“It works something like a game, a genetic video game,” she said, trying to be practical. The man wasn’t a scientist after all.
“Uh huh,” he said, staring at the porthole above her shoulder. South America swept by, Brazil disappearing behind her head.
“Like one of those big simulations. A whole civilization lived online, only instead of people it’s populated by genes. Or, more specifically, gametes.”
“Gametes. You mean sperm. Dr. Branch, why would I want my gametes playing around in your game? And what does this have to do with the end of the world?”
“Well, Mr. Brown, it’s more than a game. It’s....” She paused, surprised by the swell of emotion rising in her chest. “...it’s our only way out, the only exit left open to humanity.”
“And you b--”
She interrupted. “Yes, I believe my research, my invention makes this possible. As awkward as it is to ask for it, I need your sperm.”
These were the final prolonged hours on the International Space Station, a safe perch above the nightmare below. Hours, days, years, eons of stale time lay ahead. Only five remain entombed here, a skeleton of the former crew. Most fled on the last shuttle down to the surface. They preferred to die with their families, or at least trying to reach them. There was simply not enough fuel or water left to make another trip back up. No one would be returning. Ever.
When reports that the mounting disasters on Earth had reached a final crescendo, it was immediately clear that the station would be abandoned. And within 16 hours, it was. The remaining few watched the shuttle float gracefully toward the milky brown planet below. No one protested.
Commander Shalakhova turned over command to Dr. Branch as he left. It was a desperate moment full of hope and fear. His family in Russia was half a world away from where they would land in California. Though he had little chance of reaching him, he would make a final valiant attempt. The passing of command would have felt congratulatory if not for the preposterous weight of the moment. Though unceremonious, it felt deeply symbolic to all involved.
There was enough food and water for them all, enough for a full crew and then some. The station was remarkably sustainable, a trait that seemed cruel in new light. It was a tiny bubble full of good ideas, of meticulous planning and execution. Not least of all, the station was an exemplar of the human drive to exceed its limitations and reach its highest ideals. It was a fitting monument, preserved airless and alone forever, marking a history of hubris long erased from the surface of the Earth. For all the triumph and pride human spaceflight had retained in the imaginations of the human animal, it would now mean less than nothing without earthlings to long for it.
Four scientists and one businessman populated the station. The five of them had their own reasons for staying behind, most had sacrificed much in their lives to their careers. The panic that befell many of the departed crew had never affected any
of those who remained. The things that had sustained them all their lives were still there. This was true of everyone but Mr. Brown.
Mr. Brown, the self-made billionaire, had purchased a flight on the shuttle and accommodations aboard the station. He was supposed to remain aboard for only sixteen days to live out his childhood fantasies. He came aboard with a bravado that was dramatically different from the original population of soldiers and scientists. None could come aboard merely to visit, so he brought with him a powerful new computer that his company had designed for the ship. He would oversee its installation while taking every opportunity to gleefully bounce between modules.
He did not hesitate to remain as the last “lifeboat” departed. His bombast was replaced with a sober silence. He knew all was lost below. He knew value and ownership had been erased, replaced by new unnamed, unnamable rules. He came to see that Dr. Branch’s solution was dictated by rules he could still understand: reproduction, evolution, genetics, video games. He didn’t know exactly why or how it worked, but he saw the rest of the crew’s enthusiasm for it.
In her lab, Dr. Vivian Branch floated amongst a swarm of instruments and displays. She quietly hummed a nonsense tune, a clear sign of stress to those who knew her. Her attention was deep within her genetic game, carefully balancing its parameters to account for the final specimen she was adding. The head of her colleague, Dr. Elliot, emerged from the nadir compartments below the lab.
“Viv, we’ll be coming up on the west coast of the U.S. in less than 20 minutes.”
She was unaware of him, engrossed.
“Viv, the radio is set, we’ll be in range to contact White soon.”
“Viv, we’ve got to go.” He threw a pencil from across the lab, striking her shoulder. She continued to gaze at the display.
“John!” Dr. Elliot called, exasperated.
She was startled to be called by her birth name, and a look of utter shock quickly passed over her face. Dr. Elliot had known her long enough to recall that name. Indeed, he was likely the only person alive now who did. It had been almost twenty- five years since John became Vivian.
“I can’t believe you just called me that.” Her expression melted into a smile.
He smirked. “We’re almost ready to radio White on the surface. We’ll be over the coast in a few minutes.“
The science section was clear across the station from the original service module, and making the trek would take several minutes. They stopped in the midsection to gather Mr. Brown. Beyond his “donation” to the cause, he had not taken up working on their new project. He sat in the rotating midsection of the station, placated by the sensation of gravity. He stared at the dizzying repetition of earth and cosmos through a small window. He had been there for hundreds of revolutions before the two scientists interrupted the pervasive hum of the ship. He smiled at them and quietly followed them to the old section of the station.
“Explain to me how this is saving us again?” Brown asked, hoping to feel consoled by the plan unfolding around him.
“The plan won’t work if White can’t reach us with that password,” Dr. Elliot said sharply, reminding Mr. Brown of his role in these proceedings.
“I’m not sure I understand the plan in the first place. What made White sure enough to go on a suicide mission to retrieve a system password?”
“Because it really is the only way.” Dr. Branch was tired of the argument repeating itself in front of her. “As you know, this won’t save any of us. It gives humanity a chance, albeit a very, very small one, to reemerge somewhere else, better than when we left.” She continued to pull herself along. “Before I used the metaphor of the game to describe our project.”
“My library of sperm and eggs, as well as the genes from tens of thousands of species from Earth will continue to play a virtual game of evolution. With the help of Dr. Elliot’s ecology design, my reproductive algorithms and your company’s quantum computer, it can play out tens of thousands of generations, explore permutations and end games. With Doctors Gaur and Reyes’ Ion Drive to push it along, our genetic heritage will not remain in stasis but will continue to evolve, improve. In a ghostly sense, we live on, cast out into the galactic neighborhood.”
“So how is that a game?”
“It’s not, I guess. It’s evolution.”
“It’s sure lucky that all the pieces ended up here in the first place.” Mr. Brown couldn’t help but state the obvious.
“Indeed,” said Dr. Elliot.
Dr. Gaur and Dr. Reyes greeted them as they filled the cramped compartment built decades before. The radio was there, a form of communication that had been all but abandoned for the now-defunct global broadband system. Radio had again become mankind’s primary means of telecommunication by the nature of the singular call they were hoping to receive on it.
The only sound in the room was the static of the radio while they waited breathlessly for a word from the world. The West Coast of North America emerged in the window, shrouded by a dark brown haze.
They waited for several minutes before a voice cracked over the radio, a woman’s voice.
“INDIA SIERRA SIERRA this is WHISKY HOTEL INDIA TANG-- --do you re--”
“WHITE!” They all yelled in unison. The voice on the radio also screamed with joy, clipped by the little radio speaker.
“I finally found some gas-- --small generator, it took me three days to-- --after the build-- --gone at your company Mr. Brown.”
He knew she meant everyone was gone. They had lost the uplink and the password because his team was forced to flee. White had left orbit to retrieve what amounted to a few letters written on a scrap of paper.
“Not much time left. Password is as follows.” White suddenly sounded deadly serious.
“CHARLIE ALFA NOVEMBER TANGO ALPHA LIMA-- --IFOR-- --O-- “ “ --peat, CHARLIE ALPHA NOV--”
More static followed. And more.
“We’re out of range. That was only 6 characters, we need 4 more!” bursted Dr. Reyes, ripping his classes from his face. There was a sickening silence as Dr. Gaur turned the radio off. The Gulf of Mexico swept past the window.
Mr. Brown suddenly exploded into laughter, a sound not heard on the station for many days. His harsh cackle quickly lurched toward sobs.
“What is it?” Dr. Branch asked.
“Cantaloupe” Brown choked out, his face was red and twisted into a horrible tearful grin. “The password is ‘Cantaloupe.’” He wept, broken, helpless wails. “White will die down there to tell me a really stupid inside joke from my secretary. Who’s dead.”
It was true, nobody found this as funny or upsetting as Mr. Brown did. They shared a moment of silence in appreciation of White’s valor.
Within a day the quantum computer was being loaded onto the probe carrying Dr. Branch’s genetic game. When she came to inspect it a final time, she found the letters V - I - V hand-painted in red on a side panel.
“That paint will add months of momentum to overcome,” said Dr. Gaur embracing her stunned friend.
Dr. Branch and Dr. Reyes performed the spacewalk to launch the probe. With
a mechanical arm, they pushed it on its way. Much like the change of the station’s command, the launch was unceremonious. And yet everyone knew this was the most meaningful thing any of them had ever done.
They could spare no energy in VIV’s design for rich communication with the station. It would all be needed for propulsion for the first few millennia of its journey. They couldn’t watch the game play out like a simulation on the internet. But Dr. Gaur had made sure they would receive something. A simple pulse. She affixed a tiny battery- powered transmitter to send a radio ping every ten seconds. She begrudged the extra years VIV would spend in the solar system added by the tiny mass of the beacon.
But she couldn’t let VIV be silent. They were all glad for it. Dr. Gaur estimated that it would last a decade. The pings would grow farther apart, and eventually the battery would die.
Though they would hear the heartbeat fade, they knew it continued just the same.
Amidst the chatter of all the orphaned satellites still orbiting the Earth wailing for their lost guardians below...
Amidst the wandering explorers reporting back to a world as dead as the ones they study....
Amidst their own thoughts, they would still hear a little pulse. For just a little while longer.