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Protostellar

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“Bangtan Sonyeondan, also known as BTS, was the most popular band at the end of the world.”

Namjoon clicks the title slide past and pauses for the video clip he chose from the Earth archives. It’s around three hundred years old, BTS performing at an awards show. They’re wearing silver and purple, gauzy with smoke and colored lights, and thrashing together in precisely timed choreography as a crowd screams with one voice.

It’s opulent in a way that nothing in life on the ship is, a moment Namjoon pulled from the hundreds of hours of BTS footage because it shows not only their skill but the plush luxury of what they were. Awed murmurs ripple among the assembled senators, diplomats, and dignitaries in the conference room.

He passes the slide to an overview of their history. “They were formed in the Republic of Korea in 2013 CE, and there are reports of the last surviving members performing as BTS until the very end of the final days. At their height, just before the Climate War began, they achieved worldwide success. Here’s a look at some of their accomplishments—”

He passes the slide, and there’s general laughter. He’s put as many awards and honors as he can one slide, in tiny font, just to demonstrate the vastness of it. He’s devoted his life to trying to understand the history of Earth, and even he can barely wrap his mind around this. There were almost eight billion people on Earth before the Climate War. More people than even exist on the Eastern fleet probably knew BTS’ names. “You won’t recognize most of these, of course, but note here they received the Order of Cultural Merit from the Republic of Korea and here, delivered a speech on youth empowerment to the United Nations.”

He clicks through to another video clip, of that speech. He shivers—this always gets him. He can feel history reaching out and grabbing him. It’s a weird coincidence that both he and Min Yoongi from the Ministry have the same names as two of the BTS members… he even flatters himself he sort of looks like BTS’ Kim Namjoon, though of course much less handsome.

Namjoon has watched the speech dozens of times. He thinks that Kim Namjoon had some good ideas. Maybe Earth’s disasters could have been diverted if people had listened more to calm voices like his.

The clip ends, freezing on that ancient, radiant face. Namjoon passes to the next slide, which just says “Earth Apocalypse.”

“I’ll do a quick recap for anyone who’s not up on their ancient Earth history.” It will be most of the assembled group, but they’ll all pretend they paid attention in class and that only the others need the lesson. Everyone understands Earth was important, but it’s been so long, and it’s so far from what they know. Namjoon loves history—he’s always felt so close to it, like it’s in his bones somehow—but for most people, it’s as distant as any of the other prickles in the dark sky.

“The Climate War began in what’s called Hot October, when a series of hurricanes decimated most of the eastern seaboard of the United States, part of a longer series of weather events that affected coastal regions all over the world. Even at that late stage, experts were suggesting humanity could have altered its behavior and kept the planet habitable, but instead, the United States revealed its top-secret space station program and began evacuating its citizens to Venus. Shortly thereafter, Russia began its own evacuations. In an effort to stop Russia and the States from stripping the last of Earth’s resources to power their space programs, China declared war, but their attempt to fight on two fronts was stifled after only a few months. Most of Earth’s nations decided to ally with Russia or the States in order to get ships to evacuate as many of their own people as possible, instead of trying to save the planet. Less than two years after Hot October, humanity had given Earth up for good and was evacuating to space as quickly as possible.”

“Like most Earth citizens who were not able to evacuate, the majority of BTS’ members spent the end of days at their homes, with their families. As I mentioned, there are records of them performing at peace rallies up until the records stop completely. However, two of them…”

He clicks again, to a picture of Jeon Jeongguk and Park Jimin. Jimin took dozens of pictures of them both together over his career, but only a few where they were both smiling. Namjoon spent hours combing through them for the very best smiles. They look young, healthy. Happy.

“...came from a coastal region called Busan,” Namjoon continues. “And so, of course, by the end of days, sea levels had risen so much that there was nothing for them to go back to. There are no records of how, exactly, the decision was made, but Park Jimin and Jeon Jeongguk volunteered for the cryogenesis program. In their capsule, the President of the Republic of Korea called them, ‘honored representatives of Korea’s culture and language.’”

“At the beginning of the Climate War, the Republic of Korea called most young men into military service. You can see Park Jimin and Jeon Jeongguk here—”

He clicks one more time, to a clip of the two young men in military uniform, performing their national anthem. He almost included one of the funny clips in this presentation, something that would show the endearing personalities he feels like he’s gotten to know during his research. But this was the right call—the somber, dignified tone will help these bureaucrats and politicians understand that the BTS project is serious work. He sees nods around the room.

“I understand they did not serve on any active fronts, that they were well-known enough to have a symbolic value as performers. In the end, after about six months, the Republic of Korea got ships from the United States and began its own evacuation. They sent most soldiers home with weapons to protect what peace they could. That is when these two entered the cryogenesis program.”

The clip finishes, freezing on a frame of the two young men standing tall. “And now,” Namjoon says, keeping his voice steady though he feels almost giddy, “we will get to meet them. The process of cryodegenerating them has already begun, and we look forward to welcoming them into the newly expanded Ministry of Language, Music, and Arts in the Eastern fleet very soon. For more about that, please allow me to welcome Music Division Assistant Director and the Ministry’s BTS project lead, Min Yoongi.”

Namjoon has heard Yoongi’s speech a dozen times and doesn’t need to listen. It’s a carefully orchestrated combination of dramatically overpromising about the knowledge and leadership these expensive frozen pop stars will be able to provide, and setting expectations about how much work they’ll be able to do while adjusting to humanity’s new order.

To split the difference between the government’s hunger for results from this program and the adjustment that Jimin and Jeongguk will need, Yoongi has planned a showcase concert in one short month. He’ll commit to nothing beyond that until he’s had a chance to work with them. It’s less than the board wants and more than he feels comfortable giving—a true compromise, because everyone is unhappy.

While Yoongi speaks, Namjoon stares at the screen behind his head. He doesn’t have slides, so it’s that frame of Jimin and Jeongguk at the end of the anthem, turning their glowing faces up to the sun like it hadn’t already betrayed them. After a decade of interest in their work and months of deep study of their archives, Namjoon is really going to meet them. His heart is racing so hard it has the life support monitor on his phone flashing red lights of alarm.

Most of the questions are about the budget, for Yoongi, but the ambassador from ship twelve asks, “What do we expect in terms of their well-being?” Yoongi defers to Namjoon.

“We expect to watch it very carefully,” Namjoon says, smiling in what he hopes is a reassuring way. “Outcomes among cryodegeneration candidates vary widely, mostly depending on the circumstances of their cryogeneration in the first place rather than anything we can control. We know that Jeon Jeongguk and Park Jimin were in strong physical condition and had the resources to undergo thorough training, so we’re optimistic, but we can’t say for sure until we meet them.

“I’ve been brushing up on my ancient Korean to help communicate, but they also both know some standard English and should be able to understand modern Korean without too much trouble, once they adjust. I hope you’ll be able to meet and speak with them soon. And on that note, I should get back to the cryo theater, I don’t want to miss them waking up. If there are no more questions for me?”

There are none, though Yoongi glares as Namjoon abandons him to more interrogation about the budget. He hurries down the hall as fast as he can without slipping into an unprofessional jog, his heart rate monitor flashing at him to calm down.

###

The first thing Jeongguk knows is that it hurts.

He won’t remember (like he doesn’t remember the grinding suffocation of the last stages of cryogeneration, or the first, truest pain, the squalling terror of his birth) but in the moment it hurts so much that only the walls of machinery around him and the brainless ceaseless spark of his body’s human yearning toward life keep him from succumbing to it, letting the frozen dark take him back and keep him.

The light is searing fire, and his body has forgotten how to move, to blink, to protect itself. An old instinct shoots up like a flare, to lift his hands over his face, but when he tries, his arms are caught. He thrashes.

Voices: fast, short, unrecognizable. Panic rises, acid, in his throat.

“Shh. Try to stay calm.”

He gets sounds out around the vise on his chest, a whimper and then a choked-off roar.

“Jeongguk.” He knows this voice. “Please try to relax.”

It hurts it hurts it hurts but he has a lucky instinct to obey that gentle command, and as he drops his tension into the burn, it starts to let him go. Finally, he remembers how to blink, and again, and again.

The blur over him dips into focus, disappears behind a flash of light, comes into focus again. Glasses winking off the light, a dimple Jeongguk recognizes. He knows this face. He knows.

(Namjoon?)

(They told him so many times that everyone except Jimin would be dead.)

(Jimin, is Jimin here?)

(Unless they haven’t frozen them yet, maybe Namjoon changed his mind, maybe he came back, maybe Jeongguk will go to Ilsan after all.)

He hurts too much to be confused too, it hurts, it all hurts, but before he blacks out, his dry mouth manages one word: “Hyung?”