May 6, 2005
Tim Donlan

“What do you think about death?” he says, sitting on the brass bench in the engine room.

Around us are the knobs and dials of navigation and engine pressure. All the gages and stopping points and half-assed second rate engineering.

“If this ship were to give way, just bust up. And we floated into the abyss, what would you think about that?” he says.

He’s tall with dark hair, a little metal fleck in his cheek for presentations. He has a fake eye.

He’s my ethics professor.

Sometimes I answer his rhetorical questioning, his ponderous inquisitions. “I don’t know, Mr. Platon, that would suck pretty bad.”

And I go back to banging out high scores on hollosphere.

Every Wednesday, before the recycling of the fuel cells causes the underlying decibels to skyrocket, we have group session. That’s when all the sons and daughters recite their weekly ethics lesson. It’s really not that bad – at least for me.

There are one or two bad kids that get to endure a round of finger shocks if they talk back or act up. But I usually sail through unharmed.

Kim is there again. She doesn’t always show up for ethics session. Her parents are odd balls, real whack jobs. They aren’t into hibernation so they’re really old and wrinkly. Don’t believe in rejuvy either – like to be all natural. Whatever that means.

But Kim is different. She’s not a heretic or an outcast – she can say all the prayers and mean them in her heart. And she talks about other things too – she’s not just a regurgitator.

Mr. Platon likes to start the session with quiet time. He stands up as tall as his phenotype allows, third hand usually juggling little balls of carbo-write. We’re in the atrium so there are drooping leaves all around, like some kitschy jungle.

We’re supposed to close our eyes but I peek at Kim through my fingers. She’s playing with her little hydra ring, mouthing pop songs feeding into her ear plugs. From the skylights, it looks like starbeams in her eyes.

Mr. Platon prays by folding his three hands and bowing his head. He must switch off his fake eye. I know something like that would break my concentration with God. Sometimes when he’s quiet, I watch him, wondering what he’s thinking, who he’s trying to reach with his thoughts.

Later, we’re regurging the cardinal formulas. I know this stuff easy, innate.

“Benjamin, what is the Godly Ratio?”

Mr. Platon is looking at me with his good eye and I can tell he means it. Old fake is scanning the faces of the other students, like is always does.

“Sixty six point six repeating,” I say, grinning at Kim. She’s still lip synching the pop feeds with the corner of her mouth. Very gutsy of her.

Mr. Platon taps his feet, leaning forward. “Yes, Mr. Judah. Of what?”

“Of prime stock genotype remaining. Two thirds. The other third is perfectly acceptable to modify in the pursuit of God’s will,” I finish with flourish.

“Correct. Can anyone tell me why the Church Fathers decided upon two thirds?”

Mr. Platon is fiddling the chalk in his third hand again, letting the purple cylinder dangle between his fingers. I wonder if he ever drops it, if that third hand of his is clumsy.

“Because of the trinity,” Kim says. She raises an eyebrow my way.

Mr. Platon nods. “Yes, Kimberly, it dos involve the Holy Trinity. Can you explain further?”

Kim almost looks bored. “The church fathers believed that the Father and the Son represented the human form of the past, the genotype that had persisted through the centuries. Christ was manifest in that genotype when he entered the earth’s sphere. But the third incarnation of the trinity, the holy ghost – that represented all future incarnations of the human genotype.”

Kim pauses for a beat, takes a breath. “Because the holy ghost was formless, and man was made in God’s image – in a way God was abdicating any boundaries on form. As long as we’re two thirds human genotype stock.”

“Well put, Miss Kimbery.” Mr. Platon smiles, a weird twisted grin with his metal cheek plate. His fake eye still doesn’t focus on her, doing the classroom scan. But he zaps her up a few fractional grade points for effort.

“Of course, there are loopholes,” I say. “Mechanical additions don’t factor into the Godly Ratio.”

“Yes, Benjamin, but I would not call them loop holes. Does the carpenter call the hammer a part of his hand, even if he holds it for hours at a time? Of course not. It is but a tool. Mechanicals lack the spiritual essence of living matter. They are but instruments. Thus, why they escape the Godly Ratio.”

After the ethics lesson most of he sons and daughters go to the rec room, switch off the gravity and bounce off the walls. I don’t feel like it, and besides, I have a headache. It’s the dreams again.

Sometimes I imagine a big powersuited behemoth, the kind they have on the restricted cinemas or newsfeeds. He’s like Goliath, a destroyer of towns and people. He rampages through land and air with fire and guns, destroying all in his path. A mighty crusader. His armor is painted with a white cross on the breast. An emissary of the Church.

And when he’s done killing and burning, roasting the sinners and heretics, tearing down the idols to false gods, he removes his helmet.

And it’s Mr. Platon.

I always wonder why we meet in the engine room. I think Mr. Platon likes to intimidate us with the sheer majesty of the engineering. Make us feel small under the harsh gaze of dials and readouts. The endpoints of all these monolithic pieces of power.

And he always likes to bring up death.

On Thursday, Kim is with me to spit out the stock answer. “Those who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and fear of the Lord have no reason to be anxious about death, but instead accept it with open arms, because a new life awaits – paradise for those who believe.”

Mr. Platon is speechless, but very proud. He sits on a brass bench, next to the pressure scanner, his lips pursed. “I’m amazed, Kimberly. You truly are a blessed little girl.”

Sometimes I have doubts if Kim is being honest in her answers, but I have no doubt that she is blessed.

After, when the elders are breaking the evening bread, the sons and daughters have contemplation time. I’m sitting in Kim’s room, staring at the riveted walls. She’s thumbing an entry into her journal.

“What are you writing about?” I ask, fidgeting with a scrap of fabric.

She doesn’t say anything immediately, furiously jamming her thumbs into the text boxes. Her face is frozen in concentration, like it’s carved.

Then she turns and stares me down.

“I’m writing about lies.” she says.

“Lies? What kind of lies?” I ask.

She goes back to writing.

“I thought you were smarter than that,” Kim says. “Smarter than them.”

I pick at the threads of the fabric in my hand, shredding it.

“That’s youthful temptation, to think you know better than the elders. You should wait a few years, then see what you think.”

Kim shakes her head. “Don’t you see Benjy? By then I’ll be brainwashed. We’ll be at the colony, digging out a new life. We won’t have the luxury of free thought, life will be too hard. Then it will be the end.”

“It won’t be the end,” I cut in, fast. “The colony is the start of something new – and it will be exciting. It’s God’s will.”

“Go forth and multiply,” she says, sarcastically. “I’ve heard it. They’ve tried to make it our creed. Just another lie.”

“Kim,” I whisper. “You should be careful. Remember what they did with Lucas.”

“Lucas was a fool. He spouted out his problems like a lunatic. Where was he gonna go, we’re in a cruiser halfway between worlds?”

“Well you’re writing everything out in a journal!” I say, gruffly. “Imagine if someone found that, Mr. Platon for example. You’d be the next Lucas that mother’s warn their children about. A heretic.”

“I have it encrypted. And besides, Platon is a real hypocrite. He’s broke the Godly Ratio twice. And I think he’s a transie.”

“That’s why you think he talks about death all the time? Cause it’s the one thing that scares him?”

Kim just shrugs. She finishes thumbing in the encryption signatures and closes off the journal.

“Benjy, you need to think about the long term. We have another year on here. Sure, you could sleep through it, but I can’t. My parents won’t pay for it. And they’re going to take me out of school when we get to Colony. They want me to marry and have children within the first year. Can you imagine that?”

I’m sullen and silent. I’ve ripped the fabric apart, threads slipping through my fingers.

“Benjy, what’s your ratio?” She asks, looking straight at me again. Her limp, thin hair hangs around her ears in clumps. Here, in the residence halls, with only fake artificial lights, her eyes are hollow.

“About 78%, why?”

“I’m 100. Pure stock.” She reaches out and touches my hand, gracing my thumbnail. I ball my hands into fists.

“You know the survival rate of unmodified genotypes on these new planets? It’s dismal. The teraformation just doesn’t make a healthy atmosphere. It’s going to be a tough road,” she says.

There isn’t much I can say. We’re on an unalterable course, like a burning comet into the sun. It would be a grand, spiritual adventure. We could romanticize any tragedy, gloss over every hardship.

Kim reaches out again to grab my hands. I let her have them.

“Benjy, I’ve been thinking about doing something. Something the elders won’t like. I might get punished for it.”

“Lucas?” I ask.

“Maybe worse.”

My jaw burns.

“Why?” I say.

“Because I don’t want to live a lie. I don’t want to be a vehicle for an ideal. And if I land at Colony, get pregnant and die in childbirth they’ll make me a martyr.” Her voice is cracking.

She shakes her head, still staring into me. Hollow eyes. 100% pure human stock, and all it meant was weakness.

In the half light, the fake glow of the residence halls, while the silence still permeates, she leans forward and kisses me.

“Don’t forget, Benjy. This is real, and it hurts. It hurts and don’t forget,” she says.

A single tear breaks her cheek, falling faster than water. She kisses me in the half-light, before the mammoth roar of the recycling engines. I press the shredded purple fabric into her hand, and she kisses me.

I’d try not to forget.

After the booming, heart stirring fire and brimstone sermon by Pastor Soccerton, Mr. Platon takes me aside.

This is in an auxiliary hall, where the floor is color coded for pipes and wires running within.

“Do you know what’s gotten into Kimberly?” he says. His third hand is reaching for my shoulder, and both eyes are focused on me.

“What do you mean?” I twist out of his grip, and I can see he is disappointed.

“I found this,” he says, raising the black bound journal from under his robes. Kim’s journal. “She tried to encrypt it. Benjamin, there are some hurtful things written in here. Almost heretical.”

Should I feign ignorance? Should I appear concerned, volunteering to chastise her inappropriate behavior?

“Mr. Platon, I think that is a private diary of Kimberly’s. She wouldn’t be happy to see her things pried into. Perhaps you should trust her.”

“These are serious statements,” he says, holding the black book. “Warning signs? What if she goes astray?”

“She’s 100 stock, Mr. Platon, she knows the entire doctrine off the top of her head. I think a little self-doubt and philosophizing still falls within the Godly Ratio, don’t you think?”

I don’t wait for him to answer.

“Have you ever heard of the Titanic?” she asks me, sitting. She’s watching me fidget with the purple cloth.

“No,” I say.

“It was a ship,” she continues, “Not for traveling across space, but the oceans of old Terra.”

“Long time ago, huh,” I say.

“Yep. And it was full of all kinds of people. Rich, poor, young, old, believers and sinners. It was very big and luxurious and said to be unsinkable. It was heading to the new world – a new home for all these people.”

“Yea? And what happened?”

“It sank,” she says.

“Figures. No one would remember the story of an uneventful voyage.”

“Do you think an innocent peasant standing on the railing, watching the iceberg tear a hole in the side of the ship -do you think he wished he could turn around the head home?”

“I’m sure he wanted to very much,” I say.

“But he could do nothing about it,” she remarks. “The ship sank as true as destiny, straight shot to the bottom of the ocean. As much as we wish we could alter our fate – there it comes, and there it will be.”

“Let’s hope not to the bottom of the ocean,” I say.

She says nothing, but looks grim.

Sometimes I sit in the observation deck and watch the stars. There’s no focal point, no firm ground to stand upon and look up from. Only a complete spherical horizon of endless void, punctuated by blips of distant, ancient light.

Everything is relative. I’m on a ship hurdling through space at 90% the speed of light, yet my surroundings appear stationary. The constellations spin slowly. I can’t call them that any longer, because they don’t fit the starcharts in the library. They’re different and new, hinting at new stories and legends.

Everything’s relative, from the sermons that blast into our spiritual psychology to the tearful musings we have with loved ones. Even the pain we feel – what is it rooted in? Arbitrary battles and meaningless.

Sometimes I think a new sun will appear, growing larger every minute until we are blinded by its radiance. Sitting up there in the throne of the observation room, I’ll see it come and smile.

There is our destiny, a tiny teraformed planet orbiting that big old warm sun. There is my life in a tiny moment, that small white sphere growing larger.

And we’ll smile and settle, charging forward like saints.

I’ll marry Kimberly and we’ll till the rich earth, watching our crops and children grow. In happy worship, a community united, and a red and white cross painted on my breast.

They wake me when the engines are still recycling, the deep horrible roil of gasses ramming through miles of pipelines. Rumbling me from peaceful sleep. It’s Mr. Platon and Pastor Soccerton.

“Son, we need you as a witness.”

Platon drags me with his third arm through the dark corridors, under the endless echoing noise. Can’t speak, can’t think, only acknowledge the horror and the rush. It’s then that I notice Pastor Soccerton is wearing his Robes of Penance.

He hasn’t worn them since Lucas.

“Kimberly was caught trying to reset the drive coordinates,” Platon rasps into my ear. “She wanted to turn us around.”

His fake eye glows red in the darkness. “We have no other choice, Benjamin, she needs to be cleansed. It’s God’s will.”

I say nothing.

We arrive in the atrium, with all the lights off save the maintenance bulbs. The leafy fronds vibrate in the darkness, dripping down moisture in the sonic storm.

Kim is tied and waiting. Her parents are seated. It’s so dark and cacophonous, this is my new nightmare.

The proceedings are already underway. They just pulled me in to witness the judgment, the punishment.

“And so you stand before both God and Man, accused of blasphemy and treachery, forsaking your holy call for the lure of lies. What do you have to say before your judgment?”

Kim is silent, bound in her chair, and then she sees me. She cocks her head, letting her limp hair fall between her ears, over her eyes. I know she is looking through it all to me.

“You wish to remain silent. Very well.”

The ship’s surgeon is there. He’s holding a syringe.

“Dr. Amalthus, you may proceed with type 1 cognitive gene resequencing.”

Kim whispers “Remember me,” and then they inject her.

She’ll be despondent for about a week as her brain gets jumbled. Then she’ll put on a smile and snap out of it. Born again. And she’ll still love me.

Under the roiling noise, that’s the one thing I can think about, and that kiss.

I still have my ethics lesson with Mr. Platon the next day in the engine room.

Everything is running smoothly, no blinking red lights or spasming dials. Just a light hum, hurdling through the void.

“What do you think about death, ceasing to breathe, to think, to live?” He begins, as always, pushing on the pedals of morbidity.

I cock my head, lick my lips, thinking about Kim and Lucas and the innumerable others. I don’t think about heaven or hell or judgment.

I think of warm soil under the sun, baked to a gentle brown, watered from the spring showers and the sweating irrigation system. A strong back lifting tools and plows across the fruitful plain. I think about the colony.

“Everything’s relative,” I say. “We’re not here for long, but nothing is.”

Mr. Platon is twisting his pen in the fingers of his third hand, staring me down with his fake eye.

“All we have is a dream and a memory, and we try to reconcile the two, make them real. And it’s hard. It’s probably impossible. It’s real and it hurts. With death, well, we finally get to stop trying. It’s our final rest, where the dream and the memory become one.”

Mr. Platon is stoic, like he forgets all about the lesson. Finally he speaks, “We can talk about this next time, Benjamin.”

“It’ll have to be at colony,” I say. “I’m going to hibernate the rest of the trip.”

I’ll sleep through space-time, like I’m dead, trying to reconcile the dream and the memory. And when I wake, it will be into a new life. Born again.

Mr. Platon says nothing, his little mechanical eye clicking away in the socket, a tool for God’s work.

Then I rise from the brass bench, leaving behind a torn and shredded scrap of purple fabric, fashioned into the shape of a cross.

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