Scenes from the End of a World by Stewart C. Baker
The straps of JT’s seat in the shuttle dug into their shoulders uncomfortably as the pre-launch holo started up.
It was a small pain, but welcome. They deserved worse—what right did they have to be here?
“Greetings, lottery winners!” said the man in the holo, smiling too broadly to be sincere. “And welcome to the future.” His face faded away, replaced with a ship the size and shape of a small volcanic island that spun in place on the screen. “This is the arcship, where you’ll live for the next fifty years as we head to our new world. Our new home.”
JT’s stomach twisted at the omissions: No home for the billions left behind. No world. No future.
Just like everyone else in the shuttle, they’d bid tearful goodbyes at the launchpad to their loved ones. Had tried—like many others here probably had—to trade their ticket, to give it to someone better. Had met the same stony indifference, the same red tape and platitudes.
The lottery gives everyone an equal chance.
The future is a privilege. Your family should be thankful you were chosen.
Of course we don’t want to abandon children. But if we make exceptions for your niece, then…
Remembering made their stomach burn with acid, and they reached for the emesis tube attached to their seat, vomited up the few bites of food they’d managed to keep down since breakfast.
“In a few minutes,” the holo continued, “we’ll set off for the first historic stage of that bright future. Until then, let us pause and reflect on those left behind. On the valiant sacrifice they have made so that humanity may survive.”
JT squeezed their eyes shut until the burn of the shuttle’s engines pressed them back in their seat. It was that or scream. And if they started screaming now, they didn’t know if they would ever stop.
The burn went on so long JT wondered if something had gone wrong. If, despite the promises of the holo, they were going to die after all. So long that they opened their eyes again, looked around the cramped shuttle at the others there with them:
An elderly white man, hands clutched around a taxidermized dog he’d somehow gotten on board, a look on his face that was almost beatific.
An androgynous black person—no more than a teen—with expensive-looking clothes, their eyes squeezed shut as tightly as JT’s had been. Tears leaking from the edges.
A woman around their own age sat opposite them, with skin the same tawny brown as theirs and dyed-green hair so bright it hurt to look at. She had visible tattoos on her hands and softly glowing plastic nubs all up the cartilage of her ears. JT was counting the nubs when the woman met their eyes with her own, gave them a little lopsided grin and a half-shrug.
JT flushed and looked away, and when they looked back her eyes had moved on.
The engine burn cut out with a sudden lurch, and JT gave a little undignified yelp as they lifted from their seat, their shoulders bumping against the straps.
The woman caught their eyes again, then looked around theatrically, undid her straps, and gently pushed off against the seatback. JT gawked as she drifted over to their seat and came to a perfect stop, the palms of her hands against the shuttle wall on either side of their head.
“Y-you’re not supposed to leave your seat,” they stammered. “What if there’s an accident?”
The woman laughed, low and soft. “What’s the worst that could happen? Besides,” she said with a wink. “I trained to be an astronaut, before.” She looked momentarily lost before shaking it off with visible effort. “C’mon, follow me.”
She pushed off again, floating through the space where the holo had been and up to the front of the shuttle. JT undid their straps with shaking fingers and followed her in awkward fits and starts, apologizing every time they bumped into someone still in their seat.
The woman had come to a stop near a porthole, where she was hanging from a ring set into the shuttle ceiling.
Except hanging wasn’t really the right word in microgravity, JT thought, seconds before crashing into her.
The woman just laughed, adjusted her grip on the ring and spun JT in a little circle until they came to a stop against the wall with little more than a bump.
“Look,” the woman said, before they could apologize.
JT pulled themselves up, blushing as they brushed the woman’s shoulder with their own. Outside, the Earth still spun—a blue-green-white-brown oasis in the vast spread of the stars.
“Tell me something,” the woman whispered. “Something from before.” A pause, in which JT managed to continue breathing, somehow. “Since I told you something, back there.”
JT nodded. “When I was in secondary school, I had this really cool shirt with metallic straps. My dad ironed it on too high of a setting, and it fell apart halfway… through…” They trailed off. Why had they shared that, of all the things they’d done on Earth? “Uh,” they added. “I’m JT, by the way.”
“Stand for anything?”
“Just JT. How about you? Since I told you mine.”
Saanvi’s breath in their ear made JT wriggle, but then they realized what they were doing. Remembered where they were.
“I’m sorry,” they whispered. “I can’t. This is…”
“Shh,” Saanvi said. “I know. And I can’t, either. Not right now. But there’s going to be another ‘now’ after this. And another. And another. Whether we like it or not.” She put one hand on JT’s shoulder, barked out a laugh that was half a sob. “I’m not asking for a happily ever after, but I’d rather have someone to go through those minutes with, together, than face them alone.”
JT reached up and put their hand on top of hers. “Together,” they agreed, in a whisper.
Stewart C. Baker is an academic librarian, speculative fiction writer and poet, and the editor-in-chief of sub-Q Magazine. His fiction has appeared in Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, and Flash Fiction Online, among other places. Stewart was born in England, has lived in South Carolina, Japan, and California (in that order), and currently resides in Oregon with his family—although if anyone asks, he’ll usually say he’s from the Internet.