It was up to Manjoo to destroy Earth to save mankind. And she was going to have to do it alone.
In a spaceship hovering near the planet sheâ€™d once called home, Manjoo had the most glorious view in the universeâ€”the last view of Earth 1, the home of her ancestors for countless millennia. The sunâ€™s rays lit up half the planet, the other half lay hidden in the shadows.
Her vest chimed, the built-in clock reminding her sheâ€™d been floating in her ship for five minutes. The ship would be in position for only ten more minutes, and somewhere in that time, she was to push a small yellow button on the vest. The button would launch a missile to incinerate Earth 1, along with the prion disease that had wiped out most of the Earthâ€™s population.
I wanted this, she reminded herself again. I entered the raffle because I wanted this. Sheâ€™d actually hoped to win, to be the one who got to push the button. Sheâ€™d thought getting to destroy the disease, getting to be the last person to see Earth 1, would be the opportunity of a lifetime. Fame and fortune had danced in her dreams. Maybe sheâ€™d write books, do vidcast interviews. Everyone at school would be in awe of her. But now, floating there, staring at her ex-home planet through the windows that surrounded her, she wasnâ€™t sure why sheâ€™d thought blowing up Earth 1 would be such a cool thing to do. Actually, the whole thing seemed pretty messed up.
â€œYou okay?â€ her mom asked, her voice tinny through Manjooâ€™s earpiece.
â€œYeah,â€ Manjoo croaked back. She swallowed, trying to clear the knot in her throat.
â€œYouâ€™re not okay,â€ her mom said. â€œCanâ€™t they send in an alternate?â€
â€œNo time left for that,â€ her dad said. â€œThey donâ€™t have enough fuel to reposition.â€
Her parents had been angry when Manjoo had been chosen. They thought children shouldnâ€™t be given this level of responsibility, and her mother hated the idea of her teleporting in a spacecraft by herself. The rules had been that anyone age 10+ could sign up, so everyone in her class had done it. One million people, about half the population of Earth 2, had entered the raffle, and Manjoo had won. It was an honor to be chosen. Everyone back home was jealous. Or at least, thatâ€™s what she kept telling herself.
Manjoo had called her mother a worry wart when her mom had cried and hugged her goodbye, but floating in the middle of nowhere in a spacecraft all alone, her palms sweating, her breath getting shallow, she felt, no, she knew this was a mistake. Signing up had been a really bad idea.
â€œExplain it again?â€ Manjoo said, wiping her hands on the slick space suit. â€œWhy canâ€™t we just leave Earth there?â€
â€œLetâ€™s call someoneâ€”â€ her mom started.
Her dad interrupted. â€œIt was Manjooâ€™s choice to make. Her life to live.â€ Her mom went silent. That was the argument Manjoo had used to convince her parents. Her dad continued. â€œThe disease that killed everyone is refolding. Soon, the disease will kill every living thing on the planet.â€
â€œSo they think,â€ Manjoo said.
â€œSo they think.â€
Scientists were worried that if someone teleported back to Earth 1, either on accidentâ€”or worse, on purposeâ€”the consequences for the humans remaining on Earth 2 could be disastrous.
â€œNow Iâ€™m here to destroy Earth,â€ Manjoo said, â€œlike we destroyed the other two infected planets.â€
â€œYes,â€ her dad said.
Manjoo took a deep breath. The spacecraft smelled like plastic, and her nose ached from the dry air.
â€œOkay. I can do this,â€ she said.
Manjoo squeezed her eyes tight, breathing faster, and faster, her hands starting to shake, her entire body quivering, her stomach clenching up. She was going to throw up, right then and there.
â€œCome home,â€ her mom said. â€œIf you donâ€™t want to do it, please donâ€™t do it.â€
â€œI do, Mom. I want to.â€ And it was true. Sort of. Manjoo wanted to be the one to keep this awful disease from spreading. She wanted to save mankind. She wanted to be a hero. Didnâ€™t she? Did she?
â€œI love you,â€ her mom said.
â€œMe too,â€ her dad said.
Manjoo nodded and placed her finger on the yellow button. Closing her eyes, she tried to fight back the panic, deciding to just do it quickly, to stop overthinking it. Sweat trickled down her back.
All of a sudden, she pressed the button on her vest.
For one minute, Manjoo watched the missile zoom steadily towards an unsuspecting planet, rotating slowly, soundlessly in its orbit around the Sun. Somewhere on the spacecraft, a camera was digitally capturing the moment, and a microphone was hooked up to record her words. Manjoo had originally thought sheâ€™d say something really profound. Sheâ€™d come up with two options: Weâ€™ll destroy one world so another can live. Or maybe, Weâ€™ll forever be grateful. But both seemed too cheesy now.
Instead, she stood in silence, thinking about Earth 1. In her mind, Earth 1 was still just plain Earth without the number, third planet from the Sun, and their new planet, Earth 2, was still Jaganmatri, one of many habitable planets astronauts had recently discovered in a far away solar system.
Back on Earth 1, before the astronauts unknowingly returned with the alien prion disease, her mom had worked at a grocery store. Her father had been a gas station attendant. With so few people left alive though, theyâ€™d both volunteered to be amateur agricultural scientists on their just barely discovered planet that wasnâ€™t even terraformed yet. Theyâ€™d eventually turn the parched, carbon dioxide-filled flatlands of Jaganmatri into oxygen-rich, green pasturesâ€”or at least, that was the plan. Then theyâ€™d be able to get rid of the biodomes, get rid of that plastic shield protecting them from the outside world.
The hardest part about living in the biodomes wasnâ€™t that it was humid and crowded. The hardest part was that it was overflowing with the memories of how life was back on Earth 1, back with the people who hadnâ€™t come with them. The people sheâ€™d never see again. All that was left of Manjooâ€™s family was her parents. The rest of their family, her motherâ€™s parents, her fatherâ€™s parents, her cousins, aunts, uncles, all of them were dead. Wiped out by the plague. Manjooâ€™s apartment block had been one of the lucky ones. Theyâ€™d done the quarantining procedures early, as soon as the announcements had been made. For weeks theyâ€™d lived out of their home, depending on their devices for news of the outside world. The last time sheâ€™d seen Earth was from the window of the evacuation ships, just before theyâ€™d rocketed upwards and then teleported away.
And so now she stared at it, trying not to picture her tall apartment building in their big city. Biting her lip, trying her best not to cry in front of the cameras, Manjoo kept thinking about her lifeâ€”the one she thought she was going to have as well as the one sheâ€™d lived instead.
The missile was almost there. If she wanted to say something, sheâ€™d have to do it now. Her heart hammered in her chest. She didnâ€™t know what to feel much less what to say.
Finally, with only moments to go, believing she had to say something, anything on behalf of all those other Earthlings who didnâ€™t get to be here for Earthâ€™s final moments, she managed to whisper, â€œGoodbye,â€ and â€œThank you.â€
And then, there was a blinding flash of light as the Earth exploded, disintegrating into smithereens right before her eyes. The Moon swooped towards the Sun. Manjoo leaned forward, wondering what would happen to that big rock sheâ€™d looked out at almost every night. Would the Moon burn up? And then it slowed. It slowed. She let out a sigh of relief. At least that wasnâ€™t gone.
Manjoo craned her neck all around, trying to see what else would happen, but the other planets were just points of light in the distance.
So that was that. One second, Earth was there and the next it was in tiny pieces floating towards her.
The scientists had calculated that she would have at least an hour until the pieces of Earth would reach her location. The ship would continue recording until that happened and then teleport quickly away when the sensors were tripped. But her personal teleportation vest was set according to the amount of oxygen she had. Five minutes left.
So, for four minutes she watched as the pieces of earth expanded, listened to the chiming of her vest. When it reached the final minute, the vest counted aloud, and she found the robotic voice reassuring in the silence. She couldnâ€™t wait to get home to her parents, to the safety of her motherâ€™s arms, the comfort of her dadâ€™s wide mustachioed grin. She wanted to go home and pretend none of this had ever happened.
She closed her eyes.
A bright white light filled her vision, and she lost all sense of her body. She was nothing, yet she was still here, floating, surrounded by a feeling of peace.
When she returned to her body, her feet sank into a soft, red carpet that extended down a dark hallway. With a start, she realized that she was wearing different clothes. Her space suit and teleportation vest were gone. All she was wearing was an orange robe that tied at the waist with a string. Where was her mother?
Teleportation vests werenâ€™t something everyone had at home, only people working for the Space Transportation Administration could use them, and she didnâ€™t really know how they worked. Could there have been some malfunction?
Manjoo padded forward on the silky carpet. Gray stone columns lined either side, where the walls shouldâ€™ve been but werenâ€™t. Atop each column was a big wheel, an old wooden cartwheel lined with a sheet of paper along the outside.
A small voice, the voice of a child several years younger than Manjoo spoke: â€œLife is an endless cycle. Like a wheel forever turning, and wearing away. The universe is forever being destroyed, only to be remade.â€
She searched for the source of the voice, but the voice was all around her, and at the same time the voice was inside her head.
â€œImagine a snake biting its tail. The tail is the head, and the head is the tail. The beginning is the end is the beginning.â€ The childâ€™s voice was gentle and sweet, but somehow commanding in its way.
Then all the wheels, hundreds of wheels down this long path started turning, the columns beneath them rumbled, rattling against the floor.
Manjoo was compelled forward. It was like she didnâ€™t have a choice.
â€œTime is a cycle,â€ Manjoo said. Her voice came out softer than sheâ€™d expected, muffled by the rumbles. â€œMy grandfather told me that once.â€ She hadnâ€™t thought of her grandfather in months. He had died with the first wave of the alien disease. She wished now she had asked him more questions. Louder, she said, â€œHe said he believed that we return to where we began. But what does that mean? Does that mean it all just happens over and over again? The big bang, evolution, all of it all over again?â€
â€œYes and no. It all happens in a cycle, and the cycle doesnâ€™t repeat.â€
Two steps appeared before her, leading up to a platform where a wheel like all the others was standing.
â€œCome,â€ the child said. â€œThis is your dharmic wheel.â€
â€œWhat?â€ It felt like Manjooâ€™s heart stopped beating for a moment. She saw that massive wheel, and didnâ€™t want to go anywhere near it. â€œWho are you?â€ she asked. â€œWhy are you showing me this?â€
The voice didnâ€™t say anything more. Manjoo stood there for a good long while, waiting for an answer. And then, she stepped forward again, moving towards the steps.
â€œThis is the wheel that drives your existence,â€ the voice said. â€œSurrounding it is the book of your livesâ€”of your births and rebirths. All the good lives, all the bad, written here.â€
With each step, terror grew in Manjooâ€™s chest. The peaceful feeling was completely gone. She wished she could go back to that.
â€œYou must choose your path.â€
â€œIâ€™m dead, arenâ€™t I?â€ Manjoo cried suddenly. â€œIâ€™m dead!â€
The voice said nothing, and she knew the answer was yes.
â€œBut what happened, I thought I teleported? I thoughtâ€¦Did the vest malfunction? What happened?â€
â€œWhat matters now is that you are here.â€
â€œNo!â€ She collapsed to her knees. â€œMom! Oh, Mom! You were right!â€
Manjoo sobbed and sobbed, thinking of her poor parents back in those awful biodomes, wondering where sheâ€™d gone.
â€œI should never have entered the raffle!â€ she said, still sobbing. â€œI shouldâ€™ve refused to get on the ship! I shouldâ€™veâ€”â€
â€œYour actions have lead you to this point,â€ the voice said. â€œJust as others have been here before. Come. Dry your eyes and read about the many pasts youâ€™ve had.â€
As the voice spoke, thoughts of her family grew distant. Her mother and father faded into a mist that covered her mind, but while the sadness regressed, fear took its place. An empty, alone feeling spread across her chest.
She got to her feet and reached for the wheel. The wheel was hot, so hot that it shouldâ€™ve burned her. But, she wasnâ€™t alive, so it didnâ€™t. She shuddered with the thought.
As she pondered this, the wheel leaned backwards, falling over onto its side, thudding loudly onto the red carpet. Manjoo jumped back, startled. Sandal-wood scented smoke filled her vision, and the rumbling wheels stopped. A low trumpet noise wound its way around her, and she couldnâ€™t tell if the sound was inside her head or outside.
â€œRead,â€ the childâ€™s voice said.
Rising up to eye level, her wheel spun slowly, so she could see words around its circumference, written in black, tinged with orange as though it had been burned into the paper, was still burning. Once Manjoo began to read, the rest of the room disappeared, and all her lives flashed before her eyes, her existence spreading before her across the millennia.
Sheâ€™d been elephant, sheâ€™d been mouse.
Sheâ€™d been songbird, sheâ€™d been dinosaur.
Sheâ€™d been seaweed, sheâ€™d been maple tree.
Sheâ€™d lived centuries, sheâ€™d lived a millisecond.
Her lives had all been different, but theyâ€™d all meant something. Theyâ€™d all been her.
And when the wheel reached the latest life, she almost didnâ€™t recognize it at first. Another human birth, she thought. Until she read about how as a newborn, sheâ€™d slept with one eye open as her parents held her for the first time. About how one of her milk teeth had turned black when sheâ€™d fallen off her tricycle. About recess at her elementary school on Earth 1. About how sheâ€™d felt when she learned her best friend had died when the alien plague reached her town.
Blinking back tears, she read about the quarantine. About the day sheâ€™d rocketed off the planet to begin her new life on Earth 2.
When she was done reading, the wheel stopped turning. The music stopped. The smell disappeared. She noticed that the wheel had come full circle.
â€œThis is the choosing place,â€ the childâ€™s voice said.
Manjoo sniffed and rubbed the grief out of her eyes with a fist. â€œSo why am I here? What is my choice?â€
â€œYou are here because of your actions today.â€
â€œI had to destroy our planet,â€ she said. â€œSo I pushed the button, andâ€¦now Iâ€™m dead.â€ Her motherâ€™s face rushed to the forefront of her mind. She heard her motherâ€™s last words, Come home when youâ€™re ready. Guilt and sadness choked her.
â€œAccording to the laws of the universe, the equations must balance. There were lives on that planet, which you destroyed.â€
â€œBut we had to! And they were going to die from the alien disease anyway!â€ Her voice cracked. They had said Earth would soon be a ghost planet, like the other planets theyâ€™d found with nothing left alive. Tears ran down her cheeks.
â€œWhether that is true or not, when you pushed that button, millions of lives and potential lives were lost.â€
â€œBut what about Earth 2? Couldnâ€™t people have died if I hadnâ€™t pushed the button? If someone went there and brought the prion to our new planetâ€¦â€ Manjoo pressed her hands into her face. This wasnâ€™t fair. She wasnâ€™t supposed to be here. She wasnâ€™t supposed to be dead.
â€œYou are here because of your actions. Your planet was destroyed, and those lives were lost because of you. All those lives must be balanced.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t know!â€ she said. â€œI didnâ€™t thinkâ€¦â€ She faltered. The truth of it wasâ€”
â€œYou didnâ€™t know it mattered,â€ the child said, reading her thoughts. â€œNow you do. And now you have a choice.â€
Manjoo wrapped her arms around herself, rubbing her elbows through the rough cotton sleeves of the robe. It was cold in there. So cold, yet her palms were clammy.
â€œWhatâ€™s the choice?â€ she asked.
â€œYou can go back and finish out your last life. Continue it, living with the knowledge of all the lives you ended. All the lives that must now be reborn elsewhere. And the balance will be shifted on your planet.â€
â€œThe balance will be shifted? What does that mean?â€
â€œEvery action has a reaction. That is law.â€
â€œYou mean more people will be born on my planetâ€”on Earth 2? Is that bad?â€
â€œMore lives must be createdâ€”â€
Manjoo gasped. â€œBut there isnâ€™t space, is there? No space for those lives to return.â€ She thought of the humid biodomes and how closely packed in the humans were. Compared to the billions of human lives that had been lost on Earth 1, two million seemed a tiny amount. But the two million peopleâ€”and assorted plants and animalsâ€”were all crammed into plastic domes built to hold a quarter of that number. They said they were working on expanding the buildings. But how long would it take?
â€œSo what are you saying? If I go back, people will die?â€ she asked. â€œBecause of what I did? Because of what they told me to do?â€
â€œSome may die, and some may be reborn. Every action has a reaction.â€
â€œOr you can turn back the wheel that is your timeline. Rewrite it so you didnâ€™t push the button in time. They will be unable to reroute the missile and those lives will be saved.â€
â€œI- I donâ€™t understand,â€ she said. â€œI can just rewrite what happened? And thenâ€¦what is the reaction? Can I just go home to Earth 2?â€
â€œNo. You will not return. The missile will go off in your spacecraft. And your new planet will thrive as it was.â€
â€œOh,â€ she said.
â€œWith this action, by saving these lives, your life debts will be repaid. You will have escaped the wheel. You will no longer be born and reborn.â€
â€œIf Iâ€™m not born thenâ€¦then what am I?â€
The voice didnâ€™t answer for a moment. The wheels rumbled.
â€œHello?â€ Manjoo bit her lip. â€œHow can I make a choice if I donâ€™t understand?â€
â€œYou will be everything, and you will be nothing,â€ the voice said.
â€œEverything and nothing,â€ Manjoo whispered, squeezing her eyes shut, trying not to give in to the despair sinking to the bottom of her stomach. â€œAnd what about the disease?â€ she cried. â€œWhat if someone dies because I didnâ€™t explode the planet? Donâ€™t those lives count?â€
â€œIt is not yet written. Your decision lies with now.â€
â€œBut I thought I could rewind the clock? I thought life was a wheel? Doesnâ€™t a wheel just turn around over and over again? Canâ€™t it go forward and backward? Donâ€™t things repeat themselves or something?â€
â€œIt is not that simple.â€
That didnâ€™t sound simple to her. â€œSo I can either go back in time and save everyone on Earth 1â€”all the animals who were maybe going to die anyway. Or, I can go back to my life, my family on Earth 2 and watch the world slowly grow too overcrowded to sustain us? Is that what you’re saying? Is that my choice?â€ She spat the last word out, angry. Why was she here? Why couldnâ€™t she just go home? What happened to her being a hero?
â€œYes, that is your choice.â€
â€œAre those the only options?â€ Manjoo was shouting now. â€œIsnâ€™t there something else we can do?â€
Of course, the voice didnâ€™t answer.
Manjoo groaned in frustration and stared out at the hall of wheels, when a thought occurred to her: Were her friendsâ€™ and familiesâ€™ wheels out there?
Had her grandfather been reborn after he died? Could she read his wheel? Andâ€”had he still been on that planet? Had she exploded her friends and family? Or had they reached the end of their wheels and come to this choosing place?
â€œIt is time,â€ the childâ€™s voice said. â€œMake your choice.â€
â€œI canâ€™t! I donâ€™t know how!â€ It was an impossible decision. There was a reason theyâ€™d had to destroy the Earth and all those other planets. And she wanted to see her parents again. They needed her. She needed them. â€œItâ€™s not fair! Itâ€™s just not fair!â€
If the future wasnâ€™t written, maybe the overcrowding wasnâ€™t inevitable, maybe she could just go back home and everything would be fine. But on the other hand, what if the scientists had been wrongâ€”what if the plants and animals left on Earth 1 werenâ€™t all going to die from the alien plague? Could she live with herself knowing how many lives sheâ€™d ended when sheâ€™d had this opportunity to change it? But did she really want to escape the wheel, to become everything and nothing, whatever that really meant?
Did she even want to know what it meant?
â€œPress the pen to the wheel,â€ the voice said. â€œAnd make your choice.â€
A pen appeared in her handâ€”a long, thin piece of wood with black ink dripping from the end.
It was a difficult choice. An impossible choice. Manjoo turned the wheel with one hand, reading it all again. She pressed the pen to the wheel, the ink sizzling as it hit the page. Her words burned into the paper.
She made her choice.