You’re not supposed to feel sadness but I did anyway and that’s how I got sent to the engine room. Again.
They claim it’s for maintenance. Walk the rows of nuclear engines, connections, terminals, computers, dials, buttons, mainframes, sideframes, underframes, nuts, bolts, and nails. Find what’s broken. What can be cleaned. What can be replaced.
Was about the fourth time being sent down here that I realized it was all a sham. Everything had been built to spec. Perfect. Already we had been flying for three generations. Not once did I have to do anything. Nothing leaked. No rust. Nothing failed. Somehow, our imperfect ancestors had built a perfect machine.
Oops, there I go again. Imperfect. The sort of thoughts that get me engine room duty.
They say my brain isn’t right but they never say it directly to me so I don’t know what they’re talking about and anyway I think they’re wrong. There’s nothing wrong with my brain. I’m just different. We learned over and over in our primary classes that there’s nothing wrong with different. But that’s a lie. There’s nothing right with the right kind of different. I am the wrong kind of different. They decided that. They send me, over and over, to the engine room.
It’s okay, though. I like it down here. It’s cold, sure, they don’t waste a lot of energy on this space because its obvious people aren’t supposed to be down here. There is no main maintenance desk and only dim lights hang from an open ceiling revealing all sorts of pipes and ducts and bundles of cables that never make any sort of noise, not once not ever. No one should be down here. I shouldn’t be down here. But sometimes I get sad or bitter or angry so I’m sent down here anyway.
I have my own little set up, way far down from the elevator. It’s close to a ten minute walk but I don’t mind because I know no one will find it. None of them could bear to be in this dim, cold, quiet room for long enough. There are no screens on the walls to play diversions. No speakers, either. I am almost positive the air is completely untreated down here, too. No CheMists. Perfectly fine with me. My wrong kind of different means they don’t work on me.
The furthest end of the engine room from the elevators is the back of the ship, and for reasons I don’t know and will probably never know someone put in an observation deck. Big enough for one person. There is a good view of the outside vents. Perhaps, once upon a time, the engine room did call for maintenance staff, and they needed to see to the outside.
The first time I found it, on the second…no, third time down I cried. At first simple, stoic tears trailing down my cheeks. This turned into ugly, braying sobs. Snot bubbles. Hiccups. Salt staining my collar. By the time I was done I was exhausted, dehydrated, and I had a headache. I sat with it, staring out into the blackness of space, and relished every second of it.
I cried because, by design, there were no windows out to space in the rest of the ship. We weren’t supposed to be reminded of how our grand, beautiful home was in fact a microscopic island in the middle of a vast ocean of star dust and nothing. We weren’t supposed to think of our journey, escaping a ruined planet for a new one.
I cried harder because we weren’t supposed to cry at all, and down here no one would tell me to stop. I was already punished. What else could they do?
I relished the ache behind my forehead and my desperate need for water because usually I wouldn’t be allowed to feel those things, either. The CheMists would sense what I needed – what it thought I needed – and subtly the air around me would change until I didn’t have any sort of ache, didn’t feel the unbearable weight of tiredness on my shoulders. That’s why I’m almost positive the CheMists don’t run down here. Upstairs they don’t work right. Here they don’t seem to work at all. I love it.
I have smuggled all sorts of things down here. People stopped paying attention to me after the last doctor’s visit. When they told me my brain is wrong. They didn’t say much. My brain being wrong is a bad thing and no one says much about bad things. Bad things are scary, and fear is another thing the CheMists make sure we don’t feel.
Did I feel fear, that first time I found the observation deck? Is that why I cried? I still wonder. I felt so much.
The doctor said, in as few and as short words as possible, that there’s something wrong with my brain. It doesn’t process the CheMists the way everyone else’s brain does. I don’t really know how they make everyone else feel. All I can do is guess. People move slowly. Never raise their voice. Talk in quiet voices with small smiles and a sort of gauzy look to their eyes. Like they never quite have everything in focus. I guess they mostly feel fine. Just fine. Mellow. Happy. Sometimes someone trips. Stubs their toe. Begins to argue. Then you can hear the CheMists whir to life overhead and everything slows down.
They don’t work on me. Not because I’m wrong, no matter what they say. I’m different, that’s all. A good kind of different.
I have blankets down here. I stole them from everywhere. Home. Neighbors. School. Theater. No one seemed to mind. No one minds about anything. Food, too, some stuff that won’t go bad. A flashlight and books. Took them from the library. Hardly anyone ever goes in there so they won’t be missed. Sometimes I huddle in the blankets, back supported by six inches of see-through metal and then the vast nothing of space, and read and read and read. Sometimes I walk the spaces between the engines. Not because I think I’ll find anything. Just to stretch my legs. I sing. I scream. I cry. I make so much noise that rises above the hum of the machines that I think someone up there must hear me, even though all that metal. If they do, they never say.
They never say anything. Once when I was in tertiary classes we were having a lecture on the beauty of home and how we will recreate it when we arrive. And I asked, why did we leave? And the teacher asked, what do you mean? And I said, If Earth was so beautiful and perfect why did we leave? And the teacher said, Because we needed a new home. And I asked, why? And the teacher said, I meant we wanted a new home. We wanted to explore. And I asked, If we’re just exploring why did they send so many people? Why not send a few to build something first? Lines were forming in the teacher’s face, and then the CheMists went off above her and the lines smoothed until nothing was there. Nothing was there. The teacher moved on like we hadn’t been talking.
That’s how I figured out our ancestors destroyed Earth. Talking about leaving because we had to was too sad. I wish I knew what happened. I dream of some day getting one of the computers down here to talk to me. Whispering a password to it and then all of the secret histories will open up to me and I’ll know all the things they won’t want to. But I haven’t found that secret word yet, and anyway I have a theory. It is a theory I don’t like thinking about but I make myself anyway because if I don’t confront the bad parts of existing that makes me like them.
I don’t think there are any histories to be found. I think our ancestors purged them all when they put us on this ship. Only happy feelings. Only happy memories.
Sometimes I think of sabotage. I don’t think it has ever occurred to them that there is danger in letting someone wrong or different in the wrong kind of way down amongst their starship engine. That would be a bad thought, eh? Can’t have those.
I can have those, and I let myself have them. I imagine bringing a baseball bat down from the cages and going to town. Using what strength I have to wail on these engines and pipes and mainframes and sideframes and seeing what will break.
I am afraid nothing would break.
I am also afraid everything would.
I, too, live on this fragile little ship in the middle of a vacuum. Killing them would be killing me.
And anyway, they don’t deserve it. It’s not their fault. This is all they’ve know. All anyone has known for two generations. I guess that first generation knew of Earth. Maybe they installed the CheMists as a kindness. Take away the pain of leaving the only thing they’d ever known. The thing they’d killed. Once the CheMists were on, who would ever think of turning them off?
I think I will continue to live in exile. In fact, it only occurred to me yesterday that I could live down here permanently and no one would notice or mind. My last parent died. That is why I have been sent down here. You’re not supposed to feel sad about death. It’s natural. And I get that it’s natural. I’m also sad. Can’t have that.
I could live down here. Go up occasionally for food, water, more stuff to read. I doubt anyone will make a fuss. They are incapable. They might see me. They might nod and smile politely. But that will be it. I can take what I want and live down here, in the space. Near the space.
We will not reach our destination until after I’m dead. The fifth generation, I believe. Maybe I will find paper and pen and I will write. I will tell them all about my feelings, and how I process them with my wrong brain. I will tell them about hopes and dreams. Fears and sadness. I will tell that generation that finally finds a home planet what they need to know.
Because the CheMists are part of the ship. They cannot be taken off. And I don’t know if anyone upstairs with the right sort of brain has put two and two together yet.