The life-support technology had failed. There would be no more food or water. That the oxygen generating equipment was in tip-top shape struck her as a cruel joke.
Stage 16 of the terra-forming project had been a success or failure depending on one’s point of view. Habitation had been established on POP-16 following 15 previously created planetoids in the Planetary Object Project; the POP. As a bonus, POP-16’s formation had splintered off a daughter rock about the size of a football stadium. They christened it Sweet-16.
The Organization would continue working the project. And, the mission’s crew members could be proud of how they had advanced the technology. But dead was dead, and the lack of food and water would put paid to that bill in short order.
The crew dwindled from its original 13. The engineer, communications officer, and two others used the largest shuttle pod to make the short trip to Sweet-16. The rest followed in dribs and drabs, leaving the final pod for Commander Jones. The theory was a rescue ship would more likely catch their radio beacon from Sweet-16’s wider orbit.
Time had come.
As she adjusted her flight parameters, a white flash bounced off the orbiting rock above.
Jones was mad with thirst and she allowed for a moment that this trick of the light was but a trick of her mind. But the pod’s sensors were neither thirsty nor hungry. They registered that the light burst had generated half a trillion lumens over just a few milliseconds. It was good that she had been focused on her control board at the time or she could have added blindness to her list of problems. She assumed explosive noise had accompanied the light, but the vacuum, kilometers above her, did not support the transmission of sound waves.
She checked her scans. The instruments showed 174 additional giant boulders above POP-16, each one maintaining Sweet 16’s original size and orbit. An inexplicable metastatic event had occurred during the eruption of light.
She wouldn’t get another chance so she launched and piloted to clear the 175 orbiting stadia. Standard protocol was to overshoot and approach along a parallel glide path. From 20 kilometers up, she saw facsimiles of her pod landing on Sweet-16 replicas. There were scores in her line of sight. She’d have to pick one for landing.
Her chronometer had stopped. Surely that was her brain coping poorly with lack of calories and water.
The same drama unfolded. Each pod ejected a Jones clone who manipulated a parachute through a soft descent to a boulder with little gravity. Twelve skeletons, tattered space suit remnants hanging from various long bones and ribs, approached the anticipated landing site. She watched Astronaut Jones ripped apart on each Sweet-16 she passed, repeating like a bad horror movie.
Commander Jones’ pod disgorged her half a kilometer above her Sweet-16 and her chute opened. Adrenaline filled her bloodstream as she drifted to the surface. A dozen rickety skeletons gathered below, patient with gravity’s slow pull.