Originally Published here on kcotenti.com as a Living Story, April-May 2018.
Thanks to Emily McDonald and Elizabeth Barron for their suggested story elements.
The building shook as another quake ripped open the surrounding earth. The monitors lining the far end of the room flashed newscasts from cities around the country. People racing through the streets, screaming as loved ones fell into the fresh chasms tearing open the earth. Ronald faced the men gathered in the somber, subterranean conference room.
“We’re finding ourselves in a dangerous situation. Dangerous, and out of control. What’s going on here? We’re powerful. We can stop this. We can’t let this happen.”
The men, some in suits and some in uniforms, grumbled and nodded but offered no action. A knock at the door punctuated the self-important nothings. The door swung open to reveal a tall young man sporting an expression that lay somewhere between smugness and confusion.
“Mr. Holdburg has something you’ll want to see.”
Ronald frowned, mirroring the faces surrounding the conference table. He opened his mouth to decline as Holdburg burst into the room, dragging a six-foot tall, flattened Death Star on wheels to the front of the room. The volleyball-sized dish on top, its center painted in black and blue rings, stared at its bewildered audience.
“I have something that could work.” Holdburg pressed a button. The Death Star’s cladding retracted, revealing a hollow ring that glowed purple.
“Could?” Ronald asked.
“Due to its size, it would take months to get everyone through. If it lasts that long.” Holdburg nodded toward the monitors.
“Through where?” A suit asked. “What is that thing?”
“This thing,” Holdburg protracted a red lever from along the outer edge of the ring. “Is our ticket out of here.”
He pulled down on the lever and the purple glow disappeared, revealing whitewashed hills and an over-saturated sky. The men around the table leaned forward.
“Is that …?”
“This is a portal to a new world. A world where we can start over.”
“You’ve been through?” Ronald asked.
“Yes. Several Consortium members have been through. There is air, water, vegetation, a sun. The basic ingredients to rebuild civilization.”
“What if we don’t have time to get everyone through?”
“Then we don’t get everyone through.”
“Is there no other way?”
Holdburg clenched his jaw and shook his head.
“It’s too late to do anything for Earth. We stay here and die with it, or we go through the portal, and rebuild on a new planet.”
The grumbles circulated the table again.
“We must decide what order to send people through.”
“Us first, of course,” Ronald said. “Other government and military people, and important businessmen. Save the crooks and liars for last. Or leave them.” He chuckled.
“We’ll need people to do the actual rebuilding,” a suit said. “Architects, engineers–”
“Is this the only device?” A uniform interrupted.
“We built 50, one for each country represented in the Consortium. It was the best we could do on such short notice.”
“We’ll do what we can,” Ronald stood next to Holdburg and clapped his shoulder. “The important people first. If there’s time, we’ll get the rest. Set it up.”
Holdburg left the meeting, running through his agenda for the rest of the day. As long as everything else went according to plan …
He turned and looked down at the brunette who had never requited his love for her in medical school. He no longer took it personally but was still surprised to see her.
“Hil. I thought we were meeting later.”
He had dropped out of med school, heartbroken, and became an environmental engineer, instead. He thought he’d never cross paths with her again. Boy, had he been wrong. She had left her ER residency, become a paramedic, then taken a desk job for FEMA. Nine years later, they had each become key players in their fields, qualifying them for appointed positions in the Consortium.
“We were, but there’s a problem with the simulations. Or rather, with the outcomes. I thought you should know.”
Holdburg glanced around, wary of being overheard.
“This way.” He tried to grab her arm, but she pulled it away. He led her down a side hall. “What happened with the simulations?”
“They don’t work. Correction: most don’t work. There is one workable scenario …”
“What is it?”
As Hilaria hesitated, they heard voices approaching in the main hall.
They ducked into a small room with a drop cloth draped over a pile of boxes along the back wall. John shut the door and threw the light switch. One of the four fluorescent lights embedded in the ceiling flickered on.
He looked into those eyes that had always intrigued him. They seemed to change color with her mood: blue when she was calm, cloudy gray when she was sad, and a warm green with copper flecks like flames when she was angry. Right now, they were an unreadable blue-green.
“What is it?”
“Eliminating factory farming isn’t enough. We need to get rid of the demand for fish, too. At least at the commercial level. If we don’t restore balance to the aquatic ecosystem, all our other efforts are futile.”
“That means Peters.”
“Among others.” Hilaria nodded.
“After those rumors about him and Ronald’s son, there’s no way Ronald will let him through.”
“Well, if he promises to stop destroying the oceans, maybe we could let him stay.”
Holdburg knew Henry Peters wouldn’t ever give up the industry that had made him a millionaire before he was thirty.
He also knew getting Peters’ name on the VIP list would be a challenge. Ronald had been livid upon hearing his eldest son had been spotted around the city with Peters. One location they had frequented during this assumed affair was one of Ronald’s own nightclubs. Ronald had banned the seafood mogul from all his properties and forbid his adult son from going anywhere near Peters. How were they going to pull this off?
Hilaria gave him a look that told him she knew he knew she was sure.
“I’ve been running models since the Consortium developed the first working prototype for the portal. I’ve tried every possible scenario. This is the only one that reverses enough of the damage to save the planet from obliteration.”
“Ronald will never agree to let him through.”
“How do we get him through?”
“Don’t look at me, Mr. US Liaison. They don’t want to hear my ideas.”
“What if I want to hear your ideas?”
“I’ve got another meeting.” She went to the door and looked back at him from gray eyes. “Good luck.”
The smell of gasoline tickled Henry Peters’ nose. He opened his eyes to see a dark figure moving around his bedroom. He tried to sit up but his wrists were tied to the bed.
“Who’s there? Why are you doing this?”
The figure hesitated before answering.
“You can’t come through the portal.”
“Holdburg told my father you had to come with us. He won’t allow that.”
“So you decided to kill me instead? You could have just told me not to go.”
Ethan stood close enough for Peters to see the remorse distorting his usually calm expression.
“I have to. You know my father …”
“Stay here, with me.”
“And die with the planet?”
“You don’t really believe that, do you? Let all the schmucks who think they have no other options leave and start all over again. With them gone, it could buy us time.”
“My whole family is going. I’d be alone.”
“You’d have me.”
Ethan moved to the door.
“Ethan, you’ve stolen my heart. Don’t take it with you through that portal.”
“I’m sorry.” Ethan lit a match and flung it to the ground as he left the room.
At the eastern edge of the circular expanse of grass, Hilaria sidled up to Holdburg.
“I don’t see Peters. This isn’t going to work if we don’t get rid of him.”
“Ronald took care of that.” Holdburg’s stomach turned as he recounted Ethan’s report to his father.
“We can’t get that guy through the portal soon enough.” Hilaria shook her head and looked around. “Pretty good turn out. How many of them know?”
“Hard to say. Hopefully enough so there won’t be a mob when we close the portal.”
A crowd of thousands had turned up. Holdburg had tried to get the word out to the “crooks and liars” that the portal was a decoy. How far the word had spread—and how many who had heard it believed it—was impossible to know for sure.
Some of them knew and believed, judging by the signs. One guy held a boom box over his head, blasting Linkin Park’s “Good Goodbye.” Holdburg couldn’t hold back his chuckle and Hilaria scowled at him. He nodded toward Boom Box Guy and Hilaria shrugged.
“At least he’s got good taste in music.”
Ronald approached the pair.
“Let’s get this show on the road.”
Holdburg pressed the button that retracted the cladding. It opened, but the portal didn’t glow to signal it was active.
“Why doesn’t it look all bright and purple-y like it did before?” Ronald hovered over Holdburg’s shoulder.
“Hold on, it’ll work.” Holdburg yanked the lever, hoping the portal would open anyway.
“What’s happening? Is it plugged in?”
Holdburg shot Ronald a scowl before fiddling with the lever. He removed a panel to fiddle with some wires. “It has to work,” he muttered.
The crowd started shoving and clamoring as it got antsy.
“Send them through, already!” Someone shouted. Others shouted their agreement.
Holdburg glanced at Hilaria. She tilted her head and raised her eyebrows, warning him against uttering bad news. He turned back to the portal and frantically pumped the lever up and down. As the tension in the crowd built, “Good Goodbye” ended and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” began.
“Why isn’t it opening?” Ronald barked at Holdburg.
“I don’t know. I haven’t touched it since the demonstration.”
“What do we do now?”
Holdburg looked at Hilaria, then surveyed the crowd. His shoulders dropped as he looked back at Ronald.
“We all die, I guess. Unless you’re willing to make some drastic changes.”
“Yo, dudes!” Boom Box Guy called to Holdburg and company. “How much longer do I gotta hold this?”
Hilaria waved her hand in front of her throat in a “cut” motion. Boom Box Guy killed the music as a quake ripped through the park. The crowd scattered, screaming. Ronald turned to Holdburg, face frozen in panic.
“Are you?” Holdburg asked.
Ronald nodded slowly and swallowed.
“We can stop this. We won’t let this happen.”