8. Bisulca

008bisulca

 

One of the goats was missing.

Cornelia pushed her hat up on her head, wiping the sweat from her brow. The artificial sun was still beating down fairly strong considering the forecast had called for rain. Any minute now, Sunn’s weather program would turn down the sunlight and engage the sprinklers high above, making her hurry inside before she got soaked. It would be helpful to know exactly when that was supposed to happen so she didn’t wander too far from shelter, but that was the downside of a ship that operated on entropy- it relied on a strong dose of randomness. The Ark had wet seasons and dry seasons. It had surges in insect populations followed by unexpected upticks in crop output. And it had rain. Real rain, the kind with no exact start or finish. The moment it all became too predictable, too programmed, the whole system fell apart.

Still, a heads-up would be nice.

Then there was the missing goat to worry about. One of them had escaped from its pen, and she needed to find it before the rain started. She already knew exactly which one it was. Clara, the runt of the herd, a female with a distinctive patch of white fur on the top of her head. Walking past the cornfield, where the green ears were so plump the yellow kernels inside were bursting out, Cornelia waved to Aaron. Her younger co-worker was tending to a patch of broken ears on the east side of the field. She’d first known him as a moody apprentice who showed little interest in farming, but somehow in the time since their Cryo cycles overlapped he’d developed into a handsome young man with strong arms, a healthy tan, and pride in his Vocation. It was amazing what a little time could do for a person.

“The crop’s looking good,” she noted. Aaron threw a half-eaten ear into his cart and pushed his sleeves up.

“Too good. Something got in here and had a feast.”

She stopped walking. “It might be one of mine. Have you seen a goat around here by any chance?”

“Can’t say that I have. But if I do, me and that goat are having words.”

Cornelia chuckled and moved on, though a bit more worried than before. The goats had been temperamental the last week. They’d been staying in their pens instead of roaming the grounds, their usual days spent grazing on patches of grass and brush. But today they were much worse. They’d spent the morning pacing and kicking at the walls of their pens, bleating incessantly. Two of the males had gotten into a fight, leaving the smaller of the two with a cracked horn.

Whatever it was that was making them act this way, it had them spooked worse than Cornelia had ever seen.

She headed to the barn to see if Clara had wandered back in her absence, but a grating mechanical sound came to her ears as she neared the pens, like someone dragging a crowbar across a steel wall. Inside the barn she found the source of the noise.

Apparently the goats weren’t the only ones on the farm acting up, the milk processor had decided join in on the fun. On any given day, the blue machine pasteurized and packaged between fifty and eighty gallons of goat’s milk, boiling, sanitizing and dividing it into individual containers before whisking it up the freight system to the food banks on Five and Six, as well as the Cafeteria on Two. The processor had been working at full capacity, quiet as a kitten’s purr, but the sound coming from it now was awful. The last thing the goats needed was another reason to be nervous. Cornelia shut the machine down, reminding herself to put in a service call for a Mechanic to come see what was wrong with it. If she had any luck at all, the defective unit was what was bothering the herd in the first place.

With the processor silenced, another sound became obvious to Cornelia. An odd shuffling and fumbling was coming from behind the feed distributor. It wasn’t a machine sound at all but something living, organic. She approached slowly, choosing her steps carefully, not knowing what she would find on the other side of the device.

Clara. The animal was down on her haunches, trying to shove herself further underneath the distributor.

“Clara,” Cornelia called out softly. She wanted to kick herself for not checking the barn properly before going off on her pointless search. “Clara, what is it, girl?” She tried to inch closer, not wanting to further frighten Clara or the others, but the goat began to panic, scrambling to her hooves and backing up against the barn wall as she tried to find a way out.

“Whoa, whoa.” Cornelia showed her open palms to the frightened creature. “It’s alright, Clara. It’s alright. I won’t hurt you.” But the goat’s eyes were wide in her long skull, her bleating rising up to a cry. Soon the others began to bleat and cry as well. Cornelia sat on the floor, making herself as small as possible to remove herself as a threat in the goat’s eyes. It took five minutes of inching quietly forward before she was able to place a calming hand on the scared animal, and ten more before she could soothe the goat sufficiently enough to return her to her pen. When the safety gate was closed and bolted, with all the goats more or less calm, Cornelia turned away from the pen with a well-deserved sigh- only to find a man standing just outside the barn, watching her through the open door.

She recognized him even faster than she had Clara, though she had far less patience for him than she’d had with the goat. Cornelia took a deep breath, leaving the barn behind with her heart pounding in her chest.

“I asked you not to come here,” she said, noticing the artificial sun had dimmed. Cornelia kept her distance from him. She’d learned to do that when it came to Zane- especially when he had that look in his eye.

“You’re still my wife,” he said with an unnerving coolness. She swallowed, or tried to at least. Her throat was suddenly so dry.

“Not for much longer. I filed the divorce requisition two days ago.” She took a long pause, waiting to see how he would take the news. “I also asked for our Cryo cycles to be separated,” she added.

Zane glanced around the farm, then back at her. He shook his head and smiled as if she’d told a joke. “Cornelia, Cornelia. What do you have against me? What have I ever done other than try to save you? Save us?”

He always did this. Always made himself the hero or the victim, never the villain. “The only one here who needs saving is you, Zane. You’re not well.”

“I’ve never been better.”

She laughed, exhausted. “No. No, this holy mission of yours has become an obsession.”

“It’s my life’s work, and I won’t apologize for it. I’m making a better place for all of us- including our son.”

Cornelia’s ears grew hot. “Our son? Our son is-” She stopped herself, starting again quieter. “Our son left us a long time ago.”

“And don’t you want to be on the right path when he comes back? Don’t you want to be ready, so we can all go to Eden together? Or would you rather live blind, led astray by Ashby and all her little heretic followers?”

“Don’t lie to yourself. This has never been about anyone but you.”

Zane looked at her as if he could see right into her veins. “They’ve gotten to you, Cornelia. They’ve really gotten to you. But I know you’re not gone. I haven’t given up on you, just like I know you haven’t given up on our boy. Our Thomas.”

She was on the verge of tears. He brought up Thomas as if it were nothing at all, as if she hadn’t spent every day since the accident trying to move past it. For all the work, all the time spent talking to Doctor Dubicki and the other Psych Doctors, begging them to synthesize a drug that would numb her, make her forget the pain and feel at peace, she was tired in her bones about it, and whenever she thought she’d made some progress, that she’d traveled even an inch past that day, the thought of Thomas, the mention of his name, brought all of it crashing back down.

“Please, Zane, I-” She cut herself short. Imani had made her way over from the chicken coops, staring at them with a concerned expression on her impossibly dark and beautiful face. Imani knew her troubles with Zane. She’d heard all the horror stories, or at least most of them. On the one hand Cornelia was grateful for an arm to lean on, especially one so steady. On the other it deeply embarrassed her. Imani was such a strong person, maybe the strongest she knew, and having her see Cornelia’s dirty laundry this way made her feel like a child.

“Is everything alright,” Imani asked, coming around to Cornelia’s side.

“She’s fine.” Zane was still answering for her. Imani shot him a look that could melt the metal beneath the dirt beneath their feet.

“I was asking her.” Imani looked to Cornelia for her answer.

“I’m fine,” Cornelia echoed, and Imani’s scowl softened.

“You’re a good friend, Imani.” Zane smiled at her in his usual, condescending manner. “Thank you for looking after Cornelia while I’m away.”

Imani put one fist on her hip. “One of us has to, right?”

His smile disappeared at her words. “What I do is much greater than look after her physical body. I’m doing everything in my power to save her soul, not to mention you and everyone else on this ship.”

“Whatever you say.” Imani turned to Cornelia. “Let me know if you need me to call the Peace Officers.” She glanced back at Zane and added, “Again.”

Cornelia nodded. “Thank you. I’m okay, really.”

“Okay. I’ll be close by.” She afforded Zane one, final glance. “Looking into getting locks put on our doors.” With that she headed back toward the chicken coops, though she didn’t go inside, opting to work on a few things within sight. Cornelia turned her attention back to the man who would soon be her ex-husband.

“Please don’t do this, Zane. Don’t make me watch you fall apart all over again.”

“Everything falls apart, Cornelia. But if you have faith, if you believe, it comes back together stronger than before.”

“Not the dead.”

He smiled. “Especially the dead. That’s the power of the Reclamation, don’t you see?” Over his shoulder she saw two men approaching from the farm entrance. She recognized them as a few of the men Zane had gotten involved with ever since he’d found religion in his own, frightening way. He called them brothers and sisters, fellow children. Cornelia called them followers. “No, I suppose you don’t see,” he continued, “but you will. Soon you’ll see the true path. And so will the others.”

“What are you talking about?”

The two men stopped a few feet back from Zane. They didn’t wear anything special to identify themselves, and that made them impossible to spot in a crowd. Zane turned to them, engaging in a hushed conversation about something serious. She strained to make out their words as the sky above darkened. “It’s finished,” she heard one of them say, but the rest was too low to hear.

“What are you going to do,” Cornelia asked. Zane glanced over his shoulder at her and smiled proudly.

“Open their eyes,” he said. The three men walked away together, leaving just as the rain started to fall.

“Zane,” she called after him, her voice becoming lost on the increasing downpour. “Zane, what are you going to do?”

7. Colloquium

Night sky stars background

Doctor Dubicki placed her hands under the evaporator, rubbing them together until the pale skin was perfectly dry. In the mirror she arranged the shock of white in her otherwise dark-gray hair and smiled at the woman looking back at her. Considering her age, she was holding up rather nicely, if she did say so herself. She’d even caught a few men checking out her figure when her back was turned, whenever they thought she wasn’t looking.

That was one thing about her no one seemed to realize: she was always looking. It was a professional habit, built from years of analyzing patients. As the main Psych Doctor on board, she had to notice every detail about the person across from her. Even the slightest disturbance in their thinking, magnified under the stresses of travel and confinement, could have disastrous results if left untreated. They’d learned that lesson the hard way, though no one spoke of those early days much anymore. Most people preferred to forget the details of the past and instead focus on the parts they liked. She brushed the memory aside, adjusted her white uniform, and left the bathroom behind, the light clicking off behind her.

Seated back at her desk, she checked her screen for new messages. There was one blinking notification to be opened, though it would have to wait. Her next appointment was on its way, and this was one that couldn’t be postponed. There were people waiting on her analysis.

A black beetle walking across the surface of her desk caught her eye. She reached out and crushed it under her thumb, feeling the gentle, wet crunch of its shell popping under her finger. Right on time, the door chime sounded softly. She scooped the dead beetle away, knocking it to the floor before wiping her hands clean. And she had just gone through the trouble of washing them.

“Enter,” she said calmly.

Peace Officer Kash appeared in the dilated door, holding his prisoner by the arm. “Hey, doctor. You requested this one to be released to you.” Kash nodded to Desanto, who looked less than enthusiastic to be there.

“Yes, thank you so much for bringing him.”

“You want me to stick around and make sure he behaves?”

“No, I think you’ve done plenty,” she replied with a smile.

Kash sniffed. “Suit yourself.” He glanced at Desanto one last time before leaving, looking disappointed that he couldn’t exercise some of the more violent tendencies Doctor Dubicki had noticed in the man. But that wasn’t important just then, because Desanto was standing in her doorway, his body like a wound-up spring ready to release. He could just as easily run away as step forward into her office.

It was very possible she’d let Kash leave too soon.

“I understand you’ve had a rough day,” she offered. Desanto refused to look at her, choosing to stare at the Van Gogh on her wall. It was an original, a thing she took great pride in, even if it technically didn’t belong to her. “Please,” she said, “come in.”

Desanto didn’t move. She took a breath, knowing her work was cut out for her.

“You can try punching and kicking your way out of here, but I can promise you won’t make it far. Or,” she said, “you can come in and talk, and I can help you understand what’s happening to you.”

Desanto finally looked at her. His eyes burned with questions as well as the bloodshot, slightly swollen look of a man who had met the angry end of a peace stick. Just then James Crick passed by, glancing into the doctor’s office as he walked up the hallway toward his own. “Greetings, Allcleric,” she called out. He simply nodded back with the usual disapproving look on his face. When the Allcleric was gone, she turned back to Desanto. “Don’t mind him, he’s just quiet around people he believes are going to burn in Hell.”

Desanto still hesitated, but he finally took a step forward. Then another. Once he was completely inside the office, the door automatically shut behind him, causing him to flinch like a man being attacked.

“I promise I don’t bite,” she said. Then, motioning to the chair across from her, she added, “My name is Doctor Dubicki. Rina, if you prefer.”

He didn’t move.

“You were hiding from me, weren’t you? When I came to the Medbay? I thought I heard something. I suppose I should have figured it out when I found the door open.” He simply stared back at her, his hands balled into fists. There was such anger in him. If only he knew the truth, that she’d been quite aware of his hiding, and had used his little escape attempt to observe and test him, to see what he would do, how he would act under stress. But she didn’t dare tell him. For the time being, at least, his anger was focused on other passengers, and she would make sure to keep it there. “The use of a peace stick was unfortunate, but you must understand, the Officers had no choice. That was the most force any of them have used in a very long time.” She leaned in. “Though I can’t say Officer Kash isn’t always looking for a reason.”

Still, he gave her nothing. But that wouldn’t do. She knew how crucial he was for the future of the ship. He was simply too important to leave alone.

“Many people run at first, you know. Some of them even fight. If I remember correctly, Mrs. Slavkov kicked so hard she knocked a tooth-”

“How did they find me,” Desanto asked. Finally, the silence was broken. Even if it took on an aggressive tone, the first step was always the hardest. The rest was just like falling.

“You were in Central Park, not exactly hiding in a dark corner.”

“They knew where I was before I did. Were they following me?”

She held up her arm and pulled her sleeve down, showing him the slightly raised bump under the skin of her forearm. “Trackers. Everyone here has one. They’re mostly for drifters and lost children, but occasionally, they’re for runners.”

Desanto found his own raised circle of flesh. He scratched at his arm uncomfortably, as if he wanted to claw the chip out with his fingernails. She remembered how much it used to itch in the beginning. Like a mosquito bite that wouldn’t quiet down. Slowly, he approached the chair across from her and sat down.

Progress. She took a moment before continuing. “I see your memory is as bad as Doctor Hannigan said it was. Do you remember anything from before the Medbay?”

Desanto thought on it, then looked up at her. “I remember dying.”

“Ahh. They tell us we’re not supposed to remember entering Cryosleep, that the drugs block our perception of the process, but some of us remember just the same. It can be a painful memory, but at least it’s a memory.” She studied his face. “Anything else you can think of, maybe a person you can recall? A friend, or a co-worker?” She paused. “An enemy?”

Desanto shook his head.

“Then it seems you have a lot to catch up on. But I should warn you, it can be stressful to remember too much of yourself at once. There’s a saying around here, ‘A flood of memories can drown anyone.’ For now it’s best for you to ease into things. Take it slow. That being said, do you have any questions for me?”

“Where am I,” he asked without hesitation.

“That would be the one to work toward.” She smiled weakly. “Start smaller.”

He rubbed his face in frustration. “How about who I am?”

“That’s a good start. Simple, personal. Your name is Erick Desanto. You’re a Mechanic.”

“A Mechanic,” he echoed.

“Yes. A very talented one, from what I’m told.”

“Okay.” He shifted in his seat, eyes piercing into her. “Okay, now let’s talk about why you drugged and froze me-”

“Erick…”

“-About why you thawed me out and sent your thugs after me.” His voice was growing louder and louder. “And after that, you can explain to me why you won’t tell me where the fuck I am. If I’m a prisoner in this place, I at least deserve to know I’m a prisoner. I must have some kind of rights.”

“You’re still angry, Erick, and that’s okay. You’re allowed to be angry.” Doctor Dubicki had a thought. “You know what? There’s someone I want to introduce you to, someone who can explain all of this much better than I can. Is that okay?”

He clenched his jaw. After a moment, he nodded.

“Good,” she said with a smile. Then: “Hello, Sunn.”

“Hello, Doctor Dubicki. How can I help you?” Sunn’s voice replied from seemingly thin air. Desanto looked around for who had spoken, turning in his chair to look behind him.

“Please show yourself to my friend Erick.”

Sunn materialized to her left. The hologram was a play of light suspended on invisible gas, nothing more, but as it formed the shape of the empty man, Desanto pressed back into his chair as if he were witnessing an apparition, the visitation of some unwelcome spirit. When Sunn was solid, or at least gave the appearance of such, he turned to Desanto in the artificial movements of a man with no musculature. “Hello, Erick,” he said.

When Desanto didn’t reply, she spoke up for him. “My friend here has a few questions for you.”

“I’d be happy to answer them.” Sunn’s too-smooth face always reminded her of the clothing store mannequins back on Earth, before they all went under. Lifeless eyes set in such a beautiful face. Desanto looked to her for help, struck speechless at the idea of speaking to the phantom in front of him. It was incredible how much of the man had been lost. Holograms were a given to people those days, as common a thing as they came, yet he looked at one like it was a terror from some distant reality.

“Go on,” she urged, “it’s alright.” Desanto turned back to Sunn, blinking as he found his words.

“Why, uh…why can’t I remember anything from before I woke up?”

Sunn showed his teeth in the approximation of a smile. “Excellent question. Extended sessions of Cryosleep have been linked to high incidences of memory distortion and degradation. Though the effects are typically reversed within four to six hours of revival, some memory loss can continue to be experienced long-term. Also, you have cancer.”

Desanto blinked. “What?”

“His bedside manner is somewhat lacking,” Doctor Dubicki said. Sunn looked at her as if her words held no meaning. Then he continued.

“I found a significant mass in the base of your temporal lobe when you last entered Cryosleep.” An x-ray of what was presumably Desanto’s cancer-ridden brain projected onto her wall. “Upon further testing, the mass was revealed to be a grade four tumor that, if left unchecked, would have stopped your life functions in a matter of months. I was able to reverse the growth of the cancerous cells, as well as regenerate the affected sections of your brain through gene therapy, however there was significant loss of memory function.” The tumor on her wall shrunk in size as the brain around it grew to fill in the space it left behind.

Desanto straightened up, attempting to regain himself. “Hold on- my memories are gone?”

“Incorrect. Some of your memories are gone, while others are simply inaccessible for retrieval at your brain’s current rate of function. In time, with the proper stimulation and with sufficient healing of neural pathways, there is a strong possibility that some of those blocked memories will return.”

“How strong?”

Numbers flashed in Sunn’s eyes. “Forty-eight point one percent,” he concluded.

“Fifty-fifty.” He looked over at the doctor. “You’re telling me there’s a fifty-fifty chance I’ll never remember who I am because you hacked my brain up into pieces.”

Doctor Dubicki folded her hands. “He saved your life. What Sunn did was nothing short of miracle medicine.”

“If he’s so advanced, how did he not pick this up earlier?”

“Mechanics are exposed to a great deal of radiation in the course of their Vocation, which is why they’re always assigned shorter rotations. Healing and regeneration, they’re half the reason we enter Cryosleep in the first place. Normally the damage is much smaller, and easier to fix.”

Desanto thought about all that he’d heard. “It can come back?”

“Of course. But don’t let that bother you. As of this moment you’re in perfect health. You can go back to living your life, and to being a great help to the people here.”

“I don’t know those people.”

“But they know you.” She smiled. Desanto was quiet again, then he turned to Sunn.

“I have another question.”

“I would be happy to answer it.”

“Good, because I want to know where I am.”

“Erick,” Dubicki warned.

“I want to know where I am,” he repeated, this time louder, “and no one will tell me.”

She knew he wasn’t going to drop the subject until he got his answer. “Go on then,” she said to Sunn.

“That question has a broad range of answers. Can you be more specific?”

Desanto stood up from his chair, went to the wall and slapped his hand against it. “This. This place. What is it? Where are we? Where the fuck are we?”

Sunn nodded, noting the man’s anger but choosing to ignore it. “This place is called Ark One. It is a deep space vessel built-”

“Space?”

Sunn tilted his head. “I do not understand the question.”

“Please, Erick, you need to slow down,” Dubicki once again insisted. “You’re only stressing yourself-”

Surprising even Sunn, Desanto suddenly went to the door, waiting only long enough for it to dilate before he ran out of the room. Doctor Dubicki knew where he was headed. He must have seen it on the way to her office. She took her time exiting her office and joining Desanto down the hall.

The open area, fitted with comfortable chairs and plenty of flowering trees, served as a gathering place for those people waiting to be seen by either the Psych Doctors or the Allclerics. For others it was a place to relax after an intense session. She found him exactly where she knew she would- trying his damnedest to activate the long window port on the far wall, its triple-paned glass blocked on the outside by an eight-inch-thick metal shield.

“Open this up,” Desanto said, punching the control panel, trying every button. She approached him, keeping a few feet between them.

“We can’t just open windows whenever we want, Erick. There are dangers to consider.”

Sunn reappeared to her right. “My scans indicate no immediate danger,” he said. Doctor Dubicki sighed, not at all grateful for his help.

“Okay. Open it up.”

There was a whir and a click as the pressure seal disengaged. The ten-foot-long metal shield hummed as it rose up to reveal the void beyond.

Desanto stood back and stared into space, those billions of candles burning distantly in the emptiness. His mind reeled, his legs wobbly. Ironically, the reflection in the glass was just as much a mystery to him as the space beyond it.

“Where are we going,” he asked softly, the air knocked out of him. She walked up next to him, nearly breaking code by putting her hand on his shoulder before deciding otherwise.

“To know where you’re going, Erick, you need to remember where you’ve been.” He turned to her, finally listening. “Tell me- do you remember Earth?”

6. Illustrant

006illustrant2

Baptiste stood at the front of the classroom. He looked out on the dozen, empty chairs peeking at him from the shadows, and he savored the moment while it lasted. Soon the day would begin, the day his mother always said would come.

The previous teacher, Mrs. O’Toole, told him this was her favorite part of the Vocation. The beginning of the semester, a new start, full of so much potential waiting to be unlocked. He could see the appeal in it, that sliver of time when everything had played out flawlessly in one’s mind without being ruined by reality. Yet as a man of science he preferred truth to dreams, practice to theory. Why he had decided to become a teacher, then, was anyone’s guess. It was too late to back down now. The students were due soon, and their minds needed to be filled with knowledge.

“Sunn, lights at half power,” he called out. The soft lights at the ceiling’s edge came to life, revealing to him the entirety of the classroom. He already knew the room well from his time as a student. It was a perfectly round room some fifty meters wide, with a domed ceiling perfect for displaying lessons in tremendous detail. So many kids looking for their Vocations had stared at that ceiling, hours spent gazing up at simulations of polluted bloodstreams, mass extinctions and all those other clinical ways to explain away the screaming Hell their people had run from. Baptiste was, in a way, lucky enough to have been born on the Ark. He’d been spared from the memories that haunted so many on board. All he knew of their original home was from books and stories, all of them with tragic endings. Ironic, he thought, the man teaching Earth Science had never set foot on it.

He turned now to face the front wall. “Sunn. Please show me the ocean.”

An ocean blinked into being. It filled every inch of the walls with its bubbling and churning life, billions of gallons spreading out into dark blue. Baptiste craned his neck to see the surface bobbing overheard, just out of reach, as if he were a swimmer drowning in the grip of its cold, dark miles.

“Perfect.” He took a few steps back to allow for some space at the front of the room. “Now I need a full-sized female Great White…here.” A Great White- Carcharodon carcharias, as they were properly known- appeared at the front of the classroom. Its thick, white and gray body hovered three feet off the floor, swaying slightly as if swimming against an invisible current. He walked around to its front to inspect its scarred and pointed face. The shark smiled with its pink lips drawn back, revealing rows and rows of serrated teeth leading down to its massive gullet. Then he walked back around to its side.

He’d decided to start the year with something dangerous and exciting. To catch the kids’ attention early and hold it as long as possible. If he was going to win any of them over to a science Vocation, if there was any way at all, it was through sharing his excitement for the subject. Standing so close to the shark, he could swear it was staring at him with those lifeless, black eyes, yet he knew it was only a simulation, a hollow play of light hanging on the air like an unspoken secret.

Well, not entirely hollow. He held up his right hand with the fingers together, forming the shape of a blade. “Sunn. Dissection mode.”

Baptiste plunged his flattened hand into the side of the shark, making a deep incision. He felt no warmth, no wetness as he trailed a bright red line down the length of its body, then down and back up to the start. When he’d made a large enough section to surround all the major organs, he removed his hand and peeled back the section of light.

The anatomy of the shark was laid bare to him, all pinkish-gray with interconnected bags of flesh and vein. He refamiliarized himself with the layout of the shark’s innards so he wouldn’t find himself at a loss when it came time to teach them. He didn’t need that kind of embarrassment on his first day, knowing full well that kids won’t let a person live down a thing like that. He quickly found the spleen and heart just behind the gill slits, then moved the bumpy uterus aside to get a better look at the liver.

Just as he was reaching for the kidney, a knock came at the open door. Baptiste recognized the bearded man in his doorway as an Allcleric, the red and black clothes being a dead giveaway. He didn’t have much experience with the Allclerics, men and women who acted as Priests, Rabbis and every other religious teacher rolled up in one. They offered spiritual guidance for those who needed it on the voyage, and they held the responsibility of carrying the word of God through the cosmos.

“Sunn. Reset Great White,” Baptiste called out. In a blink the shark became whole, the organs hidden once again.

“I don’t mean to interrupt,” the Allcleric said.

Baptiste waved off the apology, stepping away from the shark. “It’s fine. Please, come in.” The Allcleric took a few, short steps inside the classroom. He stared at the Great White from a distance.

“Frightening creatures,” he remarked.

“Also beautiful. Imagine a killing machine designed so perfectly it barely changed over millions of years, only shrinking to match the available food.”

“Just the same, I’d rather not stand too close to one.”

Baptiste chuckled. “Of course not. But that’s the great thing about science- the closer you look, the more beauty you see.” He wanted to add that unlike the lessons the Allcleric taught, they also held up better to scrutiny. But that was an old argument, and one he wasn’t interested in rehashing.

“I appreciate the passion you show for your work, Professor,” the Allcleric said.

“Please, you can call me Baptiste.”

“Ahh. Baptiste.” He said the word with reverence. “My name is James Crick, I don’t believe we’ve properly met.”

“I can’t say that we have.” He shook the man’s hand. “We don’t get many Allclerics down here on Seven.”

“Yes, well, somehow we ended up on Four.” There was a hint of something in his words. Distaste, perhaps, for the Psych Doctors who shared Deck Four with the Allclerics and their church rooms. Crick wasn’t an easy man to read, but Baptiste picked up some hidden anger there.

“I guess the idea is they heal the head and you heal the heart,” Baptiste offered. The Allcleric’s face warmed at his words.

“That’s a wonderful way of looking at things. I might just use that- with your permission, of course.”

“Of course.”

Sensing an awkward moment, Crick shifted the conversation. “Mrs. O’Toole was a wonderful woman. Her and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but she did a wonderful job educating the children here. As one of her former students, I’m sure you can agree.”

“She’s one of the reasons I’m here.”

The Allcleric smiled before continuing. “I was wondering, Baptiste, now that you’ve taken over the science department, how willing you will be to expanding your syllabus.”

Baptiste raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t even started yet.”

“Yes. Of course. In the future, I mean. Down the proverbial road.”

“Oh.” Baptiste cleared his throat. “Well, I’m always going to stay up-to-date with the latest findings. It’s the nature of science to adapt to new facts, new theories. Though to be fair not much has changed in a while.”

“The sciences have run stagnant,” Crick suggested.

“I wouldn’t say they’re entirely dead. The Astronomers occasionally come up with an interesting find. The same with the Geologists. Whenever we conduct a mining expedition they seem to come across a new mineral or artifact. Those cubes are fascinating. Then there are the Cytologists and the Geneticists, there’s been some wonderful work in that field, with-”

“I was thinking more along the lines of my field,” the Allcleric politely interrupted.

Baptiste paused a moment. “But you teach religion.”

“Precisely. It would be wonderful if we could work together to illuminate the people on this ship, explain to them not just the how but the why. To offer them new, expanded viewpoints that allow for the spiritual as well as the scientific.”

Baptiste felt himself growing annoyed. Classes hadn’t even begun and he was already having to defend his syllabus. He took a deep breath, attempting to remain calm. “With all due respect, I think it’s better if we stay out of each other’s curriculums.”

“Forgive me if I’m over-stepping, but this is the very argument Mrs. O’Toole and I had for years. Don’t you think that science and religion can walk hand-in-hand? That the existence of one does not negate the other by its very existence?”

“I actually do, but-”

“Then what’s the issue with sharing that feeling with the others?”

“Because I don’t deal in feelings, Allcleric, you do.” No sooner had the words left his mouth, Baptiste regretted saying them. The look on the older man’s face said that he’d taken the outburst personally. Baptiste didn’t want to cause too many waves, especially on his first day, so he shifted to the other concern on his mind. “I’m sorry, it’s just that…I’ve heard some…things recently. Rumors about a religion being practiced on the Ark.”

“I’ve heard them myself for years. The cult that worships Blackwood, that practices a mixture of science and religion in a way that destroys both. But then there are always rumors on the Ark, no? That’s what happens in any place with so many closed doors. Which is precisely why I’m trying to open a few of those doors, to bring the conversation into the light and illuminate the minds of the people.”

“I can appreciate what you’re saying, I really can. I’m just afraid your timing might be a little off.”

Now Crick seemed to be the one losing patience. “You shouldn’t let your fears sway you from teaching what you want to teach. To do that is to fail your students.”

Baptiste took a step back. “I’m teaching exactly what I want to teach. And if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare to do exactly that. My students should be here any moment.”

Crick smiled. “Of course. Thank you for seeing me.” Before he left he stopped at the door. “Your name. Baptiste. It’s typically paired with Jean, as in Jean-Baptiste, in honor of Saint John the Baptist. Do you know why your parents didn’t do this?”

Baptiste thought of his mother, gone all these years, and of his father, alive yet just as gone in some ways. “Maybe they weren’t trying to honor anyone,” he said. “Sometimes people just like a name.”

Crick smiled again, though less warmly. “I see. Thank you again, Baptiste.” This time all the previous reverence for the word was gone, as if it had lost its meaning. The Allcleric exited with no more pauses, leaving Baptiste by himself, alone with his Great White shark made of great, white light.

A sudden crash rang out. Baptiste jumped, startled by the loud noise. Something big had been knocked over near the front of the class. When he ran to look, he found one of the extra chairs had tipped over from its resting place against the wall. He checked for what might have knocked it over, maybe a mouse or a strong breeze from one of the air vents, but there was nothing there. No sign of anything that might have caused it. He looked back at the Great White shark floating above and behind him.

“Was that you,” he asked. The shark grinned back at him silently, its rows of crushing and rending teeth glinting with inner light. At that moment the students started filing in through the door, screens in hand as they talked and joked with one another. Baptiste stood to face them. One of the girls let out a yelp at the sight of the unexpected shark swimming at the front of the room.

“Save the screams for later,” Baptiste said with a mischievous smile. “We haven’t even started yet.”

5. Effugio

0005effugio

His eyes struggled to take in the sight in front of him, with his mind trailing not far behind. It was all too much to see all at once, too much to process, and he held onto the railing in front of him to keep his balance.

What lay before and below him looked very much like the mile-long strip of a bustling town, yet it was entirely enclosed at the far edges by high, metal walls covered in plants both living and dead. Birds dipped and danced overhead, hunting for insects in the air. Above it all, at least fifty meters up, was a curved ceiling painted the deepest sky blue. A sun seemed to be floating in the distance, just out of reach, lighting the town with its warm rays. A closer look revealed it to be as artificial as the lights outside the Medlabs. An apparatus kept it suspended from the ceiling, moving it almost imperceptibly slow across the fake sky on a floating track system.

As he looked across that place, a sudden pitch of vertigo gripped him, that cold spiral of nausea threatening to throw him over the railing. Below, waiting for him to fall and crack his spine across them, pipes and plants mingled to become bio-mechanical tangles jutting up from the floor and through the walls.

What was this place, and how had he come to be there? What sort of people lived in a walled-in town with a fake sun? He decided to keep moving, to stop drawing attention to himself before someone noticed the look on his face and realized he wasn’t one of them.

He walked down a long set of curving, metal steps, staring at the various formations of metal and plastic ahead. Every bit of space seemed to have been utilized in the strange town, an interlocking puzzle of walkways and hanging gardens that grew seamlessly up from the floor. The open-faced structures were like storefronts, yet filled up with people doing anything but buying and selling things. As he watched, a beautiful olive-skinned woman showed a group of children how to hand-knit a sweater. In the next building a small group were gathered around a series of holograms, playing against each other in a game of some kind. In yet a third, three women with delicately tattooed faces sat drinking tea while a young girl played a sad song for them on a transparent violin.

Continuing on, he walked under and through a series of turns and tunnels. The crowd of unfamiliar faces moved ever around him. They were of every age, every gender, some wearing regular clothes and some in uniforms very much like his own, only differing in color. To his right a pair of teenagers walked up a flight of steps to an elevated tram platform before being hummed off into the distance.

It was all too much. His legs felt as if they were going to give out and he would go crashing to the floor. Locked in a daze, he walked until he came to a small park area ringed with green shrubs and white birch trees. He passed a single bench where a couple were seated, stumbling to the large fountain at the center. The water there danced in ways that defied physics, snaking in mid-air and looping back in on itself before falling down and starting all over. It was mesmerizing, though it did nothing to calm his vision.

Strangers moved around him, unknown people in a foreign place. A hundred nationalities making up one people. Through it all a dull sound had been at the back of his mind, and as he paid more attention to it he realized it was the sound of whispering. It was the strangers, it had to be. They were talking about his presence among them, how he didn’t belong, how he’d escaped. His pulse quickened, his palms sweating as he waited for their wrath, but when he gathered the courage to look at them, to peer at some of their faces, he realized the whispers weren’t coming from the strangers. In fact, the whispers seemed to be coming from no one at all; hushed and hidden voices, intertwined like the dancing water beside him, voices sharing secrets between them, and all saying the same thing, over and over, in multiple languages, in every language, in every tongue, yet none of it decipherable, and they grew and grew in volume until they were all he could hear, so much that he wanted to scream, yet no matter how much he listened he couldn’t make out the words they were saying, that whisper-scream tearing his brain apart.

And then the whispers fell silent, all at once, like rats scurrying from the light. But they were replaced by a sensation, a creeping dread across his neck, as if the tiny thistle hairs of spider legs were crawling over his shoulder. Someone was watching him, unknown eyes on the back of his head. He turned to find the small crowd had parted to allow two men through.

They stood five feet from him in blue uniforms, both with gray and black sticks on their belts. “Now just stay calm,” the shorter one said. His hair was cut tight to the skull, his eyes unblinking.

He backed away, his foot hitting the fountain. “Stay away from me,” he replied, reaching into his pocket.

“You had a bad thaw, it happens to everyone,” the taller officer said, taking a step forward.

“Back up!” He pulled the blade from his pocket and held it out. His thumb brushed the small button on the handle.

“He has a knife!” The shorter officer pulled the black stick from his belt.

“Kash, put that down!” The tall officer scolded his partner, with little effect. The shorter man was shorter-tempered as well, and he refused to back down. His eyes were wild, the whites flashing. The tall one, realizing his partner wasn’t listening to him, turned away and lowered his voice. “Hey. Hey, it’s okay. We just don’t want you to hurt yourself, alright?”

“I don’t know who the fuck you people are.”

“My name is Nicolai. This is Kash. We’re all friends here. Now if you just put down the knife and talk to us, I’m sure we can-”

He ran. He was done talking, and he wanted out of that strange place.

He left the park behind and cut through the crowd. The officers shouted for people to get out of the way as they pursued, but he managed to put a good amount of distance between them in a short time. He weaved through people and buildings and trees, nearly knocking over a man and his metal dog doing tricks for a few gathered folks. He kept the knife tucked against his side- no use scaring people and drawing attention. He took a moment to glance back and was pleased to see the officers were nowhere in sight. Still, they couldn’t be far.

A screen pointed the way to a cafeteria. He followed it, hoping to lose them once and for all. What he needed most was to resume his escape unencumbered, and he hoped a cafeteria would give him proper cover. He rounded the corner and found himself in a very different place than he’d expected. Rather than the cafeteria of a school setting, it was closer to a mall food court, though one combined with an aquarium. Large, thick-glassed fish tanks filled the space from floor to ceiling, curving delicately between patrons seated at several dozen long tables. Schools of fish large and small swam lazily on either side, the water deep with no bottom in sight, as if it connected to a place far below. The sight of a huge silver tuna floating by distracted him momentarily, its long, yellow fins swaying in the water as it regarded him with cold and unfeeling eyes. The nature of the place he’d woken up in still escaped him. It was an enclosed community of some kind, that much he could decipher, but beyond that its purpose was utterly alien to him.

A man appeared ahead, running into view and stopping so short his shoes squeaked on the floor, drawing the attention of a few cafeteria patrons. It was the taller officer, Nicolai, his partner nowhere in sight. Either Kash had fallen behind, or-

“Give it up,” a familiar voice announced from behind. He turned to find the shorter officer, Kash, with black and gray stick in hand. He smiled, proud of himself.

In response he pressed the small button on the knife’s handle. The weapon whined in his hand, vibrating ever slightly as the blade grew white hot. It was a cauterizing knife. He aimed the hot blade at Kash and grit his teeth, ready to do whatever he had to do to get past the man.

“Get out of my way,” he spit, “before I get you out of my way.” A look of fear flashed in the officer’s eyes before quickly returning to determination.

“There’s nowhere for you to go.”

He raised the knife, preparing to lunge at the smug officer and bury its blade in the man’s neck. But just then:

“Desanto?”

A confused voice rose up from the cafeteria. He turned to see a man in a yellow uniform staring at him over a plate of white meat. The man stood from his chair, revealing himself to be tall and wide, a somewhat imposing man with a friendly face.

“Who?”

“It’s me. Gunnar.” The man glanced at the heated blade. Then he looked at the two men in blue uniforms, and back. “What the helveta are you doing?”

He was taken off-guard. This was the first face he’d seen that actually looked familiar, like someone he might know, and the big guy looked back at him with the same familiarity, almost like a friend looking at a friend. He let his hand loosen on the knife’s handle as he looked back at the man. “You’re-”

Something touched the back of his head. His entire body froze stiff as a sound filled his ears, a building pulse of energy that stood the tiny hairs inside up on end. His skull felt like it was expanding, a balloon of bone filling with crackling potential, then suddenly contracting with a pop.

When the sound was gone, his vision went with it. He fell back to the darkness he knew so well.

4. Attollo

004attollo

Growing up on the Ark, little Jenny Ashby would watch the Captain walk past her in the hallway wearing his pristine, black uniform and his confident smile. She would imagine how exciting that man’s life must be. The daily adventures, days of setting and reaching impossible goals, of making tough decisions for the good of the people. To her that man in black was larger than life, a hero. No, a superhero, responsible for every life on board, human and otherwise. And that man, he would nod down at her as he passed, a striking image of the self-assuredness that came with power, yet not so superhuman that he couldn’t take the time to acknowledge the small girl peeking up at him.

Now she knew the truth. So much of being a Captain was reading reports. Hours going over statistics, from plant growth updates to population counts to system status details. It wasn’t an adventure but a daily trudge. She remembered how space was once the great unknown, a frontier harsher than any other in human history, full of excitement, with danger hidden around every corner.

The reality of space was that, more than anything, it was empty. Just an uncaring wasteland where even sound went to die.

Jennifer had learned the sad truths of adulthood the hard way. For all of its limitless potential, nothing much happened in deep space. Aside from occasionally navigating around an anomaly picked up by their sensors, the most interesting days were the ones they came across an asteroid. Then it was a lovely dance of automated machination and human ingenuity, various departments and systems coming together for one, shared goal, the goal of mining the floating rock for all its resources. But until then, it was the reports for her.

Captain Ashby rubbed her eyes, giving them a short break from the screen in her lap. She let her gaze pass over the ship’s bridge. The circular room had five workstations in total, each with its own array of screens and instrumentation, as well as the center command chair where she sat. The bridge normally glowed bright with artificial sunlight, twenty percent brighter in fact than her predecessor had kept it, the extra energy usage justified by explaining how important it was for morale. She wanted the crew to see the bridge as the brightest place on the entire ship- short of a few of the more desert-like environments, of course. Today, however, she had requested that the light be kept low. Though she’d blamed it on a headache, the truth was she was feeling distracted, a feeling compounded by all the bright lights and steady beeps, all those screens vying for her attention.

Before she’d been that little girl peeking up at the Captain, she’d been an even smaller girl. Scared. Alone. Taken from all she’d ever known and loved, torn from the ground like a weed, its roots ripped painfully from the dirt. Those first steps onto the Ark had felt like a death march. Even at such a small age, she could imagine nothing more for her future than a slow, quiet death; a stinking weed, rotting in the sun.

As her thoughts shifted back to the present, Captain Ashby realized someone was speaking to her. She turned to see First Officer Oberlander at her side. He was a young man, not quite as young as she’d been when she held the same position, but still inexperienced. The look of concern on his face made her wonder how long he’d been standing there trying to speak to her. Ashby glanced at Hopes, the Communications Officer, and caught him trying not to look at her.

“What is it, Oberlander,” she asked, placing the screen on the table next to her.

“You asked me to update you when today’s thaws were completed.”

She paused, giving him a disapproving look. “The what?”

“Revivals,” he corrected himself.

“How many were scheduled for today?”

“Three. Two male, one female. Would you like to see the reports?”

“Send them to me. I’ll be in my office for the time being.” She stood from the center chair, smoothing out her uniform as she walked past Pagani, the ship’s Navigator, to the stairs that led down to her private office. “The chair is all yours,” she added over her shoulder.

“Of course, Captain,” Oberlander replied. In his voice she could hear the doubt of youth, and maybe something more. He still needed a great deal of guidance if he was ever going to take over as ship’s Captain, but it would have to wait; she was in no mood to babysit. She walked down the metal stairs and through the door, the design of which was made to echo the look of ancient submarines, closing it behind her with a solid push.

That small girl, little Jenny Ashby, had felt so lost her first day on the Ark. Hours earlier she’d been standing on Earth, begging her parents to come with her, the two of them smiling through tears as they explained they couldn’t, that they had to stay behind, they were too sick to go. It had taken three attendants to pull her onto the lift ship and strap her in, and when she wouldn’t stop screaming they held her down. A quick press of a medgun to her wrist later she was swimming in euphoria, the countdown starting over a speaker. Her eyes swam in her skull as the lift ship began vibrating, the rumbling growing so strong it felt as if the world was breaking apart. Thirty seconds later she felt the heaviest weight she’d ever felt pressing down on her. All became white light, until finally she couldn’t keep her eyelids open anymore and she slipped into a warm bath of sleep.

Captain Ashby glanced around her office. It was impeccable, and not just because she scheduled the cleaning crew to pay it a visit every other week. She was a strong believer of the saying ‘clean desk, clean mind,’ and so she was very selective about what she kept in her private sanctuary. There was a shelf on one wall, the kind that would be perfect for trophies and awards if those actually existed in space, which displayed the few, small keepsakes she allowed herself. There was the unexplained space junk they’d recovered on a mining expedition, a hunk of black rock somehow perfectly square. Next to that was a framed photograph of her parents, one she’d printed from the screen they’d packed in her bag. Their smiles were genuine in the photo, not hiding pain like they’d been on that terrible day. Lastly there was a beautifully-rendered sculpture of an elm tree, its branches proudly reaching for the sky, skillfully rendered by hands she knew very well. Aside from those objects the office was sparse, cold even, and that suited her just fine.

Ashby sat behind her desk, sinking into the soft chair as she allowed her eyes to close for a moment. It had been a difficult week. She could feel the sleep hunting her, wanting her to keep her lids shut and possibly never open them again.

Little Jenny Ashby opened her eyes. The lift ship had already docked, its engines shut off. The attendants ushered her out of her seat and to the exit to join the others. The sedation had mostly worn off, though she still felt sluggish. Her legs were heavy as she stepped through the airlock. Those drugs didn’t have the crash they once did, but she felt the comedown nonetheless as she realized she would never see her parents again. The last time they’d seen her she was crying and screaming. Jenny didn’t want that to be the last image they had of her, but then she didn’t want any last image- she just wanted to go back to them.

It didn’t take long for her to wander off from the group, numbly exploring the new place on her own. It was tremendous, full of sights she’d never seen before. She knew, even at her age, that not many ever had. Under any other circumstance it would have been the experience of a lifetime, but just then, in the midst of her grief and confusion, she felt like a recently deceased soul standing at the precipice of Hell, staring out across a lake of torment.

It was some time before an adult found her and returned her to the group of newcomers. They were still filing through a processing area, having their bodies scanned and their quarters assigned to them. Jenny was lumped in with the young kids who didn’t have parents or chaperons, who had come to the Ark alone. But they were more than simply unaccompanied minors here- they were orphans.

As she was pushed to join the group, she caught the sight of another girl in the crowd. The girl was about her age, but there was something so mature, so mesmerizing about her eyes, the way she looked around and studied every, tiny detail in the world around her. There was a mystery in those eyes that made Jenny forget everything else around her. As she stared at the girl, the girl turned and noticed her.

And then the girl smiled.

Tapping on the screen in front of her, Captain Ashby called up the number to her quarters. After three, soft tones, that same face she’d been reminiscing about materialized in front of her, a three-dimensional light rendering of those same attentive eyes, that same, brave smile, just a number of years older. “Hello, love,” the image of her wife said, and Ashby felt her shoulders relax.

“How are you today,” she asked. Her wife’s smile wavered as she swallowed roughly.

“It hasn’t been a great day.”

The Captain frowned. “Well. Maybe tomorrow will be better.”

“If I remember right, you said that yesterday. I’m starting to think you might be lying.” She was using her playful voice. For the first time that day, Ashby smiled.

“Are you talking back to your captain?”

“Always.”

The Captain continued to smile as she glanced up at the tree on her shelf. Ness, her wife, was an artist, primarily sculpture, though recently she hadn’t had the energy to go into her studio. In fact it had been a few weeks since she’d even left their quarters. “I wish I could be there with you right now,” Ashby said. “Maybe I can cut my shift short. Just for today.”

Ness shook her head adamantly. “No. Don’t do that. Stay for your shift, I’ll see you in a few hours.”

“Not soon enough.”

Ness smiled. And maybe it was a trick of the light from the hologram, but Captain Ashby’s office lit up. “It’s never soon enough, love.”

They disconnected, and Ashby watched the rendering of her wife’s face deconstruct and fade away. She stared at the empty space it left behind.

After a while she pulled up the reports Oberlander had sent her, checking on the three revivals that should have already been completed. They all appeared to have been successful. Recognizing the name of the female patient, she called up the camera feed on the patient’s Medlab with a few taps of her finger. She was pleasantly surprised to see the woman was looking as fit as ever, letting her eyes wander briefly over the woman’s exposed skin before switching to the next Medlab. There she found an older gentleman snoring loudly, asleep on a medical bed while one of the nurses attempted to wake him. She laughed softly, giving serious consideration to clicking back over to the half-naked woman in the previous Medlab. Instead she checked on the third and final revival.

The room was empty.

Captain Ashby leaned forward in her chair, her brow furrowed, and checked the lab number. It was the right room, just no patient. “Sunn,” she said, “can you tell me where the patient from Medlab 3190 is right now?”

3. Intellexit

 

003intellexit

The moment the young guy and girl finally left the Medbay, with the door contracted shut behind them, he sprang up from the bed. His head pounding, he ripped through the room looking for something, some sign of not just who but where he was and what those people were doing to him. Doctor Hannigan had appeared friendly, but that didn’t mean he was going to lay back and wait to see if he could trust her- and whoever she worked for- with his life.

The screens were no help. Either he couldn’t get them to activate or they showed the same, useless medical information the doctor had told him. They were still monitoring his levels. His heart rate and body temperature were much higher now than when she’d read them. The readouts and graphs meant little to him, except they all had one thing in common: they showed flat lines rising from nothing, no activity at all, to little spikes and eventually sustained levels of something resembling life.

An image flashed across his vision. A memory like a slice of the past, no larger than a single fan blade passing in front of him. He saw plastic closing in on his face as a piercing cold gripped his veins. He struggled to take a breath from an oxygen mask before realizing it was no longer there. He was back in the room of computers wearing next to nothing, goosebumps covering his arms.

“Back in the land of the living,” he whispered.

The metal floor was cold under his bare feet as he explored the room. There were no personal things left in the room, no wallet, no ID, just walls with vertical sliding panels full of medical instruments. Handheld diagnostics and laser tools for simple cutting were pressed into perfectly-recessed silhouettes. He palmed a small blade with a button in the handle before sliding the panel back into the wall.

In the lockers he found the clothes the doctor had mentioned, plain rows of dark gray pants, shirts and shoes in various sizes. Not even knowing what size he was, he eyed them up and took his best guesses, dressing quickly as he watched the door for the Psych Doctor who was supposed to be along. As he slipped the shoes onto his feet, he imagined how the evaluation would go. What would they be looking for? Were they worried he might be insane? Would they strap him back down and medicate him into a stupor until he behaved the way they wanted?

Is that what he needed?

He moved to the door and stopped to listen to the hallway beyond. With his ear pressed to the metal he strained to hear conversations, movement, any signs of nearby people. After a few seconds he made out the clear sound of approaching footsteps. The person wore the same shoes as him, except they moved with the light steps of a woman or perhaps a smaller man. He pressed the button next to the door and hid to the side as it dilated.

The metal hallway stretched a few hundred feet before splitting off into two more passages, both of them leading out of sight. The floor had alternating stretches of solid metal and grating. He peeked further out. Plants hung from the ceiling, vines snaking up portions of the walls. A dragonfly flew past him, its long body carried on the air by four, translucent wings. He watched it move away, the buzz growing quieter as the footsteps grew louder. Whoever it was that was approaching, they were just around the corner now. If he moved fast enough they might not see him slip away. If he stayed, did what he was told, they wouldn’t be angry with him, and maybe he would even be safe, among friends.

A second flash hit him. The cold moving across his skin, like icy fingers sliding up his legs. Lungs sucking in smaller and smaller amounts of frigid air that tasted of medicine, and his eyes closing, closing, the darkness taking him in like a dry sponge sucking in water. Then a moment later he was back in the room, gasping and taking in big gulps of warm air.

He didn’t care who those people were, if they were his employers, enemies or friends. He didn’t even care if they were family- he wasn’t going to let them do that to him again.

He slipped out the door and into the hallway. Immediately, more sounds came to him from far off, the low humming of machines and screens mixed with the chirps of crickets and birds and the soft movement of air through leaves. With his new shoes padding on the metal floor, he hurried away from the room he’d woken up in just minutes earlier and scurried to a recessed part of the hallway, reaching it and ducking out of sight just as the footsteps rounded the corner.

With his back crushed up against the wall, he made himself as flat as possible. He stayed perfectly, deathly still. The footsteps reached the door he’d left open and paused at the threshold. He held his breath and prayed, prayed as he waited for what came next. Would it be angry shouts? A blaring alarm? Some bizarre form of violent death seeking him out, a drone or even an animal of some kind? What unexplained thing would this world throw at him?

“Idiot. Can’t even get the room numbers right,” a voice mumbled.

He’d been right about it being a woman. Judging by her voice she sounded to be in her fifties or sixties, and more than a little annoyed. At the same time, her reaction was of the minimum-security variety. More and more the place wasn’t seeming like a jail- no locks on the doors, relaxed attitude- yet without being told much, he couldn’t afford to give them his trust so entirely. He had to assume danger, and act accordingly.

A few, breathless seconds later, the woman turned and walked away, heading off the way she’d come. With a little luck her confusion would buy him enough time to make his escape.

He left the recessed area behind and continued down the metal hallway, noting the amount of plant life present, including what grew from the grating beneath his feet. The light panels overhead emitted sunlight so warm his eyes could almost believe it was real.

Door after door after door he passed, and all of them looked the same. Each had a small screen on its right side with the word “Med” followed by the room number. On a whim he pressed one of them, the panel for Med 3212. Under his finger it changed to the word “Unoccupied.” It was good to know there weren’t more mysterious horrors happening on the other side of the door, but it didn’t help him get out of his situation any quicker.

He continued through the strange hallway, glancing occasionally up at the greenery that hung and arched over his head. A small mouse darted across the walkway ahead, slipping under a vent panel. A minute and a few turns later, a sigh of relief escaped him.

An elevator.

Even better, it opened at a press of the panel. The inside of the elevator car was more than spacious, able to comfortably handle at least twenty people at once, and maybe as high as forty if they stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Standing inside, he studied the button panel. He was on the third floor by the look of it. The lights indicated seventeen floors in total, starting with the first floor at the top and increasing as they went down. Did that mean the building was underground? If that was the case, the top floor would likely be the exit.

With little time to decide he pressed the top button, floor number one. It lit up red: no access. If they truly were underground, and the top floor was the way out, then apparently no one was allowed to leave.

He picked again. The second floor button lit up.

The door closed, and a moment later the elevator car hummed as it ascended. Whatever the place was, their machinery ran smoothly. A few, short seconds later the elevator stopped and the door opened. It was bright out there. He stepped back, hoping not to find himself face-to-face with his captors. Luckily, his wish came true. He stepped out before the door could close again.

Coming out into a small area, the first thing he noticed was the sound, that unmistakable noise of people gathered in one place. Voices layered on top of one another, a mixture of laughing and coughing and the shuffling of feet, the rubbing of clothes and elbows. They sounded calm enough, civil, but maybe that was because they didn’t know an undead prisoner had escaped from the medical bay and was walking among them. That might change their attitudes.

A wall in front of him blocked all those people from view, creating a small area where the elevator had been neatly tucked away. It was almost entirely covered by a screen that acted as some kind of community board. At the center, larger than any of the other messages, was an announcement for a gathering at nineteen-thirty hours. A few children’s drawings had been added as well, colorful sketches of people playing in fields, along with various messages and advertisements.

It was time to find out who these people were. Slowly, cautiously, he walked out of the elevator area.

2. Machinamentum

 

Holes

Gunnar hated Deck Twelve. The air there hung heavy with unspeakable things, broken up only by a sour breeze that stunk of death. As a Fabricator, he had one of the few jobs that required him to visit nearly every corner of every deck of the ship, from the bathrooms to the cafeterias to every one of the environments. But none of them, not one of them, smelled quite like the Recycling Plant.

As he headed toward Wastewater Processing, where he’d been summoned minutes earlier, Gunnar looked up at the two miles of pipes that weaved overhead, occasionally snaking along the walls and down underfoot. Inside those pipes, pressurized waste of all kinds moved in the dark, their destination a series of massive vats that stood a hundred feet high. Deck Twelve was extra tall to allow for the sheer size of the vats. The waste inside them went through a series of highly-specialized processes in which the components were broken down and separated into their atomic building blocks. The sound of sloshing and squishing was ever present, and the odors that wafted from the vats left little to the imagination.

Yes, Recycling may have made their way of life possible, but it was still disgusting.

Gunnar crossed a catwalk, increasing his stride to clear the vat of black liquid below, thick bubbles popping on its oily surface, and wiped a bit of sweat from his forehead. The extra humidity generated by the processing meant the artificial sunlight was kept to a minimum on Deck Twelve, lit instead by computer displays and bioluminescence. It lent the deck an eerie color, nestled at some uncomfortable point between green and yellow.

Reaching the other side, he passed a group of men and women in orange uniforms, Recyclers crowded around a game of Bohap. The dice were currently in the hands of Saam, a man Gunnar knew too well. Saam had cheated at every game Gunnar had ever played against him, which wasn’t many once Gunnar caught on. Still, it was a lesson that had cost Gunnar more than a few Trade Points to learn.

“Look out, boys,” Saam said, “we got a yellow-suit on deck. If you’re not careful he’ll fabricate a knife right into your backs.” The others chuckled. It wasn’t uncommon to see mistrust between the Vocations.

“He’s the one you should watch. I’ve never seen a bigger cheater in my entire life,” Gunnar replied.

The dark-eyed man squinted at him as he rolled the dice on the ground. “Ehh, ignore him. He’s just a sore loser.”

Before anyone could stop him, Gunnar stomped the tumbling dice under his boot, eliciting a round of angry shouts. But when he lifted his foot, showing them the crushed dice with their shattered microchips inside, the angry shouts shifted toward Saam. “Harum zadeh,” Saam cursed under his breath.

“Enjoy your game,” Gunnar said with a grin, continuing on his way. A short while later, after making his way to Wastewater Processing and taking in the scene, he turned to Abigail. The slightly short but very curvy woman stood watching him in her orange uniform, her eternally dirty hands on her hips. “It stinks in here,” he told her.

“It usually does.”

“Yeah, well today it really stinks.”

“It’s like I told Seth, the scum skimmer is unresponsive on Clarifier Three.” She pointed to the large vat, this one more wide than it was tall. It usually hummed and churned with the sounds of dirty water, but for the moment it had fallen silent. “If you want to get out of here quickly, fix that and you can be on your way.”

Gunnar turned to Seth, who was watching him with multiwrench in hand. He’d worked with the Mechanic for a while now, yet he’d only drawn one conclusion about the guy: he was better looking than he was mechanically intuitive- and he wasn’t that good looking. “Did you try kicking it,” Gunnar asked him.

“I tried everything required when a scum skimmer is unresponsive.”

“Does that include kicking it?”

Seth shook his head. “It’s a defective Clarifier. You’ve had a look, now can you start fabricating a replacement unit?”

Gunnar laughed at the idea. As a big guy the sound carried far, echoing throughout the deck, probably down to where Saam was still explaining himself to an angry crowd of gamblers. “You want to replace the whole unit because of one bad skimmer?”

“It’s not just the skimmer. The analyzer is showing low sample line pressure. I checked for leaks, I checked the pumps, I even checked the suction header. They’re all perfect. And now the switchover isn’t communicating. No matter what I do, nothing works.”

“It sounds like you have a faulty brain,” Gunnar concluded.

“Excuse me?”

Gunnar moved to the Clarifier’s control panel. Ignoring Seth’s complaints, he opened the back of the panel and took a look inside. When everything looked good and clean he moved to the smaller, secondary panel that housed the power coupling as well as the breakers. Something caught his eye. A brown-black mass between two contact points. He smiled, proud of himself, and pulled the dead cockroach from the control unit. He tossed it on the ground, where it slid to a stop at Seth’s feet. “You’re supposed to be the mechanic,” he said, “not me.”

Abigail tried powering up the unit. The startup process started successfully, and within seconds it was humming along, back to its nasty business. She gave a dirty thumbs up to Gunnar.

“A temporary fix at best,” Seth pointed out.

“That’s true. It’ll probably only buy you another eight or nine years,” Gunnar replied.

Seth didn’t have much to say after that, so he gathered his things and left. After the Mechanic had gone, Gunnar closed the secondary panel and wiped his hands on his uniform. “Skitstövel. I can’t wait to get rid of him,” he sighed.

“Come on, he’s not that bad.” Abigail had begun running diagnostics on the Clarifier, her fingers moving expertly across the screen as she navigated its menus and submenus.

“Are we talking about the same guy? Seth, the one who just left? He’s all manual and no instinct. If I wanted to work with a computer, I’d ask Sunn for help.”

She snorted softly. “Well Sunn partnered you two up, so I guess you’re stuck with him.” Then she noticed the smug grin on Gunnar’s face. “What?”

“Desanto gets thawed out in two weeks.”

“Ahh, your buddy, the all-star Mechanic. You must be up crying every night waiting for him to thaw.”

“If that’s sarcasm,” Gunnar said, “you’re really bad at it.”

Abigail punched him in the arm. He tried to hide how much it had hurt. “You think they’ll want you two to work on that hull problem you’re always going on about?”

“If they’re smart. If not I’ll make sure they know how important it is. When I plead the case to the Captain, I bet you Desanto and I will get reassigned immediately. Then it’s goodbye to the walking manual.” He nodded to where Seth had been before he tucked tail and left.

“Well, if you want something to do until then, I can think of a few things to keep you busy.”

Gunnar’s eyebrow raised. Was Abigail hitting on him? He had to admit to some curiosity about what she was hiding under that uniform, but she’d never shown any interest in him short of a little workplace banter. Unless perhaps he’d misread all the signs. A typical Fabricator, he thought, better at reading schematics than people. “Like what,” he asked.

“There’s a D-13 malfunction code on Separator Six, for one thing.”

He nodded. Of course she’d meant nothing by it. “You know what the best thing about that code is?”

“What?”

“It’s not my problem.”

“Nice.”

“Call back Seth, he probably hasn’t slinked off too far.”

She laughed, and he tried not to look at her mouth. “Oh, come on. What are the odds I can convince you to stick around and help me?”

“Picture an ice cube in an atomic furnace,” he said, “then grab a hammer.”

“You missed your true vocation, Gunnar. You should have been a poet.”

“And miss out on beautiful life experiences such as these?” He checked the screen on his wrist. If he hurried he had just enough time to finish the next task on his list before he grabbed something to eat. As he prepared to leave, he noticed the dead cockroach he’d tossed at Seth’s feet was gone. He was sure of the place where it had landed just a minute ago, now just an empty spot on the vented floor. “Hey,” he called out. “Do you happen to know what eats cockroaches?”

Abigail put her hands on her wide hips and thought about it. “I don’t know…everything?”

“Then I hate to tell you, but I think you’ve got yourself an everything problem.”