Priest & Pariahs
J. Alan Veerkamp © 2018
All Rights Reserved
The darkness reminded him somehow of being an unborn child—as if one could remember such a thing—floating weightless, enveloped by warmth. What would anyone give to fall back into such a simple existence, removed of all need beyond instinctual thought? What a fortunate nine months it would be. A wonderful life, sleeping and cared for inside the womb, never requiring a voice. All before anyone could teach a soul to love or hate, or something or someone was unwanted.
Is that what was happening here? Had he somehow regressed back before his own infancy? The pangs of jealousy he was experiencing told him no. Sadly, no.
He felt like he’d been slumbering for such a long time, and very, very gradually he started to wake. Threads of logical coherence tickled his thoughts in the dark. It was not a welcome sensation, and he fought to avoid it. Why couldn’t he go back into the lovely silence?
Envy for the ignorance of the unborn rolled through him. How unfair it was to have the innocence of being sequestered and never hearing the taunts of children or comprehending the cries of the intolerant taken away from him. If only he had never heard slurs of hatred or understood what defined a second-class citizen.
What was that sound? Could it be a faint heartbeat in the distant void? It sounded brash and unnatural, refusing to lull him back to sleep like the soothing cadence of a mother’s pulse.
Like a child, he wanted nothing more than to stay safe and warm, but like in every instance, someone always forced a person into the painful light and cold of reality. The darkness parted above him with a soft mechanical hiss. The warmth bled away, making him want to cry.
Daring to open his foggy eyes, he squinted in the artificial light. A woman in a white coat hovered over him.
“Welcome back to the real world. Can you tell me your name?”
His voice was dry and raspy, and he had to concentrate to answer her correctly. “Costa…Costa McQuillen.”
“Good. Your stats are looking healthy.” A warm smile graced the young woman as she read over the flat scanner in her hand.
Focusing was becoming easier. He found himself undressed, lying back in comfort, some kind of foam bedding molded around him. It held him effortlessly, but its touch was delicate, tricking his senses into thinking he was floating. Several small pieces of equipment were attached to his body, taunting him with their hidden binary code. She touched one piece of technology and looked back to the miniature screen she carried.
“Are you a doctor?” Costa asked.
“Yes, I am.” A small frisson of panic lanced him. He wasn’t about to lie back and allow her to poke and prod him. The doctor placed a hand on Costa’s shoulder as he started to rise, holding him in place with little effort. “Hold on. Don’t sit up right away. You’ll be a little disoriented for a bit. That’s normal for a five-year hypersleep.”
Costa groaned, trying to sort himself as the doctor’s caring tone diffused his anxiety. “Where am I?”
“You’re on board the Mayflower Ark.”
“The Mayflower Ark?”
The doctor nodded. “Yes. You booked passage from Earth to Alpha Centauri Prime.”
“Yes. Just like everyone else on board.”
“I’m sorry. I’m a little confused.”
The doctor’s smile was sweet with understanding. “It’s all right. I have this conversation with most of the passengers. We’ll be arriving on Alpha Centauri Prime within twenty-four hours. We’re in the process of waking all of the Earth immigrants.”
Costa looked around and found himself inside an enormous medical bay filled with mechanical wombs, just like the one in which he lay. Men and women in lab coats drifted from capsule to capsule, setting free the dazed people inside. Some were more awake than others, with men, women, and children milling about the vast room as they dressed. The more he saw, the more the cloud over his thoughts lifted.
“This is odd.” The doctor squinted at her handheld display.
“There are a few anomalies in your bio-scan.”
“That’s ridiculous. Your tech must be faulty.” Costa granted the device in her hand a vicious stare. “Look again.”
The doctor’s forehead creased as she blinked in confusion. “Oh. Wait. It’s normal now. Must have been an error.”
“Yes, it must have been. May I get dressed now?”
With a simple touch, the doctor removed each of the devices attached to Costa’s arms and legs. “You seem coherent enough to move around safely. The muscle stimulators kept your body from atrophying during the long sleep, but you may still be a little weak. Be careful until you get settled. If you find yourself feeling lightheaded, I want you to sit down immediately.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
She might have been genuine and helpful, but she couldn’t go away fast enough for his tastes.
Once she left, Costa took on the slow task of sitting upright and retrieved his clothing from the bin alongside the bed. After he was dressed and found his footing, Costa wandered over to the observation decks located next to the hypersleep room. He couldn’t bear to keep looking at the rows of chambers. Even with all the living people inside, each capsule reminded him too much of a coffin, and with so many clustered together, the errant idea morphed itself into some kind of perverse morgue. He couldn’t bear to spend time entertaining the image. It sparked far too many horrific memories.
The view into space through the three-story-tall view ports lining the wall pushed back the recollections. Alpha Centauri Prime grew larger as they approached, looking similar to his homeworld with its land masses and blue waters, even if the continents didn’t match. He had to look more than once to convince himself the world before him was not actually Earth. Costa had no intention of ever setting foot on that planet again.
It was difficult to find some space from the small crowds forming near the giant windows. Being around so many strangers made him uneasy. Growing up on the fringes of society, he knew the burn of hate which always made him an outcast. With his slight size, he’d always appeared physically vulnerable, which only emboldened the taunts. As he grew older, he had maneuvered his way into a comfortable existence, but in his experience, there weren’t many men and women who could be trusted. Hopefully, a new setting would change things, but Costa remained skeptical.
A saccharine voiceover chimed from the observation deck’s audio array, announcing the vessel’s history. The Mayflower was one of a series of migration arks comprising the five-year journey, with trips every year to bring people and their families between the planetary cluster surrounding the Alpha Centauri binary star system and Earth. Everyone had the chance to begin again, with as many as fifteen settled worlds to choose from, depending on what life they wanted to lead.
Costa scoffed at the whitewashed presentation. Few ever made the journey back to Earth, which was just as well. The planet had been corrupted and poisoned long ago.
A dull pressure radiated behind his eyes, making him wish for the silence of the hypersleep once again. His meds were in his storage cube, but he couldn’t access them right now. Even so, he only had barely enough with careful dosing to last to the end of his journey. Plus, the other pilgrims might not appreciate his medication efforts—he hadn’t been fortunate enough to acquire legal prescriptions.
It would be all right. He could wait. He had held out this long. Several more hours would be no problem.
“Are you okay?”
Costa turned to the young boy standing next to him. Perhaps barely thirteen years old, the tween looked at him with curiosity and a touch of revulsion only a teenager could muster.
“I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
The boy shrugged. “I don’t know. You keep rubbing your temples. Got a headache?”
“Yes. I do. It becomes worse in the presence of children.”
“You sound kinda British.”
“I was born just outside of New London, in the UK continent.”
The boy’s accent was easily North American, but Costa didn’t care enough to extend the conversation. He turned his attention to the planet outside the ship, but couldn’t help noticing, out of the corner of his eye, the furtive glances coming from the young man. Shifting his weight aimlessly, the boy kept peeking in Costa’s direction and averting his gaze at the last second. Costa held back the urge to roll his eyes. He knew the signs of young desire all too well.
Five years in hypersleep and the first person to look his way was little more than a child—how typical. Costa knew his slender build and youthful features made many men and women question his age, but he had never wanted anyone underage, even when he was underage. Now at thirty-seven, Costa barely stood taller than the boy. He would have to make a point not to encourage him. There was nothing worse than quashing the genuine interest of someone who was in all ways incompatible.
Perhaps if he ignored him…
“This whole thing sucks.”
Costa sighed to himself. “What thing?”
“Alpha-fucking-Centauri.” The boy snarled, filled with derision.
“You don’t want to move to Alpha Centauri?”
The boy shrugged with a disgusted sneer. “Why would I?”
“Then why are you?”
Shoving his hands into his pockets, the boy stared at the ground, kicking at nonexistent debris on the spacecraft flooring. “Dad needs a better job. There’s not much left these days, I guess. He says Earth turned into a total shithole after all the pariahs revolted and got themselves killed.”
Costa cringed, yet restrained his tone. “Para-humans.”
“Para-humans. Pariah is a vulgar term.”
The boy shook his head, his face twisted in disbelief. “Whatever. That’s what my dad calls them.”
“In that case, your father is an ignorant bigot. Even if he is right about Earth being a shitehole.”
“It’s not a big deal. They were genetic freaks. It’s not like they were even human.”
With the pressure behind his eyes, Costa found it hard to contain his annoyance. Every word enunciated itself without his conscious effort. “However they came to be, para-humans had powers that made them capable of feats that others were not. They were more than human, not less. Human beings were scared of them, so they made them slaves.”
“But people took care of them. Why did they start a war?”
It was a question only a child could ask, because it was so immature and stupid. Costa had to resist the urge to completely berate the poor boy as he sought to educate him.
“How long would you leave a collar on if you were stronger than the one holding the lead?”
The boy’s forehead creased in thought and he shrugged again. It appeared to be the only gesture he knew. “I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter. They’re all dead now anyways.”
“Yes…yes they are.”
Umbrage defused into melancholy, and Costa decided to drop the conversation. It was only a gateway to things better left forgotten. Ignoring the boy once again became the best course of action.
“That’s a cool tattoo on your cheek. Do the patterns mean anything?”
Costa closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “They’re just decorative. They cover up the ones that were there before.”
“I want to get one around my eye.”
“Why don’t you?” He knew the question wasn’t exactly setting the best example, but Costa found himself not caring much. And, quite frankly, the more the boy spoke, the less he found himself in the mood to be helpful.
“Mom says I’m not old enough, and Dad says only pariah freaks get them on their faces.”
A spike of offense strengthened Costa’s growing headache at the sound of the slur. “I repeat what I said earlier about your father.”
A long minute passed as the boy looked around with a nervous eye, clearly trying to find what to say next. Costa hoped the little bastard would stay quiet.
“Did it hurt having it done?”
“Yes, it did.”
“Did it hurt really bad?”
The sad, dark smirk curling Costa’s lips was more for himself than the boy. “You might even say that getting it bloody well killed me.”
“You’re kind of a freak.”
Once again, there was the proof the boy had been groomed with a lack of tolerance and discretion. Costa could have spent hours teaching the young man how skewed his view of others could be, but he was too exhausted to take the time. In the end, his irritation won out.
“You should get back to your bigoted little family.” With a wave, he dismissed the boy. “Run along. We all have new lives to start.”