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Science Fiction Speculative

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

An immense rectangular prism, silver and featureless, perched on a cliff overlooking a tumbling river. The prism, called the Center for the Defense of Planet 808, glowed faintly in the growing light of the deeply golden horizon; the river reflected the bright windows of the towering white buildings on the far bank. 


On the face of the prism that looked away from the river and towards the promise of a rising sun, an invisible door slid open and a young woman emerged. Dressed in the charcoal uniform worn by the 808 Defense Force, dark hair smoothed into a practical ponytail, she set off along a stone path. It was only a few hours into the Thousand Mile City’s wake cycle, but Amber had just been released from her shift. She walked quickly, for she was barely in time for the sunrise celebration, where she was meeting her boyfriend, Denis.


Sloping gently away from the Center, the path was lit with strings of white lights that gleamed off of the silver-barked, smooth trunks of the solaxis trees along the edges. The trees’ rhomboid leaves, which ranged in color from sky to byzantine blue, formed an arching canopy over the walkway. Amber plucked a leaf and chewed it as she walked, savoring its slight sweetness. The leaves of the solaxis tree soothed nerves, and she was feeling jittery. The sun’s reappearance after 278 sleep cycles was a traditional time to propose, and she and Denis had been seriously discussing engagement. 


Amber felt its calming effects nearly immediately. The many uses of the solaxis tree, like the shimmering, resilient garments made from the bark’s fiber, made it extremely popular among the residents of 808. That’s why no one minded when, upon being introduced at the beginning of the most recent long night, it had taken to the planet’s rocky soil and spread quickly throughout the city. Not to mention its ethereal, alien beauty.


The solaxis trees were a gift from the planet Nin, which 808 trailed around the sun like a gray, desolate shadow. Gray, because 808 was as rocky and barren as Nin was lush and verdant, and desolate, because while Nin supported a thriving population, 808’s life was contained within a single city stretched along the riverbank. The river, borne from a frozen volcano and eventually fanning into a dried-up delta, was the planet's only water source. Thus, the Thousand Mile City grew longer and longer, but never wider.


Amber began to hear the din of the crowd gathered to watch the sunrise, and she quickened her pace in anticipation. As the highest point around, the tiered platforms stepping down from the hill had always been a popular spot to celebrate the return of the sun, but this time it had the added draw of being the site of the Bright Future Planetary Friendship Garden, where the solaxi had first been planted by Nin delegates. 


Denis was waiting for Amber at the entrance to the garden, where the path widened into a grassy platform with solaxi spaced several meters apart. He leaned down to greet her with a kiss.


“I saved us a good spot on the top tier,” he said. He was wearing the uniform from his engineering job at the ladus mine, but unlike Amber, he was about to start his shift, not finishing. His impending departure loomed in the back of her mind, the only shadow on this golden morning.


Even so, Amber couldn't help but feel festive. Groups of friends and families picnicked on blankets spread between the solaxi, and Amber noticed that one tree cradled a young boy in its lower branches. The couple joined the celebrators sitting on the edge of the tier, where a stone border marked the drop-off. They dangled their legs over the side and took in the view of the vast, arid plain stretching into the fiery horizon. 


“Have you seen those buds before?” Amber asked, pointing down at the tops of the solaxi on the tier below them. Pale pink buds nestled among the blue leaves, and she was sure that they were new. 


“I don’t think I have,” Denis said thoughtfully, “Maybe they’re a daytime thing.”


“Must be,” Amber replied, squeezing his hand and smiling. The idea of still more beauty and possible uses to discover from the solaxis trees made the onset of the long day even more exciting. 


Denis squeezed back. “Look, it’s starting!”


As thin as a single leaf of paper, the edge of the sun was just visible on the horizon, growing at an imperceptible rate. It would take all of this wake cycle and the next for the full circle to show itself. 


A hush fell over the garden, and as one, the people reached their palms up and forward to greet their star. The light was luxuriously golden; it gave a precious quality to everything it touched, especially the solaxi, whose metallic bark could have been dipped in liquid gold. A sweetness filled the air and Amber saw that the buds had opened, turning into delicate six-pointed flowers that were releasing a pale pink mist.


An admiring gasp went up from the crowd, and Amber turned to Denis to make sure that he noticed. But he was looking at her instead, vulnerability and joy on his earnest face, using his soft voice to ask her a question. 


She didn’t know what she had been nervous for. As she opened her mouth to give her enthusiastic yes, yes, of course yes, the moment was cut by a thud and a scream from behind. The couple twisted around to see what was the matter. 


The boy had evidently fallen from the tree; he was on his back in the grass. And he was far, far too still.


“He’s not breathing!” his mother shrieked, crouched alongside her son, “Somebody help, do something!” 


Amber scrambled to her feet. First aid and a cool head in a crisis had been trained into her bones at the Defense Center. But before she could reach the child, the mother spasmed and fell onto her side, struggling to breathe. 


Amber stopped in her tracks. She slid open a panel on her Defense Force-issued bracelet, exposing a fingerprint-activated emergency button. She pressed it with her index finger, sending an official signal to the Defense Center that something in the garden was going very wrong.


“Stay back!” she called out authoritatively as others began to approach the mother and child in concern, “Something weird is happening.” 


The would-be helpers began to back away, but not before a slim young man fell to his knees, gasping desperately. 


Denis was at Amber’s side. “Maybe it’s bad air,” he suggested.


This seemed unlikely to Amber. Toxic fumes from volcanoes did make their way into the city every once in a while, but their distinctive stench was notably missing. Unless… Amber eyed the pink mists filling the space between the trees.


“Don’t breathe the mist!” she shouted while pulling off her jacket and using it to cover her nose and mouth. “Get away from the trees!” 


Amber tugged at Denis’s pullover, and he hastily followed her lead. Laser-focused, all too conscious of the people collapsing around her, she did a quick visual and mental survey of the area, trying to locate a place the mist would not be able to reach. But seeing the pink clouds billowing up from the tier below and the swiftly worsening visibility, she realized that the Defense Center, with its air filtration system to keep out volcanic fumes, was their only chance. 


She took a deep breath and briefly removed the cloth from her mouth to shout, “Go to the Center!”


Grabbing Denis’s hand, Amber began to run. Those who were able followed. At the quickest pace she could manage without leaving Denis behind, it was a run of barely more than a minute, but it was the longest of her life, and every time she looked over her shoulder, it seemed that less people were behind her. When the couple finally reached the Center, Amber scanned her bracelet and the door slid open, letting them and a group of around fifteen others that had managed to keep up into the airlock. There were figures emerging from the pink fog, but they were too far away, for now. Amber pressed the button to close the door and the group waited a tense twenty seconds for the air to decontaminate before a second sliding door allowed them into the lobby. 


“More coming, let them in, let them all in,” Amber gasped to the soldier manning the front desk. She leaned her hands on her knees, beginning to feel like she wasn’t in full control of her body, acutely aware that she was panting far too much for a short run.


Denis was leaning his back against the glossy white wall, looking as though he was about to pass out. Amber forced her legs toward him jerkily, taking his face in her hands. 


“Hey. It’s going to be okay,” she told him, just as he sagged down the wall to the floor. 


Between labored breaths, Denis struggled to say something. Amber knelt shakily and put the side of her head close to his face. “What was that?”


“I gave my mom a bonsai solaxis for her birthday,” he whispered. His breath felt cold on her ear.


Amber’s eyes widened involuntarily as she remembered going with Denis to pick out the stylish gift. She wrapped her arms tightly around his shoulders. “Your mom’s at work, Denis. Where they have air filters, just like every residence and workplace does now. Tons of people will survive this, and our families, too.”


Thank goodness for those air filters, Amber thought. They were a new development, one of the many welcome changes made possible by the planet’s recent prosperity. For centuries, 808 had been destitute, with scarce resources to support itself or to offer anyone desperate enough to trade. But that was before the visitors from a nearby solar system landed two long nights ago — wealthy visitors with a bottomless appetite for the mineral ladus. 808 was happy to provide. 


But as the planet’s prosperity grew, so did the fear of invasion by Nin, which had a history of imperialism and a brand new reason to pay attention to its closest neighbor. Thus, the 808 Defense Force had begun training in earnest, and the armory began to fill with fantastical technologies traded from a distant planet. 


The city had collectively held its breath when the Nin delegates arrived, then relaxed as the encounter passed peacefully, a union forged, and an exquisite symbol of friendship left behind. 


Amber felt a violent bitterness, as though her veins were flooded with liquid hatred, thinking about the performance of goodwill the Nints had put on. She harnessed her anger, squeezing her comatose maybe-fiancé as tightly as her weakened arms would allow her, hoping he would understand that she was projecting every ounce of own strength into his survival.


“The medics will be here soon,” she said reassuringly, or at least she thought she did. Amber didn’t notice her grip loosening and her head slumping forward onto her chest as her consciousness faded into nothing.


***


A panel on the river face of the silver prism slid aside and fighter aircraft after fighter aircraft shot from the dark interior. The sleek ships, blinding in the early morning direct sunlight, banked sharply over the city and swiftly gained altitude, disappearing into the atmosphere. 


Behind the mirrored lens of her domed helmet, Amber piloted her craft through the hatch and followed the ship in front of her in an arcing, low path over the buildings. Her downdraft cut through the pink blanket covering the city, and she could just make out bodies sprawled on the sidewalks. She averted her eyes, steeled her mind, and pointed the nose of the ship upward. Within minutes, she was exiting 808’s atmosphere.


Amber had woken up in her own dorm bed feeling refreshed, thanks to the anti-toxin IV she had spent the whole wake cycle on, and learned that Denis had been taken to the hospital in critical, but stable, condition. 


But she couldn’t focus on that now. Here, speeding through space, she was fulfilling her purpose as a soldier of the 808 Defense Force, just as its General had called on them to do hours before.


"Soldiers, as you know by now, we have been the victims of a serious attack by the planet Nin,” he had told them, “The death toll is high, and rising by the moment. Exposure to the solaxis mist lasting more than about five minutes is lethal, and it can be assumed, given the positioning of the Bright Future Planetary Friendship Garden, that our Defense Center was the main target. They tried to kill our defenses and as many of our people as they could, and if it wasn’t for our filtration system, which they do not appear to have known about, it likely would have worked. This is an act of war."


Amber had sat up straight at the “w” word, which she had been taught was an absolute last resort. At first, 808 had been guaranteed to receive the worst of any confrontation. Then, it avoided conflict out of reluctance to cause the kind of irreversible, pervasive harm that the planet was now capable of inflicting. 


The General had continued, “I’m sure they figured that even should some of us survive, we wouldn’t risk our fragile numbers by launching an attack. But they didn’t know that we have a weapon, too, that puts them in far more danger than they pose to us. 


Here, he had taken a lengthy pause, seeming to understand the weight of the consequences that his decision would have on millions of people. “Our response will not be subtle, and it will not be merciful. We will do what they tried: wipe them out with minimal danger to ourselves. Nin’s major cities will be left standing, but not a single being will breathe within them. The time of kill or be killed is here. We are going to war.”


The Nints would not be expecting them, but they had to be prepared. As part of the defensive unit, Amber reached her coordinates and stopped, watching the lights of the ships ahead of her fan out to form a line thousands of miles wide. To her sides, a twin line extended in either direction. Hundreds of fighter ships waited silently for their enemy.


On the looming, emerald planet filling her window, Amber could see where the day met the night, passing over the surface hundreds of times faster than on her own planet. She saw the lights of a major city wink into existence and knew that it would be targeted, the teeming life extinguished. 


808’s offensive crafts would be flying close to Nin’s atmosphere by now, triggering its defenses, pathetically little, devastatingly late. Though she was much too distant to see the bio-specific bombs released, Amber saw the blaze as they passed through the atmosphere, burning up their outer layers.


Though it was just for an instant, nothing like the lingering sunrises from her planet, the fiery display reminded her of the golden show the sun was continuing to put on back in the Thousand Mile City. Soon, anyone who wanted to would be able to move to the newly-empty Nin and have a sunrise every time they wake. Denis would like that, she thought. Maybe they could even live close to a lake or ocean.


“808, welcome to your bright future,” Amber said, watching the destruction of a world.


March 26, 2022 03:00

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