The hum of the engine filled the passenger cabin and Robert stood frozen, clutching his suitcase. He stared at the corpse of his friend as it floated eerily just above the floor, dead nose inches from the tacky carpet. Gulping with a dry throat made him cough, and Robert covered his mouth involuntarily. The man with the gun turned his sneer to a frown as he tightened his aim on Robert’s face.
“Don’t. Move. Slowly toss the suitcase down and put your hands up.”
What can I do?
Moments passed, and he tossed the suitcase to his side just as the man began to bloat with rage. It quickly floated away and bounced around in the seats across the aisle. He was in no position to negotiate here.
Here goes nothing.
“You’re not going to get out of here alive if you don’t put down that gun.” Robert leveled his eyes at the man with a monotone drone his father used to use on him. The man was defiant, like Robert used to be.
“Pfft!” The man expelled air in disbelief. “No one in the U.E.R. knows this is happening right now. No one but you. And you have no way to contact anyone.”
He was wrong there. This entire time Robert had been using his mobile to send a live stream of this attack to executive officials at the Consortium. The communicator was floating now, dangling from his suitcase that hovered off to the side, above the seats. If the man looked close, he could easily see a red light blinking softly. But his attention was wholly on Robert, who continued his speech craft:
“Doesn’t matter. You get to Persephone on schedule, you have security waiting. You deviate from this shuttle’s flight path, you have military personnel just itching for action.”
The man stared with an empty face at Robert. Slowly, the gun went to his side. Relaxing. His eyes were deep in his face, and when the lights flickered for a moment he looked like a skeleton. A slow smile found its way onto the tired man and Robert’s blood turned to ice as he spoke.
“We have seized Persephone, and the Prime Minister’s office there. He’s surely been executed by now. Justice… Justice is almost here.” The man’s whisper was below a breath, and Robert only saw his lips move:
“Any minute now.” The man was very assured of himself.
“Justice..? What “justice” is this? Whose justice? Who are you?!” Robert shouted now, and the gun raised again in response to his agitation.
“We are the remnants of those you sent into space — those you sent to DIE!” The man shouted at him, gun flinging wildly around with each gesticulation.
“What are you talking about? Forced colonization ended over two decades ago! Reparations were made!”
“Fool!” The man screamed. His teeth were bared with his lips pulled back in a snarl. It took all the will he had left to keep his finger from the trigger.
“You think that those “contractors” you use are willing employees?! What man would willingly take his family on the first deep space colonization?”
Robert only knew that the contractors the Consortium used for deep space were paid well, and supplied well. He was under the impression that they were all willing scientists and engineers and workers. Everyone in the world was. Robert could only stare blankly at the angry terrorist, too confused to speak.
“What do you think happened to the colonists from before? They just lived on like usual!? Why did we need to have mass incentivized immigration to the Lagrange colonies then?! They should have had plenty of people there already! Are all of you so stupid?!”
“We thought there were casualt–”
The man slammed his fist into his chest loudly, grabbing at his heart. His teeth were grinding, and Robert could hear them. They sounded as if they would explode into dust any second. Several seconds passed.
“You had… no idea? No one did?” Tears poured from his eyes in steady streams. He did not sob, but the tears would not stop. Robert shook his head.
“I have no idea what you are talking about. We thought the contractors were all professionals looking for new frontiers. ‘Pioneers and Adventurers!’ Haven’t you seen the promo commercials?”
“Good God. It was only the execs who knew? How could they keep such a secret, so many military personnel were used to move us all…” The man’s voice cracked. He looked even more tired now, older. Weaker. Smaller somehow.
“Jason got us so riled up. We were away for so long… No contact, or news… We just thought you all had forsaken us, and just used us up and tossed us aside. But…” He trailed off, staring out the window just over Robert’s shoulder. The Earth stared back at him pleadingly.
“Hey… What is your name?” Robert asked quietly, with caution. He slowly lowered his hands, and the man did not react. His unblinking stare reflected the glow of the lights inside the cabin.
“It doesn’t matter. All of this will be over soon.” He sounded if he had already died.
“What do you mean?”
“Axis is coming. It’s probably almost here.” The man whispered with great reverence, as if speaking of a mighty, vengeful god that could hear him.
“Axis? What is that?” Robert asked, egging him on for more information. If he noticed that comm device, all of this tenuous trust would fly out the airlock. Robert needed more information.
“Axis is the reason you came up here, Robert. But we lied to you about the specifics.” A sardonic snicker. The man looked down and shook his head. Robert was confused still but the shuttle’s autopilot interrupted, announcing that they would soon be docking at Persephone.
“I’ll get us away from the station. There’s no reason for you to die there anymore.”
“Wait!!” Robert exclaimed as the man began to duck back into the cockpit. “Why did you want me? Why me?” The man paused for a moment, and without looking back he spoke to Robert.
“I’m sorry about your friend. I am. And your family on Earth. But there’s nothing we can do now. Looks like you’re coming to space with us. We will find a way to make you… useful.” The door shut behind him, and the man whispered to himself in solitude as he flipped switches.
“Maybe. I believe you enough to let you live, but my friends… They probably won’t.”
Robert drifted over to his phone, and ended the live stream. He pulled himself into the seat and looked to his left out the window. The vastness of space stretched itself before him, and he could see the blockade of frigates created in response to the alien discovery on Luna. Something wasn’t quite right though, and he couldn’t place his finger on it. He stared, confused at a shadowed part of space behind the ships. A large place without stars.
Impossible. Must be a trick of the light.
He stretched his vision to see as best as he could toward the ominous darkness out there, beyond the frigates. Robert passed several painful minutes in silence and he saw the shadow slowly grow. A couple more stars disappeared within it. The darkness had been gathering its strength beyond the blockade.
“Fuck. It’s a giant asteroid.” Robert breathed. He pounded his communicator’s speed dial and reached electric along with his soul for his wife, searching. Hoping. He begged for her to pick up, but it was a Monday, and she was probably still in class. Looking at his watch as the phone rang, he pleaded for some cosmic being to tell her to pick up the phone. But nothing was listening. Nothing good, at least. Unknown to Robert, his extreme emotions and fracturing psyche were the source of macabre delight to the demons that placed him here in this universe. He was nothing more than a pawn. His fear and frustration and existential horror tingled the shadows and made them dance with delight. Lights flickered in the cabin. Whispers of their ritual leaked into his mind and tickled his ears, and Robert whipped around to find what made those sounds. A language he had never heard but for some reason found too familiar.
Ko’se lano makora kojani noss’e
In this moment he finally reached the front desk of the school, and he asked to speak to Mrs. Lowman, with as much normalcy as he could muster.
“Linda… You need to dismiss class and get everyone out of there. You need to go to the emergency shuttle outside the city, a panic will start soon. I know it.”
“R.J., wait, what are you talking about? Everything is fine here. Nothing is wro–“
“Listen to me, Lin. You have to trust me. Get out of there, please. Please.” Robert began to cry. “There’s an asteroid coming. It’s terrorists.”
“Robert James, this isn’t funny, ” Her voice cracked and gave a nervous laugh. “You got me, OK?” Suddenly he could hear a siren go off in the background, and the kids all screamed in unison. “Robert, oh my god. It’s on the Persephone camera feed. You weren’t lying! I have to go, but how did you know?! I can’t do this alone R.J.! Where will I meet you?!”
“I’ll find you! Don’t go to Persephone! It’s a trap! Linda? LIN?!” But the line was already dead. He looked at the communicator and saw that there was no service at all. The Consortium must have alerted everyone, just like he had hoped. But there was no way to prepare for something like this. A mass evacuation plan had been discussed, but there were nowhere near enough shuttles available for an exodus like this. He could only imagine the chaos his wife would have to endure trying to escape. If she could even get out of the city. But why was the service cut off so suddenly?
He floated over to the other side of the empty passenger cabin to look at the Earth. He felt cold as he stared at massive shooting stars entering the atmosphere, and he couldn’t understand what they were. But then he realized that they were the various O’Neill colonies slowly falling into the atmosphere. New Sydney, New Beijing, New London. They were being ripped apart by the Earth’s last line of defense. Several million people lived in each of them.
Something suddenly slammed into the window Robert looked out of, and he screamed at the unknown horror as it drifted away. Then he noticed that it was a human corpse. More of them were tumbling by, and it sounded like a hail storm outside. The ship turned away from Earth as he watched the burning colonies returning home. A bright flash lit the night side of Earth below him, as one cylinder hit the Indian subcontinent. His view turned with the ship, and he saw what was left of the great crown jewel of humanity’s first steps into space. Persephone was now nothing more than a blossoming flower of twinkling glass and steel that spread partly into space, partly into orbit, and partly into tiny lines of fire streaking down to the Earth.
The hum of the engine filled the passenger cabin, a steady rhythm to accompany the sobs of Robert James. The shadows watched him and trembled with pleasure at his hopelessness, whispering among themselves in impossible tones.
On the Earth’s surface, a child in a rural area stared up in wonder at the great streaks of light flying across the sky. He giggled and laughed as he held out his arms like an airplane, running back to the house as fast as he could. He wanted to share this moment with his mother, who waited inside crying as she watched an emergency broadcast repeat itself.