An orange light shone like a sun suddenly appearing in the midst of the night sky. Saul stared at it for quite some time before its significance finally dawned on him.
The ship was calling. It had brought him back to a viable temperature, from the cold baseline that should have meant death, that would have if not for the vitrification process he’d undergone. His body, once colder than any corpse on Earth, had been returned to life.
Saul had not dreamed. He had simply not been–though being was something he was still settling into, like a freshly-lit candle flame softening the wax. Motion was an alien concept. But when he moved his eyes, looking away from the orange light, it gave his fingers permission to move, to curl up just a little.
As though a sheet of ice covering his body had suddenly been shattered, Saul found himself moving his arms and legs, undoing his restraints and climbing out of the bed that had held him in its airless embrace for as-yet-unknown amounts of time. He didn’t want to think about how long it might have been. The journey was over now, the orange light indicating that the ship had found its destination.
He was a creature pried from its shell, the restraints drifting aimlessly after him like seaweed. As he floated across the small space of the First Tier hibernation chamber, towards that little LED sun, he turned to see that no one followed.
This wasn’t right. When a destination had been found, the entire First Tier was supposed to be woken to discuss whether the chosen planet would indeed be suitable, to add a human component to the work of the ship’s mind. The decision was, after all, to determine the fate of humanity.
And yet no one else stirred. The glass lay still over their blank faces as the light brightened, changing to blue. The light helped to wake Saul up a little more, until he could think clearly enough to start wondering what this might mean, that he was the only one awake. Maybe something was wrong with the ship. Maybe it had sustained damage somehow, either from the random trajectories of debris or from the malicious intent of someone unaccounted for.
In which case he could really use some help.
But with no human help forthcoming, he would just have to talk to the mind of the Wandering Star. Assuming she hadn’t been damaged. So he opened the door to the hibernation chamber and slid out along the hallway. Dim blue lights illuminated the place, nearly too far apart, leaving gaps of darkness between them. Behind him were the other hibernation chambers with their inert cargo, each person laid in a cushioned box like some precious, rare jewel.
The First Tier chamber was not far from the bridge. As Saul glided through the dry, stale air, he realized just how cold he was. The ship had been a comfortable temperature before they’d all gone down, but of course it took a lot more energy to come up from baseline than it did to slowly drift down to it from the vitrification point.
When he came through the entrance to the bridge, the lights in the hallway abruptly shut off, leaving only red emergency lights scattered in front of him. He grabbed onto a railing to stop his momentum and hung there like someone at the edge of a pool.
“Captain Saul Keyes,” the mind of the Wandering Star said in greeting.
“What’s going on?” he asked. “Are we under attack?”
“We are not under attack.”
“Was the ship damaged? Asteroids?”
“The ship was not damaged.”
“Then what’s going on? Why was I woken up, and no one else? Something has to be wrong. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.”
“Energy sources are very low, and the amount needed to revive the entire population cannot be accessed until the mission is over, so to conserve what was available, I only revived the top person in command.”
Saul glared at one of the red lights in lieu of a face he could look at. “Maybe you should have thought about waking up a few more people when there was the energy for it. No wonder you need humans to help you make decisions.”
“You are not very friendly first thing in the morning.”
Saul rubbed his face. AI programmers didn’t have to give their creations attitudes, but then again they didn’t have to talk to them in emergency situations. “Just tell me what’s going on,” he said. “Why am I awake? Is there a planet?”
“There is no planet.”
“Then why did you get me up?” he yelled, his voice already hoarse from talking after so long.
“Calm down. There have been no suitable planets. I have gone through all the planets on the list.”
“All the planets on–that list is, is exponential. You went through all of them?” he asked, incredulous.
“I went through all the planets on the list. But none of them were suitable.”
“None of them? None?”
“None of them were suitable.”
He waited for the mind to extrapolate, then remembered they didn’t generally do that unless asked. “Why were none of them suitable? Explain why you passed up a gazillion planets until you only had enough energy to wake up one person. Really, I’d like to know.”
“None of the planets on the list were inside the given parameters when we approached them.”
“But they were completely habitable when we made the list. The nearest ones, at least. Maybe we didn’t get the farther ones right, but there were hundreds of planets we knew for a fact would be perfectly acceptable. We should have stopped eons ago.”
“None of the planets were inside the given parameters when we approached them.”
“You told me that. I don’t believe you. What happened to these planets? Were there hostile aliens on them or something? Why didn’t you stop? Why weren’t the planets acceptable? Why didn’t you wake us up?”
“Although the planets were inside the parameters when we left Earth, they have moved outside them. The most common contributing factor was that the atmospheres, and in some cases the biomes, were not stable enough to remain in the usable zone until we reached them. Another factor was how long it took the light from the further ones to get to Earth–some of the planets could have already been dead when we put them on the list.”
“But all of them?” Saul asked quietly. “Not a single one worked out?”
“It takes a long time to canvass the universe.”
Saul frowned. “How long?”
The mind relayed a huge, meaningless number. Before she’d finished, Saul cut her off.
“That’s great,” he said, looking away. Afterimages of the lights hung in his eyes like a ghostly starfield as he gazed back down the hallway. “So what you’re saying is we’re screwed.”
“The window of opportunity for a planet to sustain life is very narrow when compared to its lifespan.”
“Yeah. So we’ve learned.” Saul let go of the railing and crossed his arms, irritated that he couldn’t sit or stand on anything. He began to drift further into the bridge.
Fixing his eyes on another random red light, he said, “So why did you want to tell me all this? Am I supposed to do something about it?”
“I have revived you in order to request further commands.”
Further commands? What could he possibly tell the ship to do, if they had run through every option already?
Unless they hadn’t. If the planets they’d hoped to land on had all gone to pot, couldn’t there be more of them now? The cosmos worked in cycles, old worlds, old stars dying and forming new ones. Maybe there were another trillion habitable worlds out there now. If they could find them.
Saul asked the ship’s mind about this possibility.
“Unlikely,” she replied. “I am not equipped with the sort of telescope that was used to locate the planets in the first place.”
Saul chewed a thumbnail. So no planets on the list, and no new list. “What if we just set a new course, and passed by some young stars? We might be able to find a suitable planet. One might show up.”
“Do you have a course in mind?”
“I was hoping you could figure one out, but…can you show me a map of where we are?”
“I can show you the map, but it is no longer accurate. Stars have died and formed since the light from this sector left on its way to our telescopes.”
Saul rubbed his temples, where a headache was forming. So they didn’t even have a decent map of where they were. They had trusted in that list, in the sheer number of possible planets on it. They’d trusted the number so much that they hadn’t even considered alternatives. The likelihood of failure had been so astronomically slim as to be considered impossible several times over. There had simply been no risk. They would find a planet.
“So no map,” he said. “Can you just, uh, look around, then? Tell me what’s near us?”
“We are at the edge of the known universe. This is as far as we were able to map space before we left.” A small screen switched on, throwing light across the bridge. Saul squinted and pushed off from the wall.
When he got closer and his eyes adjusted a little, he saw a white dot indicating the Wandering Star and various others indicating stars that had once been there.
“Are you able to update this at all?” he asked.
“I can delete the stars that appear to have died, but I am not equipped to accurately gauge the location and size of new ones,” she said.
“Do you have any idea what my options here are?” he asked. “What exactly is it you expect me to do?”
“I expect you to give me new orders.”
“Yeah? Well I expect you to…” He made a fist and was trying to find something he could slam it into. Finally he just punched the screen. It didn’t even flicker.
“Are you hitting me?” asked the ship’s mind.
Saul wanted to laugh. And then strangle whoever had programmed the stupid thing. He hoped they hadn’t made it onto the passenger list.
“Yes,” he said, “I’m hitting you. Because I’m in charge of a ship full of the last remnants of humanity and we have nowhere to land! We had a million billion to the whatever power chances, and none of them panned out! And you can’t even help me come up with another plan!”
He kicked the wall panel below the screen and careened away from it. Stupid. Foolish. Just plain dumb. Him and everyone else. Humanity. They deserved what they’d gotten. Who could blame them, but they deserved it. Trusting in chance. They shouldn’t have left it up to chance, they should have done something else, taken it into their own hands.
But they had. They’d built this ship. They’d mapped the universe. They’d planned so many possibilities that it was ludicrous to think they’d come up empty-handed.
Yet here they were.
Maybe it wasn’t as outlandishly improbable as they’d thought. Clearly it was possible. But maybe they’d just been unable to see it. Beliefs in the afterlife were supposed to have arisen from the human mind’s inability to comprehend its own cessation. Did that sort of thing extend to the species as a whole? Had they looked at the possibility that they might cease to exist, and denied it?
Saul was quiet for a long time. Closing his eyes, he realized again how cold he was, how stiff and sore his muscles were. Hunger and thirst called to him from a great distance, though exhaustion had already caught him in its heavy embrace. He felt tired, so tired. And why not? After all, he was older than the Earth had been when he left it.
An ache, bone-deep, welled up inside him and he was falling, tumbling away into the endless void. So this was it. The outcome of all things. New planets may form, new life may rise up–would rise up, must rise up–but this was always the outcome.
When he opened his eyes, the red lights were blurry. He blinked to bring them back into focus and a drop broke away, the red constellations gathered inside it like a tiny world, adrift.
“Tell me,” he said quietly, “what you saw on the dead planets. Were there ruins?”
“There were, on some of them.”
“Buildings? Roads? From beings like us?”
“Yes, some of them.”
“But no signs of life? No living civilizations?”
Saul put his head in his hands. He tried to picture the dead planets the ship had investigated and found wanting, the beings that had once lived there. Then he tried not to picture them. Was it possible that anyone had escaped, as they had? Was there another ship out there, somewhere, that had passed over the Earth and seen nothing but ruins, and decided the place held no hope?
And what was hope? Was it screaming into the darkness, demanding an answer? Was it holding on tight to something so thin you could never be sure it had ever been there at all? Or was it something real, something solid, that you couldn’t waver from?
Whatever it was, it was not here. Not on this graveyard of a ship, not in this dark room, not in this weary, half-frozen flesh. Saul wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He didn’t need hope. Something inside tightened, and a swell of stubborn pride rose like bile. Saul, Saul Roger Keyes, captain of the Wandering Star, was human. His crew was human. All those people, who were both passengers and cargo, were human. That was what mattered.
Saul straightened, trying his best to stand in the weightless bridge. “Your orders,” he said, “are to shut everything down and go offline. I will return to hibernation, and everything on the ship will fall to baseline with me. We will continue on the path we’re going, using nothing but our momentum, until someone finds us. At that time you will be alerted by the opening of any of the hatches–you will set that as the trigger to bring you back online. You will then revive me and I will give you further orders regarding the crew and passengers, depending on the circumstances of our being found.”
“Sir. I will begin shutdown as soon as you are back in stasis.”
Saul nodded, and pushed off out of the bridge. They would drift into the uncharted territory, and someone, someday, would find them. The universe was infinite. Possibility didn’t exist–only certainty. His people would not die, would not become ruins. They would live on.
Angela Boswell lives in northern Illinois, where she works as a reference librarian. Having studied illustration in school, she now does writing and sculpture on the side. You can see a little of both in her Etsy shop: thingbats.etsy.com, as she sometimes has too much fun writing the product descriptions.
Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center