Authors: Talia R. Blackwood
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
(John Keats, Bright Star, 1819)
middle of a sleep period identical to thousands of others, something wakes me up.
I open my eyes in the dark of my cubicle. Probably just a dream, but I can’t be sure.
Still on my cot, I barely breathe, wide-eyed in the dark. The sound, or sensation, doesn’t repeat. But no matter, better to check. My duty is making sure everything is all right.
I jump to my feet, leave my cubicle, and get in the elevator.
When I arrive on the upper floor, only the emergency lights brighten up the room, and they are all green. I sigh in relief. Just a dream. Nothing to worry about.
I rub my eyes. Sometimes, the feeling that my whole existence is only a bad dream overwhelms me.
Barefoot, I approach the sarcophagus and sit on the cold metal edge, hugging my legs. In my head, I repeat the little knowledge I have. I am a guardian angel. Watching over him is my task. He is my reason for living. He, who lies inside this sarcophagus.
I don’t know his name. I have always called him Prince.
Prince, sometimes I dare to think. But he’s not mine. Far from it. Maybe I’m his, but I doubt this is true, too. I’m only his guardian angel. He’s not aware of my existence; I don’t exist at all for him, since he’s sleeping.
Prince’s sarcophagus is a huge thing with a curved glass cover, a protruding metal edge—not that large, but enough to sit down on, as I’m doing now—a series of green lights all around the internal rim, and a console I can’t touch. The console needs a code to start; the code is BRIGHT STAR.
My predecessor was very clear about this. Blasius’s words are sculpted in my mind. Never,
, touch the console. Never. Can you touch the console, Phae? No, you can’t!
No doubt about it. Even though I know the code, the console is forbidden.
Inside, at the bottom, the sarcophagus is lined with a soft blue material. I have never touched it, obviously. But it looks soft. A mattress, or something like the foam covering my cot, but nicer to look at. The glass of the lid is usually fogged with condensation. Around the rim, where the cover shuts tight on the metal of the base, ice crystals grow. The crystals melt and some blue liquid drips on the sides of the base, down to a grid on the floor.
The sarcophagus is provided with an independent source of energy. It can work even if everything goes to hell. It can work even floating in deep space. Now it isn’t floating, but lying in a round, gloomy room, a kind of cocoon, at the center of Ship.
Ship is the place we live in. Me and my Prince. No one else.
I’m not sure he lives. He sleeps, of this I’m pretty sure. So I have to correct myself. Ship is the place I live in and Prince sleeps in.
I lean toward the sarcophagus lid and clean the condensation with my hand. Now that Blasius is gone, Prince is the only one in my life.
Blasius had mysterious words for describing Prince’s face. Words like silk, petals, roses. I haven’t all that magic. I know only that his features stab my heart and make me feel pain, longing for things I never had and I’ll never have. The delicate hue of his skin makes me sad. The curve of his pale eyebrows slices through me. The grace of his blond eyelashes gently resting on his cheeks, the straight line of his nose, covered with a handful of tiny, pale spots—freckles, Blasius called them—and the soft curve of his mouth light up intense emotions, without a name, inside of me. The desire to touch and possess all that softness is part of this torment, and my own blasphemy makes me shudder. Often Prince scares me. I can’t watch him for long without feeling this devastating longing, this shameful desire. Still, I can’t help but admire him.
Prince’s skin is so delicate that thin blue lines show through. It’s the refrigerant in his veins. I can spend hours trying to follow the mysterious path of each of those marks. The hollow between his collarbones always hypnotizes me, like the mysterious dimple in the middle of his chest, also crossed by blue lines as thin as strands of spider web. Ice crystals always form there, as upon the two pale prominences of his nipples, often wreathed in frost. Farther down, Prince’s belly is so dazzling white that the resplendence blinds me. So much smoothness kills me. In that secretive place, where soft blond curls—Blasius used the word
for that color—twist into spirals able to capture my soul, the lid becomes cruelly opaque. “For Prince’s privacy,” Blasius used to say. “Because he’s a virgin. He, son of a powerful King, must be united in marriage with another King on the other end of the universe, to form an important, historical alliance.”
Blasius told me this story many times when I sneaked into his cot, when the dark end of the void prevented me from sleeping. I didn’t understand his words, but the sound of his voice comforted me. I nestled my skinny body against his old man’s bony side and listened, my eyes wide in wonder in the dim light of Blasius’s cubicle. “His journey will take one hundred and fifty terrestrial years. Two guardians’ lifetimes. Me and you.”
“Prince will take my lifetime?” I asked.
“Pretty much. Your task as a guardian angel will last for your entire life, as it lasted for mine. Seventy-five years have already elapsed. Five years ago, I pressed the button that grew your seed in the tub. But you won’t have to do this. Two lifetimes will be enough for Prince to arrive at his destination.”
“So, am I your son, Blasius? As Prince is the powerful King’s son?”
A question I had asked thousands of times. And every time I hoped the answer would change.
“No. You aren’t my son, little angel,” Blasius said. “You enriched my life, but you aren’t my son, Phae. Don’t be sad, because you’re more than a son for me. You’re my clone.”
“What is a clone?”
“It means you’re me.”
At this point, Blasius grew sad. That is, he was always sad. But sometimes, when he talked to me or when I climbed onto his lap, he smiled and chuckled and didn’t seem so old and broken.
Blasius stroked my cheek with his raspy, warm hand. “Little angel, you are an unexpected brightness in the shadows of my life. When this journey started, I knew I had to raise a clone of myself, but I didn’t know I’d love him so much. A cycle will come when you’ll find me lying on this cot, without moving or breathing. You mustn’t cry and feel sad. Because I am you and I will live in you.”
The frost has penetrated into my bones, and the pain comes back, that kind of tear in my heart that I cannot explain. There must be something wrong with me, because sometimes this pain, this desire for things I never had, prevents me from doing anything. I know that there are other ways of living, in a mythical place Blasius called Earth, but I’ve never seen it. I don’t know any other way of life than this. So why the pain?
I get up, check the lights for the last time, and go back in the elevator, barefoot in the dark. When the elevator dumps me in the hallway in front of my cubicle, I stop, listening, but Ship is shrouded in silence.
Ship is huge. I don’t think I’ve ever explored all of Her. Some areas are full of scary, silent, forgotten machinery. Unknown metal monsters, blackened by time. Other areas are sealed; on the doors is the radioactive hazard symbol Blasius taught me to recognize. I can’t read. I know only the radioactive hazard symbol and the letters to form the word BRIGHT STAR on the console keyboard. Blasius told me the other letters could form the words to express all the concepts of the human mind. He tried to teach me the meanings of the other letters, but I suspect even he barely remembered.
Other areas of Ship are less scary, but full of dust and abandoned things. Blasius said in better times, when Ship was young, people lived there. Now there’s no one, only cobweb garlands raining down from the vaulted ceilings, and moth wings rolling away under my steps. Walls and bulkheads bear the marks of ghostly furniture. Scratches and dents tell stories. The dust on the floor reveals, at times, pieces and fragments of strange objects of which even Blasius didn’t know the meaning. I’ve collected these items, and I still treasure them in the space under my cot. A piece of metal shell with a changing, shimmering pattern. A soft roll, tiny in the palm of my hand, with a wire wrapped around that uncoils endlessly, infinitely long. And most extravagant of the collection, a small, broken humanoid head made up of a jellylike resin, attached to a chain, and the chain to a ring, which shoots red rays from its eyes if you squeeze it between your fingers. Blasius said its name is “Toy.”
In the empty corridor, I resign myself to the fact that nothing woke me up. There’s nothing here. Just Prince and me.
I am struck by a revelation. Maybe it’s all this emptiness that makes my heart ache.
I go back in my cubicle and fall on my cot, facedown. My head is crammed with thoughts. It may sound silly, but I hadn’t ever realized it was the void that hurt me. More precisely, the loneliness.
Yet, once there were other people here. I still remember the time I found Skeleton. When I was a child, I often ran off to go snooping around, and I saw him in one of the machinery areas, hidden under a sort of wheel. I came back to Blasius and dragged him to the place.
Blasius crouched, his elbows on his thighs, watching Skeleton cuddled under the piece of machinery. Blasius wasn’t so old yet, even though his face was rough enough to scratch the palms of my hands when I touched it. “It’s a skeleton, little angel. Only Corp knows why he remained to die here alone, after all the people left Ship.”
“Once he was a man. He’s dead.”
I didn’t understand what it meant, dead. If Skeleton was a man, he seemed motionless like our Prince, but looked quite different. Prince was fresh and beautiful, but Skeleton seemed dry, shriveled, wrinkled. He lay curled up on his side, his knees pressed to his chin, a thin layer of fluffy hair on his skull and shrunken clothes as transparent as cobwebs draped over his body. His eyes were two caves, although they looked at me when I moved around the room.
“Why did everyone abandon Ship, Blasius?”
“Because interstellar travel fell into disuse. Now Ship works only for very special tasks, such as the one assigned to us, little angel.”
Blasius took Skeleton and let him slip into the incinerator chute. The incinerator always scared me. The heat climbed through the trapdoor, along with a red gloom and a threatening hum rising from the very core of Ship. For me, the incinerator was the way Ship devoured things.
I asked Blasius if Skeleton would have felt pain.
“No, Phae,” Blasius said, taking me in his arms and squeezing me against his lean but comforting body. “He can’t feel pain. Not anymore. Death is a sleep from which no one wakes up. We cannot know why this happens, but we can give meaning to his poor remains, recycling them into energy.”
That way I learned what to do with Blasius when he died.
only a few minutes since I finally managed to fall asleep, but suddenly the lights come on.
I turn onto my back and run my hands over my face, eyes still closed. For me, it’s just the beginning of another cycle equal to thousands of others.
I sit up on my cot. I sigh.
My cubicle is a very small room, with a cot and a narrow shelf, above which flow the pipes of the compressed-air system that delivers my rations and my uniforms. A cracked plastic divider separates my section for personal hygiene. I get up and squeeze myself into the steam sanitizer. The shower works intermittently, and I have to beat the pipes to get the disinfectant steam flowing out.
After, I come back into my cubicle and press the red button to request a new food ration, although I have no appetite. I’ll keep it ready in case I get hungry. The ration coming out of the supply chute is broken and eaten by worms, as often happens, so I have to request two other rations until I get a package of food that is still edible.
I put the food aside and take the package of a new uniform from the pile I have stacked up under the shelf. Indeed, the chute that delivers new and packed uniforms has been broken for years. For a while, I sterilized my only remaining uniform with the sanitizer, but the fabric isn’t like skin, and it remained dirty. In the end, I ventured to leave Prince a few hours for a journey within Ship. I had some memories of my pilgrimages as a child, and I had an idea of where to go. I found the storerooms.
The storerooms were so large that their enormity faded into the darkness. So enormous that air currents circulated inside, while the noise of the nuclear engines hummed deep in my bones and the heavy gravity made my body cumbersome. From the faraway, invisible ceiling hung big compressed-air transportation tubes that sucked in the required goods.