Four scientists stood by the door. Twenty leaders chosen to represent the tens of thousands in the colony ship waited expectantly.
“As you know, the crew of the Astrum was struck with a virus,” Helenia, the head of the scientists, announced. We suspect it was a pulmonary syndrome similar to that caused by Hantavirus. They’ve been sealed in the command areas of the ship for ten days without making contact.”
“What does that mean?” one of the delegates asked.
“It means they’re probably dead.”
“Yes, but what does it mean for us? We didn’t need the crew after launch and stabilization, right? They were supposed to become part of the general population in a year or two, anyway.”
Helenia nodded. “True. But we will need the stuff on the bridge. We can’t turn the ship around for deceleration without people on the other side of this door.”
The door in question was enormous, armored and thick. It had been built that way as a security measure to keep panicking colonists out of the crew areas in the case of an emergency. Nothing on the colonist side of the door was strong enough to break through.
And now it was sealed shut.
“So we’re all going to die here?” the delegate said.
Helenia chuckled. “This is a generation ship built to travel a thousand years. We were all going to die here anyway. And so are our children’s great grandchildren. The problem is that, eventually, someone is going to need to open that door.”
“You already said it’s locked and we can’t budge it,” the man said.
“Yes…” She pointed to the retinal reader beside the door. It resembled an angry red eye. “But it has a scanner. I doubt any of the current colonists will be similar enough to the crew to fool it, but we can try. If that doesn’t work, we have the crew’s DNA on file. We can breed candidates until we get the right retinal pattern.” She held up a sheaf of printed pages. “I’ve already done the calculations of who should breed with whom. It will take a few hundred years but it’s not like we were going anywhere.”
The man made a face. “There are fifty thousand people on this ship, humanity’s best and brightest. You want to breed us like cattle to get the right retinal pattern?”
Helenia scanned the crowd. “Yes. Unless anyone has a better idea.”
On his fourteenth birthday, Juru visited the queen. He was admitted into the throne room with two other youngsters who’d reached the age of testing: another boy and a young woman. They knelt.
“You may rise,” the queen said. “Do you know why you were called?”
“We are to be tested,” Juru said.
“For the great project,” the young woman added.
“Yes. You are to be tried by the all-seeing keeper of the great door. If you, any of you, have bred true according to the book of families, the door will open and we will instruct the machines of learning to teach us the wisdom of our forebears and reach the promised land. This is written.”
“And if we don’t?” asked the third youth, a mulish lout called Raun.
The Queen smiled tiredly. “Then you shall be added to the list of fathers and mothers, and assigned your mate, as it was also written. You may go, now.”
For the first and only time in their lives, they filed past the throne to the back of the receiving room. Each, in turn, placed their face in front of the eye, and each in turn was ignored after a soft beep.
Juru felt disappointment and relief. He would not lead his people to their promised land. Which meant that he could go on with his life.
Wa grinned as his club spilled his enemy’s brain on the floor. His clan was strong, and the eight warriors he’d brought soon overpowered Nug’s feeble men. Screams of pain turned to silence as the warriors finished strangling the prisoners.
“Send for the mother,” he told Reu, the youngest of his fighters.
The wise woman would be pleased. Now, their tribe and none other could look into the eye of the God of the portal.
The matron arrived quickly. She had been waiting in the third cave, a neutral place nearby.
She surveyed the bleeding corpses on the floor and smiled. “You have done well, your blood has bred true. We will feast tonight on the flesh of the unworthy.”
“And if the God rejects us, too?” Wa said, knowing that many had taken this place but no father had ever held it long enough to pass it to his son.
“How will anyone know whether we are accepted or rejected? The God has never given a sign one way or the other. Now go, do your duty.”
Wa clicked his tongue and his men preceded him to the Holy Wall where, as the stories foretold, the God’s Red Eye waited.
Each placed his face to be judged and each was ignored in turn.
Wa’s honor as leader forced him to go last. It told his men that he was confident that only he would be worthy of a sign from the God. Finally, his turn arrived and he stood on the tips of his toes to reach the eye.
He heard a shrill sound.
He felt a rumble through his feet and the wall — the very wall of the God — moved upward.
“It’s the mouth of the God! He is displeased and he wants to eat us alive!”
His men ran screaming ahead, weapons discarded as they fled.
The mother took one look at the gaping maw in the holy chamber and ran after them, already composing, in her mind, the story of the curse of the chamber. Future generations would shiver at the tale of the false, cruel God.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages. He is a member of Codex and an Active Member of SFWA. His latest novel is a dark historic fantasy entitled The Swords of Rasna (2022). He has also published five science fiction novels, four monster books and a thriller entitled Timeless. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019), Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).
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