This page contains:
- Disregard for personal autonomy
The dome star was the only light in the nighttime sky. Ben Stokes watched from the tower at the center of the common area as the star flickered and buzzed. Bulb is about to burn out, he thought as the soft pulses of light feathered the edges of park benches and swing sets in a soft blue. A dull green carpet of recycled poly fibers spanned the whole five acres of the communal park. When he was in school, Ben had read accounts from early passengers of the ship comparing the carpet to the lush green grass of Earth, how it was not as soft between their toes, and how they missed the smell. As a child, he couldn’t imagine why anyone would want the ground to have a smell.
The light in the sky began to vibrate as it built to a crescendo. With one final pulse, it illuminated the whole domed roof that covered the common area. He saw the painted and fading “birds” and “clouds”—all words Ben only understood from books and pictures. As the bulb of the star dimmed, the fabricated park faded into darkness.
Ben let out a long, tired breath from his perch. He turned to see that Eric, the junior night watch, had missed the whole thing. The boy was hunched over an old refurbished tablet, gritty and worn from generations of use. Eric was obsessed with arrival fiction and usually spent the entire shift reading.
“Your turn,” Ben said.
It took Eric a few seconds to shake himself out of the world of lush lands and strange beasts and back into the real world of the ship. He looked at the hole in the ceiling where the dome star bulb had been glowing a few minutes before.
“Aww, Ben. Really?”
“The star went out. It’s a hazard.”
“I know, but can’t it wait? The story’s just getting good. The ship landed, and they spotted a bunch of hot, naked aliens hiding behind a purple tree.”
“Yeah, I bet that’s exactly what the arrival is going to be like,” Ben said, running his hand through his graying hair. Not that he faulted the boy. He read even smuttier arrival books when he was a young man. At one time, those stories had been therapeutic. Now they were just a reminder of a future he would never see.
“Besides, I hate climbing up there,” Eric said. The boy was tall and husky, making the tight quarters behind the dome walls even more claustrophobic.
“I’ve been doing it since you were in diapers, and I don’t like going up there any more than you do,” Ben said. “But if some old man falls during a midnight stroll through the park, we’re going to be up in front of Captain Sturgill before morning.”
“Yeah, I know,” Eric said, letting out a long sigh. But he didn’t stand. The dull glow had almost entirely faded from the vacant hole in the ceiling. “What would it take for you to do it for me?”
For a moment, Ben considered letting the boy off the hook. But it was Eric’s duty to the ship, and instilling it in the boy was part of Ben’s duty. “More than you’ve got,” Ben said. “Stop stalling.”
“How do you know how much I’ve got?”
“Because that trash you’re reading sounds like it came from the commissary bargain bin to me. If you had more, you’d buy some entertainment credits.”
“I’m storing some back for a date with Emi,” he said.
“Then you sure wouldn’t want to trade any to me, would you? Now, get up there.”
“What if—” He looked around and then leaned in closer to Ben. “What if I had something else?” he whispered.
Ben was silent. Unlike Eric, he had developed a poker face over the years. Eric looked around again, and then slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out a clenched fist. His fingers slowly unrolled, and Ben felt his stomach tighten.
It was a Star Room token, a subtly indented eight-pointed star. His father had told him once that each of those eight points represented a different deck of the ship—from the deepest engine deck all the way up to the flight deck. The coin was a perfect radial disc, each point of the star the same, as if none were more important than the other. “20,000 people on this ship,” he had said. “Some cook, some clean, some protect, some create. But all of them are important.”
The yellow plastic coin was duller than Ben had remembered, and despite everything, he eyed the token with a yearning he hadn’t felt for anything else in years. He had told himself he would never go again; he would accept this life on the ship. But the token in the boy’s hand pulled him as if asking for Ben to reach out and take it.
Ben had only visited the Star Room three times in his life. The first time was in the third grade. Each person in his class received a token for their field trip. His teachers spent weeks preparing them for the room, showing pictures and videos about what a star was, explaining that the light on the dome ceiling was just a symbol for the real star. The real star, the one they would see in the Star Room, was the ship’s destination.
The night before the class trip, Ben’s mom had put him to bed early, tucking him in and telling him to get some rest for the big adventure the next day. But Ben was unable to keep his eyes closed.
His father peeked into his sleeping quarters just after midnight.
“Is it going to be scary?” Ben asked.
“Yeah,” his father said. “All the important things are.”
“If the stars are so important, why can’t we look at them all the time?” Ben asked, and his father’s answer stuck with him for the rest of his life.
“Because then they wouldn’t seem as important anymore.”
The next day was scary. But it felt just as important as his father had said it would. It overwhelmed many of the children, and several of them spent most of the time in a corner crying. Ben leaned against the window. The giant sea of blackness was filled with little flickering dots, farther away than anything else he had ever seen. He’d never imagined distances that big could exist. And all those tiny specks of light were galaxies and suns with planets circling them—hypothetical words to a boy who had lived his whole life in the belly of a spacecraft.
He pressed his face to the window, and the cold of space seeped through despite the thickness. The teacher had said space was infinite, and he hadn’t comprehended what that meant. Now, here he was, inches from the infinite.
The window near his cheek fogged from his breath, and he traced a line along the nose of the ship in the direction they were traveling. Only one of the stars fell in line with their path. It was bright. Not as bright and big as the star in the common area ceiling, but still more glorious and breathtaking in magnitude than any of the other dots. It sparkled yellow, and then it would suddenly turn blue, the moment of change indistinguishable.
Sometimes it would flicker ever so slightly with a ripple, but Ben remembered from the video’s explanation of how the light would bend. He didn’t understand, but the video said it was okay. The lights were not going to flicker out. Not for billions of years.
That’s where we are going, Ben thought. He could see it, so it must be real. But it was so far away, and even though he knew the ship was traveling very fast, it felt like they were frozen in the deep, dark, empty blackness.
Ben shook himself from the memory and squinted at Eric, the boy’s face both afraid and hopeful all at the same time. “Where’d you get that? You didn’t steal it?”
“No! Of course not,” Eric said, looking hurt by the question. “It’s my graduation token.”
“You graduated over a year ago.”
“And I never used it. I just—you know? Once was enough for me.”
Ben nodded, finally understanding. The kids that would cower in the corner, Eric was one of them. Ben remembered the heartache of his own graduation token and the knowledge that came with it. Some people never used theirs. They just kept it in a drawer until they died and their possessions reverted to the ship’s common property.
“So, what do you say?” Eric asked, holding out the token.
He wants to be rid of it, Ben thought. He wants to forget about the Star Room and go back to his book about a world he’ll never see. But Ben could see the stars one more time.
“Alright,” he said, taking the token.
The watch crew kept the replacement lights in a utility closet behind the skydome that only they and the ship technicians could access. Ben fumbled through the dim room, his eyes not as sharp as when his own graduation token had weighed down his pocket. He finally found the lighting unit in an upper corner. The unit was fabricated on the manufacturing Deck out of recycled material, as were all the items on the ship. It wasn’t like they would stumble upon a giant deposit of glass or a new light diode bank floating in space. If they needed it, M Deck made it.
Only one more lighting unit was in stock. He’d sent a note to the M Deck requesting more the last time the dome star burned out. That had been almost two months, and they still hadn’t brought any up? He would have to send a reminder. His dad’s M Deck team would have never taken that long, he thought.
The bulb was about the size of a newborn baby. “Cup her head,” his dad had explained when his little sister had been born. He cradled the bulb in his hands just as carefully. He couldn’t help but feel like the bulbs had changed over the years. Hadn’t the glass been a deeper blue when he was younger? The metal threading at the bottom had seemed more vibrant and heavier. It wasn’t his imagination; he was sure of it. Maybe manufacturing was trying to conserve resources.
He thought of his dad in his own sleeping pod years ago, shivering from sweat and coughing. Ben stayed up with him at night so his mother and sister could sleep. They talked about everything, milking every second to make up for the ones they wouldn’t get later.
His father had started working on the Manufacturing Deck straight out of school. When Ben graduated, he insisted that Ben apply to watch crew instead of M Deck. Ben had asked him why during one of those late-night conversations.
His father sipped his water and thought for a long time. “Are you happy on the watch deck?”
Ben shrugged. He was almost twenty-five at that point. “Yeah. I guess.”
“You wouldn’t be happy on M Deck. You can leave your work on the watchtower and come home. M Deck comes with you. You bring home worries. Did we make it strong enough? How many do we need? Do we have enough—” He stopped and looked at Ben, looked him deep in the eyes. “You don’t need to worry about those things for the rest of your life.”
He had thought about that conversation many times over the years. Enough? Ben carried the fresh bulb to the “moon” elevator and pressed the up button. He had asked the supervisor why it was called that in his first week on the watch deck. She explained that the builders of the ship intended the giant ball on the dome to be a painted, backlit replica of the moon as seen in the Earth’s sky. It was helpful for the first generation of people on the ship to see something familiar. But as the generations passed, memories of the moon became legends. The paint faded, and the ball started feeling more like a destination than a memory—a sign of the future, not an homage to the past. The dome star slowly became a symbol for the Destination Star.
Ben understood why Eric didn’t want to come up here. It wasn’t the height. It was being so close to something he would never get to see.
The second Star Room token Ben had seen was in his senior year of high school—his graduation token. Just like Eric, he received it after the assembly. The entire graduating class gathered in a room alone. No teachers, no other students, only them waiting for a “special guest speaker.” They had all been surprised when Captain Brooks entered the room. He had been the sitting captain before Captain Sturgill, and he had helmed the ship since Ben was a baby. The significance of his presence was clear to everyone. The Captain’s place was in the control room; he only came out for important reasons.
The audience was small, only thirty-two graduates in Ben’s class. Captain Brooks stood at the front of the room and spoke without a microphone. He told them he was proud of their efforts and looking forward to seeing them serve on the ship in many different capacities.
“But—” he said. “It is time you know the truth.” The room shuffled uneasily. “We have always been honest with you. We don’t know the exact arrival date for our destination.” It was always called the destination, never given a name. “This is the truth. But we do know we still have a long way to go. And I’m sorry to tell you that the arrival is not going to happen in your lifetime. You are old enough to know this now—old enough to know that what you work for is not your own arrival but the arrival of your children or grandchildren. I wish I could tell you that you would set foot on our new home. But you will not. Neither will I. However, we must always continue to serve the ship. It is our responsibility, our duty to our fellow shipmates, as we continue to push toward humanity’s new home.”
Ben’s father had come to see him in his room later that night. Ben was lying on his bed, staring at the wall. “I was born on this ship,” his father said. “I’ve never known anything else.”
“Then why do they even show us the stars? It’s a tease. I’d be happier if I didn’t know they exist,” Ben said and finally broke into tears.
His father put his hand on Ben’s back and hugged him close. “Sometimes people need a reason to keep trying. Sometimes they need a destination even if they’ll never reach it themselves.”
He went with his class to the Star Room, even though the token said he could choose any time. Captain Brooks had called it a “reminder trip” to remember what they were all working for, to remember their purpose. Only about half of his class attended. For some, it was cathartic. For others, salt in a wound that was far too fresh. Some of his classmates cried in the arms of their friends while others stood in awe of the star they would never reach.
Ben pressed his face to the glass, just like he had in the third grade. He felt the infinite outside, so close to him even if the star was on the other end of it. He traced a path to where the ship was pointing—to the Destination Star. It seemed bigger to him. Had nine years brought it closer, or were his memories wrong? Either way, it was not as giant as the dome star that hung in the common plaza deck. He had clung to an empty hope that the star would be enormous, as if the ship were on the verge of crashing into it—that the captain was mistaken.
It still flickered and changed colors, and Ben spent the entire allotted hour staring at the star. He probably would not have another opportunity to come back. He would drink it in now, remind himself that the star was real and not just a giant dot painted on the ceiling. Then he would live out the rest of his life serving the ship. He would do his duty.
And now here you are daydreaming instead of doing your job, he thought as the “moon” elevator door opened onto a landing high up on the dome. He carried the lighting unit to the foot of the ladder. The climb was short, but it felt longer the older Ben got. Some of the ladders that ran up the dome started on the park level, but those were for maintenance crews. Ben was glad the watch crew’s only task on the dome’s exterior was replacing the dome star light.
He flipped the switch to disable the power to the star. Then he secured the new unit in a belt harness and started climbing the ladder toward the white orb.
Ben pulled on thick gloves to handle the cooling, dead light unit. The star was bigger than any man, nearly three meters across, and the module that housed the unit was as thick as Ben’s chest. During the day, a series of mirrors slid into place to reflect the full power of the light and illuminate the whole room below. His first week on the job, the training videos had said the lighting unit functioned “just like a lighthouse.” Ben had looked up what a lighthouse was and thought the analogy unfitting. A lighthouse warned ships to stay away; the dome star beckoned.
From up close, he could see the faded moon markings, the remaining paint flaking and dried from the heat of the light. He reached out a gloved hand and peeled away a flake of dried paint and let it flutter to the floor far below.
Even though he tried to will the thoughts away, he remembered the third token to the Star Room. His mother, sister, and he had received tokens along with a letter commending his father for years of honorable service to the ship, from the newly-promoted Captain Sturgill. Her words had burned into his memory. “The Star Room can remind the grieving that their loved one served the people of the ship and brought us ever closer to our destination.”
Ben had misunderstood the letter. He had never been to a funeral before. He imagined a memorial service in the Star Room, his father’s lifeless body wrapped in linens, ejected from the ship to float in space and rest in the light of the star forever.
“No, honey,” his mom had said in a calm, soft voice, trying her best not to harm him—and failing. “His body stays with the ship. It would be wasteful, and he’s not in there anymore.”
The service wasn’t even in the Star Room. It was in a small private room on the communal deck, and Ben fumed through the whole thing. Every word of comfort was contorted into stabbing propaganda for an uncaring system.
At the end of the service, the family stood at the cold metal box that held his father’s body. His mother placed an artificial flower on his father’s chest. His sister put a letter she had written to him in his chest pocket. Ben tucked the star token he had received from the captain the day before into his father’s cupped hand.
Two crew in formal uniform ceremoniously stepped forward and began to turn hand cranks on each end of the black, metal podium that held his father’s body. The platform slowly descended into the floor. They continued to turn the cranks even after his body was gone, and two thin, metal panels slid together, closing the hole with a punctuating thud.
Ben had read about the process the night before. On a lower deck, they would remove all his clothes and clean them. Then he would be placed respectfully into a machine that separated his body back into primary chemicals. He would become water for the coolant systems, nitrogen for the crop fertilization, and calcium for reducing agents in metal on the M Deck.
He would become phosphorus used in the bulbs that illuminated the ship.
A few days later, Ben helped his mom sort through his dad’s clothes to be returned to the ship’s supply chain. His fingers found the token at the bottom of his father’s dresser drawer. He felt the eight points of the star on the coin’s face and wondered if he really believed what they stood for anymore.
He pulled the coin out and turned to his mother. She was taking his father’s work shirts from the closet one by one, folding them neatly for the last time, and placing them in a plastic tub that had been sent to their unit.
“Mom, is this your token?”
She smiled and shook her head. “Your father’s. He got it when his mother passed away.” She walked around the bed to her son. “He said he was saving it for when he needed a reminder of his purpose here on the ship.”
Ben turned the coin over in his hand. “And he never needed a reminder.”
“Oh, no, he did.” She took Ben’s hand and closed his fingers around the token. “But he had you.”
Ben called in sick to work the next morning and took the token to the Star Room. It was the first time he had ever been in the room alone.
He spotted the Destination Star immediately and walked slowly to the window. He wanted to keep walking through the glass, out into the infinite darkness, but the closest he could get was to press his face to the cold surface and know that it was just inches away. He would never be on the other side of that glass, at least not while he was alive. His mother had said his father wasn’t in his body anymore. Maybe he was outside of the glass, Ben thought, only inches away from his face.
He traced a path in the condensation to the Destination Star. The star flickered. Then, just for an instant, the flicker lasted a bit too long. Had the star disappeared, or had his tears obscured his view?
You don’t need to be thinking about that now, Ben chided himself as he continued climbing the ladder. You have a job to do. He shook his head to clear it as he reached to unlatch the locking lever for the old lighting unit. He teetered on the ladder and wrapped his arm around the rung to give himself more leverage. The lever creaked but didn’t budge. Maybe the unit was wedged too tightly.
He repositioned his footing on the ladder and grabbed the unit with both hands, but it still didn’t move. He moved his left hand to the glass diode cover and wiggled it, trying to loosen it. He was considering going to get tools or even Eric to help when the unit shifted just a little.
His confidence renewed, he repositioned his feet and grabbed the unit again. One good, hard pull was all it would take. He took a deep breath and pulled, putting his weight and shoulder into it. The unit gave, and at the same time, the glass cracked. Shards rained down on Ben’s face, slicing gashes into his cheek and forehead. The metal base of the unit rolled down his arm and banged painfully against his forehead. His foot slipped. He grabbed at the ladder and slid down three rungs, banging his knee and smacking his chin on an upper step.
Both the unit and the glass shards fell forward, shattering and sliding down the smooth exterior of the sky dome. The shards rained down, tinkling on the landings and structural supports below as Ben fought to regain his grip. Slowly, he pulled himself up and wrapped his forearm around the handle of the ladder. Blood trickled down his cheek, and he struggled for breath.
And then he realized he was crying. Why was he crying? He clung to the ladder and sobbed, his tears and sweat and blood falling onto the inside of the star and sliding down to the floor with the remains of the old light.
He held himself there for a long time, trying to recover his breath and composure. The token in his pocket felt heavier and heavier. Why had he said yes? He should have told Eric to suck it up and be a man. Climb up here and do his duty for the ship. It was the only way to get over the shock of learning he would never make it to the Destination Star. He still needed to live his life and serve the people on the ship. It didn’t matter. Even if none of them made it, they had to keep going forward as if they would. What other choice did they have?
The sobs caught in his throat. He remembered the last night he sat up with his father. Ben had been working on the watch deck for nearly ten years at that point.
“Do you have enough light units in the storage closet?” his father asked. Forever a crewman from M Deck, Ben thought.
“Yeah,” he said. “You guys always keep us with half a dozen or so. But I can order more.”
His father looked down at that comment. But Ben kept talking, not wanting to lose a second of missed conversation. “I remember changing the unit for the first time,” he said.
“Hard?” his dad asked and broke into a coughing fit.
“Yeah,” he said, rubbing his father’s shoulder. “I guess the first time you do anything is the hardest.”
“No,” his father said. “The last time is.”
Ben pulled himself up on the ladder and found the new lighting unit hanging from his belt. It was still intact despite Ben’s tumble. He had been worried he had wasted another one. How many more could M Deck make? Could they recycle the glass forever?
The new unit base was lighter, weaker. None of the others had ever broken before. He slid the unit in and locked the latch. Then he eased down the ladder one careful rung at a time and threw the power switch. The star slowly came back to life.
At the bottom of the elevator, he gathered as many of the fallen pieces as he could. The smaller pieces had slipped through the floor grating. All of that material eventually made its way to M Deck for sorting and repurposing anyway.
On the tower, Eric panicked at the sight of Ben’s cheek and forehead. But after cleaning the blood away, the cuts didn’t look as bad.
“Why don’t you go on home?” he said. “I can finish up the rest of the watch.”
“No, I’m okay,” Ben said. They sat in silence for a while, looking at the relit star. “Does it seem as bright to you?”
Eric looked at it for a few seconds. “I don’t know. I think so.”
Ben considered going home after his shift, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep. So, he boarded the elevator to the upper decks. As the morning crews and passengers were descending from the private cabins to start their day, Ben ascended to the highest deck allowed for non-flight crew. He walked the long hallway to the unassuming door with an eight-pointed star on it. He checked the schedule beside the door to confirm his token would be valid and then slipped it into the slot. The door slid open to the Star Room.
It was empty, like the space outside. He stepped in slowly and walked to the window.
He pressed his face to the glass. It was cool on his throbbing cheek. The infinite space, just inches away. He took a deep breath, and the glass fogged as he let it out. He traced his finger along the nose of the ship that extended out in front, reaching. He traced the line further until he saw the Destination Star.
It flickered and changed colors. Ben remembered the video from his third-grade trip. The light was not going to flicker out. Not for billions of years. The light is just bending, he thought. Things bend so they don’t break.
The light fluttered and quivered. He waited for a long time, watching for any distinguishable change. He blinked, and just for an instant, he lost it behind the fog and drips of condensation.
The star was gone.
He shifted his head and found it again. Still there. Still flickering.