3 Days Later
“And what are you having?”
“You have any fireball?”
“Oh. Right. It’s this, uh… it’s like a cinnamon whiskey. Wait. You don’t have cinnamon on this planet, do you…” Pierce scowled.
“We don’t have whiskey, either,” the bartender declared. “Ran out last night.”
“The hell? Damn. …Ah, fuck it. Just give me the cheapest shit you have.”
“One Tresédian Ale, then.”
Pierce watched the bartender retreat to the back before hanging his head and sighing warily. Then he leaned back in his chair and glanced to his side, at the rest of the local bar. While the bar was situated in the outskirts of Alus, where the buildings were shorter and sparser, it was still crowded with rowdy and irritable patrons. Even the sun had yet to set, though it currently hung low to the horizon on the other side of the city, casting the area Pierce was in in near-complete shadow. Pierce regarded the crowded bar with a small amount of amusement — while some Nimalians seemed to look down on Earthians, they certainly reacted to disaster, stress, and anxiety in similar ways.
Pierce turned his attention to the window he was sitting next to, and at the street below him. From his position on the second floor, he could easily see two separate checkpoints set up a couple blocks from each other, each manned by soldiers in green uniforms. While the local government of Alus remained nominally in charge, they were so swamped with dealing with the Quake that they had requested the local Nimalian Systems Defense garrison to step in and manage law enforcement. As of a couple days ago, the NSD had set up checkpoints all across the city and instated a curfew, mandating that everyone be home or otherwise indoors by an hour before midnight. Pierce hadn’t the slightest idea of why — it wasn’t as though the city had devolved into any sort of lawlessness, as far as he could tell. Even looting incidents seemed rather rare, his encounter earlier in the week aside. All the NSD “law enforcement” managed to accomplish was add to the already dystopia-like atmosphere that had befallen the city since the beginning of the Chaos Energy Quake.
The distant sound of flaring rocket engines reached Pierce’s ears, drawing his gaze toward the spaceport in the distance. There, he could see a lone spacecraft taking off, with additional rocket boosters and fuel tanks attached — it looked incredibly similar to the ancient space shuttles used during the first fifty years of space travel on Earth, except several times larger. He watched the craft take off and slowly disappear against the backdrop of the rings above, presumably to help with the ongoing evacuation of the orbital space stations. Ever since the debris cascade several days ago, the NSD had taken over the evacuation operation with incredible swiftness and placed further restrictions on space travel in an attempt to reduce the chances of more collisions — and the creation of more debris. The result was an incredibly slowed evacuation, but to their credit, there had been no further collisions since.
Pierce frowned as he further considered the situation. While the steps taken by the NSD had indeed seemed to prevent any deaths, the fact still remained that Alus — and the other cities on the surface of the planet — were not equipped to deal with the space station evacuations. Namely, they simply didn’t have enough space for an influx of over a million people in such a short time period. So far, only a few thousand people had been shunted from the stations down to Ainminthalus, and the local governments had managed to find room for them — either through commandeering empty apartment units, or generous civilians opening up their homes to house evacuees. But according to projections in the local news, it wouldn’t be long before the cities would have to come up with alternative solutions, and Pierce did not look forward to what that might look like. Least of all due to the fact that it could end poorly for him and Phoenix, as non-citizens.
“Here you go.”
“Huh—? Oh.” Pierce watched as the bartender placed a thick mug on his small table, filled to brimming with a deep golden-brown liquid. The bartender then left as quickly as they appeared to tend to the other patrons, leaving Pierce alone. With a sigh, he grabbed the mug and took a large swig — only to grimace and gag at the overwhelming bitterness. I guess I did order the cheapest shit they had, he thought miserably. I wish I could afford better, but without knowing how long this Quake will last, I have to conserve my money. If this Quake ends up being a whole damn year, though… fuck. Fuck my life…
As he forced himself to continue drinking, his thoughts drifted to home. If not for the Quake, he and Phoenix would be home on Earth by now, preparing for the upcoming academic year. Even if the Quake were to end immediately, Phoenix was still on track to miss her first day of classes; luckily for Pierce, he still had another month before classes at Caltech would begin. With any luck, the Quake would end with enough time for him to return to Earth before then. Too bad my luck’s been almost nothing but bad this week… shit. What if this damn Quake goes for a full year, just like the last one? I’ll miss an entire fucking year of classes… not to mention a whole track season. This is fucking crazy…
“Figures we’d find you here.”
Pierce glanced over his shoulder, where he found Phoenix and Brikén approaching. He offered them a half-hearted wave before turning around and taking another drink. “Took you guys long enough to find me.”
“We shouldn’t have had to ‘find’ you at all,” Phoenix admonished, coming to stand next to the table and glare down at Pierce. “The hell are you doing on your own?”
“Oh lay off,” Pierce retorted. “I’m not getting into trouble.”
“But trouble might still find you. As non-citizens, that could be bad.”
“You don’t say,” Pierce drawled as he passed a glance at the NSD checkpoints out the window.
“I can’t believe you,” Phoenix muttered. “Do you ever think about the potential consequences of your actions?”
“Come the fuck on, I just went to the fucking bar,” Pierce countered. “What kind of fucking consequences are there for going for a damn walk? I was getting cabin fever just sitting all cooped up in Brikén’s apartment.”
“I can understand that,” Brikén remarked as she took a seat at the table across from Pierce. “Well, I don’t know what ‘cabin fever’ is, but I think I get your point. I don’t know what I’d do if I was trapped at home all day, every day.”
“I didn’t say you couldn’t go for a walk, either,” Phoenix refuted. “I’m just saying that you shouldn’t be going off on your own!”
“Who are you, my fucking mom?” Pierce scowled. “We’re all adults here. I can handle myself.”
Phoenix sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration.
“I just need something to do,” Pierce continued after taking another drink. “You know? Something. Anything. But with the damn city shut down, and our mentorship over, there’s nothing to do!”
“…I can’t really argue with that…” Phoenix conceded. She then glanced over at Brikén. “How’s your truck-driving job going? Do you think we could help you out?”
“I would love nothing more than to be able to give the two of you something to do,” Brikén replied, “but my job is pretty heavily regulated. The fact that you’re Earthians aside, I doubt you have the permits and licenses required to handle the machinery and systems.”
Pierce snorted. “I’d probably go fucking crazy driving trucks around, anyways. …Why do you even have to drive them in the first place? Even we figured out fucking self-driving tech.”
“I don’t recall ever saying that I drove them,” Brikén countered. “I help oversee the loading process, and manage the routing. The actual driving is all computers.”
“I guess that sounds better…”
“It can get tough at times, though. The ground streets of the city weren’t really designed for being driven — they’re all primarily pedestrian paths. Figuring out how to get shit from point A to point B in that situation, without anti-gravity systems, can be… annoying.”
“I bet it is,” Pierce drawled as he took another drink, nearly finishing off his mug.
Phoenix eyed the mug warily. “…You know, speaking of pedestrian paths, how about we go for a walk?”
Pierce passed her an incredulous glance. “I thought you didn’t like the idea of going for a walk.”
“I said I didn’t like you being out by yourself. A concern which is totally justified if you’re just going to go off and get drunk.”
“I’m not going to get fucking drunk off a single beer.”
“Maybe, but no one drinks Tresédian Ale for the taste,” Brikén remarked, a slight smirk on her face.
Pierce glared at her for a moment before shaking his head. “Whatever. I guess I could use a walk. Or a run.”
“Let’s stick to walking… for now,” Phoenix commented, her voice stiff. “Just, you know… to be careful.”
Pierce turned to look at her in annoyance. It was clear that she was referring to his newfound superspeed — while he did indeed long for an opportunity to try out his speed for longer periods of time than short bursts when no one was looking, he had still managed to keep his power concealed for the several days that had passed since discovering it. Yet Phoenix still wouldn’t let up with her concern. Shit, she barely trusts me, it seems like…
Brikén promptly stood up. “A walk sounds fine by me, too.”
“Sounds like we all agree, then,” Phoenix declared, turning her back on the group as she began maneuvering her way through the crowds to the bar exit. “Let’s go!”
“Yeah, yeah…” Pierce muttered as he followed suit. Just before leaving, he stopped near the front to flash his wrist at the payment processor. A second later, the computer had read the chip in his wrist and deducted the funds for his ale, at which point it flashed briefly, signaling that he was clear to go.
A minute later, the trio found themselves down on the street just outside of the building that hosted the bar. The air outside was crisp and clear, while the environment was shrouded in shade cast by the tallest buildings in the city center. Sunset had yet to properly take place, with the mountains to the east of the city still illuminated with sunlight, yet street lamps provided the primary source of light at this point in the evening.
“There really are checkpoints everywhere…”
Pierce glanced over at Phoenix, and then followed her eyes to where she was looking: at one of the NSD checkpoints he had seen from his seat in the bar.
“Yeah…” Brikén sighed. “It’s security theater. They aren’t actually accomplishing anything, but apparently the thought that they might be is enough for most people.”
Pierce passed her an incredulous look. “You have some pretty cynical takes, you know?”
“Is it really cynicism if it’s the truth?”
“Heh.” He simply chuckled and shook his head as he began walking down the street in the opposite direction of the checkpoint.
“At least it’s a nice evening,” Phoenix commented as she swept her gaze across the shadowed trees, the sun-lit mountains to the east, and the clear skies and distant rings above. She then turned her attention down to the tall buildings to the west, and their gradual ascent into the sky the farther away they were. “And the city itself… it’s pretty amazing, when you actually stop to look at at.”
Pierce glanced up at the buildings himself. The city center stood many kilometers away from their current position, but the skyscrapers there extended well over a kilometer skyward — some of them even surpassing the two kilometer mark, making them more than visible from a great distance. Furthermore, due to the contours of the city skyline, looking at the buildings felt much like looking at a man-made mountain instead. “I guess it is pretty neat,” he conceded. “Those buildings are hella tall, that’s for sure.”
“If you think those are tall, then just wait until you see more built-up planets,” Brikén remarked.
“Brings a whole new meaning to the word ‘skyscraper’, doesn’t it,” Phoenix said.
“Must take a lot of work to make buildings that tall, though,” Pierce stated. “I bet they use anti-grav tech somehow, huh?”
“You’d be right,” Brikén replied. “Construction benefits massively from anti-gravity technology. Many CSA planets will even use anti-gravity generators to support massive buildings that they wouldn’t be able to construct otherwise. Of course, that becomes a problem when something like the Quake happens…”
“…Still, the fact that the buildings here are so tall is incredible,” Phoenix commented. “We still have just barely broken the one kilometer limit on Earth, but Ainminthalus… this is just a Tier 2 world, right? If just a random Tier 2 world looks like this, I wonder what your Homeworld looks like…”
“Must be hella crazy,” Pierce remarked. “Cities and buildings even bigger than this? Shit…”
“And if they all look like Alus…” Phoenix looked up at the trees lining the street and the rolling contours of the buildings. “I can only imagine what it must look like…”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Brikén countered. “Nimalia has some great views, sure. Some better than I’ve seen elsewhere in the galaxy, to be honest. But it’s also tainted by pre-space development, war scars, and more political bullshit than you’d find on a world like Ainminthalus.”
“What does that mean?” Phoenix questioned.
Pierce snorted. “I bet it’s just more of her cynicism showing through.”
“It’d be nice if it was just cynicism,” Brikén replied, “but it’s not. As our Homeworld, it’s definitely true that Nimalia has a lot more history than any other planet in the Union, which can be neat at times. But that history will get in the way of the present in ways that aren’t possible on a planet like Ainminthalus. There’s a lot of shitty cities and places on Nimalia, either due to bad planning in the past or an unwillingness to build over historical landmarks.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad to me,” Phoenix said. “Historical landmarks can have a lot of value.”
“Sure, but history is history. It’s all recorded in the history books anyways, there’s no need to keep physical locations intact for sentimental value alone.”
“And you wonder why I call you a cynic,” Pierce retorted.
Brikén pursed her lips in annoyance. “Look, I’m not advocating we tear the whole damn place down. There are some genuinely beautiful places on Nimalia, from the giant tree forests of Relédiaka, to the massive built-up cities of Tekdecé, to the towering mountain ranges of Nimaliaka… but there’s an equal amount of shit, too. Hell, there’s a whole continent that’s entirely a lawless wasteland, and it’s been a lawless wasteland for centuries because the other nations just don’t care to deal with it.”
“A whole continent?” Phoenix echoed, “how is a whole continent a wasteland?”
Pierce cast her an amused glance. “I dunno, I bet you could say something similar about Australia.”
“Australia isn’t a wasteland, it’s just… a bunch of unused land.”
“A bunch of unused land that’ll fucking kill you. I’d call that a wasteland.”
“Try saying that to someone who lives there.”
“I would, but they’re all too busy trying to stop their environment from killing them.”
Brikén watched the two with a mild smirk on her face. “This ‘Australia’ place sounds interesting.”
“It is, but not as interesting as most people would have you believe,” Phoenix countered. “The whole ‘deadly environment’ thing is more of a stupid meme than it is reality, honestly.”
“First of all, all memes are stupid, so saying ‘stupid meme’ is redundant,” Pierce pointed out. “Second of all, you sound like someone who’s never been there. Actual Australians say the same things as I did, you know.”
“And actual Americans will claim we have it the worst in the world, but we don’t take them seriously, either.”
“Wow, that’s one hell of a comparison you just made there.”
“I must say,” Brikén interjected, drawing the attention of Pierce and Phoenix, “hearing you two talk about Earth reminds me a lot of Nimalian Homeworlders talking about Nimalia. It’s kind of amusing.”
“…I guess shit-talking your home is pretty universal, huh,” Pierce commented.
“Yeah, now that I think about it, we could say the same of Earth as what you said of Nimalia,” Phoenix said. “There’s a lot of beauty, but there’s a lot bad, as well…”
“Well, if I ever find myself on Earth, you’ll have to show me around,” Brikén remarked.
“You’re asking the wrong people for that,” Phoenix replied. “I barely have enough money to show you the local supermarket, and I’m sure Pierce isn’t doing much better.”
“Hey! I could at least reach the beach with what I have,” Pierce countered.
Brikén frowned. “What? How expensive are things on Earth?”
Pierce and Phoenix exchanged uneasy glances. “Well…” Phoenix started, “it’s, uh… less about how expensive it is, and more—”
“Wait. Hold that thought…” Brikén held up her hand as her attention shifted away. As far as Pierce could tell, it looked like something on her AR implants had distracted her — and when her expression collapsed into a deep scowl, he knew that it wasn’t good.
“Did something happen…?” Phoenix questioned warily, having noticed Brikén’s expression as well.
“You could say that.” Brikén turned back to face them, her tone solemn. “There was another ring collision, and a new cascade. The space station is fine, but a handful of satellites have de-orbited… and their inevitable debris is likely to come down right on top of Alus.”