Earth Year 2185
6.3 light years from Earth
Lieutenant Junior Stephen Miller woke suddenly to the sounds of gunfire and screams. While he had been sound asleep seconds earlier, he now sat bolt upright in his bed, his eyes wide and alert, staring towards the metal door of his quarters with scrutiny and trepidation.
Beside him, his wife stirred and carefully sat up, unconsciously placing her hands over her heavily pregnant belly.
"What's going on, Stephen?" Harriet asked, fearfully eying the door.
"Just wait here," Miller replied. "Don't leave this room."
While two more gunshots rang out, Miller quickly approached the door in his T-shirt and pyjama pants. He pushed his hand down on a large button on the wall and the door immediately slid smoothly open. Miller glanced out into the hall and was greeted with the usual sights of the gray, unglamorous, corridor of the interstellar ship. the Panspermia. The cold steel, the glowing lights, the painted lines indicating which direction to go for whatever needs you may have were all familiar sights. What was different now, however, was the sound of screams emanating down the hall to Miller's left. To his right, he saw two privates dragging an officer along the floor by his arms, both calling for a medical officer. Miller saw that the officer's face and chest were bloody and he was completely limp, his feet dragging uselessly on the floor. There was a long red line of blood snaking through the corridor that indicated how far the two privates had dragged the officer. Miller silently thought that no medic alive could help the poor bastard now.
Just as Miller stared in shock at the privates trying in vain to help the officer, he noticed a familiar face rush by.
"McLernon!" Miller hissed, glancing down the corridor as he heard more gunshots in rapid succession.
The young Ensign named Dexter McLernon skidded to a halt as he ran by, turning and looking at Miller with wide and wild eyes.
"What the hell is going on?" Miller asked.
Ensign McLernon didn't respond, but instead quickly rushed into Miller's quarters. Despite the fact that Miller outranked him, McLernon roughly shoved Miller out of the way and slammed his hand down on the button to seal the room, the door sliding shut behind him.
"Dammit!" McLernon panted, leaning back against the wall, wiping sweat from his brow. Miller suddenly noticed that there was blood spatter on McLernon's shirt. "Damn, Miller! Damn!"
"McLernon, calm down and tell me what the bloody hell is going on," Miller barked in his Oxfordshire accent. "Why are you covered in blood? What happened out there? Are those gunshots I keep hearing?"
"Gunshots?" Harriet repeated from the bed behind him, sounding timid.
"It's Captain Willems!" McLernon cried. While Miller was from Britain, McLernon was from West Lothian in Scotland and his accent was rather prominent. Miller was glad to be able to understand him, as he hadn't been able to when they had gone drinking before launching from Earth.
That seems so long ago, now, Miller thought. Then, aloud, he said, "Willems? What's happened?"
"Willems has lost his bloody marbles, man!" McLernon panted. "He's got a gun! He's shot up the entire bridge crew, and now he's gunning down any bastard who comes in to stop him!"
Miller simply gaped at McLernon in shock for a few seconds before he was able to form a reply.
"Why?" Miller demanded incredulously. "Willems has been a Captain longer than you and I have served! You must be wrong."
"I'm bloody not wrong!" McLernon hissed. "I just came from the bridge. See this?" McLernon grabbed his shirt and shook the patches of blood that were soaking into the fibres. "This is Halibi's! She and I went to the bridge when we heard the shots, then Willems fed her a mouthful of lead! He took a shot at me, too, but he missed, thank Christ. I took off looking for help."
"Where did he even get a gun?" Miller demanded, trying to shake the feeling of nausea as he thought about poor Halibi. "They're all supposed to be stowed away in cargo, no one but the MPs have access."
"Beats me," McLernon said. "But he's got it and he's killed every ranking officer on the bridge, and then some."
"Shit," Miller swore. "So Willems has to be relieved of his command. Who's the remaining ranking officer?"
McLernon blinked at Miller thoughtfully for a moment, then leaned closer and said, "You are."
Of course I bloody am, Miller thought, sighing internally.
"Well then," Miller said sternly, trying not to look as freaked out as he felt. "I guess we better go deal with this."
"Stephen, no!" Harriet suddenly cried.
Miller turned to face her, surprised for a moment. He had almost forgotten she was there, distracted as he was. She was covering herself with the bedsheets and was glaring at Miller with wide eyes.
"He's got a gun, Stephen!" Harriet said. "He could kill you!"
"Harriet," Miller began, sitting down on the side of the bed and taking his wife's hand. "If the Captain has already killed the entire bridge crew, then he's probably used all of the ammunition he got a hold of. He couldn't have smuggled much out with being caught. He's probably already out. McLernon and I will go detain him and sort this mess out."
"And a right bloody mess it is, too!" McLernon added.
Miller ignored him.
Harriet fixed her husband with a steely glare. "You promised me this would be safe," she accused. "You told me by taking this job, you wouldn't be in situations like this anymore. This is space, Stephen, not war. You're not a soldier now. We volunteered for this so people wouldn't be shooting at you anymore."
"This isn't like the old days," Miller assured her. "I'm not dying today. And I have to stop Willems from hurting anybody else. Think of our baby."
Harriet placed her hands on her belly again.
"Don't do anything stupid, hero," Harriet sighed, reaching out and stroking Miller's cheek.
Miller took her hand in his and kissed her knuckles.
Moments later, Miller was in uniform and jogging through the corridor with McLernon at his side.
"I haven't heard a shot in a while," Miller noted.
"Aye," McLernon nodded. "Maybe he's out of ammo?"
Miller didn't reply, but he silently hoped it would be that easy.
Finally, they reached the doors to the bridge. The automatic doors stood wide open and Miller immediately saw why. The body of Commander Fleming was lying in the way, preventing the doors from closing. There was a large hole in the back of his head, blood pooling on the floor.
"Dammit," Miller hissed through his teeth.
Sidling up to the side of the door, being sure to move as quietly as possible, Miller braved a quick glance around the frame and into the bridge. McLernon stayed behind him, flat against the wall.
Miller saw Willems right away. The Captain was in his fifties, but was still fit and athletic, his black uniform fitting snugly around his toned muscles. Willems had torn off his tie and the top few buttons of his shirt were undone, and Miller momentarily thought about how strange it was to see him presenting himself in a way that was any less than what was expected for meeting the Royal Family.
Willems was pacing around the bridge in a hurried frenzy, rushing from computer to computer, stepping over bodies as though they weren't there. Miller saw the gun in his hand, which Willems seemed to be subconsciously tapping against his temple whenever he changed stations, his face grimacing in a distraught panic. There was sweat beading on his forehead, despite the computer moderated temperature of the entire ship never getting above 25 degrees celsius. Miller could also hear Willems muttering to himself, his voice sounding choked with despair.
"No more," Willems muttered as he punched a few commands into one computer with his free hand, just loud enough for Miller to hear. "No more... No more..."
"Captain Willems!" Miller shouted.
At the sound of Miller's voice, Willems whirled away from the computer and aimed the gun at the doorway where Miller was standing just out of the line of fire.
"Who's there!?" Willems demanded, though his voice was uncharacteristically shaky. "Show yourself!"
"I don't think I'll be doing that, sir," Miller replied, staying behind the corner. "Not unless you put down the gun."
"Then we seem to be at a stalemate," Willems sniffed.
"Not quite, Captain," Miller replied. "Word will have spread by now that you've murdered your crew. How long before the MPs come in looking to, ah... what's the word they use? Neutralize the situation? They'll gun you down, sir. If you cooperate with me, you might survive to face a trial."
The gun shook once in Willems' hand and his lip quivered. He ran his free hand over his short, wavy, gray hair.
"Let them kill me," Willems said, his voice breaking once. "It doesn't make a difference. Not anymore."
Miller glanced to his right to arch an eyebrow at McLernon, who shrugged helplessly in response. Frowning, Miller turned back to the door.
"Captain Willems," Miller called out. "I'm Lieutenant Junior Stephen Miller. I've served under you for the entirety of this mission. You were trusted by a unanimous vote from the United Nations to captain the Panspermia and give the soldiers and civilians on this ship safe passage to our destination. Up until today, you've given no reason for anyone to suspect you might do something like this. Why now, sir? Why did you kill all these people?"
Willems didn't reply at once. Instead, he glanced helplessly around the bridge, as though only now realizing that he had gunned down at least a dozen unarmed men and women.
"We received a message," Willems finally replied.
"From Earth?" Miller asked, then realized it was a stupid question. Where the hell else would they have received a message from?
"Yes," Willems answered flatly. "From Earth. It was... brief."
Miller waited for more, but when Willems spoke again, it wasn't to him.
"SALINA," Willems said loudly, speaking to the ship's artificially intelligent program, the Sentient Algorithm for Logistic Intelligence and Neuromorphic Assistance.
"Yes, Captain," came the autonomous female voice that was SALINA.
"Play the last transmission from Earth received via laser relay."
Miller then heard a loud static noise fill the bridge. He swallowed nervously. Transmissions from Earth were rare, as they were difficult to transmit so far into deep space. Laser relay was reserved for emergencies and mission-vital intelligence.
"This can't be good," McLernon murmured, giving voice to Miller's concerns.
"Attention Panspermia," came a voice on the message, difficult to hear over the sound of static. "Earth preservation attempts... failed. Atmosphere breaking apart. Mission is scrapped, repeat, colonisation mission is scrapped. Mission time of twelve years no longer viable. Earth will be dead... by the time you receive this message. We have only days. It's our suggestion that you proceed as planned to habitable planet E-dash-seven-niner-three-three-two, codenamed Novus, and settle the surviving members of humanity there as originally briefed, but... But don't expect the rest of us to follow."
There was a long pause as the speaker in the recorded message sighed audibly, possibly gathering their thoughts or taking a moment to let the information sink in.
"There's nothing for you to come back to," the speaker said despairingly. "Proceed as planned. Colonise Novus. You and your crew, and the passengers... you're all that's left. Godspeed."
Then the message ended and silence filled the bridge.
"Jesus Christ," McLernon whispered. He slowly slid to the floor and put his head between his knees. "I think I'm going to be sick."
"Earth's gone?" Miller asked, feeling cold all over. "How? We had time. The atmosphere was holding! We had another fifty years! The mission was going to work! We could have colonised Novus in time for global evac! What happened?"
"Your guess is as good as mine, Lieutenant," Willems said, still holding the gun. "Maybe the eggheads who did the math forgot to carry the one. Point is, Earth's gone. With no atmosphere, she'll already be burned up by solar radiation. Humanity's dead, son."
McLernon groaned on the floor, his face visibly green. Miller scowled. Then he suddenly stepped out around the door and glared at Willems. The Captain trained the gun on him, but didn't pull the trigger. Instead, he watched Miller with eyes that were full of loss.
"And that justifies you murdering all these people?" Miller demanded. "There are a quarter of a million people on this ship, who are apparently the last of mankind, and you just killed off a few more?"
"This is the way it has to be, son," Willems replied sadly. "I left my kids behind, grandkids. They're dead now. And I keep thinking, why would God do this to us? To the whole planet? Why would He let us all die? Then I realized. He wants us all to go home. He wants us with Him. Humanity had its run, Miller. It's over."
"It's not over," Miller snarled. "We're still here! We're still alive!"
"Are we?" Willems asked blankly. "Are we still alive? Floating through space in this giant coffin?"
"This ship was... is the last chance for humanity," Miller insisted. "You're talking like humanity is already extinct."
Suddenly, Willems laughed humorlessly. He then fixed his cold and miserable eyes on Miller's.
"It is," he said. "You just don't know it yet."
Then he pressed the gun against his own temple.
"No!" Miller cried.
The shot rang out and Willems' brains splattered against the nearest computer monitor. His body fell to the floor in a heap.
"Dammit to hell!" Miller raged.
McLernon poked his head around the door and took in what had just happened.
"Well, I guess that's that," he said grimly.
"At least he can't hurt anyone else, now," Miller sighed.
Suddenly, SALINA began to speak. The suddenness of her flat tone made Miller jump.
"Captain Willems' vitals have flatlined," SALINA reported. "Searching manifest for surviving superior officer. Commander Jasper Fleming... Deceased. Lieutenant Commander Akina Goh... Deceased. Lieutenant Abdi Malik Osman... Deceased. Lieutenant Junior Stephen Miller... Surviving superior officer. Suitable replacement for Captain located."
"Hell of a way to get promoted, mate," McLernon said to Miller.
"Lieutenant Junior Stephen Miller," SALINA said, addressing Miller directly now. "The Captain and other ranking officers are deceased. You are now the ranking officer on board this ship. Do you understand and accept this responsibility?"
Miller understood, but wasn't sure if he wanted to accept. If that message he heard was true, then he was now responsible for the lives of the remaining members of the human race. The thought of it made him feel physically ill. He was barely ready to be responsible for one life, that of his unborn child. Now he was responsible for just under 250,000 lives?
Regardless of his own misgivings, Miller took a step farther into the bridge and said loudly, "Yes. I do, SALINA."
"Security authorisation required," SALINA replied. "Lieutenant Miller, place your hand on the scanner at the Captain's station."
Miller approached the chair and terminal that had once belonged to Willems. On the arm of the chair, there was a rectangular section that looked like white plastic, with green lights glowing softly around the edges. Miller placed his hand on the rectangle and waited as the green lights scanned his palm and fingerprints, confirming his identity.
"Identity confirmed," SALINA said. "Emergency Override Code required to instate Lieutenant Junior Miller as acting Captain of the Panspermia."
Miller had been trained in similar scenarios and had the code committed to memory, but he never once thought he would ever need to use it.
"Emergency Override Code, Foxtrot-Zulu-Golf-Bravo, seven-niner-three, Oscar-Echo-Sierra, zero-five-one-niner. Lieutenant Junior Stephen Miller, requesting override of security in response to multiple casualties of commanding officers. Requesting permission from ship's intelligence to take command of the Panspermia."
"Authorisation granted," SALINA replied. "Captain Miller on deck."
Miller sighed with a mix of relief and anxiety, taking his hand away from the scanner. "All that's left now is to get these people to their new home," he said to McLernon.
"Aye, Captain," McLernon responded.
Miller felt strange being called Captain, but didn't say anything. He was surveying the chaos that Willems had left behind after his psychotic break. The dead bodies were everywhere Miller looked. Officers, privates, even civilians, all gunned down without pity or mercy. Some had collapsed on the floor as they tried to flee the room or protect one another, perhaps even trying to restrain Willems. Others never even rose from their work stations, simply slumping over their screens, blood running over the desks and dripping to the floor.
"Bloody Willems," McLernon sighed, surveying the scene beside Miller.
"I don't get why he would do this," Miller said. "He got the psych evaluation, just like everyone else. He was cleared."
"I guess even shrinks can't predict how someone will react if their whole planet gets wiped out," McLernon replied.
Miller frowned as he considered this, still slowly looking from body to body, work station to work station. He felt uneasy. Not because of all the death he was facing, his years in the Navy had shown him his fair share of death. Something else was nagging at him. A feeling, an instinct, an unexplainable sense of imminent danger.
"SALINA!" Miller shouted, startling McLernon with his sudden urgency. "I need a run down of all systems on the Panspermia. Life support, gravitational rotation of the ship, water supply, everything! Do it now!"
"Yes Captain," SALINA replied calmly.
"What's wrong?" McLernon asked, following Miller as he hurried to the nearest work station.
Miller used his hand to wipe away as much blood as possible from the screen that was embedded in the desk, smearing most of it but allowing just enough visibility to start typing away at the keyboard.
"When we came in," Miller began in a hurry, "Willems was typing commands into the computers. He killed everyone in the room, scared everyone else away, and started going from computer to computer."
"So?" McLernon asked, watching Miller typing hurriedly. "You think he compromised the ship? Wouldn't SALINA know and stop him if he did that?"
Miller shook his head. "No, she couldn't. SALINA isn't designed to have access to the bridge terminals. And she's also programmed to never question or disobey any order from the captain. Her engineers were worried about if she malfunctioned and commandeered the ship or something. They didn't want to risk an AI take over on this mission. SALINA can access only what she needs to do her job, regulating life support systems, she can check the health of everyone on board via their spinal inserts, but that's it. If Willems did anything to the ship, SALINA wouldn't know until her regular systems check every 48 hours. By then, it could be too late to do anything about a problem."
"If Willems did anything," McLernon said, sounding hopeful. "I mean, he wouldn't kill everyone, would he?"
"He said humanity is already extinct," Miller said grimly, looking at the screen. "But we don't know it yet. Look."
Miller stood up straight and gestured to the screen. McLernon looked, studying the screen scrupulously while his face remained impassive. Suddenly, he registered what he was seeing and his eyes shot wide open as he straightened, stepping back from the computer as though it might explode.
"Willems accessed the reactor?" McLernon asked hoarsely.
Miller nodded, his lips pressed tightly together. The Panspermia, 15 miles long and 2 miles wide, was easily the greatest technological feat of human history, taking a combined effort from all the world's powers to create. It was an immense cylindrical tube that rotated constantly during travel to create centrifugal gravity; it had its own 24 hour light cycle to simulate day and night while in the blackness of space; communities to house all 250,000 ethnically and religiously diverse passengers and crew; but all of this paled in comparison to the true marvel of the ship.
The Panspermia's reactor was the most advanced of its kind. A nuclear fusion power generator. At the rear of the miles-long ship, the propulsion system that had carried them this far into space was something that scientists had dreamed of since the 20th century. Powerful enough to propel the ship continuously through space, slowly reaching a top speed that was eleven percent the speed of light. Their current destination, a cluster of star systems that were discovered only in the last decade, was reachable from Earth in a little over 7 years. The propulsion system was powered by, quite literally, a miniature sun. It was suspended at the rear of the ship, feeding power to the engines and the other vital systems that kept them all alive. Without that miniature, man-made sun, humanity would never have been able to reach beyond its own solar system.
However, as vital as the nuclear fusion sun was, it was also as deadly as any natural sun. It emitted massive amounts of radiation, which was contained by a lead sphere casing, more than 20 feet thick, allowing it to support life on the ship instead of destroy it.
"What the bloody hell was he accessing the reactor for?" McLernon nearly shouted.
"Captain," SALINA suddenly said. Miller thought he heard a sense of urgency in her computerized voice, but then dismissed it as his imagination. "Access hatches to the reactor have been opened. The fusion sun is leaking radiation through the sphere."
"Fusion radiation dies out, though," McLernon said quickly, glancing nervously between Miller and the computer. "Fusion isn't like fission. The radioactive waste dies out fast. Even if it is leaking, it won't stick around long enough to kill us all. Will it?"
"Not exactly," Miller said, feeling like he wanted nothing more than to sit down somewhere dark and quiet and throw up. "The fusion sun is a near-limitless source of power, and a shelf life of ten-thousand years. It leaks radiation as fast as it produces energy. Even with the radiation dissipating, it's producing it faster than it can die out. That's why it's cased in the lead sphere. Before long, radiation will flood the whole ship."
"So..." McLernon began, looking pale. "We're screwed?"
"Damn," Miller hissed, though he felt like saying far worse. "SALINA, can you shut it down? Stop the leak?"
"Negative, Captain," SALINA replied. "While that action is ordinarily well within my parameters, it appears that the late Captain Willems managed to recode a portion of my programming. I am unable to seal the leak until rebooting."
"Can you reboot?" Miller asked. "How long will that take?"
"Too long, Captain," SALINA said. "Approximately 18 hours is required to restore complete access to the ship."
"And how long until we're all poisoned and dying?"
"Approximately 10 hours, Captain."
This time Miller did swear. He sighed and rubbed his hands over his face, thinking.
"We'll have to close it manually," Miller said. "It's the only way."
"Should I hail the tech personnel, sir?" McLernon asked.
Miller didn't answer as he seemed suddenly distracted. He stared at the enormous screen at the front of the bridge which provided a digital view of the vast expanse of space ahead. He glanced down at a nearby computer, studying the mass of numbers and readings that were provided automatically. Miller then looked up to the large windows that offered a clear view into space. Only the solar blinds were down; thick steel used to seal the windows against the dangerous glare of nearby suns, comets, or other bright objects in space. They were also used as airtight seals in the event of a fracture in the glass, preventing decompression. Miller narrowed his eyes as he stared at the visors.
"Wait," Miller said slowly. "Why are the solar blinds closed?"
"Captain," McLernon began, "with all due respect, I think we have bigger problems right now."
Miller ignored McLernon and looked down at the readouts on the screen in front of him. "We're still on course," he said thoughtfully, as though it surprised him.
"Miller!" McLernon growled. "There's a never ending cloud of radiation seeping through the ship! Se need to get some people down there to seal the leak right now!"
"SALINA," Miller said, as though McLernon hadn't spoken. "Open the solar blinds."
The steel screens immediately began to open. They slid apart, slowly revealing what should have been an endless expanse of black nothingness. Instead, Miller saw a distant sphere amidst the background of space, slowly getting larger.
"What the..." Miller began. "There's not supposed to be anything here! We're off course!"
"SALINA should have picked up on this!" McLernon said angrily.
"Apologies, Captain," SALINA said. "It appears that the late Captain Willems reprogrammed the navigational readouts as well as my parameters. The screens show our course as it should be, but we are millions of miles off course."
"Can we course correct?" Miller demanded.
"Negative, sir," SALINA replied. "Willems has severed my connections to the autopilot and disabled the ship's controls. The course cannot be corrected."
"He must have planned this weeks ago," Miller cried. "He's got us on a collision course with that planet!"
"That son of a bitch just killed the human race," McLernon moaned.
"Where the hell are we, SALINA?" Miller demanded. "What planet is this?"
"The planet is designation J-dash-seven-six-three-seven," SALINA recited. "Codename; Icarus."
"What do we know about it?" Miller asked, his heart racing. "Can humans survive on the surface?"
"Little is known about Icarus, but survival is somewhat plausible," SALINA replied. "At the time of Icarus' discovery, the Earth was already deteriorating and resources were spread thin due to the concentrated efforts to ensure humanity could reach Novus, so no extensive research was undertaken. It is known that Icarus does have an atmosphere containing oxygen, nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide, and other elements required to sustain human life. It is similar in size to Earth, the gravity being 1.1 times that of Earth's gravity, meaning you will be able to survive on the surface. However, it is my duty to inform you that while the planet resides within the habitable zone around its parent star, it is very much on the line. It skims the edge of the habitable zone closest to the parent star and is hotter and drier than Earth. It is conceivable that your race can survive there, though not without great difficulty, and the chance of longterm survival is minimal at best."
"It'd be far easier to survive there than on this ship once it's full of radiation," Miller pointed out. "How long until we reach it?"
"Willems seems to have slowed propulsion to change our heading," SALINA began, "but at our current velocity, the Panspermia will enter Icarus' atmosphere in approximately 37 minutes."
"You mean we'll crash?" McLernon asked.
"Yes, Ensign," SALINA replied patiently. "We will crash. And everyone on board will die."
Miller rubbed both hands over his face, making a frustrated noise of helplessness. He had been Captain for less than 10 minutes and already everything was falling apart. There was only one thing he could think to do, but it was enormously risky. However, he felt that they were still somehow lucky, in a sense. If Willems hadn't changed their course to crash the ship into this particular planet, or if he had decided to fly them into a sun, then they would have had no chance at survival. Now though... Likelihood of survival just flopped from zero to slim.
"Issue an evacuation," Miller said firmly. "Abandon ship. Make sure everyone is in their sections. We're going to land on Icarus."
"You can't be serious?" McLernon said incredulously. "Can't we just repair the guidance and manually seal the lead sphere?"
"We can't repair the guidance, and screwing around trying to seal the leak is exactly what Willems was counting on us to try," Miller realized aloud. "He altered the readouts to show we were on course, then lowered the flare blinds to hide the planet we're about to crash into. He wanted us to waste time focusing on the radiation leak while we ran headlong into this planet without even realizing. Our only chance is to land there."
"We don't know the first thing about that planet!"
"We know we have a chance to survive!" Miller shouted. "And the odds of that are a hell of a lot better than if we stay on this ship. We have radiation leaking behind us and a fiery crash in front of us. The only chance anyone has right now is to evacuate the ship and land safely on this planet! Now, Ensign, I'm ordering that we evacuate the ship!"
"Aye, Captain," McLernon said begrudgingly.
"SALINA," Miller said. "Sound the alarm. Announce for all crew and passengers to remain in their evac stations. We're abandoning ship."
"Yes, Captain," SALINA replied. Then, as sirens wailed through the ship and her voice ordered people to their stations, she added, "Captain, it appears that there is a problem."
"Oh God, what now?" Miller sighed.
"The automatic release of the evac sections is not responding," SALINA explained. "I believe Captain Willems' sabotage has reached a third front."
"We can't evacuate now?" McLernon cried.
Miller closed his eyes in despair. He thought of his wife, Harriet, waiting for him in their cabin, scared by the alarms and the call for evacuation. He thought of his unborn child, whose future was now so uncertain. The moment SALINA told him what Willems had done, he knew what he had to do. But even though he knew it was the only option, he wished there was someone else who could do it.
"Dexter," Miller began, surprising himself with how calm he sounded. "Get to an evac station. Make sure Harriet goes, too. She might want to wait for me, but don't let her. You get her out, you hear me? Make sure she gets out."
"Miller, what are you talking about?" McLernon asked, his voice quivering. Miller knew McLernon wasn't a fool. The Scot knew exactly what Miller was thinking. He just didn't want to admit it.
"I'm giving you a direct order, Dexter," Miller said, a little more firmly. "Evacuate. Now."
McLernon was shaking his head. "No. No, Stephen, I can't. Not like this."
"This is the only way, Dexter," Miller insisted. "It's my life versus 250,000 others. Including my wife. I have to stay back. I have to manually disengage the evac stations."
"Can't SALINA do it?" McLernon asked desperately, already knowing the answer.
"No," Miller said. "Only the Captain can authorize an emergency evacuation before reaching the destination. This is the only way."
"No!" McLernon snapped. "Let me stay! I'll do it! You've got Harriet, your baby... You can't do this."
"Manual authorization requires a hand recognition scan from the Captain to proceed," Miller replied, waving his left hand at McLernon gently. "Besides, how could I ask you to do something like this?"
"This isn't right!" McLernon cried, beside himself with despair. "Willems did this! It should be him strapped to that damn scanner!"
"A lot of things should have happened," Miller smiled humorlessly. "But this is what's actually happening. Come on, there isn't much time left. You have to go. You, er... you take care of Harriet for me, yeah? Can you tell her I love her? That I will always love her. And my child... make sure they know who their father was. Make sure they're okay. That they... that..."
McLernon was nodding. "Yeah. Of course. I promise."
"Okay then," Miller sighed. He then reached out a hand to McLernon, who took it after a moment of hesitation. The two shook hands, saying farewell. Then, unable to think of another argument, and determined to keep his promise, McLernon left the bridge.
Miller sighed heavily and sat down in the Captain's chair.
"Well," he said. "I guess it's just you and me now, SALINA."
"Captain," SALINA began. "It is my duty to inform you that there is a zero percent chance of surviving this. Are you certain you want to proceed?"
"No," Miller replied. "But it has to be done. Our only directive right now is to ensure the survival of the human race. Do you understand?"
Throughout the ship, people were shouting and running, on the verge of a panic. They knew they shouldn't be at Novus yet. This was not in the plan. It was too soon. But they all quickly moved to the enormous evacuation stations. Thousands upon thousands of people, filing into cavernous rooms full of chairs, strapping themselves in. Supplies of all kinds were already stored in the lower levels of the stations, full of food, water, tools, all the things they were going to need once they reached Novus. Now they hoped that they could use them still, wherever they were going instead.
McLernon helped a distraught Harriet Miller to a seat and strapped her in, her silent tears breaking his heart. He felt guilty looking at her, but he had made a promise. It was one he was determined to keep.
Harriet understood why her husband was doing this, but it didn't ease her pain. She closed her eyes as she waited for everyone to strap in and she let the tears roll down her face, her hands unconsciously holding her belly.
In the bridge, Miller checked the screens to see the progress of the evac. They'd made good time. 90 percent completion in 20 minutes, less than 5 minutes estimated until 100 percent evac readiness. Leaving him with 10 minutes and change.
"SALINA," Miller began. "Give me a report on the radiation leak."
"Radiation has leaked into the rear four sections of the ship," SALINA reported. "Radiation poisoning is a strong likelihood."
"What are their chances of survival?"
"At this moment, irreversible damage has been done," SALINA said almost sadly. "The people in those four sections will be developing tumors, there will be defects to the unborn children currently in gestation, similar to the aftereffects of the Chernobyl incident in the 20th century. Then there is the concern for the safety of those currently unaffected. Should those exposed to radiation come into contact with anyone not exposed, they run the risk of spreading the contamination."
"It sounds like you're suggesting I write them off, SALINA," Miller observed calmly.
"No, Captain. Merely pointing out the facts. As you said, our sole directive is the survival of the human race."
Despite the situation, Miller smiled. Though it was half-hearted and grim. Then it was gone and Miller sighed heavily.
"Jettison the four contaminated sections," Miller ordered, placing his hand down on the scanner. "Let them make it to Icarus, but far away from the others. Let them live whatever lives they have left."
Miller couldn't see it, and the ship was far too large for him to feel it, but four enormous capsules, each one the size of a football field, detached themselves from the ship and immediately began to burn their thrusters and head towards the sulphur colored planet in the distance. Miller wished them all Godspeed.
"On my count," Miller began, watching the planet Icarus looming through the windows. "Release the remaining evac stations. Three... Two... One... Release!"
Before long, Miller was the only human remaining on the Panspermia. The evac stations were left behind, as the large ship was moving much faster. The planet grew larger and larger in the windows, now taking up the entire view. Everywhere Miller looked, he saw brown and red and decaying yellow.
"Oh God, please let them make it," Miller prayed. "Please let them survive."
A short time later, the ship began to vibrate violently as it entered Icarus' atmosphere. The windows began to glow red as the planet's atmosphere burned at the cold ship. Fire licked against the glass and steel, plunging Miller's view into something far more hellish than space.
"You with me SALINA?" Miller asked, feeling fear grip him.
"I'm here, Captain."
"You remember our directive?" Miller asked, holding tightly to the seat.
"Of course, Captain."
"Do you think we succeeded?"
SALINA was silent for a moment before responding.
"Only time will tell, sir."
Finally, the Panspermia struck the brown and red surface of Icarus. Stephen Miller served as the Captain for the briefest amount of time, but was remembered as its greatest hero.
Earth Year 2232
47 years on Icarus
Mackenzie Miller opened her eyes the moment the sunlight began to creep through the steel visors on her bedroom window. She hadn't been sleeping. She doubted that anyone had slept much that night. Not when they knew what today was.
Pushing herself up, Mackenzie sat on the edge of her bed and stared down at the end of her left arm. Where a hand should have grown from her wrist, there was instead nothing. Using her one hand, Mackenzie rubbed the stump, as if making sure nothing was there.
Mackenzie had been born without her hand. It was a congenital defect that had caused her to be born with only her right hand. It didn't bother her, she was used to it. It was just on days like today she would study the place where her hand should have been, its absence serving as a reminder of how fragile people were.
Sighing, Mackenzie got out of bed and quickly dressed in a pair of loose-fitting khaki pants and a long-sleeved cotton shirt, though she rolled the sleeves up to her elbows (having some difficulty with one, due to her lack of a left hand). Then she exited her bedroom and was immediately in the tiny space that passed as the kitchen. Mackenzie raked her fingers through her shoulder-length, sand-colored hair, yawning as she spotted her mother sitting at the rectangular bench that was the center of the kitchen.
Lorelei Miller was a slender woman, probably thinner than was healthy, but the same could be said for pretty much everyone in their little civilization. Lorelei had the same sand-colored hair that Mackenzie did, though hers was becoming streaked with gray. Her hazel eyes looked tired and crows feet were becoming more evident on her face as the years passed, but she was still quick to smile in even the most dark moments. Much like today.
"Hey, Mom," Mackenzie mumbled, heading towards the cooler that was built into the wall.
"Hi sweetie," Lorelei replied. "Sleep well?"
"Hmph," Mackenzie grunted. "As well as I could have, I guess. We got any water?"
"Not much," Lorelei sighed. "There's some on the bottom shelf. Hopefully we get more today."
Mackenzie crouched lower to see a short jug in the cooler. It was far more empty than full. Mackenzie took out the jug while Lorelei slid a glass towards her on the bench. Mackenzie poured little more than a mouthful of water into the glass and returned the jug to the cooler. She sat down across from Lorelei and slowly sipped at her water. Odds were this was all she was going to drink today, so she had to make the best of it.
"Where's Dad?" Mackenzie asked casually, not making eye contact with her mother.
"He's, erm..." Lorelei replied, hesitating before replying. "He's... getting ready."
Mackenzie didn't need to ask what for. She knew what Joseph Miller was getting ready for. Everyone did. Ever since it was announced yesterday, no one had much time to think about anything else. This sort of thing always brought a sense of quiet over the shambles that was their little city. People trying to go on like the day was like any other, but knowing that it just wasn't true.
"Oh," Mackenzie said simply. "Okay."
"Do you..." Lorelei began, awkwardly. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Mackenzie shook her head. It was the last thing she wanted to do. "No, I'm fine."
"Are you sure?" Lorelei asked, eyeing her daughter scrupulously.
"Yep," Mackenzie nodded, sipping on her water again. Then, setting the glass on the table, perhaps a little too hard, she added, "I might head out. It should be starting soon, yeah?"
"You don't have to go, sweetie," Lorelei said gently.
"Sure I do," Mackenzie replied. "It'd make Dad look bad if I didn't go. Like I didn't support him. I might see you there."
"Okay then," Lorelei said, still looking concerned as Mackenzie placed her glass of water in the cooler and began heading for the door. Then she said suddenly, "Oh! I almost forgot! Happy birthday, sweetie."
Mackenzie forced herself to smile as she gave her mother a hug. "Thanks, Mom," she said, but what she was really thinking was, Yeah, happy birthday. Hell of a day to celebrate turning 20.
Mackenzie opened the door to their little shack and stepped out of the gloom and into a day that was already becoming close to blinding. Pausing and squinting around, letting her eyes adjust, Mackenzie took in the sight of the "city" that held the last remnants of humanity.
Hundreds of shacks, just like her own family's, pockmarked the dry and stony landscape around her, and thousands more stood out of sight. The homes had been thrown together using whatever materials people could find. Stones, sheets of steel, wooden boards and sticks, some had even managed to make bricks out of sand and other resources, but most saw this as a waste of time and energy. Everyone knew that they wouldn't stay here forever, and then the homes would be torn down to recycle the materials in the next location.
Each home had one or two flat panels of a glass-like substance attached to the roof or an exterior wall. They were all the solar power panels that gave them electricity. Mackenzie watched one of her neighbors climbing a ladder and sweeping dust from the solar panel. The upkeep on maintaining electricity was incredibly demanding.
The entire area that housed humanity was completely flat, covered in sand and dirt. Far off in the distance, Mackenzie could see mountains, but they were miles and miles away, and even they looked brown and dead.
All around, Mackenzie saw people beginning to move about their days, though with a lot less determination than usual. Few people spoke. Normally neighbors would say good morning or gossip with one another; today they were mostly silent, simply nodding to one another, or moving on without a word. Even the children seemed deflated. None were playing. They simply sat together, watching the grown-ups. The younger kids weren't allowed to attend today's event, but they all knew what it was. They all knew what was going to happen.
"Mackenzie!" someone yelled out, snapping her out of her melancholy.
Turning around, Mackenzie saw one of her friends jogging casually towards her. Ethan Renaud, a guy she had known pretty much her entire life. He was only a month older than Mackenzie, but was easily a foot taller, maybe more, though it was hard to tell due to the fact that he often slouched a little. He had wavy chestnut brown hair that he never tamed, letting it fall wherever it wanted to on his head, though today he was wearing a baseball cap with a scarf tucked under it, the cotton material hanging down over his neck to protect his skin from the sun. He was thin and wiry, but anyone who thought that he was weak often was quickly proven wrong, especially if they tried to start something with him. When they were younger, Mackenzie had seen more than one bully be sent to the infirmary after a single punch that rendered them unconscious for the rest of the day.
Ethan was wearing a pair of cargo pants, a white long-sleeved shirt, and his sturdy black boots. Normally he would already be working at "the shop," which was the name given to the engineering shack that handled most of the building and repairs that were daily life in this desert landscape. Today, however, Mackenzie was surprised to see him heading her way with a goofy grin on his thin face.
"Ethan?" she said in her surprise, smiling to see him anyway. "Shouldn't you be working?"
Ethan shrugged as he came to a stop in front of Mackenzie. "Morning off," was all he said about it, but Mackenzie could guess as to the reason why the engineers got a late start today. Same reason as for everyone else. Then she suddenly noticed Ethan was holding something under his arm. A square box that was haphazardly wrapped in packing paper.
"What's that?" Mackenzie asked.
Ethan grinned wider, then held the package out to her. "This is your birthday present. Happy birthday."
Mackenzie took the package from him, her heart lifting for the first time in about 24 hours.
"You didn't have to get me anything," Mackenzie said.
"I know," Ethan shrugged. "Doesn't mean I shouldn't, though. You gonna open it?"
"Yeah!" Mackenzie grinned. "Here, help hold it, will ya?"
Ethan held the package while Mackenzie tore it open with her one hand. Opening the box, Mackenzie peered inside.
At first, Mackenzie thought she was looking at a severed hand and she gasped slightly in shock. Then she realized that it was made of steel and rubber and other materials she couldn't recognize. It was, however, definitely a hand.
"What's this?" Mackenzie asked, carefully lifting the strange object out of the box.
"This, Mackenzie," Ethan began excitedly, tossing the box aside, "is a bionic hand. I remembered you saying a while back how frustrated you get sometimes because of only having one hand, how you hated having to work at the wells because of it, so I made this for you. It should make daily life a little easier." Then, as if suddenly feeling uncomfortable, he added, "But, you know, you don't have to wear it if you don't like it. It was just a thought."
Mackenzie stared down at the hand in amazement. It was mostly made of steel, but the part that would have been the wrist was covered in some kind of gel or rubber. Between gaps in the steel "skin," Mackenzie could see dozens of tiny little cogs in all of the joints, right where fingers would bend, as well as tiny pistons that looked like they controlled the movement of the hand. The tips of each finger was covered in a rubber grip, which felt a lot like the soles of her shoes.
"Ethan," Mackenzie began, not sure what to say. "I said that, like, two years ago, when I first started work in the wells."
Shrugging again, Ethan said, "Yeah, well, I still remembered."
"How did you build this?" Mackenzie asked, staring down at the hand.
Ethan grinned again and spoke with excitement, like a little boy would talk about his toys.
"I found the schematics for all kinds of bionics in the old Panspermia archives about a year ago," he said. "Stuff like hands, legs, arms, there was even one for eyes! I really wanted to build one, you know, try it out, and I just thought of you. Here, let me show you how it works."
Ethan took the bionic hand from Mackenzie and, gently gripping her forearm, carefully slipped the bionic hand over her stump, while Mackenzie watched silently. Ethan pressed a small red button on the side of the hand, which automatically tightened the gel grip around Mackenzie's wrist. It was tight, but not uncomfortable. The gel was surprisingly warm and soft.
"The gel absorbs the heat from your body," Ethan began to explain, pointing as he still held Mackenzie's arm. "The gel then turns that heat into power for the bionic. There are thousands of tiny sensors inside the wrist, too, which can read the tiny commands your brain sends to your hand to make it move and stuff. The sensors can read those commands through skin contact and then move. Here, try it out. Try to move your fingers."
Mackenzie looked down at the strange contraption on the end of her arm, doubting that it could do much of anything. Despite her doubts, she thought about extending the fingers. She commanded them to move. Nothing happened.
"Looks like you misread the instructions," Mackenzie teased.
Ethan shook his head, though. "No, no, it should work! Trust me. Try again, it might just take some practice."
Stifling a sigh, Mackenzie looked back down to the hand and tried again. She thought about how she would naturally move her own real hand, then tried to recreate the movement in the steel hand strapped to her wrist.
To her amazement, the index and middle fingers suddenly extended, reaching out like she was lazily making a peace sign.
"Holy crap!" Mackenzie screamed, drawing a few glances from passersby. "It worked! Oh my God, Ethan, you're a genius!"
"Does that mean you like it?" Ethan asked, flashing his goofy grin again.
Mackenzie, by way of response, threw her arms around Ethan and hugged him as tight as she could.
"I'll take that as a yes," Ethan laughed, hugging her back.
At that moment, more people were beginning to pass by, leaving their homes and all walking in the same direction. Taking it as their cue to leave, Mackenzie and Ethan fell into line with everyone else. Ethan walked a little taller than usual, no longer slouching for the moment, while Mackenzie stared in awe down at her new hand, testing out the movement. It was difficult at first to make the fingers move and to turn the wrist, but she found that she was quickly getting the hang of it and the movements were becoming more fluid and natural. Almost exactly like a real hand.
"This is awesome, Ethan," Mackenzie said. "Think of all the people you could help with this kind of technology. Like Mr White, maybe he could walk again with something like this!"
"Yeah, you're right," Ethan said, as though the idea had never occurred to him before.
"You need to show this to people," Mackenzie said, suddenly moving the hand towards Ethan, as if offering it to him. "You should take it back and-"
"No," Ethan said firmly. "I've got all the schematics and stuff, I can make more for anyone else who needs them. That hand is yours, though. I made it for you. You keep it."
Mackenzie, despite wanting Ethan to use his talents at building things to help everyone, was quietly relieved that he hadn't taken the hand back. While she was accustomed to living with only one hand, and she didn't let it hold her back in every day life, there were still things that she wanted to do but couldn't because of her disability. Her choice of jobs, for example, was severely limited because of only having one hand. Now, however, she felt as though she had some kind of freedom handed to her. She felt liberated.
"Thank you, Ethan," she said again, staring down at the bionic hand, clenching and unclenching her new fingers. "Really. Thank you."
"No problem," Ethan grinned. Then he turned seemed to become excited by the hand all over again and added, "It's really cool, can you believe it's waterproof? Up to a depth of twelve feet!"
"So cool," Mackenzie agreed, still watching the metal fingers move at the end of her arm.
Suddenly, they found themselves amongst a crowd and their smiles quickly faded. Everyone was standing still and staring out at the edge of the town, where the shacks and solar panels and humanity itself simply stopped and the horizon gave way to the expanse of Icarus. Nothing but desert and stone, as far as the eye could see. The entire planet, nothing but rust-colored sand, dirt and rocks. No green. No movement. No water.
"It always shocks me," Mackenzie said quietly as she stared out at the ceaseless dead world. "How could we survive so long here? Hardly anything can grow in the dirt. Next to no water, except for trickles of underground wells. I kind of forget just how bad it is until we come out here."
"Your dad helped a lot with keeping us all alive," Ethan pointed out. "Your granddad, too, Captain Miller. It's like your family is just made to look out for the rest of us."
"So far, anyway," Mackenzie muttered, feeling uncomfortable as she felt the familiar pressure of her family name.
Suddenly, the whispering and talking that had been a part of the crowd simply stopped. Mackenzie looked up and, over the shoulders of those in front of her, could see why.
Four people were making their way out of a larger, wooden, shack and walking towards the front and center of the crowd. Two were dressed in tanned uniforms and combat helmets and sunglasses. They were also carrying large rifles. There was a man walking between them, his eyes downcast and his shoulders slumped in defeat. His wrists were tied together in front of him with some kind of plastic cord. And leading this strange procession was a man dressed in plain cotton pants and a large, overflowing shirt that hung almost to his knees. He looked grim, as though he wished he could be anywhere else, but he also had a strange determination in his eyes, because he knew this had to be done.
Joseph Miller. Mackenzie's father, and the leader of their small society. Years ago, before Mackenzie was born, Joseph was considered a hero to many, as a result of his efforts to ensure as many people as possible could live through another day. He often said that all he wanted was to make sure humanity survived. He needed no recognition for this, and wanted none. Because of his ability to lead, to motivate, and his actions that had kept the human race alive so far, people all looked up to him. It was no wonder people wanted him to take the leading office of Secretary-General after the previous leader died. It was too great an honor for Joseph to refuse.
Even when he had to make the hard decision that brought them all to stand on the edge of their world.
Joseph Miller stood and faced the crowd, while the prisoner and his two guards stood behind him. He didn't spot Mackenzie in the crowd, but Mackenzie suspected that he was looking for her. His eyes kept drifting from face to face. It wasn't required that everyone witness this, and Mackenzie knew her father wished she was still too young to attend, but it was important that she be seen supporting his decisions as Secretary-General. Especially this decision. It didn't happen often, but it was always rough to see.
"Everyone," Joseph began, speaking loud enough for everyone to hear. "I know that we would all rather be elsewhere on this morning. God knows I would much prefer to be in my office, doing the most mundane work I could possibly find. But this is our law. And it must be upheld, no matter how much we wish it could be otherwise."
All eyes suddenly drifted from Joseph to the prisoner. Mackenzie knew his name was Zachary Estrada. He was one of the men she worked with at the well, pulling what water they could out of the ground and purifying it for the town to drink. The well had been running low lately, however, as always seemed to happen eventually, resulting in everyone being on tight rations. Estrada had been caught stealing extra water from the purifier, which was considered an unforgivable offence.
Joseph turned from the crowd and faced Estrada.
"Zachary Estrada," he said firmly. "You were tried for the theft of our most precious resource; water. You were found guilty of this crime and have been sentenced to banishment. Do you have any final words before we send you away?"
Estrada finally looked up from his feet and fixed his eyes on the crowd. They were red and puffy, as though he had been crying. Mackenzie strongly suspected he had been.
"I wish we could do something," she whispered to Ethan. "I know him from the wells, he's not a bad guy."
"I'm sure," Ethan replied softly. "But he still broke the law. He knew what would happen if he got caught. This is on him."
Mackenzie pressed her lips tightly together and said nothing more, instead watching Estrada closely as he took several deep breaths before speaking.
"I have a baby," Estrada choked. "A wife. The rations weren't enough for them. I know what I did was wrong, but... who of you wouldn't have done the same? I did what any father would have done. We're all dying. The well is running dry, just like they all do! The water is going to run out soon, don't you see that? I did what I had to do, for my family. How long before the rest of you become as desperate as I was?"
"We will do what we always do," Joseph said to him. "Survive. We always knew the well would dry out eventually, just like the time before, and the time before. We'll move to a new location, with more water. It's what we do. It's how we survive. But it only works if everyone follows the rules that our parents, all those who are no longer with us, set out. Rules which you broke, knowing full well the consequences."
Joseph nodded once at the guards on either side of Estrada. One guard shouldered his weapon, while the other took several steps back and trained her gun on Estrada. The male guard released Estrada from his bonds and then also stepped back, aiming his gun at Estrada. Joseph stepped toward Estrada and reached into the pocket of his large top. He retrieved a canteen full of water, a small bag with half a loaf of bread, and a small revolver.
Estrada was handed each of these items in turn, but saved the revolver for last. Joseph carefully placed the gun in Estrada's hand, moving slowly, keeping a watchful eye on Estrada's movements. Mackenzie noticed the guards stiffen and tighten their grips on their weapons the moment the revolver made contact with Estrada's hand. If he tried anything, Mackenzie suspected he would be dead before he could even pull back the hammer.
"You have enough food and water to last you as long as you can stretch it out," Joseph said thickly. "The gun... you can use it however you see fit."
It was an unspoken offering. Many would describe it as a cruelty, but it was actually a mercy. Whenever someone was banished, they could take their chances in the wastelands of Icarus, using the gun to hunt for food, as long as they themselves didn't get hunted first by the dangerous wildlife. Or they could take a different route.
Estrada stared down at the gun in his hand for a moment, tears running down his face. He looked up at Joseph and the crowd of onlookers. There was a moment where he met Mackenzie's eyes and they stared at one another for a moment. Mackenzie wished there was something she could do, while Estrada looked as though he was silently pleading for someone to intervene. Then he placed the gun against his head.
Mackenzie took a sharp intake of breath, like she wanted to shout something, to stop him, anything, but then she stopped herself. There was nothing she could do.
And so Zachary Estrada pulled the trigger, taking the other route.
As the shot echoed across the desert and Estrada fell, everyone was silent for a while, just staring at the body. Joseph Miller sighed heavily, a deep frown on his face as he regarded the former member of their society. Mackenzie could hear a couple of people sobbing in the crowd and she wondered where Estrada's wife and child were.
Sighing again, Joseph Miller bent down and retrieved the canteen, the bread, and the gun. Without a word, he began to walk away, and the two guards picked up the body by the arms and dragged it away for burial. Finally, the crowd began to disperse. It was time to get on with surviving.
Mackenzie and Ethan were walking away with the rest of the crowd, all moving slowly and without much talking, when Mackenzie felt someone gently grab her shoulder. Turning around, Mackenzie came face to face with her father, Joseph Miller. He was smiling at her, but his dull blue eyes looked disheartened. Mackenzie knew that days like today were never easy on him and he always took it hard. As though he was responsible for someone having committed a crime.
"Hey, Kenzie," Joseph greeted, drawing his daughter in for a hug. Joseph was the only one Mackenzie let call her that.
Knowing that her father was likely feeling down after Estrada's choice, Mackenzie hugged him tightly in return while Ethan stood by awkwardly.
"You okay, Dad?" Mackenzie asked when she was able to step out of the hug, though she kept her hand on her father's arm in a comforting gesture.
Joseph chuckled softly. "I came over here to ask you that," he said. "And to say happy birthday, of course. I'm sorry I had to go before you woke up."
Mackenzie shrugged. "No big deal."
Joseph suddenly seemed to notice Ethan hovering nearby, because he turned his gaze on him. Ethan looked nervous, but Joseph was smiling at him.
"Ethan," he greeted. "It's been a while since I've seen you. I hope they're not working you too hard over at the shop? We don't see you around for dinner anymore."
"Yeah, Mr Miller," Ethan replied, swallowing hard. "Not too hard. But still pretty hard, that is. I mean, I'm not lazy or anything, I do what needs to be done. I mean, um... yeah, working hard, sir."
Mackenzie hid a laugh behind her hand. Despite Joseph Miller always being nothing but friendly towards him, Ethan was strangely intimidated by Mackenzie's father. A fact that always caused Mackenzie endless amusement.
"Hey, uh..." Ethan stammered, glancing nervously between Mackenzie and Joseph. "I better get going, Mackenzie. They'll be expecting me at the shop soon."
"Oh, okay," Mackenzie replied, flashing a smile at him. "Don't work too hard."
Ethan blushed and glanced at Joseph, who was smiling and holding back a chuckle. Ethan waved goodbye to both of them and then hurried away as quickly as he could without seeming like he was hurrying.
"Still a bit of a nervous lad, isn't he?" Joseph observed.
"Only around you, Dad," Mackenzie laughed. Now that the morning's events were over and done with, Mackenzie felt surprised at how easy it was to laugh and smile again, when only an hour ago she dreaded the thought of even opening her eyes.
"Must be my terrifying physique," Joseph grinned.
"Yeah, right," Mackenzie said, rolling her eyes. "I'm not saying you're fat, but it looks like you were poured into your clothes and forgot to say 'when'."
Joseph threw back his head and barked out a laugh. "I see you're doing fine, that cutting wit of yours hasn't suffered any. Sorry for worrying, Kenzie. I guess I just wish that stuff like this didn't happen."
"S'okay, Dad," Mackenzie shrugged. "It's not your fault. Estrada did the wrong thing. I know he was trying to look out for his kid and everything, but by doing that, he might have put someone else's kid in danger. Right?"
Joseph opened his mouth to answer, but seemed suddenly distracted by something low on Mackenzie's left. She looked down at what he was looking at and was surprised to see her new bionic hand at the end of her arm. She had almost forgotten about it.
"What is that?" Joseph asked, his tone full of amazement.
"Oh my God, I can't believe I almost forgot!" Mackenzie breathed excitedly. She lifted her arm to allow Joseph a closer look at the hand. "Ethan made it for me! It's not just a prosthetic, it's called a bionic hand. It can move and everything, just like a real hand. Look!"
Mackenzie focused on moving the fingers and turning the wrist a little, showing off the ease with which she could now move the metallic appendage. Joseph gently took her arm in his hands and examined the bionic hand closely, clearly amazed by what he saw.
"Wow," he said. "This is incredible. Ethan made this, you say?"
"Yeah," Mackenzie nodded. "He said it was a birthday present."
"Amazing," Joseph said, still studying the hand. "Ethan clearly has a lot of talent. Maybe he'd be put to better use on some larger projects in future. I'll have to talk to him about this bionic hand. So you..." Joseph looked into his daughter's eyes, suddenly serious. "You're happy about this? Because you don't have to feel like you need two hands to fit in. You've done an amazing job with everything you do with just one hand. I don't want you to feel like this is something you have to have. Understand?"
Mackenzie nodded. "Yeah, I get it. But Dad, seriously, this is so cool. Not just because I have two hands now, but because it gives me more options. Like, maybe I don't have to stay working at the wells forever. Maybe I could do something more important, you know?"
"Don't sell your work at the wells short, Kenzie," Joseph said. "You're the best hydrologist we've had in years. And we need that water to survive. Without you testing it and purifying it, well... Let's just say your work keeps us alive."
Mackenzie nodded, withdrawing her arm from Joseph's grip and looking down at the bionic hand, almost wistfully.
"I know," she admitted. "I get that it's important. But now that I have this hand, I don't know. I feel like maybe I could do more. Something that really makes a difference."
Joseph grinned down at her. He wasn't much taller than Mackenzie, but just enough to make her have to tilt her head back slightly to look him in the eye.
"You make a difference every day," Joseph said, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Trust me. A big difference."
"Mr Miller! Sir!"
Joseph and Mackenzie turned to see a man in uniform approaching in a hurry. He was less imposing than the two guards who had walked Estrada to the town line, being dressed in the same tan clothes, minus the combat armor and rifles. He was one of the law enforcement officers, or LEO's. Just like the 'cops' Mackenzie used to read about in her old books and in school.
The young LEO hurried over to Joseph Miller and stopped, glancing uncertainly at Mackenzie, but he plowed on when he recognized her as Joseph's daughter.
"Sir," he said. "They're back."
"They are?" Joseph almost shouted, but not angrily. He was surprised. So was Mackenzie. She knew who they were, and no one had expected them to show up today.
"Almost, sir," the LEO nodded. "They're approaching the town line from the East. They'll be here in a few minutes."
"Well, let's go, let's go!" Joseph cried, already heading off and slapping the LEO on the back to make him move. Then Joseph turned back to glance at Mackenzie. "You want to come?"
Mackenzie nearly fainted with shock.
"You want me to meet them with you?" she asked, her voice strangely small.
"Sure, come one!" Joseph laughed.
"But... but..." Mackenzie stammered, faltering in her grasp of the English language. "But don't I have to get to work? I mean, the wells, and the water, and..."
"It's your birthday!" Joseph cried, walking back to Mackenzie and placing an arm around her shoulders, guiding her along with him as he walked. "You're not allowed to work on your birthday. It's the law, you know."
"You work on your birthday all the time!" Mackenzie accused.
"Well, that's the beauty of being the one who writes the laws," Joseph winked, walking back to Mackenzie and throwing an arm around her shoulders and starting to guide her along with him. "I can change them whenever I want. Now come on, we might finally get some good news for a change!"
Moments later, Mackenzie found herself standing at the East side of the town, staring out at the horizon with her father and a dozen or so others, not including LEOs. She felt dazed and her heart was racing. She found herself wishing that she had taken thirty seconds to at least brush her hair that morning. She gulped nervously as she, along with all the others in attendance, stared out at the expanse of desert, watching a cloud of dirt rising from the ground in the wake of the approaching vehicle.
"They're early," she heard her father say to someone nearby. "They weren't scheduled to return for another two weeks."
Mackenzie watched the vehicle speeding closer and closer. It was an 8-wheeled truck, painted to match the dirty rust color of the environment. The tires kicked up the dirt as the powerful truck powered forward, the sunlight glinting off the tinted windscreen. The truck appeared pinched in two locations along the body of the vehicle, creating three different sections, giving it the appearance of an enormous ant with wheels.
The windscreen was too dark for Mackenzie to see inside, but she already knew who was driving. She also knew who was sitting beside her in the passenger seat, navigating their way home. She also knew the names of the four other occupants. Everyone knew their names. They were legends. They were rockstars. They were heroes.
As the truck came closer still, Mackenzie could see the head and upper torso of a person sticking out of the roof of the truck. He was casually holding a long rifle with a scope attachment, squinting into the wind towards home. Mackenzie licked her dry lips nervously, her throat feeling like she'd just swallowed a mouthful of sand. She tried to think of something to say when the people in the truck finally arrived.
Welcome back? she thought. Hi, I'm Mackenzie Miller. No, stupid... S'up? I'm Mackenzie. Oh my God, I'm so lame!
Finally, the truck slowed down and stopped a few feet away from the spectators, who had suddenly increased in size as word spread of the returnees. Mackenzie could feel sweat that had nothing to do with the heat beading on her forehead and under her arms as she watched the doors to the truck open.
They stepped out of the giant ant-like vehicle and, with seemingly practiced efficiency, closed ranks and walked directly towards Joseph Miller, with one man leading the way. Mackenzie frowned suddenly, counting only five. There were supposed to be six.
The people were all dressed the same, but in varying degrees of dirtiness. They wore khaki pants and long sleeved T-shirts with vests that seemed to be made almost entirely out of pockets, which bulged with strange and unknown objects. They all wore the same brown boots and hats that matched their pants.
They marched from the vehicle and stopped directly in front of Joseph Miller. They stood to attention and all snapped out a salute with such unison, Mackenzie wondered if their commander had signalled them somehow.
Joseph smiled and returned the salute with similar robustness.
"At ease, Vasseur," Joseph said, lowering his hand. He then stepped forward and the two men shook hands in welcome, like old friends. Joseph was glancing around behind the man named Vasseur, though, looking concerned. In a low voice, he asked, "Where's Inglis?"
Vasseur scowled at the question and simply shook his head. In a French-accented voice he replied, "He didn't make it, Joe."
Joseph sighed heavily and Mackenzie felt almost heartbroken. Roger Inglis, the specialist, the missing member of the squad. Lost in the endless deserts of the planet.
Mackenzie tried to distract herself by studying the remaining members of the group. There was their leader, Commander Sacha Vasseur, a grisly old Frenchman of African descent with graying sideburns who was built so tightly with muscles, he looked like he could lift 200 pounds with only his bulging neck.
Behind him, there was the squad's driver and the only female in the team, Rebecca Bell. She was an Australian woman with a dark tan and darker freckles on her nose and cheeks. Bell had dark brown hair, which she had pulled tightly back into a ponytail that just reached between her shoulder blades. Bell was fairly short, probably no more than five-and-a-half feet, but was athletic with muscular arms.
Beside Bell, there was a man who looked to be roughly 40 or so, still standing to attention. His back was so straight, Mackenzie thought he might prop himself up with a steel rod. He had a square jaw behind a dark beard, dark brown skin and eyes that studied everything he looked at like he was calculating a complex math equation. His name was Kian Abbas, the squad's navigator/mechanic and second in command.
Then there was Seth Lowe, the meteorologist and doctor. In addition to doing his best to make sure nobody died on mission, he kept an eye on the wild and sometimes erratic weather conditions out in the field, making sure that they weren't about to get caught in a sandstorm or any of the other dangerous weather conditions that could occur. He was much shorter than the others, even Rebecca Bell stood a few inches taller. His hairline was also receding somewhat, despite not even being 40 years old.
Finally, Mackenzie studied the youngest member of the team. She recognized him as being the one she saw standing in the open hole in the vehicle with a scoped rifle in his hand. The gun was now hanging from a strap over his shoulder as he stood at ease beside his unit. He was a couple of years older than Mackenzie, but the dark stubble on his face gave him the appearance of a man who had seen far more than most others his age. He stared out over the heads of those who had come to welcome him and the unit back home, not making eye contact with anyone as he stoically waited for his next order. He had dark black hair, which looked wild and untamed, and his eyes were equally dark. He wore a shirt that was much more fitted than those the others wore and Mackenzie couldn't help but study the outlines of his biceps and triceps under his shirt sleeves.
Jesse Greaves. The sharp shooter. The hunter. The tactician. The one who made sure that no matter which direction they were going, nothing got in their way.
Mackenzie peered at him intently, realizing that she had never stood this close to him, or any of the others for that matter. She could just make out at the edge of his shirt collar what looked like a patch of scarred flesh, as though he had suffered some kind of burn.
As Mackenzie stared, Jesse Greaves' eyes suddenly snapped in her direction and locked onto her face. Feeling caught out, Mackenzie jumped slightly as she stared into his dark eyes, then felt her face burn hot as she blushed bright red. She averted her gaze, damning herself and feeling humiliated, but then looked back to Jesse, hoping that she might be able to save face by playing it cool. Maybe smile and shrug, possibly wink at him jokingly, but he had already looked away again, staring at nothing over the heads of the crowd.
The squad was known as The Diviners. They were the ones who were responsible for the survival of the human race. They had been founded by an Ensign named McLernon and a few joint international soldiers when they realized that their water supply was running out. The Diviners were tasked with locating natural water resources and food on planet Icarus, then reporting that location back to the colony. There were underground wells with water that was drinkable, but they were few and far between. The Diviners had to find it, which was no easy task. But they had so far managed. When they found a new water source, they would report back to the colony, which would then relocate the entire human population to the new well, which would last long enough to sustain them until a new water source was found, and so on.
The Diviners' job was easily the most dangerous job that anyone on this planet could have, but it was also the most respected. They kept people alive, by placing themselves in danger. There was far more on Icarus that could kill you than just dehydration. For this reason, they were revered by almost everyone as heroes.
Joseph Miller had once been a Diviner Commander, having actually trained the current Commander, Vasseur. It was how so many came to respect him and trust him. They knew he would always look out for them, because that's what Diviners did. They were celebrities, but they spent more time out on the planet, away from the colony, than they did at home. Mackenzie thought it must be lonely, but they at least had each other. And they always had each others' backs.
"I'm sorry about Inglis," Joseph Miller said, snapping Mackenzie out of her fan-girl admiration. "He was a good man."
"Yes, he was," Vasseur said gruffly. "I apologize for returning sooner than expected, but Inglis, he had... he had a child. And a wife. I'm afraid I have to go inform them of his passing."
"Of course," Joseph nodded solemnly. "Do what you have to do, Sacha."
Vasseur half turned and gestured to Abbas. "Kian can brief you on our findings, but the short version is that we are yet to locate a new water supply. And without our specialist, it may prove difficult to do so. We will need to have further conversation about this, but I must go for now."
"Yes, definitely," Joseph agreed. Then, to the rest of the Diviners, he said, "You're all welcome to join me for some food and water, I'm sure you all need it. We're on tight rations right now, but I'm sure people would agree that you've earned your share."
"Thank you, sir," Rebecca Bell said, unable to hide the grateful tone in her voice.
"Very kind of you, sir," Abbas agreed.
Joseph placed his hand on Mackenzie's shoulder, making her jump. She had been staring at the Diviners again and she was starting to feel self conscious.
"Why don't you come, too?" Joseph suggested kindly. "You can meet the crew properly."
Mackenzie found she was suddenly unable to speak, so she simply nodded. As they all began to head off together (except for Vasseur, who went a different direction to find Inglis' widow), Mackenzie noticed Abbas staring with interest down at her bionic hand. She noticed Bell looking sideways at her, curious. Lowe was already in animated conversation with Joseph. And Jesse Greaves was somewhere behind her, walking silently. Mackenzie could almost feel him back there and she felt increasingly awkward just by walking, like she had suddenly forgotten how to do so and her arms felt stupid by her sides.
Just what the hell do I say to these people? she thought desperately as she walked in the company of legends.