001. Objects in Space

The black vastness of space greeted Jonah through the observation deck window on the Omega Destiny while he sat marveling at the cosmos with his lunch in hand. On a ship with hundreds of thousands of people crammed aboard, Jonah always tried to find time to reflect and be alone when it seemed theoretically impossible. The observation deck had always been that quiet place for him; no one else seemed to be that interested in staring out into the abyss of space. Almost everyone aboard the Omega Destiny grew up on board, knowing nothing else but the great black vacuum and the confines of the starship. The deck sat by the outside of the drum, always rotating around the ship to help generate the gravity aboard, making the view always shifting.

Jonah had always dreamed of the romanticized concept of home, even if he had spent his entire life aboard the Omega Destiny. He found solace in books, old books from Earth, not the kind that were beamed through the holoscanner, either. The few scattered libraries aboard the Omega were empty at all times, just sad relics of a past that everyone had left behind.

The mission, dubbed Mission Omega, spanned generations, stretching back over 80 years. It had been 81 years and 238 days since the Omega left the Moon’s orbit. The mission? To head to a planet dubbed Omega and for the 500,000-plus inhabitants to make a new home of it.

Many originally dubbed it a suicide mission, knowing that the ship would serve as a home for the inhabitants for the rest of their natural lives. A projected three generations would live aboard the Omega, with the third — Jonah’s generation — being the chosen ones to land on the planet and to begin a new life. A life away from the dying home that is the Earth. Jonah often found himself wondering if things on Earth had gotten any better, if they had found a way to cull the pollution and resource problems that led to this mission, but he knew that he’d never get to see the planet that he’d always call his home. It’d always be a distant, digitized memory from images in his holoscanner.

His grandparents had joined the Omega Mission in hope of a better life, tired of the rigors and castes back on Earth, only to find the Omega Destiny just as suffocating. Luckily for them, the Omega needed to be cleaned like anything else it needed caretakers. They served as engineers of a sort, doing maintenance work, but it was far from a glamorous or specialized job. Most of the people brought aboard were experts — scientists, philosophers, engineers – the kind of specialists who would pass their trade onto their children, then their children’s children, to help give humanity a bright future on Omega. Everything was scrutinized, from heritage to fertility, to ensure that the Omega Mission would be a success.

Those on Earth had decried the mission an escape plan for the best of the best, not realizing the gravity of the mission and ignoring the finality of it. There had been rumors of other grand starships being sent off in different directions, toward other possible homes for humanity, but they didn’t attract the same fanfare that the Omega Destiny had. Others saw the move as one to relieve Earth of some of its population. Both the Moon and Mars had been settled as well, but conditions were far from ideal, with neither environment truly suitable for human life. Attempts at terraforming both the Moon and Mars were only mildly successful. The Omega Mission was the last great hope for humanity to survive, for humanity to find a new place to call home. Hence the name Omega.

Jonah was a member of the prophesied third generation, born and raised on the Omega. Earth was just a foggy mirage to all of them, a story told by their parents or grandparents or what they read on their holoscanner in school. They grew up with images, video and audio of Earth and the people there. Part of their learning involved the cultures, the wars and the planet itself as well as their art, in an attempt to round out this new generation, which was the hope for humanity.

From what Jonah was told, the observation decks were always full early on in the mission because, to the first generation, it was all so new to them. Some had been on space flights before, but most of them had not; they were just common citizens who were chosen from a lottery system, qualifying due to some unique skill that they had possessed. Even though his life aboard the Omega Destiny was all that Jonah knew, the sight of the vast emptiness still filled him with intrigue, like he was witnessing something amazing with every passing day.

“Ah, Jonah,” a voice said from behind his shoulder. “I thought that I might find you here.”

“Professor,” Jonah smiled, turning around to see the aging physicist Dr. Julian Cox with an apple in hand, taking a big bite. His nose wrinkled and his thin-rimmed glasses rose up before falling down gracefully into place. “Where else would I be?”

“Oh, at work,” Professor Cox chuckled. “I know how much you love that.”

“Someone’s gotta keep the wheels in motion, right?” Jonah picked himself up and stretched, extending his arms into the air. Jonah towered over Professor Cox at about 185cm with his bulky frame. He stood as a sharp contrast to Cox’s sinewy frame and wild hair with his tightly cropped crew cut and cleanly shaven face. “Might as well be me.”

“Yes.” The doctor nodded absently before taking another bite of his apple. “I suppose so. Anyway, we’ve found some interesting data from the debris that we collected last week if you want to stop by the lab and check it out later.”

“Yeah.” Jonah smiled at the professor, noting a bit less of the usual melancholy that enveloped him on the average day. “That actually sounds great, doc. I could use a pick-me-up right about now anyway. What’d you find?”

“Oh, you are going to want to see this for yourself, I think,” he said in between bites before holding the apple out in front of him and inspecting the remnants. He shrugged and tossed it into the basket by the door before wiping his hands on his pants. “It seems like it’s mechanical.”

“What?” Jonah looked up in disbelief. “Mechanical, out here?”

“Yep,” he said, turning to Jonah with a big smile on his face. “Mechanical, out here, beyond where any human has ever traveled before.”

“Probably just a part from one of the satellites we’ve sent out here?” He scratched at the back of his head, running his fingers through his hair before turning back to the doctor. “I mean, that makes sense, doesn’t it?”

“It does make sense,” he said. “That is probably all that it is, but we’re running some tests, cross-referencing with the satellites and probes that we’ve sent out here. We’ll see if they can match it up with the schematics and identify the part we found. It is still something you have to see for yourself.”

“Oh yeah, I’m not missing out on this,” he said. “Definitely more interesting than burning my eyes out formatting those statistics on the population, which reminds me,” he said, looking down at his watch and sighing. “I was due back about four minutes ago, but how can I when I’m thinking about this space object?”

“Ah, sorry,” he said. “You better get back to it. Don’t worry, it can wait. I mean, we’re all just objects in space anyway. Just stop by later, alright?”

“Are you kidding?” Jonah headed to the door, stopping and looking back at the doctor, resting his hand up against the cold metal frame. “This is likely to get me through the day.”

* * *

“Hey, doc,” Jonah called, turning the hatch on the door to the lab, the door creaking open almost unheard with all of the noise coming from the main hallway behind him. Part of living on the ship meant dealing with the noise. There were a few main hallways that resembled what Jonah had learned were called malls back on Earth, only he imagined them being open with the sun pouring through, not the cramped spaces that they were in the B-Deck. “You in here?”

“Yes,” Professor Cox called from his stool, tapping on a few keys on the keyboard in front of him before turning toward the door. “So you finally made it.”

“Well,” Jonah said. “There was a fuel leak on C-Deck, nothing major, but after it was contained, they made me handle the spin on the story. It’s almost like I can smell it on me.” He sniffed the sleeve of his shirt and turned his nose away. “Anyway, I’ve been wondering about this thing you found.”

“Oh, you are going to like this.” He spun in his chair, his bright, unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt getting snagged on the side of the table. Cox jerked his shirt free, then turned back around slowly to face Jonah. “We didn’t find an exact match but,” he paused, quickly tapping a few keys on the keyboard to bring up a three-dimensional diagram on the holoscanner in front of them. “This isn’t just space debris. I know that much.”

“Wow.” Jonah leaned in, resting his hand on the desk and looking over Professor Cox’s shoulder. “That is definitely mechanical. Do you have the original around?”

“No,” he said, throwing his hands up. “I’m a physicist. They felt someone in engineering should have a look at it and take it apart. You know, they don’t trust me with this kind of stuff, but they’ll trust me with most of our lives with my calculations. Go figure, right?”

“The design is interesting; it doesn’t look like anything else on this ship.” Jonah couldn’t take his eyes off of it. He reached out with his fingers, tapping the image and rotating it before them. “See, right there? Looks like a solar cell of some sort,” he said, pointing to the center of it. “But the rest of the design looks foreign to me. We don’t make individual solar converters like this, do we?”

“No, we don’t,” the doctor answered, shaking his head. He leaned against the back of the stool and crossed his arms. “At least we didn’t — maybe we do now? But I can’t explain how it got out this far if it is newer.”

“It does look almost new, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, but the aging on it doesn’t match up with it being newer,” he shrugged. “I mean, maybe it could just be the exposure to the elements or lack thereof out here, but this has been here for a while.”

“That doesn’t make sense.” Jonah looked back at the doctor, who was still sitting back with his arms crossed, staring at the electronic display of the device. “How does that make any sense?”

“Well, it could be non-Ministry,” he said. He bit his bottom lip; a few strands of his gray beard stood up at attention. “For a while there, the Soviets and the Chinese were doing launches without telling anyone else, so it wouldn’t be unheard of.”

“Oh, right,” Jonah said. “I didn’t think about that. Sometimes I forget about the politics of Earth before the Ministry formed.”

“I can’t blame ya,” he said, absently reaching up to send the image swirling around again. “Not like any of us aboard right now can remember what it was like back on Earth when we’ve never set foot on it.”

“What about those in Cryo?” He pulled back, pacing around the lab with his arms crossed. “They were back there.”

“That they were, my young friend.” The doctor spun around to face him. “But it isn’t like we can just thaw them and ask them what they remember pre-Ministry. I don’t think that any of them could be of any help, anyway.”

“I just mean that they have been on the planet; they’ve been somewhere other than just here.” Jonah ran his hand over his face before resting it on his mouth while he let out a yawn. “They’ve known something other than this big hunk of metal.”

“You know just as well as I do,” he waggled his finger at Jonah, “that by the time this ship left the Earth, most of the planet more closely resembled this ship than any of the images we get from those old books. That was why this whole mission was put together so quickly: in a somewhat vain attempt to keep humanity alive. I think that sometimes we forget that we are on this mission and have a purpose — that sometime very soon, we are going to land on that new planet, and then we have to make a new life for ourselves out there.

“Hell,” he laughed. “If we find it even partially hospitable, we are to immediately send communications back to Earth, which won’t get there for a while, sure, but we are the landing party being sent to colonize a new planet. We are doing this to keep the race alive.”

“I’m sorry,” Jonah shook his head. “Sometimes I just think about what it used to be, and what life could be, and…”

“I know — it’s alright,” he said, putting his hand on Jonah’s shoulder. “Look, kid, I know you didn’t pick your lot in life. You aren’t like me. I was trained by the best, and my parents were physicists. I know you got a rough deal, but you have that hunger inside of you.” He smacked Jonah’s stomach lightly and laughed. “You have more than any of them have. You keep coming to me and asking these questions, and I’ll keep teaching you whatever I can. And when we get out there, you know I’ll need an assistant for my studies. I can’t make any promises, but you know my methods better than most.”

“Those are methods?” Jonah laughed while the older man gave him a slight shove. He found it endearing that Cox still called him “kid” even though he was 25, but he had always let it slide. “Alright, alright, I gotta take off now. Tonight’s my night for pretend soldier training.”

“What, you don’t think we’re going to land on this planet and have it overrun with hostile little green men that we’ll have to mow down with our automatic weapons?”

“Oh, save it for later.” Jonah waved to him while he pulled open the hatch and stopped short, looking back at Professor Cox. “Wait, who took it?”

“Military types,” he said. “Said it was going to engineering. Don’t worry about it, alright?”

“Alright, alright,” Jonah said, slapping his hand against the door as he walked out.

Jonah walked down the hall, his head swimming at the thought of the discovery. The doctor kept himself calm and loose like he always did, but they both knew that this device was out of the ordinary. A small solar device that looked like a converter of some sort, as if it converted power from the Sun and turned it into energy right within that little device. Of course, it was far from the Sun deep into the Omega System, but the term “solar power” seemed to stick with humanity even when they were knocking on the door of different stars. Not much about the device or how it worked made sense, but then again, it looked nothing like Ministry tech, so chances were it wouldn’t make sense to Jonah.

Everything created by the Ministry followed a very rigid set of specifications and had its own style. While it was just an aesthetic, they were taught in class how uniformity was important; as soon as one small piece of the puzzle began to stray, then more and more would deviate, and nothing would work ever again. It made sense to Jonah in an odd way, but he was never quite sure he believed that would happen. At times, Jonah himself felt like a piece of a puzzle that didn’t quite belong; everyone else he knew and grew up with seemed content with their lot in life, considering their society aboard the ship was mostly inherited from generation to generation. If your parents were physicists, you would be trained to be a physicist like Professor Cox. If your parents were caretakers, you would be given a mop and bucket like Jonah and expected to simply live your life like that.

Since his position was considered “non-essential” to survival, he was automatically enlisted into the reserves for the military. It never made sense to Jonah that on a ship with more than 500,000 people aboard, over half of them had to be involved in the military. There were very few disagreements aboard the ship, and even then, there was a police force to take care of that – and a jail as well. There were no signs of any sort of insurrection ever happening, which led everyone to believe that they were preparing for a possible armed conflict when they they finally landed on the new world. Being prepared was not a bad thing, but they were fairly positive that finding life on another planet was hopeless, at least within the reach of where humanity could travel to. Humanity was very alone in the galaxy, and they were just clinging on to existence by the last remaining threads.

The one bright point of the military was that if you ranked up enough, you could choose which branch you worked for. Think of it like winning a career lottery and being able to hit a reset switch. For Jonah, it was his only escape from a life as a caretaker, with him being transferred to the Media Relations branch after just a few years in the service. Those years were grueling and forced him to live a very rigid life, but he found himself the better for it with more freedom and a better job.

Even then, Jonah had always hated that no matter what he did, or how well he did in his classes growing up, that he was going to have the same fate as his parents; his only hope for gaining stature within the starship would be through military service. There was no part of him that found the value in training with assault rifles and going through tactics when they were going to be arriving on a planet without intelligent life of any kind. A part of him held out hope that they’d find some new kinds of animals, different than the ones that they have on board the ship, but deep down inside, Jonah felt his hope to be childish.

Most of the tactics seemed silly to Jonah as well. In his extensive studies of Earth culture, there was a lot of military history to comb through, and he found parts of it (mainly the tactics) to be fascinating. Stuff like line battles made very little sense but served their purpose in a time before instant communication was possible. Most of humanity’s history moved toward fleet combat anyway, in an attempt to not disrupt Earth’s fragile ecosystem anymore. It still felt silly to him to be running those drills while heading to a planet that they knew couldn’t contain intelligent life.

But what if? What if he was wrong? That device that they just found was not like anything else he had ever seen before. That, added to the military training, was beginning to make the mission to Omega seem a bit more dangerous. In fact, things felt a bit more sinister to Jonah, like they had been lied to for generations and were now heading into something that would see humanity’s history of bloodshed continue.

Jonah stumbled into the locker room. His head was barely focused on his training at all, and he fumbled not once, not twice, but three times while entering the correct combination into the keypad of his locker. What if they really weren’t alone? The thought made him giddy for a second before the crushing reality hit him: He was gearing up for his one night a month of training for the Ministry Military. He looked around and noticed how empty the locker room was, which meant that he was later than usual.

* * *

An exhausted Jonah found himself back in his bed, inside of his undersized living quarters with his holoscanner in his lap, unable to sleep. Everyone had told him just how lucky he was to have his own quarters, especially as a caretaker’s son. The small, dark room was the last thing that his parents ever gave to him, and it — much like his lot in life — was a letdown. Jonah’s father wasn’t a caretaker by birth but one by choice. Well, “choice” wasn’t the right way to say it, seeing as though he hadn’t outright said to anyone, “I want to be a caretaker, and for my son to be a caretaker,” specifically. Instead, he was born to be an engineer, and he had a natural aptitude for it. He was in a rare position where he could embrace his profession, but he didn’t choose engineering.

Instead, he followed in his brother’s footsteps and attempted to become a journalist, a profession in which he failed miserably. It was the story of Jonah’s father’s life: trying to catch up to his brother and somewhere along the way, sacrificing his personal identity as he attempted to get out from under the long shadow that his brother cast over him. Jonah had always resented his father for that — for opting to fail instead of pursuing his passions and talents to somehow prove himself to his brother. Then again, who wasn’t trying to prove themselves, especially in such a small community as the Omega Destiny? Everything felt like a competition of sorts. The best jobs and positions of authority were always dangled in front of them like carrots, and they were always just out of reach in the end.

His father had slipped further and further into depression and the bottle over the years until an accident on the job had put him in the hospital after a fuel line burst. A chunk of paneling as large as he was had flown at him and left him in terrible condition. The doctors had told Jonah that they could keep him alive, push him into cryo and hope when they found their new home that they could, after a while, have the proper tools to revive him. There were no guarantees that he’d ever be the same again, or even show any signs of brain activity. It was the easiest tough decision that Jonah had ever been forced to make in his life. Jonah knew that his father, for all of his faults, would never want to live his life like that. He didn’t deserve to live like that, either.

Jonah’s mother was an entirely different story. She was still somewhere aboard the ship, but it had been years since Jonah had spoken with her. She had chosen years prior to leave Jonah and his father for her boss and the increase in stature that came with marrying a foreman. There were a few times when Jonah’s duties meant he’d have to go to the B-Deck and handle an issue, and of those few times, there were two occasions when he had run into her. The first time, he was caught off-guard by her. She was walking out from the library, and he was delivering some paperwork to his boss after work, but they conversed like you would seeing a distant relative for the first time in years. The second time, Jonah simply kept walking with a sinking feeling overwhelming him, either unsure of how to process the situation or unwilling to; he hadn’t decided yet.

There were times when it felt like Jonah’s heart would explode in his chest from caring too much. Those were the rare moments when he was alone with his thoughts, just truly alone in the vast universe, drifting through the ether as a lone organism reflecting upon existence. Sometimes the beauty of it all was so overwhelming for him, knowing that no matter what, he couldn’t freeze that moment in time and simply be. Instead, time would have to keep moving, and this moment would be lost forever. No one was dying, no one was warring or fucking, so the historical significance was less than zero, but to Jonah, it became more and more difficult to breathe.

Every part of his existence felt, for those brief, fleeting moments, like it was simply temporary and completely insignificant. Did it matter that he was laying on a bed of composite, synthetic feathers inside of a cold room of twisted, forged steel inside of the belly of a giant, lumbering beast of a starship? There was a floor-to-ceiling window that he could switch open, the steel shutters lifting up, and Jonah is, for those moments, simply alone with the space around him as long as the lights from the ship were dull enough. It was those moments when the ideas of being a cog in the wheel, the tireless military training and the bustling world-within-a-ship slipped from his being, and it was simply the cold darkness that mattered.

The past few years had aged him more than could ever be visible to the average onlooker, more than his closest friends had ever been able to understand. Most of the time, Jonah had found himself trying to recapture those moments of extreme clarity and existential reassurance that required him feeling like he was the last person in the universe, as if everyone else had simply become a blip on a radar that no longer registered. Those were the times when Jonah understood that none of it really mattered, that the mission to colonize the new planet was simply a red herring. It was like a set of blocks given to a toddler to keep them from wandering outside of their pen or destroying something of value. What was the point in finding a new home when the home that they had left behind was one of the few truly beautiful and unexplainable things found in nature?

Humanity had destroyed it, left it bleeding out much like Jonah felt he was doing as he stood at the window, staring out into the cold sky. In space, there was no night or day; those were simply labels created by humanity due to their understanding of their own existence, the conditions dictated by the Sun and their Moon. Light and dark became so overwhelming for humanity, serving as a stark reflection of their true nature that played out before them on a daily basis. From his reading, Jonah understood that there existed places on Earth where the Sun was sometimes out all twenty-four hours of the day, and that with this came cases of madness stemming from insomnia. Jonah had always assumed that being exposed only to light, only to the idea of being good and wholesome, was enough to drive any man crazy, because it was simply not human nature to be just good or bad.

His heart was exploding, he concluded. There was no other way to explain feeling like he did while looking off into the distance at all of the stars. Medically, he was fine, but he could feel his heart inside of his chest and how alone he was in his reflections. It hurt him sometimes that he couldn’t bring his father back, but sometimes it hurt more that he understood that even if he could, it would not save either of them. Jonah was alone before and alone now. His only regret was not saying goodbye or maybe getting that extra time to sit down and talk about how vast the universe was or how his favorite songs made him feel when he sat alone in a dark room and listened to them on a set of headphones. There was never a lot of overlap between the two of them, but they both understood the power of certain forms of art, like music, and how it could completely overwhelm and change your outlook.

Neither of them had known peace, and at times, Jonah hated himself for not being able to sacrifice himself and what he believed in to simply move forward and be that cog that he was supposed to be. Jonah’s father understood his own failings, but he ultimately became a productive member of society. It didn’t matter that he had to drink to get through each and every day because to him, what he was doing was not for him — it was for his family, for Jonah. Jonah didn’t want to be a victim; he didn’t want to grow up to become his father. But while he reflected on space, he began to cry at times, knowing that it would be so easy to fall into the same hole and continue falling until there was nothing but a Mad Hatter with a riddle for him. What was the harm? And what was the point, really?

Many had come before Jonah and felt the same way, had seen humanity for all of its horrors, for all of its darkness, and tried to embrace it. It was hard to embrace something so hideous, so terrible in nature, yet so beautiful and innocent, blissfully unaware of their shortcomings and tragic tropes. Yet there he was, and who, really, was he? Who was Jonah Freeman to give a pardon to the years of war, the years of greed, the years of suffering and ignorance? Jonah reached out and placed his hand on the glass in front of him, and for just a brief moment, he forgave everyone. He forgave because it was the only way that he knew to live with himself, the only way he could live with the fact that he was his father’s son but could not be what his father was.

It was the idea of letting go and being himself, the idea of swimming upstream no matter the current, even if it meant being washed away and forgotten. He had never been to a river before, never seen the ocean or even a stream, but they spoke to him endlessly. The idea of the power of something as simple as water was overwhelming to him. In a universe that was dictated by mass and light, with the energy of the stars fueling the very light of existence, something as simple and pure as water was the vital element in the concept of life. Just as easily as water could give and sustain life, it could wipe it out as well, making it a thoughtful — yet vengeful — god.

If there was one thing that Jonah could witness before he died, he would want it to be a natural water formation, so he could touch it, feel it and experience it. There was no God, Jonah had decided a long time ago, but if he could reach out and touch an ocean, he could touch the face of God and maybe understand better why anything even is. Maybe all hope was not lost, he thought to himself. Maybe on this new planet, there were mighty oceans, the kind that could give and take life with the coming and going of tides. Doctor Cox had assured him that their new home would have just this kind of water, and it would have tides that he couldn’t even imagine. The planet had two moons in orbit around it, with the moons being the gravitational forces that made tides come and go.

That was enough to keep him going, enough to keep him from his wits’ end and collapsing into a heap. He knew he needed to sleep. He knew that he was tired and that his feelings were directly correlated to his exhaustion, but moments of clarity like this were so rare and so beautiful that he didn’t want to let go. Letting go of that moment meant returning to reality; it meant waking up in a cold, empty room, knowing that anyone who had ever loved him had abandoned him or died. It meant reporting for duty, to a duty he felt had no connection to in the truest sense of the word, just like it meant his slumber being disturbed by an alarm searing through his subconscious and disturbing him on a base level.

He left the shutter open like he was apt to do. A part of him didn’t mind the idea of a meteoroid colliding with the window and space swallowing him up whole. Not because he wanted his life to end but simply because the idea of becoming more than just the sum of his being and rejoining nature after a lifetime aboard an artificial shooting star felt like the only fitting way for a life such as his own to conclude. Jonah sighed to himself while he glanced over at the time, noticing that it was late, and at that point, he was probably only going to get about three hours of sleep.