Before the Last Hope Leaves

by Andrew Vrana


“Notification: Citizen 23015-Kasti is approaching. Intention: Personal interaction.” The silky voice of my room’s AI pulls me out of some dark internal chasm where I’ve been hiding. “Can you lock the door?” I say without so much as turning my head. I thought Kasti would be in cold-sleep by now.

“Impeding a gen-citizen of the Commune is against protocol. Elaboration: You, an Earth-human, are not a harmonized gen-sibling and cannot give commands that directly conflict with the free will of a gen-citizen.”

I should have known this. Gen-siblings are born to a single parent generation and spend their entire lives identifying exclusively as part of the group that includes only those in their five-year generation. It’s something I don’t fully understand and will never be a part of.

Defeated — or maybe just no longer caring — I lie motionless on my bed, staring up at the translucent ceiling. The shining gray cylinder no bigger than my pinky nail in the twinkling void is the starship Destined Torch, the pinnacle of human innovation, making its speedy way through the frozen orbit of Earth’s moon.

Every two hours the starship shows up briefly against the black, and I look up and become sullen; eventually it continues beyond my room’s view off to that other side you never see from Earth. Soon it will cease to return.

The door slides open.

“Alone again, Deren?” Kasti says as she looms through the door. The question is rhetorical: in the sparsely populated Independent Lunar Commune, a city-nation making up the entirety of surviving lunar colonization, being alone is not unusual.

Sitting up on the narrow retractable bed, I say, “Did you know the AIs here don’t have to obey Earth-humans? What, I’m not allowed to protect my privacy now? I’m beginning to feel like a prisoner.” I look right into Kasti’s eyes. “Or a slave,” I add, relishing this release of frustration.

Her slight smile twitches. “Slavery has never, I am sure, been a practice of any Lunar commune. The same cannot, I know, be said for your home hierarchy — ah — I mean community.”

It’s more of a joke than an insult, but I remain unmoved all the same. Staring at me solemnly, she continues, “What, I wonder, is this behavior? Before, you were fierce, passionately, but now you are... ah... hopeless.”

I can’t keep myself from smiling sardonically for a fleeting second: I’ve recently realized how funny a thing hope is. No amount of it will ever have any effect on the outcome of an event; all it can ever do is make disappointment unbearably bitter. It’s hilarious in a sort of sick, humorless way.

“Please get up, I ask you,” Kasti says, “so that we may speak comfortably, face-to-face.”

I rise and stare up into her pale face; she’s a full two feet taller than I, and she’s considered small by Lunar-human standards. She gestures to the cushioned plastic chair, the only furnishing in the miniscule room not able to retract into the wall, and I obediently back into it.

Once seated I look straight up, but the blip that was Destined Torch is already lost beyond my ceiling panel’s view. I look instead back into Kasti’s light gray eyes, which I am surprised to see are giving me that special look the Lunars usually reserve for their own gen-siblings; it’s something that makes sense only if you’ve spent your life harmonizing with the Commune.

“You were looking, I think, at the starship,” she says, her voice steady and soothing. “You still, I presume, refuse to board? I mean, as a caretaker?”

“Yes.”

“The other Earth people have become content with their roles. Why do you, I wonder, still hold out for a place in a cryo-pod?”

Two weeks ago — perhaps even two days ago — this question would have driven my ire up like a rapid-acceleration fusion engine, but for some reason the anger burns out deep inside me. Perhaps when my hope finally died away it left in its place a black hole to suck up the rest of my vitality.

“I’ve already explained that to you,” I say in a voice more cold than calm. “I explained it to your entire gen-family, to your pre- and post-gens as well. I don’t feel like doing it again.”

“This saves me, then,” Kasti says, sitting down on the edge of my bed, “from another discussion of love and family.” She pauses while staring into my eyes; I look back up at the ceiling panel.

In the video application I sent to the Commune from Earth, I told my story in great detail. Since then I’ve repeated it several times to many different citizens, but they don’t seem to get it. The cultural divide is a firewall making my sentimentality entirely unreadable to them.

I told them how I could not leave on the Searchlight, the first starship, with my family five years ago. I told them how we ran out of money before I could purchase passage. I told them how I was already saving up for a spot on the second and final ship before Earth’s economy collapsed and the U.N. traded the Torch to the Lunars for wholesale resources.

But the people of the Commune don’t have concepts of things like family and financial limitation; they bond equally with their hundred or so gen-sibs and have no need of money.

“Just try to imagine how I feel,” I say. I’ve tried this discussion before, but I know more about her culture now. Maybe I can reach her. “Imagine: What if you only had a few gen-siblings? What if you harmonized with just two or three sibs instead of a hundred?”

“One hundred and seven,” she corrects me. “Please continue.”

“Right. And what if one day they left you here alone with your pre-gens? And you couldn’t follow. Would you be lost?”

“I would, I am sure, be inconsolable. Without my siblings I have no life.”

“Then you understand me,” I say. “Finally. It doesn’t matter why I wasn’t on the Searchlight, it matters that I wanted to be on it, that I had to be.”

I stand up, step in front of her, and look up at her. “Things are so different back home; it would be difficult for you to understand without living there for a while. All the people I care about are in cold-sleep and on their way to Proxima. I thought for a while I could move on, but it’s so hard. I don’t care that Earth has become a cesspool; an economic apocalypse is easier to deal with than loneliness.”

The last word resonates in the small room.

After a long silence she says, “I understand. You did not, I now see, answer our invitation in the hope of escaping Earth, like so many of your fellow people did.”

As I sit on the bed beside her, I can only nod. I turn my face to the glossy floor and close my eyes; I think I would feel better if the conversation had made me angry. But at least I know she finally understands now, that she can finally see why I was so enraged when her Commune instructed me to begin training as an engineer for the starship.

The rest of the Earth-humans accepted the fact that they and their children — perhaps even their grandchildren — would die before the Torch so much as glimpsed the outskirts of the Proxima system. I, on the other hand, had begged for a cryo-pod, but neither my anger nor my tears moved the Commune. They’re struggling to find enough pods just for their own colonization group; they never had any intention of sending any Earth-humans the entire way.

Kasti jumps to her feet, surprising me so that I jump up as well; I underestimate the Lunar gravity and have to raise my arms above me quickly to avoid slamming into the ceiling. She has that look on her face again, that blend of compassion and understanding that carries some unspoken message between gen-siblings. I feel she’s trying to convey something to me.

“Put on your uniform, promptly,” Kasti says, “then follow me.” She turns and walks through the open door to the hall and waits with her hands clasped in front of her.

Bemused and lacking the strength to argue, I lightly touch the wall panel that opens to reveal my clothing. I pull out the dark blue body suit that the Commune provided me with and squeeze myself into its snug grip; then I pull on my grav-adjustment boots so I can walk normally.

Before today I would have refused to don the uniform. I would have done nothing to show submission or a willingness to die long before I had a chance at finding fulfillment. What has changed? What is controlling me now? Apathy? No, something else. Somehow I feel that following Kasti’s request is the best thing for me to do.

As I start out the door Kasti begins walking down the hallway, and I follow like her loyal shadow under the white lights. We walk silently for some way down the deserted hall; the gray plastic walls reflect the ceiling’s lustrous glow panels and give the illusion of movement all around us.

In a few minutes we enter the atrium, the vast chamber at the center of the circular Generation Complex two hundred meters across and spanning from the ground to the top of the building. My room in Kasti’s residence hall is on the 115th floor. The atrium is a gaping pit from up here: plenty of distance to make a fall fatal, but I’m not sure I even have the strength for that.

“It was decided last year. You should know,” Kasti says as we walk along the endless walkway, “that the AI would randomly select which gen-sibs would host the successful Earth applicants. We decided one-on-one pairings would be the most productive arrangement. As you must understand by now, we had to use an objective means to make the inequality that would result from the pairings fair and unsolicited.”

I’m barely listening as we stop at a pair of tube-doors, and Kasti speaks the command to call a lift. A few moments go by in silence before the lift shows up, and I follow her inside. She gives a command as the doors shut, and we move downward; in the confined space we stand very close.

Kasti continues, “All along I was, I admit, hoping to foster a human from Earth. I told my gen-siblings, sincerely, I thought harmonization was possible and perhaps, some years from now, integration could benefit both cultures.” The lift halts its descent and begins moving laterally to another area of the city. “But the Communal consensus, I am afraid, is that three centuries are too long a separation; our peoples have become socially incompatible.”

The lift stops after a few minutes, and Kasti motions for me to exit first. I wait and then follow behind her a short way to a large set of doors on the left wall. She touches a wall screen, prompting the doors to part and admit us.

The dim room beyond is a cold vastness. Along each of the four walls and in a single row in the center are cryo-pods; most of them are sealed, their glass front panels opaque, but a few sit slightly ajar, waiting to be filled and then ferried up to the Torch where they will lie unopened for the next century or so.

“Kasti,” says the towering bulk of a man who rushes forward to greet us. He’s one of Kasti’s gen-siblings, but I don’t recall his name or face.

“Rutul,” Kasti says to him. They stare into each other’s eyes as they embrace — the customary greeting of gen-sibs. “You remember, I hope, Deren, my charge from Earth?”

“Ah,” Rutul says, looking down at me with a mystified expression. “We all remember Deren. Kasti, if I may ask, why have you brought him with you? You are scheduled, I am certain, to enter cold-sleep now for the voyage.”

The two Lunars’ eyes lock again, and they share a significant look for a long moment: knowledge passes through the air between them. If I didn’t know better, I would call it telepathy. It’s not, though, because they don’t need that; what they share is deeper, transcending communication. Eventually, their eyes break, and Rutul looks at me.

“You’re sure, then, you can bring him?” he says.

“I’ve made calculations,” Kasti says. “I am small, as you see, and he will fit. These pods, I recall, were designed to carry up to three Earth-humans, originally.”

I hear the words, but I’m not sure what she’s saying.

“That’s not what I meant.” He turns back to stare at Kasti.

“A bond has been made, please be assured,” she says; she abruptly starts off toward one of the open pods at the center of the room. Rutul, his smooth face unreadable, motions for me to follow, and we both go to her.

Facing the pod, Kasti continues, “Communal consensus, Deren, was that the Earth people may travel with us in cold-sleep — at our discretion — should they prove socially compatible. Your situation made you more open, I believe, and you have met the stipulation.”

I stop and stare at Kasti. Her words slowly reach me, and I begin to comprehend what’s going on. All Kasti has said since leaving my room is starting to make sense.

“But... why?” I realize too late that this sounds ungrateful. I hurriedly continue, “I mean, I’m from Earth. You’ve known me for three weeks. How can you be sure we’ve formed a... a bond?”

Smiling warmly at me, she says, “In your room, earlier, you helped me feel empathy for you, to share in your despair, and I felt it. Then when I told you to put on your uniform and come with me — something, I am sorry to admit, I believed you would not do — you surprised me by showing unreserved trust.”

“These are the qualities of our bonds,” Rutul cuts in. “Mutual empathy and absolute trust. You may, I am honored to say, consider yourself Kasti’s generation-sibling.”

I don’t completely understand; she can’t have learned much about me in three weeks. I know very little about her compared to the gen-sibs she’s known since birth. Their bonds are such significant things. And yet... it feels right. Somehow I feel like this is the thing I’ve been waiting for since I first arrived here.

“Perhaps,” Kasti says, “in Proxima System, you can harmonize with all of my gen-sibs making the voyage. Perhaps, in time, those you seek on the other side may join you. We must first, however, cross the void between now and then.”

Without warning, she takes me by the hand and begins pulling me up into the open cryo-pod. Startled but willing, I clamber over the metal wall and stretch out on the soft white bedding within. Kasti says a temporary farewell to Rutul, who will be entering his own pod soon, and then climbs in after me. It’s a snug fit, but we are both comfortable. Within moments Rutul has the life cord painlessly inserted under the skin at the back of my neck; he does the same for Kasti and steps away to the control screen.

“Thank you,” I whisper to Kasti, not knowing anything else to say.

“Shh. Your gratitude is implied.”

As the pod door comes down upon us, she gives me that look again. I still don’t completely appreciate the meaning it holds, but I’m beginning to get it. It gives me a warm feeling inside that fights off the cold now creeping over my body; my melancholy is forgotten, and for the first time in five years this moment is exactly where I want to be. I try to make the expression back so that Kasti feels this warmth as well, but I don’t think I’m doing it right.

I’ll have to remember to ask her how to do it when we wake up.


Copyright © 2014 by Andrew Vrana

Proceed to Challenge 567...

Home Page