Four Reasons Eldest Drinks
By Laura Schiller
Based on: Across the Universe
Copyright: Beth Revis
Because it feels good. The metallic angles of his quarters soften and glow, the lights brighten, his head feels light as a Sol-Earth balloon and the drink burns inside him like a heat lamp. It's only moonshine brewed up by the Shippers and it tastes like gasoline – he doesn't even want to know what's in it – but it's still an indulgence, on a ship where those are in short supply.
Because it annoys Doc. It's so frexing easy to annoy Doc, for all his emotionless façade, that Eldest has made it into an art form over the years. The man is so tidy, so proper, with his crisply pleated scrubs and his pencils arranged just so – really the antithesis of Eldest, who uses his floor as extra closet space and sometimes forgets to shave for days. He takes satisfaction from getting the good doctor to lecture him at every physical: Do you have any idea what that stuff does to your liver? You really must take better care of yourself.
Eldest would never admit it in a million years, but he likes this. At least one person on this ship looks after him.
Because getting drunk means giving up control. Usually that's a thing he hates to do – the importance of control, over yourself and the ship, has been hammered into him so hard by his predecessor that he still hears the old man's voice snarling in his head. But sometimes his role weighs on him as if he were carrying the whole damn ship on his shoulders – smiling like a grandfather when he feels like shouting; hoping against hope that the engine will be repaired; administering the daily dose of Phydus to keep his people vapid and soulless, as a safer alternative to vengeful and murderous. Sometimes . it's just too much for him to handle.
So every two or three weeks, he makes sure Elder is asleep, locks his door, checks that nothing important needs doing, and just gives in. In those few hours, he's not Eldest anymore – no questions, no responsibilities. Just a man with a bottle, letting his thoughts escape: the only part of him that can.
After the 'twenty-five years' speech, Eldest downs the bottle as a coward's alternative to poison. He wants something toxic inside him, something burning, just like the lies he told resounding inside his mind. His mentor warned him: You'll hate yourself afterwards, but believe me, it's worth it … just keep the frexing ship alive. But he still hadn't expected it to be quite like this.
Those stupid, empty faces, gazing up at the lightbulb stars in awe. Taking his lies for gospel truth. The idiots he made, cheering him for taking away their only hope of getting out of this metal cage. That one accusatory voice (Elder's artist friend from the Ward?) demanding to be heard. And Elder, his clone, his younger self, screaming at him in moral outrage. Feeling proud? How can you stand to do it, lie to them like that?
No. No, he is not proud. Which is why the innocent boy's condemnation makes him throw back his head and laugh like a madman. There's nothing Elder can tell him that he didn't tell his own predecessor forty years ago. What a glorious dynasty they are, this long line of Eldests, breaking each other down for the sake of their people!
You'd do it too. You're more like me than you think.
Elder punches him, and the bottle is empty, and for the first time, the brew does nothing at all to dim the horror of seeing his own eyes look at him with hate.
The reason why he's always forbidden Elder to taste the hooch is because, much as he depends on it, he knows perfectly well it's wrong. Once he's dead, the boy may pick up whatever vice he wants – alcohol, pills, sex, whatever. He's realistic enough to know that Elder may need an artificial punishment, escape, or both. But it remains his secret hope that his heir will be stronger than that; that he will grow to face the ugliness of life with open eyes, be kind to himself when nobody else is, and forgive himself for the terrible role he was born to play.
In short, to become the leader Eldest never was.