I Finally Got a Kindle.

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I know, it seems crazy, right? That a person who writes in part for e-readers would not own one.

I have tried to take part in the ebook revolution, really I have, but without a dedicated reader I have found it nearly impossible. Reading on a cramped phone screen was almost painful, and much too distracting to do for any length of time. Reading at home on my laptop suffered the same distraction problem, except more so, as the laptop is where I do my work, my writing, and my schoolwork.

A few days ago, I finally broke down and ordered a Kindle Paperwhite. I wanted something that wouldn’t be constantly connected and offering the siren’s song of social media and the internet constantly. A kind of walled garden for reading. And, I thought, at $139.99, it would pay for itself in savings on books in no time!

I am delighted by it. It is just small enough that I can (barely) cradle it in one hand, yet large enough that it’s comfortable for someone raised on mass market paperbacks to read; the user interface is so easy to learn that you almost don’t even need the tutorial that appears on startup. The display, with its adjustable backlight, is suitable for any light level and doesn’t cause the kind of eyestrain that a computer screen or a phone can.

In short, I love it.

I can read in bed now, without needing to have a light on. I can read while cooking or eating without having to weigh a book open or (gasp!) break its spine to get it to lay flat.  I can read in the bathtub (the touch screen functions through a ziploc bag even, so I don’t have to worry about ruining it), and perhaps most importantly I can read on the bus to and from classes.

This is the real game-changer for me. As I’ve gotten busier I’ve noticed my recreational reading time dropping off precipitously, and as a writer, continuing to read is vital. You learn craft from reading books; sometimes you learn what to do, sometimes you learn what not to do, but it’s all learning, and it’s all necessary. So turning the thirty to forty minutes that I spend on the bus every weekday into productive time is the perfect way to get my reading back.

I can carry dozens of books with me wherever I go on this one slim little device. It fits in my purse, and it fits in my jacket pocket. I will be able to take it traveling with me, and when camping I will no longer need to waste headlamp batteries on reading before bed. Wouldn’t want those batteries to run out on a trip to the latrine, after all.

And speaking of batteries, the battery on this thing lasts literally for days. I don’t even have to think about charging it, which is a revelation for someone who frets constantly about her phone battery.

I started out my Kindle adventure by re-reading Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and if the reading suffered at all for having been on a screen, I didn’t notice. I chewed through the novel in chunks of thirty or forty minutes at a time over the course of a few days; slow for me, but much more than I’d been reading pre-Kindle.

I still prefer paper books, don’t get me wrong. The feel of them, and the beauty of them (the flexibility demanded by the ebook format reduces your opportunities to create beautiful books) still charm me in a way that ebooks just can’t yet. But this experience has mostly cemented my vision of the reading future as one that includes both e-reading and paper books… but now, I can leave my paper books at home, and still read to my little heart’s content no matter where I am. The sheer convenience offered by ebooks isn’t something that paper books can match, and isn’t going to just go away.

I have always been astounded by claims that ebooks are declining (they aren’t) in popularity; owning a Kindle only makes such claims more obviously ridiculous than they seemed in the past.

And if you haven’t yet, my friends, join the ebook revolution. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

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The Mausoleum, Part 3.

Part 3 of the short fiction series, The Mausoleum.

Cassie followed behind and just slightly to the left of Cody.  He was tall, but young.  She thought he was maybe just out of high school, and still awkwardly thin and lanky from teenage growth spurts.  She wondered briefly how one chose a job like this, or what qualifications were sought by the Mausoleum.

They were walking down a corridor that seemed to be separated from the Hall of Remembrance by a sturdy wall.  The floor gleamed.  The hallway was softly lit from hidden sconces.  The effect was dim, without seeming dingy.  Rather, the lighting felt comforting. The walls hosted a number of potted plants along their length.   There were no windows, and she wondered how the plants lived back here.  Maybe the Mausoleum paid someone to come and switch them around every day so that they all got exposure to the sunlight, and none had to spend more than a day or so in the dimness of the hallway.

“If you’ll follow me through here,” he said, gesturing her through a door, “I’ll show you around our control room.”

Cassie stepped through the door, into a room that was even quieter than the rest of the center was.  She looked around.  It wasn’t a large space, but it was full of keyboards and monitors and buttons.  One entire wall was taken up by row upon row of numbered switches.  In one corner, on a raised platform, was a single wheeled office chair.

“What is this?” She asked quietly.

“This,” Cody said with a pride that seemed genuine, “is the brains of the Mausoleum.  This is where we control the computers that make all of this possible.”

“Make what possible?”

“Oh, the digital memorialization of our loved ones that have passed.”

Cassie peered over a rack of black plastic toggles, with her hands safely clasped behind her back.  “I guess I still don’t know what exactly you do here.  I’ve never been inside before.”

“Well, for a long time, we’ve buried our deceased friends and family in the ground at places called cemeteries…”

“I know what cemeteries are.”  Cassie had been to a cemetery once, on a trip with her parents.  It was an old historical site, no longer in active use, but still maintained by the city that owned it in order to preserve a piece of a long-ago era.

“… yes, well, there are problems with using cemeteries.  They become full, they take up what would otherwise be usable land, and there were sometimes problems with ground pollution.  The Mausoleums are intended to help alleviate those issues by replacing the old custom with something similar, but new.”

“So do the dead people end up here?” She asked.

“No.  They’re cremated at a separate facility.”

“So how is this similar to a cemetery?”

“Well, when someone dies, and when we have enough advance warning, we have the technology now to scan the brain of the person dying.”

“You scan their brains?”

“Yes, we need to in order to create the digital memorials.  It has to be done before or immediately after death.  The structure of the brain changes irreparably after death, and the information cannot be recovered after that happens.”

“What do you… record? Store?”

“It might be more accurate to think of it in terms of storage.  Recording is so static.  We target pieces of information to help make the memorial richer and more detailed.  Associations, memories, things like that.  We store them and use a piece of software to use that data to create the memorial.”

Cassie thought back to the moving images on the screens in the Hall of Remembrance.  “So it’s like a video of the person’s life?”  She thought that didn’t quite make sense, because Sam’s father wouldn’t have memories of his own face staring, like had been pictured on the screen.

“No, it’s a dynamic likeness.  Videos can only show the same things over and over again.  The software produces a sort of a simulation, with more autonomy than a video.”

“Why?”

“Because using this technology, we can produce a memorial that is more vibrant than visiting a headstone in a cemetery.  People often seem comforted by having the opportunity to see the deceased as they were in life.  It’s a far better option than wasting time and resources preserving the body.  You are in essence celebrating the living memory, rather than mourning a death.”

“What’s this?” Cassie asked, running a finger along the big wall of switches, carefully, in between the rows.

“Look with your eyes, please, miss.”

Cassie jerked her hand away and clasped it behind her back again.

“This,” he continued, “is where we control the monitors in the Hall of Remembrance.  When you come in, we get you checked in at the front, and you’re assigned a monitor. Then we use the control room to call up the stored data, and the switches help us direct the program to the assigned monitor.”

“Why are there so many switches for each one?”

“Well, one is for the video, and one is for the sound, and…”

Cassie interrupted him.  “These have sound?”

“… well, yes, but we largely leave the sound off.  It can make the Hall of Remembrance quite noisy, so to be fair to everyone we just leave it off.”

“I see.”

“Do you have any more questions about how the center is run?”

“I don’t think so.”

Cody clapped his hands together, seeming pleased that he had done his job.  “Wonderful.  If you’ll follow me back into the hall and to the right, I’ll show you where we keep all the data.  It’s amazing!”

Cassie followed behind Cody.  She had the oddest feeling that things just didn’t add up.

The Mausoleum, Part 2

Cassie sat still in the living room of Sam’s house, trying not to be a bother while he freshened up and while his mother got Rebbekah tidied up for the trip to the mausoleum.  Sam’s mother was pretty and harried, and Cassie thought this elemental state perhaps made her all the more lovely.  Sam’s father had died many years ago; Cassie didn’t remember ever meeting him, and she knew that looking after both Sam and Rebbekah must be time consuming.  She admired Sam’s mom, and tried to help out whenever she could, even coming over to help Sam babysit his younger sister, who admitted herself that she could be quite a handful.

The small family came into the room, Rebbekah in a fresh dress, with her hair tied back, and Sam in slacks and a button-down shirt.  Cassie felt suddenly self-conscious about her own clothes.

“Mrs. Jacobsen, I’m sorry…” she trailed off, looking down at her overalls.

“Don’t you worry about it, Cassandra, I wouldn’t change you for all the tea in China,” she said, with a reassuring smile.

The Mausoleum was a short drive from Sam’s house, in the civic complex downtown.  It was a large rectangle, faced in black glass, and looked anachronistic nestled between the library and the courthouse.  The technology the Mausoleums used was relatively new, but over the last decade they had been going in all over the country, first in smaller towns, where it was less expensive to build them, but also in larger cities.  The bigger cities usually needed several, just like old fashioned graveyards.

Cassie had never been to the Mausoleum before, and she found the sleek facade intimidating.  She held back behind Sam and his mom, holding Rebbekah’s hand as much for her own comfort as for the child’s. She couldn’t turn back now, though… to do so would be to allow her fear to limit her curiosity. She had a burning need to know, to understand, a need that would smolder in the back of her brain until she satisfied it.  Such curiosities sometimes kept her up nights, lying in bed in her dark bedroom, turning things over in her head again and again.

The doors were near-silent as they opened to admit the family and their hanger-on, and Sam’s mother checked them in at the front counter.  Inside the lobby it was much brighter than Cassie had expected, given the dark color of the glass from the outside.  It was a peaceful place, with comfortable chairs for waiting in, a discrete fountain burbling in the corner, and potted plants growing in any unobtrusive spot.  Everything was decorated in dark neutral tones, and the lobby had a complete lack of electronic screens.  There were signs on the wall every so often reminding visitors to be respectful of those who were there to see dead loved ones.

They all had visitor badges pinned neatly to their clothes, even tiny Rebbekah, and they were escorted back.  The staff member guided them to a screen labeled “231,” and told them to wait.  Cassie could see that the wall hosted similar screens all down the length of the visitor’s hall, some dark, and some casting their blue glow over the faces of attendant family and friends.  They sat in the provided chairs and waited.  It was only a few minutes before the screen brightened.

The image resolved into an image of Sam’s father.  It was a face she’d seen in family photos. She thought the image was moving, and as she watched she was proven correct.  The eyebrows, the eyes themselves quivered in the way that living things do, never still, always moving.

“Hello, Jim,” Sam’s mom said, with an expression on her face that spoke of both sadness and happiness.

The lips on the screen moved, but there was no sound, and Cassie couldn’t interpret the movements into anything sensible.  The entire visitor’s hall was strangely quiet… there was the occasional hiss of a whisper, and somewhere the soft clatter of something accidentally falling to the floor.

Cassie quietly got up and slipped away from the family.  She walked back out to the lobby and up to the desk.

“Excuse me,” she said politely to the woman at the desk, standing on her toes in an effort to seem older than she was, “I have some questions about the Mausoleum.”

The woman smiled.  “Yes, of course.  We have an informational pamphlet here, and I can also have a guide show you around.”

Cassie reached out and took the pamphlet.  The woman had bright red nails.  “I think I’d like a guide as well, please.”

“If you’ll have a seat for just a moment, I’ll have someone right out for you.”

Cassie took her pamphlet and sat in one of the chairs in the lobby.  The copy filling the glossy pages was intended for mourning families, and took pains to emphasize that the services offered by the Mausoleum were “tasteful” and “respectful.”  The photos that accompanied the copy were of beautiful model families, a husband and wife and two kids, a boy and a girl, all neatly dressed and all smiling, but not smiling too much; no distasteful displays of happiness to disturb grieving clients.

“Hello, miss?”

She looked up from the pamphlet to see a young man in well tailored slacks and a button down shirt.

“Oh hello,” she said.

“I understand that you requested a guide,” he said with a smile.  “My name’s Cody, and I’d be happy to show you around.”

The Mausoleum.

Cassie and Sam walked along the tree-lined lane toward the elementary school, just as they did every afternoon.  It was Sam’s responsibility to pick up his younger sister, Rebbekah, from school each afternoon, and Cassie, as his best friend, accompanied him on the task.

Cassie couldn’t sort out how or why they were best friends, it had always just kind of been that way.  They had met in class four years ago, before Rebbekah had even been in school, and it had just stuck.  They understood each other in ways nobody else seemed to, and trusted one another in a way that they could not even trust their respective parents.  It was the way things were, and perhaps on some level, the way things had always been destined to be.  It felt like that to Cassie, some days… there was a rightness to being around Sam that was comforting, that brought her peace even among the most chaotic teenage tantrums.

Cassie didn’t keep a lot of friends.  She found that in middle school, it was difficult to know for sure who to trust.  The other girls looked askance at her anyway, at her baggy overalls and dirty fingernails.  They watched her trapping bugs in old pickle jars and walked away, giving her the eye and tittering among themselves.  They were disgusted by her swearing and unimpressed by her short, untidy hair.  That was fine; Cassie didn’t pay them no never mind.  Cassie broke rules, and to those girls, that made her a threat. Because maybe, just maybe, her refusal to be bound by those rules meant that the game they’d been raised to play just didn’t really exist.

Sam, on the other hand, wavered between fascination and amusement at her use of crude language, and while he had no interest himself in catching bugs in old pickle jars, he had no problem waiting a few minutes while she did so.  Sam had been there two years ago when she’d broken her arm climbing the big oak tree behind the school.  Her parents couldn’t fathom why she’d do something so dangerous when there was an enrichment gym on the corner, complete with a tree analogue and plenty of safety features.  They didn’t understand that it was different somehow to climb a real live tree than to scramble up an aluminum and foam structure that was built for climbing.  One was the simple human use of a human tool; the other was a triumph over adversity.

Her arm had been in a cast and a sling for the rest of that summer.

“Do you want to come over for dinner tonight?” She asked him.

“Nah, I can’t.  We have to go to the mausoleum tonight to see Dad.”

“Oh,” Cassie replied, stung suddenly with curiosity.  She had no deceased loved ones, and had never had a reason to visit the mausoleum.  She wondered what it was like.

Sam glanced down at her.  This was a recent thing, this looking down.  Prior to his most recent growth spurt, they had been the same height, more or less. “What, you want to come?”

She shook her head. “I wouldn’t impose on something that personal,” she answered.

“No, it’s not a big deal.  Just let me check with my mom.”

“Okay.”

Sam paused to dial his mother, but Cassie kept walking a few paces, and then stood, digging idly in the dirt along the sidewalk with the toe of her shoe.  She never liked listening in on other people’s conversations, so much so that she preferred that it not even look like that was the case.  She had grown up without any brothers or sisters, so it seemed strange to share space so closely with people that one couldn’t even have a conversation in private.  So that one didn’t even expect to have a conversation in private.

“Hey,” Sam said, walking up to her.  “Mom says it’s okay.  So we’ll get the kid, and then head to my place?”

“Sure!”

“Have you ever been there before?”

“No,” Cassie admitted.  “What’s it like? Is it sad?  Is it scary?”

“It’s not bad.  It’s just lots of screens with people on them.”

“So why do you go?”

“My mom says that it’s a nicer way to remember dead people than visiting a pile of old bones in the ground.  I don’t know, you can’t talk to them, they’re not really there.  Mom seems to like it, though.”

“It sounds weird.”

“Yeah.  I don’t know.  I mostly go for mom’s sake.”

They had reached the elementary school, and Rebbekah came bounding up the driveway, a whirlwind of sticky hands and light brown curls.

“Sam! Sam! Sam!” She yelled as she ran, excited to see her older brother.  She threw her arms around him and hugged his waist.

“Hello, Bekkah,” he said, “you’re going to have to get cleaned up before we visit dad tonight.”

Rebbekah sported grass stains on her dress, and dirt smeared across the white toes of her shoes.

“Why?  He doesn’t care.”

“Because if you don’t, you’ll just fight with mom all evening and I don’t want to wait on you.”

She wormed her little hand into his, and Sam rolled his eyes, but didn’t pull his hand away.  They were only a few blocks from the house, it was a small concession for him to make to his younger sister.

“Cass, you too!” she called out, thrusting her empty hand out to the side.  Cassie obligingly switched sides, and took Rebbekah’s hand for the remainder of the walk home.

In Beta.

There’s a point that you reach in the process of writing a piece of fiction where you don’t know what to do anymore.  You don’t know what to add or to take away, or even if what you’re looking at specifically makes sense in the broader context of the piece.  It’s not a lack of ability or a lack of knowledge or understanding… it’s that you’ve spent months elbow deep in the thing, and all you can see is the gore, and you’ve lost the sense and structure of the thing.  I reached that point tonight.

It’s not that we don’t understand story structure, or can’t see instances of passive voice… it’s just that it is utterly impossible to read a piece as a reader would when you’ve just written it.  It just can’t be done.

It’s at that point, when you’ve become lost in that peculiar writer’s myopia, that you need to put the work away.  For a week or two.  Or a month.  Of course, this resting time could be considered idle time, and that’s not necessarily bad… when one is engaging in creative activity, even idle time contributes to the whole.  But why wouldn’t you use that week or two or four to have it read over by people who don’t suffer from that myopia?

Tonight, I handed my novel to a handful of intrepid readers who have agreed to read the damn thing for me.  The feeling of shuffling an almost-novel from my desktop to my pre-readers is not a feeling of happiness or even of satisfaction.  It is a feeling of deflation and relief.  This is the first time that I’ve given something to readers that I intended to publish at some point, and while it’s a relief to get the thing out of my hands for the time being, it’s also nerve-wracking.

These people, these kind volunteers, have the responsibility of telling me, honestly and truthfully, whether or not this thing has good bones, whether or not it’s worth pursuing.  I can’t tell… I read through it a couple of days ago and thought it might actually be good… and that was a moment that brought trumpeters down from heaven.  But I read it one and a half times today, and I’m suddenly feeling like it’s probably not so good.  Which feeling is right?  I can’t tell… can you?

In addition, they’re also responsible for telling me which of the curves need refining and which of the points need sharpening, a thing I might be capable of in the future, but which I’m not capable of right now, and I have to decide whether to take or leave each piece of feedback, without involving my pride. Do you see how complicated this gets?

But that feedback doesn’t even come right away!  It can take weeks for someone to make a reasonably attentive pass over a novel-length piece of writing, and I get to spend all of that time with this story and all of this anxiety peppering me in the back of the brain, like background radiation, even when I sleep.

And that’s not even getting to the worries of publishing, which I will need to do eventually if it turns out that the bones are good.  Publishing is still a subject that mystifies and terrifies me, but it’s one of those things that I’ll have to learn by doing.

It’s pretty amazing to think about how many people it really takes to write a book.  I guess that’s what dedications are for… because they can only fit one name on the cover.

In the meantime, now that I’m free of the damn thing for a while, it’s time to try to get caught up on my housework, and get my ducks in a row for Bhutan… which I can’t believe is happening in just six short weeks.

And you know, maybe write a short story.

If I find the time.

The Resurrectionists.

Clara stood awkwardly at the head of the grave, watching her husband. He had finished the hole, and now, standing in it, he heaved downward with the blade of the shovel, again and again. The dull thud of the metal against a wooden coffin, muffled by the soil covering the rest of it, was one of the things she liked the least about their new profession. She also had a horror of the soil itself, doubtless full of worms who feasted on the bodies of the now deceased. She felt dread as she heard the crack of the shovel blade splintering the coffin; now it was her turn.

She took the long pole and lowered its vicious hook into the half uncovered grave, and hooked the dead man’s head. Pulling the corpses out by their jaws was obscene; their faces stretched open, and the rest of the body hung from the neck in a loose and lolling fashion that one would never see in the living. Sometimes, once she had them up and was hauling them into the cart, their weight and something about the way their arms and legs brushed her made her swear that they were moving on their own. The horror and the humiliation of these moments was a physical sensation; a combination of numbness and sharp prickle that washed over her entire body.

“It’s not right! It’s not seemly, and it’s not godly!” These were the words that she had, in a storm of tears, shouted at Leo after their first outing.

“My dearest dove, I know it’s unconventional. I do. And I know it’s not the life that I promised you when you decided to act in line with your heart and run away with a poor milliner. But now that the shop has burned down, what are we to do for food? For lodging? I promised you the day that we married that I would always look after you. No matter what.”

“Then do it and leave me out of it!”

“Oh my darling, if I could shield you from this, I would, and at any cost to myself, but it’s simply not a task that I can handle on my own. And there’s nobody in the world that I trust more than you, my own sweet wife. What greater testament to our love is there?”

“It’s wrong!”

“Who says it’s wrong? Is it in the bible, the Lord’s own word? We’re giving these people a new purpose, and helping with breakthroughs in medicine that could help thousands stay the grave a bit longer. Isn’t that marvelous?”

Leo’s unfailing optimism had been one of the reasons she’d fallen in love with him. Now, after a few years of marriage, she had come to see what an irritating trait it could be. He was a sweet and attentive man, though, and she had to admit that these nighttime grave robberies were the only times that she regretted it. It had been a big decision for her, and it was not one that she made lightly. Her father had wanted her to marry a barrister from a wealthy family, and indeed the man had courted her quite determinedly. Defying her family had left her penniless, excluded her from any inheritance, and left her entirely dependent on her new craftsman husband. And for a while, things had been wonderful. Meager, but wonderful. She and Leo would never be rich, and she had known that when she married him. But there had been love, and warmth, and no cold, damp nights spend in graveyards.

They tried to go the night after an interment, or if necessary, the second night after. The fresher the corpse, the better the price the medical men paid. They would take and light the lamp on the outside of the church; that way, if anyone saw the meager light it cast, they would simply think that the groundskeeper was out and about. This was also the reason why she must wear her hair coiled so tightly to her head; why she wore men’s trousers so baggy that she had to pin them at the waist, and a long baggy black coat. A lady in a dress at a grave at night would arouse too much curiosity.

The men’s clothing also made it easier for her to practice her new craft. There was a bit of a trick to setting the hook in the jaw of a corpse. It took a jerk and a little bit of strength to set it well, and if it were not well-set, the body could come loose and tumble back into the grave. Setting the hook a second time would be more difficult, in some cases near impossible depending on the posture of the corpse. The corded, tendonous tissues of the body would have already started to soften as decay set in, which made the flesh more fragile and setting the hook easier, but too old of a body and the hook could drag clean through the jaw, separating the mandible at the chin or cheek, and the task would have to be abandoned, and the body re-buried half in, half out of the coffin. And yet, one must be careful in setting the hook. The bone in the roof of the mouth was fragile, and the structures above quite delicate; it was easy, with a little too much force, to send the hook up into the head, reducing the value of the body to the anatomist, and as a result, reducing their pay.

This one set well. She could see the end of the hook gleaming dully in the man’s now open mouth. It always surprised her faintly when the bodies came up pale-skinned. She always seemed to expect indians or negroes, even though they had drawn up white bodies before. This was a tall man, and she was struggling to lift his bulk from the hole. Leo came over.

“Sweet Clara, please let me help you,” he whispered, placing his hand on her back. She obligingly stepped aside, and Leo grasped the handles of the hook and hauled the man up to the surface. She stripped the clothes from the bloating body, and tossed them down back into the coffin. They weren’t common thieves after all. The two of them collaborated in levering the corpse’s length into the hand cart, and she waited while he hurriedly filled the grave back in. Keeping the graves tidy, he had reasoned, gave the bereaved less cause for anguish. No reason to leave evidence behind of their loved one’s new profession that might upset them. He had become quite good at it.

Once the grave was filled in and neatly, subtly mounded, they stowed the shovel and the hook with their newly acquired companion. Leo lifted the shafts of the cart and began to pull. She heard him grunt softly as the wheels began to turn and the cart to move. She had always admired his strength. She trailed behind the cart; they had had occasions on which the corpse had fallen from the back of it. She heard Leo’s soft voice drift back to her:

“Let’s go see what tonight’s efforts have earned us, shall we dear?”

And then he began to whistle.

Serafina.

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.