It's not every day you get you get to help save the world. Around here, it only happens about every six months.
I stood in the Apocalypse Guard command center. The screens displayed Erodan, a planet threatened with destruction by a passing asteroid. Today, the Guard would save that planet, and I got to be part of it.
"Emma," Commander Visco said, waving her cup toward me. "This coffee cup won't refill itself."
A very small part.
I seized the Commander's cup and hurried to the small kitchen beside the command station. As painful as it was to miss anything, particularly now that the asteroid was getting close to Erodan, I had a job to do. Commander Visco couldn't spare the time to fill her own cup. That's why you had interns like me.
A pot was brewing on the counter inside the small kitchen. But just in case, I got a second one going in the other machine. Truth be told, I was a coffee-making genius. Everybody said so, and I took their word on it, because... seriously, why would you bother lying to the coffee girl? Granted, I had to take their word for it, as I didn't drink coffee. My skill was due to my secret weapon: I knew how to follow instructions. I flipped through pictures on my phone, finding the instructions. The other interns said they'd been making coffee for years and didn't need instructions... but they then seemed shocked when they tasted how great my brews were. Odd how it was, when you measured exactly and read by the manual, how things turned out better than when you did by instinct.
New batch brewing, I filled the commander's cup, then took the rest of the pot with me as I rushed back into the main room of the command center, which was occupied by some forty people. We weren't actually on Erodan, the endangered planet; our command center was on the space station Charleston, which was in orbit around Terra, my home planet. We used specialized technology to look through at Erodan and manage the operation there.
When most people think of the Apocalypse Guard, they imagine the Riggers and their fantastical powers. Most people forget that the Guard also includes hundreds of scientists, engineers, explorers... and office interns. A magnificent force united by a single goal: save planets from destruction.
I delivered the Commander's cup, glancing at the command center's large main screen, which had shifted to a view of the asteroid. One of the technicians had nicknamed it "Droppy." The people on Erodan called it "Calamity." That was a bad name by our metrics for various reasons. Droppy didn't look that dangerous to me; more majestic. A grand oblong chunk of space rock tumbling quietly in the void, trailing a brilliant line of debris. The Apocalypse Guard had been working to stop it for two years now, ever since first discovering Erodan and making contact. That had been long before I had joined them, but I had read all of the mission briefs. Well, the ones that interns had clearance for, anyway.
Commander Visco barked an order, checking on the Sapphire Riggers who were watching along the Erodan's eastern sea. Because of the Guard's actions, Droppy should miss the planet. But after that, the planet would pass through the debris of the asteroid's tail, and that would cause meteor showers, and some larger chunks of rock might prove dagneorus. The Sapphire Riggers would use their powers to stop any tsunamis.
As the screen switched, I jumped, remembering where I was. Step one of not getting fired, Emma. Do your freaking job. Coffee pot in hand, I turned toward the rows of people seated in cubbies beneath the main screen. These scientists and operators supported the Riggers, who were our field agents. Filling empty cups wasn't glorious work, but it was my work, and dang it, I was gonna do it well. If Erodan fell, it wouldn't be because our command team lacked proper caffeination.
The screen switched to another image of Droppy. From what I'd read, saving planets from asteroids was standard work for the Guard. They'd done it some six times now. I would have expected them to use nukes, or more dramatically, the Steel Riggers, who could shoot bolts of energy from their hands. Instead, the Guard had painted the asteroid bright white. That meant more sunlight bounced off Droppy, which, remarkably, had nudged it off its course. Two years later, it was barely going to miss Erodan.
My pot ran dry, so I went to fetch a new one. On my way back to the kitchen, I hesitantly stopped the room's Firelight Rigger, who sat in a command chair off by himself. The man wore a bright red headpiece, kind of like a futuristic crown, and a similar chestpiece under his loose jacket. I wiggled the coffee pot, but he just stared forward, fingers laced with the index fingers tapping. The air seemed to warm around him. Looking in other dimensions, I thought, shivering. Technically, Erodan wasn't simply another planet; it was an alternate dimension version of Terra. There were technically infinite dimensions, but most weren't stable. They were wild half-realities, full of oddities and bizarre visions. Erodan, however, was what we call a Stable Node, like Terra. Or Earth, the Hidden Node. Erodan was a real world, full of living people, civilizations, and cultures.
"Looking good," Commander Visco said as reports flashed on the main screen. She had a voice that tasted like fudge brownies. Oh, right, I kind of taste sounds sometimes, particularly peoples' voices. It's called synesthesia, and it's a totally cool thing that scientists find super interesting and not weird at all. I don't mention it to people very often. "Emerald Riggers," Commander Visco said, "Report."
I trotted away from the Firelight Rigger (who was, admittedly, very creepy) and started scanning for other people who needed coffee refills. The main screen turned to a shot of a line of Emerald Riggers floating up above Erodan's atmosphere, each surrounded by a protective green forcefield. They were spaced out, watching the asteroid from a safe distance, a line of sentinels between it and the planet. "Asteroid pass is looking clean, Commander," said Captain Choy, an Asian man. His face, shaded green from his forcefield, appeared in the corner of the main screen. His voice tasted like brown beef with onions. "How are the tides?"
"Sapphire Riggers report they are manageable," a scientist replied. "Everything is as projected."
"Doesn't even look like there's much debris in the tail," Choy said. "Emerald Riggers standing by."
I filled a few more cups, moving down a row of operators wearing headsets. Each of these would be in contact with a specific Rigger. I didn't know most of them, though Billy, who was the last in the row, gave me a grin and held up his cup. "Thanks, Emma," he said, pulling off his headset. His voice tasted of mint asparagus. Yes, I know. Billy took a sip of coffee, and then handed me the headset. "Hold this."
Billy slipped off his chair. "I'll be back in a sec. Have to hit the restroom. Cover for me."
"Co- co- cover for you?" I just about dropped my coffee pot. "Billy, I'm not trained for this! Billy!"
"It's fine," he said.
"Where are the instructions?" Billy just left me there. He wasn't the only one getting up. Others would occasionally run to the restroom or something. A mission like this could take hours. But none of the others left an intern holding their headset!
I looked around in panic. An Indian man two seats over glanced at me, then shook his head, as if in disapproval. Right, right, cover for Billy. Step one, put on the headset. Step two... look like you know what you're doing? "Hello," I said into the device?"
"Hello, beautiful," a familiar voice said. "Glad Billy finally got your attention. Hovering up here is getting boring."
Lance. Emerald Rigger, and the reason I had gotten this internship in the first place. My boyfriend, a man I could have freaking strangled right then.
Lance's voice tasted like my favorite peanut cluster candy bar from home. A familiar, comfortable taste, sweet and salty at the same time. "Lance," I hissed, sitting down. "You're not supposed to be Billy's Rigger!"
"Billy and I got it swapped," Lance said. "If I'm going to spend hours flying up here in a bubble, I can at least have someone fun to talk to."
"You're doing important work," I said, hunkering down. What if the Commander noticed that I was shirking coffee duty to talk to my boyfriend? "Super heroic stuff."
"Boring," Lance said, then yawned audibly into the microphone. At twenty years old, Lance Stoddard was two years my senior, which had caused some consternation on the parts of our parents when we were in high school. He was the Apocalypse Guard's star rookie, having mastered the Emerald Rig after just one year of practice. He'd been on active duty every since, saving planets. That wasn't enough, of course, for Lance Freaking Stoddard. "They refused to put me on the dangerous missions," he said. "I had a chance to be on help of Zima five months ago, but they-" Do I have to listen to his again? "They pulled me for no reason! Now here I am, staring at a rock! Important work. The Hex were on Zima, Emma."
I shivered. The Hex. I wasn't allowed to read about our intervention on Zima. The reports were classified. But I did know we'd failed. The Hex had destroyed the planet. That made four planets so far they'd claimed in the eight years since they'd been discovered. People called them the most dangerous threat to the Knowns we'd ever encountered, a fact that I knew intimately well.
Lance sighed again, loudly. "You're so aggravating," I said, fishing in my pocket.
"You're getting out your phone, aren't you?"
"No I'm not," I said, getting out my phone.
"You're looking for that picture of me. The one you wrote instructions on."
"Don't be silly," I said, pulling up that exact picture."
"Well, if I'm supposed to be offended, I'm not. I think it's very cute, the way you talk. Very Idaho."
"I work for the Guard, now. I've become very cosmopolitan." I lowered my voice, thickening my real accent. "So stop teasin' me, Lance Stardard, you flipping idiot."
"I love the way that sounds! So pastoral!"
"Hush," I said. "You're from Idaho, too."
"I lived there for three years." Lance was originally from New York. He implied to others that he'd grown up in the important part, but I knew he'd lived in a town just as rural as Iona, Idaho. "I'm telling you", he said over the line, "I'm capable of more of this. The Pangaea mission will be even more boring. A flood? Scientists can solve that."
"I'm sure everyone we save on Pangaea will be comforted to know they were almost killed by a boring apocalyse."
On the screen Droppy drew closer and closer to Erodan. Sometimes, it was hard to remember that the screen was looking between dimensions, at another version of our world. Our history deviated from Erodan's some two thousand years ago, so they didn't seem very similar. Erodan's technology was stuck somewhere around the 1980s, and all the nations had different names from ours. They'd never heard of people like George Washington or Joan of Arc. Those people simply hadn't been born on Erodan. That was different from Earth, though, the Hidden Node. Apparently, that planet was so similar to Terra that there were alternate versions of most people living on it. Crazy. Fortunately, nobody could get to Earth these days, so it didn't really matter.
"You're supposed to be keeping me company."
"You're supposed to be staying focused. How long is Billy going to be gone, anyway?"
"Someway, when your internship is done, you'll be my operator. Then we can work as a team! Think of it. Me, risking my life on daring adventures. You, admiring how well I do it."
"You, tripping over your enthusiasm," I said. "Me, saving your heinie at the last minute, like in physics class, and in chemistry class, and in calculus class." I smiled. I did like Lance. He was like a big, barking Labrador. A little loud, maybe a little full of himself, but sweet at the same time.
"Admit it," he said, "You're glad I suggested that you apply."
"Suggested? You practically forced me into it."
"All I did was give you a list of instructions for submitting an application!" His candy-bar voice sounded intentionally innocent.
I sighed. It wasn't that I had minded getting out of Iona. But, well... Riggers gave me the shivers. It's just hard to explain. Our lives had seemed planned out, simply. But then Lance, instead of taking the football scholarship, had applied for the Guard. And he'd gotten in! And then when I graduated two years later, he nagged me until I applied. He pulled some strings, and I was really good at following instructions. So three months later, here I was, serving coffee to the Apocalypse Guard itself. Eh... when Lance let me do my job.
"Do you ever wonder," I said over the line, "why we have to do this in the first place?"
"Talk?" Lance said.
"No, save planets."
"You'd rather just let 'em be destroyed?"
"No," I said, "not that. I mean, have you wondered why? We found like, what, forty different stable nodes?"
"Yeah, something like that."
"And Erodan will be our twentieth intervention," I said. "So, like, half of all the planets we discover need to be saved from some imminent catastrophe. None have their own Apocalypse Guard or their own Riggers."
"Eh, some people from other planets do have weird powers. Jank is from Triveria; he can make things dry by touching them. He doesn't need a rig or anything."
"That's beside the point. Why, Lance? Why are so many planets facing life-ending threats?"
The Guard had a great track record. Of its twenty interventions so far, only six had failed. Four of those to the Hex, but that was still six entire planets we'd lost. with, in most cases, only a small percentage of people escaping to other dimensions.
"Best not to think about stuff like that, Emma," Lance said.
"I wish we had more answers," I said. "It..." I trailed off. A number on my monitor was flashing. The monitor had all kinds of readouts and things I didn't understand, since this wasn't my freaking job.
"Just a sec," Lance said. "Something's happening." That number on my screen, I thought. It's Lance's heartbeat. It skyrocketed. Feeling a growing panic, I looked up to the large main screen, which showed Droppy in all its glory. It seemed to be wobbling in a different way than before. Though the control center, scientists and operators hushed. Commander Visco looked up from her tablet at the back of the room, lowering her coffee mug from her lips. The asteroid wobbled once more, then started breaking into smaller chunks.