Liberating the Leviathan
Part 3 - (17:27)
“The solution is simple. For the journey, we necessarily store a certain amount of food, and provide means for more to be grown while in slipspace. This food represents stores of energy, an augment to the energy stored in the ship’s fuel. To live, the ship’s population must consume this food, then expend this energy so they can stay fit and healthy. Instead of writing it off as waste, we could redirect that expended energy back into the ship.
Think of it—a whole class of laborers using the strength of their bones to power a ship through the sky. They will be honored as the Captain is honored, for there is no greater sacrifice to give than your own body.”
-Cezar Loth, memorandum in the archives of the Great Voyage Planning Commission
The laborers were lined up against a wall. Grey-suited security officers stood opposite them, stun-batons resting in obvious and threatening places—a shoulder, the crook of an arm, smacking rhythmically against the meat of a palm. A narrow gap separated them.
A senior officer in a long, black jacket emerged from behind the line of weapons and paced the row, inspecting the faces above the orange jumpsuits. His heavy boots accentuated each step with a deep thunk, which they felt reverberate in the metal at their backs, like the ship itself acknowledged the man’s divine right to command. Michael tried to keep his expression blank, neither avoiding eye contact nor staring insolently. Either could get you in trouble.
“They chose black for the uniform to match the void,” Margaret had told him once. “It’s supposed to make us harder to see.”
He wondered, harder for whom?
After pacing the row a few times, the officer stepped behind the line of grey again, pausing only to whisper in an ear. The wall opposite the laborers had a door, and once he was through that, the security officers pounced—grabbing three, punching one in the gut when he was not quick enough to comply. The rest of the laborers, Michael included, let it happen. They watched their friends escorted from the room, waited to be ushered out the third door.
Another time, Margaret said, “I can’t believe you are agreeing with me.” Right back at you, he wanted to say, but he couldn’t remember why he didn’t.
Once the door closed, tension leaked out of the laborers like a hull breach. They cracked knuckles and quips. They punched each other’s shoulders, chests, or backs. They tied cloth around their hands, stretched their arms and legs, and went through the third door. As a herd they rumbled down the hallway beyond, arriving to the pump room in draggles and spurts. The ones that had been taken before stripped off portions of their orange suits, showing the scabs and scars, the rod shaped bruises purpling through yellow into green, joking about the lies they told to make it end sooner. The ones that hadn’t watched and listened. A whistle steamed out of a speaker above them, and they all started to find pumps.
Michael, one of the last to enter, saw lean, tall, and blonde Christoph signal him with a raised hand from the far side of the room. Lal was there too, and his brother Aurangzeb, which meant Christoph was trying to meet. Michael joined them, wrapping a dirty, ratty towel around the bar between Christoph and Lal. It creaked loudly on the push and fought him on the pull, which Michael knew meant he had a long shift ahead of him. They said nothing until everyone was working, the generator in the center of the room emitting a whiny hum.
“That was close,” said Christoph, to Michael’s right.
“You’re telling me,” said Lal on Michael’s left. He was the shortest of the three. His hair was dark black like Michael’s, but he refused to shave it like Michael or cut it short like Christoph, instead letting it grow in long curls down the side of his face. “They took the man right next to me,” he explained, “gods, I thought they were taking me. I tried not to look at them, just like you said, Michael, but you know how it can be when they set their eyes on you. It’s like you’re locked in. I don’t know how either of you held up under questioning.”
“You’ll do fine,” Michael said, confidently. They were arranged so that Lal and Christoph both faced opposite him, working their pumps in the opposite direction of Michael. Aurangzeb, whose interest in the group extended to looking out for Lal and no further, was on the far side of Lal, facing the same direction as Michael. Nobody was beyond Christoph.
“I come down here to offer her the spare bunk in my quarters, so that it’s easier for her to get to her job, and I find out she’s quit.”
That’s right. It was part of that conversation.
“You quit?” Michael rounded on Jeanne. “Jeanne, but what about…” he trailed off, not wanting to say more in front of Margaret. There was a lot he couldn’t say.
“The thing to remember, Lal,” Christoph said, “is that you don’t know anything. Not even your name. Where’d you go to school? ‘What school?’ What’d you have for breakfast? ‘What breakfast?’ Who taught you to make bombs? ‘What bombs?’ Get’s real easy, after a while. They can’t kill a man for not knowing anything.”
Lal was silent for a moment, beads of sweat forming on his furrowed brow. His bar was giving him trouble on the push, rusted mechanisms grinding against each other. “I’m not worried about them killing me, Chris.”
Christoph, who never seemed to struggle with his bar, exaggerated a shrug on the pull. “Oh that,” he said, chuckling. “It’s not so bad either.”
“Stop saying that,” Lal said. “Everything wasn’t supposed to be ‘that bad.’ The ship would be cramped, but not ‘that bad.’ The voyage would be long, but not ‘that bad.’ The slip would be bright, but not ‘that bad.’ The reorganization, the rationing, the lockdown—all of it wasn’t going to be ‘that bad.’ And every time, every step of the way, it’s gotten worse. Now they’re going to beat me because—“ Aurangzeb interrupted him with a cough. The door to the engine room opened, discharging a light-grey uniform with a security officer inside. Lal looked over his shoulder and nearly stopped pumping.
“Keep pumping,” Michael whispered.
Lal turned around, his face white.
“Because you stole a handgun,” he whispered. Aurangzeb shushed him.
In the passenger quarters, the dark grey and black stood out against the bright walls. He always knew when Margaret was visiting Jeanne because of her uniform, could see her before anyone else, even at the end of the long hall. Usually that meant he’d steer clear, but he didn’t that time, because that time he could hear them. They were fighting.
Michael knew Lal was right. Every laborer who had been taken said it was the same. They were beaten. Some called it torture. And then the questions. “Do you know about the handgun that was taken? Have you seen it? Do you know who took it? Do you know what they plan to do with it? Do you know the person who took it? Do you know them well? Do you know the exact location of the handgun? Do you know this person’s name? Are you close to them? Is it you?” The same questions for everyone.
For his part, Michael was pretty sure they already knew his name. When the gun presented itself, he was in a massive crowd of laborers in a narrow hallway, pressing on all sides against a single security officer. It was at the beginning of lockdown, two days ago, the ship awash with confusion. After a long shift, Michael and his cohort were shuffled by armed security officers from room to room, corridor to corridor, elevator to elevator, sometimes waiting in one for an hour, sometimes hurried along by shouts and the threat of violence. The security officer, likely new to the job and as unused to the chaos and tedium caused by lockdown as the laborers, was in the wrong place at the wrong time, pulled in by the bovine riptide of tired workers to a small room barely big enough for all of them. They were left there for two hours, bodies pressed up against each other, sweat pouring off their clothes to form big, greasy puddles on the floor. By happenstance, Michael found himself pressed up against the officer. Front to side. The handgun’s grip dug into Michael’s belly while the officer held to a strap in the ceiling, the only thing that would prevent him from being swept away once a door finally opened. It—the handgun—was practically begging to be taken. Michael took it just as the door opened, whisking him away from the security officer before he had time to notice the weapon was gone. By the time they got to a security checkpoint, Michael had tucked it into the waistband of his underwear, knowing they would only check his ID. The way Michael figured it, though, there must have been a security camera, and even if it couldn’t see below the press of shoulders and chests into the tangle of arms and hands and waists, that still left the faces. They must have seen that Michael was standing right next to the officer, must have put it together that he had the longest period to pull the gun from the holster. The interrogations, he figured, were a ruse, an obfuscation of how much they knew, meant to lull him into a false sense of security. Yet when they took him, they only smacked him around a few times, asked their questions, and let him go.
“I’m guessing this was your idea,” Margaret snapped once she saw him.
“Leave him out of this,” Jeanne said.
“What’s going on?”
The security officer now—who may or may not have been the same security officer Michael stole the gun from—having just entered the work room, was in no hurry to leave. The trio, like the rest of the laborers, followed his movements with their eyes until the moment his met theirs. He made a circuit of the room, dallying at the edges, then paused at the door again, as if he was going to leave. He didn’t.
“We spent too much time chatting,” Michael muttered under his breath. Though the clanking and grinding of the pumps was loud, echoing off the high metal ceilings and mingling with the hum of the generator in the center of the room, the officer clearly heard that Michael had spoken. His dark, hooded eyes flicked straight to him, staring. Michael looked back to his pump.
“Take a rain check, then?” Christoph asked. Other murmurs resumed around the room. “This was your meeting, Lal.”
“I need more time,” Lal explained. “And Zeb needs a chisel. That old one was half rusted already, it’s going to break—“
“Jeanne,” Michael said, “they’re separating crew from passengers. If you quit, that means they’re going to put you down there. You know that, right? Neither of us will be able to see you.”
Lal, Michael realized, could not see the security making another circuit of the room, walking up directly behind him. He was about to be in earshot, even above all the noise, about to hear the former-chemist reveal his every complaint, every last problem or annoyance one could come across while secretly making bombs in the belly of a ship lost in slipspace. Worse, Michael couldn’t stop him, not without the officer seeing him. He was looking right at Michael now and he was getting closer.
“with our luck, right when we’re testing a switch or, lord help us, during the oper—“
Aurangzeb’s hand slipped off his bar. Loosing his balance, Zeb fell forward, his forehead slamming against the bar as it swung back in his direction. The thunk resounded throughout the room.
Laborers immediately descended on him, dragging him from the machine and sitting him up. Lal himself inspected his brow, and when he asked for a rag to wipe away the blood, several dozen appeared from every direction. Zeb waved them all away, laughing at his ‘two left hands,’ as he called it. Someone brought a small glass of water to drink. When they pulled Zeb to his feet, it brought him nose to nose with the intruding security officer, who stood with his arms crossed. Zeb dabbed at his brow.
“Looked like it hurt,” the officer said.
“Not the worst I’ve gotten,” Zeb said breezily, checking the blood on his rag.
“I can’t anymore,” Jeanne said. “Didn’t you hear about Laura Geld? How can I keep working for the captain after that?” Her eyes found his. He could almost hear her voice in her head, asking, “How can you make me work for him?”
“Always looks worse when it’s the head, doesn’t it?” The officer’s voice was surprisingly silky, a deep smooth bass that must have been phenomenal singing.
“It does indeed, sir,” Zeb smiled.
Not returning it, the officer said, “We don’t need clumsy laborers.”
Something passed through the men, reflected plainly in the change that came over Zeb’s face—a freezing, a smile turned tight, threatening to melt. Was ‘clumsy’ the word of the week, the complaint made drunkenly by the captain at the top of the ship on Thursday now trickled down through the commanders and lieutenants and cadets and petty officers to this security personnel, barely five ranks above the laborers yet able to make a life defining decision about one of them based on a word rumored to be spoken by a man only rumored to exist for most of them?
Very suddenly, Michael realized there was no one to send them back to the work. That the security officer would not, could not, and might not even consider ordering the laborers back to their work. Barring anything else, they would all stand here, the security officer escalating forever. But he also knew the officer couldn’t keep them from working.
“Then come with me,” Jeanne said. She took her sisters hand. “Both of you.” She took his too. “We can figure it out.” Her eyes found his, and he again knew what she wasn’t saying: “We can find another way.”
“Our mistake, sir,” Michael heard himself saying. Everyone turned to look at him, including the security officer. “Nobody got a song going,” Michael said. “That’s why we’re supposed to sing ‘em—helps us keep our concentration, makes us less clumsy.” The hum from the generator began to fade. “Chris,” he said. Christoph acknowledged. “Start us a song, wontcha?”
Then he returned to his pump. Christoph returned to his too, following Michael’s lead. They exchanged a nod, then Christoph whistled and whooped, singing,
“Oh Sou-West Proxima is me home
Heave away! Haul away!
At least until the climate’s blown
Heave away! Haul away!”
Michael pumped to the rhythm of Christoph’s song, adding his own voice to the chorus.
“Heave away, haul away,
Heave away, you spacer king,
We’re bound for peace and plenty.”
Other workers went back to their own pumps, including Lal and Aurangzeb, who gave the security officer a cheeky salute. More voices joined with Christoph and Michael.
“Now they saying we’ll go into space
Heave away! Haul away!
The ride is free, just sign here, Ace
Heave away! Haul away!”
Eventually, the security officer began to move on his own again, finishing another circuit of the room. He still didn’t leave, but by now the whole work gang was singing, bellowing the heaves and hauls and roaring through the chorus.
“Oh, don’t mind the cold, she heats up quick
Heave away! Haul away!
Don’t eat the food, it makes dogs sick
Heave away! Haul away!”
“I can’t,” Michael said, letting go of her hand. “I’m sorry.”
Christoph gave a sharp whistle during the chorus, handing off the shanty to the replying whoop, who continued the song.
“Our whole damn fleet set out together
Heave away! Haul away!
But no one thought to bring a tether
Heave away! Haul away!”
“We’ll find you a new chisel,” Michael assured him. “You’re free after the shift, right?”
“Yeah,” they both confirmed.
“Now work this pump ’til your eyeballs glow,” the shantyman sang.
“Find me down on agricultural,” Michael said.
Lal nodded. Christoph asked, “Jeanne going to join us?”
“There’s only a million years to go,” this the whole gang sang. The security officer shook his head, but a smile now also played about his lips. He seemed like he wanted to sing along.
“I don’t know,” Michael said. “Just be there.”