By Jamie Rand
Saul was lying in his bed and thinking about tomorrow’s surgery when the door to his quarters chimed.
He almost didn’t answer it. He wasn’t in any mood to talk. Over the last year—since his forty-ninth birthday—he’d worried about the surgery, knowing it was coming, knowing it was inevitable. Over the last month that worry had turned into anxiety and over the last week that anxiety had turned into fear. Now, this night before, fear had metastasized into something close to terror. Lying in his bed, staring up at the dark, he’d become acutely aware of his body: the thick lump of his heart, the flat lines of teeth in his jaw, the tightness of the bones under the skin of his fist. He wondered how much of it he’d feel this time tomorrow. If any.
The bell chimed again.
Saul sat up in his bed and put his hands to his face. The skin under his palms was clammy. Feverish. He swallowed a thick lump in his throat. “Father,” he said.
The speakers in his wall answered immediately: “Listening.”
“Daylight,” Saul said. “And open the door.”
The lightstrips overhead flared into amber life and he turned his face away from them, squinting. The door to his quarters slid into the wall with a pneumatic hiss but stopped halfway, canted at a slight angle. The hiss became a tired grinding sound. Beneath it was the harsh click of a ground gear. Probably the secondary, from the sound. Saul made a mental note to call down to Manufacturing tomorrow and then remembered it didn’t matter. Because of the surgery.
“Door malfunction,” Father said. The voice sounded baleful. Apologetic. “Door malfunction. Green District, Section Fourteen, Subsection R, Room Eight-Eleven. Should I call maintenance?”
“I am the maintenance, remember?” Saul snapped. Then he remembered he no longer was. Abid was the head of maintenance now. “Sorry, Father. No. I’ll take care of it. End conversation.”
“Understood,” Father said. The speakers went mute. Even the small hiss, the one that meant Father was actively listening, was gone.
From out in the corridor came a sarcastic laugh. A kind one, but sarcastic. Saul wasn’t in the mood for either. Or the man it belonged to. Abid slid through the half-open door, smiling a little. He had a small package under one arm. When he saw Saul looking at him, he said, “The cobblers kids have no shoes, the carpenter’s roof always leaks—“
“And the mechanic’s door doesn’t work,” Saul finished. He rubbed the back of his neck. “What do you want, Abid?”
The smile slipped away. From the mouth, anyway. Not the eyes. Abid’s eyes laughed at everything. “Just to say goodbye, Saul. Congratulations, too. But mostly goodbye. Big day tomorrow.”
“Yes,” Saul said. The word came out a dry little pellet. And before he could stop himself, he added, “It’ll happen to you, you little shit.”
Saul expected anger. A part of him wanted to see it. Upsetting Abid, making him feel even a little of the fear Saul himself felt, that wasn’t too bad of a way to go out.
But Abid only laughed. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
A part of Saul wanted to apologize for his outburst. It wasn’t Abid’s fault, any of this—not the surgery, not his promotion. But wherever the fault lie, he couldn’t make himself apologize. Instead he gestured toward the package. “What’s that?”
“It’s a present,” Abid said. “From Davek. He wanted me to give it to you.”
“What is it?”
Abid shrugged. His eyes flicked to the speaker on the wall. Father’s speaker. “I can’t say.”
He held the box out. After a long moment, Saul took it. It was wrapped in synthetic paper and tied with a small red ribbon. He felt the paper dimple under the pads of his fingers.
“Tell Davek I said thank you,” Saul said.
“You can tell him yourself,” Abid said. “I have to go, Saul. Shift starts soon.”
“Where are you at tonight?
“The dome. There’s a panel out. People are starting to complain.”
“I don’t blame them,” Saul said. It was unnerving, walking home, enjoying the sunset, noticing a small sector of the sky flickering like a dying pixel. The great curved screens of the dome simulated a sky none of them had ever seen. None of them would. Or their children. Or even their grandchildren. It would be five thousand years before their ship came to its destination. Entire generations born, living, and merging without ever knowing a real world. For that kind of life, Saul thought, a working sky wasn’t that much to ask.
“Listen,” Abid said. “Good luck tomorrow, all right?”
“Thank you,” Saul said. But it occurred to him only later that it wasn’t the surgery he was talking about.
After Abid left, Saul slid a finger under the paper and unwrapped the box. Inside was a small radio and a folded piece of paper. Real paper. Written on it in a simple and inelegant hand were two sentences and a name: Come see me in hydroponics at midnight. Don’t use the radio until you get here. Davek.
A party, then. A goodbye party. Saul felt a strange and not entirely unwelcome sort of gratitude. He’d told Davek and everyone else in the crew he wanted to be alone his last night, no farewells, no wake. They’d went and set up a party for him anyway. He wanted to be angry but couldn’t. Thirty years, he’d worked with them, thirty good years. It felt good to know they cared. Even if he didn’t want them to.
He turned the radio over in his hands. It was an engineer’s radio. An old one, outdated, probably salvaged from some recycle heap. Speaker, a cracked screen, volume button. The channel knob had been torn away. In its place was a small transistor with a pair of wires sticking out like antennae. He figured it was meant to broadcast on a redband frequency. One Father couldn’t hear. Why, he didn’t know. Unless Davek and the rest meant to throw him the kind of party Father wouldn’t allow. But in hydroponics? Why there?
It didn’t matter, Saul supposed. He stood up and clipped the radio onto his belt and made for the door. He was almost out of his room when he thought again of the surgery. When the thought ambushed him, as it so often did.
“Father,” he said.
“Will it hurt? The surgery tomorrow?”
“No. You will be unconscious.”
“When will I wake up?”
“When the augmentation is complete.”
“What does it feel like? After I wake up?”
“Cannot answer. Descriptors fail.”
Meaning Father didn’t have the words. Knowing—even just a little about what it would feel like—that would make things better. But no matter how many times Saul asked the question, no matter how he’d phrased it, Father always said those same two words. It was like asking what came after death.
“Thank you, Father. End conversation.”
It was dark in the hydroponics bay.
What little light there was came from the rows of plant beds: a small yellow lamp above each that nurtured the vegetables. A run of pipes misted recycled water. The low hiss sounded like a thousand people whispering.
Saul expected the lights to flare on. He expected a loud chorus of voices cheering for him. He expected celebration.
But nothing happened.
“Davek?” he called.
The radio on his belt crackled. Davek’s voice, low and conspiratorial, came through it. “We’re here, Saul. In the back by the water pump. Under the gantry. Come find us.”
Frowning, he walked toward the far end of the bay. The heels of his shoes against the metal floor echoed hollowly. When he passed a row of modded corn he reached out and ran his fingers through the stalks, smiling a little. He closed his eyes. A wonderful feeling, the silk of the plant. The last time he’d ever feel it, maybe. This time tomorrow, who knew what he’d be capable of feeling?
“Hello, Saul,” Davek’s voice said.
He opened his eyes. Davek was there in front of him. But so were Early and Maya and Tei. Everyone from engineering team alpha, except for Abid. Their faces were drawn and dark. Worried.
“So this is my party,” Saul said.
Davek shook his head. “No. Come here. Back by the pump.”
Frowning, Saul followed him. As he was walking Maya took his arm in hers. He turned to her, surprised, and she looked up at him. A sad and worried smile drifted across her face. He felt a sudden urge to kiss her even though she was ten years his junior and had a man of her own. He’d never once thought of her in any sexual way, but now? Now the thought came into his mind and wouldn’t leave. It was the surgery, of course. The fear of it. Making him feel things he otherwise would not.
“Davek,” he said. “What is this?”
“Keep your voice down,” Davek said. He ran a hand down his beard—a nervous habit—and said nothing else until they came to the churning and rattling pump. Then he turned to Saul. They all did. “Father can’t hear us. I don’t think. Not with the machine.”
“What’s going on?”
“Saul,” he said, “you don’t want to go tomorrow, do you?”
He felt a strong urge to shrug, to show courage, to say something like It happens to everyone. But what came out was the truth. “No. I’m terrified.”
“Everyone is. But everyone goes. Father tells them to. But it never says why.”
It, Saul thought. Not he but it. “I don’t think Father knows.”
“We think it does,” Davek said. “But it won’t tell us. Not the real reason.”
Early spoke up at this. He rubbed at his eyes while he spoke, as if this was a dream. His cheeks were flushed and the port-wine birthmark across his balding head was turning a deep crimson. “It tells us we have to, Saul. But why?”
“You know the reasons,” Saul said. “For God’s sake, Early. We learned them when we were kids.”
Early, who Saul had always known as a taciturn and calm little man, spoke with surprising vehemence. “Why? Because of population control? Because we have limited resources? Even if it’s true, they aren’t good reasons.”
Saul thought of the videos he’d seen as a child. The ones in school. The ones that talked about the history of The Akash, how it was a generation ship, made in Earth orbit, meant to go out into the galaxy. The videos spoke about the challenges and the dreams of its builders and how the ship was the hope of a dying planet. But the videos had also spoken of sacrifice. Of how every citizen had the responsibility to live a certain kind of life—one that helped the mission. Jobs they were forced into. Relationships where you could have no more than two children. It was a life of unselfishness by necessity and it was a life that ended at fifty, with the surgery that took you from a worker to an elder. To join Father with the rest.
“Don’t you want to know?” Tei asked. She stood with her arms crossed. “Don’t you want to know what it’s like? What Father really is?”
“Of course I do,” Saul said.
“We do, too,” Davek said. He looked at the floor as he spoke next. “And we thought maybe you could find out.”
“Me,” Saul said. His voice was flat.
Maya squeezed his arm. “You’re the chief, Saul. You have access to the entire ship. You can enter the core. Father’s room.”
“No. Absolutely not. It’s punishable by death, Maya.”
“Yes,” she said. “But you’re going to die tomorrow anyway. You know that. The merging is a sacrifice. Like Father’s a god and we have to placate it.”
He stood silent for a time. It was true, what she was saying. The vids called it immortality. The augmentation. They talked about how no one, except for criminals, had died on The Akash for the last seven hundred years. They’d moved beyond death. Beyond old age. And as a child, at least to Saul, it had seemed true. But now, facing the surgery, Maya had the right of it. He felt like a sacrifice, like animals he’d read about from old Earth history, going down chutes and into slaughterhouses. It wasn’t right.
“I’ll go,” he whispered. And then, stronger: “Yes. I’ll go.”
After Saul left, they sat crosslegged in the pool of shadow beneath the gantry, the four of them in a small circle. Davek held the radio, the volume just loud enough for them to hear over the slow churning sound of the water pump. Maya sat leaning forward, the small of her back against the cold metal wall, her arms on her knees. Tei was to her left and Early to her right. What she saw on their dark faces she felt on her own: fear, yes…but also guilt.
“This is wrong,” she said.
Davek looked up at her and shook his head. “We need to know.” He took one of her wrists and squeezed it gently. “And Saul deserves to know. Of all the people.”
She swallowed past a thick lump in her throat. Davek was right. There weren’t many men like Saul. He’d been there for the five of them, watching, teaching, helping. He’d been a baby-sitter for Davek’s two boys. He’d taught Tei everything she knew about laying runs of thermal wire. And when Early had burned himself on a ruptured capacitor in biometrics, it had been Saul who rushed in to help, Saul who had gone into the maintenance area despite the gas, the smoke, and the fire. Saul had saved his life.
And now they were asking him to risk his own.
“He’ll be fine,” Tei said. There was a strained smile on her face. It made her look sick. “He will.”
When she heard footsteps coming toward them, Maya looked up sharply, a cold flush running down her body, suddenly sure they’d been found out. Early and Tei turned to look and Davek made to stand. But it was only Abid. He sat down next to them.
“What are you doing here?” Davek asked angrily. There wasn’t much love between the two of them, but not all of that was Abid’s fault. He was Saul’s replacement. By Father’s order. Maya knew Davek well enough to know he’d dislike anyone in that position.
Abid shrugged. “I want to know. That’s all. Same as you.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be up in the dome?”
Before he could answer, the radio came alive. Saul’s voice crackled in the tiny speaker. “I’m just outside biometrics. Do you read me?”
Davek pushed the transmit button with a final, untrusting glance at Abid. “Yes, Saul. You’re clear.”
“Okay. Good. I’m going in through the access panel now. I’ll go in through the vent. That’ll take me through the Green District. From there I’ll follow the shaft straight down to the core.”
Silence then. And static. Tei bit at the end of her thumb. Davek brushed his palm down his beard. Maya sat with one hand wrapped around the other. Her skin was cold and clammy. She knew the vent shaft Saul was talking about. She’d crawled through a section of it years before, looking for a loose flange Father told her was there, and she’d almost gone out of her mind with claustrophobia. And she was a small woman. Saul would have to worm his way through, his shoulders rubbing against the metal, no way to turn around, the darkness inside the vent like a weight against his skin.
It was a long wait until he spoke again. “I’m through. Davek, do you read me?”
“Yes, Saul. Are you at the shaft?”
“Yes. There’s a door here. One second.” Then: “My code doesn’t work.”
“Can you wire it?” Davek asked.
“No. There’s no panel. The code should work, I don’t know why–“
Abid took the radio from Davek. “Saul? It’s Abid. Try eight one one seven zero.”
A soft sound came through the speaker, one they all knew: the pneumatic hiss of an opening door. Abid handed the radio back.
“It worked,” Saul said. “I’m moving on.”
Tei looked over at Abid. “How did you know the code?”
“It’s the new master. Father told me when I got the promotion to chief.”
Davek was looking at him, his eyes narrowed, his lips a slash across his lower face. “Look,” Abid said. “I didn’t want the promotion. It should’ve been yours. I can’t help what Father says. At least I was able to help.”
After a time Davek sighed. He even gave a grateful little smile. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Thank you.”
They were quiet then, the five of them. For a long time nothing came from the radio. Maya felt Tei take her hand and squeeze. She leaned in close. “It’s scary to think about, you know? Father, I mean. Our parents are in it. Our grandparents. Everyone who’s ever been on the ship. The first Ten Thousand. The Earth-born. Everyone.”
Maya nodded. It was frightening, Tei was right about that. But the worst thing wasn’t the idea of Father. The worst thing was that no one had ever seen it.
She laced her fingers into Tei’s own when Saul’s voice finally came from the radio. “I’m here,” he said. “Outside the core.”
They sat forward. “Tell us what you see,” Davek said. He was sweating. Maya saw a single drop run down his nose and fall to the floor.
“I’m in a corridor. Red lights. It’s hot down here. Damned hot. This place is filthy. Stains on the walls. Oil, maybe. Old A-3 panels. Most of them don’t work.” A pause. “There’s a door at the end. I can see it. Hang on.”
Maya glanced up at Abid. His eyes were wide and he was mouthing the same thing over and over again, like a short litany: Be careful.
“There’s writing on the door. I can’t make it out.”
A warning, Maya thought. A warning, maybe. Just like on the biometrics panels. Danger. Hazard. Something like that.
“There’s no keypad here. An old hydraulic handle. I’m opening the door.”
A heavy hiss and the sound of rushing air. Saul coughing. Then his voice, weak and almost inaudible over the background static: “There’s…oh my god, oh holy god–“
“What, Saul?” Davek barked. “What is it?”
Static. Then Father’s voice. It came not just from the radio but from the speakers in hydroponics, in the hallways, in the dome, in the thousands of bedrooms and workshops and bays. It came from everywhere at once.
“Unauthorized core access. Repeat, unauthorized core access. Resolution imminent.”
And then, worse, infinitely worse, they could hear Saul’s voice, not from the radio, but from the speakers. The sound echoed throughout the bay. “There’s thousands here, hundreds of thousands, they’re walking around in these metal harnesses but they have no skin, oh god, they’re-“
The sound of footsteps running on metal. Heavy breathing. “They’re moving, Davek do you hear me? They’re bodies and they’re moving, they’re coming after me–“
A loud clunk as he dropped the radio. Then a scream. It rang throughout the ship, long and piercing. A whirring whine like an industrial drill. The sound was lost beneath the shriek coming from the speakers. Tei clamped her hands to her ears.
Then silence. And in that empty space came Father’s voice, somehow both disappointed and satisfied at the same time, a voice that made Maya’s body convulse in horror: “Crisis solved. Engineering team alpha, please leave the hydroponics bay and report to the core for immediate augmentation.”
They looked at each other. Early was crying. Abid’s nails were digging deep furrows into the skin of his cheeks. Davek picked up the radio in a trembling hand and through pale lips whispered, “Saul? Saul, are you there? What’s happening?”
The voice that came back came late. And it came garbled, but it was still Saul’s voice. What it said made Davek drop the radio. Maya’s shaking hands flew to her face. She was screaming. So were Abid and Tei.
“Descriptors fail,” it said.