No one can hear you scream in space, which I thought meant it would be quiet. That was before I’d spent two hundred days in this patchwork maze of ducts and tubing we called a colony. Thwack! Thin metal panels adjusted to pressure changes with swift switches to convexity. Somewhere, a sensor flipped, a fan stopped whirring, and Thunk! back to concavity. I didn’t know how half of it worked, but this was all necessary to keep us alive on this sterile, oxygen-deprived rock.
As I twiddled my thumbs on night watch in central command, I was so used to the constant barrage of noise that when I heard a BOOM, I didn’t think anything was wrong. The ground beneath my boots vibrated, though.
MICA, our Mission Intelligence Cerebral Agent, reacted first. “Rapid decompression in sector 3A. Blast doors engaged, all other sectors secure.”
I scanned the vid feeds. “Was anyone inside 3A, MICA?”
I couldn’t remember what was inside 3A. It had to be important—everything we’d carried across interstellar space had to justify the energy to get it in and out of orbit. “What’s the status there now?”
“Uncertain. Whatever caused the rapid decomp also took my sensors offline.”
“MICA, can you page Carlson?”
I could have surveyed the damage alone, but if the boom signaled the arrival of carnivorous aliens from the next system over, I wanted someone to hear me scream.
Carlson stomped into the command center, yawning.
The yawn made me feel a little guilty. “Sorry to wake you—rapid decomp in 3A.”
“No, the sector was empty.”
Carlson nodded. “That’s where the lab is.”
“Ah. Good, then—we lost nothing that’s going to kill us.”
Carlson rolled her eyes. “Try not tempting fate, James.”
Even with faster-than-light capabilities on the most advanced colony ships, getting an SOS out and a rescue mission together could take decades. When I’d signed my life away for this mission, it was clear that the trip was one-way. Whatever happened, we made it work or we died as a group. I tried not to think about that often.
I pulled my helmet on and sealed it. In our big heavy boots, Carlson and I tromped down the hamster tubes to 3A. We closed a hatch behind us, then overrode the safety protocols locking the damaged sector. My headlamp illuminated the space beyond. Work tables had been swept clean by the decomp, and freezers on the back wall were silent silent as tombs. Stars shone through a jagged hole torn in the bubble over our heads.
“These should all be on.” Carlson indicated the freezers and peered behind them. “Look at this!”
I trundled over, my stupid helmet bumping the wall as I bent down. After some maneuvering, I got a visual. The compressor was melted, fused into the space rock that had torn through our habitat. Our new home had a fraction of the atmosphere of Earth, but there was enough to cause the meteorite to glow a deep red from the residual heat. All but one of our freezers had been destroyed.
No aliens, just a big rock. I felt really bad about waking Carlson. “Well, I’ll inform the crew that next week’s ice cream social is canceled.”
Carlson straightened and stared at me.
“What? What did I say?”
“Do you know what’s in those freezers?”
My jobs were driving heavy machinery while installing CO2 plants and overnight watches. Of course I didn’t know what was in the freezers. “Food?”
“Seeds. Cuttings, for bootstrapping agriculture once the atmosphere is ready.” She paused, looking serious. “And human embryos.”
I didn’t get why she looked so grave. There was still one freezer left, and you could fit a ton of embryos in one of them.
MICA’s voice came over our helmet comms. “The women will suffer. The men will die.”
Carlson’s eyes jittered like marbles in a blender. “What do you mean, MICA?”
“My programming forbids me from answering that question, Carlson.”
“Why?” she demanded, looking up at the ceiling like the AI was a capricious god.
“It would upset the psychological stability of the community.”
“Then why did you say anything in the first place?” I asked.
“Apologies. My guardrail software runs in parallel with my prediction modules, but at a lower priority.”
“So you’re not going to tell us anything useful?” Carlson said.
“I will tell you many useful things.”
I had an urge to open the freezers, imagining a light would go on and I could browse the contents the way I did in my apartment back on Earth. Opening the boxes would raise the temperature of the contents faster, and we were already on a timer. “MICA, how long until the stuff in these freezers thaws out?”
“If life support is not restored to this sector and the roof shaded, the contents will remain viable for three months.”
I tried to rub my eyes, but my gloved hands bounced off the helmet. “What should we do?”
Carlson surveyed the wrecked module with a heavy sigh.
I stopped asking questions and reverted to protocol. “Put out a bulletin about 3A. Schedule a meeting of the science staff first thing after breakfast. Might as well let them sleep if the strike didn’t wake them.”
“Can do,” MICA replied.
My stomach ached. My body knew something bad happened, but my mind hadn’t figured it out yet.
Since I called the meeting, I felt obligated to attend. I hunched over a crate in the back of the room, hoping no one would call on me.
One of the junior doctors, a man named Jeremy, scribbled an inventory list on the lightboard that made up one wall of the command center. Carlson stood at the head of the table. “MICA told us that women would suffer and men would die. What does that mean?”
The colony’s lead scientist, an older man, leaned in. “Did you ask it?”
“No, Ron, I didn’t fucking think of that.” She crossed her arms.
Ron cleared his throat. “Um, MICA. Why will the men die?”
“Guardrails in my programming prevent me from answering this question to preserve the psychological safety of the colony.”
Jeremy paused his writing. “MICA must have computed something we haven’t yet realized.”
“Can anyone override those guardrails?” Ron asked.
“We didn’t invite software. It’s crowded as it is.” Carlson tapped her foot. “Maybe instead of turning off the safety precautions, we should figure out what it knows.”
“We’ve lost 80% of our freezer capacity,” Jeremy turned to face the room. “We have to save what gives us the best odds of survival.”
“Our collective odds. Not individual ones,” said Marie, a middle-aged surgeon.
“Are any of the cultivars ready to put into the ground?” Jeremy asked.
Carlson shook her head. “The hardiest won’t be able to stand the temperature and atmosphere for at least three years.”
“So what?” Ron dismissed. “We can survive without lettuce.”
“It’s not that simple,” Carlson said. “Based on the experience of prior colonies, only 5% of our stock may be viable here. Depending on the native microbes, it could be as little as 1%. You throw something out, maybe it was this world’s staple crop.”
Jeremy nodded. “So we keep the crops. If MICA is worried about crops, why does that mean men die?”
“Women endure starvation better than men. Maybe that’s what MICA means,” said Carlson.
Marie raised her eyes to the ceiling, auburn hair falling down her back in waves. “I think this is about the embryos. What’s our incubation capacity?”
MICA answered. “We have five artificial wombs and thousands of embryos.”
“And dozens of natural wombs,” said Marie. “Women will suffer.”
Carlson threw up her hands. “We’re building a colony, working twelve hour days to survive. We can’t afford having half the crew at diminished capacity.”
Marie tapped the table. “We can’t afford a population bottleneck.”
Rob focused on his wrist computer, seeming bored with the discussion. “There won’t be a bottleneck. Dump the embryos, radio back to Earth, ask for more. We can replenish our genetic diversity in about a hundred years.”
MICA interrupted. “The probability of Earth retaining the capacity for ongoing interstellar missions in fifty years is 0.4%. We can’t count on resupply.”
The small group exploded with outcries and groans. I’m no statistician, but 0.4% seemed low.
Ron recovered intelligible speech. “What happened to MICA’s guardrails?”
The man next to me, who’d been hunched over a tablet during this exchange, raised his hand. “I disabled them.”
Carlson looked up. “MICA, why did you say the men will die?”
“Artificial wombs and colonists with uteruses aren’t enough to ensure survivable genetic diversity.”
“So what can we do?” Marie asked.
MICA said, “Colonists without wombs must gestate, too.”
Everyone at the table looked around in confusion. Carlson grimaced as she met my gaze. “MICA is right. Men will have to gestate, too.”
Jeremy’s face paled.
Ron’s went red. “Of all the preposterous…”
Marie interrupted. “With surgical and hormonal support, men can carry a pregnancy. The problem is getting the baby out.”
Why did I keep getting distracted by her hair when she was talking about impregnating men?
Marie continued. “The uterus is necessary to keep the fetus from taking over its parent’s organs. The placenta is invasive. 90% of extra-uterine pregnancies end in death of the carrier.”
Carlson frowned. “So, we impregnate men to increase our genetic diversity, but they die in the exchange—how does this help?”
Marie smiled sadly. “The embryos are more diverse than we are. For psychological stability, colonists with similar cultural backgrounds were selected for each mission. Our genetic diversity is in the freezer.”
Carlson dug her fingers into her temples while chatter erupted. Ron looked about to hurl his lentil-chow into Marie’s boots. While Carlson and I had stared at a cooling space rock, MICA had computed the probabilities of long-term colony survival, and it was only probable if nearly everyone in the colony, man, woman, or nonbinary, carried at least one fetus.
Individual survival was only likely for those with a uterus—so not me.
MICA was right, I was going to die, but I signed up for a mission to colonize a biologically hostile planet. If MICA was right about Earth, though, I wouldn’t be better off there. There was a reason so many of us chose space.
As I contemplated mortality, the scientists broke into small clusters. Some wrote figures on lightboards, math that was beyond me, but with a common goal—how we can get out of this situation without sacrificing our lives.
But our individual lives didn’t matter. They hadn’t mattered on Earth, either, but its crumbling infrastructure still made me-vs-humanity decisions rare. Here, there were so few of us, and the colony came first. Always.
I stood up. “All right. I appreciate you’re trying to figure out alternatives, and I hope we find another way. But if there’s not, let’s do this. Put an embryo in me.”
The chatter around the table fell silent and everyone stared. I didn’t blame them. I’d been so still they probably thought I was an accessory to the crate. “Better to die saving the colony than in a terraforming accident.”
I’d said my piece, so I walked away, no longer able to withstand eyes on me.
As I left, Jeremy asked the room, “Do you think all of the men will agree that easily?”
The rest of the colony woke to swirls of rumors. Within hours, colony leadership released a report of the incident and what it might mean for the future.
“Never gonna happen.” Dom, my bunkmate, shook his head as he scanned the report over breakfast in the canteen.
I said nothing and drank the synthetic coffee that always managed to taste scorched. At least they’d gotten the smell right. I wasn’t about to argue with him. We all had to get out of bed in the morning and get on with living, and denial helped.
Every colonist took on extra shifts, working every waking hour to balance our normal tasks of terraforming and running the colony with new efforts to innovate our way out of the crisis.
Delusion and bargaining could only last for so long, though. One month post-impact, leadership called an all-colony meeting. We assembled in the canteen, the only on-world structure large enough for sixty of us. I leaned against the back hab wall, too antsy to sit.
Under pressure, the colony had self-segregated, like with like. I was nearest to the men and women I worked with. You can’t rebuild civilization with just the geniuses, you need someone to drive the heavy machinery, someone to build. Back on Earth, most of us had done physically demanding jobs in unfriendly conditions—working on remote oil rigs or repairing undersea cables. On the other side of the room the brilliant ones sat, their faces as gray as the planet’s dust.
Marie stepped into the room, flanked by a security team in body armor with stun weapons in hand. It took me a second before I realized that they were all women.
“Thank you for assembling here today. The last month has been a heroic push to bolster the survival odds of our colony, and I thank you all for your efforts. Ron, thanks to the innovation of your team, we constructed a minimum viable greenhouse to cultivate the hardiest plant specimens.”
I’d been part on construction crew—the neat hydroponic racks ready to sprout green filled me with pride and hope.
“Unfortunately, only a fraction of our crops can grow in the temperature and pressure conditions we can sustain without running out of energy.”
A murmur ran through the crowd. The security guard closest to Marie re-gripped her stunner.
“We saved a few aquatic species.”
Few was an understatement—every corridor connecting the habitat was lined with small tanks. Most of them housed life that was too small to see well, plankton and krill that could someday fill oceans unlocked from the polar ice caps.
“The math remains unassailable. If we don’t use the remaining deep freeze capacity to store the seeds of biodiversity, the colony won’t survive. If we don’t see to our own genetic diversity, same fate. We need to make use of as many embryos as possible before they thaw out. We must all carry an embryo to term.”
Though I knew this was coming, my intestines turned to the consistency of the frozen saline mush we scraped from crater floors. I sank down on the bench next to Dom who set his jaw with eyes straight forward. He nodded, accepting his fate. The woman on his other side looked at the toe of her boots. She wasn’t thrilled about the hardships of pregnancy, but she expected to survive the ordeal.
A loud THWACK, Ron’s palm slapping down on the table, silenced the sea of whispers. He stood. “No. I’m not going to do this.”
If Marie was intimidated by this challenge from the colony’s lead scientist, she didn’t show it. “We’re all doing it. Survival depends on it. Nothing else matters.”
“It can’t be everyone.” Ron gestured toward the scientists and engineers who sat around him. “We were selected for this mission for our intelligence and ability to solve problems under pressure.”
Some of the men near Ron nodded.
“We were all selected, Ron.”
“They can’t throw away our talents so we can be, what, biological vessels?”
One table away, Carlson closed her eyes. “Welcome to the fate of half of humanity since the dawn of time.”
“You goddamned cunt,” Ron lunged at Carlson, hands flying toward her neck. “This is all your fault.”
Before thinking it through, I was across the canteen intercepting Ron’s hand. Jeremy, who’d been sitting between them, grabbed the other. We worked together to restrain him. Carlson ducked away, putting as much space between her and Ron as possible. Marie’s security detail surrounded her in a protective arc, but couldn’t fire into the crowd without stunning those of us touching Ron.
Ron jerked his shoulders, his rage making him surprisingly strong for a man who sat in a lab all day.
“You,” Ron turned to me, sneering. “Traitor. You sold us out. ‘I volunteer.’ How noble. Did you get to sacrifice the rest of us, too? I don’t remember being asked.”
I ignored his insult. “If I let go of your arm, are you going to resume attacking the crew?”
“I’ll tear your face off.”
“Fair enough. I can stand here all day.”
“James has better things to do than restrain you.” Marie strode towards us, brandishing a syringe, her security following behind her like well-armed baby ducks. She sunk the needle into the meat of Ron’s shoulder and plunged the stopper.
Ron stopped fighting and slumped at my feet.
“Anyone else feel like assaulting their fellow crew members?” Marie readied another syringe.
The engineers mumbled and shook their heads.
“Good. Sign up for appointments to undergo the procedure. Those who don’t go willingly will be forced.”
The air was heavy, still, and I returned to my side of the room to sit with my fellow grunts. We had a different relationship with our physicality than the brilliant men—we knew our worth lay in the useful work our bodies were capable of.
I pulled up the schedule on my pocket calendar. The slots at the end of the month were filling up rapidly, which made sense. Give yourself as much life as possible. Maybe they’d get better at saving our lives from the ravages of invasive placentas after the initial butchery.
I selected the first opening. As traitor, it seemed only fair that I be first in line for the procedure.
Marie performed my operation herself. I was thankful to be first, because it meant something to her. Her green eyes sparkled behind goggles. Thanks to the spinal block, I felt no pain.
“Can I watch?” I asked.
“You—want to watch?” The nurse looked at me, disbelieving.
“I’m going to die soon. I want to experience everything.”
The nurse tilted a monitor my way, showing my pale belly exposed under surgical lights. Marie’s gloved hand held a scalpel and made an incision to one side of my navel. She opened me up, and my internal organs gleamed pink and red.
Marie nestled an embryo next to the tube of my intestine. “If you hadn’t volunteered so easily, I’m not sure the rest of the men would have accepted. You’re a hero, James.”
“I’m not a hero, ma’am. Just doing what’s necessary.”
Marie rolled my skin back into place. “That’s the only thing that’s ever heroic.” She began to stitch.
“Who’d you put inside me, doc?”
Her eyes were wet as she squeezed my hand. “All I can tell you is that she’s a girl. MICA selected more female embryos than males and prioritized genetic diversity. Who she’ll be can’t be determined by genetics.”
The day after my surgery, I entered the loading dock to suit up for my regular shift.
“You don’t even get a day off for this?” Dom shook his head.
“I’ve got eight months left. They’d better count for something.”
I fastened my surface pants closed over the bandage that covered my incision. Once suited up, I felt as padded and cushioned as my embryo throughout my shift.
Our crew chief called us in, but I didn’t want to go back into the hab. Fatigue was normal after a long shift, but the hab was full of people who’d stare and stop talking when I entered the room.
My O2 would only last for another couple of hours, though, and it would get mighty chilly when the planet rotated into shadow, so I stepped out of my rig and into the buggy with my crewmates. Thankfully, they’d stopped treating me like a critical reactor once we’d stepped onto the pockmarked surface.
Dinner was subdued. Women ate together, trying to blend into the dirty gray walls. Ron shuffled around the canteen, a diminished presence even after the tranquilizers wore off. I ate with my team, minus the few women in our work detail. After Ron’s outburst, they worried that if they stood too close, they’d become the targets of unfocused male rage.
I pushed my yellow mush around the plate, wondering if I had pushed myself too hard the day after my procedure. I blinked, and the conversation had moved to a different topic. Soon I was left at the table by myself, two-thirds of my meal congealing on dull metal.
Wasting food was a cardinal sin here. Every calorie hoarded and doled out for maximum efficiency by our AI overlord. I got to work, shoveling the gruel into my mouth and swallowing before the mushy texture registered on my tongue.
“How you doing?” A warm voice floated over my shoulder. Marie sat down next to me.
I swallowed, unsure if she was asking me as a doctor or a person. “I’m okay. A little tired.” I scraped the remaining bites of mush and forced them down.
Across the canteen, three women sat around a tablet, playing a game. Five sallow-skinned men clustered around another table, eyeing Marie and me with a little more interest than I prefer to attract.
“Care to walk a girl home?” Marie asked.
“Sure thing, doctor.” I tried to muster up a grin. The men’s eyes followed me as I cleaned my tray. Marie fell into step beside me. “Not sure how great I’ll be in a fight if it comes to that. There are five of them.”
“You just need to slow them down, James.”
I chuckled and accompanied Marie through the tubes that connected the central hub to the sleeping quarters. The men at the table contented themselves with glowering at us.
“I knew colony life would be hard,” Marie said. “I was prepared for hunger, for deprivation. Nothing like this.”
“It’s hard to account for a meteorite destroying your deep freeze capacity.”
It wasn’t funny, but Marie laughed.
We had to walk close together to avoid knocking into the aquariums that lined the walls. Her arm brushed mine, and warmth spread over my skin where we touched. I met her eyes. It was hard to make out their color in the dim safety lighting, but they were still luminous. She held my gaze. Did she feel something, too? A sixteen-hour shift implanting nine-month time bombs wasn’t my idea of romance, but I wasn’t an expert.
Marie stayed close as we came to the fork in the hamster tubes between our rooms. She looked up at me, and I thought maybe we’d kiss, thought about asking her if we could, but the sound of a boot on metal grating broke the moment. One of the angry men gave us a dark look as he passed.
“Good night,” I told her. “I leave quarters for breakfast at 0700, if you want an escort.”
I imagined her green eyes as I drifted off to sleep with strange cells multiplying inside of me.
Five minutes before 0700, Marie was waiting for me outside the hatch.
“Will you be in surgery all day?” I asked as we skirted aquariums.
“Most of these early procedures are on women. No scalpels required.”
“Is that easier?”
“I trained as a surgeon, so have a soft spot for scalpels.”
“Me too.” I pointed toward my bandaged midsection.
I felt a heaviness behind me, a lurking presence. I spun, keeping my soft spot between Marie and the unknown. Silver flashed in the dim—a shard of metal sharpened into a point. I grasped the wrist of the man wielding the makeshift weapon and pinned it to his back. The attacker bucked my hold. He slipped on the metal grating and crashed to the floor, shattering an aquarium.
“Idiot!” One of the biologists rushed toward us, and for a second I wasn’t sure which of us she meant. Dom helped me secure the attacker. Though his collision hadn’t severed any arteries, blood poured from a gash in his arm.
Security arrived in seconds to usher the man to the infirmary where Marie would stitch him up before implanting his embryo ahead of schedule. The biologist examined the shards of aquarium glass, looking for a film of life that could be preserved, muttering, “It’s bad enough to attack our head surgeon, but this is specicide.”
Marie looked at me sadly. “Looks like I’ll be traveling with a security detail from now on.”
I took a deep breath and reminded myself I was a dead guy. “Even if I’m not responsible for your safety, I’d like your company.”
The lines around her eyes crinkled. “I’d like that, too.”
After the attack, some of my work crew moved their surgeries up to show solidarity. Under my bandage, cells continued to divide exponentially. The hormones produced by my seed-sized passenger slammed me like a surface blast two weeks later, and hauling myself from bed became the hardest thing I did all day.
A lump formed on my stomach, small at first. Dom and I compared bumps before suiting up for work, taking an odd pride in the tenacity of life clinging to us as nature never intended. The women took longer to show, their children nestled deep within the cavity as designed and covered with a thicker layer of fat.
Everyone’s padding thinned as the colony was put on strict rations. MICA calculated what we needed to survive our pregnancies down to the last calorie. Another wedge between the sexes formed—the women got more generous allotments since they would be needed to both care for the children and construct the colony after the men died. In return, the AI showed mercy and let men use VR more than we should—our long-term mental health was no longer a vital concern. Getting us through the last dark days of our lives was.
Undressing and suiting up for terraforming work became a horror show as we transformed into gaunt skeletons with fat tumors protruding in front. The showy celebration of life rose from our decay like fungus from a fallen tree.
Most of the couples that had formed in the colony’s early days separated, unable to bear the strain of envy and inevitability of loss. The women glowed with their pregnancies, while the men became grotesque. Marie and I bucked the trend. Despite the honor guard that followed her around 24/7, I worked up the courage to kiss her the night of the attack. Every hour we weren’t working, we spent together.
With a month left to go, we lay together like spoons nested in a drawer. Marie’s swollen belly cushioned my back while my fetus wriggled in front.
I asked, “Why do you want to hang out with a dead guy?” Earlier that day, I’d caught my reflection in a metal surface, the fat around my cheeks gouged out by my parasite, leaving deep, ghoulish cavities.
“I like men, and I love you.”
She loved me despite my appearance, despite the fact that I was slowly dying, hollowing out from the inside. I broke down and sobbed dryly, my depleted body unable to spare tears. Marie stroked my shoulder. The baby turned in her amniotic sac.
“I love you, too,” I whispered, “I don’t want to die.”
“I don’t want you to die, either. But…” she hesitated. “The ones that survive this aren’t lucky.”
“Why not?” I hadn’t wanted to assume or even hope I’d survive, but wouldn’t it better to live than die?
“Imagine life after all these babies are born.”
“I’ve been trying not to, since I won’t be here.”
“We’ll have all of the work of the colony, on top of more babies than capable adults. There won’t be a moment of rest for years.”
“That’s what MICA meant by the women suffering.”
Marie planted a kiss on the nape of my neck. “That’s what she meant.”
“Why do you call MICA a she?” I asked.
“We’ll almost all be women in a few months, I think MICA deserves the honor.”
Time stretched as I walked to the infirmary, ready for the end of my rodeo with consciousness. Dom squeezed my shoulder as I passed. Other men watched with haunted eyes, wondering if my survival would be a good omen or hurt their chances.
Every surgeon was on hand for this first-of-a-kind operation. Marie and I had said our goodbyes as lovers this morning. No she approached me as a patient. The anesthesiologist ran her hand along my jutting vertebrae before puncturing my spinal column. She offered me a mask, like it was a kindness to put me under. I shook my head and focused on the reflections in the surgeons’ goggles. Everything below the spot where the needle pierced my spinal cord was didn’t exist. Everything above the waist would soon follow.
Marie took a breath before making the first incision. She peeled back my skin, revealing my baby, curled up inside its still-intact amniotic sac, a self-contained universe of her own.
The pediatrician removed the girl and laid her on a table next to me, a nurse clamping the umbilical cord before severing our connection. They pierced the sac and rubbed her tiny chest. The girl started crying with a thin, raspy sound as her lungs inflated for the first time.
“Heya,” I said.
The girl stopped crying and opened her indigo-blue eyes. She knew my voice. The universe became something new, and I howled. How could I leave behind a world with her in it?
Marie began to extract the placenta, its fingers worming like roots into me. Blood spilled into the cavities left behind. My daughter cried again when the monitors beeped, worthless alarms blaring about my failing blood pressure. My blood splattered everyone’s scrubs. Doctors buzzed around me, trying to staunch the flow.
The operating theater faded from the outside in, until all went dark.