Elrin whispered yes. She would consent to killing her sister.
She wasn’t listening to Dr. Brekk’s report at all. How could she? She was going to let her big sister die. For the good of the many. Nausea twisted in her stomach, like heartburn.
I’m sick. I’m crazy.
Elrin looked through the sterile glass into a sterile room where her sister’s sedated, sterilized body lay on a sterilized table. She swallowed around a dry patch in her throat.
There was a noticeable bulge under Esther’s ribs where the parasite grew into a monster, invading her sister’s brain and transforming her into one of … it.
Dying at twenty-three wasn’t something one signed up for. Not even Esther, with her grand glorious dreams of exploring space, wanted to die like this. Without a purpose, slain by an alien lifeform.
“We will let you say goodbye to your sister. You have five minutes. Don’t touch her, and be very careful that you don’t breach the suit.”
Elrin looked into Brekk’s lined face. There were shadows under his eyes and grooves at the corners of his mouth. Just one day, and he had turned into a ghoul.
Wordlessly, she slipped on a hazmat suit and fastened a mask over her face. Risk of contamination, Brekk had said earlier. If she’d been watching a movie of her life she’d be laughing right now. She was worrying about catching a deadly alien parasite from her dying older sister.
She entered the vestibule separating the observation deck from the sterile medical holding room. As she opened the door, she caught a glimpse of herself in the reflection of the room.
Shadows under her eyes. Grooves at the corners of her mouth. So they all had contracted this disease called fatigue and grief.
Her hazmat suit covered her completely from head to toe, transforming her from sharp lieutenant to a ghostly monster drowning in plastic.
Swallowing her fear and letting it settle in her stomach, she pushed through the last set of doors and walked over to her sister’s side.
“Esther?” she asked tentatively. Esther couldn’t hear her, of course. Still, it was odd standing there and not saying anything, not being allowed to touch her.
It wasn’t something your parents taught you: how to say goodbye to the ones you love. It wasn’t something she had thought of beforehand or
something she could think up on the spot.
She stood next to the gurney since there was no place to sit. She talked to her sister, halting at first, hearing her own labored breathing magnified in her suit.
“…Esther, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry. If I—I could have done something, I would. I remember you said how you wanted to die. I’m not sure if you remember that night.
“We were having a sleepover. It was the night before you left for your first assignment. We were giggling like crazy and talking about the ways we wanted to die. You said you wanted to make a difference, die like a heroine, die with a purpose…
“I’m sorry it hasn’t turned out that way. I know you’ve always felt—I don’t know, jealous? Just a little annoyed, I guess. It really isn’t fair. But I want you to know that, um, I—“
Dr. Brekk’s voice crackled into her ear over the bluetooth communication system. “You have thirty seconds.”
Elrin sighed. “Okay.”
The monster wriggled under her sister’s skin. Elrin tore her eyes from it and focused on Esther’s face, the sharp rebellious lines and features she’d idolized as a little girl.
So this is goodbye.
“You’ve fulfilled your duty to the fullest, Ensign Max, and I—” She swallowed. “I love you, Esther.”
“Lieutenant! Time’s up!”
Elrin closed her eyes and walked into the vestibule, hearing the hiss of hoses snapping on and spraying her suit with chlorine. She would give anything to tear off the suit and run back to her sister, and hug her one last time.
The captain packed the conference room with all the senior officers and medical staff, all convened to discuss Esther’s condition. Or, rather, the decision that had to be made about her condition.
Elrin sat opposite the captain at the foot of the table. Her head swam. She glanced briefly at the clock. Two days since she had slept last. And it was okay; she didn’t want to sleep at a time like this anyway.
Conversation pressed against her, background noise amidst a storm. Couldn’t they just get it over with?
Drawing it out made it ten times more painful. She could feel tears in her eyes, threatening to spill, and she was angry because of it.
“Silence!” Captain Baley roared, nearly getting to his feet. The chatter died down instantly. He glared around the room. “Lieutenant, do you have anything to say before we proceed with the meeting?”
His gaze changed when he reached Esther’s eyes. She met it. Cold grey eyes, softened with pity.
I don’t need your pity right now, she thought. I’ve always been there for you; can’t you be here for me?
All she could think was Esther, Esther, Esther and all her mind was frozen with confusion and feeling. Easy cold logic wouldn’t come to her.
She started rambling about Esther, about that last sleepover they had as sisters, about their individual hopes and dreams and the excitement of joining the Interstellar Fleet. So many regrets. So many too lates.
The conference room was so quiet she could hear everyone breathing, or not breathing. She could feel people chewing on her words, or simply shutting up and unable to say anything.
“Just—just do it. If only Esther could know what kind of sacrifice she was making—” Elrin shook her head and tore herself from the thought, leaving her chest cold and numb. She looked directly into Dr. Brekk’s eyes. “Schedule when you want to do the procedure. Finish it. Get it over with; I know it’s the only way.”
Go ahead and kill her.
Elrin walked out of the conference room, willing her steps to be slower so she didn’t look like she was fleeing.
But she was.
She needed a break from all the guilt, the shame, the fear. Maybe she could get the day alone to wander the ship, maybe sit in the cafeteria, and wait till the clock ticked to midnight and the thought of her sister faded from her mind.
But that was a hopeless fantasy—death wasn’t something she could just forget. It was cowardly to hide at a time like this, wasn’t it? She would go. She would go and stand behind the glass as a needle entered her sister’s skin and took away, permanently, the possibility of realizing life dreams—
She wasn’t eager for consoling right now, but somehow the thought of human company was too enticing to let go of. She turned around to the voice’s owner, someone she didn’t recognize.
“Hello,” she began. He was maybe twenty years old, eyes wide with purpose, wearing a plain grey engineer’s uniform. No, that wasn’t a uniform—he must have been an engine mechanic, then.
He stuck out a hand in greeting. Elrin did her best to plaster a smile on her face and shook his hand.
“Hi, I’m Paskal. Henry Paskal.”
“Nice to meet you, Henry, but right now is not a good time—“
“No, I came to you because I—I want to help you.”
Elrin looked into his bright, excited eyes and felt her heart sinking. She wished she, too, could put aside all the grief crushing her and just have—whatever he had.
“I’m sorry, but you can’t help me now.” She headed down the hall to the nearest elevator; her room was a few decks below.
“Lieutenant Max! You said something about if only your sister could know what kind of sacrifice she would be making—what if there is a way she can know? I think I can help you—reach her. I have this theory, and the technology—“
Elrin stopped and turned around, walking back down the hall so she was facing Henry. “I don’t know what your idea is. But meet me in the officer’s lounge and we’ll talk. I’ll write you a permission slip.”
His eyes lit up in a soft smile. “Anything to help.”
When Elrin arrived at the officer’s lounge a couple minutes later, Henry was standing outside the door staring intently at a tablet, occasionally swiping across the surface.
There were few people in the lounge. Those who were there sat quietly in groups of two or three, near the sides of the room, occasionally stealing glances at herself and Henry.
They took a seat in the corner of the room, opposite each other.
“It shouldn’t be too hard. I think it will work, but I’m not sure. It’s reliable technology, but I don’t know of your sister will accept it in this state—“
Elrin put a hand on the table. “Henry, stop. Just tell me your idea. Start from the beginning; slow down, and don’t get too worked up about it.”
He glanced down sheepishly at his tablet, soft light casting shadows under his eyes. “I don’t know if it will work. I’m sorry—“
Elrin shook her head. “Apologies later.”
He looked dazed. “Right.” He turned off the tablet and clasped his hands in front of him on the table. “You know about neurovirtual technology, right?”
“Of course.” Who didn’t? It was the newest thing everyone was talking about, a turning point in technology, where science met biology. Nodes attached to one’s skull produced images directly in the brain, stimulating all five senses—immersing someone in a world of their choice.
“Well, I can program a story into a neurovirtual headpiece, have your sister wear it, and as, um, as the Doctor gives her the shot, she can live whatever ending she wanted.”
Elrin’s mind went numb for a few seconds. “You mean,” she clarified, sounding each word slowly, “that as Esther passes, she will think she has died a certain way? And we can program that?”
“Exactly.” Henry sounded almost apologetic.
“But how—she’s in a coma of some sort.”
“Didn’t you hear Dr. Brekk’s report? She still has REM activity.”
Elrin filled in the gaps. “If I’m right, neurovirtual technology can work in your sleep, like a dream.”
It all fell into place. Esther’s dream could be realized. The ship would be saved, and she would know she had died a hero.
Esther was speaking as she saw the result in her head. “How soon can you program this headpiece?”
“Now,” Henry said, powering up his tablet. “All you have to do is tell me how her story goes.”
Elrin swallowed. A sleepover from years ago played through her head, so vivid she could smell the floral scent of the shampoo her sister used, feel the warmth of the sheets and starlight falling through the window to where two very excited, slightly scared girls giggled about the future. Their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and how everything would end.
Both of them had always been strong, tough girls, chock-full of pride, independent and strong, soldiering on, full of ambition. Always, there was that striving for more. Nothing could touch them; they were the Max sisters; unstoppable. They had worked hard to get where they were. Somehow it wasn’t fair that Elrin, the younger, had succeeded in rank where Esther had not.
Deep down inside, a little part of Esther wanted to be a princess—to have her story end happily ever after, with a sword in her hand, captain of her destiny.
She had told Elrin so the night of their sleepover.
But now, it was the opposite of her dreams, and everything had fallen apart. Still, on the surface of Gamma XA-113 a monster roved, gloating over its control on Esther. Elrin’s heart constricted.
Esther deserved so much more. And she would get it.
The lounge, nearly empty, had a strain of music in the background Elrin couldn’t identify. It was bold, slightly unpredictable, with a rhythm that stopped and started, charging on through all the notes.
“Henry,” she said. And she smiled. Grief still hung at her heart, but a spreading peace invaded her chest, warm and vast. “I’m ready.
“This is how the story goes.”