Decree 53 required all civilisations in the known universe to be prepared for Phase 5. Thus, when Thelma Yttkyd, MD, woke up and smelled smoke, she knew exactly what was expected of her. The previous year, when she lost two sisters and both her parents to the fires in the North, her rage swelled like a super nova, and she realised she had to speak up. She was rewarded with a prompt demotion from her position as Head of the Burns Unit and further humiliated when assigned to be a mop-up team leader.
Her nostrils told her the inferno had finally reached the East, the last un-scorched corner of Jordgubba’s only continent. No fear touched her heart, however, because she believed her own forecast, and knew her plan was almost foolproof.
As a teenager, Thelma wished she’d been born during Phase 1, when the human colony was young and still discovering the resource potential of the planet. Or, better still, Phase 2, when exciting new inventions drove an economic boom, cities expanded, and a fresh crop of billionaires joined Galactic Business Review’s list every year. Once upon a time she would have been rather annoyed to still be around for Phase 5. However, now she understood how life worked and knew that everyone believed that nothing could be done about it.
Thelma climbed out of bed, showered, put on her refrigerated suit, ate a breakfast pill, and checked her bag. Yes, she had all the drugs and equipment she might need, including plenty of syringes. Be ready to fulfil your role and meet the challenge. She could hear her boss’s voice in her head. I’ll meet the challenge alright, she thought.
Thelma was glad she hadn’t been born in Phase 3, when comfort and wealth lulled the whole population into a dream of their own indestructibility, sustained by the fatal delusion of their superior ability to adapt and survive. It was well established in the academic literature that in Phase 3, most of the sentient population of an inhabited planet forgot The Law – and the local politicians were the worst offenders. This memory lapse occurs despite the warnings of the doomsayers, who are usually imprisoned or silenced by more sinister means.
Thelma was born at the beginning of Phase 4. Most scholars agree that this phase’s starting point is the most difficult to identify. It sneaks in on little mouse feet, unheard, and starts nibbling away at the ropes holding the lifeboats, so by the time people realise they’re in Phase 4, the boats have all fallen into the sea and drifted away, and there is no choice but to go down with the ship.
Not that there were any lifeboats in the first place.
An unusually fierce fire here, a series of storms there, the sudden disappearance of a lower species. These are all signs of Phase 4, and there are many more that go unnoticed by the general public, despite the inclusion of Inevitability Studies as a compulsory subject in the school curriculum across the inhabited universe.
The doorbell rang and, as Thelma expected, she found her neighbour and colleague Jarryd Flygdom, Registered Nurse, on her doorstep. She liked the way his rescue suit hugged the top of his thighs as he hopped from one boot to the other. The hospital all-terrain rescue vehicle sat in the street, its studded steel tires undamaged by the smoking road.
“Are you ready for the big day?” Thelma asked.
“I’m dying to get started.” A grin shone through his translucent helmet visor.
Thelma wished he wasn’t so suspiciously cheerful. Inevitability Studies taught them that this day was a cause for stoic acceptance, not tasteless jokes. Still, she didn’t have the heart to reprimand him. “Have you been out for a look?”
“I walked around the block, hoping to get a bargain at the fire sales. Too bad, only the fireproof places, like ours, have survived.”
Thelma’s phone beeped and she read the message. “As I’d hoped. Headquarters has assigned us our first preference, the Drkmil Valley. We’ll have a lot of farms and smallholders. Maybe we’ll find a few survivors, although they’ll almost certainly be in bad shape. And there’s a good chance we’ll be the last mop-up team to finish.”
“Roasted sweet corn for lunch, I suppose,” Jarryd said. “I hope you like your steaks well done.”
When the fires started, two years earlier, the smoke obscured the sun and cooled the planet’s atmosphere a little. As the inferno spread, the smoke trapped both the heat produced by the flames and the infra-red radiation emitted by the scorched earth and smouldering ruins. The temperature rose dramatically, driving greater and more destructive fires.
“Damn, it’s hot out here,” Jarryd said as they walked towards the vehicle.
“You got your suit cooler switched on?”
“Sure, and ice cubes in my underwear. I don’t think the manufacturers anticipated this level of heat. Even my boots feel like they’re sticking to the road.”
They rumbled past blackened buildings making a last stand against gravity. Twisted sheets of metal lay like soldiers violated in battle. Fine ash cast a funereal shroud across the ruins. After a few hundred metres, two suited figures appeared from behind a parked vehicle similar to theirs.
“By the size of them, that looks like Jack and Fatima,” Jarryd said. “They must be doing City Central, or what’s left of it.” He honked the horn as they went by, and a couple of gloves waved a grim reply.
“Idiots,” Thelma said.
After an hour, they entered the Drkmil Valley. In earlier times, it had been a wide, green oasis guarded by two precipitous escarpments soaring into the sky. All manner of vegetables and grains had formed a patchwork among the pastures on both sides of the Drkmil River. The valley’s productivity had been steadily falling as the thickness of the smoke increased and the farmers lost the battle against invasive weeds. Today, both the farmers and the noxious herbs were defeated. The last food producing region on the planet was an exhausted, grey wasteland dotted with smouldering stumps and carcasses.
Based on a profound understanding of the Law of Inevitability, the Rulers had decreed that no society or civilisation would prepare an emergency food stockpile. The Rulers’ also forbade interplanetary or inter-system rescues. Even if such a rescue were launched, it would take a year or more to reach Jordgubba and could only bring limited supplies.
Emergency stockpiles and interplanetary rescues. Everyone knew that such actions pointlessly delayed the inevitable.
“Each species sows the seeds of its own destruction”, wrote Edwin Fubble in his ground-breaking treatise The Law of Inevitability and the Five Phases of Organic Life. “While the end of a sentient species or civilisation may be delayed by certain intelligent actions, it can never be avoided, just as one cannot prevent astrophysical collapse or reverse the Big Bang. Responsible government, therefore, involves planning for the end, properly resourcing preparatory activities and skilfully managing humane responses, especially in Phases 4 and 5.”
“Looks like terminal Phase 5,” Thelma remarked, staring across the landscape, dotted with the remains of farm houses. One or two charred posts leaked smoky offerings into the sullen, insatiable sky. Tessellated concrete rectangles pushed up through the debris and ash, mere ghosts of the rooms in which the occupants had once laughed and breathed.
Jarryd parked in front of the only visible exception.
“Good choice. Let’s start with this one,” Thelma said.
A cow-shaped blob of charcoal lay in the yard.
“Over done,” Jarryd said. “It’s hard to find a good chef these days.”
The front half of the farm house had been destroyed, but the back section, with a low slanting roof, remained.
“Probably added on after the main house was built. Let’s see if the kettle’s on,” Jarryd said. They picked their way over fallen timbers, now reduced to charcoal logs.
“Here’s someone that doesn’t need our help,” Thelma said.
Jarryd bent over the human-shaped lump of amorphous carbon pinned down by a beam. “Deceased. Adult. Probably female.” He keyed information into his data tablet, then reached out to lift a twisted piece of roofing iron nearby.
“We’re not required to do a full search, remember?” Thelma said. “Just record the obvious ones.” Jarryd let the metal drop and followed her into the dim back room. They flicked on their helmet lights.
“Here’s our host for today’s visit,” Jarryd said.
Wrinkled eyes, flanked by a touch of grey at the temples, stared at them from the bed.
“Hello, sir,” Thelma said, and the man’s eyes widened slowly, as if his lids were made of stone. “We’re going to make you a little more comfortable.”
“About eighty-percent per cent third degree,” Jarryd said, as he attached the monitor wires to an un-singed piece of skin. “Blood pressure eighty over fifty, heart rate 150 bpm, respiration 30 per minute, oxygen 65.”
Thelma took a damp cloth and stroked the man’s forehead, one of the few parts of his body not singed by the flames.
“Yup, here we go. HR and oxygen both falling slowly,” Jarryd said, still watching his screen. “Care to speed him up?”
Thelma took a vial and syringe out of her bag and found a small patch of intact skin on the man’s lower arm.
“No,” the man said. “No.” He tried to raise himself up, but he could not prevent Thelma inserting the needle into a vein and easing the plunger down. The man glared at Thelma and then his eyes closed.
After a few moments, Jarryd said, “All values zero.” He made a few more entries in the data tablet. “What about over there?” Jarryd indicated a small room off to the side.
“Probably the bathroom. Worth checking.”
Jarryd pushed open the door.
“Uh-oh”, he said. “A floatie.”
“Probably death by misadventure.” Thelma studied the body in the tub. “Or maybe his dad drowned him, so he wouldn’t suffer in the fire.”
Jarryd reached down to pull out the body but stopped. They both heard the noise. A very low squeal, like a new-born kitten. They’d destroyed the hand-written notes they’d sent to each other about such a scenario. Thelma looked at Jarryd and nodded. They switched off their radios and opened their visors.
“Hello, sweetie,” she said, kneeling down in front of the little girl hunched in the corner under the basin. The girl stared, her eyes nearly bursting from their sockets. Her skin was brown and smooth, untouched by the flames. “My name’s Thelma. What’s yours?” The little girl said nothing.
Thelma sat on the floor next to the basin with her back to the wall and held out her hand. The girl didn’t move, but she didn’t resist when Thelma took her in her arms and sat her on her lap. Thelma held her tight and stroked the girl’s arm. Little sobs popped out of the girl’s mouth, like insect larvae scurrying from a hole in a burnt log.
Thelma caressed the girl’s face with the damp cloth. While the girl was distracted, Jarryd slid a fine needle into her shoulder muscle. The drug would have acted faster if he’d been able to find a vein. The girl barely noticed. Thelma took a lolly out of her pocket and offered it to the girl, who grabbed it and popped it in her mouth. Before she’d finished sucking on the sweet, her tiny form was limp in Thelma’s arms.
The girl was breathing steadily as Thelma placed her in the back of their truck and covered her with a cool-tech blanket. Back in the house, Thelma pulled down her visor and switched on her radio.
“How many times have I told headquarters these radios keep cutting out?” she asked, and Jarryd flashed her another smile.
Jarryd pulled the body out of the bath and lay it on the bed next to the man. He poured accelerant over the two figures and placed an ignition cube between them. As he left the room, Jarryd pushed a button on his phone. The back half of the house was well alight as they drove off.
By late afternoon, they’d completed their survey of the valley, and Jarryd had sent the data out into space on its long journey to headquarters.
“That old woman was a tough one,” Jarryd said as they drove back towards the city.
“Sure was. A real unbeliever.” Thelma examined the tear in her suit. “Fortunately, she only pierced the outer layer.”
They turned into their street.
“Your place or mine?” Thelma asked.
“I have a playlist ready.”
“There won’t be time for more than one or two songs.”
“I’ve chosen some suitable tracks, and I’ll leave it playing.”
“Nice touch, Jarryd.” Thelma smiled to herself, noting that their exchange would meet with approval from the flunkies in the Rulers’ Surveillance and Discipline unit, who were no doubt eavesdropping on their conversation.
The streets formed empty corridors among the ruins. Not even the rescue vehicles were about.
“Everyone else must be having a pint at the Smoking Arms,” Jarryd said.
“It’s something of an honour, don’t you think, to be the last team members to complete Phase 5?”
Jarryd gave her a wink.
They sat in the soft armchairs in Jarryd’s living room. He dimmed the lights a little and hit the play button on his battery-operated sound system.
“Oh, The Plasma Sisters’ remake of ‘I’m on Fire’. Most appropriate.” Thelma opened her bag and took out two vials and two syringes, handing one set to Jarryd.
“There’s a certain comfort in being part of the inevitable order of the universe,” Jarryd said, as he broke the tip off his vial.
“We’ve fulfilled our role and there’s nothing more that can be done,” she agreed, drawing the cyanide solution into the syringe.
“Let me just check for bubbles,” Thelma said. She took Jarryd’s syringe and studied it. Jarryd climbed on a chair and ripped the security camera from its mount. Thelma opened the front door and threw both syringes into the street.
“That’s contrary to our training,” Jarryd said.
“By the way, it’s raining.”
“As you’ve always said it would.”
“They should have believed me instead of demoting me and making me do a refresher course on their stupid Law of Inevitability.”
Thelma fetched the girl from the vehicle and took her upstairs. When she returned, she wrapped her arms around Jarryd’s backside and pressed his hips against hers.
“We’ve got the whole planet to ourselves now. How about we work on expanding our little family?”
Peter Ninnes is a freelance researcher and project manager based in Sydney, Australia. He obtained his PhD in Sociology of Education from Flinders University of South Australia. His short fiction works have been accepted in Tincture Journal, Bewildering Stories, Literary Yard, Breach and Dimension6.