Something was wrong.
An unsettling sensation describable only as wrongness had trickled through the haze of sleep, rousing Niko suddenly from a deep slumber. As she opened her eyes, she wondered what could have wakened her. The room was perfectly silent. It was a few moments before it dawned on her that the silence was the problem.
What she should have heard upon waking was a blaring alarm and the confusion of two thousand hurried feet. Instead there was this awful silence. Silence was unnatural. The silence meant that Niko had done something wrong.
She sat up, her muscles aching in protest against the sudden movement, and turned to the nearest clock. 06:46. She had indeed done something wrong: she was late for breakfast. Somehow, she had managed to sleep through the deafening daily wakeup call.
“Shit,” she muttered. Her absence would be noticed soon and police would come. She groped for her uniform as she clambered to her feet. Sweat poured down her forehead, soaking her bangs. She pushed them to the side and wondered if the ringing in her ears was just from being so unaccustomed to silence.
It was only as she lifted one leg off the ground to put on her pants that she noticed something was off. The leg supporting her felt weak and sore. She lost balance and was barely able to dredge up the energy to correct herself in time.
She sank down to the floor in the narrow space between her bunk and the neighboring one, wiping fresh sweat away. Her head throbbed and her cheeks burned. She didn’t think she had the energy to finish getting dressed, much less to walk to D-ring, but she was calm. Police would be coming soon. This thought was comforting now instead of threatening. Surely they’d forgive her tardiness when they saw how sick she was, right? They could take her to the hospital ward in F-ring. She could relax in her faith in the system, knowing that these things would be done. It was protocol, and protocol never lied.
Her muscles begged her to lie back down, and she obliged. She was starting to feel drowsy, her thoughts scattering off in all directions:
She’d have to reschedule her physics exam.
The silence was so disconcerting.
She had never been ill quite like this before. Could it be radius sickness?
That thought penetrated her sense of calm and brought her brain back into focus. Radius sickness was the most deadly of diseases in her society. It was almost always fatal. But she couldn’t have radius sickness, could she? She was too short. What were the early symptoms? She couldn’t remember just then. She was too tired.
There was something nice about being completely alone. This was the first time for that, Niko noted with some amount of guilt as she drifted back off to sleep.
She was still alone when she woke, though not in her dormitory anymore. Instead, she found herself in a small and unfamiliar room lit with harsh fluorescents. She lay atop a nondescript cot; besides this, a toilet, and a sink, the room was utterly empty. She squinted in the excessively bright light. Everything was pristine, colored the same sterile white except the wall opposite her bed, which was composed of an unusual gray glass. Niko couldn’t see through the wall, but she had a distinct feeling that there were observers on the other side, marring the pleasant feeling of lonesomeness that she had enjoyed earlier.
There was a button labeled “COM” on the nearest wall. She pressed it and said, “Can anybody hear me?”
She waited for a few minutes. Maybe she had misinterpreted the abbreviation. But finally a harried reply came, a female voice. “Yes, 419.”
“Where am I?”
“You’re in an isolation chamber in F-ring. You were found unconscious in the juvenile dormitories this morning.”
“Is it radius sickness?”
“Just a bacterial infection. Nothing serious, but it’s communicable, so you’ll be in quarantine for forty-eight hours past the disappearance of symptoms.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Niko let out a private sigh of relief and lay back. This was going to be boring. Unable to think of anything better to do, she tried to sleep, but the harsh lights made that impossible.
An ascending siren resounded, the sound echoing painfully around the small concrete cube, and Niko jumped to cover her ears. Was it morning already? It was impossible to tell from inside her windowless room.
But it wasn’t the wakeup call. A loud crackle sounded – sending another jolt through Niko’s already racing heart – and suddenly the wall of glass was working as a monitor, displaying a side-scrolling message: “MANDATORY ASSEMBLY – D-RING – 18:30.” Well, Niko couldn’t get to D-ring. The police were just going to have to accept that.
She watched the text scroll hypnotically for a long time. It occurred to her that she had no idea how far away 18:30 was. But just as she thought she might drift off finally, the message changed.
It now read, “TRANMISSION FROM EARTH.”
This piqued Niko’s interest. Receiving communications from Earth was a rare occurrence.
Finally, the screen changed again: the text disappeared, and an image of a man sitting at a desk replaced it.
“Brave explorers,” he began grandly, “I am addressing you from approximately forty trillion miles away on planet Earth. As such, you will not hear my words until over seven years after I speak them. Despite this and the enormous cultural differences that have certainly arisen between us, I intend to address you as brothers, always remembering our common origin.
“This day marks a momentous occasion. Two hundred years prior the day that you’ll receive this message, your spacecraft, the Divergence, left Earth carrying five hundred passengers. It will be another one hundred years before it reaches its target, Planet B, which orbits the distant star Epsilon Eridani. Few, if any, of you will still be alive to witness the occasion. Your importance is not to be trivialized, however. Your generation still has much work to do.
“We would like to remind you of the many factors beyond those of short-term space travel that demand your consideration. Your most vital task must be the schooling of your children. The original crew that left Earth contained several technicians trained in the use of communications equipment. These skills must be passed down to your children so that information from Planet B can be communicated to Earth when future generations finally arrive. Of course, children will also need to be rigorously trained in maintaining the delicate balance that allows life to thrive in the small, closed environment that is your spacecraft. The concerns you must consider fall into many fields. Most vital to your safety is the engineering knowledge required to keep the ship stable. And to ensure that your civilization continues to thrive, you must also approach the matter of genetics with utmost caution.
“It has come to my attention via your last transmission that the aforementioned matter of genetics is kept in check with a set of laws. We have reviewed these laws and support them fully. To reiterate, these laws are as follows:
“To keep the population stable, each fertile person on the ship must produce exactly two offspring within his or her lifespan. If population begins to fall, this number can be temporarily increased to three; inversely, it can be reduced to one at times when population trends upward. These changes are to be made at the discretion of your governing body. It is important that you avoid overcrowding at all costs, as your resources are finite. Secondly, genetic diversity is key to protecting your small civilization from eventual self-destruction. No two offspring may be born to the same set of parents. Adhering to these simple rules will keep your civilization thriving until it reaches its destination.
“The work you are doing is very important. This is humanity’s first attempt to extend its reach beyond our solar system, and the information that we will learn from you in one hundred years is sure to be fascinating. We thank you for living the disciplined lifestyle required of you to ensure your mission is successful. Over and out.”
The speech ended and the screen abruptly shut off again with the same loud crackle, leaving the glass a dull gray once more. Niko knew that she had seen only a small fraction of the transmission. The vast majority of it would contain classified information for the governors’ eyes only.
Communication with Earth became less and less frequent as time went on, since the messages took increasingly long to traverse the growing distance between the Divergence and its home planet. In fact, this message was the first Niko had seen since she was very young.
The transmission had given her a lot to think about. The genetic diversity law wasn’t really working as intended. The original crew of the Divergence had been composed of people from all over the Earth, but the intent had always been to unite them into one new community aboard the ship, and this was meant to include interbreeding, too. And over the course of 200 years, this had occurred to some extent – the average skin color of people aboard the Divergence had settled somewhere in the middle, a pale brown – but there were still small groups of distinct races, some of whom clung vainly to their cultural backgrounds on Earth, and this was a problem. Some of them even spoke other languages in private instead of adhering to the standardized English. These people were obviously not prioritizing the community above themselves, and Niko thought that was horrid.
The two child requirement was unfortunate, but its necessity was indisputable. Niko was nearing legal adulthood, at which point she would be expected to begin trying to produce her first child. It was a frightening and alien concept that she usually tried very hard not to think about. She took comfort in the little snatches of conversation that she overheard – at mealtimes, mostly – rumors that enforcement of this practice had slackened, that the Divergence was at a peak in its population, that the governors were probably going to reduce the permitted child limit down to one soon.
The thought of that reduction instilled some relief for multiple reasons. Maternal death during childbirth was not uncommon: F-ring’s hospital ward just didn’t have the resources to deal with certain medical emergencies. But that actually wasn’t her primary concern with the prospect of child-bearing, not really. She was dreading, for reasons she couldn’t articulate, finding a mate to impregnate her. Whenever she tried to think about it, her skin grew clammy and hot, a sensation that wasn’t exactly unpleasant, but always left her confused. Mostly, she tried not to think about it.
Still, Niko sometimes wondered if there was something more to child-bearing than she understood. The police didn’t like it when people discussed Earth culture, but it still happened in whispers over meals. Over the years, she had picked up some snippets. On Earth, supposedly children were not raised by schoolteachers and police like they were on the Divergence. The women who bore the children and their mates were allowed to raise them, and to bond with them, and even to bond with each other.
The whole affair sounded pretty outlandish to Niko, but in her most secret thoughts, it was appealing. She wasn’t sure what it would feel like to bond with another person, but sometimes she caught herself scanning the faces of the adults in the dining hall, wondering which of those people would have raised her, had she lived on Earth. Her studies of genetics had told her that offspring share many physical traits with their parents, and so she experienced an involuntary swooping sensation in her gut whenever she caught sight of women who, like Niko, were dark-eyed, dark-haired, and of small stature.
A burgeoning throb in her temple reminded her why she usually did not let her brain stray into such confusing territory.
An indeterminable amount of time passed while Niko lay on her cot trying to work up the energy to get up and press the COM button to ask for some medicine. The monotony broke some time later when footsteps sounded outside her door. She looked up expectantly, but the door remained shut.
She heaved herself up and tried the handle. To her surprise, it opened. On the other side, however, was only a second, smaller chamber sealed off by another door, this one locked. In the chamber sat a tray with a sandwich and a small, unfamiliar electronic device. Niko took the tray and walked back into the main room. Immediately after she closed the door behind her, there came a whooshing sound from the smaller chamber, and a window within the door revealed a fine mist of blue antibacterial fluid flowing from a spigot.
She was feeling pretty indifferent to food at the present. How long it had actually been since she’d entered quarantine was a mystery to her, but she knew she hadn’t eaten in a long time. Despite this, she just wasn’t hungry. What she had really hoped would be included in the delivery was conspicuously absent: medicine. Making up her mind, she finally pressed the COM button.
Again, it was a minute before she got a reply, but finally a man’s voice asked, “Do you need something, 419?”
“I was wondering if I could get any medicine.”
“We don’t medicate for this kind of ailment. Protocol is quarantine only.”
“Oh. Sorry,” she stammered.
“While I have you, can you take your temperature for me?”
“You got a thermometer with your last delivery, no?”
Niko held up the small electronic. “This?”
“Yes. Put it under your tongue for a few minutes, please.”
Niko did as asked, thinking to herself as she did that this entire experience had been different than expected. She had never heard about quarantining and had always been under the impression that people went to F-ring to receive medicine when they were ill, though it had been a long time since she’d been here herself. If she racked her brain, she could dredge up some foggy memories from when she was young, some frightening moments in which she had struggled to breathe. The first time it had happened, she had gone to F-ring, and…what? If they had given her medicine, she couldn’t recall it. But she had grown out of those respiratory attacks, fortunately; it had been several years since her last one.
“Okay, check the reading now, please,” said the voice from the speaker, pulling Niko away from her thoughts. She took the thermometer out of her mouth and looked at the side.
“It says 39.6.”
“I have to read it myself. Bring it to the glass, please.”
Niko walked up to the wall and pressed the thermometer against it. She stared into the glass, trying to make out anything from the other side, but could only see her own reflection gazing back. She hurried back to the COM button when she was done to ask another question before the observer left.
“Can you turn down the lights at all? I can’t sleep. It’s so bright in here.”
“No, we need the lighting for observation.”
But she was tired enough by now that she thought she might fall asleep despite the lights. Before settling back in bed, she took another look at the sandwich on her tray. It did not strike her as appetizing. She set it aside with intent to revisit it later, but that never happened.
Time dragged slowly on in the small room, at least, as far as she could tell, it did. The isolation that had been a fun novelty at first had quickly grown tiring. She soon grew talented at ignoring the lights, and thereafter sleeping proved to be the best way to pass the time. After a while she gave up on the futile act of speculating as to how long she had been in isolation. However, after what might have been four days, or maybe eleven, she started feeling perkier. And then, finally, the speaker associated with the COM button crackled to life as Niko was waking up one day.
“419, please remove your clothing and leave them on your bed,” said the voice emanating from the speaker.
Niko did as asked, and then the voice said, “Please step into the intermediate chamber and close the door behind you.”
Carrying out this order would have been awkward if Niko weren’t such a petite person, but for her, the chamber in which she had previously received her food was not cramped enough to be uncomfortable. The instant she closed the door behind her, she was suddenly doused with the same spray of antibacterial fluid she had heard after receiving her meals. It came from all sides and coated her entire body. The smell was sharp, nearly overwhelming her with its insistent sterility. There was not warning enough to shut her eyes before it arrived, and upon contact with the fluid they began to sting. They were still pinched shut when the she heard the exterior door open. She was too preoccupied to feel too embarrassed about her nakedness, though the thought did cross her mind. Whoever had opened the door grabbed her wrist and pulled her arm out straight, then draped something over it. It was several minutes before she was able to coerce her eyes open, at which point the person had left, and Niko realized that she was holding a fresh set of clothing. It looked exactly like the one she had left behind: a plain, navy body suit with the number 419 embroidered in white thread on the chest. She quickly donned her clothing before wandering out the door, but had time only to travel a couple of meters before a young woman with a ponytail grasped her by the arm and led her swiftly to the F-ring exit.
“You are expected at D-ring within ten minutes for supper.” The clear message behind her words was not to go wandering.
“Yes ma’am,” Niko said, and she hurried on her way.
Niko breathed deeply, not realizing until this moment how stale the air inside the isolation chamber had been.