They were twelve hours out from the Combine, and the mood had neutralized since Gavin had woken up Aura. Mickey still wasn’t sure about her. She no longer doubted her wild stories, not after being shown proof that the impossible existed, but there was something about her demeanor that didn’t feel quite right to Mickey. Perhaps it was due to the girl’s unique brain chemistry and background, but the way the girl carried herself was anachronistic.
Firstly, there was no doubt that Aura was viciously smart, every story she told, everything she told them about science, history, psychology was unusually profound. It offered an insight that even Mickey had to say she never considered.
But she had questions. Questions that she could have just as easily asked EthOS, but had chosen instead to bring it to them.
Most were about history over the previous sixty years or so, but there were also some deeply personal questions. She’d inquired about Mickey’s parents, her grandparents. What it was like growing up on Europa. The social order, the traditions, how education was dealt with. Even getting right down into engineering questions for her and medical questions for Gavin.
Every time a question was answered, she paused as if considering whether or not the answer was true. But never, not once had she seen the girl smile.
Girl. There was that word again. Technically, Aura was at least a century older than her. Mickey had a hard time dealing with remembering that Aura’s mind was almost ancient, but her body was young.
Would it always be young, or did she just age extremely slowly? How is she able to balance her sanity? Mickey had a million questions, and most of the time Aura would answer them, but her answer would always lead off into a tangent. An unemotional, yet mind-blowing tangent.
But beneath the surface, Mickey got the sense that things with Aura were about to get even shakier. Particularly after EthOS announced the receipt of a new email.
All four of them had been in the galley when it arrived, finishing up an evening meal before taking care of pre-sleep tasks. Walker was the first to speak.
“Put it up on the display,” he said.
The wall display quickly activated, and showed only three words: Slouch toward Bethlehem.
“The hell is that supposed to mean?” Mickey asked. She looked over toward Aura and Gavin and caught Gavin’s expression change suddenly.
“That’s Singh,” he insisted.
“What? Are you sure?”
“Yeah, that’s Yeats,” he replied. “Singh always loved twentieth century poets, but Yeats was his jam. He practically hammered the Second Coming into my head. And what rough beast, it’s hour come ‘round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
“EthOS, that email didn’t come from Singh, did it?” Walker asked.
“Nope,” EthOS responded. “The breadcrumbs lead to an anonymous account. The data isn’t even encrypted. But it was sent from a device model unique to LegionCorp.”
“But the only way someone could have sent that is with our ISR, right?” Walker replied. He looked to Gavin. “So what’s he trying to say?”
“He’s saying…” he paused, then glanced over at Aura.
“He’s saying to bring me to Saturn,” she continued. “I am the… rough beast in this analogy.”
“Well that’s not very nice,” Walker responded.
“Why would he send the message like that, though? Some cryptic statement from an anonymous account? How are we supposed to interpret that?” Mickey crossed her arms.
“Because he’s in trouble,” Aura repeated. “He can get a message out, but he can’t rely on specifics. He chose that phrase because he knew that Gavin would be able to offer some insight as to its meaning.”
They all looked to her.
“What kind of trouble are we talking about here?” Mickey asked. “What the hell did he drag us into?”
“Need I remind you I’ve been living under a rock for the past sixty years?” Aura mentioned. “I’ve never even laid eyes on the man. I’ve just… seen messages like this before. It’s not the act of a person who can communicate openly, so he’s left to rely on communication through context.”
“I really don’t like wondering what might be waiting for us at the end of this,” Walker said. “But…if that message came from a LegionCorp device, that doesn’t make me feel any better about this.” He looked to Aura for a moment. Mickey caught a familiar look in his eye. He was analyzing her.
She couldn’t say she blamed him. Aura was… unexpected. A surprising, impossible and involuntary stowaway, but a stowaway nonetheless. It was one thing when they thought they were moving cargo. It was even another thing when they discovered their cargo was human. But if the Corporate Congress was involved in this situation, that wasn’t a force Mickey particularly wanted to end up on the bad side of.
Aura kept her head down. Mickey immediately recognized that she was likely thinking about the same thing.
“Okay, let’s not jump the gun,” Walker said. “Could mean nothing, right? Maybe he’s just pissed we woke you up, and isn’t interested in talking.”
Gavin shook his head. “Nah, I think Aura’s right,” he argued. “That’s not Raj’s style. He doesn’t play games. He’s pretty straightforward. Blunt to a fault, sometimes. If he really sent that message, he’s in trouble. And either he or someone using a LegionCorp datapad sent that message as a warning.”
“So what does that mean?”
“Means we stay sharp,” Walker replied. “But we stay the course until we learn more. I’m not going to give up on this job based on speculation. Not for the price tag we already have on it. The only person who can decide what to do is Aura.”
Aura looked over to him, in shock.
“Until I find out otherwise, deal still stands. You can walk at the Combine and we go our own way, or we slouch toward Bethlehem. It’s Aura’s call.” He put a finger in the air. “But I have to give you a fair warning. We survived this long by keeping our heads down and keeping out of the hair of the Corporate Congress, and that’s a trend I don’t want to end any time soon, if I can help it.” He shook his head. “Look, let’s just wrap up what we need to wrap up and get some sleep. We’ll be at the Combine come morning, and we’ll have to leave in two days if we want to make it to Saturn, so she has until then to make a decision. Even if Singh is in trouble, it’s not gonna catch up with us in two days.”
The light from Jupiter was more overwhelming for Aura than she had expected. For as long as she’d lived, she’d never been farther from Earth than Luna. And now, the Earth was gone. Luna followed in suit soon afterward. Without a solid mass to lock to, its orbit went erratic, eventually careening out into space. Little was known about what had happened to those living on its surface. Beyond a few frantic communications, they were all assumed to be dead. As for Luna itself, most people had forgotten about it.
People had forgotten the moon. It was just another reality that Aura had to accept in a growing list of new realities.
She had shielded her eyes from Jupiter’s light when she had looked out the cockpit when everyone woke up, and stayed with Walker as he’d bounced communications back and forth from the Combine. About an hour after they’d started the retroburn, she finally saw it, at first as a black speck, then later as the modern marvel that it was.
Most of the Jovian Stations had been designed by SpaceX, one of the first space venture companies, and one that had survived right up until Zero Day. Unfortunately, since Exterra and LegionCorp were the only corporations with off-world boards, SpaceX fell away into history with the rest of them.
At least partly. Their legacy, it seemed, lived on. The Jovian Combine was comprised of several Jovian stations, all designed to be modular and flexible in design. Simply put, even entire stations could be reconfigured and adapted as need demanded.
In the years just before Zero Day, there had been a political upheaval among the Jovian stations, mostly due to the people who lived and worked there feeling separated from Earth. There was talk of a formation of sovereign nation, and plans laid out to ensure Jovian autonomy, but after Zero Day, it was clearly a given.
There was no longer any earth, so the Jovian Commonwealth was assured.
She had been so inquisitive to the crew of the Gambler’s Ruin about the Jovian Combine. It fascinated Aura, that survival would necessitate the combining of several stations to support the whole. In a way, Aura felt it might have been ill-advised to put all of your eggs in a single basket. But she also realized that it signaled something else about human nature that she valued. That sometimes the well-being of the whole was a better alternative than the sacrifice of the few.
Docking procedures had been over relatively quick, and permission to board was of no trouble. Walker seemed to have a rapport with the communications staff aboard the Combine, almost as if they were old friends. Aura meant to inquire, but her thoughts were more focused on being eager to see what life on the Combine was like. A station forced into self-sufficiency in a split second. A place that, by all accounts, should never have persisted as long as it had.
The four of them had decided to board together. Mickey had some old friends to see, and Gavin wanted to visit a girl he knew. Walker had volunteered to escort Aura at least until she gained her footing, or came to a decision.
The airlock seal opened and she felt a build-up of pressure as the door opened to a long corridor. It was relatively well-lit, but the shape of the corridor was confusing. Due to the lack of gravity, it was difficult to orient herself in a satisfying way.
Eventually, they reached the end of the corridor, and the door opened with a second burst of pressure.
…and a smell.
…actually, it was more of a stench. A musky stench that smelled of human body odor. She instinctively covered her nose.
“Yeah,” Gavin said, noticing her. “That takes some getting used to.”
“Smells like home,” Walker added. “You get used to it.”
“Europa smelled worse,” she said.
The next corridor was very well-lit, and on the walls were a series of lattices upon which green and white plants grew freely. Aura reached out to one and looked at it. There were a number of different plants there, from flowering plants like the peace lily to edibles like soy beans.
Of course. The peace lily was renowned for its air-scrubbing capabilities. She knew that it was often used in life support departments to help clean the air in the old SpaceX stations, but… it appeared as though they’d filled the entire station. The amount of water they would need to sustain it would have been difficult to maintain… that is, unless you rationed the amounts of water for the population.
The stench suddenly made sense.
“This is all over the Combine?” she asked as Mickey and Gavin parted ways.
“Most places,” Walker replied.
“Water’s still brought in via ice meteors, correct?”
Walker nodded. “Yeah, even the Ruin’s hauled a few,” he replied. “Big money in ice, but that’s because it’s dangerous. We lose people all the time for the stupidest mistakes.”
“What about food? The soy can’t be the only main source of nutrition.”
“Well, there’s two main sources,” Walker replied. “There’s ASec, which was originally an agro-station back before the Combine. That’s on the outer ring. There are the meat culture tanks, several tiered crops. But sometimes we get fresh fish and vegetables from Europa. They managed to keep an agricultural colony going for decades without any sort of travel.”
“I know they were experimenting with fish farms on Europa,” she commented. “I had no idea they’d succeeded.”
“Yeah, I remember when I was a kid. My first taste of salmon after we re-established transit between Europa and the Combine. That was a big time for me. That reminds me, I should see if I can pick some up before we disembark.”
“Europa also had a colony of farm livestock before Zero Day?”
“Well, if they did, they don’t anymore. You want beef, pork, dog or chicken, you gotta talk to Mars.”
“Dog?” Aura asked, turning to him.
“Yeah. You know, four legs and a tail? Usually had a tongue hanging out of its mouth?”
Aura turned away. “We never ate dogs before the end. We valued them too much as companions. Some people ate dog up until the mid twenty-first century before their consumption was banned by the United Nations.”
Walker shrugged. “Things are different here. I know we used to keep them as pets before, but we’re barely taking care of ourselves. Even on Mars. Maybe the Corp Cattle can have an animal around that they can feed, but that’s not the case out here. Especially on the fringes.”
As they talked, Aura felt herself being pulled more in one direction than another. Some sense of gravity and direction was beginning to affect her as they approached the outer ring of the Combine.
“I had several dogs,” Aura reminisced. “A few cats as well. For a short period, I had a cockatoo, but he was a bit of a bastard. Dogs, though. I’d always loved dogs.”
“I had an ant farm once,” Walker admitted.
“An ant farm?” Aura asked suddenly. “Here?”
He nodded. “Sure,” he said. “It’s the closest thing a kid gets as a pet anymore.”
“But ants still exist,” she commented. “I wouldn’t have expected.”
“Yeah, I guess there was some kind of research program back in the day involving ants. They don’t eat much, don’t use up much oxygen so I guess we didn’t put them in the void.” He laughed. “But those little guys are nothing if not versatile. I wouldn’t put it past them to survive in a vacuum.”
Finally, they reached the end of another corridor. “Here’s PortSec. We can relax here, do some shopping. Grab a meal. My treat, obviously, since you’re kind of broke.”
“I wasn’t always,” she said. “I amassed my first million Euros by the time I was twenty-one from a few patents.”
“Hard currency?” he asked.
“Too bad,” he said. “All that went out with the planet. All our currency these days is digital.”
“Yes,” she replied. “BitBucks. It’s been in use since well before I was born.” She looked to him. “They used to call it a cryptocurrency. Funny, really. Even up until Zero Day, it was always an alternative currency, used primarily by those who wanted to hide their income from the authorities and other prying eyes. It makes sense why it persisted, however. Decentralized. Impossible to counterfeit. Whereas all Earth’s banks…” she paused.
Walker opened the door and began to cling to a ladder as it he oriented himself with the gravity. He climbed down it and Aura followed, closing the door as she descended into it.
The ladder led down into a large module. Below, several dozen people moved about, some bounding across the room in the low gravity on their way to another.
Eventually, they reached ground level. It was another corridor, but this one with a more flat floor that led in two directions. At the center, there were several areas that jutted out from the floor. They were windows, but they doubled as benches for people coming through, or just mingling about.
“If anyone talks to you, just keep an eye on that smartwatch,” he warned her. “That’s a cheap one, but people here will steal anything if it’ll net them something, and you’re a stranger.”
“How many people are in the Combine?”
“Not sure. Ten thousand? Maybe twelve,” he responded. “But the Combine doesn’t get much in the way of visitors, so it’s easy to tell when we have one. We get people coming here from Europa or Ganymede, sometimes from Ceres or Eros, but it’s usually the same characters. They already got you pegged as a newbie.”
“Corridor,” he replied. He waved a hand. “They probably have you pegged as a Martian, or an atmosphere Skimmer. Either way, your legs give you away as being used to high gravity. Plus you have a new face. New faces draw attention, but we’ll be fine so long as we stick to PortSec. They don’t make much noise here, but they always have their eyes on.” He motioned to a small kiosk.
Aura kept her silence, but started to pay more attention to her surroundings. It was an outer-ring habitat module that had been converted in a promenade, judging from the shop names and kiosks set up throughout their current module. One place caught her attention. It seemed to be a restaurant.
Walker caught her glance. “You hungry?” he asked.
“Not normally,” she replied absently. She then thought better of it. “But yes,” she replied.
“The Rock,” he replied. “Best food in PortSec. They also have the best Ganymede wine on the Combine.”
“Wine? From Ganymede?”
“Sure,” he said. “They’re in high demand. They even have contracts with Exterra. All made on Ganymede and shipped through the Combine en route to the inner system. Come on,” he said, leading her into the restaurant.
They quickly took a seat at a long bar inside the establishment and snapped his fingers. A young raven-haired woman looked over at him and rolled her eyes. She approached him quickly with hands on her hips.
“Walker,” she said, her voice dripping with… annoyance? Conceit? Aura couldn’t quite tell. She’d never had an easy time reading the emotions of others, but it was clear that the young woman didn’t think highly of him. Her eyes briefly passed over to Aura. She seemed to be measuring her up. “Who’s your friend?”
“Heather, this is Aura. Aura, Heather. We’re old friends,” he insisted.
“We were never friends, Walker,” she replied.
“We were never enemies, Heather,” Walker replied with a wink.
Heather rolled her eyes again, but to her credit, let out a small laugh. “What can we get you?”
“What’s on the menu?”
“Steamed potatoes and beets,” she replied. “Only got artificial meats today. But we’re expecting fish tomorrow if you’re sticking around.”
He slapped his hands together. “Gravy?”
“I’ll take some. With gravy.”
He nodded, and Heather looked to Aura. “And you?”
“I’ve heard you have wine?” she asked.
Heather nodded. “Plenty,” she said. “But you have to buy by the unit.”
Aura looked to Walker, and he nodded. “I’ll just have a steamed potato and wine then, please.”
“Daring,” Walker said as Heather walked away. “Most people don’t get into the bubbly until the day’s done.”
Aura cocked her head. “Bubbly is champagne,” she replied.
Walker looked at her. “Sorry?”
“It’s champ…” she paused. Of course. Champagne didn’t exist anymore. It, too, was made from grapes, but it was also in reference to a sparkly wine that came from a specific region in France, which was in Europe, which was on the Earth.
She sighed. The world she once knew was long gone. She looked back to Walker. “I’ve always been fond of wines,” she said. “Sparkling wines were always my drink of choice.”
“You didn’t strike me as the drinking type,” he replied.
Heather returned and placed a cask of wine on the table and poured her a glass. She picked it up and inspected it. “We all must have our vices,” she replied, then took a swig.
The taste was horribly bitter, like it was made in the garage of an amateur home brewer. She turned her face up at the flavor, but swallowed it anyway, then took another sip.
She looked to him. “Best wine I’ve had in decades,” she said.
Walker laughed. “I think that’s the first time I’ve heard you crack a joke since we met,” he said.
Aura leaned back. “Not much to laugh about these days,” she replied.
“There’s plenty to laugh at,” Walker replied. “You have to laugh at it sometimes, right? The absurdity of it all?”
She looked over to him, but stayed quiet.
Walker maintained the silence for a few more moments. “Look, I know losing Earth was relatively… fresh for you. I can’t even imagine what that would have been like. One minute, you have a happy, healthy planet. The next… zip. But I grew up with this life. And you know what one of the most important things I’ve learned is?”
“That you’re going to get dealt shit cards in life,” he continued. “Sometimes you won’t even be dealt a full hand, because that’s life. Pain and suffering.”
She looked away from her glass and met his eyes.
“But if you can maintain your humor, you’re serving two purposes. First, you’re showing the universe that whatever it’s gonna throw at you, you can deal with it. And second, you’re showing the people around you, who might even look up to you, that giving into that pain is as futile as fighting it. But at least you can do it with a smile.”
Aura looked away. “Some pain can’t be made better with a joke.”
“Sure it can,” Walker argued.
“What about the pain you’ve inflicted on others?” She asked. “The people you’ve hurt?”
“Well, I make a point not to do that if I can help it. But sure… I’ve hurt people in the past. Sometimes that can’t be helped. But you can’t let those moments define who you are.” He looked at her. “I know you’re superhuman or something, but the key operating word there is human. You have emotions just like the rest of us.”
“I do,” she said. After a pause, she continued. “At least once I did. I’m more… stoic these days.”
“I get it,” he said. “In theory if not in practice. But your look, I know it. I’ve seen it before.”
“Guilt, am I right? Survivor’s guilt?” he asked. “I knew a guy who was the sole survivor of a bad salvage about twenty years back. His whole ship got decompressed and he was the only one who managed to make to into the airlock in time. He was stoic too, to a fault. Any positive emotions he might have had were clouded, effectively useless. He died himself about ten years ago. He just gave up and voided himself one day without warning.” He shook his head. “There are too few of us left to have people giving up like that.”
“Maybe he recognized something you didn’t,” Aura responded. She finished off her glass and poured another.
“What’s that?” he asked.
She sighed. “The other night, I had EthOS go over census reports and statistics since Zero Day. The average life expectancy before then was ninety-two years and there were over a million people still surviving. Within twenty years, the life expectancy dropped to fifty years and total population lowered to under a million. Today, the average life expectancy is twenty-six, and there are half as many people alive as there were at Zero Day. Mars might offer some respite, but the likelihood of anyone surviving long enough to see complete terraformation is…” she sighed again and leaned back in her chair. “Slim to none. We’re dying a slow death, Walker Dane.”
“I dunno, we’ve achieved a pretty good balance here on the Combine. And people are living on Ganymede, Europa, Mars, Eros, Ceres. Not to mention the Corporate Congress stations. I’ve seen pictures of them. They look livable.”
“It’s a miracle we’ve survived this long, and that’s only out of desperate innovations,” she responded. “And sustainability isn’t as sustainable as you might think.”
“How do you mean?”
She shrugged. “Sustainability is nice. It means you can keep the ship steady, as it were. But it’s not where you want to be. Sustainability means existence, such as it is. But age happens. Parts break. Resources run dry. Parts you can’t replace because the infrastructure to create said parts no longer exists. Chemical compounds can’t be easy reproduced. Biological and environmental balance will rattle and roll, and for a time it will seem like it’s working, but it’ll always be a temporary fix.” She looked to him. “Sustainability will continue to become harder and harder to sustain. In an environment like this… well, you named your ship the Gambler’s Ruin. You know as well as I that in the end, the house always wins. You can’t survive on sustainability. You need a regenerative environment, and that’s all but impossible now.”
Walker leaned back in his chair. “That’s… one way to look at it,” he said. “Let’s say you’re right, then. Let’s say this is all completely absurd and even trying to survive is doomed to failure. Even in that case, don’t we owe it to ourselves, in our final remaining years as a species, the right to take every good part of life for ourselves where we can? To eke out some sense of humor, some enjoyment?”
She regarded him for moment. “That’s one way to look at it. But… easier for some than others.”
“Sure,” he said. “But it’s possible. And where it’s possible, and it brings some kind of joy to people, I say do it.”
“What if some people don’t deserve it?” she asked, staring into her wine. She was beginning to feel the effects of it.
“Everyone deserves it,” he insisted.
Walker shrugged. “Sure,” he said without skipping a beat. “Sometimes you’re forced into a situation where it’s your life or theirs. Hell, I’ve had to choose my own life over others before. It’s a fact of life sometimes. They wanted what I had, and I decided I needed it more than they did. End of story. I can’t get hung up on that. But I can worry about Mickey and Gavin. Even you. Hell, even Heather over there, even though she’s not my biggest fan.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think you quite understand–”
“No, I understand it just fine,” he interrupted. “Look, you lived through the loss of the earth. It was a freak event, but you can’t carry that weight. I’ve seen that destroy people. Good people. It’s not your load to bear. It’s not like you’re responsible,” he told her.
Aura shot a glance at him, searching his expression. Walker couldn’t have possibly understood what she was going through because there was no way he could fathom it. She turned back to her drink, finished the glass and poured another one. A moment later, Heather returned with his meal and left the two of them alone.
“That’s not… entirely accurate,” she admitted to him.
Walker paused mid-bite and turned his head to her. “What?” he asked. “Wait… which part?”
“It wasn’t a freak event, Walker,” she explained. “Twelve billion lives just don’t end from a primordial black hole.” She’d punctuated the phrase with air quotes. “It wasn’t some infinitesimal cosmic accident from something that was only ever theorized to exist. It was human error that destroyed the earth.”
Walker only continued to look at her, clearly not following what she was saying.
“It was me, Walker,” she explained. “I killed them all.”
Walker dropped his fork.