The unexpected eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera threatens the global ecosystem, and Earth’s population tries to try to seek refuge in the four city-satellites in Earth orbit—Verdant, Tranquil, Fertile and Qing—even though further overloading will ruin their survivability as well. But as the satellites fight forced occupation, a secret group on Verdant has an agenda of its own…
Preview: Chapter 1
The leisurely arc being cut by Aerospace Force One through the Colorado sky belied the incredible power being applied to its twin engines—more than usual, in order to cut through the grit that was already beginning to fill the air and outrun it into orbit. Despite plenty of warning and distance, the skies to the north and west were already displaying a deep red hue, and lighter ash being ejected by the Yellowstone Caldera had already managed to reach as far as the Denver metropolitan area and darken the local skies. The powerful Aerospace Force jet was still in its southward turn and the reddish sky was slowly vanishing astern, but the outboard cameras kept the image centered, broadcasting it on every viewscreen that was not otherwise occupied displaying data relevant to the running of the country.
Only one such screen in the President’s flying office was broadcasting the rearward view. As far as Gaston Lambert was concerned, that was more than enough. It was like watching a plague advance upon his nation, and in fact, would be no less devastating. He tried not to look at that screen, out of concern that its mere image would drain the resolve out of him, that he would be unable to make decisions, unable to run the country. And as it was, he didn’t know how he would be able to guide it through this disaster, no matter how focused he might be.
Notice had been so short that they’d had little time to prepare or collect much before they had to go. Only the staff that were in the High House, or could reach Aerospace Force One at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in an hour’s time, had been able to come. Those staff members were now liberally spread out among the sub-sections of the jet’s wide blended wing cabin, either trying to get work done, or waiting out the ride and nervously discussing the situation below amongst themselves.
They hadn’t even had the time to wait for Vice President Carruthers to return from Lisboa, before it was decided that the worsening atmospheric conditions demanded they take off. That was particularly galling, because Lambert knew he would never hear the end of leaving Lena Carruthers in direct charge of the country while he stole away to the relative safety of Verdant. And she would never forgive him for leaving her behind… she would be a bitch-on-wheels to work with, for the duration of their term.
However long that would last.
Lambert glanced over at the only other person in the room, seated at the chair closest to his desk. Enu Thompson, his Chief of Staff, also seemed to be pointedly avoiding looking at the one viewscreen that displayed the ash front behind them, and he glared with tightly knitted brows at the other screens that showed the evacuation efforts in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Utah, the emergency meetings being carried out throughout the country, or displays of figures and graphs that measured the health and well-being of the country… all of which were in horrid scarlet death-spirals now.
As if Thompson could feel Lambert’s gaze on him, he shifted his head enough so that he could meet the President’s eyes. Thompson’s dark African features and naturally large, round eyes could look particularly fierce when he was unhappy, and he looked none too comforting now. They had been together long enough that there was no reason to voice what they both knew they were thinking: We could not have known; this is not our fault; yet, we will be blamed for it, and the subsequent ruin of the country, if we can’t find a miracle somewhere that will pull us out of it; in short, our political lives are pretty much over.
Seemingly confirming their shared thought, Thompson’s face softened slightly, and he dropped the hand that had been pressed against his cheek as he slumped in the chair. He straightened up perceptively, and nodded at the President. “We’ll figure something out.” It was an empty gesture, an empty statement, and Lambert chose not to reply.
There was a discreet knock at the door, and Thompson called out, “Yes?”
The door slid open, and one of the President’s aides popped his head inside. Without pausing to gauge the mood of the room, he said: “Sir, we’ve gotten word that the Vice President has touched down in Frederick. She’ll be on the next bullet west to Denver within the hour.”
“Thank you,” Lambert replied. When he added nothing else, the aide took the hint and disappeared, closing the door behind him. Lambert shook his head sadly. “Merde. ‘Cocktail Barbie’ in the High House,” he muttered, using the nickname the media had so irreverently attached to the Vice-President during the elections. Not that it didn’t suit her—in fact, it could only have been more accurate if she’d possessed a twelve-inch waist. “I’m not sure which to be more afraid of… the people’s reaction, or hers.”
Thompson shrugged. “It’s not as if we won’t be in communication with Denver. We’ll still be giving the orders, and Lena can just sit there and look good. Like usual.”
Lambert glared at Thompson. “You know there’s more to running the High House than that. She’ll be a nervous wreck before sunset.” He cracked an ironic grin. “Which will be coming a lot sooner than usual today.”
He risked a glance at the rearward camera viewscreen. Although the reddish horizon still dominated the image, it was now at risk of being overshadowed by the noticeably-increasing curvature of the Earth below, and the inky blackness above it. Though the appearance of Earth from high orbit had always awed and impressed him, the image was tainted by the spreading red stain below, and today Lambert saw nothing beautiful about it.
So he glanced at another screen, which had shifted to a forward view. The cameras were able to provide filtering that the unaided eye at a viewport would not have been able to manage as well, and Lambert could clearly see the tiny pinpoints of starlight speckling the field of black. A few specks were brighter than the rest, and Lambert knew they were heading towards one of those brighter specks, though at this distance he could not tell which.
Under normal circumstances there would always be ships in the sky, going to and from the orbital satellites. Less than a century ago, engine technology had finally put the practicality of powered flight into orbit into the hands of small shipping companies, heavy freight haulers and even passenger services. Much of the transit and transportation that used to be carried out in the atmosphere was now sent all the way to orbit, where the lack of atmospheric drag allowed a ship to travel around the world on significantly less power, not to mention accessing the various orbital facilities that had been built. At the moment, however, there were far fewer ships in the sky, as the atmospheric conditions had caught most craft unprepared and grounded most fleets.
“Are there any reports from Verdant?” Lambert asked. “How are they reacting to this?”
“I haven’t heard anything yet,” Thompson replied. “I’m sure they’re monitoring the situation, but the gravity of this might not have reached anyone outside of the CnC. I’ll get an update.”
Lambert nodded as Thompson rose from his seat and headed for the door. “Let me know if things are getting bad up there. Nothing like escaping a disaster and landing in the middle of a riot.”
Thompson smiled grimly at him before he exited the room. “That’s the spirit.”
Verdant’s Command and Control center usually carried the atmosphere of an open office full of relaxed cubicle-workers, talking openly and joking, passing information back and forth, and tending to their work with the quiet efficiency of people who knew what they were doing. The atmosphere in the CnC today, however, was noticeably different.
Various scenes of the spreading plumes of ash, evacuation efforts, North American and global weather data and concerned news reports from around the world were displayed on a myriad of monitor screens on the desks. The reports were in many languages, many of them being translated by the GLIS, the station’s Governing Logistics Intelligence System, into Universal English for the benefit of the staff. Personnel quick-stepped back and forth, from desk to desk, sharing data or asking questions of each other, and trying to collate everything they were seeing. The GLIS spoke as well, multiple dialogues from multiple speakers, supplying data or answering questions as requested. An individual would have had to raise their voice to be noticed above the commotion. Despite the artificial daylighting in the room, the CnC felt dark and ominous today, as if the ash clouds over Wyoming were somehow blocking their light, too.
The room consisted of two outer rows of control and monitoring desks set in a rectangular pattern, with the desks on each side of the rectangle oriented to the open area in the center of the room. A command station as large as six of the outer desks dominated the central space, itself dominated by an elaborate wrap-around control panel, a number of large viewscreens on its surface and suspended from the high ceiling above, and a three-dimensional display column in its center. Of the personnel coming and going throughout the CnC, they mostly gave a wide berth to the central station, and to the man and woman standing side-by-side there.
They wore identical green blazers, complete with the Verdant logo over the left breast pocket, matching green trousers, and cream-colored shirts, the mark of senior governing personnel. Beyond that, there was very little about them that seemed similar. He was European in features, handsome, an inch over six feet, just a few years into the second half-century of his life, and with the slight paunch to prove it; outwardly calm, but very alert, taking in the data before him and the reactions around the room with calculating eyes. She was a small, fighting-trim, dusky Latina who didn’t look like she’d reached thirty yet. Her pretty face, dominated by large, expressive eyes, was tempered by a strong and confident gaze that suggested an unwavering confidence and dedication to duty.
She watched the viewscreens in obvious dismay, absently using her hand to cover her open mouth. “This is painful to watch,” she muttered, too softly for her words to get any further than the man standing next to her. The man glanced at her… perhaps just to make sure she was bearing up under the stress of the situation… and nodded lightly, but otherwise said nothing.
A voice called out from an overhead speaker… the voice of the GLIS. “Ceo Lenz?”
The man at the central station allowed his eyes to drift upward at the ceiling, as if looking at the speaker was the same as looking at the Governing Logistics Intelligence System. The GLIS speakers and monitoring pods all looked like fist-sized soccer balls, their white faceted surfaces allowing for uni-directional sound and sensory input and output. The sound was directed at him well enough that it was easy to pick out which pod had spoken to him.
Once the man’s eyes had fixed on the appropriate pod, it spoke again. “Raw stock deliveries to Verdant are already being postponed or cancelled throughout the Americas. Manufacturing schedules will be immediately impacted in six on-board plants.”
“Understood,” the man nodded. “Are you still monitoring Aerospace Force One?”
“Yes. They report no adverse difficulty getting through the atmosphere. ETA is still 1915.”
“Prepare a list of plant personnel, starting from non-essential and working up, for an interim leave schedule.”
“Very good,” the GLIS responded.
Next to him, the woman nodded, though she did not take her eyes off the screens. “Might as well. It’s not as if they’d get much work done during this.”
“Agreed.” The man glanced at the woman. “Do you have family near Yellowstone?”
“Are you kidding?” the woman replied, and flashed him an ironic half-grin. “I don’t think there’s a ten-square-klick plot on Earth where you won’t find a member of the extended Luis clan.” He chuckled, not too heartily. “Hopefully,” she continued more seriously, “none that couldn’t get out of there in time.”
The man and woman exchanged glances, then furtively stole a glance about them at those in the rest of CnC. They were the top of the command structure, and it would not pay to set a bad example to the rest of the staff, or show an inappropriate level of concern during a crisis. Julian Lenz, “Jules” to those closest to him, Chief Executive Officer of Verdant, had seen his share of executives who’d lost their positions due to a lapse in professionalism at an inopportune time—like when a media camera was on them, or a disgruntled employee was in earshot—and had no interest in playing the defensive role with his career. He was just too old for that nonsense.
His second in command, Executive Officer Reya Luis, was probably not quite as concerned for her career as he was… but she was just as professional, and understood about professional propriety. Her comment about her extended family was already a well-known and well-worn running gag in CnC, and therefore hardly something to take issue with. Even so, she’d kept it pitched low enough to avoid anyone else overhearing… with the possible exception of the GLIS.
They both looked up when they noticed someone new entering the CnC and approaching the central station. His green blazer was identical with those worn by Julian and Reya, marking him as another senior command member.
When he reached the station, Julian asked, “How’s it going, Aaron?”
The newcomer shook his head. “I’ve been arguing with freighter company heads for the past hour, trying to get their scheduled shipments up here. I needed my office, for a little quiet. Not that it helped, I think.”
Julian pursed his lips but did not reply. Aaron Hardy, his Chief of Operations, was unmatched for his ability to juggle resources and assignments on-the-fly. He was not so expert at dealing with people, though… and Julian doubted he’d put up much of a fight with any of the freighter lines who had reservations about flying through ash-filled skies. Not that he blamed them for arguing the point, or for that matter, Aaron for conceding it—it was downright hazardous down there. But every freight delivery they lost was going to put them tighter in a bind, and that was not something to look forward to.
Reya Luis looked up at Aaron—both Aaron and Julian were a head taller than she was—and said, “I doubt there’s much you could say to get them to fly through that.”
Aaron nodded in agreement. “A U.N. Coo is pretty much outranked by the GAA. They’re already recommending flight cancellations across the board.” He looked at Julian. “I may be able to convince more of them to switch to ballistic deliveries, at least for awhile, but I don’t know how well that will sit with them. How are things looking from here, Jules?”
“Lousy,” Julian replied honestly. “The caldera doesn’t show any signs of letting up.”
Aaron grimaced. “Resources are going to get tight. I’d recommend going to level four conservation restrictions before the day is out.”
“Before the hour is out,” Luis suggested.
Julian looked at them both. “Level four it is,” he agreed. “Reset the GLIS. In the meantime,” he added to Aaron, “see if there are any southern hemisphere vendors looking for some new opportunities. Before all the windows are closed on us.”
“Already put some feelers out,” Aaron smiled. He knew his job, no doubt about it. “Wishing on a star.”
“Well, we’ve got a few,” Julian said lightly. He gave the room a quick once-over, and seemed satisfied that there was not much else he could do at the moment. Then he turned and strode to a door with a small plaque that said, simply, “CEO.” The door slid open for him, and closed behind him.
Julian’s office was noticeably quieter, the moment the door closed, making him realize perhaps for the first time how uncharacteristically hectic it had been in CnC. He took the moment to draw in a deep, cleansing breath, and let it out, willing himself to relax… he was afraid he might not have many opportunities to do that in the immediate future. Then he crossed the office, circling around the executive-sized desk at the far end of the room.
As he sat down at the desk, various controls and screens embedded in the desk’s surface came to life, giving him overall information on the operations of Verdant, and the option of digging deeper into any of them. His hand drifted to one area of the desk, the controls for the viewscreen that filled the long wall directly in front of him. Ironically, that wall faced the outer skin of Verdant… but between the outer shell, the internal plumbing and wiring, and shielding, an actual window to the outside would have to be three meters thick to be usable… a viewscreen made much more sense, besides being inherently safer. He tapped out a sequence, and at once, the entire wall came alive with a crystal-clear view of Earth.
So clear and still was the image, that Julian could easily believe he was sitting before a wide window, staring directly down at Earth from an impossibly tall building… instead of from Verdant’s relative position, in geosynchronous orbit 36,000 km above Earth’s surface. From that distance, the entire sphere of the Earth was visible on the screen, its mostly blue-white atmosphere ably hiding the environmental damage that millennia of human habitation had wrought… and almost centered on the screen, the reddish cloud that was spreading over the North American landmass like a massive, lethal wound. The final blow that would undo the last century’s dedicated efforts of reconstruction and reclamation. The straw that would break the camel’s back.
And Verdant was helpless to watch… as were the other satellites, Tranquil, Fertile, and Qing. No, even worse than that: Verdant and the other satellites were not self-sufficient, and depended upon Earth for supplies and raw materials, by design; Earth was the anchor to which they were all tethered… and if Earth went down, the satellites would be dragged down with it.
They were all in trouble.
At that moment, there was a ping that seemed to emanate from the very air around him, the subtle but penetrating alert tone of the GLIS. Following the ping, one of the desktop screens began displaying text, a message that would be relayed throughout Verdant, which read:
All personnel and residents: By order of the CEO, due to the crisis on Earth caused by the Yellowstone Caldera, Verdant has been placed on Level 4 conservation restrictions until further notice.
Julian stared at the message for a moment. He had little confidence that the conservation restrictions would get any better, anytime soon. He silently prayed for them all.