Escape Pod 768: Balancing the Equation


Balancing the Equation

by Justin C. Key

June 18, 2031

Lauren led her two-year-old son, Sean, slowly to their car while carrying three full bags of groceries.

“Up,” Sean said, showing her his palms. “Up, Mama, up!”

“Ask one more time and you’re getting a time out when we get home.”

She should have used a cart to carry the groceries. She should have walked with Sean on the inside. She should have ignored the aching pain in her back and picked him up. The rest of her life would be haunted by ‘should’ves’.

“A dog!” Sean pointed at passing poodle as big as him. Of his budding vocabulary, identifying dogs was a family favorite.

“Yes,” Lauren said. “A black dog.” She silently cursed at her failing grip on the bags. She twisted the strap around her wrist. Sean yanked her other arm, hard.

“Okay, time out as soon as–” Lauren said, but choked when she saw that Sean hadn’t tugged at all. It was a black Prius, worn and dented and scratched and horrible, rolling silently over her son to replace him, as if by magic.

Lauren screamed.


Date Unknown, Day 3

Lauren never stopped screaming, even when it seemed she had.

She stared at the BabyWatch monitor in the cockpit of the spaceship Genesis, wondering if her sanity had died with her son. Two billion light years from home, six and a half billion years after the last signal from Earth, and the small battery-powered screen still showed the same twelve-hour loop, over and over again.

None of the eleven other crew-members had survived the years of suspension. She’d originally pitched the idea of using a wildcard interstellar voyage as a way to gain publicity and support for NASA’s more ambitious colonization program. And when the mission needed an ethnic face, Lauren readily obliged. She thought her search for Sean at the edge of physics would only be a side story: she’d take an escape pod to Sagittarius’s event horizon while Genesis lived up to its name. But Earth didn’t survive long enough to see NASA launch its more serious, less romantic seeder ships to nearby stars. And now Lauren was solely responsible for what could be humanity’s last chance. There was no room for a grieving mother’s speculations.

“I made it, Sean,” she said. “I made it.”

Silence, and doubt.

Outside the cockpit window, a gas giant hung surreal in the black. Lines of various shades of orange swirled and fell into itself as the massive planet rotated. A spot of shadow coursed freely over the chaos. A moon, perhaps. This new galaxy was eerily familiar, but far from home all the same.

She punched a button on the control panel and the window shimmered as glass turned into a computer display. Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics took up half, Lauren’s equations linking the two. Coordinates decoded from BabyWatch occupied the rest of the screen. Lauren had everything in front of her. Except for certainty.

She swiped the display.

“Al, pull up our position,” she said.

The artificial intelligence’s mind hummed through the spacecraft.

Pointers showed Genesis in relation to this solar system’s star, which held three times the mass of the Sun. She zoomed in. The first orbiting planet was a perfect blue, capped white with creamy wisps and swirls. Any land currently slept on the far side; the borderless sea itself was silent. She called it ‘New Earth.’

The bottom of the screen read: PLANET 5X22, GENESIS SOLAR SYSTEM, GENESIS CLUSTER, GENESIS GALAXY, 2.143 BILLION LIGHT YEARS FROM EARTH / 580 MILLION KILOMETERS AND 23H43M FROM STARSHIP GENESIS.

“Scan for life,” Lauren said.

“Scan complete,” Al said. “There is no life past or present.”

No life. No remnants of life. Some final bacteria at the bottom of some parallel to the Marianas Trench could have converted its last molecule of glucose a million years ago and Al would have detected its organic matter. No life meant no life.

Lauren clicked the display closed, paused again to marvel at how small she was in the shadow of the passing gas giant, and walked through a dissolving door into the incubator room. A smell like pond water brought memories of her aunt’s garden.

“What’s the probability of being able to sustain long-term human life on this planet?” she asked. She’d heard the answer several times in the last three sleep cycles.

“Approximately twenty-two point nine-five percent,” Al said.

New Earth’s atmosphere was largely carbon dioxide and an average of ten degrees Celsius warmer than Old Earth’s. The twenty-two percent would require Lauren’s best effort. According to the most advanced artificial intelligence ever created, Lauren had a seventy-eight percent chance of dying a failure, frustrated and alone.

“Status of the embryos?” she said.

“Four hundred twenty-four remain intact and are undergoing active mitoses,” Al said.

The computer’s genetic scanning and in-depth analysis had readily identified the issue: suspension decayed genomes at a rate only measurable over millions of years. The gene encoding for higher levels of melanin production seemed to be protective; all of the survivors were of African descent. Lauren’s blackness, originally Genesis‘s cultural mascot, had given her something her fellow crew members and thousands of hand-picked embryos lacked: immunity.

The embryos floated in individual clear liquid-filled tubes just large enough to take gestation to term. Past that, the infants would need mental stimulation from the outside world to develop properly. They’d need a planet. And a mother.

“Incorporate embryo data into human sustainability probabilities,” she said.
Lauren hung on the silence.

“Approximately twenty-six point five zero percent,” Al said.

“Good. Better. That’s good, right? And this is still the highest probability of success?”
Al hummed. “Correct. Genesis Cluster contains three hundred fifty-six thousand, two hundred eighty-eight stars and twice as many planets. Of them all, New Earth offers the greatest probability of seeding success by a factor of twenty.”

“And how many of the stars in this cluster have colonizeable planets?”

“Once a base civilization is established on a Genesis Planet, seventy-six percent of the planets can be colonized. Each system is an average of point nine three light years from the next.”

Lauren and NASA’s original idea for an interstellar colony mission had been much more modest. She predicted that targeting a newly formed supermassive black hole would offer a galaxy rich with globular clusters. While most would be too volatile to support habitable systems, statistically one would have the stability to allow for inter-solar system colonization. If she was successful, Lauren would be giving humanity more than a second chance. A second chance that meant abandoning her quest for Sean.

“And what’s the distance to Sagittarius B?”

“This galaxy’s black hole is approximately twenty-five thousand light years away. I must warn you, it is highly unlikely—“

“No need,” Lauren said. “Twenty-six percent is low–suicide low–but it’s something. I’ll do my job.”

Lauren checked each embryo’s vitals, electrolytes, and core temperature, making adjustments to half before finally leaving the incubation room. The door respawned behind her, a sound like ripping paper. She walked the short distance allowed to her in a universe of space, slumped behind the command center, pulled over a scratch pad and pen she’d found in the supply closet, and continued her ongoing sketches of dogs of all shapes and sizes. When she took a break to look up, the last of the gas giant slipped past. The future of humanity lay somewhere ahead, in the shadow of the star burning a hole of light in the dark.

A future of twenty-six percents, she reminded herself. She clicked on the BabyWatch monitor. Consciousness. Clicked it off. Clicked it on again. Consciousness.

“Is this why you brought me here, Sean? For twenty-six percent?”

Space answered her in silence.


June 18, 2031

The night after Sean died, Lauren stared out her window and up, wanting to believe he was out there. The crescent moon scarred the sky, a bright speck of a star bobbing atop its tip. She wanted comfort in that as a sign. But the universe didn’t care. Optical illusions had nothing to do with God, or the soul.

She turned off the muted television, its news silently covering yet another protest over an unarmed black woman killed by law enforcement, and flicked off the living room lights. Instead of lying awake in bed, Lauren went to her office. For the first time since Sean started sleeping by himself, she didn’t stop outside his door to listen and see if she was needed. She wasn’t.

Her computer was pregnant with e-mails from her Genesis team at NASA, but the words might as well have been gibberish. When she closed the application, Sean smiled out at her from the desktop’s wall paper, joyously frozen in a time she couldn’t possibly reach. She’d often looked at that naïve smile with sadness, wondering how long it would take for him to realize the world was against him. Was that why she’d been so strict? Was that why she wanted him to learn at an early age not to go against authority?

She pressed the screen’s power button, stood, and started writing out Einstein’s field equations–all ten of them–at the top of her whiteboard. At the bottom, in the opposite corner, she put Schrodinger’s equations. Attempting to balance the two mathematical representations to our reality was a mind-numbing exercise in futility. It was exactly what Lauren needed.

Lauren scribbled in the middle until her handwriting blurred. She sniffed, wiped her face, and found that she was weeping. She scratched a line across the whiteboard and fell into her chair.

A green circle of light, faint under a small metal device, caught her eye. It was BabyWatch, lying screen-down beside her mouse. She picked it up. She had used it during the previous weekend’s work conference while her husband was on call in the Mount Sinai ER and their backup babysitter celebrated the beginning of summer vacation in Cancun.

Lauren turned the small monitor over in her hands. The technology really was remarkable. A couple of painless drops in Sean’s eyes after his birth deposited microbots with photoreceptors in his retinas, primed to transmit a constant stream. The clarity and color variance of the image changed with the child’s age. Originally marketed as security against babynapping, BabyWatch quickly ushered in a new age of social media.

The green light glowed only when BabyWatch received a signal. Lauren sat back, stared at nothing, then leaned forward again.

The screen shook in her unstable hands, green zigzags lining the night like fireflies. Lauren considered waking her husband. He’d been clinical that day, diving into phone calls with family, signing the death certificate, calling a funeral home, doing all the things that felt impossible to Lauren. She’d found him passed out on their bed, one of Sean’s favorite books about a big red dog open beside him. Something dark and sad and poisonous to their marriage was on the other side of that sleep. She was in no rush to welcome it.

Lauren looked over her shoulder–not at all sure why–and then turned on BabyWatch.

She forgot herself. She looked up from the monitor, to the board, then back to the monitor. The same board was crisp on the screen, covered with drawings and markings. She squinted and recognized her symbols for Orion’s Belt and the Milky Way. The monitor almost slipped from her hand as a happier version of herself walked into the frame, circled a dot in the middle, and scribbled the word ‘Consciousness’ beside it. This digital Lauren turned and smiled. The display shook; chubby toddler hands popped into view and clapped together.

Lauren jumped up and ran out of the room, doors slamming behind her. When she emerged into the crisp night, she flung her gaze to the stars, found Orion, found the Milky Way, and between them returned to the bright star bobbing excitedly above the moon.

“Are you out there?” she whispered.


Date Unknown, Day 3

480 MILLION KILOMETERS AND 18H14M FROM NEW EARTH.

The last human in the known universe didn’t lack for entertainment. In the three days since waking from cryosleep, Lauren had spent most of her time doing what she always did when faced with uncertainty: she read her problems away. Up until humanity’s end, a dedicated satellite, equipped with a machine learning compressor, had enriched the Genesis database with every new piece of literature, film, news, and anything else that could be packaged in radiowaves. The ship’s console even had an Internet simulation with an adjustable user date. October 21, 2063—the day the missiles unexpectedly went up—was, Lauren found, particularly depressing.

The Genesis‘s voyage had become its own genre. Whole speculative novels had been written to explore the crew’s potential future. Lauren’s favorite so far painted her as Mother of the Universe. The writing was terrible, but a fan had drawn her standing atop a mountain with widespread arms, an armada in the background. A neat afro sat atop her head. She’d never had the hair quite for it—especially now—but at least they’d gotten her skin color right. She liked the look.

Most of the fiction and film, however, took her to a bad place. Either she hadn’t made it through cryosleep (in a lot of narratives, crew-member Danny got all the glory, even though Danny was a reality star who’d missed nearly every day of training), or her female parts were used to explore different dimensions of alien curiosity, or she and her descendants were back in shackles, only this time at the mercy of grinning arachnoids on a dusty planet. Some of the scenes were well written—she actually laughed at one penned in the style of Chaucer—and others just made her cringe. She started counting the stories that involved her being molested by aliens in some way, and then gave up. She turned the reader off.

“We were lazy,” she said. Genesis was living proof: lazy now, desperate later.

With nothing she wanted to read and only the nearly inaudible hum of the ship’s engines, silence shook her. “How many books are in the database?” she asked Al, partly to break it.
“Two hundred and thirty-two million, approximately.”

Lauren whistled. “Jesus.” Lazy and prolific.

She checked the BabyWatch monitor. It reminded her of her mission. But who, exactly, was she trying to save?

“Al,” Lauren said. “Go into consultation.”

Shortly before take-off, NASA had requested each crew-member offer an authority figure or mentor for neural network scanning to incorporate into the ship’s AI. Lauren had chosen her father. She closed her eyes in anticipation of hearing his long-gone voice. His humor, his wisdom, even his flaws created a more-often-than-not opposing opinion to which she’d actually listen.

“Consultation ready.” The robotic voice was a smidge smoother, the pitch a hair lower.

“Why do I feel like we already had our chance?” Lauren began.

“Because we did,” Al said.

“You’re supposed to play Devil’s Advocate.”

“You didn’t let me finish. We had a chance, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have another.”

“We created poverty. And suffering. And slavery. Is that what I’ll be a mother to?”

“They made you Captain for a reason.”

“They made me Captain because a black woman leading us to the stars made America feel good about itself. I was the distraction from us still dying in the streets. You know they made me a shade lighter in all the promo photos?”

“You liked those photos.”

“That’s beside the point, and you know it.”

“True,” Al said. A pause, and a hum. “Your worries are needed. You know what mistakes you made. Every mother wants better for her children. Your mother did.”

“Too personal,” Lauren said without trying to hide her discomfort. With its various sensors, the computer knew her emotional state better than she did. “I’m no mother. Not anymore.”

“Humanity depends on you.”

“Sean depended on me. And he died because I was too scared of what humanity would do to him. Why should I do anything for humanity? Huh?” Lauren clenched her fists, relaxed her hands, and sighed. “In the end, it doesn’t really matter if we go on or not. It. Doesn’t. Matter. The only reason the conversation still exists is because I still exist.”

“So the meaning of life dies with us?”

“What if this is the meaning of life?” Lauren said, holding up the BabyWatch monitor. “Maybe I should follow it. See where it takes us.”

“We already have,” Al said.

Lauren rubbed her temples. Sometimes her father could be so obtuse. She wiped away a tear. The first in six billion years.

“Incorporating your current level of awareness, worry, and doubt, probability of success has risen to thirty-one point two percent.”

Despite herself, Lauren laughed. “If you didn’t sound like Dad, I’d tell you that you’re full of shit.” She looked up at the ceiling. “Biggie versus Tupac. Who did it best?”

“You’re avoiding the topic,” Al said, robotic again. “Are you aware of this?”

“Yes.”

“Would it be more helpful to talk about someone from your lifetime?”

“This was a common debate between me and my father,” Lauren said, remembering his love for the history of Hip-Hop, from Eazy-E to Lil’ Winky, the good through the bad. “Look for it.”

Genesis vibrated as Al tapped into her father’s stored neural network. Then, it said, “Biggie took the pains of the street and made it everybody’s.”

“Biggie did that, and more,” Lauren said. “But Tupac . . . Tupac was prophetic. ‘Cops give a damn about a knee-grow. Pull the trigga, kill a nigga, he’s a he-row.’ Now that’s prophesy. That was my grandmother’s LA Riots. My father’s Ferguson and Baltimore, twenty years before. That was my Seattle and Brooklyn and Kansas City, forty years before. I bet nobody wrote about that,” Lauren said. “‘Humanity’s Last Debate: Tupac versus Biggie.'”

A pause. “Nope. No one did.”

“That’s cheating,” Lauren said.

“One, we’re not playing a game. Two, if you were connected to such a pool of knowledge–”
“Side topic,” Lauren said. “Let’s get back on track.”

“Okay. Tupac talked about black lives matter, I’ll give you that,” Al said. “Biggie talked about all of humanity.”

“How so?”

Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion. I know my mother wished she got a fucking abortion.

Suicidal Thoughts,” Lauren said. “You got the cadence all wrong, though. Dad never got the cadence wrong.”

“Too personal,” Al said.

“Touché.” She looked across the cockpit, past the door, the silhouettes of thirty-seven embryos quiet in their artificial wombs.

“You want me to abort humanity?” Lauren said, running her fingers through her hair. Thin and wiry, the curls felt like sand.

“No,” Al said. “One day you’ll wish you had, but that just comes with the territory. I want you to remember why you came here.”

The light reflecting off the aluminum walls changed. Lauren turned around. On the display, bigger than life, was that same photo of Sean, eyes big and alive.

“What if I came to find him? Then we’d be heading towards Sagittarius, not New Earth.”

“You came to redeem yourself, to make a society that would have valued my grandson as much as you did. Not to chase fantasies.”

“End consult,” Lauren said. The image flickered, then was gone.

There was no trace of her father when Al spoke again. “Your heartrate is moderately elevated. I’m sorry if that session upset you.”

“No. You’re not.”

Lauren went to the incubation room. She checked the monitors, felt the warmth of the life beneath the glass cases with her fingers, and paused at the door on her way out.
“This time we’ll do better.” She left before the sight of the many life tubes, lined up like tombstones, could convince her otherwise.

In the eternal night of the cockpit, BabyWatch flickered a quiet reminder.

Eighteen hours. Time kept on.


February 24, 2035

Lauren didn’t hear Marcus, her husband, come into her study. A large, pixelated printout of what looked like a picture of her whiteboard hung high on the wall. At the bottom of the blown up photo, in bold letters, was BabyWatch 6/18/31. Below it, Lauren attacked the real-time version of that same whiteboard without relent. The message captured in the photo had long been recreated, now with many layers added on. Stuffed toy dogs cluttered both Lauren’s work desk and the futon in the corner.

“You haven’t come out all day,” Marcus said.

Lauren jumped, glanced over her shoulder, then turned back to her board. “I don’t want to do this right now. I spent all week interviewing embryo donors because apparently I’m the only one who realizes that diversity doesn’t only mean light-skinned black people. I need to catch up on real work.”

“If not now, then when?”

Lauren sighed, her back still to her husband, and capped her pen. When she turned around, Marcus involuntarily took a step back. She hadn’t slept in days.

“Fine. If you want to talk, you need to listen first. I need to think through something.”

Lauren began to pace. “I figured it out. I balanced the equation. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity works great for the big world, the predictable world. Even up to describing black holes, the most massive entities in the universe. Then Schrodinger comes along, with his damn cat, and boom, quantum mechanics.”

“That’s, like, string theory and stuff, right?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Lauren said, waving her hands dismissively. “It’s perfect for the small world. But relativity doesn’t work in the small world. And quantum doesn’t describe the big world. The problem is gravity and infinities and bringing it all together.”

“You lost me.”

“It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that there’s two theories but there’s only one world. Something has to bring them together.”

“And that something is . . . ?” Marcus gestures to the whiteboard.

“I knew it was consciousness back when Sean told me,” she bent over to pluck the BabyWatch monitor off the ground and gestured with it, as if that alone explained everything. “But I didn’t know how. Why.” She licked her lips, excited. “What if consciousness is an inherent part of the universe, like gravity? This chair, this stuffed dog, they all have a level of consciousness. Consciousness doesn’t arise from our brains, but rather our brains allow us to tap into a higher level of consciousness. Just like a bigger planet has a higher gravitational pull.”

She stopped, staring at nothing, the tips of her fingers flicking against each other. She turned to Marcus. “If consciousness is instantaneous and constant across the entire universe, when the consciousness I tap into here is changed, that change is felt a million, a billion, a trillion miles away, instantly. That frees up gravity from holding the burden of describing the world. It gets rid of the inifinities.”

“That sounds . . . amazing,” Marcus said without looking at her. His eyes were on the drawings. And the stuffed dogs. And the pile of books Lauren had transplanted from Sean’s room into this office.

“The night Sean died, I saw a star, bouncing on the moon. My team did analysis on it. The light from it was just old enough, and the star was just big enough . . . that star became a black hole the night he died. Without a doubt. We have the math.” Lauren held up the BabyWatch monitor. “That’s where he is. I know it.”

Marcus rose. “In a black hole?” he said.

Lauren nodded.

“Does . . . NASA know that their trip is based on this?”

Lauren waved a hand. “Don’t be silly. It’s inspired by this, not based on it. NASA’s tracked ninety-six percent of the observable universe. They’ll find something, I’m sure, and then there will be hundreds more ships besides Genesis. But we need to think bigger. We have to look to galaxies we can’t even see yet. The math holds up. By the time we reach the black hole, it’ll be in the same ripe state our galaxy was when it made life. Once settled, its clusters will give us a unique opportunity for interplanetary colonization and longevity. This is humanity’s best chance of finding a way. It’s my best bet of finding Sean.”

He touched her shoulders and looked her in the eyes. “He’s here.” He pushed her palm against her chest, and then brought both to his own. “And here. That has to be enough. It has to be.”
Lauren yanked away. “No, no, no. He’s not the black hole. That’s absurd. In the hole, time stands still. Consciousness can use that stand-still to go back, instantly, across space to that captured time.” She shook her head and went back to the whiteboard. “Nevermind. Don’t wait up for me tonight.”

“You promised we’d talk,” Marcus said.

“We did. I have work to do.”

Marcus grabbed the BabyWatch monitor from Lauren’s loose fingers. “This is poison,” he said. He fumbled to strip away the back cover, to silence it for good.

Lauren pounced on him. “Don’t you dare! Don’t you fucking dare!”

She wrenched the BabyWatch out of her shocked husband’s hands and returned to the whiteboard, as if he wasn’t there. Marcus stood there for a minute or two, then left without another word, their marriage trailing behind him.


Date Unknown, Day 4

98 MILLION KILOMETERS AND 03H26M FROM NEW EARTH.

Lauren lacked sleep. She only knew one day from the next by a digital clock on the control panel display. When she heard the computer’s voice, she first thought she’d finally dozed off.
“All of the embryos save four have expired,” Al said.

Lauren perked up, rubbed her eyes. “What? Why?”

“Like the others, they sustained irreparable damage from suspension. Less damage, but ultimately fatal.”

She was in the incubation room before she realized it wasn’t a dream. Al was right. The cases still glowed, but markedly dimmed. The wan light from the cockpit reflected on a nearby dome, shining so much like that Prius’s black metal. She laid her hand on the glass. Cold.
“You said the melanin protected them.”

“Analysis shows that while melanin levels were higher than average, they were not to protective levels. Out of the genomes present on this ship, both crew and embryos, your levels were the highest.”

“What now?” Lauren said.

“Of the four, only one embryo is female. There’s a point zero two percent chance of success.”
With its still vibrant purple glow, Lauren found the female easily amongst the others. Its features were rapidly developing. In a little more than three hours it would be the first in a new generation of Earthlings. The only generation.

“Point zero two percent,” she said. “That’s not a fight. You deserve better than that. Sean deserved better than that.”

Back in the cockpit, Lauren pulled up her equations on the screen, blocking out the growing planet nestled in a blanket of stars.

“Would you like a consultation?” Al asked.

“I already know the flaws,” she said. “I don’t need a reminder.” She’d submitted a detailed paper describing her unifying theory to American Journal of Physics, careful to exclude any link with the Genesis voyage. The response had been polite, as the editor was a former classmate, but stern in its rejection of her calculations based on a fundamental flaw. Lauren saw it herself instantly and couldn’t unsee it. There was no reason to believe consciousness was more than an illusion created by a complex network of electrons. Much less, there was no reason to believe it had anything to do with black holes.

By that time, Marcus was gone.

She’d torn up the rejection letter on her way out to training simulations with her Genesis team.

“Al, we have new coordinates,” Lauren said. “Utilize all fuel for maximum acceleration. Readjust immediately.”

If Al had been a little more human, he might have stopped her. But he was only a machine. “This action will–”

“I know what it will and what it will not. Just do it. Please.”

Genesis hummed. New Earth grew and grew. Ocean striations popped through thin clouds. Brown barren land spread over the blue. One island was shaped in such a way that Sean would surely have pointed at it and said, “Dog!” Lauren imagined that the universe, in its infinite wonder, birthed a new black hole for every light of consciousness that burned out over the course of humanity. Even with what she saw in front of her, it was hard to know. With limited perspective, all she had was faith.

Genesis set and rose on New Earth. The planet began to slip away along with any moment of regret, of doubt, of wondering if point zero two percent was more than enough to trump blind faith. Lauren had made her decision.

Genesis‘s new destination flashed across the bottom of the screen:

SUPERMASSIVE BLACK HOLE SAGITTARIUS B*, GENESIS GALAXY, 2.144 BILLION LIGHT YEARS FROM EARTH / 26,000 LIGHTYEARS AND 50,000 YEARS FROM STARSHIP GENESIS

Lauren readied herself for cryosleep.


Date Unknown, Approximately 50,000 years later.

Smell returned first. Hot asphalt. Rubber. Cotton and blood. Spilled mayo, tumbling fruit. The rest came slow. A memory flickered. Fingers held hers. A small yet definitive yank. A dry tongue. The stars above. Sirens below.

As before, Lauren’s brain required hours to come back online. When she finally regained her wits, she found herself staring into the abyss, half blind from the radiation flooding through the cockpit window.

“Bring shades to ten percent,” she said, covering her eyes. When things were a little more bearable, she approached the view.

A ring of cosmic fire surrounded a black so pure, so undisturbed, that it could only be a glimpse into God’s soul.

“As we approach the epicenter,” Al said, “the gravity at one end of the ship will be exponentially greater than the gravity at the other end. Our very matter–”

Lauren turned off the program. She was an astrophysicist after all. She knew how this would work.

“Thanks for the ride,” she said.

The door to the incubator let her through. She didn’t know what she expected to find. Al had discarded the embryos. Their tubes were dry and empty. Any smell had left. Only memories and what-ifs hung in the air.

Lauren touched the cold of the barren glass that had housed the lone surviving female. For the second time she’d failed as a mother. She was no better than—

She turned at a sound. Thoughts of death and life and burdens fell away.

Sean was waiting for her in the small living quarters. He pointed across the room towards the wall of drawings Lauren had hung up after passing New Earth.

“A dog?” he said.

Lauren didn’t hesitate. She went to him. “Yes, that’s a dog. A big red dog.”

He smiled and nuzzled up to her. She ran her hand through his curls. They were as soft as she remembered. Sean pulled back, his grin big and happy, and let himself fall on her belly. He giggled against her, then did it again. He wandered off, as two year olds tend to do, and brought her a book.

“A dog!” he said, pointing.

She opened the book. He peered into its pages, curious.

As she read, the ship began to rattle.


All things come unraveled. All things come apart.


June 18, 2031

Lauren stopped outside the grocery store, Sean’s two-year-old fingers in one hand, three heavy bags strangling the other. Her Genesis team had finished the day early; she’d taken the opportunity to pick up Sean from daycare and get some shopping done. Sean reached up, wide-eyed, opening and closing his hands.

“You’re too heavy,” Lauren said. Her back hurt and Sean was perfectly capable of walking by himself. “Hold Mommy’s hand.”

Lauren stopped and looked up at the blue sky, not quite knowing why. For a second she thought she could see a twinkle. A meteor, perhaps.

“Up,” Sean said, showing her his palms. “Up, Mama, up!”

Lauren obliged, much to his delight. It wasn’t that far to the car anyway.

“Dog! A dog!” Sean said, pointing.

“Yes, a black dog,” Lauren said.

An old black Prius passed them, going faster than appropriate for a parking lot and close enough that Lauren could feel the wind of its passage. The driver’s chin pressed against his chest, fingers tapping at his phone.

That night Lauren had work to do and Marcus was on call. She put a movie on in her study and was productive for thirty minutes or so, until Sean became fascinated with her whiteboard.
Sean pointed. At the top was Einstein’s theory of relativity, at the bottom was Schrodinger quantum mechanics, and in the middle was a great big space, waiting for an answer Lauren expected never to see in her lifetime.

She had a silly thought. “What about this?” She drew Orion’s Belt, the Milky Way, and others, all for the benefit of Sean, who probably had no clue what he was watching but was entertained nonetheless. She paused, then drew a random dot in the middle of it all. The microbots in Sean’s retina saw what he saw and transferred in this world, and the next.

Remembering, Lauren pulled herself in front of her computer and opened a new e-mail. She had to get something out before she forgot.

“Big breakthrough today on Genesis. Let’s discuss tomorrow over coffee. Oh, and remember this phrase: the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. It’ll make sense later.”

“Oh, no!” Sean said when Lauren turned around. He pointed to her eye. “Oh, no, Mama!”

Lauren wiped away her tear. “You know why this even matters? Consciousness. It’s because there’s stuff happening up here.” She pointed to her head, then wrote the word big so he could see. “Do you know what that word says?”

“A dog?” Sean said.

“Close enough,” Lauren said.


Host Commentary

by Jay Bhat

I absolutely loved this story and it stayed with me long after I had read it.

On one hand, this is a powerful story of maternal strength and resilience, where Lauren combs the universe in search of her son for thousands of years, never giving up. This deeply resonated with me since I was raised by a mother who always had my back and I know that she too would move mountains for me.

On the other, the story contains stark reminders that if we do nothing today, violent crimes against black people will exist in the near future and after. Even when opportunities are provided to Lauren, it is clear that it is in the form of tokenism. In fan fiction that is written about her, she is reduced to a sidekick or is molested by aliens. She never gets the recognition she so deserves for her many accomplishments. It is a shameful reflection of our times when Lauren says, “They made me captain because a black woman leading us to the stars made America feel good about itself. I was a distraction from us still dying in the streets.

Lauren is a fighter, though. She doesn’t care about the naysayers and goes on to kick some serious ass. But I so wish she didn’t have to.

I am proud to live in a time where the voices against oppression are growing louder, even as the forces of fascism and racism are relentless in their efforts to pull us back. The Black Lives Matter movement is not just relevant in the US, where it started but it also encourages oppressed voices across the world to raise their own, like Dalit voices against casteism and generational poverty in India.

The ending is my favourite part of the story, when the equation is balanced and Lauren and Sean are united as a family. I know this is not true today – the Seans of our world will remain dead and their mothers will grieve them forever. But this story makes me hope. And I think that’s the power of speculative fiction, the power to create joy and hope through impossibly possible worlds.

About the Author

Justin C. Key

Justin C. Key

Justin C. Key is a speculative fiction writer and psychiatrist. His short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and Crossed Genres. He is currently working on a near-future novel inspired by his medical training. When Justin isn’t writing, working in the hospital, or exploring Los Angeles with his wife, he’s chasing after his two young (and energetic!) sons.

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About the Narrator

Laurice White

Laurice White is an actress, poet and mom currently residing in Michigan.

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