Source by Matthew S. Williams - HTML preview
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Part I: Source
Phobos Mining Camp
The Martian soil. A cloud of frozen vapour passed in front of his eyes as a small gust of wind blew from the far horizon. The deep blues and indigos of the night sky shone in the scattered pools that cut through the red sand dunes. It was the magic hour, when the far sun was beginning to recede and sink into the earth. Terra hung in the distance, its orbitals twinkled like rings of silver lace and its lit-up side emitting pale shades of blue and green.
Delphus knelt down in front of the nearest pool. He scooped up the night sky and watched the stars slip between his fingers. Where it landed, a thousand sighs echoed in his ears.
Distant Earth grew brighter, its oceans shining a brighter blue and rings of clouds forming in its skies. He felt a cool wave rush over him. Another gust of wind blew in, carrying the soft hints of a voice in it.
The sound was unmistakable, and it was beginning to grow in intensity. He turned to look in its direction and saw a dancing whirl of sand forming in front of him. The sand began to collect and take form, the voice becoming louder and identifiable as it did. The sand form became his second, and he had news.
―We‘ve tapped the Virgin source, sir.‖
―Is it good? Is it as good as we hoped?‖
―It‘s everywhere, sir. More than we can imagine. More than we could drink in our lifetimes, sir! Everything we could ever want, sir. It‘s here! IT‘S HERE!‖
He knelt in the sand. The pools began to overflow and form into spouts. Water, crystals and starry eyes merged before him, washing over him and casting him adrift in the night. He was floating in a great sea of burning embers, ferried to somewhere far off.
The voice called again, this time it was much more distant.
He ignored the voice. It was unwelcome. Why was it unwelcome? Did it not hear the news? The voice called again, so close that it was in his ear now.
His eyes snapped open. The ceiling of the cavern appeared before him. Closing his eyes tightly, he cursed his luck. He was awake, and back on Phobos. Somehow, he knew it was too good to be true. The operations centre and its bleeping consoles roused him to full wakefulness, as unwelcome to him as the voice that had been shouting in his ear. Looking over to his right, he saw the source of it, sitting there and staring at him impatiently.
―What‘s the time?‖ he asked aloud.
―Fifteen minutes to the hour,‖ Milner replied, checking his chrono. ―Which is exactly thirty minutes since the last time you asked.‖
―Have I been out that long?‖
―Just about. You were making funny noises. I thought I‘d wake you.‖
―I was dreaming,‖ he said mystically, the words emptying from his mouth like a gentle breeze.
―Really?‖ Milner asked, looking at him sideways. ―What about?‖
Delphus felt the vague recollection of something pleasant, of fields full of shimmering crystals, a sky full of stars. He remembered the feeling of having found something, feeling truly blessed to be where he was and beholding something great. But it was fast slipping away. What little he could hold on to was the memory of looking at himself in a small pool that he carried in his hands. Too soon, the pool had drained away, the reflection gone, his empty hands staring him starkly in the face. Was that what had happened, or was it the awakening that made him think of that? He couldn‘t tell.
He shook his head and avoided the question.
―Any word from the mining teams?‖
―Not since their last scheduled report. Still no sign of any aquifers.‖
―Not even a trickle?‖
―Nope,‖ Milner shook his head, his eyes now back on the display console. With nothing better to do, he had taken to watching some vids being broadcast out of Demos. It looked like another lacrosse game, the loud percussions of drive-sticks making contact with the ball and sending it zipping along in the low gravity environment.
―How can you just sit there?‖ Delphus asked.
―What else can I do?‖ Milner replied. ―Worrying about it isn‘t going to make a find that much more likely. Besides, the Ministry said it‘s here, so I‘ll assume that we‘ll find something eventually.‖
Delphus grunted and pushed himself to his feet. Even in the low gravity environment, he could feel his joints straining under the effort of standing up. The intense cold and monotony were beginning to wear on more than just his patience. He needed to get mobile again, to get the blood moving and his mind off the interminable seconds that fell between. Milner, on the other hand, had let his extremities turn numb a long time ago and huddled himself into in his seat, hoping to keep his internal organs warm at least. The report was now three hours overdue, and each passing hour made things that much more strained. In the grand scheme of things, they had wasted for more time on this mission, a mere drop in the bucket for their team‘s long history of service. But everyone knew what hinged on this latest find; their jobs, their futures, and perhaps the future of the Mining Corps. They needed a find, and a good one at that. He knew worrying about it now wouldn‘t hasten the mining team or change the outcome of their excavation. But, as he‘d realized some hours ago, there was nothing better to do…
The loud hum heard through the protection of his helmet finally stopped. Oleg ordered the ear caps removed so he could let some outside noise in. The din of the drill slowly cooling down was there, in the background, beneath the voices cackling through his intercom. The driver had reported a breakthrough. The long depths of stone had finally given way, but the signs were not altogether good. Getting out of his seat inside the tunnel crawler, he worked his way forward into the drilled shaft in the direction of the drill unit. He passed a few surveyors on the way, there reports already filing into his headset.Flipping down his helmet‘s visor and setting it to surveyor mode, he noted the wall patterns that the surveyor was pointing out.
―Sandstone sir, thick and dry. There‘s evidence here of leaching, but it looks like its been dry for some time.‖
―Not a great indication,‖ Oleg said, flipping his visor back up. ―Still, that doesn‘t mean there isn‘t a source up ahead. I‘m going to have a look.‖
―Be careful, sir,‖ the surveyor called to his back. Oleg dismissed his concern with a wave of the hand. He had been a shaft foreman long enough to know how to step right and 6
where not to venture. Years of working inside tunnels with sonic boosters also had given him a sixth sense for knowing when a cave-in was about to happen. All his instincts were in the green today. Although they were under the gun and the job was a high-profile one, everything was going smoothly and safely. He only hoped the other teams were fairing equally well. Though given how many, the law of averages stated that at least one or two teams were having troubles, if they weren‘t already dead and buried.
The Ministry had certainly spared no expense in this particular operation, even pulling teams in from as far away as Triton and Pluto. When that proved insufficient, they even contracted out to private mining concerns, and Oleg was thankful he didn‘t have any of them close at hand. Private miners were good at guarding the bottom line, but safety wasn‘t always foremost on their minds. Ministry types, on the other hand, might take longer, but the endless amount of red tape ensured that nothing got done if it meant endangering people unnecessarily.
At least that was how he saw it. And he would be damned if any private boys had found their cache before he did.
Making his way to the drill unit, he turned himself sideways to squeeze past a wall of smooth rock on one side and the drill chassis on the other. His suit registered amplified thermal readings as he brushed the rock, the stone still hot from its run-in with the diamond-headed bit.
The driver greeted him once he reached the front, touching his helmet in mock salute.
―How‘s the pressure today?‖ Oleg asked.
―More than I can take,‖ the driller joked. ―Lucky for me I just drives her.‖
The tip still glowed red hot from the pressure and friction. Oleg gave it a pat as he walked by it, throwing his suits alarms into overdrive. Mentally, he told them to relax; he did not intend to be making prolong contact with it. It was simple tradition, one always showed respect for the gear that did the hard stuff and chose not to break down in the process. One also thanked them for when they turned up the desired caches the rest of them just happened to be drilling for.
With that in mind, Oleg stepped past the drill to the precipice to look over the edge into the newly opened cavern. Overall, it was not too impressive a sight. The far wall of the cavern could not have been more than a fifty metres away, best guess. The fact that drill‘s own headlights were able to pick out the different colour pigments in the sandstone were a good indication. His visor‘s own estimate confirmed this.
Snapping on his head light, he peered down the edge past the far wall to see how deep the cavern could be. He could only hope it made up for its lack of width in depth. He was surprised to see that when he came to the limit of his helmet‘s reach, he was still wasn‘t able to see the floor. Leaning over just as much as he dared, he caught sight of a few more metres, but still no floor. Oleg took a deep breath and did something he always told his miners never to do, he stepped out onto the ledge to get a better look. Craning to see down and not compromise his already precarious footing, he finally saw what appeared to be bottom. Unfortunately, the cavern didn‘t end there. At the bottom, in a sloping, slide-like fashion, the cavern turned into a tunnel and extended deeper into the rock, beyond his line of sight.
―Driver!‖ he yelled back. ―Hey Ed!‖
―What is it boss?‖ he asked from his side a second later.
―Get back to the crawler, fetch me the portable light and tell the Lilly to come with me.
We got some exploring to do.‖
―No sign of water?‖
―Not yet, just do that please.‖
A moment or two later and he was joined by Lilly, his second and their team‘s seismologist. Behind her, Ed carried the portable light fixture, it fitted to his shoulder like some kind of archaic missile launcher.
―Well, Lil‘, seems our sonic readings were incorrect. The cavern is actually a long tunnel extending a lot deeper.‖
―Ah,‖ Lilly said, nodding inside her helmet. ―Tunnels can play havoc with sonar readings, it‘s no wonder it looked fuzzy before.‖
―But didn‘t the Ministry say that this was a sure find? Didn‘t they say it the presence of liquid H20 that was throwing off our readings?‖
―The Ministry says a lot of things boss. Especially when they‘re desperate to be right.‖
―So what do we do now?‖ It was Ed asking this from their rear, already looking uncomfortable under the weight of the light. As the one bearing the burden, he was clearly not happy standing around and wanted some orders.
―Well, we came here to find a source and if the only way to do that is to spelunk a little, then that‘s what we‘ll do. We‘ll never get the drill down there as it is, too steep. Tell the others to report back to the crawler and take a break, we‘ll go on ahead. And have one of them bring us the tow cables and climbing gear. Looks like we‘ll get to do some recreational climbing after all.‖
Lilly cringed. She and some of the others had been lured on this outing with the promise that when they were finished, they would be getting some paid time off to flit around Mars. She and a few others had already talked about seeing Olympus Mons, maybe doing some rock climbing when they had the time. Somehow, the foreman had overheard them and it now a bunt of a bad joke. If this was all the climbing Oleg was promising them... well, suffice it to say, that stunk to high hell. But then again, no one was counting on the promises that had been made anyway on this mission.
―Crew reports they‘re settled and waiting,‖ Lilly said after conveying Oleg‘s orders and receiving their replies. ―Shall we contact Phobos too?‖
―No need, we‘ll call them when we‘ve got something more tangible to report.‖
―Yeah,‖ agreed Ed. ―Let ‗em wait it out, I‘m sure they‘re plenty comfortable sitting up there, not like us down here.‖
―What could be taking them so long?‖ Delphus asked abruptly. ―Our best estimates said they should have hit something by now. It can‘t take this long to find a source.‖
―Boss, relax,‖ Milner muttered.
―How can you stay so calm?!‖ Delphus shouted back at him. ―Especially now! We are under the gun and if we screw up, you know what the Ministry will do to us!‖
―Yes, I know all that. But losing your cool won‘t make things better.‖
―What do you suggest I do then?‖
―Maybe you could start working on your résumé.‖
Delphus stared at him for a few seconds. Not knowing how else to react, he softened and allowed himself a small chuckle. Milner laughed too, betraying some of the tension he‘d kept well hidden until now. He nodded as well, as if trying to drive the point home.
Yes, it was funny, if for no other reason than because it was true. But the moment passed and they went right back into silence. A moment later, and Delphus was pacing again, wearing a new stripe into the metal flooring.
Rising from his seat, Milner walked over to him and put a hand on his shoulder.
―Sir,‖ he said, ―there are bound to be some unforeseen delays. We can‘t expect the crews to maintain their rigorous schedule under all of the conditions we‘ve imposed on them. It‘s not humanly possible.‖
―Tell that to the Ministry,‖ Delphus said without meeting his gaze. ―If those miners think I‘m pressuring them they should try talking to the folks back home. We haven‘t been paid in weeks, and my wife keeps telling me about all the bills that keep piling up. Sorry, I just can‘t be stoic right about now.‖
―I understand, sir. But we still need to stay calm here. Besides, we really may want to assess our options here. It might not hurt to start thinking about…‖
Milner‘s words were interrupted by the crackling coming from the main comm channel.
Looking at each other, the two men then dashed to the comm panel to hit the receiver button.
Delphus was there first. Milner almost tripped over himself. As the report came through, he stood back up and tried to recover what dignity he had lost in that hurried little shuffle. So much for calm, he thought. The report was both blaringly loud and full of static. Nevertheless, they were able to get the gist of it.
―Mining base, this is foreman Oleg from mining team Omega, reporting from base thirteen. This is our survey report for potential source find…‖
Both men crossed their fingers and waited for the good news.
―Nothing,‖ the voice said with undeniable finality. ―The source is dry. There‘s nothing, sir, and from the looks of it, there hasn‘t been for centuries.‖
There was a long pause on their end. Delphus pulled himself away from the console. He looked like someone who had just been told his dog had been run over. He just stood there shaking his head. Meanwhile, the mining captain needed a reply.
―We‘re finished here, sir. Permission to return to the surface?‖
Delphus reluctantly pushed the transmitter button.
―Permission granted, Captain.‖
The intercom crackled and died. A long silence followed in the control room. Milner waited anxiously for his boss to say something. Given the news, he wasn‘t sure if he could think of anything positive to say. Again, he said what he could.
―Maybe some of the other miners did better.‖
―Yeah, maybe,‖ Delphus came back.
―There‘s got to be some sources left in this system.‖
That was all he could say to that. Delphus shook his head a little longer, then finally said what was already obvious: ―The Ministry is going to eat us alive. This is the third time we‘ve had to tell them we couldn‘t deliver.‖
Nodding, Milner said: ―Maybe we should start putting together our report.‖
―Right, can‘t keep them waiting,‖ Delphus said sarcastically. ―In the meantime, tell the engineers to start closing down the facility. Might as well get a head start on it all.‖
―You really think they‘ll shut us down here?‖ Milner asked.
―There‘s no reason to stay here any longer. This place is dry as a bone.‖
Terran-Orbital One, Earth
Sheila drummed her fingernails against the top of her desk as she stared out her window into space. Unfortunately, this provided little stimulation, as the view had become boring many months back. There was nothing but an endless ocean of stars out there, and beneath them, a limited view of a planet that had died a long time ago. At first, she had welcomed her promotion and the release it provided from her former office environment. Her new position at the Ministry of Supply meant privacy when she wanted it, a personal assistant, and a new office with a window. It also gave her some space to reflect on the recent upsets that had happened in her life.
Tim was gone; their relationship had dried up long ago. Somehow, her home domicile felt just a little too empty without someone else to be there. At least she still had David, a coworker from her old position, to keep her company. That was another perk of her promotion; she got to choose whom she wanted for the position of her personal assistant. He was the natural choice and could always make her laugh. Nevertheless, that did not change the basic nature of the work they performed at the Ministry. Things gravitated between long periods of tedium and quick flashes of panic. For much of the year, there was little to do except process minor reports.
The rest of the time, they were being pressured to produce major ones.
Clearly, this day fell into the former category. David was out trying to get his hands on one such report. Her bloody superiors insisted they send it by courier, rather than trust in the extremely efficient Terran-Orbital Network, or T-Net for short. This errand took him away and left her with only two options to pass the time: play a solo game of low-gravity ball, or stare out her window. Bouncing a ball against the wall in the low-gravity environment could only occupy her interest for so long. Just how long could watching a ball drift slowly through the air stay interesting? Sheila had it timed to about twenty-one minutes. That only left the unpleasing view of Earth, with all its vast poisoned oceans and dried up landmasses. One could only imagine what it looked like eons ago when it still supported so many lives.
In time, David returned to her office with a metal tube in hand. He was almost breathless when he blew quickly through her door. Dropping it on her desk, he motioned at her to open it.
―Are you okay?‖ she asked.
―Huh! Yeah!‖ he puffed, trying to regain his breath. ―They said it was very important, look at it!‖
Hesitantly, Sheila picked up the tube and eyed it carefully. It was from the Central Ministry, and even had the Seal of the Executive on it. This was important news! It was little wonder why they had chosen to send it by courier instead of over the open T-Net.
Using her personal key, which was something every manager was entrusted with, Sheila quickly unlocked the tube. Sheila untwisted the vacuum seal and popped the end off. It gave off a loud cracking noise as the unpressurized contents were exposed to atmosphere. Turning it up on one end, Sheila was rewarded with a small piece of crystal paper. The razor thin sheet landed on her desk, and slowly, reacting with the oxygen atmosphere, some phosphorescent letters began to light up on the sheet. The message was short and very direct: Emergency Meeting. Central Ministry. 0800 HOURS, April 15th. U-V Classified.
―My God!‖ Sheila said.
―Whoo! Yeah,‖ David said.
―David!‖ Sheila said as she looked up suddenly. In her haste, she forgot to tell him to leave the room. Sensing her thoughts, he drew back sheepishly.
―Oooohh, sorry,‖ he said.
―Well, I guess the damage is done,‖ she replied. ―I suppose I‘ll have to kill you now.‖
―That‘ll be better than you taking me with you!‖ David came back.
They shared a nervous laugh. David was right, she realized. Compared to the prospect of an ultra-violet level meeting, death probably seemed like the better option. Suddenly, she was regretting her promotion. Whatever this was all about, she was sure someone else should be handling it.
A few shuttle rides later and Sheila found herself at the Central Ministry. The exterior was a cold gunmetal grey, glass and steel being the only materials involved in the construction.
The interior was much the same. Nowhere were there any synthetic wood surfaces, which if nothing else, were aesthetically pleasing. There were no smooth surfaces either, only angular edges. The halls appeared relatively deserted. Nowhere was there anyone running errands, passing through departments. She guessed she was one of the last to arrive. The other employees must have been told to lay low, probably for security reasons.
When she finally came to the right area and found the meeting room, she walked in as quietly as she could. The lights were low and the windows were drawn. Still, she thought she could discern a long oval table, and the silhouettes of several people seated at it. For a moment she just stood there and looked around for some sign of an empty seat, or an indication that she was in the correct room. Finally, someone called to her.
―Ministry of Supply? Are you from Supply?‖ the voice said.
―Yes,‖ she replied.
―You‘re just in time, take a seat.‖
Sheila shuffled around to the other side of the room, stubbing her feet a few times in the dark. Finally, she came to an open seat that someone pulled out for her and sat down. Spreading her things out on the table, removing her transcription pad from its case, she prepared for what was sure to be an interesting meeting. Already there was a kind of nervous energy in the air, discernable through the quiet but frantic whispers that went back and forth. Naturally people were asking each other if they knew or had heard anything about this was all for.
A few seconds later, a tall prominent figure stepped to the door and made their way in. In the dark, there was little more than a hulking silhouette to be seen. Sensing the arrival of someone important, everyone in the room went quiet.
When the silhouette made its way around to the front of the room, he tapped some buttons on a small panel that made the lights come on. With the help of some artificial illumination, they could finally discern the presence of a Ministerial Director. This was certainly a surprise. The Central Ministry had not sent a spokesman, but a Director to talk to them.
Ordinarily they preferred to let professional speakers handle bad news. This time they sent one of their own. Placing a few items down on the table in front of him, he looked up at his audience and began to speak.
―Good morning ladies and gentlemen,‖ he said. ―I would like to thank you all for coming, as this meeting is of the utmost importance. But before I speak, I would like to say that this is highly-classified, ultra-violet level, so if anyone is caught sharing this information, they can be expected to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.‖
There was no response from the table. Everyone knew the drill by now and the message had been plainly labelled. The Director continued.
―Good. Having said all that, I will get right to the point. To break this information down succinctly, the human race has just a few years of potable water left to its name.‖
There was a quiet gasp from the table, and everyone‘s attention became much more focused on The Director, who went on to explain.
―Our latest missions to Triton, Europa, the Martian Soils, and the outer rings, all ended in utter failure. The more gloomy projections that were filed here, within the Ministry of Supply, appeared to be correct. We are running out of water, and we have exhausted all available sources.‖
The quiet turned to some angry murmurs as people began to turn to each other to see if they had heard right. Their anger was certainly understandable, Sheila reckoned. As if to give voice to it, someone raised their hands and said aloud:
―We were told that the Virgin Martian Soils would yield some impressive caches of water in the next year. That was what you told us when we published our annual report for the people to read.‖
―That was based on some better projections,‖ he said unapologetically. ―We suspected that at least one source would prove plentiful. But unfortunately, we were wrong.‖
―You were wrong?!‖ the same person yelled out. The angry murmurs turned into loud exchanges directed every which way. The Director looked on, his face undisturbed by what clearly was an attack on his and his government‘s competence.
―Well what are we supposed to do now?‖ another asked. ―What do we tell the people?‖
―For now,‖ he said coolly. ― We don‘t tell them anything. We don‘t want a riot on our hands. The Executive and the Cabinet believe that the best thing for us to do right now is rework our projections and begin to come up with an implementation policy.‖
―Implementation for what?‖ Sheila interjected. ―What are we being called on to implement here?‖
The Director turned his cold, steely eyes on her.
―An emergency rationing policy for when our supplies begin to run out. We need to compute distribution, shipment, and everything in between, down to the very millilitre.‖
The angry voices suddenly went quiet. The full weight of today‘s meeting appeared to be bearing down on them. Far from being just a whopping load of bad news, this meeting was also about delegating a whopping load of responsibility. Naturally someone thought to ask:
―Well, what can we expect then? What does the Cabinet think we‘ll be dealing with, and how soon, more importantly?‖
Coolly, the Director began to explain;
―First, there will be a three to five year period where the existing rationing and recycling program can be expected to cover basic consumption. People will have to limit themselves to twenty litres a days for general use, and one litre a day strictly for drinking. Then,‖ his voice turned slightly graver, ―we can expect shortages to start. People will have to cut back on washing, and we can expect some degree of health problems to occur as a result. Nothing too drastic, as long as proper measures are taken. After that… we can expect serious shortages to occur.‖
The room turned quiet as everyone pondered what that meant. After a second, someone thought to ask the obvious question.
―What kinds of scenarios are we to expect?‖
The Director took a deep breath, folded his arms over and began to run through the most likely ones.
―We can expect riots in the first year, beginning with the Earth Orbit colonies then gradually spreading outward to the edge of the system. They will probably last for a few days, growing in size and intensity and it will be directed squarely at government buildings, as well as any outward symbol of government authority. Security measures will have to remain in effect to 12
protect us in that time. After a few days, the population is then likely to turn on each other, and we need to be prepared for a prolonged period of riots and civil disorder. Then, we can expect sever dehydration to set in. When calm returns, we can begin rebuilding and instituting emergency procedures to make sure that our reserves are distributed evenly to ensure maximum survival. This will all take at least a year to put in effect and we can hope that by that time, the people will have calmed down sufficiently and will accept government control again.
He voice began to trail off again in that characteristic way of his. But of course, everyone already knew what he was trying to say. That didn‘t stop Sheila from finishing the sentence for him.
―We won‘t have enough water for everyone who will be left once it‘s up and running, will we?‖
―No,‖ the Director said flatly.
There was a grumble and some muted objections that came from the long table.
Suddenly everyone regretted coming to work that day. With one meeting, they had gone from being the caretakers of their race to the arbiters of its fate. And there didn‘t appear to be a single upside to the news. Finally, someone broke the tension.
―How many people are going to die?‖ they yelled. ―Does the government have a projection for that?‖
―We can expect several billion deaths during the initial fighting, then at least ten more during the cooling off period. Once the emergency rationing takes effect, we can expect the death toll to drop substantially, but unfortunately, and your right in this,‖ he said, pointing at Sheila, ―we won‘t be able to stop it altogether, but at least we‘ll be able to reduce it to a trickle.‖
―How many deaths in total?‖ someone asked finally.
―All told,‖ he said with a pause, ―anywhere between twenty and thirty billion people.‖
―Dear God!‖ the room erupted with cries of horror and disgust. Looking to each other, everyone in the room cursed and wailed and just generally vented their emotions. Throughout it all, the Director maintained a stoic calm, and appeared disquieted by the fact that the others were not doing the same. For a moment, Sheila eyed him and tried to find some measure of humanity in his cold stare. But, she imagined, after years of anticipating situations like this one and trying to find solutions, he had been bled dry. It was no longer a question of whether or not some people would die, not to him. Now it was only a question of who would be left. Upset by their outbursts, he yelled for calm to be restored.
―The central government simply does not have the resources to sustain one-hundred billion lives indefinitely people! We need to start thinking about what is to be done here, implementation and how we are going to deal with the aftermath of this crisis once it passes! We need to prepare the entire civil service for when the shortage hits and the people go berserk. We need to prepare for the waves of violence that will be directed at us, move the shelters to higher ground, if you will. If we are to get through this, we have to ensure that something of this government survives to clean up the mess afterwards, otherwise no one will left when it‘s all over!‖
That managed to quiet the room down a little. But here and there, there were still moans from servants who were overburdened by their new responsibilities. In between angry faces and teary eyes, one person stood up and asked a pointed question:
―One more thing, sir, which is something we haven‘t covered yet. What‘s going to happen after the crisis passes and we get these emergency procedures underway? How are we all 13
supposed to live, and for how long? Even with reserves and recycling at full use we can‘t be expected to live forever. So what then?‖
With everything else that had been said, no one appeared to be listening closely to this last question. There was very little reaction from around the room. Sheila had all but missed it too. She had David‘s head cradled in her arms and was trying to console him, poor lad. But strangely, the Director looked like he had been caught off guard by it, since he answered it in a rather rounded fashion.
―We are still working on that,‖ he said, his eyes cast downward. ―Right now we need to stay focused on the next five years. One way or another, everything is going to hit the fan in that amount of time, and we need to be prepared for that first.‖
The one who had asked the question nodded sheepishly and sat back down. There was another pause as the Director looked around one last time with that same cold glare. Deciding that he was done answering questions, he issued his directives to all of them to start implementing preparations as they came in from the capitol. Finally, he issued one last reminder:
―I can assume that I don‘t need to remind everyone that this meeting is a secret. Nothing that was said here today is to leave this building. We don‘t want a riot on our hands now do we?‖
In the upper living section known as Sargasso Mansions, the night time cycle was beginning to set in. As their section on the outer ring slowly turned away form the Sun, the windows that admitted sunlight during daytime hours began to slide shut. In perfect synchronicity, the streetlights that dotted the artificial landscape began to come on. Through her kitchen window, Indira watched as the eerie light poured into their domicile and bathed the walls in a cool blue-white. Rohit was now an hour late from his job at the Aerospace company, and she was beginning to worry. What worried her more was the strange letter that had arrived for her from the Central Ministry. No one was in the habit of receiving snail mail these days, especially from the government. Worst of all was the cryptic instructions written on it.
To: Mrs. Indira Balasubramanian. From: The Executive of the Central Ministry.
For your eyes only, not to be opened in the vicinity of others.
There was no similar letter delivered for Rohit. Perhaps there was a delay or something.
Whatever this was, she would feel better if she knew it was something she could share with her husband. And what was keeping him? He hadn‘t mentioned anything about a meeting, and would have called if he and his associates were planning something for after work. Rohit was pretty good that way. Given her schedule, it was usually her who got home late and he who was forced to wait. Tonight‘s change of pace, in addition to the receipt of this letter, made her nervous.
Finally, at ten minutes past the hour, Rohit‘s hovercar appeared at the end of their street.
Indira breathed a sigh of relief, but then began to worry about the obligatory conversation she would need to have with him. She did her best to put on a brave face, and when the door to their domicile opened, she put on her brightest smile.
―Rohit!‖ she said, a little too loudly. ―How was work?‖
―Uh, a little weird actually, at least in our section.‖ he said back, putting his kitbag down beside the door and taking off his overcoat. ―The boss was passing some strange requests across our desks this morning, then he convened us after work to discuss some new contracts we might be getting.‖
―Ah,‖ she said, having only heard half of what he said.
―Yes,‖ he said, loosening his tie and walking over to kiss her. ―He said something about a new government project. They‘re asking us to design a new type of space-faring vessel, something radically advanced. They said it would be for some kind of deep-space exploration, but the specifications were for something way beyond what we‟re used to.‖
―Really,‖ Indira said, her interest suddenly being perked.
―Yep, and that‘s not even the most interesting part.‖ Rohit walked towards the kitchen as he continued to talk. ―I also heard from some of the office gossips that our firm is just one of many that are getting asked to do this sort of thing. One of the guys in our section even has a friend over at a sister firm, and he said they‘re being contracted to develop some kind of new sub-light engine.‖ Rohit opened the fridge, pulled out a bottle of Soy beverage, uncapped it and continued. ―The funny thing is, the specs they were given were also for something that would have to be massive, something similar to what we were given.‖
For a moment Indira almost forgot about the letter. It appeared Rohit had some curiosities of his own, and she wondered if they were somehow linked. Noticing that she hadn‘t said anything for a moment or so, he called over to her to get her attention.
―Patnii! Did you hear what I said?‖ he asked.
―Hmm! Yes, I‘m sorry.‖
―Nothing,‖ she said quickly. ―I‘m just a little distracted. Something came for me today.‖
―What?‖ he asked, putting the bottle down. Indira chose to take a roundabout course to broach it with him.
―Tell me, did anybody at work say anything about getting a strange letter in the mail, from the government?‖
Rohit‘s face scrunched up in that curious way of his. He thought for a moment, and then nodded.
―Yes, I heard someone from our R&D division saying something about that. He said it was sealed and confidential and everything, but he had to shut about it because he didn‘t want to get in trouble.‖
Indira suddenly became worried. So, other people were getting these too. And Rohit wasn‘t. Even though she had no idea what the contents were, she knew enough to be afraid.
―What going on?‖ he asked, inching his way towards her and taking her hands in his.
―I received one too!‖ she confessed. ―It‘s on the table.‖
Rohit turned to look at their dining room table. Sure enough, a large sealed package was there, the front covered with seals and insignia‘s that indicated its authenticity. He was worried now too, although not as much as she was. It was not so much for her own sake, but for his.
Had the situation been reversed, it would be him that needed to be consoled. Looking to her, he said gently:
―I‘m sure it‘s nothing bad. Why don‘t you open it?‖
Taking a deep breath, and throwing aside the warnings that were printed on it, she looked her husband in the eyes and said gently:
―I want to open it together.‖
Sheila had been staring at the contents of her cup for almost an hour. There were only three drops left in it, and for some reason, she could not bring herself to drink them. Against the far wall, the dispenser sat quietly in its basin; dry as a bone and emitting no noise whatsoever.
The slightest drop would have sent her running over to it, trying to tighten the knobs to prevent the loss of any precious liquid. Everything that had happened within the last few months had created some sort of panicky vigilance in her. Everywhere in the known universe, the most precious resource was drying up from under their very noses, and aside from a select bunch of government workers, no one knew about it. She wondered how long they could possibly keep it a secret from the masses, before all the pieces concerning the construction program and the lottery suddenly clicked into place for them. So far, the Ministries had been a model of secrecy, and in spite of some idle gossip, no one seemed to know what was happening. The elaborate cover story, about a new era of exploration and discovery, appeared to be keeping them preoccupied. The current rationing regimen also appeared to be going over relatively well.
Given how most people had become accustomed to rationing programs in one form or another, no one suspected that this new one was any different.
It‟s so unfair. She thought as she rotated the cup around on her table. Next to it, the two packages she had received that morning lay unopened. She knew exactly what they were about, so there was no need to look inside them. In one, her ticket for the Phoenix project, with instructions of where to go when the time came, had been placed. In the other was her special rationing permit, in case she decided to forgo participation in the former. Both needed to be opened, and one needed to be signed and returned. As usual, David had been the one to deliver them to her. And, like before, she had to keep them a secret, seeing as how he wasn‘t entitled to either. While he would be expected to stay behind and probably die like so many others, she had been given two choices:
One: to show up at Canaveral Spaceport in four years time, board a new exploration craft, and travel to Proxima Centauri where she would take part in a new colonization effort using select members of the human species to seed a new world.
Two: to stay behind and be entitled to her fair share of water rations so that she could live through the coming draught and chaos and become a member of the new Terran government once it took power.
Either option was a guarantee, and because someone somewhere in the upper levels of government decided she was useful, she was free to choose between them. David received no such consideration, and for that matter, neither had her old flame, Tim. Relying on a former associate, and using a little of her clout, she had managed to sneak a peak at the Ministry of Supply‘s master list. She thought she had it hard, trying to make this choice. But for others at the Ministry, making up the list of who would be allowed to survive and who wouldn‘t was much worse. Most of them didn‘t even have the option of taking part in Phoenix. They were expected to stay behind, be the data punchers and paper-pushers in the new government. And for those who couldn‘t even take part in that, they were being kept busy with the implementation plans, and were being kept in the dark about the rest. The Central Ministry was making preparations for everything that needed to be done, taking just about everything into consideration. The one thing they weren‘t making any provisions for was the incredible feeling of guilt that was setting in. Some people were literally writing up lists that did not include their own family members. There were rumours that some people were cracking, and were subsequently being disappeared. The secret had to be preserved, at any cost.
The water in her glass had all but evaporated by now. It was silly, not drinking it. One way or another, it would disappear. It was not as if she could will it into someone else once it was already poured. But somehow, drinking it felt wrong. Pushing the glass away, Sheila took a deep breath and tried to calm her nerves. She was dangerously close to cracking herself. And 16
there was still work to be done, and an important decision to be made. There was simply no point in avoiding it forever. Forever was a luxury, a myth, that nobody had anymore. Grabbing at one of the packages, she unsealed it and readied her pen to sign it.
Who knew? Maybe some of that old clout could be used again to ensure that David retained his position when she became part of the new government. Maybe not. In either case, she would not cut and run. Someone needed to stay behind, to see to it that those who could survive did.
Rohit peered over the edge of his cubicle to see if there was anyone within earshot. He spotted a group of people congregating around the dispenser, swapping stories of the latest over hot mugs of coffee. He didn‘t need to near them to know what they were talking about: the letters from the Ministry. Scarcely anyone in his section didn‘t know someone who hadn‘t received one. But strangely, very few people had received them themselves. It was just a few days ago that Indira had received hers, and when they opened it together, it only serve to deepen their confusion. A single sheet of crystal paper, carrying rather specific instructions, was all that was housed within.
The bearer of this bond must report to the nearest Ministry outlet to receive their new status card. Please consult your T-Net to find the outlet nearest you. Neither this bond nor your status card are transferable.
The significance of the message was something they debated for many hours afterward.
The bearer of this bond? And more importantly, what status card? Last time they checked, neither Rohit nor Indira were entitled to any special status under Ministry law. There had read about pockets of early settlers on Mars, Ganymede and Europa who enjoyed that kind of status, the original colonists of the early settlement period who were all but overrun and supplanted when the main dispersal took place centuries later. These people were confined to small pockets in and around the main settlements on all these worlds, and were still required to carry cards to identify themselves. Beyond that, neither could think of a single reason why the Ministry was issuing new cards, or why they needed to show up at some outlet to receive them. And most importantly, why had Indira received one and not he? Was she in some kind of trouble, or was he?
The letter also contained explicit instructions that the contents were of a sensitive nature, but how could anyone stay silent on this? And why exactly were they meant to stay silent when there was clearly nothing to talk about? All most people could do was speculate endlessly. For those working with Rohit, the speculation didn‘t end there. Rumours also abounded about the project they were working on. Could the two be related, they wondered. Many theories were put forward: one person suggested that the ship they were working on was part of some new colonizing effort, and that the people receiving cards were being selected to be part of it.
Another believed that the ship was a emissary ship for some intelligent species, and that the people with passes were to be frozen and put aboard for the sake of study once they reached the alien homeworld. Yet another suggested that the ship meant to find intelligent life and bring it back to Earth. The pass cards were part of some new caste system that would simplify human culture to the point that they might be able to understand us. Or perhaps the aliens‘ social structure was already known, and this was an attempt to emulate so humanity would have something in common with them, a cultural bridge if you will. The last person he had heard 17
from went so far as to suggest offering these people as breeding stock for the sake of some alien-human hybrid.
Not comfortable to sit around and listen to these increasingly morbid ideas, Rohit had finally decided to do some snoop work. Taking a second to make sure no one was looking, he slipped away from his desk and made his way to the nearest lift. Several floors below, in the archives section, a friend and associate was waiting for him. He had told her he would be there by 1100 hours. Checking his chrono, he now hoped she hadn‘t taken that estimate too literally.
The lift deposited him in the archives level a moment later. Rohit stepped off into the dimly lit corridor, making his way along the floor grating to where Miriam had her office. Along the way, he kept an eye out for anything out of the ordinary, which in this section, didn‘t include much. Down here, where the air was dank and the insects proliferated, the only thing that could ever be considered as odd would be the presence of people. This, though, he kept a careful watch on. Since the project had been delivered to their company, security had been tightened exponentially. Foreign contractors were even brought in to ensure that non-essential personnel did not make it into the building, or even in from another section. And then there those new confidentiality agreements they were all forced to sign, limiting the amount of contact employees from different sections were allowed to have with each other. That was certainly not effective, seeing as how different sections were responsible for designing different areas of the projected ship. How were they to successfully design a space-worthy vessel if they couldn‘t even confer with each other simple matters like stress requirements, weight tolerances, or even basic measurements? This duty was being handled by the executives, who routinely took in the mock-ups of the different sections, put them together, then resubmitted them to the workers with specified corrections. That only made the project longer and more cumbersome, since each section would then make changes, resubmit, and have to contend with new incongruities. It made no sense!
Yes, life was getting weird for their little firm. Not to mention a few others Rohit knew about. Their rivals over at Titan Dynamics, for example, who were responsible for designing the engine (at least according to rumour). How were they to know what their engine was to be capable of unless they could speak directly to the designers of the ship‘s fuselage?
But that was why he was down here.
He came at last to Miriam‘s office, an improvised booth tucked into a corner beneath an assembly of duct work and water pipes. From the floor, a number of optic cables fed through the grating, leading to and from a few processors that sat around the confines. These cables ran deep into the foundation, where they were linked to a company data storage vault that had only recently been installed. The extra capacity was needed, apparently, though they would not say why. But anyone knew it was because of the government contract.
Miriam looked up at him suddenly, turning angry when she saw him. ―You‘re late.‖
―I know,‖ Rohit said, hands raised and extended. ―Sorry.‖
―Well get in here, security is bound to another sweep in the next while.‖
―You got the passcode?‖
―Yes,‖ she said, holding up a small strip of crystal paper.
―Alright, I‘ll be brief.‖
Miriam moved away from her computer and let him settle in next to it. She slipped him the small sheet and sat back while he typed away furiously at her console. While he waited for the requested information to come up, he thought to ask her something patently obvious. Even if she was in charge of archiving all the information on the project, she still had to contend with the 18
ciphers the company had put in place. None, except for the Directors, had full access to the blueprints or the specifications.
―So how did you get that code anyway?‖
Miriam rolled her eyes. ―Don‘t ask, don‘t tell.‖
Rohit nodded. That was probably best. Everyone knew that she was dangerously under stimulated down here. It was only logical to assume she would eventually dedicate them to doing something subversive.
The computer complied a second later. Several blueprints, documents and files came up.
The entire compendium, all there before him, with the corporate logo in the upper corner: Kronos Unlimited. The general specifications, the necessary tolerances; everything except a statement of purpose. Nowhere in the file was that stated, as far as he could see. But at least he was finally getting a clear picture at what their project was supposed to look like. The outlines only covered the ship‘s general design, what their company would be responsible for. But this was enough, at least for the purposes of identifying what it might be for.
He began scanning over the breakdown of ship‘s sections. This was the info that was confounding them especially. His eyes zeroed in on a section in the documents called ―Hab Module‖. He looked carefully at the blueprint mock-ups, noticing the thousands of power couplings that ran into the area. That was odd, to be sure. Unless they were intending to equip this thing with tons of outlets, there was simply no reason to be running so many power conduits into this area. He could only assume that crew quarters were to be placed in this area, but for the most part, the section was open, no walls or enclosures, just support beams bristling with electrical sources. Adding to the mystery, there was also another area designated for habitation.
It was connected to the navigational section, presumably for housing the pilots and crew.
―This is weird,‖ he said aloud.
―Hmmm?‖ Miriam replied.
Rohit let her move in next to him and pointed to the screen. ―We were thinking this ship is equipped for deep space travel, but it also looks like its meant to house thousands of people for extended periods of time.‖
―What makes you say that?‖
―Well, just look at this storage facility,‖ he said, pointing to another series of mock-ups.
―It‘s got specifications here for more power conduits, same as the ones in the hab module. The same power requirements for each one too, which is to say, a low level of consistent current, with lost of redundancies built in.‖
―So, that means more cryounits in this storage bay. Ships don‘t carry frozen food, its just not practical when you can freeze dry it. So these have to be to house living organisms of some kind. And then there‘s these massive lockers, which means they expected to be carrying lots of food.‖
―Okay, Rohit. Time‘s up, you gotta leave.‖ Miriam stood and began to pull Rohit away.
Rohit continued to talk, Miriam obsessively checking her watch.
―But look, there‘s also a section labelled ‗Research‘, why would they have a science module in this thing? Obviously, because they‘re looking to run studies once they get to where they are going. This isn‘t just some exploration thing, its clearly meant for terraforming or something.‖
―Rohit!‖ Miriam grabbed him by the shoulders. ―Our agreement was you get to see the blueprints for a few minutes, that‘s all. You‘re off script now, so you gotta leave.‖
Rohit was about to object, but was turned around and shoved out the door of her office a second later. Damn, she was strong when she needed to be! He wanted to stay, to demand that she acknowledge his conclusions. But Miriam had already returned to her computer and blanked everything he had been looking at. She also made sure to hack into the system and erase any mention of their entry, making the archive conveniently ―forget‖ that someone had accessed them. As far as anyone was concerned, the last few minutes had not happened. Rohit shook his head. Subversive. Patting the wall nearest him, he said his goodbyes and turned to leave.
―Thanks, Miriam. I owe you one.‖
―You‘re damn right you do!‖
Director Behrens looked over the figures one more time. The grave assessment was not getting any better, no matter how many times he looked at it. With all the preparations they had been making, emphasizing worst-case-scenarios, he simply did not expect that they were being liberal in their estimates. But the data appeared to say otherwise. He scanned the room next, noting all the faces of the Deputy Ministers, assistants, and additional personnel from the Ministries of Supply and Residence. Everyone who made up the Contingency Council, as it was now called, a select group of individuals who now reported directly to Behrens and had executive privilege (not the least of which was the right to know exactly what was going on).
All them looked on, some morbidly, others firmly. No one appeared particularly happy with the subject of today‘s meeting.
He looked next to the other side of the table, closest to him. There, clad in their special green and black business uniforms, were the three individuals he had not yet bothered to introduce. None of the Ministry people knew who these people were, and it showed in their faces whenever they glanced in their direction. Behrens didn‘t mind. He would be sure to let everyone know who they were when the time was right. In the meantime, they would hear all he heard and adjust their own plans accordingly.
―So we‘ll have to recalculate for an even greater casualty rate,‖ he said finally. Across the table, one of the members nodded to him.
―Yes, sir. Approximately ten percent over and above what we initially thought.‖
―How is this possible?‖
Another member from the Ministry fielded that one. ―The rationing program has encountered some difficulty in recent months, sir. Several of the recycling plants have suffered setbacks thanks to mechanical breakdown. They can be repaired, but the time loss will mean inevitable deaths.‖
Behrens nodded stoicly. ―Well, not a significant change, considering the overall loss,‖ he said.
He saw a head near the end of the table look up at him. The woman he recognized from before, the outspoken one. He anticipated another verbal lashing. But this time, however; she said nothing. Perhaps she was tired of beaten down by practical realities. He looked on and decided to wrap up the point.
―I shall alert the Central Ministry to make the necessary adjustments to our plans. Is there anything else?‖
―Yes, sir. The matter of the lottery.‖
It was one of the people from Residence saying this. Reaching over to one of her aides, she was handed a crystal sheet which she began to read from.
―So far, we have a eighty-five percent rate of receipt. All the notifications have gone out, but fifteen percent have failed to register a response.‖
―Reason?‖ Behrens asked.
―Several possible reasons,‖ the lady said. ―Notifications could have been disposed of, lost, or people may just be afraid to acknowledge them.‖
―Rumours are abounding about what they might mean, sir.‖ One of the unknown guests to his right said this. Behrens shot him a sharp look that told him to be quiet. He looked back to the representative from Residence and nodding at her to continue.
―In any case, we need to conduct a diligence investigation, make sure that these people have been properly notified and agree with the terms of the selection process. Otherwise, we will have to begin mailing out notifications to the alternates.‖
―Yes, I see.‖ Behrens slid all the crystal sheets in front of him together into a single pile and closed the file folder around him. Everyone interpreted this as an indication that the meeting was over and began to do the same. Behrens sat quietly as they left, his remaining guests remaining behind to be with him. Few people thought to take this into account and left quickly, happy that there business was done for the day. When the last of them was gone, Behrens turned towards them and began to speak.
―So what does Exigencies have for me today?‖
Jenkins, the head representative of their new and special section, a recent addition to Contingencies, was the one to answer. ―Well sir, we too have some news regarding the lottery.‖
Behrens reclined in his seat and swung around to face them fully. ―This should be good.‖
Jenkins smiled and produced two documents that he passed over to Behrens. ―These individuals, Rohit Balasubramanian, and Miriam Blanchette. These two people are suspects in a recent breach of security.‖
Behrens ran his hands over the documents, noting their pictures and the relevant info.
―I see that only one of them is a lottery selectee.‖
―Yes, sir,‖ Jenkins replied. ―Mr. Balasubramanian is however married to Mrs. Indira Balasubramanian, who is a selectee. His company was contracted with designing certain features of Deliverance. The Kronos Corporation.‖
―Ah, yes,‖ Behrens said. ―The ones who were entrusted to design the fuselage.‖
―Yes, sir. Which puts Rohit in a key position to know certain facts, about Deliverance and the Lottery.‖
Behrens slapped himself on the forehead. ―How the hell did we mix that up?‖
―Unclear, sir,‖ said Alia, to Jenkins left. ―Clearly some wires got crossed between Supply and Residence.‖
―Recent behaviour has also suggested he might be investigating both matters.‖
―What kind of behaviour?‖
―This work report,‖ Jenkins said, producing another document. ―His supervisors have noted a recent and very sudden change in his work habits. As you know, it was the intent of the Central Ministry to ensure that the project was divided up into pieces, thus ensuring that no one had a complete picture of what they were working on, and that it would not be completed ahead of schedule.‖
―I remember,‖ Behrens said. It was agreed that a completed vessel of this kind would generate a lot of questions and controversy if it were to be finished too soon. Something that big and that complicated, gathering dust in a bunker somewhere. Sooner or later, someone would 21
notice. Discretion through inefficiency seemed safest. But now, clearly, someone had poked a hole in that scenario.
―So what do we think he did?‖
―We think he might have breached his confidentiality agreement with the company and communicated with an outside party. His section‘s completion of their assigned duties, ahead of schedule, leads us to conclude that he arranged to get access to classified information on Deliverance.‖
Behrens looked at Miriam‘s dossier. ―This woman?‖
―The only one with access that he has a known relationship to,‖ Watkins, the third and final representative of Exigencies, replied. ―She‘s responsible for archiving information for the Kronos Corporation.‖
―She‘s in charge of cataloguing confidential information for the company. We can‘t prove she shared anything with him, but...‖
Jenkins didn‘t need to say it. The very purpose of Exigencies was to plan for the worst and take appropriate action. Proof was not nearly as important as unintended consequences.
And it was clear that involving multiple Ministries in the work of preparing for the coming crisis was not working very well.
―I assume you are recommending that these individuals be taken care of?‖
―Confirmed, sir,‖ Jenkins said. ―We feel their disappearance would seal the matter, as well as discourage anyone else in the company from sharing information.‖
Behrens looked them all over and sighed. He knew they were right. It was neither fair nor just that these individuals would have to suffer for the incompetence of the Ministries, but there was far more at stake here than the lives of two people. Though there was still the matter of his wife to consider. Naturally, he thought to address this next.
―And what of his wife? Am I to approve of his removal as well?‖
Jenkins looked at the others. ―That might be necessary, sir. Again, we cannot be sure of what passed between husband and wife, but we would need special permission to pick up anyone who is a lottery selectee.‖
―We wouldn‘t want to step on anyone‘s toes,‖ Alia added.
Behrens tried not to scoff. Somehow, the same theme kept coming up over and over again at all Ministerial meetings. He was growing quite sick of it. ―So it‘s the lives of a few in exchange for the lives of the many?‖
―No, sir,‖ Jenkins said. ―Just three, at the most.‖
―Three,‖ Behrens said with a sigh. ―Alright. Consider this your confirmation.
The massive hull gleamed white and blue under the hangar bay‘s industrial lights. On all sides, tubes and pipes were connected to its massive frame, pumping essential gasses and liquids into its tremendous stores. From one end to the other, the ship measured three thousand metres in length, and stood about seven hundred metres tall at its highest point. Shaking his head, the Behrens took it all in and recounted just how much the damn thing had cost the Terran people!
And yet, seeing it before him, he wondered if it would all be worth it. Due to time constraints, and the immense cost of constructing just one of these things, there was simply no way to test it.
All of their simulations said the sub-light engines would work, that the navigational instruments were perfectly tuned, and that the cryo-stasis modules were sure to keep the passengers in a perfect state of suspended animation until they reached Proxima Centauri. Nevertheless, there was simply no way to be sure.
―Well, sir?‖ the chief engineer asked as he stood next to him. ―How did we do?‖
―Outstanding,‖ Behrens replied, ―I just hope that‘s enough.‖
―It is without a doubt the most ambitious program we‘ve ever undertaken sir. We should be proud.‖
―I just wish it could have been under better circumstances,‖ Behrens said gravely.
―Well, yes sir,‖ the engineer agreed. ―But as they say, ‗necessity is the mother of invention‘.‖
Behrens turned, looked at the chief engineer and all of the scientists that had assembled for the unveiling. Huddled together in their white lab coats, they all looked so proud of their accomplishment. He wondered if any one of them was being forced to leave someone behind.
As some of the keenest minds in the solar system, all of them had been given a free pass on their own ship. Their families had been included as well, if for no other reason than because they must be good breading stock. But he still wondered if there were not friends or extended family that had to be sacrificed.
―So,‖ the engineer continued, ―I trust the Central Ministry is satisfied?‖
―All specifications have been met,‖ Behrens replied. ―There‘s nothing more to worry about here.‖
The engineer nodded while Behrens turned to look back at the ship.
―Shall we break out the bubbly, sir?‖ he asked next.
―Do what you like, I can‘t stay,‖ Behrens replied.
Looking over to his colleagues, the engineer shared a common look of confusion with them. His distant manner led them to believe that they had done something wrong. But it appeared the Central Ministry was giving them the stamp of the approval without question. The engineer couldn‘t understand why his mood was not lighter. With this one move, they had assured the survival of their race. Some sort of celebration was certainly in order.
―Sir,‖ he said gently, ―we have preordered some bottles of champagne for the occasion.
We were hoping the Executive and his Cabinet would be here to celebrate with us. But since they‘re not, would you like to stay here and christen the hull with us?‖
―No thanks,‖ Behrens said flatly. ―I need to return to the Ministry immediately. We have some pressing engagements to attend to.‖
―But sir –‖ the engineer began. Behrens cut him off.
―I wouldn‘t expect you to know this, sir, but since you‘ve been holed up in this place, a number of things have begun. I need to get back, and make sure the situation is secure, and that all our ‗guests‘ on this little voyage are still accounted for.‖
―What‘s happening sir?‖ the engineer said naively.
―The riots have begun,‖ Behrens replied. ―The rationing program ran out sooner than we expected. The Phoenix subjects are locked away, and we need to make sure we keep them and every other piece of government property safe.‖
―My God!‖ the engineer moaned. ―Is there any danger?‖
―Not likely,‖ Behrens replied. ―The rioters are attacking police and government buildings more than anything else. No one, save us, knows where the lottery winners are being held.‖
―Our families!‖ the engineer yelled. ―Are they safe?‖
―There‘s no reason to assume they‘re not. They are the lucky ones after all, safely tucked away until the big day. But I‘d still like to get home and make sure mine are safe.‖
―They‘re not with the others, in the secure area?‖ the engineer asked.
―No, they wanted to spent there last few days at home,‖ he replied.
The others behind him began to turn to each other, and shared some looks of concern mixed with some mild relief.
―Enjoy your celebration ladies and gentlemen,‖ Behrens said before turning to leave.
―You‘ve earned it.‖
Without another look, Behrens left them in the hangar bay and made his way to the shuttle that would take him back home. As he walked down the hall away from them he thought he could hear the sound of some corks popping. There was no laughter or cheers to be heard, but at least they were doing something positive with this moment that they had worked so hard for.
In the darkness of his den with only a single light turned on over his desk, Director Andrew Behrens picked up his pen and began to write on a stack of crystal paper. His wife and kids had gone to bed hours ago, and he was all alone to finish this letter. He had tried penning it for weeks now, but every time he started he could not bring himself to finish it. Worse yet, he feared it would be found before the right time. Now, with the lights out, and only a few hours before all members of the Phoenix project were supposed to report to the Canaveral Spaceport, he finally found the nerve to write it.
By the time you read this, it will be morning, and time for you to take the children to Canaveral. Be sure to stick to the route I outlined for us to take. It‟s the safest route out of the city. I regret to inform you that I have been lying to you these past few months. The Central Ministry provided you and I with passes, as well as our two girls. Unfortunately, they were unable to process little Billy. According to the Ministry‟s guidelines, no one suffering from a mental illness or disability was to be processed. This was not due to something fundamentally lacking in the Ministry‟s humanity. Recent events have simply forced all people to think in terms of their survival.
I feel horrible Sandra. Not for lying to you, that was essential to my plan, but for something far worse. I feel horrible for the deeper vagaries of my own nature. When news of this impending crisis first reached my ears, I was soothed by the notion that at least my family would not be claimed by it. And in turn, I used this same reasoning to ensure the cooperation of those beneath me. We at the Central Ministry ensured the cooperation of all who were needed by promising them that they would be spared. And almost to a person, it worked. Somehow, the thought of billions of people dying paled in comparison to the notion that we, as individuals, would survive. As I write this, billions upon billions of people are struggling to ensure this very thing. Our selfishness and our unconcern for the survival of others, proved to be our salvation.
This is horribly ironic considering that it was this very thing is what led us this to this point in our history. It is man against man out there, Sandra, with no provisions being made for the sick, the weak, and the helpless. I have to wonder about the thinking of our ancestors, why they chose not to heed the warnings when they first became clear. How long did they think we could continue to grow without restriction? Why did they continuously decide to defer this problem to future generations? Did they honestly think we would be any wiser, or find a solution where they had failed?
But I cannot judge our ancestors too harshly. There sin is our sin, and it was my sin. I chose not to care about others, only us. But these feelings were invariably cut short when it became clear to me that our son would not be spared with the rest of us. No amount of consolation or realism, as preached to me by the Executive or my equals, could convince me that 24
this was in any way correct. My selfishness ended the day I realized my own kin could and would be affected. This I could not stomach, and because of it, I have been given the chance to accomplish something unselfish at last.
Here are my instructions: the passes are non-transferable, but no one will put up a fuss once you arrive at the Spaceport. Hand them all over to the Pass officers, and if anyone tries to give you trouble, show them this letter. As my last wish, no one will deny our son a spot on the transport. I know you will take care of him, and our girls, and I hope beyond hope that you will all be able to make some kind of life for yourselves on a new world. I wish I could be with you, but in a way, I always will.
Reaching into the desk drawer, he produced a small pistol he had bought from an antique dealer many years ago. His wife had repeatedly questioned the logic of keeping an old firearm in the house, what with the kids around and all. Nevertheless, he managed to convince her that it was worth keeping given its value, and promised it would never be loaded. It had been very difficult, but he managed to secure a single round for it about a month ago. Seeing as how the room was soundproof, no one would be disturbed by the noise. No one would find until morning, and by then, it would be too late for her to do anything except comply with his last wishes. Placing his pen to the crystal paper one last time, he penned one final thought.
I love you Sandra. Please, do not shed any tears for me. Take the children, all of the children, and never look back. Love Forever, Andrew.
Andrew finished the letter with a quick signature. It was a bureaucratic habit he had fallen into, always signing his name to a document whether it needed it or not. He was sure she‘d find it amusing someday. Without another thought, he placed the pen down, picked up the pistol, put it to his temple, and pulled the trigger.