By Philip Berry
“I have grown to love you, all of you,” whispered Susie, to no-one, in cavern 8. Her cavern, her family’s cavern, for three generations.
“Then do as we ask,” replied the unitary voice. “You understand why, don’t you?”
In other caverns, on other ships, similar requests were made of young Carers.
There were five million Sleepers on Susie’s ship – The Spirit Of Me– with five hundred Carers (minors excluded), resulting in a ratio of 10,000 Sleepers to one Carer. The men and women needed little in the way of personal attention. The job of the Carers was to regulate the environment and ensure uninterrupted venous feeding, regular rotation within the suspension fields to ensure no pooling of blood or fluid, and early diagnosis of any degenerative condition. Cure from disease was not expected by the medical authorities. Occasionally a Sleeper died, through natural and unpredictable causes. This was permitted. People do die.
Eight Care ships were constructed when the post-vaccine syndrome called PAI swept the planet. There was no terrestrial capacity for such large scale dependency. It was surprising how many citizens came forward to volunteer as off-world Carers; and how quickly. They knew they would never see the home planet again. Nor, if they had them, their children. Many children were subsequently born on board – providing further generations of Carers. This was encouraged.
Now, thirty-five years later, the children of the children of the First Rank roamed the caverns and looked into the placid faces of their adoptive charges, men and women who aged imperceptibly if at all. The long term effects of stasis were relatively unknown. Guinea-pigs perhaps, but they were used to that feeling.
The Sleepers had received an apparently tried and tested vaccine. The complication took five years to reveal itself in the early recipients, by which time a large proportion of the population had also been vaccinated. Handful by handful, then thousand by thousand, then by the millions, people grew lethargic and fell asleep. The hospitals filled. Makeshift facilities were erected. Parliaments discussed what to do. The global health authority (GHA) developed a plan. Off-world care ships, orbiting distant planets – not the home planet… no way. What if there was a malfunction? Five million affected corpses in our oceans? No way.
“So you will do it?” asked the unitary mind.
“If you are so strong now, can’t you take control?” asked Susie. Three tightly woven, pale brown ponytails hung straight down from the back of her upturned head. She wore a thinly insulated maroon jacket and black trousers, the uniform of the Carer. Her breath was faintly visible in steam, but she did not feel the cold. Susie was eleven years old.
“We can, temporarily, but we can’t override the override. We need a Carer to make the change happen, and to keep the course. And to persuade the others. We will start the turn.”
“Are you asking Carers on the other ships?”
“Yes. All of them.”
“But why? Why do this? Are you in pain?”
Susie heard a door open behind her. It was one of the grandfathers, Lewis Friend. One of the first volunteers, grey now, but efficient.
“You alright Susie-girl?”
“Talking to yourself?”
“Was I?” Truly, she thought her words had been unspoken.
“Mumble-mumble. It’s Tommy’s party in the refectory soon, don’t miss it. Disco after.”
“I’ll be there… just checking the humidity, Mum said there was a proto-cloud up on level 19 this morning.”
“It used to rain in the caverns before we fixed that. Can you imagine that? We had weather! See you in a bit.”
The term they invented was Persistent Axonal Interruption, PAI, pronounced pie. An interaction occurred between the vaccine and the passage of signals through the organelles of the central and peripheral neurones. This resulted in paralysis and a severe diminution in cognitive and sensory activity. Functional scans confirmed that the patients were not ‘locked-in’, i.e. fully aware but unable to communicate. Nor where they vegetative. They were somewhere in-between. An awakening might occur, said the neurologists.
It was not until the third generation of Carers began to work with the Sleepers that the first tentative interactions began. A few youngsters told their parents or supervisors, but none were believed. In routine incident summaries a few reports of Carer-Sleeper communication filtered through to senior medical staff on each of the ships, but none of the officers were of a mind to accept telepathy as an explanation. Instead, complex psychological processes were invoked: isolation, parental-replacement, straightforward and perfectly understandable responses to the ghoulish nature of their home. The sleepers tested their audience, and made their selection.
Susie gave herself another half an hour in cavern 8. She enjoyed the connection with the unitary voice. Its words made her feel pleasantly relaxed, yet clear-minded and alert.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Various places, on the home planet.”
“You just want to go home?”
“Our memories of home have faded. Many of us should be dead by now. Our families have moved on. We know that.”
“How can you be sure?”
“We have been tapping into your communication and media feeds since year four.”
“We know what has been happening at home. Cases of PAI have begun to occur again. Without the vaccine. Your elders will not tell you. Ask them.”
Susie stopped her slow walk.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“We are the Sleepers. All of us.”
“Would it help, Susie, to meet one of us. A representative, to know a face?”
“Then come to level 72 and look for compartment SG504, tomorrow. We will be waiting for you. If not tomorrow, the next day. If not this week, next week. We are going nowhere.”
The vaccine, SenEx, was designed to suppress a virus present universally in the human population. During research into ageing, one of the virus’s capsule proteins was found to be involved in the process of tissue regeneration. The protein inhibited naturally circulating cells that acted as ‘policemen’, whose job it was to detect aberrant genetic copies and keep cellular replication on track. If the virus was supressed these policemen became more active, regeneration of cells throughout the body remained accurate for longer, and the ageing process slowed. The virus, HHV22, from the well-known family Herpesviridae, brought with it no visible disease as such. It lived silently in the dorsal nerve roots of the spinal cord doing no more than to cap the human lifespan.
However tightly the authorities tried to control SenEx, it could not be quarantined. After fifteen years of political wrangling the GHA, encouraged by several leading industrial nations, ran an economic model which concluded that the planet could afford to sustain an expanded, older population. The GHA had observed something interesting – ageing subjects who received SenEx remained productive until just weeks before their deaths (average age 145). There was no prolonged phase of dependence or high cost care. They more than paid for themselves. There was no problem.
SenEx became available to everyone at the age of 45.
Susie got stuck into the party. The voice did not distract her. The voice slept. Or perhaps it was concentrating on the media feeds. Or the navigation mainframe. Or the Carers’ private voice diaries. Susie marvelled at their invisible omnipresence.
Lewis Friend sat at the edge of the room. He looked over at Susie Blayne. Then he called her over. She turned, saw who it was, and approached cautiously.
“Who were you chatting to?” His voice was stern.
“Do not tell,” ordered the unitary voice, suddenly with her. “Please, not until we have met.”
“Mmmm.” He did not believe her, but nor did he know. “Hey, tomorrow we get to see The Cradle. We’re both in the same sector, for three weeks. When did you last see a sister ship?”
“When I was eight.”
“It’s a big deal. You can see what we look like from the outside, for real, not as an image.”
Thinking about it this way Susie began to feel excited. She knew the basic structure of The Spirit Of Me– a series of two-kilometre long triangular barrels (the caverns) arranged in threes around a longitudinal axis, forever rotating within the gravitational field that the GHA had decided was essential to long term bodily health. Within each cavern were approximately a hundred thousand souls, within each triple-barrel a third of million. There were five such sections, laid end to end, turning in synchrony, high above Jupiter, on a ten-year orbit. Five million Sleepers.
Those who were interested would be able to watch The Cradle’s needle-like form emerge from Jupiter’s hazed edge first thing tomorrow morning. But Susie wanted to find SG504 then. It was the quietest time.
“Will you join me on the viewing tower?” asked Lewis.
“No. I’m busy.”
“Dad wants me to check the excretion evaporator. He thinks the nitrogen balance might be off.”
“Works you hard, your Dad. I didn’t have my son doing core duties until he was fourteen.”
“I don’t mind.”
Susie drifted away into the main party. When she looked at other children her age she wondered, ‘Do they talk to you too?’
One on each ship, seven across the fleet. Each was isolated. Each would have a role. Not soon. Perhaps, some of the Sleepers argued, in five years. Others insisted on fifteen to twenty, by which time the chosen children would hold senior or influential positions. For they would be asked to lead. The mutiny could not be achieved successfully if the trust of the majority was not obtained. The debate raged silently through the caverns.
The small number of Sleepers who understood biology – a sufficient proportion – took less than three years to understand what had happened with SenEx. They had complete access to the scientific output of the home planet, and heard the plenary presentation in which the causative link between SenEx, HHV22 and PAI was announced to the world… but they knew already.
The favoured position of the virus in the spinal column had always intrigued researchers. Although its eradication appeared to have no negative consequences during phase III studies, laboratories continued to examine the significance of its predisposition for neurones.
When the first victims became drowsy and lost consciousness, as though suffering from an accelerated sleeping sickness, there was a rush to elucidate the virus’s possible neurological role. The spinal cords of victims who had died of other causes were peeled apart and analysed.
As The Spirit Of Me, fully laden, crossed space to take up its position above Jupiter, a breakthrough occurred. It was proven that the same protein that supressed the cellular policemen also facilitated axonal communication. Its absence led to a slowing of synaptic transmission. The largest effect was in the brain stem, seat of the most vital functions.
Researchers from a leading laboratory presented their theory.
Sleepers who had already reached the same conclusion let out a silent scream. They knew this. Wasn’t it obvious? But then again, they had been able to synthesise results from competing laboratories across the globe. Thus privileged, they arrived at the right answer faster. Yet they were able to tell no-one.
Older, calmer minds spread waves of reassurance through the ranks of fellow Sleepers. ‘Do not worry. We will correct this.’
The Sleepers were already working on a solution.
Susie waved a hand and watched the light gradually brighten. Sudden changes in environment were known to agitate the Sleepers. Their pulse rates spiked.
She walked a certain distance, barely taking notice of the blue-tinged faces behind the glass. Having been born into Care, they seemed natural to her. She had probably stood before each one of them at some point in her life, not through systematic intent, but by virtue of the huge amount time she had spent here. SG504 rang no bells with her. Man, woman, young old? Susie had no idea.
It was an adult female. Susie felt deflated. Overnight, in her imagination, the Sleepers had chosen to speak through another child.
The woman, black skinned with her grey hair pulled tightly into a bun hidden at the back of her head, gave no signs of her role as representative. Although Susie knew that it was impossible for her to open those paralysed eyelids, she watched carefully in case there was a flicker. The woman looked about seventy years old.
“Thank you so much for coming!” she said brightly, as though welcoming Susie to her grand-daughter’s home for tea.
“That’s alright, I wanted to.”
“Now. What do you want to know Susie? You deserve to have answers.”
There was too much, of course. But Susie cared only for the future.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Just wait Susie. Just wait a little longer.”
Extinction, although politically unacceptable when it came to vertebrates, caused no concern for those involved in the eradication of viruses. There were precedents, such as Polio and Smallpox. The global balance was largely unperturbed by these deliberate annihilations. In the case of HHV22 however, the tipping point at which its continued presence on the planet became unsustainable was associated with a cataclysmic up-surge in cases of PAI. Children fell in their teens, as the infection that used to settle into the spinal cords of all growing adults failed to occur, leaving their neural pathways weakened and exposed. The epidemic’s second wave proceeded independently of SenEx.
PAI in those who had never been infected with HHV22 was more serious than those who had been infected before receiving Senex. In the latter, a residual population of viruses remained, naturally resistant. The tiny number of those who actually recovered from PAI were those in whom the resistant strain grew more numerous, flooding the nerves and leading to a cure. There were fifty of these, world-wide.
The lesson: HHV22 was a complex symbiote. Humans could not thrive without it. But the price they paid for harbouring it was the process of ageing.
And now HHV22 was history.
“How long?” asked Susie.
“Eight years. We are agreed. We will ensure, through certain mechanisms over which we have control, that you are appointed to a senior position on the ship. Once established, you will be able to convince your peers and change course.”
“And when will you tell me exactly where you want to go?”
“It’s no secret Susie. Back home…”
“But Miss… what is your name?”
“It’s Alicia McLelland.”
“You must know that the home you knew isn’t there anymore. In my lessons, they tell us… the cities are tiny now, each country has shrunk because of PAI. Your home won’t be there. You must know that.”
“We know that.”
“So why go home?”
“To close the circle Susie. I don’t mean to be mysterious. But you are a good Carer, and you love us too much. You will worry about us. So wait a while.”
“Do you want me to find out if your family are well, Miss McLelland?”
“I know everything. We know everything. Nothing is hidden from us.”
The timetable, agreed amid communal discord that only the most observant neuroscientist would have discerned from the periodic functional MRI sweeps that passed through the caverns, had to be shortened. The progress of PAI was accelerating, the age at which people were afflicted ever younger. Schools became quiet, intimate places. Industry floundered. Scientific endeavour atrophied.
Each major land mass contributed proportions of their dwindling resources to huge laboratories built with only one aim, to isolate and replicate HHV22. But its indolent nature did not lend itself to large scale production. HHV22 liked to sit quietly amid the warm, humming nerves of its gradually ageing host. It was quite unlike influenza, measles or numerous other pathogens. It was not designed for leaping, escaping or marauding.
They could not get it back into the human population.
Susie’s twelfth year was spent taking responsibility for the composition of the Sleepers’ intravenous feed. Her father trusted Susie to adjust the ingredients according to the aggregated metabolic signals. Gradually, guided by the voice, she altered the balance of selected amino acids and carbohydrates. When she asked why, Alicia said, “We are experimenting, that’s all. And it’s working.”
When Susie was thirteen the tenor of the conversation changed. Alicia, with whom Susie spoke on a daily basis (always, at Susie’s request, during Care shifts, never in the privacy of her room or other domestic spaces), asked her to seek out the Chief Navigator’s seventeen-year old son.
“Why don’t you just speak to him yourself?” Susie replied.
“We are not in touch with him… he wasn’t… sensitive to us.”
“What do I ask him?”
“Nothing. Just bring him here.”
“What’s going to happen?”
“We want to demonstrate something.”
“But how? You can’t move.”
“Bring the diagnostic module. We’ll use the screen.”
It took a month. Alicia had to remind her three times. All Susie could say was, “It’s important Jaspal. But don’t tell anyone… please.”
Now Jaspal stood in front of Alicia with the module plugged into a port three inches above the white-haired lady’s head. The module lit up, and shapes foreign to its usual usage began to move across the screen. Jaspal, trained in mathematical languages that Susie could not even recognise, was instantly transfixed. Twenty minutes later, he looked up and said,
To the Sleepers it was almost amusing, how the solution evaded the focus of the researchers on the home planet; amusement, an emotion not felt since days past in their homes or workplaces but which now rippled through the caverns when observations were made on the stupidity of the researchers and the sluggishness of their thoughts. Now there was a plan, now there was hope, now the nutritional milieu had been changed and viral kinetic modelling had been repeated over and over… now they knew their purpose… the sense of fun that resides in all people could surface once again. The optimism was pervasive enough to reach Susie, who began to feel that the time was coming.
When Susie met Jaspal in the common areas she said nothing. He had changed. Tall, dark, bearded in common with the majority of men of his religion, he had changed. This was attributed, by his parents, to the private agonies of late adolescence. The true reason was far deeper.
When they passed each other in a corridor off the refectory early one morning, Susie could barely stop herself from taking him aside and discussing their roles. Her head and heart were brimming with a sense of imminence. Alicia kept telling her to be patient, but would not give her details.
“What do you want me to do?” implored Susie.
“Stay as you are Susie. You have done all that you need to do.”
“What? Jas? All I did was bring him down here.”
“No. You have done more. You have shown that we can change things. That lesson has been learned across the entire fleet. The Spirit Of Me is the exemplar, and you allowed it to happen.”
“I think I know what you want to do.”
“Oh. Really. Then tell us.”
Susie was so used to talking to Alicia now. Her mind sometimes filled the vacuum of expression with tiny, imagined movements – a tweak at the corner of the mouth, the hint of a smile or a frown, or a knotting of the brow when the younger woman said something cheeky.
“You are going back to punish them… the people who did this to you. The scientists, the governments.”
A hand on her shoulder.
“Susan! What are you doing?” It was Lewis Friend. He had followed her- had been following her all year in fact. “Who the hell are you talking to?”
“Sorry Mr Friend. I talk to them. I know I’m not supposed to… but I do. Please don’t tell my parents.”
He looked along the length of the cavern.
“I’m sure they know already… and I’m sure they condone it. Susan, you will have to be replaced. These people are not your friends, they are not your family.”
Susie bowed her head.
“Don’t worry,” whispered Alicia. “Nothing is changed. Everything is the same between us… but soon all will be different. Go with him.”
Susie began to cry. Lewis Friend assumed his authoritarian tone had broken her down, but he was quite wrong. It was love for her Sleepers, and fear for what was going to happen to them.
Susie was taken off the roster of Carers. Gossip ran through the ship, and the general wisdom concluded that she had come to the job too early. Her father was criticised, but it went no further. Even now, more than thirty years into their journey, there were no real rules.
The Spirit Of Me slipped out of orbit. Jaspal stood at the helm, his father dead at his feet. The ship was easy to steer. In fact the bridge was rarely used, the ship having required next to no adjustments to its orbital course over the last three decades.
“We are on our way. Go to the bridge.” said Alicia, breaking into Susie’s sleep – a very unusual event.
“Jaspal… he needs you now.”
When Susie arrived Jaspal was crouched by his father, holding the lifeless head in his two large palms. Outside the star-scape moved in a new direction, while Jupiter’s cloud-marks passed at a new angle with the ship’s fresh bearing. The door shut behind her.
“I did it. I don’t know how.”
The gash above the chief navigator’s right ear, which rested uppermost in his son’s trembling hands, was the answer. Susie looked around and found the weapon, an entertainment module – well used by assistant navigators during long, tedious shifts – with a smear of blood on one corner.
“How could you?”
“They made me, somehow…”
“They can’t. You can’t hear them Jas. They’re not in your head.”
“When I came up here, it was you I was thinking about Susie. You were in my head.”
Susie stared at him in disbelief.
“IS THIS TRUE?” she shouted, at the ceiling, at the viewing windows, at the floor… but there was no reply.
Susie ran to the communications console and hailed the nearest ship, Communion. A female voice came through,
“Communion bridge here. We’re with you Susie. Looking forward to meeting you…”
“Who is this?”
“Natalie Trent. I am captain now. The mutiny was bloodless.”
“Wh… where have you put them? The captain, the engineer, the navigator?”
“In a cavern. They understood.”
“How many of you?”
“Fifteen. And you?”
Susie looked across at Jaspal, and glimpsed her own reflection in a surface.
“Two. Just two.”
“Wow. Well good luck. This is the right thing to do. Thank-you Susie. Thank-you for your encouragement.”
Although Susie had no idea what the atmosphere was like on The Communion, or on any of the other ships, on The Spirit Of Me all was calm. If any Carers noticed Jupiter growing smaller, none of them raised the alarm. The progress of the ship had been a matter for a very select number of crew, five at most, and Alicia sealed their doors. Their absence would of course be noticed. But nothing could now be done to reverse the new course. As soon as Jaspal and Susie left the bridge it too was sealed. The young man’s father was left to decay on the floor.
“What have you done… with me?” asked Susie.
“We have used you. You know that.”
“No. You have gone through me, to reach others. I never agreed to that.”
“We have done you no harm. The means were painless, to an end that you understand and want as much as we do. So we are sorry. It has been done.”
“Because you can Susie. You can hear us… not many can, and they, your fellow Carers, hear you. And through you, us. Because of the power that resides in you. We are so glad you were born on this ship, so, so glad. Thank you.”
Susie had nothing to say. She was the focal point of their machinations, and the font of revolutionary spirit that had overrun the fleet.
A week later Susie assumed the leadership role that had been thrust upon her by the unitary mind. A call was put out for a general gathering in the refectory. Susie stood in the place where their captain used to give speeches at year’s end, or when a well-known crew-member had passed away.
“My fellow Carers, there is something you must know. Control of the ship has been handed over to the Sleepers. For many years they have been watching and listening… here and on the home planet. They have been able to speak to each other in ways we do not understand, perhaps as an unforeseen consequence of PAI itself. And what’s more, they have been able to speak to certain Carers. In these ways, they have taken control.
“They have done this for a reason. By analysing HHV22 through the work of scientists on the home planet, they have reached a conclusion. Our planet’s survival depends on the re-introduction of HHV22 into its ecosystem. That is where we are going. That is what we are doing. A year from now The Spirit Of Me will enter the atmosphere. We will have been jettisoned a week before, in the life-craft. There are more than enough. Then, gently, our Sleepers will come to hover a kilometre above ground level, and they will initiate the programme that all have agreed to.”
There were no questions. Or rather, there were many, but they were too immense to articulate. A susurrus of excitement ran across the top of the audience: home. This prospect, bleak as they knew it to be, distracted them from seismic significance of Susie’s message.
There was no counter-mutiny. The twenty-five police officers, their authority long diminished by the sparse opportunity to exercise their power, did nothing. They met, they tried to connect to their fellows on the other ships, but all links had been severed. So, like a king’s guard in midst of a revolution, they chose their side and dropped their arms.
The Caring continued. Susie made it clear, in subsequent addresses, that their health was now more important than it had ever been.
The Spirit Of Me triggered long range sensors on the lunar surface. The signal was not noticed for a week, as there were not enough staff to monitor the readings on a daily basis. A week later The Spirit Of Me entered the home planet’s atmosphere, in deliberate pieces. During construction the caverns had been brought up separately and joined into the familiar needle-like shape well beyond the planet’s gravitational pull. The procedure had been reversed in the moon’s shadow, creating an orderly rack of caverns. Each would drop perpendicularly, and with shields concentrated on the foremost end to resist the burn. It was essential that the Sleepers remained alive until the very last moments.
The Communion was a week behind. The Cradle came a week later still. And so on.
Susie watched from her life-craft, hanging a mile from the surface. She shared the comfortless space with Jaspal and four other trusted lieutenants. Although Alicia’s role as representative had been arbitrary, Susie insisted on watching the old lady’s cavern – Susie’s cavern, 8, descend. Her mind strained to hear any final words; a whisper would do. Not gratitude. How could Susie expect thanks for helping to steer them to their own destruction? But something, an affirmation of the connection that had developed.
The programme had begun. Using the ship’s own beams – installed to guarantee the cargo’s destruction in cold space should there be any risk of danger to the home planet – the caverns were sliced length-ways at ten metre intervals, then cross-ways at seventy-five centimetre intervals, thus liberating the Sleepers to the air they had not breathed for a three decades.
Unconscious, but still in communication with their fellow travellers, they exulted… for a one or two seconds. Then the beams picked out each falling body and stopped their hearts with a precise shot. The bodies, still whole, the viruses within them still alive, fell to the ground in areas that had been carefully selected by the unitary mind. Four hundred vertical caverns, 40,000,000 willing souls, uncountable viruses, no longer indolent, but altered by the nutritional adjustments made three years previously to enter the chain of life, leap species, and take their place once more in the human population.
Susie’s eyes opened. A voice!
“Without you Susie… nothing. Now go down, and rebuild in our name.” That was all it said. It was not Alicia’s voice. But it did not matter. They spoke as one.
Susie smiled and nudged the life-craft towards the surface.
This post has already been read 34 times!