Two women, Best and Least, woke in a bright room.
Best did so as if surfacing in a pool of water, her eyes wide and observant. Least woke with a start, and immediately slammed her back against the wall behind her, her arms splayed.
Where are we? asked Best.
Who the fuck are you? demanded Least.
Now, now, came a voice from the doorway. There’s no need to be coarse.
A tall, graceful Being entered the room, diaphanous fabric afloat around its slender body. It had an otherworldly shimmer to its skin, as if bathed in perpetual twilight. Its face was humanoid, but for the fact that its eyes had no whites and its nose more closely resembled a beak made of polished pearl.
The voice had not been human, but lilting and mechanical, and it came from a shining band of silver around the Being’s throat. As it spoke, it also emitted a series of faint notes, like a hummed song.
I know you are confused, the Being said. And possibly alarmed. But I will explain.
Both women had leapt to their feet at the sight of the Being. Best stood ready, and Least was inching toward the windows at the far end of the room. The space was large and grand, with wood floors that creaked beneath the women’s feet and tall windows with frames painted white to match the walls. Visible through the glass was a grass-covered hill and the smudged green of pine trees.
Best frowned, but sat. Least began to shake her head.
No way, she said. No. Fucking. Way.
Another Being appeared in the doorway, just behind the first. At the sight of it, Best’s eyes widened, and Least let out another litany of curses. The second Being had a fiercer look than the first, and snapped its beak at the women.
Sit, the Fierce One said.
This time, both women sat.
This is what the Beings said:
We come from a planet not dissimilar to your own, many galaxies away from here. Like you, we grew and developed and then laid waste to our planet. Like you, we faced a series of extinction events. For us, they were shudders in the ground and sicknesses that culled the vulnerable, and a superabundance of predatory species, thanks to the degradation of the environment.
We were able to pull ourselves back from the brink of annihilation. We rebuilt our planet, little by little, and were then able to focus our efforts on exploration of other worlds. We developed technology that allowed us to travel vast distances in little time, by stitching together sections of the galaxy like cloth.
On one such journey, we encountered a spacecraft. On it was a golden disc that, once deciphered, taught us about your planet. We searched for you for a long time.
When we found you, we endeavored to learn your languages, so that we would be able to communicate. We developed an automatic translator to facilitate such communication. We studied your cultures from our cloaked position in the sky. We observed that you had endured several planet-wide events that threatened your population, such as destructive wildfires, plagues, and rising global temperatures.
We felt a kinship with you, our fellow world destroyers. However, after careful study we determined that your people did not seem likely to unite in order to undo the damage you had done and remake your world. Our hearts broke for you. We decided to intercede. We summoned a larger ship that would be able to transport fifty thousand of your number back to our planet so that your species could survive and rebuild.
But we do not wish to cull your population indiscriminately. We wish to collect the best and brightest of your people. But who should determine the parameters for such a collection? It cannot be us. It must be you.
Thus we analyzed your population and selected two from among you. One of you, we determined, was most like ourselves: law-abiding, morally upright, intellectually and physically capable. And the other is least like ourselves. We felt this was only fair, to account for our own biases.
Our task for you is simple: You must decide who among you we bring back to our planet, and who we leave behind. You must sufficiently narrow your population such that the number of you does not exceed fifty thousand. There will be no exceptions—our planet’s ecosystem is delicate, and we must prioritize its health over even our own philanthropic inclinations.
You must come to us with your decision in two days’ time.
Excuse me? Best said.
She had a sturdier build than Least, and large, clear eyes that seemed to see everything at once.
You want us to decide who dies? she added, when it seemed the Beings did not understand the exact nature of her question.
The Gentle One said, We want you to decide who lives. This is not an act of cruelty toward those who will remain, as their fate was sealed long before our arrival. This is an act of mercy toward those who will leave.
I don’t think I can do that, Best said. Where would I even begin?
That is for the two of you to determine, the Fierce One replied. We dare not offer even a single example, for doing so would surely influence your decisions.
And we have to do this in two days? Best said.
Yes, the Gentle One replied.
We will leave you to discuss it further without the pressure of our presence, the Fierce One said.
Best put her head in her hands. The Beings left in silence, accompanied only by the swishing sound of their gossamer clothing.
• • • •
What’s your name? Best asked Least.
I think it’s better if we leave names out of this, Least replied.
Then what should I call you? said Best.
They said they chose us because one of us is better than the other one, Least said. Clearly that’s you. So why don’t you be Best, and I’ll be Least.
That seems unkind, Best said.
It suits me, then, Least replied. And anyway, it’s all I’m gonna answer to now.
In the room there was a circular table with chairs around it. Best sat in one of these, her hands folded on the tabletop. Her nails were trim, the cuticles around them unmarred. She looked at Least with her clear, wide eyes, as if waiting for the other woman to join her.
Least seemed immune to the unspoken summons. She had walked over to the windows and was peering out at the sweep of grass, the forest that surrounded them. Here there were no signs of the crowded civilization to which both Best and Least were accustomed. No smokestacks rising up in the distance, no crumbling structures now empty of life, no huge swaths of land with the burnt husks of trees poking up from it like shards of broken bone.
Where are we? Least asked herself.
How should we do this? Best asked Least.
Do what? Least said, as she opened the lock on one of the windows. Her sleeve was stretched at the cuffs, as if she had pulled it down over her hands too many times.
Best stormed across the room. This! Didn’t you hear them? We have two days to narrow a billion people down to fifty thousand!
Oh, that. Yeah, I’m not doing that. Least pushed the window up. It squealed horribly.
She sat on the windowsill and swung her legs over it to touch down on the grass outside.
Best argued, You can’t just . . . not do it! If we don’t, they could just leave, and not rescue any of us! This is our best chance at saving the most people.
The open window was between them. Least was shorter than Best by several inches. She had the look of someone who hadn’t slept in a long time.
I’ll be back, Least said. Probably.
I’m going to do it without you, Best said.
Cool, Least replied, and she walked away and into the forest.
• • • •
Least had come into the world in an idyllic suburb, where the ravages of world-ending had not touched her . . . until they did.
They had been safe from the fires, surrounded as their town was by water, and far from any fault lines. The asteroid struck the other end of the world, and its impact sent so much debris into the air that a cloud hung over her town for months, but they had stores of water, and plenty of supplies, and they endured.
The plague came next, as it had come for everyone in their region of the country, and it picked off their neighbors one by one; then Least’s aunts and uncles and cousins; then her parents and brother. Soon enough, Least had found herself alone on a quiet street that had become a graveyard. She stayed that way for a long time.
But then the tattered remains of the government rounded up all those still living—those who happened to have a genetic resistance to the plague’s effects—and took them to cities to live together.
Least was not suited for communal life. She didn’t keep to her strict work hours—she had no skills to offer this new world, so her job was tedious and often disgusting—and her truancy got her into trouble again and again, at which point she decided, if trouble was going to be her closest companion, she ought to really earn it. So she stole and smuggled and cheated and lied her way through life, a frequent resident of the nearest prison.
• • • •
Least had never thought of these experiences as useful until she was prowling around the house where she had woken. But she knew how to keep her steps silent, and to crouch at the corner of each window to peer over the sill, and to listen for muffled voices beyond the glass.
The house seemed to have belonged, once, to a fine family with a fine estate, and it had fallen into elegant disrepair, the paint peeling and the structure sagging under its own weight. It was large, but not so large that Least struggled to find the Beings.
They were in a sitting room, perched atop brocade sofas with fragile mugs clasped in their talons. Their hands resembled bird feet, with three fingers splayed wide, terminating in sharp claws. They sat across from each other, the silver bands around their throats abandoned on a nearby coffee table, and they were speaking in their high humming language. On a floating screen nearby was a video feed of the room where Least and Best had awoken. They had not been left in privacy, Least noted, though she also couldn’t recall the Beings promising that.
Least backed away from the window, and once she was far enough away that the Beings were unlikely to hear her, she began testing the other windows to see if any of them were unlocked. She had been carrying a phone in her pocket when she was brought here. Which meant it was somewhere in this house.
• • • •
Meanwhile, Best was still sitting at the table in the room where she and Least had awoken, tapping her fingers on the wood. She stared at the window where Least had made her escape, and wondered if the other woman was now somewhere in the trees, fleeing the scene and leaving Best alone with these impossible decisions.
She had discovered paper and pencil in a desk drawer. On the front of each page was a contract that Best didn’t care to decipher. It was from a time when signatures had been enough to ensure decency. But the only thing that had ever ensured decency in Best’s experience was a decent heart.
Best had been born empty-handed, in squalor. Her parents had done what they could for themselves, which was to say, they had not done much at all, because the world would not permit it. Her father had been killed three months prior to her birth, so Best was sure her mother had brought her into the world weeping. Yet brought her into it she had, and she kept Best fed and safe and taught her all that she knew.
Best’s mother was someone who knew about machines. She didn’t know the why of them, only the what; the why, Best had discovered on her own when she raided the collapsing library on the edge of town, determined to make something of herself. But then the plague came, and killed everyone around them. Not Best and her mother, though; it was not their usefulness that saved them, it was some anomaly in their blood, but saved they were.
When the government came to move them to the colony of the living, Best’s usefulness and quick mind won her a special place in the new society. For the first time she could remember, she had a full stomach and a warm place to lay her head. She spent her days using her hands to make things work better. She had enough left over to give to those who needed it, and so she did, eagerly, knowing she had once been empty-handed herself.
Best sat at the table in the grand room, breathing in the smell of dust and the forest air that Least had let in through the window. Then she bent over the paper in front of her and began to write.
Serving the greater good required parameters, so Best would define them.
• • • •
Best, a voice said from outside.
Least was climbing in the window. Her pants were worn, stretching tight across the knees when she moved.
I really wish you wouldn’t call me that, Best said.
Least replied, If wishes were fishes, we’d all have plenty of cod liver oil.
Best watched her climb over the window frame and cross the room on light feet. She sat across from Best at the table, and looked at the sheet of paper in front of her, where Best had scribbled her notes.
What’ve you got there?
Suddenly you care? Best said.
I always cared, Least said. I just cared about something else more.
Best had known people like Least all her life, people who didn’t like the new world order, or their place in it, and reacted by flouting the rules, as if their personal discomfort superseded the needs of the many.
Least had known people like Best all her life, too, people to whom certain things had come easily, and believed, therefore, that they ought to come easily to everyone else, as if all deviations were the result of a defect of character and not chance.
They stared at each other across the table, and they knew each other.
So what have you got, then, Least said, nodding to the sheet of paper in front of Best, who covered the words scribbled on it with the flat of her palm.
You want to do this together now? Best said.
Least said, I think you want to. I think you don’t want to do it on your own. So go ahead. Tell me what you’ve got.
Best frowned at the first word that showed between her spread fingers. Okay. Then I think we need to start with the young.
You mean you want to start with the old, Least said, raising an eyebrow. That’s who you want to leave to die, right?
I’m saying we should spare the young, Best said. And the skilled.
Well, then I’m out. I was hoping I would last at least one more round, Least replied, leaning back in her chair.
Best wasn’t sure how to reply to that.
Least went on: What’s next, then? The sick? Can’t have people whose bodies are already weak going on a big journey like that, can we?
Best didn’t answer.
And genetic defects, we don’t want those, either. For practical reasons, of course. How about convicts? Don’t want deviants in our fancy new society. Gosh, if I wasn’t out of the running before, I really am now—
Shut up, Best said.
If we want the human race to survive, I guess we can’t take anyone who’s not fertile, because they’ll be no good to us. Everyone’s got to be able to—
You’re acting like I take pleasure in this, Best said. I eliminated my own mother in the first round. She’s the only person I have left; everyone else I loved is dead.
The word dead fell between them like a weight.
Best went on: I’m just trying to make logical choices, given the difficulty of the journey, for the survival of the human race.
Who cares, Least said, leaning forward, about the fucking human race.
Best snorted, and said, What, you think we did this to our own planet, so we all deserve to die? Have you never met someone worth saving? No one kind, and warm, and lovely, and worthy of life? Thousands of years of art and poetry and music, of math and science and language and religion, and all of it’s worthless just because most of us are broken?
Best looked toward the window and blinked away tears.
And what are we worth, Least said, if our survival comes at this cost?
• • • •
What if it was random? Best said. What if . . . we refuse to define actual parameters? We tell them to randomly select fifty thousand people. They had some method of finding me and you at random. Surely they can apply that to the entire population.
Can, Least said. But won’t.
You don’t know that.
I do, actually, Least said. But you’re welcome to try.
So Best opened the door to the grand room that she had not dared leave before, and stood in the hallway just beyond it, listening to the sounds of the house.
She heard the squeak of the floorboards beneath her feet, and the creak of the walls as the wind pressed against them, and beneath both, the whirring music of the Beings’ language. She moved toward it, though it was hard to say, at first, which direction it was coming from. It seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, buzzing in her ears.
Least stayed behind, in the grand room. She waited until Best was gone, then took her phone from her pocket and turned it on.
• • • •
Just before Best reached the sitting room where the Beings were taking their afternoon tea, the door opened, and the Fierce One stepped into the hallway. Behind it was the Gentle One, adjusting the metal collar over its throat that translated its peculiar hum-whistling.
You have need of us? the Gentle One said.
Yes, Best replied. I have an answer for you.
The Gentle One and the Fierce One exchanged a look that meant little to Best, unfamiliar as she was with their expressions. Their eyes were dark, like staring directly into deep space, where no stars gleamed.
We’d like you to choose fifty thousand at random, Best said.
The two Beings looked taken aback. The Fierce One removed the collar that would translate its speech, and spoke to the Gentle One in short, strong whistles. The Gentle One took its own metal band away from its throat, to respond. Best wondered what they were saying that they didn’t want her to hear.
Those were not the terms of our offer, the Fierce One said, the band again secure around its throat. We wish to collect only the best of your people, the ones you most value. Not a random assortment.
Best replied, We are unable to define the people we most value in these terms.
Though she was quaking with fear, to be so close to the strange, glittering, glowing creatures with beaks that looked sharp enough to break diamonds, her voice was steady.
We offer you this mercy, the Fierce One said, this great kindness.
A place in our world. A chance to begin again, the Gentle One continued. It was as if the Beings were in a relay race, and the baton had been passed.
The Fierce One finished: Instead you argue with us about the terms of our charity.
I didn’t know it would be such a problem, Best said.
It is, the Fierce One said. Go back and do as you were asked, or you will condemn all of your people to die.
Told you, came Least’s voice from the doorway to the grand room. She was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed. Least’s eyes were bright with triumph. Her nails were jagged from where she had chewed them.
What, the Gentle One said, do you mean?
We are a paranoid people, Least said. Always looking outward, for some external threat, instead of looking inward. It hasn’t served us well up until now, but it’s reliable.
Least examined her fingernails, as if trying to appear casual. Her hands—trembling—betrayed her fear.
She continued: If there was a spaceship in orbit large enough to transport fifty thousand humans, it would be all over the news feeds.
Least took a phone from her pocket and held it up. It was bulky, rubberized to make it sturdy. They were designed for emergency use, legally available only to government employees or other important people, but illegally available on the black market for whoever could pay for one.
But it’s not, Least said. There is a report of an unidentified object in the sky above the Appalachian Mountains. I assume that’s where we are.
Least tucked the phone back into her pocket, and stepped forward.
I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, she said. Pitting us against each other and then watching us with your little cameras as you drink tea and eat crumpets, or whatever the fuck you’re doing in here. But I’ve never much liked being a toy.
There are many possible explanations for the situation you have described, the Gentle One said. But clearly you have decided what to believe. You decided it the moment you woke. Perhaps it is not surprising, given your inferior nature, that you would assume all others are as duplicitous as you are.
The Gentle One looked to Best, and said, Now you are the one who must decide.
Best looked first to the Beings—tall, slim, and ethereal, eyes fathomless, beaks swirling with slight variations in color, like the milky surface of a pearl—and then to Least—small and mean, posture heavy with weariness. She thought of the piece of paper on the table in the grand room, where she had written young, skilled, healthy, innocent, as if those things could possibly narrow down Earth’s still substantial population to a mere fifty thousand. As if those parameters would not result in loss too profound for any one person to bear.
I won’t do it, Best said. Take fifty thousand at random, or take no one.
This is your decision? The Fierce One tipped its head back so it looked down its long nose at her. Your decision is to trade your hope of salvation for suspicion and doubt?
Best didn’t give an answer.
Very well, the Fierce One replied.
• • • •
Best and Least walked in silence through the woods beyond the grand house. An arm’s length of space separated them, yet they walked in the same direction, using Least’s sat-phone to guide them toward the nearest settlement. The only sounds they could hear were the wind blowing through the trees, the scrabbling of squirrels on branches, and the soft crunch of their own shoes on the dry pine needles.
It would take two days to reach the settlement, and neither of them knew much about surviving in the wilderness. The phone’s battery would run down quickly, so Least kept it off most of the time, buried at the bottom of her bag to remove the temptation to consult it constantly.
Any water they came across might be contaminated; any food they found might be poison. A thousand deaths awaited them, but death had always been certain, from the moment of birth, and whether it was near or far seemed oddly irrelevant now.
• • • •
They had watched the Beings leave, in a ship shaped like a feather, made of metal too white to be silver and too silver to be white. It had blended in with the clouds above for a time, and then disappeared completely, the dubious salvation the strange Beings had offered lost to humanity forever.
Least had turned to Best, and asked, Why did you believe me?
You can learn a lot about someone by what they ask of you, Best had replied. They asked me to decide who lives and who dies. You asked me not to.
But maybe we could have lived, Least had said, and for the first time, she had looked unsteady, like she had lost her footing.
Maybe, Best said. Or maybe we’ll find a way to survive without their help. Or maybe we’ll all die. But if I’m going to die, I want to die as myself.
• • • •
In the woods, hours into their walk toward civilization, Best tripped over a rock disguised by a tangle of fallen branches, and Least stuck out a hand to steady her. She kept it there a little longer than she needed to.
The two walked on into the wilderness.