I darted down the street, narrowly avoiding a pack of e-scooters coming my way. The riders were getting more aggressive by the day with their reckless driving. I swore and caught a bit of their cursing on my Wave but didn’t let it hold me back when I was already running late. The map on my smart lens showed I was heading in the right direction with Samira’s location pinpointed just ahead.
Samira’s blonde hair blew in the wind, but she still noticed me after having obviously received a notification about my approach and waved. I returned the gesture, slowed my pace and breathing to act more natural. Running around with a mask was extra tiring, but that was just my punishment for missing the city line and having to wait five minutes for the next one to pass by.
~Good to see you managed to show up. I was beginning to think you left me hanging, Tiff,~ Samira said, tuning in to my Wave and quickly setting up a password-protected encryption to keep the convo between us for a few minutes before it would inevitably be cracked. There were enough antennas around to capture the unencrypted thoughts of every individual passing by if they weren’t careful. Sometimes a wrong thought was enough to get you fined while other times, well, we stopped seeing them.
I fixed my hair and straightened out my skirt to look more presentable to her. Our fathers used to work together but my family was declassed after an accident, putting Samira’s in a league of her own. ~Traffic was horrible. You might have to scratch me off the road the next time.~
Samira giggled and hooked her arm into mine before dragging me towards the double doors of the super mall. The scanners above the entrance fixed in on me, keeping the doors shut before recognizing Samira and opening.
We strode together through the hall and passed the many shops filled with exclusive goods only money could buy. I hid the rest of my money under my pillow in case rations got cut for another week, but even with every saved up, I couldn’t afford most of anything on display.
~Where are you taking me? This has got to be quite the surprise if you weren’t willing to give me a little heads up,~ I thought but my mind drifted to the cinema she once took me to. It was such a strange experience to see actual people take on roles with stories that felt more impactful than what the formulaic AI CGI movies would churn out. Sure, there were hundreds of new titles and thousands of sequels every week, but they all echoed each other in ways I didn’t realize until I saw a movie at the cinema made for the working class.
~Much better,~ she chimed in and stopped walking in front of the fashion store. ~It’s time for us to pick out your uniform. We can even get matching ones if you like. Just think of the fun we’re going to have at university together.~
~University? No, I can’t go!~
~Of course you can. Dad put in a few words and Xiamen University accepted us both. All we need to do now is pack your bags.~ Samira strolled inside the shop, lifting up a blouse and holding it in front of herself.
It was the first time I’d been outside in weeks and got to stretch my legs. People didn’t have to work anymore. Robots worked, leaving behind a handful of people who needed to monitor them and a few more in IT to keep the system running but that was about it.
My life would be just as dull as everyone else’s. Dad used to tell me stories growing up about his parents going to work and how they took family vacations to the beach. He liked the new system better and, up until his accident, we profited off it as well.
Samira brought a hidden smile to my lips, imagining us both being able to spend more time together and her wearing that blouse. Samira quickly picked up my thoughts over our Wave and pulled me into the store after her. A deafening snap sounded from behind, but before I could turn, I already saw Samira’s eyes widen before we were both struck to the floor by an invisible hand.
The windows shattered, glass raining down while the lights flicked off around us.
My body ached with every shift of muscle but the pain only amplified when I couldn’t breathe or hear anything. I tried retuning into Samira’s wavelength but there wasn’t any response. I tried tuning into another channel but it was as if the entire network and all our devices had gone dead with the eruption. Panic overtook me and I fumbled with the straps, quickly trying to peel the mask off me. My head felt lighter with every moment while my heart was about to burst right through my chest at a hundred miles an hour. The lock opened and I managed to peel it off my face, sucking in a deep breath of unfiltered air and turning around to look for Samira.
Samira laid crumbled up against the wall and was having the same difficulties as I had removing the mask. The thought of losing her numbed out any pain I might have felt and propelled me to her.
“It’s okay, I’m here. I just need you to relax and let me help you for a second,” I said, suddenly terrified of the sound of my own voice. I hadn’t heard myself speaking since third grade, which was the last year we practiced traditional English before going completely e-mental. After a few twists, I had the mask off and saw Samira for the first time as a woman without a mask on. It took me by surprise and I just held in to stare a little longer while she came to her senses.
A high-pitched noise rang in my ears as we both scrambled to our feet to leave the store. It wasn’t until the ringing began to subside did we hear the alarm as well. The red emergency lights showed us the way out with the constant ringing of the bell.
“What’s going on?” I asked as we helped each other walk down the mall towards the exit. Despite the huge size of the mall, there were only a couple dozen other people inside along with us.
“Must have been an EMP of sorts. An accident at the plant or something,” Samira replied, but I could hear the uncertainty in her voice.
Nothing like this had ever happened before. Glitches, outages, and pieces of broken tech but never a complete system shutdown. The situation wasn’t any better outside, with everything standing still on the roads and people flocking to the sidewalk. They stood staring up, shielding their eyes from the sun.
It wasn’t until I followed their example that I saw what captured all their attention. A large chunk, roughly one third, of the moon had splintered off from the rest and broken into hundreds of smaller fragments.
“Dad!” Samira cried, her grip tightening around my hand.
“I’m sure he’s fine. They have bunkers and emergency plans up there,” I said, trying to give off an air of confidence I didn’t share.
At first, I thought an asteroid strike was responsible. Could an asteroid have really done that much damage? I didn’t know the answer, but if it was possible for an asteroid to wipe out the dinosaurs, then it could be. It could have also been the beginning of another European Crusade against Chinese dominance in space. The broken pieces weren’t just floating around though either, they were caught in the Earth’s gravitational pull.
I tugged on Samira’s hand and turned her away from the spectacle still drawing the attention of everyone around us. “We need to get to a shelter right away while there’s still time and space. It might take an extra minute or two for the others to realize it but we’re in danger.”
Samira opened her mouth to say something but stopped midway to glance back up before finally nodding. “There’s a shelter on Third Street by the old subway. I think it’s the closest one.”
We started running down the street, weaving in and out between the large crowds still shocked by what was happening. My heart raced in my chest and I could feel my entire body being pumped with adrenaline. Three months passed since High School ended and with it my time on the track team. Ever since then I’d been at home with my mom and an empty chair.
She was content with staying in the one-room apartment and watching streams all day. I didn’t have anywhere to go and after the hundredth application decline, I just kind of gave up as well.
We took a right and got on Third Street. The subway station was about a hundred yards ahead when I noticed the fragments entering the atmosphere and catching fire. For the slightest of moments, I hoped it would be enough. That the atmosphere would be our magic shield and keep us safe, but I knew that comets the size of cars made it through before and wasted neighborhoods.
By now people became aware of the danger and panicked, running every which way and trying to force themselves inside buildings. We struggled to press ourselves through the masses, shoulders and bodies knocking each other back when Samira got blocked. I turned around and tried to pull her towards me but the rush of people pressed her further away from me.
I couldn’t hear her over the screams and shouts. Bumping quickly turned into shoving and within minutes they were at each other’s throats.
“Hang on,” I said, keeping a tight grip as I tried to move back to her. Anger boiled over as a group plowed right into and shoved me away.
Samira’s fingers slipped through mine and I lost her in the crowd. I wove through the guys but she was gone.
“Samira!” I frantically turned on the spot searching for her when a light flared up on the horizon.
Eruptions sounded, sending out massive shock waves of flame and dust clouds. They were distant but the force was enough to shove everyone to the ground and shower us with glass from the shattering windows. I slowly got up and felt the pain in my chest from where I was hit but besides a few scrapes and bruises, I was fine.
Samira laid sprawled on the ground a few feet away and I quickly ran to her, carefully brushing the glass off that got tangled in her hair. I glanced up, spotting the moon fragment heading directly towards us. We wouldn’t be quite as lucky with that one. “Can you walk? We really need to hurry.”
The young woman groaned in approval but was still dazed by the explosion. I helped her get up and she leaned against me, limping on one side as we headed back towards the subway entrance.
The wailing and screaming soon returned. The sounds further stabbing into me as we went. I didn’t want to leave them behind but I couldn’t be the one to save them. There just wasn’t enough time.
“You two, hurry up or stay out,” a man called down below. He slammed his palm against a button mounted on the wall. The large ten foot tall and five-foot-wide blast door announced itself with a shrill alarm going off before starting to move into place at a pace that gave us little time.
The door wasn’t far off and would have only taken me a heartbeat to reach but I wasn’t willing to leave Samira behind. I supported her down the steps, one at a time, when people behind us got aggravated and shoved by, striking her in the shoulder and having her take a tumble down the steps.
The man stopped to look back at Samira and then at me. For a moment I thought he was going to help but it was short-lived as he turned back around and ran inside repeatedly mumbling, “So sorry,” to himself.
I cursed under my breath and hurried down the remaining steps. Samira bled from her head wound and didn’t respond. I sighed and promised myself to kick his ass when we got inside.
First, we had to get inside, and the door was almost shut. I hoisted her up, wrapping her arm around my neck and taking small steps forward.
The guard appeared through the narrowing gap, holding out his hands. “I’ll take her.”
Together we managed to get her through but with only inches to spare, I hesitated.
“Come on, you can still make it.”
My breathing quickened as I turned and took the first step but quickly pulled back when I saw just how close the metal was to my face. I couldn’t tame the queasy feeling holding me back.
“Take care of her.” The thought of being squished was too powerful and I watched it slide and then fit into place with a squeal, hating myself the entire time.
The stragglers looked to me for answers but I didn’t have any. Our only hope was to wait for the door to open again. That could take hours for the safety protocol to deem it safe again for reopening. Pearce Industries put up bunkers in the thirties during the height of the Cold War between China and the US that resulted in America’s bankruptcy and vassalage. They were designed to be fully automatic once initiated and supposedly able to secure mankind’s survival for at least ten years. Every city had several, with entrances placed at different sections of the old subway line. By now they would have all been shut.
A woman in her late teens went to the steel door and banged her palms against the surface. “Open up. There are still people out here. Hello?”
“It’s no use. The doors won’t open until the green light has been given. They wouldn’t risk the entire complex for us,” I said and walked back towards the steps. A chorus of explosions still rang outside and I could feel the battering wind rushing down. It was only a matter of time before we got hit.
“Wait, where are you going?” an elderly woman asked as she stepped forward. Her eyes were hopeful, as if I had a plan or solution to save them when I couldn’t even save myself.
“I’m going to see what’s happening up top.” I pointed to the barred path leading to the tracks. “You should all head deeper underground. It should help keep you safe from debris.”
I reached street level and climbed on top of one of the broken busses to get a view of the shattered city. A hundred-foot-tall sandstorm came bearing in on us like an ocean wave washing over a sandcastle. I continued to watch in awe and felt my blood run cold.
No goals or ambitions, just living one day to the next. I gave up on life after the accident. It only took life three months to catch up with me. I held out my arms to embrace the end. My knees grew weak and my instincts kept urging me to run but I had nowhere to go.
Strange lights flickered from within the storm, shifting from red to blue and the occasional green. I’d never seen such a play of lights within sand before.
The sand tore through the skyscrapers like a knife and hid it away while pressing on deeper into the city. Again the lights flashed, followed by more explosions. I figured it must have been the car batteries exploding. Hundreds of people fled down the street but the storm surrounded us on all sides. There was no escape.
At least Samira was safe, I thought. The sand engulfed me, scratching my skin a thousand times and flinging me into the air. For a split second, I saw what was causing the lights.
A giant white robot with antennas on the side of its bus-sized head that reminded me of elvish ears.
Then I too was taken by the darkness.
Explosions erupted everywhere as more and more enemy ships appeared on the battlefield. I wound about, quickly shifting my fighter in between some cover to fire an additional volley. Another two burst but three took their place and darted after me.
Energy levels ran low which forced me into switching between shields and weapons to keep the ship in the sky. I’m not going down yet!
The ship shot ahead, narrowly avoiding the enemy barrage as I swung through the line of enemy fighters and activated my weapons. With a quick spin, I took out two of the three. A massive object broke through the cloud cover and appeared on the horizon, blocking my vision with dozens of turrets aimed at me.
The mothership. It was the first time I saw an enemy of its caliber and pitied the people on the ground I wouldn’t be able to protect from the damage it would impose. I veered to the side and felt my heart hold in as the shot struck the hull of my ship and tore it to shreds.
Beeop Boop. Game Over.
“Tough luck, Zack. Looks like you owe me a fiver, but I’ll let you off the hook as long as you pay for my drink,” Amber said. She rubbed her hands together and frowned after reading the screen of my Sage Boy. “That’s strange. I didn’t know handhelds they were capable of colored text.”
Despite your gallant effort, the Earth was conquered by invading alien forces, and humanity forced into slavery. Press Start to restart the game and try again.
Amber was right, the text was written in red but the rest of the game had previously been in greyscale. “Maybe it’s just a setting used to conserve the batteries. These beasts require six AA batteries.”
I found the Sage Boy earlier that morning and claimed it for myself as an early birthday present, even though mom said she didn’t get it for me. It would come in handy when I moved across state to go to college and couldn’t take my entire room with me.
Amber leaned forward, sipping on the straw of her strawberry milkshake. The drink matched her pink shirt and white skirt. I noticed she still wore her tennis shoes from practice, but the diner was our little escape. “You’ve been skipping out my practice sessions. I’m always on the lookout for a number one fan to cheer me on from the stands. I hope you won’t let me down on Saturday’s game.”
I stuffed the Sage into my bag and pulled out my wallet as Martha approached our table. “We’re closing in ten. You two need anything, hun?”
“No, thanks. We’re about done for the day,” I said, and paid for the fries and drink before heading out in front of the diner with Amber.
“So, I’m still waiting on your answer?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be there to watch you win.” I swung the bag over my shoulder and watched a group from school walk by and wave to Amber. She was friends with about everyone at school but still found the time of day in her busy schedule to hang out with me.
Tree-house friends didn’t give up on each other, they grew up together.
“Hey, Amber! We got a fake ID, wanna tag along?”
She shook her head and forced herself to smile. “That’s all right. I got a game coming up and need to be in top form, but you all have fun.”
The group passed by, leaving us to ourselves again. “Need me to walk you home tonight?”
Amber laughed and jabbed me with her elbow in the side. “That’s a nice way of saying you don’t want to walk home alone. In tennis there are two types of people; those that wait for the ball to come to them and those that lunge out towards the ball.”
“Well, I hope you don’t start seeing me as a ball. I’d hate to get on your bad side.” Amber and I lived across the road from each other and practically grew up together since we were five, which put me in an awkward situation plenty of times when people thought we were dating. Even worse was when guys tried to befriend me in order to get to her. Amber would also be nice to them but never start anything.
We crossed the street and headed back towards the town center. I peeked over my shoulder to make sure Jake wasn’t following us. He was a good friend but liked to seize any opportunity he could to pull a prank on me and hit on Amber.
“So, should I bring signs with or what do your fans normally take along?”
“You don’t have to bring anything … the first time. That might change if you become a permanent member of my official fan club. In that case, you’d have to wear a shirt with my name and face on it. It’s going to be a tough match. She’s been undefeated for the past year and has a pretty wicked slam.”
“I’m sure you can beat her. You’re rather good yourself and train every day.”
“Oh, look who’s trying to get back on my good side with compliments.” Amber turned around in front of me and took a few steps back. She still had her sly grin and waved at me. “Anyway, catch you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I’ll see you in between class,” I said and watched her step out onto the road. A quick gush of air and the sound of a horn were enough to get me to instinctively reach out and reel her back in towards me. A truck barreled down the street where she would have been a moment later. “Watch it!”
Amber stayed close to me and I could feel her racing heart pounding against my chest. She glanced up, her arms still around me. “Looks like I owe you my life.”
“Yeah, those truck drivers get reckless around here. Don’t worry about it though, I know a pet cemetery.”
She punched me in the shoulder but followed it up with a kiss on the cheek. A real carrot and stick kind of girl, I quickly pieced together. “Girls watch horror movies too. Just remember what happened to Doc when he brought back his wife in the end before you go thinking about doing that to me.”
“Oh, I’m having second thoughts about that already. Just be careful.”
“Yeah, you too,” she said with a grin and crossed the road to where her house stood. “I wouldn’t drag you through the forest to bring you back to life.”
I glanced at my watch and felt a cold shudder run down my back. It was already quarter past ten. I needed to hurry to make it back before my mom arrived from work.
The loud groan of an eighteen-wheeler drew my attention back around to the diner. It swerved off to the left before losing balance on the sidewalk and falling on its side in front of me. I watched in horror as the truck slid my way with sparks flying and slammed into me.
I didn’t feel the pain wash over me or see myself get crushed by its massive weight. All I heard was the sound of metal scraping and Amber screaming my name.