My last day on Earth, I hurried through the corridor in Bunker Number Four at way-too-early-o’clock, the packs I’d retrieved from the storage unit smacking against my back.
In the six months since my little brother, Joe, and I moved into the Bunker, I’d come to hate this place. Long, gray, cinderblock halls without a single window. Coverless fluoros shedding just enough light to see where you were going, but never enough to catch the roaches lurking in the corners. And freakin’ cold. They piped in heat, but the ancient boilers barely brought the temp above see-your-breath range.
Dark, gloomy, and damned ugly. Not that people preparing to flee Earth cared much about the ambiance, but it wouldn’t have killed them to give the place some color.
I reached our room and typed in the code on the touchpad. The door slid open. Inside, my eight-year-old brother slouched on his bed, his brown eyes focused on the televid screen mounted on the wall. He clutched his worn, stuffed rabbit to his chest. Dad had given it to him before he left five years ago, and he’d slept with it. After Mom died, he wouldn’t let it out of his sight.
I dropped our packs by my bed. “Hey, kiddo. You about ready?”
“Where’d you go?” Joe said, his face pinched. “I woke up, and you were gone and like with Mom I thought…”
“I’m sorry.” I rubbed his shoulder, kicking myself for not waking him up before I left to tell him where I was going. “I went to get our bags. I thought I’d be back before you woke up.”
Squeals erupted from the televid speaker, redirecting Joe’s attention to the screen. He stared solemnly while a dog-like creature chased a leggy bird across the desert, its feet spinning so fast they blurred into wheels. Beep, beep.
Some cartoon from our ancient past. Should be funny. Should make Joe laugh. But nothing had brought a smile to his face in the past six months.
Turning away, I pulled the sheets off my bed, leaving my lumpy, striped mattress exposed like an overused welcome mat for the room’s next residents. Before I dumped them in the bin tucked into the corner of the bathroom, I draped one over my head and drifted over to Joe. I’d read about Halloween in our history books, but hadn’t seen the thrill of dressing up and haunting people before. Maybe I should find ways to bring fun into our life more often.
“Ooooo,” I moaned, leaning over Joe, really getting into this ghostly stuff.
“Argh.” Arms flailing, he wiggled across his bed. “Lesha! Don’t.”
I peeled off my latest dismal attempt at cheering him up and stuffed it down the laundry chute.
On the televid, the animation cut to an ad. A dreamy, computerized voice swirled through the room. “First the bees died, followed by much of our plant life. Some might say our future looks grim. But ReGreen is here to tell you, this is NOT the end of our homeworld.”
ReGreen needed to stop inhaling the hovercraft fumes and face some facts. Our planet was toast. Years of drought had been followed by wildfires that scorched whatever remained, leaving next to nothing for plants to take root in. Or people, for that matter.
“Thirty percent of our plant and animal species are extinct,” the voice said.
According to our instructors here in the Bunker school, the number was more like fifty percent.
“Have no fear.” The words burst through a crescendo of uplifting music. A picture from Earth’s past flashed on the screen. Fields of lush green vegetation swayed in a light breeze, nestled under a clear, blue sky. What a joke. No one had seen a blue sky for years. “This is just a phase in our planet’s never-ending life cycle.”
“Call it whatever you want,” I told the screen. “Giving it a name doesn’t change what’s happening.”
“We must be patient,” the cheerful voice reminded us. The group’s slogan flashed on the screen, signaling the end of the commercial. “Don’t abandon Earth.”
As if on cue, my wrist com chimed. “We’ve got to leave for the spaceport soon, kiddo.” I nudged Joe’s shoulder with my hip. “Go wash. Put on a clean durasuit.”
My brother glanced down at his Space Cadet PJs Mom had bought him before… “Do I have to? Can’t I just go like this?”
Hell, if I could travel in Space Cadet PJs, I would, but the rules were strict. Something about wanting us to look good on the departure vids. “Go change.” I tipped my head toward the bathroom. “I put out a clean suit for you earlier.”
Joe groaned and slid off the bed. “O-kay.”
As he passed me, I ruffled his hair. Yelping, he scooted sideways and swatted at my hand, but I couldn’t resist. He looked cute when it stood on end.
I snagged my pack from where I’d put it beside the door and slumped on my mattress.
Lifting it onto my lap, I unzipped the top and pulled my vid clip to watch our family images one last time. I gnawed on the tip of my braid while they flashed across the screen. Taken just before Dad left, the vid showed our last moment together. Dad had his arm around Mom’s waist, and they giggled and smiled more at each other than at the camera. I stood beside them, a gangly, twelve-year-old jumble of skinny arms and legs, brown hair hanging in my eyes like tangles of wet seaweed. Joe danced beside me, a goofy grin on his little face. I stroked their images, then re-wrapped the frame in a t-shirt to keep it safe.
Slumping against the wall, I swiped at my eyes. Damn useless tears. All they did was give me a headache and make it hard to breathe. If only I could trap my emotions inside. Never let them rise to the surface.
I rubbed my face and sniffed, then peeled back the top of my bag. With limited space on the starship, we’d been told we could each bring one small bag of personal possessions. I pawed through the items, making sure nothing was missing.
My first aid kit.
Mom’s blue dress; all I had left that was hers.
A glolight. No streetlights on Eris. No lights at all on Eris.
My digital journal. If I didn’t write my thoughts before bed each night, I’d lose my mind.
A few of Dad’s shirts. It made me feel good—no, it gave me hope—to wear them.
Jeans and two of my favorite tees. I’d carry my black jacket.
There was no real reason to bring clothes other than the fact I couldn’t bear to leave them behind. The starship crew had packed plenty of durasuits in the ship’s hold. Woven from nylatec, durasuits lasted forever. They were impervious to stains or tears and came in ten fashionable styles and fourteen phenomenal colors. At least that’s what the televid commercials said.
I’d wear the orange treds I’d scored a month ago at the reclamation warehouse. The splurge had meant a tight budget for weeks, but every girl needed something bright in her life, especially when her world was falling apart around her.
Closing the bag, I focused on the wall above Joe’s bed.
“Eris.” The name of our new planet slipped from my lips like a prayer. Excitement and fear muddled together inside me. I wanted to go, didn’t I? With a disgusted sigh, I shoved away my uncertainty. Of course I wanted to go. Dad was waiting for us. It was a new chance at life.
Anyone outside the Bunker would kill for a chance to take my place on an off-world colony. Why did these useless feelings drag on my soul? Not cool, brain. I had to cut it out. Joe and I needed to escape this dying, third rock from the sun while we still could.
The bathroom door flew open, and Joe jumped out, looking pretty awesome in a light blue durasuit. “Ta-da!” He posed in the doorframe, hands on his hips, a red suit knotted around his shoulders so it hung down his back like a cape. He thrust out his skinny chest. “I’m Superboy Space Cadet, ready for my first mission, Sir.”
“Excellent, young man. Truly excellent.” Thrilled to see him joking around, I saluted and pointed to his bag. “For your first mission, how about making sure your bag’s all set?”
“Sir. Yes, sir.” His lips twitched up, the closest he’d come to a smile in forever, and my heart lightened.
Leaving was a good thing. It was time.
“Where’s Tiff?” Joe asked.
We’d made plans to go to the spaceport with her, and my friend should have been here by now. I dialed her number on my wrist com, but she didn’t connect.
Grumbling, I rose and set my bag by the door. “I bet she overslept. I’ll go light a bomb under her and be back in a few.”
Joe saluted again. “I’ll be ready when you return, Sir.”
“Don’t forget to strip your bed,” I yelled through the rapidly closing door.
As I jogged through the corridor to Tiff’s room, I scanned ahead and behind. Rusty water leached through the cracks in the concrete, drizzling down the wall to mix with centuries-old dirt. It created a toxic sludge.
Unease lifted the fine hairs on the back of my neck. There wasn’t anyone around, and part of me felt stupid for being skittish. With time ticking down to departure, no one would bother to make trouble now.
I’d turned a blind corner at a flat-out run when a clang echoed behind me. Gasping, I spun on my treds, the rubber shrieking on the worn tiles. My pulse thumped in my ears like thunder.
I grumbled. Must be rats or feral cats. Way too many of those around the Bunker.
My wrist com chimed, making me jump. A glance at the screen told me the message hadn’t come from Tiff or central control.
Tension clawed through my belly like razor wire.
Two weeks ago, I’d picked up a stalker. At first, the messages were okay. You looked hot in that green durasuit today. You’re such a babe.
Tiff and I giggled, and my friend called it cute. Said I had a secret admirer. That I should reply, which I didn’t.
The messages had continued. We should get together sometime.
I think I’m in love.
Every day, another text. Until even my matchmaking friend had to admit it was creepy. She told me to report the jerk, and I’d been tempted. But with the launch so close, and me trying to get us off-world before our uncle remembered our existence, I left it alone. Texts couldn’t harm me. Our uncle could.
I gnawed on my braid while staring at the screen. Don’t do it.
Crap. With a grunt, I swept into the message.
You’re such a tease. I love how you lead me on.
That was wrong. I barely spoke to anyone. I kept my zippers snug against my chin. I hid in our room except during classes. Lessons learned in the Bunker.
Closing out my com, I raced down the hall and arrived at Tiff’s room. After making sure no one lurked nearby, I smacked my fist on her door, the boom loud enough to draw the attention of every surviving being on the planet. Being exposed in the hall made my flesh crawl. I banged again. “Open the door!”
The panel slid wide, revealing my friend. “I’m up. I’m up. Jeez.” Tiff rubbed her eyes and waved me inside. Her bright red hair shot in all directions and matching freckles blazed on her face. The wrinkles in her durasuit proved she’d slept in it.
She padded across the tiny, windowless room and collapsed on the bed. “Ugh. I can’t believe I stayed up late last night watching horror vids.” Her yawn lasted forever. “Hardly seems worth it now.”
I settled against the wall and wiped the hair off my overheated face. “Why didn’t you answer your com?”
“Sorry,” she said. “Was that you? I thought it was central command notifying me again that I had to get up.”
“Are you ready to leave?” Her limp bag lay on the floor. “I’d say that’s a no.”
“I meant to pack. I did. But Demons of the Snake World called my name.” One corner of her mouth curled up. “Forgive me?”
I rolled my eyes. “Really. Demons of the Snake World?” This girl…
“It’s crazy.” Her face lit. “There’s a desert, and these huge snakes, and they come out of the sand and chow on people. It’s so cool.”
“Doesn’t sound cool to me.” Actually, it sounded scary, which could be the point.
“You’ve got to watch it.” She scooted off the bed and ran to the bathroom. “Trey’s bringing his vid player to the spaceport, and you can check it out while we’re waiting to board.”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass.” Life gave me enough excitement already.
Tiff groaned and glared into the mirror. “Shit, I look like crap. Trey will think some old lady’s making a move on him. Who has dark circles at seventeen?” Leaning around the doorframe, she scrunched her face at me. “This is bad. Can you give me half an hour?”
“We’ll be in stasis for thirty-two years. Like dark circles matter?” Maybe having a boyfriend made a girl care. I shrugged and glanced at my com. “Ten minutes?” We needed to leave.
“Mmm.” Her reflection had captured her attention. “It’s gonna take a gallon of make-up to repair this damage.”
Snorting, I left and headed back to my room. My steps slowed when I reached the ladder leading to the observation tower. Knowing Tiff, she’d use those ten minutes, plus ten more to get ready. While the launch schedule was tight, there was no reason I couldn’t look outside.
Cold sank into my hands as I climbed the corroded ladder to the top. The hatch locked behind me as I strode to the solitary window, the cupped wooden floorboards creaking beneath my treds. Lifting the telescope, I peered through.
Like every other day, a crowd had gathered beyond the barbed wire fence. Smog hung so thick the memory of it filled my mouth with stank, but I could still make out the desperate expressions above their particulate masks.
A few people held up babies as if someone inside the Bunker would reach down, pluck the poor kid from their hands, and find a place inside where it stood a healthier chance at life. The sad thing was, they were right. While it was pretty much unbearable inside the Bunker, it sure beats what the rest of the world faced outside.
If only I could help one of them. No, if only I could help everyone. But it was all I could do to take care of Joe and me.
Turning, I sighed and climbed back down to the ground floor.
As I moved through the corridor, something clanged behind me.