I wrote this 1500-word piece in a single sitting for a sci-fi short story competition. While this was unplaced, one of the other stories I entered, Out of Time, won. I much prefer this story, with its military-SF setting and desperate, apocalyptic theme. Let me know what you think in the comments.
A Moment of History by Gillan Drew
He stared out the window at the grey sky, urging the clouds to coalesce into rain. The vapid high-altitude mist mocked those in the city below, teasing them with the promise of a salvation that never came.
‘Come in,’ he said in response to a knock at the door and his Executive Officer walked into the room, saluting as she stood to attention. ‘At ease, XO. Take a seat.’
‘Sir,’ she replied as Commander Collard lowered himself into his chair, trying to hide his weakness. Her uniform was crisp and neatly pressed, as usual. He wondered how she managed to get it laundered given their problems. In fact, he didn’t want to know.
‘Have my latest orders been broadcast?’ he asked.
‘That’s what I wanted to see you about,’ she said, her face betraying nothing.
Sighing, Collard rubbed his forehead and leaned back. He knew he wasn’t going to like this one bit.
‘What’s on your mind, Pullin?’
She hesitated just a second before she said the single word he knew had to come sooner or later. ‘Mutiny.’
‘The outlying forces?’ he asked, and fixed her with a pointed stare. ‘Or everyone?’
Pullin let the words hang in the air a few moments before replying. ‘You can’t decrease the ration any further, sir.’
‘Can’t?’ said Collard, trying to project anger through his weariness. ‘The last time I checked, Commander Collard gave the orders, Lieutenant-Commander.’
‘We’re dying of thirst, sir. I can barely see straight as it is. You can’t reduce the ration any further. We’re at the limit of what the human body can handle.’
‘Do you think I don’t know that?’ Collard cried.
His executive officer leaned forward almost conspiratorially. ‘If you give the order, sir, I don’t believe it will be followed. And I think it would place you in danger.’
‘Bring them on,’ Collard snapped. Standing in annoyance, he turned to stare out over the city. ‘I’d rather have an enemy to face, a thousand enemies, than this. I wasn’t prepared for this.’
‘Nobody was,’ said Pullin.
The settlement was on a small moon in the Plantari System, a two year transit from the nearest inhabited world. The topography was principally a rocky, dry tundra, suitable for mining operations and agricultural transformation, for those prepared to work hard at it. And plenty had – there were more than a million people in the city and the satellite towns, and all were looking to him for leadership now.
The problem had been caused by the civil administration. They had been warned, after excessive irrigation work, that they were draining the aquifer faster than it could be refilled. But it was an election year, and votes were more important than introducing unpopular measures that might have averted the drought. So they made speeches and downplayed the problems and banked on rain refilling the wells before disaster. Nature wasn’t obliging.
When the scale of the problem leaked out, the council folded and Collard’s small military force imposed martial law. A million people planetside and help two years distant. Collard had dragged them on for several months by halting mining, reducing farming to subsistence levels and rationing drinking water, but the figures were inescapable – there was only enough water for a fifth of the population. The rest would die.
‘Sir?’ said Pullin, recalling him to the present.
‘Mutiny,’ said Collard. ‘It’s an ugly word.’
‘It’s an ugly situation. We’ve already had a number of incidents.’
‘I’m well aware of the incidents,’ said Collard. There were reports that troops had been stealing water rations, but all attempts to get to the bottom of them had failed – his soldiers had closed ranks, a clear sign that their sense of duty was failing. And the reports had been coming in for weeks.
He looked at the Lieutenant-Commander. ‘What would you advise I do?’
She shifted in her chair. ‘We’re the only ones with weapons,’ she said. ‘And we control the rations, sir. If we took enough water for ourselves, we could try and suppress the worst of the disorder until rescue came.’
‘You mean we should look after ourselves and watch as the rest of them fight it out.’
‘The strong would survive. And nobody could blame us. There are just too many of them.’
Collard shook his head. ‘And how would history judge us?’
‘The people who’ll read that history aren’t here dying, sir. We all respect what you’ve tried to do, but you’ve taken it as far as it can go. You can’t save them all.’ She cleared her throat. ‘What are your orders, sir?’
She put special emphasis on the final word. It was his decision and his alone.
He knew she was right. If he kept going as he was, if his troops stopped following orders, then the planet would tear itself apart. Even if his troops didn’t mutiny, none of them could survive on so low a ration. There were too many people, too few resources – whatever decision he made, hundreds of thousands would die.
‘Okay,’ said Collard. He spoke slowly, trying his best to avoid the horrible conclusion he’d come to – once he’d said it, there would be no turning back. ‘The best prediction is that we can only save two-hundred thousand. If we allow the planet to fall into anarchy, a lot fewer than two-hundred thousand will be here when the rescue ships arrive.’
‘So what are you proposing?’ his executive officer pressed.
Gazing out over the city again under the tantalising grey clouds, Collard prayed for more time, a distraction, something – but nothing came. ‘We pick a section of the city. Two-hundred thousand people. We barricade it, we reinforce it, and we save it. The rest won’t last more than a few weeks. We save the maximum number of people possible.’
Pullin thought on it a moment before she nodded. ‘It’s the right decision.’
‘Don’t patronise me,’ Collard snapped. ‘I’m condemning eight-hundred thousand people to a horrible death. Do you have any idea what they’ll do to each other before the end?’
The officer swallowed and looked away. ‘Which section of the city?’ she asked.
Shaking his head, Collard pressed a button on his desk and a holographic representation of the city was projected into the air between them. ‘Here,’ he said, indicating where the city tapered along a ridge, creating a natural bottleneck at either end. ‘We’re outnumbered but we can hold this position. Barricades across these roads here, here and here, a company of men on each. Make sure there are two-hundred thousand inside. No more, no less. And nobody through until it’s over.’
Now the decision was made, it seemed so much easier giving orders. Collard hated himself for that.
‘I don’t want any of the politicians who got us into this mess inside the safe zone,’ he added. ‘If they’re in there, relocate them.’
‘What about their families?’ Pullin asked. ‘Shall we relocate them too?’
Relocate – as good a euphemism as any for condemning them to die. Collard closed his eyes. ‘Forget that last order. Someone has to be held accountable. Not just us.’
‘We’re doing the best we can under the circumstances, sir.’
‘I’m not sure everyone will see it that way,’ Collard replied. He turned away, not wanting to look at her. ‘Get it done, XO.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Pullin replied.
He heard her chair scrape across the floor as she stood, saluted and made to leave. But she stopped before the door.
‘Something I’ve missed?’ he asked, with equal dread and hope.
‘The troops on the barricades, sir,’ Pullin replied. ‘Once the population figures out what we’re doing, it’ll erupt. If warning shots don’t keep them back…’
She trailed off as she didn’t need to complete the sentence.
‘They are authorised to open fire on unarmed civilians, should the need arise,’ said Collard.
‘And we’ll have that order in writing?’ Pullin asked.
Collard’s stomach knotted. ‘You’ll have the order within the hour,’ he replied. An order that would remain in the records till the end of human civilisation. An order with his name on it authorising a breach of every rule and regulation he believed in. How would future historians regard it? A crime against humanity? Or a necessary expedient?
But as Pullin had said, they weren’t here.
‘Thank you, sir,’ she said and left.
Collard turned to look out over the city again, his legs weak. The sky continued to taunt him with its unfulfilled promise of rain. And down below, the people had no idea of the storm he was about to unleash upon them.
Sinking into his chair, he put his head in his hands. He hoped that future generations would take what happened here in Plantari as a lesson: too many people, too few resources. But there was little hope of that. It was the reason humanity had taken to the stars in the first place. It was a shame they hadn’t learned from their history.
Copyright, Andrew ‘Gillan’ Drew, 2015