By Nicole Tanquary
The on-board therapist, Dr. Russux, was watching me out of the corner of his eye. We were ascending the floors in one of the luxury elevators, with red velvet cushions softening the walls' harsh corners. The doors were steel, polished to a mirror-gleam. In the reflection, his gaze drifted towards me … I pretended not to notice.
We stood with our hands behind our backs and our feet shoulder-width apart. My hair had been tightened into a braid that curled against my neck, and my eyes stared straight ahead, shining a thin, glassy blue in the steel's reflection. A curl came loose from my braid, and I hurriedly tucked it behind one ear, the movement unusually clumsy. I was nervous.
A medal was pinned to my chest. The elevator empty of anything else to examine, I studied it for a moment. It was gold-plaited … did Vicky like gold? I couldn't remember. Her likes and dislikes had been fluctuating so dramatically between our conversations that it felt like I hardly knew her at all anymore.
After a while, Dr. Russux murmured, “General, are you sure you can keep a handle on things?” He had only been my therapist for the past month or so, but already he was beginning to sense my warning signs.
What could I say to that? 'Yes' would have been a lie. I had no idea how things were going to go. I was full of ache; it tightened my chest and my bone marrow, pinching in the joints of my spine so bad that I had a desperate urge to lay down on the elevator floor and stretch myself out. It was the sort of ache that could turn into anything. Tears, or screaming, or worse; the awful, acidic, eating-away-at-you feelings that didn't have names.
At my silence, his mouth formed a thin line. But he didn't question me further.
The mirrors blew open, and I found myself swarmed by hordes of scientists, other officers less well-known than myself, the other members of the General Quintet, and, of course, the reporters. I tipped the helmet over my eyes, and allowed General Keenan to grab my arm and lead me across the floor, to the Transmission room. There were flashes of cameras. Questions fell against me like droplets in a mist.
“General Hardwick, why is it that you are permitted to send messages to your child while others are forbidden to send transmissions to Earth?”
“Do you think your actions in this crisis make you a more deserving person?”
“Is the government still going ahead with the plans of demolition, or is the General Quintet having second thoughts?”
“In your personal opinion, do you think that Earth still has a chance?”
A door shut, and the reporters were left behind with the officers, who shooed them back into the Civilian quarters of the ship.
I could not keep in a growl. “When I find the soldier who let this leak, I'm going to personally ship him to the Sun and watch him burn.” General Keenan released my arm. The wrinkles around his eyes had deepened since our last meeting. His own medal gleamed in the light of the Transmission machines, whose screens, at the moment, were blinking a cheery yellow.
“I still don't understand why the Hell we're doing this,” he muttered. Dr. Russux put a hand on his shoulder, leaning in close to whisper in his ear. Of course, I could hear him anyway. Dr. Russux has the deep sort of voice that reverberates, no matter how quiet he tries to be.
“She needs some closure before we go ahead with the plans. If we don't do this, the combined guilt and grief would have devastating effects on her mental stability.” Then, even more quietly, “You know as well as I do how crucial she is to this entire operation.”
That's right, I thought to myself, the yellow screens burning like fire in my eyes. In military school, I had been classified as a brilliant strategist and coordinator, and sent flying through the ranks until I was pulled into the nose-bleed heights of the General Quintet. I had been the one who had gotten the ships up and running so quickly, once we realized the danger on Earth. I was the reason four billion people's lives had been saved.
And I was the reason that the other five billion had been left behind.
I cracked my neck to one side, as a team of scientists scuttled about and readied themselves for transmission. We had sent a message to Earth about ten minutes ago, so that Vicky's machine would be up and running by the time we were ready to transmit.
“Ready,” one of the lab coats squeaked. I came forward, adjusting the hem of my suit as I stood to stiff attention. The screen flickered closer to life. The four Generals and Dr. Russux retreated respectfully off-screen. Their eyes were hawk-like and watchful.
I held my breath as blizzards of pixels tumbled across the screen, before shrinking to make up shapes. Vicky's face came into view, and I exhaled, slowly. She had thinned since a week ago. Her skin was tight across the cheekbones, sunken around the mouth, shining with infection. Her eyes were the hollow and distant holes of a skull.
“Vicky?” I called, after taking a moment to clear my throat. Her eyes slid back to the screen, the thin lips splitting open in a smile. Her teeth were smaller than I remembered.
“Hey, mom.” Absently, she ran her fingers through her hair, not seeming to notice the clump she pulled out in the process. After a moment of deliberation, her expression twisted into a frown. “Why is your hair in a braid? I can't even tell how long it is.” Hurriedly, I slipped off the hair tie, releasing cascades of brown curls over my shoulders. Her grin returned. “See? You look pretty now.”
My throat closed up. I swallowed, and forced myself to return the smile. “So. How is Earth today? What color is everything?” The screen fizzled for a moment as she spun in a happy circle.
“Oh, mama, today it was so lovely. Orange grass, blue buildings, and the trees were this pinky sunset-orange-red. And the sky …” She spread her hands apart, as if gesturing at the atmosphere's awesome magnitude. “It was this brilliant, fluffy white. Like Heaven was being wrapped around us.”
I nodded, slowly. The colors of things changed every time I talked to her. Hallucinations were one of the symptoms that came from being infected.
Now, a more important question: “Are there any kids with you today?”
The infection has spread most widely in the youngest generation … almost everyone under fifteen years of age had been deemed too thoroughly diseased to be saved. They made up the bulk of the population that had been left behind.
The corners of Vicky's mouth pinched down, and her gaze went even glassier. “The rest of them fell asleep today.”
Behind me, I could hear the scientists whispering at each other. They had predicted that little more than .005% of the population left on Earth were still alive, at this point. They were probably pleased that their prediction had been correct.
“Aw, I'm sorry, honey.” Vicky rotated her shoulders in a shrug, accompanying the movement with a lopsided smile.
“That's okay. The Diddies are keeping me company. Look, Mom, I even made a necklace with them.” I tried to keep the frown out of my eyebrows. Last time I had spoken to her, Vicky had told me about Diddies; little furry purple creatures that lived in trash heaps and liked to make arts and crafts. She held up the necklace to the screen. Pieces of green and blue plastic bottle had been poked with holes and strung on metal wiring.
From their place behind my back, my hands were beginning to shake. I couldn't keep this up much longer.
Vicky's gaze snapped back to me, and for a moment, a golden clarity shone in their gray-brown depths. “Momma, what's wrong?” She had said this many times in our earlier conversations. Like, after I had asked her what two plus two was, and she had joyously responded, 'Nine.'
“Nothing, sweetheart,” I muttered, wiping a hand across my eyes. The silence from behind me was deafening. I couldn't stand this. My mind was swelling with vivid, painful memories … when she was born, the little jewel she was, how perfect, and knowing that I had grown her, me and Mike. Even when there were complications, even through the pain, the little baby was still so perfect. Victoria …
“I love you, baby,” I said, finally. I could hear the Generals' feet tapping, and knew that the moment of demolition was rushing closer. Vicky was staring at me, her eyes so, so beautiful, even in the hollowness.
“I love you too,” she said. Then, almost as an afterthought, “That's an ugly medal. Don't you know? I hate gold. It’s like the color of pee.”
Last week, I remembered, she had commented on how pretty and shiny the light gleamed off of the engravings.
A hand tapped my shoulder. “General, we're ready to close up,” a voice whispered in my ear.
I raised my hand in a stiff motion that could pass as a wave. The flash of anger passing, Vicky grinned, and waved one hand at the screen. Then her image faded into yellow.
I put a hand to my head.
“I'm sorry for your loss,” said General Keenan. I swallowed the urge to punch him in his fat belly. His children were all grown up. HIS children were safe on the ship. Besides, he had never given birth to any of them. Never grown any of them, never suckled or cuddled orLOVED –
One of the Generals asked if I wanted to watch the demolition. I declined, and instead retreated to the elevator and, eventually, my room. The mattress was a plush comfort beneath my legs. I dimmed the lights until the ceiling was only a few faint blue degrees above black.
For a moment, in my head, I was watching Earth. Seeing red fire shoot out from the center, blowing off layers of atmosphere as they burned. The fire grew, the oceans were vaporized in a salty haze … then the ground cracked apart and blew outward, boiling deep red. And then it was over.
About the Author
Nicole Tanquary is a writer who enjoys working with the 'speculative' genres. She has had pieces published by a menagerie of venues, including Something Wicked, The Colored Lens, Isotropic Fiction, The Again, Kzine, and, most recently, Plasma Frequency Magazine. She lives in central New York State, where she attends school and spends a lot of time in her head, which, fortunately, is an interesting place to be.
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