Chapter One

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Pit District, Planet of Simoom
562 NEC (New Earth Calendar)


In my head I was running again, stumbling through the back lanes and tripping over garbage, hugging Sila, wrapped in a blanket, to my chest. I had to keep the scarf over my face; I couldn't hardly see. With every cough, Sila jerked, and her bloody puke spread through the blanket, wet and sticky. I zigzagged upslope mostly by memory; no moons or stars that night—too many clouds—and everybody had their back doors and portholes stuffed with blankets, trying to block out the goddam dust. No light peeped through.

Don't trust them, they had told me. Don't take her there. Those are Plat doctors.

I wouldn't listen. All I could feel was that tiny body jerking. All I could think was Just get to the aid station. Just get to the aid station.

Five years later, we were on our way to that same (now-abandoned) aid station—as soon as all the bullshit speeches were over. Though I'd past by it many times since that midnight dash in the dark, this would be the first time I'd be stepping through the doorway of that rusted container pod. I can't say I was looking forward to it. 

Trying to shake Sila out of my head, I took a deep breath and scanned over the crowd. We were standing up slope, by the barricades. Caraq, flanked by a dozen Pit Pats in black armour, spoke  for WAVE. Omari spoke for us. We all smiled for the drone cameras. I looked across at the New Earthers. They were squeaky clean, well fed and smiled a lot, and I hated them instantly. They talked to us like we were little kids. They wanted to shake our hands (and probably pat our heads and hug us), but that wasn't happening.

The first stash of medical stuff, food and water promised by WAVE was heaped beside us. Together, we moved the crates to the aid station half way down the slope. But mostly it was the New Earthers who lugged it all down—I mean how would it look to the cameras if they allowed us walking skeletons to do the heavy lifting? Buzzing drones followed us everywhere; the voices of the reporters on the other end, sitting in fancy ass offices somewhere in the Plateau district, bugged us with questions. I didn't say nothing to them—I found out later, that did not go over well with the audience on New Earth. But Omari didn't want anyone else to talk but him, and I had agreed. I thought Mancy would pick a fight over that, but he didn't.

Detention Centre, WAVE Security Station orbiting Simoom


That morning I was on a break from guard duty. I was happy to be off-planet. I was happy to be sitting in a quiet, immaculate lounge, sipping tea from a dust-free mug, away from the disorder of Simoom. I was watching the live newsfeed from the surface on my screen. Cariq was welcoming the New Earth volunteer aid workers and on behalf of WAVE Corp. promising complete transparent cooperation. But I barely heard him. 

The camera swung across the New Earthers, grinning like idiots, and there she was. I hadn't seen her in over a decade, but I recognized Raquel instantly. It was the look in her eyes and that smirk on her face when Cariq spoke about "hope and a new tomorrow."

It was the exact same expression she flung my way eleven years ago on New Earth, when they led her away in cuffs.  It seems she had always known I'd be a disappointment, that I could never be anything but a disappointment. Apparently, people were still disappointing her.  "My God," I whispered to my screen; my throat tightening, slowly cutting off my voice. "She's still trying to save the worlds. "

Every time the camera swept by the New Earthers, I caught a glimpse of her smile and her long black hair dancing in the light breeze. She hadn't aged much—at least not that I could tell, and I found myself grinning. I touched her face on the screen. I didn't know I was going to do that until I did it. And then I remembered her voice, which so often teetered between seductive and mocking: "What are you going to do, Vestra, strip search me?"

"Hey Doric! Doric!" Gambo's voice came over my ear com, interrupting my daydream. "Doric!"

I pulled my eyes away from the feed. "What? I'm taking fifteen."

"Sorry. Some Rat on D Block is tearing up her cell."

I laughed. "You mean little bitty Gambo can't take care of that himself?"

"Oh, I'd love to taser the bitch, but you know head office."

"Yeah, yeah." Under scrutiny from every media outlet in the system, WAVE Corp. had ixnayed tasering indefinitely.

"Anyways, the Rat says she'll only talk to you—you know, woman to woman."

"Shit, Gambo."

"That's what you get for being nice to them."

I sighed, my attention drawn again to my screen. Raquel was helping to carry supplies down slope into the Pit, while other New Earthers handed out food to the Rats—as if that would help. Then her smiling face froze. The feed was breaking up, stalling. I resisted the urge to whack my screen. "Damn!"

"What?" asked Gambo.

"Nothing, I'll be there in five. Doric out."

"Damn," I said again, my screen had gone blank. "Damn dust." The dust in the Pit District was always getting into drone circuitry and disrupting the signals. I left for D Block, feeling certain that they'd get the cameras up and running in a minute or two

Pit District


We had just reached the aid station when the wind and dust picked up; down went the drone cameras and their feeds. Then the dust settled like it had never blown up in the first place. The New Earthers kept smiling, but this was the first time they had felt the Pit dust, and they were antsy.

"It's all right, it's all right," Omari goes. "Just a bit of a dust up. It's the still season—there won't be any grey blizzards. One needn't worry." He always said shit like that—"one might do this" or "one needn't do that."

We all took a deep breath, and when we did you could see bits of grey dust float up as we breathed in and down when we breathed out. It was great to be free of the whining media drones, and everyone began to chat. I don't remember about what—it was small talk meant to calm the New Earthers.

I was inside the rickety container pod, sorting and stacking supplies, trying not to think about the last time I was here. Around me, people were coming and going. Somebody was banging a hammer above us, patching the pod's metal roof. There was a New Earther beside me. She told me her name, but I don't remember it. I do remember she had beautiful long black hair; she was a nurse I think. She kept talking to me, trying to be friendly. I didn't say much back to her; I was having trouble concentrating. Sila was on my mind, of course, but it was more than that. Something was coming. I felt it. It was like a worm wiggling up my back. Ever so slow, the dust around was waking up, moving, swirling, gathering. I breathed it in, and in my mouth I tasted cold fury.

Then came this fucking big blast. 

Beside me, the New Earther yelled out. I turned to her, but she was gone. All I saw was grey dust. My eyes were stinging; I squeezed them shut. I reached out my hands to grab the woman with the black hair, but there was nothing for me to grab. I listened for her, but I couldn't hear nothing over the wind. I couldn't call out without swallowing dust. So, I got down on my hands and knees and crawled around, looking for her. But I couldn't find her.

I knew better than to go too far; I crawled under a table, curled into a ball, covered my face as best I could and waited it out.

I don't know how long it lasted. It could have been ten minutes, thirty, an hour, two hours. I might have drifted off. I think I heard voices crying for help—but I'm not sure. All I know is when the dust lifted the New Earthers—including that nurse—were gone.

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