“OK, it’s obvious to everyone why I’ve called you here,” Number One said to the others. “It’s an ugly issue, but it needs to be resolved.” He scratched his nose self-consciously, and stared at the ceiling of the conference room.
“Ugly is the word,” said Number Six, her voice as shrill as ever. She sat in her usual paper dress, the one she insisted on wearing to every special gathering, sending it through the fabrication machine each time to repair and replace parts that needed it, but always repeating the same design and the same color. She wore her hair at mid-shoulder, orange today, but likely to be green tomorrow.
“It’s just another thing that ties us to the past,” she continued. “Like those nasty names that he wanted to hitch us to. I prefer numbers, don’t you? If we are ever able to move on, we have to sever those ties, once and for all. This is the first step.”
“First and last step, I would hope,” Number Two said, his voice low and muttering, as it always was. He looked around the table, the 20 of them representing The First Society, at one time the only hope of recapturing the glory that was Earth. Now they were joined by a second, larger generation—Society 2.0—which numbered in the hundreds and took a lot of pressure off those in the room.
“I don’t know what else we need to do, but we need to make sure we justify our actions, if not for our own consciences, then for the legacy we leave for those who follow.”
Number One harrumphed, and everyone knew it was time to begin.
* * *
Lt. Colonel Brian Apher stretched on his cot, stared at the pale light shining through the bars, and closed his eyes again. They didn’t leave him much to do here in the only cell that had been created on this new colony. But he didn’t worry about whether he had any reading material or access to a vid-comm. He had a lifetime of memories to access, and all he had to do is close his eyes. He thought back to 55 years ago, when it all happened.
“You and I know that this is our last chance,” Dr. Harold Reed was telling him. He looked over his shoulder at the dust storm outside, almost as if he were afraid someone was eavesdropping. “Our own scientists give us only one or two more years. It’s beyond hope. Well, it isn’t beyond hope, because you and the starship Promise are that hope. Earth will die, soon, but if the Fates are with us, if there is a God up above, mankind will once again flourish on Haven, another planet, up there.” He pointed above him, as if the destination for Promise were close, something that could be seen without the help of a telescope.
Apher knew better. He would be alone for 35 years.
* * *
“Colonel Apher—that’s who he is, even if some of you do call him Father—is a relic of the old world, the one that none of us knew or desire to know,” continued Number One. “We have all of the Earth’s knowledge with us, and we can access as we see fit. I know that we are all in agreement that some topics, such as history, should remain off-limits, but the valuable stuff, like science, economics, entertainment and mythology, is free to everyone. We need to take this action for the betterment of all of us here on Haven.”
Number Seven shook her head. “You are the most ungrateful bunch of hypocrites that this world has ever seen,” she said. “Father has given up his whole life to make sure we arrived safely.”
Six stood up quickly, her voice rising in a crescendo.
“Not all of us arrived safely,” she said to Seven. “Never forget that. He himself admitted that some of the embryos died on their way here. I hold him accountable for their lives.”
* * *
Apher took his usual morning jog around the curving floor of the space home known as Society. As he ran in the .8 gravity, he never took his eyes off the row after row of embryos cases that lined the sides of the living quarters. He had been given a tremendous responsibility, possibly the greatest responsibility in the history of mankind. And he took it very seriously. When one embryo died, it was as a part of him died. Dr. Reed had told him the harsh reality that a 35-year voyage almost guaranteed many of the embryos he carried would perish during the trip. Variance in the power circuitry, chemical aberrations, and individual abnormalities would give some less chance of surviving. And then there were some that were just plain weak, while others died for no obvious reason at all. Reed had estimated as many as 20 percent of the embryos wouldn’t make it. Thirty-five years was a long time to be in space. After 22 years, Apher realized the understatement of that fact. He was no longer a young man of 25, but at 47 was starting to slow down.
He had 13 years to go. Seventy-three had died, but he was determined to lose no more.
* * *
Number One pounded his shoe on the table.
“Order!” he shouted. Seven had gained a following, one that became more vocal with every minute. “Seven, you’re out of order. The Chair didn’t recognize you.”
“The Chair only recognizes those who agree with him,” Seven shouted back. “I won’t be party to this murder.”
“Murder!” screeched Six. “Tell that to the 106 children who will never be born.”
“He did the best that he could,” Seven said, a hint of compassion coming into her voice. “He was just one man. Imagine having the weight of the world’s future on your shoulders, being responsible for the life and death of the whole human race. Now imagine carrying that responsibility for 35 years—all alone.”
The committee was silent for a long moment, and Seven finally felt she had gotten their attention. Then One harrumphed once again.
“This is getting us nowhere,” he said. “We have children to attend to. If I recall, each couple has at least 20. Those children need care, and very soon. That means we need to reach a verdict.”
“But we will never get a unanimous verdict like this,” Four said.
One shook his head.
“Then we will just have to do the best that we can.”
* * *
The waiting was over. Lt. Colonel Brian Apher was no longer an Air Force officer. He wasn’t even an astronaut anymore.
He stood at the top of the ramp and looked out at the new, pristine home. Haven had outshone even the most optimistic expectations. It was paradise.
And he had the joy—the privilege—of introducing the Race of Man to their new home.
After sixty years—25 on Earth and another 35 in space—he was finally home.
* * *
Seven looked down at her hands, then looked up. Everyone in the room realized that there was no return from their decision. Paradise had allowed the serpent to come into the garden, and each had taken a bite of the fruit. They were all guilty, and mankind would suffer for it the rest of its days.
Now all they could do was wait. One had appointed two men—the lower numbers, Sixteen and Twenty—to fetch Father to the meeting room to hear the verdict. After that, everyone agreed that a quick and painless execution would be the best for everyone involved.
The minutes stretched on and on, and even though the others began to get restless, Seven was grateful for the extra time. She realized that his arrival would be the last time she saw him, and she knew what followed. Even though she had voted against it, she felt just as guilty as the rest of them. She could have—should have—spoken up more forcefully. She should have done something. It was wrong. It was terribly wrong. She prayed for the first time in her life—something Father had tried to teach them to do—and asked God, or whoever was at the other end, for a miracle.
Then the doors burst open, and suddenly her heart jumped in her throat. The two men who had been sent to his cell had returned empty handed. What did it mean?
“He’s gone,” one of them said, his face filled with disbelief.
“Gone?” echoed One. “You mean vanished? How did this happen?”
The room went into an uproar, then One held up his hand when he realized that Sixteen was not finished.
“No, I mean gone, as in dead,” he said. “It appears he died in his sleep. He even had a smile on his lips.”
One, Six and the others stared at each other in amazement. And Seven smiled smugly to herself.
Even when they thought there were in control, Father had proved them wrong.