Jacob was rushed down the hallway of the enormous ship by his older brother and a handful of his friends. It was the middle of ship’s-night, and the ambient lights in the hallway were turned down until they just caused a blush along the off-white walls of the corridor, allowing those living aboard to sleep more soundly during what was an arbitrarily chosen evening.
The lack of true day and night cycles was not something that Jacob had ever needed to get used to; he was among the first of the babies born on the generation ship… the false night time was all he’d ever known. His mother had tried to tell him once about night, that it was a time when the sky was dark and filled with stars. To Jacob that was a normal sky… it was what he saw beyond the hull of the massive vessel through windows and viewscreens regardless of the time of day. What he could not imagine was a daytime sky… a sky of blue! The thought of it seemed garish and strange to him.
“Jacob,” came his brother’s hushed voice, rousing him from his thoughts. They had reached the airlock door.
These things had to take place at night; otherwise the hangar personnel would prevent this from happening… too dangerous, they would say. And yet these same men all bore similar scars, and they had all done the same thing around his age. In fact, there was not a single grown man on board the ship who didn’t now bear this scar.
“Okay, Jacob. Are you ready?”
Jacob nodded, afraid that if he spoke, his teenaged voice would break.
“I won’t make you do this… you need to do this on your own, okay? Otherwise it doesn’t count.”
Jacob nodded a second time.
“Okay.” His brother tossed a hand signal to his friends over his shoulder, and they pulled open the door to the airlock.
Inside, it was a smallish space, big enough for five men to outfit and depart for EVA. There was nothing loose or dangling, apart from the safety straps that lined the floors and ceilings, and the emergency bars that protruded from the back wall. The front was one massively thick door, with a toothed line cutting through it horizontally.
“Come on,” his brother motioned him to the back of the room. “Slide your arms through the E bars, and hold on! If you don’t hold on, you can still get blown out. Don’t hold your breath, or you’ll die. Your lungs will burst in your body.” He tapped the E bar to Jacob’s left and showed him where the rubberized coating had been stripped away during an accidental decompression, and the steel beneath was exposed.
“Don’t forget to get your kiss before you come back,” he said. Jacob nodded.
“The lock is on a timer for ten seconds. That’s as long as you get to find yourself in the void. You’ll survive ten seconds, as long as you don’t hold your breath. After the lock closes, we’ll be gone, but we’ll put in an alarm to the infirmary. I’ll see you tomorrow. I love you, Jacob.” he said, and tousled Jacob’s hair.
Then, in an instant, all of the older boys were gone.
There was a moment of quiet.
And then the big doors parted. The movement was slow at first, and he could hear the air in the room whistling out the tiny gap. This was his warning to not hold his breath. He held his mouth open and breathed out one long, slow, breath.
In the next moment, the top and bottom of the big lock doors slid back, and the void of space yawned before him. There was an instant of chaos as all of the air left in the lock burst outward, but after that, everything was peaceful, silent, and utterly still. The void stretched out, the universe itself, with endless fields of stars. Jacob had expected it to be terrifying, but after the decompression, in the silence, he was gripped by a feeling of tranquility and wholeness. This was his, his birthright. He was of the first generation to not have a home planet. He was a citizen of space. He felt the urge to gasp, but his lungs, forcibly emptied, would never fill themselves against that immense emptiness. He felt the saliva on his tongue start to boil away, a painful tingle, and he closed his gaping mouth. He pressed his eyes shut as those same bubbles formed in his tears. The spell was broken, and he suddenly became aware of the terrible pain in his face from the incomprehensible cold and from the vacuum. It was almost time.
He pressed the left side of his face against the exposed steel of the E bar, and held it there despite the pain. He counted.
By the time he got to five, the lock lights came up red and an alarm sounded, and the doors shut quickly, with a clanging noise. The lock filled with atmosphere, and Jacob gratefully filled his lungs. His face was still frozen to the E bar, and he could feel warm mammalian blood trickling from his nose as his world went quietly black.
When he woke up in the ship’s infirmary, he had expected his brother would be next to him, but instead he saw Serafina. She was one of his best friends from primary school, before the girls were separated out from the boys.
“You’re awake,” she said, brushing his hair off of his forehead. Her fingers brushed a bulky gauze bandage on his cheek, and Jacob felt relieved. His kiss would leave a fine scar, judging by the thickness of that bandage. “And you’re a man now, it would seem.”
She was smiling, but he could hear an edge of hurt in her voice.
“Sera, what are you doing here? I haven’t seen you in years.”
“I’d heard you were in here with decompression sickness. I thought I’d come visit. Is that so strange? We were friends once,” she said.
“No, not strange. I just thought I’d left my childhood friends behind.”
Sera pulled her hand away as if he had burned her.
“No, I didn’t mean it like that…” he said.
“I’ll go, if that’s what you want, Jacob. But you mark my words, someday soon, I’ll kiss the void. I’ll wear a scar on my cheek and go to school and get a job, just like you.”
Jacob looked at her as if she were mad. “You can’t do those things, Sera. This is a generation ship. You girls can’t do the dangerous work; we need you to have babies. And who will want to marry a scarred up harridan like that?”
Serafina stood from her place at his bedside. “Well,” she said coldly, “isn’t it lucky that I have no interest in either marriage or children?”
And then she turned and left the infirmary.