Five miles above the surface of a barren Earth, Eden spun slowly on an axis of aluminum steel. The sun burned brightly on another day's rotation, and from the third auxiliary viewing deck, Adante Rells sipped gently on a steaming mug of pitch black coffee. He was up to watch the Song.
The clock on the wall read half past six. Most clocks on Eden were digital, the numerals a calming shade of electric blue that contrasted nicely with the modernistic white of the walls, floors, and decor, but the third auxiliary deck was part of Rells' quarters, and here the timepieces were strictly analog, ranging from children's themed alarm clocks, bright with cartoon animals on the gaudily painted hands, to sturdy grandfather clocks from the old Continent, ticking with sonorous solemnity. Rells breathed deeply, closing his eyes, imagining that the clock and the planet below were one: moving in celestial synchrony.
His guest was not so at ease. He drummed his fingers on the surface of the bright plastic table, his tea lying untouched beside his hand. He had once read a book in one of Eden's digital libraries, in which a man from the old days had tried to circle the globe at an excruciatingly slow pace. Rells' quarters reminded him of the man in the book's house: all the clocks in every corner, ticking in perfect time.
"I have them down to the microsecond," said Rells abruptly, and his guest looked over with a start. "Your eyes gave you away," added Rells with a laugh. "They're very fine, aren't they? That one belonged to my great-grandfather -- he took it with him when he boarded. It used to tell the time in Paris."
"And now it tells the time." Rells set down his cup. "Now, Stephen, what was it you wanted? I have time, it's true, but I do not like it being wasted."
Stephen Pendrake straightened in his seat. His suit was a slick white color, denoting his high status, and he patted down his beard with rueful dignity. His appointment had been scheduled so abruptly, and so early, that he'd been unable to find the time to shave. Noticing Rells' half-casual gaze, however, he cleared his throat and began. "You're aware of the projects we're working on down in Biological?"
"You mean the projects your employees handle, while you club about on the top levels. Yes, I am, but I suppose a refresher wouldn't hurt."
Stephen cleared his throat again. "Yes. Well, we've been pursuing artificial terraformation -- working off the assumption that organic chemicals can occur naturally in the Earth's atmosphere, and speeding it up considerably."
"With whose funding?"
"Why, the Meithos Company, mostly."
"I thought that was for genetic modification? I believe they asked you for redder strawberries."
"We've solved that a year ago. I assure you, they're behind us. Argent Meithos has seen our initial designs, and he provided us with more gold."
Rells smiled and shrugged, as if something had momentarily amused him, but then he motioned for Stephen to continue.
"I had Vina -- you've met him, haven't you? -- rustle up a few of the older experiments on the upper stratosphere. Budding cell life, amino acid creation, the works. And we can make it work, Adante! We've found it out!"
"You've 'found out' a centuries long global problem, with equipment designed to alter the cells in an apple tree? Forgive me my skepticism, Stephen."
"Meithos had a few other things secreted away," said Stephen slowly.
"From the old family laboratories, yes, I'm aware, but those dust-ridden tests are a millennia old."
"We didn't need much. But the point, Adante. We could do it, now. I had a dropship fill a vacuum chamber with test samples from the atmosphere, and we've gotten it to work. I present to you"-- he rustled through the pockets of his coat, drawing out a vial of smoky red liquid -- "a new chance at life."
There was silence. Outside the immense windows of the deck, the sun blazed onto the massive curve of the planet, revealing arid deserts and jagged red peaks, tipped with wispy gray clouds. The clocks ticked on.
Stephen's gaze shifted from bright zealotry to a sort of expectant uncertainty. "Well?"
Rells laid his cup, half-empty, aside. Steam curled from it in thoughtful patterns as he said, "you're tea's gone cold."
The words had a marvelous effect on Stephen. His composure evaporated, and he half stood, face red, as he cried, "Tea? Tea? Adante, we're discussing the future! To hell with the tea!"
"My ancestors were not rich men, Pendrake. Neither were yours."
Rage was replaced by confusion. Stephen settled slowly into his seat. "Well . . . yes."
"We teach our children that they were Chosen, our people -- that we were selected exclusively to be the future of humanity."
". . . yes."
"But that is not the truth, is it?"
"But I don't see the point in" --
Rells raised a hand. "Humor me. Do you know the only reason why we didn't die on that rock down there, gone before we were born? Do you know how the ten thousand first boarded Eden?"
Stephen's eyes were blazing with suppressed excitement and impatience, but he controlled his voice into a bland expression of disinterest that Adante ignored entirely.
"Calanthus lied, Stephen. He made Eden, he prepared it for launch, he sold his tickets and hoarded the accumulated wealth of the world, and then he lied. A rich man who hated the rich . . . do you know, Stephen, how many billionaires and presidents and great men of religion were conned out of their possessions and left to die? Imagine their screams, their outrage!"
"What, you're saying you're scared of ghosts?"
"I'm saying we were picked off the streets, given a life that many would judge to be not ours to take. This new economy . . . your wealth, my power, vice versa . . . these things were invented by our forefathers, and now we take them for granted."
"So how would you feel if someone were to promise you salvation, life, riches, comfort . . . and took it all away? Would you forget? Would your children forget the legacy they were robbed of?"
Stephen was growing distracted. His eyes wandered from Rells to the great banner behind him. It had originally been a sword between two feathered wings -- the divine wrath and salvation of God -- the mark of Eden. But in the early years Calanthus had replaced it with his true intentions, a mockery of the men and women he had tricked. Now, here and everywhere on the ship and on the burning holographic logo outside, glowed the picture of a camel, stuck unsuccessfully in a needle's eye.
Stephen opened his mouth to speak, but at that moment the Song began. It started with a low rumbling, occurring purely at ground level, but audible even in the safety of Eden. And then, in a single, unstoppable burst, trillions of tons of pent up volcanic gas, shooting from the tectonic fissures with the force of colliding moons, roared into the atmosphere in a tempestuous spear of howling noise and mythological force, so that for a moment the estimable Prior Pendrake's very thoughts were blasted from his head and into the ether. Through his clenched eyes he barely made out the form of Rells, who sat momentarily enraptured, head tilted back as if watching a particularly moving ballet.
When it had stopped, Stephen gasped aloud. "Good God," he said, "do we not have dampeners on this level?"
"I turned them off."
"Off! For whatever reason?"
"For clarity." Rells turned in his seat, and his eyes gleamed darkly in the light of the sun through the tinted windows. The lights came on in the third auxiliary viewing deck; morning had officially begun. "How many people on the surface do you suppose survived?"
"Absolutely none. The volcanoes, the earthquakes, the Song. . . . It couldn't be any other way."
"Perhaps." Adante's lips set together in a frown. "I will not fund your project, Stephen, and it will be my formal recommendation that no one else do so. Don't gape, my decision is final. Some things deserve not to be disturbed."
The large man stood slowly, his expression furious, but he bowed curtly to Rells before stalking to the door. "It's a mistake," he growled over his shoulder. "One I consider unworthy of you."
"Perhaps," repeated Rells softly, when the door had slammed shut. His eyes were thoughtful, brewing with strange undercurrents as they looked out over the world. They traced the barren horizon of the Earth, pausing only for the briefest second on what he came every morning to see: the shadows of a mountain four times as large as Everest, one product of the vast tectonic collisions that had necessitated Eden's launch, in which one could catch, in the right angle, a burst of flashing light. A madman could've called it a spire, of glass and twisting steel. Only Rells and the astronomers of the seventh level knew of its existence, and only Rells himself had seen the shape at its summit. A sword between two feathered wings, and on the tip of the sword was an apple, cleaved in two.
"Or perhaps it is the only thing to be done."
And now Rells himself stood, for there was other business for him to conduct, and in his wake only the clocks remained, ticking in unison, telling the Time.