Zane returned to the battle. The First Armada had moved closer to the Swarm, and their weapons were starting to have an effect. However, some ships drifted too close. The Swarm ripped them apart, turning their metallic hulls into more millibots, microbots, and nanobots.
Zane didn’t expect to win, but with ten billion people still trapped on Earth he needed to delay the Swarm as much as possible. He needed more time to continue the evacuation.
Vison wandered over to Zane’s side.
“Mr. Secretary,” he whispered, “I realize this is a delicate matter, but may I ask a few questions regarding the President?”
* * *
The super city of Gibraltar spread over much of Southern Spain and Northern Morocco. Two needle-like spires, one for Parliament and one for the President, marked the central district, the seat of Earth’s government. Escorted by a pair of gunships, Zane’s air-car took him straight to the Presidential Spire. One of the President’s clerks greeted him on the landing platform.
“Mr. Secretary,” he said, “I regret to inform you that due to his busy schedule the President cannot see you. Perhaps you could return tomorrow.”
Zane’s chief of security, Commander Marcus, stepped forward.
“We’re here to arrest the President for treason,” Marcus said.
The clerk glanced at Zane’s rigid expression. One of the gunships circled overhead; the other hovered low, dropping off a security squad. The clerk shrank back, but he didn’t get out of the way. Marcus had to arrest him as well.
* * *
Zane entered the President’s office alone. Marcus and the soldiers waited outside.
“I’ve been expecting you,” the President said. He stood by the window, his eyes downcast, his grey hair in tangles. A half-empty bottle of cognac sat on his desk.
“Mr. President,” Zane said, “enemy forces have entered the Solar System. We are at war.”
“Are we?” the President said, gesturing toward the viewlink. It showed static. “I haven’t seen anything about it on the news.”
“You’re watching the wrong channel,” Zane said.
The President shook his head. He lumbered back to his desk and sank into his chair.
“I’ve countermanded your evacuation order,” he said, pouring himself another drink. “You had no right to issue such an order in the first place.”
“Zane,” the President said, “I am sorry, but I have to think about my place in history. If history decrees that I must die, eaten by this Swarm, then I must die. If Earth must fall then it must fall. We have to let it happen.”
“No, sir,” Zane said. “We can change history. You don’t have to die. Billions don’t have to die.”
“People have tried to change history ever since time travel was invented,” the President said. “A few succeeded, but when they saw the new future they’d made they regretted it. It’s called the law of unintended consequences.”
Zane walked over to the viewlink and switched it to Chronovision. On the screen, men, women, and children disintegrated. Cities turned to dust, and the dust rose into the air to fly off and consume still more cities. When the Swarm finished with everything metal, they began feeding on the landscape, devouring trees and hills and mountains.
“How can we just let this happen?” Zane asked.
“Turn that off,” the President said. “I’ve stopped your evacuation. Those transports which already left I’ve called back.”
Zane closed his eyes. He’d never approved of religions. During his political career, he’d supported several movements to have them outlawed. Even so, in that moment he prayed to any god who might listen to cast the President into the deepest, fiery pit of Hell. And Talie Tappler with him.
“Marcus!” Zane shouted.
The soldiers came in. Marcus read the charges and informed the President of his right to remain silent, his right to council, et cetera. The President did not resist. He let them handcuff him and lead him away. Whether history liked it or not, the President would survive, and Zane looked forward to seeing him stand trial for what he’d done and all the additional deaths he’d caused.
* * *
Five billion people saved. Eight billion would be left behind, but five billion were saved. Mars took most of them, with Titan, Ganymede, and Europa colonies taking the rest.
Zane and his remaining staff scrambled to wipe the Defense Department computers before the Swarm arrived. A group of technicians copied as many department records as they could onto datapads.
A shuttle waited on the roof. It bore the markings of the E.S.S. Atlas, flagship of the First Armada–now flagship of four or five surviving ships.
A silvery mist hung in the sky, wafting ever downward. In the streets below, people were already screaming. Five billion saved, Zane reminded himself as he ran toward the shuttle. Five billion saved. Eight billion left behind, but five billion saved.
Zane climbed aboard the shuttle then turned to help one of the technicians. Baldheaded with a frazzled mustache, the man stared at him.
“Mr. Secretary,” he said, dropping his stack of datapads, “you’ll have to leave me behind.”
Zane shook his head. “They’ll kill you.”
The technician didn’t answer. He just looked at his hand. A small blister had formed on his thumb. Slowly, the flesh around it discolored, and the veins showed through in shades of grey.
Zane stepped back. A guard raised his weapon. With a quick shot to the head, he killed the infected technician.
“Scan everyone!” the guard shouted. “Make sure he was the only one!”
The rest of Zane’s staff piled into the shuttle, and Zane made his way to the cockpit. He told the pilot to lift off ASAP.
As the thrusters powered up, Zane collapsed into a flight seat and covered his face. He didn’t bother to strap himself in, despite the pilot’s warnings. Let the shuttle bump and bruise him. Let it break his arm or give him a concussion as it raced toward escape velocity. Zane thought he deserved a little pain for all the people he was leaving behind.
* * *
In addition to the ongoing devastation of Earth, Chronovision also aired reports on how the Swarm would infiltrate Moon Base One, cut off Space Force supply lines from Mars, and ambush the E.S.S. Trafalgar. As a result, the moon base was warned, the supply lines were changed, and the Trafalgar avoided the attack. Several hundred more lives were saved.
Standing on the bridge of the Atlas, Zane ignored all the holograms and status reports and blinking sensor displays. He paid attention to only one thing: Chronovision.
“They used their own gravity as a weapon,” Admiral Jaleel said, approaching the Secretary and handing him a datapad. “The Swarm’s total mass equals that of a small planetoid, and the way they moved created gravity waves powerful enough to bend light, confuse missile guidance systems, and pull our ships closer when we tried to retreat.
“Now most of the Swarm is planetside, but a significant number remain in orbit, positioned at the Lagrange points. From there, they could manipulate Earth’s gravity and turn that against us.”
“So how do we retake the planet?” Zane asked, handing the datapad back without even a cursory glance. Chronovision had reported all this hours ago.
“We can’t,” Jaleel said. “If we approach Earth, they can create gravity waves so strong we’d just bounce back. Or they could drag us closer, if they’re hungry.”
“No, there’s a way,” Zane said. “There has to be.”
Zane turned back to the viewlink to find the image had frozen. Behind him, Jaleel stood statue still, along with the whole bridge crew. Only Zane could move. Zane, and Talie Tappler.
She walked toward him, her hair disheveled, her eyes raw from crying.
“You win,” she said, unable to look at him. “You saved all those people. You changed the future. You did the impossible. Now please stop.”
Zane shook his head. “Chronovision says the war will last twenty years.”
“Closer to nineteen,” Talie said, forcing a smile.
“They say the Swarm will ravage the entire Solar System. Billions will still die if I don’t end it now.”
“What if I told you your wife and daughter will survive?” Talie asked. “They will. I promise. So you don’t have to worry about them.”
“How many husbands and wives, how many sons and daughters will not? How many of Chloe’s playmates will die?”
“That’s not important,” Talie said.
Vison appeared on the viewlink, a wide grin on his lips.
“We interrupt this temporal discontinuity for a breaking news report,” he said.
Time started again. The bridge officers looked up from their duties. Some gathered round the viewlink to hear what Vison would say.
To Zane’s surprise, he saw himself on the screen, surrounded by blue flags of Earth. He wore all black as though in mourning, but with a golden phoenix pinned to his lapel. A graphic in the top corner of the screen read “Chronovision exclusive interview.”
“What a difference twenty-four hours can make,” Vison said. “The war is over. The Swarm is dead. Humans are returning to Earth. Mr. Secretary, how did you do it?”