To: Mission Command, Lunar Base
M Class planet orbiting Proxima Centauri deemed too hostile for habitation. All assets lost. Course set for Gliese system.
There’s barely enough room to turn around in my tiny shower, but the water is perfect. I make it so hot my skin will glow pink when I step out. Eventually, the ration timer sounds its trill thirty-second warning, but I let the system shut itself off rather than stop it manually, savoring these last few seconds.
As I dress, I glance at a framed photo affixed to the wall above my work desk. It’s Earth. Before. The picture belonged to my grandmother. She smiles at the camera while foaming blue water crests into a wave behind her. A beach. Her hand shades her eyes from the brilliant summer sun glinting off the sand.
When I look at pictures of Earth, and I’ve seen many, I always wonder about the smell. The ocean had a smell. I’ve read that. Tangy. Fishy. Briny. Someone else’s words. Their memories. I try not to think about everything we’ve lost.
Captain Cyra Moran cradles a warm cup of coffee in one hand and peruses the previous day’s reports with the other. Ship engineering systems normal. Crew in good health. Life support functioning at full capacity. Spin at 1g. All quiet on the western front. She chuckles softly to herself as the obscure title pops into her mind. An ancient book about an ancient war, back when humanity had the luxury of fighting wars.
She’s grateful for the quiet. She needs it. Her crew needs it. Losing the alpha team has left them reeling. Demoralized. And while risk defines the Quest missions, failure is still crushing. But the time for caution has run out, right along with Earth’s dying ecosystem and Mars’s failed terraforming endeavors. A new home is the only real hope for their species.
“Lieutenant Benin, how much longer,” she asks her helmsman.
“Ten hours and we’ll drop into normal space.”
“You have the bridge, Benin. I’m checking in on geo-bio. Call if you need me.”
“Yes ma’am,” Benin says, without looking up from his instrument panel.
Cyra strides through the quiet corridors, passing a crewmember or two who greet her with respectful, if stiff, nods, before arriving at the geo-bio lab. Motion sensors detect her presence and the door slides open.
One of the younger science officers stands. “Captain.”
“Lieutenant Verone, you aren’t scheduled for duty yet,” she says, squinting at the dark-haired wisp of a girl.
“No ma’am, but I couldn’t sleep,” the lieutenant admits.
“There’s a bit of that going around.” Cyra says, smiling with as much warmth as she can muster. The spinning holographic model on the worktable in front of Verone quickly captures Cyra’s attention. “Profiling the Gliese 581 system?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve entered all the archived data from our home-based satellites, and from any probe that had eyes on the system. I’m writing the program now and as soon as new data becomes available, the model and simulations will update.”
Verone is brilliant. An accomplished planetary scientist, she’s weighed in on Quest Nine’s mission parameters and helped choose the target planets. And, as with all crewmembers, she has a primary skill and another secondary one, software engineering, at which she also excels.
Her quick mind is often at odds with her youthful naiveté, a characteristic Cyra finds charming. But today, the forced enthusiasm in Verone’s voice can’t quite cover her misery.
“It’s not your fault, Aja,” Cyra says.
Verone stiffens. She opens her mouth to speak, and then closes it again.
“This is dangerous work. We know we’re going to fail most of the time. It’s why we’ve sent ten missions. And even then, it’s a long shot,” Cyra says emphatically.
Verone gives her a small nod, but still won’t make eye contact. Finally, she swallows and whispers, “What if I’d chosen another place for them to land? Maybe they could have made it back to the ship. Gotten out in time.”
Cyra pats the girl’s arm before leaving.
Jace blinks once and taps the neuro-interface on his temple. His surroundings shift hues. Aja sits across from him, her eyes wide with curiosity.
“How does it look?” she asks.
“Green,” he answers.
She shakes her head and grins, mumbling under her breath, “Man of few words.”
He knows he should probably say something else, but for the life of him he can’t think what.
“Well, this should correct for the overabundance of red light seeping through the planet’s atmosphere. But you can shift to a different filter if we haven’t calculated correctly. And once you feel comfortable, you don’t have to use any at all,” she says.
He nods and taps a few more times to test the different settings.
Aja turns. Her smile grows when she touches the screen of her tablet, and a three-dimensional hologram of the Gliese system materializes between them. He’s seen the model already, but it looks like she’s added more detail.
“There are seven planets, not just the five we’d already found. But because the star is a red dwarf, the habitable zone is tighter here than Earth was to our sun. Only planets c, d, and e qualify.” Interrupting her own stream of consciousness chatter, she looks up at him. “We have to name them something other than letters of the alphabet.”
He isn’t sure if she expects an answer. Her mind works fast, and sometimes she’s moved right on to the next thing before he has a chance to respond to the first. But this time an idea comes.
“Caspar, Danek, and Emil,” he says.
Aja drops her hands into her lap and the color drains from her face. Jace watches her bottom lip tremble, a pit forming in his stomach.
“I’ve upset you. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“No,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s a good idea. That would be a meaningful way to honor them. I don’t think we get to decide though.”
He shrugs. “Probably not.”
She stays quiet, fiddling with the tablet.
“Ellison named us like that,” Jace says, pointing at the model planets, one at a time. “Down the alphabet, in order.
“I never noticed that. I should have noticed that,” she says.
He shrugs again.
“You miss them,” she says, her voice catching on the words.
“Yes,” he answers carefully.
She touches his arm and a jolt, like electricity, runs through his body. He pulls in a deep breath and stills.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers.
He hesitates for a second and then places his hand over hers, squeezing gently. “We understand the mission,” he says.
In my quarters, I review the accumulated data from the alpha team again. I can’t help myself. The plate tectonics on Gliese 581b were more violent than we anticipated. All that observation time in orbit and the seismic activity stayed within normal limits. But as soon as we landed the team, it’s like the planet woke from a nap, shook itself, and flung off the unwelcome intruders. Swallowed them actually. The ground opened up and swallowed them.
Their last transmission haunts me. The screams, and then the silence. But I have to listen, over and over again. Because now that they’re gone, it’s all that’s left of them.
Darkness dances around my peripheral vision. My heart races and cold sweat prickles my forehead. I grip the edge of my desk and wait. It will pass, I tell myself. And it does. I splash cold water on my face and run my fingers through my damp hair, now desperate to get out of this room. I’m wrung out, but alone in my own mind is about the worst place for me right now. My stomach rumbles, demanding attention, so I head to the dining hall to satisfy two of my urgent needs: food and company.
I plop my tray and myself down next to Lieutenant Vanir, a communications officer who I trained with a few years ago. He’s getting ready to start his shift, but he smiles when I join him. I could always eat just a little bit more than my allotment, and the flavor of the food is always just a little bit bland. I’m not complaining. I understand about rations, and I know the genetically modified crops we produce are carefully engineered, but I wonder what real food, grown in real dirt, with real sunshine, would taste like.
We might find out. Hope dangles there like an apple on a tree branch. I’ve never eaten an apple or seen a real apple tree, but still, I can imagine it.
“When I’m finished here, I’m going to Genesis. I want to review the latest weather patterns with the beta team.” I tell Vanir, thinking about the upcoming mission. Trying not to think about the failed one.
“You spend an awful lot of extra time with the GenMods,” he comments.
“Don’t call them that,” I snap. “It makes them sound like…”
“Like what? Genetically modified humans?” he answers, popping a hydroponically grown cherry tomato into his mouth. “I’m not judging, just making an observation.”
I shrug. “They’re people. Like us,” I say.
“Not exactly,” he answers, raising an eyebrow.
“They’re human beings,” I argue.
“And what they’re doing is courageous.”
“It’s what they were made to do,” he says.
I have nothing to add. It’s true. I was born. They were made. Made to help humanity survive if survival is even a possibility anymore.
Aja is back, with her models and data. Jace knows from all the information he’s seen that Gliese 581 d is a hostile planet. But it’s a hostile planet with a breathable atmosphere, and that, it turns out, is better than a hostile planet without one. Like Mars.
He notices that Aja seems more and more anxious as they get closer to confirming a launch date. He’s eager to go. To do what he’s been training to do for his whole, short life. A part of him wishes he wasn’t leaving her. Maybe this planet won’t kill them. Maybe there is a future here. But he doesn’t dare think too long about the possibilities, of what it could mean for him if his team survives.
Dr. Ellison flits around checking bio-scans and readings from the various tech inside Jace’s body. Nanotech that boosts his blood’s oxygen carrying capacity, sharpens his vision, augments his hearing. Nanotech that will hopefully increase his odds of survival.
Kavan stands to one side talking quietly with Aja. Jace is closer to Kavan than to any of the members on his own team. Not that he hasn’t bonded with his team, it’s just that he feels like he can talk to Kavan about things other than the mission. He knows Kavan doesn’t want to be left behind, but his turn will come next if the Gliese attempt fails.
When Ellison leaves, satisfied with the team’s test results, Jace hears Aja murmur to Kavan, “Does he creep you out a little?”
Kavan laughs. “No social skills.”
Aja returns his laughter and then motions for the rest of the team to gather. “So, what has me most concerned about Gliese d is the violent weather. These systems develop quickly, move fast, and pack a lot of energy. We’re going to watch things for a little while longer and try to find you a quiet spot to land.”
Cyra nods at Lieutenant Vanir while she stares at the streaming video feed from the launch bay.
“Endurance, you are cleared for launch,” Vanir says into the com.
“Roger that, Quest Nine. Engines engaged. Locks released. Thrusters go at ten percent.”
A few heartbeats pass.
“Systems green across the board. Engaging thrusters to twenty percent. Atmospheric insertion in thirty minutes.”
The first launch had gone off without a hitch as well. And despite knowing the odds of success, Cyra had felt eager, buoyant. Right up until the end. Now, she is merely tense.
The landing team will explore the terrain first, send back a slew of data. If Cyra and the geo-bio department like what they see, they’ll direct the team to set up a more permanent camp. If that shows promise, they’ll begin preparations to establish a small colony made up of the Quest Nine crew. Finally, if that’s successful, migration from the lunar base can begin.
But it’s a long way from setting a ship down in one piece to saving the human race. No team from any of the Quest missions has survived on the ground for more than twenty-four hours.
I watch the launch from Genesis, chewing my nails. Seated next to me is an equally nervous Kavan, who taps his leg in a rapid, regular rhythm.
Neither of us will be moving until we know they’ve landed safely. After that, the bridge crew will monitor the continuous transmissions from the team. I can access the recorded files, and the volumes of data they send us, at any time.
Jace’s voice sounds clear, confident. I wonder if he’s afraid at all, or if death doesn’t scare him the way it does me. I’ve never asked him. I wish I’d asked him.
The ship vibrates as they pass through the upper atmosphere. Jace keeps careful track of the external temperature, speed, and altitude. He speaks the readings out loud, less concerned that anyone hears him and more out of habit. His voice is measured, controlled, articulate. He’s logged countless hours in the simulator, under every condition imaginable. He thinks he could fly in his sleep.
He spares a quick glance around at his small crew. The copilot, Gavin, catches his eye and grins. The others are behind him, white knuckling their armrests.
Out the cockpit window, pink tinted clouds streak by. He doesn’t have a visual on the ground yet, but his ship knows it’s there. Steady streams of data blip back at him, creating a map of the region’s surface. And suddenly they break through the clouds. Purple-red mountains jut into a deep blue sky. The surface below is fully illuminated, the mountains painting dark shadows onto the ground. There is total silence in the cockpit. Jace takes a moment to appreciate the startling view, and then he begins the landing sequence.
They step out of the ship wearing cold weather gear. A blast of frigid wind stings Jace’s face, but he inhales deeply, appreciating that this is the first time in his life he is breathing natural air.
He’s set the ship down in a flat valley on the south side of the mountain range. When he turns and looks up, the alien sun blazes orange against a deep blue sky. Jace has no desire to use a neuro-filter and disrupt the purity of the view. Streaks of crimson, amber, and pink radiate from the glowing orb, and for a moment the entire team stares open-mouthed.
Finally, Jace breaks the silence. “Gavin, stay with the ship. Ian, Fynn, head north. Keep within 10 kilometers. Hayden, you’re with me.”
The two teams move in opposite directions. Jace knows Gavin would rather be out exploring, but they’ll take turns monitoring each other from the ship. If anyone gets into trouble, Endurance can come and collect them. The ship has enough power to circumnavigate the planet several times if needed. But only enough power to reach escape velocity once.
To: Mission Command, Lunar Base
Endurance has successfully touched down on Gliese 581 d. The team is still transmitting data after 48 hours on the surface.
Snow has fallen overnight, blanketing the valley with a crystalline coat, and Jace’s footprints mar the otherwise pristine landscape. His breath puffs around his face in steamy clouds as he opens a vial to collect the frozen liquid, and then packs it away safely in his bag.
There is a forest that he is eager to explore several kilometers away. He can see the shadow of it in the distance, and he picks up his pace. The orbiting satellites have imaged it, but he still doesn’t know what to expect.
Most of the data his team sends to Quest Nine is raw and comes from spectrometers, atmospheric equipment, and numerous other devices designed specifically to analyze the alien terrain. But they also have personal recording devices to capture their own observations and impressions. When he speaks into his, he imagines Aja listening.
“These trees are massive,” he says, staring upward to the juncture between canopy and sky. He hasn’t seen anything like them in all the photo files of Earth’s forests. “The trunks are coated in a hard shell. I’m going to scrape off a sample.”
He removes another vial along with a small scalpel and chips away at the brittle exterior. It flakes off into the sample jar. “I’ll run a qualitative analysis back at the habitat and send up the results.”
He’s quiet for a moment and then adds, “It’s beautiful here.”
I barely leave the geo-bio lab, there’s so much incoming data about the planet. I try to imagine what it’s like standing on the surface, with a vast sky over my head. Not a ship or a habitat, or even the see-through dome on the lunar observatory, but an open sky.
When I’m not in geo-bio, I’m with Kavan in Genesis. He’s monitoring the incoming data with as much intensity and interest as I am. He’s chatty too. Not that he isn’t as competent as the rest of the Genesis team, but he laughs easily and seems more interested in people than in science.
Kavan, like me, pays most attention to the crew logs. When I play a particular recording of Jace’s a few times through, Kavan looks at me sideways and grins.
“What?” I ask.
“Nothing. He’s got a nice voice.”
I just shake my head.
Suddenly an alert pings my com and I have to report back to geo-bio. “I’ll let you know what it is,” I assure Kavan as I hurry out the door.
“Lieutenant, this is a big one,” the ensign on duty says to me as soon as I arrive.
He has a live weather map on the display screen, and a dynamic swirling mass hurtles across the northern continent.
I call the bridge from my workstation. “Captain, we have a problem,” I say, my voice shaking as I link the map from my screen to hers. “They don’t have much time before it hits.”
“Jace, I’m receiving an urgent communication from Quest Nine. Serious weather’s coming in,” Ian reports from Endurance.
“Okay, everyone, return to the ship ASAP,” Jace orders. He’s deep in the forest taking soil samples and collecting more of the unusual bark.
“Roger that,” Gavin answers. “On our way.”
Already, Jace can feel the wind picking up. He carefully tucks away the tools and samples, secures his backpack, and pulls his balaclava over his nose and mouth. Gusts howl through the forest canopy above him. When he looks up, a menacing gray sky peers at him through the branches. Even under the cover of the trees, ice chunks begin to pelt him. And through his insulated clothing he can feel the temperature drop.
He runs. A brilliant flash overhead stops him in his tracks. His mind briefly registers that lightning has struck nearby before the shock wave knocks him off his feet. Stunned, he feels his heart thudding against his ribcage, but he can’t make himself move. An acrid smell fills his nostrils and his eyes sting from smoke. Fire, he thinks.
His body is sluggish, heavy. His limbs tingle. But he has to get up. He feels the heat, blistering the exposed skin around his eyes, in his throat, choking his breath. He rolls onto his side and then onto his hands and knees. The air feels like it’s boiling his lungs, the heat unbearable. He staggers to his feet and stumbles forward.
The roaring flames chase him down. Blood rushes through his temples as he runs to the cadence of his own heartbeat. He trips on new-growth saplings, and rocks that obstruct his path, but finally he sees the clearing.
A fresh wave of adrenaline courses through him as he emerges into the eerie greenish daylight. Ice pelts him, stinging his smoke damaged eyes. Screaming wind blows snow into thick whirls. Disoriented, he can’t tell up from down, never mind east from west.
“Ian! Can you hear me?” he says into the com, his voice rasping and barely coherent.
“Jace? Is that you?” Ian sounds panicked.
“It is. I can’t get to you. Can you get the ship up? Track my location?”
“I’m reading your bio-scanner and the GPS is locked onto you. Firing up the engines. I’m coming. Hang on,” Ian says.
Jace collapses into a snowbank. “Have you got the others?” he asks, an icicle of dread nagging at him. His com has been open. He should have heard from them.
“I have Fynn, but not Gavin or Hayden. Their comms cut out.”
There is a heavy silence before Ian continues. “Bio-scans are negative. They’re gone,” he says.
The breath leaves Jace’s lungs. It will be as if they never existed. No one will remember their names. There’s no reason to remember them.
In the distance, he hears a roar. The ground vibrates under Jace, and he can feel something building, feel it in his bones.
“Ian, have you got that ship up yet?” he asks, trying to keep a measured tone.
“Still in pre-launch,” Ian answers.
“What’s that sound?” Jace asks. He is still uncertain which direction is which, but he suspects the noise is coming from the same direction as Endurance.
“I don’t know. The whole ship is shaking. What...” Ian stops talking and starts shouting. Loud crashes followed by static followed by silence fills Jace’s comm.
Seconds, maybe hours, later he uncurls his nearly frozen body and brushes the snow and ice from his eyes. He has to dig his buried torso out from under the heavy wet blanket. The sun blazes in the sky once again, as if nothing has happened, as if all the violence was just a figment of Jace’s imagination. But now that the sky has cleared, he can orient himself again and he trudges toward the Endurance and the habitat. Only when he sees the valley in the distance, everything is gone. The whole side of the mountain has come down in an avalanche of ice and rock.
“What’s going on down there?” Cyra shouts, as Vanir tries to reach Endurance.
After several unsuccessful attempts, Vanir says, “We’ve lost them ma’am.”
Cyra stares silently at the comm for a moment then slams her fist down on the edge of the panel. Vanir blinks but otherwise doesn’t react. The bridge crew is stunned.
“Bio-readings?” Cyra asks.
“One. It’s Jace,” he answers.
Cyra runs a hand over the back of her neck and closes her eyes.
“We’re not sending another Quest ship down there. He likely wouldn’t survive long enough for us to reach him anyway.”
For Cyra, this decision is simple. Simple, but not easy, she thinks to herself. Yet it’s the only one to be made. “Vanir, override the link. Disconnect Jace’s bio-scanner. I’ll inform the crew that the beta team has been lost,” she says, slumping back into her captain’s chair.
Vanir swallows hard, obeys the command, and Jace’s bio-scanner flat lines.
I tell myself they can’t be dead, but just like the alpha team, we’ve lost them. Emptiness opens in my chest, like a dark cavern. I don’t cry. I don’t speak. I don’t feel.
I should go and find Kavan. I’m sure he’s distraught, but I don’t have the energy to move. I shut the lights off in my cabin and lay staring at the blackness.
We maintain our orbit around Gliese 581 d for a little longer. Although the Captain’s decided we’ll be moving on to the next planet, she wants to finish out the data capture here.
I’m analyzing the ice core readings that Jace’s team sent to us two days ago, but I have to keep rechecking my own work. Distracted, I’m making simple mistakes, and the task is taking twice as long as it should.
I don’t care about ice core samples or temperature graphs or barometric pressure. I just want to turn back the clock, insist we take more time observing the planet, maybe stop the team from ever leaving in the first place. But I can’t do that. So I work.
Later, when I’ve finally finished entering the last of the data, the door slides open. Vanir enters wearing a stricken expression.
“Are you okay?” I ask him.
He shakes his head. “Can I talk to you?” he whispers.
I get up and we walk together to the mess hall. It’s by no means private, but we find a quiet corner.
Vanir’s face is ashen and he shakes as he holds a steaming cup of coffee between both hands.
“What’s wrong? I mean, besides the obvious,” I ask.
“I don’t… I shouldn’t,” he stammers.
I tilt my head and wait for him to decide if he wants to tell me something or not.
“Aja, one of the GenMods might still be alive down there. On Gliese d.”
I can only stare at him. “What?” I finally say.
“After the storm and the avalanche, we lost contact with Endurance and with the entire crew. Satellite images couldn’t even find the landing site or the habitat. But the bio-link showed that someone was alive,” he says in a whispered rush.
“Why aren’t we sending down another lander on a rescue mission?”
“You know those ships can only make one round trip. If we send one down, we scrap a planetary mission.”
I know this. I know it, but it shouldn’t matter. We’ve left someone stranded on a hostile world, alone.
“Who is it?” I ask, needing to know, dreading the answer.
He swallows and blinks. “Jace.”
I close my eyes. My stomach churns, and an icy chill ripples up my spine. “She told us they were dead,” I say, as much to myself as to Vanir.
“She isn’t willing to sacrifice the mission. And she thinks he’d be dead before we got to him anyway, but…” Vanir stops himself mid-sentence.
“Why are you telling me?” I ask, suddenly furious.
His eyes widen at my tone, and he opens his mouth, but no sound comes out. Then, as suddenly as my anger flares, it dies into a cold ember, leaving only vague exhaustion in its wake. I feel sick and defeated. Hot tears threaten but don’t fall.
Vanir stands. His chair scrapes against the floor as he backs away. “I’m sorry, Aja,” he says in a barely audible voice.
I stare at the tabletop. Jace is alive. When I imagine him alone, maybe injured, somewhere on the surface of that planet, my chest constricts, and I can barely breathe. We cannot leave him.
The numbness of shock begins to wear off and my mind races. A series of actions form in my mind, a list, like the ones I make to keep me focused when I’m working. To tick the first one off, I need to get to the Genesis lab.
When I arrive, Kavan hovers over a screen in one corner of the lab gathering initial data on our next targeted star system.
“Hey,” I say to him when he looks up at me. His eyes are red-rimmed, and he holds a cup of coffee in one hand.
“How are you holding up?” he asks me.
I don’t answer the question but look around at the near empty room. “Where’s Ellison?”
Kavan squints at me. “Not here for another couple of hours. Why?”
I motion for him to join me at one of the computer terminals. I log into the medical interface and access the bio-links for the Genesis group. Without their monitors sending back information, the deceased team members are only names now. One-word names on an otherwise blank screen.
I click on Jace’s file and open it, then easily reestablish the link from the ship to the internal chip that tracks his pulse, oxygen level, and a whole slew of other biological information. There are no security measures in place to keep me from doing this. No one would think there’s a need. No one else would have reason to look.
Immediately a strong, steady heartbeat blips across the top of the screen. Kavan slumps heavily in his chair and gasps. Without thinking, I trace my figures across the moving line.
“We have to do something,” I say.
Kavan is still for a moment, and then slowly he nods.
From my station in the geo-bio lab, I hack into the ship’s engineering system and take the sub-space engines off-line. Then, I change the security codes and lock out access. It won’t take the engineering crew long to override what I’ve done, and they’ll be getting alerts already that something’s wrong, but it will buy us a little time. Hopefully a little time is all we need.
I race to the launch bay where Kavan is powering up Frontier, the ship that’s slated to fly the next Quest mission. He would likely have commanded this mission himself once we confirmed a planet for exploration. But right now, we are stealing it, and flying it down to Gliese d.
“Override the docking control system and prepare to open the bay doors on my command,” Kavan says.
“On it.” I perform a similar hack and access the launch bay controls. “Ready when you are.”
“Aja,” he turns to look at me. “Are you sure? This is treason.”
“If we get Jace back, I’ll gladly face the consequences.”
“I feel the same. My days are numbered anyway if history is any indication,” he says with a bitter smile.
I wait for him to finish the pre-launch sequence, my stomach in knots.
“Disengage the magnetic locks,” he orders.
“Locks disengaged,” I say, and take a deep breath.
“What the hell is happening?” Captain Cyra Moran asks when she receives the report from engineering. In the next minute, the deck crew informs her that someone has initiated an unauthorized launch sequence.
“It’s Frontier. She’s powered up.”
“Vanir!” she yells. “Get me a link to Frontier’s com.”
“Yes ma’am,” he says. “Link established.”
“Frontier, this is Captain Moran. Power down immediately.”
Frontier doesn’t respond.
“Give me a visual,” she says to Vanir. Frontier’s cockpit camera reveals two faces.
Cyra stands over Vanir’s shoulder, mutes the connection to Frontier, and then makes another one to the Genesis lab.
When she reaches Dr. Ellison, she gives him an order. “Initiate omega protocol.”
“Launch bay sealed,” I tell Kavan.
“Okay, open the bay doors,” he says. But suddenly he grabs his head with both hands.
“Kavan!” I scream. He begins to convulse. Blood trickles from his ears, out his nose. His eyes roll to the back of his head.
I unbuckle my safety harness and grab him by the shoulders. He is seizing with such violence that his head slams back and forth on his seat back. I can only watch, helpless.
When the security team enters, I am holding Kavan’s lifeless body in my lap. They have to pry me off of him. His blood is smeared over the front of my uniform and on my hands.
When Cyra opens the cell door, the girl looks up at her, eyes wide, expression stunned.
“What you did wasn’t heroic, or noble. You put your personal feelings above the well-being of the entire crew. Above our entire species.” Cyra pauses and squats down, so she is eye to eye with Aja. “Our directive is to save humanity from extinction, not to save one individual human.”
“If that’s who we’ve become, maybe we don’t deserve to be saved,” Aja answers, a spark of life returning as she glares back at Cyra.
Cyra shakes her head. She makes these decisions so no one else has to.
“You killed Kavan,” Aja says, her lower lip quivering.
“He would have launched that ship.”
Aja stops talking and turns away. No matter what Cyra says to her now, she won’t answer.
They found me guilty. I knew they would. Now, as I sit alone in my cell, I just want this to be over. I can’t get warm. I can’t stop shaking. I should be afraid, but I’m numb.
Hours pass. And then an armed security guard unlocks the door and motions me to follow. Captain Moran is waiting. Silently they march me out of the lockup.
I hope I don’t get sick on myself. I hope I can stand on my own. The numbness wears off and my survival instinct kicks in. I search for an escape, but I know there isn’t one.
I’m hyperventilating now. My heart is pounding, and I can feel the blood pulsing in my temples. Darkness hovers at the edge of my vision, and I’m barely able to put one foot in front of the other.
In the midst of my panic I realize I’m standing in front of an escape pod. There are enough of these emergency vehicles for every crewmember. They’re only useful if Quest Nine gets into trouble while orbiting a planet. Since much of our time is spent in orbit, I guess they were deemed a worthy addition to the safety features of the ship.
I look at Captain Moran in confusion.
I comply. Once inside I quickly buckle into the safety harness.
“His bio-scanner is still active. Your pod is locked on to that signal. Goodbye, Aja.” The door closes and seals me inside. Captain Moran puts her hand up on the transparent window and stares at me, her expression unreadable. And then she steps out of sight.
I have to activate the release mechanism myself. It’s just the push of a button. Easy. If things are blowing up around us, and we can get here, it should be easy. But now, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
Jace is alive. I focus on that one fact.
My hand hovers over the button, shaking. Finally, I close my eyes and press.
My stomach churns as the pod plummets away. I know the second it hits the planet’s upper atmosphere. The heat shielding protects me, but the inside temperature rises dramatically, and sweat drips into my eyes. I can see pinkish clouds whip by through the small portal window.
I fall for several minutes when suddenly an alarm blares and another button flashes green. The pod sensors have detected the ground and are prompting me to deploy the parachute to slow my descent. I do it without hesitation, and then jerk backward into my seat when the chute catches, and the pod rapidly decelerates.
With a jarring thud, I hit the ground and sit motionless for several moments, marveling that I am still in one piece. When I finally open the compartment door, a blast of frigid wind stings my face, but I inhale deeply, appreciating that this is the first time in my life I am breathing natural air.
Tabitha Lord is the author of the award-winning Horizon series, about an empath who survives genocide. Her short fiction has appeared in StarShipSofa, Tales to Terrify, and anthologies from World Weaver Press, Grimbold Books, and more. She lives in Rhode Island, where she reads Latin, spoils her cats, and writes romantic suspense under the pen name Maggie Clare.