The planet changed quickly, so quickly that if you were to stare at it long enough you could see it change before your eyes, the same way you can with the stars moving across the black sky.
This change was not so much movement as it was complete decomposition. The time when that planet was healthy with great blue water and groups of bright lights shining at them like spotlights was fresh in everyone's mind. It had only been four weeks since then. For the five of them, the last seventy-two hours were largely sleepless.
They all watched the screen together with a mixture of sorrow and unease in their minds but nothing but stone showing on their expressions. It was how the committee always was. Cold seriousness. Living statues. Textbook politicians.
Luther spoke first, after a long while. It was not conversational, but a single pitch of voice throughout. "How many left?"
He was answered with a question in a voice equally as tired. "How the hell should we know?" Wallace said. "They're all as good as dead anyway. All of them."
Silence fell again. On the screen, the planet spun slowly, deliberately, dully, completely unaware of the destruction on its surface. The city lights visible from space were gone, leaving the planet seemingly unoccupied, left alone in the darkness of black space carrying the carcasses of what was once so powerful. The oceans now looked black. The continents were dead.
All of them became lost in their own minds. Thinking. Thinking about the planet, thinking about the people, and about what was being lost.
The air of the room was broken when a woman came in loudly and suddenly. She held a laptop in one arm, still open, her other hand on the keyboard. Somehow she looked at all five of them simultaneously.
"We need to assemble an emergency conference," the woman said firmly. "We have a request."
The committee gathered quickly. Within just ten minutes of receiving the message, they were sitting around the table, ready to listen and decree.
There were no windows, just artwork and shelves on the wall. It was a small room, and the oval table took up most of the space. There were no vents and no openings other than the singular, air-tight door. Along with being the room where the committee made the decisions for their planet, the room doubled as a bomb shelter. Outside, the only entrance was secured by two armed guards. The room was part of a much larger, underground facility where the committee held their business. There was no room for spies or onlookers, only for those whose lives were committed to their planet.
As the five of them sat around the table in their normal places, the woman placed a laptop in the middle. Her name was Alice, but she was rarely addressed as such. Her name tag read Ms. Russel, which wasn't really her name anyway, since she'd gotten married four years ago. No one there knew, she guessed, and just as many people knew her first name. It didn't matter to her. Her allegiance wasn't to her coworkers or the committee, it was to her planet. To Lotia.
The committee was waiting anxiously, and Alice pressed a key on the laptop. Immediately, they heard a familiar voice.
"This is a recording intended exclusively for the Committee of Five of Planet Lotia. If you are listening and not a member of this committee, I ask that you turn off this recording or you will face the full extent of the law from the Ames Galactic Police Force. In ten seconds the recording will begin."
The five men looked at Alice, waiting for her to leave, but she didn't. She'd already heard the entire message. No one said anything.
The voice coming from the laptop was the president of Ames, Lotia's closest planetary neighbor. His name was Silas Stein.
Ten seconds of dead and static background noise passed. The five at the table didn't speak, or even exchange glances. Only waited for the laptop to continue. To Luther, those ten seconds seemed like an eternity.
"This is an emergency on a universal scale," President Stein said, his voice breaking out of the static fiercely. Wallace jumped. "I know with absolute certainty that all of you know the extent to which Ames is being decimated, so let me tell you something you may not know. This outbreak is leaving millions dead. I've got people telling me that in six days we're looking at that number to reach the billions. They estimate that over sixty percent of our population is already infected and doesn't know it. Within the next two months only those who have been rigorously quarantined will be alive.
"I have to be blunt, gentleman. We've enlisted your help before, and in a catastrophe of this scale I will not hesitate to ask again. Ames needs scientists, the best in the galaxy, microbiologists and doctors and chemists and anyone that will save my goddamn planet. To be truthful with you, we don't know the first thing about this virus. We need teams of scientists on this, and Ames just does not have the resources to pursue this fast enough. A good portion of the men and women that might have had the ability to save lives are dead. Infected trying to study the damn thing. I am asking, begging, for a team from Lotia. It will mean the difference between extinction and survival. Please be hasty in your response."
The recording ended with an abrupt click, and the committee was placed back in their familiar air of silence.
Wallace looked at the woman called Ms. Russel, almost accusingly. "Thank you. This is a committee matter." He motioned towards the door, which was her signal to leave. She didn't move.
"Who are we sending?" she asked.
"That is not for you to worry about."
She stood for a few moments longer. All five stared from around the table. "We are sending someone, right?"
"Alice, please." She jumped at the sound of her first name. It came from Everett, another member of the committee. His voice was softer. Out of the five, he seemed the least like a statue. "Everything will be settled. I can promise you that. Now leave us to it."
Alice left the room, and then the committee was alone.
Luther was at the head of the table, to his left was Everett and Charley, and to his right was Wallace and Floyd. It was how they were always seated, since the first day.
Everett sighed. He was a large man with dark skin, and his chest heaved. "We are sending someone, we can all at least agree on that?"
"If you really think that then you've lost your mind," Wallace said, remarkably calm. He was leaned back in his chair, propping his head up with one arm. He looked old, tired. More so than the rest of them. "You know this is our one opportunity. I will not risk the lives of our best and brightest to try to save our biggest threat."
"Threat?" Everett said. "There is no threat anymore. They are our allies now, we've made sure of that."
"They are allies so long as we keep handing out our resources for virtually nothing. They bullied us into an alliance, and the alternative was to have their military plow through the planet. We make one wrong move and we become their planetary colony. What purpose do we have for risking the lives of our scientists?"
"There is no purpose in letting billions die," Charley said, speaking for the first time. "This is indirect genocide, that's what this is. You want to annihilate an entire planet so that we don't have to hand over a few resources?"
"I'm saying the planet is a direct threat to Lotia." Wallace had become less relaxed, and now sat up. The bags under his eyes were dark and wrinkled. "You are understating the threat here. This is a solution that fell right into our laps. The largest military the universe has seen is being torn apart limb from limb by a single virus strain. Just seven years ago, might I remind you, this same military was millimeters away from resorting to force to keep our planet in line. By some miracle we avoided that catastrophe, and just by sheer probability another conflict will arise between us. You can fool yourselves that Ames is our ally, and perhaps for now they are, but this is an alliance built on a house of cards, I can guarantee that.
"And you two are actually considering propping these people up so that they can roll over us in a few years time. Add fuel to the flame, shoot ourselves in the foot, there are a million different idioms for this. To make a bad situation worse. I'll tell you what it is, and bluntly: a complete disregard for the future of our people."
The fifth man, Floyd, spoke up finally. "He's right. It's our duty to put Lotia first, and that's what we ought to do. We send no one and we keep our people safe."
A fist slammed down on the table, and the entire room seemed to recoil. "Upwards of twelve billion people's lives are on the line here. What the hell is wrong with you? How many lives are too many? These aren't figures, these are people, families and children that shouldn't suffer because we refused to save them from something they had no control in. This has superseded foreign relations or diplomacy; this is the absolute minimum that we need to do to be able to sleep at night, to be able to keep even an ounce of morality in our souls.
"And what is to happen if some do manage to survive? We fly on over and take out the rest ourselves? I can't believe that you're even considering this option."
Charley shook his head along in agreement. "I can't sit here and do nothing on a good conscience."
Wallace was calm again. "Everett, the alternative is the eventual displacement of this entire planet."
"You don't know that," Everett said.
"Is that the chance you're taking?"
"We'll bring it to a vote then," Charley interrupted. "This is a matter that requires quick action. The only person we haven't heard from is you, Luther."
The four turned their heads to the man at the front. He was deathly pale. "I don't know…" Luther said, sounding weak, defeated. "I don't know." He was a statue no longer. He was just a man. Someone that grew up with a loving mother and a family and friends, not some emotionless husk. There was a problem with that. This was not a decision for mere men to make. Yet, inaction was action, so one can not abstain. The weight of a world was on his shoulders.
"The fate of billions in the hands of five," Everett said.
"Our duty," Wallace said.
"Twelve billion," Everett said.
"Our planet," Wallace said.
He was going to break. He needed to act. Luther finally spoke. "As always, majority decision is the one put into action. Those in favor of supplying Ames with scientists to help manufacture a cure, say aye."
"Aye," Everett and Charley.
"Those in favor of inaction," Luther said, and there was a pause.
"Aye," Wallace, Floyd, and Luther said.
Silas Stein never received a response from the Committee of Five of Planet Lotia. They quarantined him to the best of their ability, but eight days later he was dead, and the virus had jumped from his body to forty-six others.
Everett resigned from the committee the day after the decision was made, along with Alice. They were soon replaced. Throughout the next several days they gathered several scientists willing to help study and manufacture a vaccine for the virus. They succeeded on that front, with over thirty scientists ready to help, but failed in obtaining a spacecraft to take them all to Ames. Those were government-controlled. Human life on Ames was estimated to have gone extinct fifty-two days later.
Everett led a normal life after that, retiring from politics and protests. Alice, however, did not. She tried to spread the word of what could have been done, tried to let people know who was in control of their planet. Tried. Ms. Russel soon disappeared before she could get it out, and the secret died with her. Her husband was devastated. No one else dared to let the secret loose. The affairs of the Committee of Five was a strictly private matter.
Luther soon developed heart complications. On the fifty-fifth day after the decision, he was found dead in his home. He had no wife or children. His family and friends were gone now.
Cause of death was determined to be suicide.