Zed imagined that he could see some of the closer stars move if he sat still long enough, finding a center of peace and tranquility as the Budding leaders taught. He wasn’t entirely sure that he subscribed to the Budding philosophy completely, but it was, of all the groups on the ship, the least offensive.
Or maybe “least intrusive” would be a better way to put it. “Offensive” implied that the message might’ve gone against common sense.
Zed had been trying to master the art of sitting quietly for a few years, and a few times he thought he’d been able to see one of the nearest stars traverse just a little across his line of sight. Whether it was really a thing or not was immaterial, it was the impression and faith that there was movement, that there was a purpose to their space-bound lives that mattered.
When one’s entire existence occurred within the confines of an unnatural environment such as theirs, any scrap of relevance, no matter how fleeting, was vital.
A whistling signal crackled weakly through the speaker in Zed’s quarters, indicating that it was time for his shift in the medical bay. He rose stiffly, took a long stretch, and then slipped into his work tunic and britches, simple garments that indicated his status and position by cut and color. He looked once more briefly out of his small window into the black before turning and exiting his quarters.
The third shift of the population were leaving from their ten-hour shifts, making room for the first shift to take their place, and the rustling of bodies through the hallways created a thin echo of steps through the metal and plastic membranes. Faces that had become familiar through generation after generation passed by, shuffling past with the comfort of routine and habit. Zed nodded periodically to the faces that were more recently familiar, and he smiled to those that he knew by name. Without pause, he slipped past the evangelicals performing their spiritual duties, preaching to the passersby. Zed professionally found it gratifying that people were following the Guidelines for Happiness since it had long been clinically proven that having a spiritual path directly contributed to a self of positive well-being, but personally he could have done without the proselytizing.
The med bay was on the upper deck, which meant that Zed had to go through the zero-g zone to get there. He grabbed the conveyor lift, felt his weight lessen, then when he started to float, he flipped around so that his feet were facing the other side of the ship. When he felt his weight return, he lit gently on the deck. A gradual decline lent even more weight to him, a comfortable, familiar stability in his arms and legs that signaled his body to wakefulness.
The crowds continued to shuffle to and fro through the changing shifts, though they grew thinner as he approached the med bay proper. The warm lights emanated from the open archway, welcoming Zed like a second home.
Given as much time as he spent there, it might as well have been a second home. If there hadn’t been a strict rule against exactly that – living where you work – he probably would have set up a cot to save time. As it was, his manager Sera was loose enough with the rules to let him stay as long as he needed to be there, often overlapping the work from the following shift, and that was enough to give him a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.
The rest of the staff also did not mind. It was far easier to let a medic finish their work without reporting them for self-negligence than to try to figure out where in a sticky procedure one might’ve been.
Sera was looking over a checklist when Zed came in through the archway. His familiar presence – as reliable as clockwork – made her look up with a ready smile.
“Zed, a pleasure, as always,” she said with a soft purr to her voice.
Zed smiled in return. “As always,” he replied. “What delightful conditions do we have to look forward to today?”
Sera handed him the checklist, but there was an odd glint in her eye. Something was amiss, Zed could tell, but she likely wanted him to find it for himself. That was her way of checking her own work, of making sure that she was neither reading into things too deeply nor jumping to unnecessarily shallow conclusions.
“That much fun, eh?” he said with a small wink. “Found something anomalous?”
Sera shrugged a little. Yes, she had.
Zed flipped through the three pages of conditions that were present in the med bay at that time. They were the usual array of concerns – small burns from people being careless, a couple of fractured bones from horseplay in the zero-g section, a small smattering of age-related illnesses – but nothing that stood out. There were no clusters of viruses (which was normal for this time of year) nor were there any groups of similar ailments.
Zed frowned, then he looked up at Sera briefly. She was watching him intently.
What had he just thought to himself? “Normal for this time of year.” Ah, ha! Zed tapped the display and pulled up the records for the same time the previous year, and he came up with over eight pages of results.
“Well, that is odd,” he said.
“I thought you might think so,” Sera replied. “I checked and pulled the numbers month by month, just in case it was a statistical oddity. Reports to med bay have been in steady decline over the past two years.”
Two years? Zed tapped the search field and looked two years back, three years back. Indeed, the numbers were significantly different.
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully and tapped his finger against his jaw. “Do you mind if I mull this over while I work on some other things?” he asked.
“Not at all,” Sera said, visibly relieved. “Would you also make a note that we need to set up a new virus load for the flu season? Last year’s mortality rate was a little too low, I suspect that we haven’t been challenging our immune systems well enough.”
“That could be part of the problem,” Zed suggested slowly, “but I’m not entirely certain. I’m not sure it would lead to a decline before the flu season hit.”
Sera shrugged. She trusted him with this puzzle.
Zed pressed his thumbprint into the identification window, signaling that he was taking charge of the shift. Sera pressed hers in afterwards to indicate that she was relinquishing charge. This odd little procedure allowed there to be a few seconds of overlap in the “who was in charge at this moment” debate so that there was never a question of someone being accountable for the activities and events of the med bay.
The ship’s culture had it that this was a wise and thoughtful design feature instituted by the Architects prior to their departure from the mythic home world of Earth, but Zed and Sera (and other authority figures) knew better: it was a design flaw that caused a security fault failure if ever there was a moment when “no one was in charge”. The system would lock out all additional authorities until the elected captain appointed someone as the next official. Authorities, for their part, usually only learned the true nature of this flaw after they had accidentally left any department “leaderless”.
Zed and Sera held this generation’s record of only having been locked out twice.
“Is there anything else of importance that I should know about?” Zed asked Sera as she gathered her satchel.
“I’m pretty certain that Fredericks and Burton managed their injuries simultaneously,” Sera mentioned, and her eyebrow twitched at precisely the same time the corner of her mouth did. A hint of humor?
“So, you’re saying to make sure that both of their sterility protocols are in place?” Zed asked bemusedly.
“It wouldn’t hurt,” Sera said. “As often as those two are at it, it wouldn’t surprise me to have something go amiss before they hit their age of majority.”
Zed nodded and made a note on their records. On a ship like Zarathustra, the rate of births and deaths had to be carefully balanced, so most children were fitted with inert sterility devices before the onset of puberty. They were material things implanted in the vas deferens for males and in the fallopian tubes of females, made of an organic-mimic silicone that grew as the body did, blocking fertilization attempts without interrupting the natural hormonal cycles of either party. They could, with enough rigorous activity, become loosened, but it was a rare thing.
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"Lost Ground" is the prequel to "All the Moons of Petrichor". A generational colony ship is hundreds of years out from their home world, and still hundreds yet until their destination, but something is going wrong. When your trip is scheduled in centuries, even the slightest deviations can have catastrophic results.