by Callum Colback
Five days before departure
“I’m not staying for you,” Andrew says.
He lies next to me in bed, his eyes aflame, half-hidden by a lock of hair fallen across his brow. A bead of sweat carves a shimmering trail down his chest.
I prop myself up on one elbow. “Then why? Soon there will be nothing to stay for.”
“The people, Sarah. Are they not worth staying for?”
I roll my eyes. “Of course they are, but you’ve already done your part. It’s time to go.”
“Maybe if I was a doctor…”
“But you’re not. Besides, you’ve already done more than your part in this war.”
“What’s that, the part of a nurse?” He sounds hurt, despite the playful look in his eyes.
“You know what I mean. If you stay, I can’t guarantee you’ll be on one of the later ships.”
He stands and stretches, the scars that criss-cross his back stretching too. Our bathroom is inside the bedroom, standard layout for Imperium quarters. He turns on the sink’s tap but only a sputter of fetid-looking liquid comes out. We haven’t had running water for two days. Electricity still works, for now, powered by the ancient cables running under the ground–kept as a backup measure should our solar shields ever fail or be destroyed.
Andrew climbs back into bed and lays a hand on the side of my face.
“Of course you can,” he says. “You’re orbit exit co-ordinator, you basically decide who goes and who has to stay.”
I recoil. “How can you say that?”
“What?” he asks.
It’s my turn to rise from the bed. “If it was up to me no one would stay! Anyone left on this planet will die. You say it like I’m condemning those poor souls.”
“Sarah, you know I didn’t mean it like that.”
“No, and yet that’s how you said it.”
I retrieve my uniform from where it lies crumpled on the floor and step into it. He watches me, silently, searching for the words.
“A simple ‘I’m sorry’ will suffice,” I say, pulling my boots onto aching feet. The chaos of the last two weeks has seen me on my feet up to sixteen hours a day and left them swollen and sore.
“Sarah, I am sorry.”
I lace the boots and turn to face him. He looks like I’d hoped he’d feel. Awful. I lean over and place a kiss on his stubble-covered cheek. His eyes are deep-set, bloodshot, and lined by heavy bags. We’ve both been working ourselves into the ground. He’s got a heart too big and you’ve got a mind too small, my mother once said.
Andrew pulls me close and kisses me long. When he pulls back I can see the fear behind the tiredness.
“I’m sorry, truly,” he says.
“I know,” I repeat.
“Andrew, don’t make me leave this planet without you.”
“I won’t,” he says, “I promise.”
Two days before departure
I have gone to find Andrew in one of the pop-up medical tents on the outskirts of the Capitol city. It won’t be long until the Antioch horde is swarming over this land. I can almost feel the vibrations of a million insectile legs hammering across the wastelands towards us. A shudder passes through me. The tents are glorified morgues, so few are the people that emerge from them with their hearts beating. Our enemy’s attacks have been brutal, with only one goal. Eradication. The light dome that protects us from aerial bombardment arcs above, painting the evening sky amber. The noise coming from inside the tent only adds to my headache. Lately I seem to be suffering them more and more frequently.
Inside the makeshift hospital that is the medical tent, it’s carnage. The stench of death is overpowering. I have to force down the bile rising at the back of my throat and wipe my watering eyes. Men and women run through aisles upon aisles of pod beds, shouting instructions and waving frantically to other, similarly frantic women and men. Their shouts are just more noise in the cacophony of wails and screams coming from the padded cylinders. The one nearest to me holds a man who is missing both arms. Nanobots are furiously reconstructing the limbs in front of my eyes, but not fast enough. The yellow ooze of rot is visible within the stumps. All they are doing is sealing the infection inside of him.
“Hey,” I say, grabbing a woman as she runs past, “this man is riddled with infection.”
“Then it’s too late for him,” she replies.
She pushes me away and heads for the tent’s exit, shouting to someone about getting more sutures.
“Do you know where I can find Andrew?” I call after her. “Andrew Barnes?” But she’s gone.
In the next bed is a woman with a heavy bandage around her temple. A man kneels next to the bed, clutching her hand, crying.
“Helena,” he says, “look at me. Darling, look at me. It’s me, Joseph. Say you remember me.”
Helena doesn’t look at him; she just stares up at the canvas ceiling. Nonsensical words tumble from her mouth. Her eyes are glassy.
“Oh god,” Joseph weeps, “come back to me, Helena, come back…”
The third bed holds another woman, reduced to nothing but a corpse in military garb. Her face is entirely gone, melted to a bubbled crust by chemical burns. On her wrist is a bracelet, a chrome band with an inscription scrawled upon it. I fight back the sickness swelling in me, resenting myself for feeling it, and lift her wrist to study the inscription closer. It reads, To Jane, my dearest sister, so you may always have a piece of me close. A pit forms in my stomach. I’ve seen enough. I duck back out of the medical centre and consign myself to waiting for Andrew to emerge. Eventually he does, almost running straight into me.
“Sarah! What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing. You missed your flight out this morning.”
He sighs and spreads his arms.
“Do you want to be left behind here, Andrew? Do you want to become just another casualty in this…this holocaust?”
“They need me here. I mean, have you seen in there?” he asks, gesturing towards the tent.
I nod silently. Andrew sees the lack of colour in my face and his features drop. He pulls me close and we embrace, tension flowing out of both of us. Then he pushes back and looks me in the eyes.
“The woman I sent?” he asks.
“She got on a ship.”
“Thank god. When I found out she was pregnant, I had to try.”
“I understand, but Andrew, she was lucky. The ship rejected two people carrying diseases, leaving two spaces—one for her and one for the unborn child inside her. If it hadn’t rejected those two people…”
“I know,” he says. “Thank you.”
He cares far too much about people he has no attachment too. It’s one of his weaknesses, and one of the things that drew me to him.
“I’ve got you on another ship,” I say. “With me, two days from now.”
“Good. That’s good.”
“It will be the last ship to leave the planet.”
“The last ship? You told me this morning there was still almost fifty percent of the population left to evacuate.”
“There is. 46% now.”
His shoulders slump a little lower and he sways on his feet.
“They’re leaving so many behind.”
I reach out an arm to steady him and press my head against his. We stay like that, forehead to forehead for several moments.
“I’m so sorry, Andrew.”
“Me too,” he says, “me too.”
He inhales sharply and our private moment is shattered. The sounds of shouting and screaming from the tent rush in and pull us back to the here and now.
“I need to get back in there, Sarah.”
“Any that can be made stable enough to travel are to be moved to the docking station,” I say.
“And those that can’t?”
I cup his cheek in my hand. Fresh tears roll onto it as he squeezes his eyes shut. When they open again there is composure there. He squeezes my hand, holding it against his cheek, before placing it back at my side.
“I’ll see you tonight,” he says, and kisses me lightly, before disappearing back inside the tent.
The morning of departure
Three transport class ships sit on the landing strip outside the docking station. A metallic voice is counting down over the speakers. It reaches ten and the closest ship’s thrusters ignite, rippling the air below them. Anyone failing to board by designated take-off time is left behind; a fully automated ship waits for nobody. Thankfully everyone has boarded successfully this time. My contact lens interface shows the time turn to 09:00 and the ship lifts into the sky. I’m still waiting for Andrew.
I turn my attention to the Antiochs pressing at the border of The Capitol. Their insectile bodies are not visible from this distance, however, the device they use to break down our light barriers is—a colossal, five-pointed piece of machinery, lying like a starfish on the outside of the dome protecting the city, draining energy from it until the shield is weak enough to be broken through.
At the edge of the docking station, a horde of people not lucky enough to board one of the two remaining ships is gathered, surging against the fence that stretches for miles around the station. Them, I can see. Their faces will haunt me forever. Those we chose to leave behind. Because, at the end of the day, it was a choice. We could have chosen to stay, fought the invaders to our last breaths. We would have lost—every possible calculation run by the computer systems told us that—but we would have lost together. That was not the choice we made, and while my head said our leaders were doing the right thing, my heart disagreed.
Andrew’s voice cuts through my brooding. I turn to see him being escorted to me by a service droid. At the sight of the droid, I feel a pang of sorrow. Nobody is carrying guilt about leaving behind our ever-faithful droids.
“You made it,” I say.
Andrew can’t tear his eyes away from the mass of people gathered at the fence. His mouth is set in a grim line.
“Is that everyone we’re leaving behind?” he asks.
I feel for his hand and take it in mine. The crowd is huge—a sea of people—but it’s not even close to everyone left on the planet. A cold wind blows and we both shiver.
“Andrew, our ship leaves in under an hour.”
He turns to look at me.
“I had to abandon over half the people in the medical tent. There were only three of us left to care for the injured there this morning. They died all around us, one every minute. And those that didn’t, they died the moment we walked out of there.”
“I almost couldn’t bring myself to leave them like that. But the pain it caused me to walk away was only outweighed by the pain of imagining being without you, Sarah. I don’t think I can live without you.”
I have no words. I feel breathless.
“Nor me without you,” I say, and squeeze his hand tighter.
10:50—Ten minutes until take-off
The last ship that will ever leave this planet is readying its engines.
We file onto it, one by one, through the screening door—a translucent, crimson rectangle of light. Andrew and I will be the last two to board. A man approaches the screening door, several people in front of us. The scanners fitted on either side of it move over him, head to toe.
“Daniel Martin, male, 31,” the ship’s vocal modulizer says.
“Infectious diseases—none. Board now.”
Daniel Martin, male, 31, steps through the rectangular door of light and into the ship. The ship speaks again.
“Ship is at 98% capacity. Capacity for six passengers remaining.”
I glance along the line of hopefuls waiting to board. A man with his child, two women, myself and Andrew. Nine minutes left—we’ll board just in time. Still, I can’t help feeling nervous. Andrew massages my shoulders from behind.
“It’s okay,” he says, “we’ll be on in time.”
I shoot him a quick smile.
“I know, it’s just I’ve seen how ruthless these ships are with their timeframes and regulations. I can’t help it.”
The man and child pass through the light screen and onto the ship. Seven minutes until take-off.
My stomach is churning again, and the headache is back.
“Did you pack the chocolate?” I ask Andrew.
“Yeah, in the bag. You want some now?”
I shake my head. I do, but I feel too nauseous to eat.
“Maybe once we’re on board and the nerves have calmed down.”
The first woman has boarded and now the second one approaches the scanner. Five minutes.
“Lila Lortenza,” the ship says, “female, 24. Infectious diseases—none. Board now.”
The woman does as commanded, and then it is my turn. I step up to the scanner. Its light sweeps up and down my body. Did it stop on my stomach for a moment longer than usual? I start to panic, thinking of every infectious disease I could be carrying that would make me ineligible to board.
“Sarah Holborn, female, 29.”
I’m holding my breath.
“Infectious diseases—none. Board now.”
I exhale loudly and turn to look at Andrew. He smiles at me and nods. All my worries evaporate. It’s going to be okay. After a few days of cryosleep we’ll be landing on the ring world Helios-III, able to start our new life together. I smile back at him.
“Board now,” the ship repeats.
I step through the light-screen door and into the belly of the ship. Rows and rows of seats filled with passengers stretch as far as the eye can see up its inside. Many of them are already plugged into the cryo-machines, induced sleep washing over them.
The ships voice comes loudly over the inside speakers.
“Ship capacity at 100%. Preparing for take-off.”
A cold fist punches me in the chest. I spin round. Andrew is standing outside of the ship’s light-screen door, confusion smashed on his face.
“No!” I shout. “Andrew!”
I run at the door, but the light-screen is impenetrable. Andrew is banging on the other side of it with his fists.
“Sarah!” he shouts. “Sarah what happened? Why am I locked out?”
“I don’t know! I don’t understand, I don’t…hey!”
I grab one of the droids standing ward near the door.
“Open this door, now!”
“That is an impossibility,” the droid says. “This is a fully-automated class three transport ship. All control resides with the ship’s intelligence system.”
“Sarah!” Andrew shouts. “Tell them to open the door, tell them to let me in!”
I hit the droid and scream into the metal plate of its face.
“The ship’s made a mistake. I was the second-to-last passenger, there should still be room for one more.”
The ship’s thrusters kick in. A low rumbling signals that take-off is imminent. The droid looks me up and down, scanning.
“You are with child,” it says. “You, plus your child, equals two passengers. Ship capacity is therefore at maximum.”
With child? I feel the nausea again. My headache. My swollen feet. Oh god. I turn back to Andrew. He’s no longer banging at the door.
“Andrew,” I shout through to him. “Andrew, it won’t let anyone through. It’s locked down.”
“You’re pregnant,” he says.
Tears fill my eyes. I nod and they overspill, running down my cheeks.
“It’s okay, Sarah. It’s okay.”
Andrew smiles and presses a hand against the red light of the door. I place mine on the opposite side, against his. I’m sobbing now, uncontrollably.
“I love you, Andrew.”
I can see tears running down his cheeks too, crimson through the light of the door. They touch the corners of his smile.
“I love you too, Sarah.”
The ship lurches and sways as it lifts from the ground.
“No,” I shout, “no, Andrew, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he shouts back, “Tell our child…” His words are lost under the roar of engine thrusters.
The ship moves upwards and gains speed. Andrew stands alone on the landing strip, smiling up at it.
I lose sight of him as we climb higher into the sky, towards the edge of the planet’s atmosphere. The pain in my chest is unbearable, the emptiness I feel overwhelming. I slip down the ship’s wall, curling into the foetal position on the cold floor. I stay like that until two droids come to escort me to my seat. Even then I can’t find the strength to walk. The droids drag me to the seat and deposit me on it. They insert the cryo-machine’s tubing. I place a hand on my stomach, where Andrews’s child is growing, and hope to slip into dreams of the life that could have been.
Callum Colback is a Scottish-born writer based in Bedfordshire, U.K. He writes across all genres, although Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror are closest to his heart. When not writing he can be found sketching, playing guitar, and chipping away at the ever-growing to-be-read pile of books stacked around the house. Follow him on twitter.