At two in the morning, we left behind the dunes I had roamed all my life. They had left one window down, thinking that unconscious kids can’t run away. Forgetting one thing: me.
I didn’t trust the lady, even if she did smell nice. It didn’t work on me. Jonny, though, didn’t think twice about taking free food. He trusts everyone. Rat and Nick weren’t far behind, although I’ve heard Rat say on more than one occasion that nothing comes for free. And now he’s unconscious, along with the rest of them. I had followed them into the van, but didn’t eat anything. Everything about the truck made red warning lights flash and sirens scream in my head. My instincts had never been wrong before. And now we were stuck, as far away from everything we know as an astronaut floating in space.
Although it’s too dark to see, I still smell the strange, wet air coming through the window and feel Jonny’s head resting gently against my shoulder. I had pulled him there when the sedatives had set in. It made me feel like I was protecting him, although really, I have no power in this situation. They say they have to protect me, since I’m the only girl and the second youngest. The last time Rat said that, I almost broke his nose. But right now, it’s meprotectingthem. I think back to when I first met Rat and Nick. It was the day I found my family…
That year was the hottest I can remember. The ground was baked hard as rock. Food wasn’t just hard to find, it was nonexistent.
Johnny and I were living on bugs and weeds. There weren’t even people to steal from. News had spread that the Sun was aging much faster than anyone thought possible, that it could explode and kill us all any year now. The upper classes had left with the HPP; the Hospitable Planet Program. Some of the poor had left too, although they were mostly sent to random locations in space. Their chances of survival were about one in infinity, but the ones who stayed had worse odds. The Earth’s landscape had transformed into one giant, hot collision of wet bogs and arid deserts, where the average temperature in the cold season was 100°. Only a few were left; they were all scavengers like me and my brother.
You could tell we were both what people called Children of the Apocalypse, scavenger orphans, because of our dark tan, weathered skin and bright white hair. It was a result of being underneath the Sun all day. The Sun was a paradox; both our god and our devil. We only lived as long as it lived, but the life that it gave was stunted and strange. The scavengers became inevitably linked to the Sun. The Sun was life; the Sun was death.
The first year that we were alone, I was twelve, but not for long. In the first week I had aged exactly twenty metaphorical years. I did my best to at least let Johnny stay eight. We were on our own for about a year when we found Rat and Nick.
At first sight, we assumed that they wanted to kill us. After all, the rest of our family had died in the Resource Wars. It was only natural that we would expect fighting. It didn’t help that Rat looked like an action hero turned evil.
But they really just wanted to help. Soon enough, we were pooling resources and sharing stories. In a week, we were traveling together. I found out that Rat was only sixteen, and was actually pretty soft. Nick was fourteen. He was better looking than anyone I had ever met (he had somehow kept his dark brown hair), but there was something slightly off in everything about him; his eyes, his tone of voice, his movements. It wasn’t that he was crazy or anything, he was just a little unstable from the things he had seen, living through the turf wars. I grew used to it and became close to him anyway. I mean, we were all at least a little crazy, being the only ones left.
We became a family.
Hours later, when the first penetrating, poisonous rays of the Sun started showing on the horizon, Nick is the first to recover. He sits up slowly, blearily, and takes stock of the situation. At first he looks frightened, than angry. One of Nick’s rages is the last thing we need speeding down an abandoned highway in the middle of nowhere, so I tell myself to at least act like I was okay, even comfortable
“Hey,” I say. My voice cracks from partly buried emotions despite my best efforts. I guess I’m not a very good actor.
Nick tenses and gets ready to attack, then relaxes once he sees that it’s me. Nick and I are close friends, or at least as close as you can be when your life might end any day.
“Where are we?” he asks, pretending that I could possibly know.
“...Somewhere?” I answer, giving up all pretense of things being fine.
Nick tries to laugh, but fails miserably.
There’s an awkward silence as I shifted Jonny onto the ground and pulled myself up to the window. Nick peers over my shoulder. The scene outside is a blur of burning hot orange sand and white mud, the wind so strong that my white hair almost flies out the window. We are going at least ten times faster than I’ve ever gone on the four-wheelers that scavengers sometimes use.
After what seems like an hour but must only be a moment, Nick startles me by whispering, “We could just jump.”
I actually consider it for a second. The window is large enough. Then I remember how fast we’re going.
“It would kill you.”
“Rather die on my own terms than whatever they’re going to do to me.”
For a second, I think he’s joking. Then I see his eyes. His gaze is hard and cold. I realize that, through his own strange kind of bravery and pride, he would jump.
I try to stay calm. I can’t lose anyone.
“Nick, no. You have to live long enough to marry me, remember?”
Nick actually cracks a smile. I’m reminding him of a promise I made, almost a year ago. It had been one of Nick’s worse days. That night, he had gotten down on one knee and proposed. It seemed comical, but Nick would have collapsed if someone hurt him at all at that point. He’s much more stable now.
So I held back my laughter and told him that when I was twenty, I would marry him. That was kind of an empty promise because first, nobody really gets married anymore. A few people do, but it doesn’t really have any meaning. Most people wouldn’t anyway. They’re too afraid to be attached to anyone. But the biggest reason my words didn’t have much meaning was that it was highly unlikely that I would even live to be twenty. The average lifespan for scavengers is about seventeen.
Hearing me say that, sounding like my regular self, was just enough to pull Nick back into sanity.
“Okay. I guess we just wait.”
I nod in agreement.
“I’ve slept enough. You should get some rest.” Nick gently pushes me down next to Johnny, and I realize I haven’t slept in over a day. I fall asleep fighting to remain alert.
When I wake up, Rat and Nick are sitting together on the shifting floor of the van, and Johnny is nudging me awake. I shrug off my weariness and join the meeting, Johnny peering over my shoulder. His hands go to my hair, weaving the pale locks into a strange kind of tapestry. I taught him to braid when he was small, and his fingers start automatically whenever he’s scared or nervous.
I let Johnny keep braiding, and turn to Rat and Nick. “So...Have you figured anything out?”
I’m mostly addressing Rat, since he’s been around longest and seems to miraculously know things.
Rat rubs the back of his head with a dark, weathered hand. “They were all wearing lab coats, so I’m guessing they’re Skies.” Skies are what scavengers call the rich scientists who stayed behind, thinking that the Earth was still worth saving. “I’ve heard about Skies taking scavengers, but it was one at a time, and I thought it was just rumors. In these..stories, they were taken for experiments. To do tests, and-”
“But… those are stories, right?” Johnny’s voice is high and wavering as he addresses Rat, trying to be casual.
“Of course they are. We’ll be okay. We’re survivors.” As Nick says this, he grabs Johnny and puts his arm around the small, wiry boy. Johnny nestles into Nick’s arm, and I flash Nick a grateful, nervous smile.
Rat notices how on edge this information has made all of us. “We’ve gotten through worse. We’re a family, remember?” I think Rat is reassuring himself as much as the rest of us. It’s true that we’re tough, but this is a whole new kind of life-threatening situation. I take a deep breath and steady myself. I am a survivor. I will survive.
Suddenly, the brakes shriek and we grind to a halt. Before we have time to prepare ourselves, a man in a gas mask opens the door and presses a button on the remote he’s holding. A vent in the floor starts pouring out gas, and we panic, trying to scramble up the walls. The man closes the door, we breath in the noxious fumes, and we’re knocked out once more.
When I wake, I’m strapped into a cushioned seat. I’m slowly sliding down the synthetic, slippery material. Not knowing if someone is watching, I cautiously crack open my right eye. I’m sitting right next to a large glass pane, and outside that, all I can see is the cloudy greenish-gray sky. Startled,I sit upright and press my face against the glass. If I look down, I can see a patchwork of dunes and mud. If I look out the sides of the giant window, I see a rounded metallic blue shell that seems to go on forever. I sit there for a while, marveling at the view, wondering how high up we are. It’s so awe-inspiring that I almost forget to be scared for my life, and terrified that they’re going to kill us, and worried that I’ll never set foot on the tortured ground of my Earth again. Almost.
After about twenty minutes, a Skie walks in, holding some kind of remote. My breath catches and I slump down in my seat, trying to act dead while my heart threatens to rip open my chest. She presses a button on the remote, and I hear a beep, then the straps holding me in the chair retract. Around me, I realize that there are other seats that I missed while I was looking out the window. A couple hold my friends, but four others hold strangers. Everyone is starting to stir. That’s when I realize that I don’t see Johnny.
“What did you do with my brother?” The words, loud, angry and scared, force their way out before I can think.
“Oh, of course.” The Skie’s voice is calm and smooth. She presses a button set in her wrist, and brings her hand to her mouth. “Bring in the juvenile male, please.” She says these words politely, but with a deliberance that lets me know she’s in charge.
Almost immediately, Johnny walks in with a male Skie. He’s wearing a small white lab coat, and at first I think he’s crying, and I freeze. Then I realize he’s laughing. When he sees me, his face lights up even more. He glances up at the Skie as if to ask for permission. As soon as the scientist gives him a smile and a nod, he runs toward me. I put out my arms, and he jumps into them.
“Did they do anything to you?” I ask, worried that his happy, relaxed face is the result of some drug.
“No! Well, they gave me this.” He unclenches his bony fist to reveal a small sphere. He presses an indentation at the top, and it lights up. He manipulates a few small projected buttons, and it projects an image of a blue sky and green land. He stares, mesmerized, at his private fantasy world.
I don’t trust this strange object at all, but it makes Johnny happy, so I leave it alone.
Around me, the others are waking up. There’s a Mutant, one of the scavengers who stayed near the infected oceans as they shrank. He has long arms with small webs between his fingers and violently green skin. I know of Mutants, of course, but I’ve never been so close to one.
To the left of the Mutant, there are two people in a huddle. They are holding each other so close that I can’t make out their appearances, but I do notice two flashes of metal on their hands and realize they must be one of the few couples who are married. On the other side of the room, there’s one small, shriveled old lady who must be at least fifty, ancient by scavenger standards.
Around me, Rat and Nick are coming out of their chairs and gathering around Johnny and me. We don’t talk, just acknowledge each other and wait. Nick puts his arm around me, and Johnny holds Rat’s hand.
At the front of the room, the female Skie is setting up a small orb that hovers a few feet above the ground. She presses the top and once it starts to hum and shine, she speaks.
“Welcome to Project Utopia. I am Sonoma.” Her voice is smooth, and echoes strangely around the room.
“You are part of the future of the human race. We have decided to include you in the mission to start colonies in other systems. Should you accept this chance, which I should warn you will never come again, you will be sent to System AA 345S.”
On the wall behind Sonoma, the orb projects an image of a disc-shaped galaxy, then zooms in on a small system with two suns and one planet. The planet is labeled PS h2356: Utopia.
“For the past year, we have been receiving signals from this planet. The transmissions say only “Come to Utopia.” We believe this is a message from other humans, although we have not ruled out extraterrestrial interference. You will be going to the location of these transmissions to find the sender and start a new colony. We do not guarantee any kind of success, but your chances of survival are much higher than on Earth, as by our calculations the Sun’s life span will be over in the next month. If you stay, you die. If you leave… Well, if you leave, you escape from Earth. That is all. Do you accept your seat in the new colony?”
No one speaks. My mind is full; full of possibility, doubt, sadness, hope. This woman has offered us all a new dangerous, alien life in a few sentences. Then the old woman speaks.
“I was born on this Earth. I wish to die on it.”
“Very well.” Another Skie walks in and leads her out.
We all wait, suspicious that the choice is so easy. Finally, the Mutant stands. “I will join you in a new life. There is nothing left for me here.” His voice is old and heavy with loss, but he stands straight and looks sure of his choice. Suddenly, Johnny stands up. I try to pull him back, but his face stops me. I’ve never seen him so serious before.
“I’ll go.” Johnny’s young voice is steady. I can’t go, but I can’t leave Johnny. And he sounds set in his decision. I look out the window. The Earth and the Sun are my home. I love them; I will miss them. But my home is already dead.
I stand with Johnny. Around me, Nick stands, then Rat, then the married couple. I speak for all of us. “We’re coming.”
Sonoma smiles. “Good. Doctor will accompany you. Goodbye.”
The male Skie comes forward to stand with us. Sonoma leaves.
Following orders broadcasted on the screen at the front of the room, we retake our chairs and buckle in. Johnny sits in my lap. My family gathers in the chairs around me, and Nick clasps my hand. The room we’re in seems to detach, and I hear the hum of engines. I look out the window at my home and whisper goodbye as we shoot up towards the sky.
It’s been a month since we left Earth. We now drift far away from anything familiar.
I sit with my family, which has grown to include everyone that lives on my ship. We sit in front of the glass wall, watching the stars. Johnny snuggles between Rat and the couple. Nick and I wrap our arms around each other.
Finally, Doctor finds what we are all looking for. He points, and we follow his gaze. We find it at the same time, NIck and I, and both let out a small sigh that we’ve been holding in. It makes me miss my home, but also makes me feel safe in my new life. Most of all, I feel a deep, melancholy longing for something familiar yet far away. I lean on Nick and watch my Sun explode, and I mourn the death of everything I’ve ever known.
Then together, my family and I turn to face the far away twin suns of Utopia.