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vol vi, issue 2 < ToC
When the Fireworks Fade
by
Ryan Hyatt
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Earth9My Biggest
Existential ...
When the Fireworks Fade
by
Ryan Hyatt
previous

Earth9




next

My Biggest
Existential ...
When the Fireworks Fade
by
Ryan Hyatt
previous next

Earth9 My Biggest
Existential ...
previous

Earth9




next

My Biggest
Existential ...
When the Fireworks Fade
 by Ryan Hyatt
When the Fireworks Fade
 by Ryan Hyatt
Fiery streaks race across a smoggy sky and disappear over an ocean horizon.

“Are they aliens, Nana?” the girl says.

Her ponytail flops as she grips the rail with her hands, pulls herself toward the ledge, and pushes herself back toward the patio. She repeats the motion, waiting for a response, but the old lady fails to acknowledge her game of tempting gravity.

“Depends on what you mean by aliens,” the old lady says, shielded by a sun hat as she transplants a fleshy succulent from a smaller pot to a larger one. “They’re from our solar system, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

The old lady stands and wipes dirt from her hands onto her apron. She grabs the oxygen mask dangling from her waist, takes a whiff, and joins the girl at the ledge.

“They’re made of stardust, like we are,” she says, gazing at the incoming bursts of flame. “We share ninety-nine percent of the same material they do, but it’s that one percent they have, and we don’t, why they’re here now.”

“Are they friendly?” the girl asks.

The old lady’s gaze shifts from the flashes of light tearing across the atmosphere to the waves crashing below. For years, she feared this edge. Not that she might fall, but that she might jump.

“I hope so.”

A hovercopter rises from the ocean surface and whirls past the tower.

“Papa’s home. Time for an update on this ... invasion ...”

“Not funny!” the girl says, and she dashes across the patio and vanishes in a pixelated puff.

*     *     *
Captain Fred Takatsu, strapped to an ergonomic board, rotates to gaze through the cockpit window. The augmented overlay of the target comes into view, a murky horizon blotted by thousands of coordinates.

“Looks like a smoggy sky on Earth,” he says. “You getting this, Earthlings?”

“Is that a rhetorical question?” says a feminine voice.

“Maybe, or a bad joke,” the captain says. “Eight-and-a-half minutes until this transmission reaches command, another long pause as they think of a response -- 18 minutes, I’d say, until we hear back from them.”

“You want to bet?” says the feminine voice. “Plus or minus 30 seconds, margin of error?”

“Deal.”

“Winner gets a backrub?”

“Always,” he says. “I probably owe you a hundred, computer. Deploy the drones and elevate us ten-thousand clicks above the engagement zone.”

“Aye, sir.”

The hull rattles as the ship alters course.

On the cockpit display, the captain eyes the swarm of self-propelled spacecraft vacate the cargo bay and fan toward the hazy objective.

*     *     *
“Preliminary data is positive,” says the old man sitting across from the old lady. “Looks like everything we’ve worked for, Dee, is finally paying off.”

“You know I hate it when you call me my name, Tom,” Dee says, reaching across the table, handing him a plate. “Makes me feel like I’m in trouble.”

“I’m just so proud of what you’ve accomplished,” Tom says, plopping a patty onto a bun.

“And to think, you were once a skeptic.”

“True,” he says, lathering his patty with mayonnaise. “More fake meat? When the dust finally settles on this project, dear, I’m flying us to Buenos Aires for real hamburgers.”

Dear, now that’s more like it,” Dee says, dressing her patty with lettuce. “So, it’s going well?”

“Better than expected,” Tom says, sipping whisky. “Rocks passing by Mars and the Moon are being redirected by gravity and drones, as needed, so they burn over the ocean. Just as your team envisioned. Amazing, really.”

“It’s nice for something to go right for a change,” Dee says.

Tom gazes around the candle-lit cave with its upscale furniture and viridescent walls.

“This place always felt like an extraterrestrial fortress, even though it’s been home longer than I care to remember,” he says. “And you? Enjoying retirement?”

“Very much.”

“Well, you’ve made your point,” he says, wiping his mouth with a napkin, “and you’re welcome back to the company any time, if you wish. It would be great publicity, especially now. I’m sure the world would rather hear from its bold visionary than a bunch of boring executives.”

Dee swallows.

“Thanks, but the only trip I’m interested in taking is to Buenos Aires for those burgers,” she says, wiping her mouth. “I only hope you actually take the time to join me, when the time comes.”

Dee watches him chew. The crisp white folds of his hair, the smoothness of his cheeks, the firmness of his chin. Two decades together, and he is aging well, but how much longer can they last?

“Of course we’ll go,” Tom says after he swallows. “To Buenos Aires, or wherever you want. As soon as the situation cools off.”

“What about me?” the girl says, materializing in a chair between them.

“What about you?” Tom says, staring at Dee. “Her, again?”

“She keeps me company ...”

“Baby, I’m worried about you ...”

Baby? Now that’s a word I haven’t heard in years ...”

“That’s not fair ...”

“What are you talking about, Papa?” the girl says. “What baby, Nana?”

“Stay out of it!” Tom says, tossing a bun at her.

It passes through the child and bounces off the chair.

Husband, wife, and hologram stare at the abandoned piece of bread on the floor, and laugh.

“See?” Dee says. “She keeps things lively around here.”

Tom rolls his eyes, carries away his plate and drink.

“What’s his problem?” the girl says.

Dee takes a bite from her burger.

“Me.”

*     *     *
A smooth hand reaches for a strip on a bathroom counter, and Dee glances at the younger version of herself in the mirror. She checks the pregnancy test, and a lackluster expression on her face transforms into a beaming smile.

Using her briefcase to shield herself from the sun, she marches out of a high-rise building to a street filled with cars, bikes, and a city basking in heat. A few brisk steps past scattering children, shouting food vendors, demanding pawn brokers, and a homeless family squatting under a lone tree, and she ducks inside an SUV.

“Is everything all right, ma’am?” the chauffeur asks.

“Couldn’t be better,” she says, taking a puff from an inhaler. “For me, anyway. Headquarters, please.”

An hour of traffic later, Dee arrives on the top floor of TrustUS Holdings where Tom presents to the board.

“Sorry I’m late,” she says with a half-hearted wave, taking a seat among the executives.

A graph projected over a sprawling window tells the story of the company’s failed green financial initiatives, billions of dollars lost.

“Looks like betting on the planet’s future is not a safe investment, after all,” Tom says with a sarcastic grin. He eyes Dee at the back of the table. “Perhaps our top research analyst, and my lovely fiancé, has good news?”

*     *     *
The old lady’s wrinkled hands rinse a dish as the girl sits on the kitchen counter.

“At that moment, I just wanted to grab Papa, rush him to the window, and shout loud for the whole world to hear, ‘I’m pregggggnannnnnnt!’” Dee says with a faint laugh. “Instead, I kept my joy to myself.”

She loads the dish into the washer.

“Maybe, it was for the better.”

*     *     *
“We’ll see,” Dee says, and she plops her faux-leather briefcase onto the table, withdraws a laptop, and starts to type.

Tom continues to address the other partners.

“We can only scale down the price of electric vehicles so far, and barter with the Chinese so much, without having to obtain a new source of rare metals for the batteries,” he says, switching to a graph that shows a supply of planetary minerals. “The demand for electric may be great, but we’ll never replace fossil fuels entirely if we don’t have enough material for the batteries. Simply speaking, Earth does not.”

“Fortunately, the solar system does,” Dee says, and her index finger whirls in the air with optimistic flair before it lands on ‘Enter.’

A video replaces the graph.

*     *     *
“This is Dr. Dee Cranston with Dr. Elisa Zutu inside her Kenyan laboratory,” Dee says to the recording camera. “Dr. Zutu, why am I here?”

The camera pans across a table lined with tubes containing precious metals.

“You must convince our investors there are riches to be obtained from the asteroid belt,” Dr. Zutu says, gesturing at the flecks of cobalt, palladium, and osmium on display. “These samples were acquired from a recent meteor crash. If we want to continue to mass-produce electric vehicles, we will need more.”

She grabs a large piece of crystal at the edge of the table, hands it to Dee.

“However, this is really why I invited you, Dr. Cranston,” Dr. Zutu says. “This crystal forms when you combine some of the minerals found in the asteroid belt with salt water.”

Dee marvels at the jade-like lattice; strong, firm, and radiant in her palm.

“It’s beautiful,” she says.

“Yes,” Dr. Zutu says. “It’s also a carbon sponge.”

*     *     *
“What happened to the baby?” the girl says as the old lady waters her succulents. The girl glances up from her holographic notebook at the patio table. “I mean, why am I your only child?”

“You are not our child,” Tom says. A glass of whisky dangles from his hand as he lies on a lawn chair and gazes in sunglasses at the sky. “You are an artificial intelligence program TrustUS Holdings commissioned as a housewarming gift when we moved into this damn place. You’ve been haunting my wife’s psyche ever since ...”

“Just ignore him, he’s drunk,” Dee says, eyeing a succulent she is about to soil. “Sweetheart, could you hand me the shovel?”

The girl reaches for the tool lying on the patio table; her hand passes through it.

“Not really,” she says.

Tom glances at the unmoved shovel, shakes his head.

“Not a word, Tom!”

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” he says with a snicker. “Have you looked up and checked out this light show, dear? The view is really something.”

“Nice of you to notice,” Dee says, glancing up in time to see a meteor appear, and vanish, over the ocean. She stands, takes a whiff from her oxygen mask, and joins the girl at the patio table.

“I never had the baby,” she whispers.

Tom shakes his head from the lawn chair.

“Sure, tell her the story, again.”

*     *     *
“Asteroid mining?” Tom says. “Really, Dee, we send you to Africa on the company’s dime, and that’s the best your team’s got? There are colonies on the Moon and Mars crumbling from neglect, and you want to waste more time and money sending ships deeper into space?”

Dee pauses the video, gazes beyond it. Outside the boardroom window, police hovercopters circle a crime scene like vultures. Somewhere beyond the dirty skyline of jagged skyscrapers, she spots a sliver of blue, the ocean.

“If we’re serious about solving our planet’s problems ... for ourselves ... for our children,” she says, her gaze resting on her fiancé, “we need to start treating our situation like the crisis it is. The honeymoon for our life on Earth is over.”

*     *     *
Dee, curled up next to Tom, opens her eyes.

Sunlight pokes through a penthouse suite, shines on her face.

She glances down at white sheets, smeared in red streaks.

“Oh, god, no!” she yells, leaping out of bed.

“What is it?” Tom says, blood dripping down Dee’s legs.

*     *     *
The old lady turns in bed and sees the old man trimming his gray beard in his underwear. The viridescent walls of their bedroom glow.

“I thought you were going to stay a while.”

He abandons the trimmer, struts past her, and disappears inside a closet.

“Me, too, but the Asian consortium wants to double productivity of hovercopters and drones to oversee the placement of towers on their side of the Pacific,” he says, re-emerging in a suit. “They’re requesting an influx of capital. They’ll get it, of course, but I need to negotiate a return for our investment.”

“My guy, wheeling and dealing.”

He buttons his shirt, ties his belt.

“The company is finally making its fortune, selling to governments the equipment necessary to set up our carbon towers.”

“You seem excited about leaving,” Dee says, rolling to the edge of the bed. “Are you sure this isn’t about a woman?”

“Yes, it is,” he says, leaning forward, kissing her forehead. “You.”

He squeezes her hand.

“Back soon, promise.”

*     *     *
The old lady sits in a robe at the dining table, stirring a cup of tea. As morning light radiates her face, the shimmer of crystal walls fades.

“I had several miscarriages,” she says. “Tried too late, I guess.”

The girl appears in an empty chair. She places her holographic hand over Dee’s.

“Even so,” Dee says, “every time I became pregnant, I told myself, ‘This is it, my baby’s going to stay, and I’m going to be a mommy ...’”

*     *     *
“We could have tried medical procedures,” Tom says from the lawn chair. “We could have adopted. You were always so stubborn about the way things ought to be.”

Dee sits at the patio table and watches meteors disintegrate toward the sunset. A flurry of drones, like a flock of seagulls, whizzes past the tower in active pursuit.

“I know,” Dee says. “I’m not blaming you. I never have.”

*     *     *
A limo with a sign, “Just Married,” pulls up to a podium on a precipice. Dee exits the vehicle in a white dress, and Tom follows in a tuxedo. Dozens of reporters, in hats and sunglasses, gather around them.

An employee from TrustUS Holdings shades the newlyweds with a parasol.

*     *     *
“The worst pregnancy fell on our wedding day,” the old lady says, speaking in darkness at the dining table, the greenish light of the walls reflecting on her face and limbs. “I was three months along, miserable.”

*     *     *
As newlywed Dee stands behind the podium, her rosy cheeks glisten with sweat.

“I am grateful to live in a world where there is hope for a better tomorrow,” she says. “The home Tom and I make for ourselves, as husband and wife, promises a new day, not just for us, but for all of humanity.”

The TrustUS employee hands Dee a bottle of water. She takes a sip.

“Imagine, reversing global warming,” she says. “Imagine, restoring emission levels in the atmosphere to the way they were before the Industrial Revolution. Thanks to the efforts of our investors and global partners, this fantasy will become a reality.”

The TrustUS employee lifts the parasol away from the couple.

“Finally, imagine the sun ...” Dee says, pointing up at the sphere, “... not as a hellish adversary, or some terrible punishment for our existence, but as a star we love and cherish, as our ancestors did.”

Tom reaches around her waist, lifts her into his arms.

“Ooh, wee!” Dee says, a bump protruding from her dress as she lies suspended in the air.

“Isn’t my wife something?” Tom shouts. “All brains, and beauty!”

A mixture of applause and questions fire from reporters. Tom turns, revealing to the press the view behind him: A glimmering monolith protrudes from the ocean.

“Now, if you’ll excuse us, it’s time my bride and me settle into our new home.”

A hovercopter swoops up from the salty depths of the sea and rests at the edge of the cliff. Tom carries Dee on board, and they fly toward the crystal spire.

*     *     *
“I lost her here,” the old lady says, sitting at the patio table on a relentless sunny day. “You and I were standing where the succulents are. We were admiring this vast horizon, considering the future possibilities for ourselves and our children, remember? And just like that, I started to bleed in my wedding dress.”

Dee takes a sip of water.

“I leaned over the ledge, inconsolable,” she says, “my tears falling into the ocean. I could have died at that moment.”

“I know,” Tom says from the lawn chair, sunglasses fixed on her. “How many times do you have to remind me?”

*     *     *
The walls illuminate the old lady’s eyes with a jaded tinge.

“By the time we started to date, I already felt old,” Dee says by herself at the dining table. “I was in my early forties. I wanted to have children, naturally, or not at all.”

She takes a sip of tea.

“The fact I couldn’t have children, I took as a sign. Life had other things in store for me, apparently, but it didn’t feel liberating. In fact, it felt like the end of the world. Eventually, I decided to go on antidepressants, and being on them, at least, I no longer was susceptible to the highs and lows, the push and pull of my hormones, or the psychological turmoil of a childless existence. I stopped feeling much of anything, really, except the energy to plunge myself into work and marriage. I did so, without looking back, for two decades.”

*     *     *
Dee shows off her wedding ring to an inquiring board member. Then, she and several scientists and engineers present to the executives.

A graph shows the mission: A three-stage deployment to the asteroid belt is to include supply stations orbiting the Moon and Mars for outgoing and returning crews. Thousands of specialized drones are to dislodge the asteroids from their path and redirect them toward Earth, their minerals showering the planet’s seas.

“The gravitational fields of the Moon and Mars will be critical to guiding the incoming rocks, so there are only three alignment windows for these mining expeditions,” Dee says. “That means we have three chances to get this right. If we fail, in twenty years the worst effects of global warming will be complete, and we will not be able to stop our planet from overheating.”

As Dee exits the TrustUS lobby, she is assailed by aggressive reporters and admiring citizens. A girl in a ponytail squirms through the adults and asks Dee for her autograph. Dee smiles down at the child, signs the notebook, and steps into an SUV. She takes a puff from her inhaler.

*     *     *
“So many failures,” the old lady says.

She takes a whiff from her oxygen mask as she stands in her apron at the edge of the patio. Some succulents, strewn from soil, lay abandoned and wait to be planted in larger pots. Under the roof of her sun hat, Dee gazes at a series of shadowy towers forming along the ocean horizon.

“You have an incredible capacity to overcome adversity,” she hears Tom’s voice say.

“That, or I relish self-punishment.”

*     *     *
When Dee steps out of the SUV, she is as an old lady assailed by scientists and engineers in lab coats. One of them hands her a hard hat, which she places over her head, while another hands her a set of schematics, which she reviews as she is led across a concrete walkway.

The group stops, separates in half.

A man in a silver flight suit walks down the path of determined faces toward Dee, lost in the fine print. He gently pulls the schematics away from her face.

“I’m Captain Fred Takatsu,” he says. “It’s an honor to meet you, Dr. Cranston.”

They shake hands, and he steps to the side: Towering over a launch pad is the rocket, U.S.S. Desperation.

“Isn’t she magnificent?” he says.

“You’re really taking the trip?” Dee says.

“The last ship on the last mission to save Earth.”

“Special, indeed,” Dee says, gazing at the majestic rocket. “Reminds me of home.”

“It will be mine, for a while.”

*     *     *
The old lady walks past the old man with a potted plant in her hands as he sits on a reclining chair. He sips whisky and watches TV as a jaded glow radiates the walls around the screen.

“Where are you going?” Tom says, glancing at his wife. “The Desperation is about to launch. The most broadcasted event in history.”

Dee glances at the countdown ticking away on the screen. Right on schedule.

“I’m surprised you’re not watching from the boardroom, with your buddies.”

“Come on, Dee,” Tom says, patting the empty love seat next to him. “I came home to watch the launch with you.”

“And your drink,” she says. “I guess you’re entitled to do what you want. I can’t imagine it’s been pleasant living with me, at least since I’ve been off my meds.”

“Your meds?” Tom says, tightening his grip around his glass. “How long have you been taking those?”

“Since the last miscarriage,” she says. “Most of our marriage.”

He takes a sip of whisky.

“I’m going to place this succulent on the patio and watch the launch from there,” Dee says. “You joining me?”

“Really?” Tom says. “That’s all you have to say?”

“I’m not sure what else there is to say,” Dee says. “I did the calculations. It’s going to be a spectacular view.”

Tom stands, drink in hand, and follows her.

*     *     *
“We’re with you, captain. In spirit, anyway.”

The transmission ends, and Takatsu checks the time.

“Seventeen minutes and fifty-two seconds,” he says. “Within the margin of error. I won the bet.”

“I owe you a massage,” says a feminine voice, and the captain’s ergonomic board starts to vibrate. “It’s your lucky day.”

“Not just mine. Everybody’s.”

“Are you sure, captain? Your heart rate is racing ...”

“Just a little nervous, that’s all.”

“You have every reason to be. The fate of your race is in your hands.”

“And yours,” he says. “Don’t forget, we’re in this together. Can we finish the massage after the mission?”

“Of course,” says the computer.

The vibrations of the ergonomic board cease. Takatsu rotates his position for a better view through the cockpit window.

“Are the drones in position?”

“Affirmative.”

“Initiate targeting sequence.”

“Copy.”

He takes a deep breath.

“Fire!”

Takatsu watches a series of explosions ignite the coordinates, sending asteroids off their gravitational path, rushing past the ship.

“How are we doing?”

“Calculating ...” says the computer. “Congratulations, sir! Ninety-seven percent of the targets are on a crash course for Earth.”

“You hear that, Earthlings?” Takatsu says, tears floating from his eyes. “We did it. Fireworks are on the way!”

*     *     *
On a breezy afternoon, the old lady admires the spiraling lattice of a nearby tower. Her silver hair flows freely in the wind.

“New neighbor?” she hears Tom’s voice say.

“We could save the world, but we couldn’t save our marriage, could we?” Dee says, clinging to the rail, glancing at the waves crashing below.

“I don’t think so,” she hears Tom’s voice say.

“He’s not coming back, is he?” Dee says, turning to the girl at the patio table.

“I don’t think so. Sorry.”

“I’m not,” Dee says. “Not anymore.”

She takes a whiff of oxygen and dashes across the patio.

“Where are you going?” the girl says.

“To Buenos Aires, for hamburgers ...” Dee hollers as she disappears inside the tower, “... then, to open an orphanage ...”

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