Eternity’s Liftoff (4/7)

2: FLEET

The Sempiternity was the first of the Fleet prepared for takeoff. After fifty years of the highest-pressure research, visceral arguments of science and of politics, and massive global coordination of construction, the massive cruiser now stood proudly in the Texas morning, its countdown approaching. Its crew had boarded a day ago, settling in for a journey lasting the rest of their lives. Its ten thousand civilian inhabitants had been selected, too, and would be ferried to the ship once it had established orbit.

From their shelter four kilometers east, Claudia and Adela beheld the gargantuan vessel. They were older, now; Claudia’s hair had greyed from its once golden-brown and Adela’s smart suit-and-badge had been replaced by the stately uniform of the Global Departure Council. The ship was so large that Claudia could see its circular bow and arching back without the help of the view magnifiers dispersed across the shelter. Our darkest hour of desertion, Claudia wondered, but after fifty years she allowed herself to watch on in awe.

“You could still be on it,” said Adela, gazing at the portable city on the horizon. “They want you on the first ship, in case any of the life-support systems go wrong. No one better.”

“I know. I want to be here watching.”

“I know you don’t want to go, Claudia. You’ll have to, eventually. They won’t let you stay. The Fleet needs you in instant communication distance, in case the systems need work.”

“I don’t know, Adela. It’s not right. Look at all the chaos after the Announcement, the lottery. It’s like taking a lifeboat when so many are left on the sinking ship.”

“You can’t save the Earth, but you can save us, save humanity.”

“The lottery winners, you mean.” She heard Adela sigh.

Claudia turned to her friend. “Look, Adela. I’ve given everything to your Fleet. I’ve given my science, I’ve given my soul, and I’ve given Earth’s last resources to these ships. It’s what Mel would have done.” She paused. “But if the rest of the planet wasn’t dying a century ago, it’s dying now, maybe because of what we—what I’ve—done. Forgive me if I want to spend the last few years of my life for the ones here, the ones left-to-die. All hope isn’t lost for them, yet. They need me, too.” Her thoughts traveled to the space-obsessed boy next door, the son that she and Mel never had.

“Reaper can’t be stopped,” said Adela. “We’ve known this from the beginning. I know you don’t feel like you can go. But you have to—the Fleet depends on you, Claudia. I can get the Council to put you on the very last ship. Prime living suite. I’ll be there too. We’ll go together. But you’ve got to come, Claudia; you’ve got to, or the Departure may be ruined.”

Claudia nodded, resigned more than anything, but remained suspicious. She suspected that the Council had a political agenda for wanting her onboard—the Fleet needed its own heroes, its own legends to give its occupants hope, and to lend its radical initiative scientific and public weight. She felt Adela’s hand on hers. A personal motive, too, maybe?

They watched the red numbers fall to zero and the colossal cruiser float upward through the sky, leaving behind a wake of ruddy orange, never to return to Earth again.

China’s sealed-city project was well underway, a beckoning alternative to Departure, but the media was only so forthcoming about Shanghai’s progress to those not involved. Had Claudia made the right decision, all those decades ago?

Exhausted, she turned from the viewing face to go, not to her penthouse, but home to her little flaking canister apartment.

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