Barren, p.1G.P. Burdon
Book One of the Barren Series
All rights reserved; no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
First published in the United States of America in 2016.
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,
"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
"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, workstation 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 workstation.
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
"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 su
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.
Barren by G.P. Burdon / Science Fiction have rating 3.8 out of 5 / Based on15 votes