“These the ones?”
“Yeah, that’s all of ‘em.”
“That’s who they chose?” He shook his head. “Pretty pathetic if you ask me.”
“Nobody asked you. Do your job and lock it up.”
The two dockworkers sealed up the rocket door.
“I don’t know who’s getting the short end of the stick: those sorry stooges or us.”
“They won’t survive out there. Where are they gonna go?”
“But we ain’t gonna survive here. That’s for sure. At least they have a chance.”
“No they don’t. They’ll only get as far as their fuel will take ‘em. Then they’ll drift around in space ‘til they die.”
He thought about that for a minute. Well, less than a minute. His capacity for critical thinking was minimal. His mind was simple and it turned to simple things quickly. “I’d rather die here with a steak in my belly and a whore in my bed.”
Slapping his friend on the shoulder, the other man chuckled. “Even if it’s just another test, I’m still gonna find me a whore and a steak tonight. Let’s go before all the good ones are gone.” They left the platform.
“In T-minus 15…14…13…”
The countdown blared from the speakers in the cabin. Of the twenty people the world put on the ship, the soldiers seemed most out of place. The doctors, lawyers, professors, and scientists were obvious choices. They could share the world’s knowledge with the rising generation. The fertile young women and the alpha males in the group were even more essential than the geniuses. They would make as many babies as they possibly could. With their ideal genes, the new humans would have advantages of carefully selected traits and characteristics for the highest probability of survival.
But soldiers? They wanted soldiers to influence their new civilization? Soldiers weren’t smart. The stereotype of soldiers being too stupid to do anything else with their lives was pretty accurate. Soldiers didn’t contribute anything to society but violence. All men were violent, whether trained or instinctive. What did they need the soldiers for?
“To protect the budding colony,” they said.
Because Paul was a soldier, no one paid attention to him when he argued with the Commission. “The chance of us finding a planet that we can live on is a million to one. The chance of us finding that planet before our fuel runs out is a billion to one. If by some miracle, we happen to find one planet out of a billion, what are the odds that life-sustaining planet will already be sustaining life? High. You think a handful of soldiers stand a chance? If you do, you’re dumber than I am.”
Most of them knew he was right, but they couldn’t tell him that. The Commission, even when staring death in the face, wouldn’t stoop low enough to take advice from a soldier. So they ignored him and put him on the rocket.
They’d run this drill four times now and hadn’t moved an inch off the ground. It always ended the same: the Commission came in from the front doors telling them they were all expendable.
“What makes you better than the ones being left behind?” As if the Commission hadn’t single-handedly selected each person to abandon the world to its fate and try to propagate the species on some unknown planet.
The procreators defended their importance while the geniuses argued their value. The soldiers? They just sat there. They were only obeying orders.
Each time the shouting started, the same thought ran through Paul’s head that had been there a thousand times before. “The smarter they get, the more important they think they are.”
Which was the reason for the flight in the first place. The world was a nightmare, if you lived long enough to realize it. It all started in the courts. The geniuses started taking whatever they wanted: property, businesses, women, children. They were more suited to possessing those things, they argued. The cases went to court. The judges didn’t debate their argument. It was a good one.
Soon, the geniuses released studies that warned the soil was useless. Nothing could grow anywhere. The world had limited resources. Their solution to the crisis: limit every couple to only one child. Governments accepted the studies without understanding them. No one dared ask for an explanation of the research, fearful of the geniuses’ intellectual retaliation. It was law by the end of the week. If a family already had more than one kid, they didn’t anymore. Extra kids were taken away and given to families that didn’t have any. Once every family had one kid, the leftovers were abandoned to fate, which was a mildly less gruesome way to say they were left to die.
A new class of geniuses, fresh from the universities, informed the world that some countries were simply producing less than desirable offspring. Those nations had nothing to contribute to the development of the world, so read the report, that their rations were being wasted. The smart nations immediately set about annihilating those nations.
It seemed to Paul that the geniuses’ brains abolished morality from their systems. Once the geniuses reached a certain level of thinking, they couldn’t see the difference between right and wrong. Maybe there was only room in human minds for one or the other—brains or morality.
The latest report said all previous efforts had been useless. There wouldn’t be enough food for the rest of the population to live longer than a month. The soil was stripped of its nutrients. Nothing grew anymore. Everyone was doomed to die.
The World Commission responded by creating this group. They’d been selected out of society, quarantined really, and trained for days. There wasn’t much to train for. When the alarm sounded, they ran to their seats on the rocket and strapped themselves in. That was all there was to it.
Paul didn’t believe any of the things the geniuses said. He didn’t think the world had too many people. He didn’t believe the soil was useless. He grew a flower in his yard a day after the report came out, just to see if he could. And he certainly didn’t believe his daughter should have been taken away from him because she was his second child.
He rubbed his chest, his unconscious physical reaction to her memory. He knew someday someone would prove all of the geniuses wrong. That’s why he argued with the Commission. He wanted to be kicked off the mission. He wanted to be on the Earth when it failed to self-destruct. And he wanted to be there to find his daughter again, to bring her back home. He’d lost that fight though. He was still on the rocket they sentenced him to.
His fists clenched the seat he was strapped to. The rocket trembled. The seats shook. His whole body rattled as the enormous ship lifted off the ground. Dockworkers shrank as he rose into the air. He watched the people that weren’t worth saving shrink as the ship lifted higher and higher. He kept waiting for someone to come out and tell them it was just another test. He waited for them to say that the people who had faded from view on Earth were safe and that the simulation flight would end now.
No one came.
As the blue sky turned to the black expanse of space, he still waited. He watched the Earth grow smaller. They weren’t supposed to really launch until the last possible minute of the Earth existence. Sure it was crumbling more each day, but it wasn’t completely uninhabitable yet. There was still life on Earth to be lived.
A gas spewed from the ventilation system. They’d been informed that they would sleep while traveling. This was their ticket to deep, space sleep. His eyes grew heavy.
Noises of people stirring filled his ears. He glanced around. The information panel on the wall read Time Traveled: 284 days. His heart palpitated as he digested the time he’d been on the ship.
The lights cut out. A haunting red glow filled the space. “Warning: fuel low. Warning: fuel low,” shrieked over the intercom.
The geniuses raced to the computers. Frantically, they pushed buttons, readouts flashing across the screens. One turned to the group. “Which one of you was awake?”
Paul looked around. No one said anything.
“I know someone didn’t sleep. We all know it. The supplies have been used up. Someone was awake and used all of our food.”
“And water,” another genius squealed.
The group looked from one to another, mouths open. Their supplies were gone? Their fuel was low? Where was this planet they were supposed to colonize?
The genius who spoke turned back to the computer. More accurately, he turned to the genius still typing at the computer. “It was you.”
The clacking on the keyboard stopped.
“I know it was you. You’re the only one smart enough to make an antidote for the gas. Where have you steered us?”
The computer genius looked at him. “Why would I want to stay awake? I don’t know anything about space. But you’re right—I am the only one smart enough to make an antidote.”
They both turned to a scientist scanning a star map. “You’re the only one who knew anything about our destination. Why didn’t you let the auto-pilot steer us?”
"I didn’t steer us anywhere. I plotted the original course. Why would I change it while everyone slept?”
Paul could almost see the wheels churning in their brains. Together, they fixed their eyes on the procreators. “Which one of you is pregnant?”
Everyone automatically scanned the midsections of each woman. None of them showed any of the typical bulges of pregnancy.
“One of you must have been awake. Or better yet, two of you. What? You couldn’t wait to get off this ship before you started tearing each other’s clothes off?”
The alpha males jumped out of their seats. Rushing at the geniuses, they started throwing punches. The Commission knew what they were doing when they chose them. They were physically superior in every regard. Most importantly, they were stronger than the geniuses could ever hope to be.
Soldiers down the row from Paul unstrapped their belts and ran into the fight. The geniuses didn’t stand a chance against the alpha males. Two were already dead. Even as he looked at their empty faces, Paul could see the condescension. He wasn’t sure what the soldiers were going to do, but he wasn’t inclined to break things up.
He turned to look out the window. The rocket steered them closer to the rotating blue planet. It was a perfect place for them to live. It didn’t matter to him who survived the fight. He watched it grow closer and heard the auto-pilot accelerate with the last of their fuel. They would need it to enter the atmosphere.
The fight stopped. People, however many were still alive, scrambled to their seats. They fumbled to strap themselves down as they sped toward the face of the planet. Paul let a little smile form on his face. There was one other person on this flight who could make an antidote for the sleeping gas. He’d researched it the minute he’d been let out of the briefing about it. It was a good thing the genius who came up the antidote published the equation. It took a lot of bartering and late night deals to get the ingredients, but he’d figured it out.
It had taken him one hundred and forty two days to learn how to override the auto-pilot. He was a soldier after all. Then he backtracked the way they'd come for one hundred and forty two days until he had steered them back to Earth.
As far as he could see through the dense forest they landed in, grass and plants and trees grew uninhibited. When everyone piled out of the rocket, they gasped at the breathable air on the planet they were going to colonize. They would do a great job colonizing the planet they just left. With all they had to do, they wouldn’t notice his absence.
He proved the geniuses had been wrong about the soil. Paul grabbed his pack and headed north. Rubbing his chest, he went to find something that belonged to him. Something the geniuses had been wrong about too.