“The Skrill have destroyed Earth and now pursue the last Humans. Sixteen survive. And Ephraim Halliday must find a reason for all of them to stay alive, to give birth to a new humanity in far-off Andromeda Galaxy. But will any of them survive the pursuing Skrill, who attack them on both physical and psychic levels? As they battle their pursuers, Ephraim will discover whether sensual love or raw power will lead the last Humans to a new tomorrow. In that battle he will be helped by the spirits of eight billion dead and the gods and goddesses of ancient Earth. For they too travel with the survivors, the living avatars of humanity.”
Report of The Götterdämmerung
To: Earth Command Backup Field HQ, Pluto Darkside.
From: Carvalho, Commanding.
Subject: Survival of the human species.
Ship personnel are sixteen:
Orhan Carvalho. Captain. Owner, The Götterdämmerung, Brazil.
Chen Sung. First Medical Officer, ship’s Psychologist, China.
Sara Bat-Adon. Second Medical Officer, ship’s Pediatrician, Israel.
Fiona O’Hara. Remotes Specialist, Ireland.
Bruce McAllister. Fusion Systems Officer, Scotland.
Anatoly Semyev. Chief Agronomist, Kazakhstan.
Chitran Tripathi. Chief Astronomer, India.
Ariel Borodulin. First Officer, Astrophysicist, Belarus.
Hoshi Yamamoto. Microbiologist/Botanist, Japan.
Janjyu Xianghua. Life Support, China.
Tiare Tahatai. Chief Librarian, Samoa.
Makoto Ashikaga. AI Officer, Japan.
Bogdan Samanhudi. Recreation Officer, Indonesia.
Carolyn Bailey. Weapons Chief, Canada.
Shati Mtsweni. Chief Geologist, Matabeleland.
Ephraim Halliday. Social Systems Officer, America.
Ship Status: Nominal.
Ship Destination: Andromeda Galaxy/M31/NGC 224.
Trip Distance: 2.538 million light-years.
Trip Duration: 20 years, within ship.
Maximum ship speed: 99.9998% of lightspeed.
Ship fuel: interstellar hydrogen, quantities unlimited.
Ship drive: two-stage; deut-li fusion pulse first stage, modified Bussard
ramjet second stage.
Food stores: limited.
Life support: limited.
Probability of mission success: Minimal.
Final message: You’re all dead, you lucky bastards! Avi mortua.
Earth lay dead. The Skrill pursued us. Eight billion murdered, sixteen left alive and we each wondered . . . how long could we live with the guilt of our survival?
It was a marvel we hadn’t all suicided. Yet.
Our starship fled the solar system, its progress a slow red streak across the Control Deck wallscreen. We sought escape in the black depths of cold space, heading galactic south. Why that direction, only Orhan knew. He would tell us when we needed to know the reason. For now, we needed other things . . . a hole to pull in after us, a release from a duty no one wanted, and an end to the memories.
In silence, each of us struggled with those memories. Some recalled the last hours in Moon orbit as we hid like frightened children from the devastation unleashed by Skrill advance probes. Others remembered the MoonTug captain who brought up the sperm and egg cryotanks from Nearside Tycho—he’d looked hungrily at us, wished unspoken hopes and then turned away, consoled only by the knowledge his gene-children would escape with us. He died there on the Moon—just as my beloved Michelle had died, along with our three children, abandoned by their husband and father. Their betrayer.
Ephraim Halliday . . . a name cursed, a body too filled with memory.
At least they were safely dead.
But the worst memory possessed us all: those static-filled transmissions that tersely listed the madness, the suicides, the murders among the few thousand still left alive on the Moon. For they watched, as we now did, the death of Earth. We watched orange-red magma bubble over Earth’s continents as the Skrill assault asteroids struck deep, imagined her winds screaming, and heard terrified shapes cry out across the abyss as they pleaded for rescue. The cry of one shape burned in my mind: a hoarse plea to save a three year-old girl thrust hurriedly on-screen.
Such deadly, deadly memories.
I closed my eyes, sank lower in my recliner seat and shut out Control Deck, denying the wallscreen images. Denial failed. Earth’s only starship rumbled like an earthquake aftershock, a steady trembling easily confused with our own. The rank odor of sweaty fear floated on cold air currents. The soft sigh of ghostly breathing moved among us, broken by a few sobs and the dull snores of the three put into sedation. It was macabre. We sixteen lived. Billions didn’t. Explanations did not exist: only reality reigned. Madness gibbered in the shadows, competing with the memories, the guilt and the endless recycling of the last few days.
We’d heard it all: stupid debates about racial balances, the demands for political influence, the nationalist arguments. Then came the predictable objections from culled-out geniuses when Captain Orhan Carvalho picked stable, moderately smart techs and specialists for the crew, arguing that the gifts of an Einstein meant nothing if the crew killed each other. And no, there was no room for children or spouses if Orhan’s starship was to make the twenty-year trip to another star that was his stated objective. Only enough supplies for sixteen adults in their 20s and 30s. Toward the end, bullets and lasers replaced shouted words. We broke Moon orbit as the domes went mad.
My eyes opened. There was no escaping the burned-in images. Nor the look of pain in Michelle’s face as I chose duty over wife and children. Like most of my fellows. Now we grappled with guilt, madness and anger, unable to forget, unable to return, with no one left to . . . forgive us. So we watched Earth’s last hours. Watched quietly, with no words spoken. After all, what do the Damned say to each other?
Shuddering, I looked away from the wallscreen.
Sara Bat-Adon watched me from across the center aisle, her soft brown eyes immensely sad. I nodded false reassurance, then glanced beyond her at Control Deck. A place of purgatory, our Greek stage seemed crowded by its half-circle of equipment banks up front, the cyclopean wallscreen that loomed in front of us, and the shapes of fourteen other damned souls crammed together in the middle.
Nine women. Seven men. We each half-sat, half-lay in seats that resembled metal coffins. Orhan had arranged the recliner-seats like a Spartan phalanx, with his Command seat up front. Red light glimmered on our shiny metal coffin rows. Overhead, the low ceiling seemed to compress us even more. I closed my eyes again, exhausted, unable to face the silent agony of my shipmates.
“Ephraim?” Sara whispered.
I took a deep breath, opened my eyes and looked at her. “Yes?”
“I want to go below.”
“Whatever for?” I said, startled. Those nearest us—Fiona, Bruce, Tiare and Hoshi—they looked our way, four more sets of tortured eyes.
Sara shook her head with impatience—or was it fear? Once, when she was my lover before I married Michelle, I knew all her moods, playful, afraid, angry, needful. “I need to check the supplies,” she said tersely. “And our rooms.” She paused, her raven black hair a frame for her narrow face. “Things might have broken loose during the launch. We should check.”
“Why bother?” Fatalism now replaced my usual good humor. “Either we have enough food or we don’t. Either the machines work or they don’t.” I let my head fall back and closed my eyes once more.
“Ephraim, come with me,” Sara insisted. “Please!” I heard the snap as she released the strap-locks that held her in the recliner-seat, the raw whisper of her Med Section coverall as she stood, the light tread of her boots on the metal deck.
I struggled to respond, feeling like a drowned swimmer whose cold flesh, burning lungs and flailing limbs all scream out live! A voice in a remote part of my mind decided that the recirculated air of the Control Deck had chilled me, so exercise would help. And banish the memories, replied another voice, also mine. “Okay.”
“Hurry up,” she said briskly.
As I unbuckled my own strap-locks, Sara walked down the middle aisle toward the central floor hatch, beyond which lay an armorglass wall that divided the Human half of Control Deck from its Mechmind half. Mechmind sparkled behind the wall, locked away like a naughty child. For a dust-free environment, Makoto had said. From his seat up front, Captain Carvalho glanced backward at us but said nothing, returning his dark gaze to the wallscreen that mesmerized the others. The screen now showed images uplinked from a Uranus probe and a dead machine reported to soon-to-be-dead organics. Somehow it seemed fitting entertainment for our red-lit theater of the absurd.
Turning, I followed Sara along the aisle, stopped beside the open floor hatch, and stared down into the deep silo of the ladderwell. It ran from top to bottom decks and gleamed silvery red as emergency lights illumined a drop that could kill. Blinking, I thought of Alice’s rabbit hole, and considered diving into it. But Sarah’s upward glance commanded me to follow her. So I did. Stepping down onto a ladder-rung, I reached over my head and pulled shut the hatch. A harsh clang echoed down the two hundred-foot drop, joining with the clank of Sara’s boots on the rungs as she continued her descent.
I pulled a safety lanyard from my belt reel, hooked it to a ladder stanchion and slowly put one foot below the other, too exhausted to worry much about falling. Likely the safety lanyard was excessive—and ironic under the circumstances—but broken bones from a slip in one gee thrust-gravity can be deadly. And Sara and Chen were our only doctors.
“Coming?” she prompted again, her gaze downcast even as her voice rose upward.
I, Ephraim Halliday the Betrayer, followed the woman who’d once been my lover as we descended into the murky depths. We passed the open access doors of Lab Deck, then Commons, and neared the Stateroom Deck. Further below us lay the decks of Recycling, EVA/Shuttles, and Supplies where I thought we were headed. They lay above the Hydroponics, Farm and Life Decks at the very bottom. So why was Sara slowing down? I hesitated and looked down at Sara’s coveralled form, but she ignored me, stepping off the ladder onto the private quarters of Stateroom Deck. Sara looked up at me, her sharp-planed face expectant.
I stepped backward onto the Stateroom landing, twitched the lanyard to release the hook, and waited while my belt-reel whirred with its return. Its snip completion brought forth a dreg of dry humor. I turned and faced her. “I think I’ll get tired of that climb.”
Sara eyed me intently, the planes of her face a coffee-brown landscape over which new emotions tumbled, each appearing faster than the last. Her breath smelled of cloves. “Ephraim, come with me. Please?” She reached out and grasped my wrist, pulling insistently.
Her hand felt warm. Alive. “Okay, okay.” She turned and led me toward her nearby stateroom. “But hey, we didn’t check the supplies—”
She kissed me hard and fierce, just inside her door.
Sara moaned into my mouth. I moaned back. Trembling, shaking, I grabbed at her, lost for a moment in the taste, the old memories of shared passion during our joint exile on Farside. But I felt only half there. She pulled back slightly, inspecting me with sad soft eyes.
“Ephraim, what’s the matter?” she asked, reading my face.
Her shoulder blades felt like smooth slabs beneath her thin coverall, filling my palms as we held each other close. They rose and fell with her quick breathing. “I thought Orhan was your Committed?”
Sara stepped out of my embrace, her movements slow and sensuous, reminding me she was also a nudist who yearned for sun, heat and passion. She glared, her look one of barely restrained impatience. “He still is. But all he sees now is that up there!” Sara looked up with a burning hatred toward the distant Control Deck, hating the Skrill, hating the memories, perhaps even hating Orhan at this moment. “He watches that and feels only death and defiance.” She looked down at me. “I deny it! I won’t watch anymore!”
Always a woman of quick mood changes. That was Sara Bat-Adon. And now the last Jew. “Sara, I—”
She lunged forward, her sharp teeth biting my uplifted hand. She nibbled at my palm as she unzipped her coverall, pulling it down past tan breasts and dark nipples, below flaring hips, to fall at her feet. Underwear followed.
“Ohhh!” My control broke. I leaned into her, breathing in the magnolia scent of her neck, then gripped her head and nibbled at her slim neckline, biting here, breathing there. Her hands tugged at my own clothes. Quickly, hurriedly, they fell away.
Then she pressed up against me. Her skin felt sun-hot. Mine added flame. Every cell of my body came alive as I forgot—for a brief time—the horrors.
“Make love to me,” she hissed. “Now!”
“Love?” I cried out even as she pulled me onto her bunk.
She became need incarnate. I became . . . lost. Together we made love, thrusting into each other, squeezing, gripping, panting, two joined as one. Always she led. I followed, too dazed to think.
Afterward we lay in each other’s arms, legs tangled together, our sweaty flesh cooling. With Sara, sex had always brought a sensual ease afterward, a closeness I valued. A bonding I had needed. But this time, there was no afterglow. All I felt was exhaustion. And guilt. A Betrayer once more . . . .
“Ephraim. Don’t cry.” Her slender fingers touched my chin, pulling me toward her.
I wrenched out of her grip, not speaking.
“Why are you crying?” she asked, a touch of panic in her husky voice. As if wounding someone meant nothing now—except to the dead.
“Michelle,” I choked out, turning to her. “This was . . . a betrayal.”
“No!” She pressed closer to me, her eyes pleading. “It was a kindness. I needed you. Had to have you. To deny that upstairs, to be able to believe in life again. To feel less alone. To not be alone. Don’t you understand?”
“Too soon.” I blinked, sending new tears down my face. “Too soon.”
“I’m sorry. But . . . not really.” Sara pulled back, then reached up and wiped clean my face, her fingers trembling. “Ephraim, leave guilt behind. Make love to me again. Please?”
I stayed motionless on her bunk, unmoving as a lie. I come from the hills of east Tennessee, a place where the brooding common among families with a link to the Black Irish of northern Eire is accepted and understood. Such men can be good at brooding. And denial.
Sara gasped. Many moods fled across her tanned Levantine face. “Ephraim? Why not?”
Truth? She wanted truth? Since Earth-death, I’ve grown too direct for a good So-Sys Officer. “A good fuck doesn’t erase the guilt.”
Pain pinched her face. “You’re only saying that to hurt me back.”
“Damn right.” I surged off the bed onto my feet, then bent for my coveralls. “And you talk about ‘life’ only because you believe in Orhan. In his Plan. In this ship. In a future for the sixteen of us. You are deluded.”
She stared at me a long moment. “People have to believe in something,” she said, lifting her chin.
“Yeah? Well, I believe in something too, Sara.” I waved beyond her, taking in the ship, the people, the Farm stock, the Life Deck with its canisters of frozen sperm and ova of people and animals and plants, all that remained after four billion years. “We’re in Purgatory. Everyone else is dead and gone to Heaven or Hell, judged, slotted, end of question. Of all the people on Earth, only we get Purgatory. Only we need to be cleansed by this slow torture. Only us.” Sourness filled me. “Lucky us.”
Sara drew in a quick, tight breath and sat very still, arms hugging her bony ribs. “Why do you think that?”
“Dreams.” I turned away from her, fiddling with my coveralls.
“What kind of dreams?” she husked. “Tell me.”
“No. They’re too strange.”
She stood up with a smooth whispering of naked flesh against the sheets. Her hand felt warm on my bare shoulder. “Ephraim, hold me. Just holding. Please?”
Her voice was husky-needful, just as I remembered. She was still the Sara of my memory. The last Jew, a woman who would be a Mother, yet needed a new life to believe in the future. A new hope to replace our destroyed Earth. A tragic figure, my Sara. I breathed deep, turned back around and tumbled with her back onto her bed.
We held each other then, rocking in our embrace, as she crooned childhood lullabies to me and to herself, both of us adrift in time and hope. Eventually, still holding each other close, we fell into a troubled sleep.
The dream came again.
The one of Namarkon the Lightning Man. A Gagudju deity, a spirit from out of the Australian Dreamtime, he stomp-danced through the dream nightscape, naked skin painted with white streaks, clenched hands raised high, yellow lightning bolts spurting from his hands every time the distant drumbeat hit counterpoint. Beat. Flash. Beat. Flash. Endless beats and flashes of light. Like an old-style celluloid film moving at slow speed, before they found out how the human eye will make single frames appear to be in uniform motion—once past thirty frames per second.
High tech memories mixed with silly old anthropology texts that spoke of a people who believed Dreaming would continuously recreate the Land, the World, all Life. So long as the Gagudju and the other aborigines of old Australia dreamed the Dreamtime, so long would the universe exist.
A silly belief.
Why then did it haunt my sleep and my dreams? Ever since the Skrill attack, ever since Orhan the crazy Brazilian roared out his insane scheme to save a few humans, Namarkon had walked my dreams.
But what felt most strange is that in the dream, I knew I dreamed. He knew I knew him. And now and then, he would turn to my dreamself and wink. Like a nova flaring.
Sunlight bright. The light of creation.