The last ships to leave Earth were packed to the gills. Seven hundred passengers in cryo, with a crew consisting primarily of medics and ship's operations, crossed the vast distances to the new world where we planned to make our home. I'd made the journey six times each way‑‑awake on the way there, sleeping on the way back, to make the trip less monotonous. I monitored a cryobank containing one hundred passengers. Not the most stimulating job, but it paid well and gave me time to work on long-deferred journal articles.
Three weeks out on my seventh trip, Doctor Moore, the medical crew's head, requested a meeting with me. No reason given. I worried for the remainder of the afternoon. I thought about asking another medical tech, but I hadn't made friends with any of them. So I went to the appointed room at the appointed hour.
"Doctor Moore." I nodded to him. "Captain?" I hadn't met the ship's captain formally, but I'd learned how to identify ranks on my first tour. She was younger than I thought she would be.
"Have a seat, Doctor Markham," Doctor Moore said. "Captain King has need of your help."
Not what I was expecting. I took my seat. "Of course, what can I do?"
The captain looked at Doctor Moore, her expression unreadable. "Our long range sensors have detected an anomaly. We've rerouted, but the reroute is going to take us two weeks longer than scheduled."
I frowned. "That shouldn't be a problem, should it? I thought ships were stocked in preparation for this sort of event."
"Normally, yes," Captain King said. "But with supplies dwindling at home, and production barely underway on Gaia, there wasn't enough to go around. We've got enough liquid nitrogen to keep the passengers frozen, even with the extra time, but the cryoprotectant is going to run out before we arrive."
"I ... ah ... it's been a while since I looked over the mission specs on the cryoprotectant." I didn't want to admit I had passed my cryogenics courses in med school by only a hair's breadth.
Doctor Moore waved his hand to dismiss the issue. "The cryoprotectant prevents tissue damage, so we can successfully deliver the passengers to Gaia. We have found a way to synthesize more." He paused. "I understand you have emphases in demographics and genetics?"
"I ... well, yes. I ended up in med school because of my studies in those fields. But I'm not sure how we got from cryoprotectant to my emphases."
Captain King ran her hands through her hair. When she spoke again, I strained to hear her. "Doctor Moore's synthesis requires genetic material from a number of the passengers."
"Well, that should be no problem," I said. "The cryotubes have intake and outflow ports."
The captain bit her lip. "It's a bit more complicated than that."
I looked at Doctor Moore. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "What Captain King is loath to say is that the process of extracting the genetic material will terminate those passengers selected for the process."
I stared at him. When I found my voice, I asked, "How many passengers?"
He shrugged. "One-tenth."
Captain King looked away. I saw her jaw clench several times before she turned back toward me. "Doctor Moore says you are our top authority on demographics and genetics. We need you to analyze the passenger records and determine those least likely to make a positive genetic contribution to the new colony."
I looked between Doctor Moore and Captain King, unsure what to say next. Finally, I squeaked out two words. "I'm sorry?"
"What have you to be sorry about?" Doctor Moore asked. "You have the ship's resources ship at your disposal. There are metrics of genetic fitness you can apply to our passengers. All we require is a list of seventy names."
I blinked at his blasé tone. "You're asking me to create a list of seventy people who will be terminated?"
I shook my head. "I can't do that. My job here is to ensure the passengers arrive safely on Gaia--all of them. I have no right to pick out the seventy passengers least likely to make a positive genetic impact on ... the future of our species."
"The other alternative is a lottery system," Captain King whispered. "Believe me, the last thing I want is to see a single passenger on my ship terminated. But the alternative is seven hundred terminations. There was a time when ten percent losses on a ship would have been a figure to be proud of."
I drew in a shuddering breath. My demographics classes had included a large section on the history of genetic manipulation through termination--genocide, in a word. Thoughts of the survival of the fittest warred in my mind with thoughts of ethnic cleansing.
"I can't make this sort of decision on my own," I said finally. "I'm going to need ... help."
The team wasn't the type of help I was expecting. Daff, a security officer, and Hal, a janitor, were capable of sorting through the files just as well as anyone, but they had no credentials to speak of. The third assistant they provided me, Nataly, was at least someone who had studied genetics.
"I'm an anthropologist," she insisted at our first meeting.
"At least you've got an -ology," I whispered. Daff and Hal were reviewing files at their workstations. "From what I've seen so far, neither of them do."
"I can advise you on the minimum required individuals for an effective gene pool. But there have been two dozen other ships already taken to Gaia, so even if we lost the entire population of this ship, it wouldn't really make a difference." Nataly shook her head. "This is just an exercise in random selection. Each of us marks one hundred terminations. Then we compile the data and see which ones we've all selected. Lather, rinse, and repeat, until we've got our pool of seventy."
"The difference between that and a lottery is we're making the decision on who to murder. Which makes it even worse for me."
"But you shot down the lottery idea and asked for a committee instead." Nataly's brow furrowed. "Wouldn't the lottery be better?"
I pushed back from my workstation, burying my face in my hands. "Neither way is better. They're both horrible. We need a third option."
On a non-cargo ship, there would have been a promenade or some place where I could walk and think. Instead, I got to pace the crew quarters, between the bunks. The quarters were sectioned off by shift, so I stuck to the portions where the occupants were out working. I didn't want to wake the women who were sleeping before their next shift.
I could come up with criteria with which to winnow the pool of colonists--age, hereditary diseases, past contributions to society--but it didn't feel right. Who was I to pass a death sentence on someone because they'd already lived out the bulk of their productive life? Or because they had a family propensity toward hypertension? Or because they hadn't made a positive impact on the world?
My gaze kept returning to a shiny piece of waxed paper tucked under a mattress. I tried to ignore it, but finally I grabbed it in frustration.
It was a candy wrapper, but I didn't notice what kind. What I noticed were the ingredients. Several chemicals listed there were cryoprotectants I'd seen when I was trying to learn enough about them to have a conversation on the subject, after my meeting with Captain King.
I started to run out of the crew quarters with the waxed paper still in hand, but I paused at the door, went back, and tucked it under the mattress where I'd found it. For all I knew, it was important to whoever slept there, some memento of home. I didn't need it for my next questions.
It was in between meals, so the dining area, as much as we had one, was vacant except for the cook, an impossibly slender, tall woman, who was prepping dinner.
"Hi. We haven't met, but I'm Doctor Laren Markham, Cryo Division. This is going to sound like a strange question, but how much do you know about cryoprotectants?"
The cook shrugged, her shoulder blade knifing through the air even as she continued her prep work. "Keeps the food from going bad on these long trips, but it makes it a pain to get anything to taste right."
"How long would our food supply last if we extracted the cryoprotectant from it?"
She arched a thin black eyebrow and shook her head. "I don't think that's possible."
"Who would know for certain?" A note of desperation slipped into my voice.
"I'd assume someone in Cryo Division." She smiled before she turned back to her work.
I sighed. It had been the first glimmer of hope I'd had, and now it lay dashed at my feet. I'd have to go back to sorting through passenger files if I couldn't come up with another plan.
The chef looked up at me again. "I'm sorry I can't be of more help. I thought the ship had plenty of cryoprotectant on hand."
I chewed at the inside of my lip. Word about the reroute hadn't been widely spread. It wasn't my place to spill the beans. "Of course. I'm just doing some research on alternatives."
"I see," she said. "Well, I'm not a scientist, but I somehow don't think food cryoprotectants and human cryoprotectants are interchangeable."
I frowned. She had a point. "It's still preliminary research."
"Well, let me know if it goes beyond preliminary and you need some food to experiment on. We're going to end up with plenty that's surplus to needs. I'm looking forward to cooking with the fruits of Gaia's soil."
I nodded and headed toward the cryo bay, trying to think of other things that contained alternative cryoprotectants. Other things that were surplus to needs.
That was it! My eyes widened. We had surplus food on board. Maybe the solution wasn't to pull the cryoprotectants, but to use the food for its intended purpose. I hurried back to the selection terminals.
This time, I requested the meeting with Doctor Moore and Captain King. I'd pulled together all the information I could, calculated the numbers, and talked through the results with Nataly and Eren, the cook. I ran them by Daff and Hal, too, just to see if they saw any flaws with my idea. It all added up.
"We don't need to terminate seventy passengers." I was talking too fast, I knew it, but I needed to say my piece before either Doctor Moore or Captain King interrupted me. "The best-case scenario says we can keep all seven hundred passengers in cryo until week 10, at which point we'll need to wake half of them. We have sufficient food on hand to support the additional passengers for the remaining four weeks of the journey. The difficulties will be in housing, sanitation, and security, but I've got potential solutions. It won't be a pleasure cruise, but we won't have to choose passengers to die dies."
Captain King turned to Doctor Moore with a smile. "Well, this sounds promising."
Doctor Moore harrumphed. "I'd like to see the data."
I flipped open my tablet. My presentation wouldn't be pretty, but I knew it was valid.
And we'd all get to arrive on Gaia.
Dawn Vogel's academic background is in history, so it's not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. She is a member of Broad Universe, SFWA, and Codex Writers. Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is being published by Razorgirl Press. She lives in Seattle with her husband, author Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. Visit her at http://historythatneverwas.com.