This is a serial novel, so if you’re new to Sol, it’s best to start at the beginning.
I rested my head against the wall of the pod and stared at the bright blue thumbprint that was Earth. The hum of the pod vibrated and distorted my vision. I don’t know how long I’d been in the pod, an hour, maybe two. Time was incongruent. I had lost my grip on what made me, me. Me, the guy who was never late for work, never late for a meeting, never missed a school event. I couldn’t get a handle on the time. My mind was blank. I thought I would have been racked with sorrow, pain, maybe even despair. Instead, I ruminated on why I wasn’t more distraught, more sorrowful. I was empty, like someone had used an ice cream scoop to remove my emotions and memories.
The adrenalin wore off and my body started to shut down. My head danced like it used to on early morning subway rides until I couldn’t fight it anymore. My eyes closed and the memories rushed in on me – My wife and daughter in our small apartment experimenting with baking soda, food coloring, and vinegar, my wife at the kitchen table working on her latest hardware project, soldering iron rendering small poisonous puffs under her magnifying glass. My daughter sitting on the grey velvet couch excitedly reading the photo book of terrifying deep sea creatures we got her for Hannukah. A family exploring the world, feeding their individual and familial obsessions. A family deeply in love with each other and the possibilities yet undiscovered.
I forced myself awake, unable to stare my previous happiness in the eye. The image of my two girls stared back at me in the pod’s view port. It mocked me. It comforted me. I desired to be with them, to smell their hair again, to fall into each other laughing again, to complain about the mess my wife made as she built her circuits in our too small apartment. That desire turned into emptiness, emptiness that filled up with hatred and anger. I willed the picture away and looked back toward Earth.
It was larger now, the size of a tea cup. I could make out the swirling brown dust clouds that now covered the land masses, but before I could get a closer view, the screen flashed amber and showed the interior of the Manhattan Project. Two men and two women stood on a platform in the center of the great hall, looking both lost and confident. They stared in the same direction and nodded quietly. They were listening quietly to someone who wasn’t there. This is what people look like when they talk to Prime, I guessed. There was a possibility they were all crazy, but that seemed less likely.
The screen zoomed in on a slight Asian man standing in front of a woman in a sari. He nodded, and then said his name. Xiaoping Luo. Prime was apparently talking to all of them at the same time, a whisper in their ear. The pocket of Xiaoping’s blue button down was torn revealing a deep gash in his chest. I could imagine the metallic blood smell that emanated from his wound. I didn’t notice at the time, but it was definitely odd that he hadn’t been bandaged yet. He seemed weak.
A pressure built in my head and a shadow fell across my thoughts, much like when Prime appeared, but more invasive, more personal. My eyes were open, but my sight darkened and my sense of sound quieted. When my vision snapped back, I was in an empty warehouse. A tiger prowled inside a cage. I could see it, hear it, smell it. It felt real, but I could also feel my back pressed against the seat of the pod. I tried to close my eyes, but the scene still played out. The ship pushed it into my brain. I had no choice but to go along. The tiger snarled and panted as it paced back and forth behind the bars. It lunged at the door to loosen the bolts. I feared the tiger because it was vicious, but there was more to it. I had a deeper fear of betrayal and a sadness, like the tiger belonged to me and I was the one who had put it in the cage to protect myself. The shadow pulled away from me leaving a cavity in my mind that slowly filled in with my regular senses. I reached out for the sides of the pod to steady myself. Xiaoping covered his mouth with his hand and kneeled on the platform sobbing. The woman in the sari reached out to console him.
In that moment, I knew Xiaoping.My mind recoiled, the way you recoil when you see a bully from your childhood. I knew his strength was easily misdirected. I knew he was on the knife’s edge of snapping. I had never met Xiaoping before, but I knew who he was and what he was to me as if a lifetime of experiences had informed my knowledge. But I didn’t know why this was happening.
“Pri..” I started to speak, but caught myself mid word.
– Prime? I thought quietly to myself. Small pressure built above my ears.
– You and the people on this ship are picking a Captain. This is much like the organization of the ships before, except this is a conscious choice.
– It felt like I was there. I could smell the tiger, and when it was gone, it left an awful ache behind.
– The first few times are the hardest, but you will get used to it. You can see how mind control would be painful.
On the platform, a few men dispassionately dragged a crying Xiaoping off of the platform.
The screen zoomed in on the woman in the sari. She was short, but she moved with a grace that made her appear taller. Her long, dark hair was pulled behind her ears, which made her eyes even more bright and welcoming. She looked to her right and nodded, Prime must have given her more instructions. She spoke her name, Anita Singh. The image of a table filled with a home cooked meal appeared in my head. A chair was pulled out inviting me to sit. I could hear a woman humming over the din of clanging pots and plates. The smells of naan bread, cardamom, and cumin registered in the back of my brain. The anticipation of a happy family gathering washed over me. I longed for that familial connection, but it stirred the deep anger inside me. A love lost instead of a love gained. I steadied myself as the shadow lifted and the image and emotion tumbled away. Anita was a connector. She would bring us together, but she couldn’t send people to fight and die.
The screen shifted to a man who introduced himself as Marko Pinder. His chin was as severe as his hair was dark. He was a head taller than Anita with a barrel chest and tree stumps for legs. His sweatpants and ragged t-shirt were covered in dirt. His shadow invaded my thoughts. A brick wall appeared in front of me. Marko yelled over his shoulder. Spit flew from his mouth. I could smell his breath. He held a sledgehammer in one hand and adjusted a gun in his belt with the other. He walked slowly up to the wall, lifted the hammer over his head and swung it viciously. When the wall didn’t give, he swung again with more force, more anger. Each time the hammer hit the bricks, fear built in my mind until I felt the urge to flee. When his hammer crashed through to the other side of the wall, he pulled the gun out of his belt and fired blindly into the darkness, his mouth a wide grin. As the shadow lifted, Marko grimaced. He stepped backward with his head bowed in defeat. He was an indiscriminate killer. He would win a battle, but never a war.
The last candidate stepped forward. She said her name, Brienne Foucault, with a thick French accent. Her hair was cut in an angular bob, a sharp contrast to the softness of her features. A white and blue patterned dress peaked out from behind a white lab coat. Above the breast pocket, it read Foucault Parfumerie in an airy script. She was taller than Marko and quicker in her movements. My vision blurred and I saw myself sitting across from her with a chess board between us. I reached out and tipped over my black king. I had lost. Most of my black pieces lined her side of the board. Only a few of her white pawns sat next to my side. I felt defeated. There was no chance of winning. She reached out and reset the board. I knew I would lose again. I would always lose, but I felt a kinship with Brienne. It was the kind of kinship I had felt for teachers in the past, complete with the background anxiety that I would do something to disappoint her. She had a strategic mind, willing to sacrifice when necessary, in the service of a greater victory. As her shadow departed, I wished for it back. I wanted to follow.
Foucault stepped forward. I got the impression that she didn’t know what else to do so she waved and smiled, much like the Queen of England. The room quieted down. The screen flashed amber again and the viewport shifted away from the newly minted Captain to show the area surrounding Earth. Thousands of ship icons appeared on the map. Manhattan Project now had the name Brienne Foucault under the ship’s name. Other captains appeared under each ship. A wave of new shadows from the other captains darkened my head as the view slid across the armada. A crashing wave and a feeling of instability, a drowning man with an elbow on his back coupled with a feeling of retribution, a warm embrace and the comfort that came with it, a punch to the jaw and a feeling of resilience, a cold drink in the hot sun that stung your throat but left you refreshed, a dog tearing a shoe apart and a rising anger. Shadows cycled for what felt like an hour. When it came to the Manhattan Project, my kinship grew stronger for Brienne. Our ship’s name pulsed slowly and then more quickly, ultimately changing to viridian. Four other ships followed suit for each division of humanity.
The screen’s view pulled back to show the crowd on the Manhattan Project. People mingled and bumped against each other, as if a concert had ended and they were waiting for the next act. We had a leader. We had a ship. But what were we going to do with it? We were in a vessel built for a war and I, for one, had no idea where that war was. My mind felt tired, my body felt weak.
– How can this be so easy? It’s too easy.
– I told you before that the ship knows your true intent.
– That was a private thought.
– There is no such thing, Rick. At least not from me. Your people can’t hear your thoughts unless I let them.
– Can you turn it off? I don’t want you in my head.
– It can’t be turned off.
Prime’s shadow disappeared again. He was right about one thing at least. It gets easier.
A distant star lit up on the screen. The explorers, lead by the Copernicus, along with their defensive ships, lead by The Hand of God, turned toward the distant star. They accelerated briefly and then disappeared into the blackness. Two more stars lit up momentarily. The colony ships split into two groups, lead by Tree of Life and Fat Lady Ain’t Sung Yet, and then turned their ships in the two opposing directions. They leapt into the unknown.
We stayed behind and orbited our decaying planet. I would never touch the grass, taste the salt on the ocean air, or eat a New York bagel again. I wanted to kiss my wife’s lips and hug my beautiful daughter again. I longed for the only thing that would truly fill my emptiness. On the way, though, I would try to fill it up with revenge and death. And when I finally kissed my wife and held my daughter, it wouldn’t be close to what I hoped.
I still clung to NiNi as the pod hummed alongside our ship, my ship.
Rick 34.15: Diaspora by Christopher Hazlett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://robotissmiling.com/?p=264.