Don't press the button seemed like a pretty straightforward request, Lizzy thought. It was big, it was red, and protruded from the wall like a canker sore. That didn't stop her from tripping over a particularly solid piece of air and smacking it flat with her elbow, however. Emergency lights were flashing, and a surprisingly low alarm was thrumming through the walls, and the crew that had been working diligently just a second before were now staring at Lizzy incredulously.
"Liz," said Anna, "What did I say?"
"Don't press the button."
"What did you do?"
"I pressed the button."
Charlie went about packing up the toolkits with only an exasperated sigh. Anna dropped her drill into his outstretched hand and descended the ladder that had already begun to tremble.
"Time to go," she sighed, "Lizzy just ended the world."
"It was an accident!"
"And that doesn't mean you didn't do it."
"I – it – Ugh."
"You can explain this one to Barb when we get back," said Anna, wrapping her cloak around her shoulders, "In fact, you can go up first. Put your goggles on."
Lizzy dragged her feet the whole way out of the bridge. This was a little different from how she thought her first maintenance trip would go. In fact, she was only supposed to observe, but instead she had mashed the reset button and sent the planet beneath them collapsing in on itself. What a drag.
A ladder in the hall opened up to the roof of the pod. Sitting at the base of a much longer ladder that disappeared into the clouds was a tousled haired youth with a thick coating of freckles. She looked at Lizzy, eyebrows hiking up, and then a grin poked dimples into her cheeks.
"You pressed the button?"
"I pressed the button."
Dignity slipping away like rainwater, Lizzy snapped her goggles down over her eyes and left Polly for the shaky ladder. She had one job. Or two, if one counted the observe as well as the don't touch the damn button. She would never get a good shot at maintenance again. Not for another year, at the very least. It was pure luck on her part that she messed up during a calm era instead of one full of interesting events. Maybe Barb had foreseen the danger in letting Lizzy go and planned it that way. Whatever the case, she was still in a lot of trouble.
The ladder shuddered and bucked beneath her. Storm winds were beginning to pull at the clouds, dragging a dense mist over Lizzy as she climbed. A few thin traces of static played over her bare skin, but it didn't hurt more than a slight prickle. The rest of the crew below her would have to deal with a little more electrical punch, but the danger wasn't enough to off any of them. They weren't like the human ants currently dying by the millions below them.
Her fault. Oops.
The cloud ended abruptly, allowing the full brunt of the sun to beat down on Lizzy's head, steaming the water off her cloak and goggles. Hovering above her was their home, the floating island, looking utterly at peace despite the crumbling of the earth below.
When she arrived at the porthole, Polly's equally freckled brother was crouched there waiting for Lizzy with an amused grin masquerading as a grim frown. Before he could say anything, she heaved a sigh.
"Yes, I pressed the button."
"What a shame," he laughed, straightening along with her.
"So Barb knows?"
"Is she angry?"
"Liz, you pressed the button."
Turning red with shame, Lizzy ducked her head and strode past him onto the path. Greenery tickled her ankles and wacked against her cloak as she lifted the heavy material off her shoulders. The sound of the ground far, far below collapsing was audible even at their height, a constant reminder that she had pressed the button. Between two birch trees sat the town gate in its usual state of being wide open. Lizzy walked through, sucking in her lips as soon as she saw heads turn in her direction. She tried her best to walk through the market with some sort of false dignity, but then she heard a child giggle behind her hand and she felt her face purple.
"It's been awhile since the button was pressed by accident," noted the fish seller teasingly.
"I seem to recall it being the first time," said the weaver, fanning herself with a half finished basket.
"Are we supposed to prepare rotten tomatoes for times like these?" asked the vegetable stall owner with faux intent.
Lizzy threw up her arms. "Yes, okay, I pressed the button. Barb is going to yell at me for awhile, so I think that's enough!"
The entire marketplace seemed to erupt into laughter as Lizzy marched right on through. The tail end of the market turned into a boulevard. Baskets of flowers dangled from streetlamps that glowed warmly at night, but for now they were unlit and glinted sunlight off their iron curves. Garlands of wildflowers, probably strung up by the kids and Polly, looped to and fro from the lamps to the eaves of houses. Cobblestoned road became fitted red brick, zigzagging up a series of steep short hills with steps laid into the side of them. At the very top, where Lizzy had to rest for a moment, sat a small castle. It was more like a very large cottage, with its stone and pine smoke smell, but a castle it was nonetheless. Folding the cloak unnecessarily neatly, Lizzy walked up the hedge-bordered path to the oak double doors. There was no need to knock, so she pulled on the thick iron ring until the door swung outward and slipped inside.
Barb was waiting for her in the sunlight-flooded kitchen, straightening her tub of herbs beneath the skylight. She didn't address Lizzy for a long minute as she put away dishes in the cabinet and drew out a mug for tea. At last she sat down at the kitchen island and looked at Lizzy, tucking an auburn and iron grey lock of hair behind her ear.
"Lizzy," she began.
"Yes," said Lizzy immediately, "I pressed the button."
"You ended the world."
Barb sighed, pouring water from the kettle into her mug. "Thankfully they weren't in any notably interesting part of their era, but now we'll have to start from scratch."
"I know," mumbled Lizzy, ducking her head shamefaced, "I didn't mean to, honestly. It just happened."
"Indeed." Barb shook her head. "I don't know what to say, Lizzy. I'm disappointed."
The chill in Barb's voice was worse than any amount of yelling the older woman could have done. Hot tears welled up in Lizzy's eyes without her wanting them to, and she screwed up her face to stop them from falling. There came a sigh from Barb, but it wasn't annoyed. She rose from her seat, causing Lizzy to look up with her brow knitted, and held out the mug of tea.
"Drink this," she said, "And come outside with me."
Holding onto the comforting heat of the mug, Lizzy followed Barb onto the patio deck looking out into the gap created by the horseshoe-shaped floating island. Where the two ends faced each other, the horizon was visible; glowing orange and red, and occasionally flashing, it was a rather beautiful sight.
"Your punishment," said Barb, and Lizzy ducked her head again, "Will be to clean the streets by yourself after the coloured light festival is over. Every night for a week. Do you comply?"
"Yes, Barb. I'm sorry."
She sighed again. "There's nothing to be done. Look up now. Since you caused the apocalypse, you might as well watch it happen."
Lizzy looked up to watch the lights flash and flicker against the cloud. Where a storm was not raging, she could see a stream of what must be magma shooting up into the sky as a volcano erupted. She felt slightly guilty, having ended the era early, but as Barb had said there was nothing to be done now. They would just have to wait for the population to boom again before returning to their research, watching over the earth as it and its occupants simply existed as best they could.