Final Year of the Energy War
Seventeen Years Prior to the Arrival of Rogue Planet G9615
Ada squeezed her stuffed animal, wringing the ragged dodo’s neck as the building rumbled. Her mother tightened her grip on Ada’s other hand, and she looked up at her mother; white flecks of dust traced her unbound, dark hair, illuminated by the blinding white of the ceiling light. She shielded her eyes from the glare and saw her mother’s expression. Her face was pallid, her breathing shaky, her lips quivered, and her eyes darted between the soldier guarding the barred door and Ada’s father. Ada squeezed her mother's hand back to comfort her. Her mother didn’t seem to notice.
An explosion shook the building and sent another cloud of dust streaming down onto the people in the crowded room. The building trembled so violently, a swarm of insect-like maintenance drones dispersed and flew into an access vent. Ada shivered. The lights flickered. Families huddled closer together, packed tightly from one cracked gray wall to the other.
In the shower of dust, Ada looked up at her mother. She noticed and smiled half-heartedly. Her eyebrows pulled down and her eyes softened, but still they glistened with tears.
“It’s going to be okay, Ada, my love,” she said. “There’s no need to worry.”
But Ada couldn’t get the image of her mother’s scared face out of her mind. She remembered it perfectly, just as she remembered everything she saw. Her parents called it a blessing, but lately it had become Ada’s burden.
Beyond the closed door, screams. Whether they were screams of fear or of pain, Ada couldn’t tell. Probably both. They had passed an emergency ward on the way to this makeshift shelter, and Ada had slowed to look into the room. Red and black stains marred the floor tiles, wet spots reflecting the lights in the hospital’s ceiling. Doctors and nurses restrained patients who jerked in pain as the medibots went to work, sawing at limbs, stitching wounds, injecting medicine to put people to sleep. Some of the injured wore the uniforms of soldiers—blue and gray for the Allianz Mitteleuropa, red and black for the Unified Korean Peninsula, dark green for the United States. Most patients didn’t wear uniforms, just regular clothes. Ada wondered why that was, if they weren’t fighting in the war. The doctors kept all of the colors separated, with civilians filling the beds between. None of the soldiers liked each other; Ada could see it in their expressions. No matter what side someone fought for, anger and distrust always looked the same.
Her father placed himself between her and the room. “Don’t look in there, sweetie,” he said in a deep, stern voice. “Just keep your eyes forward.”
She’d nodded and obeyed. She might have been only eight years old, but even she knew war was no time for disobedience. Her mother had taken her free hand and tugged her along, following behind her parents’ friends, whom Ada called Uncle Ezran and Aunt Olsa, and the AM soldier leading them through the hospital. He’d brought them to a heavy door, knocked twice, and said something in German. The door had creaked open, and another AM soldier had ushered them into the room, already stuffed with refugees. Here they had waited ever since, as the sounds of fighting grew more intense.
The horrors of war surrounded her, but Ada was amazed by the lights. Actual, working lights that stayed on for days! It had been the reason they’d come to the hospital—Aunt Olsa’s baby would be born soon, and Uncle Ezran wanted to make sure she got the care she needed. However, they wouldn’t go alone, not when that meant leaving Ada and her family behind in a war zone, stuck waiting in the dark. This blackout had lasted for almost a month, the sun failing to appear from behind the sky’s blanket of clouds to power the solar arrays. Even before that, the German government restricted Ada’s home from running the lights for more than an hour or two at a time. That was what everyone was fighting about, Ada’s father had told her. Everyone used to have as much energy and light as they wanted, and they all blamed each other for the crisis.
Ada couldn’t imagine a world like that, the sun shining overhead every day, cities that glowed at night like the stars themselves. She cherished the few memories she had of such beautiful sights. Those were the good days, but they were rare. For most of her childhood, Ada had lived in darkness.
Here, the entire hospital was illuminated, and they even had spare energy to power the bots. Below the drone vent, a medibot waited in the corner, its sensory carapace swiveling back and forth as though looking for people to help. Ada smiled at the bot, then squinted up at the lights until tears formed in her eyes.
Her father came over, scowling at her. Despite his look, he gently placed his hand on her head and crouched down as far as he could amid the press of other refugees. Just as he opened his mouth to say something, a stout man with a thick beard spat on the ground.
“Verdammter Amerikaner.” He glowered at Ada and her family. “Dieser Krieg ist auf deinem Kopf.”
Her father straightened and spoke to his friend out of the side of his mouth, never breaking his gaze away from the other man’s hate-filled eyes. “What did he say?”
Uncle Ezran grimaced and turned him away. He said with a thick German accent, “Put him out of mind, Nolan. We must focus on what we are to do after this assault passes. We cannot stay here.”
Ada’s father rubbed between his eyes. “I know, Ez, but where else can we go?”
“South,” Uncle Ezran whispered. “The Swiss border is not far, and the cloud cover is not so thick by the mountains. They have enough sunlight to power the highways, and—”
“That’s bullshit,” Ada’s father said, then glanced down at Ada with a sorry look. “There’s no highways functioning, and even if there were, they’d be shut down for all but military vehicles. Besides, they’d never let Americans pass.”
“You are not a soldier,” Uncle Ezrin said.
“And?” Ada’s father gave him a hard look. The one that meant he was right, and he knew it. Ada’s father never believed he was wrong, but Ada remembered the instances that he was. Maybe this was one of them.
“And we’re bot techs,” Ada’s mother said. She gestured with her free hand, never letting go of Ada’s with her other. “We’re useful.”
The building began to buzz with increasing intensity, and several gasps sounded from around the room.
“Ordnance drones?” Aunt Olsa asked from the hospital bed she sat upon. “They wouldn’t drop bombs on a hospital. They couldn’t.” She placed a hand upon her bulging belly. Ada pitied that unborn child, to be brought into a world like this. When she’d told Aunt Olsa that, she’d responded that there was never an ideal time to bring new life into the world, yet nothing could be more important.
Uncle Ezran grunted. “Not drones.” He grimaced. “Troop carriers.”
A deep reverberation sounded through the walls. Ada had seen a troop carrier drop down through the clouds once, all hard edges and trailing black smoke behind it. Ada had wondered at the science that allowed such a massive beast to gracefully travel through the air. One of them had just perched itself atop the hospital.
“The Americans want this place for themselves,” Ada’s father murmured.
“Or the UKP,” Uncle Ezran suggested. “They are in the area also.”
Her father simply responded with that look again, and her mother clutched her hand tighter. But Ada’s family were American, weren’t they? Wouldn’t things be okay if they stayed with them in the hospital?
She glanced at the AM soldier by the door. He was holding two fingers to his ears and speaking softly. His eyes darted back and forth as he looked at something visible only through his augments. When his gaze returned to the room around him, he took a deep breath and regained his grip on his rifle. He was trying to look confident, but Ada saw the worry behind that veneer. She bit her lip. If everyone just stopped pretending they were all right, maybe they would see how scared everyone really was. Maybe then, the war could finally end. More than anything, Ada wanted the fighting to stop.
Another explosion rocked the building. The lights blinked off and on, then shut off for good. The pitch-black room filled with panic. Someone knocked Ada aside as they rushed past her in the darkness. Still, her mother never let go of her hand. Ada was afraid, but her mother’s presence provided some semblance of comfort. There was a metal clang, followed by a scuttling noise near the ceiling that sent a chill through Ada’s body. Sparks flashed and fell from the ceiling, then a dim red light filled the room, as deep as the red stains on the emergency ward floor. It took a few moments for Ada’s eyes to adjust to the crimson glow that bathed the room—moments during which Ada wished she had augments to help her see in the dark, but she was too young for those. The sounds of something scampering resumed above her. An insectoid maintenance bot crawled along the ceiling, its six legs moving with mechanical precision, until it disappeared into the open access shaft and closed the grate behind it. Ada was comfortable around most bots—her parents often brought their work home—but the small ones that looked like insects had always creeped her out.
The lamp on the AM soldier’s helmet turned on, casting light everywhere the soldier gazed. For a moment, he looked right at Ada. She turned away from the bright blue light and clutched her dodo even more tightly. Her mother pulled Ada closer as well and hugged her. Her hand pressed Ada’s head into her warm side. It was so soft; Ada didn’t want to move. She closed her eyes and tried to relax.
Her eyes snapped open when gunfire sounded through the door, so loud it hurt her ears. Panic swept the room. Refugees shouted. Ada and her family were pressed against the wall as the crowd moved back from the door. Still, the bursts overpowered the commotion. The lone soldier’s headlamp was joined by another—a lamp at the end of his rifle’s barrel. This light he kept away from the crowd, pointing it at the floor as he backed away from the barred door.
Somehow, the gunfire grew even louder, and the louder it grew, the more intensely Ada was squeezed against other human bodies. She struggled to breathe. Aunt Olsa screamed as Uncle Ezran hunkered down, pushing people away from his wife. Ada let out a whimper and began crying. She was far from the only one crying, though she may have been the youngest. This was no place for little girls. Her mother’s fingernails began digging into her palms, but she didn’t care. At least it meant her mother was close.
Then, mercifully, the gunfire receded. As if in disbelief, the crowd went silent. The soldier’s blue uniform expanded as he took a deep, slow breath. When he exhaled, his headlamp pointed at the floor, and he turned around with his fingers in his ear again.
Someone pounded on the other side of the door and shouted, her voice a muted yell in a language Ada couldn’t understand. The soldier’s rifle snapped up, then he hesitated. He lowered his aim and took a slow step forward.
“Nein!” someone shouted.
“Es ist eine Falle!”
Her father moved Ada and her mother away from the door, but there was nowhere to run if the woman on the other side wasn’t friendly.
The soldier opened the door a crack, and the woman burst into the room, knocking him to the floor. Even under the wash of red light, visible streaks of blood ran down her face. She wasn’t a soldier. She was a nurse, wearing the same colors as the AM soldier she’d knocked aside. She tore off her face mask and fell to her knees beside the soldier, then spoke to him. Ada didn’t understand her words, but she understood the tone of panic in her voice.
“What is she saying?” Ada’s mother asked Uncle Ezran.
He listened for a moment, then began translating. “Enemy forces in the building…UKP troops.” He glanced at her father, who looked away and said nothing. “Our troops have pushed them back to the breach, but…” Uncle Ezran gasped. His eyes went wide. “Doctors are dead. A medibot has been hacked. Killing the patients indiscriminately.” Other refugees reacted to this with shock as well. A void of people formed around the medibot in the corner of the room, suddenly menacing in its eerie stillness.
Her father moved toward it.
“No!” her mother yelled, but her father paid her no heed.
He crouched down beside the bot and removed a service panel on its back. A moment later, the bot powered down. Her father called their AM guardian over. At first, the soldier didn’t respond, looking at Ada’s father with skepticism as he rose to his feet. But Uncle Ezran shouted something that must have convinced him to help, because the soldier knelt beside her father and provided him with a light.
Ada looked up at her mother. What was going on? There were no answers to be found on her mother’s face. Only that same expression of fear, the one that hardly ever seemed to change these days. She squeezed her mother’s hand. “Mommy? What’s daddy doing?”
Ada’s mother shushed her. “Nothing, Ada. He’s going to stay here with us.” Her father and Uncle Ezran returned to them with the soldier close behind. Ada’s mother looked at her husband with tears forming in her eyes. “Aren’t you?”
Her father’s lips curled into a grimace, then he plastered on a smile over the grave look. It did little to comfort Ada. Pretending never did any good. “It’s a standard MED-9 model,” he said. “We can disable it.”
“Nolan…” her mother pleaded. “We can’t leave Ada here.”
“Ezran is going to watch her,” he promised, “until we come back.”
“And what if we don’t come back?” Ada’s mother blinked, and the tears traced little grooves in the dust that coated her cheeks.
“Look,” her father said, and pointed at the nurse. She sat against the wall, her legs tucked up against her chest, hugging them and staring at the floor with unblinking eyes. “She isn’t going to do it.”
“Another technician then,” Ada’s mother said. “There are fifty people in here. Someone else must know how to stop it.”
“People are dying.” He placed a hand on her mother’s cheek, wiped away a tear with his thumb. “We have to help.”
“The soldier will escort you,” Uncle Ezrin said, but there was uncertainty in his voice. He shook his head, then put his hand on Ada’s shoulder. “She will be safe with me.”
“We can use the MED-9's blind spot,” her father said, and his eyes softened. When he smiled, Ada frowned. More pretending. “I’ll get close and wait for you to send an override through its hardlink. It will be just like another day on the job. Trust me.”
Ada stared up at her parents, confused as her mother swallowed and gave a sharp nod. Why were they going to leave her here? Didn’t they want her to come, too? Her mother bent down and put on a brave face, but Ada remembered the fear. This was just a mask.
“Ada, my love, I need you to stay with Uncle Ezran. Listen to everything he says, and we’ll be back for you soon.” Ada’s mother gave her hand one final squeeze, then for the first time since they’d arrived in the hospital, she let go. She gave her a hug, and Ada’s father kissed her on the forehead. Then, with the soldier in blue leading the way out of the room, they left her.
In this room full of strangers, surrounded by people, Ada had never felt so alone. She looked down at her palm where her mother’s fingernails had left bright red indents in her skin. Then she hugged her dodo close to her chest and began crying again.
Why didn’t they want her to go with them? Was she not a good enough daughter? She could have helped. Instead, they had abandoned her. Uncle Ezran tried put a hand on her shoulder again, but she shrugged away from him. The only touch she wanted to feel was that of her mother.
He sighed. “It will be all right, little one. Your mama and papa will be back soon.”
The door had been left ajar, and screams echoed from down the hall like the woeful cries of ghosts. Distant bursts of gunfire made her body tense and flinch. Behind it all, the susurration of aircraft—fighter drones, bombers, troop carriers, and more. Ada had seen them all. She knew the face of this war, better than an eight-year-old had any right to. There was danger beyond that door.
But if her parents faced it, so could she.
Aunt Olsa screamed, clutching her belly, face wrung with pain. Uncle Ezran rushed to her side, taking his eyes off Ada. This was her chance.
She held on tight to her dodo and bolted for the door. Pulling it open with her free hand, she hurried through and never looked back.