Excerpt from "The Exo Project"

Matthew

They called it the Exo Project.

It had been almost a year ago now that the announcement had come in over the web. Matthew had been sitting in his bedroom at the time, doing homework and wondering what to make for dinner for himself and his little sister, when his tablet buzzed with an incoming transmission.

Matthew glanced at it. A blue crest flickered onto the screen: the logo of OmniCore, the global Earth government. Matthew snatched the tablet from the desktop, his back going straight.

An official announcement. Everybody on the planet was probably watching it.

There was a silent moment—then the OmniCore logo faded from the screen, replaced by an image of the sun burning hot in the sky. The music in the background was ominous, threatening. Over the music came a man’s voice.

“Earth is dying,” the voice said, “burning up. Crops are failing, fresh water is becoming harder to find, and the future of the human race is at risk.”

The camera panned down from the sun to a vast desert. Antlike humans staggered across the dunes in radiation suits.

“But there’s a new hope for humanity: The Exo Project.”

The screen filled with images of scientists hunched over lab tables, engineers drawing up 3-D blueprints with their fingertips in holographic computer environments, half-constructed spaceships in hangars, surrounded by scaffolding and showers of sparks.

“Exoplanets are worlds outside our solar system, and scientists have identified thousands of them that might sustain life. Now, with new innovations in cryogenics and lightspeed travel, these planets are within our reach, ready to be explored. There’s just one thing missing. You.”

Now the music swelled, and the next image that came on the screen was a close-up of a person’s face: a young woman looking off-camera, hopeful and determined, the faintest trace of a smile on her lips. Slowly, the camera pulled back to reveal that she was marching across a flat expanse of concrete, carrying an OmniCore flag that flapped in the wind above her head. She wasn’t alone. One by one, other people joined her, men and women of all ages, races, and ethnicities, smiling and nodding to each other as they came to march at her shoulder. Soon, the camera had pulled back far enough to reveal hundreds of people, maybe thousands, and the image panned around to reveal what they were marching toward: a spaceport with thousands of ships lined up on the tarmac.

“The Exo Project is seeking volunteers now. The future of the human race lies in your hands.”

And with that, the announcement was over. The tablet screen blinked back to the normal view. In the lower left-hand corner, Matthew saw that he had a new message. He tapped it open with his fingertip. It was a message from the Exo Project. It must have come through with the announcement. Matthew scrolled past a photograph of a young man gazing boldly toward the skies, past the banner commanding him to “Sign Up Now!”, and squinted at the fine print at the bottom of the message.

Exo Project participants will be chosen by lottery, Matthew read. The volunteers selected for participation will be cryogenically frozen for the lightspeed expedition. There is no means of return to Earth. Participants who find habitable planets will be refrozen until the first settlers arrive. Those who do not will take mission-termination pills.

Matthew’s skin felt cold. He wasn’t certain what “mission termination pills” referred to, but he had an idea.

The Exo Project was a suicide mission.

Then Matthew’s eyes fell on the last line of the fine print.

The families of Exo Project participants will receive a reward of one million units.

Matthew’s stomach dropped.

He had to volunteer. He had to put his name in the lottery.

So he did. And months later, Matthew learned that he’d been chosen randomly from millions of applicants to be part of the Exo Project.

He was going. He was leaving Earth, never to return.

Kiva

Kiva went out from the village to watch the Great Mother set in a blaze of red on the horizon, then wait for the Three Sisters to blink on in the night sky. This was her tradition, her private ritual. She allowed no one to see her, no one to follow her as she slipped away from her father’s hut on the edge of the village. As she came over the rise, a lip of rock separating the village from the surrounding plain, she paused to watch the wind ripple over the grass, a sudden tessellation of lines dancing in shifting patterns across the prairie before disappearing once more as the air went still. She walked down into the low, flat expanse, her fingers trailing in the purple and brown grasses, clutching at the tips. She lay down in her favorite spot, against the cleft swell of a small hillock, and waited.

Waited for the time that was neither night nor day. A thin cusp between the light and the darkness.

This was her favorite time—a secret she kept with herself. It was hers and hers alone.

As the Great Mother inched toward the horizon, Kiva felt the stirrings of something she couldn’t quite name welling up inside her. It began in the back of her mind as a sort of itch, a tickle, the ghost of something she once knew but had long since forgotten. Then it—whatever it was—began to gain strength, like a light breeze growing to a mighty wind. Slowly, an image began to take shape in her mind: a blue orb, cloud-dappled, suspended in deep blackness.

And then, at the moment that the last red-rimmed sliver of sun fell below the curve of the planet Gle’ah, a sharp agony seized Kiva at the root of her torso. Her body convulsed with the force of the pain; her stomach and back clenched tight, and her heels ground deep into the grass.

Kiva’s eyes clamped shut as, above, the Three Sisters—the moons of Gle’ah—began to glow in the darkening sky. In the far distance, Vale and Dalia, the Twins, had entered into the part of their orbit where they appeared to dance together, their two white orbs seeming to merge into a single elongated mass. Ao, the third moon of Gle’ah, passed by on a closer orbit, near enough to the planet that, had her eyes been open, Kiva could have traced the moon’s path with her finger as it spun across the sky.

As it was, Kiva merely felt her hair float next to her ears in the pull of Ao’s gravity as the moon passed overhead—and when the pale white sphere was directly above her, nearly lifting her entire body off the ground, the pain sharpened to an agonizing point in her chest as images fluoresced on her eyelids.

An explosion of light and fire.

A sea of stars elongating and whizzing past in the blackness.

A huge bird made of polished stone, coming through the clouds to land on the prairie.

And three dark silhouettes standing shoulder to shoulder on the horizon.

Then the moon spun on, releasing Kiva’s body from its grip.

The strands of her hair fell and pooled again on the ground. When Ao had disappeared over the horizon, the images on Kiva’s eyelids faded, and the pain loosed its hold on her body. Her eyes snapped open, her lungs gasping for air. In the now-dark sky, the Twins went wobbly in her vision as tears brimmed at the edges of her eyes. She blinked away a single tear; it ran down her cheek and dripped in her ear.

Strangers.

The word came to her unbidden.

They’re coming.