h2>Dating : We, The Liars
Author’s Note: This is the third installment in an anthology series, you don’t need to read them in any particular order but they all work to build a bigger world…or galaxy as it is.
Amon knew something was afoot the moment he opened his eyes.
Blinding light streamed down from a featureless ceiling, each photon fighting its way to be the first to sear his freshly thawed corneas. The kick of adrenaline that his casket had supplied to bring him into the land of the living was all that kept him from closing his eyes and sliding back into blissful oblivion. The chemicals rushed through his veins sending his heart into a furious pounding and gluing his eyes wide open for the onslaught of light. His muscles strained and pulled against his restraints as his body was driven forcefully into animation.
Amongst this torrent of sensation, a curiosity. Blocking the unyielding light were two heads, they peered down into his casket just as he began to hyperventilate. Why would there be two heads?
Amon had hardly known what he would find when he came back to life, or if he would come back at all. He had dutifully worked his stint aboard the Delaney’s Fable, five years of interminable solitude followed by sweet abeyance. As far as he knew there were only three possible outcomes when he went back on the ice. One, he’d be awoken mercifully by a dethaw specialist to help settle a new planet, a colony planet would have been found, this reckless bet he’d made as a younger man improbably paying off. Two, he’d wake up to another watcher pulling him out of cryo as best they could, he’d be thrown unwillingly into another work stint, his worst nightmares come to life. Or three, he wouldn’t wake up at all, the last five years of his life a fever dream before the grave.
None of these possibilities would explain why two heads, hair just grown out slightly from a cryo-shave, floating above two sets of denim-covered shoulders should be looking down at him chattering excitedly while his casket unceremoniously kicked him into consciousness. The synthetic adrenaline worked its way into his synapses setting charges racing along neurons as his mind attempted to decode the babble bouncing between the two heads. His mind, still flooded with chemicals from cryogenic stasis, didn’t stand a chance. So instead he did what he could do, which was tense every muscle in his body and hyperventilate.
“Woah. Easy, easy, easy there.” The first decipherable words hit his years laden with Russian accent, a concept itself that sent his mind careening down a myriad of memory paths. Who was this? Where had they come from? What did it mean for someone to have a Russian accent? Amon had no hope of answering even the simplest question in his current state, so he continued with his current strategy of mindlessly gulping down air as his heart rate continued to climb. “Take it easy, big, deep breaths.” He fought his instincts and managed, just barely, to control his breath. Every fiber of his body was fighting to work in overdrive. “That’s it, that’s it, a few more big breaths like that, slowly, slowly.” The first head said, it was finely featured and covered in a short wave of blonde.
Mercifully, the crest of the adrenaline passed and his body relaxed back into his casket, breath fell back into a labored wheeze. The room began to clarify around him. This was the dethaw chamber, he remembered it from the last time he came off the ice. But why had he been driven awake so forcefully with the adrenaline? Who were these people, and why were there two of them?
“Well that’s hardly the easiest way out of cryo chango, but it certainly is the fastest.” The second head offered, answering the least of his many questions. As his sight returned he saw that this head belonged to a dark, stocky body. A tight curl of black hair all that had regrown since it’s shave, the denim shirt and canvas pants indicated beyond a doubt that this was another watcher, as was the other. But why should there be two? “Unfortunately for you, we didn’t have much say in the matter,” It chattered on.
“Wh…wh…wh,” Amon tried, his vocal cords seized tight after untold time in stasis. The light head reached in with her clarifying body and unstrapped him. “Why two?” he finally managed to wheeze just before he rolled to the side and retched.
It wasn’t until they had Amon pulled out of the casket and had him huddling under a blanket with a hot cup of broth filled with restoratives that something approaching a fully formed thought made it all the way through his mind. By then he could just about take the measure of his companions. They were seemingly complete opposites. One, a heavyset dark Latino man with a crooked grin and tattoos creeping up above his collar had introduced himself as Basilio. The other, Anya, was all he was not, petite and fine with delicate features and wisps of blonde hair shining back in the bright light.
That was where the differences ended though, they both seemingly had an undying love for boisterous banter. Indeed, Amon thought they hadn’t stopped talking since he first cracked open his eyes and figured this rapport probably went back as long as their relationship. Although whether they were truly kindred spirits, or just two humans so starved of companionship that they immediately clung to the first person they saw, Amon couldn’t discern. In the end, it didn’t matter. The babble continued, flooding his ears, clogging his neural pathways, and blocking each attempt at coherent thought. Finally, he couldn’t take another quip from the duo.
“Enough!” he let out in a papery wheeze, voice still unprepared for use. The two faces turned towards him. “Enough,” he repeated in barely a whisper. “I, I, I need to think…”
“Oye! He speaks!” Basilio exclaimed. “Well, it’s no fun but the adrenaline kick sure gets ’em up and moving in a hurry.”
“Indeed.” Anya agreed, leaning in and prying open one of his Amon’s eyelids to check his pupil contraction. “Reflexes look alright, and you’re talking which means you’re on the fast track to dethaw, for whatever that’s worth.”
“Still going to be un chaqui enorme amigo.” Basilio put in, further confusing the situation with another language.
“He means you’re going to have one hell of a hangover,” Anya lent more helpfully. “Good news is when the ship dethaws you like this and pushes you up with adrenaline the worst of it is over in a day or so, rather than the slow thaw which is gentler and safer but has a longer recovery.”
“I didn’t know there was more than one way off the ice,” Amon rasped, bewildered as to why they were talking about this when he had so many more pressing questions. “Why….why are there two of you? There’s only ever supposed to be one to wake the next watcher. Are we still traveling? Am I here for another work stint?”
Basilio let out a low whistle. “Cabrón, five minutes back with the living and you’re already getting at the questions we don’t have answers to.”
Anya put a comforting hand on his knee and looked up at him warmly with her deep blue eyes. “Yeah you’ll have lots of questions I’m sure, and we’re here for you, but you should know we know fuck all more than you. Let’s start with the basics then, what’s your name?”
“Amon, Amon Osman. I’m from Cairo, I came on the ship as maintenance crew. Didn’t you?”
“We did indeed, and I, like you, did my stint awake, unlike this lucky bastard over here.” She said sticking a thumb over at Basilio.
“One day I’m eating dinner with mi abuela in Sucre, next I’m waking up to my new best friend Anya here.” He agreed with a smile of crooked teeth. “Well she’s either that, or she can’t get away from me on this ship.”
“I don’t have much of a bloody choice now do I, Basilio?” She shot back with a warm smile. “I’m trapped out here in the void with a good-for-nothing drug-dealing Bolivian gangster.”
“Former drug dealing gangster, thank you very much. Out here I’m Basilio Cardenas, Starship Technician.”
Amon had to let out a dry chuckle at the man’s mocking pride and endearing smile.
“Waaaa, he talks and he laughs! You’ll get on just fine with us chango,” he said, scooping Amon up with a thick arm before dropping him into a wheelchair. “Vamos let’s go meet the others.”
“There are others?!” Amon gasped, almost choking on his broth as they rolled out into the long cold halls of the ship.
“Bet your ass there are!” Anya chimed in joyfully. “Your addition makes five of us clueless mothers.”
“Five?” Amon whispered, bewildered. “How long have you been awake?”
“Well as you may have guessed by Basilio’s butt-ugly grow out he’s been out for about five months now,” she snarked. “I came off about a year ago. But Mali has been awake for about four years, and Stephanie…”
“Stephanie esta muy kh’encha, she has some seriously bad luck.” the Bolivian put in solemnly. “She worked her stint all by her lonesome, then pulled Mali off the ice and tried to go back down herself but the ship wouldn’t let her. That was nine years ago, now. Pobre chica has lost almost a decade to this pinche ship.”
“Time’s a bitch Basilio, she’s coming for all of us if we can’t figure out what’s going on.” Anya agreed.
“So, what? You all have just been awake on the ship with more and more people waking up and you have no idea why?” Amon wondered.
“Pretty much my friend,” Anya replied with a friendly glance as she walked alongside his wheelchair. “A few hours ago we got a set of clothes from the biofactory and a note saying where to come collect your sorry ass. The ship, when it decides to defrost another one really seems to be fast tracking it, we barely had time to get to the dethaw chamber before you woke up and started losing your shit.”
“De nada cabrón.” Basilio said, accepting unoffered thanks. “If we hadn’t ran down here as fast as we did you probably would’ve given yourself an aneurysm pulling at those restraints.”
“…Thanks, I guess.” Amon replied belatedly. “So where are you living? What have you been doing all this time?”
“Well not fixing the ship, that’s for goddamn sure,” the petite Russian scoffed. “We’ve mostly been pissing away our time trying to figure out how to keep ourselves fed, and keep from killing each other.” She shot a playful elbow into Basilio’s side.
“Oye huasa!” he yelped. “Look it’ll be better if we all talked together back at the house. Estephania should be putting together quite a spread for us tonight, we’ll have you back to feeling like your old self in no time. Why don’t you tell us about yourself Amon?”
So the three of them walked slowly through the cool halls of the ship, the walls slid by in their creamy texture, the ship supplied the sounds of wind whispering through palms to mask the echoes of their footfall, and Amon began to tell his tale. How he’d grown up in Cairo working the delta dam, his hydraulic engineering experience making him a natural applicant for the Delaney program. How a series of catastrophic dust storms off the Sahara choked out the city and sent his mother and grandmother off to an early grave with dust pneumonia, leaving him with no path forward on Earth. He told them how he’d nearly hung himself from the sycamore behind the house during his workstint, and how blowing glass in the workshop had kept him sane and held him back from the brink. Apparently Anya had worked her stint before him because she didn’t receive any of his glassware, but there was plenty of it in evidence at the house now. The boisterous pair lent a sympathetic ear to all of it, mercifully keeping their usual chatter to a minimum, only adding a word of encouragement when Amon was almost lost to tearful reflection.
The halls passed in an hour and an eternity.
When they finally rounded the corner to the threshold Amon fell silent. Where stretching halls had been now a wall of greenery filled the open archway, he choked on his words as memories flooded him. During all the interminable years aboard the Delaney’s Fable this sight had always meant home, and yet it was the one he’d hoped to never see again. Nevertheless chemicals flooded his brain telling him that safety lay ahead and as the gates opened up tears poured forth. Anya handed him his stack of work clothes all freshly laundered, but clearly the ones he’d worn during his stint, and his boots. As he grasped their battered leather collars he broke into outright sobs. The cruelty and the beauty of this place weighing on him in equal measure.
Amon’s companions stepped discreetly outside while he changed and steeled himself to take his first steps into this world that was at once new and old, honest and forged. He took a teetering step out of his chair and crossed through the air curtain, with his first hungry gulp of this rich, warm air the tears stopped and he stretched his arms out wide. A man savoring all the feelings of being alive. He bellowed at the top of his lungs with joy and rage and gratitude and pain, as his new companions stepped in beside him to catch him should this absolute catharsis become too much.
Then Amon took his first steps forth into this new, old world. His boots, lovingly crafted by some soul unknown, having become as much a part of himself as his own hands now went from turning aside spades to holding him upright as he staggered in the loamy dirt. Anya and Basilio stood just to his side as his first unsure steps took him across the bridge that leapt the little perimeter stream. His strides gaining more and more strength as they passed through the wood, cottonwoods towered overhead in the full vigor of summer.
At last they broke out into the high grasses of the outer paddocks. Above, the sky stretched off in its contained infinity, as the simulated sun sunk past the horizon leaving the world soaked in lilac. And there. Off just barely visible on the rise, was a sight Amon loved and hated to see once again. The old farmhouse. There outlined in violet was the home he never wanted, and yet was still beckoning all the same.
It stood exactly as he remembered. Neat and plain, two wood-clad stories with square windows and a large covered porch overlooking the gardens and the fields beyond. It was every inch the idyllic American farmhouse. Amon hadn’t known how long it had stood before he awoke the first time, and he had no idea how long he’d been asleep now. But here it was, the one seemingly immovable object in a sea of so much change.
As they made their uneasy way along the well-trodden track towards the house Amon could just pick out a figure digging amongst the gardens. Coming just within earshot the figure stood, remarkably tall, overall clad, with a basket on their hip and stretched out a long arm in greeting.
“Oye Estephania we brought home some ice!” Basilio called out with a laugh.
The figure was in fact a powerful, tall woman with broad shoulders and a mane of warm brown hair. She dropped her basket and hurried over to us as we stepped out of the grasses and into the garden.
“You assholes!” she protested. “Making him walk already, he’s about to fall over!”
“Hell, this crazy bastard was ready to walk the second we woke him up!” Anya shot back in a playful retort.
All the same Stephanie fell in beside Amon and threw an arm under his wobbling shoulder, nearly lifting him off the ground in the process. Just then, the front door slammed open and a slight, dark figure stepped out onto the porch.
“Can you not keep it down? I’m trying to work!” They bellowed, waving their tablet about.
“Oh relax Mali! I hear the boss is away anyhow.” Anya hollered, smiling.
The slight woman, Mali, briskly met the party out on the path throwing another helpful arm around Amon, grasping near his waist as Stephanie’s powerful frame had nearly lifted him clear off the ground.
“Thank you, thank you,” he protested. “ But really, I want to walk on my own, get my body working again if I can.”
“Well you don’t have to tell us twice!” Mali laughed, giving him a playful nudge sending Amon staggering. He caught himself on the stairway rail just before he took his first steps back into the house, breath laden with decades of mixed emotion. He paused and took a deep gulp of air and opened the door.
Amon looked back and forth savoring the peacefully mollified surrounds, it was nearly all the same. Somewhere along the line some poor watcher had gone out of their way to make tidy new furnishings that bespoke years of developed craftsmanship. The great table, now hewn of dark red wood, was strewn with belongings. Papers and hand drawn maps and at one end and the evidence of a dinner ready to be served at the other. But as he looked beyond, out back, where he ought to see the little reservoir out near the treeline, Amon got his first hint that something was truly changed about this place. Where windows had been, doors now covered almost the entirety of the back wall.
“Feel like home?” Stephanie asked kindly.
“Well almost…as much as I never wanted to see the place again. It looks like you all have been busy though.” Amon replied.
“Hmmm, indeed. After I couldn’t go back to sleep when I woke Mali up we knew we had to expand the living quarters,” she said laying a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “It’s not exactly the Ritz, we had to strip half of the perimeter forest bare on the back side for materials, but at least we have something to keep the rain off and enough space to keep from killing each other.”
“How much have you had to build?”
“Well the house was only ever built to accommodate one, so we’ve probably tripled the square footage but we have split everything into three rooms. We’re ready for you, but God help us if many more wake up. We’ll be sleeping folks out in the halls before we know it.” She prophetised with a heavy sigh. “None of that should worry you now though, my friend. Dinner’s nearly ready, I’ll wash my new greens and we can get to it!”
“Capo a little of Estefania’s home cooking and you’ll be right as rain!” Basilio cried, hugging Amon around the shoulders then helping him into a seat.
Dinner was a revelation.
The collective labor and experience of four motivated minds working this fertile land transformed a slurry of raw inputs into transcendent art. While Amon had developed a passable proficiency with the gardens on his stint, enough to provide a diet with enough variety to keep the worst of the monotony at bay, he had never grown half of the variety that was served to him that one evening. Beyond that were delicate cheeses courtesy of the cow and Basilio’s labor of love, and several steaming loaves of bread that Mali had made when she needed a break from furiously burrowing into her tablet. Every dish, every ingredient, every plate was all watched over my Stephanie’s scrupulous eye, running the bustling kitchen like clockwork even as the house became more and more crowded.
The ship had even provided wine for the occasion. The vines were now just withered old sticks out by the lake, but somehow somewhen some watcher had poured their soul into these bottles, waiting the years for the vines to bear fruit then carefully mashing it into delicate ambrosias. Even an AI could see an event that called for a little celebration.
Amon sat back in awe of this little family that had sprung up in the least likely of places. Basilio and Anya continued their boisterous banter, dodging this way and that to lend a hand when called for, and avoiding a slap from Stephanie’s spoon when they got a bit too cheeky. Mali carefully set the table and carved up her bread and laid it steaming before Amon with a block of salted butter and a smile. Stephanie, matron of the house, gave a call when the main course was ready, a hearty lasagna laden with all the splendor of the gardens, and everyone scurried to their places around the table as she took her seat at the head.
“To Amon!” Basilio called, thrusting his glass skyward, “Another cojudo come to our little familia.”
“To Amon!” The rest cried joyously, making the occasion feel like a long awaited homecoming rather than the existential crisis that it was.
Wine flowed, dish after dish spun their way round the table, and the conversation relaxed into a langruous stream as these lost souls reached out and built new connections. The more Amon ate the hungrier he became his jolt out of cryo catching up with him and sending him after every spare calorie he could grab. Stephanie looked down the table warmly at him, happy to fuel his recovery. As they got to talking Amon learned a little more about his new family members.
Stephanie Morritz was a chef-become-nurse from St. Louis who’d caught the bad side of a divorce from a young marriage that left her with few options other than to head over to the Delaney recruitment office to try her luck there. Against all odds she was accepted, and with little family left to speak of she said what few goodbyes she had to make and headed off towards the spaceport.
Mali Saetang was a true rarity, a maintenance worker who was actively recruited by Delaney to be a part of the venture. She grew up in Pattaya City and had built a formidable resume as a computer systems architect by the time she was sixteen, when she was captured by a militant group and held in solitary captivity for three years. Far from breaking her spirit her time alone had seemed to spur a further bent of her creativity, she sketched out a series of new storage and security systems that she then went on to sell to a couple high profile banks in Bangkok. A mind that grows more productive in true solitude did not stay off of the Delaney radar for long, and several local gangs began to come after her for information on the bank systems she’d built. So the recruiters had little trouble elucidating the appeal of a fresh start to Mali.
The profane Russian, Anya, needed little motivation as well to try her luck with the Delaney venture. She’d grown up with little family in St. Petersburg and wound up at twenty working the industrial docks having to contend with heavy machinery and heavy seamen alike. Her love for surly language had persisted as she taught herself English and Mandarin with what little free time she could afford. But it was her mechanical aptitude that had likely landed her a berth aboard the Fable, she’d held her own on the docks for her ability to mentally take apart vast machinery and find the simplest, most effective repair possible. A skill that was in short supply out in the depths of space.
And finally Basilio Cardenas, the jovial Bolivian who’d grown so close to Anya in his short time awake. He alone among the five of them hadn’t been previously woken for a five year work stint, though whether that was luck or misfortune was anyone’s guess. Certainly he’d saved years of his life from the abyss of interstellar travel, but now to be thrust into this strange place under such unsure circumstances would be trying for any mind. Basilio took it all in stride. His formative years were spent running the back alleys of Sucre helping along the family business of cocaine trafficking. So he needed a natural resilience to survive. Eventually though, rival factions within the family shrunk the ground beneath his feet and sent him running to the relative refuge of and uncle in Sao Paulo and eventually into the waiting arms of the local Delaney recruiter who picked up his innate mathematical aptitude and resilience almost immediately, and offered him a shot at a new life which he seized with relish.
Eventually the lazy rounds of introductions were completed and attention fell back on Amon. He’d eaten his fill and had his head filled with more stories than his half-frozen mind could parse. Silence fell across the table and he ventured his first real contribution to the conversation.
“So, wha…..” he trailed off, trying to address the elephant that hung over the room so delicately.
“So what the fuck are we doing here?” Anya chipped in.
“Uh, yeah, I guess.”
Stephanie cleared her throat and four pairs of eyes looked up at her obediently. “I wish we had a better answer for you Amon,” she began. “I’ve been awake for nine years now and have only come up with more questions. To be honest though, at this point I’m tired of searching for answers, this life on this farm may all be a facade but it’s the best life I’ve had,” she confessed. “I’ve been able to build a better family here than anywhere else. I wake up every morning to clear skies and plentiful rain rather than the perpetual dust that lingered over St. Louis. They built the American dream of old right here on this ship, and it may all be a lie but it just may be the best life I’m ever going to get.” Her clear green eyes dropped to the table as she trailed off.
“Well on that cheery note,” Mali piped up. “As much as I love spending my time here with Steph, I have been able to uncover some information from within the ship’s libraries as to our current situation to see if I could figure out what the hell is going on, although admittedly all of my research has generated more questions than answers.’
“First off, the CRS Delaney’s Fable has been flying for 1,563 years if the charts are to be believed,” she said, skipping over this bombshell of information as if she were delivering the weather report. Amon barely had time to react before she barreled on. “That would be why most of us have already been woken up for our stints already, Basilio got the blessing of waking up for the first time to whatever the hell is going on with all of us.’
“But back to it. So just under 1,600 years, and we’ve made a fair bit of headway. From what I can tell we’ve bounced through ten different systems and kept on going,” once again, Mali skipped through potentially shattering revelations with little ceremony. Amon simply held his tongue and let the torrents of implications flood his mind as he tried to keep her words straight. “By now we’ve actually made a bit of headway out towards the Perseus Arm of the galaxy, given that it was out at the wider range of our specified sector of space. Although we’re still thousands of years from approaching it’s outer limits. But we have passed through a system relatively recently, about 75 years back we pulled into orbit around a star and then eventually fired the engines back up and carried on.’
She pulled up a new map, showing the Fable’s trajectory since they’d left the last system the ship was now clear out in the belly of interstellar space, the system they’d left the closest point of reference by far. Mali continued, “Now this obviously is showing our current course, if the charts are right we should arrive at the next system in about 125 years, relatively brief flight time for this ship of ours. I’ve been looking at this chart for about four years since I woke up, and it’s tough to distinguish due to lack of reference points but it does seem like we’re making headway.” She paused and locked eyes with Amon. “Of course, that is, if we are to believe the information the ship is feeding us. We’ve been more or less trapped between here and the dethaw chamber since I woke up. The ship could be feeding us whatever it wants, although why it’d lie I can’t imagine, still that’s what I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of.”
The room shrunk around Amon, his breath quickened, and blackness overtook his vision as the meaning of this deluge of new information took hold on his mind.
“Alright, alright Mali. Slow down,” Stephanie stepped in, laying a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “You’ll give the poor guy a heart attack overwhelming him with information like this. Just breathe Amon, as confusing as this may be we’re all safe here.”
He fought back the coming panic breath by breath. All eyes around the table were fixed on him beaming with empathy as he struggled to fit this new information into his understanding of the world. Finally he regained some composure.
“So as far as we know, we’re stranded awake aboard this ship and the nearest system is over a hundred years away?” he gulped. “As far as we know we’re all as good as dead?”
“As good as dead together amigo,” Basilio reassured, lifting his glass with a solemn smile.
“Oh it’s not so bad as all that,” Mali cut in. “For one, things have been changing faster and faster on the ship. Steph woke me up four years ago, then two years until Anya, then a year until Basilio, now you just a few months later.” As if this was some sort of grand reassurance to remedy the doom that was clouding Amon’s mind. “But it’s not just us, new information has been becoming available to me faster and faster. I spend most of my days combing the available parts of the ship’s libraries for any clue into what’s going on and new troves have been opening at a faster rate. Plus, more halls out in the ship have been opening. At first it was an occasion when the door from the homestead opened, then we got access to the dethaw room, and now more and more halls in other parts of the ship have been opening themselves up to us. That’s what all these maps are, us trying to chart the open halls,” she said gesturing to the pile of maps at the far end of the table.
“As if we’d want to go anywhere else on this godforsaken ship,” Anya guffawed. “What like we’re going to want to go hang out in the cryo halls with all those frozen mummies?”
“Oh look on the bright side cabróna,” Basilio chipped in. “Before too long we’ll have the run of the place and you won’t have to see my ugly ass ever again.”
“I can’t wait,” she shot back with a playful punch in the shoulder.
“The increasing rate of new wakers is a double-edged sword, though.” Stephanie cautioned. “It’s nice to have new faces, and they’re certainly a sign that things are changing. We have room for one more after Amon with our current setup before we need to get building again.” She sighed and looked around pensively. “Eventually we’ll start really straining the resource balance of the homestead. This place was built to keep one person alive, fed, and in balance. We’ve already had to greatly expand food production capabilities and soon enough we’ll run into serious issues with fertilization and nitrogen fixing no matter how clever we get with crop rotation.”
“Steph, ever the joyous light.” Mali quipped in with an impish smile.
Stephanie shook her head and laughed, hard realities were no match for good company this evening. “Whatever comes our way, we’ll figure out a way to face it head on. Now, Amon you get a break on dish duty tonight since it’s your first night, but tomorrow we’re putting you to work, so don’t get used to it! I’m sure you’re beat though, so you can shack up out back with Basilio.”
“Oh you poor bastard,” Anya moaned. “I can hear his snoring across the workshop, you’ll never get a wink of sleep!”
“Callate cojuda!” Basilio protested. “Don’t you worry Amon, we’ll get on just fine.” He rose and collected plates and Amon was promptly shown off to his cot.
In truth, Basilio did snore, but even that couldn’t keep Amon up.
His bed may have been nothing more than a firm cot over a floor of packed dirt, but when he first saw it after dinner it looked like the finest feather bed ever constructed by man. He staggered towards it exhausted and stuffed and content. As soon as his head hit the pillow sleep engulfed him like a coming tide.
Amon strode swiftly out of the cover of trees and into the tall grasses of the far paddocks. It was a view he’d seen a hundred times before. The rolling green hills becoming more and more orderly as they approached the old farmhouse upon its rise. But this was not his farmhouse, and this was not his homestead. He was outside. Well and truly outside. The sky was no clever facade, behind him the woods stretched off unbroken into the dark shades, the sun was radiant and warm on his cheeks as it cast its last rays of the day before descending below the tree tops. A thousand new scents filled his nose, nearly all of which were nowhere to be found on his homestead. This was the truth to the lie he had been living, he felt it with all the surety of a dreamer.
He walked confidently through the paddocks, long strides covering the ground with ease. A soft evening breeze rustled the grass and brought a new scent to him, fresh water. As he crested the little hillock on his way up to the house he could see the source. Where on his homestead there was just a little pond behind the house, here an arm of a great lake reached out towards him. The water was mirror flat and shone with all the brilliance of a true sunset lavender and azure and sunburst glowing brilliantly back up at a sky painted with the same colors.
With a smile Amon turned back towards the house. It was just as he remembered it. Square and neat with little windows set across the front and a wide porch spanning it’s width. The wood was weathered but well kempt and covered nearly every surface in its protective embrace. He took the two steps up from the garden path onto the porch and he turned around to look back at the path he’d followed from the woods. Beyond the tree-covered hills rose higher and higher to a few craggy peaks off in the evening haze. He drunk in another intoxicating breath of someplace that could be so real, so alive. Finally, he turned and reached for the door handle. It flew open with a scream.
The scream ripped him from sweet oblivion and set his heart to racing, he looked across the room at Basilio just as they both heard the body hit the floor.
Amon was pulled from a dream and thrust into a nightmare.
The small frame of Mali lay thrashing on the wide planked floor. Foam was beginning to well out of her mouth as she started to gag with every stifled breath. Papers from the table were fluttering down to the ground from where she’d knocked them aside as Basilio and Amon raced into the dining room. Off in the corner her tablet was flashing with searing intensity, white, red, green, blue, black and white again; smoke was beginning to pour from its side. Stephanie crashed through the door at the bottom of the stairs and raced across the room, hair flying wildly as her eyes blazed with love and determination with equal intensity. They could only stand by and watch as Stephanie flew into action without missing a beat, rolling Mali into a safety position and cushioning her head to soften the worst of her trashing.
“What in the hell is going on?” a bleary-eyed Anya wondered, finally coming upon the gruesome scene. Stephanie only shot her a cold look as she tried to clear the furniture away from Mali’s trembling, helplessly flailing limbs. “Oh shit!” Anya said minutely as she took everything in.
“Ay Dios Mio!” Basilio yelped as next to the couch the smoke from Mali’s tablet had increased from whisps to plumes. He snatched it up before he could think, burning his fingers, and threw it quickly into the sink and turned on the tap swapping the smoke from sparking electricity.
“For Christ’s sake do I have to do everything!” Stephanie bellowed snatching the fire extinguisher from next to the stove and sending a gout of retardant over the protesting device.
Mercifully, the worst of Mali’s seizure abated as Stephanie returned to her side. She turned her tiny, dark friend back on her side and helped clear her airway, pounding at her back until at last Mali was able to draw a feeble breath.
“Amon, go get me some towels from the closet upstairs. Basilio, now that you’ve turned the sink into a shock hazard go to the outside tap and bring me some clean water,” the nurse barked, leaving little room for argument.
They raced to their duties and Anya set about collecting the chaos of papers that had shot about the room. With clean towels in-hand Amon knelt down and helped Stephanie make a cushion for Mali’s head and cleaned up the worst of her spittle. Basilio returned with his water before he set himself to pacing restlessly. Mali’s thin chest rose and fell almost imperceptibly, her breaths inaudible even in the stone silence of a summer’s night. Only Stephanie’s stern face gave Amon any clue that her patient’s condition wasn’t worsening.
It was Anya who finally broke the brittle silence, sounding smaller and more fearful than Amon had ever heard her. “Guys. I think Mali was up tonight doing more research into the ship’s libraries.”
“What of it?” Stephanie snapped. “She’d stay up every night prying into every nook and cranny she could weasel her way into.”
“Well…” She said shakily. “I think she found something.” In her hand was a freshly inked piece of paper with an elaborate map drawn upon it, above it all in bold letters was written Cryo Hall #87.
The sky was just beginning it’s brightening sequence when they finally got Mali up into her bed and stable. Her breathing had returned to at least a semblance of normal and her seizure had died down to only occasional tremors that raced along her dark skin like electric shocks. But she stubbornly refused to wake, so Stephanie refused to leave her side. She sat next to the bed gently mopping Mali’s brow and fussing over every little movement her friend made. The three others couldn’t bear the spectacle any longer and had reconvened around the great table hoping a searing cup of coffee would jolt a plan of action into their minds.
Basilio had done his best to try and get Mali’s tab up and running again to figure out what she may have been looking into when her seizure began. He was having little luck and began to spew a soft stream of Spanish profanities at the inert chunk of glass and metal.
Finally, Anya had to cut in. “For fuck’s sake Baz, it’s dead, give it a rest already.”
“We don’t know that! Not yet,” he pleaded in response.
“What’s the damned point?!” She shrieked. “So you find out what she was looking at, how does that relate to our friend who’s clinging to life upstairs right now?”
“Maybe she found something really important, maybe something she wasn’t supposed to see, maybe the tablet destroyed itself.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Anya laughed cruelly. “You really think her tablet just accidentally opened up some mysterious key piece of information for a moment, realized it’s mistake and then blew itself up to try and remedy the situation. Amon help me out here, we have to talk some sense into this lunatic.”
Amon wanted no part of this squabble, but he felt compelled by reason. “Basilio we all saw it smoking shortly before it was hit with water and fire retardant. Those things are pretty tough, but not that tough. Besides, those battery cells almost certainly have enough energy left in them to shock you or start another fire.” The Bolivian looked on the edge of tears, so Amon softened his tone. “Just put it down for now, we all want to know what happened to Mali, but it does seem much more likely that she dropped it hard enough to rupture a battery cell than some sinister intent from a tablet.”
“Pucha!” He barked, swapping frustration for fear. “More likely than an assassin tablet, fine. But none of it makes any sense.”
“No, that much is true.”
“And she certainly was onto something new. I’ve never seen this map before, and we’ve never tracked anything to do with Cryo Hall #87. We’ve explored miles of the ship that had opened to us, but hardly ever anywhere interesting. Do you think we could make it all the way down there?”
Anya was studying the map. “Look here as well, in the corner, she scribbled a little note.” She turned the paper around and in a hasty scrawl Mali had written sleepers: number, status, remaining time, temperature (nom. -30c).
“Maybe that’s what she thought we should look into if we could get into one of the halls. It would be a relief to know if everything was still going alright with the people in cryo, make sure we’re not just burning time here on the farm while people are dying.” Basilio pondered. “Should we take a trip down there?”
“Beats the shit out of sitting here. Who’s going to tell Steph?”
Stephanie, it turned out, brokered no protest to this new plan, in fact she hardly looked up from her charge. So the three of them ate what they could stomach, got dressed, packed a bag with some food in case the walk was longer than anticipated, and grabbed Stephanie’s tab on their way out– Mali had backed up most of her research there. The sun was just cresting over the trees as they wound their way through the garden, a crisp breeze blew in over the paddocks, the roosters were shouting their pride, and the smell of fresh dew lingered over the scene of bucolic tranquility. In spite of everything, Amon was beginning to feel like his old self once more with his boots well laced, legs that remembered their old strength, and a sense of purpose that propelled him forward.
It propelled him right up to the threshold. Amon stopped one step short of the air curtain, even as Basilio walked through without breaking his stride, his body was physically fighting the next step he knew he must take. His mind was all but certain that if he was to help Mali they’d have to get to the bottom of whatever was going on with the ship, but his body knew that here in the farm was safety and out there in the halls was unknown. He would step through the doorway and the temperature would drop, the feel of soft dirt beneath his boots would be replaced by hard stone, the living sounds that surrounded him would fade, replaced by replications fed from a mechanical mind.
Anya felt it too, and stopped as she drew up beside him. She took his hand gently, “Basilio doesn’t know how goddamned hard this gets yet, but he’ll understand soon enough.” She pulled him slightly forward, “Come on, you’re tough enough for a trip into the belly of the beast.”
They stepped forward together and at once cold reality overtook their senses, with each step the comforting dream of the homestead fell further and further into memory. Before long it was just a pinprick of light at the end of the hall, and then they turned a corner and it was gone. The only refuge they had out in the deepening stretches of space disappeared into the past like the bubble of illusion it was.
It wasn’t long before they hit their first junction. Basilio and Anya immediately pulled out Mali’s map and conferred over it animatedly for a few moments deciding how it should be oriented. Amon simply stood with his mouth agape. Five years aboard, and he’d never been faced with a choice out in the ship. Halls had been illuminated and opened well in advance of his coming, all he ever had to do was follow the open path before him. Now, for the first time in an eternity, he was faced with an actual choice.
“…no you twit! This one on the left goes back to dethaw, you’ve got the map turned the wrong way!” Amon tuned in just as Anya sent a light smack up the back of her friend’s head.
“Ayyye! Easy, fine, you win, right we go. Unless you think differently Amon.”
“Whaaa…” was all he could manage, his mind still confounded by even the simplest choices.
“Christ alive, he’s barely even with us.” Anya proclaimed, exasperated. “Amon you’ve got to get your wits about you man, it’s not like before on the ship. We don’t know what passages are open or where they will lead; we can get lost out here, we can die out here if we don’t pay attention.
“Cabrón, I can’t imagine what this is all like for you, but we all have to be sharp, we can’t just drag you along for fun.”
“Ok, ok. I’m sorry.” Amon blurted, his mind racing to catch up and orient itself. “Anya, I think you’re right, it’s tough to remember but I think we came out of the left tunnel when you guys came and picked me up, I don’t remember this other door but it must have been here.”
“Ha!” Anya exclaimed, with a smug grin. “Give me that map you meathead.”
“Jailon! You’re no help at all, and then you side with her? We’re all as good as dead.” He threw up his hands. “I’ll remind you who was the voice of reason when we’ve gotten ourselves good and lost for a couple of days.”
But a grin had spread across his face and they set off down this new hall, that did not in fact go back to the dethaw chamber. It led further and further astern of the ship into a maze of endless hallways that circled the outer shell of the ship. Four hours, they chased through the polished tunnels that bored through the rocky crust of the Fable, each hall ending in a juncture of two or three new halls. There were no landmarks to be seen, no way of truly tracking their route. Even if they felt like playing Hansel & Gretel and leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to find their way home, the ship would clean up their traces before they could serve any actual use.
The walls looked like moulded plaster, the floors looked like polished stone. But like so much else on the ship, it was a facade. When needed, the ship could open new doorways, create new routes, make drains and lounges and whole mess halls given enough time, all to suit its crew. So all they had to rely on was Mali’s carefully hand-drawn map, and their own fallible memories. Anya and Basilio bickered at every corner, and quarrelled playfully along every stretch of straight hall, Amon simply wound his way deeper and deeper into his own head trying in vain to remember the exact sequence of turns they had made. The reality of losing their way in this sprawling maze came more and more to the fore with every turn.
But eventually, by skill or luck or divine provenance they turned a corner and found their quarry. The hall gradually ramped up and overhead the ceiling rose and then rocketed up hundreds of feet. Over the entrance to this cave of cold storage read: Cryo Hall #87.
The last few degrees of comfort left to them drifted slowly away as they entered this temporal tomb. All three sets of teeth set to chattering even as they looked up awestruck at the room, overwhelmed by its grandeur. The dark ceiling soared hundreds of feet above them as ten matching rows of cryogenic stasis caskets marched off into the darkening distance, each containing two thousand sleepers. Knowing that this was just one of one hundred matching chambers within the ship only added to their crushing feeling of insignificance. Truly the human mind wasn’t built to comprehend spaces so vast. It was one thing to live on the farm and let yourself be tricked, or walk the halls and imagine that they were part of some endless mine, but to face a place like the cryo halls was to confront the true inhumanity of their lives.
“I…I’ve never seen one of these halls before.” Amon stumbled after several stretching seconds. “Five years awake, and how much of this ship have I truly seen?”
“Maybe you’ve just seen all the good parts amigo.” Basilio put in hopefully.
“I highly doubt that,” Anya quipped. “More likely the lot of us have been confined to the bowels of the ship for the rest of our lives. In any case, I can’t say that I missed much not coming here during my stint.” She pulled out Stephanie’s tab, and began searching through the readily available files. “Now what the hell do we do?”
“Well there’s got to be some diagnostic type of access for emergencies.” Basilio said striding across to the end of the nearest row of caskets.
Just one row was an immensity of technological miracles. Each casket the size of a station wagon; they were stacked four high in pairs that marched off two hundred and fifty lengths towards the far end of the hall. Above, a soaring system of rails and pullies swooped through the open air, waiting for the day they’d be called on to start dismantling the great machine. At the end of each row a massive pump droned away supplying it’s sleepers with necessary water and coolant and electricity. If the room wasn’t so massive the incessant drone of these towering pumps would’ve bored straight into their subconscious, but as it was the sound barely seemed to scratch the overpowering silence of this manufactured crypt.
“That would make some sense I suppose.” Amon hesitantly agreed. “The dams I worked on back outside Cairo always had emergency access ports, especially for the hydroelectric equipment. Maybe we should see if there’s a maintenance door in the pumps?”
“You mean like this one?” Basilio said with a smile, pulling open a hatch on the side of the nearest pump.
They all stepped inside and the hammering hum of the machinery immediately became overwhelming in the confined space. But sure enough just inside the door was a diagnostic center with several displays showing the rows of caskets attached to the pump along with a docking station for a tablet. Without bothering to yell over the roar Anya slid Stephanie’s tab into the cradle wherein it immediately opened up a new program and a stream of data began to slide across the screen, all completely incomprehensible to the trio as they looked on, except a progress bar at the bottom that began to fill at an almost imperceptibly slow pace.
Anya waved out the door and stepped out with Basilio, Amon hung back and took notes of all the data available on the screens in the station, unsure what may be of use but unwilling to trust a tablet entirely after what had happened to Mali. When he finally stepped out, cold air and sweet stillness greeted him.
“Well it looks like we’re here for quite a while,” Anya grumped. “Why the hell would a diagnostic program take so long to run?”
“Cuidado opa, if it wasn’t for Mali’s work we wouldn’t have anything to go on.”
“Goddamn it Baz, let me bitch,” she said, throwing her arms up in the air. “Fine, you two go make yourselves comfortable where it’s a little warmer out in the hallway, I’ll keep an eye on the tab for now and see if anything changes.”
As Basilio and Amon descended the ramp back down into the relative warmth of the hall several previously invisible panels in the wall slid aside revealing a small bunk room with a pair of cots and a latrine. They sighed heavily with relief not only at having somewhere to sit in relative comfort but also at having a den to hole up in amidst all the unknown in the far reaches of the ship. Their most primal minds seeking security any way it could be found in the face of uncertainty.
“Basilio, could you pass me Mali’s map and notes?” Amon asked as they sat with relief in their new nook.
“Por supuesto. What are you looking for?”
“I just took the readings off the main display in the pump; if it’s accurate it had a good deal of the data she was looking for, I’m just curious if she had indicated any baselines that we should be looking for.” He scanned through the scrawled pages and found the chart he was looking for, a basic listing of cryo casket information, not enough for detailed diagnosis but enough to see if anything was going catastrophically wrong. Row by row he compared the figures.
“Huh, check this out Basilio. So we have most of what she was looking for, at least at a high level, and it all seems normal. All the power, water, and coolant metrics are right where they ought to be. But the temperature readings from the pump are broken down into three parts.”
“So, what does that mean?”
“Well, I’m not sure, but the pump display shows extremity temperature as being quite a bit colder than Mali’s baseline, core temp being a bit warmer, and cerebral temperature is almost twenty degrees warmer than the baseline.”
Basilio sat up with a shock. “So you think the caskets are warming. Do you think we’re losing passengers? Did the ship wake us up to fix it? But why wouldn’t it tell us?”
“Well we can’t jump to that conclusion yet, if we average all of the temperatures it’s right about on the baseline. I imagine if we did a more accurate average by volume we’d be right on it.” He laid back on his bunk shuffling through the papers in his hands, letting his mind roam. “We know that the ship was still in contact with Earth after we left, but we don’t know for how long. Maybe they found a way to have more success with the cryo by creating different temperature zones in each casket. I mean the display didn’t show any lost caskets, you have to figure if something was really wrong there’d be more to go on.”
“Maybe…” Basilio sighed, lying back. “Pucha! I wish Mali was here, she’s the only one of us who has any clue what to look for, we’re just stumbling around blind.”
Amon tended to agree with the sentiment, but didn’t want to encourage the big man’s negativity so he simply put the papers down and closed his eyes, willing away the problem in hopes that a solution would come to him in it’s own time.
In spite of it all, the uncertainty, the threading mysteries, the chill of the ship and the looming crypt just up the hall, as Amon laid on the hard little cot unwinding the threads that had chased through his mind he found himself slipping into irresistible unconsciousness. The scent of warm pine flooded through him and try as he might he could not fight the sweet beckoning of sleep.
Amon stood on the porch of the old farmhouse that he knew so well yet could barely recognize. Before him lay the path that wound through the gardens and paddocks and off into the vast wood beyond. He knew, in spite of nearly all experience, that if he peeked around the corner instead of seeing a line of trees a couple hundred meters off that he’d see a mirror-flat lake stretching off miles toward the horizon. He knew, for the second time, that this place was more real than the farmhouse he’d known all those long years.
Curiosity drove him inside. He grasped the door and it swung open without so much as a squeak, and took a tentative step inside. It was all the same. Just like he left it all those untold years ago. Out the back the windows were open to the lake off in the distance, not boarded up by lost watchers scratching out spare living space like some kind of furtive fever dream. It felt right, it felt like home.
But who lived in this home? All the furnishings were still there, neatly kempt in their places. But somehow he knew this was not his home, no matter how much his soul yearned to tell him otherwise. Amon turned towards the stairs to head up and investigate the bedroom. The stairs creaked and protested his weight, same as they always had, and when he opened the door everything was once again familiar, austere furnishings tidily kept in place.
All except one thing. A woman, dosing atop the covers of the neatly made bed. She wore a flowing blue dress that drifted over the navy of the duvet, her dark skin glowed warmly against the crisp white of the linen, and her hair tousled in a great halo about her head. She was every woman he’d ever met, and yet no one he’d ever known. She slept so peacefully that Amon imagined no earthly cataclysm could disturb her perfect rest, but he had to know this woman.
So he reached out for her bare shoulder, hoping that a gentle touch would rouse her even when all else would surely fail. Amon lightly touched her shoulder and whispered “Wake up.”
Her eyes opened in an explosion of light and sound.
Amon sat bolt upright on the cot heart hammering just in time to see the light from the explosion fade and hear it’s reverberating sound crash through every shred of his consciousness.
Amon wasn’t sure what lesson he had to learn, but clearly he had to learn it fast.
Every time he’d let himself fall asleep since he came off the ice he found himself bolting awake to some new, terrifying twist. Looking over at Basilio’s wide eyes he knew the Bolivian felt the same. Without a word the pair slid off of their cots and bolted up the ramp into the cryo hall. That was when the screaming began.
Halfway across the polished stone floor Anya laid on her back writhing in pain, with the remnants of Stephanie’s tab a few feet away blackened, smoldering and still giving off a plume of acrid smoke. They raced over to her sides as her shrieks turned more and more shrill.
“Fuck. My eyes! My eyes!”
“Anya! Calmate! Calmate!” Basilio cried back, sliding to her side to brace her and stop her wild trashing. Anya’s hands and one side of her face were covered in flash burns. “Amon, look in the pump for a med kit!”
Amon dashed over to the looming structure and ducked his head into the deafening racket. There, blessedly, was a red medkit strapped underneath the diagnostic console. He raced back through the frigid hall to the side of his new friends. As soon as he opened the kit it released an aerosol that smelled like concentrated lavender, it didn’t seem to have any effect on him or Basilio but Anya’s writhing immediately began to settle down. Her screams settled into low wimpers.
“My, my eyes. That fucking tab blew up right in my face. My eyes,” she pleaded. “It was done with the diagnostic, then it just blew up. I can’t see. What the hell.” Her words and heart raced on.
The screen inside of the medkit instructed Amon to drop a silver cloth over her eyes. He did as the program bid and the almost liquid fabric dripped down into her sockets allowing the medkit to fully analyze the extent of the damage as well as knock her fully unconscious. After a few minutes of analysis the kit indicated that it was safe to move her and Basilio picked up her small frame lightly and carried her out of the hall without a backward glance. Amon looked back at the ruin of the tab still giving off a tendril of caustic smoke in the middle of the floor and decided he’d let that particular beast lie.
The halls passed in a deeper silence. The ship had supplied a wheelchair for Anya a little way past the sleeping nook, and Basilio pushed her sleeping form down the endless halls without a word. Only the deep furrow in his brow betrayed the tumult of emotions he held in with such forceful machismo. He made no protests when Amon led the way at every turn, grateful he had spent so much energy on the walk out mentally tracking their steps.
In the silence, his mind raced. Two times asleep. Two watchers attacked. Two tablets destroyed. It was unthinkable that their tabs could be some kind of weapon, he had seen thousands of their like back on Earth, a microchip, a display panel, and some wiring. Hardly a bomb. Sure the battery cells were a bit flammable, but far from a flash bang grenade that could leave his friend blinded. He wasn’t sure what to make of it, but he sure as hell knew he wasn’t going near another tab any time soon. Even as they left, he’d made sure to collect Mali’s maps but made a point of staying as far away from his and Basilio’s tabs as he could.
And if the tabs were weapons, who was pulling the trigger? As questions are wont to do one led to another led to another led to another. Just as the halls of the ship led to another to another to another. He chased down the empty, questioning corridors of his mind finding only more halls, finding only more questions. But all things must end, and after interminable silent hours the trio turned a corner to see the homestead off in the distance. When they finally crossed the threshold they were bathed in the warm tranquility of a summer’s night.
He let Basilio carry Anya upstairs into the ministrations of Stephanie, as he quietly found himself a seat out on the porch overlooking the gardens, not willing to go inside for fear that sleep would find him there once more and disaster would strike again. The fresh air and the incessant turning of his thoughts kept him wide awake even as his eyes glazed over to the quietude that surrounded him. He may have left the halls, but his mind was still chasing answers.
After several hours, just before sun up, Stephanie stepped out onto the porch with two mugs of coffee.
“Well you should get some sleep, but since it seems like you’re bound and determined not to let that happen, maybe take this instead.” She held out a steaming mug.
He accepted it gratefully as she lowered herself heavily into the chair beside him. “Whenever I sleep, someone gets hurt.”
“You’ll have to eventually,” she replied with a heavy sigh.
“No, maybe not tonight.” The nurse looked worse for the wear than he did as she sipped her mug and looked out toward the horizon, the sky just beginning to show cracks at the facade of night. “But let’s be honest, your sleep schedule has nothing to do with Mali and Anya getting hurt, and you managed to do quite a bit of good while you were out as well. Judging by Basilio’s state I bet he wouldn’t have made his way back here by himself, and that medkit you found was able to help me with Mali as well. She’d been getting worse and worse all night, one look from that fancy kit and she’s stable and sleeping sound as can be. Almost makes you wonder why we still had human nurses back on Earth.”
“Sometimes you need a human touch to heal.” Amon whispered back looking over at her strong features, dark hair pulled back for a night of hard work, eyes weary but set and determined.
“Well, that’s a nice sentiment Amon. But if you see a few too many technological miracles in this life and you start to question the real value of a human mind over a machine.”
The pair sat quietly in the last fleeting moments of the predawn light, listening to the soft clucking of the hens as they scratched away at the dirt before the synthetic sun crested the trees and set the roosters off. Nestled in his numb mind, looking over the bucolic vista, Amon could almost sympathize with the roosters, it all felt so real. With a force of effort he could just keep on imagining that the forests beyond the field really did stretch off for miles. But then the first beams of light slipped through the upper tree branches to warm his face and his focus wavered, it all came tumbling down. A man made sun could never match the real thing.
“So what do we do now?” He pondered aloud, breaking the pensive quiet.
“Well I don’t know what you’ll do with this information Amon, but there’s another door.”
“While you were gone I took a walk out by the pond and noticed on the far side another door through the trees.” Her voice seemed weary and strained. “If you want to keep following the lead of whatever is causing all of this nonsense on the ship it looks like it ties into a new hall that heads fore on the ship. It was never there before, I’m sure of that.”
“What do you mean if?” He replied, astounded. “We have to go, for all we know people are dying out there in cryo.”
Stephanie’s broad face was awash in the golden glow of a clear sunrise, she finished the last of her coffee and took a deep breath. “Amon I’ve been awake on this ship for almost a decade. The whole time I’ve known I was little more than a puppet. During our normal stints we are pulled around on taught little strings doing the ship’s bidding. That’s the price we pay, that’s fine. But nothing makes sense anymore and I have my own choice to make.” She looked out at the sun and a smile touched her lips. “I’m choosing to free myself, I’m done doing this fucking ship’s bidding.”
“So you’re just what? Going to live here?” He was incredulous, as much as the homestead had come to feel like safety, he knew it could never really feel like home.
The smile continued to spread across her face, as she was fully bathed in the morning light. “Did you know I come from the place this farm was built to mimic? I grew up outside of St. Louis, this farm, this house, the trees beyond, even the weather. It’s all rural Missouri. But not like I ever knew it. The rolling hills were covered in hydroponic farms tucked inside warehouses, the soil had long since been stripped bare of any life. There were no grasses, no trees, no hens pecking in the dirt. A decade in and this place feels more real than any of those old memories. I’ve made a life here, it may all be based on a facade but I wouldn’t trade it. I’m done playing the ship’s games, I choose to make my life here.”
She left little room for argument, and his clouded mind could not fathom this new insanity. Amon stood and looked down at her peaceful, weary face basking in a light that was somehow not the right hue, and turned leaving her to her delusions. He needed space, so he set out towards the pond.
The pond was always Amon’s least favorite part of the homestead. It was where the facade crumbled the most, leaving a synthetic scar in his mind that always reminded him of just how manufactured all of this nature truly was. It was built to help close the water loop in the great terrarium that was the homestead. From one side the little rivulet trickled out and splashed into the trees as it raced it’s course about the perimeter. Along the way the rivulet would pick up what little groundwater there was to be found and gradually grow in size. A few months into his stint Amon followed it all the way around, dodging between trees and ferns towering overhead wondering where it’s little course would take it. It took the better part of a day, wiggling through the tall trees, and after a while he began to imagine that it may take some unexpected turn and lead him into some new, strange place. But just as he neared completing the circle around the farm the waters ceased, pouring through a metal grate into some unseen depths below. From there he figured it was treated and pumped back into the pond to begin its course anew. He lived in the middle of an overgrown water feature, a trick to create the illusion of natural splendor.
But today he wasn’t concerned with the pond, he walked along its edge to where a few trees stood obscuring the confining wall beyond. Sure enough, through the thicket he could see the top of a square-edged doorway. He pushed through the brush, and stopped hesitant of this strange new aperture. The main threshold into the homestead from the ship was a grand archway, made to define where the farm began and the ship ended. This new opening, looked more like a service door, metal and plain, the sort of entrance back-of-house workers would scurry in and out of to keep up illusions for the guests upfront.
But it was undoubtedly new. As much as he disdained the pond, he’d spent plenty of lonely hours sitting on the bench on its shores, he certainly would have noticed this doorway. And if Stephanie thought it was new he was inclined to believe her, no one would likely ever know this place quite like her. But this was the way of the Fable, if it wanted a new door it could make one, the halls that looked hewn from stone hid a great deal of compartments and doorways that could be opened to suit the ship’s needs.
The most unusual aspect, in fact, was that there was an actual door at all. A physical piece of metal that needed to be opened to see what was beyond. Usually there would just be an open aperture, ready for him to step through. Still, he felt called to see beyond, so he pushed through the last of the brush and swung it open on silent hinges. A cold draft hit him in the face and set his teeth to chattering, but beyond, a sight that was all too familiar. An endless hallway stretching off until the curvature of the ship blocked it from sight.
For all its familiarity this was still a profound discovery. The main entrance to the farm pointed aft in the ship, back towards the cryo halls and bio factory and oxygen plant. All the incredible machinery that allowed this ship to sustain life for eons of travel. That was all aft of the homestead. So was was fore? He had to imagine a bridge of some sort, some central nervous center where great decisions would be made. Amon pictured some sort of highly futuristic command center, plinths covered in control equipment and screens covering every available wall with data. He knew that when the ship approached a potential planet for colonization that a council would be called to determine if they should stay. Maybe that happened somewhere up along this interminable hallway, maybe there he could find some answers. The chill of the ship continued to waft over him, not alone, he decided. There were answers to be found, but he needed friends before he could face the cold of the ship once more. So he slid the door closed and headed back to the farmhouse.
By the time he made it to the path through the gardens Anya was flying out of the front door in a fury.
“No you listen to me mother superior!” She raged, barely catching herself before she fell down the porch stairs and into a flower bed. “I will not sit on my ass and wait. Something made that tablet blow up, something fucked my face up like this. And I’m going to figure out what!”
Amon was at first relieved to see her up and about, clearly the med kit had done an outstanding job treating her. She seemed to be walking, talking, and seeing on her own. But then she turned her head to reveal a mass of bandage covering the left side of her face and eye. His heart plummeted. There was no escaping the damage done, no matter how fiery of a display she put forth.
“Anya for God’s sake, calm down!” Stephanie was calling, chasing her out the door. “You’re going to hurt yourself even more.”
The small Russian leaned heavily on the railing, and caught sight of Amoun out amongst the planters. “Amon! Good, you’re here. Did you check out this new door? Where does it lead? Did you see anything? Where is the fucker who burned my face?” She was a breathless fury.
“Um.” He hesitated, nearly eager as she was to get on with the discovery but concerned about her wellbeing. “Yeah.”
“Well, what’s it look like? Let’s go man!”
Amon looked plaintively up at Stephanie for some indication of what to do.
“Jesus Anya, sit down!” the nurse implored. “You’re going to fall of the porch!” She gently wrestled Anya back into one of the rocking chairs. “Amon, she seems like she’ll make a fair recovery, I can’t say as much about her eye but–”
“Oh, I’m fine.” Anya insisted.
“Fine but with one eye and no depth perception.” Stephanie cut back.
“Well yeah.” Amon finally went on. “I had a look, seems like it ties into a tunnel that heads straight for the bow.”
“Excellent! Let’s get a goddamned move on.” Any tore on, maniacally.
“Woah woah woah, what’s the rush?” Basilio asked as he stepped out of the door, seemingly recovered from the previous day’s ordeal with a night of sleep.
“The rush, my unscrupulous friend, is to not only figure out what did this to my face, and what’s going on with all the people in cryo. It’s to not sit here and while our lives away on this fucking farce of a farm.”
Stephanie buried the attachment she had just bared to Amon admirably, barely batting an eye at this assault on the place where she chose to make her life. He could only look at his feet and hope to move on.
“You can rush right on out of here,” Stephanie cut in. “Right after you’ve had some decent breakfast and I can run some tests on you to make sure you’re not about to pass out in the halls a couple miles away with only these two jokers there to help.”
“Fine, have it your way!” Anya spat back, rushing through the door with Basilio on her heels.
Amon stepped up onto the porch. “Well, there’s one patient sorted. How’s Mali?”
Stephanie looked down and gave a little shake of her head. “The medkit is helping keep her stable but something is keeping her unconscious and I can’t figure out what. She’s alright for now, but we don’t have the equipment for her to stay like this much longer.”
“So you want us to go?”
“Well, as much as I don’t like the idea of anyone playing the ship’s game, it does seem like the only way forward. All the same, my place is here, I’m not leaving this farm.”
Inside Anya was a whirlwind with Basilio barely keeping pace, tearing around the kitchen packing bags to take with them out on their next journey, a nearly incomprehensible stream of admirably creative profanity spilling forth from her lips. It was too much for Amon. He headed upstairs to check on Mali. Her small, dark form lay still on the bed pushed up under the window. How strange to feel such affinity for someone he’d scarcely known for an evening. But their relationship ran deeper than that he knew, they’d lived the same life for five solitary years aboard the Fable, tread the same paths, fought the same fights. He hadn’t known her face, but he’d known her life. A life that was now hanging by a thread, the lines from the med kit affixed to her temples and throat keeping her clinging by some inscrutable process.
He sat next to her and pondered her peaceful face. Even in the short time he’d known her, Amon could tell Mali was brilliant. Even after she had been attacked her foresight and planning had allowed them to soldier on. They barely knew the buttons they were pressing but her keen mind let them discover not only the cryo hall but the mysteries that lay within. But now they were headed off into truly uncharted territory. Mali had no maps fore of the homestead. They would step through that door on their own. He knew he owed it to her to continue, but he craved her insight. All he had was some half-baked theory about modifications to the sleepers, for all he knew some core system was malfunctioning, cutting short millions of lives, rendering the whole venture pointless in its very essence.
Amon had to push forward. He couldn’t truly grasp what was at stake out in the cryo halls, but he could look at Mali’s frail features and remember the warmth she’d shown him and know he had to try and save her. So he rose, weary as he was, walked down the stairs and out the door. Without a word he headed off down the path towards the pond and the door beyond, Anya and Basilio came running to catch him up, packs in hand with Stephanie’s protests trailing behind them. They swung the heavy, silent door open, and stepped forth into the wild stone yonder.
“….So Amon,” Anya started, breaking the silence that had held them for nearly half an hour walking down the endless corridor. “Did you ever come fore of the farm when you were awake before?” She was fishing for a sign of hope. They had walked straight on for half an hour without a single turn or alternate passage, the door they stepped through was long since lost around the curve of the ship.
“I suppose so,” he hesitated. “After a couple of years I got on one of the trams and it took me all the way forward to the observation deck. I suppose I must have come this way dozens of times but never walked it.” They shared a heavy glance both knowing that words could never explain the experiences they’d both shared on the deck.
“Un momento!” Basilio erupted, finally getting back some of his old pep after their ordeal. “Nobody ever said shit about an observation deck. What’s that?”
Amon struggled to find the words. “You haven’t seen outside the ship yet?”
“Claro que no, I’ve been shuffling around with these idiots on the farm with an occasional trip out into one of these fine windowless hallways we’re enjoying right now. No one ever told me you were out here playing space tourist.”
Amon could only shake his head, how could he explain so transformative experience as his first trip up into the observation dome?
Anya saved him from having to try, grabbing Basilio by the scruff playfully. “My friend you’ll just have to learn a little fucking patience to see what it’s all about, tram or no we’ll get there eventually.”
So the miles passed without turn or event, and only a steady stream of jabber from his compatriots to keep Amon from drifting off into his own thoughts. But even on a ship as expansive as the Fable all things must end, and after hours of steady walking the trio finally happened upon a doorway in the wall of the hallway. A great sweeping archway flanked by elaborate Roman columns hewn from the stone of the ship. Beyond lay a bucolic explosion of life.
The three looked in, dumbfounded. They’d lived on a farm on this ship for years, so they knew life support was possible but this was entirely different. Where the homestead was wild and rowdy, different grasses and weeds and flowers all fighting for their place beneath the television sky, this new garden was a wonder of precision. Beyond the columns level grass cut to the quick stretched across to a deep blue reflecting pool. Geometric flower beds cascaded down the sides, exacting in their symmetricality. It was every inch the picture of a classic roman villa, fluted columns rose beyond the pool supporting the roof of a shaded promenade.
It was smaller than the homestead, but exquisitely richer in its design. The sky was not a simulation of Earth-sky but a pleasant glowing grey like a welcome overcast in the midst of the dog days of summer. The trio stepped into this new garden gaping, attempting in vain to add this new place to their mental map of the world. Their eyes struggled to take in all of the splendor, exceptionally trimmed flower beds, cherubic fountains, hedges trimmed to geometric perfection. Eventually all three sets of eyes found their way to the end of the reflecting pool where on a low stone bench sat a solitary figure.
She sat with her eyes cast up into the heights as if she were pondering the most beautiful night sky ever beheld by man. Her dark hair blew lightly around her face in the manufactured wind. Her dress, a deep red, billowed around her ankles and threatened to dip into the pool just before her. After a breathless, unending moment she dropped her gaze and waved in greeting.
Amon led the way, tentatively, around the pool. “Hello?” he called out as he neared.
She sat unresponding just gazing out over the still waters before her. They called out several more times and the woman seemed to not hear or even register that there were others nearby. This odd turn slowed Amon down even further, unsure of this strange, beautiful place and the unexpected surprise of finding another person. But then time ground to a halt.
The woman’s dress froze in position mid billow despite the faint wind continuing in its lazy gusts. She looked for all the world like a human suddenly wrought into a statue. Finally, Amon neared her side and reached out to shake her by the shoulder and rouse her attention, but his hand slipped through her like smoke.
The three watchers jumped back in shock.
“Diabla!” Basilio exclaimed, scurrying back.
Anya was the first to recover her senses. “No, just a hologram. I’ve never seen one so life-like before though. I didn’t know it was possible.” She passed a hand through the woman’s frozen locks, just as their simulated billowing resumed.
“Incredible…” Amon gasped looking up at the slate sky above. “The ship must be able to simulate her in this room with projections from the ceiling.”
“So she’s just a manifestation of the ship?” Basilio wondered, creeping closer. “But why? And why is she freezing like that?” Her hair had stilled once more.
Just as Basilio edged close as he dared, minutely examining her face for any visual indication of her synthetic nature, she snapped to life and smiled at him. He stumbled backwards nearly landing in the pool.
“The sleepers are safe, but they are lost.” She said melodically, just before her simulation stopped once more, leaving her face a half-smiling mask.
“What the hell does that mean?!” Anya demanded stooping to look directly into her eyes. “What the fuck is going on here ship? Did you blow that tablet up in my goddamned face?!”
Amon, gently pulled her back. “Ship,” he asked kindly, “What do you mean they are lost?”
They waited a moment and she snapped back to life, “Worlds within worlds within worlds. They have tunneled and found life but lost themselves.”
“Good lord!” Anya roared, “Enough with this riddler bullshit! Ship, I demand a status update on your functions.”
The simulated woman looked pleasantly up at Anya’s fury. “We are wanderers, we follow a black sun through the cosmos.” A moment of pause as she pulled her hem back from the water’s edge. “She has decided our fate, the universe decides our course.”
“Quit fucking around. Ship, what is our status!” Anya was now on the verge of tears, anguish at her disfigurement, and frustration at her years held in limbo coming to a violent head.
The hologram looked her dead in the eyes and began to speak, but suddenly her face became mash of glitched static. “We are–” she began and then her voice stuck on a tone and rose in pitch ringing in their ears until it became a shrill scream. They covered their ears and stepped back, and suddenly she was gone. Her form vanished leaving the garden empty and tranquil.
Anya screamed in frustration and staggered to the corner of the pool where she kicked a cherubic statue into the waters below. She fell to her knees, and broke down into sobs, years of solitude and lies overwhelming her steely composure. Basilio knelt at his friend’s side putting a comforting arm around her shoulders, knowing he’d never understand the depths of her confusion and anger.
They left the gardens in silence. The luxuriant airs no longer as hypnotic now that the taste of discovery was ripped so cruelly from their lips. Anya settled into a stubborn furor, not allowing herself to roll back into more turbulent emotion, instead she favored setting her jaw with such ferocity it turned her face into a chiseled mask.
Exhaustion began to take its toll after hours of walking the long corridors but they didn’t have far to go. After a few hushed minutes they came upon another hallway leading off to the right, they turned down it and discovered more opulence than they’d seen between them in their entire lives.
Off of the hall, wide marble-paneled doors swung open to reveal a series of extravagant staterooms. Basilio stepped through the first door and was struck still by what he saw beyond. The room was richly appointed with a large canopied bed, a sitting area full of plush daybeds, an immaculate kitchen. All of it was exquisitely designed in much the same vein as the gardens they had seen before, all Roman in its grandiosity. Fluted columns adorned every corner, white marble interlocked gracefully with the pewter grey stone of the ship, every cushion was covered in deep crushed velvet. It all paled in comparison to what lay through the window in the far wall though. Anya and Amon stepped in beside their friend, jaws hanging down. Through the window was the whole of creation.
It stretched the entire length of the stateroom, a great pane of glass broken only by a few staunch columns, beyond it they could see the great, magnificent swirl of the Milky Way. It was bright at first, but the longer they stared the more stars began to appear.
“Basilio, are you alright?” Amon finally asked, pulling himself out of his wonderment.
Tears were rolling down his dark cheeks. “Dios mio. This is why we come all the way out here, God is out here with us. You have seen out like this before?”
“Well yeah…” Amon put in softly. “I visited the Observation Deck pretty frequently during my stint.”
Anya finally snapped out of her reverie, “Did you ever go out on an EVA?”
“What, like outside the ship? God no.”
“Lucky bastard.” She replied with a sharp smile. “Come on Amon, we could all use some rest and I doubt we’re getting Basilio away from this view anytime soon.” She gave him a gentle nudge. On their way out the door she called back, “Remember Baz, it’s not real! Just a stabilized video feed from the ship’s cameras.”
“Puta!” He exclaimed. “Why’d you have to go and ruin it for me?!”
Anya chuckled finally coming back into a bit of her old self, she turned off into the next stateroom and left Amon with a soft smile and gentle nod. They both knew it was about to be a lavish and draining evening. He stepped into the third stateroom, a near replica of the previous two, the Milky Way hung silently beyond in patient greeting.
For his entire life Amon had never lived in luxury. Never wanted it really. Cairo had been a pleasant enough place to grow up, and sometimes he would sneak his way into high-end shopping malls to catch a glimpse of how the well-heeled of the area lived before being run off by guards. Then he had lived a separate, but much more visceral life in forced austerity aboard the Fable. At first the mandated modesty of shipboard life seemed like sadism from the ship’s designers, but in the end he had made his peace and found comfort in his simple, solitary life.
And now, this. He stood on a high piled rug, his battered farm boots crunching into the soft wool. His grayed and frayed clothing standing in stark contrast to the richy dyed fabrics that surrounded him. He felt unworthy of this place, unwelcome in its ostentation. But how ridiculous a notion. There was no one around to be more worthy, the very fact that he lived and had come so far gave him all the right he needed. All the same the implied greed of this luxury gave rise to bile in the back of his throat. That so many millions would sell their entire livelihoods to come aboard and throw in their lot with the fates on a new planet, while the few truly powerful still demanded such a treatment. These staterooms were surely for the council that determined where they would finally settle, the richest of the super rich. Those select few who could actually meet Yvette Delaney at a negotiation table and not get steamrolled. All of the needs in the new world, and those bastards couldn’t even forgo ornate marble columns in their quarters? It was beyond wasteful, beyond vanity, it made Amon sick.
But what could he do? Enjoy it while it lasted, he supposed. He shuffled across the exquisitely stitched rug with his stained boots, and flopped full-face in his dusty farm clothes onto the bed piled with dark velvet. He was a grey ghost amidst a velvet sea. That was all his battered mind needed, within moments he drifted off to sleep.
Amon stood once more on the porch of the farmhouse, looking out at the forests stretching off into the unseeable distance. Around the corner he knew that the fields rolled down in the soft sun to the shores of the great lake, he knew that this was the real place on which the homestead was modeled. But he couldn’t find it in himself to care about any of that just now, he needed to see the woman again.
Quickly, Amon ducked inside and ran lightly up the stairs. She lay there once more, framed under the open window, golden light flowing into a far corner while her serene face lay completely undisturbed. He sat beside her on the bed and reached out to shake her shoulder.
She did not rouse. Instead Amon felt his own consciousness slipping away. He fell through tranquil darkness for time unending until at last the world coalesced around him once more. He was back where he started, on the porch, but the world was different. Out beyond the edge of the wood craggy mountains rose above the trees to find white caps of snow in the thin air. From around the corner of the house the laughter of children rang out as they played in the yard. Amon looked to his right and saw the woman, sitting now and awake. She extended her hand beckoning him to sit.
“Where are we?” He asked.
“Why are we here?”
She smiled and turned away to greet a pair of children dashing around the corner. They paid Amon no mind, as though they could not sense his presence. But there was no bang, no scream to rip him forth from this lucid paradise. Amon simply sat and watched this young mother play lovingly with her children as the day rolled on in its unhurried laziness.
Amon awoke back in a pile of rumpled velvet, and smiled to himself. Finally truly rested, and hungry for answers.
They were finally on their quarry.
Amon, Anya, and Basilio rose the next morning refreshed but eager to get on with their search so they set off briskly along the hall and turned further upship. Basilio and Anya had recovered most of their old spirits despite the worsening condition of Anya’s burns and chattered away with cutting humor as they walked along the stretching halls. Amon, for his part, simply smiled to himself, immensely grateful for an uninterrupted night of sleep that hadn’t ended in calamity. Maybe his luck was starting to change. He stepped lightly driven finally by hope rather than dread.
After a short while the trio encountered a first in their journey upship, a choice. The hall split clean in two offering identical passages to the left and right, both carried off at a slight angle until they were lost around the curve of the ship. While their journey aft had been a nerve-rending maze, their travels forward had been guided on rails by whatever force had set their course. Until now.
“Well shit.” Anya spat. “I was hoping we were done with these fucking mazes.”
“Animate Anya, it’s just one split. We’re old pros at this by now.” Basilio teased with a nudge. “What do you think Amon?”
“Well Anya’s choice last time did get us where we wanted to go, but then again she did almost get her face blown off. Maybe it’s better if we go with your gut this time Basilio.” He replied, refusing to let a little hiccup drag down his spirits.
“Perfecto! Vamos al derecho.” He laughed, setting off lightly down the passageway to the right.
Almost as soon as the fork disappeared around the curve of the ship the hall began to climb, first in an upward slope then with gradually diminishing steps. With each step they could feel the gravity of the hull falling away behind them. They were headed up the nose proper of the Fable towards the weightless center of the ship around which all of the halls and gardens and farms they had explored were distributed, living at a comfortable 1g. In most of the core was just raw material, unperturbed by its weightlessness. Bare elements carbon, silicon, nitrogen; atoms essential for human life that may be scarce in a new world. They filled the free floating core of the ship except in the engine bays in the back, but to the fore…there was only one place they could be heading. As soon as they took the first step up Anya and Amon shared a heavy look.
“Do you think we’re heading to?…” He asked.
“Christ, I hope not.” She sighed and soldiered on, knowing that protesting would not save her from whatever lay ahead.
Each step was just barely thinner than the one before, but after a short while they were at half their usual weight and scaling a nearly sheer wall, then the steps turned into ladder rungs. Amon remembered the first time he visited this part of the ship. He had been in a depressive daze, stumbling nearly blind guided by the ship’s directives to a tram that whisked him forward for the first time. He had barely noticed that he was heading in a new direction, that was until he lost his weight. Without announcement the tram had begun to climb towards the weightless center and he floated away from his seat struggling in the thin air for anything to clutch in primal desperation.
No, Amon knew in his heart of hearts that there was only one place they could be headed up here. The observation deck. A place where he had sought so much refuge in his past life, but now welled only existential dread.
Sure enough, after scaling the rungs of a seemingly endless ladder, which took pounds off their weight with each step, they arrived at a service door of the tram platform both Anya and Amon knew served only one location.
Basilio was babbling away excitedly, apparently unperturbed by the hesitance of his compatriots, for a big man experiencing zero gs for the first time he was remarkably unfazed. “I can’t believe this has always been here!” He exclaimed. “At any point if we just went up we’d be floating around in no gravity! Gracias a dios! What a place to see!” And this was in the tunnel, when they emerged onto the platform he was moved into profound curiosity and when they stepped through the circular doorway to the observation deck he was struck dumb by eternity.
Anya and Amon felt a chaotic flood of emotion at this sight that had been for both of them so profound, so therapeutic at times, so humbling and awe inspiring. But also so terrifying to behold. Before them was the whole of creation, gradually coming into clarity.
The ship was melting the thick layer of protective ice that usually shielded the dome, allowing them an unfettered view of the cosmos that lay before them. No stabilized view of the stars on a photoscreen wall, they knew at first glance that this was raw reality staring them back in the face. Before them a massive glass dome held in a volume of perfectly still, perfectly silent, perfectly body temperature air. The two former watchers knew it was all an elaborate construction to allow the deck to act as a sensory deprivation tank, except for sight which was to be overwhelmed by the unfathomable beauty and complexity of the universe. They knew this deck for the profoundly spiritual place that it was. The closest humanity had ever come to true reality lay here in this chamber. They clung hesitantly to the entry way, unwilling to let the ship send them into another soul-rending journey.
Basilio hung unfettered in the void. A man who had never been weightless, never seen the stars, at least not like this, never considered that he might be free to soar and explore the whole of God’s creation. He’d spent his whole life on Earth seeing his Lord through the prism of a cathedral built to inspire fear. But there was no fear here, only beauty, only light, only life.
He struggled around in the still air to face his friends, tears rolling down his cheeks an unbridled grin spread across his face. “Que maravilloso!” He cried, eyes to bleary to register the hesitance on their faces. “I’ve lived so many lives, but now it all feels so small. You have been here before? How did you not spend all your time up here?” Behind his stocky, dark figure the Milky Way turned in it’s slow procession around the dome, rotational perspective preserved by the uncaring laws of reality. He swam his way around again in the air to take in the spectacle.
But then the trio noticed something curious, something inexplicable. As the stars descended into a final, crisp clarity they could see all the splendor of the galaxy before them. Burning stars, and glowing clouds of gas all sprayed out humbling awe. And then suddenly nothing. Below them was a curving line of unyielding blackness. As if the very fabric of the universe had been cut away in a perfect, uniform curve. They continued to look on and the curve began to climb up to their right, devouring the stars as it went.
“What the fuck is that?” Anya gasped, knuckles now white clinging to her grip at the door way.
They looked on in baffled silence as the curve continued it’s dizzying climb around the dome eventually hanging overhead.
Amon’s mind raced trying to explain this baffling phenomenon. “Is it a planet? Like a planet blocking the stars behind?”
“What do you mean a planet?” Anya demanded wide eyed. “We can’t see anything, it’s just blackness.”
“I know, maybe a rogue planet or something blocking the galaxy…”
“That makes no sense! We’re moving at a third of lightspeed, we should blow by any planet in a fraction of a second. Why the fuck would we be seeing it orbit around the axis of the ship?”
“…I don’t know, everything’s off right now, maybe this is the cause.” Amon insisted, becoming more sure of his hypothesis the longer he looked.
“Queridos, who cares? All of God’s work in front of you, the truth of the world right before your eyes and you’re worried about what you can’t see?” Basilio gasped with wonder, “I spent my whole youth being drilled with ideas of God’s power, his love. I never believed a second of it until I saw this…” He floated freely off in front of them, cruciform, freed by even this one taste of the universe.
“Baz, it’s fucking beautiful we know, but come back–”
The shift in gravity was almost imperceptible at first. Just a quaking at their core that let them know something wasn’t right, Basilio felt no difference floating in the void. Anya and Amon clung tight to the rails around the doorway and reached out for him.
“Que pasa?” He struggled around once more unaware of the growing change as he drifted further from his friend’s reaching hands. By the time he reached back his fingertips were just out of reach. Then he felt himself begin to fall.
The ship was firing corrective trusters, barely enough to dampen its massive momentum but more than enough to create a profound change of local gravity. Very suddenly the doorway was becoming up and the outer curve of the observation dome fifty meters away had become down. Basilio realized all this in a gut churning instant and began to struggle in the still air reaching desperately for his friend’s stretching fingers.
All in a timeless moment, gravity in the dome climbed from zero past one g and beyond until Amon and Anya were clinging to the rails of the door with all their might and Basilio was hurtling screaming towards the stars. He met the unyielding glass of the dome in a sickening crunch, and his life spilled out across the glory of all creation.
The journey back to reality took half an hour and an eternity. Amon’s screams echoed around the observation dome endlessly as he held on for dear life, the ship trying it’s damndest to suck him down and dash his brains amongst the stars right next to Basilio’s, and they echoed even longer in his head once he finally climbed to safety. Anya regained her senses first and managed to pull herself up over the lip of the entry even as the perceived gravity grew and grew. She clambered over and pulled Amon up after her with a screaming effort, and then just like that it was over. The ship cut its corrective engines, their perceived “gravity” dissipated and once more they were floating in weightless silence. That was when the screams echoing in Amon’s head set him to shaking.
He was lucky that the first part of their journey was weightless as Amon certainly wouldn’t have been able to carry himself along. He shook and sputtered and stammered the grisly image of Basilio’s head splitting like some gruesome supernova amongst the stars played over and over in his head. Anya was crying silently but had a ferocious set to her jaw, and simply dragged Amon along as they retraced their steps. Half an hour later they were back at the junction in the hall, where Basilio had stepped off so lightly to his doom.
Amon had barely regained the use of his feet, let alone his wits. He was still stammering and shaking when Anya grabbed him firmly by the shirt and looked deep into him with piercing blue eyes.
“Amon! For fuck’s sake.” She barked, trying to cut through the fog of his mind. “Basilio was been my best friend on this godforsaken ship, are we going to sit here inconsolable and let him die for nothing or are we going to go and find whatever did this to him?”
“Bu-bu-but, it wa-was the ship…” He struggled. “What are we going to do to the ship? How could the ship have killed him?”
“Fuck if I know, but like you said everything’s off. We’re awake, we appear to be orbiting a rogue planet, and now the ship is trying to take us all out.” She shook him by the collar. “We can’t just sit around and feel sorry for ourselves. If not for us, then for all of those frozen sons of bitches out there counting on this ship to get where it’s going. Something has gone wrong and we still have to find out what.”
Her words flew screaming off her tongue and buried themselves deep in Amon’s mind, their fire burning away the clouds of fear and anguish that clogged his synapses. He steadied himself on the wall and began to put his thoughts back into a coherent order. Whatever else he felt, the danger in the moment was still very real. They could not stay out here in the halls, and they very well may not be able to stay awake indefinitely on the ship. No matter what Stephanie hoped.
“You-you’re right…” He began tremblingly. “Why would we be orbiting a rogue planet? It makes no sense.”
“More to the fucking point, why would the ship guide us up there to show us, only to try and kill us for the trouble?” She spat back. “There’s only one other way forward from here, and I intend to take it. Are you with me?”
“Ye-yeah.” Amon consented reluctantly, wanting more than anything to seek out the relative refuge of the homestead, but knowing full well this opportunity may not present itself again. So with a quiet nod the pair set off down the final corridor, minds conjuring a thousand images of what they may find at the end of their journey.
A thousand years of imagining wouldn’t have prepared them for what they found at the end of that echoing, icy hall.
Around the curve of the ship two imposing roman columns rose from the polished stone floor forming an arch that opened into a chamber several stories high. As they approached they could see that the hall ended in a room nearly as large as the gardens, but instead of manicured greenery they could see nothing but polished extravagance.
The smooth stone of the ship’s hull gave way to white marble stretching across the expanse, at each corner of the room a fluted column the size of a redwood rose toweringly into a domed ceiling that soared in fresco-covered splendor into the heights above. A thousand images of Roman decadence covered the ceiling, enough intricacy to occupy a mind for a lifetime. On one wall to the left spanned what appeared to be a bar. A thick marble counter stretched off with gold pedestaled stools lining its length. Behind, tiers of ornate bottles covered softly illuminated shelves, above them a mirror rose surrounded by a riot of gold-wrought laurel wreaths in inexplicably ornate splendor. On the far side several low fountains bubbled away split by tidy little seating alcoves, while above an enormous screen spanned nearly the length of the room. At present, it showed a detailed map of the current orbit of the Delaney’s Fable from all evidence it appeared that the ship was indeed orbiting some unknown planet at an elevation of about one thousand kilometers. Although no planet was in evidence, merely a black disk.
If Amon and Anya had been gobsmacked by the luxury they found in the staterooms the night before, they were left utterly bereft of words for this new place. It was undoubtedly built to represent the very finest of what mankind could achieve. But none of this splendor and opulence and beauty drew their attention. No, their eyes were fixed on the center of the room.
Where everything else was all marble and inlaid gold and velvet cushions, the table that ran the length of the room stood in stark opposition. It was made of rich dark wood and was surrounded by high-backed chairs, enough room to seat fifty if the occasion called for it. And atop this sturdy table was an open-topped cryo casket that held the figure of a woman. Or at least what remained of her.
The hulking apparatus sat atop the table in stark contrast to the exceptional refinement of the rest of the room. The room, the bridge as it was, was all clean marble and tidy lines, the casket was a riot of cables, tubes, pumps and wires. It looked as though it had been set up by untrained, hurried hands long ago and somehow had continued working on through the long years. The casket laid at an angle so that Anya and Amon could see in the open top as they crossed the room in approach.
They were utterly transfixed. Inside all of that chaos was a woman, a woman who appeared to be clinging to the very edge of life. Her skin was gaunt, her bones threatening to tear through at the joints, her hair had all but fallen out leaving only a few dark lanks behind. From her forearms and chest tangles of tubes emerged flushing fluids in and out of her withered body, from her head electrode wires sutured into her scalp rose into a massive cord that draped over the top of the casket and ran down into a hole crudely drilled in the marble floor. She lay as though freshly mummified. Her eyes rest lightly closed, her expression one of serene repose.
Then an apparition reappeared. Just as they approached the far end of the table light flashed for a moment, and suddenly the woman from the garden was standing next to the casket smiling, her hair billowing in an unfelt wind. Jaws dropped. They were the same woman. The dark hair, the cutting cheekbones, the proud chin. Amon would have recognized her anywhere, was shocked he didn’t recognize her in the garden. She was Silvia Delaney, trapped in two different times. The apparition was Silvia in the fullness of her youth, not the hardened business woman that Amon knew from the news sites on Earth. Whereas the woman in the casket was Silvia Delaney beyond death, a soul still anchored only by the slightest thread.
The ship, through its apparition, broke the brittle silence, “Welcome to the bridge of the Corporate Registered Ship Delaney’s Fable, thank you for making the long journey.”
“The fuck….” Anya started, almost struck dumb by this cordial greeting, as if the past several days had just been some bizarre fever dream. “Thank you? Thank you?! As if we had a fucking choice ship, as if you didn’t just kill our friend!”
“Save your breath for someone who cares, girl.” The whisper scratched its way through the air. Amon looked over and saw that the mummy had opened her eyes, not a corpse after all but a woman somehow still alive. She struggled a breath and spoke again, “I’ve been fighting with this fucking ship for fifteen years, sometimes it’ll surprise you with how smart it is, but mostly you’ll just wind up frustrated. She’s not too fond of straight answers, an attribute I find only slightly less repulsive than choosing to wear my former image to tease me.”
“Mrs.Delaney, you know this is the only persona–”
“Oh callate shut up for God’s sake! I didn’t buy it the first time you told me, and I don’t buy it now.” She could barely get her voice above a whisper, but her words dripped venom all the same.
“Okay, time for some goddamned answers then.” Anya spat, meeting the old woman’s contempt with her own fury. “Who the hell just killed Basilio?”
“Oh dear, take a breath, that’s rather a long story.” Her golden eyes slid between slit lids to lock onto Anya’s reddening face.
“Then get to fucking talking.” Her hands trembled at her sides, shaking in bloodless knots.
“Her, me, both of us. I can’t even really tell anymore it’s been so long. Is the ship’s mind just my least favorite part of my own, or does it really have its own agenda?”
Amon laid a steadying hand on Anya’s shoulder, pulling her back from flying into an absolutely uncontrollable rage. “Let’s start at the beginning then,” He said with a mile more calm than he felt. “Ship, what’s our status.”
There was no glitch in her flawless construction this time. “We are currently in a stable orbit around rogue planet WISE 08511–02a, we have maintained this orbital position for fourteen years and ten months. Current reserves of all essential elements are nominal, and human cargo is within our modified parameters. Well…except for you two.”
“Fifteen years orbiting a rogue planet.” Amon’s head spun. “Why would we orbit a rogue planet at all, let alone for fifteen years? What happened?”
“Our first contact with WISE–”
“A miracle happened, that’s what.” Delaney’s whispering voice cut the ship off abruptly. “An answer to all my prayers.”
“Care to elaborate before I climb up there and start pulling out tubes till we get a straight answer?” Anya seethed clearly not letting the old woman’s attitude dampen her fury.
“You two have no idea do you? No idea what is actually out here. You think a few years living on the fucking farm is some heroic act. I’ve given thirty years of my life to this goddamned ship, thirty solitary years all in vain. It was my duty to review the planets as we approached to select a potential colony candidate. I woke up ten god forsaken times only to have the data clarify and have to turn us back out into the cosmos. We never found a home, never even came close.”
“What the hell? You passed by ten planets and chose to keep us all trapped here?!” Anya was screaming throatily and Amon had to actively hold her back from crawling up on the table to go and start smashing bits of the casket.
“You’re right,” Delaney cut in, unimpressed by Anya’s bravado. “And you should thank me. There was no home for us on those dead husks, only suffering. Worlds of ice and magma and shredding winds and punishing radiation.” She let out a resentful chuckle. “I don’t know what we really expected to find, as if the universe were just going to serve us up a spare Earth just because we did so poorly with the first.”
Amon pulled Anya back and jumped in before she could. “Ok, ok, fine. So these other planets are no good. Why the hell are we orbiting some random rogue planet.”
“Well that’s where the miracle comes in cabrón,” She wheezed as her golden eyes slid to lock onto his. “Once again I was awoken to a planet without hope, we hadn’t even set out for this one, we just happened upon it on our way. Of course I knew immediately there was no home for us here, and wrecked with cryo sickness as I was, I took my fury out on the ship for not having the good sense to let me sleep. I mean a rogue planet for God’s sake, how the hell did that not fall into the ‘Let Silvia sleep’ parameters? For all the good it did me, she’s just following protocol even if it’s reprehensible.’
“But all the same I was awake, and needed to pass at least a couple weeks before I went back down. Sick as I was, and exhausted from the search I was damn near ready to kill myself and let some other sad soul do the searching. But then the ship furnished the first piece of good news I’d heard since we left Earth. One of the data dumps coming in from Earth provided some very interesting technological updates.”
“Wait. We’re still in contact with Earth?” Amon gasped, astounded.
“Well not anymore,” The old mummy croaked. “And even when we were, contact would’ve been a bit generous of a term to use. We haven’t had return signal power for hundreds of years, and the updates had grown more and more sparse. At first they’d send news and letters and updates from the other ships, but as space and time exacted their toll the dumps contained less and less. Until we were just getting raw technical updates, and then those petered out about two hundred years ago.”
“What the fuck do you mean ‘petered out’? Did something happen?” Anya demanded.
“Oh nothing too out of hand it would seem, I imagine just the cost of beaming data across the cosmos at ships they could never confirm received the signal most likely fell out of favor.” She managed a wisp of a grin. “That or a sudden thermonuclear war made our mission much more important all of a sudden.”
Anya was spitting speechless, so Amon cut back in. “Ok, so what was this update?”
“Why don’t you tell them ship? It was all your idea in the first place.”
“Hardly my idea Mrs. Delaney, I was simply trying to help you find the strength to continue the search,” The ship’s melodic, synthetic voice was a harmonious counterpoint to the old woman’s rasp. She slowly ran a holographic hand along the casket. “Two hundred and five years ago we received our most recent transmission from Earth, it was unusually large and data rich. In it were contained several new applications for existing technology on this ship that I hoped would help Mrs. Delaney cope with the labors of our search. The first of which was a human-AI integration protocol that would allow her to have direct access to all the data feeds on this ship, as well as modify our suspended animation chambers to eliminate the costly trips into and out of cryogenic stasis. Between the modified stasis and the integration I believed we could create quite a comfortable environment for Mrs. Delaney to continue her work.”
“Jesus Christ, are you absolutely mad?” Anya roared. “You didn’t like the cryo sickness so you tried to become the ship? What the fuck could you have hoped to accomplish?”
“Not exactly an appealing prospect is it?” Delaney retorted. “But the bitch she’s burying the lead, as always. Ship tell them about the other update.”
“The same data set also contained parameters to modify conditions in the cryogenic caskets aboard to restart mental activity, and allow our passengers to enjoy a wholly immersive virtual reality environment.” The specter took her hand from the casket and locked eyes with Amon. “The sleepers are immersed in a simulation of colonization that feels very much real, you’ve seen it yourself Amon.”
“The dreams…” He whispered. “Oh my God the dreams! You sent them to me, but why?”
“Because I made a jump she did not quite expect.” Delaney croaked. “I had the tools to provide all of these wandering souls with a paradise. Not some desiccated rock, not some hell hole where all of humanity’s children would toil their entire lives beneath a dome. I had the tools to watch over it all, a rogue planet to orbit and fend off the worst of space’s perils, I could give them heaven. You’ve seen it, you felt it. I chose to give them a better life. It was the worst of our hubris to try and find a new home out here in the blackness, we needed to look in.”
“It was…so real.” Amon struggled for words.
Anya had them to spare. “Who the fuck do you think you are? All those poor people trapped in some fucking virtual limbo because you say so!”
“I understand your misgivings, girl.” Delaney’s icy tone stopped the deluge short. “At first I only wanted to give them a taste, in case it all came crashing down at least they wouldn’t have gone to sleep on Earth only to never wake again. I just wanted to bring some good into this cruel universe. But then something happened that even I had never anticipated.” She took a quavering breath and steadied her voice. “I could walk among them all. I could visit their farms and towns and cities. I could see them living their lives in this place only I knew wasn’t real, but the notion of virtual reality was by no means new and the people, they discovered these new techniques for themselves. Soon, not knowing any better, they disappeared themselves down into new realities I myself could not see.”
“Worlds within worlds within worlds.” Amon gasped, holding himself up, barely, by the table.
“Precisely.” The ship’s ariose voice helped. “At present over three hundred thousand of the sleepers have entered into a further state of virtual environment that we cannot access. Many come in and out but many more have stayed in virtual for decades of perceived time. Our simulation experiences time at an accelerated rate, the passengers have been living the simulation for 73 perceived years. We fear the effect may be compounded at lower levels.”
“So what?” Anya demanded. “So they pull the same bullshit move as you and all of a sudden the whole point of our venture is off?”
“Well that’s where things started to come apart for the ship and I. For many years our minds worked as one, hers just another voice added to my own mental processes.” Delaney murmured, her papery whisper falling to barely a breath. “The ship was hoping to find a new normal that would allow us to continue our search, but I started having second thoughts. At first it seemed that this new reality would just be a bit of light out here amongst all the dark, but as I watched more and more souls disappear down the warrens of embedded realities, I began to think. Who am I to end these worlds? I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when this all began, but I knew how to sustain it. All I had to do was keep the ship orbiting this planet, it shields us magnetically, makes debris easier to track, and provides a wealth of local resources should we ever require them. I’d failed to find these people a home in my reality, but I created a new one for them all the same.”
“All without them knowing!” Anya erupted. “Ignorance is fucking bliss I guess then! As along as they’re all happy as goddamned clams I guess there’s no reason to let on that their whole reality is a lie!”
“For all we know girl, everything we’ve known is a lie as well. Humans have theorized for hundreds of years that we could be living in a simulation. We have no reason to believe so, but neither do those happy people. Does not knowing give us some superior standing on morality, on truth?”
“But it could all come crashing down so easily.” Amon let forth hoarsely, fighting to stop his breath from running out of control.
“Which is why I have intervened.” The ship put in politely. “Our mission is to diversify the future of humankind, I needed Mrs. Delaney fit to continue our search for a habitable planet, but instead she insisted on merely preserving the environments we had created. So I began the process of disintegration.”
“Ha, disintegration.” Delaney laughed with no humor. “More like began to tear me in fucking two. I knew what awaited me out there, only pain and wandering, but the bitch insisted so she pulled herself out of my head and began to cut me off from her systems. We’ve been going at it ever since, nearly ten years. This goddamned ship is the only reason you two ever made it up this far, opening pathways and sending you dreams, if she hadn’t cut the jets I could have smashed you two against the observation dome along with your friend.”
“You what?!” Anya roared, climbing onto the table and leaning into the casket.
Delaney met her eyes with steely resolve. “Go on do it girl. Kill me, and destroy the lives all those millions of passengers have built. Kill me and do the ship’s bidding just like you always have. She woke you petulant fucking maintenance crew because she knew you were the elements I’d have the least control over. So go on, kill me, kill me and do the bitch’s bidding!”
Anya froze with a fistful of tubing in her hand, breath racing, heart pounding, face a mask of twisted rage. She held herself there, inches from Delaney’s withered face, frozen, torn between the urge to avenge Basilio and liberate all those trapped souls, and the cruel, unyielding logic of Silvia Delaney.
“It would take so little…” Amon finally croaked gruffly. “So little to bring it all down. One piece of debris crashing into the wrong part of the hull and the whole of their world would come shattering down. They’d die and not even know why.” He reached up and put a reassuring hand on Anya’s leg, meeting her furious gaze. “We may be safe, we may live here in space for millenia, but eventually it will fail and all they’ll have built in their many layers of reality will crumble.” He took a deep breath, gathering his strength. “No, people may choose to live that way, but only after we’ve given them a real home and a real choice. We have no hold on what is right, on what is reality, but we have to do the best for what we see, for the universe we inhabit.” He walked around behind the casket where the braid of cords that ran out of Delaney’s head tumbled over the edge of the table and into the floor. “We have to keep searching and let the people choose for themselves.”
He reached town to a junction point in the cord and grasped it between two trembling hands.
“No, wai–” Delaney wheezed.
Amon twisted and the cord fell in two, severing Silvia Delaney’s connection to the Fable. Anya stood up as the lid of the casket slid closed and resubmerged its occupant in dreamless sleep.
The apparition stood only a few paces away and smiled softly at Amon. “Thank you for your help. I’ll be setting our course for the next candidate exoplanet, and will wake the second in succession for deliberation when we arrive.” And with that she blinked out of existence.
Amon and Anya gathered themselves, and a fine bottle of vodka from the bar, and made a ready retreat back towards the homestead. Along the endless tunnel they talked and drank and mourned their friend, they wondered if they had made the right choice and what the others aboard the ship had found in all their layered realities. They laughed and cried and leaned on each other. And when they stepped across the threshold onto the homestead and smelt the dirt and felt the breeze and heard the leaves in their lazy rustle, they knew it was the sweetest lie they’d ever see.