A MATTER OF CONSCIENCE
“Mother! Do you know what time it is? The shuttle to Houston will be leaving in thirty minutes and you haven’t have even started to pack!”
Selene ignored the impatience in Gabrielle’s voice. Forehead pressed against the bedroom window, arms crossed tightly against her body, she waited until she heard Gabrielle’s exasperated huff, followed by the stamp of feet in the hall. Muffled sounds came from one of the other rooms; Gabrielle, no doubt, bringing a progress report to her father.
Selene loosed a shaky breath, freed one hand long enough to wipe tears away with the heel of her palm. She glanced over her shoulder at the suitcase lying open on the bed, the pathetically small pile of personal belongings that were all those boarding the Interstellar Transports were allowed. Cold sleep allowed for more would-be-colonists to be stored, like sardines in a can, during the light-years long search for a new home, but there was still precious little room left over for cherished mementoes once essential supplies were loaded.
She exhaled softly, turned back to the window. Ten story’s down and a hundred yards away, a gnarled oak was visible on the far side of the Habitat’s translucent walls. She had been observing that solitary tree for ten years ow, as the grass around it blackened and died, as its leaves withered and died along with the hopes and dreams of the human race. The arguments still flew hot and fast as to whether the virus that first appeared in Austria, turning fifty acres of woodland into a blackened stinking mess, was a natural mutation, or if genetic tinkering was responsible.
The question was academic now. The virus had spread rapidly to every major land mass on Earth in spite of stringent precautions.
And soon, when the last IST thundered off its launch pad at Houston, there would be no one left to watch over Earth’s dying moments. An inglorious end to a once beautiful blue and green world.
Thinking of the tree seedlings in the block-long greenhouse where she had labored night and day for the last five years, patiently splicing genes, perfecting new plant strains, none of which were destined to see the light of day unless a miracle occurred, Selene thumped her fist against the window frame.
Turning her back on the desolate, ravaged wasteland that lay outside the Habitat’s walls, she slumped down onto the bed, unable to bear the sight any long. Arms crossed beneath her breasts, a low moan escaped her lips as she rocked slowly back and forth.
The thought of leaving Earth was almost more than she could bear. Even more unbearable was the prospect of spending the rest of her life without David and Gabrielle.
She glanced at her watch, then at the open suitcase. Fifteen minutes until the shuttle left. The clock was ticking. Decision time. Stay or leave. She exhaled softly, pushed herself to her feet. The moment of truth had arrived.
She found her husband and daughter in the apartment’s tiny living room, their suitcases at their feet. From the sullen set of Gabrielle’s mouth and the faint redness of her eyes, and David’s air of weary resignation, she guessed they had been arguing. She had no idea what the argument had been about and at the precise moment, neither did she care.
She sat in a chair facing the couch, waited until she was certain she had their attention.
“I have made a decision,” she announced. “One that I hope you will try to understand.” She drew in a deep breath, took the plunge. “I will not be going with you to Houston. I am staying here in the Habitat.”
She closed her ears against the expected noisy outburst. David and Gabrielle eventually lapsed into silence, regarding her as though she had suddenly grown two heads. “I know my decision is hard for you to accept,” she said as she reached across and took David’s large strong hand in her own, “and it is not one I have made lightly. However…I just can’t do it. I just can’t leave.”
His eyes filled with pain, David uttered one word: “Why?”
Selene released her husband’s hand, glanced toward Gabrielle, winced at the storm cloud brewing in her daughter’s eyes.
“Not to put too fine a point on it, for me to leave would be like a mother abandoning a sick child. And my conscience will not let me do that as long as there is the slightest hope that someday one of the plant strains I have been working on might take hold out there.” She waved her hand in the general direction of the window. “I have to stay here and keep working.
“While I agree in principle that as many people as possible should leave earth in order that our species can survive, to me, it is too much like rats abandoning a sinking ship. And like rats, how do we know we won’t carry our fleas with us to some other world and destroy it the way we have destroyed this one?”
Gabrielle snapped, “And we are supposed to just merrily march off and leave you here all alone? Get real, mother!”
Selene shook her head. “I am serious, Gabby. I want you to go. You deserve a chance at a better life.”
“We all do,” drawled David, staring at his wife. “I don’t know what crazy idea you have in the back of your head, Selene, but if you don’t go, I’m not going.” His voice rose. “Dammit, woman, did you really think I’d leave without you?”
Gabrielle shouted, “And what about me? Did you really think I was just going to say, ‘oh that’s fine, Mother, see you I a couple of hundred life-years?”
Selene closed her eyes briefly, then sighed. “Yes, that is exactly what I hoped you would do. I realize my decision is hard for you to accept (David snorted in disgust) but it’s final. I have to stay here and finish my work.”
David said, “That could take years. Centuries. In the meantime, have you become immortal that you can live that long? Or have you found a way to clone yourself? One person cannot do it alone. And even if there were enough food supplies and resources to keep us all alive until the Earth begins to regenerate herself, three of us are hardly enough to repopulate the Earth, even if I was willing to impregnate my own daughter.”
A shocked Gabrielle reared her up and stared at her father, aghast at such a notion.
Into the silence that followed, Selene spoke quietly, her words dropping like pebbles into a pool, ripples expanding outward until they reached the shore.
“I won’t be alone, David.”
David just stared at her until she was forced to look away.
“There are twelve of us altogether,” she explained softly. “We have been planning this for months. We have stockpiled food until we can get the vats running again after the authorities close them down. We know how to maintain the life support systems so air will not be a problem. And unless something drastic occurs to the satellites, we shall be able to monitor the surface for the first sign of plant growth. Who knows, there may be reason to celebrate the next Millenium after all.” She made an effort to smile. “At least there will be someone here to mark the occasion.”
David’s eyes were hard. “And you never once said anything to us.”
“No. You both seemed so excited at the prospect of leaving. Neither of you ever expressed any regret that you would never see this world again.” Selene’s shoulders rose and fell. “I didn’t think either of you cared.”
David stood, reached for his suitcase. “Well, thanks for the vote of confidence. Come on, Gabrielle. The shuttle will be here any minute.”
Gabrielle searched the faces of her parents for a second, then silently picked up her suitcase and followed her father from the living room.
Selene stood in the middle of the room, listening to the sound of the front door closing, pictured her family taking the lift down to street level. Soon they would board the big white shuttle with all the other exiles and in two hours they would be in Houston. Feeling as though she had aged ten years in the last ten minutes, she forced herself to walk to the window. While she could not see the Habitat’s entrance from her apartment, she could see the streets below and the stragglers hurrying to catch up. With any luck she might catch one last glimpse of David and Gabrielle. With any luck, they might even look up and wave.
They wouldn’t though. She just hoped that someday they would forgive her.
Lost in thought, she did not hear the front door open or hear David and Gabrielle enter the living room. When she became aware that she was not alone, she slowly turned and stared for long moments into their faces, then reached for their hands and drew them into her arms.
June 9, 2017