President Goodman, a good man, indeed, although easily steered into bad decisions, had a few minutes before the eggheads from Global Health Counsel came in with their report, so he was staring out the window behind his desk and tossing one of his kids’ fabric toys back and forth between his hands. It was a round ball filled with smaller plastic balls and shaped like an owl, something his kid had begged for at the gift shop at the zoo and then forgot all about a few days later. It rankled him, thinking about it. It wasn’t the money. The thing had cost a couple bucks and he was the president for hell’s sake. He thought Judy gave in to the kids demands too much. Spoiling them. The last thing he needed on the world stage was to raise spoiled kids.
Outside, the setting sun was casting long shadows across the Capitol lawn. Kentucky Bluegrass he’d had installed after he’d been elected, and never mind the cost. The people needed to see leadership had everything in control, down to the smallest blades of grass. Plus, he just loved the smell.
The holochat on his desk made its beeping noise. If he turned around he’d see the face of his secretary, Randal, hovering next to his terminal.
“Dr. Chaney here for the six o’clock,” he said.
Last meeting, then finally some dinner. He dropped the owl ball into a desk drawer and stood up to button his suit coat.
“Send them in.”
When he heard Randal say ‘Dr. Chaney,’ he assumed that was shorthand for ‘Dr. Chaney and the rest of the Global Health Counsel.’ So, even after Dr. Chaney had walked in and closed the door behind her, President Goodman still stood behind his desk waiting for the rest of the scientists. It was supposed to be six of them – the entire Counsel. Instead, Dr. Chaney came in. Closed the door firmly behind her. Went to the little red globe that kept the alcohol out of sight and helped herself to a glass of gin without bothering to wait for an invite or ask the President if he’d like one, too.
It was around the time she was putting ice in her glass that President Goodman realized no one else would be coming.
“Yeah?” she asked, pouring the gin.
“Where is the rest of the counsel?”
“Ah,” she said. She put the bottle down, meticulously placing it right back where it should be. Then closed the lid on the globe. She stared at it for a few seconds as she drank her gin. With a single finger she tried to spin it around. Of course, it wasn’t a real globe and didn’t spin. Sipping her gin, she walked around it.
“I’m beginning to sense this isn’t good news,” President Goodman said, trying to break the odd tensions that had followed the doctor in.
“No.” Dr. Chaney took another sip. “It wasn’t good news decades ago, Sam, why should it be good news now?”
This wasn’t like her. The Dr. Chaney he knew was a straight-spined, straight-laced woman. Always in her coat. Always expecting to be called Dr. Chaney, and always referring to everyone else with their titles, too. For her to be here drinking, her white hair out of its bun and hanging loosely around her shoulders, her light blue coat nowhere to be seen, and calling him ‘Sam?’ For the first time, something that felt like fear but couldn’t be began niggling at the back of his head. Couldn’t be fear. He was the President for hell’s sake.
“Dr. Chaney. Liz. Where are the rest of the counsel?”
She sat down on one of the couches in the middle of his office, half falling as she got close, and President Goodman realized this wasn’t her first drink, or her fifth.
“They are gone. Left the planet. And no,” she said, holding up her hand to stop his question. “They will not be coming back.”
Not to be deterred, President Goodman’s mouth worked around uselessly until his brain could come up with something else to ask.
“Well…where did they go?”
“The Jovian settlements, mostly. Lisel went to the Venutian Orbiter, and Deandre just,” she made a hopping hand gesture, “hop-skipped one planet over. They took their families, too.”
Goodman shook his head. “That doesn’t make any sense. That settlement is entirely untested, needs decades worth of work to start sending civilians there. They-”
The realization of what she was saying finally crashed home, and President Goodman crashed down on the other couch. Dr. Chaney raised an eyebrow at him.
“Evacuated,” President Goodman said. “You’re telling me they evacuated.”
“I would have gone, too. But I couldn’t secure enough papers for all of my family to get off together. So I had my children take the grandchildren out to Io. Myself and my husband, we’re old anyway. Maybe we die of natural causes before the planet dies of unnatural ones.”
The President thought of his children. Mel and Poet. His wife. Fear had fully bloomed in the back of his head, but he was a big strong man with big strong responsibilities. He turned fear to anger.
“This is insane. You were supposed to come here with a report. What are you saying, Liz? That the Global Health Counsel failed? Saving the planet was the entire reason the Counsel was established in the first place.”
Anger flashed in Liz’s eyes, and Sam thought finally, we can hash this out and fix it like we always do.
The anger was gone in a heartbeat, replaced by the same beaten-down emptiness she had walked in with. She went back to the globe and made two drinks, talking oh-so-casually as she did.
“Don’t tell me what the Counsel was created for, Sam Goodman. I was there when it happened. One of the original members. Nothing but a bright-eyed thirty-year-old who thought I could save the world. Ha. No, I take that scornful laugh back. I put it in the wrong place. Because I did save the world. We did. Or, at least, we figured out how. In the first five years, even. Have you ever read that report, Sam?”
He had, of course, there were certain histories a person had to read up on if they were even thinking about running for President. Could he remember it? That was the real question. For a few seconds, the answer was no. It came screaming back, and Sam screwed up his face.
“That report was…it was shut down immediately, wasn’t it? Yes, yes, I remember now. Shut down and laughed out of the office. It was too extreme, Liz. Too much, too fast.”
She handed him a glass and sat down with her own. “It wasn’t ‘too much.’ It was three things.”
“You know what I mean.”
“One, immediately stop drilling at the poles.”
“Impossible, we needed th-.”
“Two, stop producing plastics immediately and create a government agency to collect all of the plastic trash already clogging up the oceans and forests.”
“That’s really two things, and-”
“Three,” she said over him. “Stop all methane gas use and convert everything we could back to solar and wind.”
“I know what the report said!” Sam said, slamming his drink down on the table. He was offended at getting interrupted and trying to get a rise out of her. She only raised her eyebrows again, which made him angrier. “It’s all unfeasible and you know it! We have a society to run! A planet! The amount of money that would have cost-”
“You don’t have to tell me any of that,” she said, interrupting him again in the quietest voice imaginable. “I have the responses to our reports burned into my memory. We all do. That’s why the Counsel has had such a high turnover rate. Why I’m the only one to last four years, let alone four decades. New scientists fresh out of the planet’s greatest universities showed up to work the problem, only to discover that the problem already had a solution. The real problem was that no one would listen.”
“The things that report wanted the people to do weren’t tenable, Liz.” He spoke in voice that strained to yell, but he didn’t. He kept it quiet and even, trying to win the conversation back. “The cure can’t be worse than the disease.”
Liz laughed again, like she was laughing at a child sharing his bizarre reasoning for gravity. “It wasn’t the people, Sam! It was the corporations. They didn’t want their endless parade of money to stop, so they fought against it. The Counsel made concessions along the way. Less direct options with far more risk, but we thought if we made concessions we still might have a chance. You’ve read later reports, too, I assume? We said, how about five years to stop drilling? Ten years to stop making plastics and switch to recyclables? Fifteen years to get the solar panels working again? And the corporations made their promises and the government did nothing to force their hand and the deadlines went by without a single move, every time. Every time. And now we are here, Sam. The weather has gotten more extreme. Seasons are stretching or shrinking. Air quality is worse than ever. And still no one will do anything.”
It was the tone in her voice that took the anger out of him. Nothing left but fear. He took a sip of his drink, barely noticing it.
Liz leaned forward as though sharing juicy gossip. “And do you know the worst part, Sam? Strictly speaking, there’s still time. Damage has been done, yes, but if we were to implement the Counsel’s first plan, today, we could make a difference. We could change the trajectory. Keep the planet livable.”
Sam straightened his shoulders. “I’ll do it, Liz. I’ll call the chambers together, and…”
And what? He was President, yes. What direct power did that entail? He’d have to get both chambers, thousands of people, to agree. To agree to it now, not discuss and debate and fart around for years before finally coming to a vote. A vote, he saw, that would fail. He couldn’t count the number of chamber members he knew were in some corporation’s pocket or another. And those were just the ones he knew of.
She saw the look on his face and nodded. “That’s why the others left. That’s why I sent my family away. We know how to fix it. We’ve always known. What we don’t know is how to get humanity to love itself more than profits.” Liz sat back, and her voice took on a nostalgic tone. “Remember when we were young and naïve and we thought the terraformers were the cause of it all? Such a simpler time.”
Sam nodded, even though he personally didn’t. That was years before he was born. Decades. People still blamed the terraformers. They hadn’t even been on for a couple thousand years.
“We did this before, you know,” Liz said. “To Earth. You didn’t believe all that tomfoolery about coming to Mars just because we could, did you? ‘To Prove the Human Spirit,’ or whatever blah-blah they said. Did you ever wonder why we didn’t terraform Mars while we still lived on Earth? Why spend…what was it…a thousand years or so living in underground bubbles while the terraformers worked when we could have been living it up on the real thing? Because we destroyed that one, too. The reason Earth isn’t habitable isn’t a ‘scientific mystery’ like those corporation-funded schoolbooks push. It was us. Doing the same thing. I heard from Deandre after he got to the Terra Settlement, by the way. SynWave, SolTouch, IXN. They’re all there already. Trying to do enough clean up to get people there. They know they’ve killed Mars. They’re hoping to get enough of Earth safe enough to sell spaces to the rich and powerful. Same on the Jovian moons.”
Liz sighed. “It’s cheaper, I guess, to move to an entirely different planet than fix the one we’re already on. More gin?”