io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “Between the Dark and the Dark” by Deji Bryce Olukotun. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast.
Between the Dark and the Dark
Two hundred ships moved through the stars, leaving an iridescent trail of transmission beacons in their wake. Five billion kilometers long, the beacons stretched all the way to Earth, a desiccated and shaken planet that the passengers once called home. Sometimes simple messages from the ships arrived in the data. After a long time, images came and—after an even longer time—clips of the passengers going about their lives. But the vast distances meant these clips were rare.
Normally an image arriving on Earth was cause for celebration, because it meant the crew was still alive, or at least the ship’s systems were still functioning. Such moments affirmed they were still following their route to a habitable planet that could save mankind. But Steward Mafokeng recoiled from her module, and the image recently downloaded from the Lion’s Mane.
“You think we should retire the ship?” she asked her fellow steward. The other steward was on the lunar base, while she was on Earth buried twenty stories underground, protected against the torrential storms.
Steward Hutchins nodded his head on her communication module. “Clear evidence of cannibalism. Look at the missing hand. It was intentionally severed.”
“The wound seems to have healed.”
“Cauterized, I think. Look at the captain.”
Mafokeng looked at the woman bringing a detached finger to her lips, as if about to eat it. The fingernail on the brown flesh was painted a dull gray. “How do we know that finger is from the missing hand?”
“What does it matter? They’re eating fingers. That is cannibalism. We must assemble the stewardship council.”
Thin, tall, and without a hint of congeniality, everything Steward Hutchins said always felt like a judgment.
“You’ve run the checks?” Mafokeng asked. “The image isn’t doctored?”
“There’s no evidence of tampering.”
“And you’re confident we can rule out murder.”
“We cannot rule out murder—”
“—in which case, the internal justice system of the ship would punish the offender.”
“Authority on the ship rests with the captain.”
“Not on every ship.”
“Not every ship has a captain, this is true,” Hutchins sighed. “Some are run by consensus or by computer. But Captain Chennoufi is wearing official insignia. The insignia has changed somewhat, of course, from its original picture of a lion—after a hundred years, it would be natural for the heraldry of leadership to evolve.”
“It looks more like a fish than a lion,” Mafokeng admitted. “But she does appear to be the captain. Could it be a mutiny?”
“A possibility. There are many possibilities. All of which we have considered, and not one of them can justify the fact that the captain is about to eat a human finger, and she currently holds authority over the passengers on the vessel. That is a clear violation of the Exploratory Covenant.”
Steward Mafokeng examined the image again, scrutinizing the face of the victim. Difficult to place his ancestry: He seemed to be a mixture of Mediterranean, with full West African lips, a long, slender neck, and eyes that might have been Korean or Japanese. He looked oddly resigned to his fate, raising his mutilated arm in the air over a sort of raised platform covered with shallow dark water. He appeared poised to say something, but it might also have been the pain causing him to grimace. The captain, meanwhile, was gazing triumphantly around her as she held the severed finger aloft like a trophy. Worse, the other crew members in the photo looked celebratory, as if attending an immaculate feast.
Steward Hutchins was correct. The evidence was alarming enough to consider retiring the ship.
“Convene the council,” she said.
No one hides in the same way. I remember watching my elders being hauled away to the Renewal Pond. Elder Volker was cowering in his own urine as they came for him in an escape hatch. The following year, Elder Amina was hiding under her berth, the most obvious place in the world, when they discovered her. They were intimate lovers who had been born on the Lion’s Mane, and shared every confidence together throughout their short lives, but even though they knew each other intimately they still hid differently, as if they had never spoken about it at all.
There is no shame in being found, you should know. Indeed, the most courageous elders celebrate the moment of their discovery, knowing that the Pond will forever preserve them in our journey. So I was embarrassed when Elder Amina clawed at me as they pulled her away. And I remember turning my head in disgust as Elder Volker pulled against his restrainers when they dragged him out of his escape hatch, thrashing about until they stunned him into unconsciousness. I felt ashamed at their desperation, as any child would. The Finding brought honor and fecundity to our voyage, and without it we would not survive. Didn’t they understand that?
“You have my eyes, Rory!” Elder Amina shouted on that day, clutching at her bedsheets. “Look in the mirror and you will know!”
But the idea was preposterous to me. I hadn’t spoken to either of them for four years, not since I’d commenced the initiation. None of us children had—we’d been sealed off from them. And we had learned during the mysteries that the seeds of our elders are intermixed by our ship system so that we have no parents and they have no children because all of them are our parents and we are all their children. We prize the health of the journey above everything else, and because I looked so healthy, the other elders and even my young peers always complemented me on my looks, how my face, skin, and hair were the perfect blend of all the elders on the ship. They said I had Elder Miyoko’s thick eyelashes, Elder Anatoly’s compact torso, and Elder Michael’s curly hair, which grew so short that it rarely had to be cropped. To them, I was a marvel of our ship’s gen-gineers. So I did not believe Elder Amina when she claimed I was her child when everyone else aboard considered me their own. Who did she think she was? Did she think she was more important than our journey?
“What a healthy child,” people said as Elder Amina wept from fear in the dark waters of the Renewal Pond. I tried to hide my pity for her as the fight began. “He knows he belongs to our journey,” they said. “Surely he’ll one day be captain!”
They were the ones who forced us to consider cannibalism. They arrived as crystalline blooms on the mountains, first Kilimanjaro, then K2, McKinley, Denali, and the Matterhorn. It was as if smoked glass covered the peaks. The blooms were impenetrable and, according to the radiologists and chemists, completely inert. They spread down the snowy peaks, cloudy thick crystal, through the plunging gorges and foaming rivers all the way to the mountain’s base. If the blooms were alien, they did not care to communicate. Sensors could not detect any readings inside or out, until the seismic activity began. Elemental earthquakes that shook the mountains and sent shockwaves across the land and tsunamis raging through the seas.
The East River swallowed the United Nations headquarters in New York; London was swamped by the New Fens; and a tidal wave deluged Shanghai before world leaders agreed that the crystal blooms were threatening life on the entire planet. UN delegates reconvened in Geneva in the middle of a tornado, offering a last gasp of consensus before the international body was permanently dissolved in favor of the Exploratory Stewardship Council. The blooms could not be attacked, and they could not be stopped. Without the ability to communicate with them, there was no feasible way to understand their intentions or negotiate. The only solution was to leave the planet as quickly as possible.
The world would assemble two hundred ships to venture into the cosmos to find a new home. The ships themselves were made from different designs—lightsails, ramjet engines, liquid propellant, solid propellant, and fusion engines—developed by a mixture of private industry and government.
Twenty-five ships voyaged to Mars. The rest to the beyond, crewed with a range of peoples and cultures on voyages in which generations would rise and fall before they reached their destinations of theoretically habitable moons and planets. The ramjet engines lost contact almost immediately, warped as they were by constant acceleration and the limits of spacetime. Even if they settled on new worlds, people on Earth wouldn’t know for centuries, and then only if they could invent new methods of communication that defied our current understanding of physics.
But the conventional crafts could communicate—and were required to remain in touch with Earth at all times—through the beacons and relays they dropped behind them, which would boost their signals.
The Exploratory Covenant set forth many rules: pooling resources to build and launch the ships from the largest moonbases; shared ownership over any resource discoveries; military support, but not intervention; and then strict prohibitions: genocide, crimes against humanity, human bondage and slave labor, and its simplest article, a prohibition against cannibalism:
Art. 3. Cannibalism. Evidence of cannibalism, whether or not induced by starvation, shocks the conscience and warrants instant retirement of the vessel.
Retirement was defined as a pulse transmitted from a Council base ordering the ship computer to automatically kill the crew, by asphyxiation, exposure to the vacuum of space, or conflagration. In no instance was retirement ever permitted to be slow or painful.
Sickness could be healed. Rights could be wronged. But not cannibalism. If in doubt, the Covenant held, kill the cannibals.
Before I entered the initiation, the crew often paid me compliments on my physical form and cool head under pressure. As I mentioned, people expected me to become captain of the Lion’s Mane one day. This assumption was so widespread that I visited the fish tanks at the age of just nine, an immense privilege reserved for the most trusted gen-gineers. We only learned about the trout in the mysteries—their biology, habits, and propagation—but I was able to see them firsthand as a young boy! The captain allowed me to scoop a handful of the most beautiful roe, thousands of little eggs that felt like I was slipping my hand through jellied diamonds. Such was their value that this was not far from the truth. My head swelled with pride, and I hoped I would one day be an excellent captain just like her.
Everyone who survived the initiation had to take a genetics test before qualifying to enter the ranks of the crew. For most of us, this was a mere formality because the computer system already knew our parentage. The test was essential for the health of our journey to remove any anomalies. I remember feeling that it would be my final triumph after I had mastered the mysteries—everything from propulsion systems, to mathematical languages, to electrical maintenance, to EVA walks, food conservation, and Finding-evasion—the test would confirm my genetic health, one last blessing before I became a trusted elder.
Then, just like that, I was the one who was chosen for a Finding.
“I’m sorry,” the chief gen-gineer said to me, reviewing my file. “But the results are clear. Look at your markers. You’re missing some crucial haplotypes. I’m afraid you were the product of just one pair of elders.” Before I could reply, he said seriously. “Would you like me to tell you who they were, Hiroko?”
I could barely force my head to nod. I was too devastated to move, as if my very breath would fail me.
“It was Elder Amina and Elder Volker,” he said.
“No, it can’t be.”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of. They were good people. Friends of mine. I would even say you have many of their best qualities.”
“It can’t be!”
I was ashamed. Very ashamed. I brooded over his revelation in my quarters, crushed. Elder Amina had told me herself and I had not believed her. I had genuinely thought they had been lying to me. And besides, didn’t attachment convey weakness for the journey? That’s what the mysteries had taught us. These were the attitudes that made me fit to be captain! Except now I knew I had been their offspring all along—two people bound by love and not the shared mission of the journey. There was nothing wrong with coupling, other than that they should never have conceived a child. Now I was the weakest link in the ship. The very definition of an unhealthy crew member. There was no way I could become captain now.
“There are some people, Hiroko, who believe the Findings should stop,” the chief gen-gineer whispered to me when he found me sitting at the cafeteria, absently stirring a bowl of tofu. “Everyone thinks you’re fit to be captain one day. You were a standout through the initiation, from what I heard. Perhaps genetics aren’t as important as people believe they are. Maybe things have gotten out of hand.”
During the initiation we also learned that if we pushed a dead crew member from the airlock, their flesh was lost for the journey. It was a total waste of resources, when we had so precious few to survive.
“We can take on water in space,” I said, keeping my eyes on my food. “We can harvest minerals. But we can’t replace complex organic matter.”
“That’s from one of your mysteries, isn’t it? From the initiation?”
“I cannot tell you that.”
“I’m merely asking—” he insisted. “Look, I’m trying to say that it’s all right if you miss Amina and Volker. I do too, from time to time.”
I stirred my tofu. No Finding had ever been canceled, and he did not hold the authority to do so. What did he want from me? To weep like a baby? To grow weak when a Finding would require every ounce of my ingenuity and strength? My self-pity had died on the Renewal Pond with the people who had created me.
“Findings are the only way,” I said.
He gave me a disappointed look, a look not too dissimilar, in fact, from the look Elder Volker gave me when he was dragged away, as if he was about to say something that might upset me, and did not.
For practical reasons, the Exploratory Stewardship Council did not convene in person because some stewards lived at lunar bases, others in low-Earth orbit, and several on Mars, even if most remained on Earth sequestered in underground filter domes. There were over two hundred stewards in total, one stewarding each ship, with responsibilities for tracking the movements of the vessel and the health of the crew. That was before the ships started failing.
Steward Mafokeng waited as the other stewards took in the image of the captain of the Lion’s Mane raising the severed finger to her lips, some furrowing their brows, frowning, or shaking their heads.
“Savages!” one declared.
After the delegates calmed down, Steward Hutchins spoke to the assembled group, displaying information about the vessel before them. “The image was transmitted fifty-five years ago, 80.3 billion kilometers beyond the Kuiper belt. The Lion’s Mane is carrying three hundred individuals en route to Tau Ceti. It’s an Interstellar Galleon Lightsail, class four.”
“Any deviations from the flight plan?” a steward asked.
“The Lion’s Mane orbited a near-planetary object for two months, and continued on, with full crew remaining on board at all times. It took on water as it pushed through the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt, and several times more through the Kuiper. All healthy deviations from the prescribed flight path.”
“Signs of distress?”
“No emergency signals were triggered. The hull reveals full structural integrity. Oxygen levels are at optimal levels, perhaps even slightly elevated.” Hutchins waited for these facts to sink in as the stewards cycled through the information. He wasn’t repeating anything they hadn’t yet read themselves. “This was a clear violation of the Covenant, which required decisive action. Accordingly, I move for a vote.”
Steward Hutchins nodded assuredly, wearing a look of resignation. Mafokeng raised her finger to indicate an objection, but held it there, feeling indecisive. It was all happening so fast. The evidence was incontrovertible, but given the consequences, wasn’t it worth prolonging the discussion? She had read the brief forwarded by Hutchins, like the rest of the stewards, but didn’t three hundred souls deserve a little more deliberation? It was a chance she had never been afforded with her own ship, the Medallion.
“The council moves to retire,” the Council President said. The rotating President was chosen for their reputation for impartiality, and held final decisions on procedural matters. They largely stayed out of debates. “Any objections?”
“Yes. Steward Hutchins, are you not charged with the well-being of this ship?” It was a steward interjecting from a sealed cavern in the Philippines. Machines and blinking lights were interspersed amongst giant, crystalline stalagmites that glistened from a trickle of limestone water.
“I am indeed charged with its well-being, Steward, as we all are.”
“Then why does it seem to me that you are all too quick to condemn this ship to retirement?”
The Filipino steward had a reputation as a contrarian, for which Mafokeng was grateful at this moment. She stewarded a fusion vessel, which meant that she lived with the knowledge that it could melt down at any time, or send shockwaves across the asteroid belt, killing the crew instantly. Like her, most stewards of fusion vessels tended towards the religious. She was a zealous advocate of her crew, a caretaker who delighted in every report that they were alive and well. “The Lion’s Mane has traveled farther than any other ship, if I’m not mistaken.”
“That’s not entirely true,” another steward chimed in. “The Halios is a full twenty billion kilometers beyond the Lion’s Mane.”
“But we are certain,” the steward insisted, “that the Halios’s crew is dead, bless their souls. We haven’t received a message or signal for fifty years.”
“I am not sure I follow your reasoning,” Hutchins said.
“My reasoning is this: If the Lion’s Mane is the farthest exploratory ship of the Council, then it deserves more than a rushed vote to destroy it. We owe a full discussion and consideration of the evidence before us.”
“I have shown you the evidence,” Steward Hutchins grumbled. “It’s all there in the dossier. It pains my heart to see the captain about to devour her own crew member. I’ve seen her grow up from when she was just a child.”
“You mean you have clips of life on the ship? Couldn’t they help us understand the context?”
“Sadly, Steward, we haven’t received a clip for thirty-five years. The ship lost the ability to transmit large data packets in a radiation storm off Neptune. I’ve conducted my investigations through the automated still images sent by the ship, which we receive in bursts of eight bytes each. And telemetry, of course. The transmission speed is painfully slow.”
Steward Mafokeng finally realized what was bothering her. “Steward Hutchins, you said that you were forced to take decisive action.”
Hutchins gritted his teeth, the thin tendons of his jaw knotted and severe. “Steward Mafokeng, we know that you enjoy participating in these debates, but the Medallion was lost a decade ago—”
“—I was appointed by the Stewardship Council as lead crew behavior expert.”
“—expertise that did not help save your own vessel, the very one you were charged with protecting under the Stewardship Oath.”
Mafokeng reeled at the accusation in the most public of all chambers. She had spent years rebuilding her career after she had lost the Medallion. She had utterly shamed her family. Not to mention what it had done to her soul, studying the images of the sheer terror of her crew as the ship ripped them apart, over and over again.
“The loss of the Medallion,” she said, keeping her voice steady, “was fully investigated, documented, and confirmed by the council.”
“And yet with no ship to steward,” Hutchins went on, “you feel it’s appropriate to intervene in this proceeding—indeed, every proceeding—when the most base, most heinous behaviors are evident before us, namely people eating people. I should remind you that the crew will be retired, but the Lion’s Mane will continue on, sending us data about its discoveries as it follows the mission. Your ship offered nothing of value once it was destroyed. At least allow us to gain from the Lion’s Mane’s discoveries through its automated systems.”
Focus, Mafokeng thought. Forget the Medallion. “You did not answer my question.”
“We have most certainly answered the question,” Steward Hutchins said. “That this is cannibalism. And it must be stopped.”
“No, about the decisive action. You said you already took it, Steward Hutchins. Now, please share with the council—before we vote: What decisive action did you take?”
Hutchins peered at the various delegates in view, as if assessing their opinion. Then he solemnly said: “An extra-plenary body of this council sent the signal to retire the Lion’s Mane yesterday.”
The delegates roared back to life all around the solar system.
“How could this be!”
“You had no right!”
“They could still be alive!”
“There are three hundred people out there!”
Hutchins held up his hands as the council protested, waiting for the clamor to die down. Mafokeng was aware of how much he seemed to thrive in the tumult, even when the voices were turned against him.
“As you all know, the Covenant authorizes rapid action by the ship steward, the rotating council president, and the council judiciary for any crimes that shock the conscience. This is one of them. We voted unanimously in favor of retirement. The evidence is before you. Had we waited, you would still have voted for retirement. In my view, every day wasted is another day of descent into madness and suffering for the crew. Now I plead with you to affirm the vote. If we are to disclose this incident to the public—who deserve to know—we need full unanimity from this council. So I put it to you now, for posterity. Is there anyone amongst us who would vote to preserve this disgusting display of cannibalism, the basest of all human inclinations? Your voting shards are before you. Make your choice.”
Mafokeng watched as the votes poured in across the council, a pile of blue-gray tridymite shards interlaced with each steward’s DNA. Even the steward from the Philippines reluctantly voted in favor of retirement, signing the cross on her chest as she dropped in her shard. It quickly linked to the other shards already assembled, beginning to form the crest of the Council.
Mafokeng could feel the eyes of the other council members upon her. Was Hutchins right, she wondered, and she was merely transferring the loss of her own crew on the Medallion to the Lion’s Mane, so desperate to avoid another tragedy that she would tolerate cannibalism?
She refused to believe this. She refused to believe that the council could so easily kill an entire crew without deeply studying the evidence. Killing three hundred souls with a rushed decision was not much better than the crimes retirement would punish. The Covenant had drawn a clear line that could never be crossed, but she felt they owed it a deep review, and she mistrusted Hutchins’ motivations. He moved too quickly, too adroitly to have his word taken at face value. He had mastered the council and his swift rise in the bureaucracy attested to that fact. Mafokeng dropped her shard in the no vote. The crest of the Council shattered before their eyes and she signed off.
To prepare myself for my Finding, I train while everyone else is sleeping, using the resistance machines to firm my muscles and the simulators to hone my reflexes. During the initiation, we learned that you need every skill available to you to evade a Finding for three full Earth days of pursuit—what we call Evasion. You have to be quicker than your finder in body and mind. It was one of our earliest mysteries. Only the most celebrated elders had ever achieved Evasion, and they inevitably became leaders on the ship. Not captain, but revered crew considered beyond reproach, with the caveat that they enjoyed no right to propagation.
I practice crimping onto the smallest handhold on the climbing wall with servoweights. I hold my breath for minutes on end and paint my face with anti-surveillance makeup patterns before washing it clean and starting all over again. I study the devious ways elders have hidden before, and try to imitate them, remembering the mysteries. And when no one is paying attention, I visit the tanks, where the fish open and close their small puckered mouths as if waiting to devour my flesh.
“Not me,” I whisper, “not me.”
On the day the Finding begins, the entire ship comes out to watch as I am paraded through the corridors and galleys in ceremonial regalia. My short black hair is shaved bare and my naked body is adorned with preserved trout, their fileted skin sticky on my body so that I look like a glimmering, rainbow colored being. I make my way slowly through the ship to the sound of a marimba fashioned from decommissioned exhaust piping.
My finder—a strapping woman in her twenty-second cycle—stays close to me, sobbing ritually, for she knows that if she finds me I am only marking a fate which could one day befall her, too. Anyone can be named to the Finding if the health of our journey demands it. I walk proudly through the open hatches and lurch at children with my teeth bared, causing them to giggle or sometimes run shrieking to the elders. The other initiates watch me amble by, some of them mournfully shaking their heads, others pleased to see my injured pride after the favoritism I had received. I resolve inwardly to prove them wrong—I will outlast my finder for three days and become an elder crew member. I will not stand on the renewal pond.
When I finally arrive before Captain Chennoufi, my finder strips me clean of the trout skins on my naked body. We each take a bite of a fish and force ourselves to keep down its pickled flesh, flush with carefully cultivated psychotropics. Then we retire to a berth and make love together, aroused by the substances coursing through our bodies, one last intimate shared moment before we become enemies.
She locks her legs around me and hisses like a snake, while I douse myself in oils until I am slippery, simulating the watered death that awaits me if I fail. Some initiates never make it beyond this point, overwhelmed by the sheer ecstasy—and there are worse ways to die. But I am determined to outlast her. After what feels like hours of this passionate embrace, she loses her grip over me and I escape.
Thus the Finding begins.
Hutchins will come for you, the message warned on Mafokeng’s module. There was no information about the sender. The message could have originated from anywhere within the past hour—the Earth, the Moon, or Mars. She knew Steward Hutchins would be upset, but this disturbed her. Had he taken her vote as an insult? Did it humiliate him in some way? He sat on various committees within the council—so many, in fact, that she had lost track—but what would he do to her? What could he do? No steward had ever physically threatened another steward. Their weapons were words, reasoning, persuasion, and, above all, consensus, which meant everyone should agree, even if the agreement was a compromise. Even idle threats ruined such goodwill. But the message was clear: Hutchins will come for you. She had to move quickly.
The pictures from Hutchins’ briefing popped up on her module. Each appeared to have been taken from a different part of the Lion’s Mane, a four hundred-meter vessel that had been assembled in space near the central lunar base. The first image depicted a crew member in motion, walking past an open area with exercise machines, a fold-down table, and a passageway to the next part of the ship. It was likely the mess hall or recreation hall. The second image showed the shimmering golden sail of the spacecraft, spread out to harness the Sun and patiently edge the ship forward. The third image caused Mafokeng to pause. The image was taken in the same corridor as the one with the severed finger, but she couldn’t find anyone in the image. She could clearly see the pipes snaking down the corridor. This was a different angle, where she could clearly discern a tank of water. It would have been directly opposite where the captain had been standing when about to consume the human finger. And inside the water she saw a something silver and snake-like.
The fourth image was even stranger. Here, one of the crew was adorned in strange regalia, with makeup applied asymmetrically across his face. His hair, too, poked out at irregular angles, but appeared to have been intentionally fixed that way. It was difficult to spot him in the image, as he blended in with the machinery, and the jagged-edge makeup made his features unidentifiable. Who was he trying to hide from? Surely, he knew that the ship sent automated images back to Earth? Every ship had a duty to maintain its transmissions. Then who?
Fresh air, Mafokeng thought. She visited the closest atrium, a colossal biodome with a simulated sky. Her steward’s cloak gave off a faint haze from its superconducting body armor. She took comfort in the slip of vision because it meant she would be protected—stewards didn’t threaten other stewards, but there were plenty of fanatics who held grudges. Artificial clouds hung in the top of the dome, and bright-colored songbirds circled overhead in a geofenced aviary. This base was one of the finest on Earth, carefully excavated by the mining companies that operated near the Kivu mountains of the Eastern Congo, supplying the spaceships with the rare minerals that powered their electronics. Her own family’s mines had benefited from the way the blooms shook the land, which exposed minerals previously too deeply buried for regular extraction. People were going about their lives, shopping, sipping tea, courting, listening to music. They bowed their heads to her out of respect, for stewards were rare, and more trusted than domestic politicians, considered selfless servants of the human race, as coveted as an astronaut before space travel became commonplace. No one seemed threatening. Maybe the message about Hutchins had been wrong.
She did feel horrified by the notion of humans consuming each other, of humanity turned against itself. She hadn’t seen any children in the still images, yet feared for their stunted lives, children she had never met and who would be adults by the time she even glanced at their images. But such was the lot of a steward—living vicariously through others, inspecting ancient digital transmissions like breadcrumbs. Light moved fast through the cosmos. But not data. Data was messy and it took the most powerful processors to reassemble the scattered transmissions into a coherent image, a herculean task that required unwavering patience and perseverance. Her training had included sociology, history, empathic awareness, astronomy, 3-D modeling, physics, engineering, and archaeology. But nothing about cannibalism, other than a strict prohibition against it. She had not expected to be confronted with its visceral reality.
Maybe this was why the words savages and barbarians kept repeating in her mind. The other stewards had used these words to justify destroying the crew, but she remembered how her own ancestors had once been described in those terms centuries ago, justifying their slaughter by the Gatling gun. Barbarians. Savages. Kill them all.
And she recalled how the media had covered the loss of the Medallion, focusing on Captain Trent Tieman Deng, a man born and raised in Canada and touted as humanity’s hope until the ship exploded, at which point he became Trent Deng the child of Sudanese immigrants, his stature stripped to its barest essentials.
Mafokeng searched the word cannibalism in an isolation pod of the Council archives, sorted by word cloud.
Anthropophagy. Human sacrifice. Crimes against humanity. Genocide.
Then she looked up anthropophagy:
The eating of human flesh by human beings. Orig. Greek.
In one definition, anthropophagy linked the eating of human flesh with sexual pleasure. Hutchins had not mentioned anything about sex in his report, so she suspected she was going down the wrong path.
Next she looked up “human sacrifice,” which led to a word tree that branched down the screen: Greeks (ancient), Aztecs (Mexico), Rome (ancient), Maya (Mexico), Yoruba (Nigeria), Shang dynasty (China), Ur (Iraq), Cahokia (United States), Israelites (ancient), Hitobashira (Japan), Inca (Peru), Igbo (Nigeria). The list included dozens of cultures scattered across millennia.
Here, she thought, here is something. Time to learn. But she had been sitting for hours already. She told the archives to read the entries back to her as she moved through some stretching poses, breathing deeply as the information washed into her. The archive compressed the information down into its essence, layering on olfactory notes to ensconce the data into her memory. Each inhalation affirmed the data; the deeper she breathed, the more it etched into her consciousness. It was not the same as remembering information in rote form, or even studying it closely, but there was an associative purity to it that she preferred over raw data. Besides, she didn’t have any time to spare.
Mafokeng left the biodome as the clouds began raining, a light pleasant swish that turned into a deluge complete with thunder, which delighted the children as the water splashed about their feet, draining into a graywater system where it would be reused once again. Like the passengers aboard the Lion’s Mane, these children had likely never experienced a real summer rain, for the torrential acid rains on the surface would burn exposed skin. This was safe, recycled water, purged of any dangerous bacteria or toxins but too sullied with particulate matter to drink. Not potable but usable. She could feel an insight beginning to take shape, as if the revolting image of the captain eating a finger, strung out over decades, was coalescing into meaning. Her deep breathing from the archives was stringing together the separate strands into a theory. Something about the water.
The attack came as three short flashes in the corner of her vision. She was thrown into the moist air of the biodome. She landed with a heavy splash in the French drain that ringed the foliage. When she opened her eyes, everything around her suddenly seemed crystal clear. Her shield was down. Its haze had disappeared and she was completely vulnerable. She threw her hands over her head, expecting a follow up blast. But nothing came.
A family saw her curled up on the ground and the father ran over to help. “Are you all right, Steward?”
“Where did it come from?”
“Somewhere in that tree.”
His little daughter pointed up. “The flower,” she said, “it got very bright.”
The police arrived shortly after to investigate, and confirmed that the daughter had been right. The brugmansia blossom was a short-range device, designed to short out any body cloak, placed there intentionally apparently several weeks ago. Normally the device disabled any shielding for a blunt force attack, but she was lucky enough that no one harmed her when her shield went down. She thanked them and went on her way.
Safe, for now, Mafokeng returned to her dwelling, an expansive underground villa that her aunt had donated to stewards visiting from off-planet. Ten years ago, after the Medallion had been destroyed, she had planned to stay at the villa for a week to decompress before returning to the lunar base. She had never left.
The dark walls were interlaced with sparkling minerals with a central fountain that dribbled water over the rock, and national treasures donated from governments all over the continent—sculptures, tapestries, and bas reliefs. The hope was that if the smoky crystal blooms covering the nearby mountains ever made contact, there would be enough fineries to impress them. The entire villa—like the underground biodome—was suspended within a jelly polymer, protected against all seismic activity save molten magma itself. Mafokeng had never prevented other stewards from enjoying the hospitality of the villa, maybe because her aunt’s towering presence haunted every corridor. Watching her, judging her. Nonetheless, the villa pleased the Council, since stewardship was psychologically taxing work. For her part, she spruced it up, refreshing it with eucalyptus and hardy succulents that responded to the inset biostrip lighting.
When she returned, a steward was relaxing on a chaise longue, sipping on a tincture of honeybush tea mixed with cannabinoids and electrolytes as a machine stimulated his muscles. He was a large man with an ample belly, which seemed to have grown after a six-month visit to the Vallis Marineris.
“Ah,” he said, “the lone holdout. Ms. Obstinance herself.”
“Is that what they’re calling me, Steward Kusago?” Mafokeng asked.
“Gossip to stewards is like water to the well. And some of them are quite thirsty.”
He laughed loudly. “Everybody feels high after living on Mars for six months. Even underground. The air in here—it lends a certain delicacy to everything. Their habitations are getting better, but they really don’t compare. This tea is delicious. Your family certainly knows how to entertain.”
“This is the sovereign land of the Council.”
Kusago chuckled. “Quite the prickly one today. The Council does not provide food of this quality. This is your doing.”
“I do try to make visiting stewards comfortable, of course. That’s my duty as an emissary. The villa was donated by my aunt. She’s never set foot in it.”
And thank the gods she hasn’t, she thought. She did not feel charmed by Kusago’s playful mood, and sat heavily across from him in an antique chair wrapped in kudu-skin shagreen. “I was attacked in the biodome.”
Kusago raised an eyebrow. “Attacked? What happened?”
She told him about the blossom that had shorted her armor, and the way the family had saved her. The police still didn’t have any leads.
“If it was placed several weeks ago,” Kusago guessed, “then they could not have known you would vote against retirement of the Lion’s Mane.”
“But it’s possible Hutchins had already seen the photo then.”
“I suppose that’s true. That would have required remarkable foresight on his part to suspect you would vote against him. Do you suspect anyone besides him?”
“Strange. I won’t deny that Hutchins is angry with you. He’s moving for the council to affirm the retirement again. When you broke consensus it makes his decision appear to be extralegal. He expects to be celebrated around the world, perhaps even nominated to the council presidency. You’re ruining his plans. He wants to be known as the steward who sacrificed his own ship for the good of humanity.”
“The wrong kind of sacrifice.”
Steward Kusago, she recalled, specialized in living systems, moving between Council bases to optimize their food sources. He was allowing his hair to grow out, and she was surprised to see white mixed with light brown. The stresses of interplanetary travel affected people differently.
“Steward,” she asked, “have you heard of fish being kept aboard a ship?”
“Fish? I’ve heard of attempts. The early vessels did not have the technology to support lab-grown meats. Each one contained some form of hydroponics to provide food and sustenance for the crew. It was the only way to ensure a food source for a long voyage, with crew members trained to select the best plants that could resist the radiation from space, usually by manipulating the transcriptome and omics. Aquaponics were never successful.”
“Aquaponics were meant to be a symbiotic system. In theory, people could eat the fish. The fish droppings would fertilize the plants, which the fish in turn feed upon. The Council abandoned plans to install aquaponics on the ships before launch. The systems failed because of the nitrate problem. You see, the fish droppings contained too many nitrates for the plants, and eventually killed them. Thus any aquaponic ecosystem would eventually collapse. The Council modified various bacteria through gene sequencing to convert the nitrates to nitrites, but none were proven before launch. The cell-based artificial meats common today were not yet developed, and full of unpleasant mutations. It’s a shame, too, because there was another benefit to aquaponics, which was the radiation shielding. Lead can shield the crew from radiation, but water is also effective. Water is useful. In an aquaponic system, the water would sustain the fish while protecting the crew from radiation.”
Mafokeng thought it over. “My ship, the Medallion, had hydroponics but it depended on a seed bank for renewal, not the amount of water you’re describing. What do you make of this image, Steward?”
He leaned in to look at her module. “I must have glanced over that one in Hutchins’ dossier. Certainly a fish. An aquarium, perhaps?”
“That seems unlikely. It would be wasteful. This is the fin of a brook trout—meant for consumption, not display.”
“It could be some sort of mascot. Or maybe a talisman.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“Like a parrot on a pirate ship. Something to boost morale. There was a glow worm kept as a pet aboard my transport to Mars. Hungry little fellow. Do you have a higher resolution image?”
“Then Hutchins would be the most knowledgeable, given that he is the steward of the Lion’s Mane.” He took a long sip of his tincture and his eyelids drooped.
“I very much doubt,” Mafokeng sighed, “Hutchins would share anything with me at this moment.”
The quake began first as a light rattle and moved through the villa in waves, the magnetic force of it shaking the lights. The villa switched over instantly to a different source of geothermal power.
“Minor quake,” Mafokeng said.
Kusago used his free hand to unclench a balled fist. His entire arm had locked in cramp. “I feel queasy.”
“You get used to it. The nausea of the quakes passes after the first few days.” Mafokeng peeled open his fingers and massaged his forearm, the first time she had touched another human’s flesh in months. “You need potassium.”
“I’ll add it to my tincture,” he groaned. “If only you would leave this lair of yours to join the daily affairs of the council.”
Her eyes alighted on a ceremonial mask with bulging eyes and protruding lips wrapped in antelope sinew that had been donated by the Mafokeng royalty. It had graced her aunt’s immaculate reception chamber as a child, when everything her aunt had touched felt perfect and gilded with elegance. That was before she had lost the Medallion and her aunt had disowned her for the loss of the ship.
“Being on Earth keeps me close to the people,” she said. “They’re the reason why we’re acting as stewards in the first place.”
“True, of course. But here there is a certain kind of people. The Martians feel somewhat differently, that people on Earth are inherently wasteful. I can’t say that they’re wrong.” He took a big swig of his beverage. “But I also think they lose sight of the finer things in life. I will be more direct: I fear you may not be safe here, Steward. Hutchins has a nasty way of treating people who disagree with him, and you did so quite publicly.”
“He should never have acted so rashly without consulting the full council. Not with so many lives at stake.”
“That is not how he sees it, I’m afraid. And he sees things more clearly than most. You need only look into his eyes.”
“Both eyes are augmented. It’s subtle, but I’ve heard he uses heat and pheromonal data when addressing the council. He’s not merely speaking, he’s watching for reactions, very closely.”
Mafokeng considered this. That would explain why almost all of Hutchins’ motions on the floor tended to pass the Council. If he could read his audience to the very level of their pheromones, he could swiftly change tack in the middle of an argument.
“It is worth my asking,” Kusago went on, “if you don’t mind, why you persist in this cause, if the pulse to retire the Lion’s Mane has already been transmitted?”
“Integrity, Steward Kusago. And I would very much like to know where that pulse was generated.”
“It’s closely guarded information, of course. Don’t want sabotage.” He balled up his fist and relaxed, rotating his hand around. “Logic would tell you that it must be sent from a stable source of energy, unfettered by atmospheric pollution, which would be . . .”
“That would be my first guess, although again, I couldn’t confirm it.”
“Thank you, Steward Kusago.”
“I hope you can prove us wrong about the Lion’s Mane, Steward Mafokeng. Godspeed.”
“Only if the gods can travel faster than that pulse.”
He took one last gulp of his tincture and drifted off into a deep sleep.
After I escape from my finder’s embrace, I distract her with various trails which lead to nowhere. I trick her into entering the cargo bay, with its dozens of hatches and storage units, and even into the septic tank, where the stench alone delays her for hours, until I gain enough time to lower myself into the fish tanks in an EVA suit. I hook myself onto a section of the tank which bends around a corner, thickened like an aorta to protect against the heavy surge of current from the nearby oxygenation pumps, where no one can see me. The rainbow trout first swarm around expecting a meal but soon ignore me. I reduce my breath to the bare minimum and meditate to pass the time.
During the initiation we learned how the plants filtered the water, which sustained the trout, and the importance of the Renewal Vats, completing the virtuous cycle. I knew exactly how much protein and potassium each fish produced (30 grams and 800 mg per kilogram, respectively) and the exact wavelengths of light required for the various herbs and greens that fed us.
The captain and her most trusted gen-gineers were the only people who knew the formula for the renewal vats. I had always assumed, naïvely, I would learn the formula one day as captain. It was the most coveted mystery on the ship. The mystery that is never taught yet always known.
But I had learned enough secrets of my own to help me survive the Finding. Several cycles ago, I had discovered an old access hatch to the tanks that was partially covered over but still possible to open. Within minutes of being selected for the Finding I dropped extra air canisters inside.
I was so well hidden in the pipes that my finder would never have been able to find me. Except on the second day I realized I had packed one canister too little. I had not anticipated how much effort it would take to keep myself from being wedged into the tunnel with the strength of the current, even with the carabiner keeping me attached to the side.
Soon I’m struggling to breathe. Each flush of water loosens my grip against the side of the tank and the current tugs at my consciousness. The trout cluster now by my faceplate, somehow aware that I will soon be theirs, even in a different form. Before long, I give in and I’m swept away.
It takes several elders to extract me from the tanks, coughing and sputtering. In my finder’s eyes I can tell she is disappointed.
“You would have evaded me,” she confesses. “I was searching in the septic tank, and I would have continued looking for you there. The next place I was going to look was the entertainment hall. You shouldn’t have to fight me on the Pond. It would be dishonorable.”
I think of what the chief gen-gineer told me, recalling how the crew might have allowed me to refuse to participate in the Finding. But to do so would mean the death of everyone aboard. Of that I am certain.
“Didn’t you find me?” I ask.
“Only because you ran out of strength.”
“Isn’t that what makes for a successful finder? The ability to outlast your quarry?”
“It does,” she nods warily. I can see she remains unconvinced.
“The watered death is my right. Don’t deny it to me.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want?” she asks. She touches me lightly on the cheek as she says this, seeking a tenderness that has long since left my body with the psychotropics. Sober now, the only love that I feel is for the mysteries of my initiation.
“It’s my right.”
On approach to the council lunar base, Mafokeng could make out the solar collectors branching like golden sea fans into the darkness. The square habitation units wafered across the regolith, punctuated here and there by jutting observation towers. She felt the gentle tug of the moon’s gravity upon landing and could spot the coal-black entrance to a Helium-3 mine on the horizon; even after forming the Exploratory Stewardship Council, industry remained a core part of everyday life.
The flags of the Council ships lining the arrivals hall had once thrilled Mafokeng, but she now saw how many of the flags had shifted to the opposite wall—another fifteen or so flags hung above the viewing window onto the Sea of Tranquility. These ships had lost their crews but were still operational as exploratory vehicles. And soon the Lion’s Mane would join them.
There was no time to dwell on such matters; she had lost a full twenty-four hours traveling to the base. In two weeks, the high-energy pulse transmitted from the lunar base would clear the Kuiper belt, and then there would be nothing capable of stopping the rest of the three-month journey to the Lion’s Mane. The crew would be dead.
Mafokeng took a shuttle directly to the Lunar archives and spent the time waiting for the Council to reconvene sifting through its voluminous records. Hutchins may have been angered by her obstinance, as Kusago had called it, but he could never revoke her access to the archives. That was a coveted privilege held by all stewards—the ability to look at the archives of every ship without explanation. The council believed that transparency would help ensure the longevity of all the missions.
Hutchins hid his surprise when she arrived at the delegates hall, pretending as if he had expected her on the Moon all along.
“I heard about the attack, Steward Mafokeng,” he said, as she made her way to an empty chair. “It must have been quite traumatic. We would have been happy to grant you more time to recover. You could have cast your shard from Earth. Now that you are here, of course, you’re most welcome.”
“Thank you, Steward,” Mafokeng replied curtly. Nothing in his smile suggested he meant it. She paid closer attention to his eyes now, trying to determine if Kusago had been right, and that Hutchins was using enhancements to monitor her. But she could see nothing unusual other than his customary aloofness.
Hutchins immediately called for a vote after confirming a quorum of delegates was present. “Thank you for joining us at this emergency session. There are seventy-five ships with living crews that deserve the time and attention of this body. Accordingly, I move to confirm the retirement of the Lion’s Mane. Let’s end this aberration. There can be no equivocation over this decision, and the public deserves to know we’re acting in their best interest. This is a stain on humanity, one that should be quickly effaced.”
Mafokeng rose from her seat to stride into the center of the delegates hall. “I couldn’t agree more, Steward Hutchins,” she said. “It’s a stain on humanity that we did not even give the passengers on that ship the benefit of the doubt. It’s a stain on humanity that this council sent a pulse to kill them all. They cannot speak for themselves and they have traveled for over a century to find us a new home. Giving a few moments to prolong their lives seems like a worthwhile use of our time. I humbly ask you to delay their final death sentence for another Earth hour.”
“This is pointless,” a steward shouted. “The pulse has already been sent. Nothing we do here will change that.”
“The point is integrity,” Mafokeng corrected. “The point is justice. And I believe there is time to stop the pulse before it is too late. I ask that you allow me to speak.”
“Seconded,” Steward Kusago said from her villa on Earth, catching a nasty look from Hutchins. This was all Mafokeng could get Kusago to promise her. He had not said he would change his vote.
“To understand what I am about to propose,” Mafokeng began. “I ask you to imagine yourselves aboard the Lion’s Mane.”
“We are Stewards,” a steward observed. “That is the very essence of our duties. To protect and to serve our vessels.”
“But not this vessel. The Lion’s Mane is different. The passengers have traveled farther than any ship in our council. Much farther. They receive almost no news from Earth, the Moon, or Mars, or any other ships, to our knowledge. We have always known this could happen, which is why we encouraged all ships to be able to make their own decisions that would prolong the health of their crew and raise their chances of reaching their destinations. We are stewards. We are charged with the safe and prosperous journey of our ship. We do not send instructions; we send support. Aid. Encouragement. Meanwhile, they act alone. When they deviate from their assigned trajectory, we interpret that as a healthy act. It tells us they’re still alive. These ships must be able to act without our interference, and to adjust to the conditions before them. Steward Hutchins, you explained that the Lion’s Mane deviated slightly from its path several times, likely to take on water. Is that right?”
“It’s in the dossier I provided to the Council.”
“What you did not include in the dossier was how much water the Lion’s Mane needed to survive. By the telemetry we have available, the vessel took on water at least four times more than similar vessels before it moved beyond Neptune.”
“There could have been any number of reasons,” Hutchins said. “It was not my place to question their judgment.”
“No, their water intake confirms what you failed to disclose, Steward Hutchins—that the ship used water for radiation shielding. And beyond that, the ship utilized aquaponics to feed its crew.”
There were murmurs amongst the delegates as they took in this information. This meant, to Mafokeng, that they were at least paying attention. She glanced at her time counter. She had less than four Earth days before the pulse traveled beyond the Kuiper belt.
“You make it sound,” Hutchins protested, looking offended, “as if I deliberately omitted this information. It was not material to our decision. The ship relied on traditional lead-polymer radiation shielding, with the aquaponics system as an experimental backup. The aquaponics system failed, just as predicted.”
“It did not fail, Steward Hutchins. Much to the contrary: It thrived.”
“What evidence do you have?”
“The ship manifest details the aquaponics system. And I ask you all to look at the third image from your dossier. You will clearly see a fish. Specifically the dorsal fin of a brook trout.”
“Even if it’s a fish. It doesn’t mean anything, Steward Mafokeng,” a steward said. “It could be a pet.”
“Possibly, but then look at the Captain’s insignia. In the dossier, Steward Hutchins told us that the insignia meant she was the captain, and she was the one supervising the eating of the finger in the image. Here, I have had the computer enlarge it for everyone to see.”
The insignia appeared over their modules. The circular blue patch appeared to depict two fish, each eating its own tail.
“From afar, it looked like a lion’s head, so it’s an easy mistake, given the swoosh of the fish tails, but those are clearly fish.”
“Get to the point,” a steward huffed.
“My point, my fellow stewards, is that the aquaponics system was not just an experimental resource on the ship. I would argue that it was the most important resource on the ship—so important, in fact, that the very culture of the ship evolved to incorporate fish into its way of life. This is why the ship stopped much more often than other ships to take on water. It needed the water for the fish to survive. The fish provided protein to the passengers, and their droppings nurtured the plants, allowing for a rich vegetarian diet. This virtuous cycle fed the crew for decades. Indeed, I believe it is still feeding the crew today.”
“Aquaponics have never been proven to be sustainable,” a steward interjected.
“And you would be right to observe that, steward. On Earth, the nitrates in the fish droppings overwhelm the roots of the plants, causing them to die. That’s why we switched to cell-based meats. Isn’t that right, Steward Kusago?”
“Steward Mafokeng is correct,” Kusago acknowledged.
“The crew of the Lion’s Mane would have known that there was natural entropy from the aquaponics system, requiring a source of renewal. Something to lower the nitrate levels, or convert them to nitrite. Our experiments in cultivating bacteria to convert the nitrate failed on Earth. But every ship had basic gene sequencing technology aboard. So it’s possible the fish were genetically modified, with the crew selecting out fish that excreted less nitrate. Or they selected plants that had a higher ability to absorb nitrate. Would you agree that’s accurate, Steward Kusago?”
“You have described the nature of the problem. All are possible, although not yet documented by science.”
“I do not know how, and I do not know why, but I suspect the rituals of the crew had something to do with it. I believe that the fish are thriving, and they are central to the culture.”
“None of this explains the cannibalism in the images,” Hutchins declared.
“I have been thinking about that quite a bit, Steward Hutchins. I believe we are not using the proper term. I would call the eating of that finger anthropophagy, not cannibalism.”
“A semantic difference.”
“Not semantic at all. I agree with the Covenant that cannibalism as practiced by an individual, for the purpose of inflicting terror or self-titillation, or even avoiding starvation, is aberrant and should never be preserved. Anthropophagy is a symbolic consumption of human flesh. It is not intended to provide real sustenance, but to signify the contribution of the flesh to society. Throughout human history, cultures have practiced human sacrifice, from the Ancient Egyptians to the Druids of Stonehenge, the Hitobashira rituals of Japan, the Carthaginians, the Israelites, or the Igbo of Nigeria. It was a way to bring the spirit world in balance with the terrestrial world, often by culling the aberrant from society—when there was disease, overpopulation, or genetic mutations.
“But those that practiced anthropophagy went a step further and consumed the flesh itself. It was the opposite of the Christian eucharist, in which bread and wine are taken to symbolically represent the body and blood of Christ. With anthropophagy, the devouring of the flesh reflects the culture. The Aztecs dismembered and devoured the body like the chinampa crops they depended upon. In the case of the Lion’s Mane, I believe it was the dependence and cultivation of fish and their aquaponic ecosystem. What you saw before you, my fellow stewards, was a ritual sacrifice, not cannibalism. It was affirmation, not barbarism.”
“There is nothing in the images that speaks to anything you just described,” Hutchins objected. “This is all conjecture, completely unsupported by facts.”
“I beg to differ, Steward Hutchins. I believe that the images sent back from the Lion’s Mane were a signal from the ship revealing how the crew survived. We do not know how the fish lived—and yet they do. We do not know how the society is organized, yet the people survived. I believe there is a connection between the two. There was one aspect to your dossier that bothered me, Steward Hutchins—the lack of mundanity. As a steward of the Medallion, I looked at thousands and sometimes even hundreds of thousands of images of routine tasks on the ship, from the crews cleaning the hatches to images of them sleeping in their berths. Images of anything other than the ordinary were extremely rare. These were all automated images, transmitted from multiple cameras hidden about the ship without control or interference from the crew. Your dossier contained only five images.”
“I already reported that the ship’s antenna had been damaged in a radiation storm. It takes our most advanced processors years to reassemble the data. We receive very few images from the Lion’s Mane.”
“And the logs? Why don’t we have captain’s logs, or logs from the crew?”
“There was nothing of consequence.”
“That may be so, if we take you at your word. I hope you don’t mind that I decided to search the archives of the Lion’s Mane myself. If the images were as rare as you suggested, then I wanted to view them in their totality, as is my right as a steward. You were right—there were comparatively few. And I didn’t find any text logs. But I did find a clip which confirms my theories. The sound, unfortunately, has been lost. But we can still learn a lot by watching it.”
“You have no right—” Hutchins began, but it was too late. The clip was already displaying before them. In their modules, the delegates could see an enormous corridor criss-crossed with large pipes. Two adults were addressing the Captain in a strange, exaggerated manner above what looked like a small pond. Their hips swayed from side to side, and they stomped their feet. At which point the Captain received something from them and dropped it into the fish tanks.
“This clip was sent deliberately by the crew,” Mafokeng explained. “It was not an automated image taken by the ship.”
“Why did you hide this from us?” a steward asked Hutchins.
“That clip was taken nearly fifty-five years ago!” Hutchins stormed. “It’s completely immaterial. We analyzed it numerous times and learned nothing. We don’t know what the Captain was doing at the time. It could have been a pH test. It could have been an experiment!”
“Not an experiment,” Mafokeng said, shaking her head. “Not an experiment at all. This was a ritual. Look at the way the people addressing the captain exaggerate their movements as they present the captain with whatever is in their hand. Look at the water she is dropping it into. It is like a raised dais—like an altar. That place is important to them. Important enough that they don’t just hand it over; they’re dancing, moving their entire bodies to underscore its significance. This is a symbolic act. They are feeding the fish that keep their crew alive, and whatever has been handed over is precious. This was a virtuous cycle, a cycle of renewal and sustenance, one that was essential to the mission. The images you shared with us, Steward Hutchins, were taken much later, several decades later, in fact, and we can assume that the culture evolved along with it. And I believe you left one important piece of information out—that the images you shared were also shared deliberately. They were not automated. We did not catch them in the act, as it were. The images were meant to show us the act in all its grim practicality. They were showing us how they survived.”
Hutchins stood there contemplating Mafokeng’s words, but she could see that he was not swayed. “Steward Mafokeng, if I may present my point of view.”
“And the point of view of the Council, and the President, all of whom voted unanimously to retire the ship. The Covenant is crystal clear on a prohibition against cannibalism. There is no exception for anthropophagy, or what you call human sacrifice. The reason is that we are not supposed to interpret their actions. When we spot cannibalism, we are supposed to condemn it. And we have. Your theories are fascinating—insightful, even. But they do not take away from the fact that these people are consuming human flesh. Your obstinance in the face of these facts makes you the barbarian. You will be the one who is blamed when the public learns that a council member wanted to permit cannibalism aboard one of our ships—the very ships designed to save civilization as we know it. They needn’t know that a steward who lost her ship was driven crazy with guilt from the loss and would do anything to prevent the loss of another, even if its passengers embodied evil itself. Or that the steward herself was born into mining royalty and never knew true suffering.”
Mafokeng reeled at the insinuation. Her family had already shamed her enough for her failures.
“Steward Mafokeng,” he went on, “we are offering you our hand. You can join us and we will unite as one voice condemning the act together. No one need know of your dissent. Cast your vote for retirement and we can move, as a body, to focus our energies on the remaining ships so that they do not suffer such a terrible fate. If you don’t, you will be overruled and the shame you feel will be of your own making.”
Mafokeng considered Hutchins’ offer, wondering if he was correct, that she was merely ignoring the evidence before her eyes. The guilt she felt was real, and her life had been shaped by the loss of her own ship, causing even her retreat to Earth, where she wallowed in her dignified isolation underground. What did he see with those augmented eyes? Which members of the council were leaning to his point of view? She felt hopelessly blind as she watched the impassive faces of the other stewards. She had no deep insight like he did into what they were thinking. Hutchins was right; she couldn’t prove her theory—she could only trust in the evidence, see the correlations without being able to show the causation.
Except for the fish. The fish were still thriving, alive, and present.
“As stewards,” Mafokeng responded, “our art form is making sense of the specific assemblage of data sent along to us across wide swathes of time and space. I would even argue that our highest duty involves interpreting these images in furtherance of the mission. I would argue that Steward Hutchins has failed this duty, not out of malice, or ill will, but because his emotional response to the images clouded a more rational one. Steward Hutchins is incorrect. My role here is not to prove my theory. My role here is to argue for the lives of the three hundred crew members aboard the Lion’s Mane, and provide us with more time to make a decision, a truly informed decision with no evidence withheld from us. This ship has traveled farther than any other. Its crew appears to be alive and healthy, which means they have discovered some secret to prolong their journey. My theory is based on what we see before us, and it is no less compelling than Steward Hutchins’ claims. I do not ask you to allow the crew to live indefinitely. I merely ask that we cancel the signal for retirement, and wait for further contact from the ship. Then we will have more information. Crucial information.”
She waited for her words to sink in, looking for a sign from the delegates as to their feelings. Their silence made her feel as if Hutchins was right, that she was the lone dissenter in the face of overwhelming evidence.
“How is it possible to cancel the retirement pulse?” a steward asked.
This gave her hope, at least, something to speak for.
“Thank you for your question, Steward. It is not possible to cancel the retirement pulse. It is a five-gigawatt pulse traveling at the speed of light. And the pulse itself does not retire the crew, of course. It’s sends an encrypted code through a backdoor on the ship’s systems to kill the passengers. However, our charts suggest that we can transmit a signal from the orbiting station on Io to several ships in the vicinity of the Kuiper belt. These ships can scatter the retirement pulse by simultaneously activating their transmission beacons. The interference would weaken the signal so that it would be unlikely to reach the Lion’s Mane. I urge my fellow delegates to act quickly, as the pulse is nearing the Kuiper belt at this very moment.”
She did not expect the council president to come to her point of view. Throughout the proceedings, he had remained silent, merely listening without objection. But his had been the crucial dissenting vote all along. Only he could prevent the council from overruling her.
The council had tolerated her up to this point, allowing her to remain active even after the loss of her ship, a privilege not afforded to any other council members. This would surely be too much. After her meddling, Hutchins would see to it that she was removed from proceedings. Strip her to an honorary non-voting role, or worse, kick her off altogether.
“The answer is clear,” the president declared. “We must jam the pulse. We must await further transmission from the Lion’s Mane before executing retirement. And we appoint Steward Mafokeng, as well as an independent investigator, to examine the archives. Steward Hutchins is hereby suspended from stewardship of the ship until the next transmission is retrieved. We should have had all the available information before he persuaded us to order retirement. In this chamber, we uphold total transparency. It is one of our highest virtues, and through his actions we have ignored it. Move for a vote.”
And it was done. Fifteen minutes later, Mafokeng watched as the council’s transmission operators sent the new signal through. If they were fortunate, light would scatter light, and the pulse would not reach the ship.
Already her aunt was hailing her from somewhere, likely having learned about the vote from her sources. She would be concerned about her reputation. Mafokeng pondered what to tell her. That she had allowed the passengers to dance around their altar for another day? That they would sleep well in their berths, their bellies full of fish, believing as always that their journey would continue on?
On the renewal pond, I stand my ground in the shallow pool of dark water. The trout swirl beneath the thick glass I stand upon, their shimmering skins dancing in my vision. I wear only loose fabric to protect myself, carrying a thick rubber club, while my finder holds an electric trident with tips so sharp they can slice through the hardest stone. My boots are fixed to the bottom by weights that feel like nails have been driven through my feet. I am surprised when the crew cheers for me and not for my finder. Perhaps the chief gen-gineer was right. Maybe my peers still believe, somehow, that I can become captain. But no person has ever been captured during a Finding and survived. The odds are against me. My ceremonial role now is to prolong our struggle for as long as possible. I allow each breath of the ship’s air to gather in my lungs, gathering energy. All I can do is fight.
She slashes at me with her electric trident and—whack! whack! whack!—I slam her across the jaw with my club so hard that she falls to the ground. When she turns back, her face is flush with anger, and she grits her teeth with determination. It’s the same expression she wore when we first made love.
“Come again!” I shout, hoisting my club above me. The club is twice as long as her trident but designed not to be able to cause her real damage.
I hit her again and again until blood spills from her lips, dodging the point of her trident by shifting my feet. But the effort to lift the heavy boots depletes my energy for the next thrust. I manage to land several more blows, at one point slashing her arm so hard that she drops briefly to the glass in pain. Except she has learned my weakness by now—all she must do is wait. She knows I am losing my strength. A spark alights in her eyes and I can see that something has changed. She bides her time until I am so weak that my feet refuse to move at all. I swing my club limply at her, and she lunges at me swiftly with her trident, severing my hand from my arm.
As soon as my flesh touches the water, the automated systems of the Pond take over, immediately injecting my body with pain-numbing anesthetic. The crew erupts in the Ballad of the Pond, a delicate, mournful melody that celebrates the memory of all who have sacrificed themselves before me. I refuse to cry out from the shock, and raise my voice to join the chorus when I can:
When we arrive, when we arrive
The watered death, the silver scales
All for the journey
When we arrive
The steady march of the drum keeps me singing. Finally, after so many verses that I can barely remain standing, we come to my verse, and it’s my turn to sing:
When we arrive, when we arrive
Fingers slip through cool water
Hiroko will gather oceans
For our roe
When we arrive
My shipmates repeat the verse, and the system laser-etches it into the Journey Tablet. Soon I will be gone, too. The system will dismember my body, lasering my flesh into smaller and smaller pieces, until I am drained into the tanks.
Captain Chennoufi leans forward and whispers the mystery to me in my ear. The mystery that is never taught yet always known. She explains that cortisol induced by stress is what excites the bacteria. I induced it during the Finding, and I made more while fighting on the Renewal Pond. The missing ingredient of the tanks was in my own body all along. And it means that I will live on, and begin my journey again.
I call out one final time to the crew: “When we arrive!”
And they return it, their voices exultant in my ears. “When we arrive!”
Then the captain presents the finger of my right hand to my finder, who steps forward to taste it.
Thank you to Professors Steven Desch and Steve Ruff at Arizona State University and the Center for Science and the Imagination in offering expertise and suggestions for this story. The title “Between the Dark and the Dark” is an ode to the late professor Inga Clendinnen.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deji Bryce Olukotun is the author of two novels and his fiction has appeared in five different book collections. His novel After the Flare won the 2018 Philip K. Dick special citation award, and his first novel Nigerians in Space, a thriller about brain drain from Africa, was published by Unnamed Press in 2014. He is currently a Future Tense Fellow at New America.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the June 2019 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Karen Joy Fowler, Ken Liu, Ellen Kushner, G.V. Anderson, Yoon Ha Lee, Tochi Onyebuchi, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.