Choices

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I can't see the box from here, sitting on my bed. It's in the back of the cupboard, hidden behind a bag of damaged surface-suits I need to mend. It doesn't look like much, but still, if I left it out, someone might recognise it. If anyone else ever came into my room; which they don't. I don't socialise. But if I did, if I had a visitor, they might know what a quantum entanglement communicator looks like. They might wonder who is at the other end of my incredibly expensive, single-use, ciphered channel.

I wonder, too. It can't be anyone I ever knew. It took the cryoships two hundred years to reach Cete (Tau Ceti e, as they called her on Earth). Two hundred years in coldsleep, with precisely one-quarter of a cubic metre of possessions wedged underneath each person's capsule. Except for me. I had one-quarter cubic metre less a single box the size of a surface-glove. The QEC isn't, it never was, a possession of mine. I just -- have it.

I try not to think about it.

***

I remember sitting on a medical couch in an Earth clinic. The walls are cold white, the floor the same industrial grey as the couch. I've just finished the battery of checks that confirm my eligibility as a colonist. In another fortnight, I'll go through them all again, in another clinic with bright paint and cheerful posters of Tau Ceti e on every wall, where I will become one of the lucky few. Here, I am only one.

"It'll look like this," she tells me. She is brisk, practical. She's holding a matt-black box, with a small screen and a handful of LEDs on its front. Understated and robust; maybe a little old-fashioned. "We'll put it into your personal effects, no need to worry about that. Just leave a little space, yes?" Or, I suppose, find out in two centuries what they ditched to fit it in.

"We know you're reliable, Jenny." We know what you can do, she means.

I don't look at her. I know that, too. It's past, but I can't forget it. The things I can't forget, the skills that got me those memories, are buying my escape from them. Take the QEC with me, and I get to skip the thousands-to-one lottery; I get a place on the final Tau Ceti ship. Twelve light years to a new planet; surely nothing can follow me that far. Surely two hundred years of sleep is long enough to forget.

I stand to leave.

"We are sure you're reliable," she says, and I hear that little something extra in her voice.

Our training was expensive, and they wanted to secure their investment. So they put something in our brains. Something that would burst, if we didn't do what they told us. We all agreed. It was at the end of the training, and if we dropped out, we would owe them for the training. We all agreed.

They turned it off when I quit. She's telling me it's back.

I don't know what she sees in my face now, but her smile doesn't falter.

"Good luck on Tau Ceti," she says, showing me to the door.

Maybe my past would have stayed on Earth, if I hadn't chosen to drag it all with me. I can't remember how I persuaded myself that I was leaving it behind.

***

I don't understand what Earth could want. My training was very focussed; I can kill just one person at a time. Surely, if someone, just one single person, dies, then the rest of us will just keep going. Won't we? (How many names could fit in a single message?) The colony is twenty-four years old now, and I've been here for ten of them. I don't believe that we're that vulnerable now, if we ever were. People die. Anyone could die, at any time. Does it matter how it happens?

If it doesn't matter, then nor does my decision. The colony is safe, and I can choose my own future.

I always had a choice. Dying is a choice.

Cryoships are slow; two hundred years to travel just shy of twelve light-years. News is fast. A single exchange, backwards and forwards, takes twenty-four years, give or take. As of twelve years ago, Earth knew what happened when the first ship landed. If they had messaged me immediately, it would arrive tomorrow.

It could be tomorrow, that I feed a message into the box, and it combines the message with the entangled-pair-qubits, and discovers information-qubits, and spits it out in a form I can understand. It could be next year, or ten years time. Or never.

I love Cete, so much more than I ever loved Earth. (I never loved Earth.) I want to live here, for as long as I possibly can. But I want here to live, as well. I never meant to bring my past along for the ride.

I don't know what I will decide.

***

The message arrived today, innocuous-looking text stream. I wondered, for a moment, whether I would just throw it away, delete it burn it pretend it never happened. Instead I watched myself feed the data-bits into the QEC.

It was wrong to do this to you. It doesn't matter what they decide now; the box is useless. You're free.

I stare, now, at the incredibly expensive chunk of metal. One-time-only. Someone else has made a choice, and I'll never know what that cost them.

I should feel lighter, freer, released. I do. I do feel those things.

But I can never know, now, what my decision was.

About the Author: 
Juliet Kemp lives in London, UK, where she looks out at the river, drinks tea, and writes.