We can send men to Mars. We can pay with just the chip in our arm. We even have flying cars. We can do so much. Why is it that we can’t cure diseases, can’t find a solution for poverty or even saving our planet? It’s complicated, that’s what they say. We don’t have the money, the resources, the what-have-I-not-heard in this endless fight. However, there was no way of knowing that our planet would be hit by this asteroid. Now we have one day left on our dying planet. One day to what? Save the people? Save the world? I don’t think it’s possible anymore. One day is not enough. We should have done something while we could but there were always people who knew it better. Or: people who had more power and more money. Because isn’t that the truth? We don’t matter unless we come with bags of cash. Why save our planet when you can save yourself? But it doesn’t matter anymore. The very rich of our beloved earth are already on another planet. Who knows doing what. Probably ruining it. And me? I’m stuck here for one last day. I have twenty-four hours and I don’t know what to do. My parents are those lucky ones on another planet. My brother is already dead. And my friends… I lost them a while ago. Maybe it’s time to leave the past behind and apologize for all the things I’ve done. I honestly thought I knew what was right. Some things you cannot know until it’s too late. Like the terrifying asteroid flying toward us. What if it’s too late to apologize? Maybe they’re better off without. But if I don’t go, I will regret it for precisely twenty-three hours, fifty minutes and ten seconds. Screw it. I have nothing to lose. It’s 3019 and it’s almost over anyway…
The morning started out like yesterday. A bright blue sky looking down on earth, birds singing their songs while moving from branch to branch, and people being happy with this wonderful Summer day in late September. Just a week ago, the weather was terrible. Thunderstorms in the midst of nights, hail as thick as golf balls, nothing but terrible. Now it seemed like a faraway dream. Tess looked up at the sky and blessed herself for this beautiful day. It was her birthday and that meant virtual happy birthday cards, a shorter shift at work, and eating cake all day long. Especially the last was the most special. Her city was one of the few cities with strict regulations regarding nutrition and transport. Tess didn’t mind. She never had a sweet tooth – unless it was her birthday.
Her friend Jamie already sent her a card. Tess tapped two times on her watch and a hologram appeared in front of her, it almost looked real. Jamie had outdone herself this time. Balloons and confetti fell on the ground in front of Tess. “Happy birthday, Tessie! May your day be full of glory and your heart filled with love!” Jamie blew a kiss in her direction before she vanished.
It took a long time for Jamie to trust her again. After what Tess had done, all of her friends stopped talking to her. Mike even told her that she should move to another town. They didn’t want her near them or their town anymore. She didn’t belong there. With pain in her heart, Tess accepted this new path in her life. She had to start all over. This new city she had chosen was different than where she grew up. All these flying cars passing by, robots playing the cashier in every store, and not a single animal around gave her goosebumps. And not in a good way. In the beginning, she wasn’t sure if she could get used to this lifestyle. That all changed when she found her dream job: graphic designer. Within two years she was head of her own team. Since last week they were working on the poster of their latest film project.
Before entering her office, Tess stopped for her morning coffee. As usual, she had to enter her order – 2456 – and raise her wrist to scan the chip inside of her body. She remembered reading some newspapers from decades ago. People were afraid of new technology and fought the government. Nobody wanted a chip in their body. Tess never understood why they didn’t. There’s not a single person on earth able to steal your identity or credit card. Hospitals can immediately read your status and treat you. There are only benefits to having your own chip. Luckily she was born in this century and not before.
“Good morning Tess.” The robot in the front desk waved at her. She looked so real. If Tess wouldn’t know better, she would’ve thought it was a real woman in front of her. She waved back, just being polite. Robots have feelings too. The entire office had a ratio of 50-50 and Tess didn’t want a robot to replace her or her team. Although she sometimes had the idea that one of her employees could be a robot as well.
Tess threw her coffee cup in the recycle bin next to her desk. The clock on the wall showed her it was eight-thirty. In thirty minutes her team would start working on their first draft of the cover. This cover had to be bigger and better than any cover before. Of course, this wasn’t a surprise. The film was going to be the masterpiece of the century.
As always she liked to be there earlier to set up the machines. Tess needed their holograms to be more than perfect, they couldn’t afford a dysfunctional machine. It already happened once before and her boss wasn’t pleased. They missed their deadline and the project went to their competitor. Today it wouldn’t come to that. Tess changed the oil in the main machine and even fixed the back up one.
At precisely nine everyone of her team was present.
“Great. Robert, could you take a look at the X and Y machine?”
Robert went to the other side of the room to check the color and movement machines. They had come so far with technology yet they needed separate machines for one specific goal.
Tess already knew it was fine. She checked them last night when she was the last one to leave the office. It was important, to her, that the team felt significant as well. She just couldn’t risk any mistakes.
After checking the main machine and back up one more time, the work could finally begin. Robert and Tisha started with rough drafts of the characters, Mo and Cindy started with the storyline. Tess did was she could do best: being the boss. She gave instructions on what to change and what to delete. They had built a solid system in the two years Tess was their boss. Excluding that one particular project.
At precisely eleven they all put down their work to enjoy a short coffee break. Tess ordered the coffee robot to bring them four coffee and one tea. How someone could drink tea was a mystery to her. Perhaps Robert was indeed a robot. He always claimed he had English roots. No idea what he meant by that.
Up until now, this was a normal workday like any other, however, that would all change in five minutes…
All of their five watches started to make a soft sound like the X machine beeping when it was out of color. Slowly this soft beeping turned into an unbearable noise. Tess pressed some buttons but the watch wouldn’t turn off.
“What is happening?” Cindy asked with a trembling voice.
Tess examined her watch. “I believe it’s our alarm.”
At the same time, another hologram came out of Tess’ watch. This time it wasn’t a birthday wish.
Every evening, before going to bed, Tess watched the eleven o’clock news. She always thought it was a pity that robots had a preference over humans. However, it was the only time she could follow the news so she had no other choice. That’s why, now, she was able to immediately recognize the person, or in this case robot, in her hologram.
“This is Madge from Global News. Today marks the last day of our planet. At precisely eleven fifteen tomorrow, twenty-eight of September, an asteroid will hit the earth and we will no longer be around. There are in total thousand places left to bring you to Mars. On our website, you can find the locations of each of the shuttle centers. Thank you for your time. Make yours counting.”
“Thank you for your time? Make yours counting? Who came up with this weird joke?” Tisha laughed.
Tess explained to her that Madge always used these sentences at the end of each newscast. The others nodded in agreement.
“Do you think that they already knew? They started with this sentence,” Robert counted on his fingers, “five months ago if I’m not mistaken.”
Now Tisha burst into laughter. “Come on guys. You don’t believe it’s true, do you?”
“There’s only one way to find out.” Cindy pressed the news button on her watch and a screen popped up in front of her. She then gasped and put her hand to her mouth. “No, no, no!”
A video of space showed the distance between the earth and the asteroid. On the right side was a count down and on the left side a list of shuttle locations.
As fast as she could Cindy grabbed her purse from the table. “I don’t know about you but I’m going to my family. We have to get on board.”
Robert grabbed her hand. “Cindy. They said there are only a thousand places left. It will be a bloody fight.”
“It’s that or dying. I’m going.”
Cindy always hated running. She would prefer eating insects than running for five minutes. However, now she ran as she could. Her life depended on it.
Tisha agreed with Cindy. Mo pointed out that she thought it was a joke.
“Well, better safe than sorry.” And just like that Tisha left the room.
Tess was alone with Robert and Mo. “You guys go to your families.” She didn’t have anyone to call her family. Her parents were already on Mars and they were probably not waiting for her. Her friends here, well, she did get a message from Jamie. Maybe she should go to them and try to apologize. It’s her last day on earth. She better make it worthwhile.
Mo had already disappeared when Tess finally decided to go back to her old town.
“Robert, why are you still here?”
“Did you see this?” He showed her a video.
“What is it?”
“They announced the asteroid fifteen minutes ago and people are already losing it. People try to stop each other from going to the center. There’s blood everywhere.”
He pointed at the screen and Tess looked away. People were literally crawling on top of each other. It was a war. And Tess had to walk through that. She hoped her car would be in the same place she left it.
“You need a ride to your home?” Robert shook his head. “Thanks, boss but I’ll stay here for now. I’ll return to my wife and kid when it’s a bit quieter.” Tess hoped it would be quieter for him but she doubted it. In war and love, everything is allowed.
Luckily her car was where she had left it. Now the time had come to return where she started. The only things she took with her was her brother’s amulet and her apology letters. Or more like one giant love letter to her friends. There was no need to bring anything else.
With her left thumb, she opened her car. The door disappeared for a few seconds so she could go inside. On the screen, she entered the name of her old town and saw it would take two hours to get there. She was ready to leave her new life behind, again.
Tess always loved this car. It was one of the newest and a rare edition. Her parents used to have an older version. She swore she wouldn’t have anything that her parents had but she couldn’t resist the car. Its dark blue color like the sea stood out from the rest of the white and red cars. Also, the fact that this one could fly and the others were these simple earth driven cars. Who would only want to be able to drive on asphalt and not high in the air? Traffic did become a bit more crowded but luckily this edition was as fast as the wind.
Below her, she could see people running around like madmen. They all wanted to get out of town. The nearest center was 200 kilometers to the south, nearly two and a half hours. Tess knew it wouldn’t matter. It would be better for them to spend time with their family. The shuttles were already gone with the most important people. No, not the most important. Just the most powerful. The government let everyone down and yet no one seemed to care about it. Except for her old friends. But that, Tess realized too late.
Now it was time to try to heal the wounds. She just hoped her friends would feel the same. There was only one way to find out. Why didn’t she buy the extra engine to make the car go even faster?
A loud explosion put Tess back into reality. On her right side, she saw an old factory for robots bursting into flames. The whole world stood upside down. She knew this part of the country was in poverty but what caught her eye was something she couldn’t believe. So many children. How? What did… Quickly she brushed away a tear. There was no time to be weak.
Her screen told her she was almost there. Tess looked around. Her old town was smaller than her new city but why couldn’t she find it? There was almost nothing on either of her sides.
Suddenly her screen screamed at her. “Danger! Danger!” Red lights passed her car. Or were it flames? Her car started to shake, the window in the back fell into a thousand pieces, and the belt scraped in her skin. Tess tried to remove it but before she could unclick it her car tumbled down.
The car abruptly hit the ground. Tess’ head hit the steering wheel and blood started to drip everywhere.
“Auch!” There was no other way to describe this pain.
Did the asteroid hit her car? Stop acting insane! Of course, there wasn’t an asteroid. But what was it? She had so many questions but her thoughts were blurry. She just knew her car got hit and had to get out of it.
Finally, her belt worked and she could try to open the door. Why didn’t the bloody door move? She touched her head covered in blood. This had to be the worst birthday ever.
She sighed. It wouldn’t be easy to open her once so beautiful car. There used to be a safety procedure, however, with this fall it might be broken. What would be the easiest way? She didn’t have to come up with an answer. In front of her, a man with an ax appeared. Like a giant madman, he ran toward her car. Tess covered her face and screamed. He hit the glass at the bystander’s side. Tiny pieces of glass spread around like a heavy snowstorm in December. He swung the ax again, ready to hit whatever was in front of him.
“Stop!” How on earth could she convince him to listen to her?
“I need to find my friends.”
For a short moment, it looked like he hesitated. Carefully weighing the words. He shook his head. “No friends.”
“Wait! You mean there’s no one here?” She knew it the minute she flew over the country. There was nothing and no one left anymore.
He shook his head again, this time slowly. “World is a mess. People are a mess. They’re gone. World better.”
Tess had no idea what the man meant but as long as he was talking, he wasn’t hitting her car or worse… her.
“Could you please help me, kind sir?” It was a risk but she held out her hand. She closed her eyes. Maybe it would be alright. Or maybe her life was over before the asteroid hit the earth.
He ignored her hand. Maybe he didn’t understand what she meant. Instead, he took his ax again and walked slowly to the driver’s side. The man started to hit the door and Tess screamed. She closed her eyes and said a little prayer. To whom she didn’t know. She just hoped that someone – or something – would listen to her. The sound of hitting metal faded away and Tess dared to peek. Her once working door had now become an open spot. She saw the man waiting for her. He took a few steps back so she knew he wouldn’t attack her.
“Blood!” He pointed at her head.
Clearly, this man is Captain Obvious Tess thought.
“Yes, blood.” She sighed. It was the first time she could look around and orient. Unfortunately, she couldn’t be sure if this was supposed to be the entrance to her old town or the town next door. They used to make jokes about the other town. They had, what her friends would call, the is-it-or-is-it-not-happening habitants. People who came up with stories about how the world would end. Now it doesn’t feel funny anymore. Perhaps they were right all along and they were the stupid ones. Did they mention the asteroid? Tess couldn’t remember.
“Is this Beauville?”
The man raised his eyebrow and frantically nodded his head. “Yes! Beauville. Like French.”
“What do you mean? Who is French?”
Tess wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement. She decided to ignore it, her time was running out.
“I’m looking for my friends. Do you know Jamie? And Mike?” It was a long shot, she knew.
Then taken by surprise, he gestured her to follow him. Could it be that easy? Whenever something looks easy, there’s always a catch. She learned it the hard way. Following her parents was easy. Until she realized they had a different agenda. Her brother knew and tried to warn her. And look what happened to him! She brushed away a tear running down her cheek. No, easy is the equivalent of a complicated matter.
Deep down inside she knew it was a bad idea yet she continued following him. Her curiosity always won the fight against her reasoning. She tried to ignore her curiosity but it also brought her to her new job. There was no way of knowing what would happen unless it was too late. Let’s just hope it would be alright.
Tess recognized what used to be her school. The entrance sign, broken in half, lay on the ground. It was the last remaining sign of her once favorite place on earth.
“What happened?” She didn’t realize she asked the question out loud.
“Asteroid.” The man pointed to the sky to explain himself.
She wanted to ask if he always used short sentences but instead told him that it wasn’t possible. The asteroid news came in today. She still had nineteen hours and fifteen minutes to find her friends. The man repeated himself once more.
“Yes, yes. Asteroid.” She didn’t have more patience.
The man stood, if Tess remembered correctly, ‘in the old canteen’. Oh, that old canteen with that cheesy smell. She loved cheese but that smell couldn’t be healthy. Especially since there was never cheese. The robots made sure they ate only ate fruits and vegetables. They tried to sneak in some chocolate but it seemed like the robots had strong smelling senses. They were never able to eat their chocolate.
Slowly the man bent down and put his hand on the ground. If her village didn’t look that abandoned, she would have laughed at the man high fiving the ground. Why did she follow him again? She had many questions yet no time to ask them. While the ground started to shake, the sand below her feet slowly disappeared.
Tess no longer stood on the reminiscence of her old canteen but on a colossal metal platform. Her eyes grew bigger when another part exposed itself in front of her. The door looked like a tub Tess once saw in a vintage hospital advertisement. It was back in those days they still needed tubs. Nowadays they had robots taking care of everything.
She followed the man but he told her to wait; he was going first. Within a millisecond the tub disappeared and reappeared. Her legs trembled, her hands were covered in sweat, her headache was unbearable yet she managed to get inside the tub. There were no buttons, no indication where she was headed. She held her breath and closed her eyes. Her stomach couldn’t handle the velocity and she threw up, on the glass in front of her.
The doors opened and when Tess looked up, she couldn’t believe her eyes.
Those two words made her whole body shiver. Her legs felt like two puddings melting to the ground. She had to hold tight to the nearest surface. Which was the elevator she just came out. Would it be too late to go back again? Would it be too late to forget about everything?
“You’re not giving your own parents a hug?” Her father spread his arms. However, Tess couldn’t and didn’t want to move. Her hands were shaking. Her throat felt like there was sand in it and swallowing it down took a long time.
“What are you doing here?” She looked from one parent to the other. They didn’t change a single thing. Her father had the same outfit when he left earth and her mother had still her gorgeous long silver hair. Tess always envied her mother’s hair.
“I told you she wouldn’t be happy to see us.” Her mother pointed at her father.
“How can she not be happy to see us? It’s been how many years?” It was clear that he started counting. But before he could finish Tess already answered. “Not enough after everything you’ve done. To my brother… my friends… and to me!”
She had to force herself not to cry. This time she couldn’t let them win. She had to be strong for Josh. He tried so hard to protect her before he died. Even when she didn’t believe him, he always believed in her and that she would find her way.
“I”m sorry, Josh.” Tess whispered.
Her father started to laugh. “She’s talking to Josh, my dear. Can you believe that?” Before Tess realized it, her father was in front of her. “He’s not here anymore. You fool!”
It felt as if nothing ever changed. Her father raised his hand and Tess prepared for the pain in her face. Her hands were turned into fists, her eyes were closed, by now it should have been over. Why is it that she didn’t feel anything? Tess opened her eyes again and the man who helped her out of the car stood in front of her. A gun pointed at her father’s face. There was no need to tell her father to stop, the gun did all the work.
Tess regained her strength and thanked the man. He wanted to give her the gun but she just shook her head. Even though her father taught her different, she never believed in violence. She believed in other stupid things that she regretted her whole life and that was more than enough.
“Tess, honey, let me explain everything.” Her mother kneeled in front of her, begging for her to listen.
“Don’t you think it’s a little too late?” Tess wanted to scream but seeing her mother crying made her soft. She almost ran toward her mother. Almost. But her mother knew what she was doing back then.
“You killed so many people. You said Planet 16 was safe and sent so many people there. Yet you knew it would never last.” For the first time, Tess confronted her parents with their actions. “You promised a new life, a better life. Full of a lifetime of happiness. A promise to better infrastructure, buildings, schools. And what did the people get? Nothing. Because there were no buildings, there was no water, and there wasn’t even air!” This time rage took over and Tess almost spat out the words. It was time for her to go. She didn’t need to fight her parents. She knew she had won this time.
The man still held the gun and pointed at the machine behind Tess’ mother. Tess had seen such a machine before and promised herself to never use it again. However, she had no choice. She had to find her friends and she knew that Jamie still carried her GPS.
“They’re dead! They’ve been dead for years!” Her mother sobbed. “Please, Tess. Don’t look for them, you won’t find them.”
Of course, Tess didn’t listen to her mother. She continued typing in her friend’s name and GPS number. It was a miracle that she hadn’t forgotten it. The machine started to make some noise and the screen showed a circle loading, as the color machine at Tess’ work. How could this day – her birthday – turn into such a miserable event. She tried so hard to be a better person and this is what she got back. Self-pity won’t help her poor state of mind but she couldn’t help it.
Finally, the screen turned green and gave the right coordinates for Jamie. When Tess noticed the red color of the arrow, she felt on the ground. Was her mother right or was the machine broken? The first time she blamed the machine for not working properly but the robot operating it was never wrong.
The man asked her if she was alright but she couldn’t answer him. Was she? She found her friend too late and the asteroid would be there soon. Could she be okay? From the corner of her eye, Tess could see the man wanting to come to her. In that moment of weakness, her father hit him in the head and took the gun. Without hesitating her father shot him in the face.
“No!” Tess crawled in his direction.
His hand still felt warm in hers. Tears ran down her face, dripping on the ground like small raindrops. She cried for this man who risked his life for her, for her friend who wasn’t here anymore, and her brother. It took a moment until she could feel again. It was now or never. She had to take the gun back.
Her father never saw her coming. She jumped at him and wrestled for the gun. In the distance, she could hear her mother scream. That was the last thing she heard before she hit the ground. A warm feeling on her breast spread around. Slowly with her hand, she reached for it. Blood? Tess asked herself. She then looked into the eyes of her father. Did she see remorse or was it just a glitch? She would never know.
“I’ve found something here!” Jamie holds a perfectly white envelope in her hand while she stands on pieces of the collapsed building. Together with her friends, she admires she whiteness and perfection of the envelope. It must come from somewhere special that it lasted this clean considering everything.
“Can you believe we were still able to find something here? They told us that everything was burned down because of the disease.” Jamie wants to continue her story but Mike tells her to finally start reading the letter.
“It might be from someone who was sick and wrote about her of his last days on earth,” Lola says.
Jamie drops the envelope on the ground. “I touched it with my bare hands!”
Lola now smiles at her. “Don’t worry. You’re immune to it, remember?” She picks up the envelope. “Besides, it looks too clean. It must be a love letter.”
Everyone holds their breath. Lola then takes a perfectly white paper with silver corners out of the envelope. Her eyes grow bigger and she whispers. “It’s Tess.”
Jamie grabs the paper out of her hands and reads, with a trembling voice out loud:
My dearest friends,
I know I’m the last person you would like to see but since it’s the end of our planet, I thought I might have a small chance. If you’re reading this, it means my plan of talking to you didn’t go as I intended but I am happy that you’re reading my letter.
It’s time that I tell you my side of the story. Perhaps it’s something I should have done sooner but I was afraid. Fear of judgement, fear of misunderstanding, fear of hatred. How could it be worse than it already was? I don’t know but I also didn’t want to find out.
I’ve been trying to live a better life and I think I’ve done well. The moment I left our beautiful city, I moved to the capital. Jamie, you would have loved the fashion here! Lola, I think I saw your future husband. And Mike, I didn’t find anything for you there. It’s just that every city needs a Mike, even when it’s the capital.
Although it’s not about how I’m doing, I just wanted to let you know I made it alright. You don’t have to feel bad for sending me away. I’ve forgiven you a long time ago.
My parents never taught me to forgive. They never even taught me how to love. You were my family and I broke your heart. I was never able to say how sorry I was. And I still am. That’s why I hope you will forgive me as well.
Planet 16 wasn’t what I intended. Josh tried to warn me about our parents. He said that they have never visited the Planet. Then why did I see the video full of flora, fauna, and just plain happiness? Josh explained that it was made in our basement. Again, I didn’t believe him. We didn’t have a basement and my own mother wouldn’t lie to me. I looked up at her. I wish I hadn’t.
Josh went to the authorities and when my dad found out, he wanted to hurt Josh. I was in the car with dad when it all happened. He saw Josh, right in front of us, walking toward that big white building. Do you remember that building from the photos? As white as this paper, like the snow, we’ve never seen before. Dad saw him and accelerated the car. I didn’t want him to hurt Josh. He was my brother. Even though we didn’t understand each other, he always had my back. I grabbed the steering wheel and tried to move the car to the other side. That’s how we hit your brother, Mike. I am so sorry. I was trying to protect my own brother and took yours away instead. What I didn’t know was that dad had a gun. I cried so much about hurting Phil that I didn’t hear the shots fired on my left. When people started to run like a clueless herd of sheep discovering a wolf, I realized something was wrong. And there he was. My brother on the ground. Dead.
My dad told me that if I didn’t do as he said, I would suffer the same. Now I know that I should have reached out, but I was too afraid. Planet 16 continued and slowly people started to die. However, the government didn’t do or say anything. There was money again and there was power. Two of the most dangerous things in the world.
When project OGL-VR-78 asked for the help of my parents, I was glad. It was the easiest and most cowardice way to get rid of them. I hoped it would have been the same as Planet 16 but of course, it wasn’t. They would have never gone otherwise. I should have gone to the higher authorities but I was still afraid. Then they were on Planet 78 and I almost forgot about it. I’ve never forgiven myself so I don’t assume you would. I hope it with all of my heart but I know, deep down inside, that I don’t deserve it.
With this letter, I just want to tell you, besides how sorry I am, how lucky I was with you as my friends. You’re always trying to take care of others, you’re kind, you’re intelligent. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. On the next page is a drawing on how to escape from the asteroid. What my parents don’t know is that I found their hidden rocket and relocated it to somewhere only you know. Go now, save yourself, and live the life you deserve. I’m not going with you. I’ve done my part.
Take care and take care of each other. Know that I have always loved you, no matter how far apart we were. You were my family and you take care of your family.
With all my love,
Tears roll down on Jamie’s cheek when she reads the last bit of the letter. “She never told us.” Mike shakes his head. “No, she was terrified.”
“Do you…” Lola tries to find the right words, “do you think she would have survived if we were there for her?”
Jamie looks again at the remains of the old white building that used to be part of the government. “We don’t know, but she would have never been part of her parents’ experiments.”
“And that would have changed everything?” Mike asks.
“Well,” Jamie answers, “she wouldn’t have been sick. She wouldn’t have lived in this so-called capital where they only monitored people. By the time the government had their data, they got rid of them like trash.”
“She,” Lola now sobs, “didn’t deserve this. Now it’s too late.”
Mike puts his arm around Lola. “It’s not too late to avenge her. The ones responsible for all of this are still alive.”
Jamie nods at him. “Yes, but not for long.”
Without having to say it out loud, the three friends understood each other perfectly clear.