a moment is all it takes for the entire world to change for better or for worse
Once they were in orbit, a sort of quiet anticipation settled over the ship. For several moments, no one spoke. Finally, several of the more adventurous passengers started whispered conversations.
“So Matt,” Lillian turned to the boy.
“Jacobs. Please.” He said it pleasantly enough.
Lillian wondered for a moment what sort of boy would go by his surname like that. Perhaps there was another Matt at school? “Jacobs then. What do you think this is all about?”
He shook his head, going on in the ever so slightly obnoxious tone of someone repeating themselves when they don’t want to. “Told you before launch, there’s something big out there. And it’s coming towards Earth.”
Lillian could vaguely remember what he was talking about. Between the launch and being in space and actually holding hands with a boy, she was feeling a bit overwhelmed.
Sensing her hesitation, he continued, “I heard my dad arguing with someone about it just before we left. It’s whizzing about at a pretty large chunk of the speed of light. At that speed, there’s no way its from our solar system. At least not if it occurred naturally.”
“What does that mean?” Of course it wasn’t from the solar system. Didn’t they have a complete catalog of all the things flying around the sun? At least anything big enough to make a difference.
“Well, you see,” a faint lecturing tone had entered his voice, “objects in space can gain speed by slingshotting around other objects. Kind of like what the early interplanetary crafts did–before we had fusion drives.” He took a deep breath. “But for something to be going that fast… Either we’re witnessing the most astronomically unlikely event in the history of the universe or we finally have proof that we’re not alone!” He said the last part in a rush of words, all flowing together.
Lillian raised an eyebrow, “Aliens?”
He nodded vigorously. “That’s where all the smart money is.”
He looked abashed, but only ever so slightly. “Sorry, that’s something my dad always used to say.”
There was a lull in the conversation. Lillian couldn’t think of anything else to ask and the boy–Jacobs–seemed more interesting in just watching her. Before either could break the silence, an automated voice cut in, “Prepare for docking with Gemini Station. Please ensure that your seat belt is securely fastened and secure any lose items.”
Both Lillian and Jacobs looked around, but there was nothing to do. Neither had any luggage with them, it had all been stowed before takeoff. And there hadn’t been time to remove their seat belts. Seconds later, the voice came on again, “Prepare for entry into Gemini Station in 3… 2… 1…”
Without warning, there was a bright light shining in their windows. Leaning over Jacobs so she could see better, Lillian could see an immense open room, full of movement, but to her eyes, it was all a blur. Their Squill was still moving to quickly for her to catch any details. After swinging in a large arc, the Squill dropped sharply what felt like several meters. A few of the passengers shrieked in fright; Lillian was one of them. She glanced around, but no one seemed to have noticed. Not even Jacobs. She took some small satisfaction in noting that he was white as a sheet and gripping the handles of his seat hard enough that his knuckles were popping out.
Finally, there was a dull thud as the Squill settled into place. Half a second later, four muted metallic echoes, two on either side of the ship. Then everything was silent. For a second, no-one moved. Then there was a hiss of speakers and prerecorded message came on. “Thank you for visiting Gemini Station. Please remain in your seats until the artificial gravity has been extended to your craft.”
Lillian suddenly had a funny feeling in her stomach. It felt like she had swallowed an entire glass of water far too quickly and it had just settled into the pit of her stomach. Then, just as quickly as it had come, the feeling was gone. She was sitting normally in her seat again. Gravity had returned, pulling her down into her seat. She had the sudden impression that she had never left Earth. A feeling of unreality was being to set in. Perhaps this was all an elaborate practical joke.
“Thank you.” The disembodied voice came on again. It actually sounded like it was being slight sped up, like it was in a hurry. But that was impossible, Lillian thought, it was just a recording… Wasn’t it? “You may now disembark. Please remember to grab any luggage. Gemini Station is not responsible for any lost or stolen luggage left in your Single Quick Launch…”
The gruff voice of the man who had helped her onto the Squill earlier cut in, easily overpowering the recording, “Never mind that, we need to clear off so the others have a chance to dock before… well never mind that. All of you follow me. This way.”
Lillian unbuckled her belt without trouble and started to stand when the boy in the seat next to her–I was holding his hand! she though–put an hand on her arm. “Excuse me.” And polite as well, she thought. “Could you help me? I can’t seem to get me seat undone.” None too bright though.
Lillian reached over and deftly unfastened the connections still holding him in place. He had managed to get all but one himself. “There you go,” she said.
“Thank you,” he said, quietly.
Someone behind her cleared his throat. She turned to see the man with the gruff voice standing over her. She glanced around. Even in that brief amount of time, most of the others had already left the craft. “Any day now, you two. You can chit chat later.”
“Sir,” the boy–Jacobs was his name, she remembered–started to speak.
But Lillian interrupted him, “Come on then.” She was anxious to see the view. She’d never been to space. And if this was all a joke, then the sooner she was out and about, the sooner she’d know it.
The man with gruff voice stood out of the way and followed them off the ship. They really were the last three out. As soon as the man had cleared the door–barely giving his boots enough time to clear the frame–it slid shut. A hook came down from the ceiling and pulled the Squill into the air. Lillian watched with her mouth slightly open as the Squill went swinging through the air on the end of a tether. And her Squill wasn’t the only one. There were dozens of the things in various states of landing, being unloaded, and swinging through the air. At first glance, the scene was absolutely chaotic. When she looked closer though, she saw there was a strange sort of order to everything. No matter how close two Squills would come in the air, they never came into contact.
“Something to see, isn’t it?” the man asked them. “The stations computers control everything in here. Even the Squills that have pilots have to give over control.”
Watching the scene, Lillian forgot for a moment all of her worries about begin fooled, or being sent into space. For a few minutes, she was in awe. “It’s amazing! I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
“Oh you just wait. There’s plenty to see on Gemini. Come along now, we’d better clear out before another Squill comes in.” The gruffness in his voice was almost completely gone. Lillian thought that he too was a little bit in awe of all the happenings going on. He started walking, his longer stride letting him easily pull ahead. “Just follow the lines on the floor,” he called back over his shoulder to them. “Green line is incoming.” With that, he vanished around a corner.
“Come on,” Lillian yelled and dashed off after the man with Jacobs following close behind. When they rounded the corner, he was nowhere in sight. “So now what are we supposed to do?” she asked.
He pointed at the floor. There was a dizzying array of lines built into what felt like a lightly rubbery sort of tile. Strips of light flashed from line to line, changing slowly but constantly. One particularly strong line led right out from under their feet off around then next corner. “Follow the green line, I suppose.”
They followed the green line for what felt like ages, although in reality it was really probably no more than a few minutes. Without the sun or moon to guide them–or even a single clock that they could see–time seemed to grow fuzzy. Rather than moving steadily along its given course, it seemed to slip along in leaps and bounds. Finally, they reached a wide bank of computer monitors set into the wall. Shortly before the wall, the green line they were following branched again and again, fading into a green mist directly underneath the computers.
“Think we’re supposed to use one of those?” Jacobs asked, as if Lillian would have the slightest idea. She shrugged. Might as well, she thought and stepped up to the nearest empty screen.
Immediately the face of a young woman who looked vaguely oriental but spoke with an unmistakable British accent filled the screen. “Please state your name.”
For the life of her, Lillian couldn’t tell if it was a real person or a computer generated image. It looked so real! But there was something in its voice that put her off. “Lillian Shaw.”
“Shaw, Lillian. Is this correct?”
“Yes,” she replied simply. She was starting to lean towards computer generated. No person talked like that.
“Lillian Shaw,” the voice repeated again. The enunciation was a little better this time, but just ever so slightly off. “You have been assigned to Room 1397 in the White Section. Do you require a map?”
“Yes please.” Even if it was a computer program, it didn’t hurt to be polite.
The computerized face glanced down for a second and a folded pamphlet slid out. On it there was a map of the station and a bright red star marking “YOU ARE HERE”. She looked over the map intently, trying to learn the layout of the station as best and as quickly as she could. It was larger than she’d expected, with perhaps a dozen rings circling several central hubs.
“Excuse me miss,” a voice came from over her head. She looked up and an elderly lady looking down at her with a concerned look on face. “Are you finished with the terminal here?”
“Yes mam.” Lillian stepped out of the way. The lady’s gaze lingered on her for a few moments more and Lillian smiled her best smile. The lady smiled back and turned to the computer, Lillian apparently already forgotten. Lillian turned back to the map. She saw, to her delight, that the red star had moved several steps away from the computer, perfectly matching her own movement.
Now, I just have to figure out how to find my room, she thought, what did the computer say about that? Right. Voice activated. “Room 1397 please.”
Along the top of the map, a line of text appeared: Insufficient information. Please clarify.
Lillian thought back again to what the voice from the computer had said. “Room 1397, White Section.”
The text on the top of the map changed again, this time to what she had just said. The map itself started zooming in. Rather than showing the entire station, it just showed the room she was standing in and the nearby hallways. A green line appeared on the map, started at the red YOU ARE HERE star and went off the page.
“Aren’t they cool?” Jacobs appeared rather suddenly at her side. She’d been too engrossed in the map to notice him walk up. “I have one too. Where did they send you?”
Without skipping a beat, she replied, “white section, 1397.” It was simple enough to remember.
He grinned. “Oh hey, I’m in 1399. I’ll bet they assigned them by Squill. Walk you there?” His voice cracked right at the very end.
She shrugged. Might as well, there wasn’t any point in wondering the station by herself. At least not yet. “Sure.”
Guided by their maps, they set off side by side to find the mysterious White Section.
Within half an hour, they both felt completely lost, even with the help of the maps. The lines on the floor never wavered from its course, although they did switch from line to line occasionally on instruction from their maps. They followed it faithfully, but they never seemed to reach the White Section. Green, Red, and Blue, they found them all. But still there were more and more corridors.
And the ship was crowded. There were people everywhere in the hallways, bustling about on all sorts of errands. No one was talking, making it surprisingly quiet, but the sheer numbers made it difficult at times to pass through the hallways.
Lillian couldn’t imagine that it was always this busy. Perhaps it was just the number of Squills they had seen. Maybe there were others here, like Lillian, suddenly ejected from their homes.
“This is a mess,” Jacobs half whispered to her as they walked along.
She whispered back without even thinking about it. “No kidding. What do you think they’re all doing here?”
“It looks like an evacuation.” He said it in a subdued tone. Lillian wondered why in the world he would know what an evacuation would look like.
“Evacuation?” she asked in return, “why?”
“Dad’s friend said that if that thing out there actually hits us, it could be devastating!” His voice took a turn from subdued to suddenly excited. Where all boys so mercurial? There was a distinct note of ‘this is so cool’ in his voice.
Lillian was a little more hesitant. “You mean it could take out an entire city?”
“More like the entire west coast.” He did sound a little more somber at this, but there was still more than a hint of amusement in his voice.
“Do you think this is a game?” She could feel the anger rising in her voice. “There are millions of people down there.”
He shrunk back away from her. “Billions, actually. Even with so many people moving off world.” The amusement was gone now. “But surely it’s going to fly right by, right?”
She didn’t answer, just looked down at her map. There was yet another turn just up ahead.
They’d been closer than she’d thought–it only took another 10 minutes to find the right hallway. Jacobs' guess that the rooms were near to each other was spot on. Immediately adjacent in fact, the even numbers were across the hall. Each room had a simple door with the number centered in faintly glowing letters and a touch screen beside it. Designed for adults, the screens were a bit of a stretch, but Lillian could reach it easily enough.
As she touched it, the panel flashed first red then green. There was the sound of a bell and the door slid open. She looked into the room. It was an absolutely tiny room with a simple bed built into one wall and a small set of shelves on the other. The first thing to catch her eye though was the window.
Taking up most of the far side of her room, it was definitely one of the most spectacular views she’d ever seen. The station was slowly spinning, but at the moment, her window was looking directly down on Earth. It wasn’t looking down on her home anymore, but she could make out the unmistakable coastline of Eastern Asia and Japan.
“Wow,” Jacobs said from behind her. She moved slightly to the side so he could stand beside her. For several moments, they just stood there admiring the view. “It’s beautiful.”
She nodded her head. “It really is. It all looks so small from out here. Just imagine all those people down their, living out…”
She was interrupted by a brilliant streak of light. It started over western China and burnt across their field of vision towards Japan.
“What was that?” Jacobs asked.
For a second, nothing changed. Then another flash, less brilliant but still enough to make them look away bloomed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Earth seemed to shudder. After the first flash, a white shock wave spread that seemed to ripple the very atmosphere. As they watched it cross over into Asia and the west coast of North America, Lillian could feels Jacobs hand again reaching for hers. She grasped it and they watched as the world they had always known came to an end.
From Gemini Station, the damage seemed to progress at a devastating rate. After the initial shockwave there rose an immense tidal wave visible even from their vantage point. Shortly, there was nothing but an ever growing gray cloud. Within minutes, it was covering the Pacific Ocean. Neither of them spoke. Minutes more and the entire planet had taken a sickly gray cast. Then nothing. The entire surface had been hidden by a single gigantic cloud. There was an occasional flash of lightning in the clouds, but otherwise the blue green glow of Earth had been replaced with a dull gray.
Jacobs turned to Lillian and started to speak but was interrupted by some sort of siren. It was coming from an metal bell directly above the door. There was a red light attached to the base of it, flashing along in time with the sound.
“What…” he started to yell over the siren, but was interrupted yet again by a loud click from the door and a voice came over the speakers. At least while it spoke, the siren faded away slightly.
“Gemini Station has been placed into a state of emergency. Please remain calm. If you are in a public area, please follow the red line to the nearest Emergency Shelter. If you are in a private room, please remain where you are. If you have any critical questions, please use the nearest terminal to contact Station security.”
Once the voice had stopped, the siren returned to its former volume. It was starting to give Lillian a headache, but there didn’t seem any way to shut it off.
Both were silent for a few moments more, then Jacobs tried again. He still had to yell to be heard over the siren. “This has to be a dream. Just a bad dream right?”
“I don’t know…” Lillian knew that he probably couldn’t hear her, she was just speaking too softly. But she was sure that he would get the idea. “I just don’t know.”
Later, neither was sure for how long they stood holding hands and watching the Earth. It felt like a lifetime.