It had been two hours since Lucas arrived at the launch complex carrying an unconscious Izzy on his back, the same as her father days earlier. He had pulled the escape vessel out of storage and taken her inside, leaving her there to recover. She hadn’t woken up yet, and maybe it was for the better. One more of her life-endangering attempts at returning to Residential Section C, and there wouldn’t be many options left but to lock her up, and Lucas wasn’t sure to be physically capable of that; it would require at least three people to stop that little girl, he had run the numbers already.
And so, making the most of his longed moment of peace, Lucas prepared the vessel for departure.
The young scientist floated over the four-by-twelve-meter bullet-shaped vehicle, anchored to it by a harness. With a turn of his wrench, he tightened one more pressure bolt, locking the last of the solar panels covering the top. He wiped his forehead and exhaled in relief, done replacing the entire array. The removal and reinstallation process had proven a daunting task, especially after leaving half of his tools back on the shelter and with his wrist hurting like crushed by a sledgehammer. Not even finding and patching up the breach on the radiation shielding underneath the steel hull, had been such a pain.
But at last, he was done.
The only work left was scavenging a fusion core from one of the other vessels and install it on theirs. It was a piece of cake compared to replacing the entire solar array, but handling such delicate hardware required extreme care; Lucas and his companions didn’t go to hell and back only for him to mess up their only way out of that godforsaken starship.
It would take him at least two more hours, he reckoned.
All along, he had worked slower on purpose to let Nate catch up. It was a fact that as soon as he put his tools aside, Alex would show up, and if Nate wasn’t around, she would leave with or without him; she wouldn’t think twice to take the vessel by force. Maybe Lucas could delay the launch, but for how long? He was also a terrible liar; a trained military expert would see right through his bullshit with little effort.
Anyway, he had a lot in his mind as it was to worry about that.
Onto the next step: finding a fresh fusion core.
Lucas scanned the cylindrical complex, looking for the command station at the back. He aligned himself with it and launched himself through the air. Before entering through the circular opening on the translucent roof of the station, Lucas threw his legs frontward to re-orient his body. He dived into the station and landed feet-first in a performance any judge would’ve given a perfect score.
A few screens flickered to life, greeting him.
He pushed himself towards the larger one, waking it up with the tap of a finger. A diagram of the storage compartments distributed along the circumference of the launch complex spawned onscreen, some green and others red. By selecting one of them, new data produced on top of the diagram: a tridimensional model of the vessel inside and several more panels with health charts.
A tap brought the list of parts composing the vehicle.
Lucas searched for the part he needed, but it wasn’t there; maybe the next vessel would be more fruitful, he guessed. Moving on to the next compartment, he repeated the steps until reaching the parts list, but the same as last time, no dice.
The next one was also empty.
And the one after.
As options narrowed, Lucas’s heart paced up from a stroll to a sprint. He could still keep his cool; the fusion core was there, he was sure. But as he kept going, anxiety crawled up his legs like a snake and wrapped around his body, creeping up his neck.
He searched the next compartment, and to his relief, that one contained a vessel.
It wouldn’t be long before his hopes plunged into despair, finding only a damaged fusion core in the parts list. By then, his mouth had dried, and his breathing had revved, at the brink of hyperventilating. Palms drenching, he continued through the options. When there were only two left, his stomach churned with a thought popping up inside his head: maybe the core wasn’t there. Maybe, he had been wrong all this time, carrying two innocent people to their doom, thinking he was helping them.
Maybe he had screwed up yet again, a demon whispered in his ear with its face split in half by a grin.
“No, it… it can’t be,” Lucas muttered to himself.
Even before diagnosing the vessel, he knew it was missing its fusion core. His very own girlfriend, Tatiana, had confirmed it before leaving Goliath. Nothing to worry about, Lucas had thought back then since she had also confirmed there was one he could use. Communications had already dropped throughout the entire generation starship, and she probably didn’t know whether the message would reach her boyfriend, but it did. She said they were there, and he had taken it for granted. Not even the slightest trace of doubt had crossed his mind.
That had been until now.
Lucas had overlooked that possibility, and he was about to regret it. His hands vacillated to continue navigating the interface, dreading the worst. A few seconds later, all his nightmares materialized before his eyes, tied from hands and feet to a pole, burning on the stake. The last two storage compartments had a vessel on them, but none had a core he could use.
His only way of escape was but a dead man without a heart.
That was the end of the line for him and his companions; there was nowhere else to hide, and nowhere else run.
Lucas had promised Nate to help him leave the starship, and now, if the man ever arrived, dreadful news was all he had for him. He hanged there, with a blank stare stranded on the screen, both hands grasping the screen, squeezing his brain for a way around this terrible miss, even if deep within, he knew there was none.
“Where are we?” a voice mumbled in confusion. Meanwhile, Lucas’s whole expression melted in anxiety. From the corner of his eye, he spotted Izzy trying his best to keep balance in the lacking gravity. He turned his head slowly, still not daring to look all the way. At the entrance of the commanding station, the girl held onto the doorframe, squinting, covering her eyes as they adjusted to the lights of the complex.
“Is this Micro-g?” she glanced about, confused.
“Y—yeah, we got here about two hours ago,” Lucas stuttered. He smiled at her, doing a terrible job at hiding his soul plunging into madness as they spoke. “Um, how’re you feeling?”
“Dunno, everything is spinning. What happened?”
“We had an accident at the lift. Let’s say we came to a hard stop.” Lucas preferred to spare unnecessary details. “You bumped your head real hard. I’m glad to see you’re okay.”
“Did you carry me all the way here?”
“Yeah—I mean, I wasn’t gonna leave you behind.” Lucas rubbed the back of his neck. “I know the beds on the vessel aren’t the most comfortable, but you had to rest somewhere.”
Izzy’s gaze dodged him, then going down. “Thanks,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to be dead weight.”
“Hey, no, don’t worry about it. Getting you here wasn’t that big of a deal. There’s no gravity.” He shrugged and let out a nervous chuckle.
“It’s not that. I was supposed to help with the vessel. We need to get it ready before my—” Izzy’s eyelids retracted until her eyes almost popped out in realization. “Before my dad gets here.” She paused, her eyes lost, darting about as her breathing quickened with panic. “Dad,” she muttered, staring right at Lucas. “The explosion… w—where is he? Is he okay?”
“He, um—” Lucas picked his next words with the care he would use to defuse a bomb, and he bet it showed. “Oh, don’t worry about him. He called a while back. He’ll be here soon.” His mouth curled up in the most forced, reluctant smile humanity had seen to date.
Izzy kept silent for a moment, giving him a suspicious look, scrutinizing him for any traces of lying. “How long ago was this?”
Lucas pushed himself through the anxiety barring him from answering in a timely fashion. “Half an hour ago or so.”
He wondered why did he even try; she wasn’t buying a single word coming out of him anyhow.
But after what seemed to Lucas like an entire hour of staring, she nodded a few times. “I see. I’m glad to know he’s okay.”
“Yeah. Climbing here through the service ladder, and that’s as shitty as it gets.” Another nervous chuckle escaped him.
“Yeah, I guess. It’s okay. We have time.”
Lucas couldn’t figure why Izzy had given up the argument, although it was clear he was bullshitting her. Perhaps she preferred holding onto the idea that her father was okay and on his way than contemplating his demise. Not like he could blame her. After all, Lucas’s girlfriend had stayed an entire week after the attacks grasping onto the hope that they would somehow get him out of Research. At first, he was hopeful too. But deep within, he knew that’s not how the story would develop.
Lucas could only hope things turned out differently this time.
“So, how’s the ship looking?” Izzy made the dreaded question.
Covering her father’s potential death wasn’t the most daunting and stressful job Lucas was to do that moment. He had fallen into a precipice, caught by a branch, and the branch had just broken. How to tell her their vessel wouldn’t be ready? How to tell her everything she and her father had gone through had been for nothing? How to tell her it had been all his fault?
A lie wouldn’t cut it this time over.
By then, his silence had stretched far too long, but no matter how hard he sought for words, he had nothing.
And he didn’t have to say anything; her expression said it all. She looked down, lips sucked in, nodding. Lucas didn’t know her well enough to foresee her reaction, but it sure wasn’t this. He expected a dash of anger, or at least, one of her signature murderous stares. He strived for something like that, he realized—it would ease his burden. But no. The young girl just remained there, sight stranded, thoughtful, as if awoken from a dream.
Regardless of her unexpected reaction, for Lucas, one thing was sure: Izzy and her father had trusted him, and he had let them down.
“I’m sorry,” Lucas said, unsure how or where to start. “I—I really thought we had all the parts we needed but—”
“It’s okay, Lucas,” Izzy said, calm, thoughtful. She took a deep breath and exhaled, gazing back at the vessel through the translucent ceiling of the command station. “Maybe we weren’t meant to survive after all.”
Her words rammed Lucas like a fist to the face. “Wh—what? What do you mean?”
“You know… maybe humankind was supposed to die with our planet instead of leaving it.” She shrugged. “Just think about it; more than a century later, we’re still out here, looking for a place only mentioned in history books.”
The only answer Lucas had to that was a wide-open stare.
“To be honest, I always thought we wouldn’t get anywhere,” Izzy continued. “I mean, what are the odds? If Earth was like they said it was, I doubt we’ll ever find another place like that.”
“You don’t know that,” the words escaped Lucas. “Humanity had a chance to survive, and we took it.”
“Surviving from what? You don’t get it either, do you?” Izzy planted her unfathomable, green eyes on him. “Goliath, Valhalla, Phoenix; these ships were our home. We didn’t have to ‘survive’ or ‘look for a home.’ We already had one. We were only living our lives, doing our time.”
Lucas had spoken to people skeptical about the Atlas Mission before, but nobody was daring enough to talk about it so openly. That didn’t matter anymore, but he could bet Izzy hadn’t ever kept anything to herself—taboo or not. “We worked hard during all that time for humanity to have a future—the next generations. People like you, you know?”
“People like me. Man, you sound like High Command’s propaganda.” Izzy snorted. “You’re a scientist, Lucas, a man who worked with the cold, hard facts. Did you honestly think humanity could survive out there?” She extended a hand at the massive airlock hatch at the front of the launch complex. “There might be a thousand years before we ever find a planet like Earth. And what future do you mean? This future? Are you going to tell me you prefer this to how things were before the mission went to shit?”
And the same since the conversation started, Lucas couldn’t argue that. After so much time wandering the expanse, everyone on the starships started living on pure hopes of a promised land they wouldn’t reach in their lifetime. Their only purpose in life was working, so the next generations could try and see if they had better luck. They would hold onto anything to keep their life with meaning, even if it was a silly dream. “We had to try at least,” was all he could say.
“Try… what’s the point?” Izzy looked away, shaking her head as if disappointed with Lucas’s narrow perspective. “How about you, man? Why do you try? What brought you all this way? It couldn’t be only good intentions—I know better.”
It took Lucas a moment to come up with an answer. “I—” He paused, still processing. Over the last year, he had kept the question buried deep within his soul in favor of keeping his mind focused—or at least as one could be with dozens of terrifying alien creatures and the undead overrunning your home.
Before Nate and Izzy showed up, it was but a matter of survival. Lucas then found a chance at redemption on them; maybe if he helped them, he could forgive himself. However, once Alex implied his girlfriend was alive and waiting for him somewhere out there, his entire world shifted upside down.
He needed nothing else to keep going.
Unable to articulate his thoughts, he kept it all for himself. For now, maybe the noblest cause would do. “One starship is still unharmed. The Phoenix made it out, and it’s still on course. We can continue the mission even with only one ship.”
Izzy gave him a long stare, perplexed. “You’re not serious, are you? Look what we are up against, Lucas. Look what they did to the other ships. Do you honestly believe they would destroy Goliath and Valhalla and let Phoenix go just like that? You’re not thinking straight, man.”
Lucas admitted to himself resurrecting the Atlas Mission from its ashes was an impossibly far reach, considering High Command was gone, and most of the people leading it. If the enemy had left the Phoenix unscathed, and there was somebody alive onboard, society would be at a downfall over there right now. He had chosen the simplest of arguments, and quite a senseless one at that. “How about you? If that’s how you think, why did you come all this way?”
Izzy shrugged. “I don’t give two shits what happens to me. But Dad, he’s as stubborn as you; we had this same conversation long ago. He’s still hopeful, and I won’t take that from him.” Her voice went quieter. “If believing we have a future somewhere out there keeps him fighting, you can be sure as hell I’ll do whatever I can to help him.” She paused. “I know he wants to take me somewhere safe, wherever that is. I was there when he promised Mom he would take me to safety. But I’m no princess, Lucas. I might still be a child, but I don’t need somebody to ‘save me.’ All I want is my dad to be okay.”
Those words stormed inside Lucas’s brain like crashing thunder, removing any wrong ideas he could’ve conceived about her. All she and her father had was each other, and that was their only reason to go on—even if one of them was hopeless. It wasn’t she who needed saving. It was him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s okay, really. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
Lucas exhaled. “I guess so,” he said, nodding with his head low. “You’re a good friend, Lucas. Even if the plan didn’t turn up as we thought, you tried your best. My dad thinks the same.” She gazed out at their dead vehicle outside for a moment, then went back to Lucas. “I found some snacks in the vessel. Come on, let’s eat something while we wait for my dad.” She looked sideways. “You’re complete shit at lying, but he’s on his way—I know it. He’ll come any moment.”
It wasn’t like Lucas didn’t know she saw through his ruse. He only exhaled again, sucking in his lips. One last look at the screen revealed nothing had changed; the fusion core they needed continued not to be there. “All right.”
He and Izzy exited the command station through one access on the sides, careful not to drift away in the lacking gravity. When they were ready to cruise towards the vessel, a clanking noise startled them, both shooting their attention to its source.
To one side of the cylindrical launch complex, the hefty door of the entrance opened, just enough so whoever was on the other side could squeeze through.
As Izzy had predicted, it was her father, Nate.
At the sight of him, her entire expression bloated with uncontainable excitement, eyes wide open and a smile ear to ear. “Dad,” she shouted with arms wide open.
Contrary to what Lucas expected, the man didn’t pay her much attention. With his entire self covered in a dark muck, he scanned the place with frantic eyes, a recoiled posture, and ready for anything.
The brightness washed away from Izzy’s visage, unable to figure what had gotten into him.
A few seconds later, Nate spotted his objective. He launched himself at it, pulling out his knife as he bolted through the emptiness. With a quick swing of his arm, he intercepted one of the dead lurkers drifting about the complex, a heavy-looking man in ragged clothes and a slacking mouth. Nate locked his arm tight around its neck. Both of them spun in the air, Nate stabbing the lurker multiple times in the chest, blue blood splattering all over, morphing into strands of liquid in the lacking gravity. They crashed on the ceiling of the commanding station, just feet apart from Lucas and Izzy. But Nate didn’t let go. He slashed the lurker’s throat in a violent frenzy, its head almost detaching from its body.
On the time Lucas had of knowing him, he hadn’t ever seen the man like that, and by the look plastered on his daughter’s face, neither had she.
As if emerging from a trance, Nate’s expression crumbled into confusion, letting go of the almost-beheaded body. He grasped a rail running through the station’s ceiling, huffing and puffing, covered in sewage and lurker blood, smelling as if the entire starship had taken a dump on him.
And to all that, Lucas and Izzy couldn’t do but look at him perplexed.