For eight years, or nearly a third of all the time I've been alive, I, along with every other human in existence, have been running from Sun Death. Millions of years ahead of schedule, our life-giving star became the end of Earth, consuming the inner planets entirely and forcing us to flee before the wave of deadly radiation sweeping across our solar system.
My home is dead, and soon I will be, too. Myself, my mother, and my younger sister Clara were among the 5,000 people with the correct combination of connections and skills to secure a place on the massive spacecraft The Eighth Wanderer, named for the planet whose moon it means to colonize. It won't make it, though.
Until ten days ago, we thought that we could reach Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, before Sun Death catches up to us. But we left Earth too late, and The Eighth Wanderer is too slow to carry humankind all the way to safety.
But we aren’t totally unprepared for disaster. Two contingency crafts capable of much higher speeds will take our most useful and strong the rest of the way. Accounting for sardine-like conditions, a little over half of the population will set foot on Triton. I have decided that I will not be among them.
The miniature window of my family's sleeping unit faces Eight’s stern, giving us a constant view of the red giant that once was our Sun, growing more quickly than we can outrun it. It is so bright that with the shade open, we have no need for artificial light. I prefer to keep it closed. My bed is tucked up close to the ceiling, the uppermost of three slim bunks, and this is where I spend most of my dwindling time.
I have a job, but I don't go. Not since I did the calculation that revealed the certain doom of 45% of Earth's refugees, and gave up the fight to the darkness taking over my mind.
The door to our unit swings open and a ray of white light falls across my face. It’s Clara, dressed in the utilitarian beige coveralls she wears for her job supervising one of the algae farms. Her cheeks are flushed, like she ran here, and her dark eyes are at an intensity I’ve never seen before.
"Do you think you're being noble or something?" The room is so small that she has to yell at me from the doorway or she wouldn't be able to see me up on my bunk.
Clara’s close friend Anya works in the department responsible for determining who will reach Triton, so I’m not surprised that she already knows that I haven’t applied. I had hoped to keep it private until closer to the time.
"If I say yes, will you leave me alone?" I turn my back towards her. I don't want to see how much she cares, how brightly the life burns inside her and seeks to ignite mine. Or maybe I don't want to watch her realize the futility of her attempt.
Clara climbs the ladder so that her upper body pops over the edge of the bunk, her curls grazing the ceiling. "It’s very well for everyone else who’s volunteered to stay behind," she continues in a calmer tone, "They know that their sacrifice is best for humankind. But you would be accepted to a lifecraft in a snap. Humanity needs you.”
"There are other good engineers," I mutter.
I’m right. My contributions, though valuable, are not beyond the reach of my colleagues.
"But, Lo…" Her voice strangles itself and I feel a hand on my shoulder. It startles me; Clara is not usually affectionate. "But... Mom and I, we’re going. Our spots were confirmed this morning and Anya asked me why you weren’t there as well."
"I’m glad for you, not that I expected otherwise."
"But you have to come, too. We need you." Her hand becomes firm, insistent, trying to turn me around.
I attempt to shrug it off, saying icily, "This is what I want, Clara. It's my choice." I can't explain that this is best for them, too, because I know she isn't capable of seeing that yet.
"No, it's not just your choice! Did you even think about me and Mom?" The panic in her voice makes me look at her. Her eyes are wide, frantic, and her cheeks are wet. A master of composure, it’s been many years since I've seen her so undone. Her expression hardens into naked hostility. “You're just selfish. Come with me right now and apply for a spot."
She yanks hard on my arm, succeeding in pulling my torso halfway off the bunk. I quickly draw myself back up and turn into a tight, hard ball facing the wall.
"Come with us, Lo. Please come, please please please, it’s not too late." Clara begins sobbing, striking my back with open palms made weak with emotion.
I make myself smaller and smaller. A deep, insurmountable despair freezes my body and I become an icy white dwarf, the final stage of Sun Death, millions of years away. The corpse of a star. When I finally unfurl, I am alone.
Clara isn't around when I awaken in the artificial morning, either. My mother, who has opened the shade to let in the dying Sun’s comfortless light, is combing her short, black hair in our small mirror mounted at eye level by the door. In her sleek black jumpsuit she looks every bit the celebrated spacecraft pilot. Her reflection watches me.
"Clara tells me that you won't consider joining us on the lifecraft," she says.
"There's no point. Four more years in a unit even smaller than this one, going to live on a rocky moon we don't even know is survivable." Even to my own ears I sound like I’ve been drained of life already.
"You know that it's most likely survivable, especially with the tech we'll have with us. Stop exaggerating."
She puts the finishing touches on her hair and reaches for the door handle. Her shift is about to begin. Before stepping into the hallway, she pauses.
"I know it's not fair to ask someone to keep living for someone else. And in this case, the more people interested in staying back, the better. I know all that. But I have to do it anyway.” An expression of anguish appears on her face. “How could I forgive myself if I don't? Live, Lo. Please. For me, for Clara. For you too, eventually." Her words fade to a cracked whisper and her eyes glisten in the red Sun’s violent brightness.
She stands expectantly in the open doorway, awaiting a response I don't know how to give. I’ve rarely seen such plain emotion from her, not since we had to leave Dad behind on Earth, and I don’t know how to deal with it. I suppose that some people would reach out a comforting hand or go for an embrace, but that is not the sort of mother I have, and that is not the sort of daughter I learned to be.
An alarm buzzes at my mother’s wrist and she disappears down the hall, letting the door swing shut behind her. The window shade, little more than a meter down and to my left, seems much too far away, so I pull my thin sheet over my face. It fails to adequately block the light.
Mom and Clara’s survival, at the expense of others, has been deemed advantageous to the continuation of our species. But that’s not why they want to live.
They think I am acting selfishly, sending them to grieve me, knowing I could have chosen to be with them and didn't. But how can they ignore that I am broken?
I could still be useful to Triton’s colony. But does that cancel out the flaws I would be adding to the limited gene pool? The unbalanced mind, the stagnant, apathetic body? And most critically, the missing will to live? Does being loved cancel out all that? It shouldn't, and if they say that it does, they're being more selfish than I am. Love is not enough when so much is at stake.
And yes, my decision is also self-serving. I no longer want to exist, and all I have to do to accomplish that is absolutely nothing. I will be sent to sleep by the lullaby of the exploding Sun. I cannot imagine a more passive suicide, and since someone else will live because of it, a more useful one.
My empty stomach drags me down the ladder and through the white halls to our residential section's dining area. I don't expect Clara to still be there but she’s sitting alone at one of the long metallic tables when I arrive, staring straight ahead with nothing to eat in front of her. I take my nutritional smoothie and protein bites from the tray tower and consider going back to eat in the unit as usual, but I’m drawn towards my sister.
As I sit down her eyes come into focus on me in the opposite seat. I want to say something that will make it alright between us, but I don’t think such a thing exists anymore. Our carefree friendship dissolved years ago; since coming to live on this ship, everything has been about survival. There is silence as I swallow my food, and when I look up Clara is gazing at me unhappily.
"Everyone knows you're sad," she begins slowly, measuring her words. I look up sharply, angrily. "And no one thinks any less of you for it."
"So people have been talking about me, have they? About miserable, selfish Lo who lives and dies for herself?" I whisper furiously, and too loud.
Clara doesn't react. "No, they're saying that you saved the human race."
"Someone else would have made the same calculation."
"But they didn't. You did. And now most of us will live. We all think that you should, too." She gestures around the room, at the people of our section.
I recognize everyone present in the sparse, late morning breakfast crowd. They are looking at me, and don't turn away when I notice. A teenaged girl named Mari that lives with her father three units down gives me a smile, a warm, sad smile that seems like it’s trying to communicate a message I'm missing the means to receive.
Clara continues, "Our neighbor, Jakob, volunteered to stay yesterday. He told me that if it weren’t for you, his grandson would never have had a chance at life outside of a spacecraft.
“So you see, no one, not one person, least of all someone who knows you and loves you, will ever believe that humanity is better off without you. Not in four years when we land on Triton, and not in a million years when whatever’s left of the human race has to look for another new home. The only person who doesn't believe in your worth is you."
Clara’s wristband buzzes and she gets to her feet, needed at the farm I assume. She reaches across the table and rests her hand lightly on mine. “Just think about it, okay? Don’t close the door yet.”
I nod ever so slightly and it’s enough, for now at least.
I finish my meal and start to head back to my bunk. It’s a short walk, but to get there I have to pass the double doors that lead to Eight’s central passage. I haven’t left our residential section since the last time I went to work, but for some reason today the doors draw my attention. A restless, unfamiliar energy urges me through them.
At this hour the central passage is never busy. I’m glad to see just a few people passing in the other direction or emerging from the doors spaced along the walls; I feel inexplicably self-conscious about my deviation from routine. Less than five minutes in, I know where I am going.
In our first year here, Clara and I explored every passage and room that we were allowed into, and even some that we weren’t. The Eighth Wanderer, with its stark hallways and rooms full of machinery, was designed for survival, not comfort or sightseeing. Even so, we found a corner of the spacecraft that manages to feel luxurious.
At the bow, in one of the countless rooms that house Eight’s systems, there is a low, round window, twice the size of the window back in our unit, with no discernible purpose other than to reward curious explorers. A metal air duct is in the perfect position to serve as a backrest. It warms me now as I lean against it to stare forward into space. I know we are moving at an unimaginable speed, but the scattered celestial bodies are so far away as to give the illusion of total stillness.
I was last here three years ago, when my mind had barely begun to turn on itself, and long before my discovery would mean I never had to look forward again. I used to come here after my shifts to be alone and imagine what Neptune would look like filling the sky above the Triton colony, hanging luminous and famously azure. At that time, the planet was scarcely more than a bright star.
The Eighth Wanderer’s path ahead is just as black as I remember, the darkness as boundless and pervasive. But Neptune is beginning to take form as a disc just barely blue, glowing out of the dizzying vacuum. Beside it, I can see Triton for the first time, a pinprick shining like a diamond. It’s been a long time since I’ve imagined anything, but even so, I’m sure I never imagined it quite so beautiful.