1720 words (6 minute read)

Chapter 1: Maggie Osborne

I’ll just start with a day likely burned into your memory. Like several events before it–the assassination of JFK, the attack on the Twin Towers, the election of Donald Trump–everyone past a certain age in America knows where they were the day they learned life might end in two weeks’ time.

It was just over ten years ago, September 30, 2045. On that particular day, I was sitting at my workstation in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in the center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies, where I worked for NASA. Or, what was left of NASA anyway. It was the last remaining NASA center. The four other major ones - Goddard Space Flight Center, Johnson Space Center, Glenn Research Center, and Langley Research Center - had been shuttered eight years prior.

Open on my computer screen was an email I’d received three months ago. Actually, it was a screenshot of part of an email. The actual email I’d deleted almost immediately after receiving it. I won’t bore you with all the details, but there was one section that stuck out above all others:

I’ve received word that congress has the votes it needs to finally eliminate NASA and the EPA, with the next round of budget cuts. It’s not public yet, but I thought you should know. You have my sympathies, Maggie.

I’d read it over a hundred times in the past three months, but that morning, I read it again for an extra dose of courage. Citizens had to follow strict air quality safety measures throughout their day, donning masks, sealing windows, running large-scale air purifiers even in small apartments. Cases of asthma and autoimmune disease were at an all-time high despite medical advances. Large swathes of our public land were left devastated by wildfire and then ignored for the years and sometimes decades that followed. And don’t get me started on the water. Even when we had a break from our near-perpetual drought, we couldn’t drink it without several rounds of filtration.

Private space agencies had rebranded in the 30s and moved on to other, more shiny, instantly-gratifying missions, and we here at the JPL were the only ones left in the United States with an eye on the far reaches of our universe. The last remnants of an agency that had stood as a beacon for our future, for innovation, for over ninety years. And the moment had finally come. The moment they were going to stick the final fork into the agencies deemed not worthy of funding.

Anger wasn’t an adequate enough word to describe what I felt when I read that for the first time and at the knowledge of the ripple effect on the health of our planet and our citizens that this decision would have for generations to come. We would never, ever, be able to recover. We were nearing the point of no return. Something had to be done.

I was only thirty. Since joining the agency at twenty-four, even after two promotions, the job had mostly involved doing the bare minimum to keep the department running. Basic planetary defense and monitoring of near-earth objects. Photographs from the handful of satellites we still had in orbit, though there had been no budget to maintain them since well before I started and most of them had been unwillingly delegated to the array of broken space junk that orbits our planet, like empty plates on a buffet conveyor belt after the lunch rush.

The excess caffeine I’d consumed that morning ran through my veins like jet fuel, but I hid it well. At least, that’s what I told myself.

My attention was partially on transferring the needed files for the upcoming press conference, onto a flash drive. A press conference you have likely seen clips of a hundred times by now.

One after another, I dragged, and I dropped files as the press eagerly waited in a room down the hall like baby birds awaiting the return of their mother. They didn’t know the size of the worm about to be delivered to their nest.

When the thumb drive was ready, I took off my headphones, leaned back in my chair, and spun toward Clementine who was walking over to my workstation.

“This contains everything you might need,” I said, “including the latest footage, polished by these two this morning.”

I gestured to Kai Simpson and Gray Greenwood, who sat at a workstation in the middle of the room. The two were nearly inseparable, inside and outside of work. Gray was in his late twenties, with a scraggly rust-colored beard that matched his curly hair. He word a maroon, open hoodie on top of a plain gray t-shirt, and headphones slung around his neck. Kai, a black man in his mid-thirties with a large smile and large eyes, wore a button-up salmon shirt, a favorite color of his, and a NASA pin on the collar. Kai’s head was angled down and he was rubbing his temples firmly.

Various other workstations, that could easily fit twenty people working comfortably, were scattered throughout the room, most of them dispersed on two long desks that stretched like twin railroad ties from one end to the other. Over the past two years, the bodies filling those seats had slowly disappeared, like eggs being removed from a carton, so now there were only eight permanent employees in this room. I’d requested the room be empty except for the four us leading up to the press conference. We needed space to prepare.

Kai continued to focus on his screen, while Gray’s eyes flitted to the exchange we were having in the corner.

“A flash drive, Gray? Couldn’t have gone for a floppy disk?” The humor in her voice felt forced. Three clocks on the far wall clicked down the time in their perspective zones - the middle read 10:45pm Pacific Standard Time. The press conference would begin at eleven.

“Don’t disrespect the flash drive, Clem,” Gray said with a smile. “It’s compact, it’s secure, and it gets the job done.”

Clem wrapped her hand around the small device.

“How are you holding up, Maggie?” The young woman said, her deep brown eyes staring into mine, willing me to give her my honest emotions, not the ones I so frequently projected into my surroundings.

“Don’t you worry about me,” I said. “I know we wanted more time, but if reports are true, the announcement the agency is being shut down is coming next month. It’s now or never.”

“And we’re sure it shouldn’t be never?” Clem said as she raised her right eyebrow. Clem would handle the press. We decided it months before. And, I was convinced there was no better person for the job. That didn’t mean I envied the young woman and what she was about to walk into. Clem would be like the sole piece of fruit on a picnic table on a hot day.

I couldn’t even blame the hungry ants. Fruit, or information in this case, was hard to come by. Clem tightened her grip on the flash drive until her knuckles turned white. She looked nervous, to me at least, who had trained her. I felt certain I knew most of her tells. I was also fairly confident that to an untrained eye, Clem would pass as effortlessly composed. Confident. I grabbed an apple off of my desk and took a bite as I studied the young woman. Her makeup against her brown skin was subtle and light. Her long black hair was pulled into a sideways twist. Professional, but not too stiff. The type of hairstyle I knew Clem fashioned naturally, having watched her artistic fingers effortlessly weave and twist strands into beautiful styles with just a few pins and no mirror in sight. I possessed no such skills in that department but was fortunate enough to be born with stick-straight hair that required little intervention.

“Go get, em’ Clem” Kai yelled as he shot Clem a thumbs up, his eyes not moving from the screen in front of him. He, like the rest of us, was trying to focus, trying to hide the nervousness he felt despite the confidence we still held onto that day. Confidence that what we were doing was the right thing to do, and that we would pull it off. Confidence that two weeks from that day, we would finally be appreciated, the dissenting voices would naturally eliminate themselves, and the world could finally move forward. Confidence that everything that happened between now and then would be worth it.

Clem was wearing a simple yet fashionable black tailored suit, with a maroon shirt underneath, cut to show just a few inches of color. A necklace with a small, red gem hung just below her collarbone.

I stood, pinching the apple between my teeth, and used my hands to brush some lint from Clementine’s shoulder. She smiled slightly.

“Camera ready as ever,” I said.

“You’re ready for this, Clem.” I said, “We’ll be here watching you, rooting for you. The footage is all set. All you have to do is get through it.”

I sat back down, spun back around in my chair, returned the headphones to my ears and pressed play. Queen’s Hammer to fall began to fill my head as I took another large bite of my apple and the door closed behind me.

Large footage of the press room was soon projected on the wall. Reporters were milling around, chatting with colleagues, and filling up cups of coffee from a table in the corner.

Kai and Gray both scooted themselves over in their wheeled office chairs until they were next to me. Kai propped his arm up effortlessly on the back of my chair.

“Look at them,” Gray said, “They don’t know what’s coming.”

“No turning back now,” I said.

“Here we go,” Kai and Gray said in unison.

Here we fucking go, I murmured under my breath.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2: Miles Duran