It takes an incredible amount of energy to fling a ship across space to a distant star. I don't have all the figures to do the math, but I can tell you that much. I heard from a technician or a scientist or maybe just a gossipy janitor that something like ten thousand people starve to death to budget the energy to send up a crew of twenty-five. Odd, to think that my life is worth 400 others, just because I have a seat on this titanium and plastic juggernaut.
I was part of the fifth crew to go out. Our planet was rapidly filling up, both with people and our offal. The offworld terraforming project had failed miserably. They couldn't even get the low-oxy corn or barley or whatever it was to grow in the greenhouse tents. So we were poisoning ourselves, poisoning our land, and people were dying for every crop that failed to produce. War was threatening to tear us to shreds. War over space, war over food, war over clean water. War over anything and everything because we were too irritable not to fight like children, but these children had knives and guns and bombs and missiles.
A man named Jonathan Cochrane was our savior. Out of the starving and the fighting and the dying, he created hope in the form of an engine, the size of a building, that could smash through barriers of distance and time, depositing whatever it was driving tens, scores or hundreds of lightyears away. He even figured out how to aim it, to send it where we wanted it to go. The governments latched on to it, took it, built it. They wrapped a bubble capable of holding two hundred thousand people around it, called it the Exodus Project. Called it our salvation. If they couldn't make our solar system support more life than it already was, they would find a solar system that could. But first they had to seek it out. They started building smaller ships, called them scouts. The plan was to send the scouts to find a suitable place to plant the flag, then send the Exodus after it. If it worked out, they would send another batch, and so on. The end of our problems, or so they said. The general public couldn't see past the fact that people were dying now so these monsters could be built to save people later, dying because the energy and materials used to grow crops and livestock was being diverted into this space program. But the governments carried on anyway. Exodus would be built if it started a whole new war.
Jonathan Cochrane wasn't around to see the inaugural launch of the first scout, the Endeavor. He was killed in a water riot three weeks after construction started, gunned down in the street. His death galvanized the people, united them under a name that had become synonymous with a better future. Where the governments were villains for acting to let the people die, Jonathan was a saint for dreaming of a way to save them. His vision, they said, his goal, was to make a better way for the people. He had given his life for it. He was a martyr to the cause. Construction for the Exodus Project was completed with unprecedented public support.
I was in training when the Endeavor launched. I had been contacted on my anniversary, interrupted during dinner with my wife by a government courier delivering a top priority encrypted two-way message.
* * *
"Mister A. Scott? Citizen number 2-5578239-15?" It was a depressingly clipped and formal tone.
"Yes, to whom am I speaking?"
"My name is Gregory Allen. I am the Personnel Director for the Exodus Project. You are, I presume, familiar with it?"
"Yes, sir. Of course." I didn't know why I said 'sir,' it just slipped out. Mr. Allen had a very commanding presence. Megan and I exchanged glances, she gripping my leg tightly.
"Mister Scott, I am holding in my hands a list of individuals that my analysts believe are qualified to take part in an Exodus scout flight. Your name is near the top of this list."
I dropped my wine glass, barely cognizant of it shattering on the ground. My jaw worked, but I couldn't find words. After a moment, Personnel Director Allen continued.
"Your personality and skillset are rated by our computers to be a ninety-eight percent match for the fifth scout flight, the Intrepid, which is scheduled for departure one year and five months from today."
I found my wife's hand with my own and grasped. "Sir? I'm... I'm not sure I understand, sir."
"Mister Scott, I want you on that flight. Your government and your people want you on that flight. You will find enclosed in this message's data squirt all of the relevant information pertaining to the mission. I hope that you will accept."
"This is... this is all very sudden, sir, and I need to talk it over with my wife, and I have..."
"You have forty-eight hours to bring your personal affairs to order, Mister Scott. After that time, transportation will be arranged to take you to the Exodus Project's personnel facilities. Should you choose not to accept the assignment," the tone of his voice made it very clear that he did not expect this to happen, "you will of course be required to relinquish all materials relating to the project."
"Good evening, Mister Scott."
* * *
So of course I went, after a teary-eyed farewell from my wife and family. I went to be trained and analyzed and poked and prodded. I learned how to function in zero gravity, how to operate the Intrepid's onboard systems, how to communicate effectively with the other members of my team. I learned where I fit in the scheme of things, how to respond to emergencies such as onboard fires, partial or full decompression, loss of life support, loss of drive power. I learned how to depend on my team and how they should be able to depend on me. I learned how to pull data that I needed from the computer system, and how to put data that we collected back into it. I learned how to send one-way message squirts back home to report on our findings. I learned how to operate a firearm.
* * *
"It's a necessary part of your training program."
"Why, so we can fight off the little green men when we get boarded?"
"Rules and regulations, section sixteen dash b. In the event of a mutiny on board a spacefaring vessel, all crew must be properly trained in the maintenance and operation of personal firearms, to ensure the safety of the ship."
"A mutiny? Are you serious?"
"It's in the rulebook. I don't make the rules."
* * *
Being the fifth launch, the Intrepid did not attract much public interest, unlike the fifty thousand people who turned up to watch the Endeavor, the first to go. It was mostly families of the crew, some special interest groups, a few news networks grasping for stories to air. Nothing special, no fanfare, no elaborately staged launch like the Endeavor had received. No jet of flames slowly lifting the scout into the air, into space, just a bounce. That's what it was called, traveling with Cochrane's engine. Bouncing. We bounced once and we were in orbit. They told us that it sounded a little like a balloon popping.
We spent five hours in orbit, checking and rechecking systems. We were advised of our destination, told that it had an eighty-five percent probability of being compatible enough to support life. Here was our chance to be heroes. Our names would be right up there with Jonathan Cochrane's. The world's saviors, the crew who valiantly braved the cold vacuum of space to find a new reason to hope. It was a very patriotic speech, but we were all anxious to go.
We were told that the only communication with home until our bounce back home would be through data squirts, the sending of which became exponentially more expensive as the distance increased, and so communication was to be kept to essential or critical communiques only. We were told that if we didn't know what this meant, we should not be using the squirtbox. And then we were ready.
We bounced, something like three hundred lightyears. There is no feeling associated with bouncing, no sensation. I was watching out a viewport when it happened. One moment, home was there, in all of its dying splendor. The next, it was gone, replaced by a world eerily reminiscent, but obviously alien. My inner ear twisted as my brain searched for familiar points of reference and found none. We had arrived.
* * *
"This is it."
I glanced at her. She was fingering her nametag absently. E. Bennet. Botanist. I had noticed that she always did that when she was thinking. "This is what?"
"This is the one we've been looking for. No, don't look at me like that. I know it is, I can feel it."
I didn't have a reply to that, so I returned to my work, feeling a sudden pang of homesickness.
* * *
The next five days were a blur of constant activity. Probes and scanners were sent out and set up, measurements were taken, data was collected. Excitement was in the air. We had found plant life. An abundance of it, and animal life too. The air on the planet was a familiar mix of nitrogen and oxygen and other trace gasses. A slight deficit in helium levels from norm, and a slight increase in carbon dioxide, but within acceptable limits. Six of us went down to the surface. A botanist, a marine biologist, a microbiologist, a biochemist, a physician, and myself, the communications specialist. They needed at least one person who knew how to operate a squirtbox, they said, none of the data we collect will do us any good if we can't get it back to the ship. I wasn't complaining; a chance to set foot on alien soil. Only a handful of people before me had been given that honor.
I'm not sure who said it first, but someone as we were surveying called the place Eden, and it stuck. "The garden of Eden," we said jokingly as our tests proved plant after plant to be human-consumable. We relayed our findings back to the ship, and they voiced confirmation of what we had come to realize: nobody back home would ever go hungry again. When natural food resources here ran out, the soil was fertile enough to grow almost limitless crops. The water was clean and drinkable, once treated, untainted by human pollutants and contaminants. The water riots, the food wars, they were all over.
We celebrated with wine around a campfire, sitting under a sky untainted by smog.
* * *
"I told you so."
She was playing with her nametag again. E. Bennet. Botanist. I was lying on my back, belly warm with alcohol, staring at the stars. I propped myself on one elbow to look at her, firelight casting flickering shadows on her face.
"Yes, you did."
"Do you suppose they'll keep it?"
"Keep it? How do you mean?"
"Keep it like this." She flung her arm in a wide arc. "With the trees and the fields and the animals, all of it."
"Oh." I paused. "No, I don't think so. They'll have to make way for the crop fields. There are a lot of people to feed back home."
"Yes, I suppose you're right." She frowned. "I rather like it like this, though. The garden of Eden."
I flopped back again. "I like it too. Perhaps they'll leave some of it."
She wasn't listening. "The garden of Eden," she repeated softly. She sat there for a long time, fiddling with her nametag, thinking silently. My thoughts wandered back home, to my wife.
* * *
The next morning was the day we were scheduled to return to the Intrepid. The data and samples were collected, tagged, and catalogued. Camp was broken. We gathered around the squirtbox and I raised the ship.
"Intrepid, this is the away team. We're ready to go home."
"Away team, Intrepid here. We have a fix on your location and are prepared to bounce--"
The signal disappeared mid-squirt. No signal degradation, no interference. I frowned and checked the squirtbox's vitals. Everything appeared to be in order. Then someone spotted it, a supernova flare of energy in the upper atmosphere, already fading away. We all knew what it meant: complete containment failure of Cochrane's engine. The Intrepid was gone. Panic set in.
* * *
"What do you mean gone?!"
"You saw the sims just like the rest of us. The engine blew."
"Could there be survivors? Someone to pick us up?"
"Which part of gone do you not understand? The Intrepid is a cloud of monatomic dust, there's no one left."
* * *
They tried everything they could think of, but eventually they had to accept what I had been telling them: the ship was gone, and our squirtbox was simply not powerful enough to contact home. The group lasted for almost a week before someone cracked. The marine biologist killed the physician in a fit of rage, clubbing him to death with a portable spotlight. The mob mentality overcame us and dispensed its own brand of justice, and we stoned the marine biologist. Later, when we had come to our senses, we buried both bodies in shallow, unmarked graves in a field.
Two months along, with no sign of rescue, the biochemist commited suicide. Hung herself from a tree with a power cable. I had to cut her down. We buried her with the others. Three days later, the microbiologist went into septic shock because of infection. We did what we could, but without proper medical supplies and expertise, he suffered for a week before finally dying. It was almost a relief.
I refer to these people by their job titles not to disrespect the dead, but because I honestly cannot remember their names any more. It has been too long. Our last power reserves are dwindling fast, just enough remaining to write these logs to nonvolatile memory and hope that they will one day be found.
The tools from the ship helped us at first. Cutting lasers and power welders and portable heat sources and insulated bivouacs. Of course, it all started to break down, minor damages at first that we could repair, and then major failures that we could not. And so we learned. Learned to make shelter and fire and how to catch animals and plant seed. Learned how to set broken bones when Evelyn fractured her leg falling from a tree.
* * *
"They're not coming for us, are they?" I stopped my work and looked at her. Her face was smudged with dirt. She was no longer wearing her nametag, though I didn't need it to remember her name any longer. Her clothing was torn and frayed. Her skin was deeply tanned from the sun.
I set down my makeshift shovel and scratched my head. "It's never too late..." I started, but she interrupted. "What if this happened to everyone, Adam? All of the scouts disappeared, nobody back home knows what's going on."
"Then they'll keep trying. The species will live on."
"No, you don't understand. We are the future of our species. This place," she flung her arm out, "this place is the future."
* * *
The baby is due any day now. We waited until we were sure that we could survive the winter before we tried. We suffered in the cold, but we lived. We lived, and we learned valuable lessons for next year. The species will not die, barring unseen calamity. Perhaps one day, our people will find us or our descendants on this world. Perhaps not. Either way, the species will live on.
Goodbye, Megan, I will hold you in my heart always. We're not coming home. I love you.
The batteries are dying, I have to end this now. And I have a garden to tend.