Amalie had been studying science since she was old enough to scroll through a book reader. She had spent ten years studying astronomy before moving on to geology and then, in a move that surprised everyone, concentrated on botany for her secondary work.
Her younger brother had focused on astrology and astrogation the entire time, and could tell you from a two-second look at any star chart where they were and which way they were headed. He wanted to be part of the Navigation Team. He wanted to be part of the Rulers who got to go up onto the Bridge.
Amalie just wanted to know everything. She wanted, as she explained to her perplexed parents, to eat something more interesting, too, and to make something with a better protein balance that didn’t taste like the same old thing. And if high-end botany was going to get that, that’s what she was going to study.
She had done her younger community-work job in the animal farms and decided that there was really no reason they ought to be carrying stinky sheep along on a generation ship, her middle-ages work in the laboratories working on rock samples scooped up from various planets they visited, and now that she was deep in her secondary schooling, she alternated her work between the hydroponic facilities, the dirt-food gardens, which were certainly more interesting if also more dirty, and the labs working on making new foods which could grow in different environments.
She was working on a carrot which leeched the lead from the soil and broke it down into something non-toxic to humans when the call came.
Her brother, watching her straighten out the hem on her best outfit and thread an ear-wire her best friend in geology had made for her through her piercings, was livid. “Why you? You work with plants! You’re not doing anything interesting! You’re not doing anything important!”
“I’m sure you’d be glad to go back to eating pressed tofu three days a week.” She added the matching necklace and smiled benignly at her brother. “They probably just want to thank me for that new bean. Even you thought it was tasty.”
“But the Rulers! Tell them that I’m ready to be an astrogator! Tell them they got the wrong sibling! Tell them-“
Amalie left, because there was no arguing with her brother when he got like this, and her parents would be quite irked if she started shouting back at him, and it might make her late. She didn’t want to be late to meet with the Rulers, even if she was “only working with plants.”
She went “up” – the ship’s artificial gravity imposed an up that never changed, towards the bridge and the Rulers’ quarters – via two unlocked elevators and then via one that she had to flash her credentials every three floors for.
One only went to see the Rulers on their bridge if they wanted you there. Under no circumstance did one surprise the Rulers.
The woman who greeted her was friendly, smiling, and oddly familiar. It took Amalie a moment to place her. “Teacher Patricia. From the First Grade!” Teacher Patricia was a Ruler? Oh, if Amalie’s brother could know this!
“I am. And I am pleased to see how well you’ve progressed in your studies, Amalie. Now… I have a very important question to ask you.”
She still sounded like a First-Grade teacher. Amalie found that she didn’t mind the way she might have from someone else. “Yes, Teac… Ruler Patricia?”
“Are you ready to put your life to use on a problem that will change the lives of everyone on the ship?”
“Yes! Yes, of course…” She hesitated. “You always said, when asked a question that seems too good to be true….”
“Ask ‘what am I missing?’ Good girl. What you are missing is isolation. Secrets. Secrets nobody else may know, secrets that must be kept. The last time the secret got out, we had to-“
Amalie could guess, although she didn’t know how she could guess. Secrets. Isolation. “The Seventh Quarter Quarantine.”
“You are a very smart woman indeed, Amalie.”
Amalie had a bad taste in her mouth. “The whole Quarter was shut off for twenty years. Twenty years. A third of the people in there died.”
“That was an actual disease, one that we did not foresee when we locked down the Quarter. But what happened in that Quarter was also rioting, panicking, screaming, and a complete breakdown of order. If it happened again, we have other ways to contain the information, but none of them are much kinder than that quarantine. That is how serious this is, Amalie. That is the nature of the secrets I have brought you here to learn.”
“Why me?” She wondered if everyone brought up to the Rulers asked the same thing. “Why… why not my brother?”
“Your brother’s skills wouldn’t be nearly as much use to us as yours. And, in turn, he hasn’t the temperament. Eventually, he would talk.” Ruler Patricia clapped her hands. “Are you ready to learn?”
His skills. Her brother, who had trained his whole life to be up here. “Yes. Yes, Teacher – Ruler – Patricia, I am ready to learn.”
They went up three flights of stairs, actual stairs, and twice Ruler Patricia flashed her credentials and then keyed in a code. Amalie didn’t know a single place else in the ship with security like this.
At the top, she used an old-style key. “This part can be a bit disorienting. Let me know if you need to sit down.”
The Bridge. Was this the Bridge? Amalie’s great-grandfather had been here once. He’d spoken of it in quiet wistfulness for the rest of his life. There were Bridge simulations that kids could practice in and there were cafes and lounges designed around what it was supposed to look like. But nobody who had actually been up here spoke of details, just of a sense of awe.
It looked like… a room full of wide stretches of glass, panels, and instruments. Teacher Patricia walked Amalie to one wide stretch of glass. “The Ship-” she prompted.
“Is a generation ship designed to carry humanity to the stars. We learn everything we can about the sciences so that when we find a place that will be ours, we can make it better, make it suit us. We learn everything about the arts so that our life is beautiful the way our place will-” Amalie stopped.
She was looking down at the top of a mountain. No, looking out into a mountain range. Mountains! She had heard of mountains. She had heard of clouds. She had made artificial clouds in several different lab experiments. She had– “Did we land?” She whispered it, although she couldn’t see anyone else here. Maybe there was nobody else here in case she couldn’t handle it..
“No.” The Teacher waited patiently for her understanding.
“Did we–” She looked down again, and then, as she understood that all the panels of glass were this, began to walk around, peeking out. The ground was both very far away and not nearly as far as she’d have imagined it. “Is this a simulation? No, what would the purpose of something like that be? Is it–” A betrayed sense of understanding settled in her gut. “This isn’t a ship.”
“Very good, Amalie.” Teacher Patricia sounded sad, not approving. “This isn’t a ship, and yet it is. This is an arcology, built similarly to a ship in all senses except that it has no drive. Or, rather, it has no propulsion system. You, Amalie, are the heart of our drive., you and others like you..”
“To find a place that will be ours and make it better, make it suit us….” Amalie breathed.
“Make it safe for us again. Make it both pleasant and useful.”
“We’ve been here for three centuries. There are hundreds of other life-ships across the planet. Not everyone survived. Life-ship twelve, the Endeavor, suffered a riot that broke their outer doors less than fifty years after we ’embarked’. Only five percent of their people managed to survive, and their mission has been in a shambles ever since. One, life-ship one hundred seventeen, was torn open from the outside by people who refused to enter until it was too late, and then demanded entry. Most of their people managed to escape to back-up locations, but again, there is less of a mission there and more of a survival state. But you, Amalie,” the Teacher changed the subject abruptly. “Your work and others like yours has been making a clear and obvious positive change. The planet will be habitable for human life within two generations – if the current rate of change holds. Your grandchildren may be able to leave the Ship.”
“The Ship.” Amalie licked her lips and looked out at the mountains. “And I–?”
“There are more intensive programs, more directed ones, for those scientists who know exactly what we’re working towards. We’d like you to be one of those scientists.”
And what if I say no? She didn’t ask. There were answers to that. She didn’t like any of them.
For one, if she said no, she’d never get to learn what those other programs were. “Yes.”
“I thought that’s what you’d say.” Teacher Patricia clapped her hands again. “Come on, Amalie. Let me introduce you to the Earth Restoration Team.”Want more?
My Arcologies prompt call is still open here.