November, 2065 - Gayatri
The plural for meeting, thought Gayatri, ought to be headache. And even for a surface stint, where meetings always played a heavy role, she'd had a lot of headaches since the announcement that pieces of their fragmented sister planet would likely crash into Earth in five months' time.
Meetings with companies who used Driftwise as a launch pad; meetings with governments who wanted their space programmes to be given special priority; meetings with the mega-rich, who had pushed their way in to demand the privileges they thought they deserved. Groups of refugees; religious groups; lobbyists. Con-screen meetings with the spindle administrators from Chimborazo and Kenya, and the team that ran the extra-planetary shipyard at EML-1. Then, too, there were the well-meaning UN attaches who spoke at length on nobility and sacrifice and duty, and who didn't want to have to pay for anything.
Meetings, meetings, meetings.
The worst of them all were the ones with the stakeholders, who didn't seem to know what they wanted, or why, or how to achieve it. Gayatri was in one of these meetings now, listening to one board member after another rattle on about profits, overheads, the bottom line and how it intersected with the ethical responsibilities of a successful corporation.
Across the table, Ang rolled his eyes at her. Privately, she agreed, but like it or not this stuff was necessary. Her brother, with his daydreams and ideals, would never understand that. So she ignored his theatrics, getting through the rest of this latest headache on autopilot, nodding and making appropriate noises when it was required, and staying silent otherwise, eager for the show to be over so she could get on with her actual work.
The meeting finally rambled to an end, and the members of the board filed out the door. Ang followed them without a word to her, heading no doubt for one of the crew lifts to the top, or out onto the base of the spindle. Away from his responsibilities, anyway, she thought bitterly. But that was nothing new. He'd always left the hard work to her while he ran around playing the benevolent manager.
Once she was alone, Gayatri leaned back in her chair, pressing her palms against her temples. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had a full night's sleep, but it had surely been nearly a month. Since before the news. Now every time she closed her eyes she saw tsunami and firestorms, great clouds of ash and debris choking out the sunlight, and in the midst of it all great surging masses of people calling out for her to save them.
She pursed her lips and blew out all the air in her lungs--a slow, steady hiss of exhalation--then sat forward and flicked the table's con-screen on. She had e-mails over a day old that hadn't been answered. While most top-level execs had assistants for all but the most sensitive communications, Gayatri prided herself on the personal touch. She got most of them out of the way, then flicked off the con-screen, and went to look for Ang. She found him just outside the conference centre door, standing in the ethereal shadow of the spindle with his elbows on a guardrail.
"So much for ethical responsibilities," he said as she came up behind him. Down on the helipad, the board members were still dispersing, each in a hovercopter that probably cost more than most people made in half a lifetime.
Gayatri snorted. "At least they even think about it," she said. "Nothing requires them to."
Ang turned on her, eyes flashing like they always had since he got back from his quixotic world tour. Those eyes were why she'd pushed back against Granna's inclusion of him in the spindle's operations, why she'd tried to push for his being dropped from that part of the will. Ang was just too much of an idealist ever to compromise, or even to see business as one path to improving the world. His lips twitched, but he didn't say anything.
"They do think about it," she said, aggravated at his lack of response. "What have you ever accomplished that gives you the right to deny it?"
The fight went out of him so quickly she wished she hadn't said it.
"I'll take top-side," he said as he turned towards the stairs, shoulders slumped. "Let me know if anything changes with the board."
She watched him go, running away again. And she, as ever, was partly to blame.
December, 2065 - Ang
Ang stood in the viewing chamber that curved around the underside of the orbital platform and looked down at the surface of the world. They were on the planet's night side, so the brownish swathes of land that were usually visible had been replaced by a sparkling array of yellow-white lights that almost seemed to mock the stars. There was something about it that invigorated and distressed him all at once, as though the lights were saying, see what beauty man has wrought and not even this was enough for you at the same time.
He'd told Granna that once, and she'd laughed and agreed with him. "But it's not enough," she'd added. "We have to keep going."
He wondered what she would have said about the Martian Disaster (as the media were calling it when he stopped listening to the news channels a week ago), and the knowledge that he couldn't ask her rekindled that pain in his chest that he got even now, when it had been five years and counting since her sudden, unexpected death.
It was too quiet with Gayatri gone. That was the problem. She had gone to U.N. Headquarters with Mwamba Ntake from Kenya Spindle and Chimborazo's Luis Amador to speak on the role the spindles would play in expediting the escape effort. Selling their cooperation and humanitarian outlook, Ang though bitterly. He knew it was unfair, but the way everyone acted like you could put a value on a human life rankled. As if everyone over a certain threshold just wasn't worth the cost of saving.
Granna would have set them right, he was sure of it even if Gayatri didn't agree. But then, she had never seen Granna as family to the same degree that he had; she could still relive the time before, when all of them there had been alone save for each other. She was bitter, or so it seemed to Ang--it was as though Gayatri blamed Granna for the media circus that had followed their adoption. As though she felt like Granna had done it for that, to draw more attention to Driftwise.
But for him, the adoption had never just been about running the spindle. Granna had always been just Granna--mother, teacher, guide, and judge all rolled into one. When he was a teen, that had chafed him. Not that he hadn't loved Granna, or appreciated what she'd done for him. It was just that he wanted a life. A real one (or so he'd felt at the time), away from the huge unreality of Driftwise, where everything was distant and unknowable.
When he was seventeen he'd run away, determined to make it to the mainland and really live. He'd jumped onto a cargo ship one afternoon with a backpack full of food he'd snatched from the sea-level kitchen and a few sachets of water, and hidden away where he was sure he wouldn't be found. As it turned out, though, he'd badly misjudged how long the trip would take. They'd pulled him from his hideaway three days after his supplies ran out and bundled him into a cabin, shivering with hunger and cold, hooked him into an IV, and left him alone.
He'd faded in and out of consciousness for a while and at some point Granna had just been there, sitting in the folding chair set into the wall. She was dressed the same as always: a salmon-pink business suit and black tennis shoes, with her greying hair pinned back behind her ears. She'd had her con-scroll out and was answering e-mails, or giving out orders, or something, and looked more bored than concerned to have to be there watching him.
"They called you," he croaked out.
"No," she replied. "I knew. I'm the one who told them where to find you."
She must have put something in his pack, then, or else she'd tracked him with his implant. He felt himself flush.
"You had to know," she continued. "What it's like to be alone. To be afraid and hungry and cold. You had to know why I worked so hard for Driftwise."
They'd talked for hours--or rather, she had, and he'd croaked assent or confusion--about her childhood and her life's work; how she'd built a single small convenience store into an import-export empire, and then sold all of it to fund half the spindle's start-up cost. Just to show the world it could be done, she said. To show them you didn't need a good start, or diamond mines, or a puppet regime propped up by wealthy corporate thugs. That you could go it alone, and still succeed if you were obdurate and lucky and fought tooth and nail for what you believed in.
She'd stood up--"So find what you believe in."--and left without another word.
He had wandered for years after that, working any job he could get. Living among people from all walks of life and trying to know them. But he knew it wasn't the same for him: any time he got in too deep, Granna would be able to sweep in and lift him to his feet. Eventually he had come to believe that was her point. She could lift people up, and so could he, sooner or later, if he'd go back to Driftwise and work it as Granna obviously wanted. He was only being selfish, living a working-class fantasy, out here in the world.
So he'd gone back.
And now . . .
Well, maybe now he was in a position to prove that belief. To show that he could help people, and that his co-partnership of Driftwise wasn't just another kind of fantasy. He turned away from the viewport, leaving the mock-stars of Earth behind, and headed back towards his office.
January, 2066 - Ang
The orbital platform which sat atop Chimborazo Spindle was burning. You could see it clearly from the top of Driftwise, half the world away: a guttering candle sticking into the black space out past the edge of the blue-limned Earth.
Ang and Gayatri Anwar, the administrators of Driftwise and two of the few people who could still look out on things from such heights, watched it magnified in Gayatri's office window.
That could be us, Ang thought. Might be still.
It had been almost four months since they'd announced on the news that a planetoid had hit Mars, sending hundreds of city-sized ejecta hurtling into Earth's orbital path. Ever since, the world had been busy fracturing itself, with America, China, and Russia leading the way. Still, nobody had touched the three spindles, each of which had the capacity to off-load humanity in the face of the planet's incoming doom.
Ang had hoped it would stay that way--everyone had, surely--but wasn't surprised Chimborazo, which was heavily in debt to its host country's political and industrial interests, had broken the pattern.
He turned to his sister, who had one eye on the distant disaster and another on the suite's SmartWall, with its endlessly cycling news reports and data analyses.
She has to acknowledge it now, he thought. She has to see we can't let external interests dictate what we do.
Gayatri just stared mutely at Chimborazo. She had been staring for hours. The magnified flame, coupled with the dim lighting in the room, reflected her face in the window, a flickering, spectral image that sent chills up Ang's back.
After what seemed an interminable silence, she looked away from the window, over to him. "We have to call the Americans," she said.
The words spilled from his mouth almost before she finished speaking, and her response came out the same way, until they were shouting again, trying to override each other's voice.
"You want to turn us into--"
"--only way to stay--"
"--overrun with soldiers, a fascist--"
"--dead if we--"
"--you think that's--"
"--would have wanted?"
They shouted the last at almost the same time. And there it was, the old argument again, punctuated by a burst of light which flared out from the side of Chimborazo and flooded the room in a pale orange crescendo. They watched it in silence for a minute, then Gayatri spoke again, just above a whisper.
"I hope it doesn't fall."
There was nothing Ang could say to that. She was scared, he knew--they both were. He turned and left the room, letting the quiet fshhmp of the door behind him put an end to the argument for now. Maybe for good.
He and Gayatri were like the ruined spindle themselves, he thought: a massive, indestructible edifice which held up nothing but a burnt-out shell. But they still had the memory of Granna between them--they were family, after all, despite everything.
He waited out the last few days of his shift top-side, uncomfortable at the lack of distance it allowed him. Damn his sister for coming up early. Damn her for showing him Chimborazo. For showing him always how perfectly useless he was.
But he was being unfair--he knew he was. Gayatri wasn't the one who had cracked Mars like a cosmic egg. She hadn't forced Chimborazo onto him, either. He'd gone to see her of his own free will, the night the UN subcommittee on disaster mitigation had made their report on the scale of the thing. Three hundred fifty eight pieces with radii between 25m and 30km. Ang and Gayatri had been sitting there, trying to grasp that, when they heard from José Amador, head of the consortium that ran Chimborazo, over the inter-spindle comm. line.
"Drift-wise, Kenya, we've got problems." His voice was hoarse, his breathing ragged.
"Rioters?" Gayatri said. Her shoulders tensed, and Ang could feel his own body tightening up, too--no matter what it was, they would be powerless to help.
"Or something like it," Amador said.
Mwamba Ntake, Kenya spindle's CEO, came over the line. "So merely deploy your security forces. No more problem, isn't it?" She ran a tight ship at Kenya, where a portion of the population still didn't like the idea of the elevator, no matter how much commerce it brought in.
Amador grunted. "First thing I did. Bu--"
His voice cut out, replaced by the too-still silence of the room, and then by static. Gayatri cut the shared comm line, then dialled Mwamba direct at Kenya Spindle. Ang just sat there, stupefied, while the two women talked. He felt he should contribute, somehow, but he couldn't think of anything to say. Of anything he could do.
An hour later, they saw the first sign of the fire.
After leaving Gayatri's office, Ang took the express lift out to the control spike that jutted from the centre of the spindle.
Something about the place always lifted his spirits. It was the way you couldn't even see the surface of the Earth, perhaps. He liked to stand there and watch the ships drift by, deceptively slow and majestic against the unfathomable scale of the universe.
With the flurry of relief and survival efforts which were finally getting underway, things were busy. Joining the usual commercial and industrial ships were a half-dozen construction ships setting off for the moon and a handful of other barely-habitable locations. There was even a research facility being built on Phobos to monitor changes to the Martian surface--something which still made Ang shake his head in rueful admiration of mankind's stubborn optimism.
In any case, because of it all the control centre was a bustle of sound and people; scattered radio conversations mixed with automated notices and the subtle, varied background noise of the station. Normally Ang's presence didn't cause so much as a ripple in this orchestrated chaos, but today just his being there seemed to make the atmosphere tense. He could read it in the shoulders of the controllers, in the way their radio responses got terse as he walked by.
At least they try. Gayatri's words again. What have you ever done to deny them that?
And there it was, he thought, that was the problem: he was caught in a trap he'd helped set up when he returned to the spindle. He knew it was partly his own perception. He just couldn't get used to the idea that sitting in an office pushing paper around got things done. He wanted to work, to do something real instead of pushing paper around, but he couldn't--he was too busy with administrative minutiae to get anything done on the ground.
He stopped and blinked. On the ground. That was it; that was the solution. Before he could change his mind, he stepped back into the lift and headed down to the main spindle floor. From there it was a short walk to the crew cars which went to the surface. He called Gayatri on the way down, projecting her feed into one of the lift's outer walls.
After a moment she answered; he could see she was still in the office where he'd left her. Doing what she could to keep Driftwise running, no doubt. He felt his cheeks flush--and here he'd been running around in a sulk, focusing so much in what he couldn't do that he barely did what he could.
"Ang," she said. "Look, I'm--"
"Don't. You were right. You always are and you know it."
She blinked. "Well, that's certainly a change."
"And only one of many. I'm going down to the surface."
"Are you crazy?! It's way too dangerous--you saw Chimborazo. We need to stay up here where we can keep an eye on things, make sure we don't give the impression that we're shutting everyone out so just we can profit. Especially if we're not letting national militaries in to keep things stable."
So she'd reconsidered, then. Or more likely she'd just been scared when the other spindle went up. That, at least, was a relief.
"That's precisely why I have to go," he said. "To show the world we're open and we're on their side, and that we don't value our own skins more than theirs. Besides, someone will have to go down there to meet with whomever we need to meet with."
She looked away from the screen, her lips pressed into a tight line.
"The minute things go bad you're on an express car back up here," she said, then looked back at the screen, her lips quirked and one eyebrow raised. "Don't think you'll be living easy down there in the meantime, either. I'll be working you so hard you'll wish we were already dead."
Ang grinned. "I'm counting on it."
"Ang? Be careful."
With that she signed off, just as the lift reached the main floor. Ang walked through the empty, echoing corridor to the crew car in silence, his mood improving with each meter. It might not be much, he thought, but at least he was finally acting.
March 2066 - Gayatri
Gayatri awoke to the sound of alarms blaring, and stumbled from bed to her desk, where her conscroll lay, vibrating quietly amidst the noise. She snatched it up and switched it to message mode, and the screen cleared to show the face of Yasunari Kiyoko, head of surface security, her face grim and her uniform covered in soot and worse.
"What's going on?" Gayatri asked. "The alarms--"
"Ma'am. There was an attempted U.S. takeover. We managed to repel them, and their general swears it was intended to be peaceful, but some captain with an itchy trigger finger apparently authorized some surface-to-surface rockets and . . ."
Gayatri stopped listening at the word 'rockets'. Ang, she thought. If she'd lost him now . . .
"Ma'am?" Yasunari said.
She'd been standing there with her mouth half-open while Yasunari talked, she realized, and must have missed a question. "And?" she snapped. "I'm not paying you to watch me look stupid via 'scroll."
"Ma'am. As I've said, we managed to repel their attack, and I've been in talks with their general, who's going to withdraw--they were going to try and swing it as 'helping' us, I bet, but the rocket's forced their hand. They want to be remembered as helping the escape effort, not hindering it."
"And the damage?" Gayatri said.
"No major structural damage, and it didn't land anywhere near the crew berths or the passenger intake areas. But . . ."
Yasunari trailed off, looked away from the camera. Gayatri felt her mouth drying. It was just like when Granna had died. Nobody would look at her then, either. She'd had to wheedle it out of them all one excruciating sentence at a time. She shook herself. No reason to assume the worst--besides, Yasunari had said that the crew berths weren't hit.
The other woman sighed. "But there were several deaths. A few UN subcommittee members were visiting to get a handle on our workflow speeds. The rocket hit in an area they were walking through, although it doesn't seem to have been purposeful. They were . . .
"They were with your brother, Ma'am; he was showing them some of the new processes we'd implemented to cope with our new logistical problems. They were on the way back to the crew berths when the attack came."
Gayatri stalled. Even though she'd seen it coming, hearing it out loud was something else. Especially after the past month and a half, when she and Ang had worked together so well. They'd redone their entire launch schedule, shifting it around as much as possible so that those who had paid for services were still able to use them. But on top of that, there had been the refugees, the missions to divert the oncoming planetesimals (all of which had failed), and of course the endless meetings.
Ang had finally found some middle ground between what he wanted to do and what he had to, and even with all the extra work she'd felt calmer than she had in years. And now he was gone.
She let her eyes wander back to the screen. Yasunari was waiting patiently, but it was obvious she had many things to do. Gayatri shook her head to clear it.
"Understood," she said. "I'll deal with the UN now. And get the White House on the line. I want them to pay, and the UN will want it too."
"And stop these damn alarms! I can't think with them going off, and we're in no danger up here from a surface attack."
"Ma'am. And Ma'am?"
It came out sounding harsher than she'd intended, but if she'd hurt Yasunari's feelings the other woman didn't show it.
"I'm sorry for your loss," she said, and signed off, leaving Gayatri staring at a blank conscroll screen, alone again.
Alone. She flopped into her desk's chair, suddenly drained. Oh, Ang!
She'd always wanted a freer hand in the running of the spindle, but not this. Never this. But still it was there, it was done. It had happened, just like the impact on Mars--a distant and arbitrary event, with consequences that went beyond any measure. Or maybe not so distant: she was the one who had let him go down there. She was the one who had let him die.
The next few weeks passed in a haze. The effort to get people off-world and out of the anticipated path of the fragments was well under way, and the shipyards at Got-Nothing were working double time to churn out a supply of space-borne habitations that could be filled and sent off perpendicular to the plane of the elliptical. A few were headed to the outer system planets, with the idea of setting up long-term living spaces on the moons of Jupiter, or in the asteroid belts. Some even had their sights set on Mars; planetary scientists in particular were excited to view the changes up close, despite the risks.
Driftwise was one of the two remaining spindles that made for easy access to space so Gayatri had her plate piled high with all of it. Even more so now, with Ang gone. She still heard him in the back of her mind with every choice she made, remonstrating her for letting the megacorps keep a few of their launch windows, arguing bitterly for a more democratic approach when she accepted money from the Russians for a few extra carriers worth of what the Kremlin termed essential personnel--never mind that she had put the funds straight back into keeping Driftwise operating at its current frenetic pace, and had donated whatever might have been profits to one of the UN's pre-emptive disaster relief efforts.
Down on the surface, these were well under way: all nations out of the predicted direct hit areas were moving their populations to the centre of their continental land-masses, or at least away from the water. In the richer nations they were excavating massive shelters or moving people into caves, with the idea that even if the surface were uninhabitable they could live out the lean years underground.
Gayatri only hoped the shockwaves and the weather wouldn't cause too much havoc on Driftwise's surface base. The spindle here wasn't tethered directly to the planet like Kenya's or what was left of Chimborazo's, so there was some hope it would remain standing so long as it didn't suffer a direct hit or succumb to the massive waves generated by ocean-impacting debris. From the most recent forecasts, it looked like most of the pieces were going to hit in the northern hemisphere--the first were scheduled in North America, and Driftwise's part of the world was expected to miss out on any direct hits. But even so, nobody knew for sure, and there was nothing they could have done in any case.
They had to just wait, and work at surviving, and hope.
April 2066 – Gayatri
In the end, they kept Driftwise operational almost past the safety regulations set up by the UN. Gayatri sent most of the surface staff home, if they wanted to go home, or offered them and their immediate families a spot on the last of the temporary habitations if not. She herself went down to the surface on the last descending crawler, hunkering down with her conscroll in a suite of hastily-reinforced admin offices located just below the water's surface at the central point of the mega-barge which made up the spindle's tether.
They saw the last passengers and departing crew away from the orbital a few scant hours before the Martian rubble was due. Then there was nobody left beyond a handful of people who had volunteered to stay behind despite the risk. The spindle was eerily silent, bereft of its usual clatter and noise; there was nothing to do but wait until early evening, when the impacts would start, half a world away.
Someone had snagged a crate of 35-year-old whisky from one of the UN functionaries who was on the spindle for the last day, and they went out onto the roof with it to enjoy the rest of the afternoon. The wind was a mild susurration, a gentle tugging at loose clothing that would have felt out of place at this time of year even if they didn't know what was coming. It was hard to believe that soon the rich blueness of the sky and the heat of the sun would be nothing but memories. That in less than a day everyone on Earth would either be dead or caught up in the slow, freezing decay of impact winter.
Gayatri walked over to the edge of the roof, overlooking what had been the helipad back when such things mattered. She remembered the way Ang's eyes had flashed that day after the meeting, the way he'd walked away so defeated. And now she was the one acting all full of self-pity and loathing. She shook her head and stepped back downstairs to their impromptu command centre, leaving the crew to their combination celebration and mourning ceremony. Even with the end so close, there had to be something she could do.
She was bringing up various video feeds and data streams on the smartwalls when she heard footsteps on the stairs, and turned to see Liu Sin-Feng, one of the dock workers who had been with Driftwise longest.
"Down here all by yourself," the old man said as he walked over. "Why not get some sun while you still can?"
"Someone has to keep an eye on things."
"You? Let me do it--I've gotten more than my share of rays, working the docks for so long."
She shook her head. "Ang," she started, then stopped to gulp down a sudden lump in her throat. "Ang and Granna wouldn't . . ." she coughed. "I . . ." But the words wouldn't come.
"Tch, child. They would want you to be happy, not be down here sulking. Ang would kill you if he knew you'd caught his gloomy little death wish."
She didn't have an answer for that, so she didn't give one, just watched the screens. Liu didn't leave, but he took the hint.
"So how's it looking?" he asked, sitting next to her with a sigh.
They stayed that way for the next two hours, watching the screens. They keyed into a feed from Got-Nothing station, and watched the greyish chunks of Mars rock tumble slowly end over end towards them. There wasn't any sound, of course, but someone had hooked up a stream of suitably grim classical music, and the way its fury contrasted with the inevitability of it all made Gayatri shudder.
The rest of the crew was still on the roof when the first rock hit. They heard the bang a few seconds before they saw the flames on one of the feeds, a terrible pinprick flare against the Earth's night-darkened hemisphere. It had hit somewhere in Canada, from the look of it, though it was hard to tell for sure. Gayatri staggered to the roof and helped the more inebriated crew members down into safety. Another one hit while she was up there--the bang sounded like a muted gunshot, as far away as they were--and she almost thought she could feel the barge shake. She hurried back down after the last of the crew, bolting the roof hatch and pulling the inner seals into place inside it.
The crew crowded around the smartwalls, watching scenes of destruction roll in from around the globe. The statue of liberty crushed beneath a tsunami generated by an impact hundreds of miles off-shore. The Azores islands vanishing beneath the same wave, their long histories reduced to barren rocky humps after it went away. Firestorms in the Amazon, the Rockies splintered. Whole cities burning or flattened by air blasts or worse. Outside, they could hear the wind roaring; the whole barge shook as though it was going to leap up from the surface of the ocean and smash itself to pieces in sympathetic agony.
It felt to Gayatri like they were the last humans on Earth; she wanted to quit, to end it then and there. To wander out into the mad raging anger of the night and step off into the angry waves. Why wait for nature to finish the job? Why wait for a slow, painful, drawn-out agony?
But every time she went to stand, she stopped herself--Ang-in-her-head stopped her. He asked questions, he wouldn't shut up. Who will stay to help those left behind? he asked. Who will lift them from the ruins and out to meet their destiny in the stars?
And so she stayed alive. She and Liu kept the crew hoping, throughout that long and dreadful night and day, as the feeds from around the globe went black. They watched the video being shot from Got-Nothing, which showed upwards of a dozen ships valiantly trying to shatter some of the pieces of ruined Mars. They watched the thick grey clouds roll over the globe, covering all sign of land and of water, so that all they could see was an endless covering of ash, into which the fragments vanished almost without sign.
At last they turned that feed off, too, and talked of underground shelters, of space-borne habitations, of how they would rebuild, somehow, when all this was over. And through it all they held fast to the hope that remained as long as the spindle stood.
And stand it did, until at last the bombardment was over, and the waves calm from all their repercussions. Gayatri steeled herself and led the way outside, into a choking grey chill. The ocean surface was flat, but black almost as oil. Neither would ever be blue again, not within her lifetime, but that didn't mean hope was gone. Still there above her in the sky she could trace the line of the spindle--could see the achievement it stood for. They would get past this disaster, she thought. They would go forth again and thrive; she would see to it herself.
This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.