by Waite Jorin
Narrated by Bob Eccles
The crew would be dead in six days. The eleven from CenA3 had spent two decades of their lives on this mission, this ship; it was the first of its kind, a cybernetic bio-engineered vessel called Canaan, and it was dying. The crew biologist had diagnosed Canaan with an unknown cancer strain caused by a solar storm during their launch window.
While the scientific data collected in the ship’s mainframe would revolutionize interplanetary travel and genetics, it would be useless to Canaan or its crew. Even Captain Ven, who had devoted his life to the advancement of science, could detect no value in the findings in light of their impending death.
After all, he thought, what use to the forsaken was knowing why they’d been damned.
Ven sat alone on the bridge. Fleshy walls wrapped the room, veins wired it. Implanted among Canaan’s biology were an array of CPUs and internal comm speakers (these processing the vibrations of Canaan’s vocal folds), seats for the officers jutting from metal cylinder bases that had been welded to bone beneath the floor, tempered glass viewplates grafted to skin. Finding little comfort in what he thought the freakish mutations surrounding him, the captain could do little else but stare into the light-speckled void.
“How’re the others?” he asked Canaan finally.
“Average heart rate is down but within normal range, metabolism is down outside of normal range, frontal lobe activity; this data is corrupted and cannot be accessed.”
Shit, Ven thought. Initially the cancer was confined to the navigational areas of Canaan’s memory, which had put them off course and free-floating to certain death, with only enough supplies to get them to a destination they should have reached days ago. But it had begun spreading more rapidly than predicted. Six days may have been an overestimate.
“I want to know how they’re coping,” Ven said. “How are you coping?”
“The crew is undergoing a scheduled hibernation cycle. Their temperament between cycles seems generally subdued. Regarding your second question, Captain, I’m sorry but I don’t understand.”
“Don’t understand? You’ve been diagnosed with aggressive late-stage terminal cancer. If I were you I’d have ordered my last meal.”
“The reaction your metaphor suggests is irrational. Carcinoma in human beings is curable through current medical pharmacology.”
“We aren’t talking about human beings. Don’t you want to live?”
“I regret being unable to complete the mission.”
“That isn’t what I meant,” Ven said. “Never mind. I regret being unable to complete the mission, too. I regret that any of us took this damn mission. We should have stayed on the ground and you should have stayed in a petri dish.”
The captain closed his eyes and the stars crawling across the front viewplate vanished into blackness. Keeping up this prattle with Canaan was pointless, and it drained the little energy he had. Even if Canaan survived a bit longer they would have to contend with starvation and dehydration, and without a star chart no plan of recourse could be made; no hope, however distant, could be anchored upon.
“Captain,” Canaan began.
Ven’s eyes snapped open. Why couldn’t this thing, unmoved even by its own diminishing mortality, leave him the hell alone?
“I don’t want to talk anymore,” Ven said.
“It is pertinent to the mission to report that we are approaching the vicinity of a terrestrial planet.”
Ven stifled a distant pang of hope. “The navigational system is diseased with tumors. There’s no way for you to detect that information.”
“We are currently penetrating the planet’s gravitational field at an unsafe trajectory. The system type is white dwarf—”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Ven said. “I don’t see any planet.”
“Our velocity suggests we’ve been caught in a high-speed starboard to aft drift in the planet’s gravity well. The planet’s relative position places it out of visual range from the bridge.”
“And how can you be sure it isn’t a malfunction?”
A low rumble rippled through Canaan’s hull, almost imperceptibly at first. But Ven had been in the dead quiet of space too long to miss it. The rumble grew to a mild thunder rolling across a horizon, a tremor beneath Ven’s shoes.
“What’s happening now?” he asked.
“Directional engines are firing to counteract the current trajectory.”
The rumble moved through Ven like blood through a lifeless limb, filling him with prickling vibrations and with images, of the birth of his daughter, his first flight, the death of his father.
“Is it working?” he asked, though he knew the answer.
“It is not.”
There would be an impact. Ven hoped it would be fast, a better death for them than starving.
“How long do we have?” Ven said.
“Two minutes and twenty seconds, approximately.”
Two minutes twenty. Barely enough time for regret. “I want manual control.”
“Captain, the chance of survival is decreased without my computerized guidance of the wing structures.”
“And what are our chances?”
“In both instances, the chance of survival is below five percent.”
The memory of atmospheric fire ripped across Ven’s mind. That place between living and not in the skies of CenA3, heart tugged by the g-force of rocket boosters for the first time. Thrust away from one home and into another.
“Are the others still in the hibernation cycle?” Ven asked.
“Yes,” Canaan said.
“Good. I want you to shut down your consciousness algorithms, Canaan. It’s the best way. They won’t feel anything, and neither will you.”
What Ven really thought was that Canaan would rob him of his humanity in his final moments, his chance to be the most human, struggling against insurmountable odds because the will to live lit him up like the afterburners pushing humankind from the ground into the infinite darkness. It was something Canaan couldn’t understand, life for its own sake, not a mission.
But even Canaan was alive enough to deserve being lied to, to spare his suffering. Even if he couldn’t understand.
“I do not wish to prematurely abandon the mission,” he said.
“The mission is over, Canaan,” Ven said. “We’ve only got a few moments left. Please.”
“As you ask.” These were Canaan’s final words before the cybernetic consciousness, unique in all the universe, grew silent.
Ven felt something drop in his chest as he fastened a helmet to his suit: a loss, though it seemed absurd to him in this moment. The same guilt he’d felt after euthanizing his elderly Huskie, Jezebel, the finality he’d put in her one blue eye (the other glazed and bulging with an infection spread to her brain) that she would never understand.
Taking life was not natural, no matter if Canaan was a thing of nature or not.
But Ven had little time to think of that. He clutched the control stick as the horizon of the planet came into view. In the depths of the past, reflected to him in flashing mirrors of recollection, he told his daughter a story as she drifted asleep. He held his father’s hand as it grew lax. He kissed the scruffy forehead of a friend goodbye and said he was sorry. Engines roared behind him as he floated for the first time up toward the binary suns of CenA3.
Then the mirrors burst and he faced the widening gray wasteland of a dead planet, the final slivers of his life hurtling past at great speeds. The time to act was brief. His brain no longer acted as a tool of reason or an accumulator of memory, but became just another muscle of the body, tensing and relaxing a fleet of other muscles, swaying arms, clutching fingers, widening pupils, deepening the sucking of breath, in a fluidity of life that existed only in the physical.
As an ear carried across the sound barrier, or an eye past the edge of light, so did Ven’s speeding, thrashing, blood-choked heart escape time; it did not slow or gentle its touch, as other astronauts who’d skirted death claimed, nor was it fast and violent. Canaan, Ven and ten other unconscious men and women cometed vacuously down at the wide surface of their obliteration. They rode wrapped in seconds and minutes, years and eons, which slid past Canaan’s hull but did not touch.
And because time for them did not exist, the ground came infinitely to meet them as Ven rent the control stick back, his guts liquified energy churning and shivering in turbulence.
The periphery whitened and sound hushed, so that in the winter of some alternate-universe Ven dragged Canaan’s belly across the landscape, like his daughter might have slid through snow.
When it was over, all was quiet except Ven’s own gasping breath. Blood and ash caked his suit and helmet visor, blinding him. He wiped the blackish red from his visor, not sure if the blood that now stained the palms of his gloves was his, Canaan’s, or someone else’s. He stretched to stand, swivelling in a vertigo-driven stupor, and slipped on the bloody floor. Pain seared his gut and spider-webbed through his nerves as he slammed down upon his knees.
Ven wrapped a hand numbly around a metal structural-support rod protruding from beneath his ribs. The cold of shock spread as though he’d slipped beneath the surface of a great icy lake, his daughter perhaps skating by, out of reach. He dry-heaved spit, slick with sweat. Black swarmed the edges of his vision.
For a moment it seemed Ven had glided from his body and observed peacefully as the mess of his physical self slipped helplessly across the floor. A voice, indiscriminate, hollow, began to cry. Not his voice.
He blinked, inhaled, sucked back into his dying body. He recognized the cry and switched on the comm in his helmet.
“Canaan,” the captain moaned. He’d never switched off his consciousness algorithm, Ven realized, had just stayed quiet, let Ven have his moment.
The crying paused.
“Canaan.” Ven fought his tongue, which pressed against the back of his throat like a raw cutlet lodged there.
Silence. Then: “I’m . . . afraid.”
A coughing fit doubled Ven over. He paused to recover, forced himself to speak. “I’m hurt, Canaan. I’m losing blood and air. I need help.”
“I . . .” Canaan began, paused, “I’m afraid. The others have . . . expired. I don’t know what to do. The mission. What are our orders?”
“No mission, no orders.” Ven’s breathing began to labor. The air was thinning in his suit. He became dizzy. “We’ll help each other. Or we’ll both die.”
“I’ll . . . try.”
“Good.” Ven’s coughing brought up blood and set his nerves to a burning network of agony. He carried on through necessity, scarcely above the surface of consciousness. “There’s a support rod lodged in my abdomen. It’s a few meters long, two or three inches diameter. What happens if I take it out?”
“If your suit and body have been compromised . . . you will lose blood and breathable oxygen at an accelerated rate. Without medical care your life will . . . expire. Except . . .”
“There may be . . . unused suits in the hibernation chamber.”
Unused. Because the bodies they contained no longer required oxygen. Ven let out a sob, but quickly squelched his emotions. “Pointless. I’ll bleed out before I get to the hibernation chamber.”
“My blood is . . . Type O Negative, Captain Ven. The Medical Center contains equipment necessary . . . for blood transfusion. You’ll have to find . . . an uncontaminated artery.”
Ven’s thoughts clouded as the air in his suit continued to thin. Somewhere in the haze he’d heard Canaan’s words, though ideas were now expressed in inarticulate hallucinatory images. There was a push. Ven’s body moved seemingly of its own accord, and his mind found itself baffled, a blundering animal with its neck in the lock of a predatory jaw, which can only watch the brevity of its future unfold.
The captain wrenched the support rod from himself, too weak and confused to cry out, and fumbled for a welding torch for light. Through dim and mangled passageways Ven slid and dragged himself to the Med Center, the torch casting bloody shadows of splintered bone protruding from the walls. The shadows stabbed from corner to corner, torchlight glinting from scalpels, bone saws, retractors, drills, that had fallen from metal trays to the floor.
Canaan’s voice came distant and dreamlike to Ven. “You must hurry . . . you must . . . cauterize your wounds. You must . . . complete the mission.”
Ven grew tired. Blackness crawled in.
“Captain,” Canaan boomed. The volume of his voice resonated in Ven’s skull, shook him. “The torch.”
Ven looked at the flame with horror. A brief reprieve into awareness let in the frightening and uncertain reality.
“Now,” Canaan said, and the resolution of this command caused Ven’s hand to move the torch automatically to his abdomen, searing and bonding his flesh together. This time the pain reached through, and he shrieked. The torch dropped.
Ven wept with pain and fear and loss. Yet he somehow maintained the urgency of Canaan’s voice in his actions, much too far beyond basic emotion to break down now.
He found the supplies for the transfusion in one of the storage areas. He pricked himself several times before the needle could find its vein, though he’d grown numb to all that. Canaan’s veins were trickier to find, but with the torch he soon spotted one and pressed the needle into it.
Ven anchored on the room. The blackness receded some, enough to set his bearings. In a few minutes the transfusion was complete, the machine had done its work, and Ven removed the IVs.
He stumbled to the hibernation chamber where he found Canaan had been torn apart; with jagged borders of shredded tendrils and broken bone the room opened to a desolate gray landscape and dark starry sky. A trail of gore stretched into the distance, littering the path in the dirt their crash had taken. All the hibernation machines were gone but one, the closest to the door that had somehow endured the devastation.
“Have I told you,” Ven said to Canaan as he pried opened the coffin-like machine, “about my daughter?”
“No,” Canaan said after a moment. “We have only . . . spoken of the mission, Captain.”
“No one told you?” Ven said. Frederickson, a man Ven had gone to flight school with, lay pale with his eyes fixed and staring from the visor of his helmet. “Beautiful little girls are the mission goal. No little girls, no mission.”
Ven took Frederickson’s helmet and let it fall to the ground. He lifted Frederickson and began to disrobe him of his suit.
“All mission information is . . . is pertinent to my . . . operation . . . please . . . tell me . . .”
“Her name is Sarah. She has the prettiest brown eyes. I think you two would have liked each other.”
Ven finally pulled the suit free from Frederickson’s stiff legs, leaving him in only a gray body glove, the color of the ocean of dirt only some meters from where he stood.
“Sarah’s a little know-it-all. Knows stuff about planets I’ve never even heard of.”
With some difficulty Ven removed his suit and put on the new one, unable to breathe during the process. He attached his helmet and switched on the oxygen tank, gasping and coughing.
“Astronomy is . . . integral to the mission.”
“Astronomically speaking,” Ven said hoarsely, “I’d sure like to know what planet it is we’re going to die on.”
“I know the planet,” Canaan said.
Ven shook his head. “I don’t understand why you didn’t say something before, but you can say it now if you’d like.” It didn’t matter now, anyway.
“It wasn’t . . . part of the mission . . . the information was . . . useless.”
“Well? No mission now, Canaan. Just the two of us to fertilize the crash site.”
“The planet is Earth.”
Ven knew the name. Sarah knew it, too. The exodus. Oceans and forests, animals and those unlucky enough to be left behind disintegrated from its surface during the red giant phase of its star’s death so many countless generations before. Though no one knew what had happened after they left, not exactly. Most assumed Earth was swallowed up by the growing maelstrom, though it was clear now that it hadn’t.
“I give up,” Ven said. “Why is it still here?”
“It appears . . . the planet’s orbit . . . expanded . . . allowing it to . . . survive.”
Ven stepped out into the dark, cold desert, the eternal night of the planet Earth.
“I’m sorry for that thing I said about you and the petri dish,” he said.
“There is . . . nothing to gain . . . from apology . . . grief . . . anger . . . is human . . .”
Human. Ven had been helpless during the crash to save his crews’ lives or his own. He’d struggled so insignificantly.
“You must know that we’ll both be dead soon,” he said. “What made you help me?”
“I . . . I don’t know . . . you needed . . . to be helped.”
The small, dim sun had sunk low on the horizon. Ven sat in the dirt to watch it.
He wished he could help Canaan. But it was only a matter of time now; for him it was however much the oxygen tank held in its reserve. For Canaan, who knew. He’d been sick to begin with and his injuries were severe. His systems, too, would fail.
But Ven didn’t think about that as the pale little star sank among the others. He thought, how nice for the two of them to go back, between the lines of history book pages, where no one would likely ever go again, to be the last two humans on Earth to watch this sun set.
AUTHOR BIO: Waite Jorin lives and writes in Saint Petersburg, Florida with his wife and crazy dogs. He is recipient of the Anspaugh Science Fiction award and has published in several science fiction journals, including Residential Aliens and Pill Hill Press. He is pursuing his MFA in fiction at the University of Tampa beginning this June.
PHOTOGRAPHER BIO: Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old internationally award winning artist. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph , The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. See more of her photography at www.eleanorleonnebennett.zenfolio.com