Back To Black

The following short story by Chahat Khanna is the first-place winning entry of the ‘Celestia — Tales From Beyond’ short story writing competition held by Nakshatra as a part of World Asteroid Day. Read on!

(Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

He stared out of the small round window, lost in thought. The only thing visible for miles was the overwhelming darkness of the void which he should have been used to but wasn't. He had always found it depressing. The emptiness, the darkness. The feeling that should he ever leave this piece of rock floating around in the ocean of nothingness, he would be lost forever. Sucked into the darkness. That felt more like a black hole to him than the things they were taught about in class. Being squeezed into a state of non-existence in less than a nanosecond sounded much better to him than floating around in the darkness for as long as it took for him to die of starvation or other causes. Yeah, he was feeling pretty morbid.

He had been born here but he'd always felt like an outsider in this place. Well, technically he had been manufactured but he didn't like to dwell on it for too long. Whenever the thought managed to creep it's way into his conscious mind, he would get this image of babies being put together like toys in a dingy old factory. Yeah, it was creepy. So, no, he wasn't manufactured, per se. More like genetically engineered in a lab. It sounded classier than a factory at least.

"Shouldn't you be doing the history assignment that is due today ? You have been putting it off for a week Kevin."

The calm voice of his older sister caused him to groan internally. He really had forgotten all about it. He was supposed to give a presentation in his History class this afternoon. And he hadn't even started working on it. He was already failing History and if he didn't give this presentation today, his Mad Hatter of a teacher would surely make him repeat the entire semester.

"I don't even know what topic I am going to use. Ugh, I hate history." He mumbled to her.

She smiled understandingly and appeared to think for a moment.

"How about why our ancestors left Earth and how we established colonies on asteroids and other planets. You already know a fair bit about it and it's simple enough that you can finish it in a few hours. "

He thought about it and decided that it did indeed sound like something he wouldn't have much problem with.

"Yeah. That sounds good. Thanks. "

"So listen, I have a shift at the Med Dome, so I won't be back before six. Mom's already left for work. That means you'll be alone for the rest of the day. Think you'll be alright on your own ? "

He rolled his eyes. "I am fourteen. I think I am old enough that you don't have to worry about me trashing the place."

"We'll see. " She smirked. "See you later then."

"Yeah. Later. " He said absentmindedly, already looking for his tablet in his room.

Walking back into the common chamber, he settled down at the table. He supposed he should start with detailing the circumstances that forced the Pioneers to evacuate the Earth.

"Uh... the nuclear meltdown....war between the major powers....sheer bad luck. This is useless," he murmered to himself, "I can't concentrate like this. It's too quite. Music. I need music."

Abandoning his assignment he walked towards the music player. His foot caught on the side of one of the chairs around the table and he stumbled, his arms flailing, looking for support. His hand caught onto the side of something and he took a deep breath, trying to regain his balance.

"Hey, kid. It's been a while."

The voice took him by surprise and he stumbled while still trying to regain his footing and this time fell face first to the floor. Looks like he'd switched on the MemoBot by accident.

"Hey grandpa. Yeah, we've been busy." He said but his voice was slightly muffled by the floor.

"Too busy to talk to your grandfather once in a while ? I see. " the voice replied gruffly.

He got up, properly this time, and pulled up a chair to face the MemoBot, assignment once again forgotten. It was a nifty little thing, the MemoBot. You could store all your memories in it and live forever as a machine. It was almost like the real thing accept that it wasn't. Science hadn't come so far as to immortalize a human. Personally, he thought it was a good thing.

"You know how it is. With Dad deported to the Mining Domes and Mom doing overtime at the labs, we hardly get any time to sit down together." He conveniently forgot about how he sat at the window for hours, procrastinating.

"Ah, alright then. What have been up to ?" The robotic voice that was almost identical to his grandfather's asked.

"You know, this and that. Nothing much really." He replied sheepishly.

"How's school ? They let you into the Europa Program ?"

He hesitated a bit. He really didn't like to talk about it.

"No, they didn't."

Europa Program was an elite program that trained children from the age of thirteen to study Jupiter's most promising satellite. It was the best thing you could do with your life. But it was extremely hard to get into the program. They had to go through various tests including a psychological one. That's where he had failed. The very last step. They never told him in what aspect he had failed though. It didn't even matter really. They only ever got one shot.

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence in which both of them looked anywhere but at each other. They had never been particularly close so this was uncharted territory. At last his grandfather changed the topic which he was immensely grateful for.

"Seems like you were working on something. Homework ?"

His eyes travelled to the table where he had left his yet to be started assignment and he signed dejectedly.

"Yeah, history project."

"Really, what topic have you chosen ? "

He had never seen grandpa so interested in anything before. He always thought everything accept the Earth was just unworthy of his attention. He didn't know what his grandfather saw in that barren, radiation soaked planet. Well, who was he to talk ? He lived in a hollowed out rock. He wasn't even allowed in any of the Domes yet so he had never seen the surface. Some life this was.

"The colonisation of the asteroid belt and evacuation of Earth by the Pioneers."

"Well, then you should get to it. If you are anything like your father, school must be very hard for you. "

"It is. I hate it." He grumbled. Suddenly an idea came to him

"Hey! Why don't you help me with it. You were about my age when it happened. You must know all about it !"

"Alright then. Not like I got anything better to do. "

He grinned at the screen. He would take all the help he could get to get the project over with.

"Okay, so, it was the year 2098. That was the first time I was tested. See, they took a few blood samples at first. To see if I had any disease, which I didn't of course. I was a healthy boy. And then they - "

"Hold up a second. What are you talking about ? What tests ?" He looked at the Bot with wide eyes. Was it broken? They hadn't used it in a while so maybe it needed to go the workshop for a while. Get oiled or something. It was an old thing after all. They didn't even make them anymore. This was one of the only ones left.

"Well the WHO tests of course. They had already been conducted for decades by the time I was born. Of course we didn't know it until much later what they were for. The people were told it was essential for the medical research. There were some doubts in the beginning but it quietened down after a while. They weren't harming anyone after all."

"I have never read about any tests. What were they conducting them for ?"

"Of course you haven't. No one wants to be reminded of their past. As I was saying we weren't entirely sure what we were being tested for. They started when a child was eight. Physical tests, psychological tests, genetic examinations and what not. I was twelve when children started disappearing from all over the world. I was taken a few months before it became public knowledge that they were sending the kids to space. Evacuating Earth. Turns out that there was a virus. A virus that was slowly but steadily infecting the human population. It was almost impossible to detect it and they had no idea how to cure it. It was mutating at a rate that had never been seen before. Only few were immune to it. They had been waiting decades for the gene to integrate itself into enough of the population to consider depopulation somewhere else. Asteroids proved promising. It wasn't long after most of the children had been taken that the virus mutated into a deadly strain and wiped out majority of the population and then moved onto the animals. They had to bomb the the entire planet to ensure that no virus remained in the hopes that we might be able to return some day. "

His head was spinning, overwhelmed by this information overload. He needed to write this down. He grabbed at his tablet, opening a new file. His hand moved at lightening speed, as if this was all a dream and he would wake up any second. When preparing for the entry test for the Program he used to spend hours in the archives and he had never once come across anything like this.

"So there was no nuclear war ? World War three never happened?"

"Oh no. No, that was probably the one time the entire world agreed on something. That human race needed to live, even if they had to leave the Earth. That was the closest we ever got to peace, as sad as that sounds."

The robotic female voice coming from the speakers installed into the walls alerted him of the time. It was already noon. He hadn't even realized he had been sitting there for more than two hours.

"I need to go now, grandpa. But I'll talk to you later." He said as he moved to switch off the MemoBot.

"Later then, kid. And don't think I am broken because I am not. Every word I have said to you is the truth. "

He nodded slightly and switched it off.

……………………………………………………………………………………

"It's your turn to give the presentation, Mr. Matthews."

What was he going to do now ? He couldn't afford to fail this class. He didn't want to work in the Mining Domes like his father. But he couldn't very well tell the whole class about how the Pioneers, which were all freakin' children, were kidnapped from their families who were then left to die. That would turn out well. But didn't they need to know ? They had a right to know, all of them.

"Mr. Matthews should I assume that you have failed to turn in your assignment ? Again."

He stated at her. Did she know ? He wouldn't put it past her to just not care since she came out of it alive. She looked around his grandfather's age. It was really a shame that this witch got to live and boss people around when his grandfather was now basically a piece of metal. She had been on the team of psychologists who had taken his test. He wouldn't put it past her to tamper with the results either. She hated him, for whatever reason. He never cared to find out. Maybe he should have.

"Mr. Matthews."

He got up and walked to the front of the class.

"Well, actually I do have a presentation to give. It's strictly oral though, I hope you don't mind. It said in the syllabus that it could be either written or oral. So..."

"Of course not." She smiled thinly.

Facing the rest of the students, he began and for the first time since being rejected for the Program, he felt passionate about something. The expressions on the faces of his fellow classmates were enough for him to continue speaking, revealing the past that had been hidden from them in plain site. He never once looked at Professor Marion, because the tension he felt emanating for her, he could cut it with knife.

When he was finished there was a momentary silence, heavy with apprehension, before the class broke out into whispers. He felt himself being grabbed by the shoulder and practically shoved out of the classroom.

"Where are you taking me ? To the principal ?" He asked, trepidation clear in his voice. She ignored him.

"No one leaves the room." Marion snarled at the class.

She kept a right grip on his shoulder all the way to the nurse's room. After showing her ID to the camera installed at the top of the door, she pushed him inside. As soon as he was inside, he was grabbed by the robot who assisted the nurse.

"Handle this one while I alert the Principal. There are ten others that I locked in the room, that need to be taken care of."

Well, now he was scared. He started thrashing against the robot but all in vain. What had he been thinking ? Clearly he hadn't been of course. He was just tired of being considered a failure. For once in his life he had wanted to do something that would make a change. And where did that get him ? Well, he wasn't certain of his fate yet.

"Deal with him quickly. There are many more to handle."

Deal ? Were they going to kill him ?! No, they couldn't possibly ! Suddenly he felt a trickling sensation on his neck and his vision blurred.

"Wh-what did you do ?" He asked in a panicked voice, slightly sharper than usual.

He heard muffled voices but he couldn't make out what they were saying.

"He knows.....I don't know !........Only a few.......not all of it......could find out......we had done it.....The virus......we had to!......all died....saved us."

His vision was darkening around the edges. He could hear his heart beat ringing in his ears. Was he having a panic attack ? He had never had one of those before.

His thoughts came to a abrupt halt as his world went black.

……………………………………………………………………………………….

He stated out of the small round window, lost in thought. The only thing that was visible for miles was the overwhelming darkness of the void that he should have been used to but wasn't.

He felt oddly empty. Like something was missing, but he couldn't quite pin point exactly what it was. It was like something was lingering in the recesses of his mind, hidden just out of site, but he couldn't reach it. Coupled with the head ache he had had since yesterday, it annoyed him immensely. His mother had told him that he had fainted at school and had to be taken to the nurse's room. Apparently his energy levels had been very low since he hadn't eaten all day.

"Hey, Kev, come here and help me unplug the MemoBot." His mother called.

He got up and walked over to her.

"Why ? What's wrong with it ?"

"Oh, nothing. They are just doing some routine check up. Since there are only a few left, they thought it would be better to keep it in good condition, for old times' sake. Well, I am not complaining. I would have had to take it myself, otherwise. "

"Oh, alright, then." He said absentmindedly, looking at the old MemoBot. They hadn't used it in a while. Maybe he would finally have a chat with grandpa after it came back.

He watched as the repairman packed it up and left. He stared at the door for a long time before his mother voice interrupted his reverie. He hadn't really been thinking anything, his mind oddly blank.

"Don't you have a history assignment to do, son ?"

He looked at her oddly.

"Didn't I do it yesterday ?"

"I think the medicine's got to your head, Kev. Your teacher have you an extra day to do it since you got sick yesterday. Nice lady. Don't forget to thank her when you hand in your assignment." She said lightly, ruffling his hair teasingly as she passed.

"So I need to go. I have an early shift. Your sister had a night shift, so she should be back soon. And don't you forget to eat something today, alright ? See you later."

"Later" he said, feeling oddly disconnected.

He shook his head slightly and walked to the kitchen. Perhaps he really was just slightly sick. Picking an apple, he settled down at the table pulling the tablet lying there. He should really get to work now. He couldn't hope to get sick at just the right moment again. He didn't have that kind of luck. He was after all, just a clueless loser.

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Nakshatra NITT

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