The knock at the door came just as Melissa was reaching into the microwave to retrieve her plate of macaroni and cheese. She frowned. How had her caller got past security? No one had rung the buzzer from the ground… what was going on? She glanced at the screen mounted above the door that was connected to the hallway camera. Damn. It was the military. Two soldiers dressed in camouflage fatigues waited outside her door, automatic weapons dangling from their belts. So that’s why there had been no buzzer—the military could go anywhere they pleased; they didn’t concern themselves with trivialities such as ringing buzzers to request permission to enter a secure building. They just flashed their ID and were admitted instantly.
What on earth did they want with her? She racked her brains trying to figure it out. She lived a quiet life, she kept to herself. She hadn’t even had so much as a speeding ticket in the last year or so. She was a law-abiding citizen, she had a good job… She knew the military often turned up on people’s doorsteps for no reason whatsoever, but so far, it had never happened to her. Usually, they only showed up when someone was wanted for an arrest, or to collect unpaid debts—neither of which was applicable to her.
She contemplated escape. The problem was, where would she go? She was on the twentieth floor of an apartment building; she couldn’t exactly jump out the window. The only door was the one the military men were waiting outside of. There was nowhere to go. Hurriedly, she looked around for somewhere to hide, but found nothing. That was the downside to being a minimalist—there was no excess furniture, no clutter in which she could disguise herself.
“Open the door, ma’am, before we bust it down!” came the shouted instructions.
“Bloody hell,” Melissa muttered, leaving her steaming dinner where it was and slamming the door of the microwave shut with a bang. There really wasn’t anything else she could do—she’d have to let them in. She’d opted for the cheaper rent with the standard doors, and while they seemed to be sturdy enough, she knew they were flimsy in comparison to the steel-reinforced doors in the more secure units. If the men really wanted to, she knew they would be able to break it down. And with nowhere to go and nowhere to hide, she was out of options. So she took a deep breath, crossed her fingers for luck, and stepped toward her door. Unlocking both deadbolts, Melissa stepped aside as it swung open to admit the two men.
“Melissa Malone?” the first man asked, swiping a chip reader behind her neck. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and muscular, and his jet black hair was graying at the temples, giving him a suave, distinguished look. He was clean-shaven, and his eyes were hard as they bored into her. He pocketed the small black device as the other man clamped his hand around her upper arm.
“You need to come with us, miss,” the shorter, fatter man informed her, his grip on her arm tightening when she refused to move.
“I don’t think so,” she argued. “What’s going on?”
“All will be revealed in due course,” the stout man informed her, giving her arm a sharp tug that nearly made her lose her balance. She tried to jerk her arm back, to stay where she was, but the man was much too strong for her.
“Who are you? What do you want with me?”
The stouter of the two flashed his ID badge at her. “Military police, miss. We’re here on official government business.”
“You are required to accompany us, ma’am,” the taller man told her firmly. “It is the law. I can force you, but it’s better for everyone if you come willingly.”
Melissa sighed. He was telling the truth. If she didn’t go, he would simply arrest her, then she would have no choice. She could barely remember the time when normal citizens could do as they pleased; the military had been in power her entire adult life. No matter that she hadn’t done anything wrong; the military had summoned her, and she had to go. She couldn’t even deny her identity—the microchip that was inserted between the shoulder blades of every baby at birth contained all the information the military could ever need to know about her, including her DNA, and it was impossible to remove. Plenty of others had tried, and failed, and been jailed for their efforts.
The pungent aroma of processed cheese assailed her nostrils and she remembered her dinner that was sitting in the microwave, no doubt congealing into a sticky mess by now. As if to remind her that she hadn’t eaten since the sushi she’d had for lunch more than six hours ago, her stomach growled. “I was about to have my dinner. Can I eat quickly before we leave? It won’t take long, I promise.”
The shorter man relaxed his grip on her arm, but tightened it again as the taller man, clearly in charge, snapped the order: “No. Leave it. We need to move.”
“But I’m hungry!” she objected.
“I said, leave it. Move.”
“But…” She lurched forward as the smaller man pulled on her arm, propelling her quickly down the hallway. It was obvious she wouldn’t be eating anytime soon. She heard her apartment door slam and heavy boots echoing on the slate floor behind her as the second man followed them out. At the elevators, instead of going down to the ground floor, they went up. Neither man spoke as she watched the floor numbers flash by in neon green digits on the small screen above the door: 23… 24… 25… all the way up to the roof. The soldier to her left never let go of her arm the whole time, even though they were the only ones in the elevator and the bigger soldier was blocking the exit.
“Where are we going?” She was afraid. Used to being in control, issuing orders and spending her entire working day making important decisions, being confined in an elevator with two military policemen unknown to her was a foreign experience. She felt helpless, frustrated, and slightly claustrophobic. She wanted to kick her feet and scream, but she knew it would be pointless. Behaving like a child wasn’t going to help her any. Her question remained unanswered. She struggled to keep her breathing under control as her heartbeat quickened in fear.
As soon as the elevator doors opened, she was ushered into a waiting helicopter and buckled securely into a seat. The shorter man looked grim as he strapped himself in next to her while the taller man took the controls. Even with the huge headphones, the noise of the helicopter was deafening as it roared into life. She could hear the pilot talking to the control tower but none of it made sense to her; he might as well have been talking gibberish. She still didn’t know where they were taking her. Then, within seconds, they smoothly lifted off the roof and were in the air, sweeping speedily above the city as they left the helipad on the roof of the skyscraper she lived in far behind. She watched, fascinated, as her building fell away below them, the cars traveling the motorway resembling Matchbox toys. The people clogging the streets were so small they could have been ants. Her heart was in her throat as the chopper picked up speed.
“Can you please tell me where you’re taking me?” she begged them, wringing her hands in front of her nervously. There was an uncharacteristic whine in her voice, but she didn’t care. She was too angry and too scared to care. These men had just uprooted her from her home with no explanation! What was going on?
The soldier at the controls ignored her, but the smaller man glanced at him briefly before answering. “You’re coming to our headquarters. Government orders,” he snapped brusquely.
“But why?” She racked her brains trying to think of anything she’d done wrong. There was nothing. She prided herself on being a model citizen. She didn’t break any laws, she worked hard. She couldn’t think of a single thing she’d done that would warrant her being escorted by military policemen to the government headquarters. “I don’t understand. What have I done wrong?” she asked, close to tears. She swallowed hard and fought to keep her emotions in check. It had been years since she’d cried—no way was she going to give these brutes the satisfaction of seeing her cry.
The soldier seated next to her patted her hand gently and smiled kindly. “Don’t worry,” he told her gently. “You haven’t done anything wrong. You’ll find out soon enough what this is all about. Just relax, we’re not going to hurt you.” His soft tone was in stark contrast to his curt order of only moments before, but it wasn’t at all comforting.
She didn’t believe him, but what choice did she have? Closing her eyes, she leaned back in her seat and tried to calm herself down. Taking deep breaths, she tried to focus her mind on anything but her current circumstances. It wouldn’t do for her to lose the plot now.
She awoke to the taller soldier shaking her shoulder. “Get up,” he ordered her. Blinking her eyes rapidly, she got to her feet and was ushered out of the helicopter, trapped between the shorter man in front of her and the taller one behind her. She wasn’t restrained, and neither of the men were touching her, but she knew that she couldn’t escape—this was just an illusion of freedom. She had no doubt that if she hesitated in her stride or took the tiniest step sideways she would be handcuffed and maybe Tasered as well. The soldiers would not want to lose face here, in front of their colleagues, by letting their prisoner escape.
They waited briefly as the soldier in front flashed his ID badge in front of an electronic reader mounted at the side of the path and the door in front of them slid open. She was escorted through the door and down a long, deserted hallway, into a huge room filled with people who were sitting silently in rows of chairs all facing the front. The shorter man disappeared into the crowd while her taller, broad-shouldered escort behind her pushed her down into a straight-backed chair at the edge of the back row, seating himself next to her. As he sat, he gave her a hard glare that was clearly a warning of some sort… but a warning for what?
“What are we…” she started to ask but she was rudely cut off by the soldier. Putting one hand behind her head, he clapped the other one over her mouth. “Mmmmmmf!” she yelled against his hand. She wriggled, trying to squirm out of his reach, but her indignant protest came out sounding too muffled to be recognizable, and the grip he had on her was too strong for her to escape from.
“Quiet!” he hissed. “You’re about to find out. Just wait.” With a stern glare, he removed his hands from her person and rested them on the front of his thighs.
“But…” The word had barely escaped her lips when her burly companion clapped his hand over her mouth again.
“Shush.” He glared at her even more sternly than before. His hand pressed firmly against her mouth; the pressure almost hurting her. Melissa was outraged—she had never been manhandled like that before, and she wasn’t used to being told what to do. But she realized that fighting him was getting her nowhere, so she nodded meekly. Being so effectively gagged by his huge hand in front of so many people was embarrassing. She’d be quiet for now—she needed his hand off her mouth. Satisfied, he took his hand away and sat back in his chair.
True military, he sat with his back ramrod straight, his feet planted firmly on the floor in front of him, legs slightly apart. His upper arm brushed her shoulder and her knee rested against his thigh. She could feel the hardness of his body beneath his military-issue clothing and her breath hitched in her throat. It had been a long time since she’d been with a man and this one was causing feelings within her that she didn’t want to acknowledge. Aside from the coldness in his eyes and the complete lack of kindness in his stern demeanor, she found him quite attractive. She tried to force that thought from her mind. She was doing it again—lusting after the wrong man. Why did she do that, time after time? She’d been introduced to countless nice men, successful men, quiet well-mannered men, but she just wasn’t attracted to any of them. Instead, she fell for the harsh ones, the men with the no-nonsense attitudes, just like the one sitting next to her. All her friends had been in happy relationships for years, but so far, she hadn’t found the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. She was beginning to think he didn’t exist. And while the pleasure robots she’d been passing the time with were good, very good in fact, they just couldn’t do for her everything that a man could.
Her attention was diverted from the man beside her to a huge screen mounted on the wall at the front of the room. She jumped as a tall military man with medals decorating his lapel fiddled with the microphone, making it squeal. The screen lit up.
“You are all gathered here today for a very special reason,” he informed them. He turned toward the screen and waited a split second as a satellite view of space appeared, to be replaced quickly by a diagram of the solar system. “NASA has been concerned for some time now about the presence of a huge asteroid, roughly the size of England, which is heading straight for Earth. Many attempts have been made to deflect it, but because it is so big, these attempts have, so far, failed. We predict it will hit us in just over a week.”
Melissa gasped. The silence in the room was deafening as people stared at the screen, speechless. How could it be possible?
“This is, of course, top secret,” the speaker explained. “You can imagine the sort of panic we would have on our hands if this information got out.”
Outraged murmurs and mutterings started to fill the room as everyone started talking at once, rising from their seats in confusion and fear.
“Order!” the man at the front shouted into the microphone, but he was ignored as pandemonium erupted. Melissa stayed glued to her seat in shock as the soldier who had escorted her leapt to his feet, his hand on his weapons, assisting the other military personnel in calming down the crowd. Melissa remained where she was—she was numb. She couldn’t believe life as she knew it was about to end. All the people she knew and loved—what would happen to them? Which raised a very important question: Why had she been chosen to come here, and what purpose did bringing her here serve?
“And this is where you all come in,” the man at the front intoned, once order had been restored in the room. “There are several options available to us that we hope will be successful in saving our planet—one of which is using new technology to try again to alter the course of the asteroid. We could also attempt to blow it up, to destroy it in space, but that brings with it its own risks, including asteroid showers raining down on Earth, which could cause any amount of damage.” Pulling a small laser pointer out of his pocket, the speaker pointed at the screen, showing the audience exactly where the asteroid was, its size in relation to Earth, and its expected impact point. Even from where she was sitting, and with her limited knowledge of astronomy, it was clear to Melissa that they were in trouble. The asteroid was huge—and it was headed straight for them.
“If we are unsuccessful in our endeavors, life as we know it could be wiped out almost entirely. Using the data we have on record for you all, we have carefully selected the two thousand people in this room—a thousand men and a thousand women—who will be responsible for ensuring the preservation of mankind. We have chosen you for several reasons, most importantly for your DNA—your genetic background is impeccable, you are all young and of good health. Also a requirement was your single status and the fact that you all live alone so you won’t be missed immediately. Selecting couples would have raised too much suspicion—it is much harder for two people to disappear than one.” The man spoke matter-of-factly, as though the whole thing was done and dusted, all arranged, not open for negotiation. “We have chosen people of above-average intelligence, thinking people, courageous people. You are all professionals with a wide range of jobs—your career choices range from lawyers to doctors, nurses, a computer genius.” He stopped talking and looked directly at her, catching her eye, before continuing. “Teachers, builders, engineers—all the skills that will be needed to keep civilization going.” He stopped talking and looked around the room proudly, as if he had accomplished something great. Then he waved his arm in a broad sweeping gesture across the rows of seats.
“The future of mankind lies with you all here today—you will board space shuttle Rosa 710 immediately and will be sent to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, to establish a temporary colony. Europa has water, but we don’t know what else is there. We don’t know if there is any form of life on the planet at all. However, we have prepared…” Melissa tuned him out as the speaker droned on and on, detailing the provisions that had already been sent ahead in a separate spaceship, everything necessary for them to survive. Her mind was awhirl. So this was her fate—to be sent to somewhere in outer space so she could be nothing more than a walking, talking uterus?
She was jolted back to reality as the soldier to her right jabbed her in the ribs with his elbow. “Pay attention,” he hissed. She jumped in fright, outraged afresh at his callous treatment of her.
“Hopefully the underground bunkers the government has built will work as planned, and we will be able to make contact with Europa within a fortnight via satellite. There are enough provisions to last for two years,” the speaker was saying. “After that, if you have not been successful in making contact with Earth, you may need to return regardless, and see what you find.”
Melissa felt like she was drowning, flailing around, trying to swim upstream through thick muddy water while the current kept dragging her backwards into this crazy abyss where nothing was as it should be. She was trying to make sense of everything she’d just been told, but it was crazy! How could this even be happening? Was the military seriously just going to save a select few, and themselves, and let everyone else die? And what kind of crazy notion was it that she got sent among two thousand people to a far-off moon that may or may not be able to sustain life? What if she didn’t want to go? What if she wanted to remain instead, and risk dying, with those she loved? Surely this was a dream—a nightmare? There was no way it could be reality. It was just too bizarre!
She was oblivious to the room erupting into chaos around her; she didn’t notice as civilian after civilian was forcibly restrained by the accompanying military police. She couldn’t hear the angry shouts, the protests, the wailing of some of the women. She was numb, scarcely able to believe what was going on. This was crazy. Was this really how life as she knew it was going to end?
“Ma’am?” She felt a touch on her shoulder and the deep voice belonging to her escort sounded concerned. “Are you okay, ma’am?” he asked. “You’ve gone very pale. Are you going to faint? Would you like a glass of water?”
“Water?” Melissa sputtered at him incredulously. “The whole world has been turned on in its head and you offer me water? Are you mad?”
The hard, cold eyes turned on her with a furious glare. “Count yourself lucky, miss,” he snarled. “You’ve at least got a chance at life. Everyone left on Earth is likely to be killed. The chances of blowing up the asteroid are slim, and the underground bunker may or may not be successful. And even if it is, civilization as we know it will probably be finished. Even the people who survive the impact might die anyway.”
She looked at him. His fists were tightly clenched into balls at his side and he looked like it was taking all his self-control not to hit her.
“You can go in my stead, if you like,” she offered. “I’d rather take my chances here on Earth. I’m really not the adventurous type.”
“I’ll be piloting Rosa 710, the space shuttle we will be evacuating Earth in. But you’ve got the wrong attitude—you’ve been picked for a reason,” he growled. “A lot of criteria must be met to be suitable to make this trip to Europa and most people don’t fit it. Make the most of your opportunity—you’re a lucky woman. Everyone else will be left behind, most likely to die.” His words were sobering, and very true, and she felt a momentary pang of guilt for her bitterness. He was right—she should be grateful, but how could she be? She didn’t want to go. She wanted to stay on Earth and take her chances.
When she looked at him again, the coldness had softened in his eyes just a bit, but a hard glint still remained. He was obviously not a man to be trifled with, and for a moment she almost felt glad he was going too—at least there would be someone who wasn’t a complete stranger on this mission with her. She took a deep breath, trying to force the reality of her situation from her mind.
But there was no time to think about things for too long—within seconds, the group of civilians gathered in the room were surrounded by armed military personnel, ordered to be silent, and ushered down a long, narrow, dark corridor to where Rosa 710 was waiting.