I go where the spirit moves me. I see darkness and light at war with each other. I see darkness receding in some places, growing in others. I see reason in retreat, but hope in advance. I see cooperation withdrawing, but individuals ascending.
Even I don't know what will happen next. I know only that it must happen soon.
Congressman Damon had never been to a Diner like this before. That was the whole point, of course. The man he met was older, with short cut hair, and was already sipping a coffee when Damon sat down.
"You're Stephan?" Damon asked quietly, glancing over his shoulder.
"Yes, Congressman." Stephan said in a low voice. "You've reconsidered?"
"I've reconsidered nothing. I'm here to accept your surrender."
"Our surrender?" Stephan countered, as though it was laughable. "You're the one asking for a bribe."
"Not a bribe, a royalty."
"For a chem plant that hasn't opened yet."
"Consider it an advance on a deal." Damon insisted. "Messing with the water table is political suicide right now, if anyone finds out. Flint, Michigan? Still on bottled water. Legal fees cost money."
"Only if you get charged. We have a strong liability shield."
"Yes, you do. Which is why you won't be charged. So who do you think will get roasted over a low flame when the picketing starts?"
"Haven't you heard?" Stephan cracked. "According to the Government and the EPA, there's nothing to fear from Climate Change."
"You read the story about two hundred thousand scientists signing their name to a borderline apocalyptic warning for the future?" Damon fired back.
"That was yesterday's news. Today's news was about who hooked up and broke up on the 22nd season of The Bachelor." Stephan chuckled. "Nobody cares."
"If nobody cared, you wouldn't be here talking to me. If nobody cared, you wouldn't have to cover up these things. Have you seen the plans for the Plant? You're literally across the street from a dog park. Kids, pets… You can't take chances with babies. Just ask any politician who ever dropped one. Now what's in it for me to take that chance?"
"No! On the press, idiot." Damon scorned. "Lives cause controversy for a week per victim, but a bad news cycle could cost me the re-elect."
"You've already been offered fifty thousand." Stephan reminded him.
"And if that's going to be my re-elect fund, I'll be expecting a few more digits on the end of that." Damon said briskly. "This is not a small matter. You're asking me to falsify records."
"Oh, very well. Shall we call it an even half million?"
"You know, Congressman; it'd be easy to take that half million you just turned down, and give it to your opponent at the next election."
"If you could do that, you would." Damon scorned. "You're more afraid of picketers than I am; that's why you're rushing this through. This plant is worth almost two hundred million. What's your usual legal fees worth? You want me to fix it for you, consider me a legal expense."
"Fine. Two million. Final offer."
"And you pick up the check."
"You haven't ordered anything."
"How many tonnes of chemical runoff will it be, again?"
"Fine. Lunch is on me." Stephan said. "By the way, we haven't been introduced. My name is Stephan Petrov."
"Why do I care?" Damon asked blandly.
"Hi, dad." A younger voice said brightly, and a young blonde woman was suddenly sitting down next to Stephan. "This is a nice place. So, what are we having for lunch?"
"Oh my god." Damon breathed.
The young blonde held out a hand with an unsettling grin. "Oh, we haven't met. I'm Linka."
At the next booth, a young man took off his baseball cap, revealing a mop of red hair. "And I'm Wheeler. And the man with the camera on your left? Kwame. You may have heard of us."
The people in the Diner were waking up to the fact that there were several global celebrities in their midst, and started pulling out their phones and cameras as quickly as they could. Damon was up and running for the door, quickly… and when he burst outside, the first thing he saw was a large projector screen, with his own face projected for those watching, as they walked down the street.
And perched at the edge of the screen with a laptop, was Gi. "Ha! Geeks Rule!" She chirped happily. "Let's see my favorite part again!"
"Lives cause controversy for a week per victim, but a bad news cycle could cost me the re-elect." His onscreen twin said.
"You've already been offered fifty thousand." Stephan reminded him, just out of the camera's vision.
"And if that's going to be my re-elect fund, I'll be expecting a few more digits on the end of that."
Damon turned away from the screen, and found a crowd had gathered. A much larger crowd than was normally expected out front of a Diner, but a small boy with a glowing Golden Ring on his hand explained that one.
Gi played the clip again, and again, and the crowd started booing, sending Damon running.
"Thanks for the use of your equipment." Linka's father said as they started putting their things away an hour later.
"It's not ours." Gi told him. "Use of the screen, thoughtfully donated by a member of the Planeteer Foundation."
"It's a waste of time, you know." Stephan said as they packed up the screen.
"Exposing corrupt deals and saving people from getting sick by the thousands isn't a good day for you?" Linka countered.
"There's no chance that any of the charges will stick, and the video he can declare inadmissible, since I couldn't get the warrant together."
"That's why you called us, Agent Petrov." Kwame told him. "We don't need a warrant, and as long as everyone knows, his legal issues aren't our problem."
"He won't be able to wriggle out of that video by the next election." Wheeler added. "In his world, that's the same as being dead."
"Oh, like being dirty ever kept anyone from high office."
"You're bitter today." Linka commented.
"Life of Law Enforcement, daughter." Stephan sighed. "Two steps forward, one back. Sometimes it goes the other way."
"Tell me about it." Wheeler quipped, and made his way back to the others.
"Where's mom?" Linka asked once they were alone. "You always get this cranky without her around. I was expecting her to be with you on this one."
"Your mother is working a long-term investigation somewhere in Europe." Her father told her. "I've had trouble getting her on the phone. You're right, I get like this when I don't see my wife."
Linka smiled a very thin line. Her parents were rarely at their best when they didn't see each other, but routinely went months without contacting their daughter. But she saw no benefit in saying so.
"Where do you go from here?" Stephan asked.
"Back to Hope Island for now." Linka yawned. "We've been on the road for a while. We'll figure out our next lineup of missions. The Island is pretty well placed for international travel. At least, if you want to do so in secret."
The sun was setting on Hope Island as the Geo-Cruiser returned to it.
The island was now home to most of their families, who had learned the hard way that being related to powerful figures, or global celebrities, was not the easiest life.
Kim and Yumi, Gi's parents, had taken to their new life without too much trouble. The only thing that had really changed for them was their job, and the neighbors. They had lived on their houseboat already.
"What are you reading?" Yumi asked her husband.
"A news item about the rise of 'clean meat'." Kim put the tablet down. "Lab-Grown meat was science fiction five years ago, they say it'll be commercially available within a year."
"For those with money to burn."
"Less so than you think. Besides, that's what they said about Solar Power. There are some big names behind the push for lab-grown meat. No animals to raise cruelly, no waste of water or space… I remember Gi telling us about their first mission, and Wheeler making the crack that if the whole world had to go vegetarian, what was the point of saving the world."
Yumi chuckled. "So you figure if Grown Meat goes the same route as Solar Power, from expensive to cheaper than anything else, we'll have another revolution on the scene?"
"The Meat industry creates as much C02 and methane as the auto industry." Kim nodded. "If you can grow a steak without needing to feed cows, or for that matter, own a cattle farm, isn't that better? No animals being slaughtered; and enough grain and water to supply the entire third world. Would vegetarians have a problem with eating meat again?"
"Speaking of eating, they'll be back soon." Yumi reminded him. "Passing from matters of mere worldwide importance to the really important stuff, we need to get Gi's dinner ready to travel."
"If doesn't have to travel that far." Kim reminded his wife, when they heard JJ hollering a warning from outside. "Oop! They're back! Now we gotta hurry!"
"That's what I'm saying!" Yumi rolled her eyes. "Bring the candles!"
The Planeteers took a break now and then. It wasn't an easy life, and they everyone needed some time to themselves. They appreciated it to different degrees, and Kwame found that he appreciated the respite more since officially starting a relationship with Gi.
From the moment they arrived back on Hope Island, the others peeled off. The few family members that lived on Hope Island permanently were also notably absent.
"I didn't notice anyone calling ahead." Kwame commented as he and Gi strolled towards her place, arm in arm. "Do you think Ma-Ti told them to give us privacy?"
"I think the Calendar told them to give us privacy, love." Gi chuckled. "It's our six month anniversary, after all."
Kwame made no outward reaction.
"I can feel Kwame's brain screaming." Ma-Ti commented as he walked with Linka and Wheeler down the beach. "He's panicking."
"I still can't believe he forgot their anniversary." Linka commented.
"He's been busy." Wheeler pointed out.
"So why didn't we take a moment at any point over the last month and warn him?" Wheeler countered.
Linka paused, before moving again. "We've been busy."
"No excuse." Wheeler needled.
"I only wish we could have made it special." Kwame covered. "It's been one mission after another, and most of the last month were ones that public doesn't know about."
"And we better hope they never find out." She reminded him. "I would have liked to make a big deal too, but it…" She sniffed the air. "Hey, is that… Oyakodon?"
"Hm?" Kwame asked, not having a clue what that meant.
Gi rushed the last few feet to her Japanese Style home, and pushed the screen door open. The room was lit with romantic paper lanterns, surrounding the table, filled with steaming ceramic pots of food, with two floor chairs on either side.
Gi squealed and jumped up high enough to kiss Kwame square on the mouth. "You wonderful man!" She went to the table and started lifting lids. "Oyakodon, Gyoza Pork in Miso Soup, Teriyaki Salmon, and…" She kissed him again. "All my favorites! How did you know?!"
"I cannot believe you learned to make Teriyaki Salmon." Linka said by way of greeting to her Grandmother.
"It was an interesting challenge." The old woman smiled. "Miso soup is quite a bit different from Borscht."
"You're back!" Little Ruby spun at the sound of her voice and came running. Linka bent to take her in a hug, but she zipped right past Linka and powered into Wheeler's stomach like a train, wrapping her arms around him. "Welcome back!"
Wheeler chuckled at the blatant betrayal on Linka's face and ruffled Ruby's hair.
Hearing their voices, Gi's parents Kim and Yumi came out of the warehouse they'd set up. The families knew that the Planeteers weren't exactly their kids anymore, and had set up their own little colony a respectful distance away. Hope Island was neutral territory, and nobody wanted to try and take advantage of some of the most famous, and most dangerous people in the world, but it was a pristine tropical world with living things, and that demanded attention. Gi's parents had been hosting a few botanists who had a particular interest in some of the amazing plantlife that had sprouted from nothing a year before. There were whole fields of science dedicated to the existence of Hope Island, and all her creatures.
"They find their anniversary dinner?" Yumi asked with a smile.
"You're not worried that five different dishes of Gi's favorite childhood foods would be too much?"
"He didn't get her a gift, the dinner had to be over the top." Ruby told him wisely.
"It's perfect!" Gi declared. "You're perfect."
"I'm glad you like it." Kwame let up a silent prayer of gratitude. "Gi, we've been crazy busy since the day we met, and it won't be getting any slower or easier any time soon. But in a life that's involved world travel, superpowers, Earth Spirits and everything in between… This time with you has been the best part of my life. It's… it's everything. It's what we're working for, why the Planeteers exist, it's why things matter. Just this. Just you and me. I always loved the world, but… I never realized how much I loved the people in it until I loved you most of all."
"...I love it when you get all goopy like that." Gi kissed him again. "I love you."
"I love you too."
"Linka was quite insistent that everything be perfect." Yumi added with a maternal smile.
Wheeler smiled at Linka. "You big softie!"
"I'd call you the same, but you'd probably take it personally." Linka shot back cuttingly. "Besides, it's good for team morale if our fearless leader and our logistics expert are happy together."
"Yeah, keep telling yourself that."
"Yankee, how many stores did you search through, looking for those ingredients? We weren't exactly in a good spot for Gyoza wraps."
"Hey, I wanted it to go well; and unlike you, I don't mind admitting it." Wheeler defended. "It's been going on a year now since i've had a date, I gotta live vicariously through Kwame. He's my guy."
"Speaking of perfect homecomings, we've got dinner for you guys too." Kim commented. "Not quite as lavish, I'm afraid…. In fact, it's pretty much our first attempt at what Gi and Kwame are eating right now."
"They're her childhood favorites. Why'd you have to rehearse?"
"Timing. We were expecting you back two hours ago." Alana chided them. "It kills the romance if you have to reheat it first. Gi doesn't even have a microwave."
"Neither do you." Wheeler reminded her. "And if you have a problem with our arrival time, take it up with the engine." He jerked a thumb at Linka. "Now, you don't need a microwave, you have me."
I don't know why you're encouraged. Life is everywhere in advance.
The humans are running to extremes. There's no middle ground between them. The more that some believe in life, the more everyone else is obsessed with destruction. The humans have no tolerance for disagreement, let alone each other. You have no hope of pulling them back together.
Do not mistake me for being helpless, Zarm. Gentle does not mean weak. Peace does not mean surrender. Your plan hasn't changed since we began The Game. I adapt. Everything I nurture does.
I've heard these words before… The last time I won The Game.
After dinner, the three unoccupied Planeteers went into the Communications Tent. It was called that, though it had solid walls now. What had began as a spare tent to keep the wind and rain away from delicate radio and television equipment had evolved into the Tactical Room for the Planeteers. One side was dominated by the electronics that let them communicate and monitor the rest of the world, and the other half of the structure was dedicated to the Mission List.
A huge map of the world covered most of the wall, with pins pushed into every place the planeteers were planning to go and get involved. Each Pin had a note, written on a whiteboard beside the map.
"The Missouri Chemical Plant is done." Linka commented, erasing the mission in question.
Wheeler took down the pin. One of hundreds. "This list only ever gets longer." He admitted. "But JJ took a few of them down while we were gone. Looks like the Foundation was able to get a few things blocked or exposed while we were busy."
"Every little bit helps." Ma-Ti nodded.
They all had homes, and picnic areas, but they still took most of their meals on the beach, with a carpet of stars stretching from one sky to the other. When the ocean breeze turned cold, Wheeler would conjure a campfire, and they'd make an evening of it.
Ma-Ti had stalked off into the jungle, as he usually did when they came back.
"I wonder what he does in there sometimes." Linka mentioned after a while. "Alone in the jungle."
"I asked him once. I don't really have a clue what he said." JJ put in. "Just so you know, I've been trying to get the New York Chapter of the Foundation to put together something to commemorate the-"
"I thought that was called off." Linka put in.
"It was, but I'm trying to get it restarted." JJ told her. "It's kind of an occasion worth mentioning."
"You sure you aren't just trying to get back to New York?" Linka smirked at him, not noticing as Wheeler suddenly looked up and waved at her to stop talking.
Too late. JJ's face fell. "Emily? Nah, that's over. Her dad kinda put the brakes on the whole thing."
"Oh, I'm sorry; I didn't know that." Linka sighed. "He didn't approve?"
"Well, he wasn't wild about the time we were all fugitives…"
"We?" Wheeler and Linka noted in perfect unison.
"You." JJ corrected without missing a beat. "But the real problem was when we were cleared, and-"
"We?" Wheeler and Linka again noted in perfect unison.
"You." JJ corrected again without missing a beat. "Anyway, when the Foundation became popular again, Emily's dad was one of those people eager to show how he had faith in you guys the whole time; and never believed any of the rumors or… warrants." JJ rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "So when he started encouraging his daughter to date The Wheeler Johnson's brother, it was like a bucket of icewater on the whole thing. If her father approved, I couldn't possibly be worth the trouble."
Linka winced. "Ouch. Well, hang in there, we're sure to become disreputable again at some point. Wheeler can help there, I'm sure."
Wheeler was about to say something cutting in return, when he noticed Alana and Gi's parents had all made their way back toward their own huts, leaving the kids on the beach. Also realizing it, JJ and Ruby traded a practised look and stood up at almost the same time. "Well, I should be turning in." JJ said brightly.
"Me too." Ruby chirped. "Past my bedtime." She pushed Linka back into her spot on the sand. "Stay. Alana can read me a story. Night, Wheeler! Have fun!"
They both took off quickly, leaving Linka and Wheeler alone together.
"Have fun?" Wheeler repeated.
"Subtle, aren't they?" Linka deadpanned.
"Inscrutable." Wheeler commented. "Anyway. Dessert." He pulled a box of chocolates out of nowhere like a magic trick.
Linka blinked. "Where were you hiding those?"
"It's a beach, Linka. You find a way to keep the sand out, I could hide pirate treasure out here if I wanted."
Linka actually laughed. "I saw the box in your bag, and I thought you bought those for Gi and Kwame; as an apology for all those 'making the earth move' quips."
"I bought them for us." Wheeler told her. "It's our anniversary too."
"I suppose it is at that, but Ma-Ti and…" Linka paused, before opening the box. "Well, can't let them go to waste."
They ate for a bit, looking out over the ocean, when Linka's phone buzzed. "It's from Karen."
"Well, we've been on break long enough, I guess." Wheeler almost laughed. Karen Gillys was a journalist that covered the arrival of Hope Island, and then the Planeteers, almost exclusively. Six months later, when the Planeteers had been framed for murder, she had been the loudest voice insisting on their innocence. A position that almost cost her career in the short term, and gained her promotion when the truth came out. Since then, she had been a source of information on several of their missions.
"What's she got for us this time?" Wheeler asked.
Linka read the screen for a long while, face falling. "It's not a tip. She's forwarding some of the newest responses. People are asking… oof."
"Oof?" Wheeler repeated, surprised. "First time I've ever heard you react like that."
"Sometimes I wonder if we've moved the needle at all." Linka sighed, eyes still glued to her phone.
"What do you mean?" Wheeler asked. "I know you break out in hives whenever we aren't physically tearing someone apart, but-"
Linka pushed the device to Wheeler. "Look at some of the responses we're getting the last few months."
Wheeler read them. "Yeah, well… I don't need to tell you how fast the winds can change."
"Is that a pun?"
"You used to be able to tell."
Linka rolled her eyes. "Something happens, and people start losing hope. Bozhe moi, they lose hope so fast, don't they?"
"There's a reason why we run the 'Power is Yours' Campaign every other month."
"Well we need to start it again, obviously." Linka sighed. "One bad day at the market, people stop giving, one bad speech, people stop believing. One election, one scandal, one politician-"
"Linka, that's reactions, not opinions." Wheeler told her. "If there's one thing I've learned after becoming a Global Celebrity with a sex scandal, it's that people are happy to shout, and then forget what they're shouting about an instant later."
Linka snorted. "Sometimes I wonder which one of us is the cynical one."
"You are. I'm the pretty one." Wheeler reminded her. "You know why Karen is sending us this? It's not because the wind has shifted. We've been getting this sort of thing on and off since we started."
"The Anniversary." Linka nodded. "Hard to believe it's been a year since we all met."
"I know. I honestly can't remember life before you." Wheeler admitted.
Linka gave him a look, not for the first time.
"All of you, I mean." Wheeler pulled back. "The team."
"You think it's enough?" Linka ran out of words. "Because I don't know, but we've definitely set the world on its head. I just don't know for sure if what's in its place now is going to do the job."
"As it is? Probably not." Wheeler admitted. "But we aren't finished yet. The debate is over; this much is clear. There's nobody pushing Climate Denial that the world takes seriously."
"People don't take world leaders seriously?"
"Be honest, Linka. People stopped expecting politicians to be world leaders a long time ago."
"Well, based on some of these comments, it's not that obvious to me."
Wheeler looked at the screen again. "Have you gotten any interview requests? Any retrospectives? It's the Anniversary, and there isn't anything on the cards about recognizing it. Nothing but this mention from Karen that… well, people are losing hope."
"Then we have to remind them." Linka nodded. "We should tell Kwame it's time to start the next Tour."
Linka and Wheeler both looked up the beach at Gi's little hut, and the soft candlelight on the Japanese style panels. The light from within faded instantly, as the candles were blown out.
"Tomorrow." They said in unison.
Ma-Ti walked through the jungle that gathered at the base of Hope Island's Mountain. It wasn't wide, but there was enough density in the foliage to support a diverse range of animals.
His parents had lived in the Jungle their whole lies, and had a hut on the edge of the trees. Here, the perfume of flowers and fruit life was thick enough to drown out the omnipresent ocean sounds, and smell of salt.
"Ma-Ti." His father said. "Something is wrong."
"Yes." Ma-Ti said simply. "I don't think the others have realized it yet."
"The birds are building more nests. Ones they don't need. They're peeling the bark off trees to make them. The animals are eating twice as much as they usually do. The rodent species are already hibernating, digging their habitats deeper. The predator species have been more aggressive with each other, fighting for dominance in packs that have been well established. The scavenger species are gathering stores. It's like they're expecting winter, but…"
"I know." Ma-Ti agreed. "Something is coming."
Barbara Bligh was the Security Chief for The Corporation; the largest collection of wealth, business, technology and industry in the history of the world. It was a largely unobserved role in the hierarchy, and she preferred it that way.
In her somewhat unobserved post, she was able to watch, acting as Gatekeeper and Watchman. And after it came on so gradually, she hadn't been sure. But now she was certain. There was something terribly wrong in The Corporation's highest echelon.
Bligh caught up with Mal in her own private office. Mal was a skilled technician, and his loyalties were unquestioned, but something had thrown a scare into him.
She perched on the edge of her desk in front of the chair he sat in. "Did you do as I said?"
"It wasn't easy for you, was it, Mal?" She commented, with the barest taunt in her voice. "To be brave in that man's den?"
"No Ma'am." Mal sighed, knowing what was coming.
Bligh smiled, like she had a delicious taste in her mouth. "But you're such a good little chew toy that you did it anyway, because I told you to. Right?"
This time he didn't answer. Bligh was beautiful, in a way that hinted at being unnatural, but it wasn't any surgery or chemicals that made her beauty seem off. It was her soul. She had an expression so tightly controlled that her face wore a permanent mask; and it had made grown men look away. Mal was under no illusions. His boss owned him completely. If she wanted a scratching post, he would do it; knowing she had no love for anyone. Not even herself.
"Things are changing." Mal said, almost unaware he'd said it out loud.
"They are." Bligh nodded. "I'm not worried."
"You never are, boss. It's why I work for you." Mal noted. "But you have to see what's going on."
"Mal, you worry too much." Bligh said firmly. "In this room, with the cameras off, you don't worry, you obey."
"Yes Ma'am." Mall sighed, bowing his head. "I just don't like what I'm seeing."
One of Bligh's perfect legs came up and pushed him back in his chair, until he overbalanced and fell to the floor. "You watched the feed? Those were not your instructions, Mal. Your instructions were to place the camera, conceal it, and get out of Stumm's private office before he caught you."
Mal kept his head bowed. "He barely leaves, Ma'am. I checked his keycard records. He hasn't used his rooms in weeks. If he's not sleeping in his own bed, or using his shower…"
"Mal, what did I just say?" Bligh barked, without even raising her voice. "You did your job. Consider yourself impressive enough for today. Leave the rest to me."
Mal said nothing. Everyone at her level lusted for power. Money held no interest, given how much of it was being tossed around them every day. Bligh and Stumm could use hundred dollar bills as toilet paper and not notice the loss. She didn't toy with him out of interest in sex, or even out of boredom. She had absolute power over him and had no interest in anything he had to offer.
But Bligh's thrills came from using that power. From showing her dominance and exercising control over anything that was helpless in her grip. Mal had long since given up fighting. He wondered if that was why she had kept him so long. There was an invisible leash around his throat, no matter where she was.
He had made no effort to stand, and she had returned to her desk; tapping at her computer. "You have secured my system?"
"Then let's see what The King is doing tonight." Bligh smirked, and brought up the feed on her own screen. Getting Stumm out of his office was no easy feat these days. For all her dismissal, she knew getting a camera in was a dangerous mission. When she brought up the feed, she saw the only man in the Corporation that she answered to, lazing in his chair. "What else was he doing before?" She asked Mal.
"Nothing. Just that…" Mal bit his lip. "Boss, I was in there for three minutes, and… I didn't like it. There was something seriously wrong in that room."
Bligh was still watching. "He's still just sitting there. He's not even on his phone. Is he high?"
"I didn't see anything, but he's plugged into something." Mal commented.
Bligh was watching, unreadable. "Yes, he is."
"What is it?"
Bligh's eyes were locked on Stumm's ring, visible on the screen. "I don't know what Stumm's on; but I've seen it before with everyone in his chair. Devorux, Appius, Bleek. Their vices were frequent and varied. The same story every time. Once they reach the top, they are sharks without prey. A feeding frenzy with nothing to feed on."
"Mind if I hazard a guess?" Mal said bravely.
"Speak." She told him, like he was a puppy.
"I saw the Rings the Planeteers wear. I saw them before they went public. I did metallurgy, I did symbology, I did spectral scans. Nobody else has ever gotten those rings off them. The public thinks the power comes from the five of them personally. You, Stumm, and me are maybe the last people alive who know for sure that they aren't."
Bligh was still watching the screen. "And so?"
"Well, um…" Mal ran out of words. "He has a ring now. With the black stone on it… It wasn't there before."
"You're smart enough to impress me, Mal. And I don't impress easily."
He wasn't surprised she'd put it together too. "What do you plan to do about it?"
"Plan to do?" Bligh turned to drill her gaze into Mal. "What did Stumm plan to do when we sucked the world dry and gnawed on the bones? What did he plan to do when we got the reports that told us there were people starving in the parking lots behind every Corporation Supermarket? What did we plan to do when the Planeteers appeared and vowed to beat us? Same thing we did every time. We found a way to leverage the chaos into profit and power."
Mal was clearly not pleased with that, but he said nothing.
Bligh tapped him on the nose. "Mal, just remember one thing. We aren't neutral. We picked our side in this game a long time ago. A conqueror only falls when he runs out of worlds to conquer. You and me? We came to the table long after the Corporation owned the world. They did something no politician, no warlord, no Emperor could do. We have a controlling share. Of everything. There is nothing left of the world left to conquer, only to devour. And that thought appeals to Stumm."
"But not to you?" Mal asked.
"Stumm would believe my answer is yes. What he fails to understand, Mal; is something you know in your bones." She took his chin between her fingers possessively. "Can you guess?"
Mal's breath hitched, she was so close. "Nobody tells you what to do, Chief."
"Good boy." She said, pleased. "People like me? We vowed to be at the top of the food chain. Because everything below the top, is prey. It's a philosophy that guarantees we'll never see heaven, and that hell lives in fear of the day we arrive."
"What about the Planeteers?" Mal asked. "Are they chum too?"
"The Planeteers don't fear his attack, and they have no interest in his bribes. He can't control them or defeat them because they fear nothing he can throw at them, and they have no interest in anything he can offer. The Planeteers are playing their own game. I have no problem with the world spinning on forever. Whether the game lasts a few years beyond my lifetime, or in perpetuity, it makes no difference to me, because I won't be around. I have no particular problem with the world becoming sustainable. Green or black, the controlling share of the world will still be owned by someone. Stumm is determined to be that someone."
"I don't need to own. Who holds the leash is an entirely different prospect than who holds the deed." Bligh snorted, and switched off her screen. "And you know how I love to be in control, don't you, Mal?"
"Yes ma'am." Mal said obediently.
Bligh started to turn back to her desk, then paused. "But… why would you bring up the Planeteers just now?"
Mal tapped at his device and showed her something. Bligh was unreadable as she read Mal's latest report. "When?"
Bligh rose, straightened her tunic. "I think I'll see if Lord Saruman is receiving His Court." She drawled. "Keep an eye on things, Mal."
Mal nodded and went to her side of the desk. She watched him until she was satisfied he wasn't going to sit in her chair, and then she sauntered out of her office. The second she was gone, Mal sat in her chair anyway, and stuck out his tongue at her retreating form; bringing up the feed from Stumm's office.
Bligh entered Stumm's office without knocking. It had been weeks since she had been there personally. Time had not been kind to what was once the most plush, expensive, grandstanding monument to egotism that money could buy.
But now it looked like it had been dug out of the earth. There was a foul stench that came from everywhere. Plates of five-star food, left uneaten, piled on every surface. There was something floating around in front of her, like faint wisps of cigarette smoke. Only there was no scent of tobacco; or anything else.
She saw him reclining in his chair. She gasped when she saw him, but smothered it instantly. She had seen him just after the Ring had appeared. He had seemed… charged. As though the ring had left him lit from within with a dark energy.
But times had changed. The energy was still there in his burning black eyes… but it was almost the only thing left of him. He had always been stooped, wrinkled; with sort of a rat-like face. But now his skin was ashen grey, and his black eyes were sunken in. He hadn't been eating the food, but his teeth were yellowed. It was very much the appearance of a zombie.
"Can you feel it, Bligh?" Stumm hummed, like he was a million miles away. "Because I can. The dice are rolling, the chips are falling, the wave is crashing… It's beautiful." He laughed like nails on a chalkboard. "What brings you by?"
"The Board has been asking when we're having another Board Meeting."
"I'm quite sure they aren't. Try again." He said easily.
"Sir, did you authorize a black op in Zambia?" Bligh asked. "Water management?"
"Yes." Stumm couldn't care less.
"In Kwame Deka's hometown, no less." Bligh observed. She decided to push her luck. "So, the water is… Bait?"
"No. Bait is unimportant."
"Then why?" Bligh asked, honestly curious. "We've run the numbers. Making the water more affordable gave us a much wider consumer base in that part of the world. They can't afford water, they leave. If there was a way to increase profits further, you know we would have done it the second the Planeteers turned their backs."
Stumm looked over. "You remember, a few years ago, some Russian billionaire started throwing his money out the window? Cold hard cash. He just tossed it in the street. They asked him why, and he said that he liked to watch the people fight over the bills. All that money, and he just wanted to watch people claw at each other for his crumbs." He looked at her, and she felt that shiver again. "Think it was boredom, or pure malice?"
Bligh decided that was enough, and turned to go.
"Bligh, your job is to keep things like this a secret. Whoever talked about the Op where you could overhear, take care of it, will you?"
"So what do we do, boss?" Mal asked as she came back in. It was clear he'd seen everything.
Bligh pushed him out of her chair, and sat down, looking over the city of New York. It was a bright sunny day. It seemed a world away from where she had just been. She hadn't noticed it at the time, but in Stumm's office, the sun wasn't shining. "I was wrong. He's not Saurman. He's Gollum. He's even got the Ring to prove it."
"Then who, in this story, is Sauron?" Mal pressed.
"Good question. But I remember how the book ended." Bligh was unreadable. "I need information."
"Don't know where you plan to get it."
"The only people on earth who can offer some." She said plainly. "Part of the Water Heist is to blackout communications on the subject, right?"
"Let one call through."
The image was a shot taken from Hope Island. Everyone knew the setting by now. Every time there was a transmission, it went viral. This time, the one to speak was Kwame.
"Years ago, just after Hope Island, I spoke to the United Nations." Kwame addressed those watching. "I spoke to the politicians for less than five minutes, and the people outside for over an hour. I told them that we couldn't expect governments and politics to be the solution. I told you that we couldn't expect others to fix the problem. We had to do it ourselves. All of us. If our Leaders won't lead, or for that matter, won't follow, then it's not a sign that we can't do anything. It's a sign that we're the only ones that will. More than ever, find reason to hope in yourselves." He paused. "And if you don't see yourselves as doing something, then it really doesn't matter who you voted for. I see people losing hope, even as more people than ever get busy, and actually start making achievements for once. The momentum is finally starting to build; and this is the point where you want to give up?"
He paused for a long moment, and finally made his closing argument.
"How many times have you heard us say it?" He asked. "We've been trying to tell you this since the first time you heard the word 'Planeteer'. We never once told you that the power belonged to Governments, or to Industries, or to anyone else. If what you see on television makes you despair; then you've missed the point of the Planeteers completely. So we'll say it again, and again, and again: The Power is Yours!"
With Kwame's first video, the World Tour began again, gathering attention, teaching and reassuring, warning and motivating all at once.
Each Campaign worked largely the same way. A Planeteer would show up at a relevant place, and wait to be recognized. A small crowd would gather, everyone pointing their cameras within seconds, and the videos would go viral within the hour.
Wheeler had the next speech. "In the last year, research that includes the words 'Climate Change' have been actively removed from several US government grants and departments, fearing political and financial reprisal. But these programs have already been taken over by European nations. Studies say that China and India have made massive changes, enough to offset even the gridlock in the United States." Wheeler smirked. "Imagine if all three were together on this."
There was a dark murmur at his words.
"When we started the first Campaign, we made the point that we were trying to overturn entrenched thinking." Wheeler declared. "Well, that battle is done. Minds have been changed. The majority of people are now squarely on the right side of this debate. All that's left is to catch up with ourselves." He let that sink in a moment. "I'll give you an example. Hawaii is making so many solar grids, that they have to stop and let the laws catch up to them. The UK announced that 2017 was the 'greenest year for energy' in their history. Innovation and public opinion is moving faster than lawyers and politicians. No surprise there, it's been that way for decades, but the trend is still going the right way. You can speed that up, but we've gotten to the point where the message has gotten through, and that's the hardest part."
That drew applause.
"Innovation works in more than one direction. And I'll give you another example. Australia has eight states in it. One of their major states shifted to forty percent wind power, but weather meant that the steady flow of power was unreliable. Opponents used this as proof that renewables didn't work, in a country that gets two thirds of its energy from coal. Within a hundred days, Tesla Inc brought the world's biggest battery station online; and now power can be stored and used within a fraction of a second of the wind deciding not to blow. Technology, government, and business, all working together for once. They got the problem fixed in a hundred days."
Stronger applause this time.
"This point has gotten across at last: If Leaders won't take charge at the global level, then the local level will. St Louis has set a target of 100% Renewables. Wind power has already surpassed Coal Power in Texas, and California is currently paying other states to help produce solar utilities, because they just can't keep up. They're sending solar-produced power to Arizona and other states regularly. Currently, California is getting a third of all it's power from renewables, and has proposed legislation to get 100% by 2045. A goal that can be easily met in half the time, given current trends. Under a federal government that refutes Climate Change, more American coal plants and mines have closed in 2018 than in the last President's entire first term. And that's good to know, since in the USA, Solar Energy already employs 77% more people than Coal."
A laugh rang out at that.
"At the Federal Level, the USA is now the only country to reject the Paris Climate Agreement." Wheeler said darkly. "That's not good, but if there's one thing you should have learned from the Planeteers by now, it's this: This is not an American Problem, and certainly not one that requires an American Solution. Canada now gets two thirds of its energy from Clean Sources. Germany is now at 85% renewables. Taiwan is aiming to eliminate disposable plastic products by 2030. IKEA, of all people, are talking about selling solar panels at cost in their Australian stores. The UK gained more power last year from Wind and Solar than they did from Nuclear; resulting in the lowest carbon footprint they've had since 1890. Israel is aiming to eliminate coal, gasoline, and diesel by the same year. Denmark and Scotland have already gone into surplus from Wind Power alone, able to sell their extra energy to other countries, they're generating so much."
Stronger applause this time.
"I've been hearing a lot of chatter from people who feel like the world is going off the rails. And it is, but you don't control the world. You control your little piece of it, and you're responsible as far as your voice can be heard. If you can't change what your country is doing, then what about your house? Your street? Your local council? Your nearest park? Despair does nothing. It never has."
There was agreement, but muted this time.
"I know, that sounds like a cliche. But look at the news from the last few months. Climate change, sexual assault, guns in schools. The next generation has stopped waiting for someone else to speak. A politician is someone who tells you why something hasn't been done so far. A leader is someone who can show you how to do it right now; and those people are everywhere. And that's the choice you have to make. To be a leader; even if only your house follows. The Power Is Yours!"
"More than 60% of the world's wildlife is estimated to have been killed since 1970. It is estimated that a hundred species of animal go extinct every 24 hours." Ma-Ti said. "And nowhere in the world is it more obvious than here at the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. By all accounts, the Reef is close to dead, as the ocean warms up. What was a thriving tourist spot, and one of the proudest credits to the country, is now a graveyard."
There was a murmur of agreement. Ma-Ti had summoned everyone in range, and they were all assembled, listening to him.
"Despite that, research teams have already had success with transplanting hardier corals from warmer waters to this area. After eight months, it's still thriving. Other teams are also experimenting with 3D printed Coral that can serve as a habitat for all the species driven away by the death of the Reefs. The Island nations of Seychelles has converted fifteen percent of its territory into a conservation site, specifically to protect southern water species from overfishing and climate damage."
The next clip was Gi, in China.
"Construction has begun on Liuzhou Forest City." Gi declared. "It will be the first Forest City in China. When it's finished, it will house residential areas and city works, but it will also host over a million plants, and forty thousand trees. It's a city designed specifically for renewable energy, self sufficiency, and for making a space where humans and nature are interdependent. Projections say the plants in this city will take ten thousand tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere annually." She smiled. "This, from the country that could barely see the Beijing Games."
Those that came to attend applauded.
"You like that? Here's some more good news for you." Gi smiled broadly. "China has also opened the world's largest air purifier. At a hundred meters tall, it has produced more than three hundred and fifty million cubic feet of clean air, and counting. Because of the design, this happens naturally by the heating and convection of air via greenhouses. Ten square kilometers, getting cleaner air at the cost of almost no power. And they hope to build one five times that size in the future."
"Even more recently, China has assigned sixty thousand troops from its armies to plant trees. Specifically to fight air pollution, China is going to plant enough trees to create a forest the size of Ireland, by the end of 2018. And they need it to. In 2015, the air was so bad, that 1.6 million people per year were dying. And now, after four decades of becoming the biggest carbon culprit on the planet, China has passed a new block of laws to become one of the world leaders in production electric vehicles, and in making the shift to renewables."
A cheer went up.
"And that's just here in China." Gi continued. "Google, as a company, is now powered completely by sun and wind power. Their investments in renewables means that within eighteen months, they'll be putting as much power into the grid as they're using. The biggest creator of new technology on the planet will offset everything they use. They can do this, because globally, the price of wind and solar has crashed. Solar is now the cheapest form of energy production on the planet. Think about that for a second. It is cheaper to power something by solar than anything else. This, in a year where most developed nations were spending four dollars to subsidise fossil fuels for every dollar spent on renewables."
More applause, this time stronger.
Gi smiled. "You've heard what Wheeler said about turning over entrenched thinking. Well, here's the proof: It now costs a US Taxpayer four times as much to invest in coal and oil, as it does in Solar. If Renewables become the norm through sheer cost-effectiveness, we'll have to stop calling clean energy the 'alternative' power source. It's becoming the norm. This was done in spite of governments. This was done by you guys. The Power Is Yours!"
"When I first became a Planeteer, I flew over the Aral Sea." Linka told her own audience, this time in Europe. "The Aral Sea was the forth largest freshwater source in the world, but the Soviets diverted the headwaters for agriculture. The salt content rose, and everything in that water died; and with it, all industry, employment, and residential territory. You'll never get a clearer demonstration of what's coming to the world. It was considered one of the worst ecological disasters in the world. Now, almost 20% of the Aral Sea is full of life again. It took millions of dollars in research and rebuilding, and there's still a long way to go; but we brought a dead place back to life. It can be done."
There was a round of applause at that.
"Here in Zurich, we have the world's first operational carbon capture plant." Linka gestured at her surroundings. "Climeworks is the first global company dedicated to actually taking carbon out of the air, and returning it to the ground where it belongs." Linka declared. "A little known fact, is that Carbon Dioxide actually has commercial applications, properly collected. Zurich has the first commercial plant. Their assembly lines are creating Carbon Catchers that can take more than seven thousand tons of Carbon out of the air every year. And this is just as things stand now. Expansion is working for us at last."
"The energy market is wising up. Shell, BP, and Exxon, all of which are now Corporation Subsidiaries, are calling for a tougher line on Climate Action. Remember, they aren't oil companies, they're Energy Companies. If fixing the world is cheaper and more profitable than destroying it, then why would they have a problem?" Linka declared. "For all the talk about our exposing illegal operations, The Planeteers aren't lawyers, any more than businessmen or politicians. It doesn't matter who makes the profit, or who takes the credit, or who gets the blame. It only matters who's actually doing something. So do something. Last July, India smashed the world record for planting trees. Over one and a half million people gathered together and planted fifty million trees in a single day. If you'd been there, how many would you have planted? For that matter, how many can you plant where you live right now? The Power Is Yours!"
"Lake Chad has dried up." Kwame said grimly to the camera. "It was the size of Maryland, and fifty years, it has shrunk by 90%. This lake was one of the largest bodies of water in Africa, and now more than seven million people risk starvation; just in this one spot. We're being warned about the effects of Climate Change, but skeptics like to tell you that it won't happen for a hundred years. But we're there already."
Kwame paused, adjusted the camera little, and kept going.
"Cape Town is the first major metropolis to run out of water. Day Zero is almost a certainty at this point. By July, four million people will have to line up under armed guard for drinking water. The conditions here aren't that much worse than Southern California, Australia, large parts of Asia and South America… In a matter of months, the residents here will have to live on 25 litres. The amount used in an average shower of four minutes." Kwame looked heavily at the parched earth around him. "According to the UN, five billion people will be at risk of this within thirty years."
There was no audience for him, but he paused to let that sink in. He'd be able to edit in footage of the water riots to go with it.
"We've been experiencing the effects for decades. This is the result of doing nothing in my father's day. But we're sure doing something now. In-" Kwame's phone started ringing. With a sigh, he reached out and stopped the recording as she checked the screen. "Natali? This is a surprise."
"Kwame, thank god." Natali said desperately. "At first, I wasn't sure it was a problem, and then when I decided I had to make sure, the police were no help; and I didn't know if calling you would-"
"Whoa, slow down." Kwame told her, putting the camera away. "What's wrong?"
"It's my brother. He's missing."
AN: And, here we go again! A double-length opening chapter for you all. I had planned to make the Power is Yours Campaign part of the next chapter, but I decided I had to post it first, and I'll tell you why:
Over the past year, I've gotten half a dozen PM's from various readers, asking me to write another Planeteer story. What struck me was that each and every one of them had the same underlying reason: We Need Hope.
For all those who feel that way, I will say this: I've had to rewrite this chapter three times; because I kept finding new things to add. Good news, and bad. Don't think the fight is being lost. If anything, it's finally going the other way.
Hope for the Environment has taken a battering in the last year. So this story is all about reasons to stay hopeful, and more importantly, to stay busy.
I also want to apologize for taking so long. It takes a while to get 75,000 words together, and other projects, (including original writing and self publishing) took up a lot of my free time. Check out my blog, or run a Google Search for the phrase "Stream Of Consciousness: The Ark-Hive" to find out where I've been.