Posted by: lordkyler | April 9, 2018

Every Man an Island – Short Story Week 2018

The process of waking up from cryostasis was growing uncomfortably familiar.

Theo gasped, feeling the burn in his chest as he breathed on his own for the first time in… how long has this cycle been? Anything longer than a few days required the same protocols, making it impossible to tell time from biological processes alone. The gap in his memory seemed brief, as though he’d only laid down for a quick nap, but his body ached like he’d been running marathons, and the symphony of symptoms that accompanied cryosleep – nausea, dizziness, fatigue – made it hard to think about anything. He would feel fine in a few days, but by then, it would be time to go back under.

Taking a moment to center himself, Theo listened to the familiar hum of machinery, savored the chemical tang to the air, explored his muscles as if for the first time. Sometimes, in these first few moments after waking up, he wondered why he still bothered. He was shackled to a dream that had long since died, clinging to a hope as faint and distant as the stars. If not for the mission, he would have ended it all a long time ago. But, inevitably, duty called him back from the brink, kept him going for one more cycle. One step closer to his goal.

The earth was lost, but he could still save humanity.

Forcing his eyes open, he squinted at the bright light filtering through the tinted glass of the stasis chamber, trying and failing to read the display outside. Ice had turned to steam during the awakening process, obscuring his view. He frowned, stiff facial muscles making the expression feel foreign. The atmospheric systems should have handled the humidity before his heart was even started up, recycling the moisture for later use. This ship was designed to be completely self-sufficient, perfectly balanced for sustainability. Either some part of that system had broken, or something had triggered an emergency awakening protocol. Neither option was pleasant to consider.

Theo clumsily tried to wipe away the fog on the glass, but only succeeded in streaking it. Groaning at the effort, he threw himself forward and shoved the door open, stumbling on unsteady legs. Compared to the sauna inside the chamber, the mild air of the ship was bracing, helping him regain a measure of lucidity. Pausing only long enough to grab his jumpsuit and a pair of reading glasses, Theo made his way over to the terminal.

The system prompted him for identification, and he placed his thumb against the scanner, wincing at the pinprick which followed. Only when the analysis confirmed a DNA match was he allowed to enter his password. On the surface, this level of security seemed absurd – he was alone, on a shielded and secret spacecraft drifting in uncharted orbit millions of miles away from any semblance of civilization… but on the other hand, his cargo was too precious to take chances.

He finished dressing while the system finished loading, rousing routines that had lain dormant to conserve energy while he slept. The ship was perfectly calibrated to complete its mission, but had little to spare, forcing him to spend months in stasis to conserve enough energy for his personal project. A sacrifice, yes, but it would all be worth it in the end. Assuming he didn’t die here and now.

He kept an eye on the screen as he dressed, searching for anything out of the ordinary.

SCC Ark – Terminal 3

02:33 AET | 5 OCT, 2101*

User Identity Confirmed: Doctor Theodore Denaux.

Initializing N.O.A.H. Interface

Status Report:

  • Structural Integrity: 99.8%
  • Projected System Stability: 114%
  • Genetic Archive Integrity: 100%
  • Project Pangea: Trial #89: COMPLETE
    • Viral Compound CR-37: STABLE
    • Antisociality Index: 0%
    • Prosociality Index: 0%
    • Interactivity: 0%
    • Equilibrium: ACHIEVED – 18:00 AET, 4 OCT, 2101

Theo leaned closer to the screen, brow furrowed. He’d been asleep for a year – nothing unusual, if a little premature. Most of the discrepancies were easily explainable – minor damage from space debris that hadn’t yet been repaired by the bots, extra energy generated by his time in stasis. The shipboard AI, NOAH, managed most affairs, and these aberrations were well within his parameters.

What couldn’t be so easily explained was the outcome of latest trial, which had apparently failed and succeeded simultaneously. Had NOAH awoken him early to assess the situation? Rather than sit down to parse through the raw data as he usually did, Theo decided to make the trek to the lab right away. This was intriguing enough to be worth the discomfort – perhaps the very breakthrough he’d been waiting for.

Having spent most of his adult life onboard, Theo could have found his way around the ship blind, which was convenient, since his eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the light. Still damp from the chamber, his bare feet squeaked on the polymer tiling as he scurried down the empty whiteness of the hallway. The station remained spotless despite his best efforts, cleaned by the robotic assistant he would doubtless find waiting for him in the lab. He knew a little about computers, but not nearly enough to tamper with the ship’s coding. He cared for the cargo – NOAH handled the Ark.

Bastards. Theo supposed he couldn’t really blame the engineers who had come up with the names. What else were you supposed to call a ship carrying the last samples of flora and fauna from a ruined earth, if not an Ark? Even the acronym for NOAH wasn’t too egregious; it stood for Navigation, Oversight, Automation, and Heuristics, accurate enough. Still, it was a bit blunt for his tastes, and the biblical reference carried connotations he wasn’t sure he could fulfill. Noah’s storm had lasted forty days and nights. Even the most optimistic estimates suggested that this time, the Earth would remain uninhabitable for centuries, if it recovered at all.

No, the real bastards were the ones who had caused this mess, the aristocrats, politicians, and generals who had orchestrated the Last World War, the monsters who had decided mere nuclear weapons weren’t destructive enough for their bloodlust. Ever after Armageddon, those lucky enough to escape the planet continued to squabble over the scraps rather than work together. Mankind did not deserve the treasures this ship held.

But, if this experiment was the breakthrough he hoped for, they might eventually become worthy.

Theo found his hands shaking. It might have been just chill tremors, but he imagined the excitement was a contributing factor. Adrenaline could be a dangerous drug. A few moments later, he found himself in the familiar confines of the ship’s genetic research laboratory. The heart of the whole ship, stocked with every amenity – chemical synthesizers, cloning vats, and his current focus, the terrarium.

The glass-paneled chamber was its own self-contained ecosystem, capable of supporting an entire colony of laboratory rats, should experiments such as Doctor Denaux’s prove necessary. In the most recent test, each and every rat had been injected with CR-37.

Each and every one lay lifeless in the dirt.

Heart pounding, Theo hastened to the terrarium’s display, tapping frantically. “You call this equilibrium?” he demanded. At the beginning of his isolation, he’d sworn he wouldn’t end up talking to himself or the computer, so he ended up addressing the general universe instead.

However, he soon found that the report had been technically correct. The compound was stable, and the rats were still alive. They just… weren’t moving. They weren’t asleep, either, just lethargic. Fatigue? he wondered. Drowsiness? Perhaps an immunological issue?

Grabbing a remote terminal, Theo approached the cage and called upon the microbot inside to poke one of the inhabitants. The rat barely moved. A stronger nudge provoked it to roll over with a tiny huff, eyes glassy. It was thin, malnourished, but food lay only inches away, untouched. Not lethargy, Theo realized. Apathy. It simply doesn’t care.

The realization was… conflicting. Although he believed his work was worth the cost, seeing innocent and intelligent creatures reduced to such a state put a twist in his intestines. And yet, this was a promising new development. CR-37 had worked – it simply worked too well. If he could reduce the effects without compromising its effectiveness… he could actually do it.

A slow smile spread over his face as he allowed himself to imagine it. Humanity, stripped of its cruelest and most selfish instincts. A literal plague of kindness and cooperation that would spread throughout the solar system: he had hijacked the virus’s power to rewrite genetic code, using it to update humankind’s outdated instincts. Tribalism, superstition, short-sightedness – these were traits that had helped homo sapiens survive during the age of mammoths and saber-toothed cats, but their intelligence allowed them to outpace their evolution, producing a spacefaring race operating on stone age hardware.

Now, finally, he could fix it, alter brain and body in order to change the mind, implement change on a scale that religion and philosophy could only dream of achieving. As soon as he perfected the formula. He already knew the next step to take – only a few minor adjustments.

Snapping his fingers, Theo gestured for the robotic assistant to slide a chair his way, sitting down almost before the robotic arm could comply. Physically, he was still sluggish, but his mind was racing, alight with possibilities. His fingers flew over the screen of his remote terminal pad, making the initial preparations for CR-38 as he scooted his way over to the main terminal and its more advanced functionality. He would need to euthanize these rats, recycle their material, and begin cloning a new generation. He might even stay awake to watch the results this time. It would cost him a few years in stasis afterward, but he wasn’t missing much in the broader galaxy, and it would be good to get some…

He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn’t notice the thumping sound until the third time it happened.

He froze, belatedly, before overcoming his idiotic impulses. Because it was quicker to initialize the project than cancel it, he set the systems running before changing over to the security functions. The laboratory began to hum softly as it went about its work – disposing of CR-37’s victims and brewing a new batch of CR-38 – while he tried to remember how to work the surveillance system; he hadn’t used it in years.

Finally, he found the right button and began cycling through the cameras around the ship and cursing himself for a fool. It was nothing, of course. What could it possibly be? A Martian? Still, some primal, primitive part of him was compelled to check, flicking through the views as quickly as he could process them. Nothing but white halls and dark rooms and rows upon rows of genetic storage and machinery.

No, wait. Heart pounding, he backed through the last few screens, for once actually hoping his biological biases were to blame. It had to be a false positive, a trick of the light, his brain hardwired to find patterns that didn’t exist. Then he saw it – a figure moving through a darkened section of the ship nearby, shadowed and indistinct, but unmistakably human.

Someone was on the ship.

For several long seconds, he simply stared at the image, unable to comprehend something so far removed from the routine. Where to even begin? How had they gotten onboard? What did they want? What security features did this stupid ship even have?

He fought down a wave of fear and panic, forcing himself to think before acting.. First things first – information. A quick perusal of half-remembered features soon revealed the facts. The drop in the ship’s integrity was due to space debris of a very different sort than he had assumed – a raider’s ship, perched on the Ark like a carrion bird, blotting out the stars.

They had seized the main dock, overriding the controls and forcing the door open. So far as Theo could tell, that was the only point of entry, and the person stalking through his ship was the only intruder. Now that he was aware of the breach, he could reassert control over the doors, lock the whole ship down. He was halfway to pushing the button before he reconsidered.

A ship of that size would likely have more than one person on board. If he sealed everything off, what would he do next? These were raiders – they would have tools to break down the doors, weapons to blow up the entire ship, if he forced their hand. He had next to nothing,

He needed some way to balance the equation, to utilize what tools he had and find some form of leverage. The double-edged sword of adrenaline was in full effect: time seemed to slow down as his thoughts went into overdrive, but it was hard to think rationally or stay focused. If only the synthesizer wasn’t already occupied; he could have cooked up something to calm his nerves…

With that thought, a seed of an idea took hold in his mind. Checking the screens once more, he could see that the intruder was quickly approaching the lab – he would have to hurry. Feeling a sudden surge of energy, he snatched up the remote terminal tablet and dashed for the storage nook in the far corner of the lab, where he could hide for a few crucial moments. It was amazing how quickly his stasis symptoms became irrelevant in the face of mortal peril. Not that he cared for the treatment, of course.

Crammed into the confines of the storage space, Theo felt as though his head would explode. His heart pounded so loudly he was afraid the intruder would hear it from across the lab, and he scarcely dared to breathe, even though the short sprint had winded him. Flicking through viewpoints, he found the research lab cameras just as the stranger entered the room. A woman, middle-aged, with hard features and a very large gun. If there had been any doubt about her allegiance or intentions before, they were dismissed now. Her uniform bore no insignias or identification, and her grim expression made it clear she was willing to shoot at any sign of provocation.

Theo swallowed hard, typing the requisite commands on his terminal with trembling fingers. He would only get one chance at this.

The woman stalked through the laboratory like a predator, eyes alert and posture primed for action. She paid little heed to the whirring of the micro-robot in the terrarium or the information on the displays – not until the ship was secured. There was a beep as the synthesizer finished production, and she reacted instantly, gun trained on the potential threat before the sound had even died away. A red dot – a laser sight – swept slowly over the unit as she inspected it, not wavering in the slightest. If he hoped to take her by surprise, he needed to distract her.

“Without getting shot,” he added, then went rigid as he realized he’d spoken out loud. She had heard him, too – the laser leapt in his direction, jumping from place to place as she scanned for signs of life, quickly settling on his hiding spot. Theo watched through the tiny slit in the doorway, stomach sinking as she approached, somehow knowing that he was there.

One chance…

The door to the storage nook flew open as he charged, throwing himself to the ground at the same time. The mercenary fired – he heard the crackle of electric rounds, and smelled the sharpness of ozone in the air; the bolts passed so close he could feel the tingling on his skin. But all of that seemed distant, somehow.

He was focused on launching his own attack.

He pressed the button on the console just before slamming painfully to the deck, and the gun fell silent a heartbeat later, replaced by a sharp intake of breath and the clatter of her gun falling to the ground. Breathing heavily, Theo took a moment to steel his nerves before looking to see what had happened.

The woman was frozen in agony, eyes wide, too shocked to scream. Theo had enlisted the ship’s robotic arm, taking advantage of the distraction he had caused to ram the full length of a hypodermic needle into the base of her skull. The needle was too small to be fatal, even with such a violent penetration, but the sudden injection of freshly-made CR-38 was another matter altogether.

Theo found his feet, wincing at the pain, and then snapped his fingers, causing the robotic arm to withdraw. The stranger shuddered as the needle retracted, then slumped slowly to the floor, not even bothering to break her fall. Her eyes – once so keen – had suddenly gone dull, her expression vacant. Cautiously, he prodded the body with his toe, and while there was no response, he could see that she was still breathing. Just like the rats.

That worked… quickly, Theo thought. Then he threw up.

There wasn’t much in his stomach but bile. Still, he retched, acid bitter in his mouth. Coughing, he turned away from the disabled raider and punched in the override control, locking down the ship. Red lights flashed, alarms buzzed, and heavy doors slid shut around the base, locking out further interference – at least for a while. Given time, he should be able to reverse the effects of the virus. In the meantime… he had a hostage.

It was a strange idea, like something from a movie. Not a situation he’d ever expected to be involved in. And yet, here he was, fishing for zip ties to bind a woman’s limbs, just in case she somehow recovered.

Damn it all! Suddenly furious, Theo kicked savagely at the storage crate– not to damage anything, except perhaps his toes. He simply couldn’t comprehend everything that had unfolded in the past few… how long had it taken? Minutes? Seconds? Every possible precaution had been taken to remove himself from the petty bullshit that had ended Earth, sacrificed everything to save some small part of its beauty, and now, in the middle of literal nowhere, he was right back in the middle of it.

Sometimes he thought there must be a god after all. Not a benevolent one, but some spiteful force that enjoyed toying with the lives of lesser beings, like a child with ants and a magnifying glass. For greed and violence to find him, way out here, just as he was discovering how to eradicate them? Surely that was more than coincidence. He aimed a kick at the unflinching raider as well, but stopped himself before flying into an all-out tantrum. He wasn’t out of this yet. If he wanted to see his utopia realized, he would have to survive this encounter.

He needed more information. Securing his captive, he rifled through her pockets, finding a variety of gear and secondary weapons, but nothing he had the training or confidence to use. He didn’t even bother with the gun – raiders who could board ships would have locks on anything dangerous. Finally, he found a comm device tucked into her ear, and summoned the robot to perform a quick scan. Stories of booby traps and dead-man’s switches were exaggerated, but it was better to be sure.

When the check came up clean, Theo took a deep breath and put it on, though it was an uncomfortable fit, modeled for a different ear. It still worked, however, allowing him to catch the tail end of a sentence.

“–eak to me, dammit.” The voice was masculine, the tone more concerned than angry, despite the epithet.

“Hello?” Theo asked, trying not to think about how this was his first real human contact in decades. “Who is this? What do you want?”

“Who the hell is this?” the voice echoed. The accent was British, or something akin to it. After the Panspora, it was hard to place anything precisely.

“You boarded my ship,” Theo said. “I’ll ask the questions here.”

“And if you no longer had a ship?”

“I have your partner,” Theo spat. “Does that answer your question?”

There was a lengthy pause. Theo used the opportunity to pick up the remote tablet, paging rapidly through the available cameras and marking the most important views, primarily the docking doors. They were still shut, fortunately, and he saw no signs of other intruders.

“I see,” the voice said, turning diplomatic so quickly that it threatened to cause conversational whiplash. Theo could hear a faint, irregular rhythm in the background, someone hammering away at an analog keyboard. “I’ll admit, this is… troublesome.”

“I’ll bet,” Theo muttered darkly. That typing was troublesome – he had no idea how vulnerable NOAH was to a digital assault. Theo had some advantages, including executive access codes and manual overrides, but it wouldn’t last long. With his limited knowledge, the best he could do with the terminal was to buy time. He needed to find another way to defend himself, and quickly. “Now explain yourself before I bash her head in.”

“I suppose introductions are in order,” the stranger sighed. “I am the captain of the Harrier, the ship currently docked to yours. My name is Leonard Huxley, though you may call me Leo. Let’s see – and you must be Doctor Theodore Denaux. Well, what do you know about that? Leo and Theo. How droll.”

Theo felt a chill crawl down his spine. The pirate knew his name. Had he already gained access to the terminal? “I fail to see the humor.”

“Humor is what we make of it, Doctor. For instance, I’m not terribly amused that you’ve taken my partner hostage, but I can appreciate the irony in the situation.”

“Irony?” Theo asked. He’d made his way back the terminal, trying to determine the exact nature of the docking situation. If they’d performed a standard coupling – yes, they had. An opportunity. He set to work, but soon ran into an unexpected obstacle. NOAH was… gone. Only the backup systems remained; white text and square boxes on a black screen.

“Irony,” Leo affirmed. “You’ve taken my helper hostage, and now I’ve taken yours. Is that irony? I suppose it doesn’t matter.”

Theo cursed, clenching his teeth until he feared they would crack. Movements stiff with constrained fury, he began exploring his options, seeing what was left to him. The essential functions were still there – this mode was intended for cases of emergency – but it made things difficult. It was a gesture of spite as much as a tactical maneuver. Damn the man.

Fortunately, he was familiar with parts of the system he needed now: the genetic engineering module. He practiced with it every few cycles, just for the extra challenge it offered. He threw himself into the work, eager to end this nightmare as quickly as possible. He actually had to force himself to slow down; one bad allele could render the whole plan useless – or catastrophic.

Leo continued talking, half to himself, it seemed. “What have we here, then? Genetic storage… my god. This is… what is this?”

“It’s my life,” Theo said, voice hard. He hated to keep the conversation going, but it was a chance to get more information on his opponent, and it might distract Leo more than it hindered him. “What were you expecting? Don’t tell me you were just trawling this sector of space for fun.”

“Not exactly,” Leo admitted. “Came out here to hide, actually. Dangerous times. We certainly weren’t expecting to find you. To find this. Do you have any idea what this stuff is worth? Tuna, cows, tigers… I could get an solid acre on Luna just for the tomatoes. Hell, between bacon, cats, and weed, I could probably buy the damn thing outright.”

“And that’s all it means to you?” Theo accused, letting his emotions show in an effort to mask his efforts on the computer. He knew what he was doing, but it was slow going. He had to jump back and forth constantly, filling in gaps and making changes manually as he worked through the problem. He’d taken NOAH’s assistance for granted, letting it handle the brute work while he focused on the details. In other circumstances, the challenge might have been invigorating, but here and now, death was starting to look like an acceptable alternative.

“What’s the point in saving all of this if you never intend to use it?” Leo said.

“Ah, of course,” Theo said acidly. “What good is something if we’re not exploiting it?”

Surprisingly, the pirate didn’t refute his point. Theo took advantage of the silence to double-check his work. Compared to his usual work, it wasn’t complicated – a simple airborne pathogen to induce temporary paralysis in anyone but himself. The Harrier had performed a standard coupling, which included air systems. He started the synthesizer. As soon as it finished, he would unleash the pathogen into the… whatever. Respiration thing.

His anger had cooled slightly, and he was taking deeper breaths, now. He checked the cameras again, but there was no sign of activity.

“What did you do to her?” a voice whispered. Theo started – he’d almost forgotten about the comm system in his ear. Suddenly paranoid, he stood up, searching the corners of the room. Could Huxley access the cameras now? If so, there weren’t many places he could hide.

“It’s an… experiment,” he said. “She’s still alive. But I’m the only one who can fix her.”

“I was afraid of that,” Leo sighed. “Is this related to Project Pangea?”

“What else would it be? Idiot.”

“And what is that, exactly?”

“Read for yourself, moron.” The synthesizer beeped, finished making stuff. Theo stared at the computer, trying to remember how to load things into the air system. After a few false starts, he found the right button. He pushed it.

The Brit was still blathering on. “I’ve tried, but it’s a bit dense. You must be very smart. Could you explain it to me? Why call it Pangea?”

Theo rolled his eyes. Moron. “Have you ever heard that old poem? No man is an island, the bell tolls for thee, we’re all connected, etcetera? Wishful thinking. We’re all our own stupid island – an archipelawhatsit, at best. But I’m going to fix it, force everyone to stop fighting. Bring all the little islands together. Pangea. Yeah. My… what’s the word? I can’t remember the word.” He squinted, trying to focus on the cameras, but it was getting hard to keep his eyes open.

Leo cursed softly on the other end of the line. “You’re mad.”

“Damn right I’m mad. Pirates come in…” He couldn’t finish the thought. What was going on? He couldn’t… couldn’t think straight. The realization prompted a spike of fear, a momentary glimmer of lucidity. Feeling as though he’d just gotten out of the stasis chamber again, he sluggishly scrolled through the screens until he found the life support readout.

He wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the shared atmospheric systems. Leo had been draining the oxygen from the air, leaving his brain… what was the word? Didn’t matter.

There was only one way to stop it. Operating more on instinct than conscious thought, he accessed the docking controls and shut down the air vents between their ships, putting an end to the oxygen theft. Unfortunately, it meant this end of his plan as well – the pathogen hadn’t had time to spread properly. Leo might feel a bit numb, but more than capable of continuing the assault.

A faint wind stirred within the ship as emergency oxygenation systems kicked in, releasing emergency supplies. The fog on his mind cleared quickly, the contrast so stark that he could scarcely believe he hadn’t noticed the decline earlier.

Round One was a draw. He might not survive the second.

“This is your idea of paradise?” Leo demanded. “To make everyone into… her?” He was practically growling, but his voice cracked on the last syllable, revealing another emotion underneath.

Theo looked at the woman. She hadn’t moved a muscle, though judging by the smell, she’d relaxed a few. A line of drool dribbled from the corner of her mouth unheeded. She might have been dead, if not for the slow, bovine blink of her eyes. Maybe she would have been better off that way.

“It’s not finished,” Theo said. “And I can fix it; but only if you leave.”

Leo paused, perhaps considering. Taking advantage of the fresh air, Theo hauled out an almost-forgotten crate and pulled on an oxygen mask. If Huxley managed to get the vents open again, he couldn’t risk being caught off-guard. After a moment’s hesitation, he slipped one on to his captive as well. She wasn’t using much oxygen, but if he wanted to bring her back to normal, it was better to avoid the risk of brain damage.

“Here’s the thing,” Leo said tersely. “I have the high ground, tactically and morally. So why don’t I propose a deal: Undo whatever you did to my partner, and we’ll let you live.”

Theo took a deep breath. “No. I’d rather die than let you despoil the Ark. This DNA is the property of the Earth, not man, and fate has chosen me to safeguard it.”

“Fate, Doctor? Superstitious, for a scientist. But I suppose it’s an easy excuse for genocide.”

“Genocide?” Theo snapped. “I’m trying to prevent atrocities!”

“At what cost, Doctor? Depriving billions of free will?”

“Eliminate it? No. But if reducing our freedom means ending war, rape, and hatred, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.” Theo realized he hadn’t moved for more than a minute. He was sweating, and his hands ached from clenching so tightly. He needed to try another plan, move somewhere more defensible. If forced, Huxley could breach the docking doors eventually.

The stasis room. He could barricade the doors, turn off the cameras, perhaps rig a trap or craft a makeshift weapon with spare equipment or medical supplies. Stuffing the terminal into his jumpsuit, Theo hooked his elbows under the unconscious woman’s arms and began dragging her down the hall, combat boots squeaking on the polymer.

“A choice you mean to force on the rest of us,” Leo continued, continuing his feverish typing. “Explain how that’s so different from rape and murder?”

“Why don’t you tell me?” Theo huffed. He had to pause and catch his breath halfway down the hall – he was woefully out of shape. “That’s your line of work, isn’t it, Captain?”

“We’re only trying to survive in a cold and uncaring universe, Doctor. I do what I can and kill when I must, just like any creature. That’s nature, is it not? Survival of the fittest?”

“Sounds like an easy excuse for a pirate,” Theo retorted, wiping his brow. He’d made it to the stasis chamber, but it had drained what little energy he had. He propped his captive against the wall, then flopped down beside her to rest for a moment. “If you really believe that, you shouldn’t complain about your companion. After all, you were trying to kill me.”

“Actually, when we found your ship, we thought we’d found a derelict of some sort – lost or stranded long enough that the crew starved. Nobody responded to our hails, and our scanners showed no signs of life.”

Theo cursed under his breath. “The Ark is shielded from most types of scanners,” he explained. “And I was in stasis until a few moments ago.”

“…I see. An unfortunate misunderstanding.”

“I think we’re well past that point,” Theo said. Groaning, he stood up and began dismantling the cameras in the room, though he didn’t feel much better. He was still having trouble thinking critically – a mixture of oxygen deprivation, exhaustion, and stress.

It was strangely difficult to connect their conversation with the situation at hand, as though he was fighting with some abstract, ethereal foe unrelated to the voice in his head. What would he try next? Storming the ship? Creating a vacuum? Radiation?

No, Leo wouldn’t do anything so reckless. He didn’t want to risk killing either of them. He needed something more subtle, a way to turn up the heat without harming his partner. Theo finished disabling the last of the cameras and turned his attention to the bins of medical supplies. He was still sweating. Was the constant cycle of stasis that draining, or had he simply skipped too many exercise sessions? He unzipped his jumpsuit to the waist, tying the arms into a makeshift belt.

Leo’s voice suddenly came on over the speaker system, everywhere at once. “I’ve never claimed to be a saint,” he said quietly, “but I’d like to think I’m a decent man. In a kinder time, perhaps I might have been a good one. But this plan of yours… can’t you see the dangers, the consequences? I agree with your intentions – something has to change – but you can’t do it like this.”

He paused, and even his typing ceased for a moment. “I mean, even if you found a perfect formula, how would handle the sheer logistical problems?”

That gave Theo pause. He sounded… genuinely interested. Another trick? He couldn’t afford to sympathize, but he could keep Leo talking. “Logistics?”

“We’ve been flung to the farthest reaches of the solar system, Doctor. How do you intend to reach all those people with your… miracle cure?”

“A viral delivery system,” Theo answered. “It spreads from person to person. The effects would occur more slowly than they did in the original experiment, allowing for a gradual transition.”

Ah, finally. The tranquilizers. He selected the fastest-acting, and – as an afterthought – grabbed some bandages to serve as an impromptu sweatband. He needed to keep the sweat out of his eyes.

“That’s not going to work,” the captain replied. He still hadn’t resumed typing. Was the discussion real, or had he finished putting his schemes in motion? “Changes like this only work when they’re universal, Theo. You know that old proverb? ‘In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’ Well, in the land of the kind, it only takes one asshole to ruin the everything.”

Using his terminal, Theo summoned the robotic arm into the room – making sure it was disconnected from anything Huxley could access – and then shut and locked the door. “There will be difficulties,” he admitted, “but that’s why the transition period exists. Eventually, they’ll be infected as well, and things will equalize.”

A strange clicking sound came over the speakers, and Theo felt a stab of panic before realizing that Leo was tutting. “I realize you’ve spent a long time up here in your ivory spaceship, Doctor, but things aren’t that simple in the real world. People will figure it out. They’ll be immune, or quarantine themselves, or make an antidote.”

The robotic arm was loaded with a new syringe. Theo ordered it to begin stacking crates and tables against the door, but was too tired to help. The captain’s arguments were… disheartening, to say the least. Thoughts he’d pushed to the back of his mind. “I can- I can make adjustments,” he panted. “Those are solvable problems.”

“Sure,” Huxley replied, sarcastically chipper. “All you have to do is go around murdering everyone who doesn’t fit into your picture of paradise.” The sound of his voice had changed slightly, as if he’d moved into a larger room. Was he coming? Theo tried to help build the barricade, but his strength was spent. Something was wrong here.

“It won’t work,” the captain continued, growing harsher. “They’ll fight back, and then they’ll take advantage of the weapon you gave them. Maybe they’ll reverse engineer it, inoculate themselves, turn the rest of us into slaves. Worse than slaves, Doctor Denaux. Animals.”

Theo paged frantically through the ship’s diagnostics, trying to find what had gone wrong, but everything seemed normal. Too normal, perhaps. He checked the temperature. As always, the thermometer readout rested at a comfortable 20º Celsius, but now that he’d stopped moving, he could tell it was definitely hotter than that – his eyes stung from dry air and salt residue, his mouth was parched, and he was growing dizzy. Signs of impending heatstroke.

Huxley had worked some witchcraft on the ship’s computers, and Theo could only guess at what mischief he’d wrought. Had he seized control, or merely created an illusion? Whatever he’d done, the temperature change was real. That would have been simple enough – space was a cold place, but spaceships were notoriously prone to overheating, as the heat created by engines and machinery had no place to vent in a vacuum.

Like the system of slow suffocation, overheating was dead simple and deviously efficient. Theo was active, while his captive was near-comatose, and he would succumb to hostile environments much more quickly. Unlike the deoxygenation attempt, however, a solution wasn’t as simple as closing a few vents. He was already growing lightheaded. If the heat continued, he would pass out within moments.

There was only one place he could find shelter from the heat, It would see him trapped, almost completely neutralized– but he had no choice. Check and mate.

He shuffled toward the cryogenic chamber: his bane and his salvation. It made his work possible, allowed him to skip centuries without aging, but he could never quite shake the sensation that he was stepping into a coffin, about to bid the mortal world farewell. Perhaps this time it would be true.

Leo was still talking, but Theo couldn’t concentrate enough to follow the thread of it. He could pick out individual words – oppression, exploitation, hubris – but they were meaningless in the heat. Only survival mattered.

Hypocrite.

Reaching the cryostasis unit, Theo painstakingly entered his code. The door hissed as the locks released, wisps of vapor curling through the air like phantasmal fingers, reaching for him. More by falling than pushing, Theodore shoved his way through the door and collapsed into the cold embrace of the tomb.

Then he died. Or dreamed of dying, it was hard to say. A second passed, or a century, as his mind wandered through fractal images of the past – fragments of memory spinning through his brain like a kaleidoscope. Only an hour ago, he’d been alone in the galaxy, clinging to a fragile thread of hope in humanity’s redemption, secure in his superiority. And now? He’d all but killed a woman, attempted to launch a biological weapon, fallen victim to the very animal impulses he’d sought to eradicate. And if pushed, he could have gone farther still.

God help him, he still would.

Consciousness returned gradually, dawning like the sun on a cloudy morning. The devil’s voice whispered in his ear. “Doctor Denaux? Theo? Are you still there?”

Theo jolted upright, suddenly awake and filled with a terrible sense of dread. He was still in the chamber, though the door was open. Hot air clashed with cold, filling the room with obscuring mist. Theo could only make out vague shapes in the haze – the boxy armature of the robotic assistant, the bulky silhouette of the mercenary woman, and the pitiful attempt at a barricade before the dark void of the hallway. Combined with the stuttering flash of the strobe alarms, the world had turned to abstraction, an image degraded to the point that subjects were more form than features, defined as much by what they were as by what they were not.

Again, the voice came over the earpiece, whispering. “Theo, answer me.”

“I’m here,” he replied. He didn’t bother to move – he knew when he was beaten. “Take what you want, captain. Maybe losing the earth once has taught us to cherish it more. The samples will survive. Just… leave me alone. Please. Let me have my research. Let me fix us, Leo.”

“It’s not possible,” Leo said. He was definitely on the ship – his words echoed with that distinctive ring that came from the Ark’s polymer panels.

“It’s not easy,” Theo countered. “But it is possible, as I’ve proven with your friend. With time, I can figure out the rest of it.”

Huxley sighed. “Perhaps you can. But it is not your place to play God, Theodore, nor to supplant nature. You would give us an artificial Eden, Doctor, but it would be empty. Meaningless. What good is peace among men if we’re no longer truly human?

“And you’d rather I did nothing? Let us spread across the galaxy like a cancer, corrupting everything we touch? We’ve accomplished some great things, but all of that vanishes like smoke as soon as we’re put in a tough spot, as soon as we see an opportunity. It’s how we were made. I can make us better.”

“You would neuter us,” Huxley replied. “Our virtues and our vices go hand in hand, and crippling one will maim the other. If you silence our instincts for survival, how will we deal with disasters and dictators?”

“Like you?” Theo interjected.

“Like me,” Leo agreed. “If you were a bit less clever, I would have caught you by now. Survival of the fittest. Millions die in battle, but those same wars spur discoveries that save countless lives. It’s the process of progress, Doctor. Evolution – conflict creates growth.”

Mustering strength, Theo sat up, still dizzy from the sudden shifts in temperature. “Conflict doesn’t have to come from us, captain. There’s a better way.”

“There is,” Leo agreed. “But not this way. Peace cannot come at the cost of personal freedom.”

“And yet you’re still out to get me.”

“Unfortunately, yes. But you are still free, Doctor, able to react as you see fit. Tell me, is there any argument I could make that would convince you to surrender that right?”

Theo heard the question echoing faintly from the other side of the door. The final confrontation was nigh. Conquer or perish. In the end, all their talk had amounted to nothing.

Hadn’t it?

Silence stretched taut as the seconds passed. Theo gave genuine thought to the question, somehow sensing that everything would hinge on his answer.

“Never,” he whispered.

Silence reigned for the space of a heartbeat, a black hole that seemed to consume all existence. Then came the big bang. The doors slid open, mist stirring in its wake, and a figure in a black bodysuit emerged from the clouds like a wraith, vaulting effortlessly over the obstacles in his way. The intermittent flash of the strobe made him seem a living nightmare, moving from one place to another without passing through the space between them. He held his partner’s gun in one hand, laying down a thunderstorm of suppressive fire.

But Theo was already moving, pushing his exhausted muscles past the breaking point, heedless of the pain. He directed the robotic arm to attack from behind, but the raider captain was too fast, killing the machine in seconds.

It was still long enough for Theo to reach his target.

The captain trained his weapon on the doctor, but Theo had his hostage, holding her as a human shield – mostly symbolic, with electric rounds – and pressing the needle point of a syringe against her throat.

A full tranquilizer dose, maximum potency. Administered all at once, it would be lethal. Theo had intended to use it on himself, but when the time came, it hadn’t even been an option. Apparently his morality was no different from anyone else’s – abandoned the instant it became a liability. Martyrs tended toward the shallow end of the gene pool; survivors –those who did whatever it took – lived to spawn more survivors.

And so the cycle carries on, and none of us the wiser.

Leo stood motionless, wreathed in mist, face masked behind a tactical helmet painted with a skull, a modern Grim Reaper.

Theo knelt, hands trembling as he prepared to kill.

“We can make a deal, Theo,” whispered the voice in his ear. “A compromise.”

“Can we?” Theo demanded. “Law of the jungle, Leo, eat or be eaten. The strong survive. I didn’t start this.”

“But you can end it, Theo. Live and let live.”

“That’s all I ever wanted,” Theo whispered. “But it’s too late now.”

Before he could lose his nerve, he drew breath and-

“Her name is Emily!”

-stopped short.

Leo tossed his gun to the side and went down on one knee, removing his helmet. Beneath the face of death was… just another man. Middle-aged, balding, with more than a few souvenirs left by a life of harsh lessons. But not a monster – no sadistic killer or merciless assassin. He was undeniably a hard man, accustomed to violence, but his eyes revealed the sorrow beneath the surface, scars that cut deeper than skin.

“Please,” he begged, “Her name is Emily. She likes dogs, and pasta, and- and terrible novels. She’s scared of spiders and hates wearing makeup. She crammed an entire drum set into her cabin so she could play along with Martian death metal.”

Theo couldn’t help but look at his captive, noticing for the first time how she’d woven her hair into a french braid, the way she chewed her nails, the tiny tattoo of the constellation Orion behind her ear.

“Please,” Leo repeated. “Her name is Emily Huxley, and she’s the only thing I have left in the galaxy. My daughter.”

Theo didn’t remember making the decision, but he found himself slowly withdrawing the needle, letting the woman – letting Emily – slump to the ground. Betrayed by his better nature.

Emotion, like adrenaline, was a double-edged sword.

He expected Leo to make a move, pull out some hidden weapon, but to his surprise, the man gingerly lowered himself to the ground, sitting cross-legged, and let out a pained grunt.

“So,” he said conversationally, “how do we proceed from here?”

Theo sat back, head spinning as he tried to sort through everything that had been pushed aside during the crisis. Fear, shock, and regret, so tangled together that it might take years to unravel it all. With effort, he pushed it back a little longer.

“I’ll undo the damage to your daughter. Her memory is still intact – it’s simply a matter of flipping some biological switches, so to speak. It will take time, but she’ll make a full recovery.”

“…thank you.”

“Then… I suppose I could let you make copies of a one or two species. Coffee, maybe some kind of pepper. Enough for you to retire. You’ll restore NOAH, then leave me alone and keep quiet, so that nobody else will find me and ruin your monopoly. And I’ll go back to my vigil, keep the Ark running until the earth is ready to be restored.”

Leo nodded, running a hand along his scalp and scratching the back of his neck, where the helmet had probably chafed him. “And… what of your project?”

“The project is dead,” Theo said, dropping his gaze to the floor. “You were right. I lost sight of the larger picture.”

“The plan was flawed,” Leo said emphatically, “but your goal was pure. Perhaps you can find another way to achieve it, a way to overcome the evil in our nature without sacrificing the good.” He chuckled slightly. “After all, how hard could it be to forge interplanetary peace? If we could do it, anyone can.”

With a whir, the ship’s cooling systems kicked in, banishing the fog that surrounded them. Theo tried to respond, but found himself unable to speak. The captain had abandoned his gun, but he’d still managed to leave Theo thunderstruck. It was as though his words had torn a hole through the fabric of time and space, giving him a glimpse of pure, unblemished, transcendental truth.

He’d been prepared to kill, to abandon every ethical tenet he held dear, and there was no threat, no bribe, no argument that could have convinced him to change. Only one thing was able to overcome his need for self-preservation, completely circumventing his defenses.

The answer was empathy.

“What was that?” Leo asked. Theo startled, as if waking from a dream, but the vision was still open to his mind. He hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud.

“Empathy,” he repeated. “Of course! How could I not have seen it sooner? I don’t need to eliminate our evils, I need to enhance our virtues. Promote patience, sociality, understanding. I’ve been fighting against a million years of nature, when I need to make it an ally. We’re stronger as a species when we work together – I should be rewarding cooperation, not punishing individuality.”

Leo cocked his head, considering. “And what of the imbalance?” he asked, but his tone was curious, not skeptical. “How do you handle war and exploitation?”

“That’s the beauty of it,” Theo said, rising to his feet as excitement overcame his weariness. “It resolves itself. Empathy doesn’t override the instinct for survival, but it cripples hatred and bigotry, inspires courage, mercy, equality. Some people will resist, but in this system, we don’t need to eliminate the troublemakers, only outlast them. Outgrow them. Survival of the… friendliest. The best of both worlds.”

Huxley was silent for a long time, lost in thought. He stayed seated, but slid across the floor to his daughter’s side, holding her hand and staring into her eyes. Emily stared back, unblinking, but her fingers slowly curled around his, gripping him tight. Theo simply watched, witnessing a miracle. Experiencing a miracle of his own. The key to peace found in the midst of violence.

When Leo finally looked up, his eyes were bright with tears. “Help her,” he said solemnly, “and we’ll help you.”

He extended a hand, and Theo found his eyes tearing up as he shook it, feeling as though he was truly waking up for the first time.


Originally written for a college course

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