Introduction to the extract: Akuba Denobis is in charge of the one hundred and twelve ships in the Fleet of humans escaping Earth’s destruction. She chairs committee meetings using a virtual reality technology. The meeting space is called a gestalt.
For the Captains’ Committee meeting, Akuba always chose the same gestalt setting. It was a room in a mansion in Marisenal. Marisenal, the Paris, the Florence, the Alexandria of the deeps – a city of fashion and enlightenment. Akuba had finished her education there, fond memories. She sat with a glass of brandy in an incredibly comfortable egg-cup chair, facing the portrait wall. Off to the left-hand side, the wall showed a view of the surrounding seas. Hammerheads were swarming by the seamount, following some ancient seasonal compulsion. Akuba had swum with them before, using small electromagnetic fields to hide in their midst. The sharks circled and flexed at the periphery of every meeting, an admonishment to complacency in politics.
Sunlight channelled down from the surface making the room bright and cheerful, but the portrait wall maintained an air of gothic wood panelling in a great estate house. Each portrait was different. Some frames were tall and thin, Expressionist; some were luminous, covered in Vermeer glazes. One or two were archaeological in nature. It was a little mnemonic to recall the personality of each Captain within.
Captain Gilbert Gosse of the Pascal indicated that he wanted to contribute. His portrait morphed to the centre of the wall, a colourful pointillist rendering of his head, oversized to his body, childlike eyes wide and emotive. It had been a slow meeting. Reports on ships’ populations, propulsion efficiencies and other housekeeping had been the only matters of interest so far. There had been a short flurry of activity as they had discussed the economist living in the Conatus’ zero gee gardens, but that had died down as the consensus reached had been to leave him there for now. As chairman of the committee, Akuba indicated Gosse should speak.
“It is a small matter,” his portrait moved and said in his piping voice. “But I hope that I am speaking for all members of the committee when I congratulate Captain Denobis for fifteen years as chairman, leading the Fleet to Destination with a steady and sure hand.” His mood indicators – elaborate framing foliage – turned green, showing his approval and happiness and so did the indicators of the other captains. Some of them more quickly than others, she noted.
Fifteen years, she thought while her mouth framed the appropriate response. Fifteen years since she had taken Evan’s place. She took a moody sip from her brandy while captains began to talk of other matters. Evans was a homunculus, a little man sitting on her brain, but in comparison, it was not that much a burden. She had heard tell that some people had scratched across their memories, preferring a vague and fuzzy recollection of the past to the sharp taint of guilt – guilt for leaving, guilt for what they’d had to do.
She remembered Departure Day. Sometimes she couldn’t believe they’d given it a name. As the shuttles had taken the chosen ones up to the ships of the Fleet, they’d had to arm themselves to prevent the hopeless masses of people trying to force their way aboard. Some had clung on to the sides of the vessels, forcing the pilots to shake them off like a dog shaking off water. One had managed to hang on to the side of her own shuttle so long that he had only let go when he fainted from lack of oxygen. The thought of his fall back to Earth had haunted her memory, a talisman for the whole process.
Earth guilt: that was what it was called. But as a captain, Akuba could never afford to forget their exodus from what everyone called the Lick, afraid to speak its real name. It was their own sword of Damocles, the writing on the wall. It was a devil. She returned to the present moment, banishing her gloom to her personal time. For now, she had other duties.