Payload

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Shveta had been in the nebula for two weeks. There was no one else; she’d combed the area for other pods, but no luck. Weeks from the nearest ship, months from the nearest station, she’d floated, waiting for rescue.

At least the view was nice.

There had been periodic communication from Satish Dhawan, which was nice, too, she supposed. Floating out here on her own without knowing whether anyone had registered her distress call would have been too much like floating in a coffin.

But they knew where she was, what had happened, all that fun shit, and a plan was being formulated. Not that she was special, of course; no one was going out of their way for one anonymous airman. It was the payload they wanted.

Shveta didn’t even know what it was. She wasn’t senior enough to know; the only thing she was senior enough for was making sure the payload was safe if everyone else died.

The radio crackled. “Airman, do you read? We’re going to have to adjust the plan a bit.”

#

They couldn’t make it. Something to do with the nebula, they explained—and the payload. When Shveta threatened to open it up and see what it was, they told her she was welcome to as long as she didn’t mind dying.

When she threatened to eject it into space, they told her she was welcome to as long as she didn’t mind dying.

#

She’d been slammed against a bulkhead when the station self-destructed, and now one of her teeth was loose. Shveta was beginning to worry it would rot.

She probed it with her tongue. It didn’t hurt much. The gums were fine…for now. Maybe not later, though. She pictured bleeding gums, a painful abscess, the emergency medical probe digging around inside her oozing mouth and cracking the jaw to get the rotting tooth out. Just pull it out now. Better a little inconvenience now than fucking abscesses later.

But what if her facial nerve was too close to the tooth? What if something went wrong and she ended up with a numb tongue? She wouldn’t be able to kiss right, wouldn’t be able to taste right. She thought maybe she’d jump off a bridge if she couldn’t taste food anymore.

Or maybe she was allergic to anesthesia and she’d end up in a coma. She could die up here from an overdose of anesthesia and no one would know until they found her corpse with a loose tooth and a trail of dried blood coming out of its mummified mouth.

She tried to think of something else, but couldn’t. She wondered how long it took for a person to go mad in space.

#

“Listen,” said the crackly voice. She couldn’t remember which one of them she was talking to, and didn’t really care. “We have a new plan.”

“Let me guess—it’s a little risky, but you think it just might work.”

The voice became frosty beneath the crackle. “Every recovery operation has its risks. Please don’t think we’re not taking this seriously.”

She sighed. “What did you have in mind?”

#

The quantum generator would work, they assured her. It was an absolute assurance; they’d reverse-engineered it so instead of creating two realities, they would be creating two of her.

“By manipulating the quantum field, restricting its reality to only one universe, we guarantee that we will always experience the desired outcome.”

Shveta was still stuck on the idea of two creating two of her. “Do you mean there will be two of me?” she asked for the third time.

The voice sounded exasperated. “Airman, that payload is vital to the national security of your country. Do you want this mission to succeed or don’t you?”

“Yes and no.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Are you saying there will be a copy of me? Another me?”

“Yes—if this works, which it will since all probabilities will be accounted for, you’ll be safely brought out of the nebula with the payload…and another you will remain behind.”

“But how—”

“You don’t need to concern yourself with the logistics.”

“But—won’t there be than one of me? If all probabilities are being accounted for—”

“As I said, Airman; you don’t need to concern yourself with the logistics. The payload will be safe; that’s all you need to know. Stand by for further transmissions.”

And then she was alone again with the blazing light of the nebula.

#

“Roger,” she said, running down her checklist. “Everything looks good on this end.”

“Good. Stand by for program upload.”

The program uploaded without a hitch. Shveta poked her tooth. Still wobbly.

“Begin splitting sequence.”

She had no choice; they’d already activated the generator at the perimeter of the nebula. Steeling herself, she tapped the screen, beginning the sequence. A burst of light illuminated the dusty spirals outside the forward window—then silence.

Shveta waited. She’d expected it to be flashier. Frowning, she looked at the screen. “Control? Do you read? I think something’s gone wrong here.”

No answer.

She scrolled through her readouts, confused. The quantum restructuring sequence had just…stopped. Shorted out like a faulty circuit breaker. So much for the miracles of modern science.

“Do you read?”

Static.

Starting to feel panicky, Shveta scrolled rapidly, running a full scan of the pod’s systems and output.

And then she saw it: the censors were showing another pod. It was moving away from her position rapidly.

A second pod, she saw with mounting dread, had recently exploded in the vicinity. The censors were now registering a third pod, also moving toward the nebula’s outer rim, but at a much slower pace; something was wrong with its propulsion system. The censor readings indicated that it, too, would soon overheat and explode.

“Hello?” she whispered, no longer expecting an answer. The radio remained silent.

She poked at her tooth. Still loose.

It looked like she’d have time to take it out, after all.