back, an echo of his previous memories? “I sense you do not trust me, Erick. I hope in time to help you feel otherwise,” Sunn said. He was as perceptive as he was analytical. It was odd to say Erick didn’t like Sunn, given that he wasn’t real, not in any physical, biological way, but there was something inherent to his character that just rubbed him the wrong way.
“What if I don’t ever trust you,” Desanto asked. He was still unnerved from the voice he’d heard minutes earlier, and not looking to make friends.
The hologram leaned forward and fabricated a smile. “Then, as your people say, it is going to be a long trip.” With those words he disappeared, nothing more than expired light decaying on the air. Within moments Desanto was alone in the long hallway, with not even the old man at the far end to keep him company. He turned to the door which was supposedly his, noting the room number for later. He was about to look for a keyhole or some other way inside when the control screen, sensing his presence, asked for his handprint. He gave it, and the door dilated for him.
Lights clicked on, revealing his living quarters. They were surprisingly roomy, consisting of three, main areas: a living room at the front, a combination kitchen/dining room off to the left, and a bedroom to the right, with what appeared to be an attached bathroom with the lights dimmed. The design was simple and clean, like a pricey but minimalist hotel. The embellishments were slim to none. He got the feeling whoever had been there last had taken their decorations with them. He assumed they had to be sharing rooms rather than giving each of the ten thousand residents their own quarters, rooms which would sit empty for ninety-nine years at a time.
Ten thousand people. The number still sounded insane to him. Without seeing the proof firsthand, without so many faces to look at he hesitated to fully believe the number. What sort of madman would launch that many people into the depths of space, knowing full well they could be wiped out in an instant? Could the fear of extinction really inspire such a reckless risk of life?
In the bedroom he found a large, metallic storage case next to the bed. It was four feet wide by three feet high, the generic gray exterior broken up by large block letters on top which read, “E. DESANTO,” then, “PASSENGER 1222426.” Whatever was inside the case- clothes, personal effects or otherwise- it no doubt held countless clues to who he was, memorabilia of the man that had been lost to hundred-year sleep. The lid had a small, black panel at the front just large enough for a fingerprint. He pressed the pad of his thumb against the panel and it scanned him, emitting a small beep.
The lock disengaged. He placed his hands on either side of the case, the metal surface cool to the touch. What secrets would he learn about himself in the next few moments, he thought. Would he even like the person he found inside that box? And if he didn’t would he be forced to stay that man, or could he choose to change, to be someone else? But before he had the chance to find out, before he could look inside and see just who he was, a noise from the bathroom made his blood run cold.
It sounded like a man crying.
Slow, careful not to make a sound, he stood and turned to face the bathroom. The lights were still off, with no one inside that he could see, yet the crying continued. It was a low, painful sound that came in panicked bursts. Desanto summoned his courage from somewhere deep down and called out from where he stood.
He waited. No answer. The crying continued uninterrupted, those tormented whimpers. He wondered if he should grab a weapon of some kind before he continued, but decided against it. The sounds were of someone in pain, someone who needed help. Whoever it was, if he let them die as a result of his incapacitating fear, then he truly wouldn’t like the man he was, storage case or no.
He approached the bathroom, placing one hesitant foot in front of the other. “Are you okay,” he tried again. Still he got no reply, no sign the crying man had heard him. “Alright,” he said, “I’m coming in.”
Desanto reached the doorway. The bathroom was still dark, the motion lights somehow not engaging. He could only make out faint outlines of the small room’s layout. A slim toilet to his right. A self-contained shower pod ahead. And to its left, where there appeared to be a sink and a mirror, the source of the tormented sounds.
A man stood hunched in the shadows. It was too dark for Desanto to see his face or what he was doing, he could only hear the crying, those wet, sobbing sounds mixed with something more. Desanto didn’t bother trying to speak to the man, he just slowly raised his arm, waving his hand for the sake of the motion detector.
The overhead lights turned on, and what it illuminated made Desanto take a step back. The man at his sink had his back to him. At first glance he appeared to be wearing a uniform the color of burgundy wine. Then, Desanto got a better look. He wore no clothes, just angry, torn skin that hung from his emaciated torso. The naked man, bent over the sink, clutched and tore at his own face.
The sink was crowded with gore. Layers of cold skin draped across the faucet, long, fingernail-width strips of flesh hanging out over its edge. Desanto’s heart dropped into his stomach like a bad pill when he saw what was piled at the man’s bare and dirtied feet.
Either he’d heard Desanto choke in horror or he’d become aware of the lights. The man spun to face him. He had no ears left, the sides of his skull smooth with circles of exposed muscle and bone. Blood ran thick down his neck and pooled wherever it could on his naked body, in the wells of his shoulders and the folds of his navel. The wretched man sucked wet air as he held his bloody hands out, showing Desanto what he’d done, wordlessly begging for for help. And his eyes. His blood-stained eyes, they spoke of terror. Of pain. Of wanting death.
Erick nearly retched as he stumbled away from the bathroom, his only thought to put as much distance between him and those horrors as he could. The front door suddenly seemed like an endless distance away, a thing impossible to reach. He managed to claw and fumble to it on weakened legs only to find it wouldn’t open. The door was unresponsive, not opening, not dilating, not letting him leave. He pounded on it, then on the control screen, but it didn’t respond. Didn’t care. Didn’t release him.
The kitchen. There had to be a knife. Something to defend himself with, something to lunge and cut if the wretched man came at him. He fell into the kitchen and tore the drawers open, feeling like he was back in that Medbay and just as scared, just as lost. He found a knife. Then a bigger one.
Desanto turned back toward the bedroom, expecting to see the wide-eyed horror slipping toward him. But he hadn’t been followed. It was a relief, but only a brief one. He didn’t know where the man was, if he was even still in the bathroom or hiding somewhere else. If he wanted to know, he would have to go back there and find him, find him and face him.
“Sunn?” He called out. “Are you there? Sunn?”
No answer. Where was that smooth-faced hologram when he needed him? Invasion of privacy, the words echoed in his head. Against my programming. Desanto was alone. He would have no help dealing with this. No help facing the wretched man. And he wasn’t sure that he could.
His knees felt like they were going to give out. It wasn’t just the horrible sight of that man tearing himself apart. It wasn’t just the pile of unidentifiable viscera at the man’s feet, sticky blood coagulating on his bathroom floor. It was that Desanto knew that face. Even through all the torn flesh, he knew it, knew who had stared back at him in that bathroom with bits of skin and muscle dangling from his body as he pleaded for an end to his pain.
It was his own face.