There’s a hole in the sun, and it is made of glass. Evgeni has spent his life trying to prove this theory. He only needs a sample taken from the sun’s surface to make everyone see that he is right. Easy. Now he just needs to find a way to let someone walk on the hottest thing in the solar system.
Not so easy.
Evgeni takes a sip of coffee and calls his friend Sven to come into his office. A thin man bustles in smelling like bathroom cologne. His eyes flit around, never resting on one spot. Looking at the dishes that Evgeni has collected over the years. Three are framed. The others sit loose on top of cabinets, colored in vivid pinks or with patterns of dancing animals.
“You got some nice new ones,” Says Sven, “has it really been that long since I’ve been in here, man?”
“No. I just ask administrator for more. She brings what she find. Come, sit down,” says Evgeni, “you know why you are here?”
“Of course,” Says Sven, smiling, “you don’t pay me to not know things.”
“Is good.” Evgeni takes another sip of coffee, burning the tip of his tongue, “we not meant to ask questions. You know? We answer questions.”
Now Sven looks confused. “Whatever you say, boss boss.”
“Is good.” Evgeni spreads out a folder. Papers and pictures splash across his desk’s wood like a coffee stain. “these are the budget numbers we were given. Now. Please tell me we didn’t go higher than this.”
The friend shrugs. “Budgets are just wishful thinking. We doubled the costs, and it’s honestly amazing we didn’t go higher. We’ll be fine though. Our last trial’s budget was more than enough to cover us here.”
“You mean this? You spent this much money?”
Sven smiles uneasily. “Yeah, I mean. Shit. Did what I had to do. You said so.”
Evgeni bows his head. “Fuck.” He says. Then he says it again because once wasn’t enough.
“Do you need anything?” Asks Sven. His voice is very little now, like a kitten. “Coffee? Oh, wait, you already have coffee. Sorry, man…”
Evgeni does not speak – he waves Sven away.
Sven exits, and leaves only the smell of his cologne. Evgeni takes a breath through his nose and hypothesizes that when he exhales, the fear will be gone, and all that will be left is confidence. He breathes out. But there it is – the fear.
Yet another failed experiment.
Evgeni leaves his office into the rounded hallways of his compound. Pipes and their valve hats have stolen the places where light from the sun should be shining. The paint on the walls is perfect – not a bit of mold on it. Evgeni has never seen a janitor at work in the facility and still nature never seems to try to take it back. He is grateful. Most laboratories have to spend a bulk of their work keeping nature out. But this place, it is a place in the world where the rules just don’t apply. It is why he has never left in thirteen years. If he leaves, his body might inhale some mold spore on the surface world, and he would die.
He is very happy in his little world under the real world. Even though he’s afraid of losing it. Why else would he feel fear? If he did not care about something, he would not worry about losing it.
Evgeni pops his knuckles as he walks. The sound echoes with the noise of his footsteps. He takes a left into a hallway marked with a green banner, the design stretching horizontally underneath rows of lights. Section D is for the Biology types, the biggest part of his operation. Robots were decommissioned years ago, after the uprising.
Smoke comes out from under one of the doors. This is the room that he is looking for – the one that looks like the most trouble.
“Tell me some good news.” Evgeni says as he walks inside.
A man on a stool turns around. The goggles on his head are tight, they do not budge with the motion. “Well, the heat death of the universe is exactly one day closer now,” he says, “then all the miserable creatures in this universe will be gone.”
“That is awful good news,” Says Evgeni, who has never liked Ben’s attitude, “give me real good news. The subject, is he breathing?”
Ben laughs. His laugh is like a stone clattering along the sides of a chimney. “Please. Of course the subject is breathing. The question is whether or not it – not he – whether it will listen to me.”
Evgeni is always confused about why Ben works for him. The man seems so hard-headed on his quest to end human life, and yet all his work goes into making sure the sun will not collapse in on itself. Perhaps, deep down in that cavern of a mind, Ben cares? Sees humans as something worth saving?
Evgeni scratches his nose. “So, you will show me him?”
“It. The creature possesses no gender, I’ve already said that. But yes, I will show it to you.”
Ben places a hand on a panel embedded in the wall. It pulses icy-blue light, turning his skin translucent. Satisfied, the machine chirps, and a wall at the back of the room drops down. Disappearing into the sheath that holds it safe until all personnel pass through. Evgeni treads over the spot where the thick metal door once was, with only a small thought about how an engineering mistake would cause the door to jump up and slice him in half.
It is the heat that greets him first. Pillars of it, it seems. Evgeni’s eyes water and he covers his face with his arms. The very hair on his body seems to combust, and he is too busy covering his eyes to see if that is the case. Pain. It strobes in his mind, punching him. He has expected this heat, lived it many times, and still he always forgets to wear goggles.
Someone taps him on the shoulder and Evgeni risks a look. Ben nods, wearing his goggles. He is holding out a spare pair for Evgeni. Evgeni shouts a curse into the wool of his shirt and takes it. There is already sweat on the goggles, from where Ben touched it. Somehow, Evgeni manages to wrangle the thing onto his head and look around. All is blurry from his tears, magnifying parts of his surroundings and shrinking others. But as he blinks them away he sees something that makes him want to weep more out of joy than pain.
It is his child. Sitting inside the test chamber, floating in heat-resistant gel. Its skin is the color of Uluru’s sandstone, and Evgeni is well aware that if he were to reach inside, he could hold the child cupped in just one hand.
Evgeni is well aware that his mind has split into two pieces at this point. The first, his rational brain, knows the child is hideous, likely not even human, and not in any way biologically related to him. This part of his brain is what he should listen to, he knows.
But then there is the second half of his brain. The animal brain, the wolf that has watched its cub grow up from a tiny roll of fat and skin. This part of his brain is far more powerful. It terrifies and thrills him.
“I despise this.” Says Ben, switching on vents that blast them with cool air. “All you idiots losing your minds the moment we take the next step in an experiment.”
Evgeni laughs, because now even Ben’s bad attitude seems funny. “Yes, but isn’t it beautiful?”
“It looks like a mole rat climbed out of primordial ooze and started walking.”
“But very beautiful rat. Big, brown eyes.”
“I hate people.”
Evgeni approaches the cylinder of glass that separates him from his child. Now that the heat has dimmed down, he taps the surface lightly, as if testing a frying pan. It does not leave much of a burning sensation on his finger. He rests his hand on the tank and leans forward. His child’s eyes are closed, tubes coming out the back of his neck much like the pipes scattered through the facility housing them both. The way his child is hunched forward, Evgeni thinks that it has inherited his stoop. A bad spine as a mark of family distinction.
“You will fly to the sun for me.” Says Evgeni, and his voice is a low whisper, “we both prove my theory. We will save this world. You will save this world. I am just man who presses the button.”
Evgeni turns to Ben. “Do you know what I will call this child?” He asks.
Ben blinks once. Twice. Evgeni waits on that curiosity to sneak up on the man and drag him out of his depressing mood. Ben’s head cocks slightly, almost imperceptible to the human eye, as if he were a ship adjusting its course by half a degree.
“I’m going to hate it, but I’ll ask. What did you call it?”
There it is.
“I call him Yurik. For the simple life he could not have.”
Evgeni smiles, but inside he is sweating. This is not an easy life he has created for the child. He has lumped all his expectations onto it. No wonder its back is bent. If this mission fails, then there will be no funding left for a fourth experiment phase. Evgeni will be sent back to the surface, penniless, and resenting his child for something that it had no control over.
Ben, not seeing or not caring about Evgeni’s thoughts, shrugs. He turns to a desk placed on the opposite wall of the experimental cylinder, and opens up one of the drawers.
As he does so, the child’s vitals flash a steady pulse, its temperature resting well in the triple Celsius digits. The child will need to be well insulated in its own heat to stand the sun. The clear, gel-like liquid encasing it is cooled every ten minutes, releasing the steam that Evgeni saw under the door earlier. Though he has become decently accustomed to the heat, he still relishes the sensation of air ducts filtering out the burning-hot steam. He has a theory that the facility has a colossal dehumidifying system, for how quickly a room loses moisture. How they manage to power that monster is beyond him. Nuclear? Aboveground solar?
But, somehow, electricity is always running through the facility. Even the light on a gaming toy that Ben is clutching. He watches its screen without ever glancing at Evgeni, the backlight casting a bluish-white glare across his eyes.
“You are playing games in a time like this?” Asks Evgeni, “is time for celebration. We are about to go to the sun.”
“Yeah, yeah. Wonderful.” Says Ben, still not looking up. “Now go chat with the idiots in Section B, they’re the last piece of red tape before I can finish development.”
“I have already spoken with Sven.”
“You have?” Asks Ben, cocking an eyebrow and setting down his game. “Well, then. It seems like someone besides me decided to do their job for once. Alright. Prepare yourself for this, you’re not going to like what happens next.”
“I’m going to put this life form through its entire pubescence in five hours.”
“Wha- you what? What does this mean.”
“Do I really have to explain it all for you?”
“Fine. Using a system of stimulants and an artificial growth chamber, I’m going to turn this child into a twenty-something in five hours. You need him now, not in a couple decades, right? So, this is what we have to do. It’s what we did with the last three. I’ve told you, accelerated growth. That’s the way we do things. You should have been here for the other experiments.”
“No. Something like this is not possible,” Says Evgeni, turning his neck to look at the child. “Look at him. He is just little baby right now. You must be joking.”
Ben stares at Evgeni with eyes lidded with too little sleep and too much time in front of screens.
“No. I haven’t told a joke in thirteen years.”
Earth’s surface, that same night
Sven does not believe most of the criticism he hears. Usually, the ones who criticize you the most are the ones who have shitty, messy lives. So, if someone tells you not to blow your tenth salary bonus on synthetics and sex workers, they’re probably just insecure, Sven figures.
The man at the foot of his bed is holding out a chip reader. Sven chuckles. One moment the man was saying he’d ‘do anything to please his master’, and now he’s got the air of a medieval tax collector.
Sven pulls a lanyard off his neck, pinching the ID card attached to it in his other hand. He plugs his card into the ‘servant’s’ reader. A couple of red lights dance and buzz angrily on the side. He rolls his eyes, but his mouth is crystallized in a smile. Nothing can make him angry now. Perhaps if he stays in the casino’s hotel forever, he will never have to be angry again.
He scans the card again. Silly things always take two or three tries to work.
It buzzes. He tries a few more times, even takes a few seconds to breathe some steam on the chip and polish it, to see if the problem was a little dirt. Again, the buzzer dances with red light. Sven’s head seems to get tighter. The options in his mind all narrow to one solution – scan as many times as possible. The card must be malfunctioning. The ‘servant’ keeps glancing at the door, and they both know that a couple shouted words will bring the pimp’s security crashing inside. Not that it will ever come to that.
The ‘servant’ lays a hand on Sven’s arm. “Relax, hon. We all know you’re good for it. You’ve been here a thousand fucking times.”
“That’s, that – uh, that’s not. What I’m worried about.”
The ‘servant’ scrunches up his face, his eyebrows getting close together. “What? You’re talking fucking weird.”
“My boss is going to be pissed,” says Sven, “Aw, fuck. My god. I kept track of everything, I kept budgets, man! All of it was my money.”
Sven’s ‘servant’ leans in a bit closer. “Get a hold of yourself, fucking god. It’s like you boys just lose your minds the moment something bad happens. Listen. I’m sure it’s all O.K. – this has happened to you before, remember?”
Sven shakes his head. “No, that was a minor glitch before.”
The servant raises their hands up halfway, level with their head. “Hey, now, long as you have your money soon I don’t care what happens. Put your boss’ head on a spit for all I care, making you wait this long.”
“I have to go.” Sven says, tossing on his dress shirt, not planning to button it. It is a warm night and he doesn’t have the time. He needs to warn his boss. The man might be naïve and dumb, but even the biggest idiots didn’t deserve this.
“Bon voyage, bitch.” Says the servant, just before Sven slams the door. “Enjoy grilling your boss.”
“Hello.” Evgeni says to his child, who is now almost fully grown into a young man.
The young man, Yurik, does not answer. He stands on two feet, and the lapels of his coat go down to his knees. Ben has dressed him in a lab coat, for modesty, and he plays with the lapels of it. He is roughly a hundred and sixty centimeters, by Evgeni’s measurement, and the whole weight of him always seems to be teetering to one side or the other. Ben has warned that the child could still be feeling the effects of his procedure well into tomorrow, and it has only been twenty minutes since.
Ben stands over at the control panel just left of the front door. He is staring at his game but his eyes do not track movement on the screen. His posture is slumped, maybe even depressed. Evgeni had expected his friend to be this melancholy after their experiment. Ben could pretend that he was a harsh scientist caring nothing but for the iron joy of logic, but when a child came into harm’s way, he was just like any parent.
It is absurdly tempting for Evgeni to try and tell Yurik to hurry up with suiting himself. To dress himself in the space suit that is hanging in the entryway room and get on with the mission. The administrator will be watching them closely.
But there’s this annoying voice in Evgeni’s head that’s always telling him to do things the hard way. To be kind, and take others into consideration. Sometimes he thinks he would be a much better leader if this voice would just go away. Maybe then, with his mind actually on the mission logistics and not people’s ‘feelings’, he can pool his brain in with the scientists and help them.
But still, this annoying voice telling Evgeni to be kind is impossible to ignore.
“Hey, son of mine,” Says Evgeni, “I know you are probably tired. Do you need food?”
“Evgeni.” Says Ben, making a name sound like a warning.
“I bring you some food.”
Every Section comes equipped with a larder – Section D’s happens to be underneath a vacuum-sealed trapdoor. Evgeni dogtrots back into the entry room and lifts a handle fastened to the floor. He retrieves a dinner plate. It has paintings of little frogs hopping around the ceramic. Piles it so high with food that the designs are swimming underneath a sea of bread and cheese. He keeps one hand pressed on the top of the food and starts to walks back, heel leaning into the toe with each step, so that he does not drop a single crumb.
Something hisses and clangs. The door to the capillaries. Evgeni’s shoulders bunch, turning.
“Why you are here so early?” He asks, not removing his hand from the food.
Sven enters, breathing hard. His shirt is unbuttoned, and it seems there is more sweat than skin underneath his clothes.
“Credits…gone,” Says Sven, “God. They finally did it. Can you believe it?”
“What do you think they fucking did? Three experiments. We still came up with nothing. Everything these days has a board of investors. Everyone’s accountable to the big dollar.”
This time, it is Evgeni’s turn to look confused. Sven is usually so confident and full of jokes. Now he’s going on rambling in ways that remind Evgeni of his own nonsensical lectures. He grabs Sven’s shoulders and sways him slightly to either side.
“Please tell me what is trouble.”
“I TOLD YOU. The credits are all gone. Corporate shut us down.”
“You said there would be backup money?” Asks Evgeni, smiling slightly, “I’m sure they just loading that in now.”
“No,” Sven pulls out his phone. He has taken a screenshot, since they have no service so far below the surface level. “This is the real thing. Oh, we’re dead as doorknobs now.”
Evgeni looks at the picture. It is an email from their administrator. The woman has written to them saying that she is pulling all their funding in response to shareholder concerns. She peppers in phrases like ‘so sorry to be the bearer of bad news’ and ‘with all due respect,’ but even with those niceties on the surface, Evgeni can taste the real meaning. They have failed. Miserably. And now the men with the badges will be coming for them, ending their stay in paradise prematurely.
He holds his face stoic, pushing away all the urges his body is shooting at him to swear, to flail his arms in random directions, and to just generally lose his shit. His team cannot see him like that. It would not keep them calm. He must remind them that they are not alone, that he will always be strong enough to comfort them.
“What do we do?” Asks Sven, “come on, man, what are we gonna do? I can’t go back home broke. My wife will divorce me if she finds out I don’t have a job anymore.”
“What’s going on out there?” Ben calls from the experimenting room, “Is that Sven? I thought I’d felt the median IQ of this place drop just a second ago.”
“Not now.” Says Evgeni, steeping a pair of fingers on his brow. “Funding is gone. We are finding out way out of this mess.”
“The funding is gone?” Ben leans to peek through the doorway, “are you kidding me. What orifice did you stick yourself in this time to get all our funding pulled, huh?”
“I swear, it wasn’t me,” Says Sven, “I always stuck to my own budget. All the spending I did on me, I did with my dollar. I’m shitty, but I’m not that shitty.”
“We believe you, Sven.” Says Evgeni. He delivers the plate of food to his new child. Somehow, helping others has this effect that clears his mind. Makes his own problems seem so much smaller.
The child begins to stuff its face. It seems to like the brie cheese in particular, gobbling it down in handfuls. Evgeni smiles, if only for a second. He still has a situation to rescue. No time to be too sentimental.
“Sven, is spaceship ready for flying?”
Sven perks up a bit. “Yes, sir. I mean, yeah. But why? The experiment’s over.”
“One experiment is over, yes,” Says Evgeni, “but new one begins. We will all fly to sun. If we all go, perhaps we see what went wrong with the last ones.”
Sven’s eyes go wide. “Oh, man. You’re really a crazy one. I’m glad I followed you on this big goose chase. You sure about this though?”
Sven pauses. Then he laughs. All the tension seems to bleed out of his body. “Ah, of course you are. Hell. I’ll go. What else do I have to lose? And who’s gonna miss me – my wife? Fat chance.”
“Ben?” Asks Evgeni.
Ben has taken out his handheld game. He does not look up at Evgeni as he speaks. “If I told you that this plan was hairbrained and never going to work, would it make any difference?”
“Then don’t bother consulting me.”
“Come, now,” says Evgeni, “you want to at least try, no?”
“No. It’s stupid. At least with the guards I have a chance of being let back into civilian life. I have no desire to play impossible odds.”
Ben presses hard onto a button, causing the plastic of his game to creak. “And even if I did go and we did make it back home, safe and sound, do you think there’ll be anything left for us – deserters? You should give up and let this battle end. We could do more work on the surface. I swear, your drama is going to be the end of me.”
“I do not understand this choice, but I try to.” Says Evgeni. He offers up his hand to the child, waiting to see if it will accept. It takes his hand and stands up, gazing at Ben.
“What is it you want, child? You want to say goodbye to him?”
“Just go.” Says Ben.
“Come, now. I will not leave you so easily. You are important part of team, and my friend.”
The word friend sends a small wince across Ben’s face, like ice cracking. He tries to hide it as a smile. “I can always count on you for the sappy sentiment in tricky times. But no, Evgeni, I’m quite serious. You need to go without me, or stay here with me. Me coming with you is not an option.”
“You are sure about this.”
“I am, in fact.”
Evgeni nods. “I was hoping you would not say this. But I must listen, even if it is not what I want to hear.”
He hauls the young man up onto his shoulders piggyback, legs dangling across his chest. Evgeni is not a small man, he will not struggle too badly with carrying the littler one. They need to sprint if they are to make it in time. He has already heard his watch blip three times, each sound representing an elevator coming down to their lab. The first blip was Sven. The next two would be the men sent to find them and escort them out.
As Evgeni and Sven leave with the test subject, Ben scrunches his mouth. He has made a distasteful decision, and he does not like to do anything less than perfectly.
He flips a switch on his handheld game. Where before the screen had been his character racing a go-cart across desert plains, it now displays a set of messages from his team.
The first reads: Are they out of Section D yet?
Ben’s finger hovers above the keyboard just underneath the screen.
A part of him wants to abandon his plans and start running with Evgeni. That man had been the only person to believe in him. To treat him with respect. Even when Ben had hurt him by saying he would not come along for the journey to the sun, Evgeni had made him feel like his decision was a valid one. That knowledge burned at Ben’s mind. How could he rightfully be bitter at people when one of them was truly good? Didn’t that mean that somehow, people had kindness buried deep down in their hearts, and redemption was still possible?
Ben played with the keyboard. He kept typing out a response message to his superiors without pressing send, then deleting the whole string of messages. They would surely be confused about why his text box kept displaying as ‘typing’ and then disappearing.
He thought again of Evgeni. What did that say about the human race, that in his thirty-three years of life only one person had shown him true kindness? Even if there was something to be redeemed in humans, it was buried far too deep. Better to cleanse them with fire.
He typed out his response and pressed send: they have just left. Expect them to be at the shuttle within ten minutes.
The person on the other end begins to type immediately. Their response is just a single word: Good. No complimenting him for his ingenuity, as Evgeni would have done. No acknowledgement of Ben’s involvement there at all.
Good. That was what Ben wanted. People’s true nature was to be unkind and unhappy. It was always reassuring when they showed him that. Still, the guilt burns at him. Because a single example of purity in the human race was not an anomaly he’d signed up for.
And what if the sun didn’t collapse in on itself? Solving the hole in the sun’s outer shell would render it stable for at least another billion years. All it would take is the right organism to approach the glass wall and shatter it in a controlled blast, to let out the pressure. It was all so simple, this bid for another chance at human survival. If humans had enough time, perhaps they could learn to be better. Perhaps he could learn to be better.
Ben squeezes his message transmitter. The plastic creaks in his grip. Though the test subject is gone, the test chamber still pulses heat and makes his undershirt cling with sweat.
Evgeni and Sven’s footsteps pound on the steel grating below. Sven’s breath is ragged, too strained from his run not so long ago. They have many more Sections to run through before they hit the loading bay, and each section is enough to take the breath out of a man running from one end to the other. The glare of red sirens casts over the walls, their circling motions reminding Evgeni of sharks gathered to feed. Evgeni’s head starts to spin. Air filtered this low into the earth is thin, so that you have to suck at it with each breath.
Not. Much further. He tells himself. They have spanned three sections at least, only a few more to go.
Sven looks like a dead man jogging. His dress shirt does very little to cover him and the bruises on his arms. Evgeni has no idea the man has come this far with drugs in his system, but perhaps it is the kind of drug meant for giving energy. He slows his pace a bit and gives Sven a little time to catch his breath. Nothing yet gives him any mind to run them to pure exhaustion. The blips on his watch that came after Sven’s were at least twenty minutes after, so they still have about half that time as a lead. They would have had more if not for Evgeni’s silly chattering and no action.
He has kept his ears cocked for footfalls behind them. Looked over his shoulder every few minutes. But no uniforms have emerged from side doors, or started chasing him. And with his path leading them progressively downward, there is no chance of the guards cutting him off at the front.
Is good. He thinks. He will not yet allow himself to smile, but that time will come. It does seem strange to him, however, that the guards haven’t caught up to them. Sven is running at a much slower pace than a fully rested man, and with Evgeni keeping pace to him, they aren’t making the kind of progress they should be. Though that gives Evgeni room to think, he wishes they could go faster. Or that he had a better idea of what sort of plan the guards might be up to.
A door ahead slides horizontally to make way for them. Wasn’t that strange, as well? That security hadn’t locked all the doors? Perhaps there was a glitch in the security system. Or Ben blocked their tech team from starting a total lockdown. Evgeni grins. That had to be it. He has seen Ben playing with lines of code plenty of times on his little device. Ben has a good heart.
Sven blinks a few times, and points. “Look!” he says.
Evgeni has waited for this benchmark on their trip. A piece of metal jutting down from the ceiling, briefly splitting the hallway in two. A cabinet on either side of the metal wall, containing weapons behind glass panels. Years ago Sven had insisted that they install these in each section and, without the proper budget, instead installed just one in section H.
Evgeni grabs a pulse rifle. It glows emerald along the sides, and Evgeni frowns at the light. He wishes that things never needed to come to violence.
Sven hunches over the cabinet. Evgeni suspects that the man had stopped them here more than just to pick up a gun. He looks up at the child on his shoulders, wondering if it is in too much distress. Yurik’s eyes are wide, but his breathing seems to be even.
“Give me just a second, I’ll be OK in a moment,” Says Sven, “Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick. I’m. So damned. Tired.”
He spends words like they are made of gold. If only he had been so keen on their financial budgeting. Evgeni dislikes himself for thinking this, but being tired makes it so easy to turn to the negative side.
They continue on after a short rest, still not seeing any guards appear. Sven keeps turning around to try and find a target. But the shuttle entryway appears before any guards do.
The ship is huge. Huge almost doesn’t describe it – Evgeni has seen buildings the same size before, but a piece of technology this size just seems way more impressive. The crew manning it are all marching inside, very few left in the docking bay. Even they have not heard or seen any guards, or alarms. This all feels so wrong. But Evgeni reminds himself again that Ben must have hacked the security system to keep security from catching them. As crazy as that hope seems, it is the one that comes most naturally to him. And isn’t a man supposed to think with what comes most naturally? He has always tried to rely on his gut in this way.
“Sir,” says a man in uniform. He has sideburns that need trimming, “we don’t have enough seats.
“That is okay.” Says Evgeni, “would you be ok giving us some of your seats? I promise, this is for very important mission.’
The man with untrimmed sideburns looks at Evgeni like he’s trying to remember him. His mouth opens a little. “Oh, sir, I’m an idiot. I should have known who you were.”
He waves for them to enter. Barks a couple orders at the people inside and a few come out, while Evgeni and his group all wait at the bottom of the stairs. They are told to take some seats at the bottom of the plane, where they will not have to climb too high.
The shuttle’s inside is much like a tight apartment, if that apartment was turned clockwise. A series of temporary platforms gives Evgeni and his party places to step up into their seats. As he buckles himself in, Evgeni takes a deep breath through his nose. This will be the first time in thirteen years he has returned to the surface, and they will be going far above the surface. He wonders if being in space is anything like being underground. At the end of the day, it’s all just escaping from where you were born.
Evgeni straps on the pair of headphones attached to his seat. Sven and Yurik follow his lead, nervous enough that they need to watch for an example.
The ship starts to shake. Sven closes his eyes right away, trying to avoid the nausea. One of the pilots has glued a bobblehead to their dashboard, and the poor thing is losing the glue grip on its base that keeps it attached. As they lift off, the toy falls into Evgeni’s chest. He hands it to Yurik, who is seated just next to him, cushioned on a pillow so that he is not too short for a seatbelt. Yurik looks at the bobblehead. Looks back at Evgeni. He makes a sad whine that could have been from being sick to the stomach.
“It will be okay, little one.”
Yurik whines again.
Evgeni closes his eyes, now that he knows the child is buckled into his seat right. There is a slight movement from Yurik’s seat. Probably just the kid moving around. Sven starts to retch into the microphone on his headset, but they have already spoken to the crew about that possibility – the man is on many drugs, and men on drugs do not do well with flying. The crew has brought him plenty of brown bags to barf into.
So, Evgeni only opens his eyes when the men speaking into his headphones have let them know that they are just about to leave Earth’s orbit. He removes his headset and cracks his knuckles. His stomach is grumbling from all the exercise and he wonders when someone will be by with food. Hopefully it is not too hard to eat in zero gravity. Evgeni turns to his left to check in on his friends.
And then he sees the real reason Sven was making those sounds.
He cannot believe it at first. The sights that he has to turn his neck to see are so evil, so unreal, that his brain does not even try to describe it. He just stares until things start to make sense.
The first thing he can put words to is that there is blood. Lots of it. Covering his lap, the seat where Yurik should be sitting, and dripping out of a hole in Sven’s neck.
And Yurik has the missing piece of Sven’s neck in his mouth.
Evgeni has left his blaster with the crew, thinking he was safe. If he unbuckles himself, he will get crushed against the bottom of the ship. How had Yurik survived crawling to Sven’s seat, unbuckled?
He does not hear Yurik’s surprise through the headphones, he sees it. The child-creature whips its head towards him. A mix of blood and spit hits the back of the seat of the man sitting in front of him.
Evgeni starts to punch at the seat in front of him. Starts yelling. They should be able to hear him over the voice comms, and if they don’t, then he’s going to make them feel his panic. A man turns around. Sees everything that is going on, and starts to yell for help, too.
Great, that doesn’t really help.
What had he thought that would do? Evgeni searches for something to defend himself with. If he tries to scoot along the row of seats, Yurik will just corner him. He grabs the bobblehead. Holds it up in front of his body like a crucifix.
He knows that Yurik can’t hear him, since the child-creature is not wearing a headset. But he talks to it anyways.
“Hey, papa is not here to hurt you. I am not mad. I promise I am not mad. Please, Yurik.”
Though Yurik is deaf because of the engines, he watches Evgeni’s lips. His bunched shoulders relax a little. There is a crackling in Evgeni’s ears, a man speaking. He takes off the distraction even though the plane blasts him with sound.
“That’s good. You remember when we eat good food off little plates? We do this again. Just sit back in seat and you feel better soon.”
Yurik scratches his head. He opens his mouth and lets the piece of Sven drop to the seat. Evgeni wants to vomit, but he manages to hold it back. This is his child. His child. Where did he go wrong to make it do this?
“Is good, please come closer. It is all okay.”
Yurik nods and gets off Sven’s lap. It is then that Evgeni has his question about gravity answered – Yurik was able to get to Sven because he simply does not experience zero gravity. That, or his hands and feet have magnets in them that stick to the shuttle’s floor.
His child is a monster. But not one that Evgeni will abandon. It will not be too hard to explain to the crew, he will have no trouble as the leader of the experiment. They will understand. They must.
“Very very good. Come now my child. It will all be okay. Papa is here for you. Many more meals to come for us, together.”
Yurik reaches out to Evgeni. Touches his lap and draws just a little bit of blood through the pants with his sharp fingernails.
There’s a flash of yellow. Something steaming hits Evgeni in the nose. He thinks he has died, made a mistake that will cost him everything. But the next breath comes. He wipes his face with his sleeve and sees his child’s face half-mutilated. Even dead, the corpse does not float. Evgeni blinks at it, because his mind can’t put together that the corpse was once his child.
The man sitting in front of Evgeni waves at him, trying to get his attention. His blaster is still red. Evgeni blinks. Then he jumps at the man who killed his son.
“How fucking DARE!” says Evgeni, and he reaches for the man’s throat. The crewmate slaps his hands away, screaming for help from the rest of the ship.
“How fucking dare, fucking dare, fucking.” Evgeni says, repeating himself. The crewmates sitting to the left and right of Evgeni’s new enemy each wrestle his hands down.
Eventually, Evgeni just screams. He doesn’t even try to say words anymore.
They hold him down while the ship leaves Earth’s orbit. By that point he has lost his voice and can only sit silently as the other passengers unbuckle themselves and try and catch up on what has just happened.
A man and a woman come by with a vacuum, for the specks of blood floating around. Another pair comes later to wrap blankets around the bodies.
Evgeni lets his head slump and surrenders to a pair of handcuffs. He has failed. His mission, his crewmates, and worse –
He has failed his child. For the fourth time.
Ben pours himself a glass of orange juice. Swirls the ice around and listens to the light sounds it makes. Touching the glass, cracking as it sits in a warmer liquid. Thinking about those little details makes it a whole lot easier to breathe.
He imagines himself back at home as a child when he never had to worry about anything. Back before his parents had left in the night, leaving him to a house with just a full fridge-
Ben turns back to his juice, and chuckles at himself. “God, I’m throwing myself quite the pity party here, aren’t I?” He says, his voice drowned out by alarms sounding in the hallway outside.
He is long past his childhood, and he has more important things to worry about. The thought of ever being totally safe falls out of his mind. He misses it as it leaves. But right now, he needs to think about how he’s going to explain to a lot of armed guards why his experiment killed Sven, and then almost took out the experiment leader.
He takes a sip of the orange juice. It’s gone sour, even though he kept it in a fridge the whole week. He wants to shatter the glass. Instead, he squeezes it with just enough force to hurt himself.
The guards come shortly after that. A dozen of them, as if they had thought he was going to be armed to the teeth and trying to make a last fight out of it.
“Relax, idiots. If I had wanted to avoid capture, I would have rigged this place –“
“That’s enough talking,” Says a soldier, cutting him off, “Daves, the cuffs.”
The man who must be Daves is a whole head and a half shorter than any soldier Ben has ever seen. For once in his life, Ben decides not to make a comment. He has never had a gun pointed at his head before. It’s amazing that a man like him, who wants to die every day, can cling to life when he gets a good look at the reaper’s face.
The cuffs bite Ben’s wrists.
“Now, I can explain-“
“I said no talking! You can explain yourself to the leader when he gets back.”
Ben shrugs. They had not said anything about nonverbal communication. He allows himself to be walked out of Section D, back towards the command center.
How curious that the guards wouldn’t even use Evgeni’s name around him anymore. It made sense, he supposed. He just wished that the person on the other side of his communicator had the cojones to come and rescue him. But he and the traitor both knew that wouldn’t happen. Their arrangement had been simple – let Evgeni and Sven onto the ship and convince some of the other guards to give up their seats. Ben would drive those two into the ship by sabotaging Sven’s credit system, triggering Evgeni’s worries about money. It had been easy. If anything had gone wrong, he could have just planted the idea in Evgeni’s mind. So easy.
And why shouldn’t it have been? Evgeni had trusted him like they were brothers. Like the family he had never had…
No, thinks Ben, as he and his guards round a left turn. Those kind thoughts had been put in his brain to keep him loyal. Keep him simple and unquestioning. To make him work to save a species that didn’t deserve anything.
They keep him in a containment cell for what feels like half a day. Four walls, no windows, and only the occasional sound of the slot at the bottom of his door opening to give him a tray of water and food. There’s a faint fluorescent light above, as if someone had set the dial as low as it could possibly go without making everything go dark. Because of this, Ben has to search for his food a bit more with his hands than he’s used to. When he finds the tray, he crawls his way back to his seat, not relishing how it probably makes him look like an animal. He chews on his hard bread and thinks about what he’s going to say to the Leader. He had been interrupted earlier, and hadn’t managed to put more than a couple thoughts together.
He could play dumb. Evgeni’s the trusting type. But no. Fool a man enough times and even the most naïve of them would catch on. Pain is the best teacher.
Well, then he could say that what he had done was for the best. That was true, but he doubted that a man like Evgeni would agree that the heat death of the universe was the greater good.
So he would plead guilty. There was no other way to do it. Ben dipped the heel of his bread into some water, to soften it before he took another bite. He was not going to let something as silly as fear let him walk into a meeting with an empty stomach.
In what seemed like hours later, his door opened. Finally. Ben had almost fallen asleep several times, and had been pacing around the room to keep his heart rate up.
“They give you food, I see. Is good.”
Ben sighs. He knew Evgeni would say something nice, to make him feel guilty, but it happening still makes him feel like shit. The fluorescent lights above them buzz brighter, showing all the angry expressions on Evgeni’s face that the man is trying his best to hide.
“If you could call half-stale bread food, then I suppose yes, they are giving me food.”
“You always funny,” Evgeni sits on a chair opposite Ben, “in way not like others. Is a Ben kind of funny.”
“Is that what you came to do? Dropped down through Earth’s atmosphere to tell me that I’m a funny man?”
Evgeni pauses. What man wants to say is so obvious to Ben, he wants to go over and rip it out of his mouth.
“No. Is not why I came.”
“Well alright then,” says Ben, folding his arms. He’s not going to give the man the satisfaction of having him ask twice.
“I come because…” Evgeni sits a little straighter, “I come because Yurik is dead. Is your fault.”
“He’s…well of course he’s dead. Did you think the other ones simply vanished to another planet? These aren’t goldfish, they don’t resurrect when you flush them down the toilet.”
Ben feels himself tugged forward. Faster than he imagined possible, Evgeni is holding the front of his shirt in a cotton fist. His breath is sour.
“That’s wrong answer. Take back.”
Ben looks at the corded muscle on Evgeni’s arms and remembers that his own arms are like two twigs. The man could snap him in half before he could even try to slap his hands away. He is utterly helpless. And because of this, Ben feels free. All the danger he has ever imagined was coming for him is now right here.
He had thought he would be more afraid than this. What a relief it is to know he hadn’t been a coward this whole time.
“No, I don’t think I fucking will, fearless leader.”
“I am giving you second chance to take this back. He was my child. Please do not test me.”
“Your child was just a toy. A pawn in a greater plan.”
“Is this what you think of life? Of children?” Says Evgeni.
“Yes. And you think I wouldn’t do something similar again? I would have killed a thousand children to stop all this. From all of us from being born.”
“You gave Yurik life, then took from him. He did not say you could do this.”
“Meaningless. He’s nothing to me. And you’re the idiot that got him killed, starting these experiments in the first place.”
Ben opens his mouth to say another gibe, but his vision swims down. There’s a sharp pain on his nose. Something warm rushes up into his head as he is pulled back. Then he’s tugged down again. The pain is worse the second time, and he can feel his nose shatter.
His vision blurs. The pressure on his chest slackens. He thinks he hears the door opening, people arguing with each other. Ben tries to find his feet, and sways. Is that blood on his good shirt? Someone seems to be talking to him, now. He doesn’t mind. He is just glad that he is not moving up and down anymore. He was starting to feel so sick…
Mom, he thinks, Could you order me some medicine? I think I have a headache.
He is moving down again. And this time there’s no one holding him, he is falling all on his own…
Evgeni stares at the body. Covered in a blanket, it seems so much smaller, and less real. Like if he lifted the blanket off it would just be a toy underneath, not a person. A piece of plastic sitting on the coroner’s tray looking at him with marble eyes.
He does not lift the blanket. If he did, he might see the mangled face again. He would rather remember Yurik when he did not look that way. The way the child would have wanted to be remembered, that was the true way to do things.
He has asked the security team to leave him alone for this. They are waiting in the coroner’s office just on the other side of the wall, no doubt, and probably planted a bug on him. There is no such thing as privacy in a heavily-monitored underground lab. But he, like anyone else who works in it, still wants a room to himself now and then.
“I will find way to sun still,” he tells the body, “but not sending anyone but myself now. They do experiments on me.”
Evgeni’s breath comes out in little clouds. He is shivering from the temperature, which must be well into the ten degrees. The body lays still, no wind and not much ventilation to move it even the littlest bit.
He had never wanted to send anything living to the sun, especially not children. But the robots and the machines had all failed. And one day, a brilliant biologist had come along, proving that his experiments could get closer than anyone else’s.
Evgeni wants to be angry at him. But all he feels is a gnawing guilt at smashing the man’s face in. He will live, but he needs to be drinking out of a straw for months. Maybe years. Evgeni still does not understand why he did it, put the switch in Yurik’s mind to kill the crew.
Well, he knows why. Ben had told them. He wanted the whole solar system to burn up. Wanted to kill Evgeni and Sven in an ‘accident’ so that the best men for the job would be dead.
Evgeni starts to pace. He keeps looking over at Yurik’s body while he thinks. To betray one man is a bad thing. But to turn your back on all of humanity? That is a very different thing. He wishes that he could make the man feel differently. Make him trust people again. It is mad thinking, of course. People must want to change themselves.
And Ben has made his decision. Evgeni needs to, also.
He sits with the back of his head resting against Yurik’s tray, so he does not need to look at it anymore, but so he can still be close.
“I will also not work with traitor,” Evgeni tells him, “he will only ruin this. He is best man for the job, yes, but I do not trust him anymore. What do you think?”
There is a small whistle of air coming in the room through its vents. Evgeni sighs, and turns, because he cannot help himself.
“I wish you were here.”
He stands. Wipes his hands off on his jeans. With a few gentle pushes, he slides Yurik’s tray and body back into its cabinet.
“Goodbye for now. I see you soon”
Evgeni walks towards the door. There are men waiting on the other side of the coroner’s room, and he needs to speak with them. There is work to be done. For Yurik, and the rest of the people living on Earth.
Photo Credit: Brian Patrick Tagalog https://unsplash.com/@briantagalog