Cold, clammy hands grasped Milo’s ankles. Milo tried to kick them away. Several crates toppled over, and Milo tripped and fell. He kept fighting, but the aliens persisted. Their expressions remained calm and passive as they wrestled Milo to the ground and began dragging him toward their ship.
“My name is Fenyar,” the speaker said. “F-E-N-Y-A-R.”
“Thank you,” Talie said, not even glancing in Milo’s direction as he cried for help. The aliens were surprisingly strong despite their scrawny and fragile appearance.
“So, Fenyar, why attack this colony?” Talie asked.
“The Earth beasts intruded upon our territory. Our ancestors claimed this star system for the Imperium of Gronog three millennia ago and marked this very moon with their emblem.”
Fenyar pointed to the interconnected rings on the spaceship’s hull, and Milo suddenly realized they weren’t rings but a geometric design of circles within circles. “No…” Milo muttered as he recognized the pattern. Circles within circles, one overlapping another, just like the impact craters that formed the Redlands. If not for three thousand years of erosion, the Redlands as seen from space would look identical. These aliens had stamped their mark across the moon’s surface as a vast, artificial desert.
“We didn’t recognize it!” Milo shouted, struggling against his captors. “Lots of planets have poly-circular deserts!”
“Yes,” Fenyar responded. “You have encroached upon our territory everywhere. You have landed on hundreds of marked worlds.”
“And what do you intend to do about that?” Talie asked, almost whispering, eagerness flashing in her violet eyes.
“Our counter attack has just begun. This moon is the first of many. Our weapons will infect Earth beast colonies wherever we find them, and the sickness will spread to their planet of origin.”
Talie nodded. “How many humans do you expect to kill?”
“All of them.”
Milo stopped fighting. He lay on his back, pressed down by two Gronogians, and stared at their leader in wide-eyed disbelief. “All of them,” Fenyar had said. All the humans. The extinction of the entire race. The story of the century. “You can’t!” Milo shouted. “You can’t do this!”
Talie tapped her cameraman on the shoulder. “Get that shot,” she whispered.
As Milo screamed about war crimes and genocide, Cognis approached, but the cyborg’s camera focused on something else. One of the aliens winced in pain. It pulled its arm back and tried to flex its fingers. The long, bony digits wouldn’t move. The creature’s chalky, white skin began to shrivel and turn yellow. The Gronogian shrieked and started babbling in its own language.
Talie stepped into the shot. “These are only the first symptoms of a greater infection. The virus that wiped out this colony has mutated. Somewhere, in some human’s body, it exchanged genetic material with Influenza cosmovirus, better known as the galactic flu, thus becoming an entirely new disease. One the Gronogians are not immune to.”
The infected Gronogian keeled over, its limbs twitching. Others were feeling the effects as well. They convulsed and spasmed. Several panicked and scuttled back to their ovoid ship. The ship launched, a sonic boom echoing behind it as the terrified aliens abandoned their comrades.
Milo climbed to his feet. He watched the fearsome invaders succumb to their own biochemical weapon. Within minutes, they all transformed into lumps of brittle stone, their slender arms and legs snapping and shattering as they fell.
An arm snaked toward Talie, but she ignored it. “Please help…” Fenyar wheezed through hardening lips.
“Even if I could, it would ruin my journalistic integrity.”
Fenyar uttered a pathetic shriek. “We will still destroy the Earth beasts.”
Talie shook her head. “No,” she said in a soothing voice, stooping down to look Fenyar in the eye. “Your soldiers are carrying the mutation back to your fleet in orbit. Within an hour, the majority of your invasion force will be petrified, and your government will surrender. After that, human and Gronogian researchers will collaborate to stop both diseases.”
Fenyar gasped as his facial muscles solidified. He tipped over, breaking into two pieces, spilling powdered blood on the landing pad.
“Such a pity,” Talie mused, standing up. “Mr. Cognis, where shall we go for lunch?”
Milo surveyed the petrified corpses around him. It was fortunate, he realized, that the mutation had not occurred in his own body. If he were supposed to be that person, the one who changed the virus, the whole future would be different. The Gronogians would remain healthy, and their extermination of the human race could continue. No wonder Talie had been upset when she discovered what Cognis had done.
As Talie and her cameraman strolled back toward the colony, Milo fell to his knees. His father was dead, his mother was dead, as well as both his siblings and all his friends from the bio-dome. And Lianna. She was dead too. One of them had saved the entire human species. Thankfully, Milo had not been the One. Without knowing why, Milo started to laugh.
* * *
The E.S.S. Valkyrie arrived within hours. One clunky battleship, bristling with gun turrets and combat nodes, accepted the surrender of an armada of larger, more elegant vessels.
After three days in the Valkyrie’s decontamination chamber, Milo got his own quarters and special access to the ship’s communications system. The captain urged him to contact his relatives back on Earth, but Milo declined. Litho Colony’s sole survivor preferred to be alone and spent most of his time watching the viewlink.
“This is the Tomorrow News Network,” the announcer said, “bringing you tomorrow’s news today since 25,000 years from now.”
Talie was covering the end of treaty negotiations between Earth and the Gronogians (from Milo’s perspective, those negotiations had only just begun), and she seemed to find the whole affair painfully boring. Despite resentment on both sides and threats of future violence, the two empires reached a peace agreement and began joint efforts to neutralize the mutated virus. Not a single person died. Milo almost wished something horrible would happen elsewhere in the galaxy so Talie could cover the kind of story she enjoyed. Instead, she was stuck interviewing ambassadors and consuls and imperial delegates. “That’s fascinating,” she grumbled whenever they pontificated over some delicate matter of law.
One night, as Milo lay in bed watching the news, the captain knocked at the door and let himself in. The viewlink immediately cut to static.
“We located another survivor,” the captain said. “A young woman. She sealed herself in a space pod and hid in the planet’s magnetosphere. Her name is…”
“Lianna!” Milo said, leaping to his feet. It could only be Lianna. Milo desperately wanted to believe that. She wore two skill-marks: one for gardening and another for grade-one astro-navigation. Who else would know how to hide in a planet’s magnetosphere? It had to be Lianna.
Milo’s sudden outburst startled the captain. “Yes,” he replied. “That’s her name.”
* * *
“Sproutling!” Lianna squeaked, stumbling across the decontamination chamber and pressing her hand against the glass. She looked filthy and malnourished after nearly a week in a space pod, but she was alive.
Milo forgot whatever suave line he’d been planning to say. He just stood there gawking in the middle of the med-center, unable to believe his eyes. Lianna blushed.
“The morning of the attack,” she began, “someone left a data tape in the mail slot. It had Talie’s whole report! The Tomorrow News Network never allows people to see broadcasts about themselves, not if those people can change the future. T.N.N. was scrambled when I checked the viewlink, but I guess someone wanted to do something, to save at least one person.”
“I guess,” Milo said.
“Maybe Talie felt sorry for me. Maybe she did it.”
Cognis seemed a more likely candidate, but Milo never disagreed with Lianna. He’d never really figured out how. It didn’t matter anyway. She was alive, and that was all that counted.
“Mom and Dad wouldn’t listen,” Lianna said, her eyes watering. “They said they were too busy to watch the tape. I waited outside the bio-dome to warn you, but you never came.”
Milo looked at the floor. He’d been in the laboratory trying to warn his own family.
“No one believed me,” Lianna said, fighting tears. “I thought you were dead. I thought everyone was dead.”
“Talie’s cameraman gave me an antidote.”
Lianna laughed and wiped her eyes.
The two of them fell silent. They stared at each other, and Milo realized this was the time, the perfect moment in time, the moment to tell Lianna he loved her. Even with the glass separating them and the medical scanners beeping, even with the nurses and the captain monitoring everything from the adjacent room, this was the time. Milo still couldn’t remember the right way to say it, but he no longer cared. All the cosmos could die so long as Lianna lived, and Milo thought he wouldn’t even notice.
“She’s a wonderful woman,” Lianna said before Milo could speak. “Talie Tappler must be the kindest, most caring person in the known universe.”
Milo grimaced. “Yeah,” he muttered. “She sure is.”