You have to understand what it was like.
There were so many of us—hundreds and hundreds. In A Crew alone there were more than seven hundred people. And B Crew was almost as big. Not that we had anything to do with B Crew. But they were there, in the Stasis Banks. Ready for their next shift.
The shift that never arrived.
Back then, I didn’t know everyone’s name. There were too many names to remember. We could do all sorts of things, because we had the numbers. We played sports. We held concerts. We threw parties. You won’t believe this, but at the very instant our probe detected that emission wave, I was attending a birthday party. Haemon Goh’s ninth birthday party.
In those days there were all kinds of nicknames. Haemon was a Shifter, just like me, because he had been born on board Plexus during one of A Crew’s shifts. I was a Second Shifter, and he was a Fourth Shifter. You won’t understand about shifts. Each of them was four years long, because cytopic stasis isn’t supposed to last more than four years. Any longer and you can suffer permanent damage. So every four years there would be a change of personnel as one crew woke up and the other was put into suspension.
It means that I’m older than I look. The day it happened—the day everything changed forever—I was seventeen. But only in shift years. If you’re talking real time, I was thirty-three. Haemon was turning nine, but he was really seventeen. We were on our sixth shift, you see. The last month of the second year of our sixth shift, after forty-six years in space.
And we still hadn’t found a habitable planet.
Not that it mattered much—not then. Not to us. The Shifters had never been on Earth. We didn’t know what planets were like. Plexus was self-contained and self-sustaining. It gave us everything we wanted; it was designed to satisfy our every need. How could we miss what we’d never known? My parents might have pined occasionally, but I never did. No Shifter, to my knowledge, ever had to be counseled for a bout of ship fever, because we didn’t understand what it was like to walk under an open sky or feel a cool breeze. Not really. There were programs, of course: virtual reproductions that allowed you to look up at the clouds or roll on the grass. Our teachers would sometimes take us to the Mimexis Chamber for a sensory experience of Earth. But mimexis wasn’t the same as reality. There was always a kind of buzz at the corners of your perception, like interference in an electromagnetic energy stream. You always knew that it was fake.
As a matter of fact, Haemon’s parents had booked the Mimexis Chamber for his birthday party. That happened a lot, as I recall. Mimexis was popular for birthday parties. It wasn’t easy to book a session unless you were mapping a galaxy cluster or teaching a class . . . or throwing a birthday party. It wasn’t as if you could just stroll into the chamber whenever you wanted to go to the beach. Mimexis wasn’t "energy-efficient"; we were told that all the time. There had to be a damn good reason for powering up those laser coils. Luckily, a Shifter birthday was considered important enough.
I remember Haemon’s party so well. There were fireworks—virtual fireworks—and a million balloons, and a snowstorm, and the Undersea Tour. I had been on that tour before; like the Black Hole tour, and the Human Body tour, and the Ancient Rome tour, it was part of our curriculum. But Haemon wasn’t old enough to have studied marine biology, so the tour was new to him, and he enjoyed it. He also enjoyed the cake, which was an impressive piece of design. Someone had written a new program and had created a cake so big that when it popped open, hundreds of virtual parakeets flew out, singing like blackbirds. We all chased them with butterfly nets. And when we caught them, they transformed into other things: flowers, bonbons, jewelry, ribbons. After that there was dancing. I don’t know who chose the music. Some of it was all right, but some of it was Plexus Mix. Mixing your own music was quite popular in those days. One of the Third Shifters spent a lot of time tracking and sampling. He called it a hobby.
I won’t tell you what Dygall called it.
Dygall was there, needless to say. Everyone eighteen or under was expected to attend birthday parties, and most of us were happy to do so. I won’t speak for Dygall—he was always griping about something, parties included—but the rest of us found parties an enjoyable duty. Even Caromy turned up, though she didn’t need to. Perhaps, as First Born, she felt a certain responsibility toward every Shifter on Plexus.
She was twenty-one, then—forty-one in real-time years. I think she was working in Sustainable Services. (It’s been so long, I can’t remember.) She’d done something funny to her hair; it was twisted up into a couple of golden antennae, which bounced when she nodded and made Haemon laugh. Mostly she played with Haemon and the smaller kids: the Fourth and Fifth Shifters. It was the right thing to do. I wish I could have danced with her, though. Just once.
She was so beautiful and so good. She shone like a supernova.
Neither of the other two First Shifters had come. I wouldn’t have expected them to; they weren’t like Caromy. Of the Second Shifters, I was there and Merrit was there, but Yestin wasn’t. He was in MedLab, undergoing blood tests. Poor Yestin was always trotting off to MedLab. He was the only Shifter born with a physical defect: Artificial Gravity Intolerance (AGI). Though every Shifter had been thoroughly screened before birth, there had been no methodology for AGI screening. No one had encountered it before. The gene mix hadn’t been identified. The symptoms weren’t properly understood. Everyone knew about the effects of zero gravity—the loss of muscle and bone mass, the pressure on the carotid artery, the slowing of the pulse—but when it came to artificial gravity, there hadn’t been much research done.
Yestin changed all that. After he was born, a whole section of MedLab became devoted to gravimetrics, and Yestin spent many long hours there, having his osteoblast levels boosted, and his exercise programs adjusted, and his blood chemistry analyzed. The rest of the time he built robots. That was another popular pastime among the Shifters: building robots. I had built a few myself when I was younger. But I was never like Yestin. That kid was obsessed. He wasn’t satisfied with miniature spacecraft or trick basketballs. He was determined to recreate dogs and cats and birds—robotic animals with random-probability patterning and chemical biosensors.
Given the chance, he probably would have moved on to the challenge of recreating a human being: a human being with sturdy bones made of strong metallic composites. But he didn’t have time. For most of us, our future died on the day of that party.
I still like to think about it, though.
Who else was there? Haemon’s parents, of course. His counselor. His personal trainer. His best friend, Inaret. (She was another Fourth Shift kid). His teacher, who was on the Psychologics staff and who was responsible for Junior School. Plus the Senior School teacher, who had awarded me a double-honors graduation just the year before. And that was about it, I think. Apart from the Shifters I haven’t already named.
I remember, before the dancing, how everyone had been encouraged to draw patterns on their clothes with paint-pencils. (Virtual paint-pencils, naturally. There was no risk of staining anything.) Merrit, who was wearing navy blue, drew a star-chart. Caromy drew flowers and butterflies. Dygall drew a skeleton that he assured me was "anatomically correct." It wasn’t, but I didn’t argue. I had learned not to argue with Dygall. Just as Yestin was the only Shifter born with a physical defect, Dygall stood out as the one Shifter with a character defect. The fact is he liked to argue. Arguing allowed him to annoy people, and that was his hobby: annoying people. I used to talk to my counselor about Dygall—especially after I was appointed Dygall’s Big Brother— because the kid worried me. What did he think he was up to? Why did he say (and do) such stupid things? Believe it or not, he had threatened to free all the germinators in BioLab. And to build a flame thrower. And to sabotage the Remote Access Laundry Units. (We called them RA Ls.) When I explained this to Teillo, my counselor, he just laughed. He said that all this behavior was typically adolescent. Whereupon I pointed out that no other adolescents on board exhibited such perverse and antisocial attitudes. Dygall, I said, was a destabilizing influence.
I’ll never forget Teillo’s reply. He told me that a bit of destabilization wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. He said that Plexus was an "incredibly unnatural" setup. He observed, "It’s all very well talking about stability, and counseling stability, and breeding for stability, but you can get too stable. What happens if we begin to stagnate? What happens if we find a new Earth but can’t break out of the box we’ve built for ourselves? Someone like Dygall keeps us all on our toes. He gives us room to maneuver."
Teillo was a wise man—the wisest in Psychologics—so I tried to look at Dygall in a new way. I tried to think of him as a planned factor, even though I knew he had come as a shock. He certainly embarrassed his dad. Zennor was a Senate member, representing the Psychologics Executive Committee. That, no doubt, was why he had been granted breeding privileges in the first place. No one else could have persuaded the Senate that his wife, Darice, would make a suitable mother. Oh, she was brilliant in her chosen field. As a food technologist and scent technician, she had no equal. It was thanks to Darice that our diets became more and more varied. But she wasn’t stable. Her personality was too obsessive—too perfectionist. Her work consumed her. She used to float about in a daze most of the time, though she was very sweet when she did snap out of it. Very sweet and very, very beautiful. I’m not surprised that Zennor loved her. I’m also not surprised that Dygall messed around with stink bombs. Thinking about it now, I realize that he would have done anything to attract her attention.
Dygall had shaved his head a few days before the birthday party. I can’t remember why; maybe there wasn’t a reason. Maybe he was bored. (He often talked about the boredom of life on Plexus. Then, to be annoying, he would say that a military coup would liven things up.) A pale, gingery fuzz was just beginning to cover his scalp on the day of the party. The younger kids found it quite fascinating. I remember how they would ask if they could touch it, and Dygall would suddenly drop to his knees and bark like a dog, or say, "Be careful. It’s catching. Do you want your own hair to fall out?" I tried to head him off, but there was no way of knowing what Dygall would do next. One minute he would be running around in circles, popping virtual balloons; the next minute he would be sulking in a corner. It was very difficult for me. His unexpected responses threw the smaller kids off balance.
But when I complained to Merrit, she simply shrugged and said, "Consider it a compliment. They wouldn’t have made the match if they thought you couldn’t handle it."
Merrit was sixteen at the time. Psychologics had teamed her up with a bright and happy Little Sister who wasn’t giving her much trouble at all. The worst you could say about Inaret was that she made a lot of noise.
I pointed this out.
"So, are you telling me that your getting Inaret wasn’t a compliment?" I asked. "Because she’s nice and easy?"
Merrit flashed me one of her looks. We were standing against a wall watching the smaller kids dance with a virtual octopus.
"Inaret is a great deal of work," she insisted.
"Are you kidding?"
"She’s brilliant, Merrit. She has the highest IQ on board."
"You think that’s easy to deal with?"
"For you? Yes." If Inaret had the highest IQ, Merrit probably had the second highest. She was a mathematical genius. Even before she left school, she was running stat checks for Planning and Projection. The instant she graduated, my father snapped her up. Her first Rotation Placement was with him in Navigation, where she had been impressing everyone with her insights into cataclysmic variables.
"Anyway, at least Inaret seems socially integrated," I remarked, studying the eight-year-old as she flung herself around—rather clumsily, for someone her age. (She perhaps wasn’t as well coordinated as she could have been.) "Nice manners. Receptive. Cheerful."
"Well, of course she seems that way to you," Merrit retorted. "It’s because she’s trying so hard to impress."
"What do you mean?"
"Cheney." Merrit had a way of glancing at you out of the corners of her long dark eyes while her face remained expressionless. "You’re not displaying much insight."
"She thinks the world of you."
Sure enough, Merrit had hardly finished speaking when Inaret suddenly clattered to a halt in front of me. "Can you be a sun?" she asked.
"We’re doing a solar-system dance," she explained confidently. "You can be a sun, and we’ll be planets."
"It’s a binary system," Inaret added, seizing my hand. I ended up swinging her around and around while Caromy did the same with Haemon. It occurred to me that, although Haemon was older, Inaret did seem to be taking the lead in most things. Watching her, I began to see what Merrit was talking about. Inaret was certainly very firm in her opinions.
Haemon, on the other hand, hardly ever opened his mouth.
"Inaret needs a lot of convincing," Merrit said dryly when I joined her again. "You can’t just tell her to do things. You have to persuade her to do things."
"Well . . . that’s good, isn’t it?"
"Is it? I don’t know. It wears me out."
"It’s still better than Dygall."
"What’s Dygall doing, anyway?"
Dygall had brought a silvery insulation sheet with him. He was trying to refract energy waves, thereby distorting the image of the octopus. Inaret laughed as its head bubbled to one side. Haemon blinked his round, dark eyes in consternation.
"Please don’t mess with the program, Dygall," Dygall’s teacher requested. "It has a knock-on effect."
"Don’t you think a knock-on effect might be interesting?" was Dygall’s response.
"Possibly. But you might frighten some of the little ones. The mimexis distinction still isn’t clear, for them."
Naturally, Dygall wasn’t pleased. He slouched over to where I was standing. "It’s a coddle-fest," he complained. "Those kids need a bit of scaring. We all do."
"Is that so?" Merrit said blandly.
"Yes it is so. Otherwise, the first alien we run into, we’ll all die of fright."
Merrit smiled. Dygall scowled.
"It’s true!" he insisted. "We need a few mimexic monster programs. To toughen us up. We have to be prepared."
"We are prepared," I pointed out, as mildly as I could. "That’s what Planning and Projection is for. All the possibilities have been taken into account."
Dygall snorted. I knew what he thought of P&P. According to Dygall, no colonization plan could be complete without guns. He had said, over and over again, that security on board Plexus was a farce because there were no firearms of any description. He had even been caught downloading weaponry blueprints from the history database.
Teillo, I remember, had been very amused by this. "That boy," he’d said, chuckling, "is a genius at pushing buttons." In a funny sort of way I knew what he meant. For all Dygall’s noise he had never actually built a flame thrower. Nor had he sabotaged a mimexis program or designed his own search-and-destroy robot. As I said, he liked annoying people. And one way of annoying people is to challenge their most deeply held beliefs.
No one would have been allowed to join A Crew if they had regarded violence as a solution to anything. Naturally, Dygall’s attitude worried everybody. As for Dygall, I think he enjoyed all the extra counseling he received for his destabilizing tendencies. He always did like to be the center of attention.
"For my party," he suddenly declared, "I want a historical piece. The Battle of Waterloo or something."
Merrit rolled her eyes.
"Oh, I’m sure the little ones will love that," I remarked.
"The little ones won’t be allowed in here," said Dygall. "It’ll just be me and you and . . . I think you should come, too." He nodded at Merrit. "You’re obviously bored."
"Is that so?"
"I can tell by your hair. Only a person who’s very, very bored puts so much time and effort into a hairstyle."
Merrit had long, straight, black hair, which she wore in a complicated pattern of fine plaits. I think her mother used to arrange it for her. When I saw Merrit flush, I knew that Dygall had gone too far.
Merrit was rather sensitive, you see. She couldn’t laugh things off—and she didn’t know Dygall all that well. She didn’t understand that he would say whatever popped into his mind. He was never intentionally cruel, I don’t think. Just tactless and impatient.
"You’re a good one to talk about boredom-related hairstyles," I said to him quickly. "How long did that lunar landscape on your own scalp take you to finish?"
Dygall put a hand to his head. "Next time," he replied with deep satisfaction, "I’m going to leave bits. I’m going to write my name in my hair."
And that was when reality intruded. Even as Dygall spoke, Firminus opened the chamber door. He approached Haemon’s father, and they exchanged a few words.
Suddenly the program faded. We were all left standing in an empty beige-colored compartment.
"I’m sorry, everyone," said Firminus in his calm, dry voice, "but we’re going to need this chamber. We have to run a few charts."
The little kids groaned. Merrit and I frowned at each other. Firminus worked in Navigation; he wouldn’t have interrupted Haemon’s birthday party to run a few star-charts unless our course required urgent analysis.
"Do you need me, Firminus?" Merrit inquired.
"Not at present, Merrit, thanks all the same." Clearly Firminus wasn’t prepared to give us any more details. "I apologize for the interruption."
"Oh, we were nearly through," Haemon’s mother replied. She sounded genuinely unconcerned. "Haemon’s had a great time, haven’t you, honey?"
Haemon smiled shyly and nodded. Like his mother, he was very sweet-natured. And he didn’t know enough to be worried. None of us did at that stage.
We didn’t realize it was the beginning of the end.