by Brad McNaughton
The cake was almost halfway out of the printer before Meadow saw it, and her scream echoed through their tiny cabin.
“What is it, Mouse?” Green asked, yanking off the VR headset and leaping from the sofa.
“It’s purple, Dad,” Meadow said, pointing at the cake.
“You asked for a purple cake?” Green spoke cautiously. He’d heard that teenagers could be unpredictable. Perhaps this was the first of many challenges to be faced as the parent of one.
“I did want a purple one, but then at Autumn’s birthday party she had a purple one and she was wearing purple and had purple fingernails and Fern said if she ever saw the colour purple again she would just barf and so I told you I wanted a cyan one!”
This was all true. Except the part where Meadow had told her father anything.
Green considered their options. “What if we make the rest of it cyan?”
“No! I can’t have a multi coloured cake. Everyone will laugh at me!”
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, Mouse. The System gave us approval for one cake ration, so it’s either cyan and purple, or just purple.”
“Fine,” Meadow relented, the quiet thwick-thwack of the food-reconstitutioner making the deadline feel real. “But now I need to find a dress that won’t look hideous against purple and against cyan.”
“Good call, Mousey,” said Green, tweaking the palette of the emerging pastry with his handheld.
“Stop calling me Mouse,” she yelled as she stalked across the living space to the entrance to her bunk. “I’m not little! I have a name! Why won’t anyone call me by my name?”
“Sorry, Meadow,” Green said. He watched her go, then slipped the headset back on.
Beyond their hab, beyond the outer deck rings and the atmosphere shield and the plasma tether, Destiny carried humanity across the space between stars.
“Oh, Sweetheart,” Brooklyn’s mother gushed as Brooklyn descended the stairs to the large living room of their A-Ring quarters. “You look so grown up.”
A few older brothers and sisters and their babies looked up to take in the pink gown which glittered in the downlights. Brooklyn blushed, then hugged her mother, inhaling the sweet echoes of perfumes and sweetness trapped in the folds of her mother’s dress.
“Make sure you give your father a kiss before you leave,” her mother said.
“I will,” Brooklyn said, and went down the hall to their viewing room.
When Destiny had left Earth, the Commodores had been a council of men and women elected to have access to The System. This access was never intended to be needed. The System was designed to manage the ship autonomously for eternity, running on rules that the designers had felt confident would keep humanity safe and happy for however long it would take for the frontiers to be crossed and a new home planet settled.
Brooklyn’s father was a Commodore. He was alone in the viewing room, dressed in the stiff coat and trousers that came with the title. The wheelchair was parked beneath the wall-sized display of the universe outside. He didn’t move as Brooklyn approached. Weeks ago, the stroke had almost killed him. Now the healer bots under his skin worked to rebuild his tissue and nerves.
“I’m going to a birthday party,” Brooklyn told him, and kissed his cheek. “I’ll come and say goodnight when I’m home.”
There was no response. Brooklyn touched the wrinkly skin on his cold hand. The stars, so distant, did not appear to be moving. Which, when looking out at them, gave Brooklyn the impression that she wasn’t moving either. In her mind, for a moment, she imagined herself aged, wrinkled and motionless, sitting beneath those exact same stars.
Brooklyn turned and the door opened for her. As it shut again, beneath the Commodore’s left eye, was a quiver.
Six teenagers and nearly-teenagers, plus Green, maxed the capacity of Meadow’s hab. The birthday girl was the centre of attention as she opened presents. Green scurried around the edges, taking the packaging and discarded snacks and sending it to The System via the recycling chute.
“The Vanvetov Nebula,” Meadow said, adoring the sketch of colours that Fern had swished across an old piece of fabric. It was her favourite star system. “So beautiful. Thank you.”
Fern, who was the only girl dressed in black, nodded and said nothing.
Brooklyn’s present was the biggest. Being Meadow’s only friend from A-Ring, Meadow saved opening it for last. She untied the bow which turned off the wrapping, revealing a brown cube the size of a shoebox. Meadow stared, not sure how to react.
“It’s real wood,” said Brooklyn.
Meadow ran her hand over the polished grain, and lifted a latch to peer inside. “It’s empty?”
“It’s a cherish chest,” Brooklyn told her.
“You use it to store the things you’ll give to your baby. Their first toy, first blanket.”
“My baby?” said Meadow. “What baby?”
“You’re almost a woman now,” Brooklyn told Meadow with a kind of creepy sincerity.
“I’m thirteen,” Meadow said. “Barely. Based on the orbit of a planet around a star a billion miles from here.”
“Oh come on Meadow,” said Fern. She was the eldest, by only a few months, but her sixteen-year-old sister Petrichor was going through a cynical phase. “Aren’t you ready to accept your womb’s role as a conduit in humanity’s Hail Mary for survival?”
This sounded exactly like something Petri would have said.
“Don’t be gross, Fern,” said Brooklyn.
“What? You think there’s more to our life than that? You think we’re going to matter to anyone who gets off this ship in twenty thousand years? Or we will mean anything special to those who were born and died here over the last twenty thousand? Nope, we exist only to drift through space, have some babies, then cark it.”
“Which is meaningful,” Brooklyn said.
“Dessert time?” Green suggested, grabbing the cake from the bench and shoving it between the girls to try and cauterise the conflict. “Make a wish, Mouse… Meadow.”
The augmented reality candles appeared on the half-purple, half-cyan cake.
Meadow looked from the face of her uncool father, to her friends. The expectant Brooklyn, the smirking Fern, and she caught her own reflection in the glass of the wall display; not quite a woman, not quite a girl. Between ages, between stars.
“I want to be the most important human of all time,” she whispered to herself.
Meadow blew out the holographic candles.
After the cake was devoured, and the artificial evening was approaching, Fern and Brooklyn hung out in Meadow’s tiny bedroom. Green was outside on the sofa under the headset, horizontal, snoring occasionally.
“So, what did you wish for?” Fern asked.
“Don’t I have to keep it a secret?”
“It’s about a boy, isn’t it?” Brooklyn said. “Who? Tell us.”
“Not a boy.”
“Then what?” Brooklyn asked again.
Meadow looked at the smaller girl with big eyes, who had given such a stupid present probably because that was the same gift she wanted for her thirteenth birthday next month. Meadow chose to change the subject.
“I heard if you stare directly at a mirror-cam and say ‘Destiny’ a thousand times it grants you admin access to The System and you can override any control,” Meadow said.
“That’s not true,” said Brooklyn.
“We could try it?” Fern said. “We can open an airlock on A-Ring and eject everyone.”
“No you will not,” Brooklyn said. “My family lives on A-Ring.”
“She knows that,” Meadow said.
“Then why would she say it?”
“I wished I was important,” Meadow said, to derail the argument. “That’s all.”
“You are important,” said Brooklyn. “The System treats us all as the most precious cargo. Every one of us.”
“It’s programmed to make us feel like that, for us to survive,” said Fern.
“I want to be more important than The System,” Meadow said.
“You mean, like a Commodore?” asked Brooklyn.
“No,” said Meadow. “Even Commodores get forgotten. They come and go. No one cares. They are… Conduits. Conduits as well.”
Fern nodded her solemn approval of the principle.
“No,” Meadow said, sitting up. “I want my existence to matter. When Destiny reaches our new world, I want every person who sets foot on land to remember the name Meadow Green. I want a legacy that outlives every generation.”
“You’ll need to pump out a lot of babies then,” said Fern with a sneer.
“I’ll do something better.” Meadow stood. “I’m going to override The System, and I’m going to… I don’t know…”
“Steer us into the nearest star,” Fern suggested. “That’ll write your name in history.”
“Do something extra nice for everyone,” said Brooklyn, trying to be constructive.
Meadow sat again, and thought, desperate for something she could do to make her life matter to history. Anything. Brooklyn shifted her legs, and the sparkles in her dress caught the light, reminding Meadow of the star charts they’d learnt in school, and she knew what she would do.
“I’m going to program The System to chart Destiny to the Vanvetov Nebula,” she said.
“Yes!” said Fern.
“No,” cried Brooklyn. “That’s like fifty-thousand years away.”
“The ship can take it. I’ll program The System to keep it secret.”
“The Commodores never check,” agreed Fern. “Petri says they never even go down to the core. They just dress fancy and sit around on A-Ring. And they’re all past it anyway, senile. Or worse.” She froze her face in an ugly expression, like a stroke victim.
“You’re so mean,” said Brooklyn.
Meadow jumped off the bed. The bathroom sensor lit up the room as she entered.
“Don’t do it,” Brooklyn warned.
“Do it,” said Fern.
Meadow stared at herself in the mirror. Lanky, soft, but the first signs of womanhood were there. Then there’d wrinkles, and there’d be no healer bots for her. No future.
“Destiny,” she said. “Destiny.”
“I’m leaving,” said Brooklyn. “Happy Birthday, Meadow.”
The bunk door slid shut behind her. Fern joined Meadow at the mirror. Two girls barely tall enough for their shoulders to show in the reflection.
“Destiny,” Meadow continued. “Destiny.”
Reaching a thousand took a lot longer than Meadow expected. Nearly an hour. Fern was supposed to help her count, but the narrow bathroom was cramped, and she flopped onto a bunk to wait, and to make sure Meadow’s Dad couldn’t interrupt.
After about the thousandth “Destiny”, Meadow paused, hopeful, waiting for some sign that the mirror-cam had accepted her input. Fern came back and the two girls squeezed in together to stare up at the mirror.
“System? Hello? Are you there?” Meadow asked.
They waited. Nothing happened.
“System, ship status,” said Fern.
Meadow waved her hand at the camera. Her image waved back. Nothing happened.
“Did we do it wrong?” she asked Fern.
Fern shrugged. “I suspected it might not be so easy.”
“Ahhh,” Meadow yelled. “It’s not fair. Nothing is ever fair. I just wanted one thing for my birthday to go right. Just wanted everybody that ever lives to know my name. My cake was a stupid colour, now this. And I’m a conduit!”
A tiny smile cracked the cheeks of Fern’s normally stoic features.
“What?” Meadow demanded. “Don’t laugh at me. You set me up? You tricked me.”
“No,” Fern said, shaking her head. “I just had an idea.”
“Well, you need access to The System, right? I know another way we can get it.”
“I’ll explain, just follow me.”
The rush of understanding came over Meadow’s features. They stepped from the bunk into the living quarters where Green was picking crumbs of cake from the tabletop and slipping them between his lips.
“Hi girls,” he said, putting himself between them and the crumbs.
“Meadow is going to sleep over at my place tonight,” Fern said.
“Please Dad,” said Meadow. “Don’t be uncool.”
“Sure,” said Green. “I’m cool. Have fun. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“We won’t,” Fern called back as they stepped out into the bustling corridor of C-Ring. The girls headed for the nearest elevator.
Brooklyn was still upset when she reached the familiar warmth of home. She dodged the discarded toys by the front door and walked into the living room where her mother, and her older sisters and brothers were at the table finishing supper. The little ones were with the robot.
“Hello, sweetheart,” her mother called. “How was your party?”
“Okay,” Brooklyn said.
“Did you meet any nice boys there?”
“No,” Brooklyn said.
From the neighbouring room a baby began to wail.
“Not yours sweetheart,” Brooklyn’s mother said to a half-risen sister. “That one’s yours, Sweetheart.” Her brother put down his cutlery and left the table.
Brooklyn’s mother turned back. “Go put your dress up before it gets dirty,” she said. “Then say goodnight to your father. And there’s plenty of supper left if you’re hungry, Sweetheart.”
“Mum?” Brooklyn said.
“Do you know my name?”
Brooklyn’s mother smiled, silent seconds passing as she recalled each of her children.
“It’s Brooklyn, Sweetheart,” she said, finally.
After hanging her dress and changing, Brooklyn went to the viewing room to visit the Commodore, who sat alone beneath the same view of the stars and — like them — hadn’t seemed to shift a millimetre since she’d left.
“Hi, Daddy,” Brooklyn said, standing beside his wheelchair, both of them facing the starscape. There was Drackellex, their destination, a single twinkle among the millions on the wall. Above it, a sizable chunk of space away, was the Vanvetov Nebula. A prettier pink than Drackellex; a lot further to go. Brooklyn turned away. It didn’t matter. She would never see either of them with her own eyes. They’d only ever be glimmers on a display.
“Brooklyn?” one of her brothers yelled from the family room.
“What?” she yelled back.
“You’ve got visitors.”
The Commodores hadn’t always lived on A-Ring. Over time, through generations, new Commodores replaced old and those who were entrepreneurs or descendants of Destiny’s original investors found their way to both A-Ring and the title of Commodore. Council rules were a guarded secret. As healer bot tech continued to evolve the number of new Commodores stayed low. There was no real work to do, nothing that needed changing. The System controlled the ship. The System managed resources and energy, and navigated the extragalactic magnetic fields. Centuries went by without a Commodore interfacing with The System. But if it was ever needed, to check or change anything, the Commodore’s biometrics allowed anyone who held the title to enter the controls in the core ring at the centre of Destiny.
“Hello, Brooklyn,” said Fern, emerging from the doorway into the viewing room. She over-eagerly saluted the Commodore as she passed his chair.
“Hi, Brooklyn,” said Meadow. She saluted as well, a little less vigorously.
“Why are you guys here?” Brooklyn asked.
“I came to apologise,” said Fern, contrarily.
“We did,” said Meadow, who glanced at the Commodore’s slack face. “Can he hear us?”
“No. He’s still healing.”
Fern looked around the wheelchair, then turned back to Brooklyn.
“I was only teasing, you know, back at Meadow’s,” Fern said.
“So the mirror trick didn’t work,” said Brooklyn.
“We didn’t bother finishing—”
“No,” interrupted Meadow. “It didn’t work. And you know what? We came here to try a different plan, but I don’t want to do that one either.”
“Meadow,” hissed Fern.
“No,” said Meadow, distancing herself further from Fern, standing closer to Brooklyn. “I’m not going to do it, not if it means you will hate me forever. Because your friendship means more to me than flying Destiny an extra fifty-thousand years just so people think of me for eternity while they live in happiness in the Vanvetov Nebula.”
“What was your idea?” asked Brooklyn.
“It was Meadow’s idea,” said Fern.
“What was it?”
The two girls glanced at the Commodore. Fern sighed. “We were going to steal your Dad.”
“Steal my Dad?”
“Push him out of here. He’s stroked out, but his biometrics are still good. We could have used him to get into the core…”
“And updated the navigation with The System using his credentials?” said Brooklyn.
“Yeah,” said Fern.
“And hope none of the other Commodores notice the course change?”
“Like they’ll even check,” said Fern. “Do they ever do anything other than sit around on A-Ring making babies and wearing their uniforms?”
Brooklyn stared at her comatose father, so aged and creased that she could barely recognise a hint of his features in herself. Before the stroke, when he’d been awake, their relationship really hadn’t been that much different.
“Let’s do it,” Brooklyn said.
“Wait, what?” Fern said.
“Let’s do it, Let’s use Dad to get into the core.”
Fern took a step back from the wheelchair. “Seriously?”
“Yeah,” said Brooklyn. “I don’t want to be a conduit. I want people to know my name, good or bad.”
“Oh babe, yes!” Meadow squealed, smothering Brooklyn in a hug. “This is the best birthday now. I love you!”
“I’ll tell my Mum we’re taking him out for a walk,” Brooklyn said, unlocking the Commodore’s chair and gliding him towards the door.
“Come on, Fern,” Meadow called, skipping along with them.
Fern lowered her eyes from the projected starscape and caught up with the others.
As the wheelchair left the room, the Commodore’s left pinkie finger twitched.
“Oh, aren’t you girls lovely,” exclaimed Mrs. Krishnamurthy, one of A-Rings super-old, silver-haired residents. “Getting your father out for some fresh air will only be good for his recovery.”
Brooklyn, afraid anything she said would somehow betray their plans, nodded. Mrs. Krishnamurthy patted the Commodore’s arm, then led her holographic poodle down the wide, white corridor.
“That was close,” said Meadow.
“Almost there,” Brooklyn said, pushing the chair towards a bay of elevators on one side of an atrium where other A-Ringers were meeting for drinks beneath a digital canopy of vines, unaware their destination was about to be radically altered.
An empty elevator arrived, and they guided the Commodore inside the silver walls. Meadow blocked the door while Brooklyn put her father’s clammy finger next to the scanner, which shone green. The option for Core appeared on the controls, and Brooklyn selected it.
“It worked?” asked Fern.
The elevator answered by sealing the doors. Their stomachs shifted as they took the express route to Destiny’s core, past the residential rings, agriculture, molecule reclamation, hydro, plasma processing, storage, finally opening to the entrance of the tiniest ring of all.
“Core,” the elevator announced as the doors parted.
The core was tiny, perhaps smaller than Brooklyn’s family quarters, and most of it was dedicated to housing the processing power, cooling and memory of Destiny’s nerve centre. The lights flickered on, lethargic, awakening after a long hibernation. The air smelt mustier than the darkest corners of D-Ring. No one had been to the core in a long time.
A short, empty corridor led to another security door. Brooklyn guided the Commodore in that direction, the other girls forced to keep close by the narrow space.
A finger scan and iris swipe were needed to unlock the inner door, which took some teamwork to manipulate the old man’s stiff, heavy body. The doors opened, and a faint grunt escaped from the Commodore’s throat as he fell back into position.
“What was that?” said Fern. “He said something.”
“I didn’t hear anything,” said Brooklyn, from down by the legs.
Fern hesitated, but they heard nothing further. They wheeled him into the inner core where a single, elongated chair waited in front of a terminal. With some heaving and squeezing the three girls positioned the old man into the chair and this time the resulting grunt was unmistakable.
“See?” Fern said.
Meadow waved her hand across his eyes, which didn’t react. “I think it’s fine. Just air, moving through him.”
“Oh, and you’re a doctor bot?”
“Shut up,” said Brooklyn, sweeping a sheen of tiny dust particles from the terminal display. “Ready?”
Meadow nodded. Brooklyn pushed her father’s hand onto the reader. The screen lit up, and an iris scan passed over the Commodore’s open, yet unseeing eyes.
The terminal approved.
The Destiny’s administrative systems presented themselves. Metrics, population control, energy, life support.
Brooklyn positioned a wizened finger over the link to Navigation. The star chart appeared — a compact version of the stars the Commodore had sat in front of the past weeks — but here there were options. Brooklyn pressed his fingertip to the Vanvetov Nebula. The System charted a course calculation. A confirmation selector appeared on the display.
“Wait,” barked Fern.
Brooklyn held the Commodore’s finger, suspended in mid-air.
“What?” asked Brooklyn.
“I mean,” said Fern. “It’s like, you’re about to condemn the only survivors of the human race to another fifty thousand years of drifting in space because of, like, Meadow’s birthday wish.”
“Yeah?” said Brooklyn. “That’s the point.”
“We’re not going to be conduits,” said Meadow.
“Yeah, sure, except, what happens next? Seriously, think about it. We go towards a different star system. We get older. Probably we’ll have kids, right?”
“Right,” said Brooklyn.
“Well, yeah,” said Meadow. “Eventually.”
“And those kids, their kids, our families, they’ll be stuck waiting for the Destiny to arrive somewhere. Waiting. Waiting for so long that they’ll forget about us if they ever, ever do set foot somewhere better than here.”
“They will know us,” said Meadow. “We’ll be the ones who sent them to the Vanvetov Nebula.”
“They’ll hate us.” Fern’s voice cracked. Her lower lip shook. “They’ll hate us…”
Brooklyn’s grip on the Commodore’s arm weakened. She looked to Meadow. Meadow didn’t look like an adult. She barely looked thirteen.
Brooklyn let go of the arm.
It didn’t drop. It moved forward, all on its own. Meadow screamed. Brooklyn gasped. Fern screamed the loudest. The finger hit confirm on the new route.
There was, in the walls, the nearly imperceptible vibration as Destiny’s course began adjusting. The three girls watched, horrified, as the display showed their new route. The tip of the Destiny pointed into the vastness of outer space.
“Dad?” asked Brooklyn. She looked into the old man’s eyes.
“Brooklyn,” he croaked through crusted lips.
“Dad, you’re healing?” She hugged the Commodore. His arms couldn’t move, but he returned the embrace in his eyes, which blinked again as Brooklyn stepped back.
“So… The core,” he murmured, drinking in the cramped room.
“I told you they never came down here,” Fern said.
“Never,” whispered the Commodore. “Couldn’t… access.”
“What? But we used you to get down,” said Brooklyn.
His lips tightened. “No Commodore has… for millenia.” He sucked in a weak breath. The girls waited for him to continue. “Not since last time they found the way in. System… designed this way. Now I know the secret. They hoped… wouldn’t happen again.”
“What wouldn’t happen again?” asked Brooklyn.
The Commodore breathed in and out, in and out. “Change destination again. It’s the combination.” He licked at his lips. “You girls, young. Me, dying… The System. It knows what it’s doing.” He wheezed. “So long as Destiny keeps moving… Humanity has hope. We breathe, born and die… Pass on.”
“But what about Drackellex?”
“Maybe hospitable… Maybe nothing. There’s never been a new home. Time is… a journey, not a destination.”
“But it could have been Drackellex,” said Fern. “That could have been a new home, not for us, but for humanity. Why did you change course?”
“Maybe Drackellex. Maybe somewhere in the Vanvetov… Nebula. Others may come and change it again… But if it is Vanvetov…”
The Commodore swallowed, and his lips cracked into a hint of a smile. “Well, they will say I did something. Maybe, after all those centuries pass… People will know my name.”
Beyond the core, beyond the inner rings and the outer habitats and the atmosphere shield, Destiny carried humanity in the time between stars.
About the Author
Brad McNaughton lives in Adelaide and writes science fiction and mystery stories with the primary aim of making reading fun. His time travel novellas “Chase”, and “Wormholes and the Woman with the Fake Tan” are available on Amazon.