DAY 1, 8:47 A.M.
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 carefully 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 something that looks a little beyond the reach of my high school Spanish. I almost laugh, thinking we’re the politically correct 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 barebones 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 neighborhood’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- screen. 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 question for us:
“So, how do we retrieve nyxia from mines protected by a species with superior technology and an aggressive approach 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 statues. 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 anyone 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.