Jamal held a hand up, shading his eyes from the sun as he watched the unmanned tenders launch from Garuda 9, their mother ship. They departed one after the other, roughly five minutes apart, which was about how long it took the ground crews to unload them. Garuda 9 loomed in the atmosphere above, far too big to land on this little rock. It was one of Europa’s massive cargo ships that serviced the orbital colonies surrounding Earth, providing them with food, building materials, tools, and other supplies. Endlessly it cycled, going from colony to colony and returning to Earth only to resupply and begin the journey all over again. The round trip took about a week. It seemed silly at first, the concept of shipping food to a farming colony but, as the joke went, one would quickly grow tired of eating potatoes otherwise. Besides, the colony had to get their produce back to Earth somehow. The ground crews refilled the tenders as quickly as they unloaded them, sending the fruits of their labour back to the much bigger rock that many of them still called home.
A bead of sweat dripped into Jamal’s eye, stinging slightly and making him acutely aware of his discomfort. His face felt like it was burning and he wondered how long he had been standing up here. The colonies were alternatively closer to and farther from the sun than Earth, which meant very hot days and very cold nights on the surface. The colony’s climate controllers attempted to regulate the atmospheric conditions to suit the produce rather than the inhabitants, making the surface uncomfortable at the best of times and the colonists avoided it as a result. All except for the farmers who were, oddly enough for a farming colony, the minority of the colonist population. But the Garuda deliveries were about the most exciting thing that happened on a farming colony, and many of the colonists clambered from their holes in the ground every week just to see it.
Jamal wiped the sweat from his brow and reluctantly turned his back on the Garuda and its little worker ants. He was standing in the centre of the orbital ring, on a dirt track that separated two extensive fields of wheat-grain. The huge walls of the ring that marked the boundary of the station’s atmosphere rose seemingly out of nowhere only a hundred metres or so on either side of where he was standing, at the edge of the grain fields. A square of yellow-and-red handrail with a little rolled steel roof jutted up from the ground a couple of hundred metres in front of him. The handrails had been painted so garishly in order to prevent the harvesters from driving over the manholes that led to the underground cities. The paint was vestigial now; the manholes were surrounded by sheds and silos, but the paint had been maintained in the same kind of tradition as barber poles. Jamal walked between the rails and lifted a little hatch that had the word Sunraysia imprinted on it – the colony’s name – revealing a ladder that descended into the ground beneath. Only six feet of soil separated the surface from the underground city.
‘Thought I’d find you here,’ a voice called up as Jamal started climbing down the ladder.
‘What can I do for you Tim?’ Jamal asked, recognising Tim’s squeaky voice immediately. He paused to lock the manhole.
‘Don’t you ever get sick of watching the Garudas?’ Tim asked.
Jamal made sure Tim was out of the way before dropping the last few feet to the floor below. The lighting was poor in this section of the tunnel but Tim was so pale he practically glowed in the dark.
Jamal rolled his eyes. ‘Don’t you ever get sick of asking me that?’ he retorted.
‘Want to come around tonight for dinner?’ Tim asked.
‘That depends, who’s cooking?’
‘Ma. It’s Garuda night, so fish, salad, and fruit for dessert,’ Tim said, referring to the most popular night of the culinary week, the only time (relatively) fresh food was available.
‘And you wonder why I never get sick of watching the Garudas?’ Jamal joked.
‘Oh, Bourke wanted to see you about something. Did you leave your tools in the ventilation shaft again?’ Tim told him.
‘I’m never going to live that down, am I?’
‘Not until someone else does something sillier,’ Tim answered amicably.
The pair headed toward ‘the mall’, which served as the business and retail district for the city and was where the food supplies from the Garudas could be purchased. The ladder was at a tunnel junction, splitting south to the residencies and north to the services district, distribution centres, and the mall. The tunnel itself was not particularly long, only extending a couple of kilometres in either direction. You could easily walk from one end to the other in less than an hour. The cities themselves were dotted all over the ring, with rolling hills marking the boundaries as the ground had to be raised to accommodate the living and working spaces beneath.
The climate was much more comfortable down here. The ventilation system drew in oxygenated air from the surface and pumped it around the city while the re-circulators filtered the air for impurities and extracted carbon monoxide and dioxide, which were released into the atmosphere out of tall stacks on the surface. The confined space made it easy to control temperature but it also meant there was an ever-present risk of running into pockets of dead air. Like the time when Jamal had notoriously left his tool bag in one of the ventilation shafts after servicing one of the extraction fans. The bag itself had caught in the fan, jamming it, but not before launching several of his tools down the shaft and into one of the filters like missiles. It had happened right before Jamal’s ‘weekend’, his down day in between swapping from night to day shift, and so the error had gone unnoticed until an electrician tried to access a control panel in one of the rarely used service rooms and promptly passed out from asphyxiation. Luckily, the electricians always worked in pairs and his partner had rescued him before any permanent damage had been done. That whole section of the ventilation had had to be shut down to retrieve the tools and rectify the problem. Jamal’s name was engraved on the tools that were extracted from the filter. That was a year ago. Tim was Jamal’s apprentice, and was not likely to let the story go in a hurry.
‘Good evening, Mr. Baker. It’s lovely to see you, won’t you please come in and take a seat’, Tim’s dad said with a thick Indian accent as he answered the door. Jamal stepped inside, bowing his head toward the brown-skinned man as he passed the threshold.
‘Jamaaal!’ Ma greeted Jamal as he came out of the narrow hallway into the kitchen. She bustled her way past steaming pots and pans to embrace him in a deep bear hug. Ma was a heavy-set Italian woman, and it never ceased to amaze Jamal how she could move around so quickly in the narrow confines of the tight living quarters without bumping everything. Jamal was much smaller but he was more like the proverbial bull in the china shop. He returned the hug, then went to take a seat before he could break anything. Tim’s family’s quarters were littered with trinkets: here a plaque of Christ hanging from his crucifix, there a gaudy statue of Vishnu. Tim was already sitting in the far corner of the dining room. Jamal had to squeeze into his seat as the dining table had already been extracted from where it folded into the wall and was dressed for dinner.
‘How are you, Mrs Harshavardan?’ Jamal asked politely.
‘Oh Jamal, you know not to call me that,’ Tim’s mum said crossly. She was one of those women who was everyone’s mother, and expected everyone to call her Ma accordingly. ‘You know Alan only calls you that because he can’t pronounce your name,’ she continued, deliberately using the English approximation of her husband’s name.
Alan smiled happily in response then went into the kitchen to help his wife, only to be ushered straight back out.
‘Out!’ Ma admonished. ‘You will only get in my way, go and say your prayers or something.’ Jamal and Tim laughed as Ma thrust a broom after Alan.
‘Very well,’ Alan said in his thick accent. He took a small folded-up mat from its place on the shelving in the main room and dutifully walked down the narrow hallway into his makeshift prayer room. Jamal had asked about it once. It was really the storeroom, but Alan and Ma had long since come to a compromise, Ma keeping her cooking tools, sauces and other bits and pieces restricted to the shelving on either side of the room, concealed by curtains. The back wall of shelving had been pulled out and replaced with a little shrine. Alan was a fervent follower of Hinduism. Ma was theoretically Catholic but food was her true religion.
Oddly for his upbringing, Tim was a Secularist. He borrowed ideals from both his parents’ religions as well as others, but committed to none of them. Tim was of American stock. As fortune would have it, Ma – everyone’s mother – was barren. She could not bear the thought of going through life without children and so she and Alan had adopted Tim at a young age. They had planned to adopt more children until they had a bustling family but Alan’s business had suffered a turn and their wealth vanished almost overnight. That was how they ended up all the way out on this rock in the middle of nowhere.
Jamal was a Secularist as well, but he had no idea what his ethnicity was; his parents firmly believed in liberation through non-identification. That is to say, the absence of labels. Even his last name wasn’t real. His parents had changed their family name deliberately, to the most innocuous thing they could think of. Jamal couldn’t even point at the continent he came from; he had been raised to see himself only as a Terran, born on Earth. He looked more like Alan’s son than Tim ever would; his browned skin shared a slight golden hue, darker than Ma’s olive complexion but lighter than the dark-skinned men and women he knew to be of African descent. They also had similar features. Certainly he was treated as if he was their second son. Jamal’s parents had lived next door to Alan and Ma, and so Tim and Alan had spent a lot of time playing together. Jamal’s parents had seven other sons and daughters and so they rarely noticed when Jamal was missing. It wasn’t that his parents neglected him, it was just that they were busy. Ma really had been like a mother to him, and he felt closer to Tim than he did to most of his blood-brothers and -sisters, one of which was serving elsewhere on this same station.
They ate, heartily. The Garudas might have been taken for granted but the fresh variety of food they brought with them was not. Sunraysia mainly consisted of grain, grape and citrus farms. They were frequently nicknamed the ‘breakfast colony’, since all they really produced was the ingredients for bread, cereal and orange juice. There were a few mills and factories on the surface that made the colony self-sustaining in the event of isolation. Otherwise, many of the colonists had little hydroponic gardens in their living quarters, and there were small patches of non-produce fruits and vegetables on the surface but there was never enough to keep up with demand. Right now, they were enjoying spaghetti in a fresh marinara sauce, not that preserved stuff they normally had to rely on. There was the fish, as promised, the real prize of the meal since there was absolutely no way they could harvest fish on this floating rock.
It must be uncomfortable for Alan in these situations, Jamal thought to himself. Ma was one of the station’s cooks so Alan normally did the cooking at home to give her a break from it. The only time Ma cooked at home was when they had guests over, primarily because Alan’s curries were too hot for the uninitiated, but also because the living quarters were so cramped that the only time anyone had guests for dinner was to celebrate something.
‘What’s the occasion?’ Jamal asked before spooning the last few mouthfuls of fruit salad into his mouth.
Pots and pans clattered in the kitchen as Ma apparently dropped them in her rush to answer him. Her eyes were wide. ‘You have not heard?’ she asked.
Tim laughed and said, ‘He was too busy watching the Garudas again, Ma.’
Ma looked to Tim, then back to Jamal. ‘The orbital farms worked. We have solved world hunger! No one ever needs to be hungry again!’ she said, so excited she was shaking.
‘What happens when the world gets tired of eating cereal?’ Tim joked.
Ma flicked him with a tea-towel.
‘Wow,’ was all Jamal managed to say. He looked at the clock on the wall, memorising the date. The clocks here didn’t sync perfectly with earth but the colonists still found it useful to track Earth time. July 20th, 2029. It seemed so fast. The first orbital station had only been built six years ago; Sunraysia itself was only three years old.
‘This calls for celebration!’ Ma insisted, and bustled back into the kitchen where she retrieved a bottle of Earthen Vino. Wine was one of the few things the colony produced that it didn’t get tired of consuming, even if the lack of maturity meant the wine had to be mixed to be drinkable. Truly, one could only drink so much recycled water.
The next few months passed much like the ones that came before them. The colonists celebrated; Earth assisted by sending an extra Garuda full of food and supplies to the colonies, its contents including wine that was old enough to drink itself. But in the end, there was only so much fresh food the colonists could eat and the bulk of it was simply frozen for future use. Although the eradication of world hunger was no doubt life-altering on Earth, the reality was that it had almost no impact on the colonists. Every day they still got up to work, driving harvesters or fixing machinery, and every night they drank terrible wine and went to bed early because there was nothing else to do. By the time the additional food had dwindled, Sunraysia had all but forgotten the achievement. In fact, they found out later that world hunger had actually been eradicated in June, not July. The interplanetary communication system had broken down yet again and it wasn’t until one of the Garuda pilots mentioned it over the radio as a by-the-by that the colonists heard the news.
In this crazy time where global milestones seemed almost regular – it was difficult to acknowledge the importance of the first human settlement on Mars, for example, when a Jovian expedition was announced in the same year – the eradication of world hunger barely made a mark on the calendar. Lebensraum day was the second biggest day on the calendar after Christmas. Lebensraum was an old German word that meant ‘living space’. The name was selected particularly because the Germans had used the word in World War Two to justify their invasion. The significance was that with a whole universe to settle and mine, there would theoretically be no reason for future wars on Earth. The reality was very different of course; space was dominated by mega-corporations that were frequently wealthier than nations, and sometimes their disputes would be settled on Earth. The worst part was that the colonists didn’t even get a day off to celebrate properly.
The very next morning, Jamal and Tim went to work alongside thousands of other hung-over colonists.
‘No, the electricians will be down that tunnel today,’ Jamal explained. ‘They found a fault in one of the grav-drive backup generators yesterday.’
‘They claimed to find a fault in the generator so they would be left alone today and you know it,’ Tim scoffed in response.
‘Yeah alright but the fact that we know that means they’ll get caught one day. So we need to be smarter about it,’ Jamal said patiently.
‘Smart like leaving your tools in the vent shaft?’ Tim said bitingly. Tim was not normally much of a drinker, and Jamal was used to him acting like an angry bear the morning after a big night so he tactfully ignored him.
‘There’s an extraction fan up here that’s not making pressure. I had a listen yesterday and couldn’t hear anything but I think the belt has slipped,’ Jamal told Tim.
Tim wasn’t happy at the prospect of working but bit his tongue.
‘We’ll lock it out,’ Jamal continued, ‘then head back down the shaft to the electrical store. We know no one will be there since the electricians will all be sleeping in the generator room.’
‘That’s diabolical,’ Tim said, grinning up at his dark-skinned friend.
‘I thought you would like it,’ Jamal said with a laugh. ‘We’ll sleep it off in there and then go and get dirty fixing that extraction fan just before knock-off.’
There wasn’t much risk of getting caught. There was an unspoken agreement that anyone who could afford to shirk work for the day was going to do so. The trick was just to hide, so that if anyone who couldn’t get out of work caught you, they wouldn’t get jealous and report you.
They slept the morning away, waiting for lunch time before crawling out of their hidey-hole. None of the workers were expected to lunch in the small crib room that was provided for the underground servicemen, and the room was small and uncomfortable as well as usually being a long walk from their workplace, so on any other day the servicemen would have just taken packed lunches with them and eaten wherever they happened to be when they got hungry. The day after Lebensraum day, however, saw the workers crawl out of the proverbial woodwork to sit around sheepishly in the crib room as if they all felt the need to prove they were awake and had been working hard all morning. The image was completed by the laughing workmen taking digs at the workers who were absent, half-jokingly accusing them of being off asleep somewhere and sitting around looking self-righteously at each other. Meanwhile, the workers who weren’t there to defend themselves were probably the only ones who were actually out on jobs.
It was this strange gathering that brought Jamal and his brother back together. Jamal’s brother worked and lived in one of the other underground ‘cities’, elsewhere along the ring. Communication was an ongoing issue on the colonies and although it would only be a few hours of walking to reach the other’s underground city, it was rare for them to contact each other unless they needed something. So what was he doing here?
Jamal eyed his brother across the room. They looked similar enough that they could be confused. His brother was slightly taller. Jamal was slightly darker, due to his weekly solar exposure when the Garudas arrived. His brother’s expression was hard. Something was wrong.
‘How are you, Ez?’ Jamal asked. They were alone in the tunnel outside the crib room.
‘Mum’s on her way out. Dad reckons weeks,’ Ez answered soberly.
Jamal leaned against the wall, taking it in. She had been sick for a long time, so long it seemed to Jamal that she had always been sick. Jamal looked at his brother, who had cast his eyes toward the ground. It was hard to read him. They got on well enough but it was a long time since the brothers had been close. They had simply led different lives; it was only coincidence that had put them on the same colony at the same time.
‘Why didn’t Dad call me?’ Jamal asked.
Ez said nothing, gesturing vaguely around them in response. It was enough. The inter-colony communications were bad enough but the inter-planetary communications seemed like they were down more often than they were up these days.
‘Thank you for coming to tell me,’ Jamal said sincerely.
‘Are you staying?’ Jamal asked.
‘For a couple of nights,’ Ez answered. ‘One of the backup generators is spiking, they needed someone to carry the parts over from Estuary.’ That was Ez’s city; Jamal’s was Solar. Ez was one of the colony’s senior technicians, in a different role but sharing seniority with the maintenance supervisors. It was slightly concerning that the backup generator really was faulting.
‘Boys have been having some grief with one of the harvester docks lately, I thought I’d take a look while I’m here. They’ve put me up in Holloway’s,’ Ez continued. Holloway was one of the farmers – or had been. A couple of weeks ago, there had been some sort of mechanical failure with his harvester. One of the oil hoses had flared and Holloway had been burnt alive. He had managed to escape his cabin but hadn’t been able to put the fire out. A whole section of crop burnt to the ground around him before the emergency crews got the blaze under control. That was how they found the body. Another operator was being transferred up to take over his room and job but not many of the Garudas were currently equipped for human transport and they were tasked elsewhere.
The door opened. Lunch was over and the workers came shambling back out. Tim looked from Jamal to Ez and back again. He faced Jamal and said, ‘Hi, Ez,’ then turned back to Ez. ‘Come on, we’ve still got that extraction fan to fix.’
The brothers laughed. Tim, who knew both brothers very well, must have sensed the dark mood.
‘Come on, Tim. We’ve got work to do,’ Jamal said, and headed off down the tunnel toward the extraction fan.
Jamal swore as his shifter slipped, forcing his hand down abruptly and causing him to cut his knuckles on the bolt beneath. His mind was elsewhere.
‘I’ll get it,’ Tim said, pushing into Jamal’s position without waiting for an answer.
‘And you know better than to use those things,’ Tim scolded, raiding Jamal’s tool bag for spanners. He held one up to check the measurement in the dim light of his headlamp and went to work. The nuts were already in place, they just needed tightening.
‘So when’s the grieving?’ Tim asked.
‘Ez reckons he’ll be stuck here for another few days fixing that harvester controller but he’s too exhausted after work so he wants to wait until the night before he heads back to Estuary,’ Jamal said, moving out of the way to let his apprentice work. Tim was practically a tradesman himself now anyway, so while Jamal normally supervised on the less common or more difficult tasks, they had reverted to taking turns with the mundane.
‘That’s fair enough. That sun really takes it out of you,’ Tim said.
Jamal nodded his agreement, although Tim had his back turned and couldn’t see it.
It was their last job for the day and they separated shortly after, Tim returning to his family quarters and Jamal continuing on down the tunnel past the family quarters to the single men’s quarters, stopping at ‘The Vineyard’ where he bought a cask of the local wine and two bottles of the decent stuff.
He had to put his tool bag and box of alcohol down to let himself in his doorway, then pushed the tool bag into the doorway with his foot to hold it open. He frowned at the doorway like he had every day for the last month. It needed fixing, the pneumatic on the door needed re-gassing. Every afternoon he came home to it, frustrated, and vowed to take it in to the workshop and fix it the next morning. And every morning he went to work, the door slamming behind him, forgotten about.
He walked up his narrow hallway and dumped both the tool bag and box of booze on the kitchen bench. His quarters had a storeroom, which was mostly full of tools, and a bedroom, which he rarely used. It was just big enough for a single bed and a locker, so he used it as a second storeroom and slept on the couch in his living/dining/kitchen room instead. The single quarters were much smaller than the family quarters, and the family quarters weren’t big. Not for the first time, he wished he’d applied for a job on one of the other orbital colonies. Some of them were run by wealthy families who built huge estates on the surface with wings connected for the employees. Of course, you typically had to already be family for them to employ you.
There was a knock on the door. Jamal opened it and let Ez in without a word. Ez followed Jamal down the hallway to the couch, where he took a seat. Jamal pulled the retractable table out, placed two of his cleanest glasses on it and filled them both with one of the Earthen wines. He sat on the couch next to Ez and they took a drink in silence. Ez let out a long sigh and placed his glass back on the table.
‘How much longer are you planning on staying up here?’ Ez asked Jamal.
Jamal shrugged. He honestly hadn’t considered it.
‘I was thinking about getting a trip back for the funeral, and then staying on the dirt for a while,’ Ez continued without waiting for an answer.
‘Why don’t you?’ Jamal asked.
Ez was silent for a while. Perhaps that was exactly what he was going to do.
‘Someone’s got to look after my little brother,’ Ez answered after a while. That was an excuse, and Jamal knew it.
‘You’ve found someone,’ Jamal accused.
Ez shot him an amused look, then fingered the rim of his glass thoughtfully. ‘You know me too well,’ he said.
Jamal finished his glass, poured himself another and topped up Ez’s. ‘You are my brother,’ he pointed out.
‘Put the TV on, will you?’ Ez requested, making himself comfortable and sinking further into the couch. ‘And get rid of this damn thing,’ he said, kicking the table leg.
Obediently placing the bottle of wine on the floor next to Ez’s foot, Jamal retracted the table and switched the TV on. The screen was blue – no signal. ‘So who is he?’ Jamal asked as he sat back down.
‘She, and no one you will know,’ Ez replied tersely.
‘So she’s ugly,’ Jamal ventured.
‘She’s not ugly,’ Ez snapped, and snatched the remote out of Jamal’s hand and changed the channel. Blue again.
‘Fat, then?’ Jamal offered. ‘Old?’
Ez struck Jamal in the knee with the remote. ‘Eliza Winters.’
‘Winters.’ Jamal repeated, rolling the name around on his tongue. It sounded familiar. ‘Wait, Ezekiel’s daughter?’ Ezekiel part-owned Agrifirm, Sunraysia’s parent company. The boss.
‘Niece’, Ez corrected.
‘Well that explains why your comm system was working when mine wasn’t,’ Jamal said. ‘How long has this been going on?’
‘It hasn’t,’ Ez answered, frowning.
‘Wait, one of us is confused,’ Jamal said.
‘Yeah, me. Or her. I don’t know. I had to go up to Pinnacle last week, to try and sort out whatever’s causing the electro-magnetic interference that keeps screwing with the comm systems.’ He emphasised this last point by gesturing to the TV, which he had been flicking through channels on but which obstinately refused to display anything other than a blue no signal screen. ‘I met her up there, she’s one of the communication technicians.’
Jamal went into the kitchen, where he started preparing a meal. ‘I can still hear you,’ he called out.
‘Anyway we hit it off, started having lunch together. I asked her if she was seeing anyone. “Not yet”, she said,’ Ez continued.
Jamal was about to interrupt with another joke at Ez’s expense, but thought better of it. ‘So did you ask her?’ he said instead.
‘Yes, of course. She said yes.’
‘Well, congratulations then?’ Jamal asked, curious why Ez didn’t seem happy about this outcome.
Ez waved the congratulations away and continued. ‘But then I got the call about Mum. So I jumped straight on the dinger’ – that was the buggy that carried workers and equipment over the dirt road that circled the ring – ‘and came here. Except the damn comm system still doesn’t work so I haven’t been able to contact her since,’ Ez finished angrily, throwing the remote at the other end of the couch.
Jamal couldn’t tell if Ez was upset about Mum dying or angry that he couldn’t tell his new girlfriend what was happening. He saw what Ez meant now though: The abrupt departure could certainly be taken the wrong way, and it would obviously be unwise to anger the boss’s niece. And now that they knew their mum’s life was going to be measured in weeks, if Ez really had been thinking about leaving then now would be the time to do it. Jamal had no solution to offer, so instead he handed Ez some dinner and refilled his glass again.
The following morning, things went from bad to worse. Instead of his usual alarm, Jamal was torn from sleep by the sound of an announcement buzzer. Quickly he fumbled around for the remote, which was jammed in the corner of the couch where Ez had thrown it. The TV blinked into life and displayed Ezekiel’s wizened face. The man was visibly shaken. Whatever he had to announce, it wasn’t good. Perhaps one of the life support systems had failed. Or worse, a gravity drive. Either would have left thousands of colonists dead within minutes. Ezekiel was talking but there was no sound coming out. The TV was muted. Jamal turned the volume up.
‘-overnight. At least one hundred million dead so far, but there is too much radiation to do a count. The toll could be as high as five hundred million. Miami, New York, London, Madrid, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Cairo, Hong Kong, Tel-Aviv, Tehran, Ankara, Istanbul-’ the list of cities went on. Jamal stared at the screen in horror. The names passed in one ear and out the other; he couldn’t absorb them all. ‘Chemical and biological weapons have been used as well as nuclear weapons. It is unclear who fired the first missile. We don’t yet know which countries are responsible but many countries have already retaliated. The reason for this attack is unclear; so far it appears to be religious rather than political in nature. A conference is taking place as I speak. More news will be released as it becomes available. Until then, stay calm and return to work. None of the colonies has been affected yet but as we are on orbital stations, your work is crucial to maintaining the safety of all colonists. I say again, stay calm and return to work.’ The screen flickered and the announcement looped back to the start. ‘The Earth has been involved in a multi-national attack overnight-’. Jamal had heard enough. He turned the TV off and sat back down on the couch, too shocked to move.
A series of horrifying scenarios ran through his head. He tried flicking the TV to other stations, but to no avail. The interplanetary communications must still be out; obviously Sunraysia was receiving radio waves still but no television broadcasts. Either that or things were even worse on Earth than Ezekiel had let on. Broadcasting towers frequently made good strategic targets for bombing if one wanted to prevent news from spreading.
Jamal tried to remember where his family was, scattered as they were. One of his sisters was piloting a ship on the Jovian mission. That left three brothers and a sister somewhere in Australia. They might be far enough to be safe. His parents, however, were in America last he had heard; somewhere in Nevada, working on one of the space programs. And his youngest sister was probably still with them. None of the cities listed in the broadcast were in Nevada but there was nothing to say the list was exhaustive and no way of telling how extensive the radiation was.
He had to find Ez.
There was a knock at his door. It was Tim, dressed and ready for work. Jamal checked the time. Where had it gone? He had been so distracted by the news, he must have zoned out. He was supposed to have started work an hour ago. Tim looked him up and down, still dressed in his clothes from the night before.
‘Did you miss the announcement?’ Jamal asked.
Tim shook his head soberly. ‘No,’ he said. ‘But the announcement said to return to work as usual and I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so-’ he finished with a gesture toward his uniform.
‘What do you think happened?’ Jamal asked. ‘Sorry, come in,’ Jamal said, realising that in his distraction he still had Tim cornered in his hallway.
Tim frowned and bit his lip at that. ‘Ma and Pa were fighting about that this morning. Both of them blame America,’ he said thoughtfully.
‘You don’t sound like you agree,’ Jamal noted.
Tim shrugged, walking past Jamal to sit on the couch. ‘I honestly have no idea,’ Tim admitted. ‘Ma seemed to think it was the Muslims again but Pa says it’s a conspiracy.’
Jamal’s brows furrowed in confusion. ‘I thought you said they both blamed America?’
‘Yeah,’ Tim said, ‘Ma thinks either America’s attacks on Islam pushed them to another attack like that one in 2001. Pa thinks the Americans launched the missile and are blaming Islam for it.’
Jamal had heard all this before. The twin towers attack of 2001 was still taught in school, including the twin theories of whether it had been a terrorist attack or an American conspiracy to start the so-called ‘war on terror’.
‘The announcement said the attack was religious, not political,’ Jamal said.
‘Yeah, which kind of supports the theory, I guess,’ Tim said. When Jamal said nothing, Tim continued. ‘I don’t know, it just sounds to me like the twin towers all over again. Attack out of nowhere, and it looks like a setup for America to blame Islam and carry out their war all over again.’
‘That makes no sense,’ Jamal said. ‘Even if the war on terror was over oil, who cares about oil anymore? We have fusion power now. And the attacks weren’t limited to America. Even if America wanted war with Islam again, I doubt they would have the balls to directly attack their allies to start it.’
‘The attacks were mostly on America and her allies,’ Tim pointed out. ‘And any of the others could be explained as either retaliation or collateral. Islam is the only religion volatile enough to oppose the globalisation of America’s secularism, so they could be responsible for the attack. But on the same hand if America wanted to get rid of Islam for good, the attacks on their allies could be seen as very good incentive for them to join the fight. I don’t know that I believe that though. It seems awfully risky.’
Jamal nodded his agreement with the latter. ‘So you think it was Islam then?’ he asked.
Tim bit his lip again. ‘That seems exactly as unlikely. I honestly just can’t believe it happened. It’s been so long since anything like this has happened and with so much Lebensraum now, what’s the point of squabbling over anything anymore? The trouble is, the religious mobs are getting all uppity about it. They’re worried they’re going to take the blame for the attacks and they’ll be persecuted by the Secularists again.’
‘What?’ Jamal said incredulously. ‘That makes even less sense. It’s been a long time since any religion – other than Islam – has been persecuted. And they’re only persecuted because they refuse to assimilate.’
‘Can you blame them?’ Tim asked.
‘No, I guess not. I mean if that’s what they believe then that’s what they believe. To them it must look like us refusing to assimilate with Islam. But what about the other religions? Your parents are Catholic and Hindu, what do they think?’ Jamal asked.
‘The Muslims called a meeting at the chaplaincy about it this morning, straight after the announcement,’ Tim said by way of answering.
‘It’s that serious?’ Jamal asked, shocked. ‘But it has nothing to do with us, all the way up here. Shouldn’t we banding together, worrying about family down there and doing what we can to help them?’
‘We’ve never been persecuted, so I guess we can’t understand?’ Tim said, throwing his arms out in an exaggerated shrug. That was one of the standard lines that the religious mobs liked to bandy around when they weren’t getting their way. ‘I think the Muslims expect to be the scapegoats again, so they called the meeting pre-emptively, to try and head off some of the persecution that might be coming their way,’ he continued more seriously. ‘The Christians and Muslims had some success working together in the 2010s, so I guess they thought they would try it here.’
Jamal shook his head. ‘So now the rest of the faiths have allied with Islam and the Secularists are the scapegoats instead?’ he said, more to himself than anyone else. He just couldn’t wrap his head around the whole thing. He was just worried about his family down there. How were people confusing this catastrophe with a religious persecution?
There was a loud banging on the door.
Jamal looked to Tim, who returned his confused expression. He opened the door and was surprised to see the maintenance supervisor standing in the doorway looking furious.
‘What are you two doing!’ he demanded.
Jamal opened his mouth to answer and started – his eyes were drawn to the cross hanging around his supervisor’s neck. Working with machinery being what it was, it was unusual for someone in maintenance to have dangling jewellery on their person.
‘Sorry sir, but the news-’ Jamal began.
The supervisor, however, had caught his gaze. He fingered the cross, staring Jamal in the eyes. ‘Is there a problem, Jamal?’ His voice had softened, but was somehow more menacing for it.
‘No sir,’ Jamal answered. He was tense. The supervisor turned his stare toward Tim.
‘No sir,’ Tim echoed.
‘Then get to work. You’re two hours late and you aren’t even dressed,’ the supervisor said, dropping the cross. He spun on his heels and stormed back out the door, not even bothering to close it.
‘What do you think that was all about?’ Tim asked as Jamal hurried to get dressed. He hadn’t even had breakfast yet; he would have to take something with him.
Jamal didn’t answer, he just dressed as quickly as he could, grabbed his tools and went to work.
The work day, after starting so late, went very quickly. Just as Jamal returned to his room, the PA system clicked into life and the well-known voice of Elizabeth ‘Lizzy’ Steinbach, Solar’s popular city manager, announced that there would be a mass grieving that night.
Each city had an above-ground building called a chaplaincy, which was a large building with a single entrance but normally the internal area was divided into sections where each of the faiths separated for their own private rituals. However the building was also designed to be used as a community hall, and was able to be converted into an emergency shelter if something were ever to happen to the underground systems. For the mass grieving, the dividers had been removed, leaving the room looking like an oversized version of the Harshavardans’ living room with the bizarre assortment of religious ornaments and shrines littering the walls. All of Solar’s population as well as the nearby farmers were there, with the exception of a few detractors and the skeleton crew required to monitor the control rooms.
Where Jamal expected the colonists to band together in this time of strife, he couldn’t help but notice that most of the colonists had filed in to where there faiths normally gathered. They were easy to tell apart now, all dressed in their funeral attire as according to their faiths. There was Ma and the Catholics on the right-hand side with the other Christian denominations, dressed traditionally in black suits and dresses. The Hindus were dressed casually in white; and Muslims, some covered, some not, all dressed in various subdued colours, were on the left-hand side. Jews, Pagans, Buddhists, Confucians and a myriad of other religions filled the middle. The cities had gathered for other occasions in the past, mostly for Christmas and other holidays, but this sort of division had never happened before. The majority of the Secularists were left at the back, dressed smartly but in all manner of clothing, squeezing in wherever they could find room. Some of the Secularists who had arrived earlier found themselves in the middle of tightly knit crowds. They could feel the eyes on their backs and they felt vulnerable. They kept their children close by and clenched their loved ones tighter than normal.
Jamal, Tim and Ez looked around nervously. There would be a short speech and a minute’s silence for the general crowd, followed by the re-division of the chaplaincy so that the faiths could mourn in their own ways. There was an unspoken agreement between them that they would leave as soon as the ceremony was over. Although they couldn’t understand why, and had personally done nothing wrong, it was clear they weren’t welcome here.
Lizzy, Solar’s city manager, came out of a back room and stepped onto the little stage that had been constructed at the far end of the room. She stood all of five foot tall and had an unassuming face, but her actions in the early days of the colony had earned her the colonists’ respect. The moment her foot touched the stage, the murmuring of the crowd ceased.
‘Colonists of Sunraysia,’ she began formally, ‘unfortunately, we have not yet received further word from Earth, and so I can offer you neither an explanation for the catastrophe that has taken place, nor the extent of the damage. Regardless of the reasons why, everyone here has been affected in some way, we have all suffered great loss and we are together in our grief. I hand you over now to the chief chaplain. Dante?’
Lizzy stepped back from the microphone. Dante adjusted the microphone up to his height and spoke into it softly. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here this evening to grieve for our lost friends and comrades that we left back home. I now ask for the heads of each denomination to offer a brief prayer or speech.’
The Christian leader spoke out first, saying the Lord’s Prayer. He was followed by the spokesmen for the other faiths, taking turns clockwise around the room, each offering brief funerary prayers. Where prayers from other faiths would contradict or offend, those who would be offended simply bowed their heads and politely covered their ears with their hands. The Secularist spoke last, simply stating the collective sorrow at the loss and offering his condolences to those affected.
‘Thank you all,’ Dante said simply, and stepped off the stage.
Lizzy pulled the microphone back down and washed her gaze over the crowd before speaking again. ‘We will now observe a minute’s silence,’ she said. She bowed her head and the crowd did likewise. Stock images of Earth and its people were projected onto the walls of the chaplaincy. The members of those faiths who found it offensive to view images of the deceased simply bowed deeper and directed their gazes toward the ground in front of them.
When the minute was over, Lizzy spoke again. ‘My fellow colonists, I appreciate that there is some tension amongst the community at present. I urge you all to set that aside. We must remember that we are alone up here and that we need each other to survive.’ She paused to let her message sink in, then finished, ‘there will be an interlude of thirty minutes as the dividers are replaced and the rooms refurbished, and then individual services will continue as planned by your denominations.’
Ordinarily, Secularists were allowed to utilise the various meditation rooms within the chaplaincy, or even the prayer rooms between services. There would be none of that now, so the Secularists had nowhere to go. Jamal, Ez, and Tim went back to Jamal’s room for a drink and some quiet contemplation before splitting ways and returning to their own quarters.
The next few days passed by in a strange kind of haze. There had been no further communications from Earth, so the colonists were beginning to get anxious. Paranoia took hold of the colony.
There was no more shirking work; previously, the supervisor would spend the bulk of his time in the maintenance control room and the only times Jamal and Tim ever saw him was for a meeting at the start and completion of their shifts, which was roughly twice a week. Unless the supervisor got bored, in which case he might drop in on them for a chat. Other than that, they would receive task sheets electronically and issues or procurements were sent back the same way. There was no need for anything more than that since if Jamal and Tim didn’t do their job it would become quite clear when sections of the ventilation started failing.
Since the attack however, the supervisor had started checking on them regularly, at least twice a day. At first they had taken it personally, thinking it was either an attack on their diligence or due to their both being Secularists, which was currently enough reason for them to be treated with suspicion at all times. It wasn’t, though. Ez confirmed that there had been a meeting and all the supervisors had received the same instructions, to ensure that work continued regardless of social tensions on the station.
The high-ups had wanted to keep it quiet, but apparently one of the other colonies had already experienced rioting. The only thing that had stopped the riots was the failure of one of the gravity drives. Luckily, a backup drive had kicked in almost immediately so no one died but it could have been catastrophic. The colony engaged a kind of martial law after that, arming the few police they had and deputising others. They had tried to lock up large groups of the rioters but it didn’t work since the rioters were necessary to maintain the gravity, power and other life support systems on the station. It was chaos.
Obviously, Ezekiel was worried about the same thing happening on Sunraysia. The supervisors’ intervention kept everyone honest to some extent but it was also causing more problems as people related it to the ‘big brother’ tactics of the previous decade. And it didn’t stop people from talking outside work hours, when the religious mobs cloistered themselves in the chaplaincy for all-night meetings. They were doing it for their own safety, they said, as they feared Secularist retribution. The trouble was, that very action was making the Secularists suspicious. Where previously they may have trusted the people they had been working beside for the last three years, now they had to wonder exactly what it was they were planning at those meetings. Perhaps the religious mobs were planning on overthrowing the Secularists, to ensure that they would not be persecuted. In turn, the suspicion the Secularists displayed only served to justify the faithful’s concerns of persecution.
It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Jamal hardly saw Tim anymore. Tim had started meeting Jamal at the jobsite instead of his house, and began going straight home instead of stopping at Jamal’s for a couple of drinks after work. Jamal didn’t ask, but he got the idea with Tim having two religious parents, he was under pressure to hide his secularism, and that meant at least appearing to cut ties with Jamal.
Eventually, the communication link was restored, and the news came through. It wasn’t delivered by Ezekiel or the other station staff however, since the TV signal came back at the same time. And it was all over the news, on every channel that was still operating. Apparently, a radical Islamic group called Ikrama Sabri was taking the credit – or the blame, depending on which way you looked at it – for the attack. The newscast showed a photo of the man, a Muslim who had to be at least in his late fifties and was so remarkably expressionless that he actually looked bored. A taped radio sermon from 1997 by a one-time Sheikh and Grand Mufti, the group’s namesake, played in the background. ‘Oh Allah, destroy America, her agents, and her allies! Cast them into their own traps, and cover the White House with black!’
‘Well, their inspiration is clear,’ Ez said. With all the paranoia, Ez had moved out of Holloway’s and into Jamal’s.
‘This isn’t good,’ Jamal said, stating the bleeding obvious.
‘I don’t think I’ll be going to work today,’ Ez said.
Jamal chewed his lip thoughtfully. ‘I’ve probably got enough food here to see us through the week.’
‘Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.’
‘It might pay to start finding containers for water though,’ Jamal said. ‘If things get too crazy, the services might go down.’
‘If the services go down, water will be the least of our problems,’ Ez pointed out. If the gravity drives or life support systems failed, they would die long before they would die of thirst.
They stayed in Jamal’s quarters for the next five days, watching the news and talking quietly.
On the first day, the corridor outside was silent, like the rest of the colonists had come to the same conclusion. Around lunchtime, an announcement came over the PA system. ‘Please be aware that Sunraysia’s police service has been activated to maintain control,’ the announcement said. ‘Please remain calm, this is only a precautionary measure. Additional deputies are required. To ensure fairness, police membership will be equal numbers faithful and Secularist. If you are interested, please apply through your supervisor.’
Jamal and Ez just looked at each other. The police activation was more likely to escalate the situation than control it. And it was unclear whether or not this was a trap. As a senior technician, Ez effectively was one of the supervisors, and he had no information on this turn of events.
The second day was even more alarming. There was noise and movement in the corridor all day, sounds of running feet, raised voices, and something being dragged. They heard knocking, starting up the corridor and coming closer until the knocking was on Jamal’s door. They didn’t know if it was supervisors rounding up workers, or groups of people rounding up Islamists – or Secularists, or someone in trouble, looking for somewhere to hide. They didn’t open the door to find out.
On the third day, the newscast was interrupted for a colony announcement. The Sunraysia banner flashed on the screen, followed by Ezekiel’s face. He looked angry. ‘Colonists of Sunraysia,’ he began, his voice quivering as he visibly tried to remain calm. ‘Following the detention of violent protesters yesterday, rioters have seized control of the police station and are now armed. The rioters are urged to relinquish control of the weapons and police station peacefully in return for a full pardon. We’re living on an orbital space station, you morons. If the colonists cannot safely return to work, everyone on Sunraysia dies including you!’ Ezekiel lost his composure and raised his voice toward the end. He snarled at the camera and spun on his heels. The announcement blinked off and the newscast continued, unaware of what had just transpired.
Jamal and Ez remained locked in Jamal’s quarters for another two days, hoping the rioters would relinquish the police station – or at least the weapons – but no further announcements were forthcoming. However, they couldn’t wait any longer. Even if they were to continue to hide out, they needed to resupply.
Jamal cautiously opened his front door and poked his head out. The corridors were clear. He stepped out, Ez following. He turned to close the door behind them and stopped. Ez caught his stare.
‘What is it?’ Ez asked quietly.
‘Look,’ Jamal told him. Ez did, turning to look where Jamal was staring. There was a red ‘S’ spray painted on the front of the door.
Ez shot a look back at Jamal, who was still staring at the S, frozen with disbelief. ‘Come on,’ Ez urged.
Jamal nodded, and they silently started walking up the corridor. ‘You hear that?’ They heard the hiss of someone whispering farther up the hall. The brothers froze in place. There was no way of telling whether it was friend or foe.
‘Go back,’ Jamal said. ‘I’ve got an idea.’
They retreated back to Jamal’s quarters and closed the doors. ‘Listen,’ Jamal instructed.
Ez stopped and listened carefully, but shrugged. What was he supposed to be hearing?
‘I noticed it yesterday. The ventilation fan in this section has stalled,’ Jamal told him.
‘But there’s still good airflow here?’
‘Of course,’ Jamal said matter-of-factly. ‘There’s still three other fans in the area. Only two are needed, the rest are precautionary.’
‘I’ll take your word for it,’ Ez said. ‘What about it?’
Jamal ignored him and went into his bedroom. It was an absolute mess as he had had to clear enough space for the bed since Ez had moved onto his couch. Jamal stopped rummaging for a moment and popped his head out of the room. ‘This might take me a while. Grab a couple of bags, fill them with water and food,’ Jamal instructed.
Ez obliged without question. Whatever his brother was up to, he trusted him.
‘Here,’ Jamal said five minutes later. He was holding two masks. Ez took one. ‘Are the bags ready?’ Jamal asked.
Ez handed him one of the bags, but Jamal pushed it back into his hand. ‘Hold it for a moment, you’ll need to pass them up to me. We’re going to crawl out the ventilation shaft.’ ‘Where?’ Ez asked.
‘The surface,’ Jamal answered, already donning his mask. Ez rushed to pull his on. Jamal climbed up on the table and reached for the vent cover. His practiced hands had the cover and filter removed in moments. He reached up to the sides of the opening and pulled himself up. Ez handed him up the bags and Jamal grabbed his arm and pulled him up.
The shaft was very tight. It was lucky that both brothers were slim and although Ez had never been in one of the shafts before, as a maintenance technician he was used to working in tight spaces and didn’t get claustrophobic.
‘What are we going to do once we get to the surface?’ Ez asked.
‘I have no idea,’ Jamal answered honestly, pulling himself along the shaft like a caterpillar, pushing the bags in front. Ez followed as best he could.
‘You have a better idea?’ Jamal called back.
‘No,’ Ez admitted.
There was a technique to crawling in such a tight space, it seemed. You couldn’t simply wriggle your way along, there wasn’t enough room to position your elbows. You had to lift and slide your body.
‘Are you sure the fan is off?’ Ez asked.
‘Yes,’ Jamal said. Between the exertion and the mask, his voice was barely more than a pant. Sweat was pouring down his face and he could barely see through his fogged-up mask. Jamal didn’t have the heart to tell Ez, but he was sure the fan had stalled. In fact, now that he was up inside the shaft, he could tell it wasn’t just the one fan. The air flow was minimal and warm. There was probably only one fan in this area still working. It was lucky they were escaping now: never mind the rioters, if they had stayed in Jamal’s quarters much longer, they would probably have succumbed to an oxygen-deficient sleep and simply never woken up again.
At last they reached the point Jamal was working toward. He rolled over onto his back and sat up into the vertical shaft, then wriggled his way to his feet. He tied the bags to his belt and climbed his way up the ladder. There was a hatch in the side of the shaft, which he opened. This was the surface; it was a stack rising above them, like a big chimney. He climbed out and pulled the bags up. One snagged, but Ez pushed it up from beneath and climbed out after it.
They were free for now, but still very much in danger. They had food and water with them, but no home to go to, nowhere to hide, and unless sanity prevailed the critical services would fail and the entire colony would either run out of oxygen or simply float off into the vacuum of space.
They were on the surface. It was dusk but with no hills or other high features, the sun still beat down on them. They could see the unmistakeable orange glow of fire in the distance. They couldn’t tell from here whether it was the crops or one of the surface buildings.
After the brothers took in their surroundings they turned to each other.
‘What do we do now?’
Check out the author’s work here: www.cshpicone.com
Connect with him on Twitter: CSH_Picone