The bulky folder slammed onto Adela Novak’s cluttered desk. In it were designs and briefings of space cruisers, each the size of a small city. Claudia picked one of the designs up and waved it in Adela’s face.
“You aren’t saving the world,” said Claudia. “You’re abandoning it.”
“Yes.” Adela sighed and rose from her chair. She stepped around her desk to the engineer. “Over the last year, I’ve talked to the best scientists and the finest minds in the country. The only consensus we’ve reached is that the Earth may be beyond our saving.”
“You didn’t ask me.”
“And what do you think?”
Claudia hesitated. Reaper was becoming the topic of conversation over every bowl of yeast-meal. It was invisible, unknowable, elusive, and inescapable. The bland food, small rations, poor education, and drowning hospitals were attributed to Reaper. Mel and the other engineers liked to blame the government, but Claudia knew they just needed a face for its terrifying intangibility.
“I don’t know,” she decided.
Adela picked up the folder from the desk. “We’re only trying to cover all our bases,” she said. “The Earth supports fewer and fewer people every year. What was ten billion a century ago is now half of that. What happens when that number becomes zero?”
“So this is the Department of Research. You convince the public you’re working to save the world, but you’re really just designing a—a generational fleet? This is madness! If you’d been spending your time and money researching Reaper, maybe, you might be saving lives instead of damning them!”
“Do you even know what Reaper is?” Adela raised her eyes. “Does anyone you talk to know? There is no stopping it, no reversing it, no bunkering down until it’s over.” Claudia glared at her. “We need you, Dr. Clyne, and here’s what I can offer.”
“I’m not interested.”
“You’ve studied those designs?” Claudia’s face was hard, and she did not answer. “Well, we’re giving you full directive over closed-system life support. That means air processing, food, water, waste management—there isn’t much about cruiser design you wouldn’t have a say in, if you wanted. You’d report directly to me, the Director of Engineering. You’re that good, Dr. Clyne. Think on it.”
Claudia pursed her lips.
Mel was halfway through his yeast-meal when Claudia slid onto the bench beside him. He tended to eat later than most University of Illinois faculty, so the cafeteria was mostly empty. The big yeast-meal reactor at the back had already lit up red, beginning its dinner production cycle.
Claudia set a ream of paper on the table in front of Mel. “Novak offered me a better deal,” she said. “We could live in a penthouse. Oh, and I’d have jurisdiction of all life-support engineering.”
Mel gave her a half-smile. “I like our little canister home, hon, with the sweet space-boy next door.”
“D’ya think Novak would let me tell him what she’s working on? He’d go absolutely wild.” The two of them chuckled.
“But all life-support, directed by you?” Mel continued. “Sounds pretty sweet. What about the Chinese offer?”
“Novak didn’t mention it. Not sure if she knows.”
“Hmmm.” Mel wiped his mouth and turned to her. “Sheesh, this goddam yeast-meal. New ‘Hawaiian flavor’ tastes like coconut mud.” Claudia snickered. “So you’re not so sure anymore? About going to work in China?”
“I know how much you want to stay here, Mel. But… Novak’s whole Departure feels wrong. I mean, the R&D and construction would drain the Earth’s best resources, but the whole fleet wouldn’t hold a fraction of the people on Earth.”
“The project seems to be going ahead, with or without you. You could be the difference between its success and failure, you know.”
Claudia looked skeptical. “It’s not me I’m worried about—the physicists aren’t even sure about the hyperdrive yet.”
“But it’s possible, isn’t it?”
“Centuries away, maybe. It means the Fleet would need state-of-the-art R&D facilities, itself.”
“Banking on someone to finish the ships, after the ships have taken off? Sheesh.”
“Ballsy, right?” said Claudia.
“Earth’s in bad shape,” said Mel.
“So it really does come down to that: Novak’s offer, or China? What do you think will save more people? A generational fleet or an insulated city?”
“Funny thing, that answer might depend on where I—where we—choose to go now.” She leaned in on him. His shoulder was big and comforting, and always dependable.
“Well, Claudia, you’re the brightest mind I know.” He gave her a kiss. “You do what you think is right, and I’ll be right there—”
Violently, he clutched the table suddenly and began coughing, his body seizing up. Claudia grabbed him to hold him steady as he hacked harshly until she felt his muscles relaxing and the intense coughing subsided.
They stared at the dark red blood splattering the remaining yeast-meal and the table around it. “Well, I didn’t think the new Hawaiian flavor was that bad,” Mel said, offering his wife a rueful smile.
Claudia stared in disbelief at Reaper’s telltale death sentence. Here? Now? Why Mel? Even through the insulation of the engineering university?!
And suddenly everything else in the world seemed meaningless, as tears began to leak down her cheeks and across her chin, dripping onto Adela Novak’s offer.