"Decision At World’s End"
I jam the interplanetary comm link, belatedly realizing the equipment's upgrade means no button and my finger slips along the touch screen.
“Hello, Mr. Vanhaeker. Please hold while we connect you.”
The ground rumbles beneath me and I grasp the paneling on either side to stay upright, gritting my teeth against my own pitted anger.
There is a brief swatch of music, something jazzy with an off-worldly descant I haven’t heard before. Have trends changed so much since I left? Then I hear the blip and silence, an inhalation. I don't give him time to speak.
"We screwed it up."
"What do you mean?"
"Or rather, ITC screwed up. Screwed the entire planet."
The ground rocks beneath my feet. My heart lurches into my throat then plummets to my gut.
"You hear that?"
There’s an odd note in his voice. Not surprise – dry humor. Not horror, resignation. He knows?
"Dammit, Smith. You've heard?"
"Remly called last week. It's unfortunate, yes. More unfortunate that we can't do anything about it."
I curse him.
“This is ITC's responsibility, Smith. You need to send a team out here to check it out. Earth's not responding to our request for an evac team. We don't have the ships necessary to get everyone off the surface.”
“I'm sorry, but there's nothing we can do. We don't have the funding for a charitable expedition, nor do we have the ships you need. You know this. We can't exactly steer our planet, swing by, and come pick you up on our way out to the Draconis system.”
The ground shakes again. This time the equipment behind me beeps furiously. A woman's voice begins a lilting, soothing warning that all hell will break loose soon if I don’t do something. The lights flicker above me, worse than the strobe lights at one of those retro disco bars.
This isn't normal. You need to send a team. Planets don't self-destruct. I don't have the equipment here to monitor the whole planet's worth of tech to find out where exactly we went wrong. I took samples, but something tells me the bots went too deep. But I can't make extractions that far down to find out for sure.
"What am I supposed to do from way out here that you haven’t been able to do?"
"Just -- send a team. We don't have much time left, and I need to concentrate on getting the civilians off planet."
"What, are you military now?"
I growl. This is no time for backstabbing, no time for pin-sticking, either.
“No, but if we screwed up, then that's five other planets that could be ticking time bombs. You’ll need to find out what went wrong. Do you really want all that blood on your hands? I can't imagine that would be good for ITC stock.”
“Vanhaeker, you know I'm not the bad guy here. I've already sent teams to check out the other planets and make sure this doesn't happen again. But it's too late; there's too much damage. Epsilon is unsalvageable. Just do what you can. Save as many as you can.”
Then he disconnects the link.
I reel with unspent adrenaline, feeling drop-kicked empty in the shock that rocks me as hard as the ground beneath my feet.
I scowl and grip the paneling harder to keep myself upright. So I hadn't been the first. Remly exposed us, then. I feel an inexplicable stab of betrayal, though I, too, am here alone, making an unannounced call back to ITC headquarters, fessing up to our sins and pleading for help as if I was the one at fault. But after the wash of anger comes remorse and shame. I should’ve been the one to make that call a week ago when I'd first begun to suspect. But I'd wanted to be certain.
Not that Smith is taking his role in this apocalypse seriously.
The lights flicker then go out with the next quake, shoving me into darkness. The computerized voice becomes a distant echo behind me down the long corridor where some station or other's back-up has already come on. But the interplanetary comm room goes silent. I grit my teeth and stumble like a sleepwalker to the paneling by the door where the designers have installed the back-up generators’ controls. I flip the switch amidst the jumble of buttons and screens and wait for the boot-up.
My initiative jolts me free from the numbing shock. Instead a disarray of memories and thought tumbles through me.
Alchemy, that's what we’d started calling it. Technology turning one substance into another. The highly-regulated invention that has saved trillions of dollars and hundreds of years in terraforming is going to cost us billions in lives.
What will happen to the other five planets? What can the men Smith supposedly sent do without the tests and results from this planet?
The lights flicker on. The room comes back to life. The touch screen beneath my hands becomes a work of art in color, design, and efficiency.
“Now what?,” I ask the room.
Of course it doesn’t answer back.
“Save as many as you can,” Smith’d said.
The remembered words punch into my gut like a knife, stopping my heart in a wave of sheer terror. I feel like a kid again, when I’d wandered too far from my parents at the park then turned to suddenly find myself alone but for the path and the trees. Stranded. Left behind.
My thoughts disorder themselves again, jumbled with adrenaline and shock. I force myself to inhale slowly, squeeze my eyes shut and ignore the trembling floor beneath my shoes.
Options, options. I don’t have as many test results as I’d like, but I do have some. Enough to form my disturbing theory, which should be enough to get the other ITC teams started on discovering the truth. I’m also the only one qualified to access and transfer the data from the test labs without permission, and if I know Smith, he only gave the other planets the data he thought they should know — which means, barely anything. Since we finished terraforming Kappa the man has become far too political. I wonder, vaguely, what the man could be afraid of.
Unfortunately, with that thought I realize there are few remaining choices. One set are cowardly but enticing. The other are heroic, suicidal—but definitely more manly. I’m no longer a little boy, to fear the solitude I now face.
Bree would laugh if she knew the thoughts crossing my mind. I know better than to think she would cry.
I wipe the sweat from my forehead then bring up the contact screens for the five other planets’ ITC branches. Two of them are currently in pre-dawn time zones and so might be unreachable. The other three are at late afternoon or early evening. I open a call to the branch stationed in the latest time zone.
The connection fizzles out just as I link to their network. Then the ground rumbles hungrily below my feet, reminding me of my own ticking time-bomb.
I send a text message instead, tapping out the simple “Call immediately” with shaking fingers, and punching it through, hoping they’ll be able to keep the connection going better than I could.
Then I touch my ear implant to use my personal phone, trying for a planet-side call while I work on the interplanetary connection problem.
“Who would you like to call, Mr. Vanhaecker?”
“Mr. Josiah Price.”
“Please hold while I connect you.”
A Classic Chinese rock piece plays in my ear while I wait, typing out text messages to the other four planets to call me immediately. Then Price picks up.
I take a deep breath.
“It’s me,” I say.
I dismissed the others to go home to their families and start packing up. I called Smith but he said there is nothing he can do. Apparently Remly called last week when we first started getting results in, and Smith did nothing then, either.
“So — that’s it, then.”
Yeah, that’s it. I would tell the President to initiate that final evac order, if I were you. Get everyone off this planet.” I push away from the console, move to the redundant intraplanetary comm. console and locate its off-switch. If this is going to work I’m going to need as few machines running off the generator as possible.
“What should I tell him?”
On second thought, I begin dismantling the console for its battery and wireless emitter. I will need the parts if I’m going to upload data from our labs. Back in the early days, some security nut convinced Smith to order all our test and tech labs off the main networks, thinking a link would make them all-the-more vulnerable to being hacked. I’m going to have to establish an interplanetary connection to the other ITC branches from scratch and upload our data manually, assuming I can even get in touch with them.
I cut myself on something jagged as I get the paneling open. I suck in a breath but refrain from cursing in frustration. Instead, I force myself to focus on Price.
“Tell him to hold the Interplanetary Terraforming Committee responsible,” I say.
As soon as he gets to the space station, have him get in touch with the leaders of Zeta, Eta, Theta, Iota, and Kappa, then add his testimony to the cataclysm. If the ITC branches don’t believe me, maybe they’ll believe him.
“The five planets after ours?” he asks, horrified.
The ground plummets beneath me. I silently thank God I’m already kneeling or I would’ve been thrown hard. There’s a loud crash of concrete and metal somewhere behind me. I wait for the awful sound to end, choking on the dust blowing through the open door.
Then, I cough, swallow, and say, “Yes. Our fate will be theirs unless something drastic changes.”
“You can’t hear that awful sound? The ground is still shaking. We built the branch to withstand seismic disturbances — not the end of the world.”
“What about you?”
My throat tightens but I push through it. I take the parts I need then move on to the next useless console.
“I’m going to stay at the office,” I say as if it doesn’t mean The End.
I don’t trust Smith to tell the other branches everything we’ve learned about what’s ticking beneath their feet. Too much money and politics involved, and no guarantee the planets won’t self-destruct in his lifetime.
I take another deep breath then push my unsteady way to my feet and move clumsily to the next console. I turn it off, not bothering to dismantle and fish for its parts.
Then I make my decision. Or rather, I make it again. For some reason it’s no easier the second time and I have to fight to keep the emotion out of my voice.
“Transfer my VIP status to Bree’s account, would you?,” I say.
“If she and the boys are going to get off planet, they’re going to need it.”
“She’ll refuse. You know she hates your perks as much as she hates you.”
“She can’t refuse what she doesn’t know.”
“ … Ah. I see.”
“I’ll make the transfer.”
“Thank you. Now I need to save some planets and you need to call the President.”
Another brief pause.
“Goodbye, Joe,” I say quietly. My throat tightens and clips off the words before the link disconnects.
A light flashes and something beeps on the interplanetary comm. console. I feel my way to it then see the words flashing across the screen. Iota’s ITC Branch. I punch in the code to redirect the call to my earphone. Then I squeeze my eyes shut as I wait for linkup, breathless. I will need a roaming connection if this is going to work.
A woman’s voice answers: Younger than I was expecting.
“Hello, this is Jessie Chavez on Iota. I got your message. Aren’t you supposed to be under general evac notice?”
It should be final evac in a few minutes. That’s actually what I want to talk to you about. How stable is our connection?” I dare to look behind me then, out through the open door into the hallway filled with dust, crumbling walls and slanted ceiling. Since the communications lab is holding, I hope the tests and tech labs down the hallway are, too. If not, staying behind will all be for nothing.
“Stable,” she says.
“Could you do me a favor?”
The floor rolls beneath my feet again and I use its momentum to propel me to the door. I grunt as I fall into it hard, then I steady myself with a hand on the frame so I can plan my path through the debris.
“Sure. What do you need?” Contact the ITC Branches on the other alchemic planets and put them on a conference call with us. Hold the link open while you call them. I’m in the communications room now, but I’m going to try to send you a back-up of all our lab systems. Are you recording this conversation?
“I am now.”
“Good. Let me tell you what happened to our planet.”
“You know?” I have a theory, and if I’m right, then you will be sharing our fate in the not too distant future. If I don’t make it to the lab or I can’t manage the transfer, at least you’ll have that.
Rubble covers the hallway floor before me, making the way look unsteady at best, treacherous at worst. A section of the wall has fallen, though two of the ceiling supports still stand, illuminated by the last flickering lights still in their sockets.
“Wish me luck,” I mutter, then I step into my last mission.