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Julie woke with a jolt, and the faint lingering taste of copper and lemon on her lips.

She lay for a moment, blinking and staring at the ceiling while she worked her tongue around her teeth. When she couldn’t stand the noise any longer, she swatted at her phone, which was buzzing its way across her bedside table. With ease born of relentless routine, she cancelled the alarm without looking at the screen, and so, she noticed nothing.

She didn’t notice anything as she showered and dressed for the day, either. If she looked at her shampoo bottle at all, it was out of vacant-eyed habit while she stretched her calves under the warm cascade of water. And without her glasses, the small-print formula of whatever mix of chemicals (organic and otherwise) she was rubbing into her scalp every day would have been blurry at the best of times. Equally so for the dial on the toaster, which she never changed, and the buttons of the coffee-maker, which had little beyond pictographs on it anyway. 

She sipped her freshly-made coffee and checked her watch. She frowned. She tapped the screen, and then put it on the charger. She checked her phone for the time instead and, after a moment of frowning uselessly at the screen, she put it back in her pocket.

What was she doing, again?

She had to get going. They were voting on the sanctions today, and she needed to make her appointment before then. She drained her mug and tossed it in the sink, where it rattled against the dishes from the night before. Something niggled at the back of her mind and she licked her lips again—was there lemon in Alfredo sauce?—but her mounting concern for the Islandians chased any other thoughts away as she gathered her things and got into her car.

And that was the first time she noticed something was distinctly wrong.

She blinked, trying to focus her attention on the dashboard. There was supposed to be something… something there. Something important. Something she’d looked at so many times she barely noticed it except now, in its absense—what was it?

Chewing her bottom lip, she turned the key and the engine rumbled to life. The radio, which she’d forgotten to turn off the night before, filled the car with sound.

—ith communications taking at least twenty hours in each direction, Australian Space Agency spokesperson Dr. Imelia Carus cautioned against expecting immediate results.

“Even if the extra-solar test was a complete success, and we have no reason to believe it hasn’t been, we still wouldn’t expect to hear from the Alcubierre probe until at le—

Julie swapped stations as she backed out of her driveway, flicking between her presets without looking until she found a station with music. The car was pleasantly pulsing with synthetic bass by the time she reached the highway.

Even with the beat, her car still rocked as a semi-trailer flew past her while she was merging. She cursed and fought the urge to swing her wheel. In front of her, the truck swayed as it thundered past a rust-spotted combi crawling along at a cyclist’s pace. The semi blared its horn, it’s cargo listing dangerously to one side as it cut across the lanes.

Julie could barely tear her eyes off the spectacle—she’d been tailgated more than enough times on the way to work, but this was ridiculous. By instinct, her eyes flicked to her car’s dashboard as she wondered how fast the truck must be going. The sides of her brain felt fuzzy as she squinted. What was she looking for, again?

Another car horn blared, this time from behind her, and she tore her eyes back to the road to see the rear end of the same puttering combi about to kiss her front bumper. With a very uncool shriek, she reefed the wheel to the right, swerving into the next lane over. Her tires squealed as they fought to keep their grip on the road, and Julie was shocked by the force of the movement as it threw her sideways in her seat—just how fast was she going? She brought the car back under control and threw up a hand in apology to the cars behind her. Even with the rapidly-increasing distance between them, she swore she could see the ancient combi’s driver shaking his head at her as he puttered along.

The remainder of her trip to the city outskirts passed in a blur of terror and panic. Beyond her own close calls, whether creeping behind ridiculously slow drivers or being passed at ludicrous speed by others, there must have been a dozen caars pulled to the side of the road, with red-faced drivers screaming at each other or staring in puzzlement between their phones and registration plates.

Something Ought To Be Done About This she thought as yet another emergency vehicle blared past her in the opposite direction, lights flashing. It was like every driver on the road was going along at whatever speed they liked with no regard for the road rules or their fellow motorists. She sniffed as she pulled into the car park beside the Minister’s office and prepared to exit her vehicle, deciding to omit her experience with the combi when she said as much to the first person who’d listen.

*****

A clock ticked quietly on the wall as she entered the Minister’s offices. 

‘Oh! Ms Emerson, we weren’t expecting you this early,’ the receptionist said as his eyes flicked to the to the clock, and then returned to her with a vacant look. Julie frowned.

‘Really? I’m sure we said…I mean, I set my alarm for…’ she trailed off as her mind filled with fuzz. She shook her head. ‘Is the minister available?’

‘I’ll check,’ the receptionist said through his smile, and reached for the desk phone. His hand hovered above the keys for a moment while he stared at it, then deliberately looked away and keyed the extension by rote habit. 

‘Mr. White? I have Julie Emerson from AusCare here to see you. No, here in the office. Yes, you had an appointment booked at… this morning. All right, I’ll tell her.’ The receptionist looked up at her with an apologetic smile as he re-cradled the phone. ‘Minister White will be with you shortly.’

Julie nodded, settled herself in one of the chairs along the edge of the room and pulled out her phone. She blinked at the screen, furrowing her brow while she tried to remember what she was doing with it in her hand. She ran her thumb over the fingerprint sensor and the screen unlocked, and she felt the pressure lift from her mind.

She scrolled through her socials in a vain attempt to avoid thinking about the coming meeting. As she probably should have expected, her entire feed was swamped with ads for products she wasn’t interested in (or wouldn’t admit to being) and speculation over the lack of updates about the Alcubierre probe, which she couldn’t care less about. There were enough problems at home without worrying about leaving the solar system – which brought her back to worrying about her meeting, again. She sighed and went to put her phone away, when she noticed a status update that sent an unexpected chill down her spine.

What’s up with the lemons? I never eat lemons, why does everything taste like lemons today? Smh

She moved her thumb to reveal the comments below, but the chunk of the Minister’s office door opening and the sudden flood of jocular goodbyes spilling into the reception area snatched her attention. She tossed her phone back into her bag and stood up.

Nathaniel White, the Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, gave his previous visitor a final arm-pumping handshake and turned towards her. ‘Ms Emerson! What a pleasure, please—come in.’ He stepped back and gestured her through the door. The other man dipped his head and flashed her a tight smile as he stepped past and out of the office. He seemed vaguely familiar but passed too quickly for her to place.

‘Thank you for agreeing to see me—I know you have a busy day ahead of you,’ she said as she stepped into the Minister’s office. He shut the door behind them and gestured again, this time for her to take a seat.

‘Yes, in fact, I’m afraid this will have to be brief,’ he said, moving to take his own seat on the other side of his narrow, futuristic-looking office desk. ‘I’m due in the chambers in—’ he crooked his arm so they could both see his watch face, and they shared a moment of staring at it in vacant confusion. He blinked several times, and lowered his hand to the desk.

‘So, what can I do for you, Ms Emerson?’ he asked, trying and failing to hide his sudden embarrassment over… something.

Julie laced her fingers together on her lap and drew in a deep breath. ‘As I’m sure you’ve surmised, I want to talk to you about the sanctions you’ve proposed regarding the nation of Islandia.’

‘Ah, yes. A very compassionate solution, isn’t it? You know,’ he bulled on before Julie had the opportunity to answer, ‘it’s remarkable how the act of just denying access to simple conveniences is such a cost-effective and easy step for us, but can have such a profound effect on the problem. I don’t mind telling you that most of the Party actually wanted to answer the Islandian’s aggression with more punitive measures! Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed.’

‘I would hardly call a few boatloads of refugees aggression, Minister,’ Julie said, unable to keep her utter disbelief from colouring her words.

‘I wouldn’t call it anything else,’ Minister White responded with his trademark smirk—clearly, he believed he was about to make an unassailable point. ‘You know what these Islandians are like. Their entire country’s been at war with itself for decades, they riot over anything from food to what gaming system’s going on sale; I mean, they still burn fossil fuels for God’s sake, when half their island is made up of premium silicates just begging to be converted into energy and carbon sinks. I’m sorry, but if the sheer distance between them and us isn’t enough to keep them where they belong, then obviously we need to take more definite action to protect our… well our more civilised way of life from theirs.’

‘You know as well as I do,’ Julie countered, ‘that enforcing a military embargo around Islandia will keep anyone from coming in with the expertise and equipment to help them transition to better ways of harnessing energy. And in any case, you can’t hold individuals responsible for the decisions of their governments—if you’ll recall, we were still burning fossil fuels ourselves not all that long ago ourselves. These refugees are trying to escape their leaders’ refusal to change for the better—their lives are already at risk, of course they don’t have anything to lose by reaching out to us. We can’t just withdraw our hand when they’re begging for help.’

‘One thing you said was absolutely correct,’ the Minister said, leaning back in his chair. ‘They have nothing to lose, and we have nothing to gain by having them here—except more dependants on our already strained welfare systems.’

‘We’re in a position to help, we have a moral obligation to—’

‘No,’ the Minister cut her off. ‘I utterly reject the premise of that statement. We don’t owe these people anything. They owe us the proof that they can function as part of our society and, frankly, I doubt they’re capable of that before their little island sinks into the ocean. They can go somewhere else.’

‘There is nowhere else,’ Julie pressed. Her fingernails bit into the backs of her hands as she struggled to keep herself from slapping the smirk off the Minister’s face. Unaware, he shrugged at her and if anything, his smirk widened.

‘Well, that’s their problem too.’

Julie made a deliberate effort to unlace her fingers, and she ran her hands down the front of her business skirt while she took a deep breath. ‘Then I’m afraid,’ she said, her voice laced with warning, ‘I must inform you that the AusCare board called an emergency meeting yesterday, following your announcement of the proposed sanctions.’

‘Did they.’

‘As you know, AusCare contributed…’ she paused, feeling the shape of the word but unable to think of what she meant to say. ‘…significant funds to your Party in the leadup to the last election. This clear breach of the core values towards humanitarian aid we were promised by the office means we can no longer, in good conscience, continue to offer our financial support.’

‘My goodness.’

Julie stopped, the Minister’s nonchalance taking some of the righteous wind out of her sails. ‘You do understand what that means?’

The Minister luxuriated in his smirk. ‘I think we’ll find some means to get by.’

Something in his posture, in the arrogant self-assurance, combined with the nagging feeling she’d had in the back of her mind since she’d passed the Minister’s earlier visitor. 

‘Your previous meeting; that was a representative of the Olivine Energy group, wasn’t it? And Islandia’s abundance of geoengineering resources in the face of a tightly-controlled market would have nothing to do with your proposed sanctions, because no civilised government would dream of restricting access to climate remediation materials for the sake of profit, would they?’

The Minister continued to smirk at her in silence.

‘Well,’ Julie said, standing, ‘I suppose we’re done here.’

‘I suppose we are.’

She nodded, more to herself than to the Minister, and left the office in silence.

‘Enjoy the rest of your day!’ the receptionist chirped as she stormed out. She didn’t trust herself to respond.

The street was eerily empty as she stepped outside, but she barely noticed. She moved quickly to her car and gently pulled the door shut before hitting the steering wheel over and over with the palm of her hands and swearing as loudly and creatively as possible. The utter nerve of the man! After all the handshakes and the photo opportunities he’d manufactured around AusCare’s support as the relatable, compassionate candidate, the lives of these people meant nothing to him. It wasn’t even a matter of not understanding how crippling it would be to cut Islandia off from the help it so obviously needed, when they were in the perfect position to offer. He simply didn’t care. He would happily block them from reaching out to the wider world, doom them to extinction as surely as if he just outright ordered the place bombed into glass, and he’d call it a compassionate solution.

She shouldn’t have been as surprised as she was.

Her hands still shaking from the explosion of her pent-up adrenaline, she turned her key in the ignition and the engine rumbled to life. A second later, the radio blared once again. Not with the music she’d left it on, nor with the calm and even tones of the morning newscaster. This time, the radio blared with a cacophony of panic and distant, muffled shouting.

—en it will end, or how badly communications will be affected. Again, we urge you to STAY INDOORS until the debris has finished falling. ASA’s final statement on the unexpected and unprogrammed return of the Alcubierre probe predicts that the majority of the satellites caught in the experimental engine’s radiation wave will simply burn up in the planet’s atmosphere, but it’s impossible to assess how much debris will fall to the surface or where it will land. For your own safety, STAY INDOORS and—

In disbelief, Julie looked to the sky and watched as streaks of fire ripped across the blue, far beyond the clouds, growing larger and filling more of the sky as humanity’s satellites careened towards Earth.

She tried to count them, but she couldn’t.

*****

Thanks for reading! Once you get back on solid ground, why not settle down with the 2019 Terry Talks Fiction anthology, Tales of Sorcery and Silicone, available on Amazon or to read free through Kindle Unlimited!