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Straight on 'til Morning

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1.

— You’re both … children.

He says this like it is the most ridiculous thing that has ever left his mouth.

Sam is twenty, just gone. He hasn’t yet figured out how to style his hair. It hangs over his eyes in a way which, whilst proving Sam’s admirable standard of personal hygiene, would certainly benefit from the additional attentions of someone who isn’t a twenty year old boy.

Josh is twenty-five and has stopped bothering to even try to style his hair, since it has resisted all attempts he, and his mother, and the girlfriends who have given any attention to such things, have made since he was about six.

Toby Ziegler is thirty-two and therefore feels somewhat justified in not caring for the vanities — albeit inept and ineffectual — of two privileged kids who, though they have barely entered the adult world, already seem to have more doors waiting for them, ajar and inviting, and more hands waiting to be shaken, than he has seen and made and brokered for in the past five years. And it isn’t that he hates them, except that obviously he does, it is more a strange dazzling: an up-close look at people from the parallel universe one over from his own, from which more and more interlopers seem to enter his life, make use of what wisdom of his they are prepared to listen to, and then fire him after six months.

He can tell that Seaborn is gay and still embarrassed about it, still trying to hide, and already knows that Lyman is overcompensating for something. He doesn’t yet know what, but he’s made a few guesses and expects that one of them will turn out to be right. Maybe just that he’s fucking Seaborn, but maybe not.

— You know, whilst it’s fair to say that about Sam here, I really don’t think it’s accurate in my case.
— And what are you, nineteen?
— Toby, come on.
— I admit that you are actually enfranchised, but beyond that.
— Come on, man! — You. are. children. And I am, apparently, your fucking babysitter.
— Josh (Sam says this tentatively, because he doesn’t know exactly what it is between his friend and this other guy, this man cloaked in his own resentment and damn well making it stick, and he doesn’t really want to know), Josh maybe we should just
— No. You earned this. I earned this. I want to stick around. We do have a commission.
The big man, who seems to Sam much older than he actually is, sighs.
— Yes.
— So why don’t you, yanno, do what it is you’re paid to do.
Toby’s eyes, Sam realises, twinkle when he is angry, and that is the only warning you get: the cold, faraway lighthouse of trouble, waiting on you. He twinkles, then blinks, then nods.
— Follow me, he says.

2.

The ship, the massive protuberance into space, refolding the darkness around itself as it crawls around its obscure orbit, is called the Panoptes. Toby does not explain the significance of the name, reasoning that it would depress him to discover that they did not already know it, and demean him to explain it if they already do.

— The ship of eyes, Sam says, under his breath, not like it frightens him or intimidates him, but just like he didn’t think he would ever actually be walking these decks, right up until the moment that he actually was.

Eyes. On the ship made of eyes, they walk across decks and walkways and onto their backs streams the livid artificial light produced by the massive salt-water generators in the belly of the ship. There are fewer crew than you would expect from such a massive vessel, but part of the wonder of advance is the wonder of automation, and around the decks wander, every now and then, the constructs, the androids, the robots.

Toby thinks of them as the electro-golems and is always aware, whenever he has to be, uncomfortable and shifty, in their presence, that he is looking for the off switch that ought to be written right on their foreheads. They smile at him and bow their heads and Toby wants to shake them and tell them that he’s from fucking Brooklyn, goddamnit, don’t let the cheap suit fool you! But the uncomprehending and appallingly anthropomorphic expression of dismay and borderline sadness which would then end up on their faces would be enough to break his heart.

Neither of the boys (younger, used to this stuff, probably have one each in their fucking dorm rooms) seem to have this reaction. Lyman ignores them, looking past their bodies to the open spacescape; Seaborn, though he gives them perhaps a second’s more consideration, manages to give off the kind of old-world courtesy towards his undoubted inferiors that was one of the aspects of his character that probably got him drafted here, and one that, besides, Toby finds immensely irritating.

He keeps them going through the decks, until he thinks they have seen enough.

3.

Through the massive, glass-hardened, light-glazed windows of the ship, Sam Seaborn stares.

He’s a city boy, really, or not even that — an earth boy. He has not yet got the taste of saltwater and tree sap out of his mouth and he is aware that his skin is doing what it always does when it sees no sunlight for weeks and months on end and is blanching, a dirty yellow-ish, like a leaf at the end of autumn. He looks like the guys on the circuit TV, advertising the space tan booths.

It isn’t an honour for him. It is, of course, and as his father waved him off to the shuttle, he had whispered do me proud, son, like it wasn’t quite enough that his only son had been chosen to go up on one of the vessels, at twenty fucking years old, with a summa cum laude from Princeton and a handshake from President Bartlet himself. No. Make me proud, son.

The Earth is behind them, somewhere, like a dream.

*

They tell him, after a week or two, that Seaborn is to be his — his what? His apprentice? His protege, perhaps? Because he is definitely the sort of guy who gleans benefit from having some kid tailing him, stepping on his heels and walking in his footprints. The word they actually use is ‘deputy’.

Deputy of what is a question that Toby isn’t competent to answer. He does not have a job title himself, and only the sketchiest idea who it is he really reports to, beside to the President himself. He is aware that this fucking boat is a floating lie, but he doesn’t know the lie’s particulars, nor its endgame. So how can he lead this child? Where is he expecting to go?

He tries to argue, but there isn’t much point arguing with the people who give him his instructions, his orders. They are on Earth, so who would know if he disobeyed them? If he cut Sam Seaborn loose, packed him off in a shuttle to figure out, in six or seven months, that he’d been abandoned and then protested that he knew nothing about it, who would be able to work out the truth?

They would. He knows that much. On the ship of eyes no one escapes: that’s the whole point.

So Seaborn is his Deputy, okay, fair enough. What about Lyman? What’s his thing?

It is not for you to know, say his superiors. We have plans for Mister Lyman.

This kind of answer does, at least, excite Toby’s curiosity.

4.

The kids take a well-appointed berth together on the port side of the ship, Sam on one side and Josh on the other. Toby wondered, later, when he opens the door on them and their togetherness, whether they considered trying to push the two bunks together.

*

They met because Josh was a scout. Sam feels, in his less charitable moments, that spy would also have been an appropriate term, but Josh laughs this off and prefers the more elegant, more English college-sounding talent scout, and hits Sam in the arm and says, that’s what you are, buddy — talent, and Sam doesn’t, still doesn’t, know whether to take him seriously.

But you’re here, aren’t you? On the Panoptes, with the Seal of the President.

It progressed, as old school stories had led Sam to understand that it might. Josh is dazzling, secretive and draws things towards him as though he has a light magnetic field of charm radiating from his fingers and the base of his neck. Sam used to like to kiss him there, to see if, maybe, despite science and the stupidity of teenage boys’ daydreams, he would get an electric shock. He never did.

He fell in love with Josh because there didn’t seem to be a choice not to; this is Sam’s general experience of love, shallow though it is. He’s never sure what happened to Josh.

*

It isn’t blackmail — no one cares who fucks who on the Panoptes, this isn’t America, but the new New World — but Toby, who never gets to have any fun anymore, acts as though it is. They don’t know any better.

They are, they seem, younger than he ever was — he wasn’t so good at being young; his skills lay in awkwardness and derision, of himself and of others, before they got a chance to start on him themselves. He grew up in a city that built the ships and they laid shadows in his dreams from being a little boy: he knew he would end up here, breathing air that tastes as though it was piped straight in from the outskirts of Brooklyn.

These two knew sunshine and promise, he supposes. Their limbs white and strange and dashes of their pubic hair startling him as they turn towards the open door, as they close their legs like frightened girls as they recognise him.

No promises here, boys. Sorry.

It is a negotiation at first. He’s rusty at this kind of thing, and it shows — it’s only their horror that lets him get away with it, with the suggestion. He lets them think that he is that kind of man, and it only mildly offended that they seem to accept it without much shock.

Or there is too much shock, and they are all breathing it, as they would breathe salt water. Drowning already, he pulls them further down.

Seaborn isn’t a difficult proposition. Toby overpowers him with only his fingers and thumbs and the press of his mouth. Lyman fights it, guarding Seaborn like a pack dog, like a momma buffalo with her only calf. But they haven’t had the time to work out what this is, why it is happening, and that suits Toby, as their gasps suit him, as their mercifully quick, expansive release suits him too. He feels Seaborn open to him, turn towards him in his disorientation and grab hold of his hand. Lyman tussles on the other end of the rope tied around both their wrists; but neither of them go to untie the knot.

They both watch him and they are both, now, between the swagger and the little boys looking out at the moon, drawn in towards him. He thinks — he knows — that Sam is falling in love with him, as he obviously fell in love with Josh a long time ago, and Josh looks, for a few seconds of every night they spend together, as though he is just waiting, not anticipating but just blankly expecting, everything to fall apart.

Remarkable boys who apparently fall for completely unremarkable men. Toby doesn’t know what to do with this revelation, but he doesn’t doubt it.

5.

It is the kind of work which keeps them in each other’s pockets all day and a good deal of the night. Much of the time it is easier to tug Sam back to his own berth and continue to draw in each other’s breath, each other’s words, and not be sure, all the night, whether the sentences that start on his tongue end in Sam’s mouth are just some ridiculous, glorious chance, or something else. Something deeper. Or stranger. Some invisible design.

— We might be here for years.
Toby breathes this into Sam’s hair like a threat. Can you stand that? Is that actually what you want? Or can’t you wrap your mind around the possibility, the idea of being ten years older and having moved nowhere, still be here, in my bed, just my Deputy?

Except that he knows enough about Sam now to know that he would think of that as some kind of honour — to be Toby’s, forever, or long enough to feel like forever. He wonders how a twenty-one year old boy gets to think that way, subsumed, hankering for safety. He doesn’t know; he doesn’t really care.

— It’s a long journey, Sam.
— I knew that when I signed up.
— Did you sign up?
Sam pauses, remembering.
— I suppose I did.
— In the way that your name was put on a list by your superiors?
— By my teachers, yes.
— Mm.

He and Sam fuck by themselves now more often than not. Josh comes back to them sometimes, and every time Toby finds it harder to dislike him. He hasn’t got the time, Josh, in between the meetings and the missions and the visits and the prep, he is drifting away, drifting deeper towards the centre of the Panoptes. This is not a place Toby could have taken him, and maybe that’s why he feels sad.

6.

It’s midnight, on a strange night that he gets to spend alone, reclaiming his thoughts from the register of Sam’s spoken wonderings, that they find out.

— He’s gone, Toby.
— Yeah.
— Do you …
— I don’t know any more than you do, Sam. You think they’d tell me?
— What … what … Where? Where are they taking him?
— I don’t know.
— How can you … Is that okay with you? That they’ve just taken him and we don’t get to even—
— Sam.
— Yeah.
— They told you, didn’t they? When you arrived here?
— Some are chosen.
— Yes.
— I suppose it would be stupid to ask chosen for what.
— I couldn’t tell you. I would tell you, if I could.
— Will they come for me, Toby?
— I don’t know.