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Fissures

science fiction by Shauna Roberts

Cassandra rushed into the breakfast room, her hands full of papers. A murder of crows winged past the window, making their daily commute from mountains to town.

Eric slammed his mug down. He hadn’t shaved. Again. “You woke me when you got up.”

Whine, whine, whine. It never ended. Cass sighed and dropped signed permission slips for a Central Union freshman field trip on the twins’ placemats and set stapled printouts on Eric’s. She grabbed a container of strawberry kefir for a quick breakfast.

Eric glanced at the printouts, then swept his arm across the table. The mug shattered when it hit the tile. Coffee flooded the papers and made the ink run. “Boarding school? Your little mistake got me fired, remember?”

Cass’s hand strangled the kefir container, and pink liquid squirted her blouse. Great, just great. She’d been awake for hours researching schools, until dawn’s coyote chorus sent her running to dress for work. “We can send the kids to safety on my salary.”

“Safety!” Eric spit the words. “Two years, and you still won’t admit you’re wrong.”

The floor vibrated; glasses and plates clinked; a loose cabinet door banged. This tremor was stronger than other recent ones. Heart pounding, Cass ran toward the twins’ rooms.

Eric’s mocking words followed. “This must be the Big One. I’m sooooo scared.”

#

Ignoring the bitter breeze, Cass dashed across stubbled fields and cracked desert. The rainy season was overdue; she arrived at the lab on the outskirts of El Centro gritty-eyed and dusted with sand.

She was late. Tomas, the receptionist, raised an eyebrow; she waved as she passed. He called a warning. “Emily’s back from leave, and Rick needs you now.”

Uh oh. Cass turned toward Rick’s door. Her boss scowled and motioned her in. “Let’s get right down to business.” Rick tapped some legal-size documents. “We’re facing several possible lawsuits. Clients who left the state because of your predictions are not happy. Some are threatening to sue for moving expenses and damages.”

Cass grabbed the back of a cushioned chair. “You studied the data, my analyses, my conclusions. So did all the researchers. Everyone agreed.”

“We found no errors in your calculations,” Rick corrected. “But it’s been two years. Where’s that 8.0 quake you predicted? You were wrong, and it’s cost us clients and our reputation.”

“But—”

“We need to regain credibility, and getting rid of you is priority one. Perhaps that’ll head off the lawsuits.”

Fired? Cass’s fingernails punctured the faux leather. Her deductive skills and geological intuition were legendary among Californian seismologists. She stared into Rick’s eyes until he dropped his gaze. “I’ll give you two weeks. Then you’re out.”

#

How could she find a new position in only two weeks? How long could their savings pay the mortgage? Could they sell the house in a market flooded with foreclosures? What about the twins’ college plans? Cass’ thoughts jumped and jostled like boulders tumbling down a mountain.

In the lab, Emily sat vacant-eyed, beating a ragged staccato on her desk with a pencil. So much for the sabbatical Emily’s psychiatrist had recommended.

“Emily —” Cass started.

Emily jumped, knocking her chair over and falling to the floor.

Cass reached a hand down. “How are you?”

“My nerves are shot.” Emily’s voice quavered. “I’m leaving.”

Emily believed Cass’s results, and look where it had gotten her. Guilt kept Cass from looking her friend in the eye. “Leaving! Where are you going?”

“To Phoenix, to my mother’s. I’ll work from there. Rick’s letting me take a computer and our proprietary software.” Emily snapped her fingers. “You should ask him if you could do the same.”

Cass couldn’t bear to admit she’d been fired. “Maybe.”

“Tomorrow I’m gone. The sooner we all escape, the better.” Emily fumbled with her pencil; it snapped in two and she jumped. “I spent all weekend reviewing our recent data. Here, sit in my chair.” Emily tapped a key, and seismographs, Cartesian diagrams, and maps sprang up on her over-sized monitor.

Cass studied the images. “Good Lord!” She had assumed the recent tremors were tiny slips on the San Andreas that had released pressure and bought them time. Instead, Emily’s preliminary analysis suggested that an unknown fault sliced across Imperial County.

“This is bad,” Cass croaked. She ran a trembling finger across Emily’s computed location. “If it’s here, each tremblor magnifies the pressure on the San Andreas considerably.”

“I think this fault explains your results from two years ago.”

Cass examined Emily’s numbers and graphs again, then jumped up. When she showed Rick Emily’s analyses, he’d have to give her back her job.

Klaxon horns blared. Emily shrieked, Cass gasped, and both swiveled toward the seismograph monitors. Jagged vertical scribbles flooded several screens. Labels underneath identified the sensors’ locations; all were along the San Andreas fault. Cass kept one eye on the second hand of her watch as it ticked off thirty seconds.

The screens returned to normal. Emily laughed shakily. “False alarm.”

Cass called up the new seismographs on Emily’s computer. Her mouth dried as she scrutinized them. “No. Foreshock.” The fault would fail soon, but “soon” could be days or weeks. But she had a feeling….

“It’s coming.” Cass hugged Emily. “I’m going home.”

#

Eric sat at the breakfast table, a forefinger tracing the oak’s grain. Crevices radiated from his eyes, and others pulled his mouth into a permanent frown; he had aged ten years in the past two. Her fault.

Cass wrapped her arms around him and pressed her cheek against his stubble, breathing in his scent, wanting the moment to last forever.

Eric jolted out of his reverie. “What the hell?” A coyote whined nearby. Cawing loudly, crows raced home toward the mountains too early. Finches hushed. Animals knew before instruments when the world wasn’t right.

The floor rolled like a wave and Cass pulled Eric under the table. They clung to each other atop sodden papers and sharp mug shards. “I’m sorry,” they said simultaneously.

Copyright July 2011 by Shauna Roberts

Shauna Roberts lives in Riverside, California.  She writes fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction and has had several short stories published. She is a 2009 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop and has won several awards for medical writing. Her first novel, Like Mayflies in a Stream, was published in 2009 by Hadley Rille Books.

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4 Responses

  1. Great story. Hopefully, it turns out to be complete fiction!

    Robin (from California)

  2. “Her fault.” — Ha ha ha. Good one, Shauna! Celia (from England)

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