The teeth of the sun

Author’s note: I wrote this for Storgy’s Exit Earth competition, and had a lot of fun doing so. It didn’t make the cut, which means that if you enjoy it there are 14 better stories out there – and who doesn’t like better stories? Please consider backing their Kickstarter to get those stories out into the barren, blasted physical world!

3,102 words – approx. 10 minutes

Ever since it was announced that the Earth was drowning, the traffic had been dreadful. Adrian drummed his fingers uselessly on the steering wheel. Cryogenix provided state-of-the-art company cars, but there was only so much that the latest in dynamic flow-management and hazard-evasion technology could do to counteract the rush hour congestion, even without the waves of people responding to the latest rumours about evac points or making what could be their final trips to see family.

At least he could leave the painfully slow progress to the car itself. He sighed and looked out at the clear blue sky, searching for something to occupy him. A change in one of the billboards caught his eye: it now showed a familiar tanned face with an artificial smile that gleamed at the world. This was Richard Kimmler, one of the key financiers of the evacuation. He must have looked at it for several seconds, because a notification appeared on the dashboard: Accept connection?

“Yes,” he said, and the familiar strains of Ticket to Ride filled the car. Then they faded to the background, and John Lennon’s voice floated from the speakers. That couldn’t have come cheap.

“Have you got your ticket to ride yet? Buy an evac lottery ticket today for your chance to be one of the five thousand lucky winners. Remember: it could be today, and it could be you!”

Another notification appeared with a link to the official lottery site. Adrian thought about checking the current ticket price, then decided against it. He touched the watch strapped to his left wrist, his own guarantee of a place, and checked that it still showed only the time.

They were moving now, but still slowly.  At this rate he’d miss his 10am check-in on the cryopods’ condition. He pressed a button on the dashboard and a translucent screen appeared in front of him. He swiped past the first two screens: one showed a cluster of activity just over the Pennines, the other the latest global water levels. The third screen listed his contacts, and he selected the top one.

“Hello?” said a boy’s voice.

“Hi, who’s that?”

“Rob.”

“Hello Rob! It’s daddy.”

“Yeah.”

Adrian fought to control his annoyance. “Is mummy there please?”

There was a rustling sound as the receiver changed hands. “Hi darling,” said Harriet. Her voice had an edge to it that Adrian quickly tried to smooth.

“It’s alright, I’m just stuck in traffic.” He thought he could hear her relief that his call was only domestic, the sort of call that any man might have with his wife. “How’re you?”

As usual, she was busy: the council had been swamped for months with marriage and baptism registrations. He hardly listened as she spoke; the cadence of her voice was enough to calm him. He tried not to think about how he’d have managed had they not reconciled in the frantic days after the UN announcement of the evacuation plans. It was a difficult time for everyone, even for Essentials.

The car swerved and he was flung against the door of his car; some idiot motorcyclist on manual override had blindly turned into the road before speeding off. “Signal!” he roared. It would hardly carry through the soundproofing, but it was still cathartic.

“What was that? Adrian?” The sound of panic was clear in Harriet’s voice.

“Everything’s fine,” he said, settling back into his seat. “Just some maniac.”

His car’s sudden change of course had caused a ripple effect as vehicles behind him adjusted their own paths, then settled down in their new positions on the road. There was something beautiful about it, something soothing in the way they rearranged themselves, like geese scattering then rejoining their formation in the face of a low-flying aircraft.

“Is there any news on the date?” she asked.

“They’re not going to tell us in advance,” he snapped. For several seconds the only sound was their breathing, ebbing and flowing, like the sound of waves breaking on the shore.

“Okay,” she said eventually.

He rubbed his forehead. “I’m sorry. I should go. I love you. And remember, if you get the notification when I’m not there-”

“-drop what I’m doing and take the kids to the car, I know,” she said in a sing-song voice. There was no use in staying angry. The communication lines would surely be cut when the time came; every conversation mattered.

The call ended and he killed the screen. The traffic lights ahead were green, but he wasn’t moving. He could see someone walking between the cars. They would be working in pairs, a runner and a blocker: one would beg while the other held up the queue by standing in front of the first car, taking advantage of the automatic system’s refusal to move forward and risk causing injury.

There was a hesitant knock on his window. “No, sorry,” he called, staring straight ahead. Another knock. In exasperation he turned to his window to find a sheet of paper held against it.

He read it quickly. Need money for a lottery ticket. All favours considered. Thank you. “No, sorry,” he repeated, louder, firmly, and whoever it was moved off. He tried not to think about what favours might be on offer, or what amount of money might buy them.

The driver in front had got out and was remonstrating with the blocker. Adrian did, on these occasions, feel a little uncomfortable at his status. He didn’t know who the rest of the five thousand Essentials were, although he could guess: politicians, business leaders, scientists. For weeks after he learnt his designation he felt guilty; sheer numbers dictated that next to none of his colleagues, his friends, or the strangers he passed in his daily life would leave Earth with him.

But he had come to terms to it. When it came down to it, it was a straightforward choice: let a few people live, or have everyone drown in the rising seas. He was fortunate, yes, and it was important he remembered that – but guilt would get him nowhere. What was the alternative?

The blocker had finally been wrestled from his position, and the traffic began to move again. Each journey he made could be the last before the notification came; directions would be automatically loaded onto his car, and they would take him to the evac point. It couldn’t be long now.

Even with the end of the world nigh, the corridors of Cryogenix’s headquarters teemed with life. A cynic would say this was because eligibility for a lottery ticket depended on it: employers were encouraged to report unauthorised absences. Adrian preferred a more optimistic explanation.

“Hey Paolo,” he greeted an oil-spattered cryomechanic who was jabbing at a faulty pod with his screwdriver. He got no reply, then shrugged. As head scientist it was his duty to do his bit for morale in these difficult times, but he couldn’t force his staff to make conversation.

The screen embedded in his office wall showed refugees queueing at an unknown port, clutching holdalls with weary hands. Dutch, he assumed. There was a note on his desk from Ana to say his 11 o’clock phonecall with the Evac Operational Subcommittee had been cancelled and not yet rearranged. He swivelled his chair around and looked out of the window at the clear sky. It seemed impossible that in a matter of years, everything he could see would be underwater.

A cough alerted him to the fact he was not alone. “Mr Barnett?” Ana said.

“It’s beautiful outside, but so cold,” he said.

“Yes Mr Barnett. In Romania we say it is the sun with teeth.”

He turned to face his secretary. She had started working for him just after he had proved cryogenic resuscitation was possible – that meant she had been his only constant for the last eight years. He felt very tired.

“What do you think of all this, Ana?” He gestured widely. “About what will happen?”

“I try not to,” she said.

He nodded thoughtfully. There had been a time when every new report on global warming had been greeted with a muted shrug, the apathy of hopeless. His work had changed that: investment in clean energy had boomed, as wealthy backers tried to secure the future of the planet – not for their business empires, not even for their heirs, but for themselves. But it had been too late, and the money had moved to ways to continue humanity away from Earth.

“Mr Barnett?” Ana said again. He blinked, then returned his attention to his schedule for the day and the world in which, for now at least, he lived.

Throughout the morning he shuttled from meeting to meeting, taking in updates on the condition of the pods. They had been collected months ago and transported to wherever it was the evac craft was being constructed, but their system data was continually transmitted to the vast screens in the engineering building. He’d only been there a few times, and found it overwhelming: information streamed constantly down the walls, scrutinised by a swarm of technicians day and night for any abnormalities.

He was a scientist, not an engineer, and left the remote diagnosis and maintenance to Michelle and her team, but he still liked to satisfy himself that there were no problems. Today everything was running smoothly, so there was little for him to do except bask in the pride of his team’s work and drink the awful coffee. Something gnawed at him occasionally, however, and when a bright young graduate gave a polished presentation or a caretaker held the lift door open for him he had to firmly remind himself that every Cryogenix employee had been provided with a lottery ticket, a benefit that he had personally lobbied to introduce.

On his way to the canteen he glanced at his watch as the display ticked over to 13:00. The change set his heart momentarily racing before he realised that this was not the message he’d been waiting for. Nonetheless he increased his speed: he had a lunch appointment with Michelle, and she was as strict about timekeeping as she was with the condition of the cryopods.

He collected his pie – as usual, more pastry than filling – and dispiriting lump of mashed potato, and joined her at the table. She had already finished. “Much to report?” he asked as he set his plate down.

There wasn’t: some loose screws, a minor temperature fix. There had no major issues for nearly two weeks now. He swallowed the implication along with a forkful of mash.

“How’s morale?” he asked instead.

“Not bad, considering. We’ve had a couple of dropouts, but that’s to be expected.”

“Did you report them?”

“Not for another week I think.” This was standard practice at Cryogenix. It was understood that staff might need unplanned leave in these extraordinary circumstances. Michelle checked her watch; automatically Adrian did the same. It still showed only the time. “Excuse me, bathroom.”

Michelle had to be an Essential, he thought as he watched her leave. Perhaps she wouldn’t have a pod: there would be a skeleton crew of technicians to keep everything working for the first twenty years of the journey until the pods were unsealed. By then the onboard farm would be fully operational, and non-cryo life could be sustained – and they would know whether the models had been right or whether a return to Earth was possible.

There was a sharp vibration against his wrist. His eyes snapped to it. The display read 13:07. Then it changed.

Every synapse in his body screamed for him to run. He forced air deep into his lungs, and the dizzying thought occurred that his breaths on this planet were now numbered. The canteen was crowded, and the sight of a senior employee rushing out could spark chaos. He forced his legs to move to the tray depository, and smiled at the assistant behind the counter as if nothing was wrong. She smiled back, and he thought of her lungs filling up with saltwater.

Outside of his immediate vision, everything was a blur. Surely they could hear the thundering of his heart? He took slow, excruciating strides, staring straight ahead, focusing only on the door to the employee car park. He was almost there.

“Mr Barnett?” He twitched. It was Ana.

“Yes?” He strained to keep his voice light.

“I forgot to remind you: it’s your anniversary tomorrow. I tried to call you, but there’s no connection.” The meaning hung unspoken in the air. “Where are you going?” she demanded, suddenly. She shrank back from her outburst, then recovered some defiance in her posture.

He couldn’t look at her. They must be staggering the notifications. Around him a few people were walking to their cars with the same unnatural calm he had displayed moments earlier. Someone was frantically trying to start a motorbike.

“Wait for your notification,” he managed to say, then got into his car before she could reply. The dashboard already showed the same co-ordinates as his watch. He closed his eyes as the car pulled out.

After a few minutes he opened them. There was no-one in his rearview mirror. He exhaled. The streets were quiet; news couldn’t have spread yet. He tried to call Harriet, but as he expected there was no connection. He tried not to think about everything that could delay their journey to the evac point. Would they even see each other before being strapped in to their pods?

He was on the motorway now. Out of curiosity he pressed the manual override button, but nothing happened. The silence in the car was stifling. He turned the radio on.

The girl that’s driving me mad is-

He turned it off.

A steady stream of cars slid in both directions, pulled inexorably towards their destinations. It was impossible to know how panicked the occupants were. Were they also on pre-programmed journeys? Or had they bet on a rumoured location in a final burst of faith?

He needed some fresh air. “Open windows 10%,” he instructed, and the glass slid down. The streamlined, smooth calm was shattered by yells of locations and names, rumoured evac points and missing family members.

“Close window,” he said, shaken and disorientated by the desperation that filled the air. From the soundproofed confines of the car everything once again looked peaceful.

His car left the motorway and continued for a while down a series of smaller streets then turned onto a large field. There were several hundred cars there already; it had the appearance of a makeshift festival car park. The car rolled to a stop and he tried the door. Locked. “Open window,” he said. Nothing.

He could see the driver of the car parked next to him becoming increasingly agitated. She was pulling at the door and hitting the steering wheel in frustration, and occasionally turned to shout at someone in the back – a child, he guessed. He thought of Harriet and Rob, and his head ached.

A shape appeared in the distance, tracked by thousands of eyes. It seemed small – but then, he had little sense of what was needed to sustain ten thousand people and their families. As it came closer it looked more like a plane. It was a plane. That made sense: lottery tickets were available all over the world. This must be their transport to the evac craft.

The locks clicked open with a single co-ordinated crunch. People poured out onto the grass. There had to be thousands of them. That meant a lot of people would be turned away; he hoped there was a plan for that. The flight crew would surely be armed, but a shootout would be dangerous – not just the bullets, but also the risk that the flight would have to abandon its pickup and would leave without him.

There was no way he was going to be left behind. He used his elbows to shove his way forward until there were only a few people between him and the hovering plane. The sound of its engine thrummed through the air, drowning all other sound. Adrian expected a warning, a megaphone request to keep the landing space clear. It never came. Instead a hatch on its underbelly opened, and disgorged its cargo of blankets, tinned food, and dinghies.

For a moment, there was only the noise of the engine before it was swallowed by the tide of impotent fury that rose from the crowd. The craft rose into the cold, sunlit sky, waited a moment as if offering a farewell, then glided towards the horizon.

Adrian sensed rather than felt the mass of people pushing forward and past him to the pile that had been left. A grey mist had smothered him. He staggered back towards his car, past the pockets of violence that had broken out over cartons of milk or just the situation itself. No-one paid him any attention.

The house was empty when he returned. There was no sign of Harriet or Rob. Had they been in the same field? Where were they now? A mug of tea sat on the table, still warm. He wandered into his living room, where a message was displayed on the screen-wall:

Dear Adrian,

If you are reading this, we recognise the disappointment and anger you are feeling. We would like to explain.

We needed to ensure the smooth management of the cryomaintenance system prior to the evacuation of Earth. Your efforts in both developing this system and overseeing the maintenance programme have been very much appreciated, but we do not consider that they are necessary going forward.

In recognition of the work you have done in preparing for humanity’s future, we provided you with a complimentary lottery entry. Unfortunately, this was unsuccessful.

We wish you all the best, and we hope to meet again.

Yours in humanity,

Richard Kimmler

President, Evacuation Committee

At first, he felt grateful: they had, at least, had the decency to explain. Then a scorching anger swept through him, leaving only a burnt wilderness where his gratitude had been. From somewhere outside he heard the sound of glass smashing and the crackle of flames.

We hope to meet again. He took a golf club from the bag under the stairs and gripped it, holding it high above his head. This was his world now: it would be twenty years before the people who had abandoned the world looked on the planet they had left and decided whether to return, and he intended to be here to welcome them home.

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