The funeral is nearly over when the dead captain explodes.
Roses turn to shrapnel. The cathedral is lost in fire. I am drenched in blood. Bone buries itself in the wall next to my head, my arm, my howling, open mouth. I am standing at the back of the room where a sin-eater’s child belongs, and that is why I live when everyone else dies.
I used to be a girl. Now I am a hundred. The dead whisper me awake and stay with me while I dream. The oldest have forgotten their names, but never their rage or their jealousy. The newest bicker in my brain like they’re still alive: bloodstained Madelon, scandal-tongued Pyar, power-mad Absolon, all of them captains of our broken and beautiful spacebound Home.
My destiny was always this: to drink the sin-cup and to hold the sins of the captains in my body where they cannot harm our people on their journey to Paradise. I can stand in the cathedral under the wheeling stars until my feet give out, or pray until my throat shreds with the effort, but truth is truth. The captains must be sinless. They must lead our generation ship with confidence, with a mind tuned to moral truth. Our new captain, Bethen, is responsible for the hundred thousand lives that breathe inside the hull and all the lives that will come after. Someone else must take her family’s sins upon herself, lest the dead walk and breach our hurtling world to black vacuum. Someone else must rock themselves to sleep, white-knuckled, licking spittle from their lips, so Bethen can lead.
That someone is me.
This is the bombing: I am covered in blood. In chunks of wet meat. My own memories of this horror will still be worse than anything broken Absolon shows me. I wipe my face, my hands, my hair, but there is blood everywhere. There are rose petals, shredded, still burning, at my feet. My hands are shaking. I am not sure they are my hands. I am screaming. I am not sure it is my voice. I look around for my father.
I cannot find my father.
Gossip rules steerage in the days following the bombing. Those of us who survived drink too much, trying to kill the memories. Police from first class sweep through the steerage dormitory where I used to live, flipping mattresses and shoving workers against the walls. A mutiny, an assassination, plain and able terrorism: this abomination is unheard of inside the hull of Home. There has never been an uprising against the dazzling mercy of first class. Why would there be, when the captain of our ship sees only the truth of beautiful things?
We wonder. But here in steerage, we can do little more than that. So we eat. We talk. We sleep. We work, in hydroponics and the maintenance gangs. The elders are merciful, and even let me go back to the deck-scrub team for a while, until the sins in my bloodstream find their way to my brain and I can no longer control the things I do and say. I open my mouth to warn them: you cannot trust the captains, there have been mutinies, there have been so many deaths, I have seen children pushed from airlocks—
—but then Absolon fills my mouth with obscenities instead of truth and Madelon makes me piss my pants in the middle of the workday. The elders tell me I am scaring the children and put me out of the common dormitory. I try to scrawl my bloody truths on paper so everyone can know what is really going on, but Pyar slips his fingers into mine, and all that comes out are drawings of stuffed animals with knife-cut throats and bouquets of broken roses, and then he makes me rip it all into small chunks and eat it anyway.
The people in steerage know I have the truth burning an abyss in my head. Why do they turn away? Why can’t they listen?
Why do they think I can handle it when they cannot?
I dream about this day. The bombing.
I dream about this day all the time.
The sacristan is bleeding from his belly, but he knows his duty even through his pain; he knows what he must do. He was kind to me before all this. He takes my hand; it is wet with blood, and he tugs me towards the ruined altar, under the windowed canopy, under the streaking stars. Somewhere in the part of my brain that is not screaming, I know this is what must be done. He is a sacristan and this is a funeral and I am the last sin-eater.
I know I am the last, because the bloody mess he has just asked me to step over used to be my father.
My father didn’t mean to have me. He wanted to end the cycle. He never wanted to know that a child of his would have to go through the horrors he experienced. I was a mistake. My father did love me, though, and before he died he taught me to paint the sin-eye on my forehead—the red lid, the white iris, the black center—and live at the mercy of steerage, of old friends from school who avert their eyes as they drop rations in my lap. Things have changed, they whisper. My mother will not let me see you anymore. My father is afraid of the things you might do.
I am afraid of the things I might do, too.
Things settle down after steerage is searched. The police question me, too, hoping that the dead captains saw something I did not. I tell them: I do not know who set off the bomb. I do not even know who would have the strength to try.
Whenever I get the courage to tell them anything more, Absolon delights in silencing me. The words feel like broken glass against my tongue. He shows me one particular mutiny, over and over again, thrilling at my reaction, the way I cannot look away, the way I squirm at the blood. He knows I cannot stand it. He shows me how he shot seven men and women in a light-soaked steerage chapel, as alien light poured through an emerald window onto a beautiful planet below. He shows me how easily that could happen to me. Had I not known that we had not yet reached Paradise, I would have guessed he was already there.
The conversation at the end of the scene would always go the same way. “Find a place to put the bodies,” Absolon would say to the second-class constable, who would nod, his chin stiff, and mention the sacristy.
I teach myself to handle Absolon’s torture by concentrating on the details of the chapel in the background: the beautiful stained-glass window, the waystop world beyond. The window in my vision is a smaller twin of the one in the cathedral, emerald-green swirled through with marshy azure, a forgotten artist’s representation of our future Paradise, and the world below is lush and green. Beyond, I see the sin-eye painted on the bow of the starship, in an angle that could only be seen from steerage.
The window looks familiar.
I try to tell the others about the vision that evening in the mess, but Absolon twists a knife in my head, and the pain is so much that my words come out in tongue-tripped babble. The others respond with shaking heads, moving their trays to eat somewhere else.
Of course they won’t listen. I smell like onions and sweat and oil and shit. I am graceless. I totter and I yank myself around and fight the voices in my head. I think myself mad for a long time, until I realize where I have seen the window before.
Captain Pyar’s family is dead. Their graceful words and golden robes did not protect them from the bomb: from having their stomachs opened, their skin blackened, their eyes burned out. The only survivor is Bethen, the youngest. She is my age. Black hair, thin hands, skin bright like the hull of our ship. She is on her knees. Her robes are on fire, but she does not seem to notice.
She holds the virtue-cup in her left hand, and the sin-cup in her right. Somehow, she has saved the sacrament inside. I can see the nanobots squirming in the black liquid—the good memories for her, the sins for me.
We just stare at each other. I don’t think she wants to do it. I sure as hell don’t.
“You must drink,” pleads the sacristan.
Bethen holds a calming hand in his direction and drinks. What else can she do? She is Pyar’s only surviving child. She is the captain now.
There is an unused storage room in the loudest quarter of steerage, near the compartment where the engines whine and whirl and scream. My old scrub-team boss keeps broken cleaning tools there and extra chemicals for the deck ablutions, and I’d spent a decent amount of time there over the years stocking and restocking tall grey boxes. It takes me a few minutes to navigate through the towers of boxes to the dark green glass, and a few minutes more to move the stack in front of the window, but then I am face-to-face with Absolon’s dream, seeing the truth for the first time.
The window is shrouded in decades-old breachcloth that hangs careless and open at the bottom. I feel the rough stained glass under my dirty fingers, searching for the telltale language of a repaired hull breach: rivets, autosealant, desperate chill. There is no evidence of a hull breach underneath the cloth—just the darkness of tough grey metal on the other side, covering the window so no alien sun could ever light it again.
I yank the breachcloth away. The window is just as I remembered from Absolon’s bloody memories: an artist’s rendition of green, azure, life waiting for the faithful. A chapel window, like the ones in second class.
First class had the cathedral. Second class had a smaller church. Here in steerage, work was our worship.
But this had been a chapel.
A space of our own.
My vision goes grey, and then bloody—Absolon is showing me the execution again. I know by now that he means to distract me from my investigation with this blank horror, but I have seen this memory so many times by now that I can use it for research instead. In my head, Absolon kills the mutineers again, then tells his functionary to hide the bodies, and then the man asks about the sacristy.
I push aside some dusty chairs, running my hands along the tight angle where the wall meets the decking. I know I am moving in the right direction, because Madelon takes my breath and hangs it from her dead fingers until I see stars. I claw at the sides of my head to make the pain stop. I feel like passing out. Darkness is pooling in the corners of my eyes when I find the door I am looking for, a thin square flush with the wall—just like the one in the cathedral.
None of the dead want me to go in.
So I go in.
This is what happens:
The tradition of the sin-eater goes back almost as far as our memories of the burning homeworld itself. When a captain dies, their blood is removed and scrubbed of the nanobots that have been circulating in their body since they took the throne, collecting their memories like drops of water on a leaf in hydroponics.
The captains know this. The sin-eaters know this. The people do not. The captains won’t let me tell them. The truth is lost in the babble I sing. But does it not make sense, now that you think about it? You can’t expect all these people to live quietly in a tin can their entire lives and not dream or wish or explode or rub themselves up against the truth or want something more than what they have. The solution is simple: if you know the leader rules with grace, if you are sure they are benevolent, you can more easily live with your quiet submission.
In the moment after the bombing, with the blood of hundreds dripping through the strands of my hair, on my shoulders, over my lips, into my eyes, with the sin-cup extended, with my father gone—I am still like my friends back in steerage. I am complicit with my own repression and more frightened than I’ve ever been.
I still believe all of this is necessary.
Going inside the sacristy is like going back in time. The air is stale and gritty and tastes of dust and rot. It is dark, and once my eyes adjust, shapes form around the column of light let in by the storage room: cabinets, closets, closed drawers, all made of rough wood from the homeworld. I check the closet for the golden robes of the captain’s family, but find only green jumpsuits so delicate they fall apart at my touch—green jumpsuits, those most ancient of sacred robes, in the style that we had all thought lost with time. I look for cups, laid out for sacrament and sin-eating, but there is nothing in the drawers.
I am moving over to the cabinets when I trip over a pile of bones.
Absolon laughs at me, the bastard.
The bones have been left in an unkempt, haphazard jumble, like the bodies they’d once belonged to had been shoved together quickly and dropped one on top of another. I count seven skulls, each with its own little round hole in the center of its forehead. I run my thumb over the smallest, and one of the elder ghosts—one of the nameless, from the nameless time—imagines what my head would look like if it had been treated like that.
I drop the skull, my fingers suddenly numb. When I go to pick it up again, I see something new.
Under the lattice of ribs is a photograph.
I have only seen photographs in school. This one is old—faded, covered in dust, barely legible. I push the bones aside, making sure to be respectful, because respect for these long-dead mutineers makes Madelon so angry—and pick it up. This is a picture of a group of seven people in green jumpsuits, with joyous smiles like welcoming stars on their faces, standing on the bridge of Home, holding hands, the yawning window overlooking a green planet as familiar as a fever dream. I know all seven faces. I have seen these seven faces murdered by Captain Absolon over and over again, and their bones are scattered at my feet.
Above are obtuse, boxy lines I know to be words, because I have seen words written in the missals the first class use in the cathedral.
The world in the photograph is Paradise.
I can tell it is Paradise because it looks exactly like the artists’ renderings they showed us in school. I can tell it is Paradise because Absolon is screaming. Because Madelon has taken my breath for her own. Because my eyes are needles and my body is burning. Because Pyar has my courage in his dead hands. But I can still think. They try to take the truth away from me, but like all truth, it is there in my head, it speaks in tongues, it is loud as a sunrise: we have already been to Paradise.
We have already been to Paradise and we left.
My friends can argue with my words all they like, but they will not be able to argue with this kind of evidence.
Rip it up, Absolon screams. Rip it up and eat it and—
I pick up the photograph and run as fast as I can.
In the cathedral, after the bombing, Bethen puts the virtue-cup down, and hands the sin-cup to the sacristan. Her eyes turn towards mine. She wants to say something, but she can’t. The virtues are multiplying in her head.
The sacristan sees my nervous tremor and gulps, his Adam’s apple wavering. Does he think I will attack him and make him drink the sin-cup?
It must be you, he says. You are the last of your line.
Pick someone else, I say. I do not want this.
The sacristan tips the sin-cup against my lips hard enough to bruise me, like I need more sin, like there isn’t enough here in the broken, bloody cathedral. I taste my father’s blood—dusky like fear, tangy like metal, the nanobots that supported our society thrilling against my lips. I gag. Once I drink, nobody will be able to touch me, lest my blood transfer the sin to them as well.
Your father is dead, he responds. Nobody cares what you want.
I have to drink. I have no choice. I am the last sin-eater.
Somehow, I reach the steerage mess without tearing the photograph in half. I know everyone here —every face, every soul, everything they said about me before I became sin-eater and most of the things they said afterward. There is obscenity on my tongue and babble stuck in my teeth, but everyone is so used to this by now that very few of them look up.
My old scrub-team is seated by the door. I knock the spoon out of my old boss’s left hand and drop the photograph in her lap. Soup splatters her face, and she stands, angry. The attention of the room follows, a hundred people rubbernecking to gawk at the sin-eater getting a sin-eater’s due.
“Look,” I say, and point to the photograph. I cannot say more. Absolon is sitting on my throat.
I am afraid for a moment, but she sees the truth like I saw the truth; she stares, and moves very slowly, picking up the photograph and staring at it with a silent, intent gaze. Tears glisten at the corners of her eyes.
“This can’t be true,” she whispers. “The captains can’t lie. They can’t lie. They only know grace.”
“Knowing grace doesn’t make you incapable of doing evil,” I manage. It feels like speaking through dark glass, from the darkness outside an airlock.
She stares for five long seconds, then looks up, scanning the crowd. She walks over to the table where the schoolteacher sits—the only one of us who was born in second class, the only one of us who can read. She hands it to him, and he mutters under his breath as he runs his finger over the words scrawled at the top, the faces of the shining, smiling people wearing the ancient sigils of Home.
My teacher speaks slowly. The room is so quiet now that you can hear nothing but the humming of the engines and your own heartbeat. “A com-mem-or- a-tiv eh-dish-un uh-pun the ar-rival of tha fee-nix to pare-a-dyse—”
The room erupts in screaming.
They say new sin-eaters go crazy from the very first moment of the very first touch of sin on their tongue.
Before the bombing, I alone knew this was untrue. My father would hold me at night and rock me back and forth, whispering terrible things in my ear, but his touch was always tender and his tears were always hot and real. I knew what was truth. He only looked insane. Others told of his actions, but I told of his heart. And now that I can speak of Absolon and Madelon and Pyar and the others, I know he was stronger than any of them.
In the cathedral, surrounded by so much death, I vowed to be stronger than him.
The police come immediately, of course. The bridge is always watching for unrest. The police wrest me from the grasp of my boss, my teacher, my friends, and shove me towards the cathedral. They are wearing gloves. Of course they are wearing gloves. They always wear gloves. They are scared of touching me.
They have guns at their waists, the kind of guns that Absolon used to make bones of the mutineers in my memory. I wonder if they will make a little hole in my forehead and shove me in a sacristy myself. So I ask them what I have done wrong. I want to tell them I am no mutineer, I simply found a photograph, I don’t know what it means.
They just hear screaming.
They open the doors to the cathedral, and I choke on the smell of old death. The scrub-teams have made progress on removing the blood from the carpet, but some stains remain. The walls are still scorched where the fire snacked on the old homeworld wood.
Captain Bethen presides over the ruined space in a great velvet chair where her father’s bier had lain, her fingers laden with titanium rings and her hair wound through with roses from steerage hydroponics. She is swimming in her father’s robes. She has not yet had them cut down for her smaller frame. The light of the star coming through great emerald window behind her make her look even less human than I remembered.
One of the policewomen walks the photograph to Bethen and lays it in her lap. The room is tied in desperate silence as she stares at it, reads the words, her eyes darting from detail to detail.
Her hand is shaking.
Finally, when I think I can stand no more, she puts the photograph aside and arranges her hands on her lap. “I was wondering when you’d get here. My father said they all come eventually. No, don’t kneel.”
When I try to answer, I hear the babble building at the back of my throat. The pain behind my eyes, so bright I can hardly see.
“Be quiet, Grandfather,” Bethen snaps. “Let my sin-eater speak.”
I meet her eyes.
“I understand so little. Some of the things I do, I cannot countenance, but they seem right… and that seems wrong, after the cathedral, you know? After all those people died? And now this photograph. What brought you here?” Her lips glint emerald in the starlight. She slides her shaking hand into her robes so that I cannot see it. She is too late for that.
“Absolon. And the people he killed.”
Bethen blinks. “He killed no one. I would know.”
“He—” Absolon’s fingers grab my throat and twist, and I cannot speak for the shock of it.
“Grandfather,” Bethen snaps.
I feel a rush of freedom, and the words come like runoff from an open valve. “I can show you the bones. He killed them all. He shot them point-blank in the head and then put them in the sacristy and closed steerage off from the stars. But you don’t know that. Of course you don’t know that,” I say.
Bethen rises from her chair. The starlight catches in her earrings. Her robes are a mess of sound—clanging and rustling and chiming, metal on metal on silk. My heart bangs against my ribs. My muscles ache.
“My sin-eater,” she says. “You see a massacre. I see a victory, a necessary one. Yet, I—” She falters. “I only know that it was a victory. I feel happy about it. I feel… the rush of power he felt, the certainty that it had to be done. Not what was done. It makes me sick to not know, to only suspect—”
My stomach churns. How dare she. “I’m your sin-eater, not your confessor.”
Bethen looks away.
She had asked me not to kneel, but inside my chest, the hundred are screaming for it, to give Bethen and the ghosts in her head the respect none of them deserve. I refuse them; I will not kneel here, not in my father’s own blood, not in the place where he died, not to the person who would justify it as good. This causes Absolon to rail in my lungs, in my throat, in my veins, to cause me to shake, to scream. I fight. The floor feels like a magnet, full of the hundred telling me to kneel, to fall. Finally, my body betrays me. My knee hits the ground at a bad angle, and I cry out in pain.
“I’m sorry,” says Bethen, her voice hasty and kind, her hands still laced together against the gold of her bodice. “Do you know what they’re telling me to tell you right now? That this—you on the ground, me up here—is how our world must function. They ask me if I want the ship to fall apart. If I want a civil war. If I want blood in the cathedral. If I do not want my children to rest quietly in Paradise. It is deafening.”
I stop fighting and Absolon lets me shiver on the ground.
“Do you believe them?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you tried to talk to them?” I ask.
“I—tell them that there has already been enough blood in the cathedral,” Bethen says.
My voice wavers. It is difficult to speak. “You saw the photograph. You know as well as I do that we have already rejected Paradise. And steerage knows, too. Do you think they will not come for you?”
Her voice is faint. “If Absolon chose to take us away from Paradise, there has to be a very good reason.”
I do not feel well. I look around at the bloodstains, the ruined cathedral, the emerald light from the new star choking everything in green. Bethen’s voice echoes: My father said they all come eventually. Had my father had this conversation with Captain Pyar, and his father with Captain Carelon and on and on back to Edrime and Absolon and the nameless ghosts who never stopped screaming? Is this why his every step was made in despair?
“They asked him to give up his power,” I manage to say.
Bethen shakes her head. “But he was the captain.”
I stare. I writhe. “Not on the planet, he wasn’t.”
“He had to leave. Because of the steerage rebellion that kept us on the ship—”
“Why would we rebel? We dream of nothing but Paradise!”
Bethen paces the edge of the sanctuary, her shoes jingling with the sound of bells. “There must have been a reason,” she repeated. “Absolon is so sure. He is so sure that no one could take care of Home better than him. And, now, he tells me there is no one that can do that better than me—”
I drag myself to a sitting position. The anger chokes me more than Absolon’s fingers at my throat. “He kept us all enslaved here because he did not wish to give up his power! His stained conscience! Stars, Captain! You’re just like him!”
In my head, Absolon laughs.
Speaking feels like death now, but I cannot stop my words. No dead thing will silence me. I cannot make a bomb. All I have are my words. “You know, Bethen, it must be incredible. Being you. Never doubting your place. Not even for a second. Your clear conscience. What kind of sins are you going to commit? How many people are you going to kill, knowing that my children are going to be there to absolve you? That you are not going to have to remember what you’ve done? That you can just make me choke it down? Are you looking forward to that?”
Bethen fixes her eyes on the place where my father knelt.
Her hands are shaking.
One last memory of the bombing.
This one is mine. There are so few of those now that every single one is precious.
We are in the cathedral. We are singing. It is seconds before the bombing. The sacristans are escorting my father to the front of the aisle, where he will take the dead captain’s sin-cup. He has already been sin-eater for fourteen years. I barely remember a time before he ranted and raved and called himself Absolon. Madelon. Edrime. Carelon.
Of course it is my father who made the bomb. Of course he would have the strength. Maybe I would, too, after so long a time hearing their filth.
Fourteen years of pushing through the sins he sees to find the only solution he can manage, after drinking down all of that hate. Hate matched with hate. He thinks he will kill them all. That killing will be the thing that actually stops this. He has spent so much time listening to the captains that he sees no other way.
He turns around. He smiles at me. He has a bright, round thing in his hand. He mouths: “For you, Mey.”
Then: the fire.
There must be another way. But what choice did he have?
“I don’t want to kill,” Bethen says. “Don’t you understand what I am saying? Don’t you understand how alone I am?”
The golden captain with the power of life and death, reaching out to the sin-eater who has not showered in a week, asking her to understand what loneliness feels like? It is a marvel that I do not spit at her feet.
“You’re a hundred, just like me,” I cough. “You are never alone.”
Bethen sweeps her hand over the dead cathedral. Over the dead, in their uncontrollable power: in the air, in my blood, in hers.
“They tell me everything is worth the captain’s chair. The deaths. The decisions. The long journey that will never end, now. But that photograph, and this cathedral, and all those dead people— to justify this? I don’t understand. I need to see the truth. Absolon and the others—they won’t let me turn around, they won’t let me go back to Paradise, and I do not know why.” She plucks at her robes and her voice breaks. She is crying.
For that moment, she is just a girl.
The steerage-rat in me, the one who works through hunger, that stares out portholes, that dreams of a better life. She is the one that speaks.
“My father should have showed you,” I whisper. “I can show you.”
I offer her my wrist.
I can hardly breathe.
Bethen’s eyes are flint at the offer, and she squats next to me, her eyes going up and down my body. The sweat on my forehead. The memories under my skin. Absolon and the others come to realize what I’m offering her, and my mind becomes a writhing sea of the worst things they’ve ever shown me. I see blood spurting from the foreheads of mutineers. My mother dying. The cathedral bomb. Two girls in the cold black outside, their mouths gasping at nonexistent air, their eyes popping like grapes in a vise.
Show me Paradise, I rage at them. And they do. They show me Paradise: the crystal seas, wind rustling the leaves of blue trees. The knowledge that here, he would be no better than anyone else. That he would have to give up the gold, the salutes, the best food, the power. I am seized with jealousy. Rage. Covetous anger. What would the steerage-rats do, if not for my paternal guidance?
If I cannot convince you, he says, I will take you. You are not so powerful.
I no longer have control over my breath. My fingers.
He is in my bowel, in my brain.
I cannot stop the darkness.
“Captain,” I gasp, “please.”
“I’ll see everything?” Bethen steadies herself by placing her hand on my sweating forehead, smearing the sin-eye I drew there this morning. “I’ll see the truth?”
For a moment, I think she might slap me.
“Get a knife,” I manage to say. I gasp for breath. “And the cups. I’ll drink your truth. You’ll drink mine.”
There is a wailing silence.
“Do what she says.” Bethen barks the order at the policemen in the back like she’s been giving them her entire life. Like she’s been giving them for a thousand years. And once they shuffle out, fear tightening their shoulders, she turns back to me, and slides her arm under mine, helping me stand.
“Show me,” she says.
It is the first memory we share together.
Before Bethen marries me, I draw the sin-eye on my forehead in red and black and show her how to do it, as well. She walks down the aisle in emerald green, roses in her hair. We drink together from both cups and vow to be together until we die. It is a political marriage to keep the peace, but her eyes are dark and lovely and her body is warm, and I feel something bright and new whenever she smiles.
We will need the strength of two if we are to overcome the hundred, the uncontrollable dead, the voices that whisper their ancient hate so loud we can hear it in our own world, where they do not belong. And as she takes my hand under the streaming stars, our ship turns around and aims for Paradise.
When we die, we will turn Home—the Fee-nix, the ancients used to call it, but my spelling might be wrong, I am still learning to read—over to someone new, someone who will never hear Absolon. They had their time. Bethen and I will ensure the descendants have theirs.
And then it will be their choice: how they live, how they sin, where they go.
(Editors’ Note: “The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power” is read by Stephanie Malia Morris and Karen Osborne is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on The Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 27A.)
© 2019 Karen Osborne