The little girl put on her pink sneakers, deftly tied them up, then reached out for the battered skateboard tucked away in the nook of the apartment entrance. As soon as she pulled open the heavy ceramic door, a waft of hot air came in, like dragon’s breath, mussing her hair and drying her nose. The torrid gust flooded the apartment, poking into the rooms, alerting someone bustling about in the kitchen.
“Lucy? Is that you?” a worried voice wondered.
“I’m going out with the skate.”
“We’ll be leaving in two hours. I don’t want to have to scrub you all over, so mind you be right back.”
“All right, Mommy, I’ll be just outside the door.”
Lucy swept out and shut the ceramic slab after her.
She found herself in a hot and dusty street leading to the main square at the bottom of Hole 44, one of the many thousand-feet-deep wells mankind had dug in the plain to protect itself from the scorching heat of an expanding sun. The once lush prairie stretching as far as the eye could see had turned into an arid desert of crumbling rock and sand; the life which had infested it had crawled into the holes, wearing on in the cooler night which had become everybody’s day.
At five in the morning, dawn brightened the sky already. Soon, the sun would rise and cook everything in an unbearable heat, and Lucy would have to go back to the thick shell she lived in—until then, she possibly had about a quarter of an hour all to herself.
Lucy put down her skate, set her right foot on the board, then, with a couple of pushes, there she was, off and running down the sidewalk.
She glanced at the familiar shells that had been her friends’ abodes as she passed them. One by one, Beth, Maggie, Paula and the others had left. Milo had gone only two days before. Lucy too was going, with her mother. They were the chosen ones, the lucky ones who would’ve abandoned forever the sweltering pebble Earth had become.
Lucy loved skating; in fact, when she glided parallel to the street with her arms spread out, she always felt like flying. Even if she had never been on an airplane, she could pretend she wasn’t in the Hole anymore, but up there, in the air, like some bird of times past.
She lifted her head and peered at the satellite clouds stuck high above in the otherwise empty sky, in the monotonous repetition of the same-old interlocking hexagonal module. Lucy had seen the fluffy clouds made of vapor in the videos at school, of course. Even so, she had a hard time believing they could take every shape they fancied—from dragons, to rabbits, to cats, to elephants, before they changed again.
She had also seen footage of the crops and prairies which had once covered the plain; of the trees and the horses; of the endless stretches of water called oceans, where enormous animals swam, some as big as houses. But she had never seen all that in person; it was gone already long before she was born—how could she ever miss it? However, the ever-changing clouds were a whole other matter; she was so curious about them!
They were like… magic.
Milo told her where they were going the sky would be thick with clouds. They would bring in storms, and rains so thick one would literally drench in water—how crazy and weird was that, drench in water in the open?
Lucy’s train of thought broke off suddenly when the front wheels of the skateboard caught a crack in the sidewalk, projecting her hard on the concrete floor.
“Ouch!” she cried, holding her scratched knee.
She glanced at the exposed layers of her skin as tiny droplets of blood began seeping through.
“Darn, it hurts!”
“You bet it hurts!” a voice behind her cried. “That’s how your body reminds you to be more careful!”
Lucy looked up and saw a man in a green overall; he had a strange, eternal smile on his face, as if he found the world amusing. He leaned over, inspecting Lucy’s knee, revealing the name embroidered on his bib:
“Is that your name?” Lucy asked. “Arthur?”
“Sure, it’s me. I’m Arthur. Oh, let me see this—no, it ain’t broken, it’s just a scratch.”
The man retrieved a first-aid kit from his pocket, opened it, and took out a sterile gauze. He cleaned Lucy’s knee, sprayed some antiseptic on the wound, waited for it to dry up, then put a bandage on it.
“There,” Arthur said. “Give it a couple of days and you’ll be as good as new.”
“Who are you, some environmental operator?”
“Nah. I’m just a repairman.”
“Well, you repaired me…”
“Yeah, it seems so,” Arthur said, loving the sound of it, his face brightening genially. “You better go home, now. You don’t want to be out when the sun rises.”
He helped Lucy to her feet, picked up her skate and gave it to her. He followed her with his eyes as she limped back to her shell and disappeared inside it.
Arthur smiled, proud of accomplishing a good deed that early in the morning, then warily glanced at the still sky, expecting to see the disc of the sun appear any moment now. He crossed the main square and walked toward one of the largest buildings facing it.
“The Susan Constant will leave tonight at 0:00 AM,” General Moore said. “It’s going to take off from Moon base, carrying its human burden in the longest, most daring and dangerous journey man’s ever made.”
Moore, a square man with short, graying hair, spoke with the grave voice reserved for momentous events, addressing the selected audience in front of him.
“A new era opens for mankind. This very night, the first stage of a project started eighty years ago will come to completion. Thanks to the joined efforts of us all, half a million people will have the chance to leave a dying sun and system, to start over again on a fresh new planet which will become our second homeland. Sure, we’ll take nearly a thousand years to cover the four-point-three light years which separate us from Ermitara; but with the innovative technology in our hands, reaching it will feel like a minute-long trip—”
General Moore stopped talking as the double doors in the back of the meeting room opened and someone in a green overall came in. The whole assembly turned in wonder as well.
“I—I apologize, I didn’t mean to intrude,” Arthur said. “I’m due for a job interview, but it looks like they pointed me to the wrong room. Just ignore me and go on with your, huh… oration.”
“Come forth, Arthur,” the general bid.
“Do you know me, sir?”
“Everybody knows you, here, Arthur.”
Arthur thought they couldn’t possibly know him; he had, in fact, never seen even one of them—who were they? Why would they be expecting him? What for, anyway? Why didn’t anybody tell him? And yet, the big man on the dais seemed quite sure about it.
Arthur stepped forth, drawing along the stares of the bystanders. He moved up the rows, until he arrived in front of General Moore.
He invited Arthur to climb with him on the dais.
“I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else, sir. I’m not a bigwig, I’m just a modest repairman looking for a job. See? I don’t think I’m your man at all.”
“But I actually have a job for you.”
“I bet it’s the air conditioning system, isn’t it? Oh, that junk always breaks down. If you told me where the main unit is, I would fix it in no time—I don’t want to vaunt myself, but I’m quite good at that!”
“I know. That’s why you’re here, Arthur. Or should I say, ‘Art.Hu.R.’—Artificial Human Resource?”
“I’d rather you called me an artificial person.”
“The job is not here, Arthur. It’s out there,” General Moore said, pointing his forefinger at the ceiling.
“On the roof, sir?”
“Almost. What about keeping in working condition a huge spaceship, for a long, long time?”
“Thank you for your consideration, sir, but I don’t think I qualify to take on something that big. I handle small appliances—I know nothing about spaceships.”
“Yes, indeed. You might not look like it, but your memory contains the complete schematics of every nut and bolt of the Susan Constant. Your duty will be to keep her in shape for the whole length of her journey.”
“And that would be… a couple of months, I guess?”
“More like a thousand years. Yep, you heard right, Arthur. We’re leaving this red-hot bucket for good.”
Arthur scratched the top of his head, evaluating that monster number.
“Sir, I’ll be long dead by then!”
“On the contrary. We spent one fifth of the mission budget to develop and inject you with groundbreaking picotechnologies that will keep you well-alive, young and fit for the required time span. While everybody sleeps away, frozen in their cradles, you’ll be mopping around and cleaning and replacing malfunctioning and worn-out odds and ends of all kinds.”
“You mean I’ll be all by myself? I’ll go crazy, sir!”
“We also designed your mind to maintain maximum control over yourself in every situation—you won’t flip out, Arthur, don’t worry. Anyway, you won’t be alone. The Susan Constant’s mainframe computer will keep you company—you’ll be good friends with Jerry.”
Arthur, taken aback more and more with every bit of news, just stood there, totally baffled.
“I don’t know what to say, sir.”
General Moore rolled his eyes at the crowd, causing it to stir with laughter.
“Just tell me if you want the gig!”
“Maybe I should accept your offer, after all, sir. It’s so hard to find a proper job, these days…”
Lucy glanced at the mechanical cradle in front of her, not entirely convinced she should get inside it. The black-metal coolant pipes snaking around it looked less than friendly.
“Are you sure this thing is safe?” she asked.
The female technician standing in front of Lucy and her mother smiled patiently.
“It’s perfectly safe. After you enter the sleeping unit, it will activate, lowering the temperature of your body to the point that it’ll freeze like a snowflake. That way, as if a clock had stopped ticking, your every metabolic process will be paused and you will be able to travel across space without aging. Of course, the process will be reversed on arrival, and you shall wake up again.”
“Sleeping through all that time? It scares me.”
“Shut your eyes and your body will follow. I promise you when you come to again, you’ll think only a few hours have gone by.”
Lucy peered at the weird sleeping suit she had put on, then looked toward the huge hall of the cryogenic chamber, thick as it was with egg-looking cradles.
“Is Milo there?”
“Who is Milo?” the technician asked.
“He’s my friend. He left before I did.”
“I’m sure he’s already deep asleep, then, somewhere in the cryogenic hall. Now, will you lie down, too?”
Finally won over, Lucy climbed into the machine. The technician worked deftly, stroking the controls on the side of the cradle, starting the hibernating process.
Lucy yawned. “Mom? I feel drowsy…”
“Sleep then, my child.”
“Hold my hand?”
Lucy’s mother reached out for her daughter’s little hand and held it in hers. As Lucy fell unconscious, her fingers gradually lost their warmth, until they became icy. With a worried sigh, Lucy’s mother kissed her on her forehead, then stepped back and watched the lid above the cradle shut on the child, delivering her to the stillness of the millenary sleep.
“She’ll be fine there,” the technician reassured the woman, and pointed her to the next freezing unit.
A bit unwillingly, Lucy’s mother lowered herself in it and lay back—in moments, she too fell asleep. As the second lid fell into place, the technician moved down the suspended catwalk, meeting more families waiting for their turn to hibernate.
Arthur swabbed the metal deck carefully, humming to himself. Since he had climbed aboard the Susan Constant, nobody had paid attention to him; they were all too taken up with the final preparations before takeoff, so he had grabbed the first mop he could put his hands on and had kept himself busy that way.
General Moore told him his mind was designed for a balanced behavior; all the same, he couldn’t deny he was… restless. He stopped swabbing and approached a large porthole past which space could be seen.
He glimpsed, in the darkness and relative coolness of Moon’s shadow, the scaffolding where the Susan Constant had been outlined first, then built, then fitted for the long journey to Ermitara.
A sudden jolt quaked the ship.
Arthur gulped and hung to his mop, wondering if that was it; if the long-awaited for time for takeoff had finally come, realizing it had.
The Susan Constant ignited her rockets, inched out from her scaffolding and majestically paraded in front of the tiny farewell committee launch, dwarfing it with her immense bulwarks. A salvo shot from the launch, christening the departing ship, wishing her a smooth and troubleless journey. The firework flashed along the ship’s hull, brightening Arthur’s awed features, then it dwindled and died out, leaving only the ubiquitous darkness of space.
Arthur, struck by the absolute silence at which the rockets of the ship flared, glanced at the Moon and at the yellowing, scorched Earth as they shrunk away. His thought went to the thousands still hiding in their holes—there wasn’t for them another ship leaving.
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