Copyright © 2018, Nia Mars. Please don’t copy and share.
I’m a scavenger. So what? With society’s collapse on Earth, I do what I have to for survival. Especially after I’m kidnapped by space pirates.
I have no idea why the five most powerful rulers in the universe decide that I’m the Oath Forger, the one foretold to fuse their royal houses together and bring peace. But I’m going to play along. Because, hey, it’s better than probes in uncomfortable places.
Now let’s just hope they don’t find out I’m lying.
Cancer didn’t kill my mother. The common cold did. When she was already weakened by cancer.
It’s the same when people say aliens destroyed Earth—pure bullshit. We destroyed Earth. Earth was in a system-wide failure by the time the aliens came. We used up our resources and didn’t have enough left to fight the invasion.
When I raise my head but don’t see Lily, my heart lurches so hard it hurts. My sister is all I have I left. I run forward in the abandoned shopping center, my boots echoing off the ruins. We are in a section newly uncovered by a weeklong, fierce sandstorm—prime hunting grounds for scavenging. We’re looking for anything we can sell or trade for food.
I dart around fallen beams and other piles of debris until I see Lily behind a half-wall that once had been inside a store, probably the checkout counter. As I slide to a halt, dust flies up everywhere.
The world is dust. It has been dust as long as I can remember. We’ve been broken to pieces and ground down to next to nothing.
Lily is crouching, staring at something under a pile of rubble.
She’s okay. She’s not hurt. I can breathe. “What is it?”
“I think it’s paper.”
“No way.” The world had gone digital long before we were born. Whatever paper history left behind was burned by people for heat after the invasion.
I ease forward and crouch next to Lily, and when she lifts her mask and blows on the sand, I see the corner of something colorful that does look like pictures of paper I’ve seen on my comm unit. Together, we carefully blow some more powdery sand away. Then we exchange a stunned glance from behind our goggles. “It’s definitely paper.”
Because I’m five years older, twenty-three to her eighteen, she waits for me to decide what to do next.
I tap the dust off my gloves and pick up the paper. God, don’t let me ruin it.
I’m not a hundred percent sure how to use it. Unlike on my comm unit, the colorful pictures don’t scroll. They sit there, sheet after folded sheet. The whole thing is held together in the middle by two metal clips. “I think it’s what they used to call a magazine.”
“How did it get here?”
I glance around. Rubble, rubble, and more rubble. “Maybe this was an antique store?”
We rarely forage this far from Dallas Colony, but times are tough. The choice was between coming up to the surface and finding something we could sell, or starving below in the tunnels. There’s a window of opportunity for this kind of thing. You wait too long, you get too weak, and then you can’t handle the scavenging. The trick is to get out there before you’re falling-down hungry.
Lily leans closer, excitement sparkling in her eyes. “Let me see.”
I hold the magazine out to her, the way it fell open. “What does it say?”
For decades now, all information and entertainment have been audiovisual. We both learned to read in school, but Lily is better at it. She paid more attention. With me, it was a use-it-or-lose-it kind of deal, and since I never used it, I lost it. I have no time to practice arcane skills; I’m too busy keeping Lily and me alive.
“It’s a bunch of questions you’re supposed to answer,” she says after a minute.
“Like a government survey?”
The colony is governed by surveys. If a decision needs to be made, a survey goes out. Everyone responds on their comm units, then the most popular option gets put into place. And stays in place. Unless it doesn’t work. If it doesn’t work, another survey goes out. Ours is not a perfect system, but it functions pretty well for most things.
Lily reads for another minute. “Doesn’t look like a government survey.”
I give the page a more careful inspection. The image on top shows three smiling young women lying on their stomachs on a sprawling bed, the sun streaming through the window behind them like a cascade of gold. They’re wearing ruffled skirts and skimpy tank tops in bright colors.
Lily sighs. “I can’t believe the world was really like that once.”
“Boggles the mind.”
Lily and I are wearing camouflage from boots to face mask, all protective gear. Fashion and the apocalypse don’t mix.
“Name one thing you love,” she reads out loud.
“That’s easy. You.”
I can’t see her mouth behind the mask, but I can hear the grin in her voice as she says, “One thing you hate.”
That’s even easier. “Aliens.”
“One thing you believe in.”
“One thing you don’t believe in.”
She rolls her eyes behind her goggles. “You just said you loved me.”
“Romantic love.” I correct. “I don’t believe in falling in love.”
Never seen it work out. Never seen it last. Our father left the second our mother got sick. Love didn’t work out for my best friend, either. Lucy might have loved, but her boyfriend was just using her for sex. He abandoned her as soon as she got pregnant. Couldn’t afford a baby, he said.
Lucy died in childbirth. So did her baby. A lot of people die from infections these days.
I clench and unclench my fingers. I can’t think about Lucy without wanting to scream.
There are a lot of things I don’t like thinking about.
When I was Lily’s age, I thought I was in love with Ben. I thought Ben was in love with me. We were talking about living together, him moving in. Until he told me that Lily would have to move out. When I informed him that I wasn’t going to leave a thirteen-year-old to fend for herself, he just shrugged.
How the brat survives is her problem, he’d said, trying to tug off my pants, and not for the first time. She can sell her ass, for all I care.
I haven’t had a boyfriend since. I think love might have worked before, in a gentler world, but I don’t think it works anymore. Not now. Not here.
Lily reads the next question off the printed page. “One thing you would never do.”
Anxiety skitters up my spine on spider legs. “Go up in space.” I pull the magazine away and close it. “We shouldn’t be reading this. It’s too valuable.”
A wishful look comes into my sister’s green eyes that match mine. “How much do you think?”
“It’ll buy us food for a month. Maybe more, if we find the right buyer.”
I’m not sure how we’ll go about that, not with something this expensive, but I’ll ask around discreetly when we get back. First step first, my mom used to say. Just figure out what you need to do next, and do that. You can worry about the second step, once you finish the first step. Otherwise, you get overwhelmed.
For right now, all I need to know is that we’re done scavenging. We have to get the magazine down underground into the colony before something happens to damage it, or someone comes across us and takes it from us.
My gaze drops to the front cover, and I lose my breath.
“What?” Lily looks around, alarmed.
I keep staring at the cover image. “That’s the man. That’s the man in my dreams.”
She looks. “Holy shit.”
“Who is he?”
She reads. “Football player.”
He’s definitely built. He has long, thick, dark hair, and the way the light hits him, the color looks almost indigo, even reflecting in his eyes. His eyes are mesmerizing.
“He was in a movie too,” Lily adds, reading more. “I guess he was a big star, back in his day.”
“I can see why.” It’s almost impossible to look away from his image.
“Maybe you dream about him because you saw one of his movies in the archives.”
“Maybe.” Although considering how amazing he looks, it’s difficult to believe that I could forget seeing the guy.
“Do yourself a favor,” Lily says, eating up the photo. “Next time you dream about him, dream about him naked. And then I’d like to hear some deets.”
I roll my eyes. “The guy in my dream wasn’t really this football player. This one just reminds me of the dream guy.” In my dream, I keep searching for him, but every time I catch a glimpse, he disappears. “There were others with him. Shadows. I couldn’t figure out if they were friendly, or threatening.”
I shake off the memory. We have no time to waste on deciphering dreams. “Hold on. Let’s get this tucked away.”
I open my sister’s camouflage top and tuck the magazine between the protective outer layer and the soft inner layer, then zip her up again. Our treasure is safer with her. If we run into any trouble, I’ll be the one doing the fighting. “Let’s go, Chickpea.”
I call her that because our mother used to say it. I used to think chickpea was a breed of chicken, until I saw some old cans of chickpea at the market a couple of years ago. Turns out, it’s a vegetable.
We head toward the nearest gap in the collapsed building’s outer wall, keeping a close eye on our surroundings. We stay in the open middle of the building as much as we can, keeping away from large piles of rubble that could hide an attacker. Sparkly bits and pieces here and there catch my eye: shards of stainless steel, a chunk of a broken mirror, a large aluminum button. I pick up what I can, careful to avoid sharp edges. This is why I have a padded pocket.
When Lily cuts in front of me, and I get a good look at her, I groan. “Don’t walk so stiffly. Everybody who catches a glimpse of us will know you have something on you.”
“I’m totally freaked!” She gives a nervous laugh, but her eyes are beaming with excitement.
When we reach the opening, I peek outside, my hand on my weapon. This time, Lily stays behind me. We don’t move. We barely breathe. We wait.
Nothing moves out there but the sand, shifting in the ever-present wind.
We have two choices. Walk out in the open once again, in which case, people hiding behind other ruins might see us, but, on the upside, we’ll also see them if they try to approach. Or, we could run from ruin to ruin and stay in cover as much as we can, but risk that someone will be waiting for us in one of the ruins.
The colony is the largest organized group of people in Dallas, but there are other survivors. Some live in the half-completed subway tunnels, others occupy smaller underground structures. None will hesitate to kill if they think they can get their hands on something valuable.
While I’m trying to decide how to move forward—the stakes are bigger today than they have ever been—the wind kicks up. Sand fills the air.
I step outside into the rising sandstorm, grinning behind my mask. “It’s our lucky day. Stay close behind me.”
With every step we take, visibility is worse and worse. Nobody can see us now. I lift my comm unit, built into the protective suit on my left forearm, and shout over the storm, “Fastest route to colony.”
A green arrow appears.
We’re a long way from home. Everything within easy walking distance, everything not covered by at least twenty feet of sand, has been picked over. Nothing of value remains. These days, you want something; you have to seriously walk for it.
“Can we have salt with the potatoes?” Lily asks from over my shoulder.
Not everything grows underground, but potatoes don’t mind artificial light. Potatoes are the cheapest non-synthetic food we can get. And the stores have salt, because traders came from the New Orleans Colony in the spring, bringing big burlap sacks of sea salt, large-grain and coarse.
The more we think about food, the faster we walk. We lean into the wind, glad for our masks and suits that stop the storm from sandpapering off our skin.
Lily puts a gloved hand on my shoulder—visibility is that bad. I have to lift the comm unit right to my goggles to check on the green arrow again.
We walk for an eternity. My muscles ache. I could die of thirst, but I don’t take out my canteen. The wind would just blow dust right into the water.
When Lily’s hand slips off my shoulder, I turn back. “You okay?”
“My left boot is rubbing my foot raw. Stupid sand got in. Can we stop?”
“Distance to destination?” I ask the comm unit. We have to be close. We must have walked three hours straight.
“Dallas Colony one hundred feet straight ahead,” the mechanical voice says.
I grab for Lily’s hand. “We’re almost there, Chickpea.”
A dozen more steps and, in a sudden lull, I can see the entry through the storm: a collapsed hospital. The colony began in the hospital basement. The main entrance where the elevator now starts was once the morgue. There was underground parking too. The first colonists began with that, then dug and expanded.
We’re almost there.
“Tonight, we’re going to have a damn feast!” I shout back at Lily.
“Want to invite Ben?”
I haven’t told my sister what Ben said about her, so she still hopes, which kills me. She wants a family. She wants there to be more of us. There’s safety in numbers.
“Let him earn his own potatoes,” I say the words lightly, jokingly.
I can’t get those baked potatoes with salt out of my head. I can practically taste dinner. For once, we are going to go to bed with full stomachs.
Instead, our luck runs out right then and there.
Within sight of safety, that cursed thump, thump, thump fills the air. My heart beats so hard in response, the two sounds compete with each other. My body vibrates with alarm, as if every cell is trying to run in a different direction.
No! Shit! No, no, no. Not now! They’re right above us, dammit.
I can’t see them, but I know their instruments can detect us. The sandstorm is nothing to those bastards.
I shove Lily toward the colony entrance. “Run!” Then, because she hesitates, I scream, “I’ll be right behind you. Run!”
She takes half a dozen steps, and already I can’t see her. Which means she can’t see me. I take off in the opposite direction. Oh God, Lily. Run! Run as fast as you can.
The spaceship’s tractor beam can only track one of us. I’m out in the open, while Lily is nearly at what they think is only a pile of ruin, but cover nevertheless. Between the two of us, I’m their better bet. I’m the easy prey.
I don’t see the tractor beam when it hits me. I don’t feel it. I just lift, weightless into the air. My stomach flips.
I grab for my gun and shoot up without being able to truly aim. Shit! My body is jerking around too much, trying to find stability. Before I can squeeze off another shot, the gun slips out of my unsteady hand.
Shock punches me in the freaking face. That’s it for me. I’m finished.
“Location Lily,” I gasp into the comm unit.
“Lily Smith, citizen 345-879. Location: Dallas Colony, surface level.” The little red dot shows her inside the line that represents the walls. Safe.
A sob of relief escapes me. A single sob born in heart-tearing pain. Then everything goes black.