As you can probably imagine, things can get pretty tense when you cram a thousand or so humans from a conglomeration of vastly different cultures onto a starship. Sure, we may only be 856 days into our multi-generational journey, and sure, we’ve gone through rigorous psychological testing (not to mention a hundred or so different physical and situational tests), and sure, we’ve all been deemed fit for “confined spaces and arduous, labor-intensive schedules,” but this is definitely not the first bar fight to occur on Ellis.
“What do you mean this is the first bar fight to occur on Ellis!”
First, Beau dares to wake me from my slumber (in the decompression zone) and then he dares spread such rampant lies!
“What about that time with Mable and Nadia at Solomon’s Mines?”
“They kissed and made up. No arrest needed.” He’s marching us down all sorts of halls I never knew the Sheriff’s Cabin had. Guess that’s what happens when you only ever see the inside of the decompression zone (which is rather comfy for a makeshift jail). In fact, it’s basically just a spare bedroom with more locks on the door than normal. Beau’s robotic deputy is chasing me with a glass of unnamed green hangover cure and some concoction of multi-colored pills.
“Okay, so how about when… who was it… when… that girl flipped over the Cotton Club’s bar and broke all the moonshine bottles.”
Beau shakes his head at me, “That was you. And that wasn’t a bar fight… it was pure stupidity. Didn’t you slip on something?”
I’m a tad grateful when MOONY cuts in with a persistent and predicted, “Dr. Jones. Please take your medication to prevent sickness related to your overzealous consumption of alcohol.”
I swat the robot away and try to stay in stride with my new partner in not-crime, “I’ll overzealously consume alcohol as much as I want, MOONY. Keep that swamp-water away from me!”
Beau stops when we reach a large mag-locked door and turns to me, “Az, if you and I are going to be working together you’ve got to stay out of trouble. It’s not too late to puddle-jump you back to that slum of a city you came from.”
I call his bluff and try not to envision the lonely ride back to Mother Earth, “Ugh. Calling it a slum is a compliment, really, you can do better than that.”
It should be noted that getting in trouble on Ellis Island is really not that easy. Some might say you have to go looking for it. But, it does happen. Like I was saying, things have been pretty tense since day one. There’s a lot of pressure on everyone to… you know… save the world and all that. But along with all that rigorous pre-flight psychological testing, the whole structure of the ship and even how our space-faring culture operates have been modeled around anti-conflict planning. This makes “zones of mediation” like my Xuannü, or the virtual “boxing ring” in the Chaparral all the more necessary. We’re also subject to mandatory weekly therapy sessions with either an inanimate or animate therapist (at first I chose “TALLY” one of the classic psych-bots, but after a little miscommunication over how serious I was when I said ‘farming wheat makes me want to blow my damn brains out’, I’ve switched to a human shrink), on top of that couples approved for breeding (yes, they really call it that) or marriage are subjected to mandatory couples counseling.
You see, Ellis has reproductive restrictions. They’re not absolute, of course, and nobody would accept it if they were. We’re not quite that dystopian (yet). But we have a whole team of reproductive scientists who make suggestions on how many babies should be born every year. Even in the early stages of our journey, while the ship is largely underpopulated and nowhere near maximum occupancy, there’s a balance that must be met. Reproductive permissions work through application. Good old-fashioned forms. Either you find someone you want to make a baby with or apply to be matched as an individual. Sounds simple, right? Well of course the geneticists involved didn’t exactly think things through. If you apply for procreation as an individual, a single, you get a list of the top five individuals that would be your “best match” genetically and psychologically (whatever the hell that means). The problem with this list is that the AI decided to throw in individuals who never applied for reproduction in the first place. And guess who got matched with our confrontational Tank? That’s right…. this girl. Things went south from there. Not just because I refused creating a little monster with Tank but because I told him I didn’t intend on procreating with anyone. And as you can expect… word got around.
Now, reproduction is a choice onboard Ellis. There’s nothing that says you have to be willing to make the next generation of starship babies. At least that’s what it says on paper. But getting approved is rare, and getting matched is rarer, even with a waiting list longer than Santa’s naughty list. Sure, you can convince the council that you love your partner and you two really want a baby. They’re not heartless and not all couples have the right genitalia to make a baby anyways, but not wanting to make the next generation of starship babies is a minority consensus that most Ellis residents keep to themselves. And once word got around that I didn’t intend on making babies… well, it made people uneasy. Especially Tank. But his feelings were probably just hurt.
Anyways, enough about that.
Where was I? Oh yeah, the decompression zone.
Ellis doesn’t exactly have crime. We have squabbles occasionally. Political debates when there are elections. We have the Cotton Club. But as Marx would probably say, “these exist to keep the masses occupied while the grown-ups upstairs sort out how to perpetuate the human race” (okay, I’ll admit, I paraphrased). But besides the 1 death caused by cardiac arrest and 6 caused by initial acceleration, there have been no lethal results from conflict on the ship. I may have stayed the night in the decompression zone, but the real prison up in Aqua-Ring 1 remained unused… until now. I guess you could say things were simple. Life on Ellis Island was simple. Until a robot went and skinned itself alive.
And yes, my dear friends, that is how our enigmatic suicidal robot decided to off himself.
With a click and a hiss the door to the locked room before us opens and I’m amazed to see… a kitchen. Spread out on a plastic sheet in the middle of the kitchen table is the robot in question… or what was left of him.
“We have to keep it here until we release a statement. With over 100 people working in the robotics sector, the news of a non-human suicide will spread like wildfire.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that thanks to Mrs. Halliday it was old news at this point. Weirdly enough, the first thing that came to mind wasn’t ‘why is the robot in so many pieces’ or ‘what the hell happened’ but instead,
“I didn’t know you lived here.”
“Yep. Me and MOONY got the place to ourselves until population rises. The other peace keepers share a dorm in town, but yep… it’s just me and MOONY here.”
From the kitchen window you can see almost the entire Temperate Forest. Deciduous trees stretch on until the half-moon curve of the biome pulls them out of sight. I remember that we’re on the edge of a sloping hill, tucked away from the ”rural” town down below, but not far enough away that I can’t see the edge of the closest cabins. I’ll admit, the creators of Ellis Island got creative when it came to accommodation. Who know reusable plastics could look so much like wood?
Each biome has its own variant of accommodation, with each accommodation serving a different purpose or micro-population. The Robots have a pod system tucked into points along the spine. We call them coffins, but SOL says they’re not that bad. I asked him one time if he ever felt claustrophobic and he explained to me that he is 187 cm tall and his pod is 188 cm tall so it is “quite roomy”.
For us humans though, things are (thankfully) a little bit more interesting. I live in a farmhouse meant for around 8-12 people, which is common in the western-style farming zones like Ring 3 and Ring 6. Picture this: a big sprawling porch, wrapped around an adorable family-friendly, yellow house with siding and white trim and a loyal old dog on the front porch and…. who am I kidding the farmhouses don’t look anything like that and my room is barely bigger than a closet, but for your own sanity and mine let’s both pretend we’re just stuck somewhere in Kansas waiting for a tornado to sweep us away. The rainforest has the treehouses like I told you about, and the Taiga and Temperate Forest have cabins. Down in Agri-Ring 4 there’s “The Shire” which is meant for couples attempting to conceive. It’s the only place on the entire ship where two people can live without any roommates. Ring 1 has igloos (that don’t really look like igloos), and most of the water biomes have cabanas or floating houses or even “manatees” (what most of us have named the submarine style homes meant for marine researchers). Here and there are a couple unique living situations, like Sheriff Beau living in the security cabin and the scientists sometimes using temporary overnight sleeping pods in their labs.
But I’m rambling again. Let’s backtrack.
“Yep. Me and MOONY got the place to ourselves until the population rises I suppose.”
The two of us are standing in the center of the security cabin’s kitchenette. The floor is covered in mock-wood tiles, the walls are painted a cheery tangerine, and someone’s taken the time to stencil a little tangled-vine boarder along the ceiling (Beau? No way…. it’s more likely that MOONY has an artistic side…). Either way, he’s on one side of the room, I’m at the other, and MOONY is standing awkwardly behind me nudging the glass of green goop against my back.
“Dr. Jones, please take your medication.” If a robot could sound nervous, MOONY did. I’m getting good at ignoring him.
“Jeez, Beau, what the hell happened to the robot? Did it blow up?” I circle the table once, and then twice.
“Not exactly.” Beau shakes his head, looks bewildered, checks the time, shuffles his feet.
I wave a hand in front of him, “Now is not the time to be vague, Sheriff.”
“Sorry, Jones. This whole thing’s got me on edge. If one robot can commit suicide what stops the rest from doing it too. The whole ship could go down. We need them.” He goes a bit green and looks at MOONY.
I look between him and MOONY dramatically, “Listen, that’s the whole reason Markham wants to keep this thing under wraps. This is probably a singular case, a malfunction. MOONY’s not gonna run off and… dismember himself…” And that’s the only way to describe what I’m looking at. The robot in question lies in pieces on the table. His fingers lay in clustered piles near his hands, his arms are shredded at the socket, his optical systems pulled out, even his knee caps lay to the side, and I’ll spare you the rest of the not-exactly-gory details.
Looking down at the pieces of him I’m reminded of the strange ritualistic dismemberment discovered by archaeologists in the Irish Carrowkeel Neolithic passage, the martyrdom of St. Hippolytus in Rome, quartering procedures committed by the Holy Roman Empire and European monarchies, Shekkeh in Persia, even the infamous 15th century South Asian punishment of dismemberment by weapon-wielding elephant (don’t believe me? Look it up.)
“Right MOONY? You don’t plan on dismembering yourself…”
We both look at MOONY. MOONY looks at us, his artificial pupils contract a little. If a robot can look confused he does. There’s something to be said about fear of the technoscape. Fears that revolve around loss of control to an overwhelming, expanding, civilization supported by technology. As residents of Ellis we’re faced, and will be faced, with the undeniable fact that we’re reliant on the technoscape that surrounds us, for the sake of our survival. The machine is no longer a guest in our Earthling territory; instead, it plays host to us in a hostile space (literally) that only it is suited for. And on top of that, we’re parasites in it. Unnecessary in that space and replaceable by other machines (at least to a large extent). In simpler terms, in space we need the technologies that surround us… we rely on them, and on Earth we don’t.
“Dr. Jones, I highly recommend that you take your medication.”
I sigh in frustration, “Chill out, Sheriff. Let’s get this whole thing wrapped up and put it behind us so I can go back to my research.”
Beau scratches his Ken-doll perfect hair, “For someone who’s into non-humans you sure are calm about all this.
“Yeah, well my sexual preference for non-humans isn’t a reflection of their mortality or some sort of soul. As far as I’m concerned they have neither.”
“What exactly is it a reflection of then?” Beau’s eyes widen in a way that reveals a soft-squishy-man side of him I’m not a fan of. MOONY looks at me and starts to say, “Dr. Jones you should…”
I do my best to cut both of them off. Robots hate interrupting humans, so I mumble quickly, “Anyways…”
My academic focus wasn’t forensic anthropology; in fact, I probably took a grand total of two forensic anthro courses, but I know enough to start any interaction with the dead by asking, how did they die? Why did they die? and what was the significance of their death? I add those three to my growing list of theoretical questions.
“This wasn’t a suicide,” I conclude, “This was a butchering.”