Vira grows up knowing that the Earth will one day burn.
The calculations were made decades ago, checked a thousand times since in the last desperate ramblings of denial, in the end of the beginning of mourning. The solar flares will increase in strength until they overpower the mercies of atmosphere and empty space.
She counts down the days till departure and prepares, always prepares, because so much must be done. There is a refreshing lack of panic; perfunctory shelters have been constructed, so even those who remain think themselves safe. The situation is, on the whole, easier to manage that way; people become so disorderly when they know they are going to die.
Some of them even pity her.
The walls of the waiting-room world begin to give but she pays them no mind. The shuttle launch is fast approaching and she must be ready to leave on time.
The name is old, and somehow fitting in its antiquity.
Before the second phase of preparations began Lazar had never heard the name; old stories were not his concern, not with the warning shadows of sunspots ever growing in the sky.
It was the First Historian, the record-keeper, who mentioned it to him. He has forgotten her name. A plainly preposterous story she related; something about a flood that covered the world, and a man who built a boat, brought two of each species along for repopulation purposes, and waited out the storm.
She calls it reassuring; she says she finds some hope in knowing that humanity has recovered before. He reminds her that what she speaks of is mere myth, with no basis in fact, and she…smiles.
He has never much liked the First Historian. She is functionally useless, no matter who tells him otherwise; she catalogues what has been and what is but does nothing to change what will be. What use will they have for dead legends and old battle plans when they are building the world anew?
Besides, she does not seem to respect him like the others do. She does not keep to her place. She asks too many questions. And she watches him, when she knows he can see her. He can see something in her stare that he does not recognize.
But something makes him curious about this story, relic though it is. He asks her to tell him more one evening. And she speaks to him of Noah, favorite of his ancient, angry god.
The chances of critical system failure are negative. He knows. He has checked those systems endlessly; everything conforms. His dreams are full of blueprints.
The solar stacks had to be almost completely redesigned, refitted to outlast the long hibernation of humanity. A collaborative effort, employing every engineer the planet had to spare, but Dune was one of the few to weld it all together, streamline the components into the seamless and efficient whole. He knows every inch of it now; he has fitted every piece himself, even if he never touched the structure but through a layer of robotics and circuitry. The diagrams sprung to life, become concrete as he observed, spiraling out into three dimensions yet still as precise as ever they were.
There is no chance that anything will go wrong. Theoretically, mathematically, no chance.
A lifetime of calculations and statistics have taught him that negative probability — even zero probability — is rarely achieved in practice. There are too many variables. Everything is nonzero.
If you want to argue probability, then there is a chance, however small, that the space station could spontaneously fall into another universe. Or simply cease to be. Or the shuttle could miss its orbit and drift into space, or fall back down to Earth after launch.
There is a chance that the oxygen could leak. There is a chance that the pressure glass could be somehow punctured and huge sections of the station could depressurize without warning. There is a chance that something could fall into the stacks’ thermal regulators, causing an energy spike that they simply hadn’t calculated the limits of.
Mathematics is precision but it is not certainty, it is not solace. It is the footnote at the bottom of those forever-unfolding diagrams, reminding him that it could still all go wrong, for all their effort and their planning.
Thousands of frozen shells of people, sleeping, forever. The sudden surge into the blackness and the cold, and the body’s collapse under the impossible strain. The crack of glass and the buckling titanium and the electromagnets throwing sparks into oblivion.
He has made those unfolding blueprints real, precise and perfect and real, but it’s only certainty that he needs now.
“Three more weeks,” he says, and stares up at the sky.
“I know, Lycet.” He can’t help but be irritated; he came here in hopes of forgetting, after all. The moments he has to himself are increasingly few.
“Do you think it’s got any hotter?”
“Not since the last time you asked.” He looks up with him; the sunspots still loom dark and misshapen, clouds across the sun. The prelude to the solar flares, he thinks automatically. He has been at work too long to shut off the technician in his brain. “Not so bad, actually. I could get used to this.”
“Rogin —” Lycet looks down at him, and whether he’s worried or just annoyed, Rogin can’t tell.
“I’d rather get used to it than go up there, anyway.”
“You keep saying that.” He folds his arms. “You’d really rather stay behind? Do it, then. Head for the thermic shelters. I don’t think they’re even registering who goes in there anymore; they wouldn’t miss you on Nerva until they couldn’t delay any more.”
The day is ending; the bruised and bloated sun collapses against the horizon line. He thought, at the beginning, that he would make the most of the last days. He thought he’d memorize every detail, appreciate the beauty of nature before it burned to slag, breathe deeply while he still knew he could breathe.
He hasn’t. Neither of them have. There’s been too much to do, and when he wasn’t working he felt too drained to do much appreciating.
“Would you stay?” He asks. Lycet — so nonchalant, so much calmer than he — stares out past the sinking sun in response.
“I don’t know,” he says, frankly. “Definitely die down here, or maybe die up there." A pause, and a brief silence. "Up there we’d be asleep when it happened.”
“Is that any better?”
“No. No, I don’t think it is. At least with radiation poisoning you don’t expect to wake up one day.” Lycet smiles, faintly, but Rogin’s seen that smile before. “I’ll stay if you do.”
And yet, and yet…for all his complaints, for all his worry, he’s never seriously thought about staying behind. There’s the vague, nebulous sense of duty — he was selected, the project needs his technical expertise, leaving would throw off the population gene pool, all the usual reasons.
But mostly, he doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t want to leave behind a life he was rather starting to enjoy, and nothing affords him that option anymore.
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “They need us, you know — they’re bound to bungle something without us around to fix it.”
Lycet laughs, and nods. “You’re right about that. So how are you spending your last few days?”
“Working. Of course. What else?” The light is almost dying now; the electromagnetic auroras of night, once so beautiful, seem commonplace now. “Why, what about you?”
“Oh, working. Of course.” He faces him, turning away from the luminescent sky. “But you know, I’m not working every hour of every day.”
Only a few more days before the official start date. Most of the crew is already frozen; she is among the few who remain. As First Medtech it is her duty to see to the process. She will be among the last to sleep and the first to wake.
Noah is still awake as well — even she, in these past few weeks, has taken to calling him Noah. He seems to like the name, and though she has never known him to indulge in such frivolities, it is a harmless concession.
He has never explained to her what it means, and the First Historian is already in stasis. She cannot ask her anything now.
The world did not seem to have changed very much when she left for Nerva. Understandable — they were scheduled to leave long before the solar flare activity peaked, so as to avoid any disastrous delays.
She had always known that the Earth was dying, but those last throes had become her default. The idea of an end, of a change in this constant rate of decay, becomes a bit difficult to imagine.
She is running a few final tests when Noah approaches her. “You’ve done well, Vira,” he says.
“Of course.” She spares him a smile before she goes back to her equipment. “I should hope you would not expect any less of me.
“Never.” He is grave and does not smile. “Will you miss it, Vira?”
“I don’t understand your question.”
“The Earth. Will you miss it?”
She almost laughs at him. A new, unknown life awaits them when they wake — what is there to miss? The examination room? The selections? The endless testing of the cryogenic facilities? But he seems more serious than usual, so she only says “No. Why do you ask me this?”
“It is not important.” He cuts off further conversation. “I will be on the observation deck. Inform me when it is time to begin the process.”
He leaves without another word, and Vira goes back to her work.
There is nothing that she misses, and little that she remembers. She is ready.
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