“Quit sulking. You already knew what they’d say. Feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to change their minds.”
Galen the Sixth sighed and lowered his head even further between his knees.
He remained in that position, silent, for several long moments before sitting up and looking at his friend.
Abdeel the Eighth was leaning against a bulkhead in the corner of observation deck 3, arms crossed, looking severely annoyed.
“I’m not thinking about myself,” said Galen. “No one on this ship will ever know what it’s like to walk on the surface of a planet because of the shortsighted religious convictions of a few zealots who think they know what’s best for all of us.”
Abdeel shot him a concerned look. “I hope you didn’t speak to the council like that.”
Galen waved dismissively and chuckled, shaking his head. “The Council,” he spat. Everyone’s so afraid of them.”
Galen snorted. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m scared of them. Of course I am. Scared that they’ll keep us trapped in this floating prison until the end of time, or until it breaks down and everyone dies. Whichever comes first.”
“You forgot the third option.”
Galen glared at him. “The Promised Land? Come on. There is no such place. It’s a myth. You know it as well as I do.”
Abdeel turned to face the viewport, hands clasped behind his back. He’d spent countless hours here throughout the course of his lifespan, gazing out upon the twinkling sea of stars, wondering if he’d live to see the day of Arrival.
“So which one is it?”
Galen rose and walked over to one of the community viewers. He called up the appropriate coordinates and took a step back, gesturing toward the monitor.
“Not that it really matters,” he said, “but there it is.”
Abdeel leaned forward and peered at the tiny image on the screen.
His eyes widened. “Oh, yeah, I think I see it. That reddish-colored one, right?”
“And there’s the two moons you were talking about. Where’s the yellow dwarf you said they’re orbiting?”
Galen stomped forward and deactivated the viewer. “Who cares? It doesn’t matter anymore.”
Abdeel rolled his eyes. “I don’t know why you’re so disappointed. You’d be dead by the time we got there, anyway.”
“That’s not the point,” countered Galen. “At least I’d know that my offspring would be able to walk on solid ground, breathe fresh air and feel the warmth of real sunlight against their skin.”
“And catch diseases, and get eaten by predators…”
“Oh, shut up,” said Galen. “We don’t even know what it’s like to be human anymore. Our sense of reality is skewed because of this sterile, artificial environment we exist in.”
Abdeel looked around the room. “Looks real enough to me.”
“Because that’s all you know. It’s unnatural. And since we’ve come too far to turn around and head back to Earth, this planet is our best option.”
Abdeel scrunched up his nose. “Earth?
Galen rolled his eyes. “Oh, yes, I forgot. The Earth’s cataclysmic destruction took place just after our Firsts embarked on this blessed voyage to nowhere. Bullshit. I don’t buy it. I never have.”
“Well, that sure makes you sound sane and rational.”
Galen ignored him. “And now that we finally, after almost four hundred years, have a real shot at finding a habitable planet to colonize, the council has decided to soldier on in search of some ever-elusive fantasy world that only exists in the minds of some centuries-dead cult leader and his brainwashed followers.”
“Cult leader!” Abdeel scoffed.
Galen rounded on him. “Well, what else can you call him?”
“Isn’t that a little harsh? Or maybe a tad bit, oh, I don’t know, blasphemous?”
“Call it what you will,” said Galen, shrugging. “Kryuss was no prophet. He never received any transmissions from the Creators, because they don’t exist. He made them up! Can’t you see that?”
Abdeel furrowed his brow and stared at his friend in disbelief. “If he knew that the Creators didn’t exist, why did he board the ship in the first place? What did he have to gain by leaving Earth?”
Galen shrugged. “Who knows? Self-delusion, I suppose. He probably believed in what he was doing, just like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, guys like that.”
Abdeel shook his head, clearly bewildered. “I don’t know who any of those people are, but you should really keep this to yourself.”
Galen said nothing for awhile, just gazed wistfully out upon the star-flecked blackness outside the viewport.
“You ever hear the story of Galileo?”
“Can’t say that I have. Is he another one of your cultleaders?”
Galen tried to hide his annoyance. It wasn’t hard; no one on board cared much about Earth history. He was used to the ignorance.
“He was a scientist. An astronomer, actually. He was imprisoned for espousing the idea that the Earth was not located at the center of the universe.”
Abdeel snorted. “Of course it isn’t. Wasn’t.”
“Yes, it’s obvious now, but at the time his ideas were labeled as heresy by the Roman Catholic Church.”
“Not any more ridiculous than the council’s refusal to investigate my discovery.”
Abdeel buried his face in his hands and ran his fingers through his curly black hair. “They won’t look into it because it doesn’t matter. Whether it’s some kind of earthlike planet or just a flaming ball of gas, it makes no difference. It’s not the promised land.”
“It’s as close as we’ll ever get.”
“Damn it Galen, why can’t you just leave well enough alone and quit trying to stir up trouble? You know, if you keep smarting off to the council like you’ve been doing, you’re gonna get discontinued. No more Galens.”
Galen chuckled humorlessly. “Yeah, that would be a real shame, wouldn’t it?”
“It would,” insisted Abdeel, looking hurt. “Abdeel the ninth is going to need someone to pal around with, my incendiary friend.”
Galen laughed, genuinely this time. “Eh, you’d find some other poor sap to take the piss out of on a daily basis.”
“On this ship?” He shook his head. “Not likely. You’re one of the few interesting people I know.”
“Oh really? And why do you suppose that is?”
Abdeel shrugged. “Dunno.”
“Could it be because I have an imagination, unlike the rest of the livestock aboard this intergalactic cattle car?”
Abdeel pondered this for a moment. “No,” he said finally. “No, that’s not it at all. I think it’s because you’re the only other person on the ship who doesn’t suck at racquetball.”
Galen laughed. “Yeah, my skills are pretty legendary.”
“Almost on par with mine,” said Abdeel.
“Yeah, you wish.”
Abdeel raised his eyebrows. “That a challenge?”
“Any time, Abby.”
Abdeel smiled and stared off into space. “Seriously, though, you need to keep your damned mouth shut and quit stirring up trouble.”
Galen was about to reply when a voice from the entrance to the lounge did it for him. “Sage advice.”
Both of the young mens’ heads whipped around reflexively. Standing in the doorway, draped in a brilliant white robe and flanked by two security guards was Kohlvar the fourteenth, the eldest of the council’s five senior members.
Abdeel felt a lump forming in his throat. As if suddenly remembering his place, he leapt to his feet. “Kohlvar,” he said, “You honor us with your presence.”
Kohlvar’s lips spread into a warm, disarming smile. “Oh, do sit down, young man. I’m no one special. Merely a servant of the creators, as are we all.”
“Most of us, anyway,” muttered one of the guards.
Kohlvar scowled at the man. “Your input is unnecessary, Claudius,” he said stiffly.
“Now, young man,” he said, turning back to face Galen. “What do you say the two of us take a little walk together, hmm?”
Galen glanced over to Abdeel, who was pretending, at that momement, to be very interested in his shoes.
“Alright,” he said, meeting the older man’s gaze. “Sounds like fun.”
Abdeel sighed, shaking his head.
“Splendid,” said Kohlvar. He gestured towards the door. “After you.”
Galen stepped through the doorway, followed by Kohlvar, who was whispering something to one of the guards.
“Sir, I must protest this,” said the same guard who had earlier spoken out of turn.
“Your reservations are duly noted,” said Kohlvar. “Nevertheless, it is what I wish.”
The guard nodded, plainly displeased but unable to do anything about it. Both he and his associate marched past them and disappeared down the corridor.
Galen raised an eyebrow at Abdeel, who seemed rather bewildered by this turn of events. “See you later.”
“Yeah,” said Abdeel, an expression of concern washing over his features.
“Shall we go?” said Kohlvar without a trace of impatience in his voice.
Side by side, they strolled down the corridor at a leisurely pace. “So,” said Kohlvar, “You made quite an impression at the council meeting this afternoon.”
Galen winced. “Um, yes sir. Sorry about that.” He paused for a moment, thinking carefully over his words. “I guess I was a little frustrated.”
To Galen’s immense surprise, Kohlvar laughed. “Yes, I’d say that’s a fairly accurate assessment. Frustrated, indeed.”
Galen, unsure of how to respond, said nothing.
“I’m going to take you to one of my favorite places on the ship,” said Kohlvar. “A place where I go to think, to meditate. To, as they used to say ‘get away from it all.’”
They continued walking for some time, making idle conversation until the older man came to a halt in front of an unmarked set of double doors.
Galen had seen them before, but had never given them a second thought. He’d always assumed that most restricted areas were restricted with good reason, probably having to do with ship’s functions or something of that nature.
Kohlvar placed his hand on the access panel, and the doors hissed open upon recognition of his handprint.
Galen stepped slowly forward, eyes wide, scarcely believing what he was seeing. “Trees,” he whispered. He’d viewed images of them in the library archives, but to see them in person was something else entirely.
“Trees,” confirmed Kohlvar, smiling, a note of admiration in his voice as he stood beside Galen, both of them gazing up at the dense, leafy canopy overhead.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Galen.
“It’s one of six arboretums on the ship,” said Kohlvar. “One tree produces enough oxygen per day for approximately ten people to breathe comfortably for nearly a year. Ever wonder where we get enough oxygen to keep nine hundred passengers alive over the course of several centuries?”
“Incredible,” Galen breathed, reaching out to touch one of the things. The bark felt strange on his fingertips; organic and alive, unlike the smooth, featureless metal surfaces his soft hands were accustomed to. He’d seen the vegetable plants in hydroponics on numerous occasions, but this was something else entirely.
He turned to face Kohlvar. “Why haven’t I ever heard of this place?”
Kohlvar shrugged. “As I said, these trees are our main source of oxygen. Kyuss himself mandated that only the council members themselves should have access to them, and that directive hasn’t changed, I’m afraid. Can’t have just anybody poking around in here, you know. The risks are far too great.”
Galen nodded, not quite understanding. Hell, what do I know about trees, though?
He looked at Kohlvar. “So why did you bring me here? “I’m not a member of the ruling council.”
Kohlvar raised an eyebrow. “Not yet.”
Galen stared at him. “What do you mean?”
“Do you know why I wanted to speak with you today?”
“Frankly,” said Galen, “I was expecting to be discreetly tossed into the nearest waste disposal chute.”
Kohlvar laughed. “Why, whatever for, my dear boy?”
Galen’s eyes darted to and fro nervously, unable to meet the older man’s gaze.
“Because I don’t believe in the Creators,” he confessed.
Kohlvar sighed, placed a hand on Galen’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “Child, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Neither do I.”
Galen looked up sharply, gauging the elder’s response. “I don’t understand.”
Kohlvar shrugged. “It’s quite simple, really. I find the entire concept preposterous, at best. Kryuss was no prophet. He was a wealthy, eccentric socialite with delusions of grandeur. The alien race he referred to as the Creators was a product of his own fertile imagination.”
Galen could scarcely believe what he was hearing.
“People need something to believe in,” continued Kohlvar, “Some entity greater than themselves. It has always been so. Imagine the chaos that would inevitably ensue if the structure that our prophet has established were to suddenly crumble beneath our feet. People wouldn’t know how to behave.”
“It just sounds so monstrous, keeping everyone in the dark like that,” said Galen.
“I understand your concerns. Believe me, I share them. But the alternative is far more grim a prospect.”
Galen scrutinized the older man. “So why are you telling me all of this? Why have you brought me here?”
“It’s simple,” said Kohlvar, as if the answer should have been obvious. “We want you to join the council.”
This day had been rife with surprises, but Galen found himself utterly blindsided by this one. “What?”
“You have demonstrated a level of intelligence far above that of your contemporaries. Your reluctance to blindly follow tradition indicates a tendency toward independent thought.”
“Okay,” said Galen, a hint of uncertainty in his voice.
“This means one of two things,” said Kohlvar. “Either you represent a grave threat to our way of life,” He paused for a moment, allowing a wry smile to cross his wrinkled features. “Or a damned fine potential leader.”
Galen leaned back against the trunk of the massive oak tree, trying his best to assimilate Kohlvar’s words. All of his preconceptions, everything he thought he knew about the supposed ignorance of the council, it was all some elaborate lie designed to keep the people in line. It was overwhelming, to say the least.
“If there is no promised land, then where are we going?”
“Oh, but there is a promised land, so to speak,” said Kohlvar. “We’ve been on our way there for some time now.”
Galen’s eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?”
“You should know,” said Kohlvar. “You were quite adamant about it this morning at the council meeting.” He looked up as if trying to remember something.
“What did you call us?” He snapped his fingers. “Ah yes,” he said, “You informed us that we were all a bunch of ‘ignorant old fossils’ who ‘wouldn’t know our asses from a hole in the ground.’” He chuckled. “Such a charming old-world colloquialism.”
Galen’s face reddened. “Sorry about that,” he said.
Kohlvar shrugged. “Don’t feel bad, son. Based upon the facts available to you at the time, there was no other conclusion you could have drawn.”
“So you already knew?”
“Oh yes, we discovered the existence of this planet of yours several years ago. Altered course immediately. We estimate that it will take approximately one hundred years to arrive there, give or take a few decades, but at least it’s a real, tangible destination. We’re no longer just wandering aimlessly through the cosmos.”
“Ah,” said Galen, suddenly feeling a bit foolish. He’d been so proud of his discovery. The revelation that others had already known about it was a bit of a blow to his ego.
As if he’d read Galen’s mind, Kohlvar reached out and gave his arm a reassuring squeeze. “We scoured the stars for decades in search of a planet suitable for human colonization, and that was with a plethora of highly advanced astronomical equipment at our disposal. For you to have recognized that planet for what it was using nothing more than the most rudimentary of tools, well, that’s quite an achievment.”
Galen smiled, receiving at least a modicum of comfort from this. “It was mostly dumb luck,” he said.
Kohlvar raised a crooked finger. “Don’t be so dismissive of your accomplishments. You’re a sharp one, Galen. We need people like you on the council.”
Galen winced. The council. He understood why they operated the way they did, but he didn’t like it, and he doubted that he ever would.
“Suppose I don’t want to be part of your council?”
Kohlvar produced a prolonged, labored sigh. “You’d have to be sequestered, of course. After all, we can’t have you running around the ship creating dissent. It would undermine everything we’ve achieved.”
“I see.” Galen stiffened slightly at this news, but it was not altogether unexpected. “So my choices are limited to freedom, should I choose to join the council, or imprisonment.”
“I wouldn’t have phrased it quite so harshly, but that’s essentially the gist of it, yes.”
“How long do I have to decide?”
“The council will convene at nine-hundred hours tomorrow to hear your answer.”
Galen shook his head. “Damn it,” he muttered, pounding his fist into the ground with a soft, barely audible thud. “I’ll have to sleep on it.”
Galen stood, brushing the soil from his pants. “I guess I’ll be going, then. Looks like I’ve got some thinking to do.”
“I’d say so,” said Kohlvar, extending his hand.
Galen helped the older man to his feet. “See you in the morning, then.”
Upon arriving at the quarters he shared with Abdeel, Galen found his roommate waiting for him, armed with a million questions about his meeting with Kohlvar.
“I honestly don’t feel like discussing this right now. I’d really like to get some sleep.”
“Ohhhh no you don’t,” said Abdeel. “You’re not going to leave me hanging like that, you bastard. I want to hear all about what happened, and I want to hear it now.”
Galen looked at his friend, suddenly seeing him with new eyes. Eyes that had been opened to the truth of their shared existence.
“Frankly,” said Galen, “I’m not at liberty to divulge the specific details of our conversation.” He removed his shirt, tossed it in the hamper, and flopped down on his bed. “Now would you please leave me alone and let me get some sleep?”
Abdeel scowled at him. “What did he say to you?”
“Nothing,” he said, voice muffled by the pillow.
“Okay, fine,” said Abdeel, throwing up his arms. He wandered over to the cycler and poured himself a glass of water.
“Just leave me in the dark,” he said, easing into a chair. He took a long sip from his glass, smacked his lips loudly. “I don’t really care either way.”
Galen sighed and sat up in the bed. “I’m not just blowing you off. I really can’t talk about it.”
“So you say,” said Abdeel. “You want to know what I think, though?”
“Not at all.”
Abdeel continued as if he hadn’t heard. “I think you’re feeling pretty stupid right about now.”
“Is that a fact?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“I think you and your new buddy Kohlvar had a nice, friendly chat in which he pointed out the error of your ways, using logic and reason to convince you that all of these ridiculous theories of yours about Kryuss being a fraud and the Creators not existing are complete and utter nonsense.”
“Spot on,” said Galen, rolling his eyes. “It’s almost like you were there.”
Abdeel continued, ignoring the sarcastic reply. “And now that you’ve been proven wrong, you’re afraid to admit it. Come on, you can tell me.”
“You’re absolutely right.” Galen stared at the ceiling, listening to the faint hum of the air circulator and wishing for a speedy conclusion to the barrage of probing questions being lobbed in his direction.
“Just tell me one thing. One thing, and I promise, I’ll leave you alone.”
“If it will shut you up.”
Abdeel leaned forward in his chair, peering at his friend across the dimly lit room. “Are you in trouble?”
Galen thought for a moment. It was a question asked out of genuine concern for his well-being, and it deserved an honest answer.
“We’re all in trouble,” he said softly. “More trouble than you know.”