by Christopher Buecheler
Stef sighed, adjusted the feeding tube at her side, glanced over at him with her big, grey-green eyes and asked, “Can they cure it?”
“It’s not going well,” he replied, and she rolled those lovely eyes at him, looking back out the port window.
“Well, no kidding. What does that mean?”
“It mutates faster than anything we’ve ever seen. By the time the body even figures out how to attack it, it’s changed.”
Stef made a noise: psssshhh, and rested her forehead against her hand. “It’s almost worse that it didn’t come from us.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, from Earth. We managed to avoid all that stuff down there, disease and global warming and war, for what? So some rock could crash-land in a field somewhere … bam. That’s it?”
Stef shook her head. “Jesus Christ.”
“Lots of people calling for Him, down there,” he told her. “I don’t think He’s going to show.”
Stef looked up at him again, eyelids tinted red at their edges. Her cheeks were mottled pink, her brow pinched, her whole face twisted. Dark brown curls of hair were plastered against her forehead; others stuck out at odd angles from around her headset. He thought about the last time they had been naked together, seventeen days ago, making love standing up in the steam and heat of the shower.
He met her gaze, waiting, and her voice trembled just a little when she spoke.
“Was that a joke? We’re going to die up here.”
“It’s better here,” he said.
“Oh, yeah. Breathing dead air and living on injected paste, trapped in these suits, showering once a month …”
He didn’t respond to her sarcasm, and Stef studied him for a moment.
“When it’s my time,” she said at last, “I want to go on a beach, somewhere warm, with a breeze. I want to die with a ripe mango in one hand and a daiquiri in the other.”
“Do you know how the people down there are dying?”
“They’re lying in their beds, covered in ulcers, their livers and kidneys and lungs hemorrhaging blood. Their muscles are being eaten away from the inside out and they’re screaming, begging for something to help with the pain, but there’s no one left to help them. That’s how.”
Stef bit her lower lip and glared at him, quiet for a moment, and then said, “You’re awful.” There were tears at the corners of her eyes now. He’d fallen in love with those eyes the very first time she’d looked at him, stuck in an otherwise dull and sterile briefing room, fifteen months ago. They had been together for the entire rotation, had talked of getting an apartment when they returned home.
The rock from space had hit the Earth on April sixth, nine months and fourteen days into their rotation, and the virus had spread from there, kicked up into the atmosphere by the impact and swiftly sent around the globe. Billions of people were dying. Their caretakers were catching the bug and dying. Their governments were falling apart and dying. Today he had told Stef the truth: they were never going home.
Captain David Sen turned and looked through the thick plastic that separated them from the freezing vacuum outside, staring down at the glowing blue planet below. The world was ending, but the planet wasn’t going anywhere. The stupid, lazy planet wasn’t doing anything more than it had ever done, spinning mute in its orbit, unconcerned with the evolution rates of alien viruses or the inefficiencies of the human immune system. He closed his eyes and touched the fingers of his right hand to his forehead. He thought of his mother, kneeling before Vishnu and praying for her son’s safe return, and wondered if she had died yet. His father was already gone.
“I have to go,” he said.
For four hours a day, David watched. They all did, in turns, their shifts scheduled by people down below who were dead now. There were one hundred and sixteen people on board his ship, the U.S.S. Spokane, and less than thirty of them were military, but everyone was required to watch. David saw that they kept to it. Most days there wasn’t anyone on the other end to read their reports, not anymore, but they watched anyway.
It was dull and repetitive work, manning the screens, and the lack of casual conversation in the past two months had made it that much worse. They sat mostly in silence now, sipping their ration of bad coffee, watching the data roll in and thinking about the wave of death sweeping over everyone and everything they knew back home. Occasionally a spike would roll across a screen, and whoever was on duty would note it in the logs.
It seemed almost a joke, what they were doing: analyzing reams of data transmitted across thousands of light-years from various probes. Out there past unfathomable spans of black void, the machines were searching for resources to plunder, planets to colonize, life-forms to observe, all in the name of a humanity which would likely never benefit from their toils.
He sat back, closed his eyes for a moment, ran a hand over his face and felt rough stubble against his fingers. Stef hated that, told him it made him look like the villain in a bad Bollywood film, and he resolved to shave before going to bed. He opened his eyes, breathed out, and returned to watching, wondering why he was doing it.
“Man … you look worse than usual,” said a voice to his left, and David turned to give the speaker a wan smile.
First Sergeant CJ Watson had been only a Corporal when he and David had met. They had done two rotations together, first out to Saturn and later in to Venus, and had become friends over long games of cards and drinks made from the quasi-legal stills that could be found on every ship in the fleet. CJ was black, short and thin, balding at the age of twenty-five but sporting an outrageous mustache. He had a mind for machines, and was in charge of the V3 Systems responsible for their food, water, and air.
“You tell Stef?” CJ asked him, and David gave a slow nod, back to watching the screens, looking for spikes.
“Had to,” he said.
“How she take it?”
It wasn’t an answer, but it didn’t matter. In the past twenty-four hours he had met with every officer on the ship, commissioned or enlisted, and told them that he had no intention of returning to earth in thirteen days as scheduled. Watching his shipmates and friends struggle, one by one, to accept the reality that their life on Earth was over had left him numb, in a kind of daze. The fact that he hadn’t slept since making the decision didn’t help.
“Did she ask about her parents?” CJ had brought up a console to make a note about a promising iridium spike outside of Sirius B, so he didn’t see David shake his head. “Captain?”
“No,” David said. “Her parents … they weren’t too far from the impact zone. They caught it quick.”
CJ made a noise of distaste and sympathy. Everyone on the ship was dealing with something similar. The lines of communication were breaking down, but there was still enough news to know that nothing good was happening down on Earth.
“It’s crazy, being stuck up here.” CJ said.
“You’d rather be down there?” David asked, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice. He wasn’t entirely successful, and CJ held his hands up in a gesture of peace.
“Don’t have the rank to question, even if I wanted to, Mister Captain, Sir. Just hard to wrap your head around.”
“I know,” David said. “I love being in space, but even so … you start counting the days until you can eat real food, breathe fresh air, take a shower whenever you want for as long as you want. Now there’s no point counting days, and it’s my fault.”
“Too bad it fell on you.”
“Too bad,” David echoed, and shrugged. He had earned the double-bars of an Air Force Captain only two months before the Spokane had begun its orbit of Earth. David’s father had never received a commission, let alone his own ship. When David had called home to tell him about the promotion, the man had visibly swelled with pride, saluted, and then broken down in tears.
“How long you on watch for, Captain?”
“Ten more minutes, and then I’m going to sleep for the next fourteen hours.”
CJ gave a grim laugh. “So I’ll see you in six?”
David sighed, stretched, nodded. “That’s about right.”
He found Stef waiting for him in his cabin, her own shift at the watch not scheduled for another four hours. She looked up from the screen at his desk as he came into the room, and David could tell even at a distance that she’d been crying. Her cheeks were still that mottled pink color, and there were dark rings around her eyes. He stopped at the door, hearing it slide quietly shut behind him.
“Hey,” she said, offering him a terrible impression of a smile.
“I wasn’t sure you’d be here,” he said.
“Neither was I,” she replied. “I sat around mess for a while, looking down. You can see the fires in Pyongyang from here. I guess I decided that just because you’re an idiot sometimes doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”
“Stef, I’m sor—”
She cut him off, looking back at the screen. “You need to look at this. Right now.”
“What is it?”
He crossed the small room in a few strides and leaned over her left shoulder.
“You’re reading my mail?” he asked.
“Your password’s too easy.”
“Jesus, Stef …”
“Shut up, get over it, and read the one at the top. The one from Takamatsu’s people.”
Clenching his teeth and trying to shove his annoyance away, David focused on the screen. He scanned the short paragraph three times, unsure he was reading it correctly, then moved to the small bed attached to the wall and sat down on it. He stared at the floor for a moment, elbows on his knees, palms against his forehead, before looking up at Stef. She was looking back at him, but didn’t speak.
The communication had been terse and to the point:
28 August, 2251
U.S.S. Vermont crew exposed to live culture of alien virus VO-864e in lab accident at 08:27. Virus has invaded the ship’s atmosphere. Cpt. Takamatsu dead (self-inflicted). Have assumed control. The Vermont is now quarantined. DO NOT ATTEMPT PHYSICAL CONTACT. Virus studies will continue as long as possible.
God help us all.
– Lt. Deborah Almstead
David took in air to speak, couldn’t think of anything to say, blew the air out as a sigh and looked again down at the floor. He heard Stef get up and move closer, felt her sit down next to him on the bed, felt her hand take his.
“She was the one you had a crush on, right?” Stef’s voice held sorrow, pity, and a simple, sweet understanding that made his throat ache.
“There were a hundred and eighty people on that ship,” David said, his voice hoarse. “God, that’s … I’d be on it. I’d be there with Deb right now if they hadn’t offered me the Spokane.”
David ran a shaky hand through his dark, matted hair. Deborah Almstead? The valedictorian of his graduating class at the Academy? She was going to die? It seemed impossible. Deborah and the rest of the crew were supposed to become heroes; the U.S.S. Vermont had been preparing for the first manned jump outside of the solar system. Now it was nothing more than a floating deathtrap.
“What are we going to do?” he asked, the question not really directed at Stef. She answered anyway.
“Baby, I don’t think there’s anything we can do.”
“No, I don’t mean … not about them. I mean everyone up here in this system. Are we just going to float around, hoping to cure this thing before we run out of resources or get sloppy and catch the bug? How many more people are going to die? It’s insane. This is insane!”
Stef leaned over, touching the side of her head to his, and squeezed his hand. “When was the last time you got some sleep?”
“I don’t remember,” David admitted. An itch had begun on the left side of his ribcage. He scratched at it, couldn’t seem to find the right place, and was suddenly overwhelmed by the desire to tear his suit from his body. Tired, disgusted, sick of living on this ship and wearing this damned thing at every hour of the day, he tugged at the carbon-fiber fabric, knowing he could never hurt it.
“God, I want a shower,” he snarled.
Stef laughed a little, refusing to let go of his hand. “Thirteen more days. That’s when our water rations cycle around again.”
Stef was quiet, still resting her head against his. David could smell her skin, the sweat and grime that were always present, no matter how well their suits recycled their body’s fluids. During his first rotation, whenever he had been alone and then returned to a group the smell had disgusted him. It still sometimes happened, but never with Stef. He wondered if that was what love meant: sometimes the person you’re with doesn’t smell so great, but you just don’t care.
Finally, she spoke. “So, fine. What are you going to do?”
David thought about it for a moment before giving a short, sharp laugh. “Sleep,” he said. “Right now I’m going to sleep. When I get up, then maybe I’ll worry about being dealing with all of this.”
Stef gave him a small smile and kissed him on the right side of his lower jaw.
“I approve,” she said. “And I won’t even complain that you haven’t shaved.”
Someone was pounding on the door, apparently forgetting that there was a buzzer. Stef rolled over next to him and made a roaring, moaning noise of disgust.
“Go away!” she shouted, her hand grabbing the nearest object – a boot – and hurling it at the door.
“They’re not supposed to know you’re in here,” David murmured, eyes still shut.
“Everyone left in this entire system knows that I’m sleeping with you,” Stef snarled, rolling roughly onto her left side, her back to him, and throwing an arm over her face.
“Oh,” David said.
“Captain?” someone asked from outside the door, and gave a lighter, more courteous knock.
“I’ll be with you in one moment,” David called.
David sat up and checked the clock. Two hours. They’d given him two hours. He rubbed his eyes, yawned, and crawled over Stef’s outstretched legs.
“Don’t turn on the light,” she growled as he headed for the door.
“Love you too,” he muttered, grinning despite himself and opening the door to his cabin. Standing before him was one of the youngest members of the crew, a first-year Private. He was standing at attention, stiff as a board, and saluting.
“At ease,” David said, stepping forward and letting the door close behind him. “Jesus, Private … it’s Jacobs, right?”
“Yes, Sir,” the soldier said, adopting a formal posture that nonetheless seemed, compared to his previous stance, downright leisurely.
“Jacobs, I’m not the type of officer to make threats, but this had better be good, or so help me God I will have you jettisoned out with the next refuse dump.”
The soldier swallowed and nodded. “Yes, Sir. It’s just that … I mean, we found … no one even believed it at first, but they told me to … we didn’t want to wake you, but …”
“Pick a sentence and finish it,” David said. Private Jacobs nodded, took a deep breath, and spoke.
“The probes have located an E1, Sir,” he said. “Just off Centauri B. It’s … it’s smaller than Mars, but it’s there. Atmosphere, biosphere, minerals … it’s got everything, Sir.”
David paused for a moment, considering this news. In planetary designation terms, an E1 was like opening the Ark of the Covenant and finding the Holy Grail stuffed inside. Not only Earth-like, but a level one: a planet onto which human beings could step out, take off their helmets, and survive. At least, that was the theory. No probe had ever located one before, and there had been debate among scientists over whether that would ever change.
“You’re sure about this?” He asked.
“The spikes have been coming non-stop for fifteen minutes. It’s … if it’s not an E1, then that probe is FUBAR, Sir.”
“Always a possibility,” David muttered. He turned back toward his room, gesturing toward the Command Center. “I’ll be up in three minutes. Tell them to log everything. Every single thing.”
“Yes Sir, Captain,” Jacobs said. “Is there anything else I can—?”
“Go, Jacobs,” David said, glancing over his shoulder as the door opened.
Jacobs saluted and went. David, still coming to terms with the fact that he was only going to get two hours of sleep, didn’t return the gesture. He stepped into the room, picking up the boot Stef had thrown on the way, and sat down on the bed. Stef groaned.
“Tell me it’s not my shift yet,” she said.
“It’s not your shift yet …” David began.
“Oh, thank Jesus.”
“… but you’re going to have to get up anyway.”
“I hate you with the white-hot passion of a thousand burning suns,” Stef replied without missing a beat, eyes still closed. David snorted laughter.
“They found an E1,” he said, and now Stef opened her eyes, sitting up and staring at him in disbelief.
“No,” David said, pulling on his boots. “I just love tormenting you.”
“Baby, come on …”
“It’s for real. At least, they think it is. I have to go check. Figured you would want to be there.”
Stef ran her hands through her black curls of hair, shaking them out before pulling them back in a rough ponytail. “Yeah. I’m up. I’m coming.”
David stood, stretched, shook his head to clear it. “Does everyone really know about us?”
“Who cares?” Stef asked, beginning to pull on her own boots. “The world is ending.”
“With all due respect, Captain Sen, I don’t think you understand the significance of this find.”
David looked at the grey-haired woman standing at the monitors, staring at the data spikes. “I understand it very well, Dr. Burke. What you’re asking is impossible.”
“Forgive me, but … is the Spokane not under your control?”
“Then isn’t it your job to decide where the ship goes?” Burke asked. It didn’t seem to David that the woman was being deliberately obtuse, and so he answered honestly.
“In a sense, yes. I’m in charge of this vessel, but you’re asking me to do something I can’t do. I haven’t had much time on this rotation to get to know you, Doctor, but I’ve read your work and I know you’re a brilliant woman. Surely you can see how flying off to Alpha Centauri might be considered mutinous.”
Burke sat down in a chair, resting her head in her hands for a moment before looking back up at David.
“There’s no one left down there,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter,” David replied. “Even if I was willing to pick up and go, it doesn’t matter. We can’t make a twelve-year jump to a system that has never seen human life.”
“But this planet—”
“Doctor, we don’t have the food. We don’t have the water. We don’t have the air to do what you’re asking.”
Stef, sitting behind him, coughed and stirred, but when David turned to look at her, she did not immediately speak up.
“Do you have something to contribute, Sergeant?” David asked her.
“No. Well, yes. I mean … I’d need CJ to back it up.”
“Jacobs,” David called. The Private, sitting at the end of the room, visibly jerked.
“Go find First Sergeant Watson and bring him here.”
“Yes, Sir,” Jacobs said, and left.
“You think we can do it,” David said to Stef, and she considered for a moment.
“Maybe? It doesn’t matter, if you’re set on staying here.”
“Let’s say I’m open to suggestion. I am intrigued, Sergeant. Indulge me.”
Stef gave him a cool glance that, in the privacy of his cabin, he would have laughed at before kissing her. Here in the Command Center, he simply met her gaze until she looked away at the monitors.
“I’m pretty sure we can make it to Saturn on what we have,” she said. “The outpost on Rhea will have hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen … if we load up the cargo bays, we can synth air and water for a century.”
“Don’t think they’ll just give it away,” David said.
“Sixteen scientists, three soldiers, and a Captain sent out there because he ticked off the brass? We’ll take it by force if we have to. My bet is they’ll come along for the ride.”
“She has a point,” Doctor Burke said.
“Oh, yes, she’s right, we could storm a military outpost if we wanted to,” David said, his tone dry. The doctor sighed, shook her head, went back to staring at the monitors.
“Captain, I just mean it’s not impossible,” Stef said.
“Food?” David asked, turning back to her. “Twelve years is a long time, and there is nothing between us and Alpha Centauri.”
Stef looked pained. “The civilians would have to go on ice. At least some of them, maybe in shifts. If we manage it right, whoever’s awake could probably survive on the product from the algae farms.”
“So we age a decade-plus while they sleep,” David said. “And we spend the entire time eating through tubes.”
“Not saying it would be without sacrifice, Sir,” Stef said.
“Right. Sergeant, you’re excused from your shift at the watch. Instead, I want a list of every other ship that’s out in the solar system. Not just American … everyone, with crew counts and any other info you can give me.”
“Your every wish is my most vital command, Captain,” Stef said, turning to her console. David rolled his eyes and turned away from her.
“May I say something, Captain?” the Doctor asked, and David nodded.
“I don’t know the exact numbers, but I know that most of my colleagues on Earth are dead. The scientific community has fared no better against this virus than anyone else, and few of us were lucky enough to be in space when the asteroid hit. The Vermont has to have been the only ship with a dedicated virologist on it in the entire system, and now it’s lost. How many people are left who can even work on a cure? Two dozen?”
David, who thought that number optimistic, said nothing. Burke continued.
“If I thought there was the slightest chance, the barest possibility, that we were actually going to cure this thing, I would be advocating that we stay here. I would be begging you.”
Burke held her left hand out, looking at the wedding ring on her index finger. She closed the hand to a fist, opened it back up again, looked at David.
“The Earth is dead,” she said. “There is nothing that you or I can do to help anyone left down there. I’ve lain awake for days, contemplating how we might help, and the truth is that we can’t. We can only help ourselves, and whatever piece of humanity there is left, by settling somewhere other than Earth. This new planet gives us that chance.”
David took all of this in without comment, considering the Doctor’s words. At last he opened his mouth to speak, but before he could begin, the door to the Command Center opened and CJ stepped in.
“You wanted to see me, Sir?” he asked, and David closed his mouth. He looked for a moment longer at Dr. Burke before turning to CJ.
“Sergeant O’Connell will brief you,” he said. “She’ll need some reports on the V3 boxes, to complement what she’s already working on.”
“Sure thing, Sir.”
David nodded, stood, and looked around the Command center until at last his gaze fell on the woman he loved. Stef was peering over her shoulder at him with her big, beautiful eyes, and a thought ran through his head: I am incredibly lucky.
“I’ll be awake in four hours,” he told her. “I want everything on my console when I get out of bed. The reports, your proposal, the logistics … all of it.”
The right corner of Stef’s mouth ticked momentarily upward, but she only nodded and said, “Yes, Captain.”
“The Master Sergeant has command,” he told those assembled around him, and turned to leave.
Stef’s report was waiting for him when he woke, but she was not in the room. This didn’t surprise David; she was probably asleep in one of the crew compartments. He read through the report twice, mulling it over.
He supposed that it should be an easy call. The people on Earth were dying, and their civilizations were dying with them. The emergence of an E1 planet to which the healthy could flee, just at this moment, was an occurrence so improbable it seemed miraculous. A more religious man might have seen in it the hand of God.
It should have been easy, but it wasn’t. There were other ships in orbit, some of them with active cultures of the virus. There was still a possibility of a cure. If they left Earth now, they were abandoning that chance, abandoning those people left on the planet who might somehow survive, either through natural immunity or isolation.
There was no guarantee of success even if they rounded up enough human beings to reach a minimum viable population, a number which scientists couldn’t seem to agree on. There was no guarantee they would survive the trip; the numbers were ambiguous. A lot of things would have to go right, and if they made it to the E1 at all it would take decades, possibly centuries, before they could spare enough people for any sort of return to Earth.
The last page of the report held the end of a data table and was empty at the bottom. Stef had doodled in this white space with her stylus, and David found himself staring at the picture. It was simplistic, almost a child’s drawing. A man with shaded skin and a woman with curly dark hair, holding hands, standing outside with smiles on their faces, the sun beaming down above them. David wondered if the star exuding those lines of light was meant to be Sol, or Alpha Centauri B.
He was not afraid of how the military might react; there was little military left, and no government for it to serve. It was not the breach of protocol that troubled him, but the idea of giving up on the only home his species had ever known. The choice seemed to tear at his very core, filling him with doubt. Who was he, a newbie Captain, to make that choice for the people aboard this ship, let alone anywhere else?
Yet Stef had put it most succinctly. “The world is ending,” she had told him, and he knew that she was right. Returning to Earth was madness. Impossible. The only alternative was to survive in orbit, using up resources from other planets and moons, keeping most of the population in cryo-storage most of the time so as to live off the meager amount of nutrients that they could produce away from Earth, hoping that somehow, someway, they would find a cure. Was that really what he wanted?
David ran through the report again, checking and rechecking Stef’s numbers, knowing that she must already have done so herself. He thought about raising a family under an alien sun. He wondered if there was anyone left alive who could reliably build a house, let alone a fusion reactor. Would they even make it all the way there? It was a twelve-year question, and not one that could be answered by any means other than making the attempt. It was safer to stay in orbit. Was it smarter?
It seemed like no matter which direction he looked, all he could see were cons. He thought of his mother, praying every day to Vishnu, asking for His wisdom and guidance and favor. He thought of his father, who had died an atheist, laughing at the idea that mankind’s destiny was in any hands but its own. What would they tell him, if their voices could somehow stretch across the void of death and reach him here in this dark place, hovering above the planet he had once called home?
David sat at his desk in thought for some time, eyes closed, breathing in the stale air that circulated throughout the ship. At last he reached out to the console before him and tapped the screen, turning on the ship-wide PA.
“Attention, this is—” he began, and stopped, taking a deep breath before speaking again, broadcasting to the hundred and fifteen other people aboard.
“This is Captain David Sen,” he told them, “and I have an important announcement to make.”
Christopher Buecheler has published one novel, The Blood That Bonds, which has enjoyed great success among fans of Urban Fantasy. The sequel, Blood Hunt, is due out September 1, 2011. He is a professional web designer and developer, a student of mixology and brewing, a player of guitars and drums, a follower of various sports, a fan of video games and a reader of many genres. He lives a semi-nomadic existence with his amazing French wife, Charlotte and their two cats: Carbomb and Baron Salvatore H. Lynx II. Currently they reside in Providence, RI. You can visit him at http://writing.cwbuecheler.com