By Sophia Skinner
Wisps of fog accompanied Solda as he crossed the field, grey in the
morning light. The terrain sloped gradually downwards toward the
sea, encircling the island, where the early dawn broke, setting fire
to the waves and mist. His white lab coat, embroidered with
branching leaf patterns, flapped about his ankles, the fringes
becoming damp in the cold dew. Although it was one island among a
chain, it was also a mountain formation, formerly known as the
Appalachians. Solda's warm breath puffed in front of him, swirling
in eddies past his ears as he walked. He snapped his fingers and
bobbed his head to an inaudible beat.
He approached a settlement of stunted, grey, cube-shaped buildings
barely taller than the sparse trees, with dim lanterns swaying by
the doors, illuminating the mist in warm globes. He continued
towards a small wooden building closest to the sea.
As he entered, a bell chimed to announce his arrival. Wooden shelves
lined every surface, and a cash register sat at a checkout counter
toward the back. The light was dingy but offered warmth and was
accompanied by a familiar musty smell and atmosphere.
"Georgia, 'the delivery here yet?" He asked, approaching the
half-open door behind the counter, and paused, observing the empty
shelves, "This place is picked clean. The shipment made it, didn't
it?" Solda leaned on the counter, tapping his toes on the floor,
trying to stay casual for the sake of food. "Georgia?" He glanced
around at the aisles of shelves again.
An unseen kettle began to whistle, followed by footsteps and Georgia
emerged, coffee pot in hand.
"Morning, Solda," the woman addressed him in a light french accent.
She wore thin glasses with bags under her eyes and several jackets.
Her dark hair was contained in a messy bun. "I was awake all night
coding that absurd rocket," she adjusted the rims, "That Russian
Hacker just won't stay out of our systems - Anyway, what can I get
you? I have one leftover box of dried anything, seasoned with a
sprinkling of mold."
"Eh, no thanks. Do you have my electrophoresis?" He asked, tapping
his fingers on the counter.
"No, no shipment today, sorry, just more supplies, hydrogen fuel and
parts for the rocket." she said as she poured the coffee into a
thermos. "Sorry, I'm not sure where your electrophoresis is, Solda.
The lack of fresh rations especially ketchup, is quite tragic.
"Strange." He exited the store with his hands in his pockets.
Georgia was one of the many scientists on the island. She ran the
small store that distributed rations to the mountain's residents and
programmed the AI for the rocket that everyone was working on,
intended for a one way trip to mars.
Unfortunately every shipment arrived with fewer supplies, as the war
burned through their finances. Their organization was a sect of NASA
that survived the melting polar ice cap floods by relocating to the
mountains. Conflict had sprung up from the worldwide panic of
dwindling resources and it was reaching a climax. Every night, on
the horizon were the unmistakable flashes of pyrotechnic warfare
drawing ever closer.
Unsure, he flipped his hood up and started back the way he had come,
towards the labs and the facilities. Without a new set of
electrophoresis gel, he couldn't continue sequencing and documenting
the DNA of the flora and fauna on the mountain. This was his
appointed duty, as well as collecting specimens for the agricultural
seed bank to terraform the martian landscape. Although he was only
fourteen, every working mind and body had to be utilized, and every
resource maximized so that the rocket could be complete in time
because everyone knew that they were going to lose the war, it was
only a matter of time. Every day the enemy advanced along the
mountain range, pushing deeper into their territory. Further inland
and up the mountain range were hydroponic farms, their only source
of food, engineered to run on seawater and float on pontoons, and
they were ground zero for scatter-bomb warfare. The knowledge that
they would lose didn't make it easier and it pressed at the back of
Solda's consciousness, every now and then, resurfacing in the form
of tragic poetry. Popular opinion was that when they lost the war a
ruthless, deviant sect of the Russian space program, known as Daesh,
would flood in and nuke the entire project because it threatened
their own ambitions. He understood that currently the UN had united
with the US and a few other countries to work with NASA but the
Russian and the Chinese space programs had chosen to oppose them
which commenced a global race to escape deteriorating life on Earth.
The chinese government had already begun colonizing the moon,
leaving the russians growing progressively more desperate to
establish their own colony, although they retained the strongest
resources due to their low-temperate climate where warm-climate
flora and fauna had been migrating for years to escape the soaring
temperatures of the equator. However this had all been predicted
hundreds of years before, if only they hadn't denied it ...
"Solda!" His train of thought derailed. A lanky boy in grey sweats,
Bean, followed by a tall girl with a mechanical arm came running up
behind him from the direction of the docks, where the shipment had
arrived. "Solda, this is Cera, she's-" he took a huge gasp for
breath. "She's a messenger from the front lines."
"Uh, yeah, I know, dude, she's an agriculturalist, she supplies us
with GMOs for the seed bank."
"Right over here," She scowled. "...Dummkopf."
"Yeah... Hey, do you have the wheat v. 9.6 yet? That was scheduled
for, like, three months ago."
"Okay! Okay!" Bean interjected, "The world is basically ending,
"Oh. Bean listen though, you reminded me, Georgia was out of
electrophoresis, do you have any extra? I think the coevolutionary
chain of the finches and pines was broken this morning, evolution
maximized. They've been evolving for generations, side by side, see,
the bird's' beak evolves to be stronger to pry open pine cones, and
the cones just become thicker and less penetrable. But this
morning...." Solda produced a heavy looking lumpy thing and yellow
feather, "the bird couldn't open the pinecone because the cone's
shell is so thick, which also prevents the seeds from escaping and
Mortality is incurable." Solda riffled through his other pocket,
"Here, I already started a poem about it. It's about the futility of
"Ok, enough with the doom and gloom Mr. Existentiality, we have a
job." Cera said, not bothering to cover her yawn.
"Right on it, German Engineering." Solda said, offended.
"Solda, actually though, we.... lost the war." Bean said. "The
treaty was signed early this morning. They gave up our project,
we're completely vulnerable. We need to leave now. We don't have
time for poetry."
"Uh, this is literally the perfect time for poetry." But he stuffed
the objects back in his pocket anyway. "But seriously, we're not
ready. We can't launch now. The expected date of completion is still
months away. We'd, like, disintegrate in the atmosphere or
"Ugh, come on!" Cera who had been jogging in place impatiently
grabbed them by the shoulders, pushing them forward. "This is cyber
warfare, jungen, all of our telecommunications are being monitored
so we have to deliver the message verbally. We have maybe hours at
Bean made a face, "verbally? What does that mean? You sound like a
bird." Solda snickered.
Cera looked at him. She felt bad for them, they must have had the
briefest education before entering the scientific field."What's the
quickest way over the mountain. To the labs?"
Solda gestured toward the path that they were on, "there's a tunnel
that goes through, it's faster than going around.
Just follow the trail."
Cera set off at a run without looking back. "Morons."
"What just happened." Solda whispered, dropping his attitude. "Why
now?" "Dunno. Sometimes things happen for no reason." They started
making their way up the mountain side. "I've never been over the
mountain before." They took an overgrown path, ascending through
rocks and boulders. They discussed a new rap album and listened to
it on Solda's phone, sharing earbuds. They speculated when the first
house would be underwater, and they complained about the constant
brush fires that plagued the dying mountainside.
They were gasping for breath by the time they reached the summit. A
crisp, salty breeze blasted up the mountainside, chilling their
Solda's pupils dilated to slivers. "The fog is gone." Hundreds of
miles of flat ocean, darker areas ruffled by wind, a gleaming runway
welcoming the dawn. It was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
It made him feel something in his chest, like a tight squeeze. "It's
not really worth it though, is it." He mused, letting his arms
stretch out, catching the wind. "This bogus war ain't worth all the
beauty in the world."
Bean sat down cross-legged, picking at the gravel. "I'll second
that. But... I think it's still nice. It makes things just a little
more bearable." After a second he added, "And, uh, you got any
Prozac on you? I forgot to dose up this morning because we were busy
island hopping with Cera."
"No, sorry." Solda said, lowering his arms, and closed his eyes,
after images clouding the darkness. "I think I'll call Alex to make
sure everything's ok. Maybe she can pick yours up?"
They continued down the other side of the mountain, Solda muttering
into his phone. A massive facility came into view with the NASA logo
emblazoned across the roof, and farther down was a small cluster of
buildings. The ground shook and a deafening rumble filled the air as
an arrow formation of enormous, matte black drones tore white rifts
through the sky above them. The Russians - Daesh. As Solda watched,
one veered suddenly becoming engulfed in flames and smearing across
the sky like a stray paint stroke. A second lost a wing a moment
later, spiralling into the ocean with a concussive splash. Solda
spied the culprit on a neighboring peak: a rotating artillery
stockade, defending the peaks. Their last line of defense.
"Solda, run!" Bean yelled and they flew down the mountainside. They
arrived at the facility, greeted by a pair of huge doors, rolled up
to reveal a long track loaded with a shuttle painted with strange
colors. The massive room was filled with hanging chrome parts and
walls lined with scaffolding. Workers milled about in blue jump
suits, assembling each section of the rocket like a horizontal stack
of donuts. They took a moment to watch as it was erected in the
middle of the room, the ceiling receded to make way.
They hurried to the left toward a door in the wall and up a
staircase that led to a control bridge behind glass windows. Inside
was a small group of people of all ages dressed in light micro
gravity suits. Another quake rocked the building and a woman dressed
in black performing key-smash at a terminal screamed, "Barrel
bombs!" The speakers crackled over each other frantically, directing
and redirecting the human traffic. The group began arguing, with
increasing volume. "Second round, incoming!" The woman in black
yelled into a mic. "AT shield holding!"
"Hey, you." a guard dressed in grey pushed over to Bean and Solda
through the chaos. "BIOTECH, come with me." He said addressing
Solda, then he turned to Bean, "Who are you? You aren't on my list.
If you haven't been allotted a position on the shuttle, leave." His
hand had crept to his holster. It was shaking. "Wait... you're
McNeely's son. You aren't allowed here. The mentally diseased are
Solda grabbed Beans' shoulders. Tears were streaming down his face.
"Look Bean, I gotta retrieve the seed data and genetics from the
lab. Just down the mountain. Stay here."
"No, I'll do it, I'm... faster a-and you know it..." Solda stared at
him with a mixture of horror, relief, then guilt, "The bio-chem lab,
"No-" Solda began, lifting an arm to stop him but Bean pushed past
and was out the door. The guard relaxed. The workers in blue were
fitting the rocket to the shuttle as Bean stepped outside.
Moments later, the shuttle began boarding the scientists. Announcers
called, "DOD, HQ, EECOM, CAPCOM, SURGEON...." Solda, now clad in a
light blue suit, scrambled against the tide of bodies but was swept
away in the madness, aboard the shuttle. He saw Alex and Georgia and
many others but not Bean. Or Cera, strangely. There were tens of
people boarding, but Solda knew that there were hundreds more that
populated the island.
He overheard Georgia talking into a Bluetooth, "--AI for the rocket
is still incomplete, Cher. There is miles of code still missing. Ask
yourself what is the most essential thing to achieving a goal. The
answer is wanting to, the AI needs to want to fly even just near
light speed or it we'd never a get up to a hundredth of that. But
what does this rocket want to do? Well right now it probably wants
to explode, or go for a swim, or do nothing--" A metallic clang
announced the airlock closing, and the clamor died down as the
astronauts settled into their routine.
The seats were arranged in rows but at such an angle that if it had
been a car, the car would be standing on its rear end, the front
pointing upward. Solda felt something pressing against his thigh
from inside his pocket. He had donned the uniforms but had kept his
lab coat. He removed the pine cone and the feather from his pocket,
holding one in each hand, recalling. People around him shouted off
protocol checks, scrambling to fulfill them.
"This is it," Georgia whispered, although her Bluetooth was powered
Alex shouted through the background of ever-present noise at Solda
who was swiping through his control panel, checking if the data had
made it. "Where's Bean? Isn't he coming?"
Solda shook his head, grimacing, "He can't, remember? Mentally
unstable people and handicaps aren't allowed." He struggled to make
himself heard above the noise.
"What? You're mentally unstable!" Alex screamed over the noise. She
began climbing through the seats toward the airlock. "Where is he?"
She demanded, not looking back. Solda explained, climbing after her.
Exiting the shuttle, the two were faced by the same guard in grey,
standing at the end of the bridge. He drew his gun, gripping the
magnum with both hands in front of him. Alarms were blaring and
flashing throughout the facility but his words were cold and clear.
"Kindly re-enter the shuttle," he said without inflection. "My
family is in there and we need every scientist we got to get that
thing in the sky."
Solda backed off, reaching for the shuttle door, but Alex stepped
forward. "I'm leaving." she said, looking the man in the eyes.
"Alex, don't. Alex-" Solda said. His voice grew quiet, "I love
you... Don't do this."
"'Love you too. Get back in the shuttle."
The man shook as Alex approached him, tremors running through his
body, his hands jumping wildly on the gun. They all heard the click
as he released the safety. "I'm warning y-" Before he could finish
Alex jumped off the bridge and onto a scaffolding and then the
floor, dashing for the huge doors. "CAPCOM!" The guard yelled after
her. "Get back here!"
Shocked, Solda gripped to the railing, watching her flee. A
deafening blast issued from the man's gun, sinking a .45 slug into
the side of the shuttle, inches from Solda's nose. Solda jerked
backwards at the shot, and scrambled back into the shuttle, the
airlock securing with a clang and pneumatic hiss.
As the rocket ascended through the atmosphere Solda scrolled through
panel, checking the astronaut's stats. This was Alex's job, but no
one would notice.
Adrenaline levels seemed to be surging, their heart beats a little
high. He smiled as he let the feeling wash over him. He closed out
to a camera view on the side of the rocket. The earth's curvature
flew by becoming tighter and tighter in the most brilliant blue he'd
Red lights began flashing. He checked his dash: cabin pressure had
shot up in the lower levels. Suddenly his ears popped and then felt
like they were bursting. The most acute pain he'd ever experienced
stabbed his gut and he doubled over, squeezing his eyes shut.
He knew that he would die. The whole crew knew that they would, from
the beginning. That's just the consequences for launching an
unfinished rocket. But of course they thought that they would have
just a little more time. Hopefully get somewhere first. Mars was the
plan, but that didn't look like it was happening. Seconds remained
in their lives and the only desperate question was what to do with
them. What will you do? What will you do?
He reached out, tapping the com. "Come in, Ground Control. This
is..." He trailed off as he heard someone else on the line sobbing,
although it sounded more like ripping paper within the static. He
turned it off. There was a long moment of silence and
weightlessness. Solda felt grief more sharp than any physical pain,
stopping his breath in his throat in a inaudible, violent sob.
Tears, salty tears like the ocean drifted through his eyelashes in
undulating spheres. He recited the words of the poem he had written
earlier, grasping at closure before his molecules drifted apart.
The sky is black.
My back is to the sky.
Above the sky, I'm liberated in the ether Whether or not I belong
Is everything wrong?
Or is it right?
It's all in sight
But still in spite,
I feel a fear so bright
I know that it must be right. I will die tonight.