By Greg van Eekhout
When you live on a spaceship, you learn to make your own fun. Exploring the tunnels is some of the very best fun the October’s got. After school hour, me and Droller go scuttling through the darkest conduits you ever will find. The starboard Hab gets minimal heat, so our breath clouds in the light of our head torches as we crawl on our hands and knees.
“You hear that?” Droller whispers from a couple of meters ahead.
I do hear it, a deep, wet wheezing that sounds exactly like Droller trying to spook me.
“You better go ahead and check it out, Droller.”
“Naw, Kitch, it’s behind you. It smells your butt. It’s a butthunter.”
I laugh at Droller’s stupid joke, because the stupider, the funnier, and she’s by far my stupidest friend.
We’re both from Aft Hab, both from the same birth lottery, and out of the eight babies born that season, we’re the only survivors. It used to be the three of us, me and Droller, and Jamm, but Jamm died last year along with her parents when the CO2 scrubbers in their cube failed. The scrubbers were item thirty-three on the fixems’ to-do list.
“How much farther?” I ask Droller.
“Just a couple of panels.”
It’s more like a couple dozen panels, but we finally arrive at the section of conduit above Town Square. Using just our fingers, Droller and me remove the fasteners holding the panel in place and slide it aside, just enough for us to peak out.
Down below, a crowd settles on the rings of benches surrounding the lawn. The brass band toots “Onward or Bust” in a marching beat, their jackets sparkling with silver buttons and silver loops of rope. Droller and I exchange a sad look. Jamm wanted to be a drummer and wear a thick, warm jacket like that. The odds were against an Aft Habber like her, but she was good enough that she might have made it.
Once the tooting is over, one of the Vice Captains ascends the grandstand. The audience stands and salutes in respect. Everyone on the October acts as like salutes are required, but White Madeleine told us saluting was never in the contract the original families signed. The Fore Habbers made up the requirement only eighty years ago.
The kind of people who come to witness a Course Correction are the type who do what they’re supposed to.
The Vice Captain says some stuff into a bullhorn. It’s too distorted for me and Droller to make out actual words, but we know what he’s saying, because this isn’t the first time we’ve watched a Course Correction from the conduits. He’s announcing the name of the violator and their crime.
The guards bring out a man, their hands gripping his arms and shoving. He’s dressed in thin brown paper coveralls. His face is bloodless. I bet he’s shivering in the cold.
“I’ve seen him before,” says Droller. She doesn’t know his name, but he does look familiar. Maybe I’ve spotted him in line at Distro, or maybe on a community service detail. Yeah, that’s it. A few months ago we were on the same crew scraping mold off crop troughs in the farm module. He was quiet and sniffed a lot.
“What do you think he did?” Droller asks.
“I bet he buggered a robot.”
Droller laughs, because it’s stupid.
The Vice Captain says something, his voice just a wah-wah-wah to us, but when a guard holds up a one-by-two meter rectangle of insulation padding, the man’s crime is obvious: Pilfering.
“Can’t blame him,” says Droller.
I nod. I think he’s an Aft Habber like us, and sometimes it’s so cold that it’s weird you wouldn’t steal some insulation padding.
“Think they’ll flog him or space him?”
“Naw,” Droller says. “It’s not that big a crime.”
“Depends on the Vice Captain’s mood. What if he’s grumpy? What if he didn’t have a good dump this morning?”
Droller laughs, but not a lot. She had a great-great uncle who got spaced, or so the family story goes. I think her parents were just trying to scare her into being dutiful.
The longer we wait for the Vice Captain to pronounce his sentence, the less fun any of it seems.
The crowd grows so quiet we can actually make out what the Vice Captain says:
“For the crime of Pilfering, you, Manet Leif, are sentenced to a year’s service of filter scrubbing while clamped.”
A guard yanks one of Leif’s arms behind his back and clamps it to the small of his back.
I whistle low. I had my mandatory scrub day last week. It was a long four hours with a mountain of filters, a wire brush, and a bucket of solvent, and my hands and shoulders just stopped aching yesterday. Manet Leif gets a year of that? With only one arm?
“I’d rather be flogged,” says Droller.
“Well, pilfer something and maybe you’ll get your wish.”
Droller is about to say something stupid when the brightest light I’ve ever seen turns everything white and painful.
“VIOLATION,” a voice booms.
It’s a doomba.
I try to scream, “RUN,” but it comes out as a choked cry. Droller copies me and makes the exact same noise.
With the ceiling of the conduit only centimeters above our heads, there’s not enough room to run. We can only crawl from the drone really, really fast.
But not fast enough. We get about fifty meters down the conduit when Droller howls.
The drone has a shock wire in contact with her ankle. Her hair floats, a halo of fuzz. She’s all “Yeeeargh” and “Oooowwwww” through tears and gritted teeth.
Of all the times to run into functioning tunnel security.
What will I do if it kills Droller? How will I get her body back to the Hab? What will I tell her parents? What will I do without my friend? I’m so scared for her that I don’t have any room to be scared for myself. I just have to get her out of here.
Lying on my back, I kick at the conduit wall.
Once. Twice. On the third time something splinters. I kick again. The wall cracks in a wide jagged fissure. Two more kicks, and it comes apart in shards.
I grab Droller’s arm with both hands. The doomba’s wire is still on her ankle, and the shock travels from her to me. A searing ache bores through my bones. My spine grows numb. Without knowing what will happen next, I yank Droller to the gap I made in the conduit and toss her over the side. I dive after her.
It’s a long fall.
We land in a bone-jarring heap. My breath comes in wheezy spasms. Droller just whimpers, curled up in a ball.
Above us, the doomba lingers in the conduit, uselessly reaching through the gap with its shock wires. For a second I think it’s going to come down after us, but doombas can’t fly, they just roll on their little wheels, and since we’re no longer in the conduit, its job is done.
The drop doesn’t look as far as it felt, which is good, because it feels awful. Wincing, I get to my feet and timidly move my joints and pat my sore parts. Everything hurts, but everything works.
I help up sniffling Droller and we determine that she’s pretty much in the same shape as me.
“Where are we?”
The only answer I have is nowhere we’ve ever been.
It’s a huge room with high ceilings, almost as big as a cargo hold. Everything is white surfaces, lit bright, like a vision of heaven. The deck plates are some kind of weird material, white and hard and smooth and cold to the touch, shot through with veins of black. Fancy pillars with carved curlicue tops hold up the arched ceiling. Strangest of all is the air. It’s warm.
And there’s music, completely different from brass-band marches, gentle notes rising and falling and mixing together in way that reminds me of the forest scenes they sometimes project at Town Square so we don’t forget the October isn’t just floating pointlessly in space, but that we’re going somewhere, and our great-great-great grandchildren will live on a planet of trees and lakes and grain fields and sunshine.
“I think that’s organ music,” Droller says. “Didn’t White Madeleine tell us about organ music once?”
White Madeleine told us a lot of things. She told us how the ship was different for the first generation, with more power and more heat and light and more things that worked, without an entire hab warren sharing a single power cell, and that’s how things were supposed to be until the October delivered us all the way to Nova Terra. But there were things that happened even before the ship left Earth orbit. Things like cost-cutting and budget cuts and low-bid contracts. Earth stuff I never understood.
“No, seriously,” Droller whispers in awe, “what is this place?”
“Only one way to find out.”
I take the first step and Droller follows me. Treading softly on the shiny floor, we walk for what seems like the entire length of a module before we come upon a body.
At first, we think it’s just some strange piece of equipment, a long box resting on the floor about two meters long, a meter wide, and as tall as my knees. It’s made out of the same smooth, veiny stuff as the floor, with some decorative curlicues and whatnot. Cables anchor it to the floor, and as I come close, I hear a familiar hum.
“It’s drawing power,” I say.
Droller doesn’t answer. She just leans over the box, eyes wide.
Carved into the top is the October’s motto: “Onward or Bust,” and right above the words is a small glass window. Under the glass, behind a thin haze of frost, is a face.
It’s a woman, eyes closed in peaceful rest. Her cheeks are white as milk paste, but plump, like she’s well fed despite being dead.
“What’s wrong with her?” Droller says.
“Why, ain’t you never seen a dead person before? It’s a corpse.”
I’m acting all sophisticated, but I’m as spooked as Droller. Just because I’ve seen death doesn’t mean I’m used to it. And normally the dead are in bags that get spaced or fed to the recyclers if the recyclers are working.
I wonder which treatment my sister will get.
She’s been sick for months and she’s not getting better.
I keep expecting the corpse to open her eyes and punch a hand through the glass and reach at us with twitchy claw fingers.
The box isn’t the only one. Up ahead, there’s dozens of them, maybe hundreds, stretching off to the horizon, the hatch at the far end of the module.
“Should we keep going?” Droller asks.
“Ain’t that what they teach us in school hour? Ain’t that what ‘Onward or Bust’ is all about? Forward, ever forward, never stopping, until we are home.”
“Home ain’t forward,” Droller observes. “Home is behind us in Aft Hab. Forward is … who knows?”
“It’s the principle of the thing,” I snap.
Droller makes a face at me, and onward we go.
More faces behind glass. More boxes drawing power. A few of them have bright red and yellow and purple and white flowers laid on top. I only know they’re flowers because I’ve seen them in the projections at Town Square. Flowers are a kind of beautiful plant that you mostly don’t eat.
I rub a soft petal against my cheek. “I never seen these growing in the troughs.”
“If they got a secret place like this, I bet they got secret farms, too,” Droller says, knowingly.
“But why? Why keep all these dead people? And why all hooked up like this and stuff?”
A voice saws through the air like a rusty knife. “I think a better question is what are you doing here, all trespassing and stuff?”
A tall woman with a cracked old face glares at us, hands on her hips. Long yellow hair spills out under an orange cap. The cap matches her coveralls, which come with pockets down the legs and a tool belt hanging from her narrow waist. She’s a fixem.
“Run or tackle her?” asks Droller.
“Aw, don’t bother,” the fixem scoffs. “Old Lodi can’t give chase, not with these knees. And you don’t got mean looks in your baby eyes. Besides, you gotta stick around long enough to patch up that big hole you made in my conduit.”
Droller and I kinda stare at each other like fools, not knowing what to do. If we were going to run, we should have done it right when the fixem startled us. Now, running off would seem weird. And the fixem is right about our mean looks. We don’t have any.
“Well, you gonna just stand there with your mouths hung open, or you want a tour of the mausoleum?”
Droller and me trip over each other to answer. “We want a tour!”
We follow as Lodi leads us among the boxes—coffins, she calls them—and rattles off the names of the occupants:
“Kitch, we know these names,” Droller says, excited for some reason.
Everybody does, because the teacher makes us recite them in school hour. These are the Firsts. The first generation that left Earth. The original travelers who set out on the October to Nova Terra. Our great-great-great and so on grandmothers and grandfathers.
“Why keep the whole dead lot of them here?” Droller asks while Lodi keeps rattling off names.
Lodi’s thin lips distort in a bitter smile. “Who says they’re dead?”
I go over to the nearest coffin and peer through the glass at a pallid face. “Ain’t they?”
“Not if Old Lodi is doing her job right. And say whatever you want about me, but I do my damn job. They’re alive, and they’ll stay that way, onward or bust.”
I can see how Droller is trying to put it all together. “So, when we die, they keep us alive, and we’ll all be alive when we get to Nova Terra. Us, our parents, our children, going up and down the line … all of us together.”
That sounds so nice. If we stick the journey out, we all get to step off the ship and bask in the sunlight of Nova Terra. We all get to live under open skies, big and free. Me and Droller and Jamm together again, along with our folks and their folks and our children and their children, all the generations backward and forward.
It sounds so fair.
That’s how I know it’s a lie.
“It’s just the first generation that gets kept alive to Nova Terra, ain’t that right, Lodi?”
The old woman nods. “The Firsts put it in the contract and paid for it before the October even left Earth. This is a generation ship where the very oldest are the very richest, so they never have to give way to the youngest.”
Droller switches from dreamy to confused. “That’s not fair,” she says, her voice a little wispy, like she’s just discovered something. “Why not put us all in coffins when we die? Why not do this for everyone?”
Lodi bats this away like a dust mote. “How many power cells you figure it takes to keep all the Firsts alive?”
A hab warren houses eight families and goes through one power cell a year. That’s running on minimum energy, dim lights, chill air, low filtration, rationed power consumption for materials recycling and fabrication.
“I dunno,” Droller says, looking around to take in the whole space. “A hundred?”
“A hundred?” Lodi guffaws. “Each coffin uses a power cell a year. And there’s 367 coffins. Then you add in everything else — the lights, the music, the heating … The original requisition was more than two-million power cells. That was supposed to keep the Firsts going all the way to Nova Terra. But it turned out to be an underestimate, no surprise. Every year we have to reassign cells from other parts of the ship just to make sure the coffins remain juiced till planet fall.”
“Then why the lights and the music and the heat?” says Droller. The outrage starts to build. “This is just waste.”
“It’s not a waste if the Firsts wanted it. And they wanted to make the journey in a dignified setting.”
I think of my sister, coughing in our cold warren. I think of Jamm, slowly suffocating while she slept.
I want to be furious at someone. I want blame the Firsts, lying cozy in their coffins, and the Vice Captains handing out punishment, and the Fore Habbers, and the people in the bridge tower we never see. But Lodi’s the one here, so I take it out on her.
“Why do you help them?” I almost scream. “Why not tell someone?”
“I’m telling you, ain’t I? And what are you going to do about it? That’s right. Nothing. Same as anyone else. Only you’re just kids so you’re not going to put me in a muzzle.” She seems like she’s having an argument with someone who isn’t here. Then her face gets real sad. “Anyway, I’m old. Dropped my last egg, and my wife, Tilda passed last year.”
“I’m sorry,” I say out of polite habit.
Lodi doesn’t even hear me. “Tilda was supposed to lie with me here after she died. But where is she? Being ‘prepared,’ say the uppers. Prepared, my elbow. It’s been sixteen months. They spaced her or recycled her, and they’ll do the same to me when I’m gone, same as they did for all the mausoleum tenders who came before me. They lie so much they don’t even bother making good ones anymore.” Drained, she takes a deep, slow breath. She looks at us like she just remembered we’re here. “Go back to your cold, damp warrens. Tell anyone you want. Nobody ever does anything about anything. Nobody corrects the course, they just correct the tellers. Back to the tunnel with you.”
“Aw, you’re making us go back through the conduit?” Droller protests. “There’s a doomba in there almost killed us.”
“You survived it once, you’ll survive it again. Or maybe you won’t. But either way, you gotta fix that panel you broke. I’ll get the ladder.”
Once we’re back up in the conduit, we discover there’s no more reason to fear the doomba. It’s keeled over on its side, leaking the bitter stink of melted wires. It’ll be number nine-hundred and something on the fixems’ list.
While I hold the panel in place, Droller inserts the fasteners. “Wait,” I say, just as she’s about to put in the last one. “Leave it.”
“Why, you thinking to come back here?”
I do something with my eyebrows that means neither “yes” nor “no.”
“One more thing.” I grip the doomba with both hands and pull where its body joins in a seam. It’s not easy, but I manage to crack it open, just enough to squeeze a hand inside and yanks out its power cell. It’s only a mini, it’s probably mostly spent, but I’m keeping it.
“Kitch,” says Droller, shocked. “That’s pilfering.”
I point down at the mausoleum. “No, that’s pilfering.”
Late at night, after meal, I sneak into our warren’s utility closet and replace the mostly dead power cell with the mini from the doomba.
My sister still coughs through the night, and my parents’ faces are dull with worry, but the air is warmer and drier and smells cleaner.
She dies three weeks later.
The mausoleum lights still blaze bright. The organ music still wafts through the vast chamber with its vaulted ceilings and fancy pillars. The coffins still hum with power.
There’s no sign of Lodi, but even if she interrupts me, I don’t think she’ll stop me. She says nobody ever makes a real course correction. I have a hunch she might like what I’m about to do.
Or maybe she’s dead. Maybe she already has a replacement.
“Kitch, what’re you doing?”
It’s Droller, climbing down from the conduit on the ladder I made from my sister’s knotted bed sheets.
“Dammit, Droller. Go home. You don’t need to be here.”
“I came by your warren but you weren’t home. I was bringing by some toasted meal for your parents. It’s from me and my folks, in case yours aren’t up to cooking. You know, on account of your sister.”
“That was real thoughtful, Droller. Tell your folks thanks and go on home.”
“I will once we’re done here. What is it we’re doing?”
She says “we,” because whatever I’m doing, she’s doing, because that’s how Droller and me always work, and trying to get rid of her would be like trying to scrape mineral crust off a bulkhead.
I show her the empty pillowcase I brought, plus a scratched and dull pry strip. “I’m gonna take their power cells,” I tell her, moving toward the nearest coffin.
“But … you do that, won’t they die?”
“I suppose they will.”
“Kitch. That’s murder.”
I look at a white face behind glass. Etched on a little plate is the name “Hai Breves.” She’s one of the first generation we learned about in school hour.
When I saw the bodies in the coffins the very first time, I thought they were dead. But now that I know they aren’t, they look a little different to me.
They look like they’re sleeping.
They look like they’re at peace.
They look happy.
Lodi said the mausoleum goes through 367 power cells a year.
How many power cells would it take to warm the Aft Hab? To keep our air clean so people like Jamm and her folks don’t die? To run our recyclers so we have raw materials and enough meal and medicine?
To keep more babies like my sister alive?
Not that many.
I jab my pry strip between the edge of the glass and coffin lid.
I should only have to kill a few Firsts to make things a tiny bit more fair.
By Alasdair Stuart
One of the age-old debates in science fiction is what constitutes age-old. It’s not just SF in fact, but all of literature where the patina of respectability gets thicker the longer something has been around. Look at my backyard, at the various old white men who haunt horror like Banquo’s Ghost at an IHOP, their very presence insisting things should be done at least partially like they’ve always been.
Of course, in some cases that’s not a bad thing and even the toxic ones are being increasingly re-assessed and viewed through different, diverse, fun lenses. It’s nice to see that happen with tropes as well as authors here, and I love how Greg’s taken the idea of the generation ship and looked at it for what it is as opposed to the romance it hides behind. That tells us a generation ship is a group of brave pioneers sacrificing generations of their families to an idea. That tells us this is the future’s cathedrals, built and steered by those with no hope of seeing them land. Faith as fuel. Science as the driving force behind survival.
The truth is…grungier. The truth is power cells failing, is paint fading. The truth is you inherit the space you lived in from your folks. The truth is you’re a passenger in a car where the doors are welded shut, heading somewhere you have no say in, won’t live to see, and no you cannot get McDonald’s drive thru. Chris Bucholz mines some wonderfully dark comedy from this in his novel Severance but Greg takes a subtler, I’d argue braver, route. This is a story not about arriving or even taking control of the flight, but of taking control of yourself and your life. There’s real darkness to it too, lives are going to be lost but the question of sustaining those at the cost of everyone else? Well, that’s not a theoretical argument. That’s disaster capitalism. Or perhaps in this case, deep-space capitalism.
Here knowledge really is power. The question is: What needs the power more and who needs the power now? Expertly written and read, thanks to you both and to everyone who’s brought the anthology to date!
We just started paying associate editors, who are slush readers and the first line of contact for every magazine and author. They are the unsung heroes of the industry and it’s time we sungthem. We’re currently paying all four shows’ associate editors at a reduced rate because we aren’t quite at the target donation yet, but it was time to get this done. So we still need your help especially as in addition, you also pay for everything else! Literally!
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We’ll be back next week with Tloque Nahuaque by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas, translated by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, read by Karlo Yeager Rodriguez hosted by Matt Olivas, with audio production by Adam. Then as now we’ll be a production of Escape Artists, Inc. and released under a creative commons attribution no commercial license. And we leave you with this quote from Contender.
Watching Interstellar didn’t make it better
Reading Carl Sagan, looking kinda vacant
You say you’re buying time but you’re always late
I’m starting to think you don’t even want to go to space
See you next time folks!
About the Author
Greg van Eekhout is a novelist of science fiction and fantasy for audiences ranging from adult to middle grade. His work has been selected as finalists for the Sunshine State Award, the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Nebula Award. His novels include Cog, Voyage of the Dogs, and the California Bones trilogy. He’s also published about two-dozen short stories, several of which have appeared in year’s best anthologies. He lives with his wife and dogs in San Diego, California, where he enjoys beach walks and tacos.
About the Narrator
Peter Adrian Behravesh writes flintlock space fantasy stories inspired by eighteenth-century Iran and songs about the technoapocalypse. By day, he edits manga for Seven Seas Entertainment. When he isn’t writing or editing, you’ll most likely find Peter hurtling down a mountain, sipping English Breakfast, and brushing up on his Farsi (though usually not all at once). You can read his sporadic ramblings on Twitter @pabehravesh or at peteradrianbehravesh.com.