Issue #9 - December 2014
Season 1, Episode 9
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Previous can be found here.
Listen to our featured stories read by our voiceover specialist T. Grace by subscribing to our iTunes podcast, or head over to our News page to stream/download right in your browser.
“Diaspora” by Daniel Rosen -- listen to the audio recording
“Koi” by Jes Rausch
“On a Frail Branch Bending” by Kaitlin McCloughan
“The Junkman” by Nicholas Stillman
“There Was a Crash” by Izmaire Todd
“Adiophoria” by William B. Squirrell
"Mr. Cicada" by Garrick Fincham
Just to give you a taste...
by Daniel Rosen
I have been holding my breath for a long time already when Golem finds me in the aquaponics chamber, but I am not ready to surface. My heart is company enough, reminding me of myself in precise rhythms: Mendel. Mendel. Menachem Mendel.
That’s why I come here, down to the bottom of the fishwells.
Ever since my first tevilah, I have cast myself deeper and deeper into the fishwells, until finally I could sit at the bottom with the lazy sturgeon. If only, like the sturgeon, I didn’t have to surface at all. If only I could remain swallowed up by water forever, in my own world. Golem calls the wells my “mikveh.” He is joking, I think, when he says this, but one can never be sure with Golem.
Above me circle schools of green sunfish and bronze carp, shimmering in stark contrast to the sturgeon who basks in silence with me at the base of the mikveh. They flock greedily, en masse, as I feed the sturgeon leftover nutritive strips that I’ve hidden from yesterday’s dinner. Sometimes the sturgeon gets only a tiny morsel before the other fish dart down and steal the bits hanging out of its mouth, but it never seems to mind. It just keeps trawling the bottom of the mikveh, approaching me sporadically and sucking at my fingers. The sturgeon is a paragon of stoicism.
Golem is waiting when I surface. We both have our specialties.
He waits, and I hold my breath.
“Did you hear the voice of prophecy? Have you spoken with HaShem?” he says, after he has waited for long enough. It is always like this. There is no artificial intelligence more full of hope than Golem, who hopes because he has nothing else, and so he waits.
“Not yet.” I say, and shake water from my ear. “The hisbodedus makes me hungry. Is it time to eat?”
“What of your prayers?” I see the brief moment of perfect stillness that makes me suspect he is accessing the ship’s logs. “That was the longest you’ve ever been underwater.” He leaves the real question unspoken.
Are you the one? Are you tzaddik? Are you the hamasciach? You: slight and dark-haired, with birdlike arms and an aquiline cast to your features that always makes you look, while you’re underwater, as if you are part fish. Golem needs me to be this man, but he knows that out here in space I cannot fulfill the requirements. It is a paradox.
I’ve seen pictures of the boys and men who came before me on Ark Timshel. It is a curiosity, that all of us look so different, such a vast disparity arising from such similar sets of genes. Then, I suppose, that is one of the most beautiful and terrible parts of man, that diversity is hidden underneath the surface, the constantly changing codes of the base pairs hidden away beneath the flesh. The Sanhedrin says that the son of David will come only in a generation that is either altogether righteous or altogether wicked, but how can one man fit into such a polarized category?
Golem worries about none of this.
He is blessed with faith.
I put my hands on my hips. “I’m hungry, Golem. Really. Can’t we wait until after we eat?”
After a moment of silence in honor of the hisbodedus, Golem leads me out of the aquaponics room. He leads me through the tiny jungle of the Ark, and the broad meadowlands. We trudge through swamp and finally reach the hot-baked browns and reds of the Yeshimon deserts. The Ark is vast and full of plants and animals, a giant seed drifting sluggishly through empty space. I think sometimes that perhaps the sturgeon might know more than it lets on. The heat of the desert that surrounds our home is just enough to dry me entirely before we reach our living quarters at the stern of the ship, for which I am glad. Golem is as patient as Job, and he never complains, but I know he hates it when I drip on the carpet.
For dinner, Golem bakes fresh bread and fries gribenes. In between greasy bites, he tells me of famous free-divers, stories about the Skandalopetra sponge fishermen of Greece and the Ama pearl hunters of Japan. I ask him if there have ever been any famous Jewish free divers, and he tells me of the Bnai Eilat, who created cities underwater when there was no more room for their children to live on the Sinai Peninsula.
“I wish there were more people alive.” I say. “Besides you and me.”
Golem nods, impassive. “There will be. It just takes a long time. At our current rate, I would estimate that in 200 generations, we will have arrived in the Durre Menthor system. Not long, from a slightly different perspective.”
“That of a paleontologist or a priest, maybe.” As with every other attempt I’ve ever made, this fails to get a rise out of Golem, who simply sits and watches me.
I can’t drink milk with the chicken, but Golem gives me an apple for dessert, to celebrate Shavuot. It isn’t until I started eating it that I realized I felt troubled by something and set it back on the plate. How does Golem know it’s Shavuot?
“Is something the matter with the apple, Mendel?”
“Is Shavuot really today?”
“As you are no doubt aware, the ship is equipped with a FOCS caesium clock. We travel with an uncertainty of less than one second every thirty million years. Since the Ark Timshel has been traveling for less than ten thousand years, I can be reasonably certain that rebbes the whole world over began celebrations at almost exactly the same time we did. We just don’t have the olives or dates.”
“But what if the rotation got all messed up? On Earth, I mean. While we were gone. What if the length of the days changed and then the rebbes didn’t know what day to celebrate on, and they chose a new day.”
“That seems unlikely.”
“It happens in the Nevi’im, doesn’t it? When HaShem holds the sun still so that Yossel may slay the Amorites?”
“Even if it happened, there is no shortage of clocks on Earth.”
“I suppose not.” I leave the rest of the apple on the plate. I don’t feel like celebrating. “Golem, have you ever considered seeding the Ark Timshel ahead of schedule?”
“I don’t know. For company?”
Later in the evening, when the diodes have all dimmed and Golem studies scripture, I walk back to the desert. In the rooms of hot sand, the roaring of the ship is reduced to a rumbling purr, as if that of a storm raging far off in the distance.
For a moment, I don’t feel as though I’m trapped in the belly of a great uncompromising beast, a time machine that only travels forward, pushing relentlessly towards some inevitable place and time. I do not feel like the paltry sum of a long and arduous equation. For a moment, I am not the last son of David.
For a moment, I am Mendel.
Then I am struck by another fit and swallowed up without mercy by the many voices of the Holy Spirit.
My first vision transforms the desert into a field of wheat, all of it gathered neatly into sheaves and standing in clusters that spiral out from me into infinity, melting and merging back into the desert at the edges of my vision.
Next I can see past the walls of the ship itself, out beyond the borders of the Ark Timshel, and I see Golem floating in space, except he is me, as it goes in dreams. His eyes are painted over with stars. Then I see farther, past the me that is Golem. Beyond is a lush planet bathed in the light of a yellow dwarf, just warm enough that water runs liquid on the surface. Great swelling waves rise up and crash against each other in this place, and beneath them there is a whole world of plants, waving and dancing in the currents.
My next vision is that of an army of men, their beards and payots long and wild. They are all garbed in vests and robes made of quilted leaves, their sleeves twirled with garlands of vines and roots. Each of them carries siddurim prayer books tied on their right hands, and on the palms of their left is tattooed a fiery sefirot, the intersecting lattices of the Ein Sof crossing against themselves again and again. They have the straightest teeth and broadest of shoulders, but each of them is gagged, and beneath their robes I hear the clinking of shackles.
Then the spirit leaves me and I fall down, back in the desert, coughing and wiping spittle from my lips. I know with a sudden certainty what I must do.
Golem is programmed to wait for the End of Days with a faith stronger than fine steel. But he does not see that we could till this land, seed it and let trees grow here. The Ark Timshel is massive, more than large enough to support a small community of men and women, if only every egg and embryo were not cryogenically frozen to await the arrival of the hamasciach.
He cannot see it. That is not his directive. But there must have been a reason that the rebbes decided to always keep one man alive on the Ark, and there is likely a deep reasoning behind their choice.
So I must trick him.
He must believe that I am hamasciach, and after he believes, I must convince Golem to seed Ark Timshel with my people, hundreds of thousands of years ahead of schedule.
I am sitting at the bottom of the fishwell. Holding my breath. Weighted by stone as the divers of Greece. My heartbeat is heavy, hollow, deep. It is the sound of the sturgeon beating its tail against the ground as it spawns. It is the sound of a dried log, the resonant dripping of waste through thick silica pipes. A familiar flame kindles in my chest, fueled equally by a fatigued diaphragm and the primeval fear of drowning.
How do you convince an AI program that you are the messiah? No miracles are required, thankfully. Being messiah doesn’t exactly work that way, not on the Ark, in any case.
We travel 500 million kilometers every year. The Ostrich Stars are still some 200,000 years away. You can get an awful lot of potential messiahs cranked out by the germination chambers in that timespan.
Or, you could develop a culture. You could learn and change and grow. There is no telling what the many could do together, what marvels they could reveal, what secrets they could unravel. You could become something bigger, something greater.
Then finally I feel the weakness in my legs, the black dots flickering at the edges of my vision, and I kick up off the bottom, reaching up towards the light. Golem is waiting when I surface, as always. I take a moment to catch my breath before asking, floating on my back on the surface of my mikveh.
“Golem, what if you could speed up Ark Timshel? Would you do that?”
“That would depend on the consequences.” He runs his fingers through the grass that grows right up against the edge of the fishwell.
“Do you think you have a way to speed up the Ark?”
“Do you think I’m capable of finding one?” He turns and stares at me, and slumps into the strange posture he uses while accessing the ship’s memory. “Possible. You have been clever. None of the other boys ever came to the fishwells at all.”
“Exactly.” I wiped water out of my eyes. “None of us Timshel boys are the same, Golem! Think about all the clever things a whole lot of us could think up.”
“We do not have the facilities aboard to support population expansion.”
“There’s no need for new births, is there? The expansion can’t occur if all the bodies are coming out of the germination chambers.”
“The sons of Adam are in a constant state of expansion.”
“Well, that’s not true. They aren’t right now, are they?”
“I suppose not.”
“And besides, what if we found a new way to travel? Why have we forbidden progress? Why not stretch our technology and our knowledge? Why not learn and so grow closer to HaShem?”
“A man may learn for seventy years and at the end die a fool, Mendel. It is too dangerous. More than anything else, the Ark needs stability.”
“Is there any truth in dreams, Golem?” A change in tack never hurts.
He nods. “In the Berachot, it says that a person dreams at night what he thinks about by day. There are always kernels of truth in the stuff of the imagination.”
“Do you ever dream?”
He nods. “Of course. Although, early artificial intelligences didn’t.” He pulled his hands out of the water. “Strange to think about.”
I take a deep breath and dive back underwater.
I need to think.
Fourteen thousand years away from Creation. Trillions of kilometers away from the Promised Land. From Earth. I wonder how many others came before me. What generation of the Ark Timshel am I? Have any of the others tried changing the routine? Have any of those who came before been as lonely as I?
I am unlikely the first to have so much experience in holding my breath. It is only then that I wonder for the first time how all of us meet our end aboard the Ark Timshel. The sturgeon, down here at the bottom of the fishwell, the tiny idol of my mikveh, he might know. He has doubtless lived longer than I. Possibly, he has lived longer than my predecessor and I put together. Clutching onto my rock, I wonder what would happen if I never surfaced? How long would Golem roam the halls of the ship, silent and heavy, like a ghost made entirely out of smooth granite?
How long would it be before he ordered another Mendel out of the germination chamber?
Then I realize the most important part. I can use the expansive sprawl of the Ark to my advantage. I might not be able to hold my breath forever underwater, but I can certainly hold it outside, in the desert. I can live in the caves and ravines and valleys of the Ark, nurturing what edible plants I can, and following kashrut in regard to fish. I will become a holy man of the desert, and record all that I have learned for future Mendels, so that even if we cannot share company, we can still share our thoughts, flung down the hallways of time in old-fashioned script and pictures on cave walls.
My lungs begin to burn, but I remain at the bottom of my mikveh a moment longer. Someday, he will not be there when I surface. He cannot wait forever. I calm myself with the lullaby drum of my heart, the repeating beat of my identity: Mendel, Mendel. Menachem Mendel. I will work for the future. I will find a way to save the rest of the many who could be with me aboard the Ark.
Golem will wait and I will hold my breath.
When I die and am gathered to our people, if they ask me, “Mendel, why were you not Abraham?” I might say that I didn’t have Abraham’s intellect. If they say, “Mendel, why were you not Moses?” I might say that I lacked Moses’ charisma. And in this way I will not lie. I will not be wrong. But if they say, “Mendel, why were you not Mendel?” for that, I would have no answer.
Daniel Rosen writes speculative fiction and swing music. He grew up on a tiny farm in northern Minnesota, where he learned the value of hard work and the relative softness of barn kittens. His work has appeared in Spark and The Saturday Evening Post.