As soon as Niko woke, she knew that something was desperately awry. The room was silent.
What she should have heard upon waking was a blaring alarm and the confusion of two thousand hurried feet. Instead there was this awful silence. Silence was unnatural. Silence meant that you had done something wrong.
She looked to the enormous clock that dominated the ceiling. Its hands pointed to 07:16. She had indeed done something wrong; she was very late for breakfast. Somehow, she had managed to sleep through the deafening daily wakeup call.
Under the circumstances, she should have sprung into action, dressed as quickly as possible, hoping that if she arrived soon and apologized enough, she would not be punished too harshly. She had every intention of doing so, but her muscles didn't seem to be working today. She made a weak attempt to sit herself up before resorting to a rolling maneuver. She rolled from her bed to the floor and then lay there.
"It appears that I am very unwell today," she thought to herself calmly. Despite her helplessness, she was altogether unconcerned. Someone would be sent soon to investigate her lateness, would find her, and would presumably take her to the hospital ward in F-ring for treatment. She could relax in her faith in the system, knowing that these things would be done. It was protocol, and protocol never lied.
So Niko lay on the floor of the dormitory and let her mind wander. The silence was very disconcerting. As thoughts drifted through her mind, she was vaguely aware that one in particular kept resurfacing. She feared she may have radius sickness, the most deadly of diseases among her people. She tried to remember if she knew what any of the early symptoms were, but her mind was too tired to come up with that information right then.
As she drifted back into unconsciousness, she noted that a small, guilty part of her brain was very much enjoying being completely alone for the very first time.
Niko was surprised to find that she was still alone when she woke, though she wasn't in her dormitory anymore. Instead, she was in a very small room with lit with a harsh fluorescent glow. There was a toilet, a sink, and a small cot in the room, and one wall was composed entirely of an odd tinted glass. Niko couldn't see though wall, but she had a distinct feeling that there were observers on the other side, marring the pleasant feeling of aloneness that she had enjoyed earlier.
There was a button on the wall labeled "COM." She pressed it and said, "Can anybody hear me?"
"Yes, four-nineteen," came the reply from a harried sounding woman.
"Where am I?"
"You're in an isolation chamber in F-ring. You were found unconscious in the juvenile dormitories this morning."
"Is it radius sickness?"
"No, just a bacterial infection. Nothing serious, but it's communicable, so you will stay in isolation for 48 hours past the disappearance of all symptoms."
"Thank you, ma'am." Niko lay down on the bed. It was going to be a boring week.
She still felt weak and tired, so she slept some more. She woke to the sound of an alarm and wondered if it was morning already. It was impossible to tell from inside her windowless room.
But it wasn't the wakeup call. A panel of the wall opened up to reveal a large screen. On the screen scrolled the words, "Mandatory assembly in D-ring in 15 minutes." Well, Niko couldn't get to D-ring. She wondered if the assembly might be broadcasted to her here on the screen in the wall. After ten minutes, the scrolling text changed, reading instead, "TRANSMISSION FROM EARTH." This piqued Niko's interest. Receiving communication from Earth was a relatively uncommon occurrence. After another five minutes, the screen changed again to show a man sitting at a desk.
"Brave explorers," he began grandly, "I am addressing you from approximately forty trillion miles away on planet Earth. As such, you will not hear my words until over seven years after I speak them. Despite this and the enormous cultural differences that have certainly arisen between us, I intend to address you as brothers, always remembering our common origin.
"Two hundred years ago from the day that I record this message, your spacecraft, the Divergence, left Earth carrying five hundred passengers. It will be another one hundred years before it reaches its target, the distant star Epsilon Eridani. Orbiting this star is Planet B, the nearest known planet outside of our solar system. Your ancestors left Earth with the intention of studying this planet, knowing that it would take several generations of travelers before the destination could be reached. As such, there are many factors to consider beyond those of normal space travel.
"Your most vital consideration must be the schooling of your children. The original crew that left Earth contained several technicians trained in the use of communications equipment. These skills must be passed down to your children so that information from Planet B can be communicated to Earth when future generations finally arrive. Of course, children will also need to be rigorously trained in maintaining the delicate balance that allows life to thrive in the small, closed environment that is your spacecraft. The concerns you must consider fall into many fields. If the integrity of the Divergence is to be maintained, mechanical knowledge is vital. And if your civilization is to thrive, you must also approach the matter of genetics with utmost caution.
"It has come to my attention via your last transmission that the aforementioned matter of genetics is kept in check with a set of laws. We have reviewed these laws and support them fully. To reiterate, these laws are as follows:
"To keep the population stable, each fertile person on the ship must produce exactly two offspring within his or her lifespan. If population begins to fall, this number can be temporarily increased to three; inversely, it can be reduced to one at times when population trends upwards. These changes are to be made at the discretion of your governing body. It is important that you avoid overcrowding at all costs, as your resources are finite. Secondly, genetic diversity is key to protecting your small civilization from eventual self-destruction. No two offspring may be born to the same set of parents. Adhering to these simple rules will keep your civilization thriving until it reaches its destination.
"The work you are doing is very important. This is humanity's first attempt to extend its reach beyond our solar system, and the information that we will learn from you in one hundred years is sure to be fascinating. We thank you for living the disciplined lifestyle required of you to ensure your mission is successful. Over and out."
The speech ended and the screen went blank. Niko knew that she had only seen a small fraction of the transmission. The vast majority of it would contain classified information for the governors' eyes only.
Communication with Earth became less and less frequent as time went on, since the messages took increasingly long to traverse the growing distance between the Divergence and Earth. In fact, this message was the first Niko had heard since she was young. It had given her a lot to think about.
The genetic laws were unfortunate, but their necessity was indisputable. Niko was nearing legal adulthood, at which point she would be expected to begin trying to produce her first child. This was a somewhat frightening concept to her. She took comfort in the fact that enforcement of this practice had slackened somewhat, as the Divergence was at a peak in its population and the governors were considering reducing the permitted child number down to one for a while. Niko hoped this would happen, as maternal death during childbirth was not uncommon, especially during the birth of the second child.
That wasn't her main concern with the prospect of child-bearing, though, not really. She was dreading, for reasons she couldn't quite articulate, finding a mate to impregnate her. Whenever she tried to think about it, she felt warm and clammy in a way that was strange, but not quite unpleasant. Mostly, she tried not to think about it.
Still, Niko wondered if there was something more to child-bearing than she understood. Over the years, she had overheard rumors that it was common practice in Earth culture for children to have "emotional bonds" with the women who gave birth to them, as well as the men who provided the sperm. And those women and men had "emotional bonds" with each other, too. Niko wasn't quite sure what it would feel like to have an "emotional bond," but she often found herself scanning the faces of the adults in the dining area, wondering which of those people she would be bound to, had she lived on Earth. Her studies of genetics had told her that offspring share many physical traits with their parents, and so she involuntarily experienced an odd, slightly unpleasant sensation in her stomach whenever she caught sight of women who, like Niko, were dark-eyed, dark-haired, and of a small stature.
A burgeoning throb in her temple reminded her how much she disliked letting her brain stray into such confusing territory. She felt very ill.
An indeterminable amount of time passed while Niko lay on her cot trying to work up the energy to press the COM button again and ask for some medicine. Finally, she heard a noise outside her door and looked at it expectantly. But the door remained shut.
She heaved herself up and walked to the door. She twisted the knob and, to her surprise, it opened. On the other side, however, was only a second, smaller chamber sealed off by another door, this one locked. In the chamber sat a plate of food that had apparently just been delivered. Niko took the plate and walked back into the main room. Immediately after she closed the door behind her, there came a brief whooshing sound from the small chamber, which she realized was caused by an automatic sprayer dispersing antibacterial fluid.
She was glad to receive the food, but a bit disappointed that there had been no medicine included in the delivery. Making up her mind, she finally pressed the COM button.
"Yes, four-nineteen?" came the reply. It was a man's voice, this time.
"I was wondering if I could get any medicine."
"We don't give medicine for this kind of ailment. Protocol is quarantine only."
Niko was perplexed. She had always been under the impression that people went to F-ring to receive medicine when they were very ill. She had never heard about quarantining. If she racked her brain, however, she could drudge up some foggy memories from when she was very young, her only experiences with F-ring until now.
She could vaguely recall some scary moments in her youth in which she had struggled to breathe. The first time it had happened, she went to F-ring, and… what? If they had given her medicine, she couldn't recall it. She hadn't gone to F-ring since. The attacks had become decreasingly frequent, fortunately; she hadn't had one in several years.
Time dragged slowly on in the small room, at least, as far as she could tell, it did. Having no means of telling time inside her room, she fell into a routine of sleeping when she was tired and waking when she was rested rather than adhering to the usual 22:00 – 06:00 sleep hours, and after a while she gave up on the futile act of speculating as to how long she had been in isolation. However, after what might have been four days, or maybe eleven, she started feeling perkier. This came as a relief, as she had been concerned that not receiving medicine would hinder her recovery.
Finally, the speaker associated with the COM button crackled to life as Niko was waking up one day. "Four-nineteen, please remove your clothing and place it in the provided drawer," said the voice emanating from the speaker, and as it did, a drawer popped out of the wall next to where the TV screen had previously done the same. Niko did as asked, and then the voice said, "Please step into the intermediate chamber and close the door behind you." Carrying out his order would have been awkward if Niko weren't such a petite person, but for her, the chamber in which she had previously received her food was not cramped enough to be uncomfortable. When she closed the door behind her as asked, she was very suddenly doused with the same spray of antibacterial fluid she had heard after receiving her meals. There was not warning enough to shut her eyes before it happened, and upon contact with the fluid her eyes began to sting terribly. She was still holding them pinched shut when the exterior door opened and somebody put something in her hands. It was several minutes before she was able to coerce her eyes open, at which point the person had left, and Niko realized that she was holding a fresh set of clothing. It looked exactly like the one she had left behind; a plain, navy body suit with the number 419 embroidered in white thread on the chest. She quickly donned her clothing before wandering out the door, but had time only to travel a couple of meters before a young woman with a ponytail grasped her by the arm and led her quickly to the F-ring exit.
"You are expected at D-ring within ten minutes for supper." The clear message behind her words was not to go wandering.
"Yes ma'am," said Niko, and hurried quickly on her way. She was indescribably glad to be out of the isolation chamber.