The old engine lugging the prisoners puffed its way up and up and up Hegel pass, drawn forward by her growling piston steam engine. Its infernal cauldron, glowing orange, was filled with coal ripped from one of the twenty five massive strip mines operated by the Department of Greenergy.
It was night when they finally reached the summit where the railway carved a slot through snow and ice three meters deep. They then began their decent. The train’s wheels screeched and squealed in the darkness as they tried to grip the slippery iron rails and resist the immutable downward pull of gravity.
D’naia slept in Indigo’s arms, face concealed by the darkness and locks of her silky hair. Her neck was throbbing from the stone. There was one lantern in the car and beneath its glow sat the taxidermist still dutifully reading her Gaians Bible. The others in the cattle car sat huddled in the corners, silent and grim. Indigo recognized one of them as the Hegeltown Ceremonial Manager whom he encountered shortly after his arrival. He recalled how she had then expressed so much pride in having been selected for bureaucratic advancement. So much for one’s dedication and party loyalty, Indigo thought. He wondered what she had done to merit a brain reformat or reclamation.
Periodicially, the train’s braking would send a chain reaction jolt through their cattle car which reminded Indigo of the bumps and thuds of the Mars mission, the effect of the Astarte’s forward auxiliary rockets firing intermittently, making the frequent corrections to the space can’s interplanetary trajectory as it raced toward the red planet. By that point in the mission, there were only three astronauts left: Indigo, Staley and Athena.
Staley performed the calculations and determined that there would not be enough oxygen for the Mars landing and a return journey to Earth for the three survivors; one passenger would have to be removed if the other two were to survive. The triumvirate was presented with the challenge of deciding who was going to be sacrificed, but perhaps the more difficult question to be answered was how they were going to decide.
Random selection was proposed and rejected by all three as too arbitrary. Age? Too discriminatory. Technical skill? None of the three were especially skilled, at least not significantly more than any other.
In the backs of their minds, they each silently hoped that Mission Control would scrap the landing and redirect them home. Without a landing, there might be just enough to get the three of them back alive. At that point, with so many of the crew having been lost, what did it matter whether or not they actually walked on Mars?
Between the debates, Staley worked his way toward the back of the space can to compose himself and to think through the possibilities. Perhaps there was a way the crew could fully wrest control of the ship from Motherland Control and return home on their own. But the mathematical precision required to manually thrust the Astarte into an orbit that would catapult them around Mars and back to Earth vastly exceeded the crew’s quantitative capabilities. The likely outcome of their calculus would be a one way trip to the Oort cloud, dooming them all.
Nothing of any brilliance came to Staley until he gazed at the latches of the airlock. How simple it would be for him to step into the coffin-like chamber, seal the door behind him, and launch himself into the frozen, irradiated void. Twenty, maybe thirty seconds of painful consciousness, swelling, burning. His eyes would freeze. Then blindness, hypoxia, and merciful blackout. Then his blood would boil and the bubbles of gas would stop his heart and brain. The oxygen problem would then be solved for the other two. It would be a heroic end for Staley, and Athena, whom he loved, would survive.
But Staley couldn’t bring himself to do it. He lacked the impulsiveness and narcissistic fortitude required to commit suicide. He was ashamed that he didn’t have the courage to die for her. He would leave the fate of them all to some other resolution and he knew he would forever resent himself for that decision.
The crew convened and radioed back to Gaiastan. “We cannot decide how to decide,” was their desperate message.
Their transmission, travelling at the speed of light, took eight minutes to reach Gaia. The technicians there were prepared with a response. The crew on the Astarte knew this because it only took a total of seventeen minutes from their transmission to receive their answer…which came in the form of an order.
“You will decide by a vote. Democracy is the only moral option. Vote for who shall live. Please appeal to your own altruistic nature when casting your ballot.”
The answer did not surprise them.
And so they each took a scrap of paper and wrote down a name. There were no rules of order. They could write any name, and because of this, Staley was convinced that everyone would write their own name resulting in a hopeless tie. Then Mission Control would scrap the pointless exercise in democracy, scrub the Mars landing, and reprogram them for a slingshot around Mars and a return home.
No one looked at each other when they wrote their names on their papers and placed them in an upturned space helmet. When their lots were cast, the trio stared silently at the helmet containing their three ballots. No one was particularly willing to initiate the count that would decide their fate so Indigo radioed Gaiastan.
“We have voted.”
Seventeen minutes later the response came. “Staley, please read the votes out loud.”
Staley reluctantly picked up the space helmet, raising it with caution as if it were filled with nitro-glycerin. Before pulling out the first ballot, he scanned the eyes of the other two. Indigo’s stare was like a dead man’s glare, blank, emotionless. Athena’s gaze was reassuring but filled with tears.
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