FLis is flatcheeked on her slim mattress, alone, sore breasts pressed hard beneath her, and she’s got to the point past panic where all that’s left is blank-staring and breathing, nothing else.
Should she feel something sparking inside of her? If she does, it’s the spark of something that sets fire to internal plastics, billows acrid smoke. The kind of spark that consumes precious oxygen, ripples up and blackens curved steel walls. FLis feels like the emergency klaxon is sounding, something that’s only happened once in her lifetime and sent a pyroclastic flow of fear through her so completely she could feel it even in the capillaries in her toes. Except this time, she’s the only one the klaxon is sounding for.
It feels funny, to be so still with so much roiling around inside her. She turns to lie on the other cheek, peering past the curves and hills of her rumply sheets, out over the lip of her sleep bay. She can just see SLam across the way, who’s slept in the bay to her left as long as she can remember, see the silhouette of her nose and the throw of soft glow from the runner lights along the passageway between them.
“You awake, SLam?” FLis says, almost too quiet to hear, but her voice bounces through her head like a scream in a storage compartment.
SLam doesn’t make a sound.
FLis feels her heart glug-pump out of time and she turns back towards the wall, closes her eyes. Behind them is the bleating light of a warning sig, and a quiet voice inside her, like the cool tones of the emergency system voice, pumping from speakers in her every cell and it says the same thing, over and over.
No. No. No.
FLis wakes to the bleat of the warning sig for real, a common occurrence now that they’re getting closer to Sina and orbit. She wakes to hot, salivatory nausea so she ignores the low bleat of the alarm like always and thuds, barefoot, down onto the floor of the corridor. She races along her dorm passage, the whole world going ‘warg-warg-warg’ in her head and behind her eyes. She thumps into the bathrooms, ignoring a cluster of other Ls from her workgroup who all say ‘hey’, and she shuts herself into a tiny waste chute cube. This time, she doesn’t get the chute lid up before she horks last night’s Protein&Green all over the spotty aluminium lid, and then when she tries to clean it up, she horks again, but gets it in the chute this time.
“FLis, you okay?”
“Fuck off,” she says, recognising the sound of Link and wanting nothing more than to open the cube, pull him in and shove his face into the chunks sprayed up the wall, grind it in real good for his part of her being in this mess.
She can’t, but. No one can know. Not if she’s going to do what she’s going to do.
L workgroup is assigned to Level 6-B of the gardens and FLis mixing a vat of fert. FLis likes the smell in here, half chems, half green, the odour carrying through the damp air and sticking to her skin. She likes to smell it on herself later on, in the hallways and dorms that just smell of bodies and rust. As a spray of the goopy liquid flicks up and onto her hands, she wonders if being around all these chems is good for the…you know. Then, she laughs ’cause it’s such a stupid thought. It’s not like she’s gonna have it or anything. The mixer slips a little in her hand as she thinks about it. She’s gonna find a way, right? And what if she doesn’t?
The assembly tone plays over the comms, echoing through Level 6-B. FLis pours the fert into the flow and watches it pump through the tubes and away to help push up the greens. Fucken assem, she thinks. She’d rather stay here, in the quiet, in the pungent, damp air of things growing.
But assem is manda, so she joins the rest of the Ls as they file down the hall to the Level 6 assem area. The tone keeps bleating and everyone sits, murmuring to each other. SLam comes by and takes her hand, flicking and sliding it over hers, and FLis almost blurts it right out, ’cause if anyone knows what to do it’d be SLam, but then the tone stops and the wallscreen comes alive with the face of Arim. Some of L cheers and there are a few hisses ’cause opin goes back and forth on Arim and the leadership in general. FLis hates him, has always hated him, not because of how the A crew keeps the StatQuo stable and all the ways they run the show, but because his face is just fucking…wrong. All the As have wrong faces, faces that say one thing and eyes that say another.
“Crew and staff of the Ankora…”
“Clankora!” the Ls all chant, ’cause everyone knows the place is a rustbucket and shit’s been getting worse with the decel. As if to echo the sentiment, there’s a clatter and a crash from down the passage. The crew who were fixing the fifth line with the kale plants this morning all go a bit green and crinkly at the edges too and they tear off to try and save what they can of the crop. Link goes with them and FLis is glad he’s gone so she doesn’t have to avoid his sticky eyes that are always, always on her, or have been, since the thing…
Arim is still talking, more stuff about proximity and then there’s the newest scout-drone images of Sina. Arim launches into his sign-off, and all around her, the Ls are mouthing it along with him, even if they can’t stand the As, they do it anyway.
“We stayed brave and we were hopeful, and the century turned into decades and the decades turned to years, and the years to months and the months to weeks, and now, we are still strong, we are still here, and we are two weeks, three days, and seven hours from orbit!”
Everyone shrieks the last part with him. The screen goes black and the Ls are all a little pumped but FLis feels the complete opposite of pumped and then, boom, she’s sick again, bent over the recyc chute by the door while the Ls file past her and back to the gardens.
There have to be others, right? Other Fertiles like her, who don’t rush right to Central to report their stat and then get glid over to Level 1-A Breeding, where it’s clean and not falling to bits, all glee and soft round bellies and their smiling faces on morning and night assem reports. Ones who aren’t like the few who deny, deny, deny and leave the bundles stuffed into vents and storage lockers, to be found just before it’s too late, or too long after. There’s gotta be a third way, she’s sure of it. She peers over at SLam perched on the edge of her sleep bay, feet kicking in time and her eyes closed as she ripples through a scale on her recorder. Why can’t she be a Sterile, like SLam is?
Space is fulla radiation, for fuck’s sake! How could it miss my fucking womb?
SLam don’t got to think of the consequences when she’s gaily banging her way through F-team for hi-jinx and gigs. Lucky bitch. SLam finishes the scale and launches into ‘The Ace of Spades’, and half of L-team sings along, getting all gutsy on the chorus and laughing, ’cause old-timey guitar-rock is the latest thing in the L dorm. Everyone joins in on their ukes and recs and L-erin throws out a few warbles on his jimmy-rigged Theremin.
FLis barely notices when SLam throws down her rec and hops over the gap to her bay.
“Yo, Lis, what’s with the grim? You love Motorhead.”
FLis throws up horns with her fingers, but her heart’s not in it.
SLam puts her head on FLis’s belly and looks up into her eyes. “What’s wrong?”
It’s right there, right under your head, SLam, why can’t you feel it, why can’t you tell me what to do?
“Nothin’,” FLis says, but her voice is loaded and SLam knows it.
“When you wanna talk, I’m not far away,” she says, swinging back over to her bay. FLis reaches a hand out over the gap and SLam does too, and they hold hands like that as ‘Spades’ dies down. Someone changes it up by busting out the first few soft notes of ‘One’, and their fingers twist to the steady rhythm ‘til Lead from four bays up busts them apart on his way to the shitter.
SLam reaches out to re-couple, but FLis is already rolling over, curling into herself.
FLis is hunched over the waste-chute like usual of a morning, when she hears someone tinkering with the lock.
“Occupied,” she says, but then the lock pops right out and SLam slips in the door, pocketing her multi-tool and closing herself in the cube.
“You’re P status, arncha?”
“You’re a fucking liar. Your tits are the size of my head and you vom every morning after meal 1.”
FLis just groans and another glug of hot bile pours out of her mouth.
“Who’s the co?”
“Link,” FLis says, wiping her mouth.
SLam closes her eyes and nods. “I remember that day. We were slying FLuer’s maize-wine on the job. You couldn’t find a sheath?”
FLis feels the wave pass and she plonks the lid down, resting her elbows on top. “We did. It fucking broke.”
“No one stores them properly, they’re always busting.”
“It’s not fucking fair. Like, dincha need permission to breed in the early stage? It’s not my fault most of the crew fucking died.”
“‘Re-populate or we perish!’” SLam chants, saluting.
FLis wipes her mouth and stands up slowly, worried that the movement might set off the sick waves again. “I’m just not ready. I don’t know if I’d ever be ready. I like my job, working in the gardens. I wanna start a training prog, botany or somethin’. And I like living here with L and with you. I’m not ready for everything to change.”
“You don’t gotta justify to me, babae. It’s your life.”
“Tthings are gonna change soon anyway. Orbit, and all that.”
“Ugh,” FLis says, and leans back on the door.
“You two gotta be more careful where you have these conversations,” comes a voice from the next cube along and FLis’s heart starts going – boom, boom, boom. Then boom, she’s bent back over the chute.
SendeL pops a head through the gap between wall and ceiling.
“Shit, Sen. Way to give us a blowout! You heard nothing, right?” SLam says.
“My ears are a vault, on honour.” She makes the secret sig, a fist in front of the mouth. FLis sighs with relief, then hurls again. “But I reckon I can help you.”
“I wasn’t always an S, you know.”
FLis perks up a bit. “I’m listening.”
“Life is sacred,” Arim booms from the speakers and L all groan ’cause, shit, it’s almost third and everyone not on shift is just trying to fall asleep. FLis’s heart starts going, even though the Sanctity of Life Propagand-ad plays pretty reg, but now it feels like every booming cycle is for her, because they know, they know. She tries to close her eyes, but the light from her bayscreen flickers behind ’em, and even with her eyes closed, she can see the imgs flashing. It’s been playing her whole life.
First: the bloody bub getting lifted, cord still swinging, and it wriggles as it takes its first breath, the filter on the vid going all soft and exultant. Then, the rows of healthy, screaming kids in the nursery, like watching the red-faced little wailers is any kind of incentive. More: a line of expectants, sat on chaise-lounges in Level 1 on A, the room bright and shining and clean all around, no rust, nothing patched or pulverised, their bellies and faces all full of hope. The dig-animated mock-ups of kids on Sina, playing ‘free’ in the huge domes of pre-terraform stages 1 & 2.
Then: prop from the plague days. Faces twisted in pain, bloody gushing from a mouth, a set of terrified eyes. The mass ejection burials of contam-ed corpses. The Final Eighty-Four all haggard and defiant. FLis thinks the chicas in the img look petrified. Like they mighta known already that they’d spend the rest of their lives pumping out one new crew mem after the other, in service to the ship.
Interspersed throughout: Flashing words, capitalised white.
THE FAILURE TO REPORT CONCEPTION IS A CRIME.
TERMINATION IS A CRIME.
REPOPULATE OR WE PERISH.
Which was all well and good unless you really didn’t want to, and then what?
“You’re gonna have to get over to A,” says SendeL, and FLis gapes at her. She and Sen and SLam are seated at a four in the Social Area, forking up tonight’s P&G: prot-nugs and kale in a yellowish gravy. They’re keeping their voices low, but no one’s paying attention anyway. The SA is the best place for a private convo, ’cause it’s so loud that a low chat gets lost in all the din.
“Just get over there, huh? Like just totally shimmy up the shaft, easy-peasy?”
Sen rolls her eyes. “I got over there when I needed to, didn’t I? There’s lots of reasons for a jaunt across the shaft.”
“Last time I was over there was, oh man, like eight cycs ago for my eval. How’d you do it?”
“I put in for a transfer to K, and they had to do another eval.” Sen says. “Shit, transfers never go through anyway, so it was perf. Slammed it over there, got a nice view of the black, and used the connex I had to get sorted out. The eval was a bust, my transfer got denied, just like I knew it would. When I got back, everything went back to normal, and for a nice bo, on my next med I came up an S. Maybe the radiation did it, maybe the term, I dunno.”
“Werncha thinking about going the studious route anyway?” SLam says to FLis. “You could put in for an app to the Botany program, go over for the test and slot in a sneaky term while you’re at it. It could end up being okay.”
“Yeh,” FLis says, but her face reads like she’s not sure. Like nothing good could possibly come out of the whole situation.
“You’ve been wanting to study Bot since they rotated L out from water treatment. You love the gardens and all that plantsing shit.”
“I know…it’s just like, scary. I don’t wanna have a kid ’cause I don’t want nothing to change...”
SLam rolls her eyes and flicks the curly shock of black hair, the only piece she’s got, outta her eyes. “But everything’s gonna change anyway. L won’t stay in the gardens forever. We’ve only got three months left on this rotation. And, babae, we’re two weeks from fuckin’ orbit! Who knows what’s gonna happen. Projections and StatQuo been morphin’ crazy since the decel started. We could be all ‘land, ho,’ by the end of the cyc! We’re on the cusp here. Can’t you feel it?”
The three women are all silent, because yeh, they feel it. FLis mems that feeling she gets, more and more often now, where she suddenly becomes very aware of where they are, in a fragile duo of steel spinning in tandem in the black black black, and she feels so fucking small. She feels like a nematode in the cavernous vast of a garden level.
Like a micro-stroid hurtling across the universe.
Never touching nothing, not even coming near.
The shaft isn’t just a shaft, it’s a bunch of shafts straddling the distance between hulls A and B, and it’s busy with traffic. The gravity gets less and less as FLis gets closer to the middle, and she blurts out a high-pitched gig when the centrifugal force finally lets her go and she slowly careens into a D floating by, all engrossed in his hand-u.
“Shit, soz!” she says and he doesn’t even grump at her, just smiles and pushes off from the wall, coiling away from her in a slow spin.
This is the B-to-A public corridor, so everyone’s going ‘up’ to A, which is a pointless descriptor, especially here in the shaft where there’s nothing holding her down, just a sweet weightless twirl through the circular walls, past a giggling group of expectants all bright eyed and hopey.
In another timeline, that would be me. Like, if I was a different person…
But she’s not a different person, she’s FLis and even though the propaganda’s been cycling the same ‘life is sacred’ thing as long as she can mem, she can’t parse the thought that her life and the one she might wanna make herself, just isn’t as sacred as the blastocyst brewing inside her soupy guts. This feel bats up against all the other ones she’s feeling, like the fear and the panic and the way it doesn’t seem real but also too real at the same time. She thinks it’s weird how heavy it is inside her, even now, when she’s floating light as nothing through the shaft.
A is just that little bit shinier than B, though maybe that’s just the whole ‘steel is always brighter on the otherside’ thing. FLis’s official instruction packet said to go to quad 3 and regist with the bureau for her test, so she does, gets assigned a time.
Her unofficial instructions, just a few whispers spoken by Sen as she departed for the shaft, were to jam over to the observation deck to meet with a contact who’d know to be looking for her. FLis makes her way through the corridor, and she’s even a little excited ’cause she’s only been to obs like twice before and then there was nothing to look at but black. Black was still pretty cool, ’cause it wasn’t just all black, but pointed with bright starry points and the smeary gleam of galaxi here and there. FLis has heard from some babe in P group that their destination system is big in the window now, and she cranes her neck as she comes into the obs deck. Right away someone steps in front of her, and she gets only the smallest eye of the view, not even enough for her brain to proper sort it.
“You’re FLis?” the chica asks her. She’s a real narrow-looking woman, thin grey hair cut sharp across her forehead, eyeglasses, which are weird and throw FLis off, ’cause who wears eyeglasses when you can get the zap quick-smart at any med-eval sesh in five or ten mins?
“Uh, yeh,” FLis says, trying to peep around her, but the serious lady inclines her head to the left and takes off walking. She sets a cracking pace for such a yearsy chick, and FLis steps doubletime to keep up.
“I’m Doctor Sy-Bak. My rooms are just down this corridor a way.” FLis nods, even though the Doc can’t see her as she powers along the hall. She stops by a door which slides right open for her, and FLis follows through. It’s a standard med-bay like she’s been in before for her evals, table, labeled drawers, the slots in the roof where the equipment comes down when in use.
Doc Sy-Bak gestures for FLis to climb up on the table. She comes forward until she’s uncomfortably close up in FLis’s face.
“You understand the implications of this, FLis? Termination is a corporal crime and both you and I could be marked for life if either of our involvement were discovered. I scanned you for audio and rec devices on my first approach, and if you’d come up posi, I’d’ve walked right on by you. My precaution is not merely for my own benefit, but the benefit of the bodily autonomy of all women aboard the Ankora.”
Clankora, FLis thinks automatically, and thinks of home, the gardens, wishing she could be back there in the quiet green and not under the nose of this ultra-srs chick. She wonders what ‘bodily autonomy’ means exactly, but she gets the general feel of the words. Gotta keep this babe safe so that other babes can find her when they need it most, yeh? Yeh.
“Gotcha. I’m not scamming you, I just want to get past this. I know that life is saec, ‘repopulate or perish’ and all that, but I’m not ready, ya know? Maybe I will be one day, but probably not and def not now. And I was careful, I’m always careful but you know what them old sheaths are like…”
Sy-Bak eases her proxim and holds a hand up. “There’s no need to explain yourself. I don’t care if you were or weren’t careful, what the propaganda says now, or what your future plans are. All I care about is if you do or do not want to carry this to term.”
“Do not. No questions.”
“Then let’s begin.”
“You don’t have to look if you don’t want to,” Sy-Bak says, but FLis looks anyway. The Doc’s got her guts on holo and she’s hidden certain slices and unhidden others, so her body is a plane, her womb the only thing raising up out of the flat img. FLis watches slices of her lungs appear and disappear as she breaths. Sy-Bak isolates sections of the pelvic area, flicks them out of the holo and there it is. The embryo is so small, the size of a legume at harvest. The doc magnifies, once, twice. Now she can eye it proper. A little squoogly chunk, black-eyed and tailed.
“Oh,” FLis says. “It’s like a sprout. All curly.”
“Six Solar weeks,” Sy-Bak says. “We can do this chemically, if you’d like. It’s early enough.”
“What does that mean?”
“We’ll use a pill. Actually, two pills, rather than the surgical method.”
The holo zaps off and FLis clambers up, swings her legs off the table.
“Will it hurt?”
“Maybe. Not a great deal. It’ll feel like a bad menstrual period.”
“So I’ll bleed?”
“And what? It just goes boom?”
“No boom. The pill will trigger your uterine lining to shed. The embryo will come away with it. It’s very simple.”
“I’ve got my Botany exam this arvo. That was my excuse for coming over here, but I guess I’m kinda invested in it and whatever. Can I take them afterwards, like, just before I go back to B?”
“No problem. I can pass them to you at the Observation deck. We can’t run the risk of you being caught with them, so I’ll remove them from my stock immediately before we meet.”
“My exam starts at shift two. So, start of shift three?”
Sy-Bak nods. FLis heaves out a big breath, like she’s trying to blow away the thump in her heart and the tightness of her jaw. Not quite. But it’s almost over. She leaps down off the bench.
“FLis, if you are caught with these drugs, are you aware of what will happen?”
“Yeh, I’ll be marked for life.”
“Do you know what that means?”
“I dunno. They tattoo a big A on my forehead or something? I’ve seen marks for other stuff before. Defingering for theft, mostly.”
“It’s something like that.”
There’s a shudder, and another in quick follow that knocks FLis out of her train of thought. All the other xamers look up and there’s a big clunk-shake that spills one kid off his seat, but it’s his own fault ’cause he was rocking back on it. FLis gets the ‘big-space/small-girl feel again for a beat. Then the warning klaxon goes and everyone looks at each other, like, is this for real or just another decel trem? FLis ignores it, brains her way through the last two questions ’cause she’s almost complete.
There, done, even with that gnarly bleat tryna scram her output! Even though she’s all jumpy nerves for the test and the trembles and the shifty trade with Doc Sy-Bak right after. Way to overload, yeh? She hits send and smiles to the proctor, who gives her the sym for a job well done and motions that FLis can leave. She jams it out the door and down the hall, fumbling her hand U out of her utility belt and trying to push the bleat of the warning sys outta her head. As she switches on her U with the full intent of sending a stat report over to SLam, she gets thumped from behind by two of the Keep-The-Peacers charging down the passageway.
“Schaa, watchit,” she calls after them but they keep their pace and don’t even throw back a hand sym for apologies or nothing. She gives their hurrying backs a hand sym of her own.
Then the emergency sig starts to wail, and the assem tone too. Everything, plus those Peekees, makes FLis think that maybe something’s wrong for real.
Assem in A is a different beast, no callbacks or bants and everyone is all very orderly, arranged in height order so that the coming view of Arim’s wrongface will be clear. But the ’cast begins with an outside shot of B. FLis wonders what the go is, ’cause the img is all pretty standard, then, boom! The view gets rocked and then the debris of catastrophic decompression fills the screen as the section busts open. Everyone on the obs deck gasps, and FLis does too. Fuck! Where is that?
L-team! The faces of her detail scroll across her mindeye as her head warg-wargs, and her heart too. The quiet is all shattered by a hot buzz of specu, then the cold, clear voice of Arim cuts through.
“Crew of the Ankora. At click four of shift two a microstroid hit a section of B-hull. The decompression destroyed four full levels of gardens and six silos of grain storage were lost to the vacuum.”
Oh fuck, the gardens. L. SLam. SendeL.
Hot bile floods her throat and washes up to her mouth and the sick is all horror and not hormones like usual.
“To minimise damage to the rest of the hull, all damaged sections of B were excised and ejected. The pressure seals hold.”
There’s a cheer through the assem, but the last thing FLis feels like doing is cheering.
What deet? What deet?!
“Forty lives were lost in the initial decompression and following ejection. Those members of K team…”
Not L, not L!
“…will be remembered for their efforts and sacrifice.” He downcast his eyes, and throws the ‘membrance sym across his heart like he fucking means it, but his face is smooth and impassive.
And FLis is whelmed with joy that SLam and Sen are safe, and even Link too, but she gets the dual heartpain for all of K, who she’s shared a bunch with, being so close in proxim, now jettisoned to the vac and the black for the good of the ship. She wonders if they even had a chance to get out, or if the eject just got a greenlight right away.
Life is saec, huh? Sometimes it is.
“Our foodstores are thus depleted by a base estimate of forty-seven percent, our produce output for the next cycle is at an estimated loss of eighty-two percent. The council hereby implements strict rationing starting immediately. All breeding programs are to be halted. Natural breeding is thus forbidden, pending future authorisation. Med staff will be implementing mandatory contraception programs for all those of Fertile status, starting with details Z through J.”
A murm goes through the obs deck.
“We stayed brave and we were hopeful, and the century turned into decades and the decades turned to years, and the years to months and the months to weeks, and now, we are still strong, we are still here, and we are two weeks, one day, and fifteen hours from orbit!”
Assem ends abrupt with a tone, then the Ankora theme plays and they all give the time of silence for K. The sec it’s up, a great voice rumble flushes over the obs deck as everyone reacts.
FLis stays quiet. She heads to the window, which is clear but for some sickos tryna get an eye of some debris, even though it’d be long trajectoried off by now. On the viewing platform she presses her head to the ’lucent diamond and peers out at the system as it moves slowly up through her vision with the turn of the hull. Its sun, Rubro, burning pink and Sina there, a perfect sphere, with seven moons circling. Not far. Not long. But not close enough for some.
She feels someone slide up next to her and she knows it’s Sy-Bak. FLis holds out a hand and the doc places the sheet in it, two round blisters holding each pill, right out in the open. Nobody notices, they’re all too wrapped up in gossip and grief and mulling over the new Stat-Quos. FLis opens her mouth to say thanks, but Sy-Bak is already turning, smiling sadly to herself.
“I think it’s happening,” FLis whispers to SLam, who’s sitting up behind her in FLis’s bay, arms and legs wrapped gently around her. FLis has a wad of stolen storage batting between her legs and she feels it flood a little, hot and damp.
“What does it feel like?”
“Like I’m on the bleed. But worse.”
“I’m here, babae.”
It’s the start of third-shift and everyone’s tryna sleep, but the screens light up and all of L groans. FLis feels another stab in her guts, more of the wet flood in her pants. She moans a little, and SLam holds her a bit tighter.
“It’ll be okay.”
The new propagand-ad starts up. The stroid-hit, decompression sucking out the gardens, crops ripping up. Mouths open, breathing out then twisting in pointless, quiet screams. Bodies gushing into the void, the vac and the black. The soundtrack amps up, swells, and the silos crumple and bow, then pop. Here comes the animated stuff, future projections. Hungry babies, bellies swollen with malnutrition.
SLam pulls her tighter, rocks her, whispers in her ear. “The words are different, but the tune’s the same, huh?”
FLis starts to hum the old Zep song, and soon half of L is harmonising with her as the new words flash up bright and white on the wallscreen.
RATIONING IS IN PLACE.
STOCKPILING FOOD IS A CORPORAL OFFENCE.
BREEDING IS A CRIME.
CONTRACEPTION IS MANDATORY.
POPULATION STASIS IS OUR AIM.