Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Hernan Diaz about his writing process.
We’re gathered around Victor’s body. I can’t look at his face and don’t want to look down like the others. Find myself staring at the glass of water on the counter. The nervous little ripples. This is why I know the hum is there, although I can’t hear it. None of us has ever heard the hum, because we were born into it. But the surface of the water, a crumb dancing on the table, or, sometimes, my face trembling in the mirror reminds me of it. Even if I plug my ears or listen to music, the hum is in my body. From the floor and the walls to my skin and my bones. So I look at the rippling water and think that with Victor, we’ve lost silence. It was only in his head, of course. A memory. But now we don’t even have that. Now there’s only the hum.
When all lights are out, darkness is total and loneliness absolute. An infinite cage. That’s why they’re seldom turned off. And that’s why we all giggled with relief when Victor came in, holding the cake in one hand and a small flashlight in the other. It was pointed at the ceiling, like a candle. Everyone started to sing. As Victor walked toward me, the light under his chin magnified different parts of his face with each step. The blood vessels glowing in his nostrils. The confusion of his white beard. During the last “happy,” the entire cavern of his mouth was lit. One of his molars was blue. Who knows what he’d recast to make it. I closed my eyes, made a wish, and blew on the flashlight, which Victor switched off just in time. They all cheered. The lights were immediately turned back on.
“What did you wish for?” Fei asked.
“To see real fire one day.”
This made everybody uncomfortable for a second.
“That’s beautiful,” Victor whispered in my ear.
Of course, that wasn’t my real wish. I felt bad lying to Victor, but everyone knows that wishes won’t come true if you say them out loud.
Nan gave me a new game she’d made especially for me. In it, I was a centaur and had to explore a valley looking for data and things that’d allow me to become either a human or a horse. The graphics were amazing. Lu’s gift was to take over my full cleaning shift whenever I chose. Nefti promised to repair the loose wall paneling behind my bunk. Fei had made me a much-needed new shirt, and Victor gave me a book. My first actual book. He’d printed it, cut the pages to the right size, and bound it between cardboard covers. I could tell the others thought it was wasteful.
“You have to read Amanda Gibbons on the page. At least once,” he told me. And then, to the others, “She can recycle it when she’s done.”
“I’ll never recycle it,” I said, leafing through the book and then putting my nose into it.
“Incredible,” Victor said. “That’s exactly what many of us used to do. How did you know to smell the book?”
“How could you not?” Don’t know what I was expecting, but it had no smell at all.
Then we all had cake. Except for Sam, who’d just been reclicked. She had that face, shut against the stench that hits you when you come back. And sort of looking inward, figuring it all out again.
I couldn’t fall asleep after the party. Above me, in her bunk, Lu kept turning. The loose wall panel made noise every time she moved. That’s not what kept me awake, though. Thirteen years old. The real work began now, they said. But I’d also have more freedom. I’d be attending all the meetings. Thirteen. Something about the number itself, and not just because of the whole “teen” thing. There was a hardness, a seriousness to it that I couldn’t explain but could only feel. The youngest here but no longer a child, as everyone kept reminding me. Tried to read my book but couldn’t focus. Kept turning it in my hands, flipping through the pages. Thirteen. I opened Nan’s game. There I was, half human, half horse. Our bodies blended perfectly. Why did I have to choose? I trotted around a forest, thinking about Victor. He looked worried. Old.
He was old. After me came Nan (15) then Lu (17) then Fei (19) then Sam (22) then Dit (25) then Delia (28?) then Nefti (31?) then Bibi (33?) then Robin (37). Then Victor (68).
Lu kept turning. And across the aisle, Delia started snoring. I galloped through a meadow, toward a waterfall.
The following morning Nan, Lu, and I had class. The lessons kept getting shorter. Bibi seemed to have given up. Didn’t really teach anymore—barely made sure we were reading instead of playing games. Lessons used to be so much fun. Especially history. We’d argue about the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Cortés and Montezuma, the Beijing campaign, the Canadian War. But something had changed. Now we just sat there. Nan and Lu often got away with playing games. Out of the blue, they’d have sudden laughing fits together. Bibi didn’t care. Seemed gone. Truth is we were all too old for school.
After class, on my way to the bridge, I saw Sam. She was looking out, her forehead resting on the glass. Perhaps I upset the air as I approached her. She retched.
“You should drink a lot of water,” I said. “Really helps.”
“It smells here. I smell.”
“You’ll get used to it. They told you that, right?”
She turned toward me.
“Have you ever been reclicked?” she asked.
Her voice was raspy. It was probably her first time talking after the procedure.
“Is it always like this?”
“Always. But you’ll feel better by tomorrow. And then you should enjoy the novelty of it all, while it lasts.”
“I don’t understand. I remember everyone here. Remember you. But can’t say exactly from where. Or who you are, really.” She coughed. “And I remember myself. My name. My face. But not where I come from. And can’t remember this place. Just went to the kitchen. Had never been there. But knew exactly where the plates and cups were.”
“You’re meant to forget most things about this place, but not who you are. They told you that, right? And it’s not perfect, what’s left in or out.”
“Have I been reclicked before?”
Her eyes demanded more.
“Every two years or so,” I said. “Depends.”
“How stir-crazy we’re going. Nobody’s made it for more than five years.”
“Was I born here?”
“We all were. Except for Victor. He’s the last from the previous generation.”
“Who are my parents?”
Had no one given Sam the tutorial after reclicking her?
“We come from the nursery. If it makes you feel better, I also come from the nursery. We all do. Except for Victor.”
“I’m 22 years old.”
I waited to see what she’d say next. But that was it. She put her forehead back on the glass.
“Come with me to the bridge. The view is even better from there. And it’ll be like the first time for you.”
“Nice shirt,” Victor said when he met me at the nursery a little later.
“Fei is the best. Sorry I haven’t started reading the book yet.”
“Ah, you have to find the right time.”
The work at the nursery is boring but requires full attention. No room for mistakes. That’s why people work in pairs. To check on each other. I was assigned my first shift there the day after my birthday. A rite of passage, everyone called it at the party. I’d work with Victor, who’d teach me all about the place.
“The code changes every week,” he said as he punched in a number and opened the door. “We want to make sure only the two people in charge get in. Here, want to set the new code?”
I put in four digits.
“French Revolution?” Victor chuckled. “Love it.”
We went in. I’d visited the nursery countless times before. It’s the only place on board that’s spotless and new. Nothing’s ever taken away from there to be recycled or repurposed. Perhaps I wouldn’t notice how run-down the rest of the place is if it weren’t for how pristine the nursery looks. Still, I’d always found the long rows of drawers and cabinets unremarkable, despite knowing what was in them. But now it was different. The sense of responsibility was breathtaking. Almost suffocating.
“Multitudes,” I said.
“Hey, that’s my line!” Victor said, jokingly bumping into my shoulder.
True. It was his line. Whenever we visited the nursery, usually with Bibi for some school assignment, Victor would point to the middle section and say, “These drawers contain multitudes. These are our descendants.” And then, gesturing to different cabinets, he’d continue, “And here’s every tree and every bird. Over there, every flower and every bee. And there, every fish and the fish it’ll feed and the fish it’ll feed.” And so on. A bit in jest but also serious.
“All right, let’s get to work,” Victor said. “I know this is weird, but I must ask you to recite the protocols into the camera. For the record. Everyone has to do it on their first day. And we all have to do it after being reclicked. We need to make sure people understand and remember the importance of this task and know every step when they begin.”
I looked up at the camera in the corner where two walls met the ceiling and recited the passage I’d spent days memorizing:
“The nursery is the core of this ship and its mission. The nursery is life itself: the most extensive collection of flora and fauna, including humans in their widest genetic diversity. To preserve this core is the crew’s main duty. No other task or circumstance may ever come before this one central mission: ensuring that the seeds in this ship be sown in new ground.” After this, I quoted the description of each of the 21 protocols, including vitals, inspection of the gestation chambers, power and safety controls, all six backup checks, and evacuation and rescue procedures.
“Flawless,” Victor said. “Now let’s actually make sure everything’s okay.”
We went through every screen on every drawer, testing the systems and reading the numbers out loud to each other—and for the camera.
Halfway into this mind-numbing process, I asked for a break.
“Nope. Can’t waste their time,” Victor said, waving at the camera. “In fact, in a couple of weeks it’ll be your turn to be on the other side, supervising the next pair as they read the numbers. Isn’t it fun to finally be a grown-up?”
Nan, Lu, and Fei were by the recycling chute talking in excited whispers but stopped when they saw me come over with my chair and a bag full of cutlery. They weren’t that much older, but they treated me like a baby. For a short time, the four of us were close friends. But as they got older, one by one they left the kids’ group. In the end, it was just Nan and me. Then she also joined the others and never spoke to me the same way again.
Nefti had told me we needed a new aluminum part for one of the generators. We’d be recasting half our cutlery. And they’d asked me to hand over my chair.
Things seemed to be breaking more than ever. We constantly had to recycle all sorts of materials to make all kinds of parts. I knew the grown-ups had always been taking one thing from one place, breaking down its materials, recasting them into something else, and then recycling that again once they were done, sometimes turning it back into its original form. “What we have is what we have.” We’d been repeating this ever since I could remember. We kept reusing the stuff on board, which explained why the whole place looked so shabby and the passageways were always cluttered with half-dismantled gear. Of course I’d noticed it before, but I guess I only really got it now that it affected me. They’d never taken away my stuff when I was a kid.
I put the chair down by the chute.
“We’ll make you a new one as soon as we have some spare material to recast,” Fei said.
I shrugged. I liked not being babied anymore. Having fewer things, like the others. Not caring.
“How are you holding up?” asked Nan, concerned.
Unsure of what she meant, I smiled.
“We were watching you on the monitors when you were at the nursery,” Lu said. “Good job.”
“Really great,” said Nan. “I hear you’re getting your badge today. How does it feel to finally be finally part of the crew?”
I hated their condescension.
“Listen,” Fei cut in, creating a heavy pause. “Just wanted to say … So sorry about Victor. I know how close you guys are.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
The three of them exchanged glances.
“Oh … Just that … Now that you’re a full crew member, you’ll be much busier, and both of you probably won’t be able to spend so much time together.”
Like an idiot, I said Victor and I were working together and we’d still be close.
Since it was my first crew meeting, they let me sit in the command chair. I felt embarrassed and would have preferred to stand or sit on the floor, like the others.
Robin and Nefti did most of the talking. They welcomed me to the crew. Gave me that badge I’d always wanted and that nobody ever wears. I immediately knew I wouldn’t wear it either. A short speech about honor and responsibility. Then they said the time had come for me to learn about the true nature of our trip. Everyone looked down.
Best to be direct, they said. None of us would ever make it to our destination. The trip was simply too long. Just as we’d been born on the ship, we’d die on the ship. But our descendants would make it. This had always been the plan, since the first generation left Earth. And just as we’d gradually replaced them over the years, we in turn would be replaced by the next crew. In fact, we’d be activating human material in the nursery soon. Very soon. One child now, and then one every two or three years until we reached a total of 11. A full new crew.
They let this sink in and then asked me if I had questions.
I looked out. Nothing ever seemed to move.
I felt I had to ask something. Talk like a grown-up. But I was stunned.
“Do we remember this after being reclicked?” I didn’t recognize my own voice. “That we’ll never arrive. Do we remember that?”
Sam got up and ran out, sobbing. Nobody went after her.
“Depends,” Nefti said. “Some of us do. Some of us have to be reminded of this difficult truth.”
I turned to Victor. I must have looked hurt or angry.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “We never tell children until they’re ready. Everyone here learned when they turned 13 and got their badges. Why burden …” He couldn’t finish the sentence.
A long time went by, it felt like.
“You’ll have many questions later on,” Nefti said. “Please come to us.” She paused and then turned to the whole group. “Now, about that reactor.”
Nefti was right. Once I was on my own, all I had was questions. Never arrive? Was my only purpose in life to follow the protocols and take care of the nursery? Ensuring that the seeds in this ship be sown in new ground? Would I be expected to parent one of our successors, just like each of us had been parented by one previous crew member—just like Victor had parented me? How could he have lied to me all these years, telling me those stories about how we’d populate our new home with multitudes and birds and fish feeding fish feeding fish? But had he really lied to me? I tried to look back and remember. Had I ever been part of his stories about that new world?
I looked out.
Shut my eyes.
Compared the blackness outside with the blackness inside.
Thought of the nursery. Destroying it.
“Forgive me,” I heard Victor say.
I opened my eyes as he was withdrawing his hand, which had almost reached my shoulder. He sat on the floor, leaning against a wall, and invited me to do the same by gesturing to the opposite side of the corridor. I didn’t sit down.
“I deserve your anger,” he said, looking up at me. “But maybe I can show you how to hate me in a gentle sort of way. In a way that doesn’t hurt you.”
This was all very awkward.
“I won’t be around for much longer. Your generation will take over now. I wish you’d been in the next one. I wish you’d been among those who landed.” He shook his head. “Whenever anger builds up in your heart, please make sure it’s always pointed at me and those who, like me, brought you into this. Make sure your anger is never pointed inward.” He held his forehead for a moment. “In time, you’ll look after one of our descendants. I know you’ll be much, much better at it than I ever was.”
He got up slowly, in stages, and left.
After this, I avoided being alone with Victor, fearing another intense moment with him. And I was right: He kept trying to find a chance to talk to me. At the nursery, he skipped his usual jokes and went straight to work, reading the numbers on the screens. But he’d often pause, take a breath, and look at me. Before he could start speaking, I’d begin with the next sequence of numbers. Soon he stopped trying. The rest of the day, I made sure to be surrounded by other people. For once, I was glad there’s so little privacy here.
I spent most of my time with Nan and Lu. Finally learned why they laughed so hard in class: They kept swapping retouched little clips of Bibi—against absurd backgrounds, with her face disfigured by acid, with screwdrivers stabbing her eyeballs, with a saw ripping up her belly. I was glad to be included but didn’t find it funny. Not because of the gore and the guts. Just didn’t find it funny. Pretended to laugh. After class, once our shifts were over, the three of us would watch movies or play games. It was great to be one of them again. Still, I always left before we were done and was the first to bed, lying with eyes closed so no one would talk to me.
At the next crew meeting, a week after my birthday, Robin made the announcement. A new person had been activated in the nursery. In nine months, we’d be welcoming our new little crew member—and first lander. I’d never heard that word before. Lander.
That night, when I was facing my detached wall panel, pretending to be asleep, Victor came over to my bunk.
“I know you’re awake,” he whispered.
I didn’t turn to face him. Didn’t even open my eyes.
“It’s okay. This way you won’t have to feel like you have to respond. I came to say goodbye. I’m leaving tomorrow, you see.”
At this point I had to fight the urge to turn around. Leave where? How?
“It was always meant to be this way, so there’s no reason to be sad. Please remain as stubborn and kind and strong as you are today. And if you can’t forgive me, I hope you can forget me.”
He kissed my head. Didn’t hear him leave.
I turn from the rippling water to look at Victor one last time. A line has formed as everyone gets ready to leave. I am last, but Robin holds me back as she covers Victor’s face with the sheet.
“Are you all right?” she asks.
My anger has lifted. But I fail to be as sad as I think I should be.
“Now that we have a full crew and we’ve begun to activate the next one, I think it’s time for you to turn the page. A clean slate. You’ll be reclicked today. Now, in fact. You could use a fresh start.”
The first thing that crosses my mind is that I’ll have to memorize all those stupid nursery protocols again after the reclicking. Then I think of the foul stench that first hits you. Bodies. Piss. Recycled air. But immediately after, I remember Sam staring out the window. It’ll be nice to look out for the first time.
“Why don’t you go and get ready. Label the things you don’t want to forget. We’ll be waiting for you.”
I go to my bunk and look through my stuff. There isn’t much I really need to remember. I make a few notes for myself. A doll that has made it through all my reclickings gets a label. So does the loose wall paneling. “Nefti promised to fix!” I also write a reminder of the cleaning shift Lu owes me. Impossible to keep ignoring Victor’s book. I write “Don’t recycle!” on a label, attach it to the cover, and leave. But after taking a few steps, I turn around, go back, take the note off, rip it up, and put it in the recycling bin. The book, I put under my pillow.