The early morning sun already baking the pavement, Tom Killian trudged past the White House guards, a swipe at his dripping forehead misinterpreted as a salute by one young Marine.
“Hot day, ” Killian said to Steve Bishop, President Park’s press secretary.
Bishop stood at the entrance, his face like wax, jowls drooping in the heat. “They’re all hot.
“This one seems hotter than most.”
“Yeah,” Bishop said. “You could say that.”
Killian caught the distance in Bishop’s eyes, the steeling for “what next?” that set firm the jaws of the wise in Washington. A dozen years ago he’d known that feeling himself as he watched his flock dwindle. First went the artists. The intelligentsia followed, then the families. Most threw their allegiance to Phos, the rising new religion of those who classified themselves as seekers. Phos found a way to blend the world’s ancient faiths and make believing easy. This truth Tom Killian knew: In demanding times, people were dying for easy.
He also knew the route to the meeting, having traced it a dozen times before. Park didn’t call him as much as in the early days of the administration, so he knew to expect something big. An ethics question, certainly. As one of the only Christian ethicists left on the East Coast, Killian got the nod time and again. Now out of the pastorate, he attempted to support the faith at Georgetown, but not only had Christianity taken a blow, so had ethics. In the last four years, he’d noted the erosion: a pandemic of empty seats in his classroom.
“Sir,” said a page. “Not here.” The young woman wore the classic navy blazer, the uniform color broken by a small pin. Killian knew the tiny jeweled torch wrapped by twin snakes. She was a Light, an adherent of Phos. Directing him to toward the elevator, she added, “The lower level.”
Killian attempted a brow raise, but she anticipated. “The media. They train UV lasers on the windows and track everything said from the vibrations on the glass, you know. It’s a precaution.”
Killian ran a hand through his once-full, gray hair. The page could’ve been his own granddaughter. Smiled like Keisha, too. That gold medal, trophy smile. All Phos followers sported that plastic, defiant look, like something out of Deutschland 1938, complete with a soul-in-a-coma stare.
He complied with the outstretched hand, then turned to glimpse the page as the elevator’s doors sealed him inside. One ping later, his temporary imprisonment concluded, he stepped out on the royal blue carpet, where he picked up a military escort.
“This way, sir,” said the lantern-jawed Marine. The soldier directed Killian down a white-walled hall devoid of art and into a meeting room the size of his classroom. An ebony table twenty feet long hunkered in the middle, angry clawed feet tearing into the floor. Only two chairs remained open. He took the one at the foot of the table. He knew who took the one at the head.
Killian recognized most of the players. Thirteen souls sat erect, waiting for Lee Park to arrive. Dahlia Winters, dressed as if speaking at a Mary Kay convention, thrust out a manicured hand and said, “Thomas, how good to see you again.”
Killian loathed to take it. Wrapping the regional leader of the Phos cult’s hand in his was like shaking hands with Mephistopheles. He told himself to remember the Golden Rule.
“Yes, Dahlia, it’s been—”
“Since the chimera meeting,” she finished. “And we’ve already seen the fruit of that medical research, haven’t we? That the president saw the necessity of our position and elected to push his executive order through… well, now millions have taken advantage of replacement organs harvested from chimeras.”
“Animals with human genes, you mean,” Killian said. He tightened his muscles, preparing for her retaliatory strike, but a shuffle of feet and the military bolting erect cut everyone off. In mid-sit, Killian overcorrected to get back to his feet and felt his lumbar muscles spasm.
President Park arrived in a flurry, sprinting to his chair. Known for his go-get-’em style, one that enamored him to the voters, the president’s every movement cried action. The first Asian president, he’d been one of the first born an American citizen to parents who’d fled the fall of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. His was the Horatio Alger story, but with an intriguing twist that appealed to the pastor turned professor. Park once confided in Killian that 25 years ago he’d soaked the altar at a backwoods Pentecostal church in tearful repentance.
It’s why Park’s Phos tie clip bothered Killian so much. May have been nothing more than a gift from Winters worn in appreciation, but who could tell. No matter the case, play with fire, get burned.
Bishop said a few words and everyone sat.
Park spoke, “Kimball, what’s the situation.”
Kimball Johnson adjusted his girth in his chair, but did not stand. Radish-faced and prone to arrhythmias no pacemaker could correct, the head of NASA stayed in place and said, “We’ve got a situation on Moonbase Asimov.”
Killian checked himself. With the past year’s media leaks, he’d received no briefing, so he didn’t know the topic except to guess at an ethical question. But now he knew: more intersections of science and ethics. It seemed the only battle he fought anymore. Except here he had to fight it from within the subterranean bowels of the White House rather than in a press conference. At least out there a few friends rallied behind him. Here, it was sure to be a hostile crowd.
“As you all know,” Johnson continued, “we’ve had the base in place for two decades. Nearly 10,000 Americans call it home, not to mention another 22,000 from other nations. For years, the population at the station has been expanding—”
“Ever done it in reduced gravity, Kimball?” asked Michael Maloney, FAA chief. “Helluva lot of fun.”
The group chortled and nodded, Winters adding the most volume. Killian stayed mum.
Johnson rolled his head and continued.
“—the station’s population has risen sharply and we find ourselves in that nightmare scenario: consumption outweighs production. Studies show population outstripping the food supply.”
“But how is that possible with the lunafarming techniques the Department of Agriculture established?” asked Lillian Stephenson, head of the FDA. “We had assurances that we could scale back supply flights in light of expenses. Are you now asking for more?”
Scarlet rose in Johnson’s face. “Options are limited. Food production never attained projections. It’s not exceeded 30 percent for the last five years.”
“Thirty percent?” Stephenson said with more fervor. “I have the statistics right here, Kimball, and you’ve been tossing out nearly 90 percent for what, three years now? Are you revising your figures?”
“Revising is the polite term,” Maloney said with a huff.
Park raised a finger. “Past statistics or not, the real problem is that we have more than 30,000 citizens of this planet who are facing insufficient food supplies in the near term.”
Defense Secretary Fisher Morgan inserted, “We sent up a battalion ten days ago to quell rioting, and—”
“I’ve heard none of this,” said Roger Biggs, head of the Department of Homeland Security.
“Not your jurisdiction, Roger,” Morgan replied into his steepled fingers.
“It is mine, though.” A slim reed of a man rose to his feet and caught the attention of everyone. His face was lined beyond his age, Killian thought, though on reflection he had no idea what age Rafael Rotar might be. The Treasury chief moved toward the president, each step filled with gravitas. He paused at Park’s side, blinked twice, and said, “Economic conditions at Asimov have been deteriorating in light of commodity price inflation. It’s essentially unlinked from economic issues here, which have been challenging enough, and has crashed the lunar marketplace. The curtailing of supply flights continues due to stress on this country’s financial infrastructure, exacerbating the problem. In short, we need a solution.”
The president nodded, shortly followed by everyone at the table save for Lillian Stephenson. She instead rose up as high as her five feet of height would take her and said, “I see no other option than to remove as many people from Asimov as it takes to get the moonbase to sustainable levels. If the food production’s not there, then we simply can’t house a population on the base that consumes more than it produces.”
“Replenishment,” Maloney began, “what are we talking about cost-wise?”
The color in Johnson’s face darkened. “We peg food transport costs at just under $805 billion dollars.”
“What’s the time frame on that amount?” Maloney asked.
The hue change continued in Johnson. Like a deflating red balloon, he said, “Over the next eighteen months.”
“I know it’s a great deal of money, but costs are up,” Johnson continued. “High-grade sources of plutonium are tougher to come by. Fusion reactors are on the drawing boards for all lunar fleet vehicles, but we have to make do for the next few years.”
“With no support from the Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Senegalese or anyone else, I’m sure,” Stephenson said leaning into the table on her knuckles. “Do we have a difficult decision here? With all due respect to Mr. Johnson, that figure’s ludicrous in light of the nation’s current economic crisis. We either send up a half-dozen transport ships and get the majority of inhabitants out of there or we let things stay as they are and watch Lord of the Flies play out a quarter million miles away.”
At that moment, Dahlia Winters got to her feet. All heads craned her way.
“Have we considered the spiritual ramifications here? Whether production levels are or are not meeting the needs of people on the moon, riots point to a far deeper spiritual issue. These are empty people who need guidance and direction in difficult times. Phos has an answer, which is why I propose that we Lights put together an expedition of all available counselors and ship them to Moonbase Asimov. The answers to all Man’s difficulties are found in spiritual truth. I’m sure if we approach this problem with truth in mind, we Lights and those sympathetic to our cause,” she glanced around the room at those assembled, carefully avoiding Killian’s face, “can bring lasting solutions to the good men, women, and children on the moonbase.”
“Is that a joke?” Stephenson asked. “If it is, no one’s laughing, Miss Winters. Your expertise in this area is questionable at best”—she said this while casting a glance at Park—”and to suggest that we find metaphysical solutions to what is clearly a problem of stark material lacks borders on the inane.”
At this, everyone froze except for Rotar, who left the president’s side and returned to his seat. Park began to speak, then caught the eyes of Killian. He paused, leaned back in his chair, and finally said, “Tom, what are your thoughts on this?”
Killian gazed at the tiled ceiling of the room, out past the famous house overhead, to some distant place, searching for words. The room still, with only the occasional creak of a chair, he sought a better answer. A silent prayer later, he found it.
The former pastor stood to his feet and said, “This is what I believe we must do….”
What do you believe Tom Killian told the assembled cabinet members as they debated the future of Moonbase Asimov?
Stay tuned for the conclusion.