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T – Minus Zero
By D. A. Ratliff
A muffled rumble reached his ears as the deck beneath him trembled. Eric Chandler paused to take a shallow breath then continued his task, as there was no time to worry about the increasing frequency of the strikes. The defense shield will have to do its job. There was much to do.
Glancing at the display on his pad, his chest tightened.
Time was ticking. He tapped the comlink tucked behind his ear. “Brad. Status of the last transports?”
“The remaining transports have departed the space station and will arrive in five hours.”
“Cutting it close, Brad.”
“Yes, sir but with the tremors, they had issues with the last of the downloads.”
“Did they get everything?”
“Yes, sir. Upload of all data world-wide is complete, backed up and downloaded to the fleet.”
“Good.” He took a breath. “As soon as those transports arrive, we need to close down the base. It will be time to…” He stumbled, steeling himself to say the words. “It will be time to say goodbye.”
Eric sat quietly, staring at the wall across from his desk. It was a moment before his chaotic thoughts allowed him to focus on the only thing adorning the wall. An old photograph enclosed in a glass case filled with preservative argon gas had hung in a place of honor in his office for nearly twenty years. Intentionally, the photo hung on the wall until it was time to depart.
He picked up a metal case resting on the credenza behind him and approached the photo, each step harder than the next. This was the moment he had dreaded since the project began. The day it ended.
Unscrewing the brackets holding the glass case, he held the frame in his hands. A smile touched his lips, a luxury he seldom had time for any longer, as he remembered the day his grandfather presented him with the photo.
All he wanted was a double scotch, and the rapping on his study door annoyed him. He should ignore it but his days of ignoring anything ended at ten that morning. He opened the door to find his grandfather.
“Eric, may I come in?”
“Of course.” He stepped aside and his grandfather, carrying a small metal case, entered. “Pops, you want a drink?”
“Yeah, today more than ever.”
He poured Pops a double and they settled into the overstuffed leather chairs in front of the roaring fire in the fireplace. They sipped their drinks before Pops spoke.
“There is nothing that can be done?”
“Then you must lead the people of this planet to safety.”
“I’m an astrophysicist, not a superhero.”
“This morning, on that podium, the leaders of Earth’s governments and the Global Space Agency unanimously chose you to prepare us. They realize your capabilities, as do I.”
Eric rose and stood before the fire, gazing into the yellow-orange flames. “As you know, we launched the Melcor Array into orbit around Pluto with the hope that the instruments aboard would give us warning of exactly what we discovered, a threat to Earth. Four years ago, Melcor’s telescope spotted the object, and we couldn’t believe it was true. How could an object that large hurtle through space at such speed? GSA launched a probe from the outpost orbiting Europa as soon as possible and we learned what we were dealing with.” He turned toward his grandfather. “There is nothing we can do to stop it.”
“The President said we have twenty-four years before the end. You can do this.”
His grandfather raised his hand to stop him. “I have something for you.” He opened the case and removed a photograph in a glass box frame. “This is one of the last original photographs of the launch of the original space agency, NASA’s, Apollo11 mission to the moon. The first time we ventured onto another world, our own moon.”
Eric smiled. “I remember this. You showed it to me when I received my scholarship and I was worried about the path in front of me.”
“A president of the United States several years before had challenged the US to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. They rose to the task.” He held the frame out to his grandson. “I told you then with technology that we would consider primitive, they accomplished this monumental feat. Brave men and women entered the space program and these pioneers gave us the opportunity we have today to save humanity.”
Eric took the photo from his grandfather. “I am not as brave as these men were.”
“Yes, you are. I want you to keep this photo with you, where you can see it as you lead us to safety.”
“We have had nearly two hundred years to develop better technology, but is it enough?” Eric’s eyes glistened with emotion as he looked at his grandfather for an answer.
“It will have to be.”
The darkened room was silent except for the soft slow beep from a monitor suspended from the ceiling. Eric Gardner sat next to the bed holding his grandfather’s hand. His wife and young daughter had retreated to the corridor to give him time alone. A gentle squeeze to his fingers told him his grandfather had awakened.
“Hey, Pops, you’re awake.”
“You shouldn’t be here. You should be with those you can save.”
His grandfather’s voice was weak, his words slurred, and Eric fought back tears as he responded. “I can save you if you will let me.”
“You want to put me on one of those cradle ships?”
“We can put you into suspended animation and you will wake up on New Terra. There is no need for you to refuse treatment. Treatment can occur while you are in hibernation and when you wake up, you will be healthy and with us. With me.”
His grandfather scoffed. “I am 117, I have lived my life. And I need to remain here on Earth with your grandmother and your parents. We lost them too soon.”
“Pops, please, I can’t…”
“Yes, you can. Now…” he struggled for breath. “Tell me the latest news.”
A rumble outside the hospital echoed through the room, signaling another impact to the city shield. The meteor strikes had been increasing drastically, and Eric knew that time was not only dwindling for his grandfather but for them as well.
“We are continuing to build AI cradle ships and then send them to the Lagrange point to wait for the fleet to assemble.”
“What a find that was. Young Dixon should receive the Nobel for his discovery.”
“We were lucky to find such a large and stable Lagrange point in the large Magellan Cloud, giving us the ability to conserve power while neutral gravity holds them there.”
“Luck is by design, son. Mankind never stopped looking for answers through four world wars, the plague of 2138, even this news. We kept going.”
“If your team hadn’t developed stardrive, we would be doomed.”
His grandfather shook his head. “Not just my team. The advances in AI technology allowed us to create android units that now monitor the population on the cradle ships.” He paused as breathing was a struggle. “Remember this. The people of Earth rose to the task and did what they had to do, just like those people at NASA who put men on the moon.”
His grandfather fell silent and Eric and his family sat with him until the end. The sun was rising as they left the hospital for the final time. In the pale morning light, he could see it. The giant rogue planet that would be their demise was now visible as a tiny black dot. It had slowed, as they expected when it interacted with the gravitational pull of the solar system, but its path was clear and straight, and Earth was in its way.
Eric stood in front of the huge viewport in the main gallery of the lunar base. There was a low buzz of voices behind him, but he tuned them out. His focus was on the last transports arriving from the space station as they disappeared into the enormous hangar bay of the Adventus. Now the only people left, the Terrans, as they had chosen to call themselves, were those on the moon base and shortly, they too would be gone.
Brad, his second in command tapped him on the shoulder and handed him the metal case containing the photo. “Time to go.”
“The artifacts? The lunar module base, the flag?”
“Got them all, even managed to secure the boot print. One of the techs said it was too important to leave. Sprayed some sealer-crete on it to keep it intact. We are taking as much history as we can. Stored in the vaults with all the other treasures of Earth we could bring with us.”
He turned slowly looking over the assembled members of his team who were waiting with their families to depart. “Yes. It’s time.”
Once a beautiful blue orb, the constant bombardment of meteors had shrouded the Earth in thick clouds of mottled gray and tan shades. There was nothing left to save but Eric Chandler’s job was far from over. There was a civilization to rebuild.
He turned from the viewport and nodded to the captain of the Adventus, who ordered the comm officer to open a ship-wide channel.
“We have accomplished our mission. The successful extraction of the peoples of Earth before the arrival of the rogue planet we named Mortis for she is truly an agent of death. Today we leave the only area of space we have known to join the AI Cradle ships where millions of our fellow Terrans hibernate. We had expected to take more with us but the bombardment by the debris field preceding the planet was greater than we anticipated. So many died before we developed the shield technology to protect them. We must never forget there were more of us that are not here.” He paused as emotion overcame him and he began to tremble. Swallowing hard, he continued.
“A quick update, the AIs report that the cradle ships are safe, and the defense arrays are in place to protect them. I am also happy to report that we have located two Goldilocks planets in the Large Magellan Cloud. Both look promising and advance crews are on their way to establish which is the better option for us.
As we depart the only home mankind has ever known, we should remember how we arrived here on this moon nearly two hundred years ago. A group of pioneers risked everything to reach out to the stars. Today, we do the same. Godspeed to us all.”
The ship’s crew and passengers remained quiet as time ticked down until the Adventus’s huge engines roared and they broke lunar orbit for the last time.
In its soothing digital voice, the slightly human-looking med-tech android unit M-2156 motioned for Eric to rise. “You are medically cleared for hibernation, Dr. Chandler. Your chamber is being prepared.”
The AI nodded and withdrew. Eric turned to his wife and daughter who were with him. “Are you certain you want to watch?”
His daughter touched his face. “Pops would want us to be with him at the end.”
He hugged his daughter and wife and they left sickbay for the assembly hall where they would watch the final moments of Earth.
The captain had lowered the lights and the Adventus was at station-keeping outside the solar system they once called home.
No one spoke as the cameras in orbit about the moon revealed the scene. Earth was being torn apart as the enormous planet neared. They had watched for days as the gravitational pull of the huge planet had broken Earth apart. Now as Mortis struck what was left of their old home, a concussion wave littered with debris hurtled toward the moon.
The screen went black.
Earth was no more.
Eric Chandler stood by as his wife and daughter entered hibernation. The Med AI attendant turned to open his chamber.
“Dr. Chandler, you may enter now.”
He climbed in and while the Med AI attached tubing to the ports in his chest, he pointed to the metal case sitting beside his chamber. “Keep that safe for me.”
The AI nodded. “ I will do so, Dr. Chandler.”
The chamber hissed as it sealed, and he became drowsy as the hibernation drugs took effect. He managed a smile as he thought about the second image now resting in the metal case. An image of the Adventus as she left lunar orbit downloaded from the lunar base cameras.
Another group of adventurers taking a giant leap for mankind.
FYI: NASA Definitions
L- Minus: The countdown time to mission completion in totality.
T- Minus: The countdown time to completion of events within the mission.