By Alex Deramo
Our whole lives had taken place on the ship—a crew of the brightest and most ambitious children—sent into space and never intended to return. Nine of those young lives were cut short—taken by accident, choice, or the after-effects of being born on a dying planet. I was the only one left.
This morning, like every morning, I woke to the faint hum of the ship and the blue glare of artificial light that illuminated the cramped dormitory. Nine empty beds surrounded me, sheets immaculate, left unchanged for what felt like months—yet I could never bring myself to touch them, to try and remember the rest of my crew. I had never believed in ghosts. My only enemy on the ship was my decaying mind. The sky can be a very lonely place. It had been seven hundred and thirty-nine days since I’d talked to another human, three thousand five hundred and forty-nine days since I’d embarked on a mission destined to fail.
I made my way down the narrow metal corridor to the control center of the ship, not even glancing out the window at the vibrant galaxy that I knew surrounded me. I was no longer a child leaving Earth for the first time. The ship no longer represented freedom—it was my prison. Aboard the Revenant, a former state-of-the-art spacecraft, there was nothing to do but watch the ship fall apart, piece after piece drifting back towards the remains of Earth.
I liked to remind myself that I was not trapped. I could always abandon the battered spaceship, and take my chances with the unknown planet that had trapped the ship in its orbit. A more likely solution, however, was to end things while I still had the chance. A half-empty bottle of painkillers waited under my bed, untouched since the death of the ship’s captain, Amarah. Two years ago, when we’d run out of fuel, we sat down together—the last two crew members—and faced the truth, we were completely helpless. Back then, I truly believed that another ship would somehow come to rescue the two of us, that we wouldn’t just be trapped in orbit for the rest of our lives. But our captain took matters into her own hands, made her own decision before either time or nature could take its course. I didn’t even know she had terminal leukemia until the biopsy results came in. Unfortunate but unsurprising; on Earth, cancer was as ordinary as the common cold. The cruel usage of nuclear warfare by the few had a high price, one that had been paid by the many. Some days, I still heard Amarah singing in the control room. Once, her desperate screams jolted me out of the sleep that had become so rare as the months without her dragged by. Up in the sky, there was no mother to comfort me, no soft blanket to wrap around my frail body. It took me two days to realize that my voice was too hoarse to speak, another week to realize that Amarah’s screams sounded an awful lot like my own.
I smoothed back my brittle hair as I prepared to face the camera that would send my words all the way back to Earth. Far from the blunt regulation cut I sported at takeoff, my loose ponytail fell unchecked down to my waist. The video log had never been my job, I was the soul, the heart of the crew, mystified by the numbers and puzzles of space. I practiced my smile in the viewfinder before turning the camera on. Reading from the control panel, I rattled off the state of the ship; pressure monitors at 97 percent, thermal regulation at 95 percent, fuel tank empty, of course. Pretending I’m talking to my little sisters always makes the job easier.
I vividly remember the sharp knock at the door, way too early in the morning, but I was instantly awake. It was my fourteenth birthday, and instead of celebrating my first day as an adult, I hid in the back of our one-bedroom apartment, squeezing my eyes shut and counting the clicks as my mother painstakingly unlocked the five manual locks on our door. If I was born in the old days, when people lived to see their grandchildren grow up, unafraid, I would have been eager to enter adulthood at 18, maybe watch some television, maybe drive a vehicle on a street with my friends. Those luxuries never existed for us. When our infrastructure was destroyed in the first bombings and people started dropping dead early from radiation poisoning, we were told that America needed protection. That meant lowering the legal age to draft more and more children into the army.
A loud knock and hoarse female voice roused me from my light slumber, muffled behind the heavy door only a few feet away from my bed.
“Emilia Lewis, Sector 5?”
My heart raced. My mother, already dressed and ready for the day, eagerly unlocked our door, and a uniformed woman stepped in, heading straight for my bedside after briefly scanning the apartment. She looked friendly, teeth perfect and uniform immaculate—a rarity in the outer sectors. She knelt next to me, her sour breath ghosting my face.
“Congratulations, Emilia. Your diagnostic results were outstanding. You’re going to come with us.”
I cringed. She had the tone of someone who’d never been told no before. She was just like every high-born government official I’d ever met.
My mother tried to smile, waiting to see my reaction.
“You’ll be safe with them, okay?”
I couldn’t speak. It was beyond my comprehension at 14, that I was one of the few who was drafted and truly had to leave home. Still in shock, I packed quietly while my mother counted the government money that my high diagnostic scores and naive compliance had earned her.
“Emilia, you be good and do whatever they tell you to.”
My mother gave me a quick hug.
“You’re doing the right thing for your little sisters. You don’t want them to go hungry, do you?”
Schools were a thing of the past. Every year, however, from their seventh birthday up until their fourteenth, parents had the option to sign their children up for a free diagnostic exam. When we became legal adults, allowed to join the military, the top one-percent would be sought out and our parents would be given monetary compensation as well as the vague promise that their child would be kept safe. How could I blame my mother, so desperate and scared that she would take the money without question, and do the best she could to convince herself that I was safe.
We all knew it wasn’t the truth. It was no secret that the U.S. Government was in tatters. Caught between elections, political parties fought dirty; the conflict escalating until the day of the first bombings. I was told that the United Nations had decided to protect the children who showed potential as future leaders. I was taken from my family, briefly trained, and sent off into space at fifteen. I was the shy one, the cautious one—it was no wonder that I was the only one left ten years later. Suicides, cancer, freak accidents while trying to repair the ship, these were only a few of the unforeseen troubles that we faced. We were young, scared, and unprepared.
I used to have a way with words, boxes of old books and journals used to crowd my family’s apartment. It was small and cramped, but it was standard—no divisions between the formerly rich or the poor. We lived in government issued apartments with government issued gas masks from the first bombings that never worked against the toxicity that seemed to seep from the ground. I used to affectionately call my mother a hoarder—she refused to let go of the past, filling our house with items from the old days: a television, half of a flip cellphone, game controllers.
In my favorite books, humans were always fighting—the words of Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace and Margaret Mitchell in Gone With The Wind twisted until they were beautiful and romantic as they described such horrors. There was always a resolution in my books, but not in my world. Humans were good at destruction and violence, but no one knew what to do with a dying planet except ignore and continue until it was too late. We were a generation with no ties to the world, our ethnicities so widespread they were indistinguishable and irrelevant in our lives. With my unidentifiable features, I felt no specific ethnic connection. My family was completely removed from all tradition or connection with relatives—it had always been just my mother, my baby sisters, and me.
Now lightyears away from home, I counted the ever-shrinking number of freeze-dried rations for the second time that day. No matter how many times I counted, or how many times I prayed to whatever gods were out there, the truth was that I couldn’t survive on the ship for much longer. It had been so long since I was truly hungry, but even with my feeble appetite, I made sure to force myself to take a few bites, at least. That is, if I remembered. I often spent what felt like hours and turned out to be days at the bottom of the ship, staring at the green planet below, cursing it for trapping the Revenant in its orbit for all eternity. I had resented it for years, pushing the traitorous thought that it might be habitable into the back corners of my conscience, but now I began to wonder. All my life, I had always chosen the easy way out, following orders without thought. The truth was that I was running out of food. A quick death would be the decision that old Emilia would make, because suicide would be the decision that my mother would have made, ever afraid to do anything but settle. Thousands of miles away from Earth, I was bound by my childhood, my hopes, dreams, and fears all trapped in the spaceship that I had formerly planned to die on. Twenty-eight years into my life and I had yet to begin living for myself. Instead, I wandered the halls of the ship, time passing torturously slowly, purple bruises appearing on my thin, rapidly-aging body each time I woke from a light sleep.
Months filled with empty prayers turned into months of reflection, and as the remaining rations disappeared, I had to make my decision. It took all my energy to force open the supply closet and dust off the single functional space suit that remained on the ship. My life rested in the hands of a half-empty air tank that I hoped would last long enough for me to reach the ground.
For once, I prepared myself for a change of my choice.
For the first time in ten years, I stepped out of the ship and into the expanse of empty space.
I was a writer, a dreamer, a reader. Not a born survivor.
But I wouldn’t be another dead body sprawled across the bathroom floor.
Cutting the tether that tied me to the Revenant, I closed my eyes and let myself drift toward the planet below.
Alex Deramo is an emerging poet and writer based in New York. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming in online literary magazines Literary Yard and Scarlet Leaf Review. When she’s not writing, you can find her reading anything and everything, spending time with her two dogs, or indulging in her not-so-secret passion for crime shows. You can follow Alex on twitter @alexderamo.