Aboard Genesis 11
“You all know why you’re here.”
There are ten of us at the table. We all nod like we even have a clue.
Eight of the richest men and women in the world stand at the opposite end of the conference room. Last night, I used PJ’s phone to look them up. Babel Communications. Swallowed Google back in 2036. Some blogger says they’re NASA’s dark little shadow and have been for decades. Whatever they do, they look good doing it. Each of them wears the same charcoal suit. It looks like someone threaded smoke into formal wear. The overheads dance off all the polished shoulders and shoes.
But the lights and the room and the world are bending forward to hear the man who’s speaking: Marcus Defoe. He’s black, but not like me. I’ve spent half my life feeling like an absence, a moonless night. I can’t imagine this guy going anywhere without turning heads. Everything about him whispers king. It’s in the set of his shoulders and the sound of his voice and the prowl of his walk. He glides toward us, and an image of a panther flashes through my head. There’s so much polish and shine that I almost don’t notice the claws.
Leaning back, I pull one of my earbuds out. My music was playing low-key but the Asian kid next to me keeps looking over like it’s the loudest thing he’s ever heard. Tough luck. I leave the volume up just to grind at him. When Babel recruited me, they said all of this was a game. I like playing games, but I like winning games even more. The stiff next to me shakes his head in annoyance, and I already feel like I’m up a few points on him.
The earpiece bleeds half beats and old-soul voices. People at school think I like early hip-hop ’cause it’s vintage, but the truth is I could never afford the new stuff. When my neighbor glances over for the thousandth time, I nod and smile like we’re going to be best friends.
“You were chosen to be at the forefront of the most serious space exploration known to mankind. The results of your mission will change the outlook for our species.” Defoe goes on to talk about humanity, manifest destiny, and final frontiers. His head is shaved and perfectly round. His smile is blinding. His eyes are so stunningly blue that the girls at school would call them the color of boom. Babel’s king has a single imperfection: His right hand is withered, like a giant took its sweet time breaking each and every bone. It’s the kind of injury you’re not supposed to look at, but always do. “The reward for your efforts will be beyond your imagination. A trust fund has already been established for each of you. A check for fifty thousand dollars will be put into your account every month for the rest of your lives.”
Everyone at the table perks up. Straighter shoulders, wider eyes, less fidgeting. We all react to the numbers be- cause we all must be dead-dancin’ broke. Except one kid.
He looks bored. King Solomon just tossed us the keys to the kingdom, and he’s hiding yawns? I take a closer look. He’s white. I fact-check the table and realize he’s the only white boy here. American? Maybe. Could be European. He’s sporting a plain three-button shirt. He drums his fingers distractedly on the table, and I spot a tag under one armpit. So the shirt’s a recent purchase. His hair looks deliberately imperfect, like he wanted to seem more down- to-earth. When he glances my way, I set both eyes back on Defoe again.
“Beyond monetary stability, we are also offering our medical plans for your families. They now have free access to health care, counseling, surgery, and the most advanced treatments for cancer and other terminal diseases. Those services come without a price tag, and they’re offered in perpetuity.”
I don’t know what perpetuity means, but some of the kids around the table are nodding wisely. Two of them flinched at the word cancer. One’s a girl with blond hair, blue eyes, and enough makeup to place in a pageant. I spy a strand of pink-dyed hair tucked behind one ear. The other kid is really tan with bright brown eyes. Middle Eastern’s my guess. I wonder if their parents have cancer. I wonder if that’s how Babel roped them into this monkey-in-space routine. I wonder if they noticed me flinch right around the same time they did.
It’s hard to hear the words that follow, because an image of Moms has snagged my attention. Those bird-thin wrists circled by medical bracelets. We spent enough time in the ICU that the hospital started feeling like a prison. Only difference is that some diseases don’t grant parole.
“. . . we offer stock options with our company, internal connections with any business in the world, and an opportunity to put your name in the history of the human race. Desmond is passing out a gag order. If you’re still interested, just sign on the dotted line.”
One of the lesser suits makes the rounds. He sets hot-off- the-presses forms in front of each of us. I can’t stop staring at the massive gold watch on his wrist. In less-promising circumstances, I’d whoops my way out of my chair, slip it off his wrist, and stranger my way out of the room before he knew which way was west. But life is good, so I care- fully skim a paragraph with words like privatization and extrajudicial. On my left, the Asian kid considers a strange gathering of symbols. The girl on my right’s reading some- thing that looks a little beyond the reach of my high school Spanish. I almost laugh, thinking we’re the politically cor- rect version of the Justice Squad. But if Babel’s looking for heroes, they picked the wrong guy.
I sign on the dotted line and try to look like I didn’t just win the lottery.
The suits whisper million-dollar secrets. Defoe prowls a casual, predatory circle to make sure we’re all being good little boys and girls. I hit next on my shuffle and a nice unfiltered beat drops. Two voices duet their way to a bare- bones chorus. They trade lyrics until it feels like I’m back in the concrete jungle, ciphering and laughing with the Most Excellent Brothers.
I miss the boys already, especially PJ. Our neighbor- hood’s pretty full of dead ends, though, and Babel’s offering a way out. I don’t know what their offer means to the other kids around the table, but to me it means Moms getting her name at the top of the transplant lists. It means Pops not working night shifts. It means three meals a day and more than one pair of jeans.
To me, this is everything.
One of the girls is the last to sign. As PJ would say, she’s more than cute. Taller than me, with her hair buzzed. She’s so slender her collarbones have collarbones. Her dark skin makes the woven cords bunched around one wrist look like the bright feathers of a bird. Metal coins dangle and dance from the bracelet, catching the light before scattering it. The thing looks ancient, some kind of African charm. We all watch as she makes an edit to her form. Defoe considers it. His smile is all teeth. He nods and she signs and we’re set. “Very good. Now, as we describe your mission, you are welcome to leave at any point, but the gag order you’ve
signed is something that we are deathly serious about.” Defoe pauses to emphasize his choice of adverb. Deathly.
Snitches are nothing new, nor the consequences for being one. But a quick glance shows that not all the kids around the table can see the writing on the wall. Translation: Walking away isn’t an option.
He continues: “If you speak about this to anyone, you will find your hands tied legally for the rest of your life. Is that understood?”
Everyone nods. For the first time, I realize Defoe’s whole speech has been in English. Definitely my preference, but how are the other kids understanding him? Do they all speak English too? A second glance around the room has me feeling certain they’ve flown this crew in from every corner of the world. Maybe they’ve got English-speaking schools in most places these days, but the idea feels like a stretch.
A black glass screen glides up behind Defoe. The other suits scatter, and digital imaging flickers to life. The crazy part is I don’t hear a thing. No cooling fans, no grinding gears, no swishing panels. A seventy-inch screen loads images with flawless resolution.
Defoe is flashing teeth again. The other suits look giddy. They’ve been waiting to reveal this. To us.
“Babel Communications discovered a habitable planet sixty-three years ago.” An Earth lookalike appears behind him. “Eden. Our relationship with the planet has been a determined one. We thought life on Eden was possible. Now we know with certainty. The planet does sustain human life.” The screen displays distances, star navigation, and planetary readouts. It’s all gibberish to me. “Even with our vast technological advancements, the original journey to Eden took twenty-seven years.”
Defoe lets that sink in. Twenty-seven years. We all do the math, and we all look a little pissed off as we solve for x. None of us signed up to grow old in space. I know I didn’t.
“Of course, that journey now takes us less than a year.”
We all let out held breath. Less than a year. Defoe’s clearly having fun with us. The suits flash their thousand- dollar smiles at his clever joke. I start to understand who they are, how they see us. I file it away under A for Anger.
“The Tower Space Station is already orbiting Eden. We will rendezvous there before sending you to the surface. The planet is populated by a species called the Adamites.”
Habitable planets. Aliens. Right. Our generation watched the Mars landings. We’ve seen NASA’s recruiting posters all over our high schools. But there’s never been a whisper of other life-forms. It’s hard to imagine that a secret this big could spend three decades in the dark. As far as I knew, three decades ago we were puddle-jumping around the moon. Babel’s asking us to bridge a gap between the history books and their revelations that feels impossible.
We watch as the screen divides into a series of images. We see humanoids in a vast, primitive landscape. They’re shorter and stockier than your average human. Their eyes look wider and fuller. Defoe smiles triumphantly, but I’ve seen way better Photo Factories online.
“Naturally, we’ve had a few encounters with the species.” Defoe presses an invisible button, and a video wide- screens. We have a zoomed-out shot of mostly military types, some scientists. They’re sporting high-tech gear, including KillCall-style assault rifles. We watch the negotiations go wrong. Very wrong. Shadows stretch and obscure the so-called Adamites. Shots are fired, but in the chaos and smoke every soldier ends up dead or dismembered. The Adamites spare only one of the interlopers. A girl, maybe seven or eight.
Defoe hits pause. “Jacquelyn Requin. She was born on the first flight to Eden. Our satellites indicate she’s still alive. Why? The Adamites revere children and young people. They kept her alive because she represents something lost to them. Currently, the youngest member in their society is twenty-one years old. While they are a long-lived species, it appears they are unable to reproduce now. As such, they adore and treasure children. It is that adoration that has provided us the opportunity for this endeavor.”
He reaches in his pocket and pulls out a marble. It’s pitch-black, shades darker than the thumb and forefinger he has it pinched between.
With a quick manipulation, the substance stretches. Defoe’s hands dance. After a moment, he holds it up. A black- bladed dagger. He allows us all a good look at the knife, flips his grip, and throws it at a target to his right. It buries itself up to the hilt. Not a bad trick, but he’s not done. With another hand motion, he draws the substance back across the room into his palm. He holds the marble up for us to see. Not a bad trick at all.
“Babel Communications has found a number of ways to use the substance. It has secretly become the most valuable resource in the world. Our mission is to harvest as much of this material as possible. Can anyone guess where one might find vast deposits of nyxia?”
Eden, we all think. All right, Defoe, you have our attention. A touch from his thumb replaces the video with a digitally scanned map of the planet. We see areas marked in red. Black dots nest along ridges and next to river basins in unpredictable patterns. Defoe explains.
“Each black dot represents an underground mine of nyxia. Speaking logistically, each of those black dots is worth somewhere in the realm of fifty billion dollars.”
My disgruntled neighbor lets out a whistle. We finally agree on something: that’s a boatload of money. And there are a lot of dots. I haven’t forgotten the dead space marines, though, or their amputated limbs.
A brown-eyed boy to my right calls out a question in another language.
Defoe nods. “The red areas indicate locations that the Adamites have established as off-limits to us. No one from Babel Communications has set foot in any of those regions.” As expansive as the black dots are, they’re overshadowed by the red areas. In fact, there’s a single circle of accessible land at the lower end of the map, and I don’t see a black dot for several kilometers. Defoe asks the billion-dollar ques-
tion for us:
“So, how do we retrieve nyxia from mines protected by a species with superior technology and an aggressive ap- proach to border disputes?”
Exactly, I think. How can we help? And why risk our lives to do it?
Defoe answers his own question cryptically. “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The girl with all the makeup adds her southern accent to the conversation. “That’s from the Bible, isn’t it?”
Defoe nods. “Yes, it is. Your age will protect you. Our journey will give us ample opportunity to train you in safely extracting nyxia from the mines you enter. We will set quotas for each of you. Meeting those quotas will gain you the monetary rewards promised earlier.”
The Asian kid next to me objects. Defoe listens patiently before replying.
“Longwei has asked about the risks. He’s worried about being killed and not receiving his reward. Not only do we have a confirmed occurrence where they demonstrated a clear precedent for protection of young people, but two months ago we made an agreement with the Adamites. Those of you that set foot on Eden will be permitted to come and go wherever you like. You will be their welcome guests.” “So we just collect this nyxia stuff?” the southern girl asks.
“Precisely, Jasmine. The more the merrier.” A quick glance at his partners shows they have one more reveal. Defoe straightens his already-straight shoulders. “You may have noticed that there are ten of you here. At Babel Communications, we find competition to be valuable. Iron sharpens iron and all that. There are ten of you, but we will only be taking eight to Eden.”
Real fear is always quiet. All of a sudden, we’re stat- ues. Not a breath, except from the white kid. He cracks a knuckle and reclines in his chair. He’s not like us. I don’t know how I know, but I do. The rest of the group waits for Defoe to say he’s just kidding, but of course he’s not. A heavyset Asian kid at the end of the table makes a snarky comment. Whatever the joke is, Defoe doesn’t find it funny.
“Katsu wants to know what will happen to the other two,” Defoe explains. “Our yearlong flight will be a competition of sorts. Every test you perform will be measured. Every task we set you to will be analyzed. From the moment we enter space, you will be under a microscope. Rankings will be posted throughout the ship. Only eight of you will be permitted to travel to Eden upon arrival. Those eight will receive the beneficial packages we’ve discussed.”
More silence. Hearts are breaking.
“The other two will still receive a smaller monetary sum. The average salary for a Babel Communications employee is right around one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. You’ll be paid for two years of service and sent back to your home. The other benefits won’t be available to you.” In my neighborhood, that kind of consolation prize would be more than enough. I’m sure it’s better money than any- one at this table could have imagined before today. But we already know there’s something better. We already know there’s a promise of riches that stretches on forever. The
table’s full of greedy faces. Babel’s curveball is working.
Competition. Supply and demand. Cage-style. “Shall we begin?” Defoe asks.
His question echoes and echoes and echoes.
Aboard Genesis 11
A Babel employee leads me to one of the ship’s comfort pods and tells me to enjoy the view. The docking bay is chaos. Layered glass mutes everything. It’s like watching a silent movie without the subtitles. This launch has probably been on tap for a decade, but the worker ants always have more to do. Techies with glowing headsets scan crates, bark commands, and watch the heavies wheel them out of sight. I sigh, shuffle through songs, and wait.
The door behind me looks like a model blast door straight from the set of one of those remade Star Wars movies. The floor tiles are temperature controlled. Plush cushions grow out of every corner like mushrooms. They call it a comfort pod, but I’m a nervous wreck. Dimmed lighting, lavender walls, and a help-yourself espresso machine. The whole spread just makes me feel more out of place.
The player’s scramble lands on a reggae infusion my cousin Taylor produced last year. PJ and the Most Excellent Brothers worship Taylor because they think he rubs shoulders with the rise-and-grind rappers of our generation. Really, though, he’s defaulting on loans and working night shifts with my pops. That’s the way things go in Detroit. I think of my family, my boys, everyone. Where I come from, low expectations are generational.
So I have to wonder, why me? No easy answers there. The numbers are clear enough:
Eight out of ten.
Fifty thousand dollars a month. Forever.
I watch the worker bees and breathe deep breaths until the blast door hisses open. I wasn’t sure who Babel Communications would fly in to say goodbye, but I should have known. Moms has never been on a plane. And the doctors don’t like her traveling long distances anyway. So it’s Pops who takes two steps into the room. He’s wearing a leather jacket and worn jeans. He has on the newsboy cap that he knows I love. He doesn’t smile, because he’s already crying. He offers his hand like I’ve graduated college or joined the army or something. When we shake, his hand swallows mine whole. We sit down together, and he doesn’t bother to wipe the tears away from his bloodshot eyes. Babel recruited me just a month ago. It’s crazy how fast all of this has happened, how little time we have left.
“Mr. Defoe told us it’d be three years.” His voice is a stalled engine. “Emmett, I know it’s a great opportunity. Lord knows I never saw any scholarship money. But are you sure?” He looks around at the strange seats and the glowing tiles. “Does it feel right?”
He asks the question I’ve been jammed on all morning. What’s the fine print? Who’s the wizard behind the curtain? Babel has its secrets, but so do I, so do all of us.
“I can’t say no, Pops.” “You can always say no.”
“They’re offering fifty thousand dollars—”
He cuts me off. “Money’s money, Emmett. I could’ve had us sitting pretty if I earned a living doing the wrong things. Does it feel right?”
“A month, Pops. Fifty thousand a month.” I avoid his eyes, pretending to watch the workers. I know how much he makes every year. I know how small it is compared to what they’re offering me. I know life isn’t fair. “Forever. Free health care too. You can take Moms tomorrow. Free treatment at any clinic in Detroit. I’ve seen the bills, Pops. I’ve seen how long that transplant list is. Babel’s the kind of company that will get her to the top of the list. They’re the kind of people who pull the strings we can’t reach. I know we need this. She needs it.”
He ignores all of that. “I asked you a question.”
I sigh, but his eyes drill me to the wall. Does it feel right?
“I really don’t know,” I say. “It’s hard to tell the difference between rich and wrong.”
I’m pretty sure that’s a lyric, but it’s exactly how I feel. Babel Communications strikes a strange chord, but every billionaire strikes a strange chord. They live in different worlds, move in different crowds, and breathe different air. It’s always been that way and it always will be.
Pops looks out at the worker bees. “Never seen anything like it.”
We watch a guy almost get speared by a forklift. “You scared?” he asks.
“Just means you’re smart.” “Yeah.”
“If they ask you to do something that isn’t right, what you say?”
“If they push you to the very edge, what you do?” “Fly.”
“What’s your name?”
He used to ask me all this before football games. It’s a tradition, a reminder.
“Emmett Ethan Atwater,” I say. “What’s Ethan mean?” “Steady.”
“What’s Emmett mean?” “Hard worker.”
“What’s Atwater mean?”
I hitch. “You never told me that. . . .” He smiles. “I don’t know either.”
The fact that he can tell a joke right now unties a thousand knots in my stomach.
“So, they’re going to set you up nice, huh?”
“Not just me. You and Moms too.” I look away again. “I want it bad, Pops.”
“Want it for you first. When you’re up there.” He looks at the ceiling like it’s not there, like the galaxies are spread out in their infinity. “Want it for yourself. I work hard, but you deserve so much more than we’ve been able to give you. Take what’s yours first. Got that?”
I feel weak all of a sudden. A set of bones without a heart.
“They’re only going to take eight of us down to Eden.”
He nods like he expected there to be a twist. “Out of how many?”
“Pretty good odds.”
Oxygen seems hard to come by. The words scratch their way out.
“What if I don’t win?” “What if you do?” he asks.
A second later he’s up on his feet. He’s not crying now. “You get in there and fight, Emmett. Be worthy. Not in their eyes, but in yours. Break the rules you need to, but never forget who you are and where you come from. When they knock you down, and they will, don’t you quit on me.”
I shake my head in promise. “Ever,” he punctuates.
We hug. After, we sit and watch the cargo bay until all the crates are packed. My father holds out a brass key, and my heart stops. I’ve only ever seen it in a glass case in my parents’ bedroom. It’s ancient. Scratched all over and about as big as my palm. I turn it over and over and think about all the Atwaters who have held this key. He doesn’t bother to explain why he’s giving it to me, because I already know. Break the chains, the key cries. Take what is yours.
Aboard Genesis 11
And just like that, I’m leaving Earth behind.
Not forever, but this isn’t the same as boarding a bus for summer camp. It feels wrong, having to abandon Moms just to make sure she gets the treatment she needs. I won’t get to be there for her through the hardest stages of treatment, but leaving her and Pops means she has a chance of beating the odds. I have to believe that both of them will be here when I get back, alive and well and on their way to rich and retired. It still feels like something’s slipped through my fingers as one of the techies leads me through the ship. It’s massive. Space tunnels lead through a technological stomach. I try to memorize our route, but we go up three levels, down two corridors, and through way too many doors for me to pull it off. A snare drum is wreaking havoc in my headphones, so I miss the first round of instructions.
“What?” I ask, spinning the volume down. “Your room, Mr. Atwater.”
The techie punches digits and swipes a card, and the door gasps open. For a second I forget we’re on a spaceship. The floors are carpeted, the couches are leather, and the library is stacked. Past the living room I spot two doors and figure they’re bed and bath. The techie is punching another code into the data pad. Everything about the place is robotic blue and sleek.
“Do I get one of those cards?” I ask. “In Detroit we still use keys.”
“Your suits are coded to your room.” “I get a suit?”
He nods. “And a gun.” “Really?”
For the first time, the guy has a face. He actually made a joke. Something about that makes him more than another piston in Babel’s finely tuned engines. He’s all sharp angles, light skin, and dark eyes. He looks like someone’s uncle. Smiling, I offer him dap. He glances down the hallway, smiles to himself, and bumps my fist.
“What’s your name?” I ask. “Donovan Vandemeer.” “That’s not American, is it?”
Mr. Vandemeer shakes his head. “Dutch.” “Oh, I love Denmark.”
Vandemeer tilts his head, correction on his lips. Then he figures out I’m kidding.
“Very good, Mr. Atwater.”
It’s clear that Vandemeer needs to be elsewhere. I see his data pad blinking with a new assignment, and even though he’s standing stock-still, I can sense which direction he wants to start walking. The well-oiled cogs of Genesis 11 are waiting on me. It feels kind of good.
“How long do I have to get ready? Before the launch.”
Vandemeer’s smile widens. “The launch is happening as we speak, Mr. Atwater.”
I grin at that. I’ve seen one too many Makers of Mars movies to believe him. The launches in that series were always filled with chaos and sweat. Vandemeer just smiles as I start across the room. “Of course, my mistake. I got it from here, Vandemeer.”
“Your bedroom is the door on the left.”
Nodding, I call back over one shoulder, “And the bath- room’s on the right?”
Before Vandemeer can respond, the door opens. An Asian girl exits the room on the right. She’s wearing a sleek gunmetal jumpsuit. It’s hip-hugging leather with ribbed padding around the vital organs. A black metallic mask runs across her jawline. Above it, her eyes are dark and her hair is clipped into a neat ponytail by a plastic strawberry. She walks past, and my soft-spoken hello goes unheard. She waves at Vandemeer and vanishes down the hallway.
I catch the Dutchman grinning and ask, “What’s she doing in here?”
“She lives in one room. You live in the other.” “But . . .” I gesture uselessly. “She’s a girl!”
Vandemeer smiles. “My knowledge of America is sparse.
Are there no girls there?”
“Yeah, but that’s different. We don’t . . . they don’t . . .
We have our own bathrooms, right?”
For some reason, the idea of using the same bathroom as her terrifies me. What if she thinks I smell? What if she smells? What if I forget to lock the door?
“Separate rooms, separate bathrooms. You simply share a common area.”
“Right,” I say. It’s still weird. “Do I have to talk to her?” “It would be polite,” Vandemeer points out.
“Is she American?”
“I believe she’s Japanese.”
“Right, Japanese. How am I supposed to learn Japanese?” “You might have noticed the apparatus she was wearing.
I nod. “It looked like something out of a comic book.” Vandemeer laughs. “It’s a nyxian language converter.
You’ll find one in your room.” His data pad vibrates, and the playful smile vanishes. “Any other questions, Mr. At- water?”
“She’s pretty,” I accidentally say out loud.
Vandemeer laughs again and departs. The blast door hisses shut and I’m all alone.