Short Story: Low Light

Funny story: originally, this was about evil unicorns who killed people with moonlight. I’m not even kidding.

Low Light

It’s dark when you wake up, as dark as it was the day you came out of deep sleep, but only half as cold. There’s a thin synthetic blanket above you now, and a hard mattress below instead of the cryo-chemicals. You know the blanket is warm, but your brain equates thinness with inefficiency and the old fear of the hull between you and the airless black of space, so you always shiver. You’re getting better. You used to cry.

When your bare feet touch the cold metal of the floor, you shiver again. When you were little, first out of the cryo-chamber, you used to dress under the blanket, fumbling for your socks and trying to limit your own exposure. Back then, you listened to stories of luxuries like carpets and wool slippers. You’ve read the specs. You know that those things were meant to be part of the ship’s design. You’re old enough to understand why they’re not.

In that first frozen moment, held forever en retard, you can only feel the emptiness of the dark. Then, the hum of the engines, the steady C around which your life is orchestrated, vibrates up through your legs and dances on your kneecaps. It is the rhythm of the day, regardless of the light, and you have never been without it, even though sometimes you forget.

You dress, and take the time to feel the stitches that hold your simple clothes together. You have never held a needle, never spun thread from shredded rags, but you know the feel of good work underneath your fingertips. They didn’t wake you up to sew, but that doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate those who do.

There is no alarm to herald waking time. Most of the others on the ship will wake when the carbon scrubbers begin their diurnal cycle, but you have always woken up before that starts. The ship’s systems are all connected, like cogs inside a pocket watch. The engines hum all night long, but towards what would be morning, their sound sharpens. It’s that sharpness that wakes you every morning. Your sensitivity to that slightest bit of discord is the reason they brought you out of deep sleep in the first place. When the carbon scrubbers come on, a perfectly tuned E, they feed energy back into the endless loop of the ship’s internal power, restoring the major third.

You don’t know how they knew, before they woke you. You remember music on Earth, more than you remember the sky or the wind or the sun, but it is a child’s memory. The names of notes and simple patterns, nothing more. You have been told that they could read your potential in your genes, and you have never struggled with your task, so you know it must be true even if you do not understand it. It is magic, like the neat stitches in the hem of your tunic, like the way the engineers can sense a problem with the systems before anyone else can. You have your own magic, after all, so it is not hard to understand that others have some too.

You are part of the ship, a cog in the watch like all the others, like the engines themselves, but your part is small. The great malfunction, which wreaked havoc with the systems while you slept, back when there were carpets on the floors and thicker blankets on the beds, stretched out your journey to something longer than the ship could support. Concessions were made. Lights were blacked out to save power and everything that was not a necessity was recycled, reused, or gone without.

For a decade, the ship ran in darkness. The crew sacrificed everything except air and water, living on the heat the engines could provide, the barest of food rations and what light the stars offered. They aged, and with their destination still out of reach, they decided to bring forth another generation. They could not use the scientists and colonists in cold sleep, because each of them had a part to play when the destination was reached. So they had children, and raised them to keep the engines running.

You are not one of them, but you are no less loved. You do not know how the engines work, and you do not cook in the mess. You were not born on this ship, but born again on it, brought out of deep sleep because your absence in the colony could be risked. They tested all the children, and you were deemed the best.

A new sound reaches your ears, the sound of the water purification system. When it turns on, the G to complete the fifth, you know that it is time to leave your room and prepare for the tasks of your day. The others are already in the corridor; you can hear them outside, and you should join them. No one is ever angry with you for being late. And sometimes you take more time than you should to listen to the chord. They know you need it; you need it to do your job.

The mess is breakfast dark. On Earth, you have been told, breakfast was often a dark meal. You know this is different though. You find your seat by touch and your fork by memory. You hear the breath of the others as they wait for the sure-footed servers to bring the morning dry rations. You get the same as everyone else, except for your water, which has just a touch of thickener in it. You don’t remember milk, and this isn’t, exactly, but there is no honey to be had, and this will soothe your voice, should it rasp before lunch rations.

They talk, discussing their tasks for the day and voicing the same complaints about the rations as always. They are serious about the first matter and jesting about the second. There are no other options, and they have been raised to do as they are bid. Their parents feared that they would be looked down on, when the ship arrives at its destination. They do not know Earth, and the colonists would not be expecting them. Their parents did not want them to be cast aside as no longer needed when the colony is made. They know this, and they know that this is why you were woken up. You are the bridge, the measure that will stop the ship from being forever in obstinato. You link the overture to the finale.

They had to remind you about Earth when you woke up, but your memory is good and you have not forgotten what they told you. You have set it to music, sung in harmony with the C Major chord that the ship has given to you. And they all learn as you sing, so that when the journey is over, they will not be lost.

It’s dark when you wake up. And it’s dark while the others labour with the engines and with the carbon scrubbers and with the water purification system. It’s dark when you sing to them of Earth and what was left behind. You sing history and geography in the morning. You sing mathematics and literature in the afternoon. In the evenings, between the shifts, you sing religion and art. While they eat their last rations of the day, you sing fairy-tales and fiction.

It’s dark your whole life, until your voice is old and hoarse. And then the lights come on, a new whine one octave above the engines for the perfect chord, and when you see the planet on your view screen, you know your song is done.




3 responses to “Short Story: Low Light

  1. Pingback: GORT: Ann Arbor | Emily Kate Johnston

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