THOMAS crossed the street and joined a crowd, several hundred strong, outside the steelworks – a mass of younger and older men with a handful of women thrown into the mix. The mood was sombre, silent, almost sad.
Many of them were like him. People who had given up their former lives and jobs, perhaps even their families and fortunes to be here. He looked past a sea of nervous faces to the front gates, and beyond them to the main buildings. Others watched as smoke started to rise from the great stacks as the furnaces were primed, for the first time in years.
They were likely all thinking the same thing. No one knew exactly where the Message had come from, or who had sent it. It simply appeared one day. On every screen in the world. In every language. Every channel, every day for over a month.
Death was coming.
A supernova several dozen light years away had ejected billions of super-dense fragments, one of which would enter our solar system in about 70 years. While it wouldn't strike Earth directly, the resulting solar flares and radiation caused by its passage near the sun would doom us all just as surely.
After the scientists confirmed everything – and the initial panic and looting had passed – they turned their attention to the second part of the Message. Terabytes of data outlined what appeared to be three possible solutions.
The first gave a series of mathematical equations too hideously complex for even our brightest minds to comprehend. Knowledge and understanding beyond our limits, they reluctantly set it aside.
The second proposed the construction of a fleet of interstellar ships, using technologies and concepts we ourselves had imagined but not realised. They could save the species, but only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction. World leaders and corporate titans tried desperately to gain public support, but to no avail. Who would willingly devote their entire lives to these projects when none of their own children or grandchildren would be saved? Seen as a back door for the rich and powerful, the plans only fuelled hatred and dissent.
The third option was the simplest: a formula for a new metallic alloy using components already found within our periodic table. One that gave incredible heat and radiological protection, while remaining relatively light and strong. Deemed the most likely to succeed, a theory was formed and submitted to the world.
We could build a shield.
Using this new alloy and our own space shuttles, we could forge huge sections then launch them into orbit and assemble them into a shield – a giant ward which, when angled correctly and manoeuvred a sufficient distance from Earth, would protect us from the sun's explosive fury.
It was a monstrous undertaking, but one that we at least had a chance of completing within the time limit. If only we could all work together that long.
And so the furnaces began to sing in earnest once more. All across the world, every plant which had the capability began immediate production. All other concerns were secondary. We would need hundreds of thousands of sections, each one dozens of meters square and at least one metre thick. Each one required exact specifications and only one could be launched at a time with our current technology.
Thomas shuddered again under the sheer weight of the task. The call had gone out – every able bodied man or woman would report to their local steel mill for suitability testing and every other industry and business would support them. Thousands were chosen for this mill alone. The few hundred gathered around him represented only a portion of single shift. The plant would operate night and day, with new plants would be built every few weeks.
Ellen had been furious. He was a teacher, an essential part of society, one of the few professions exempt from the draft. He shaped the minds of children, ushered the next generation into promising futures, why did he need to volunteer? Steelworking had never been the safest or easiest profession, even before the Message.
The stories had already begun to spread. Accidents and deaths aplenty, whether from malfunction, accident or fatigue. The work was hot, hard and draining, even for the sturdiest among them. Grizzled veterans of the mills could be seen here and there among the crowd – stout, muscled men in their sixties and seventies with weathered features and grim looks. Pulled from their well-earned retirements, necessity now required them to once more take up their slappers and spoons, man the furnaces and try to pass on lifetimes worth of knowledge in a few short years. Years that many of them didn't have.
The gates opened and people started streaming forward, humanity's future on their shoulders. Thomas stood still for a few moments more, staring at the thick, black smoke rising into the sky. At this moment it was impossible to see his future beyond those gates.
Impossible to see the days turn into weeks turn into years. Impossible to see shifts grow ever longer and harder as other plants or nations fell off. Impossible to see his brothers and friends fall to injury or hopelessness and despair.
Impossible to see his wife leave him or his children grow up without him.
Impossible to see his dreams die before they could even begin.
Thomas took a deep breath, shouldered his workbag and strode forward, full of determination and nervous energy, trying not to think too deeply about the Message or the Task. Dreams were for the innocent and humanity no longer had that luxury. If we wanted to see our future, we would have to forge it for ourselves.