You have to understand what it was like.
There were so many of us—hundreds and hundreds. In A Crew alone there were more than seven hundred people. And B Crew was almost as big. Not that we had anything to do with B Crew. But they were there, in the Stasis Banks. Ready for their next shift.
The shift that never arrived.
Back then, I didn’t know everyone’s name. There were too many names to remember. We could do all sorts of things, because we had the numbers. We played sports. We held concerts. We threw parties. You won’t believe this, but at the very instant our probe detected that emission wave, I was attending a birthday party. Haemon Goh’s ninth birthday party.
In those days there were all kinds of nicknames. Haemon was a Shifter, just like me, because he had been born on board Plexus during one of A Crew’s shifts. I was a Second Shifter, and he was a Fourth Shifter. You won’t understand about shifts. Each of them was four years long, because cytopic stasis isn’t supposed to last more than four years. Any longer and you can suffer permanent damage. So every four years there would be a change of personnel as one crew woke up and the other was put into suspension.
It means that I’m older than I look. The day it happened—the day everything changed forever—I was seventeen. But only in shift years. If you’re talking real time, I was thirty-three. Haemon was turning nine, but he was really seventeen. We were on our sixth shift, you see. The last month of the second year of our sixth shift, after forty-six years in space.
And we still hadn’t found a habitable planet.
Not that it mattered much—not then. Not to us. The Shifters had never been on Earth. We didn’t know what planets were like. Plexus was self-contained and self-sustaining. It gave us everything we wanted; it was designed to satisfy our every need. How could we miss what we’d never known? My parents might have pined occasionally, but I never did. No Shifter, to my knowledge, ever had to be counseled for a bout of ship fever, because we didn’t understand what it was like to walk under an open sky or feel a cool breeze. Not really. There were programs, of course: virtual reproductions that allowed you to look up at the clouds or roll on the grass. Our teachers would sometimes take us to the Mimexis Chamber for a sensory experience of Earth. But mimexis wasn’t the same as reality. There was always a kind of buzz at the corners of your perception, like interference in an electromagnetic energy stream. You always knew that it was fake.
As a matter of fact, Haemon’s parents had booked the Mimexis Chamber for his birthday party. That happened a lot, as I recall. Mimexis was popular for birthday parties. It wasn’t easy to book a session unless you were mapping a galaxy cluster or teaching a class . . . or throwing a birthday party. It wasn’t as if you could just stroll into the chamber whenever you wanted to go to the beach. Mimexis wasn’t "energy-efficient"; we were told that all the time. There had to be a damn good reason for powering up those laser coils. Luckily, a Shifter birthday was considered important enough.
I remember Haemon’s party so well. There were fireworks—virtual fireworks—and a million balloons, and a snowstorm, and the Undersea Tour. I had been on that tour before; like the Black Hole tour, and the Human Body tour, and the Ancient Rome tour, it was part of our curriculum. But Haemon wasn’t old enough to have studied marine biology, so the tour was new to him, and he enjoyed it. He also enjoyed the cake, which was an impressive piece of design. Someone had written a new program and had created a cake so big that when it popped open, hundreds of virtual parakeets flew out, singing like blackbirds. We all chased them with butterfly nets. And when we caught them, they transformed into other things: flowers, bonbons, jewelry, ribbons. After that there was dancing. I don’t know who chose the music. Some of it was all right, but some of it was Plexus Mix. Mixing your own music was quite popular in those days. One of the Third Shifters spent a lot of time tracking and sampling. He called it a hobby.
I won’t tell you what Dygall called it.
Dygall was there, needless to say. Everyone eighteen or under was expected to attend birthday parties, and most of us were happy to do so. I won’t speak for Dygall—he was always griping about something, parties included—but the rest of us found parties an enjoyable duty. Even Caromy turned up, though she didn’t need to. Perhaps, as First Born, she felt a certain responsibility toward every Shifter on Plexus.
She was twenty-one, then—forty-one in real-time years. I think she was working in Sustainable Services. (It’s been so long, I can’t remember.) She’d done something funny to her hair; it was twisted up into a couple of golden antennae, which bounced when she nodded and made Haemon laugh. Mostly she played with Haemon and the smaller kids: the Fourth and Fifth Shifters. It was the right thing to do. I wish I could have danced with her, though. Just once.
She was so beautiful and so good. She shone like a supernova.
Neither of the other two First Shifters had come. I wouldn’t have expected them to; they weren’t like Caromy. Of the Second Shifters, I was there and Merrit was there, but Yestin wasn’t. He was in MedLab, undergoing blood tests. Poor Yestin was always trotting off to MedLab. He was the only Shifter born with a physical defect: Artificial Gravity Intolerance (AGI). Though every Shifter had been thoroughly screened before birth, there had been no methodology for AGI screening. No one had encountered it before. The gene mix hadn’t been identified. The symptoms weren’t properly understood. Everyone knew about the effects of zero gravity—the loss of muscle and bone mass, the pressure on the carotid artery, the slowing of the pulse—but when it came to artificial gravity, there hadn’t been much research done.
Yestin changed all that. After he was born, a whole section of MedLab became devoted to gravimetrics, and Yestin spent many long hours there, having his osteoblast levels boosted, and his exercise programs adjusted, and his blood chemistry analyzed. The rest of the time he built robots. That was another popular pastime among the Shifters: building robots. I had built a few myself when I was younger. But I was never like Yestin. That kid was obsessed. He wasn’t satisfied with miniature spacecraft or trick basketballs. He was determined to recreate dogs and cats and birds—robotic animals with random-probability patterning and chemical biosensors.
Given the chance, he probably would have moved on to the challenge of recreating a human being: a human being with sturdy bones made of strong metallic composites. But he didn’t have time. For most of us, our future died on the day of that party.
I still like to think about it, though.
Who else was there? Haemon’s parents, of course. His counselor. His personal trainer. His best friend, Inaret. (She was another Fourth Shift kid). His teacher, who was on the Psychologics staff and who was responsible for Junior School. Plus the Senior School teacher, who had awarded me a double-honors graduation just the year before. And that was about it, I think. Apart from the Shifters I haven’t already named.
I remember, before the dancing, how everyone had been encouraged to draw patterns on their clothes with paint-pencils. (Virtual paint-pencils, naturally. There was no risk of staining anything.) Merrit, who was wearing...