Last Call

By Drema Deòraich

Max crouched on the ledge, muscles tight as she peered down at the plunge pool. Beside her, Sybil squatted, eyes wide. Max shot a look toward her friend, watched the rapid rise and fall of her chest, the flush in her skin. Sybil didn’t belong here. Waterfall jumps were Max’s thing. Sybil’s comfort zone stopped high above in the clifftop picnic area, a scenic view surrounded by safety barriers and trail markers. She’d never wanted to tag along before, so why now?

Max gestured. Are you sure?

Sybil nodded.

Max turned back toward the water and rose into position. Such a beautiful place! She breathed deep the humid, perfumed air, her body surging with electrical signals.

Then she dove.

Her arms and legs jerked inside the pod, manipulated by automated machinery even as she felt herself pressed into warming pads beneath her inclined body. Gravity had been activated, then. Mild pulses twinged her muscles again and Max stirred against the straps, licked her lips with a raspy tongue. A deep rumble, more felt than heard, chased away the last vestiges of her dreams. The sedatives must be wearing off. She lay quiet, recalling her assignment to command this maiden voyage of The Swift, first Long-Range Explorer Class ship to carry a human crew. An odd name for a ship with such a portentous mission, she’d thought at first. But when she had said as much to her C.O., he had explained the extraordinary flight capacity for that small, unassuming bird. After that, the designation made perfect sense.

Sweetened air hissed into the chamber. In the pod, a smile curled her lips, and Max opened her eyes. If Ship had awakened her, they must be close to Beyuli.

K2 2495d, her sleepy brain prompted.

Screw that. Jain had dubbed it Beyuli, like the peaceful valleys of refuge in the Himalayas back on Earth. As a moniker, that was more memorable, more meaningful. Save formality for the logs.

Months of training formed her automatic response. “Ship, I’m awake. Pod one vertical.”

The capsule rotated to a standing posture.

“Ship, release restraints.”

A neutral voice replied. “Bio signs normal. Acknowledge release.”

Freed, Max worked in slow motion to remove her tubes and leads, then stepped out on shaky legs. An enormous yawn pulled her face into a contorted mask while shoulders and back and limbs stretched. All those endless repetitions of induced torpor and reanimation were finally paying off. The whole process felt almost natural. But Max had never been a morning person. Waking always came hard, and dregs of the torpor meds didn’t make it easier. She glanced back at the warm bed she’d just vacated. Maybe another hour?

Sheesh. Wake up, Maxine. A two-year nap ought to be enough sleep for anyone, even you.

Yawning again, she scratched idly at her naked hip and took a minute to orient herself. Seven additional pods lay equidistant in a circle around the room, each accompanied by a small locker. No frills marred the grey, utilitarian space. Just like in the sims. Conditioning took over and Max slipped into her role without a second thought. She planted her earbud firmly in place.

“Ship, report.” Her voice sounded weird after all this time, hoarse.

“Current ship date 21350911. Time is twelve eighteen. All systems go. Stasis pods functioning within acceptable parameters. Eleven-point-seven-zero hours to full awakening.”

Max tugged on a pair of sweatpants and a long-sleeved pullover, opened a nutripac and sipped the stage-one “food” while she padded around to the other pods. Mechanical arms went about their business above the other sleepers, moving wires or adjusting restraints to ensure continued comfort but vital signs for all seven of her crew lay well within specified range. Ship was right. Ship was always right. A quick check of Swift’s position showed a graphic display of their present location, still several days from Beyuli.

“Log entry, Mission Commander Maxine Patel recording. Ship has roused me on schedule. Crew is green across the board. I’ll report more once I’ve completed my initial inspection. Conclude entry.”

Max swallowed the last of her nutripac and pushed its wrapper into the recycler. A quick trip to the head, then she walked the length of the habitat module, peering into labs and storage as she went. All quiet, rooms pristine just as they’d been on launch. Soon enough these chambers would fill with bustle, a scientific crew running tests, making log entries, coming and going from the surface, playing games, talking, laughing. Too bad she couldn’t have soloed on this mission. She loved her crew—good thing, since they’d be practically on top of one another for the next few weeks—but Max loved her solitude more. Too much exposure to other people, even those she liked, got on her nerves after a while. Her lips puckered.

Enjoy the peace while you can, girlie.

In the small rec room Max climbed aboard a treadmill to begin working out the kinks of long-term stasis with an easy walk. Before her, the wall bowed out in a thick plaz bubble to reveal a clear view of the star system that would be their home for the next four weeks. Below and to the left glowed the small bright arc of a gas giant crowded by tiny specs of its moons. The other biggie, an ice planet, would be in a far-side orbit now. Ahead, Beyuli hugged a tight stellar orbit along with its fellow rocky planets, indistinguishable from stars to her naked eye at this distance. To the right and above the system’s plane hovered a distant blue smear of bright gas, some ancient remnant of a supernova whose designation she’d forgotten.

She was the first human being to lay eyes on this strange, alien view. Seeing it rendered in a holosim or on a star chart paled in comparison to its actual beauty. She amused herself by imagining each of her crewmembers’ reactions to the sight. Seth would grunt and go back to work. Lucia and Beck, whose mathematical language sometimes required translation even among the other scientists, would at least offer helpful data like orbital parameters and equations to explain the erratic movements of this or that planetary body.

Max debated the odds and decided on projections for the other, more philosophical members. Anouk would claim this wonder for God. Jain would quote Siddhartha Gautama. Noah and Kevin would debate whether All This was created by some mythical architect, or whether the universe comprised an illusion or a test, whether authentic existence lay unseen, unfelt, as long as we wear these skins.

She scoffed. Superstitious fantasies designed to provide subjective comfort. Assigning humanistic traits and purposes to the design of astronomical gravitation and the formation of planetary systems served no reasonable goal. Why believe in something that was by its very nature beyond the realm of proof, or which had never shown scientific merit as a working hypothesis? God was a wishing well. She would rather throw her metaphorical pennies into reasonable theories.

She increased her pace on the treadmill, beads of sweat rolling down her face. Twelve hours until she could enjoy that debate. Well, probably closer to eleven now, and plenty to accomplish in the hours between. She ran through an index of tasks in her head. Test lab equipment. Double-check status of supplies (little late to realize now they were short on something). Verify status of environment suits in case of emergencies. Confirm position and progress in Control. Review inbound comms and send an arrival confirmation to Titan base. By the time the others got up, everything needed to be ready to go. She should get a move on.

Max slowed, breathing hard, then stopped and wiped her face on her shirt. Vibe shower next. She’d give a lot for a real hot-water bath right now, but that small luxury lay more than a few years in her future. She reentered the head and stripped, croaking an old rock ballad off-key at the top of her voice. Within minutes, she emerged energized and ready to tackle her to-dos.

In the lab, she unpacked equipment piece by piece, latched it all to the tables and set them on self-test. Next, she threw on a jacket, grabbed another nutripac, and walked along the aft corridor toward the shuttle bay and the engine room.

She couldn’t help but wonder what they might find on Beyuli. Long-distance atmospheric scans had indicated a breathable atmosphere as well as the presence of water and, surprisingly, signs of life. Specifics remained uncertain until Swift’s crew made landfall but no exoplanet closer to Earth had shown as much promise. Humanity needed a place to expand, safe from the radiation of space and climate disasters it’d brought on itself. Resource shortages had already sparked one deadly war. Max hoped it would be the last, but she held no illusions. For her crew, this mission would take just over four ship years, while fifty Earth years would pass before they returned to Titan base. That’s the fastest turnaround mission planners been able to manage, yet given the desperate state of affairs when the ship left, Max had little faith her crowded home planet would resist hostilities for that long. Even this mission had sparked tensions over who would shoulder its massive expense and whether or not the spoils of discovery would be shared equally with all. The Swift may have been the first of her class, but unless she turned an outstanding profit, there would never be another.

So they’d test and sample the hell out of Beyuli’s air, soil and water, as well as any lifeforms they turned up—microbes probably. Drone flyovers would record holosurveys of their landing site and as much of the surface as they could manage in four weeks. If everything went according to plan, two ship years later she and her crew would be back on Titan. Another Earth year after that, they would again stand in the big conference center on base to participate in projections and plans for colonization.

Outside the bay, environment suits hung in two neat rows of five, one for each crewmember and two surplus in case of accident or suit failure. She analyzed each one’s insulation, air supply, bio- and visor displays. Next she slid on a thermal suit and stepped through the narrow hatch into the aft passage.

Her stomach growled.

“Ship, time to awakening?”

“Nine-point-five-zero hours.”

Damn.  She’d taken in two nutripacs already, but her body was sucking up fuel as fast as it could. She’d grab another on her way to Control, maybe a stage-two. Her mouth watered at the thought of nearly solid sustenance.

Damn, it was cold in the main engine module. Microgravity made the going slow, but she ran every eval through to her satisfaction before pushing back to the weighted corridor. Once on a solid deck, she shed the suit and plodded forward again, stopping only to grab an edible, then headed toward Control. Ship as a whole ran big, just over three times the length of their habitable space, unwieldy enough it had required an orbital shipyard for construction. Secondary thrusters and an assortment of other mechanicals spanned out on structural supports both fore and aft, but their working and living space felt comfortable, like home. Walls in every room of the habitat module and along each corridor were soft with pale grey padding. Recessed panels along the ceilings emitted light on either side to fully illuminate without glare. She looked around, forcing herself to consume the gelatinous ration slowly as she went. Yes, she thought. Home-ish. By mission conclusion, she would have lived aboard Swift longer than she’d been at any other domicile since she joined the military. She might even be sorry to leave when all was done.

She stepped through the hatch into Control, a shadowy chamber of dark grey everything. Fewer ambient lumens augmented the clarity of instrument panels and holo projections. Eight stations lined the module, two facing front and three on either side, each with adjustable tracseats. Straight ahead through the viewpanel lay the bulk of this star system and, hiding in the distant darkness, Beyuli.

She took another bite and dropped into the seat at her station. Every system showed normal readings, just as she’d expected. All the trepidation she’d felt during planning and training ops dropped away. So far, so good. The Swift had proven her worth.

“Ship, display a list of incoming messages.”

Dozens of texts filled the screen at her station. Mission parameter revisions, updates on Beyuli’s readings, notice of an apparent geothermal event on its surface and instructions to add that to her drone surveys. Only four of the incomings were visual. Max spun in her seat to face the holodisplay.

“Ship, play vids in order of receipt.”

At once, a smiling, familiar form stood in the center of the module.

“Good morning!” the holographic Sybil crowed, throwing her arms wide in a long-distance embrace. Then she looked left and right, swinging her shoulder-length blond hair, and crouched closer to the camera. “I’m not supposed to be sending yet. You only just entered torpor a few days ago by my calculations and these holos are expensive! But hey, they can dock me if they don’t like it. I wanted my face to be the first one you saw when you woke up.”

Max grinned. That’s more like the kind of rebellion she’d expect from Sybil, not waterfall diving. Not after so many close calls in air defense. They’d made a great team back then, but Sybil preferred to keep her feet firmly on the ground these days. After all they’d been through, Max couldn’t blame her.

“Remember that time you snuck rum onto Titan base and Captain Mitchell caught us getting shit-faced in the supply module?” Sybil’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “I still can’t believe you convinced him to drink with us instead of writing us up! You always had a way of making everything sound so reasonable. No one else gets me into trouble like you did. I miss that. I miss you.”

Max’s smile faded. When she got back to Titan, her friend would be old, maybe even dead.

“Can’t stay on long, I just…” Sybil paused. “I know how badly you wanted this. I’ve never been more proud of you than I am right now.” She winked a blue eye, then disappeared. Max swallowed past a sudden lump in her throat.

An unfamiliar face appeared next. Black hair bunned at the nape of her slender brown neck. Frank dark gaze that met the holocam without flinching. Regulation uniform, starched and spotless. Crisp, businesslike voice with a trace of Aussie accent. How old could she possibly be? Thirty? Younger? Max wondered if they were recruiting out of grade school these days.

“Patel, I’m Ground Commander Sinclair. Commander Driskoll retired three weeks ago, so I’ll be your new C.O. I’ve heard great things about you and your mates up there. The whole team down here sings your praises, so do us proud. Not sure what help I can be from so far away, but if you need anything, just let me know. Maybe we’ll have the opportunity to meet when you get back. Sinclair out.”

The third vid started, stuttered, and stopped, flickering over and over on an image she couldn’t quite make out. Looked like Titan Base. Max frowned.

“Ship, check current holovid for integrity.”

“Checksum invalid. File corrupt.”

“Very well. Continue playback.” Max took another bite from her pac. She would have to investigate that little mystery later.

The fourth sender peered out at her from a pallid face with hollow, haunted eyes. Limp colorless hair drooped around cheekbones that protruded way too far. Ragged clothing hung on the trembling skeletal frame. Behind her—it was a her, wasn’t it?—lay Control on Titan base. Two or three people she didn’t recognize rushed about the space in a frenzy.

Then the sender spoke, and the food in Max’s mouth turned to ash.

Sybil?

“Max, it’s true, what I said before. Worst case scenario. Everything’s…” She struggled for words.  “…gone. We still don’t know what happened. Luna sent the probe, like I said, but…” She swallowed hard. “Earth’s a cinder. Confirmed, no survivors on the planet or in atmo.”

Sudden loud pounding at the door made Sybil flinch forward, her words spilling out in a confused jumble. “Luna didn’t have enough supplies for survivors from orbiters and their own people, so they all came here. Eighty? A hundred people? Titan’s a bigger base, they must have thought…”

Sybil’s face twisted. “They were wrong,” she sobbed. “We were due for resupply in another two months, but we shared with them anyway. We divvied up every last morsel, hoping… I don’t know. But it wasn’t enough. They’ve started killing us. Said they’d make what was left go farther, that they’d—”

A loud crash sounded and Sybil jumped again, glancing over her shoulder at the door, which had begun to inch open. She whirled back to the camera, her words stumbling over each other in her haste. “Doesn’t matter. Even without the fighting, we can’t survive without resupply. We’re done. The ones they already killed are better off. Max—”

The door behind Sybil shrieked against its latches and finally gave way, spilling mutineers into the tight space. Max watched as one of them slashed a hurried blade across the throat of another crewmember just inside the door, then advanced toward the camera. Sybil thrust herself forward to fill the visual, screaming.

“Max, I was right, it’s over! You’re the last—“

The image blinked out.

Max stood less than a meter away from the projection, one hand extended toward the spot where her friend stood a heartbeat ago. She stared at the suddenly empty space, tendons in her neck stretched taut, every muscle rigid, her nutripac forgotten on the floor at her feet. Silence pounded her ears. Hair stood up at her nape. Her breath jittered in and out.

No. No!

“Ship.” Her pinched voice sounded distant, surreal. “Replay last message.”

Sybil’s tortured face etched itself into Max’s neurons, her scream encircled Max’s heart and squeezed until every breath wheezed in her throat. When the quiet returned, Max replayed it again. And again. There had to be a mistake. Surely her friend didn’t mean…

Surely The Swift’s crew wasn’t…

“Ship, record return communiqué.”

“Recording,” Ship replied.

Max opened her mouth but no words emerged. If Sybil’s message were true, if The Swift—

Max shook her head, unable to complete the thought. “Ship, belay recording. Display transmission data for all four vids at station one.”

She stumbled back to her seat. The screen showed three dates.

Message one: recorded transmission, sent ED21331218.

So three days after The Swift hit speed, at least for Sybil.

Message two: recorded transmission, sent ED21411117.

Almost eight years later, Earth time.

Message three: recorded transmission, sent ED21461003.

Almost five years later.

Message four: live transmission, commenced ED21461214 at 21:20:14, terminated 21:34:42.

Live? Max blinked, looked again at the data. Yes. Live. Transmission ran much longer than the visual. Twelve years had passed on Earth since then. She scrolled through the text comms again. Nothing had come through since almost an Earth year prior to Sybil’s last holo. Max struggled to grasp the revelation conveyed by her calculations. If anything had changed, someone would have sent another comm, wouldn’t they?

Wouldn’t they?

oh god

oh god oh god oh god

Her head shook in negation. Every mouthful she’d consumed lurched in her stomach and she heaved, turning to spray the floor instead of the console.

“Spill in the control module,” said Ship.

Max swiped a trembling hand across her mouth. “Noted. Ship, communications equipment has malfunctioned. Why aren’t we receiving incoming messages?” She waited, expectant.

“No malfunction is detected. Communications are fully operational.”

“Ship, ping Titan base. Alert me the moment they respond.”

“Time required to receive response would exceed—

“Irrelevant,” Max snapped. “Follow my instruction.”

“Acknowledged.”

“Ship, time to awakening?”

“Six point two-five hours.”

Thoughts crowded her mind, blurred and disjointed. She pushed up from her chair, stepped on quivering legs over her mess and kicked the nutrient pouch on her way out of the module, every step as much on autopilot as was Ship. Max stumbled down the corridor, through the hatch into the habitat module, and kept going until she reached the viewport in the rec room. Beyuli lay somewhere ahead, a distant point of light tagged like a child’s party game with all humanity’s dreams. The others had yet to even see these stars. For the moment, she was the only alive and aware human in the universe.

The enormity of their situation slammed into her like a runaway hoverbus, and she crumpled to the floor beneath its weight. Memories barged through, waterfall jumps and barrages of fighter fire and being shot down and learning to walk again. Faces and names and places and growing up in the foreshadow of social collapse and rioting in the days prior to the war. Doing bar shots with Sybil and the rest of her squadron. First impressions of Luna base, first glimpse of Earth-light, pride at her assignment to The Swift mission. Seth’s body lit by candlelight in Max’s bedroom, his limbs entwined with her own. Training with her crew for this voyage. Sybil’s tears when she learned Max was leaving. Imagined terrors her friend endured in the lead-up to that final message.

Tears pooled on the floor beneath her face, and Max blinked away another stream, sniffed through clogged nostrils and rolled over onto her back to stare at the ceiling, reliving Sybil’s last message over and over. Echoes of her screams blotted out Ship’s rumble and the quiet hiss of air circulators.

Sybil was gone. Earth was gone. It was all gone.

Her stomach heaved again and she lurched to the side, retching up dregs of fluid. When it passed, she wiped a trembling hand across her mouth and sat up.

“Ship, time to awakening?”

“Five point three-nine hours.”

Her arms lay leaden against her body, hands limp on the floor.

Get up, Max.

Why? What’s the point?

You’re Mission Commander.

Mission seems pointless now, doesn’t it?

Tell that to your crew, the survivors of your species.

The crew. Fresh angst contorted her features and spilled down her cheeks. How the hell was she going to tell them? Lucia and Seth, older and more jaded than the others, would probably take it better. Anouk believed humanity was doomed anyway. This wouldn’t surprise her. Noah had the Summerland to look forward to after death, but Max doubted he’d want to hasten his arrival to any afterlife, no matter how pleasant. Kevin and Beck, babies of the crew, both still bubbled over with fresh excitement for all life had to offer. How could Max bear to dim those gifted rays of light?

And Jain! Max owed her life to Jain twice over, once for her surgical skill, which pulled Max back from the brink after her fighter went down, and once for convincing her to continue with rehab when Max herself had given up. Jain and Sybil were the reasons Max landed on The Swift in the first place. After the war, Sybil and the rest of Max’s squadron had gone on to pursue promising futures in the service, but Max retired from active duty and moved on. Pain of physical therapy paled in comparison to the lingering nightmares but both eventually faded, replaced by a shiny new engineering degree and a fresh career in space, beginning on Titan.

Max loved that base! It was Titan’s observatory that detected Beyuli, Titan’s scientists that discerned its potential. That discovery had restored Max’s hope for humanity, refueled her determination to serve, as she had in the squadron, only this time she wouldn’t be destroying. She’d be setting the foundations on which they could build anew.

Except…

…except now the whole project, and all the controversy and excitement that went with it, was for naught. Swift’s crew had no one left to help but themselves. If Sybil’s last message were true, then Titan Base lay dead, all its humans rotting inside the structures or, if the seals had given way in all these years, frozen in a permanent state of preservation. Even if it weren’t, even if some humans had managed to survive despite the odds, what the hell was she supposed to do about it? She and the crew couldn’t go back—unless her ping elicited a response, no point wasting their own limited resources—so any resolution to their current predicament must be based on whatever lay ahead. She mined her considerable training for reasonable propositions to suggest a next step.

Nothing came to mind.

Max pounded a fist on her knee. What the hell could have happened? Not a natural disaster, surely nothing that would turn Earth into a cinder and kill every living thing within reach of its atmosphere. Nothing from the skies, either. A stellar event would be no mystery. Luna Base would have been affected too, maybe even destroyed. At the very least, Luna and Titan would have seen any meteor strike of extinction-level proportions long before it struck, and the result would have been highly visible.

That left only human stupidity. Probably from the same greedy mucks who ransomed Earth’s food and water supplies to enslave the rest of its population. Their predilection for acting without consideration of long-term consequences had created Earth’s resources dilemma and the desperate need for this mission in the first place.

Max jerked to her feet and staggered closer to the plaz. It should be those idiots who paid the price. Not the billions of innocents who died at their hands. Not her crew. Not Beck with her PhD in astrophysics by the age of 21 and 32-year-old botanist-slash-entomologist Noah and Kevin the chemist, who at age 30 was still too shy to bump uglies! They’d only just gotten a start in life. Her crew had expected to spend four years by ship-time in mission and return to a world advanced fifty Earth years. In the months of training for their trip, they’d wondered what Earth would look like when they got back. Now they’d never know.

A ragged yell tore itself from Max’s throat. One hand shot out, punching the plaz bubble — a solid blow that reverberated through her knuckles and fingers, up her forearm, all the way to her shoulder.

Calm down. Think.

She swiped at her wet face and stared through the viewport as she struggled to think of a way to tell her crew. What “right” words could possibly explain that they were the last eight humans? How could she lay that at their feet?

She paced the length of the room in search of some optimistic seed. Maybe they had a reasonable shot at survival. Human history held multiple examples of population bottlenecks where recovery overcame extinction, despite the odds. One theory held that Homo erectus occurred as a result of speciation among a group of Australopithecina more than two million years ago. Another university study from more than two hundred Earth years ago theorized that early native populations of the pre-Union Americas descended from fewer than a hundred individuals who crossed an ancient land bridge in the north pacific. Numerous arguments had been put forth to explain limited genetic diversity in small, isolated populations over the centuries. None had been proven, but all offered feasible explanations for a set of givens in the study of mitochondrial DNA and reduced adaptability from founder effects. Clearly, something had traumatized the human gene pool a number of times, yet the species always managed to survive.

Maybe The Swift’s crew could too.

It was conceivable that Beyuli would offer a welcoming, fecund environment devoid of any other sentient life-forms, so that her crew could spread into this new homeworld as their numbers grew. If that were so, perhaps Anouk could suggest a biological gamble Max had missed, or even tweak their on-hand equipment so that they could experiment with genetic modification and expand the procreative potential of their small group. As ship’s doc, Jain might know of a medical option—she’d once collaborated with a team to investigate methods of human cloning before it was outlawed. In fact, everyone on The Swift’s crew was specifically chosen from the best and brightest Earth had to offer. Once Max woke the others, they could all contribute to a solution.

At the hatch, she turned back toward Control, arms wrapped around herself, tears running unheeded down her face.  Even if Beyuli held sentients, perhaps she could bargain for some small space on that world where the crew could begin their new lives. Maybe the inhabitants would take them in as part of their own civilization. Cross-breeding, if it were possible, would be better than total extinction. Perhaps, in that scenario, the last eight humans could even evolve into something else. Something more.

Or maybe—

The bubble of her fantasy bumped against pointed reality, bursting into a sickening array of facts. Who the hell was she kidding? They weren’t set up to colonize! That was never Swift’s purpose. They hadn’t the equipment or seedstock, not to mention adequate supplies. Besides, while many theories had been put forth regarding minimum numbers for viable human populations, she’d never seen an estimated low of fewer than 80-120 fertile adults. Eighty. Not eight.

And when it came to repopulating the human race, they weren’t even eight. Seth carried Tay Sachs. His candidacy for fatherhood was inadvisable. Anouk, a male-to-female transexual, couldn’t conceive. Neither could Jain, who had uncovered her own infertility years ago—it was the main reason she’d never married. That left Beck, Lucia and Max to bear the babies, with gay Noah and virginal Kevin to father them all. Even Max’s fertility, tainted as it was by familial diabetes, had an approaching expiration date. She’d been tugging on the skirts of menopause since about a year before they left Titan. How much longer did she really have to contribute?

Five adults would never produce a sustainable population. Even if they could tweak some of the lab gear to modify the genes of their ovum and sperm—a statistical improbability—how would they implant these engineered embryos? Their medical facility was limited to simple injury repair, not fertility experiments or major surgery. Nor did they have the means even to care for healthy infants, much less incubate preemies or deal with any major neonatal emergencies.

Max found herself standing in the stasis room, staring at the pods. She tiptoed from pod to pod, staring in at the faces of her friends and crewmates, recalling moments from their shared training, celebrations of achievements, secrets and intimacies of long-term close association. If she woke them, they would quickly go from hopeful to shocked to despairing, as she’d done herself. A likely lingering death awaited, whether they stayed aboard the ship—dehydration, starvation or asphyxiation once their supplies ran dry—or went to Beyuli, where they risked a whole world of unknowns. Even barring toxins in the atmosphere or environment, predators, unwelcoming or hostile sentients who may want to kill or eat them, even if they could manage to reproduce without catastrophic results, what if they couldn’t grow food there? What if their assessment of the presence of water was off by a significant percentage? What if one of them got sick or injured? She would have only prolonged their suffering, postponed the inevitable.

Rationally speaking, they may as well already be dead, so why even consider waking them? Was it for their sakes, as she’d told herself, or was it—oh ultimate quirk of fate—because Max the recluse didn’t want to die alone, the last of her kind? If that was her reason, company would be selfish consolation bought at the crew’s expense.

She wiped her face and wandered back out into the corridor, retracing her steps. She could reverse the awakening process, leave them in stasis indefinitely. Set the ship off in a new direction and hope that someone, somewhere, at some point in the future might find and resuscitate them. Said rescuers might even have the means to help them reproduce with greater diversity, better chances for success. Slim hope, yes, but as long as they were alive they had a chance. Asleep, they’d burn fewer supplies. Ship could go on for years, maybe. If she left the crew in stasis and no one ever found them, they’d never know.

On the other hand, if someone did find the ship, a sleeping crew would be helpless. Their fate could go either way. Slim chance, true, but Max cringed at the idea of waking to a hostile situation with no opportunity to prepare or even to flee.

What, then? If she didn’t want to wake them, and indefinite stasis wasn’t an option, that left only…

Max’s feet slowed and stopped outside the rec room.

It would be easy. Critical failure of the life support shouldn’t awaken them, but just to be sure, she could modify the CO2 scrubbers to asphyxiate them quickly, cleanly. They could then just drift away into nothingness—or into the next world of their beliefs—without ever knowing the fate of their species. Wouldn’t that be kinder? gentler? more merciful? Hadn’t she, just moments ago, been decrying human selfishness?

Yes, but… kill the crew? Could she really live with herself if she did?

The irony of that question struck a manic chord and burst from her in great gasping guffaws. She bent, hands on her knees, laughing and weeping at the same time. What the hell difference did it make? If she killed them all, she’d soon follow. She remembered Death’s face clearly, had held a nice long chat with it while wounded, awaiting rescue behind enemy lines. Death promised her that day they’d meet again, so Max wasn’t afraid. She and Death were old friends. She wondered whether its approach would frighten the others.

Noah had told her, during one of his uncharacteristically loquacious moments, that he bought into the illusion of reality theory, that he believed consciousness creates experience. If he was right—or Anouk, for that matter, with her belief in the Catholic god—then Something or Someone awaited them at the end of the illusion, when they awakened for real. If they were right, maybe the death of humanity served a purpose.

She sobered and paced back to the viewport, wiping her face. There had to be a right answer, something she didn’t yet see.

It felt wrong to “play god,” as if there were such a thing. This decision belonged to the group as a whole. She had no justifiable right to decide the fate of her crew, the entire remaining human population. Except that she was the only person alive who knew the truth. And no matter what she did, she would be choosing for them all. Even refusal to act constituted a decision, so the answer really boiled down to what was most important to her: the theoretically possible, yet improbable chance to rebuild the human race, or one last opportunity to demonstrate compassion to those entrusted to her care.

“Ship, time to awakening?”

“Two point one-zero hours.”

If she waited much longer, the matter would be decided for her.

She stared through the plaz at the alien system. It really was beautiful. She remembered her first glimpse of Earth from Luna base, and how strange Sol system looked from Titan. Constellations so clearly defined from Earth’s surface fell apart out there. What a difference a new perspective made!

Max shifted and, for a second, caught a glimpse of her own reflection in the plaz. Tousled, dark hair wisped with grey framed her brown face. Traces of past laughter lined the corners of her eyes, crinkling around that small mole on her cheekbone. Seth had teased her about that spot once, after she’d told him it was a beauty mark. Grumpy old crab. Even after sex, he’d always seemed annoyed. What had she ever seen in him? Other than his physical beauty, that is, and his determination, and his underlying ache that touched her heart. Right now, the fact that he was a living, breathing human being went a long way toward validating forgiveness for any shortcoming, real or imagined.

Her full lips lifted into a grin, revealing the slight gap between her top front teeth. He might be a grouch, but she loved that bristly curmudgeon with her whole heart. Indeed, she loved them all. She knew what she had to do.

Still smiling, Max left the viewport and headed down the corridor toward the stasis room.

###

 

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