I put on my coveralls and looked out my bedroom porthole at the dark expanses of outer space. All clothes on the Santa Maria were hand-me-downs, designed from fortified nylon to last 600 years of space travel. Still, they were faded and worn, and my zipper was always getting stuck.
It had been a month since my 16th birthday, when I’d been assigned the role of engineer, the job I’d work for the rest of my life. It was either janitor, teacher, officer, caregiver, engineer, or you worked in the sickbay or the food lab. I never cared where I landed.
“Good morning, travelers. Please head to the mess hall for breakfast,” came the Earth lady’s voice over the intercom. Radio signals took about four and a half years to get here from Earth, but the people at NASA perfectly timed their messages so they could tell us when to eat each day.
I followed my parents and my little sister out of our quarters and down the hall. The metal walls were etched with pictures and messages from fourteen generations of crewmembers, from poems and portraits to initials, dates, or the traced outline of a hand. Paper was given out sparingly, most of it preserved in a climate-controlled vault at the school, so most people left their mark on the walls. I did it too, having graduated. They used to give us markers and small whiteboards to write and draw with, but we had to give them back when we were done with our education. The pages of all the books were laminated, so we couldn’t draw in those either. Every once in a while, the teacher would give out a few precious sheets of note paper, and I still had every single one, but I had filled every square inch, erasing and redrawing until the ancient paper flaked apart. So eventually I resorted to the walls, or the bathroom mirror when it fogged up after a shower. Mostly I drew animals, or what I imagined them to look like, never having seen one in real life.
We shuffled through the crowded mess hall, got our food, and sat down with the rest of our family. Cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. But not grandparents. They stayed in the elderly wing. I forked a mushy piece of cantaloupe around my bowl of fruit salad. From what I’ve been told, in the cargo bay, there used to be cans of the meat and cheese of animals from Earth, enough to last the entire journey to Lambda 12, but the stockpile was raided in The Great Gluttony of 2084. I always wondered what that stuff tasted like. Now we just had plants from the lab.
I’d been to the food lab on a field trip once. It’s huge and there’s no artificial gravity there, so the plants grow in spirals and knots, not knowing up from down. Everything goes into the compost: food scraps, rinds, human waste, and corpses. Our water is recycled too, the sewage purified and made drinkable. It tastes like piss, but it has to be that way, or no one would make it to Lambda 12 alive.
The mission started in 1969, when the United States decided to take the lead in the Space Race by sending a ship to the nearest planet that seemed habitable. 200 enthusiastic couples from across the country climbed aboard the Santa Maria on a journey they would never see through to the finish. With one nuclear-powered rocket blast, they set off, and now, 352 years later, we were little more than halfway there, still flying along in the wake of the initial blast at 8.6 million mph, another 19 trillion miles until our destination.
“How has work been, Jaxx?” My mom was trying as usual to make me join the conversation.
“Good.” I felt I had already told her everything worth noting about my job, so I made the mistake of choosing a topic outside the handful of utterly boring ones that were acceptable. “Hey, did you know that on Earth they have these animals called monkeys and that sometimes they wash themselves with their own urine? Roth told me he read about it in a book. I thought it was really weird, but then I thought about it some more, and I realized we sort of do the same thing, in a way.”
Nobody seemed to find this revelation as interesting as I did. “That’s great,” said my mom in an uninflected tone. My dad looked particularly indifferent, scarfing down his second slice of toast. I was fairly sure my dad never wanted any kids, and he only had us for the extra food you get for contributing two offspring. You were allowed two kids, but no more. After the second one, you were sterilized.
Twenty minutes after our awkward breakfast, I was in the utility tunnels with the other engineers. Just like in the food lab, there was no artificial gravity in the tunnels. Most places had it, since too much time in zero gravity makes your bones weak, but to save power, they turned it off in some areas. I wished I could spend all day doing somersaults and backflips down the dimly lit passages, but unfortunately I had a job to do, and if you didn’t do your job, you didn’t get food. Engineers oversaw all the electrical work and machinery on the ship, from the heating system to the oxygen generators, radio system, wastewater recovery station, and lights. One of the few things out of our control was the propulsion system. The ship was on total autopilot, and if something ever went wrong with the thrusters, we were all screwed.
I floated down the corridors with Roth, the guy I was apprenticed to. He was in his thirties and had a clubbed foot from a few too many people doing their cousins. With a population of only 400, it wasn't too uncommon. Anyone born with clubfoot was assigned to work in a zero gravity area.
The tunnel we were inspecting was particularly dark, the lights spaced far apart, so we had to use our flashlights. As children, they kept us from playing where we weren’t supposed to by telling us stories about alien monsters that bored through the ship and lived in these tunnels, gobbling up misbehaving children. I used to love drawing what I thought the creatures might look like, always with rows of teeth and eel-like bodies.
“You know how to check the oxygen generator?” Roth asked. I nodded and checked the meters on the giant machine, making sure the enclosed microalgae were properly photosynthesizing oxygen from the ship’s carbon dioxide.
“Did you know there are animals with four stomachs?” said Roth. “Cows, deer, giraffes, and a bunch of other ones. I read about it in that book I was telling you about.”
“Why do they need more than one?”
“Better digestion.” We followed the pipes toward the next spot that needed inspection. “Did you know that on Earth, people can have as few or as many kids as they want?” he went on.
“My neighbors had their third child yesterday. Not sure how it happened but it did. Doctors immediately took her away. I could hear Alma crying through the walls for five hours.”
“Well, if everyone had three kids, we would overpopulate.”
He looked at me and shook his head. He had a gaunt and stubbled face. “It’s not everyone. It’s one family.”
“People wouldn’t get sterilized if they didn’t enforce the rules,” I said.
“Some people want one kid; some people want three. It would all work out naturally.”
I wasn’t sure he was right about that, but I didn’t feel like arguing anymore. Justifying taking infants from their parents put a sour taste in my mouth. We continued our work at the next set of machines, talking mostly about the Earth creatures in Roth’s book, then moved on to the next area, and the next. Eventually, the Earth lady’s voice announced that it was lunchtime.
“I can’t stand how that woman talks. Maybe it’s her accent,” said Roth. “I don’t get why someone 26 trillion miles away has to tell us when to eat.”
“Maybe it’s to keep in touch with us. To show us that their civilization still exists.”
He grumbled, not satisfied with my answer but not in total disagreement. We backtracked a little ways and met the guys who were delivering our food. If you were working, you didn’t have to eat at the mess hall, as long as the person picking up the food had proof they were doing it on your behalf.
Lunch was a vegetable burger with fries. It was tricky to keep the fries from floating out of the foil bag, but I’d had some practice over the last month. Roth ate the same small portions as the young people since he had no kids of his own. His wife had left him because he was infertile, and she wanted the extra food. Now he lived alone in his quarters. I wondered if that was why he always seemed eager to talk to me.
We finished our meals and soon got back to work. Roth started operating the control panel for one of the boilers, and I waited for him to get done. “Did I show you how to do this, Jaxx? Come over here.” He turned to look at me. “What are you doing over there?”
On a metal pipe nearby, I had found an engraving of a man with a long nose peeking over a wall. I didn't know what it meant, but I decided to etch him a little hat with my screwdriver.
"You like to draw things, don't you?" said Roth. I nodded, and he reached into his pocket, debating over something. Finally, he pulled out a small notepad and held it out to me. “I found this in the cargo bay. Have it.”
“Are you sure? Those are rare.”
“I don’t really need it. I’ve been using it for work stuff, but it feels like a waste.”
He pushed the notepad in my direction, and it glided into my outstretched hands. “Thank you,” I said.
Roth grinned as I leafed through the delicate, yellowing pages. A few of them were scribbled with notes and calculations, but there was still room to draw on them. It was more blank paper than I’d seen in years.
"All right, now pay attention to what I'm doing, Jaxx. I'm going to have you do the temperature control tomorrow.”
That night, after dinner and my daily laps at the pool, I sat in bed for hours with a stub of a pencil, drawing monkeys and cows and deer and giraffes until I was all out of lead. When I finally fell asleep, I dreamed of a place where I could fill as many pages as I desired, and where pencils could draw for miles without getting dull.