Escape Pod 542: The Hungers of Refugees
The Hungers of Refugees
by Michael Glyde
I. Generation One
Our grandparents always said, “Take care to remember the first generation.” They came from fresh, from sunlight, whirling winds, and butterfly fields. They came from Hunger.
Generation One came from six different nations. Six nations? How long ago was this that six nations could exist, all at once? That’s what we’d ask our grandparents. They never answered satisfactorily.
Ship 13c smelled iron like death. White LED lighting glared off the walls. And it was warm, but an uncomfortable, mechanical sort of warm.
When Generation One boarded the ship, their children spent days waving and crying as Earth receded from view. To those children, loss was an old trick—that’s what their parents wrote of them in the ship’s log. They cried because they remembered their tiny fishing villages, their college towns, their cities that counted among the oldest on Earth.
The parents celebrated leaving the Camps. Finally escaping foreign soldiers quick to kill, food rations too small for mice, and the oppressive, endless heat, they laughed at their pain.
“Good riddance,” they said, “to all that.”
And that first night, a tradition began: all of Ship 13c’s residents crowded around the glass globe that overlooked the reactor core. Like campers around a fire, they told stories of their homes. How strange, how awkward, trying to tell stories everyone would understand. Which of the four languages did the most people speak? What prohibitions differed between these six cultures?
But that night they silently agreed to become one people. A people hunting for a new home.
The storytellers became The Historians. On the walls they created a vast digital collage of Earth’s monuments and trees and constellations. It ended, as it still does, in a vast forest scene, tree roots littered with chestnuts and crawling with bloodhounds.
Ten years after departure, The Historians threw an enormous festival.
Generation One played games using little toys the ship could print. Stories were told around the reactor core, and they gorged themselves on water and the multicolored paste they’d been given as food. This food, which they described as oddly dense and bitter, is all we have known.
As our people also do at festivals, the children danced. Fast tempo music whirled and waned, lifting the hearts of Generation One, even as their stomachs filled with bitter mash. Bright dresses twirled and blurred, and the dancers grinned as they flew about the floor, as if they could not smell the iron, as if the air did not feel dead, as if they had never left Earth behind.
But the music crackled to a stop.
A coughing voice came over the loudspeaker. “Attention colonists.” A rattling breath in. “Pre-recorded notice six. Ship crosses into deep space in forty-eight hours. All news waves and communications with Earth will cease.”
One more cough. The recording ended.
They had no one to communicate with. Wars still ravaged their small nations, between violent local groups and faraway governments. Their homes were all but ashes. Two days quietly passed.
On the third day after the message, the meal hall ceased dispensing food. Generation One did not know the bones of the ship, not like we do, and they had not questioned where the food came from. Such great pain they felt in the following days: Hunger, yes, of course. But also betrayal. The men who’d bombed their homes, the men who’d sent them into the Black, were now starving them because they were too far out to matter.
Children clenched their stomachs around the reactor core. They listened to tales of hypnotic visions that came with Hunger.
Parents hid their tears: how could they have failed their children so fully?
The next day, a man who’d been an engineer on Earth came forth. He volunteered to brave the bones of the ship. He wanted to know for certain if they’d been betrayed or not. Crawling into an access shaft, he made his way deeper, calling back his progress until he disappeared around a bend for hours, then days.
“Someone should go after him,” a young activist said. She was an escapee from a federal prison. Few dared speak to her, with her reputation for causing a stir.
“What if the ship killed him?” they asked.
“If no one goes, we will all die.”
“I will go,” the activist said.
Before anyone could decline, she crawled through the hatch and her deep, soft voice reported her progress, even after she’d gone around the bend, as an audible whisper. “Nothing yet,” she said.
Not ten minutes later, a man’s yell echoed through the walls.
The activist and engineer emerged, smiling and laughing with each other. He had repaired the dispensers hours before. Just a jam that the engineer had cleared. But then a door had locked tight behind him and he was stuck.
“If she hadn’t come, I’d have died,” he said, twirling a key he’d discovered.
That night, she told stories around the reactor core, and the Historians allowed it. The children loved them, although at times the tales seemed cynical distortions of the world they knew.
Of course, this story is just the first of the Hungers on record. Many more plagued the history of Ship 13c.
Generation One aged. The flood gates had opened and time cascaded upon them. They died; new generations were born. Stars and planets emerged from and melted back into the Black until Generation One could no longer stand the sight of passing bodies. They closed the blast shields over the windows.
II. Generation Four
Our grandparent’s grandparents were the first to spend their childhood in the dark clatter of Ship 13c’s bones. They were Generation Four; they discovered the red screens that diagnose the ship’s illnesses, and they discovered the backup generators and the ship’s manuals. For twelve years they had lived in the dark, learning the layout and deep workings of their home.
But by the time of The Fifth Hunger, Generation Four had long left the darkness behind. At the age of fifteen, they emerged, able to hear Ship 13c’s cries of pain, able to sense its merriment when repaired.
Still, the lonely dark haunted them. They became so afraid of the Black that they kept the blast shields closed their entire lives.
They feared, but took no pity on their grandchildren. By the age of three, every child on Ship 13c was exiled to the wild, Generation Four opening the hatch and pushing their toddlers through the hole into the skeleton of the ship.
They pushed them by their naked bottoms and waited for the clunk of their bodies hitting the floor. In the log they claimed they could feel it, too: the icy grate pressing their fingers, the dark closing in around them.
The Historians commanded it. Generation Four had no choice.
Generation Four lived for the moments around the reactor core, each night, when the whole ship would cram into the theater and listen as the Remembers told tales of Hunger and violence and death. They examined their grandchildren then, counting them, surveying their every scar, feeding them their once-daily meal.
All had heard the stories before, but the mesmerizing cadence of the words swept them up, lulled them until it felt like they were floating above their bodies, hardly aware of Ship 13c’s cantankerous echoes.
They grew so hot, their foreheads glistened.
One night, thirteen of the male children did not join their grandparents in the theater. Generation Four counted three times before they’d admitted it. The children must have gotten lost or had not heard the dinner announcement. It was hard to focus with the Historians’ voices buzzing through the hall.
The voices animated stories that Generation Four did not even understand—cityscapes glittered before them, and lions’ roars grappled the air. They tasted and smelled roasted almonds although they’d never eaten them before.
For a second and then a third night, the thirteen children were absent. The other children would not speak. They complained of Hunger and stuffed their mouths with food.
Only one option: teams of two explored the bones of Ship 13c. They carried flashlights with them but somehow the bones became unfamiliar while lit. Many of the partnerships got lost. All shivered. How odd when they’d spent ages three to fifteen feeling their way through the halls, waiting to come of age. Tangled with pipes, gears and red screens, the passages unfolded like a labyrinth.
After a few hours of chaos, they reconvened. They argued about the dark.
If they did not find the children, maybe more would disappear, and if more disappeared, they might all disappear. What danger was this that threatened to erase their families and the histories of all six nations?
So they switched off their flashlights.
They removed their shirts. They removed their shoes. They undressed and flexed their toes through the cold metal grating. Everything became familiar.
Searching then in groups of six or ten, they remembered the Hunger of their childhood. Sometimes, just to stay standing, they would have to lean against the walls and the vibrating ship would warm them, banish a little of the ache. Their bones would settle in that place and they might not move for hours, becoming numb with anger and fear.
In the dark, their bodies remembered the bones. Off they went.
Shattered glass cut their hands. They knew, just feeling their way forward, that they’d come to the door of the food room, the source of the paste. “They have accessed the food.” Had anyone seen them, they might have resembled bloodhounds, sniffing the air. An instinct they did not remember building.
So close to the food room, they could catch no other scent.
“They can’t have made it far,” a Historian said. “Not with the Hunger craze that fuels them.” A soft but gruff voice, a dizzying voice.
“Yes elder,” they echoed.
After three or four turns, they escaped the smell of the food room and smelled paste ahead. They followed that trail without a word to each other. As they felt their way forward, the smell grew stronger and stronger until the sound of snoring filled the tunnel and Generation Four discovered the missing boys.
The boys did not notice their grandparents. Even after their grandparents regained their civilized selves and flipped on flashlights, the boys remained prone.
So horrified by the tunnel scene, Generation Four averted their eyes. They saw each other, a band of eight old folk, nude and leaning on computerized walls like demons from the Black. Unable to stand the sight of themselves, they swung their lights onto the boys, hands over their mouths.
They blamed themselves.
Knotted spines hunched over piles of stolen food. Hands and faces splattered with liquefied paste, red and green and blue. Stomachs stuck out, distended and overfull. Twelve children slept in the nexus of two tunnels, their faces glutton-pale.
“The rations will be uneven,” one of Generation Four whispered.
Another child scrambled forth, hair crazed and eyes wide with lust, and dunked his face inches deep into a pile of paste. One of Generation Four tiptoed around the sleeping children.
She grabbed the feasting boy by his hair and tugged him from his meal.
His mouth contorted and red paste dripped from his mouth. Growling, he tossed her fragile body to the ground and slashed his fingers like claws. She screeched and grabbed the boy by the head. One heavy rap against the wall and he leaned away.
Into the flashlights he looked. He was dazed. Confused.
Generation Four helped their brave companion up and brushed her clean. Blood welled from a cut in her arm.
The dazed boy examined the room. “What did we do?”
For their part, Generation Four understood. Perhaps they understood even better than we do, because they were older. They’d experienced Hunger Mania themselves as children. A desperate blight of the mind and perhaps the most dangerous threat to Ship 13c’s survival. Punishment would need to be swift. Once they’d all gathered, they discussed it.
“Starvation obviously,” one of Generation Four said. “Seriously?”
“A few days of Hunger. To even out the rations.”
A Historian came forward, still fully dressed. His gaze stung their naked forms. “Isolation—each boy in a separate cell. And Hunger. Three days.” No one spoke after that.
Each boy entered a bright white cell and sat on a bench that lined the far wall. A member of Generation Four sat next to them, LED lights burning their eyes after so long in the dark. They tried to tell the boys why they were being punished.
“Food rations,” they said. “Mental illness,” they said. “Do you understand?”
When Generation Four stood to leave, boys grabbed them by the elbows and pulled them back. Iron grips, claw-like nails. The boys of Generation Six said, “We will not stop the violence. Starved, lost in the dark, we cannot stop.”
In reading the ship’s logs, it did not surprise us to learn that these boys, who would go on to cause conflict after conflict—spurring six more violent Hungers—were our grandfathers. All the children joined them. The fevers they’d endure; the pain they’d cause. Even today, we still feel it. In their final log entry, Generation Four grieved that they never got a chance to rest, and that they’d never taught their grandchildren to trust them.
III. Generation Eight: Us
One day diagnostic screens zatted and spat. Their red gazes sizzled to black, and the skeleton grew even darker. We gathered around the dead screens, doing our best to assess the damage, hearing Ship 13c’s arthritic bones creak.
With that creaking, and a sudden electric cry, the screens blasted blue light.
We shielded our eyes. Never had this happened: not in the log and not in the oral histories. We reached for the walls to support us and to freeze the fingers of fear in our chests. Only one boy—fourteen years and ten months, the oldest of Generation Eight—remained standing over the screen. Blue light reflected off his teeth.
“It reads ‘Prepare,’” he said.
When the dinner announcement came, we lined up at the hatch, which eventually opened to a shock of white LED light. The Premier Historian awaited us with her hand outstretched and each of us, even the three year olds, touched our forehead to her hand as we passed. But we did it in a hurry, some of us only brushing the tips of her fingers against our brows, and so she made us line up again.
We slowed the second time, and she welcomed us.
Our rations shrunk that night, it seemed. Or our stomachs had grown larger with hope. We devoured the paste and water in gulps, and our thoughts were so intent on our futures that we willfully ignored the hypnotizing words of the Remembers. What power had their stories over us now? Stories of the old, of iron and death and betrayal.
Again we heard the fateful creaking of bones. We looked to the eldest boy, who grinned and clutched the wall behind him.
We fell onto our backs and our gazes traced the latticework of LED lighting above. We tried to stifle our smiles, not to give away the secret. Our grandparents were still listening to the Historians’ tales. How insensitive they seemed to Ship 13c’s warnings.
It quaked. Giddy and anxious.
A deafening thud.
At that, our huge stomachs roiled. One of the grandparents rose and said, “What noise is this? How our ship shakes—I’ve felt nothing like this. And my lungs,” his voice grew comically, dramatically thin, “It feels as if the air is being sucked from them, like it’s rising into my throat.”
Other grandparents agreed, they felt this.
We felt it too of course, and we knew what it was: descent. Our oldest boy, still clutching the wall, declared, “We are falling. We have arrived.”
As if it heard his words, Ship 13c lurched. It threw the elders to the floor, and it rolled us back and forth as it fell, and when it finally struck ground, it coughed out another great electric cry, and then it moaned with grief. Finally, it settled, and it died.
Our grandparents hurried us through the hatch. They counted us carefully with their flashlights and whispered quiet warnings. As our position required, we tried to revive the ship. We really tried. Its silence was menacing.
First, we repaired the screens. Still blue, but flashing these words:
No aid from the screens.
Without that guidance, we sniffed around the tunnels, trying to locate the two awful smells—one burning oil and rubber, the other fetid but also sweet.
We discovered the fire flickering near one of the backup generators. We safely put that out, and the more electronically inclined of us remained to see to the wiring while the rest of us searched for that second scent, which seemed vaguely familiar and a little bit alarming.
To find this scent, we had to go deeper into the bones than we normally went. It led us all the way to the outer rim, and we felt along the ship’s support structure until we came to a secondary support rib that had nearly snapped in two, revealing to us, with startlingly sharp clarity, a jagged crack of yellow light.
The oldest boy reached out, the light filling his palm. His hand snapped away. “It’s hot,” he said, breathless.
Another boy, pinching his nose. “That scent.”
It came from outside, but we breathed. Truly, Ship 13c had landed on a planet with breathable air, yellow light, and this gut-wrenching stink. “What do we do?”
The oldest boy said, “We have to tell the Historians.”
All of us stared at the yellow crack as we backed away, just in case it was just a trick, or a phantom. We banged on the hatch door, and the Premier arrived, fuming. But at the mention of the fetid, sweet smell, she followed with three others.
“Are we leaving?”
“What will it be like?”
They tiptoed, and they shied away from our questions. From the heavy huffing of their breaths, we knew that they were thinking of Hunger Mania. But we felt strong and healthy, and more lucid than we ever remembered.
In the yellow light of the cracked rib, we could see that the bones of the ship were the same cold grey as the eyes of the Premier and her Historians. She turned and whispered something to one of the men, who jogged back the way they had come.
“Thank you for telling us of this,” the Premier said.
“Just a little pressure in the center, and the rib will snap,” the oldest boy said. “The immediate section of the hull could fall off. For a better look.”
The Premier nodded to him, seemingly pleased, so he turned to the crack, closing his eyes when the yellow light shined on his face, and he reached out. We had waited our whole lives for this moment, although we hadn’t known it before.
Without a word, the Premier grabbed his wrist. Our stomachs turned, suddenly ill as if we were Hungry.
“Stop,” she said.
“But,” he said.
“Can’t you smell that? It’s a warning. We can’t go out there.”
Right. She was right. We’d been crazy, manic, to think that we’d find freedom out there, that we’d find more—more fresh, more food, more light. We began to disperse, get back to our tasks, when the other Historian returned, jogging with a can of patching foam.
“No.” The eldest boy threw himself in front of the crack. We stopped to watch, but did nothing to help him. Our stomachs stopped us.
The Historian loomed with spray-can ready. “Stand aside,”
“Calm down,” the Premier said. “Don’t worry yourself about trivial things when we have everything we need on the ship. You are well fed and clothed and warm.” Her words wooed us. She had told us so many tales. “Your whole life has been here. Don’t worry yourself with things like sunlight.”
The yellow light?
We’d heard tell of that golden and transformative light that warmed old Earth. Story after story told of the magnificence of the Solar Star. So we surged forward in a wave, all together, and we pushed the Historian aside. We ignored the Premier’s spell-binding voice and rammed into the oldest boy, whose back shattered the cracked support rib.
We emerged to sunlight.
IV. Generation Eight: Us, In Sunlight
Our naked backs seemed to sizzle in that yellow light. It haloed us, it surrounded us, it blinded us. We danced without any care to where we stepped, and we hollered until our throats cracked. Red dirt clumped between our toes.
Half-crushed under Ship 13c were moist and soft tendrils of a blue plant that we lifted to our mouths. It gushed into our systems, filling us with sweet water.
More children joined us, and the Historians had retreated into the ship.
Eventually, we calmed and began to explore. The fetid and sweet smell was attached to a pile of lizard-like creatures, dead and rotting, which we knew better than to eat. Our ship had landed between miles and miles of red hills. The golden sun had caked the dirt until it cracked, and we dug into cool fissures looking for food.
We found bones, gnawed clean.
We found desiccated blue roots that had once housed those moist blue tendrils.
When the sun set, a crisp chill set in. It was like nothing we’d ever felt, but we huddled close to each other for warmth and comfort, and we slept under the stars, which were more stunning from below than anything we’d seen in the Black.
At sunrise, Hunger woke us. We wanted to visit our grandparents and eat a serving of paste, but the Historians had patched the hole. We banged on Ship 13c’s door, but it remained shut.
A whole day we have spent wandering the desert. Something is out here with us. Something is eating all the food. Around sunset, we find the littered bodies of bird-like creatures with their bones removed, but much of the meat left behind. On the way back to Ship 13c, we discover an abandoned pile of those tendrils, bitter and dry. But they soothe a little Hunger.
We sleep under the stars, leaning against Ship 13c, because we still Hunger. Yes, for food and water and rest, but also for understanding. Why did our grandparents abandon us? Where will we find our home?
Our stomachs ache to know.
Sunlight and the desert tempt us to name ours The Great Hunger. But when the moon rises, we discuss that selfishness: many generations of our kind have lacked filling meals, and comfortable homes, and safe certainty. So we tell stories of our ancestors to anyone that will listen.
Another night and we huddle by Ship 13c, sleeping wrapped in each other’s arms. We are so tightly cocooned. When we wake and unfurl at last, we hope that the golden light of the morning will have transformed our desert into a fresh and bountiful field, and that we will be like butterflies, dancing from flower to flower until we reach the horizon. For tonight we are as cold as lead, our pale and placid bodies piled in the moonlight.
About the Author
M. Glyde recently moved 1813 miles from Pittsburgh, PA to El Paso, TX, where he writes, works, and attends grad school. His fiction has appeared in See the Elephant. You can find him on Twitter @michaelglyde or on his website and blog mglyde.com.
About the Narrator
When not inhabiting cyberspace or various fantastic fictional worlds Joe exists in South London. A nerd by trade and geek by nature they spend their days in disguise as a mild-mannered IT greybeard. Their evenings, when not diverted by a remarkable wife or manipulative dog, are spent gaming, reading comics, and definitely writing something soon.