Two days after Henny walked through the hatch to be eaten, I realised we were in trouble. Those of us left, I mean. Kel and me.
Despite boosting speed as much as possible, we weren’t going to reach Earth before itneeded to eat again. Kel and I managed to ignore this reality until the howls from below chased us through the ship, shaking floors and rendering both sleep and thought impossible. Still, we tried to keep up our daily routine. But now we can no longer deny the reality.
We were engaged in our morning status check—even an automated ship requires a surprising amount of handholding. For our psychological benefit, I’m sure. The ship couldn’t give a damn but the designers worried about oh-so-fragile human egos pinwheeling against the vast black forever so sure, go ahead. Punch a few buttons every morning.
Though I suppose we should be grateful. Kel and I had lasted through four rounds of feeding. Nothing says security like holding a mission-critical role on a retrieval run turned suicide mission. Yes, suicide; let’s not pretend it’s anything but.
Now I concentrate on the engine status, try to puzzle out some way to boost our speed a bit more. We only need to lose two weeks of travel time. But its howls wrap around my brain.
Kel comes up behind me, rubs my shoulders. “Here, Ana. Have some of this.” He hands me a drink reeking of sedatives.
I set the cup aside and blow him a kiss. “Have to try harder than that, love.”
But he isn’t behind me anymore. He’s somehow squeezed between the astrogator array and emergency oxygen canisters to appear at my side. He holds up the glass again.
I shrug. “I thought we went over this.” Still, I reach for the glass. Maybe if I throw it in his face…
“Yeah, no wasting the meat.” He can’t help an involuntary twitch towards the door, to the double-sealed containment lab three levels down. Despite a metre of supposedly impermeable shielding, we’d heard Henny’s screams for days. Hers were deeper than Thom’s. But terrible as they were, I knew Kel and I had the same thought: at least they gave us a break from hearing it.
Kel hands over the sedative-laced drink and I held it up, ready to splash it in his face. Then he shrugs. “Worth a shot.”
“We still might make it.” Home. Earth. Poor diseased planet, population dying of a xeno-plague brought back on our last mission to its home planet.
“We’ll get there.” Kel’s head is cocked to the side, listening. We’re always listening.
I speak too loudly “One of us will, you mean.”
“We both will.” He looks fierce, but I glance away. He starts tapping the console. “If we boost accel again…”
“We’ll make it. What have I said all along? One way or another, we’ll both make it.”
I pick up the sedative-laced drink.
Poor diseased Earth. Our cargo is the only species whose natural immunity we can use.
Mission stage one: it and sufficient food supply captured. Status: success.
Mission stage two: it and food supply safely in transit. Status: success.
Mission stage three: reach home and save billions of lives. Status: shall we say…‘pending’?
Chris’s face had been ashen when he’d charged into the break room. “Dead,” he’d panted.
Panic, because of course, we thought he meant it. Our last ditch hope to cure the xeno-plague, dead.
We’d just reached halfway back. Turn around and we wouldn’t have enough fuel to get home. But without it, no point.
I’d started to program the course change when Chris realised our misunderstanding. “Not it. The food supply. It is alive—but its food isn’t.”
Silence as we looked each other. Then, seemingly in unison, our gazes dropped, guilt already a stain.
At least we kept it civilised as much as possible. Mission critical; we had to make it.
Chris took full responsibility; that’s why he went through the hatch first.
I don’t know if he’d figured out it could eat us, another trait of that same genetic quirk that allowed us to use its immunity, or if he was undertaking some noble experiment. Perhaps he simply made a tragic mistake while trying to take more blood samples even though previous such samples had curdled, unusable.
But no question about the outcome. Our goddamn salvation. The entire planet’s.
Just not ours on board.
We were already travelling faster than light so no way to call ahead, ask to be met partway. Eight crew. Seven months.
And it, which needs to eat every three weeks, a month if we put it on starvation rations while the rest of us acted like Hansel locked in the cage. Fattened ourselves up.
I head to the corridor, carrying the drink. Kel edges around the freestanding console so it remains between us. He looks poised to duck.
I turn so the drink isn’t facing him. “We can’t keep this up.”
“What do you suggest instead? Draw straws? Rock, paper, scissors?”
“Behave like rational human beings.”
“When we’re really just steak tartare.”
My stomach flips and I can’t help it. I retch. I’ve been doing that a lot lately.
Kel is at my side in an instant, one hand rubbing my stomach, the other taking the cup, setting it down at arm’s length. He hands me a bottle of water, seal still intact. I take a deep gulp and lean against him. Only then do I relax.
“Why are you being so stubborn?” he whispers, lips brushing my hair.
I don’t answer, tucking my head under his chin, enjoying the warm, solid feel of him, the rise and fall of his chest, the way he manages, despite our flipping beyond time itself as we outpace light across the galaxy, to still smell of forest. Pine resin and cedar, a hint of maple sweetness. I breathe deep then tilt my head back for a kiss.
He obliges. Then we’re dropping to the floor by the console, casting our clothes aside.
The first time we made love, we were NASA cadets, me studying advanced propulsion, him learning biosphere management. We’d meet when we could, the sun in Florida, Texas, California always the same glaring eye offering the same mocking indifference: how quaint you think it’ll last when that dark forever is just waiting tear you apart.
On the cool, gritty floor by the console, he shoves a pair of trousers under my head, a makeshift pillow, then lays a trail of kisses across my neck before dipping lower.
After training, we did stay together. The emergency run to the moon colony, kisses in frigid air, our breath-smoke swirling around us like a veil. We made love as the world slipped by over our heads and wondered how it would end.
Not like this.
The Europa supply mission, diving deep in mottled purple seas, bioluminescent plankton transforming everything to a glowing wonderland. Despite triple filtration, the luminescent organism infiltrated the water supply and our bodies. As we drifted to the sea floor, we’d turned off interior lights. His radiant hands stroked my back, my legs, and after, he kissed shimmers of sweat from between my breasts.
Then the first trip to its world. A complex ecosystem. The assignment everyone wanted. We’d already started our goodbyes when we heard. We’d both got in.
I was simply thrilled we’d be together but Kel was thinking long term. “The bonus means we can buy a house. Put in for permanent assignment together.” He’d rubbed my stomach, making me shiver. “We’ve talked about it. Are you ready to actually make it happen?”
I’d covered his hands with mine and nodded.
Now, he slides his hands under my shoulder blades, drawing me close. I arch towards him, pull him deeper, call his name. He shudders against me.
I bite his neck, kiss away the mark, and roll over to straddle him. He reaches up to cup—
And I’m off, sprinting to the door while he’s still clambering to his feet.
“Ana,” he calls. He knows.
He makes it to his feet and lunges. He misses me and leaps right over the console. He’s quick.
But I make it through the door and slam my hand against the outside lock. “No override,” I say, a split second before he manages, muffled by the now-closed door, “Open.”
The door stays shut, though it wobbles as he slams against it. For one heartbreaking moment, I think it’ll give.
I take a moment to pull on a spare jumpsuit from the supply cubby, trying not to look at him.
“Ana, please. Not this way.”
“If you’d like a sedative so you don’t have to listen, one’s right there.” My lips still tingle from our last kiss. Our final kiss.
“Ana.” The door flexes as he hurls himself against it.
I lean to peer through the plastic window. “I’m sorry. But I can’t let it be you.”
I take a step back.
Below me, it howls in hunger.
After Chris, Marco took a different approach. A feast, a party, calling for a midnight toast then slipping out as we gathered in a circle, glasses raised.
Thom—we had to throw him through the hatch, thrashing and vomiting, trousers dark with piss.
Megan took to her cabin for three days, unspeaking, before slitting her wrists. We barely got her down in time to still be…palatable.
I back up another step. I should run but I want to savour the last sight of him. It’s not quick and I want something to focus on. His face, his eyes, one last trace of cedar and pine and what might have been.
His face disappears. I turn and jog. He’s clever, he’ll figure out how to override the lock. But I only need a few minutes.
The howls up the corridor reverberate right through me. As if I’m already part of it.
Beside the containment lab’s outer hatch, the standard vidscreen and camera setup flickers to life. Kel. He’s not come after me. Instead, he’s leaning into the camera, holding up the water bottle I’d drunk from earlier. “Ana, wait. Listen. Please.”
I reach for the access panel to open the outer hatch.
“I need to tell you something.”
The outer hatch beeps and starts to slide open.
The cool synthetic metal beneath my feet shakes as the howls rise to a screech. I close my eyes. “Confession time, darling? All along, you wanted it to be me and—”
“Ana, how stupid do you think I am? I knew you’d never drink that sedative. I never wanted you to. Why do you think I made it so obvious?”
The open hatch beeps a warning. It’s about to close. I don’t know if I can make myself open it again. Then I think of Kel walking through and take a step.
“I didn’t want you to drink that sedative. Not when I wanted you to drink the water.”
I freeze. “What did you do?”
His face takes up the entire screen, tears in his eyes. “I needed a pure saliva sample to run the test. I already knew the right hormone levels to override the contraceptive implant.”
No. My hands drop to my abdomen, the slight swell of belly that he’d rubbed with such tenderness just moments ago. The nausea. And now, a strange, sharp flutter deep inside.
“When?” I demand. “How?”
“Dosed the water supply weeks ago. After all, some extra hormones won’t hurt me. Not in the short term, anyway, which is all that matters.”
The hatch beeps again and starts to close.
I stick my foot out to stop it. “So? You can go back, have a baby with someone else.”
He doesn’t answer. The screen is empty but the picture starts to break apart. He’s hacking through the lock.
The hatch in front of me beeps again and I step through.
Its howls rattle my bones. A substance like flaked rust coats the inside of the window so I can’t see through.
As I said, at least we kept it civilised. As much as possible.
My hands splay across my stomach.
Kel is life support, monitoring the containment lab’s complex atmospheric mix. I fly the ship. Mission critical roles.
What about when the mission is survival? Both of us, one way or another.
But he, more than me, is needed to keep it alive. The buttons on my console are just psychological props. The ship will still fly. Make it home.
I reach the inner hatch’s access panel.
It thrashes against inner hatch. I swear it sounds like Henny, like Thom and Chris and Marco and Megan, their voices somehow refracted into jagged spears of sound falling around me.
Again, those strange flutters tickle the inside of my abdomen. I sink to the floor.
Warm arms around me. Kel kisses my temples. “I’ve set everything up. You just need to check the levels every morning.”
“Bastard,” I whisper.
“An unavoidable consequence. Sorry I couldn’t figure out how to fit a priest into the water recycling system.”
So damn him, I’m laughing, actually laughing as he guides me back through the outer hatch.
Then he’s gone.
The screams are everywhere. I can taste them, heavy in the pine- and cedar-laced air.
A flutter, a butterfly deep inside. My hand drops to my belly, rubs small circles.
I pick myself up and head back to the nav centre. Not like anyone else is here. Only me.
And I’m mission critical, after all.