LEGEND OF ALM
THE FINAL HOUR
GRAHAM M. IRWIN
“Beyond our days,
at the end of time,
will you wait for me,
will you still be mine?”
Riartis, Songs My Mother Sang
Dane Olson sat strapped onto a counter, reading an old favorite story on his tablet. Outside the huge window across the break room, his beautiful planet Alm was visible, oceans glittering and crowned by brilliant light from the setting sun. He could see the whole continent of Bask from his seat, where his family lived. Most of it had been evacuated, on account of the approaching asteroid family, but those few who still held out hope remained. That included his wife, Cat, and their two children. They were down there, somewhere, in one of the huge green splotches underneath the cloud cover. Dane had been away for nearly four months now, and he missed them so much it hurt sometimes.
The nights were long for the residents of Mooncluster Base Prime, lasting some thirteen days. And they were cold. The base’s heaters came to life as the sun disappeared behind the planet below, but the warmth they provided wasn’t quite enough, so Dane unstrapped himself to grab something more substantial than the t-shirt he was wearing.
His magnetic shoes helped counteract the low gravity. Life on the base had more creature comforts than it probably needed; the magnetized floors, the liveable climate, the greenhouse, the library and snack lounges, but anti-gravity had never been realized, despite much experimentation. It wasn’t a priority, with the coming terror. But after four months in space, Dane longed to let his arms hang at his side, to feel the pull of his own weight on his shoulders. He wondered if he ever would again.
“Evening, Dane,” said his fellow astronaut, Macall, when the two met in a tight stretch of hallway.
“Oh, hey, Mac,” Dane said. “Gettin’ chilly.”
“Yes, sir. Gettin’ chilly,” Macall repeated with a friendly nod.
“Hey, what time are we meeting again?” Dane asked.
“Three hundred,” Macall answered. “About two hours from now. A little less.”
“Alright,” Dane said. “There’s a book in the library that I want to check beforehand. I’ll be there, though. Don’t let them start without me.”
“You got it, Dane.”
Macall squeezed past and turned down a perpendicular hallway, and Dane continued to his shared room. The room was nearly as narrow as the base’s hallways, and yet somehow fit two bunks. He noticed one of his roommates sleeping on a bottom bunk, and so grabbed his jacket quietly and left.
Pulling the rigid, metalmesh jacket over his skin, Dane felt colder at first, but then his body heat filled the material and he warmed up immensely.
“That’s better,” he said to himself as he turned a corner toward the library.
The library was the largest room at Base Prime. The propulsion lab it had once been was shut down when Gabon and Raele Bases came online, twenty years into the Saviour Program’s seventy-five-year implementation. Stacks of books and games brought by generations of astronauts to the mooncluster base now stood where some of the program’s most important breakthroughs had once been achieved. Though the material in the books was all available on tablets, the tactile feel of a book was something humanity would probably never want to give up.
Alone in the cavernous library, Dane stopped to stare out through the windowed ceiling. To the far left, on a craggy ridge of a nearby piece of the mooncluster, Raele Base was still shining with the rays of the setting sun. And beyond that was the crystal-clear star field, looking completely different than it did to those on Alm. Without the planet’s atmosphere or light pollution, the stars appeared bright white and brilliant. Yet somewhere amidst the sparkling beauty was the asteroid family Xeon making its thousand-year pilgrimage to bring Alm destruction.
Dane gazed into space and tried not to grow despondent. He hated the asteroids for taking him away from his family, for all the anguish and misery and fear they had caused the people of Alm for thousands of years. And now, somehow, impossibly, there were messages coming from the asteroids, saying there were people living on them. The same asteroids that had been portents of doom for as long as anyone could remember, that had caused endless catastrophe in two previous Falls, now beamed voices to the base’s communicators speaking of hope, of liberation after centuries of lonely wandering. It was beyond confusing.
“Dane?” a voice asked, calling the astronaut out of deep thought.
“What?” Dane asked, whirling around to face one of his co-workers.
“I’m sorry,” said Ory. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Well, coming up behind someone silently and murmuring their name usually tends to scare them,” Dane said. “Just so you know.”
Ory laughed. “I thought I’d find you here,” she said.
“Why is that?” Dane asked.
Ory moved closer. “I know how much you like your books,” she said. She pouted and leaned in. “I’m so worried, Dane.”
He reached out and put a hand on Ory’s shoulder. “I understand. But it’ll be alright,” he said.
Ory clasped his hand and pressed closer. “Dane,” she asked, “Will you hold me?”
“What, you want a hug?”
“I’m scared we may never make it off this rock, Dane,” Ory said, pressing him against a bookcase.
Dane ducked out of her advance, saying, “Well, we still might.”
Ory put her hand on Dane’s chest.
“You know I’m married, Ory,” he said.
“But, Dane,” Ory plead, “I’m so lonely. Who would know? I promise I won’t tell.”
“Come on, now, Ory. You’re my friend, but I’m not interested.”
Ory sneered. “Fine,” she said. “We’ll both just die cold and alone.”
“Come on, Ory,” Dane countered. “We’ll be together. Don’t be dramatic.”
“Oh, Dane,” Ory sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m such a fool. I know you wouldn’t want to hurt Cat.”
“It’s alright, Ory. It’s hard. It’s all so damned confusing right now.”
“I just want to feel something other than afraid.”
“I know. You want to get some glint? Feel hyper?”
“Alright,” Ory laughed. “I’m really sorry for the way I acted.”
“It’s fine,” Dane said. “Don’t worry. I won’t hold it against you. No pun intended. Let’s go get that glint before the meeting, how’s that?”
“I’d like that, Dane,” Ory said.
“You’re like a sister to me, Ory,” Dane said. “We’ll be together until the end, okay?”
The two found some of the other astronauts at the base’s cantina drinking spirits.
“Glint?” one of them asked after Dane placed his order with the beverage machine. “What’re you always drinking glint for, Dane? Don’t you know it’s the end of the world? Why don’t you drink spirits like everyone else?”
“I feel lousy enough,” Dane said, taking his cups of glint from the dingy machine. “Spirits only make me feel worse.”
The astronaut glowered and went back to his drink.
“Thank you,” Ory said when Dane reached their table with the beverages.
“I didn’t sweeten it at all,” Dane said. “I hope you don’t mind.”
Ory looked like she might cry. “It’s fine,” she said. “It’s fine.”
“I could get some crystal…”
“No, no, it’s really okay. It’s just, Marcus, before he killed himself, he always used to say that I was sweet enough that he never needed crystal in his glint.”
“He was a good man, Ory.”
“He was a coward.”
“A lot of people don’t know how to deal with what’s coming.”
“He should have waited for me to come home. If I had just been there I could have helped him. Could have stopped him. He was never any good without me.”
“I’m sorry, Ory.”
The two stared at their still-too-hot glint steaming and listened to the loud heating unit in the corner struggling.
“So, what is the first thing you’re going to do when we get back home?” Dane asked.
“I haven’t thought about it,” Ory said, wiping her eyes. “I’m not sure that we will. Actually, I’m pretty sure we won’t.”
“I don’t get everyone’s’ pessimism. The Program should work, there’s no reason it shouldn’t.”
“I don’t know, Dane.”
“Well, what about this latest news?” Dane asked. “These supposed transmissions from the asteroids? What are your thoughts on those?”
“I don’t care if aliens come bringing presents,” Ory said. “Or if the Program works or not. I don’t care if we do make it back down. What’s waiting for me? Marcus’s things to sort through? A dusty, looted house?”
“Come on, Ory. Keep a hold of yourself. I’ve known you for a long time. You’re an optimist at heart.”
“At heart. Please. There’s nothing there anymore, Dane. Just a void. Just a cold, meaningless void.”
“Drink some of your glint, Ory, it’ll make you feel better.”
Ory held her stomach and frowned. “I don’t want to feel better.”
“Well, I want you to enough for the both of us,” Dane said. “Drink your glint, come on.”
“Fine,” Ory sighed. She took a sip of her drink, then another. “It’s good, anyways.”
“There you go. You can come stay with us when we get home, okay? You don’t have to go to your empty house, ever, if you don’t want to.”
“You’re such a good friend, Dane,” Ory said. “I love you, you know that, right?”
“Course I do. And I love you, too, Ory.”
The two smiled as best they could, then lowered their eyes and sipped from their drinks silently, as the others around them lost themselves in their spirits.
All twenty of Base Prime’s crew were present for the meeting at the commstation an hour later. The room was packed tight, and everyone was craning to get a better view of the information screen where General Kemo Gaelen sat waiting to receive telecommunication from the mysterious voices coming from the approaching asteroids.
“Hello. My name is General Kemo Gaelen, of Alm,” the chief astronaut said to initiate conversation.
The information screen flickered and then a weak image depicting only the vague outline of a human face began to come into focus. The astronauts gasped and murmured.
“Hello, General Gaelen. My name is Aer Lockley,” announced the person on the screen. “Good to meet you!”
“And it is an understatement to say that we are amazed to meet you,” the general said. “Myself and nineteen others are stationed here at Mooncluster Base Prime, in orbit around planet Alm. We are in the final steps of implementing our Saviour Program, in anticipation of the asteroids you’re broadcasting from striking our planet. You must understand that it is most strange to find that the greatest threat we have ever faced is inhabited.”
“Understandably. It is equally amazing to us that we have finally returned home after nearly five hundred years wandering,” said Aer. “There are thirty of us here, in New Alm.”
“Returned home? Do you classify yourselves as human? How did you learn Protersian?” General Gaelen asked.
“We are human, we are like you,” Aer answered. “We are originally from Alm. Our ancestors were launched into space during a failed attempt at an earlier Saviour Program,” Aer explained. “One intended to stop Alm’s Second Fall. Their plan did not succeed, as they were not given enough time, but you should know that they did not perish in the Fall, as so many unfortunate numbers on Alm must have. They survived, we survived, to build the colony we inhabit today. The effects of time dilation made it so your thousand years was only five hundred for us.”
The astronauts gathered in the commstation could hardly contain their awe.
“How… In what manner have you sustained yourself?” the general asked, astonished. “For all those hundreds of years?”
“With our permaculture systems, and vigilant repair,” Aer answered. “The first generation were given the best tools and technologies to stop the asteroids, it’s only that they didn’t have enough time. They set up the station that became our colony, then watched Alm get pummelled as they flew by, helpless to stop the destruction. And we have been waiting to come home ever since. Tell us, can you help us? As we have always hoped? Can we finally come home?”
The astronauts at Moon Base Prime stared at one another, unable to speak.
“Aer, this information is beyond incredible,” the general finally managed to answer. “We all stand in awe of your accomplishment. Have you kept record of your ancestors? It’s been, what, twenty generations for you? That is an incredibly long time to live in a colony that I can’t imagine is very large.”
“It has not been quite twenty generations,” Aer said. “After realizing they would not be able to return to Alm, our earliest ancestors set into place a nanoconstruction build for our colony, then went into stasis. After fifty years, they awoke to our colony ready for habitation. After calculating how long it was going to be before the asteroid we call home returned to Alm again, they put themselves back into stasis for another fifty years. They awoke again, made sure things were still working, and went back into stasis. This process continued for three hundred years.”
“And… so you are the same people now? The original astronauts?” the general asked, astonished.
“No, the first colonists started to rot. For whatever reason, their bodies started to decay, despite stasis. So they decided to try and have children. They weren’t able to, but they were able to grow embryos, in a modified greenchamber. And we’re the creations of those creations,” Aer said. “Five generations later.”
The crowd packed into the commstation gasped.
“Unbelievable,” General Gaelen said. “Please, tell me, what have you all been doing all this time?”
“Studying the cosmos,” Aer answered. “Studying the libraries we had in our information systems. Producing music and art. Mining the asteroid for crystals.”
“And now you are preparing to fly home?” the general asked. “Incredible. When is your launch date? We will meet you, we will celebrate this unprecedented event!”
“Well, to be clear,” Aer answered. “We have no launch date. We have no way to get off-surface. We have no propulsion systems.”
“No rail-launch? No thrusters of any kind?” the general asked.
“Not as such,” Aer answered. “We don’t have enough expendable energy. What little power we are able to generate from the magnetic quality of the ferrite sustains us, but is not enough for adequate thrust. But you will come to save us, yes?”
The general sighed and looked away. “I don’t see how that’s possible,” he whispered to the woman on his left.
“It’s been five hundred years,” insisted Aer. “Please. Please tell us you’ll come get us. We’ve been waiting so long.”
“I… will have to speak with Mission Control first,” General Gaelen said.
“Of course,” Aer said. “Tell them, we have mined so many crystals, you could have them all.”
“It’s not about payment,” the general said. “It’s about practicality. Aer, I am honored to meet you. I will do everything in my power to get you all home safely.”
“Thank you, general,” Aer said. “We will all be anxiously awaiting your reply.”
The general nodded to a technician and the information screen went blank. The general closed his eyes in thought for a moment, then rose and turned around to face the others. “This news… is both amazing and terrible,” he said.
“How are we going to save them?” another technician asked.
“Unfortunately, I can assure you that there is no way we are going to be given clearance to save those men and women,” the general answered.
“What? Why not?” Macall asked.
“Should deployment of the frackpod rockets be successful, we’ve got one last trip to the other bases, and then it’s back home,” the general said. “There’s simply no time or resource for an unplanned reconnaissance mission.”
“I can’t believe that, general,” Macall said. “There will be plenty of fuel left. Let some of us work on a plan, let…”
“I’m sorry, Macall,” the general said. “I don’t think it’s possible. I will call Mission Control immediately, but I highly doubt they will approve a rescue mission.”
“But they’ve been out there for a thousand years,” Macall said. “Leaving them stranded is unthinkable.”
“I will call Mission Control, I will plead their case,” the general said. “But I’m only being honest when I say I think it’s unlikely we’ll be able to help. Let me try anyways, though. We will reconvene in one hour.”
As the other astronauts filed sadly out of the commstation, Macall held Dane back.
“Hey, buddy. What’s up?” Dane asked.
“Bullshit, that’s what. This is complete garbage, Dane,” Macall said. “Leaving those poor people to die out there… it’s unconscionable.”
“I’m not disagreeing. But Gaelen can’t see beyond the plan. Which is why he’s general,” Dane said. “He would never jeopardize the Saviour Program.”
“But those poor people have been spinning around the solar system…”
“Mac, you know I would try and save them if it were my call. But it’s not. I know Gaelen won’t. It’s a shame.”
“It’s worse than a shame,” Macall said. “It’s awful.”
“What could we do about it?” Dane asked.
“We could hitch a ride on one of the fracking delivery rockets,” Macall said. “Ferry them back.”
“What, and end up dead ourselves?” Dane asked. “If you’re trying to keep people alive, I don’t see your logic, Mac.”
“What if I could guarantee return?” Macall asked.
“How could you do that?”
“A single ion thrust engine would get us back without question.”
“Maybe. But why wouldn’t we just send the thruster, for the colonists to use themselves?” Dane asked.
“Because if they knew how such a piece of equipment worked, they wouldn’t be stuck on an asteroid,” Macall said. “It’s way too dangerous to just hand to them; they might blow themselves to pieces.”
Dane sighed. “Which is already where they’re headed.”
“So what do you think?”
“I don’t know, Mac. I’ve got a family waiting for me back home. I’d really like to see them one last time.”
“I’ve got family, too, Dane. And so do the men and women on that asteroid out there. Alm’s family. I mean, what are we trying to save, anyways? We aren’t a people that lets their members die alone in space, scattering half a millennia of hope. I can’t believe we are, not if there’s anything at all I can do about it.”
“You’re going to try your crazy scheme with or without me, aren’t you?” Dane asked.
“With or without,” Macall said. “I simply have to.”
“If I were to help, would it be just you and me?” Dane asked.
“Unless you know someone else who’s as crazy as we are,” Macall answered.
“I think Ory would help. She needs something to believe in.”
“Perfect. Three would make it even easier.”
Dane took in a deep breath and stared out the commstation window. He let the breath out slowly. “You know the idea of stealing an ion thruster is insane, right?” he asked. “We could get court martialled.”
“Oh, of course,” Macall said. “But would you expect anything less from me?”
“Never,” Dane said. “Okay, I’ll help. You’re right, we can’t just leave them up there. We have to at least try to save them. That’s what Cat would want. What I would want for my kids.”
“There you go, partner.”
“So what’s the timetable?”
“The rockets with the frackpods are launching in about eight hours,” Macall said. “So that means we’ve got eight hours until go. We’ll stow in one of the drill packages, next to the heated frack fuel.”
“That’s a hell of an idea, Macall,” Dane said. “I’m game. After the meeting, all I need is to call my wife.”
“You’re going to tell her?”
“Of course not. Not until we get home.”
“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” Macall said. “Ory and I would be enough, and I wouldn’t think any less of you. I know how much you miss them.”
“Naw,” Dane said. “We’ve been doing stupid things together for too long for me to let you go and do the stupidest of all by yourself.”
“That’s my Dane,” Macall said. “Get something to eat?”
“Let’s,” Dane said. “A possible last meal. Something salty.”
“What’s the use in waiting, anyways?” Quin Kai asked himself. “Everything’s pointless now.”
He reached through billowing smoke to take a needle from the table in front of him.
“It’s the end of the world. Might as well use the last one,” he said to his cat Humphrey.
He blew the needle to make sure it was free of dust.
“One last time,” Quin whispered. “For the ages.”
He pushed the needle into place, then dropped the arm. At first there was a soft crackle, and then a solitary bass note came through the speakers. The note repeated four times, before a shimmering top hat joined in syncopation. After two measures, a symphony swelled to join the rhythm. Quin listened with his eyes closed until the singer started, and then couldn’t help himself. He jumped up and started to sing along.
“Baby! How long’s it gonna take, now, baby?”
“I said, how many times you gonna take time, baby?” Quin shouted, as he danced around the dark basement of his sister’s house. “Aren’t you gonna have a little heart now, baby? Because I never felt as good alone on my own, my baby! Now, break it down!”
Quin crouched down to get ready for the middle part of the song, when the beat cut out before building up again, ready to dance the dance he’d choreographed himself so many years ago, when the lights in the basement came on and interrupted his fun.
“Quin?” his sister shouted from the top of the stairs. “Quin, what are you doing? It’s not even ten.”
“Oh, sorry, Cat,” Quin said. He turned the music down. “I unplugged my clock.”
“I leave at eleven. Every day. After eleven you can make all the noise you want,” Cat said.
“Okay. I’ll plug the clock back in.”
“It smells like moone down here. Why is it smoky? Are you smoking?” Cat asked.
“Yeah,” Quin answered. “Of course. Why?”
“Quin, it’s ten in the morning.”
“The world is ending, Cat,” Quin said. “Do I care what time it is?”
“Ugh,” Cat groaned. “Take a shower.” She headed back up the stairs and closed the door to the basement.
“Do I care?” Quin asked again, this time of Humphrey, who had reappeared. “How long’s it gonna take now, Humphrey? Aren’t you gonna have a little heart now, Humphrey?”
Quin danced his way over to the bathroom. He waded through dirty towels and t-shirts to the sink, cleared some gunk out so it would drain, and brushed his teeth for the first time in a week. He could barely see himself in the toothpaste-spittle covered mirror, but that’s how he preferred it. He knew he never left the basement. He knew no one cared if he looked terrible.
Quin didn’t do much other than read or listen to music. He had mostly stopped watching the information system; there was nothing but end-of-the-world coverage on, anyhow. Even the channels that usually showed reruns and movies were streaming reports of the celestial objects coming to smash Alm to bits. It was depressing, to say the least.
There was one channel that had kept Quin’s attention longer than others, owned by a devout Ahnite who was spending the end of his days broadcasting from a bunker readings from The Way of Things, Slate Ahn’s Way, and other ancient texts. His was the most optimistic of the rampant end-times hysterics, because the Ahnites believed that a new, better world was somehow going to be manifested by the asteroids. In their prophecies, the third coming of the asteroids, Alm’s Third Fall, would be the last, and then the planet would enter a new, golden age of prosperity. Quin hadn’t been raised an Ahnite, but for the last few years, after quitting his job, he had been steeping himself in their lore. Most of the books piled about his basement dwelling were about Slate Ahn or his followers. Quin longed for a time like the one Slate had lived in, a time so seemingly free and open and full of adventure and possibilities. Now, it seemed there was nothing but the razor-thin hope that the Saviour Program, that same one that had been devised for so many centuries and had failed before the Second Fall, was going to deflect the coming devastation. And all the top scientists openly stated the likelihood of it working was small. If there was to be a new golden age, it seemed unlikely humans were going to get to enjoy it.
Quin changed the record on his stereo to one full of old instrumental songs. The first was one of Alm’s earliest surviving recordings, from some seventeen hundred years before. The wistful tune reached out across time and made Quin sigh over how humanity was so unchanged and beautiful and how sad it was that it all might come to an end.
The door at the top of the stairs opened again.
“Quin?” Cat called. “Are you awake?”
“Yes,” Quin answered. “You were just down here.”
“Quin, I have to ask a favor.”
“Of course, sis,” Quin said. “What is it?”
“I need you to watch the kids,” Cat said. She came down a few steps into the basement. “Their sitter just called and said she really doesn’t want to spend her last days watching my children. So. Whatever. I have to get to work, could you please just keep an eye on them for a few hours?”
Quin tried not to grimace. “Sure,” he said.
“I really appreciate it,” Cat said.
“Can they just come down here?” Quin asked.
“No, Quin,” Cat said. “They aren’t allowed down here. You want them to get a contact high?”
“No. Understandable,” Quin said. “So, I gotta go upstairs?”
“Not even outside, Quin,” Cat said. “You can sit on the couch if you want. And there’s some mead in the ice chest.”
Quin nodded. “Well, I’m not gonna say no. What’re their names again?”
“Quin!” Cat said in exasperation.
“I’m kidding,” Quin said. “Calm down. I’ll be right up.”
“Come on, “ Cat said.
“I just said I’ll be right up,” Quin said.
“No, no more moone. No more music. It’s only three hours, Quin. Come on. The kids need you. Let’s go,” Cat said. “Now.”
“Fiiine,” Quin moaned. He dragged himself up the stairs from the basement. “Wow. Air’s so clear up here,” he said when he reached the kitchen.
“Just like a mountain top,” Cat said. “There’s a whole world outside your basement, Quin. Whether you’ve written it off or not. Alright, I’ll be back. Kids! I’ll be back! Listen to your Uncle!”
Some muted “Okays,” came from the living room.
“Three hours, Quin,” Cat said. “Stay upstairs.”
“Right, right,” Quin said. He watched his sister unbolt and unlock the front door through the hallway from the kitchen, then went to the fridge. “There’s no mead in here,” he griped. “She lied! Already a bust.”
Quin walked to the living room and re-bolted the door shut. His niece and nephew were at the window watching their mother leave.
“She’s gone!” Nate cried once her transport had lifted off. “Now we can do whatever we want!”
“Not quite,” Quin said. “I’m in charge while she’s gone.”
“I told you,” Gwen said to her brother. “Uncle Quin’s in charge.”
“And I told you, that means we can do whatever we want.” Nate said. “Come on, let’s get something sweet.”
“Hey, are you allowed to do that?” Quin asked the children as they sped past him.
“Yeah,” Nate said. “Zerta let us do it all the time.”
“I doubt it,” Quin said to himself. But he wasn’t going to stop the children from having sweets.
He sat down on the edge of the couch in the living room and looked out the front window. The house directly across the street was boarded up, its lawn overgrown. Most of the neighbors had gone. In the past few months, most cities on Bask had been deserted as people relocated to the other side of the planet to avoid the worst from the coming asteroids. Quin got up and pulled a thin curtain over the window.
On his way back to the couch, he passed a table where his sister and her husband Dane kept their favorite pictures. There were four live displays, each rotating through images of a happy family camping, celebrating, growing together. A lot of people thought it was cruel to bring children into a world destined to be destroyed, but the Olson’s never shared their pessimism.
Quin was in a number of the pictures himself. As was his ex-fiancée, Mari. He watched the pictures of them together go by like a flipbook of his memories. He watched the couple meet, start to build a life together, and then Quin was alone again in pictures toward the end. When death started to press, Mari got scared of committing to anything in such a fragile world, and disappeared after leaving a short note on Quin’s record player.
“Too bad about her,” Quin sighed to himself as he fell back on the couch. He sunk down into the cushions. “Information channel eighty-three,” he called out. The wall display came on, but there was no signal. “Eighty-three,” Quin repeated, with better diction. The system displayed his request, but apparently there wasn’t any signal to be broadcast. “Damn.”
A shriek came from the kitchen. Quin jumped up and ran to where he found his niece and nephew scrambling to clean up a sweet crystal spill.
“What’re you two doing?” he asked. “Are you eating pure crystal?”
“It was Gwen’s idea,” Nate said.
“It just tastes so good,” Gwen plead through a frosted frown.
“Well,” Quin said, “As long as you get it all cleaned up by the time your mom gets back, I don’t care what you eat. But there are better things than sweet crystal.”
“Like what?” Gwen asked.
“Well, crystal is one of the building blocks of the tastiest things,” Quin said. “But it’s not the tastiest by itself. See, if you add some shavroot and some cinnilla, a bit of milk, well, now you’re talking truly delicious.”
“I want truly delicious!” Gwen said.
“How about you, Nate?” Quin asked. “You want some warmbrew?”
“Yes, please,” Nate said. “Thanks, Quin.”
Nate smirked and said, “Gwen, you have to help with the crystal you spilled.”
“Sorry, Nate,” Gwen said. She licked her fingers clean and then dug her hands in for more. “I’m trying, I promise I am.”
The three made much more of a mess together cooking their warmbrew and a side of slightly burnt folds. The time flew, and Cat was soon back.
“What is going on?” she demanded upon entering the kitchen.
“Cat! Er, nothing, just making some snacks with the kiddos,” Quin answered.
Cat looked as if she wanted to get angry, but she let it fade. “I’m happy to see you all enjoying each others’ company,” she said. “I guess.”
“We like Uncle Quin,” Gwen said with a deranged, over-crystaled smile.
“That’s because he lets you eat garbage,” Cat said. She put a bag she was carrying down on the cinnilla-dusted counter. “How am I supposed to get them to sleep tonight?”
“Does it really matter if they get their eight hours?” Quin asked.
“Why shouldn’t it?” Cat asked. She steeled her gaze at Quin, forcing him to relent.
“Alright, alright,” he said. “We’ll have droopbush steep in a little bit to calm down, how’s that?”
“Warmbrew first!” Nate said. “Warmbrew first, warmbrew first!”
“Please?” Quin asked Cat with his best beg. “Let them enjoy it?”
“Go ahead,” Cat sighed. “Enjoy it.”
The children whooped and hollered and carried their steaming cups of warmbrew back into their playroom, sploshing it across the floor as they went.
“What’d Dane say?” Quin asked Cat as he sipped from his own drink.
“He wasn’t available,” Cat said. “But he’s going to try and call me here, tonight.”
“Call you here? From the mooncluster? I didn’t even know that was possible,” Quin said.
“It’s not allowed, but it’s possible,” Cat said.
“Since when is Dane a risk-taker?” Quin asked.
“He’s not,” Cat said. “Not when it comes to protocol, anyways. It must be serious.”
Quin nodded. “I’m sorry. You still think he’ll make it back, though, right? Before the end?”
“I’m depending on it. And you know I don’t believe this will be the end.”
“Putting his career at jeopardy. Maybe he finally gets it; career doesn’t matter.”
“No, for Dane, it does,” Cat said. “For the people he works with. He’s got that irrational dedication. I love him for it.”
“What time is he calling?” Quin asked.
“I’m not sure,” Cat said. She looked around her kitchen. “You have made such a mess.”
“The kids said they would clean it up,” Quin said.
“That means I’ll have to, Quin,” Cat said.
“You could just leave it,” Quin said.
“I’m nowhere near ready to let it all fall apart, Quin. Maybe a week out, a few days out, if the Program fails, if it gets to that point, I’ll stop showering and cleaning and caring about anything like you. But there’s still hope, and I’m going to keep on like things are going to work out.”
“There’s just so much working against us,” Quin said.
“I know, Quin,” Cat said. “Trust me, it’s all I hear from anyone. But if there’s even the slightest chance we might succeed, there’s no reason I shouldn’t hold hope for that chance. Hope is the most powerful thing in the world. You know how I feel about this.”
“I know, I know. I understand trying to be optimistic, but even Meditations says that…”
“Stop it,” Cat said, waving her brother off and starting to sweep a pile of baking mess into her hand. “I’ll talk rationally with you, Quin, but I don’t want to hear about your Ahnite nonsense, at all.”
“But, Cat, it’s just got to be more than coincidence, how they meet up,” Quin said. “How the stories in the prophecies line up with what’s going on in the world.”
“Stop. It. Now,” Cat said. “Not another word.”
Quin bit down on his anger and shrugged it off. “Fine. Sorry. I know you don’t care.”
“It’s not that I don’t care…”
“You don’t want to hear about it, I mean. I know.”
“Quin, I just have Dane up there and he’s got to come home, you know? I can’t believe it’s the end, because he’s got to come home and we’ve got to be a family,” Cat said.
Quin nodded. “I understand.”
“And you’re a part of our family and we’re all going to be here, together, living, because we love each other and the Program is going to work. Right?”
“And you’ll stop saying it won’t, right? For me? For the kids?”
“I will,” Quin said. “I’ll try not to be a black cloud.”
“It’s all I ask of you.”
“How was work?”
“Fine, I guess,” Cat said. “I was the only one there.”
“Hey, do you mind if I go back downstairs for a little bit?”
“Fine,” Cat sighed. “Sorry to have called you up.”
“No,” Quin said, “I liked it. The kids are great. Don’t be like that. I’ll be back up in a little bit.”
“Sure you will,” Cat said. “Enjoy your moone daze, Quin.”
“Cat,” Quin said, but his sister ignored him to leave the kitchen looking sad and tired.
“I’ll be back up,” Quin repeated, to himself. “She’ll see.”
Quin returned to the basement and sat on his well-worn couch. He took heavy pulls of smoke from his moone pipe and stared at his record collection.
“What’s the best one?” he asked Humphrey. He started shuffling through the discs, weighing each against the others. “What’s the last record I ever want to listen to?”
He picked the first record he really fell in love with, back when he was sixteen, an album by a group called The Remnant, Blue Orchard. The album had been recorded live, with acoustic instruments, when the musicians were at the peak of their capability. The result was pure, unprocessed brilliance.
After losing himself in his moone and the record, Quin realized it had been over for some time when he coughed and remembered the room around him. “Crap,” he mumbled over the hiss of the run-out groove. “Gotta get upstairs.”
Quin pulled his drugged body up the stairs from the basement. When he opened the door into the kitchen, he saw that his sister was in the middle of a telecommunication. Quin heard the voice of his brother-in-law and pulled the door to the kitchen nearly shut to give his sister privacy. He sat on the top step and waited for the call to be over.
“And now we don’t know what to do at all,” Quin heard Dane say.
“Are you being serious?” Cat asked her husband, her voice quivering.
“I wouldn’t joke with you, honey, not about this,” Dane said. “The colony was one thing, but we were completely blind to the movement of this new asteroid family. We’re floored. It was in front of the sun for so long, there was no way to see it. And all our focus was on the Xeon family, anyways… I feel like we really messed up.”
“So what are the chances that this new asteroid family will collide with Alm?” Cat asked. “And when?”
“We’ll know soon,” Dane said. “They’re calling it the Mortis Family. I wanted to be able to tell you the details, but they hadn’t finished calculating before I was able to steal away.”
“Are they going to catch you calling me at home?” Cat asked.
“They’ll see the data spike and ask and eventually find out,” Dane said. “But I don’t care. I heard they’re talking about not even bringing us back now.”
“How dare they?” Cat asked, trying to restrain her voice so as to not disturb her children.
“They’re saying tracking the two families will take up all their focus,” Dane said.
“If they even try to leave all of you up there, I will raise such hell,” Cat said. “I’ll burn Mission Control down!”
“I know you will, honey,” Dane said.
Cat took a deep breath. “So what are you going to do now? In the meantime?”
“We’re still set to launch the Saviour rockets,” Dane said. “Whatever threat the new family poses, we still stand a chance against the ones we’ve known about.”
“And what about these colonists on the Xeon Family?”
“What if we’ve been preparing for the wrong asteroids altogether?” Cat asked.
Dane left the monitor for a brief second. “I think… I’ve got to go, honey,” he said when he returned. “For who knows how long, or if… Please, just promise me you’ll raise the kids to remember me?”
“Oh, Dane,” Cat said. “I wish I could have gone instead. I wish you could have stayed here with them.”
“You be a good mom now, Cat,” Dane said, choking on his words. “I love you so much.” The telexchange started to flicker. “…the best…”
With a flash, the link was severed. Cat collapsed.
Quin opened the basement door quietly.
“I’m sorry, Cat,” he said, stepping out.
“What? Were you listening in?” Cat demanded angrily.
“No, I mean, I was coming up because I said I would and there might not be much time left,” Quin said.
“I would have taken the call upstairs if I knew you wanted to come up,” Cat said. “I’m sorry.”
“No, Cat,” Quin said, crossing to his sister and putting his hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay. Really.”
“No, it’s not,” Cat said.
“The government wouldn’t just leave them up there, there’s no way.”
“I do hope you’re right. Did you hear it all? About these colonists on the Xeon family? About the new family?”
“Yeah. Cat,” Quin said, “I mean, colonists on an asteroid are strange enough, but it occurred to me… What if the second family is the Second Peril?”
“The Second Peril. From the Appendix. From the Book of Knowledge?”
“No, hear me out, think. The Book said there would appear a second threat in the sky before the Third Fall,” Quin said.
“I know you’re just trying to help, Quin, but it’s been long proven that the Appendices were written generations after Slate Ahn’s time. Those stories have nothing to do with what’s happening here. With reality.”
“It’s awfully coincidental, then,” Quin said. “But if it were true, if it were more than coincidence, there would still be a way…”
“A way to what?” Cat asked.
“Never mind. It’s Ahnite lore. You hate that stuff,” Quin said.
“Well, who cares at this point? What do the crazy Ahnites have to say about it?” Cat asked.
“That the Gods seeded the Second Peril, the second family of asteroids, when they passed by two thousand years ago. That they can be deflected when they come close enough to Alm,” Quin said.
“Wonderful,” Cat said.
“No, really, there is a lost chapter of the Book that talks all about the Second Peril,” Quin said. “I’ve read plenty about it.”
Cat rubbed her forehead and thought. “I know you’re trying to make me feel better, Quin, but that’s absurd.”
“It’s not, if you’ve done the reading.”
“Well I haven’t. What are we going to do? What am I going to tell the kids?”
“Didn’t your friend Fenton study Ahnite lore?”
“I think so. Why?”
“Call him. Can you call him? I think you should call him.”
Cat looked broken. “Whatever. Fine. Just a second,” she said as she activated the telexchange once more. Her friend and colleague Fenton came up on the screen after a dial sequence, looking tired and hyper.
“Cat Olson,” he said, “What a pleasant surprise. To what do I owe the honor?”
“Hello, Fenton, it’s good to see you. Hey, I’m sorry to bother you, but can you tell me anything about something called the Second Peril?” Cat asked.
Fenton’s eyes popped, then darted left and right, then back to the screen. He leaned into his camera and asked, “Are you at home? Can you meet?”
“Sure, I’m here with my brother and kids,” Cat said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Fenton scanned his room again and nodded. “I’ll be right there,” he said, and then disconnected.
“Wow,” Cat said. “It’s awfully late to travel.”
“He seemed excited,” said Quin.
“He always looks excited,” said Cat. “They man is coiled like a spring.” She yawned. “I feel so tired all of a sudden.”
“Want me to make some glint?” Quin asked.
“Good idea,” Cat said. “Make it strong.”
Fenton was soon at the back door of Cat and Dane’s home, rapping furiously on the window pane.
“Come on in,” Cat said after unbolting and opening the door. “You’re going to break the window, pounding like that.”
“Did you get it?” Fenton asked hurriedly. “Do you see?”
“What are you talking about? Slow down, Fenton,” Cat said.
“Who’s that?” Fenton asked of Quin. “Is it safe for him to hear?”
“That’s my brother, Quin,” Cat said. “It’s fine.”
“Go ahead and say whatever you want,” Quin said to Fenton. “I don’t talk to anyone anyhow.”
“I take it you called because you, too, have seen the second asteroid family?”
“I heard about it from Dane, actually. How did you know?” Cat asked.
“I picked up the second family just as soon as Control did, from my home monitoring station,” Fenton answered. “I tried to call them, but, of course, I was blocked. Fools. I can only imagine it’s just a matter of time before the news gets out to everyone.”
“It’s going to be chaos,” said Cat.
“I imagine so. Now, the first thing I thought when my readings came through was that it must be the Second Peril.”
Cat was shocked. “You, too?”
“But then the second thing I thought, is that that would be ridiculous,” said Fenton.
“Would it be, though? It only makes sense,” Quin interjected.
Fenton wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead and tucked the frizzy hair on the sides of his head back behind his ears. “I really don’t like him listening,” he said of Quin.
“Go on, I promise he’s fine,” Cat said.
“It certainly is a coincidence,” said Fenton.
“You believe in this Second Peril business?” Cat asked.
“Hasn’t it occurred to you?” asked Fenton.
“Honestly, I had never heard of it before,” said Cat. “It was only…”
“Hmmm,” Fenton said, rapping his fingers on his chin. “I’m a rational man, Cat. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. But the coincidence is just too great.”
“Is it, though?” Cat asked. “Is it even plausible that this was foretold in that old myth about Slate Ahn?”
“It would seem that way,” said Fenton.
“So what does it mean, practically?” Cat asked.
“If we’re to take the story completely literally, it means that we could potentially identify where the control mechanisms for the deflection of the family that were planted during the Age of the Gods are,” Fenton said.
“Dane told me they’re calling it the Mortis family,” said Cat.
“They’re in the Sunken Islands,” Quin said.
“Mortis family,” Fenton repeated, furrowing his brow.
“The controls are in the Sunken Islands,” Quin repeated.
“Not now,” Cat said, shushing Quin.
“The location of the mechanisms has been lost for centuries,” Fenton said, ignoring Quin.
“No, I know, but it’s the Sunken Islands,” Quin said.
“Quin, hush,” Cat said.
“What’s he on about?” Fenton asked Cat.
Quin took a bite of one of the burnt folds he had made earlier, then spit it out. “Yuck. Sorry. I’m about ninety-five percent sure the controls are in the Sunken Islands,” Quin said. “From my research.”
Fenton looked Quin over with a mix of intrigue and contempt, and repeated, “Your research?”
“Nothing official,” Quin said. “I didn’t pay for a degree or anything. But in my free time, of which I have plenty, I piece together bits about Slate Ahn and the Falls and things. It’s sort of a hobby.”
“It’s true,” Cat said. “He probably knows more about that nonsense than anyone. Or, I guess, not-nonsense.”
“And why do you feel the Sunken Islands are the locale?” Fenton asked.
“Because they are part of the same continental plate that splintered when the Undiscovered Lands sank into the ocean,” Quin said. “It’s the only piece of the land mass that remains above water. Add to that the reports throughout history of strange occurrences there. Power surges, navigational equipment of exploration vessels going offline. Ancient structures. I could show you my scrapbook…”
“Where’d you find him?” Fenton asked.
“In the basement,” Cat said.
“I’ve only got awful things in my basement,” Fenton said. “Outdated fashion and clothbugs. So, it’s a trip to the Sunken Islands then, is it?”
“Wait, what?” Cat asked. “You’re telling me all this wild supposition is enough reason to go halfway around the world? Now?”
“What time should we wait for?” Fenton asked. “There may not be much left.”
“It really does seem like it adds up,” Quin said to his sister. “I know it seems flimsy, but I’ve really read a lot about this. It’s worth a trip.”
Cat’s shoulders sank. “But I can’t leave the kids,” she said.
“You could bring them… No,” Fenton said. “That wouldn’t work.”
“I’m sorry, Fenton,” Cat said. “I won’t be able to go.”
“How about him?” Fenton asked of Quin.
“Who, me?” Quin asked, pointing at himself. “I…”
“He hasn’t left the house in weeks,” Cat said. “He’s not really the type.”
“What? No! I’ll go, of course I’ll go!” Quin said.
Cat was more than surprised. “Quin?” she asked. “Are you sure?”
“I sure am,” Quin said. “So sure! A journey to the Sunken Islands? To locate the beacons for the deflection of the Second Peril? That’s all I’ve ever thought about, Cat. Dreamed about! Real adventure!”
“Well, if you want to,” Cat said. “You think he can help?” she asked Fenton.
“Possibly,” Fenton said. “We’ll need help, regardless. Hands on deck. I’ll have to convince Feeny to let us use his submersible. He’s in Kyton. We’re not going to find too many able bodies in these urgent times.”
“I don’t want to leave you alone with the kids, sis,” Quin said to Cat.
“It’s fine,” Cat said. “They don’t need me at work anymore. The satellite Control offices don’t have anything left to do. I can watch the kids.”
“So it’s a plan. I will miss your company, Mrs. Olson, but I certainly understand why you cannot come. Do you have any supplies?” Fenton asked Quin. “When could you have your assets in ordrer?”
“Uhmmm, my assets are pretty in order,” Quin said. “I could just get a couple changes of underwear, maybe?”
Fenton looked to Cat as if to question if Quin was being serious.
“Or, I could just be ready now,” Quin said. “No underwear.”
“I’ve got to call Feeny,” Fenton said to Cat. “Could I use a private telexchange while you help your brother pack?”
“Of course,” Cat said. “Up the stairs, second door on the left.”
“Thank you,” Fenton said.
“What am I going to pack?” Quin wondered aloud, rushing down the stairs to his basement dwelling.
Cat followed after him. “Do you have any clean clothes at all?” she asked.
“I have some that are cleaner than others,” Quin said. “But none which are washer-clean.”
“What do you take on a trip?” Cat asked herself. “Let’s see… You need your toothbrush, I have some travel paste you can borrow. Maybe a book to read? Do you have a warm jacket?”
Quin was digging through piles of his clothes, looking for the cleanest. “I don’t think I’ve ever been on a boat,” he said.
“Sure you have,” Cat said. “Mom and Dad took us fishing when we were kids.”
“Oh,” Quin said. He took a sniff of a shirt and gagged. “I don’t remember that.”
“You hated it,” Cat said.
“Well I’m sure it’ll be different now,” Quin said.
“What makes you so sure?” Cat asked.
Quin pointed at the stacks of books in front of his bed. “It’s coming true, Cat. All of it. All those stories in those books. All my wildest imaginings! Vindication, sister!”
“Well. Do you have a decent bag?” Cat asked.
“I’m sorry you can’t come,” Quin said.
“It’s fine,” said Cat. “It’s not my dream, anyways. It’s yours.”
“I’ll be back with a full report!” Quin said.
“I know you will. I’m happy for you. Just have fun,” Cat said. “And be safe.”
Fenton appeared at the top of the basement stairs. “Quin, are you ready to go?” he called. “We’ve no time to waste.”
Quin looked to Cat. She handed the bag she had been packing to Quin and smiled. “Go on,” she said.
Quin grabbed the bag, hugged his sister, and bounded up the stairs.
“Take care of my brother!” Cat called to Fenton, who was already halfway out the back door.
“What did she say?” Fenton asked Quin as the two rushed to Fenton’s transport, which was parked in the middle of the street.
“She said to take care of me,” Quin answered.
“We’ll watch out for each other,” Fenton said, opening the door to his transport. “Get in!”
Quin opened the passenger door and tossed his things over the seat into the back. He pulled himself into the cabin and closed the door again.
“This is really something, isn’t it?” Fenton asked Quin, as he buckled in and started the engine.
“It’s incredible!” Quin agreed. “It’s like a dream.”
“Strap in” Fenton said. “We’ve got to make Kyton by midnight.”
“Take us away, captain,” Quin said as he latched his safety belt into place.
The boxy transport taxied down the street to the takeoff drag, and then lifted up off the ground. Fenton positioned the vehicle and then let the autonav take over. He reached across Quin into the dashboard and pulled out a tablet, then started poking around it furiously.
“What are you doing?” Quin asked. “Calculating our route?”
“Playing my game,” Fenton said. “You have to log in every hour just to compete, it’s ridiculous.”
“Oh, I thought you were doing something serious,” Quin said.
“My game is serious,” Fenton said. “Don’t you have anything to do?”
“I brought a book,” Quin said.
“Well then read it,” Fenton said. “It’s two hours to the shortcut I know. And once we take that, you won’t be able to read anything.”
“Okay,” Quin said. He pulled out his book, but couldn’t help paying more attention to Fenton’s game out of the corner of his eye. When he groaned along with Fenton at a missed opportunity, Fenton turned so that Quin couldn’t see. This left Quin to read two paragraphs from his book before falling asleep.
“Wake up!” Fenton urged sometime later. “Quin, wake up!”
“Huh?” Quin asked. He opened his eyes slowly to the bright city light coming in through the transport window. “What? Are we there?”
“We’re there,” Fenton said. “You know, you’re the only person I’ve ever seen sleep through my shortcut.”
Quin sat up and peered out the passenger window. Kyton was below, the City of Light, the New Jaidour. “It’s huge,” he said.
“Too big for my tastes, anyways,” Fenton said. “Overwhelming. It’s fun for some, but I hate the place, really. We’ll find Feeny and get out quick.”
“Who’s that?” Quin asked. “Who’s Feeny?”
“He’s the man with the ship that’s going to take us to the Sunken Islands,” Fenton said.
The transport shook as Fenton pulled down through two layers of light traffic, toward a taxi strip on the ground.
“Where does he dock a ship in Kyton?” Quin asked. “Isn’t it landlocked and surrounded by wastes?”
“Deep below the city,” Fenton said. He swerved to avoid a passing hauler. “Watch where you’re going!” he screamed through the closed window. Turning back to Quin, he continued, “There is an ocean below Kyton that few know about. Or care about, I should say.”
“An ocean, huh?” Quin asked, staring back down at the city below.
The transport slowly descended to the taxi strip, its wheels deployed, and Fenton began steering onto a nearby street. He pulled the transport to the side of the street and started punching information into the map engine. Quin craned his neck to try and see the tops of the buildings reaching up outside his window.
“This place is enormous!” he said.
“Haven’t you ever been to Kyton before?” Fenton asked.
“Fenton, I’m not really a traveler,” Quin said. “I’ve not been to too many places.”
“Well, we’ll make up for that, won’t we?” Fenton asked as he pulled the transport away from the curb.
“Makin’ up and shakin’ up, feel like I’m just wakin’ up,” sang Quin.
The transport rode through the city to where the buildings didn’t rise as high as the trees, and parks and flowerbeds broke up the endless concrete. There, people walked their animals and conversed with each other in passing.
“How do you like this, right in the middle of the city,” Quin said. “You wouldn’t think the world was ending from looking around this place.”
“Burnside. It’s one of the only neighborhoods in Kyton I can stomach,” Fenton said. “Here we are.”
The map engine announced the transport’s arrival.
“We know, we know,” Fenton said, struggling to turn the insistent announcement off. “Stupid machine.”
“Just hit the mute,” Quin said. “See?”
Fenton grumbled. He pulled into a parking space, removed his access card from the dash, climbed out of his seat, and slammed his door shut. Quin rushed to keep up as Fenton started walking up a path to a small apartment complex.
“Now, Feeny’s a little doddy,” Fenton said.
“That’s okay,” Quin said. “I like doddy.”
“But he’s a nut for the lore. Probably as much as you. You know, but, he’s capable,” Fenton said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Quin asked.
Fenton ignored this to press a white button next to the apartment lobby door. The information system asked who he was looking for, scanned his retina, then granted access.
“A retina scan for an apartment building?” Quin asked. “What sort of people live here, anyways?”
“Really rich ones,” Fenton said. “Watch what you say. Try to blend in.”
This made Quin very aware of how he was acting. He stood as tall as he could and tried not to take over-generous steps or do anything out of the ordinary. A passing mirror told him how frightened he looked trying to hold himself together.
Fenton knocked at a door at the end of the first-floor hallway. The door opened wide to let Quin and Fenton through, then closed itself.
“Fenton?” a voice asked from somewhere in a back room lit only by the glow of an information screen.
“Feeny?” Fenton asked in reply.
The bright information screen went dark and a silhouette rose in the shadows. It walked slowly toward Quin, then reached out. A ceiling light came on, revealing Feeny at the switch.
“You must be Feeny?” Quin asked.
“You’ve got me,” Feeny said, pulling a wrinkled smile. “And you must be Quin?”
“That’s right,” Quin said.
“It’s good to meet you, Quin,” Feeny said. “And to see you again, my old friend,” he said to Fenton.
“It’s been a while,” Fenton said.
“Always too long,” Feeny said. “But I feel as if you’ve brought me something quite wonderful this time. Is it true?”
“Better than the Hotcha Map. Better than the Opal Raven,” Fenton said.
Feeny clapped his hands together and laughed. “Oh, I was worried my adventures were over!”
“Not at all,” Fenton said.
“I’m excited, too,” Quin added.
“Well that’s good, Quin,” Feeny said. “Come on, let’s get some glint going and talk about what needs to happen next.”
Cookies and glint were passed around Feeny’s kitchen table. The cookies were quickly eaten and then discussion started.
“Give it to me,” Feeny said. “What are we dealing with?”
“Nothing short of the Second Peril,” answered Fenton.
“I suspected as much, though the very possibility had been discounted,” Feeny said, pushing his glasses back up his nose. “There wasn’t another family to be found anywhere. We looked. Oh, how we looked!”
“They’re calling it Mortis. We missed it because its arc moves so close to the sun. It was impossible for us to detect,” Fenton said. “The mooncluster base just discovered it themselves. I can only wonder how long it will be before others do. It’s gonna be all-out-madness when that happens.”
“Incredible,” Feeny said. He looked to Quin. “And what do you have to say about all this?”
“Well, I’m both surprised and not surprised, really,” Quin answered. “I saw this coming months ago. Years. Like anyone who has studied the ancient texts did. It’s all laid plain in the Book of Knowledge.”
“I know my Book,” Feeny said. “But I must say, I’ve always attributed most of it to myth.”
“Me too, sort of,” Quin said. “I always enjoyed secret histories and stuff. But, like, it looks like they were real all along.”
“What exactly makes you think that this is the Second Peril?” Feeny asked, pouring himself another cup of glint.
“The fact that the second family showed up exactly four days before the first,” Quin said.
“The Book said it would be five weeks,” Feeny said.
“That’s a typo,” Quin said. “A mistaken transcription, made six hundred years ago at the Council of Guver, which everyone has taken for fact since.”
“Everyone but you?” Feeny asked.
“No, not just me. It was actually caught just five years later, along with a lot of other errors the Council made,” Quin said. “Their mistakes were recorded by a guy at Guver, named Binden. He wrote a whole book about it.”
“How did you come across this book of his?” Feeny asked. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“It took a long time. About three years of false leads and trading. Book collectors are a strange lot,” Quin said. “It’s like a black market. Though, there are a couple hundred copies of Binden’s Testimony out there, if you know where to look.”
“Apart from the timing error, there’s also the facts that the asteroids are moving exactly as fast as the Book of Knowledge said they would be, and that they’re headed toward the exact location where it projected them to hit,” Fenton said.
Feeny pinched the bridge of his nose tightly and closed his eyes. “I think I understand. So now what?” he asked.
“You tell him,” Fenton said to Quin.
“Now we have to travel to the Sunken Islands,” Quin said. “There are supposedly communicators there that can somehow deflect the Mortis family.”
Feeny stared wordlessly at Quin for nearly half a minute and then turned to Fenton.
“Are you pulling my leg?” he asked. “Is this is a prank?”
Fenton lifted his shoulders in a high shrug. “I really don’t know,” he said. “But it makes sense, as much sense as it can. And I’ll take anything, at this point.”
“The plan was devised by the ancestors of Det the Incandescent,” Quin said. “The Gods, from before the First Fall. The Mortis family passed by Alm at the same time the Xeon family struck during the First Fall. But as the Mortis family’s orbit shifts slightly as it zooms through the solar system, the pieces are now in position to strike Alm. This is all in the testimony of Det.”
“Didn’t that creature die about as soon as it was born?” Feeny asked.
“Not before it was taken for questioning and testing,” Quin said. “It actually died during testing, it caught a cold and couldn’t fight it off.”
“And what is your source for that?” Feeny asked.
“There was a report made by the Jaidourean government,” Quin said. “It was classified for years. Just declassified before the Second Fall. No one cared at that point, though. No one did after, either, despite some people screaming it from the rooftops. But it’s not buried lore. It’s available at the library.”
“I actually remember reading that in college as a laugh, now that you mention it,” Feeny said. “Weird apocalypse conspiracy stuff.”
“It’s not really a comedy,” Quin said.
“Quin,” Feeny said, “I’m not doubting you, but surely you can see why someone would think a book like that would be taken as fictitious? The sheer audacity of its claims?”
“I understand, sure I do,” Quin said. “But, like, do you two doubt the veracity of The Compendium of the Undiscovered Lands?”
“No,” Feeny answered.
“I know about the Second Peril, but I’m not all that up on my history,” Fenton said. “Known history, anyways. I’m in metaphysics. That’s why you’re here, Quin.”
“Well, I really think this is worth a shot,” Quin said.
“I believe if you think it’s worthy, Fenton. I can get us to the Sunken Islands,” Feeny said.
“Wonderful,” Fenton said. “And you’re good with ancient tech, that might come in handy, too.”
“You like ancient tech?” Quin asked Feeny.
“Have you ever heard of the Noneaoli Mechanism?” Fenton asked Quin.
“Sure,” Quin answered. “World’s oldest computer, right?”
“He put it back together,” Fenton said.
“Really?” Quin asked Feeny.
“In my younger days,” Feeny said.
Quin couldn’t believe it. “Really? Feeny, Mr. Feeny, you’re, like, one of my heroes! You’re B.T. Feeny, aren’t you?”
“Indeed I am,” Feeny said.
Quin leered at Fenton with wide eyes as if to ask why he hadn’t said as much before. Feeny bowed and giggled.
“So how’s the old fish swimming these days?” Fenton asked Feeny.
“I’ll have you know I went for a dive just the other day,” Feeny said. “And it’s never been better. How much time do we have?”
“I don’t know,” Fenton said.
“We have about ninety-six hours. Four days,” Quin said. “We need to activate the communicators as soon as possible.”
“You’re sure about all this?” Feeny asked.
“Oh, not at all,” Quin said. “I mean, I could be wrong about the whole thing.”
“Well that just reeks of confidence, doesn’t it?” Feeny asked.
“It’s at least worth a shot, Feeny,” Fenton said. “I mean, we’ve got to try, don’t we?”
Feeny patted his stomach. “Yes, we do. And I take it you are both ready to go, now?”
“Ready as I ever will be,” Quin answered.
“Lead on,” Fenton said.
“Then I suppose we’re all set.” Feeny said. “Let’s make this last adventure a good one, eh?”
Alpha Base Prime’s cafeteria was loud with worried anticipation. Macall and Dane filled their boxes with snacks and looked for seats amidst the chatter.
“Easy with that, Coe,” Macall said as he passed a man emptying a bottle of brite. “You’ve got to oversee the launch in only a few hours here.”
“Ah, why the hell should I care? What’s the damn point?” Coe shot back. “This new damned asteroid family is going to obliterate us all anyways! Damned bunch of hopeless idiots, that’s all we are.”
“We don’t even know that the Mortis family is on a collision course,” a woman named Pan countered. “Don’t go drinking yourself to death just yet, Coe.”
“Pan’s right. And despite all the nay-saying, there’s no reason the frackpods shouldn’t take care of the Xeon family, as planned,” another woman, Wurzen, said. “We’ve had seventy-five years to get this right. I helped design the system, and I’ve fracked plenty back home. The fluid should blow the rocks into small enough bits that they burn up in the atmosphere. I don’t know why it’s become so popular to think otherwise.”
“Because people are fearful and no one wants to be wrong. We all know what’s supposed to happen,” Macall said. “But none of us can say for certain if it’ll work until it does.”
“The scenario has been run a thousand times,” said Wurzen. “I think it’s actually more foolish to suggest it might not work. We’re using extremely sound science here.”
“Like I said before, who cares?” Coe said, slamming his bottle down, only to have it bounce up and float away. “Alm is doomed anyways. The oceans are dead. The water is poisoned. We’re probably better off staying up here and dying like the universe obviously wants us to.”
“I’d rather die on Alm than live forever on the mooncluster,” Macall said. “To never go home? To never feel grass beneath my feet, to never feel wind on my face? I can’t fathom it.”
Coe belched and blew the fumes at Macall. “There’s your wind. Fathom that.”
“What about those poor people out on asteroid M7554 who have never seen Alm in their lives?” asked Pan.
“They never will,” Coe said. “And they’re not people, they’re clones.”
“Hey, thanks for your words of encouragement, Coe,” Macall said. “You’re a wonderful human being. Don’t forget that many of us are descendants of clones from Fjird’s experiments. Coe aside, I trust everyone else thinks those asteroid colonists should be saved, right?”
“Yeah. I do. But it isn’t going to happen,” Wurzen said. “Command won’t allow it, so Gaelen won’t, either.”
“That’s what I fear, too,” Dane said. “No way he’ll go along.”
“Gaelen can go… Listen, maybe I’m as crazy as everyone says I am, but I think those poor lost souls are just as important as anyone else we’re up here trying to save,” Macall said. “Every life matters. They deserved to be rescued, by any means necessary.”
“I wish we had picked up their signal earlier,” Wurzen said. “I really worry it’s just too late now.”
“It’s not,” Macall said. “I’ve done some preliminary work on a plan to save them, and it’s not.”
“You’re sweet, Mac, but it’s really too late for Gaelen to agree to do anything, anyways,” said Wurzen. “He’s only asking Mission Control perfunctorily.”
“She’s right,” Coe said. “Those colonists are as good as dead. And we’re not far behind.”
“Why do you even get out of bed, you drunken ass?” Macall asked Coe. “You think we need to hear you bitch and moan all the time?”
“I’m just trying to be the voice of reason,” Coe said.
“You’re useless,” Macall said. “There’s no reason for your voice at all.”
“Come on, boys. It’s about time to head back for the general’s decision,” Wurzen said.
Macall wiped cookie crumbs from his face. Most of them drifted up toward the air filter. “Well then, let’s go face the inevitable.”
It was ten minutes to the commstation through the long, thin hallways that connected the different moonbase sectors. The other astronauts were already gathered when the group from the cantina arrived.
“There you are. You’re late. Alright, I think that’s all of us,” General Gaelen said.
“We’re missing…” Wurzen began.
The general ignored her. “I’m going to go ahead and start. This is the same information that the other bases are getting right now. I’ll let you all know up front that I tried my best to get Control to listen, I really did. I’m not a monster; I feel for those colonists. But I’m told it’s possible that the communications we received were actually Vexnian terrorists interfering with the com links.”
“General, that’s absurd,” Macall said.
“Quiet when I’m talking,” the general said. “We all know they’ve been after our limited tynarium supply since before the Saviour Program was even started. There’s enough of a chance that it’s subterfuge that Control doesn’t believe a trip to the supposed colony would be in our best interest, considering the extra resources it would take to get there and our limited timeframe. And so that’s the decision; that’s the final answer. We’re not going to intervene. Despite how absurd any of us think it is.”
“It’s worse than absurd, it’s inhumane,” Macall muttered.
“Watch yourself, Mac,” General Gaelen ordered. “Mind your rank.”
“Yes, Sir,” Macall said.
The general nodded. “None of this is easy. Now, I’ve got Aer waiting for us on link. I’m going to patch him through.”
The commstation’s information screen was activated, and an image of the Aer Lockley came through across space from the asteroid, much clearer now than during first contact. Aer was smiling broadly.
“Hello!” he proclaimed happily.
“Hello,” the general responded. He paused for a moment, seemingly at a loss for words.
“We’ve all been waiting with baited breath. I trust you have good news for us?” Aer said.
“Aer, I’ll be straight with you. I’m sorry,” the general said. “But I do not have good news. We are going to be unable to help you.”
The smile fled Aer’s face. He cleared his throat. “Wh… What did you say? General? You are going to be unable to help us?”
“That’s unfortunately correct,” the general answered. “The action was not approved by our superiors.”
“Your superiors? Who are they?” Aer asked. “I want to talk to them. Do they know our story? Can I talk to them? Call them, get them online.”
“I won’t waste your time or theirs,” General Gaelen said. “The order has been issued from Control. And I’m sorry, your speaking with them would not change their minds.”
“Waste my time?” Aer asked. “My time? What time do we have? You can’t leave us here to smash back into Alm, General Gaelen, you can’t! We’ve been waiting too long!”
The general lowered his head, then raised his eyes once more to the information screen. Aer waited for a response with his mouth open and tears in his eyes.
“There is no other option,” the general said. “We are now contending with a second asteroid family. We’re already at a loss for what to do. It’s not that you aren’t important… I’m terribly sorry.”
“Sorry?” Aer whispered. The tears in his eyes overflowed their lids and fell down his cheeks. “General…”
General Gaelen turned away and gave the silent order for the com link to be severed. The information screen went blank.
“Gods,” Macall said. “I can’t believe that just happened.”
“We all have to accept it and move on,” General Gaelen said. “Launch is today. In less than seven hours now. It is our sole purpose for being here. It is what we have planned and worked for for the past seventy-five years. Now, to your stations. Time is of the essence.”
“What the hell is the point?” Coe barked. “What are we going to do about the new asteroid threat, General?”
“Are you intoxicated, Captain?” the general asked Coe.
“Maybe I am, maybe I’m not,” Coe grunted.
“Wonderful,” the general said, smashing his fist into the communication control board. “You’re supposed to be in charge of launch operations, Captain Coe.”
“Well, things change, don’t they?” Coe asked.
“Get him to medical,” the general said to Wurzen. “Get him sober. I don’t care how. Is there anyone else that can fill in if the captain is unable to pull himself together?”
Wurzen answered, “I could cover for him.”
“Fine,” the general said. He shot a furious look at Coe. “You’re really screwing this up, Captain. You’re going to have hell to pay when we get home.”
“There won’t be any home left, general,” Coe said. “Don’t worry, though. I’ll pour you a drink as we watch death come blow us to smithereens.”
“Get him out of here,” the general ordered. “I can’t believe this. Is there anyone else who won’t be able to perform their duties?”
The other astronauts were silent.
“Good,” the general said. “Now let’s move. We’ve still got a job to do. I expect everyone’s best efforts.”
Silent assent went around the room.
“There’s still hope yet,” the general said, his tone belying his own belief.
“Hope is relative,” Macall said to Dane as the saddened astronauts filed out of the commstation once more.
Ory stopped next to Macall and Dane. “Isn’t it awful?” she asked.
“Oh, absolutely,” Macall answered.
“I wish there was some way we could still help them,” Ory said. “It’s just not right, leaving them alone out there. Even if there is this new threat.”
“Would you be willing to do something about it, Ory?” Dane asked. “About the colonists?”
“What could we do?” Ory asked.
“We’re actually working on a little plan,” Macall said. “We were wondering if you would be willing to help? I should warn you, it might be a suicide mission.”
Ory looked like she had been stung. Dane shot Macall a look, who answered back with a confused look of his own.
“Was it something I said?” Macall asked.
“No. It’s fine. I’ll come with you,” Ory said. “If we should fail, at least it was trying, to the end.”
“That’s the spirit,” Macall said. “We’re going to do it, okay? We’re going to save those poor people and get back home and there’s nothing brass can do about it.”
“Hell yes!” Ory said, her reddened eyes burning brightly. “How can I help?”
“Well, we’re making it up as we go,” Macall said. “But, essentially, what we’ve got so far is that we’ve got to get our pressuresuits, steal the backup ion thruster from storage, and get out to one of the missile silos.”
“That’s no small order,” Ory said. “But if anyone up here could do it, it’s us. I’ll start by getting the thruster from emergency storage. I know the passcode to the facility.”
“Good,” Macall said. “Perfect. Dane, if you can collect our suits, I can reprogram the security management system to reroute the cameras and give us a window of escape.”
“How am I going to make it through the halls with three suits?” Dane asked.
“Whatever’s clever,” Macall answered. “Now, can either of you think how we might be able to get to a silo?”
“The hardagen collection rover will be running past silo three today,” Ory said. “We can hitch a ride with it.”
“Ory, that’s perfect,” Macall said. “You’re brilliant! When does the rover go out?”
“The rovers always start at nine,” Ory answered.
“Okay, so we’ve got some time,” Macall said, checking his databand. “Good. Great! Shit, this is already better than I thought it would be. Alright, meet in the rover garage fifteen minutes before nine. All understood?”
“Understood,” Ory said.
“I still don’t understand how I’m going to carry three suits,” Dane said. “And aren’t they going to wonder where we are?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Macall said. “And as for the suits, you’re a smart guy. Figure it out. Alright, break!”
Ory and Macall stole off and left Dane to head back to the bunkers. When he had gathered up the three pressuresuits, he didn’t bother packing them in anything; he simply floated them along the hallway in front of him on the way to the rover garage. When someone asked what he was doing, he answered that he was taking the suits to get cleaned for the journey home. This excuse was accepted as viable, despite the fact that the suits weren’t washable, and that there wasn’t anywhere on the small moonbase to take them to get cleaned. The other astronauts were too focused on the mission at hand or the threat from the new asteroids to care.
Dane was the first to reach the garage. It was dark inside, save for blue charging lights over the vehicles and a pair of red monitor lights near the bay doors. A dozen or so rovers were parked closely to one another across the floor. Dane lumbered over top of them to find the soil vacuum rover. When he located it, near the bay doors, he latched the pressure suits to a tow cable and found a comfortable place to crouch. He got out his tablet and started to run calculations on how fast the ion thruster would have to propel the rescued colonists to get out of range of the planned explosions. When his calculations were run and re-run and seemed viable, he brought up a picture of his family on the tablet screen. His wife and children beamed back at him from the happy memory. He knew Cat would understand his decision to try and rescue the colonists. But would his children? Would they forgive him if he failed?
The chargedoor from the moonbase to the garage opened just then, and Dane saw Ory enter. Dane shined his flashlight at Ory to get her attention. She noticed, and started bounding over top the rovers to get to the soil sampler.
“Any luck?” Dane asked when Ory arrived.
“It’s my bag,” Ory answered. “It’s crazy how small it is unassembled. Five hundred million credits worth of thruster, right here in my bag.”
“Thanks, Control,” said Dane. “Now, I wonder where Mac is.”
It was another half hour before Macall found the other two in the garage, which Dane and Ory passed sharing photographs with one another.
“Sorry,” Macall said when he showed. “It was nearly impossible to get Borwen away from the security controls.”
“How’d you manage it?” Ory asked.
“I brought him a cup of glint and waited for him to have to go to the bathroom. Offered to watch his post for a minute,” Macall answered.
“Brilliant,” Ory said.
“Something like that. Now, we’ve got about fifteen minutes before the rovers head out,” Macall said. He looked the rover over and frowned. “I don’t think there’s enough room for us all to fit inside…”
“We checked,” Dane said. “There’s room for two of us, just barely.”
“Alright,” Macall said. He rubbed his chin and thought. “I guess we can just hope that all attention will be on launch preparation. Our safety alarms are deactivated, they won’t know we’re out there unplanned, but I still don’t like the prospect of just riding atop the rover. Even if the cameras are off, I might be seen out a window.”
“We could strap you onto the far side,” Ory said.
“Strap me to the far side?” Macall repeated incredulously.
“We were talking about it,” Dane said. “See there, the ridge? You can just about fit on it. But the bumpy ride would throw you off, unless you were strapped on.”
“Why’s it have to be me?” Macall asked.
“You showed up last,” Dane said.
“Ah, of course. Shit. Fine, I’ll do it, you bums,” Macall said. “Don’t worry.”
“Told you he would,” Ory said. “Go ahead and suit up, Mac, I’ll stow the thruster.”
“Where is it?” Macall asked.
“In the bag,” Ory said.
“Thing’s pretty small, huh?” asked Macall.
“It’s actually about five feet long, after assembly,” said Dane.
“If it works, I don’t care how long it is,” said Macall.
“I’ve been saying that for years,” Ory said.
Dane and Macall laughed.
“I’m actually just fine with riding on the outside,” Macall said as he stepped into his one-piece moonsuit. “Got to enjoy my freedom while I can, before we cram ourselves into the payload. That’s going to be one claustrophobic ride.”
“Is there enough room for us all in the drill package?” Dane asked. “Or are we going to have to strap you to the side of that, too?”
“Funny,” Macall said. “Yes, there’s room. I’ve been out there prepping at the silo for the past three months. The thought of stowing in the drill package crossed my mind before, just in daydreaming. It’s definitely possible. And with the heaters to keep the fracking fluid liquid, it’ll be tolerable. I mean, it’s downright roomy inside there. Remember, the packages were designed to include the original megabat explosives, but they decided to go with frackpods instead.”
“Right,” Dane said. “I guess my only real worry then is the landing.”
“It’ll be rough,” Macall said. “But the landers are designed to protect G-Level explosives; I’m sure they are delicate enough for humans.”
“Yeah, good point,” said Dane.
“Alright then, enough talking, we’re good to go!” Ory said, crawling back out of the rover.
“Guess it’s time to get strapped,” Macall said. “Be gentle, friends.”
He pulled his helmet on and it autolocked into place. He moved over to the side of the rover and lowered himself onto the small ledge there, then Dane and Ory used a length of sheerwire to secure him down. Dane tapped on Macall’s helmet and gave a thumbs up when the work was done, and then he and Ory crawled into the tight space inside the rover. The rover door sealed shut just as the blue charging light above it switched to green and the bay doors started to open.
The sun poured down white light onto the surface of the mooncluster. Through the polarized windows of the vehicle, Dane saw long shadows stretching out from the base toward the four silos housing the Saviour Missiles in the distance.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” he said to Ory.
“If it were any other situation, I would have refused,” Ory said. “But these people, these poor people, wandering for hundreds of years. And now they come so close to home, and we were going to deny them their centuries of longing? No. This is as important to me as saving Alm. It’s saving what Alm is about, what people should believe in; helping one another, being part of same family.”
“I’m with you, Ory,” Dane said. “I just really hope I can see mine one last time.”
The rover dipped into a crater, giving the passengers a jolt.
“Ouch. Wonder how Mac took that one,” Dane said, craning his neck to see if he could spot where Macall was tied up outside. “You have any family back home you want to see, Ory?”
“Sure,” Ory said. “My brother, and my father. Aunts and Uncles. And if we ever get home, if this crazy plan works, I promised myself I’d try to date again. It’s so hard for me to meet people. I thought I was through with all that.”
“One of the asteroid colonists might be interested,” Dane said. “They don’t have many choices up there, I’ll bet.”
“If I’m so desperate that I can only meet someone in outer space, well, maybe I’m just that desperate,” Ory said. “I’ll see how they like me.”
The shadow of the missile silo overtook the rover.
“That’s our cue,” Ory said. “Helmet up.”
The two wriggled out of the rover. Moving slowly in the low gravity, they bounced over top of it to where Macall was stowed. They undid his bindings and helped him up, and then the three jumped down onto the lunar soil. They ricocheted high when they landed, flipping over and tumbling for some time, until they were able to find balance. Once they had, they carried their cargo over to the entrance of the missile silo, and passed into the tiny workstation inside.
“The trickiest part of the first half is over, so long as they didn’t spot us. Launch crews will arrive in two hours,” Macall said. “We’ve got some time yet.”
“I hope they don’t go looking for us,” said Dane.
“Why should they? Our programming jobs are done,” Macall said. “We don’t matter on a day like today.”
“Unless they need backup,” Ory said.
“Gods forbid,” Macall said. “Alright, let’s move through the hold.”
The three fit snugly into the pyramidal base of the drill package. It was tight, but there was just enough room to allow them to move their arms and turn their heads.
Macall looked around and frowned.
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Alm is facing its third Third Fall. Numerous efforts to save the planet are underway. What no one expects, however, are reports from the astronauts behind the Saviour Program that say communications are coming from the asteroid family. It will take a strange band of scientists, theologians, and adventurers to fight their way to each others' sides in order to save millions. A thrilling summation of all things Alm, The Final Hour is an end-of-the-world adventure science-fantasy.