The Sockdolager

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from the Winter 2015 collection

Au Ciel Monte

by Aimee Ogden

“Tell us about Earth, Sister Elizabeth.”

Bet didn’t remember Earth. At thirty-three, she was the youngest person still living on Lambert’s Stand who had come by starship. That was thirty years ago now, when the last colony ship arrived—before the wormhole closed, before Earth fell silent. That was thirty years ago and Bet had no more memory of the place where she’d been born than its name. She’d read about Earth in her schoolbooks as a child, of course, but that wasn’t enough; anyone could have described blue saltwater oceans and a single shining white moon. But that wasn’t what the deacons were looking for—they’d saved this question for the last in the interview for a reason.

So instead Bet repeated fragments of the stories her mother had told her, years ago, as if they came from her own memory: the sting of sunburn, the way the smog cut at the lungs if you were foolish enough to go out without a mask. She quickly found herself caught up in the stories with the telling—she could almost imagine the sensations were her own memories. Suddenly cut deep by the erasure of her mother from the narrative, she finished her tale somewhere in its middle and looked up at the panel across the room. The women and men sitting there smiled at her, and bobbled their heads encouragingly as if, at thirty-three, she were a particularly bright pupil. They ignored her for a few moments to crowd their heads together and murmur. Then they looked up, and smiled some more. They smiled a lot, but there was a distance there, too. There always was.

“Thank you, Sister Elizabeth. That will be all for now. Please send in the next candidate.”

There was only one more after her, a sallow-faced boy of maybe nineteen years. She told him the deacons were waiting for him in as few words as possible. He thanked her with a stammer, but she was already walking out of the deaconate into the hazy afternoon light.

There weren’t many of them left—five, Bet thought, vying for a single spot, but she hadn’t troubled herself much with keeping track. She needed to be the last one left standing, and there was a good chance she would be. Because of who she was as much as what she could do, and that was all right. There had been twenty of them, to begin with, the next oldest only twenty-three—and all along her scores had put all of theirs to shame, in agility and strength as much as in the mechanicals and piloting trials. They all knew she was Bet Bertrande, but she had never bothered to learn their names.

The last child of Earth to come to the Stand—who better, thirty years after the blackout, to climb into the first See-built spacecraft and re-open the wormhole? And then maybe to find out, once and for all, what had severed the link to their mother planet? The mystery of it had burned inside Bet since she was a child, reading those books about her first home. She could have told the deacons about that, she supposed, but she suspected it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. There were stories, after all, about those who pursued knowledge to the exclusion of virtue.

And of course there had been no space in the interview for her to say all the things fighting for space in her chest. That the See had never before built a spaceship and might never again, and this was Bet’s one chance to touch the stars. That it was her only chance to leave the Stand, even for a few minutes. That it would feel like going home, like one last embrace from her mother. Those thoughts were heresy, blasphemy, ancestor worship. Heretics would have a different trip ahead of them than one to the stars.

She got back to the Factory by four, just in time to help Erwan and Marlo finish bringing in the day’s harvest; then she washed up and took her turn in the roster to help make dinner. During the meal she sat next to Marlo and his wife Syl, and the conversation after grace was easy, pleasant stuff—the alfalfa crop in the west fields, the growing swell of Syl’s belly: her third born into the Factory, she mentioned (as if Bet couldn’t count), with just a touch of pride. A few of the older children had started clearing the plates from dinner when Syl asked if the See had made a decision yet. “They just have to choose you, Bet! With who you are, where you’re from—and growing up in the Factory—God has set you forth as a sign. You were meant to go.”

Bet smiled, and said only that she was sure that whomever the See picked would be the right choice. She excused herself from the table and went to her bunk to read for a while before lights-out. The book was an engineering text, real paper, from Earth before the blackout. Bet had read it twice already, like a comforting bedtime story, but tonight it didn’t distract her from the other thoughts in her head. She didn’t envy Syl her easy faith, but was genuinely curious about it. She wondered how disappointed the other woman would be if she knew that. She wondered what the deacons would say—no, she knew very well what they would say, and it was nothing worth dwelling on.

The other five women with whom she shared her room arrived just before lights out; Bet closed her book and slid it under her bed amid the rustle of bedclothes and murmured prayers.

The next morning, there were only two candidates standing in the nave of the deaconate.

Bet vaguely recognized the other’s face. She was much younger than Bet, only nineteen or twenty years old. Her eyes were dark in an angular face and her black hair was cropped close in an unfeminine bob, much more utilitarian than the current style. Standing side by side with her like this, waiting for the deacons to send for them, Bet realized for the first time that this girl—this woman—was wearing a faded blue Factory jumpsuit. Bet hadn’t recognized it before: the top half was undone with the sleeves tied around the girl’s waist. It wasn’t the same cut or color as the Baratte Factory—Bet’s Factory—but she thought it might be Argile, or even Maréchal. That would mean the woman had traveled a fair distance for this chance.

And she had made it this far through the ranks. That said something, too. Bet gave her an evaluating look out of the corner of her eyes, but the girl’s gaze was fixed on the middle distance and she didn’t seem to notice.

They waited for an hour before the deacons called them in. In the interim Bet wondered idly what today’s tests would bring. The deacons had tested their strength, their speed, their intelligence, their ability to solve problems under pressure. She felt sweat start to build up around her waistband, the elastic of her bra. Two candidates left, and they hadn’t yet put forward the one test Bet wasn’t sure she could ace—but the one she was almost positive was forthcoming.

They hadn’t asked her about her faith.

“The deacons will see you now, Sisters,” announced the deacons’ secretary. He showed Bet and her quiet companion into the hearing room and shut the door behind them. The deacons were seated at the polished oak table and their faces are closed and serious. They didn’t look directly at either of the women as they entered, but greeted them distantly, a bit stiffly.

Bet nodded and murmured a polite greeting to each of them in turn. The other girl said, in a surprisingly deep, loud voice, “God’s blessing on you, Deacon. God’s light warm you, Deacon. God’s grace …” She continued down the line as Bet took a seat.

It was Deacon Capeau who spoke up first; he was not the oldest of the deaconate but often the first to have an opinion. Bet lifted her head to listen when he spoke; the other girl canted forward attentively in her seat like a schoolgirl at her lessons. “We’ve spoken to the bishop,” he said, and Bet’s breath caught in her chest. “We’ve settled on a choice.”

Suddenly Bet couldn’t look at the woman next to her. Her gaze was locked on the top of Capeau’s head, with all the years of her life on the Stand pressing down upon her and squeezing the air out of this moment. The deacon’s words came as if from a very great distance to reach her across the room and they were small and fragile when at last they reached her. “Sister Elizabeth, you have been chosen to pilot the Peregrine and reopen the passage to Earth.”

It was everything she had ever wanted and she had nothing to say in response. She fell awkwardly back on childhood manners and croaked out a thank you to the deacons.

Another deacon coughed, and threw a pointed look at Capeau. Capeau said, formally, that it was not the deacons that had earned her thanks, and it was not for her gratitude that she had been chosen. “In any case,” he continued, not explaining this last, “Sister Elody, you will be trained as backup, should your Sister be unable to complete her mission for any reason.”

“God forfend,” murmured one of the deacons, and the others echoed her quietly.

Bet turned to the other woman—to Elody. To congratulate her, perhaps, or to console her. Both. But Elody’s dark eyes were dry as she seized Bet’s hand and said urgently, “I know you’ll succeed. God sent you to the Stand and raised you up in the Factory for just this reason—to glorify Him. We are His servants—”

“Yes,” Bet interrupted. “All to His glory.” There was another round of confirmation from around the room and the deacons moved on to issue more details and more orders. It didn’t much matter; the important thing was stopping Elody from going on. Bet recognized the woman beside her now for what she was: a fanatic. And she understood now why she would never undergo the last and most dreaded test.

The bishop wanted a symbol, thought Bet, but the deacons wanted a believer. So long as Bet didn’t embarrass herself and the See, the bishop would get what he wanted. But one foolish word, one impious misstep, and the deacons would have their way. No more Peregrine for Bet. Maybe no more Factory, either. There were some closed doors that even the name Bertrande wouldn’t be able to re-open.

She looked again at Elody, but Elody was raptly attentive to the deacons’ words. No, Bet thought, not rapt. Rapt implied some pleasure derived from the thing. In Elody there was only duty.

The deacons sent her home by car to the Factory to retrieve her things and move them out of the city to the See that very day. Her final training, and Elody’s, was to begin at once. Marlo wasn’t around while Bet stuffed her belongings into a canvas bag, but Syl stood in the doorway and wept into a handkerchief. “I knew it,” she said. “God chose you for this, Bet.”

Bet, who wasn’t sure whether the feeling in her chest was unshed tears of her own or something stranger, had no words of protest left against this. She clasped Syl in a brief hug on her way out the door, and that was the end of her life in the Factory.

The facility in the See—unsurprisingly—was better than what Bet and Elody had been used to at home. They rehearsed for zero gravity in the pool, built strength in the gymnasium, studied how to maneuver the spacecraft in a simulator. Through it all Bet kept a surreptitious eye on her rival, but Elody appeared to have eyes only for the work. And for the heavens, Bet supposed. Well, that was only fair. So did Bet, albeit in a different way.

Bet sailed through the learning and the physical work without effort. She was a Factory girl—no stranger to manual labor—and the adults of the Factory had seen to it that her brain had seen as much challenge as her body. Instead, during these weeks of training, she was occupied with performing for the deacons. She took her turn saying grace at breakfast and dinner, stumbled through the words of the hymns on Sunday mornings. She hoped it was enough.

It was Elody who broke the silence between them first. “They’ve chosen a date,” she whispered to Bet, one night not long before lights-out. They shared a room here in the See, in the bishop’s manor itself—the deacons had said that it was to avoid the shock of solitude after the togetherness of the Factory dormitories, but Bet suspected the setup was to remind her of her place. Elody’s feet dangled over the edge of the bed. She was smaller than Bet. Better suited to space travel, perhaps, but Bet certainly wasn’t going to mention that thought to anyone else. “The twentieth of next month. Isn’t it wonderful?”

Bet, who was tired after a long day that followed after many other long days, agreed that it was indeed wonderful. Elody waited another moment before pressing again: “It’s the anniversary.” Bet opened her mouth to object—the anniversary of the blackout had come and quietly passed—but Elody cut her off. “Thirty-one years to the day since the last ship came—since you landed on the Stand.”

She was right, of course. Bet wondered how she could have missed it, as Elody rattled on like the little sheep she was about how she had overheard some of the deacons discussing it—some of them had wanted to postpone but the bishop had refused, because the pleasing symmetry of the date would bring more glory to God.

The words slipped out of Bet before she could stop herself—sharp words, though not many, about the arrogance of humans thinking they knew what God wanted. She clenched her jaw too late to keep the thought in, and looked at where Elody was sitting, very still, across the room. She wondered if this had been the mistake that would damn her.

Elody stared at her, unblinkingly. Not sheep’s eyes, those, Bet thought. That was a mistake. She wasn’t sure what, exactly, Elody was, but not a sheep, no. “Not many would turn up their nose at an earnest effort made in good faith,” Elody said. “Cain and Abel would have a few things to say about that, I think. Good night, Sister Elizabeth.”

It was a silent week later that they were taken to see the Peregrine for the first time.

She was smaller and more delicate where she sat on the launchpad than Bet had even expected. She was smiling in spite of herself as the car drew near, and she was the first to open her door and hurry toward the ramp. She was greeted not by the engineers, as she had been hoping, but by two of the deacons, who received her enthusiasm warmly—but who gently, firmly placed themselves between her and the craft. “It will be ready for you soon enough, Sister Elizabeth,” Deacon Aberné said with her usual tone of motherly reproach, and Bet felt a real, physical pang.

She was surprised by the quiet voice that spoke up from behind her. “Sister Elizabeth will fly the Peregrine to make contact with Earth, all to the glory of the Lord, and you don’t wish her to be better acquainted with the vessel until the moment she’s locked into it?” If there was a note of irony in her voice, Bet couldn’t detect it. “Should she take it on simple faith that she can reach the controls and see the display?”

The deacons hemmed and hawed, but they seemed to be as unnerved by Elody’s hard, level gaze as Bet was. They gave way, and Bet walked up the ramp in something very like bliss.

The hatch was the first indication that something wasn’t right. Aberné deftly deflected her question about the plug door that would close the opening—a plug door could trap Bet inside the capsule, if there were a fire before the launch. “You’ll see the steps the See engineers have taken to minimize fire risk—the door is quite safe, Sister, I assure you. Please, try the flight couch, sister—this may be our only chance to fit the Peregrine to your needs.”

Aberné had similar reassurances about the mechanism to detach the first engine module from the flight capsule, about the material used to make the heat shield, about the parachute deployment, the functionality of the computers at subzero temperatures, the air recycling, the waste disposal system. Even the Winogradski pod that would reopen the wormhole—if the wormhole were still there to be reopened—had been implemented in such a way that a million things could go wrong in its release, flight, and deployment. The deacons swept the question aside, directed her to the next exciting feature, and before long Bet found herself back in the car, on the way back to the See. Elody hoped aloud that Bet had found the visit illuminating, and Bet nodded absently. Inside her head, she wrestled with the facts until their shape was unmistakable: any voyage in the Peregrine was almost certain to be a one-way trip.

She went to the bishop the next day and told him she knew. He listened quietly, seated patiently on a garden bench, as she rattled off her accusations. She had met the bishop once before, as a child—he had come specially to the Baratte when she had been dedicated to the Factory with the rest of her cohort; until cornering him now she had remembered only a quiet, grandfatherly man. Had twenty years’ passage granted him the crafty intelligence shifting beneath the paper-skinned face? Or was it just the clarity of adulthood that gave Bet the ability to see it? She wasn’t sure, and the difference riled her in any case. She responded sharply to his too-patient inquiries after her health and her training, and threw at him the illicit knowledge she’d gained from Elody’s attempt to open a dialogue the week before.

Elody had mentioned that night in their room that some of the deacons had argued against making the trip so soon, and now their hesitation made sense. For the bishop’s edification, Bet outlined this neatly alongside what she had gleaned in her inspection of the ship: the Peregrine was a death trap, and he must surely realize this.

“Why, Daughter,” the bishop said, when she had finally run, out of breath, to the end of her screed. He sounded not surprised, but weary, almost. As if, Bet imagined, he’d had this conversation many times before. “This is madness. God knows every sparrow that falls from its tree. He will guide and protect us in this, as in all things.” He reached out, touched her lightly on the head. “Be strong in your faith, child. And if you falter, there are many of us who are glad to lend our strength to help you keep your feet.”

He smiled at her then—smiled at her—and walked away through the gardens of his manor, and Bet saw it all in a clear, cutting flash: either re-open the wormhole and speak with Earth again, to the glory of God (and the See). Or—what, exactly? Prove God had meant for the Stand to be cut off forever, from the worldly life that had driven Eberard Lambert here in the first place?

Either the faithless Bet could risk her life. Or she could send Elody to take her place.

She could tell Elody the truth—no. What good would that do? Elody would go proudly—no, not proudly, Bet thought bitterly. Pride was a sin, wasn’t it? Elody would go dutifully, humbly, honorably, and the same was true if Bet ran away, feigned illness, tried to go public with the information. What good, in the end, could she do?

She could open that godforsaken wormhole, that was what.

She spent the next few weeks trying to find truth in the devotion she’d been feigning: saying grace as if someone was listening, getting on her knees before bed at night. It didn’t take, but it made her feel better, somehow. Somewhat. If Elody was giving her some hard looks, it seemed nothing unusual, and she ignored it. She didn’t care much what Elody thought about anything, although Bet did wonder, from time to time, what advice her mother would have had to offer.

Elody tried to bridge the gap between them only once more, the night before the launch. It was only just after lights out (and so scarcely disobedient, scarcely a sin at all) that she spoke up again in their little room in the manor. “Do you know, when I was a little girl, I thought that the shapes of constellations held hidden messages to us from God?”

Bet, who had once believed the very same thing about algebra, said nothing. The confession hung in the air between them, an offer of peace rebuffed. She thought Elody might have fallen asleep when the girl’s voice reached across the dark room once more. “Are you excited, Sister?”

Bet told her flatly that she was humbled before the opportunity that lay ahead.

There was another silence. Elody asked, “Is there something—” She didn’t finish the thought, and Bet heard a rustle of sheets as she rolled over in bed.

Elody had no more questions that night. She was gone already when Bet woke up a quarter-hour before dawn, and her bed had been neatly and silently made.

For Bet, the morning of the launch passed in a blur of sanitation, stretching, and prayers. There was a choir along with the cameras as Bet climbed through the hatch—the hymn was familiar enough to tug at her attention, but not to take it. She paused halfway into the hatch—halfway through that damned plug door—to look around. It was a fine enough view—a sunny day on the Stand, children with fresh-scrubbed faces turned up to stare at her. It was a good day for a launch, all told. All things considered. She lifted a hand to wave a last goodbye, but a sudden movement in the crowd caught her eye.

Not just a movement: a ripple of disruption that rolled across the sea of people and resolved, quite abruptly, into Elody. The suit was bulky and slow to maneuver in, but Bet started climbing back out of the hatch—something must be wrong—even as See Control buzzed in her ear that nothing was amiss and she should carry on. She paused, though, legs straddling the hatch, and watched in shock as Elody shoved her way through the press and the deacons and the choir. Elody was shouting—screaming, really—and the words were reaching Bet at last: that it was she, and not Bet, who would be taking this trip.

“Elody,” she said, when the other woman made it to the top of the stairs up to the capsule. Half of the word bounced back to her against the thick plate of her helmet: she looked at Elody’s wild eyes and wondered if she could hear her at all. She raised her voice for the next words to be sure. “Go home.”

Bet was slow in the cumbersome suit and so Elody managed to actually pull her down out of the hatch and wrest the helmet halfway off her head before the deacons caught up and dragged her away. Bet’s suit was checked and reordered by a pair of solicitous junior clerics as Elody was bundled away in a car. “Not like her at all,” the assistants muttered, “not like her to be so selfish, not like her to seek the glory for herself.” They polished the fingerprints off of Bet’s faceplate and dusted her off, and then the hatch was sealed finally behind her.

The madness of the pre-launch made her arrival in the capsule feel almost unreal: a story that her mother had told her once, a story with a protagonist onto which Bet could project herself. But the controls were familiar under her hands, the display clear, and the radio connection to See Control buzzed brightly with countdowns, checklists, and benedictions. “God go with you, Sister,” said the bishop in her ear, and she was ready as she ever could be when the engines roared beneath her and the sky drew suddenly, dizzyingly, wonderfully closer. Darkness chased daylight across the tiny plate-glass window of the pod, and Bet laughed once, madly—the first time she’d laughed in weeks.

She made it almost clear of the atmosphere, in the end.

It was the release mechanism from the first engine pod that failed. Not releasing too late, as Bet had feared in her inspection, but too early—she heard the higher pitch in the voices from the See before she registered the shrieking metal and the change in her inner ear’s equilibrium. The wave of nausea was almost overcome by a thought for the technicians in Control—she wondered if they had known. Their panicked tone led her to suspect that they had not.

Under their directions, she fired the second engine pod. It would make the return trip more interesting—there was extra fuel for just such a circumstance, but if she mistimed the burn now or on the turn after the Winogradski drop, it wouldn’t be enough. For a while it seemed like this would do it—that this would carry her free of the Stand’s grasp. Then the sputtering began as the engines choked. There was silence on the other end of the radio line for a while. And then the hoarse voice of one of the engineers came online to tell her that the fuel line had ruptured. “God save you, Sister,” he told her. “God save you.”

“There is no God up here,” she said. Her voice was hoarse. She hoped it was clear enough. She wanted them to hear this. “No God, no angels. Only me. I made my choice.” She reached for the set of controls she hadn’t touched yet, opened a panel and turned the handle inside. Something over her head creaked, metal scraping against metal. She wondered if the Winogradski pod had deployed. Somehow she doubted it. “I’m starting to fall backward now. The parachutes aren’t going to deploy—the mechanism will fuse because the heat shield is pointed the wrong way.” There was background noise over the transmission, and Bet paused. She could guess the source of that noise. “Get Sister Elody. Put her on. Please.”

A muffled argument, a hand over the microphone. Then Elody’s deep voice, a little worse for the wear: “Here I am.”

“Good,” Bet said. Shouted. She was re-entering the atmosphere and was less aware of the roaring heat than the noise. “Good. I wanted you to … ” She trailed off. She wasn’t sure what she wanted now.

“It should have been me.” Silence. “Thank you.”

You’re welcome, was the usual response, but Bet didn’t feel very welcoming. Eat shit also came to mind, but didn’t seem right given the circumstances, and it never occurred to Bet to tell Elody to make her life worth it. “Cain made a sacrifice too,” she screamed into the void, and then there were no more words.

Somewhere over the Stand’s single expansive ocean there was a prolonged, red-and-gold streamer of fireworks observed by no one but the birds. Somewhere in See Control, Sister Elody let a microphone fall from her slack fingers.

Somewhere in space, there was a glimmer of translucent blue. It began as a point, and then a thread that stitched together the dimensions. Its needlework finished, it lapsed into silence, for seconds, then minutes. And then the words, jocular words and surprised: unattended for now, but they would be captured and treasured in the days and months and years to come: “Lambert’s Stand, this is the ML-1 from Earth. Lambert’s Stand, this is Earth. Where did you go? Welcome back … ”

Aimee Ogden's poetry has appeared in Asimov's and Star*Line. If she went to Hogwarts, she would be a Ravenclaw, and her patronus would be She-Hulk. She tweets at @aimee_ogden.