Stories

To Swim Among Stars

Originally published in Mundelein Writes: Nature, by the Mundelein Arts Commission, Mundelein, Illinois, 2018

Astrid Ventas sat in the jungle and looked out the window into the sea. She hated it here. Not just the jungle, though that was bad enough. It was humid, smelled of decay, and was full of insects with an alarming degree of self-awareness. She hated the whole dome system though; the desert and the arctic and the beautiful meadow. All of it. She hated being trapped in a web of glass bubbles meters deep in the ocean.

But the jungle served as a refuge. All the others, the ones who believed in their purpose, felt really connected to these domes, they were insufferable. This was her refuge from their overindulgent pride, from all the back-patting and smug grins. She came here when she wanted to skip lessons or just be alone. For, while the wristband she wore, tuned to the specific dome’s frequency, kept predators and other nefarious creatures away, it was still an unsettling place. She sat on the dark forest floor where little of the artificial light reflected by the closed windows above could reach her. Down here the lower panels were open to the sea and she stared into the depths, dark as her mood.

She opened her satchel and took out the book. The book that had changed her life. It was a collection of images taken by the Hubble telescope. She turned the glossy pages, caressing the bands of light that made up galaxies, the billowing colors of nebulae, the intricate pattern of stars. Astrid often lost herself in these pages, dreaming of escaping. Of floating in unlimited space, seeking a better home for humanity.

Breaking from her reverie, Astrid began making her way through the thick green foliage, moving leaves wider than her body out of the way and tripping on roots and the refuse left behind by animals dwelling above. Eventually she found the main path, a dirt trail that was maintained rigorously to be free of the pervasive plant life. Astrid looked up and saw the simulated sky, the bright “sun” shining in her eyes through gaps in the canopy, and resignedly made her way to the door.

She passed few workers, men and women in the yellow jumpsuits of biologist or the green of botanist who inspected the dome’s inhabitants daily to make sure the delicate ecosystem was being maintained. All were heading to the door now. Everyone would be at the ceremony whether they applied to leave or not. When an event only took place every twenty-five years, attendance was mandatory.

#

The stage and podium gleamed in art deco glory at the far side of the immense atrium. The room was festooned with swaths of rust and silver fabric. A variety of flowers and vines decorated the platform, carefully cultivated among the many domes specifically for this ceremony. Astrid pushed her way through the crowd, being given leeway when the others recognized her. She was tempted to get close enough to smell the roses and penstemon and orchids but wanted to be far enough back to see the whole stage.

Astrid grew anxious as the rest of the dwellers gathered and the din of conversations filled the space as surely as the bodies. When the lights dimmed and the hush fell over the crowd, the weight of her anticipation was the weight of the entire ocean above her.

The director walked on stage and everyone clapped, not uproarious applause but a polite greeting. Astrid wished they would show some real emotion beyond their smug righteousness. Director Ventas motioned for them to stop, and they quickly did. Her mother was good at controlling the crowd.

“Thank you all. Thank you for coming on this momentous day to support our brave volunteers.” She stopped, giving everyone time to congratulate themselves on their role in this event. “It’s hard to believe that this is the sixth Expedition. One hundred and fifty years and our project is still running smoothly and successfully.”

A light applause here and someone, probably one of Astrid’s classmates, cheered. After a smattering of laughter at the outburst, the director continued.

“Before we begin I would like to thank all of the volunteers. It shows great bravery and a self-sacrificing nature to submit your name for this task. It is our duty to share our abundance, knowledge, and resources with those poor souls remaining on the surface. It will undoubtedly be a difficult journey and a daunting task. Thank you, deeply, for your service.”

Astrid stopped paying attention. She was growing impatient. All of this rhetoric was pointless. Who was the director trying to convince anyway?

Astrid wondered how many of the people who submitted their names actually believed in the Expedition. Did any of them feel the way she did or were they trying earn extra prestige among their peers? Astrid was willing to bet she was the only one of the lot who truly wanted to go. Who truly believed she would do more good up on the surface of the planet looking for another solution to humanity’s problems, one that didn’t rely on trapping anyone in a stagnant ecosystem.

“When I call your name, please come up on the stage to be recognized.”

Each name called was a gallon of water in Astrid’s stomach. One less chance her name would be next. She could taste the salt of disappointment on her lips each time she politely smiled and clapped for someone else being given her dream.

When all one hundred chosen stood on the stage, the applause grew louder. There were cheers and, finally, authentic emotion swept the room.

Relief.

Astrid stopped fighting the tears.

#

Astrid let the crowd disperse around her. Everyone went back to their duties, their families, their lives. She remained. The volunteers, bedecked with sashes to match the room and the most smug faces of all, promenaded off the stage, beginning their new training.

All the colorful blooms of the stage garland had long since begun to bleed together through Astrid’s blurry vision, when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned.

“Director?” she said, quickly wiping her face and defiantly making eye contact.

“Astrid, please stop that ‘director’ nonsense.”

When Astrid didn’t respond, she continued, “What are you still doing here?”

Astrid didn’t know how to answer. Hadn’t she seen the tears? Or did she just not understand? Again. How do you tell the person who should understand you the best, that you have been anchored to the spot by the overwhelming disappointment of losing the only chance at your dream?

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know. Right. Well, why don’t you come back to my office while I wrap up some things before dinner.”

Not seeing a tactful way to get out of it, and not wanting to start a fight, Astrid followed to the elevator.

As they rose, Astrid looked out the glass walls at the structures shining in the dark water. The atrium dropped from view and revealed the rest of the domes. The arctic dome was currently in its winter season so the panels were open, letting the darkness of the sea beyond the glass simulate endless night.

Astrid often wondered if the animals living in the domes could tell that they weren’t looking at the sky, but rather a vast expanse of water – if they felt something was off. Then she realized none of them had ever seen the real sky. Like her, they had only ever known this simulated cycle. Unlike her, they didn’t have the capacity to learn about the things they were missing.

The director’s office was tidy but full. The bronze fittings reflected faux flames coming from the fireplace and an overstuffed leather sofa in front of it took up more space than was practical in the small round room.

The director walked to her large, carved oak desk and began moving things around. Astrid was not convinced it was productive at all. Probably a ploy to get her up here to talk. She went to the sofa and sat down just hard enough to get attention, but no comment came her way.

Reverently, Astrid took out her book. The images barely registered. She wiped a single tear off the photo of Eta Carinae, a dying star, as the director came around and sat next to her.

“I know you wanted to go…”

Astrid turned on her, letting the sadness turn to anger and show in her face.

“It’s your fault,” she said. “You’re the reason I didn’t get to go.” She threw up a hand. “Even if you didn’t personally take my name out, no one would have sent your daughter to the surface.”

“The names were removed from the applications and replaced with numbers. No, I’m serious. No one knew that your application belonged to you. It isn’t my fault. It’s yours.”

“How dare-“

“I looked up your number and found your application in the pile labeled ‘Too Valuable.’”

Astrid turned away, unable to face her mother’s words.

The hand was on her shoulder again.

“I promise,” her mother said. “Your test scores were too high. As terrible as this sounds, we don’t want to send our best and brightest out. We say the Expedition is to aid the surface dwellers but it is as much about population control. And there is more than one aspect to that.”

“You kept me here so I could have smart babies?”

It was a weak response, but she just couldn’t process all of this.

Astrid stood, wanting to pace, but the office was too small. She just ended up at the window, staring out at the network of domes below them. They bubbled off the central tower like one of the jungle trees covered in mushrooms. Her eyes fell on the jungle dome. Below that were the series of salt water domes, which had always seemed asinine to her. There was clearly still plenty of salt water.

“Listen,” her mother said, “that’s not what I meant. You could be running your own dome someday. You could be running the whole thing. We can’t let valuable members of the community go off on a fool’s quest to see the stars.”

“It’s not a fool’s quest. There are entire branches of science devoted to it.”

“Yes, and which scientists saved the world?”

“We didn’t save anything! We’re hiding down here. We’re living in our perfectly controlled environments while the real heroes are still on the surface trying to save what’s left. Trying to make a difference and maybe even find us a home on another planet that isn’t dying.”

“How can you be so smart and so dense? The planet isn’t dying; it’s dead. You can’t even see the stars from the surface anymore. Immense pollution and particle contamination fill the night sky. The air isn’t breathable and no one is there to look for fantastical worlds.”

Astrid turned as her mother took the few steps toward her. She struggled against her mother’s strong grip on her arms

“Astrid, those volunteers are going up to an empty world. We haven’t heard anything in years. We are likely sending them to die.”

Shock stilled Astrid, let her be drawn into a tight embrace as her mother sobbed softly into her hair. She had never seen this much passion in her mother. Perhaps all the emotions that fled from Astrid had found a home in her.

#

Shortly after the Expedition ceremony, Astrid graduated, received her job assignment, and moved into her own bunk in the first-year dormitory. The first job was always randomly assigned and then people could apply to move around after a year. Astrid thought it was fitting she was assigned to the jungle dome. Perhaps she should have taken to hiding elsewhere during her sulks; the assigner had acted like he was doing her a favor when he passed over the new credentials.

She wore the brown jumpsuit of the grounds crew and silently went about her daily tasks. Currently, the third quadrant path needed to be cleared. The jungle plants grew very quickly and she was pulling things out of the path every day. The interlopers had to be carefully removed so no other roots were disturbed. When possible, they were transplanted deeper into the jungle.

On her hands and knees, trowel at the ready, Astrid paused and looked into the dark forest. A simulated rain shower started and she flipped the neck guard of her hat down to keep the water out of her jumpsuit. She kept staring into the darkness. Some monkeys chittered as they leapt between trees and passed high above her head. Birds were calling and singing. Something squealed and Astrid knew a lucky predator was enjoying its dinner.

She had done this many times. Stopped her work and focused. Focused on the life surrounding her, trying desperately to find that connection, that spark of interest that the others found here. That she had only found in that book of unreachable stars.

It never came.

#

One night, after a particularly difficult and dirty day in the jungle, Astrid was relaxing on her bunk when a messenger delivered a note. The envelope was sealed with her mother’s mark. They hadn’t spoken since she moved out. Not that the director hadn’t tried. But the job assignment was the drop that tipped the bucket. There was no way it was random.

Astrid was about to toss the envelope in the box on top of the others when she hesitated. It had been a hard day. And her mother had the best food.

She opened the letter.

“Meet me at dome 26-S at 7. Please come.”

Not even dinner. Astrid tried to remember which dome that was but couldn’t. Most people didn’t use the number designations. So, of course, that’s the way her bureaucrat mother would refer to them. All the same she might still get some food out of it.

As it turned out dome 26S was one of the saltwater domes. That’s probably what the “S” was for. When Astrid realized this, it was clear why her mother had used the number; she nearly turned right back around and went home. Curiosity kept her going, however. And her growling stomach.

Her mother was standing outside the entrance. The woman looked nervous.

Astrid couldn’t ever remember seeing her look nervous before. Not this woman who routinely addressed thousands of people. Astrid approached cautiously.

“Mom?”

Her mother turned and smiled, the ease coming back over her features. Lines disappeared and her chest heaved in a relieved breath.

“Oh, Astrid, I’m so glad you came this time.”

This time? Astrid thought back to all the other envelopes in the box by her bed, the look of nerves she had seen. And a ripple of guilt passed over her.

“Why are we here?” she asked.

“I’d like to show you something.”

Her mother opened the antechamber door and gestured her in. When it closed, her mother went to the lockers that lined the wall, pulled out a wet suit and helmet, and held it out.

Astrid looked at her blankly.

“Seriously?”

“Why else do you think I’d bring you here? Just take the suit.”

With deliberate exaggeration, Astrid took it and started putting it on. Surprisingly, her mother took out a second and began undressing too. They got ready silently and entered the decontamination chamber. After the UV lights removed any foreign threats, they entered the airlock.

Astrid hadn’t been in any of the water domes since she was a child. They made everyone learn how to swim for obvious reasons, but since discovering that book of space images, Astrid hadn’t had any interest in the water worlds. Weren’t they, after all, the opposite of what she dreamed of?

“What’s the code for this dome?” Astrid asked, ready to adjust her wristband.

“Oh, you won’t need that.” Her mother ignored Astrid’s confused look. “Before the doors open, close your eyes. I’ll lead you to the center of the dome.”

“I don’t like that idea,” Astrid said.

The rushing water caused a moment of initial panic. Astrid tensed and then felt that same, reassuring hand on her shoulder.

“It’ll be okay. I’ve got you.”

Reluctantly, Astrid closed her eyes.

Her mother swam expertly, pulling Astrid along. When they stopped, her mother steadied Astrid as she remembered how to tread water.

Astrid tried to recall her lessons on such environments but, even before her love affair with space began, she hadn’t been all that interested in learning about water. It seemed too mundane when she could look out the window and see it any time.

“Mom, what are we doing here?”

“Open your eyes.”

Astrid understood why her mother had brought her to this dome.

In the absolute darkness of the deep ocean, she saw eerie fish giving off dim lights down the length of their bodies, reminding Astrid of the small galaxies in her book. She saw schools of red jellyfish floating leisurely, trailing their amorphous bodies like the gasses of a nebula. Everywhere Astrid looked, a magnificent creature was showing off its dazzling, bioluminescent display.

And between them all, tiny blue-green spots glowed bright, spread out or in clusters, creating their own constellations.

“It’s not the stars but…”

Her mother’s voice trailed off. Astrid refused to cry. Refused to let her vision be compromised.

She reached out and took her mother’s hand. Squeezed.

It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. More wondrous than the pictures in her book. If she wanted, she could reach out and touch these stunning visions. After all her dreams of visiting space, here she was, in a tiny ocean within an ocean, at home amid living stars.

The End

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