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“Begin final boarding. Take off in twenty minutes.”
Marshal and Alice leapt up from their molded plastic seats and into the scragly excuse for a line that was forming quickly in front of the gate. The city’s disheveled dreggs, the last to board the evacuation flights, who had been waiting over a week to find out if they would even get a spot on one of the last flights out, now seemed ready to fight each for a spot in line. It didn’t matter that all their spots had been guaranteed by their ticket purchase. Everyone in that line, Marshal included, still feared the prospect of being left behind or being told than an excess of tickets had been issued.
He wondered what he would do in that case. He of course liked to think that if it came down to it he would make sure his wife got aboard even if he did not. Marshal imagined such a thing happening and pictured himself muscling his way past the attendant only to be gunned down by the two marines who stood guarding the gate. Fortunately, suicide by marine did not seem to be in store for him, he managed to insert Alice and himself in about the middle of the line, well within what he thought must be the ship’s margin of error.
There were still other concerns of course. The military could find a sudden need to commandeer the ship and leave them all stranded. It had happened to a few others already. Or their ship could suffer some crippling malfunction and leave them stranded. It was after all, not actually built for its new task. Only necessity had made them resort to converting battered freighters and loadings docks into passenger liners and lobbies. If the colony was not staring at certain ruin the same room where Marshal, Alice, and all the other passengers were currently jostling for a place in line would instead be full of crates of generic drugs and ingots eagerly awaiting to be loaded onto a ship for some out-of-system buyer.
The whole thing was tragic, and a little ridiculous. Marshal couldn’t help but be sad about it. New Bismark was hardly the pinnacle of civilization, but generations of his family and everyone else’s had worked hard to build it. Now they all had to flee because of war that didn’t really matter to anyone living in the colony and because, as many would argue, it shouldn’t have been built to begin with.
Marshal’s great, great grandfather had been one of the original colonists. Back when telemetry data was still unreliable and warp engines even more so. When the original settlers had reached their new home, they had found it to in fact be in an irregular orbit around its gas giant. This coupled with the moon being so small that its own gravity just barely held itself together meant that the colonists had not been able to count on anything even approaching geological stability. But the settlers hadn’t had enough fuel to go anywhere else, so they resolved to make do with what they had. An impressive system of dampeners and glorified springs had been built to keep the colony in one piece, and New Bismark had fared surprisingly well since. Over the decades it had grown to become a modest but respectable trading center on the edge of the NATO sphere. Until the bombardment.
No one living in New Bismark had ever really expected the Neo-Soviets to come knocking, but knocking they came. The initial attack had been repulsed at great cost and after a bit of callous accounting work had been done the admiral commanding the 23rd Battle Group had decided that New Bismark simply wasn’t worth what it would cost to defend. That the bombardment had destabilized the moon’s already unstable tectonics did not help the colony’s case. And so, after a few days of deliberation the decision had been made to evacuate everyone who could be evacuated. That there were not enough ships to carry everyone was seen as unfortunate, but unavoidable.
Marshal had spent the next month watching his home fall apart. Anyone rich enough to own their own ship or important enough to warrant a seat on an outgoing fleet ship left first. Then private companies began offering seats on luxury liners, those were snapped up quick, leaving still thousands without an out. Finally, a lottery was announced. Evacuees would be chosen at random with appropriate weighting given to skills, age, and family size, and those that won would be able to purchase tickets on converted freighters like the one that Marshal and Alice were currently in line for. Marshal hadn’t been concerned. He had pulled out his savings early, before the rush on the banks. He had figured that with his two years in the service and six years as an engine repair technician, and Alice’s master’s degree in ecological design that they two of them would be shoo-ins for one of the early departure groups.
Weeks had passed. He had watched scores of people that weren’t him be selected by lottery, and even more get rejected. Finally, he had woken up in the middle of the night to message on in terminal that he and Alice had won a spot on the last ship out. With just minutes to spare on their purchase window he had reserved for them one of the last private cabins on the Majesty, a battered old container ship that had been converted for the evacuation and would be their home for at least a year. Looking at it through the terminal’s windows Marshal could wondered if it would even get off the ground. He had worked on several of the other ships and knew that some had been destined for the scrap heap before the attack.
Alice squeezed his hand as they approached the gate and he felt his own pulse quicken. All the anxieties that he had kept down since the attack surged forward. It was ridiculous what was happening to them. Here the two of them were, in the middle of the city that their families had helped build, leaving it with only each other and what they could carry on their backs. It was a scene reminiscent of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, not the twenty sixth. It shouldn’t have been happening, but it was.
The attendant smiles and scanned both their boarding passes, checked that they matched their biometrics, and waved them through. Marshal felt the hard gaze of the marines boring into him as he walked past. Up close he realized they were just as tense as he was. Did they expect another riot? Or even a bombing? There had been several attempts by fringe groups to disable the evacuation ships so that all of New Bismark would have to face them same fate together. Some of those attempts had been successful and their would-be passengers had been left trying to figure out what they would do next.
Marshal’s agoraphobia kicked in as they walked through the vestibule. It was a common enough condition in the colonies that he had thought his time in the service had trained out of him. But the combined anxieties were too much to bear. He caught himself staring through the windows into the abyss of the blast chute. Only Alice’s tight, steady hand allowed him to keep his composure long enough to make it across.
Once inside, he saw that the Majesty’s cavernous hold has been cut up and subdivided by sheet metal bulk heads and rough plastic panels. It was a sloppier job than he had seen on the ships he had helped to retrofit. The air was filled with smell of setting epoxy and new air recyclers. Exposed conduits and pipes told him how their plumbing and electrical systems would work.
Following the directions on their boarding pass brought them to Cabin 241. The number had been painted hastily on a plastic sliding door set in the metal bulkhead. It shuddered as Alice pulled the latch and slide the door open. Marshal didn’t say anything, but he knew both of them were thinking about all the atmosphere that the door would fail to seal in if the ship suffered a hull breach.
Inside was a ‘common room’ that they would be sharing with another couple. The room was barely the size of a standard elevator, with just enough for a set of folding chairs, a collapsible table, and a shower unit that unfurled from the wall. Their private room was 241A, to their left behind another shoddy sliding door.
Their private quarters had two parts. The first was a narrow, arched section just inside the door. One side of this arch housed a sink-toilette combination with a small curtain for privacy. A kitchenette stocked with frozen and freeze-dried foodstuffs too up the rest of the arch. Marshal opened the cabinet and saw that the liquor he had ordered had already been stored there. That small luxury had been painfully expensive, but there was no guarantee his money would be worth anything once they reached their destination, and he saw no reason to be sober during their forced exodus. The second part of their little cabin had two narrow seats that faced each other and would fold together to form an approximately twin sized bed with room for their bags to be stored underneath.
As an afterthought he noticed a space on the wall where a collapsible crib folded out. For the first time in their marriage Marshal was thankful for Alice’s insistence that they wait for her to be established in her career before they had children. Caring for a child in such a small space would have been a nightmare.
The single luxury in their cabin was a small display hanging on the wall from a swivel mount. After they had stowed their belongings Alice fiddled with the controls on the side and feeds from the ship’s hull cameras flickered into view. Turning a knob at the base cycled through several cameras and a few channels playing preset movies on a loop. Eventually she settled on the feed from a camera pointed directly down the blast chute before finally taking her seat.
“I hope my parents will be okay,” she said, and produced a microfilament library from her bag. Her neutral expression did little to hide the concern in her voice.
“They’ll be alright,” he said trying to sound reassuring. “They’ve always been resourceful, and in good health.” That part wasn’t wrong. Alice’s father was a retired marine and her mother an engineer. Only their age had disqualified them from the lottery. “They’ll be fine. We’ll see them after the war, once it’s safe to send ships here again. The admiral promised, the fleet will be back.” Even as he said them the words felt like a lie. There was no guarantee that there would be a New Bismarck to come back to, or that the war would end for that matter.
“Uh huh,” Alice said into a book.
Marshal stopped talking. Burying herself in her work was her way of avoiding unpleasant truths and this truth was not one that Marshal intending on making her face for the moment. In a way he was lucky, both his parents had passed. That didn’t make up for the void that had existed at their wedding or a dozen other life events, but it was a small comfort that Marshal chose to hold on to as he kept watching the feed from the blast chute.
A count down appeared in the upper right corner starting at sixty seconds. He held his breathe and waited while he envisioned all the unfortunate possibilities of the next few minutes. A timed explosive could disable the engines, or the launch could shake their improvised cabins to pieces, or the turbulence of launch could tear open the old hull and kill all of them. There was a horrible moment when the counter reached zero and thought one of those might have happened. Then a massive explosion of light erupted across the display and he felt the unmistakable rumble of take off.
Marshal squeezed his hands around the armrests until his knuckles turned white while Alice continued with her pretense of being absorbed in her book. Once they took off the blinding light on the display receded and Marshal could see New Bismark shrinking until it was nothing more than a smudge of silver on the surface of a pock-marked moon.
Soon the moon itself would be nothing more than a smudge, then the planet and star with it. And then what? Marshal had been on in a ship under warp before but had never looked outside of one before. Would there be anything to see? More likely, he thought, their options for entertainment would just decreased further as most of the cameras would be rendered useless. He thought about his own collection of books that he had brought and realized after some thought that it wouldn’t be long until they were forced to socialize with their cabin mates.
He sighed and waited.
Gravity returned once the Majesty reached far orbit and the ship’s acceleration stabilized. He stood up from his seat and picked a bottle of whiskey from the cabinet. They were going to be on the ship for awhile, he might as well make friends with the neighbors.