Short Fiction

Zentonium Sounds Like Gibberish

After my third month as the 110th president of the United Provinces of North America, I discovered that the worst part of my day would always be climbing out of my bunker in the morning. It has been almost 150 years since Canada was absorbed into the U.S. (after the Alaskan War of 4048), and just more than a century since they moved the Capital to Nebraska and built the underground tunnel system in Lincoln. Somehow they still haven’t figured out that this tunnel needs to be air conditioned if they expect anyone to walk through it every morning without their skin melting off! I guess it’s my fault for waiting until 10:30 AM to climb out, but I just despise being outside too early because there is so much smog (nation-wide air filters aren’t turned on until 9 o’clock, when everyone leaves their personal bunkers for work). I finally get into my office and I have approximately 7 seconds before I am bombarded by messages; mostly spam about useless meet-and-greets with dumb kids who think they can “save the planet” or press conferences with reporters who still think anyone actually cares about government policies. Clicking through, I can’t help but groan at everyone’s stupidity. 

“Hi, this is Sarah Melinda, calling on behalf of Dr. Pat Epper from the Knowles Laboratory of Science. He has an urgent message regarding a recent discovery in the polar ice caps. Please return this call as soon as possible, thank you!” a way-too-peppy voice sings through the hologram voicemail. 

I immediately know what this is about: a research project that the government had refused to pay for years ago turned to large corporations for funding. They said their goal was to “find the key to saving the planet within the polar ice” or whatever. There was a rumor that they actually found something, but no way did anyone believe it. 

After returning the call, I chat briefly with the annoyingly cheery receptionist- mostly useless and boring small talk- until she finally puts Dr. P. Epper on the line. 

“I- uh… We found- um…” the voice quivers, hardly sounding like the voice of a 42-year-old man and more like that of a prepubescent boy attempting to imitate his father. I grow impatient and tell him he needs to spit it out sometime today please. I hear his voice shake through the phone and try my best not to smirk. “Ahem, we-uh… found it. A new element at the core of the polar ice caps. Zentonium. When vaporized, it reacts with CO2 in the atmosphere and produces oxygen, as well as carbon zentoniide, a molecule that has virtually the same effects on the human body and the planet as oxygen. This element can clear the air of smog while keeping the people safe and costing very little to the government.”

I cannot believe these words. This is my key to winning the next election: present a solution to climate change that lets the public live the same way they always have. I tell him to get started right away. He tries to tell me there may be issues getting access to the Zentonium, that it would take time because the ice needs to melt, and rushing could blah blah blah. I tell him to get it done now because I plan on presenting the project to the public in my next speech when I announce my campaign for reelection. In his ridiculously childish voice, he nervously concedes. 

Over the next three days, I receive phone calls from Epper, warning me about things I don’t care about and pleading to slow the project down, but that just irritates me and so every time he calls, I move the date up. After his fifth call, I tell him I need the project done by the end of the week. He tells me it’s already Thursday and that wouldn’t be possible. I tell him to do it anyway. 

The next day I arrive at my office, and it feels like centuries go by (though my clock tells me it was only 30 minutes) until everyone finally shows up. The doctor comes prepared with a remote that has a single red button on it. I like red buttons. Surrounded by hologram-enabled cameras and shrieking reporters, I let the doctor explain that the button will activate heaters that are hovering above what remains of Antarctica, and they will rapidly melt the ice while simultaneously sublimating the Zentonium into a gaseous state, releasing it into the atmosphere immediately. Before he starts rambling on with his worries about every little thing that could go wrong, I cut him off and announce my campaign. 

With every camera on me, I smile with my teeth, hold up the remote, and click. We wait a few seconds as every news station airs live feeds from the heating zone. Within minutes the shouting begins again. But not questions or excitement. This is madness. This is hell. 

“12 people drowned from the presidential decision to melt the ice!”

“Update: All of the Floridian Province flooded and gone!”

“Update: 800 people drowned from rapidly rising oceans!”

“Update: 8 cities completely taken by the sea!”

Panic heightens as the numbers multiply. We hear accounts of people rushing inland, only to suffocate in the land heavily coated in smog. There is not a single place on earth that is safe. 

“Update: the bunkers are no longer safe. The newly released Zentonium reacts with the material used to seal the bunkers, causing the walls to cave in and has now killed approximately 16,000 people across the nation.”

“This is an urgent warning for all people to go to higher ground to avoid flooding. Please stay in high buildings and land.”

“Update: the Zentonium reacts with the metals used in the framework of city buildings, producing a toxic gas. Evacuate buildings immediately. More than 400,000 died.”

Before I even realize what is happening, we are already being herded out of the building. I can’t tell what’s making me dizzy: the shouting from reporters asking me if I still stand by my decision or the migraine that I don’t remember getting. Updates continue polluting the air, but I can no longer differentiate the words I’m hearing; it all becomes gibberish: the sounds, the people, the buildings, everything gibberish. It’s a flood of syllables from which I can make out only a few phrases: 

“…lost contact… Tri-State Province… assumed that the majority of the East coast… drowned or suffocated…” 

“…Northern South America… fully submerged….”

“…5 billion dead… Be cautious of… symptoms… dizziness, migraines, blurred vision-”

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