Authors: Sophie Stern
Copyright © 2016 by Sophie Stern
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Other stories by Sophie Stern
For my readers
May you find your dragons
What’s that old Earth saying?
Karma’s a bitch?
Well, I must have done something super fucked up in a former life because right now sucks.
The worst part is that there’s nothing I can do about it.
As I make my way slowly through the crowds of people to the herbalist’s shop, I search my brain for one more idea, one more method I could employ to make my life just a little bit better. I just need one more way to try to make my dad more comfortable. I just need one more way to give him a little bit of hope before everything vanishes.
My home planet is dying. The grass is gone and the air is thick. It’s always hard to breathe. Always. When I was a child, we had green, rich grass. That was before the wars. That was long ago. Now things are damaged and it’s all I can do to get through the day.
I just need to make it through each day.
My world has always been broken. There are legends of times past when humans were happy, but to me, those stories are just myths. They’re happy bedtime stories to help children fall asleep, but they don’t fix the reality I live in.
Tonight I have to hurry home to my father, but my mind is focused on the pain, the exhaustion. No matter how hard I fight, the world keeps closing in on me, on all of us. Will there ever come a day when the grass turns green again? Will there ever be a time when the air is clean?
A woman bumps me and I glare at her, tired and angry. I’m frustrated. I’m worn out. I have to fight through a crowd of sick and dying people to get herbs for my father who is also sick and dying. We all just want to survive another day, but the grim reality is that it probably won’t happen. We’re all running on borrowed time and it’s only a matter of when it runs out.
My father is very sick. He’s in constant pain, but when he finally passes, I don’t know what I’m going to do. He’s the only one I have. He’s the only one who cares about me.
The herbalist gives me the jar and I throw my coins at him before leaving. It’s a long walk home and it’s already dark. We’re not supposed to be outside at night, but I don’t have much of a choice. It’s a three mile walk back to our hut and if I don’t make it, my father’s pain will be so strong he’ll pass out.
Things weren’t always so bad. Despite the world dying, falling apart, resting in ruins, my father and I were happy once, at least a little. He wasn’t always sick. When I was a girl, he would tell me stories of times when Earth was full and lively and fun. He used to make me laugh. We’d make plans for the future that always included escaping Earth, but we never had the money.
And then he got sick.
It’s not that there weren’t options. There were. For nearly 10 years, there were ships bringing people to other planets. Oh, you had to see your soul and maybe a few body parts to afford passage, but there were ways to escape.
The last ship sailed this morning for Taneyemm, and I wasn’t on it. I couldn’t afford what they were asking. The price for simply getting on the ship is more money than I’ve seen in my lifetime.
And the ticket price didn’t even guarantee you’d get to stay on the planet.
Interplanetary relations are a tricky thing. Not every planet wants humans, even rich ones. Some planets
want humans, or so I’ve heard. It really just depends on where you go, and what you can afford, and which ship you can get on.
The rich people evacuated Earth first, heading to planets full of humans. They basically had their choice of planets to run to. The Martians were especially friendly toward Earthlings and took in more refugees than any other planet. Most of the others were a bit more standoffish, though.
Most of the others didn’t quite know what to do with us.
Taneyemm is one of the worst, but I’d still go there in a heartbeat if it meant getting off Earth. Even if the world doesn’t implode like some predict it will, we’re all going to starve to death pretty soon. There’s no food left.
Reslenoau delivered food for years to Earth, but even with Earthlings fleeing to other planets, there was never enough. Soon they couldn’t keep up with the demand and they quit bringing food altogether.
I try not to think about that.
Right now I have to get home. I move as quickly as my feet will carry me. My leather slippers are old and worn and they don’t do much to protect my feet. No, my skin won’t be torn up from the rocky terrain, but I feel every rock pressing against the soles of my feet.
I feel every sting.
It’s well past midnight when I arrive home and slip inside the tiny hut I share with my father. We built it years ago, long after Mama died, and it’s tiny, but it keeps us warm. It keeps us dry.
“Father,” I say, kneeling beside his bed. It’s only a pallet on top of some crates, but for the most part, it’s fine. His poor body is wracked with fatigue, pain, and sickness. I know sometimes he wishes it would just be over. He’s been sick for a long time and unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do.
There was a doctor in our town, but he left long ago.
I reach for my father, ready to wake him and give him his herbs, but when I touch him, his body is cold and stiff. He rolls as I touch him and I see that I’m too late.
I took too long and he’s gone.
My father is gone.
For a long time, I just sit next to his bed. I don’t react. I don’t cry. I don’t do anything. I can’t. He was all I had left in the world and he’s gone. He’s gone.
When the tears finally come, the sobs are loud and painful. I cry until I have nothing left, and then I sit there. If only our lives had gone differently. If only he’d been able to make it on a ship. Any ship. Anywhere.
Maybe he would have had a chance.
I don’t know much about medical care on other planets, but I know anything would have been better than this. The pain of losing him is only soothed by the realization that he’s no longer hurting. For months, my father has struggled with even the most basic tasks. The last few weeks have been the hardest.
We both knew there wasn’t much time left.
Now I’m stuck on a dying planet with no hope for a future. What am I supposed to do? Wait around until I die, too?
“Fuck you, death,” I whisper, and grab my father’s hand one last time. I hold it for a moment, then kiss him on the forehead. “Goodbye, Father,” I murmur, and smooth back his hair. He’s covered with a soft quilt and I pull it over his head before I stand.
There’s nothing left for me here.
It’s the middle of the night, but I don’t care. I ignore the fears that rush through me as I step back outside. There are wild creatures roaming about. They’re just as hungry as me, but they’re more vicious.
It’s not like I have anything left to live for, so I just start running.
After about ten minutes, I slow down to a walk. My crying has stopped, but I still feel like I’m dreaming. I’m living this nightmare that never ends, reminding me once again that not all dreams are good. I know this better than most Earthlings.
That’s why I hate when people make those weird wishes about their dreams coming true. Who really wants that? Some dreams are nightmares. Even if you think you know what you’re asking for, you don’t. Not always. Not even usually.
My running has brought me close to town, near to where I brought the herbs. I haven’t seen any animals yet, which is unusual. Usually there are at least a few stray dogs running around. Sometimes there are even cats. Despite my tears, I manage to calm down long enough to wonder where the animals have gone.
Why aren’t there any around?
Instead of heading to the city center, I veer around the outside of the village. I notice the lights coming from just beyond the edges of the dilapidated buildings.
There used to be a school and some other things in this area. Maybe even a government office. I’m not sure. Now it’s just used as a landing area when aliens come to Earth. Still, we aren’t getting any of those again, so why is it lit? There shouldn’t be any lights over here.
There shouldn’t be any people.
Curiosity starts to overtake my emotions. Instead of feeling extreme pain my heart, I’m feeling something else. I’m calming down and now, instead of heading for the village, I’m walking toward the light. I duck under the barbed wire fence that goes around the old school building. It’s falling down and wouldn’t keep a mouse out, let alone an intruder.
Around the back of the building, I have a clear view of a large, hovering spaceship. Lights are shining all around it, although less than there usually are.
What the hell?
Slowly, cautiously, I approach the ship. Why is it here? Is this the Taneyemm ship? Surely it can’t be. I know all about that ship and I know that more than anything else, the Taneyemm ship was supposed to leave yesterday. We all thought it did, so why is it here? All thoughts of my father vanish as I wonder – stupidly, perhaps – whether there’s any chance I could get on board.
If I stay on Earth, I’ll wander around until I kill myself or starve to death. There is no one here to look after me, no one here to care for me. There’s no one here to make sure I’m eating or drinking water or staying alive. Everyone is so busy looking after their own that the best damn thing I can do for my village is to die.
There are people moving between the ship and the ground, loading large boxes and cargo. I peek from around a boulder, my eyes prying into the darkness. There are 10 or 15 humans walking around. One has a clipboard and appears to be checking items off a list as the others move around, taking and giving orders.
I’m about 30 yards from the entrance to the ship. Right now, there’s no chance I’d be able to sneak onboard undetected. Without a plan, without money, without hope, how am I going to get on?
Earth is dying and I don’t want to die with it. My father is dead. Gone. Even if I’d been willing to leave him before, there was no chance we could afford it, but now? Now I’m a desperate woman and freedom is within my grasp.
I watch for about half an hour. Suddenly, the man with the clipboard says something in a language I don’t understand, and most of the group heads on board. Two of the men don’t. They walk over to where I’m standing, and I scurry back behind the boulder. They stand on the other side, facing the ship, and start speaking.
This time, I can understand them. I think they’re eating something or smoking something because a sweet scent wafts in the air, but I don’t recognize it.
“I’ll be damn glad to leave this planet,” one man says. The other one makes a noise that sounds like agreement. “Two weeks is long enough. I can’t believe Hal shorted us a girl.”
“Fucking Hal,” the other man agrees, and my ears perk up. They’re missing a girl?
“I mean, I know it’s sad and all. Don’t get me wrong, but uh, in case she didn’t notice, her planet is sort of trash.”
“What did Hal say the problem was?”
“She decided to stay. Didn’t want to leave her family. Now we’re one short and we were already running behind. He needs another girl, a young one, within the next four hours or that signing bonus he promised? Gone.”
The second man makes another noise and I get the distinct impression he’s a man of few words. What did he say, though? They need a girl. I glance down at myself, realizing I’m nothing to look at. My faded leather slippers are worn and dirty. My dress is really just a plain brown shift that’s quite ordinary and nothing special, but my father always told me that my eyes are nice. Maybe they’ll think the same thing.
Maybe I could be the girl they need.
I don’t know what it is they need females for and to be honest, I don’t care. If it means getting off Earth, isn’t that enough?
“We need to get back before Jenika gives us shit,” the first man says again, and I hear a shuffling sound. This is it, I realize. It’s now or never. I need to speak up, stand up, or my chance will be lost.
“Wait!” I cry out, more softly than I had intended to. Still, they hear me, and they both turn around as I run over. One of them drops whatever he had been smoking. Some sort of pipe. It clatters on the cracked pavement, but they both ignore the sound and stare at me as I scurry over.
The men are both taller than any humans I’ve ever seen. I’d guess they’re at least six feet tall, maybe taller. I know humans used to be taller, but these days? These days I’m considered a giant at five-and-a-half feet. Their eyes are bright and sparkly, even in the dim lighting that surrounds the ship. I wonder where they’re from. Are they from Taneyemm or somewhere else? Are they natives or were they recruited to come here?
I can’t help but feeling very, very small as I approach the men. I come to a quick stop in front of them, and they both just stare, open-mouthed at me.
What a sight I must be: messy, ragged hair and a tear-streaked face.
“I heard you need a girl,” I say, and they both exchange looks. After a long moment, the taller man speaks.
“Well, Tank, looks like you’ll be getting that bonus, after all.”