Reprint: Behind the First Years

Hello, Internets. (And a special hello to those of you coming over from Christopher Baldwin’s site) Have some science fiction!

This one was originally published in COSMOS (the Australian SF magazine–not the American fashion magazine) a year or so back.

Behind the First Years

by Stewart C Baker

Five short hours to planet-fall, Pete sat watching Magda die. Her hands were thin and wrinkle-fine, the leathern colour of paper five-hundred years old. She had been Archivist sixty years before him there in the great, silent bulk of the ship.

"But what am I to do when we land?" he asked. "I have only been Transcriber, Magda. I never—"

"You must look behind the shelf of the first years."

"The shelf of the first years is empty."

"Did I say on, foolish man?" Magda tsked. "How can you record history if you do not listen?" Her eyes were as sharp as her voice, clear and precise, honed from the long years of watching her duties entailed.

Pete flushed and bowed his head. "Behind the shelf, Magda. I understand."

How can she possibly die? he thought. Yet the grey-white walls of her quarters were hung with fresh-picked jasmine to hide the stink of it.

"You understand nothing, foolish man. Look at me." And again, kinder, when he did not. "Look at me."

"Yes, Magda."

"What lies behind the shelf of the first years is important, but does not change your duty. You must record all things, as I have. Record and preserve, Peter. In all these lifetimes under space, that has been our calling."

"Record and preserve. Yes, Magda."

He had first spoken the words fifteen years prior, when he became Transcriber. His parents cried during the ceremony, then left him to go back to Bottom. Magda had been old even then, and Pete used to go to bed terrified of finding her dead when he woke, and him still an untrained youth. Now she was going at last.

She coughed once, twice, making no move to clean the deep red flecks from her lips. Her eyes had gone dim.

"Peter," she said, "Peter."

She reached out with one frail hand and he took it: "Yes, Magda."

"You will be building the history of a world. Remember . . . the first years."

Pete did not respond: she was gone. He placed her hand back on her stomach and wiped her lips one last time with the damp cloth the ship’s doctor had left him. The man waited outside the door, polite and sympathetic.

"I know it’s hard, but it may be for the best. The dispersal would have been hard on her."

Pete nodded, not trusting himself to speak, and left the doctor to his work. It was eighteen floors down to the archives, but instead of the express lift he took the stairs. Something Magda had said didn’t sit right, but he could not put his finger on it. Walking helped him think.

‘Remember the first years’ was a strange directive. The people of that time had been content to track their history in transient digital form, with the result that little was left. Pete thought with regret of the few scraps of paper that had come down to them. Scrawled inventories, engineer-neat lists of meaningless names. In his darker moments, Pete felt the first people were mocking him, conspiring to erase all knowledge of why they had been sent away, what calamity had befallen Earth.

But what did it matter? Earth was a planet he would never see, and in just over four hours he would be walking the surface of a world untouched by human hands. A place to start anew. Even Magda’s death could not entirely remove the thrill of it. She had died well, clear and alert until the last. And it was true the dispersal would have been hard on her.

Dispersal! Soon they would spread across the surface of the unsullied planet, down amidst the mottled green-and-black they had so far seen only on the vid-screens, where it hung in the middle distance between the ship and the system’s star.

He came out on the archives level and picked up his pace. He had set up an interview with Captain McAllister-Xo the night before, the first part of his duty. He would not have long to examine the shelf of the first years. He was reaching for the panel to open the ever-dimmed rooms of the archives when he realized.

Under. Magda had said under space.

Captaincy was in McAllister-Xo’s bones. His family had guided the ship since the time of the first people—or so it was said. He greeted Pete and spoke to him of approach vectors and automated systems, stopping occasionally to check in with an officer or to type arcane sequences of keys into the mem-pad before him.

In one of these pauses, Pete told him of Magda’s death.

"That old witch," the captain said. "I always thought she’d live forever." He paused, coughed, scratched his temple with his middle finger. "Sorry. I know you were close."

"It was her time. But there was something she said before she passed that I thought you might be able to explain."


"She was talking of the Archivists’ Code: record and preserve."

"I’ve heard it."

"Um, yes. But it was how she described it: ‘In all these lifetimes under space, that has been our calling.’ She said ‘under,’ not ‘in.’ What do you make of that?"

The captain shrugged. "She was old. She was dying. A slip of the tongue, some missed connection between her brain and her lips. What’s to make of it?"

The explanation made as much sense as any Pete could think of, but McAllister-Xo had not been there. Magda had been too alert, her voice too clear and strong for the word to be delirium or sickness. He remembered the way she had taken him to task for not listening clearly. There was something to what she had said, he was sure of it.

He thanked the captain and made his way to Bottom. Perhaps popular memory could tell him what high command could not.

Bottom, so called for its location at the lowest part of the ship, was a vast expanse of inspired agro-engineering which doubled as the ship’s food supply and as a living space for most of its population. It was as large as the rest of the ship.

The express lift plunged from the light-specked ceiling and sank past moisture sprays and clouds. The rolling green landscape which sped to meet him was the same as he remembered from before he had been taken above to the archives. He could just make out the pale, blue-tinged metal of the inner bulkhead a kilometre or so away. Then the trees rushed up and overhead, and the lift doors hissed open.

The smell of Bottom was earthy and moist, as different from the paper-dry odours of the archives as possible. He strode past farms and villages he knew from his childhood, passing within metres of the homes where his family and friends still lived. But he did not have time for a visit today.

At last, he reached his destination. Old Jadwiga had been ancient when he was still a child and, unlike Magda, had lived the hard life of a Bottom woman. She walked with a cane, bent over and shuffling, and her hands trembled as she invited him to sit. Her eyes were rheumy, and he had to repeat Magda’s dying words several times before she understood him.

"Under space, hmmm?"

She sat quiet for a few minutes after that, but Pete waited patiently. As slow as it was, even Old Jadwiga’s memory would be faster than trying to find just the right Bottom lore in the archives’ massive collection, which filled kilometres of shelving.

Just as Pete began to doubt his assessment, the old woman spoke again:

"I remember . . . under the time of Captain Xo, there was a great anger among the people."

"Captain Xo?" But that was ridiculous—the last captain of that name had served almost one hundred years ago. Jadwiga couldn’t possibly be that old, could she?

"Yes. Yes. People were angry, for the upper deck families took the best crops and we in Bottom had always to make do with their leavings. One year when I was a young girl . . . "

Jadwiga continued to speak, drawing out story after story of those long-dead and their actions. Pete let her voice fade into the background, half-listening for anything about the ship being ‘under’ space instead of in it. After an hour, he excused himself and left the old woman to her memories. They were fascinating enough, but of all she had said there were only two things relevant to Magda’s words.

First, something he’d forgotten from his childhood: people here took the designation of ‘Bottom’ with pride. They were liable to refer to any other part of the ship as "above." But Magda had come from an upper deck family, and in any case she had placed the entire ship under space, not just Bottom.

The second was a children’s rhyme, cryptic to the point of uselessness:

Under space and over all,
Ship-bound people standing tall;
When they reach their destination,
They will build a new old nation.

He shook his head as he re-entered the lift. Even the stacks, with their information overload, would likely have given him more than that.

There were only two hours left to landing, and Captain McAllister-Xo expected Pete to make a record of the dispersal. He hoped there would still be time to make it to the shelf of the first years and retrieve whatever Magda had hidden there.

The stacks were dark, but Pete did not bother with a light. The shelf of the first years was easy enough to find without looking: it was the only one empty.

He ran his hands over the smooth metal surface, then crouched down, feeling around behind the shelf with one awkward, outstretched arm. There was only open space. He wondered if he had, after all, put too much stock in the words of an old, dying woman.

Then, just as he was standing, giving up, something brushed the tips of his fingers. Something hard, with the texture of rough-spun cloth. He leaned his shoulder into the shelf, extending his arm until the muscles burned, and closed his hand around the item. A book.

Back in the lift, on the way to the McAllister-Xo and the ceremony, he brushed dust off the cover and read the title, embossed in the spine: The Book of the Ship.

He had expected something grander from the way the book was hidden, and Magda’s cryptic promises. He flipped to a random page, hoping it would make the book’s purpose clear. It was in one of the old languages: " . . . extended isolation studies, which have shown the feasibility of interplanetary travel, were first carried out . . . " Other pages were filled with similar stuff. Exciting as it was from an archival point of view—it was clearly very old—how could any of it be important to him in the days to come?

Perhaps he was misunderstanding the text, he thought. He had never mastered the old languages as Magda had. But he remembered her words as she lay dying. How can you record if you do not listen?

The same must be true of reading, of observation in general. He would have to take the time to decipher it, but time was something he did not have—he would have to wait until the dispersal had begun.

McCallister-Xo and a half-dozen officers were crammed into the control room with Pete, the captain going through the schedule one last time before the live broadcast began.

"First Officer Seong, you will say the words to set us on our way. I will then inform the ship about the dispersal order, and the dangers that may await them on the planet."

He had rehearsed these briefly already, his voice terse as he rattled off the items of a list apparently long memorized. The possibility of indigenous flora and fauna, dangerous or benign. Likely meteorological phenomena, dangerous or benign. How to handle riots from the people of Bottom, who were unused to change.

"We touched down three hours ago, ahead of schedule," the captain concluded. "All systems show a planet which matches the specifications from the few remaining scientific records of the first people. Oxygen content and purity is similar to Earth’s and the ship’s, and our exterior sensors show pressure well within comfort range."

Not for the first time, Pete marvelled at the shipbuilding genius of the first people. He had felt nothing whatsoever during the landing: the ship was silent and still as before. His regret for their missing records intensified, but at least he had the book.

The ceremony made up little more than a scant few words directed at the present, not the future. Vague and visionary things Pete did not bother to remember—the first moments of the dispersal would be infinitely more important, and anyway an officer with a vid crew was transmitting it all live to the entire ship.

They filed into the airlock, thick with the dry smell of centuries of stale emptiness. Pete, at the front of the crowd with the captain, watched the dull steel of the outer door. He wished the first people had put in windows—the scenes from the vid display had done little to whet his appetite for the new world. Yet as the door hissed open, he could not help closing his eyes tight, preparing poetic turns of phrase to use later when he wrote the events of this day, their first on the planet, the fruition of all their long labours.

But there was a black void beyond the ship when he did look, the only light a dim yellow which spilled from the airlock and illuminated little save a narrow, steel ledge jutting up against the ship. The vid-screen had shown hills, rock-strewn but wide and gentle. There was a sudden surge as the officers at the back tried to push forward out into the planet. Pete stumbled back, jostling against the press of bodies. He felt more than saw the newly empty space beside him—McCallister-Xo had fallen over the side of the ledge. His hoarse yells echoed down and away, punctuated in jerking thuds until at last all was silent.

That silenced them all, and one of the officers took out a maintenance flash-light. The stark white beam pulled fragments of horror out of the dark: bloody streaks left by the captain’s fall on the side of the ship; the hull stretching endlessly down, juxtaposed not against some outcropping of rock or grass but hard, slick steel. Dust and mildewed greens.

Across the ledge was a vast platform, similar in design to the ship itself. The far wall was rough stone and stretched up into darkness beyond the range of their vision; set into it were two massive steel doors, the words May God forgive us what we have done scrawled rust-coloured and huge above them in one of the ancient Earth languages. Pete translated for the others, his mind numb.

Captainless and bewildered—were they still on Earth? How? And why?—they wandered the platform in disarray, all thoughts of their grand journey’s fated destination fallen away into the dark. Three of the officers joined McCallister-Xo, walking slow, deliberate steps off the ledge, their descent all the more harrowing for its silence. Pete and the others heard only soft thuds and scratches as they tumbled off the hull of the ship they had served.

At last Pete remembered the book, Magda’s dying words. She had known—all the archivists had. His head felt loose on his shoulders as he staggered back to the airlock to read by its light.

It took a team of six rugged Bottom labourers several hours to shift the doors at the cavern’s edge. While they worked, other teams walked its interior, measuring and probing, trying to find some sort of explanation.

Pete read.

The book turned out to hold two separate texts, joined who knew when. The first, older text was the shorter of the two, and so despite the difficulty of its language, Pete tackled it first. It was set on official looking paper and dated in the old style, which had not been used as far as Pete was aware since the second or third generation.

This was the portion of the book he had turned to when he first found it. The terminology seemed wilfully obscure at points, and even when the words were clear the grammar was strange to him, but eventually Pete determined that it was a study on simulated space travel, commissioned by some long-ago Earth government.

He had struggled through half of it before the team breached the door, revealing empty, winding caves which branched and joined in maze-like arrays. The ship crew abandoned their search of the cavern where the ship sat and spread outward. It was dispersal of a sort, but tethered and impermanent, a ranging into the caves which always returned to the bulk of the ship.

They found none of the promised meadows, no life of any sort save mildew and fungi. There were streams, little trickling spots of damp which were clear and cool as promises on their tongue, filtered by the endless rock. The water tasted bitter in the dankness of their underground prison.

The teams were always careful to mark the way back to the ship, placing fluorescent strips from long-term storage on the walls or floors of the caves. But even so, some did not return. Other teams would come across markings which simply stopped, with no sign of life nearby and nobody to answer their calls.

When he was not ranging, Pete read the book. By now it was clear the ship had never left Earth, although the reason for this eluded them all. Pete skipped the rest of the first text and moved to the second, which was actually harder to read despite its language being more recognisably his own. It was technical in nature, describing systems the ship used to simulate space travel. Even though he didn’t understand most of what it said, Pete continued to read.

Then one day Pete’s team found the wall. It was at the end of a long passage which wound inexorably upwards, and it was made of brick. Pete watched, glad he had been there when it happened, as two Bottom men scrabbled at the caulking, hammered at the bricks with stalagmites they ripped from the cave floor, breaking down the dirt and rocks and scree beyond with equal fervour. He made no move to participate, caught up in fantasies of what they would find on the other side and readying what he would say when they returned to the ship.

All they found was ruin and stagnation, silence and death—an ash-choked swathe of land which stretched away beyond their new-made exit in the brick. Clouds of the dust blew past what must have once been a town, billowing out grey plumes from shattered buildings and tugging formless bundles of stuff.

The two men who had torn down the wall walked off into the dust, searching for life, supplies, or signs of what had happened. After an hour or two, with weak sunlight ribboning down, the other members of the party went too. Pete stayed: he would report back to the ship, he told them.

And so he watched and waited until the sun died a fiery red and the cold of evening set in. In the dim emptiness, he seemed to hear sounds in the distance, low sinuous hissings from the depths of history. The clouds of ash seemed to hide shadowy figures, but when they swirled away revealed only a shattered building, a rusting, useless metal hulk, or nothing at all. He shuddered and returned to the ship’s resting place, alone.

When he arrived, they questioned him. Why had he returned alone? Where was his team? What of the time they had spent out in the caves? He only shook his head, filled with grief, and passed them by.

"The secrets of the ship?"

"Yes, Captain Seong. Nothing of why we’re here, who the first people were or what purpose they hoped to achieve. But all the secrets of the ship’s systems, everything we need to prolong the illusion."

"And we should do this even though you found a way out?"

"Just come with me, Captain. Come with me and you will understand."

Captain Seong took little convincing once he had seen the desolation which lay beyond the caves. He and Pete took a few steps out down the hillside until the ash began to choke them, cold acrid fingers down their throats. They heard the sounds, saw things that were not there. Captain Seong swore he felt something brush his shoulder, though Pete was only a few feet away and saw nothing but ash. They turned back lest they lose sight of the entrance: Earth held nothing for them and if it did they were terrified of it.

Inside the cave mouth, the other officers waited. At a shake of the head from Captain Seong, they began to rebuild the wall, working in silence. On the walk back to the ship, they tore up the guide-strips. Over the next few days, as Bottom teams tore up the other strips, removing all signs which pointed to their ship, Pete and the officers between them got the ship’s systems rebooted.

When all was complete, they sealed the cavern doors and closed off the ship once more. The ship’s journey was a lie, but it was one with promise—promise they would pass on to later generations.

Pete finished transcribing the last of the records from the dispersal and sat back, cracking his knuckles. It was only right, he thought, that he complete his duty as Archivist before betraying it. His generation would keep few records, and preserve none of them.

He lifted the paper from the desk and set it in the book he held, behind the two older sets of papers, then walked with it from the stacks, nodding to the two officers who stood at the ready with vid-cams and torches.

At the door, he stopped to watch. One last time, one last event: the fire-swept cleansing of all they had recorded, all their history and lore. He felt no regret at the destruction of their legends and dreams, their pasts and their futures.

After a while, he set the book firmly under his arm, turned on his heel, and walked to the express lift and the rich, verdant hills of Bottom. Behind him, the tongues of flame licked over everything but the shelf of the first years, already long since empty.

This story first appeared in COSMOS‘ online edition in April of 2013.

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The Abbot’s Garden: a novelette by Stewart C Baker