4060 words, short story
In the Queue for the Worldship Munawwer
PRE-TAKEOFF REPORT—WORLDSHIP K5-NME, “MUNAWWER”
FROM: Suraya Khouri-Smith (Lead Ground Attaché, Munawwer Crew)
DATE: January 15th, 2139
FOR: Dougal Smith (Transition Commander, EVAC-Central)
I hope you’ll forgive the whimsy of this report. I’ve held my silence my entire life, and there are many things I deserve to say to you. I know it’s a breach of protocol, but in a sense, so was I. And there may not be another chance.
The information you need, first: the worldship Munawwer, evacuation vessel for the territory of the Lebanese Republic, began boarding two weeks ago. It rests in shallow water off the coast of Beirut, covered in knobbly city gulls and their droppings. Its access ramps are down and secured to a section of the corniche’s wide boardwalk.
Autocount figures tell me there are 845,912 people on board.
This number has been creeping up through the night despite orders to cease boarding until daylight. People jump from the corniche’s pier, swim the span between the boardwalk and the worldship under cover of night, clamber up sea-facing loading bays. When we do catch them, they are half-drowned, and we send them to the Munawwer’s medical bays, and someone willfully forgets they are on board.
At other times it would be funny, how it is here; how open to interpretation even the most mortally important rules are. Cousins sneak on board cousins; husbands sneak on board sisters-in-law.
Fathers, their daughters.
For the official record I’ll confirm that the total passenger count permitted is the usual 900,000. The queue outside is four people abreast to the mountain horizon and beyond.
We expect to fill the Munawwer to capacity in the next three days.
Commander, last night in my assigned Munawwer bunkroom, I undressed in utter dark. I pulled the film of laminate from the brand new porthole; it came away in a single satisfying sheet—tack-tack-tack—that I balled up inside my hot fist. I pressed it hard over my breastbone, felt the complaint of my failing body. The coast of Beirut was a luminous thing, swaying, dancing with the emissions of the city. But more than that, I was entranced by the Munawwer’s queue, a thick cable of light threading up and into the Lebanese foothills.
I do not remember getting into my bed, but I remember shaking in the controlled atmosphere kept at an ambient temperature. It was the sterility of the moment versus the literal mass of our undertaking; lifting the bigness of the Munawwer into the sky, the long game of searching out a welcoming planet over generations, the unliftable weight of what’s sure to be left behind.
Yesterday our engineering crew began dismantling Beirut’s decrepit old lighthouse for fear of the structure interfering with the hover-and-power phase of our upcoming liftoff. Other early clearance checks are as done as they can be, given the chaos, and should be completed tomorrow morning by eleven-hundred.
DATE: January 16th, 2139
Officer Nizar and Junior Officer Bahaa conducted a floor by floor walkthrough this morning, assisted by a huge surveyor crew from EVAC-Central. I wonder if you’ve ever spoken to their prissy Lead face-to-face? I didn’t ask him about you.
Everything is going to plan. Occupied berths are correctly locked down if you don’t count the villagers Nizar found wandering galley to galley looking for Northerners, Southerners, Beirutis, cousins—looking for something to hold onto that wasn’t their soil, the musk of their air, or the familiar mountainous contours of their horizon.
After we closed boarding for the night, I was startled by the familiar strains of Fairouz issuing from the Munawwer’s loud PA system. Ballads of patriotism and yearning. It took me two whole folkloric masterpieces to find the culprit: our own Officer Nizar. I told him I hadn’t authorized music, although I’d gamble you—hapless lover of the Orient—wouldn’t fault his taste.
“Have a heart, Suraya,” he said. “These people are leaving their homes forever.”
“We’re carrying digital archives of the last five hundred years of Lebanese culture, Officer,” I said.
“I can see that you think that’s enough to make up for this colossal heartbreak,” he said.
In the resulting silence I thought I heard a collective intake of breath from nearly a million people, a noise that groaned through windpipes, a sound of rope under load. But I could not allow those in the queue—those to be left behind—to hear jubilation from the ship. It wasn’t fair to anybody.
Against official guidance, we never issued dig-forms to announce the evacuation. Half of the population do not own personal holos; the ones who do won’t wear them because of superstition, or discomfort, or because they are too vain or traditional to have anything ported to their faces.
I was seven when it became a legal requirement to fit a sinus air filter almost everywhere in the world. Lebanon too. My mother fought so hard to avoid putting me through the procedure. It’s unclear whether she was right. Air quality did improve drastically in the next five years. But given where I am now, perhaps even the one year she appealed against the surgery was a year too many.
Did you have a chance to know that about her? That she was more principled than right, most of the time? It makes me wonder how she let you fall for her, just enough that here I am.
A decade later, I got my own holo fitted, and the sinus filter upgraded, because I could. When my mother found out, she didn’t speak to me for a month.
Anyway, no dig-forms. Instead, as approved by the Worldship K5-NME Steering Board on June 20, 2138, we sent criers to every town and village. The megaphone and magcar approach—the jolt of building panic—was enough. At its peak, the queue for the Munawwer was a 130-mile phalanx snaking south from the Mediterranean coast then turning up winding mountain tracks towards the northern border.
The queue has a thousand character traits, a volatile temperament. As if by some orderly law of physics, the closer to the waiting worldship the queue gets, the wilder it is. In the nearer villages to the coastline, rowdy end-of-the-world parties have ransacked homes and businesses. Those in the far away half, winding through mountain villages, are more sedate. They stare at my ground crew before they take the rations they’re offered. Their infants wail in ways that bring to mind footage of long-eradicated famines, but they are not hungry or cold or sick. They are scared.
Commander Smith, it played out as an incident of geography—to save the nearest ones to the sea and doom the rest. Doom. A silly word, so grave-sounding it is hard to take seriously. When you learned you had a child back on Earth, did you worry that she was doomed to die there, having never threaded through the far reaches of space? Did you really believe, then, that the projections were right, that the collision course had been accurately charted? Did you laugh, disbelieving, when they said the asteroid storm was the width of our solar system, big and fast enough to wipe out the planet? I wonder if you thought about your fourth-grader—your teenager, your adult daughter—when one by one the missions EVAC launched to vacuum the critical debris failed?
Vacuum the critical debris. Like a bit of dust under the sofa.
Of course, we broadcast capacity warnings. 900,000 people per EVAC member-nation: enough to preserve race, language, culture. Still, 900,000 is not a whole country. Here, it’s two out of five.
This, at least, is clear to everyone. We shouted it in ringing voices from the backs of the magcars.
DATE: January 17th, 2139
Officer Nizar’s been compiling hasty geographic and demographic statistics on the queue. He is behind schedule sending these to EVAC-Central. In lieu of official figures, some notes:
Last week, we sent surveyor crews to every signposted village across the country, from the Bekaa Valley to the Jnoub to the Chouf. Every town is a ghost town—even the people left behind are near enough ghosts, the very old and stubborn, spirits stronger than their bones.
Gourds and winter fruit rot in open steriles by the roadside. Chimneys are without their curls of smoke; hawker bots make lazy figures-of-eight in the snow outside shops and markets. They call out in mechanical confusion to the crew, promising prices so low they indicate a complete cessation of demand.
We will never know the exact geographic and demographic spread of those queuing for evacuation. You didn’t broadcast details of the landing until the worldship’s bulk was nearly above us. The arrival surprised us. If anything, the people were better primed, more ready to strap their belongings to pallets or their own bodies, to abandon their magcars at the milling ends of the mag-proofed queue, which quickly packed tight and spilled farther and farther up the mountain.
You would think they would fight, butcher each other out of envy, make pilgrimages to the front and demand entry. At first, they did. We’re not a lie-down-and-die kind of people. This is something you might not have known, if you tasted only pleasure here, if you knew us only through that lens. When we began to debar not just individuals but entire innocent families, a sort of order fell over everything.
Doom. A silly word.
Still, scuffles erupt, old sectarian allegiances flare, fossilized in forenames and surnames. Everyone, though, seems tired. The uncertainty is another kind of mass spreading in our chests, heavy as the Munawwer squatting in the sea.
Last night, Nizar reported that thousands and thousands of the elderly and the infirm had sieved to the front of the queue almost overnight. I asked to see for myself. We went down the access ramp together, past the corniche and the cordoned-off half-mile, to where the queue began.
“What’s this?” he asked, gesturing at the weary faces, gray or brown as the rocks of the seafront. “We broadcast that people of childbearing age get priority.”
A younger man stepped out of the four-abreast queue. “Mind your manners, habibi. We treat our grandparents with respect, even at times like these.”
“Brother, that’s nonsense,” returned Nizar with his usual gift for diplomacy. “This is a worldship. The idea’s to continue all of goddamn humanity out there.” He pointed to the sky, inky and flat. “Your grandpa can’t help with that, no matter how sprightly he might be.”
“I’ll punch your face in if you speak that way around your elders, brother.”
At this point we were forced to remove the young man from the queue and debar him from the boarding procedure. He produced an old-fashioned Marlboro from the back of his slacks and swaggered away cussing towards a viewing point for Pigeon Rock. All of him seemed to billow in the breeze. He smoked his cigarette and watched waves crash against the limestone formation where it crouched out in the shallow sea, diligently ignoring the massive moonlike presence of the Munawwer blotting out most of the horizon.
Officer Nizar’s team has been guarding access to the ship since it appeared in the sky, pinwheel shadow spreading over all the wards of the city.
We had been practicing the procedures for a year—since we opened EVAC’s holo pings and found that we’d been chosen. Most of my ground crew have military backgrounds. Nizar was a Major in the Armed Forces. I’m not a soldier, but you know, I suppose, that I’m no stranger to protocol.
Commander Smith—I topped every mathematics exam at school. Headmaster Boutros brought me brochures on EVAC-Central, the United Nations Space Program, Lebanese Astronautics. But at university I fell credit by credit into Anthropology, thinking, I guess, of lecturing at the Sorbonne, thinking, I guess, of staying rooted to humanity. Rooted to Earth.
Do you already know this? Did my mother ever sneak you messages about me? Did she tell you about the poem I wrote about you in secondary school, the one that won an award? As far as I know she never spoke to you after you left.
If you do know, you can hear it again: I was a civil servant for the Interior Ministry until the Munawwer, my days crammed with the amplified tedium of the entire nation. You found out about me somehow, found my name: a vain search for your own, a flight through billions of census archive files, the fuzzy match that finally snagged my hyphens, my half-concealed identity.
I suppose you chose me for my experience with projects that mobilize our population? Perhaps you would not have let blood run thicker than reason if you’d known that nothing mobilizes our population that doesn’t originate within their own hearts.
And since there is nothing else to lose which isn’t already fated to be lost—homeland, loved ones, history—perhaps you would not have granted me a ground crew member’s golden ticket to fly away had you known, father. About my loose procedural skill, the hours of my youth I spent staring blankly through scrolling municipal notices, statistics, memos, recommendations. Saying just enough. Nights, returning to an empty house, one parent gone too soon, another gone too far away. The stop-start friendships and intimacies I increasingly shed. Then illness tightening like a cast over these last few years of my own decline. Yes, that.
We followed your procedures to the last letter. We deployed our ground crew, arranged the queue four-abreast as specified, heated it, and distributed insulated overshoes, food packets, blankets. We asked desperate people out in the cold to smother cooking fires and pack away shisha pipes. We switched off the Fairouz songs and arrested hooligans and shushed panicked outbursts.
The Munawwer is almost full now. We will leave millions behind.
Nearly a month ago I sent the passenger guidance checklist to Officer Nizar. Today, I caught up with his patrol near Khalde, pulled him aside by the seawall in the calm of drifting snow to go through it.
I read from my holo. “Are we ‘screening boarding worldship passengers for weapons or materials which may be used to fashion weapons’?”
He stared at me with self-assurance and a dirty sort of pity. “Why would we do that? If anyone’s going to be so deranged and damaged,” he corkscrewed a finger into his temple, “as to blow up humanity’s only chance in this fucked-up universe, then we don’t deserve to survive.”
“Not humanity’s only chance,” I said on reflex. “At least one worldship per member-nation and—” I looked back over the hillsides of Khalde, heard the living noise of the queue and ran out of words to rely on.
Nizar scanned the holo he’d pulled up, presumably the checklist. Presumably for the first time. “What stupid shit.”
I ached for the sweetness of striking his perfect nose with a closed fist. Instead, I trembled in the instantly filthy snowdrift and pulled rank: “What screening have you been doing, Officer?”
Nizar watched me over his twenty-twenties moustache, back in fashion for the end of the world.
“We frisk them, Ms. Suraya, Your Excellency,” he quipped. “Mostly for tobacco pipes. The ground crew boys deserve a good pipe. The ones who are staying, I mean.” His face slackened around its folds and wrinkles, leaving the shelf of his brow to carry his countenance. According to his EVAC records, Nizar is thirty-four. The apocalypse has aged us early.
“Are you using your ticket?” I asked, my voice a snowflake, too soft for authority.
Nizar switched off the holo he’d been staring past and turned to relieve himself against a railing.
“Excuse me. Urgent need,” he said, squinting at the gray bulk of the Munawwer ten miles down the coast. His planted stance reminded me of the upstart we’d ejected from the queue the night before.
“A difficult decision,” he said, hitching his hips and zipping up. “Ticket off-planet in my back pocket, nieces and nephews up in the middle of the queue. No chance they get to board. With my ticket, one of them survives to start life new, start a new nation.”
“Where are they?” I asked.
“Near Zahle,” he said. “Too far. They refused to leave the village any earlier.”
Maybe it’s naive to think this is noteworthy, but we’ve all pulled strings to place friends and family in the Beiruti sections of the queue. Forcibly camped them out on the corniche as soon as we heard about the landing. But no one dares smuggle relatives on board a near-capacity worldship. No one wants to tempt fate. Being debarred is one thing; having your entire family debarred by EVAC-Central is an especial cruelty.
“It’s just a single ticket,” I said. “How many can you save with one ticket?”
“One youngster more worthy than me, habibi,” he said.
“They’ve said there might be another ship for Lebanon,” I muttered into the wind off the Mediterranean, hoping he wouldn’t catch it. But he did, and his skeptical bark broke my heart.
“What about you?” he asked after a meaningful silence. “Are you using your ticket?”
“I don’t have any family left here. My cousins emigrated years ago to countries where worldships queue for you, not the other way round.”
“But you mentioned your father was . . . ” he said.
“None of your business.” It’s nobody’s business. It’s barely even yours. You left and never came back. You forfeited everything.
“So you’ll take it,” Nizar rejoined softly. “You’ll get on that goddamn ship with the goddamn rest of them.”
I had no useful response. I breathed in the tang of fish and old fossil fuel spills, and now and again the new smell of ozone off the Munawwer, carried by the icy breeze.
DATE: January 18th, 2139
Our evacuee numbers hit 900,000 this morning.
Actually, there are 900,124 on board according to autocount. There were children, so many children—how could I leave them behind? We rounded up the healthiest ones, the ones who could bear to be separated from wailing parents. The ones whose parents let them go. And yes: the ones whose eyes burrowed holes in our hearts.
In my bunk last night, I could not sleep for the torment of all the little ones in the winding queue, foreheads lucent in the night, too far from Beirut to break my crew’s hearts. They’re the living ghosts of our dreams now. One day soon they will disperse as invisible particles into the sky, while the ones we save live on, we hope, on and on, in the vastness of traversable space.
Surely one hundred and twenty-four slight bodies cannot disrupt the stability of a craft like the Munawwer. We brought them on board on my direct orders. What horrifies me is that you never told us how many more we could have saved—how big the occupancy headroom really was.
Thoughts that keep me up despite the Munawwer’s atmospheric sedatives:
That the Munawwer will go up in flames during hover-and-power (the sadness, then, of those left behind).
That the children on board will forget their parents and grandparents and their language and the generosity of their culture.
That humanity is a meaningless thing, transplanted far from its origins.
That they will all die of heartbreak, lightyears away from this ill-luck country.
That there will never be another worldship allocated to this tiny, insignificant land on the edge of the sea. (The certainty of this.)
That it has all been a giant mistake. That Earth is as fine as it seems, and will remain here, blue and green and giving, to pine after forever.
That Nizar’s nieces and nephews will be left behind.
That Nizar will be left behind.
That you and I will one day meet.
That we will all kill each other on the ship, anyway, for the same reasons we’ve killed each other at home.
That you and I will never meet.
That I will die in the end of the world.
That I will die before the end of the world.
DATE: January 19th, 2139
Commander Smith—I’ve tagged the section below for excision; please ratify and pass it to EVAC-Central’s Specialist Services team.
I understand from guidance document PUB-214 that I may only commend a single person from the Munawwer’s ground crew.
According to my EVAC profile, I command a crew of ten thousand across Lebanese territory. I’ve only had brief interactions with a handful of my crew, devolving most responsibilities to more capable hands. This is my failing. My heart has shied at every juncture from the sad business of evacuating the Earth.
Of the half dozen ground crew members I’ve worked with nearly daily, the one I have come to know best is Officer Nizar Adel Taleb, my second-in-command.
I understand, further, that any officer given a formal commendation to Specialist Services will be promoted to flight crew on the next available worldship. I have good reason to believe this is the good craft Kuro-Obi, L6-AUAS, which will land along the Japanese mainland at an unspecified time in the next six months. Non-native flight crew members on a foreign country’s ship, according to the guidance document, are permitted to evacuate all remaining blood relatives.
Therefore, please take this as my formal commendation of Officer Nizar Taleb.
Off the record, I maintain that Officer Nizar is as self-important and narrow-minded a prick as they come. Be that as it may, he’s done nothing to warrant the conflict between his own bodily survival and the tearing of his soul to pieces.
This morning, after every last one of our 900,124 evacuees was safely on board, I went walking along the corniche.
I meandered towards that stabbing void in the sky where days ago the lighthouse would have been, barnacled, salt-streaked. Then I turned on my heels to walk the way I’d come.
I had changed out of my attaché’s uniform right after we sounded bugle calls all the way up the queue—the worldship’s full, the worldship’s full. The official clothing felt like a betrayal.
I walked, and Beirut heaved around me. There were still millions in the queue, now a shapeless inflamed gathering of people and magcars pouring towards the coast. Thousands of ground crew in riot gear and heavy arms held people back from the half-mile cordon leading to the Munawwer’s access ramps. It was something between a funeral procession and a terrible mob. A deafening noise reverberated in the air. Gulls flapped off the Munawwer in agitation. It was all the ground crew could do to prevent a crush.
Faces streamed past me, fixated on the motionless worldship and its blue blinking lights of habitation. If anyone looked back at me I thought: is this the one I’ll send away into outer space?
A cousin, a sister, a lover. Any of these would have provided me with a selfless sacrifice. But isn’t it an impossibility to pull a single stranger, unwitting, from the crowd? How dare I play a god’s game?
Another god’s game: to learn, one day before a worldship lands to carry 900,000 people away, that the growing wrongness in your chest is wronger than you thought. To be given the choice to go to Europe for treatment, or to stay and serve your people at your father’s bidding, the only thing he’s ever asked. Little doom and bigger doom, braiding, lines in a palm.
The night after I learned this, Commander Smith, I had a dream. I was inside a station-city, a pearl in the sealed-shell darkness of deep space. And you were there. I was laying curled into myself and you were healing me. And I would live.
I woke up and my veins were pulsing with loneliness, and my chest was throbbing with pain.
So this morning, I walked the corniche and stopped as close along the railings as I could get to the Munawwer, jostled by a field of people and their confusion. It was huge, bright, sublime—a promise of safety and stability by virtue of mass alone.
With every fiber of my broken lungs I inhaled. Then I inhaled again. I held my breath and felt dizzy with the sticky task of living. And I felt that death was neither a foe, nor something I could grab by the scruff.
Then I went, slowed by the drag of the doomed, towards the worldship’s access ramp. And then on board, to complete the last of the paperwork.