The official name was New Earth, but the masses had long since begun referring to it as New Hope. Wasn't that what it was, after all? A hope for a future where the land wasn't dry and barren, where water wasn't created in a laboratory, where the sun didn't bear down gigantic and red like a raging sky demon. Hope was the word they needed to hear now, not Earth – a term that had become synonymous with grief, destruction, desolation, and even death.
They had all heard the tales of Earth's glory days, but those were ancient times before the agonizingly slow expansion of the sun. Now, billions of years later, the savior that offered them life in the first place threatened their very existence; the sun was dying, and with it the planet.
The population dwindled at just over 1.3 billion. Flora wasn't even a memory, and no shade of green had even once been witnessed by a living human soul. The world's lakes were largely dried out save for a few tiny expanses of water sprinkling the planet like rare desert oases if not for their poisons; and the oceans were shrunken, polluted, and empty. It almost never rained, and that seldom rainfall was laced with toxic acid from a time when machinery and the prosperous art of big business had run rampant.
Thus, it was the miracle of all miracles when New Hope was discovered a mere two million years ago quite accidentally by an errant deep space probe's ultra-range photographic shot. She was a planet roughly the size of Earth, but still young and vibrant – supported by a sun that still shone yellow and bright. New Hope was a water world lush with life and awaiting this population of citizens who truly would appreciate her.
The only problem was…she was 86 trillion light-years away. And while telescopic technology had advanced to a point where the farthest reaches of the universe were accessible to the modern scientist, space travel had not.
At least, two million years ago it had not.
In just five days the Eroica, a massive ship centuries in the making, would set flight for New Hope. Eroica, they said, could jump through space with the inclusion of a new technology that allowed the impressive ship to harness the power of stars. Thus, a series of stars had been plotted along the journey for a grand total of 17 space jumps or roughly three days of travel. The Earth's sun was the first of these stars – to be destroyed for the sake of the human race.
As the day neared, the great ship's slogan appeared on every poster, television, print article, and electronic gizmo in existence: "Eroica Flies! Everyone can be saved!"
And everyone believed that. Unless, of course, they lived in the Wastelands.
"Wakey, wakey," the voice teased as fingers clutched through her long brown curls and tugged incessantly until she could no longer suppress a groan. Brothers, Maris mused, were just plain annoying. She kicked out at the nuisance, but Isaac expected such a reaction and jumped out of reach easily enough.
"Seriously, Isaac?" Maris groaned loudly as she forced her eyes open and pushed herself out of bed.
"What? It's afternoon, you know? It's just five more days until the big kaboom. Do you really want to waste them sleeping?" her brother asked with a smirk, much too happy for what he was saying, but that was Isaac's way.
"They got that old TV working again?" Maris wondered. "So it's really happening?"
"Yep," he informed. "It's officially the end of the world, my dear sister. Another five days and they're going to blow that star right out of the sky!"
"Then stop being so happy!" she shot as she stormed past the dark-haired boy and made her way reluctantly down the rickety hall to the kitchen.
It was Wednesday, and Wednesdays weren't typically days her family received their share of the rations. However, with the imminent end of days approaching so quickly, everyone was allowed a daily ration. After all, what was the point of conservation anymore?
"What do we have today?" Maris asked her father as she slumped grumpily into her seat. "Bland gruel or bland gruel?"
"Bland gruel it is," the man replied with a hint of a smile before passing her the bowl.
Father was a man of few words, and despite everything a dreamer. After Mother had passed, Father lived easily enough in a state of denial; nothing bad ever happened. Eroica and the planned end of the world weren't happening.
"We should be on that ship," Maris stated suddenly, surprising her father.
"Maybe we should, but we've got no way to get to it," he grumbled flatly before going back to his meal. Maris could see the defeat in his eyes. He felt like a failure for not being able to protect his family, but he had given them a good life and his children loved him dearly. "And it's not like they know we're here." That's what it all came down to in the end.
"No lunch for me today," Isaac sang as he entered the kitchen and pulled on his gray cap. Everything was gray. "They're having a meeting in the tavern today. A sort of farewell, I think."
"Sounds a little depressing for your tastes." And Maris was right. Isaac was a bubbly sort, effervescent even, and he tended to take life's hardships in stride. Even now his smile was real and reached his eyes easily. It wasn't that he wanted to die; no more than anyone else did. But he knew how to appreciate the fleeting moments, and he was grateful for what he'd had.
Maris, however, was seldom content and always restless.
"You know what? I'm going with you!" She stood abruptly from the table. "I have a few things I'd like to say."
"This ought to be good. Suppose I'd better come too," said Father with a chuckle. He knew his daughter's antics well, and when she wanted to be heard she most certainly was.
"Masks!" he warned as the two teenagers made a rush for the door.
"What's the point anymore?" Maris groaned, but she obliged as she pulled the thin white obtrusion over her nose and mouth.
The tavern wasn't much of a tavern really. It was more of a rundown shack, but so was everything else. It was a simple cube of a building made of cracked concrete with no windows and no sign to identify it. Signs were unnecessary in a place such as this one, and folks didn't do what was unnecessary. Today, though, graffiti had been etched into the stone.
Eroica flies! Everyone can be saved!
Maris couldn't help but scoff at the familiar slogan. Who had written it there and why? Was it a mockery, or some last grasp at hope?
When Maris and her family arrived, the rest of the village was already packed inside the small building. There were 38 in all. Virgil, the barkeep, stood behind the counter, absently scrubbing it with a rag. Others sat hunched over tables and some on the floors. The mood was somber; no one said a word.
"We have just as much right to be on that ship as the city dwellers!" Maris suddenly burst, eyes fuming and stature rigid with frustration.
"It's half way around the world!" a voice, Clemency Roberts, shouted back.
"Ain't no one coming for the likes of us," Virgil added, stopping his incessant motion at last. "You know as well as the rest of us, Maris Stern, the Wastelands were deemed uninhabitable over 75 years ago. They don't even know we exist. We're lost, we are."
"So we're just giving up?" the irate girl demanded to know.
"Maris!" Father warned, but she paid him no mind as usual. Respect was one thing, but she wasn't about to give her life to it.
"Well, I'm not giving up! It's their stupid slogan, not mine! 'Everyone can be saved,' they tell us! Then let's make sure they know we're here!" exclaimed Maris. The chatter was instantaneous.
"How are we going to do that?"
"Would they really come for 38 people in the middle of nowhere?"
"There's just no way!"
"Maybe there is," Isaac interrupted with a bright look. "The City of Ruins isn't all that far from here. Didn't it used to be a technological hub before all this was abandoned? There's got to be something there we can use to connect to the cities." He snapped his fingers at the thought.
"But will any of it work? It's been out of use for so long!" Glenna Smith, a middle aged woman with a penchant for adventure, cried. Her words were taken to heart, and the other villagers looked melancholy immediately.
"But wait!" Isaac interrupted their reverie. "What about Richter? He was able to get that old water laboratory down the way up and running for us, wasn't he? And that old TV," the boy added with a point of a finger. "Didn't he fix that up for us? Maybe he can rig something up for us if we bring him with us."
"I don't know," Richter spoke up from a table in the back. He was a smallish man in his early twenties with a tendency towards skittishness. The City of Ruins was quite the trek through dangerous territory and blistering heat, and his timid nature made him hesitant to accept. All eyes were on him now, though, and he knew he needed to respond. "It will take f-four days by foot at least," he stammered nervously. "There is no guarantee w-we'd make it, and e-e-even if we d-did…they mightn't have enough t-time to come for us."
"Please, Richter," Maris begged. "At least we'd have a chance."
"W-we may d-die a horrible death, Miss Maris. At least w-we'd die quickly if we waited," he said, but Maris knew she had him. The truth was Richter had loved Maris since they first met as children, and if she was truly set on this plan, he couldn't bring himself to disappoint the willful nineteen-year-old girl with the ability to make his heart flutter. Of course, the sudden eagerness of the other villagers to make this one last ditch effort was rather compelling as well.
"But that's just it, Richter," Maris persisted with a pointed look that he was helpless to look away from. "If we don't do this, we know we're going to die. That's one guarantee I could do without."
Richter just sighed in defeat, shoving his flimsy spectacles farther back against his pale face. There wasn't much else to say. Soon he was on board with Maris and Isaac, albeit reluctantly. Glenna Smith and her fifteen-year-old boy Spruce along with their small arsenal volunteered to join the effort without a second thought.
"Now, wait just one minute!" Father protested. The others were so wrapped up in the excitement of the plan that they hadn't noticed the man's growing concern. Now, though, Maris couldn't mistake the agonized expression on her father's features.
"Dad…" Isaac cut in, pushing in front of his sister and willing the older man to understand. "I know what you're going to say, but I'm with Maris on this one. What choice do we have?"
"There are grown men here!" the weary man shot, startling the tavern's occupants. Everyone knew the Stern patriarch was a man of few words, a quiet sort that kept to himself and took only what he was given without argument. He certainly wasn't prone to outbursts. But now he was broiling like a cracked egg caught in the desert sun. "Why should my kids be expected to run off on some suicide mission when we have grown men that could just as easily go?"
"And who's going to make it through the desert, Father?" Maris argued vehemently. "Virgil with his bum leg? Elmer Hamilton who's already contracted cancer from the radiation and can barely stand? What about you, Father? Are you going to make it through the heat? You've been slipping me and Isaac part of your rations for years. Did you think we didn't know that? You don't have the strength, old man. I can make it, and that's why I should go."
Father's eyes pleaded one last time, but Maris's countenance was unrelenting stone. He was proud of her, always had been, but he couldn't say goodbye to her knowing that it could, and most likely would, be the last goodbye. Instead, he kissed her on the cheek, patted his son resolutely on the arm, and walked out of the tavern with barely restrained tears threatening his masculinity. He didn't care. Not if they didn't return. But he told himself they would. Nothing bad ever happened, after all.
And so only an hour later, Maris and her small party set out for The City of Ruins wrapped tight in protective layers to stave off the sun and with the powerful burden of hope resting heavily on each of their shoulders.
"It's hot," Maris grumbled as she trudged through that endless desert.
"It's always hot," Isaac reminded her with a pat on the shoulder.
"Not like this! It's worse out here!"
And it really was. There was nothing to see for miles on any side. The land was a sea of nutrient-barren dirt that lay loose and easily dusted the air around them. They wore goggles to protect their eyes and their masks in fear of the radiation, but no one was naïve enough to feel safe out in the open air. A group of vultures flew noisily overhead.
"You'd think they wouldn't be able to survive," Maris mused to herself. "I can't imagine there's much carrion out here. There's nothing to die."
"Oh, you'd be surprised, Miss Maris," Spruce chipped in with a tilt of his hat and quick spit. "There're all sorts of things adapted to living out here. Things you wouldn't want to run into. Mom and I hunt'em sometimes for a bit of sport." Richter quivered at the declaration, looking somehow even more frightened than previously.
"For sport?" Isaac inquired. "Why don't you ever bring them into the village for eating? We've never had real meat. Just that synthetic stuff in the rations." His mouth was watering at the very idea.
"Easy enough," cut in Glenna. "Too much radiation in the guts. Might as well take a good long drink from the acid lakes." That sobered everyone up rather quickly.
When nightfall came, the party set up shelter using a thick plastic tent built to handle the heavy winds. Glenna had brought a bag of firesones, and her and Spruce ignited them now just outside the tent in hopes of deterring wild beasts. Richter was a complete mess.
"T-these aren't e-exactly concrete walls! I b-bet the beasts t-tear through here and eat us in the night!"
"That's what we got guns for," Glenna stated proudly as she lifted her rifle above her head for all to see.
"Mom's a great shot, too!" Spruce bellowed as he loaded his own rifle. "We'll keep watch!"
"A-and even if we m-make it through the night," Richter continued as if he hadn't heard the eager reassurances, "it's easy t-to become disoriented out here w-with all of the dust. W-we may be lost already."
"We aren't lost!" Maris snapped coldly, tired of the whining and the worry. "Glenna has been to the city before. She knows where we're going."
"And at least we have a chance this way," Isaac added with a wink.
Regardless, the night was restless. Richter was so wrought with nightmares that he spent half the night startling himself and waking in pitiful screams, and if he wasn't absolutely necessary, Maris was sure Glenna would have shot him by now.
The next day continued on much the same note. The hours wore on endless and hot, conversation dwindled in the painstaking agony of the trek, and the travelers were ridden with fear and exhaustion. It was the intense heat they feared most, even more so than the great wild beasts of the desert. They could only pray they were carrying enough water, but doubt was running high.
"D-do you feel that?" Richter suddenly asked, stumbling through the dusting dirt incompetently. He had a spare shirt tied tightly around his head like a bonnet with only his goggles and mask peeking out. He looked like an imbecile.
"Stop being paranoid," Maris chided sharply, long since annoyed with the constant complaining.
"No, no, no," Spruce interrupted with a click of his tongue. "He's right, Miss Maris. Somethin's amiss." He lifted his mask long enough to lick his finger and lift it into the air, closing his eyes as he concentrated.
"The wind is picking up?" Isaac asked cautiously, pulling his sister closer to him.
"Getting there," Spruce admitted. "Might be a cause for concern." That's when Maris noticed the massive black cloud forming overhead.
"Look at the horizon!"
"Dust storm!" Glenna hollered, removing her bags swiftly from her shoulders and tossing them hard onto the ground. "We need shelter now! We ain't got much time 'fore it gets here. Well, get to it!"
Suddenly, everyone leaped into action, Isaac yanking the plastic tent from the bag and the Smiths already working to anchor it down the best they could. Richter, who was now sweating profusely, dropped to the ground and fisted his hands into his ridiculous bonnet, screaming about doom and death and stubborn brunettes with bad ideas.
"Get it together!" Maris shouted. "Richter!"
But Richter was useless in that moment, too overcome with fear and panic to do anything but sob loudly in the swirl of dust. Maris huffed, but wasted no more time. Once the tent was secured she attempted to drag Richter inside but succeeded only in ripping the bonnet from his sweat plastered head. The wind, now violent and threatening, snatched it up instantly and danced it into tatters. She wanted to scream at the man – to shriek, demand, scold him – but her voice was carried away in the raging dust just as easily as the man's pathetic bonnet. Fortunately, Spruce and Glenna returned at that exact moment, carrying Richter swiftly into the tent with Maris close behind.
"Why didn't we see that coming? Or feel it?" Isaac asked, humorlessly for once.
"I-I f-felt it," Richter clarified as he heaved desperate breaths into his pleading lungs, "b-but she yelled at me!" He pointed an accusatory finger at Maris who just slid her goggles off and rolled her eyes. The wind beating against the tent unsettled the stuttering man again, and with one last yelp he went silent.
"No point in blaming each other," Glenna drawled, pulling out a generous portion of the rations they'd brought and passing them around. "There's enough dust in the air as it is. No one can see nothin' out there."
"It sneaks up on you," Spruce added through a mouthful, gray sludge pooling at his chin.
"And this tent will hold together?" Isaac wanted to know.
"She'll suffice," Glenna assured. "Wind's strong, but this tent was crafted to handle it. Thicker than bear skin, and heavier too. This one's gonna be carryin' her from now on, I think," she ordered her son with a slap before rubbing her back delicately. Spruce continued to stuff his face, too famished to argue and not overly concerned about it regardless.
Richter's nightmares were worse that night. Maris wasn't able to sleep anyway, overcome with worry over the lost time. Instead, she sat close and rested a comforting hand on his shoulder, an act that seemed to calm him as he clutched onto it desperately.
"S-sorry I yelled at you before," he stuttered, eyes still closed. Maris looked down at him with a playful smirk.
"I wouldn't call that yelling," she teased. "But you do have to get it together, Richter. You're the one that needs to make it to The City of Ruins. The rest of us are negligible."
Richter shot up abruptly, alert in an instant as his grip tightened around her delicate hand.
"Not to me," he stated clearly. "I wouldn't even be here if it w-wasn't for you." Maris blushed. Unable to help it, and looked down at their joined hands.
"I know. I've known for a long time, but I never understood why." She felt him tense immediately. The shy man's breathing halted and his hand became slack against hers. For a long time, she didn't think he was going to say anything more.
"W-when we were kids, I didn't have many friends. Any friends actually," he finally answered. "Glenna would bring junk into the village, abandon f-from the desert. I w-was fascinated by it. No one else understood it. Th-they said it was f-food we n-needed. Not electronics. B-but you were different, Miss Maris. You al-always came by t-to watch me work. You encouraged it. Y-you wanted to watch that old television set. And I f-fixed it for you, and f-found the signal."
"That was for me?" she asked with wide eyes, and he nodded in affirmation.
"No one else p-paid me any mind until the w-water lab broke down and they needed me to f-fix it," Richter explained with a blush.
"I remember when Glenna first dragged that old TV set into the village," Maris said after a moment. "She didn't even know what it was, but you did. I was so excited. I wanted to know what we were missing. Just think, if you'd never fixed it…we wouldn't know about Eroica. The world would have just ended, and none of us would have realized it. Just like that."
"L-like flipping the off switch and turning out the l-lights."
"Exactly," she agreed. "Look, Richter…"
"You d-don't have to say it," the young man interrupted. "I know you don't feel the same for me."
"I just want to feel safe. Protected. You frustrate me sometimes, Richter. I can't rely on you. And that's something I need. I'm sorry."
Richter didn't say any more that night, and neither did Maris, but he vowed to prove himself to the stubborn girl if it was the last thing he did.
It was on the morning of the last day of travel that real calamity struck. Dawn was just breaking when Spruce and Glenna shook the other travelers awake.
"What is it?" Maris asked groggily as she awoke to the urgent face of Glenna.
"Trouble," was all the woman offered. That's when Maris felt warm arms pull her in close – protectively close. Isaac held her firmly against him. Richter looked on enviously, but the shy man made no move to go to her.
"Do you see just outside the tent?" Isaac was asking her.
"W-wolves," stuttered Richter.
"Sand Wolves," Glenna corrected as she prepped a few more of her guns and passed them around to the tent's occupants. "And they got thick hides, too. Aim for the heart or the eyes, and make it count, kids."
The massive creatures, built stocky and thick with impressive jaws and tawny fur that prickled all over them, were like nothing Maris had seen before. The stench of blood and acid dripped heavy from their bared fangs; rotted flesh caught like flies in molasses in their thick saliva and hung stubbornly from mutated jaws, bouncing up and down in mesmerizing repetition. The frightening beasts circled the little tent, snarling viciously and getting closer with each passing second.
"We got to get out of here while we still got the chance," Spruce informed them. "They attack this tent and we're as good as caught in a net."
"Are they that smart?" Isaac wondered.
"You got no idea!"
By now Richter was hyperventilating, completely forgetting his vow to impress Maris in the face of actual danger. It was all the girl could do to lead him from the tent forcefully when the others slipped cautiously out.
"No sudden movements!" Glenna warned in a harsh whisper. The growling was more aggravated now, intent and focused on the open display of prey. "Five of us and five of them. That means nobody miss. Shoot now!"
Maris made sure her shot was true, and at close range with so much to lose, adrenaline steadied her. Glenna and Spruce were sure shots always, and Isaac tended to be good at everything. It was Richter who was the wild card, and in this case, the bumbler. Trembling in place, eyes squeezed tightly shut and hands shaking violently, he hadn't even pulled the trigger. Now his wolf was bounding for him, leaping into the air and going for the kill. Richter – was essential.
Maris was closest, and without hesitation she darted for the man, grabbed him hard, and thrust him to the ground as she pried the weapon from his hands. She made the lethal shot just as the beast was upon her, a very narrow escape. She was inhaling hard, unsteady breaths as she let the weapon drop and turned to the cowardly man trembling at her feet.
"Oh no," Richter whined from where he sat.
"Oh no?" Maris questioned harshly. "I just saved your life and that's all you have to say to me?"
"N-not that," he clarified. "Look!"
The group looked where he pointed. The sky was gray, thick with clouds. Thick with the threat of acid rain.
"We still got the shelter," Spruce suggested.
"But if we delay again we won't make it in time," Isaac said.
"We aren't far. I know the place," Glenna informed. "We make a mad dash for it, and we just might make it before the rain."
Maris didn't need to be told twice.
"Then let's get going!" she ordered. "We can use the tent as an umbrella if we need to." Then she snatched Richter's arm, hauled him to his feet, and ran like her life depended on it. It did.
They ran until their legs protested angrily in stiffness and pain, but even then didn't stop. On and on and on. The thunder grumbled like a starving monster about to devour them. Rain was rare, but when it fell the people of the Wastelands feared nothing more. Rain was the poison that blinded the eyes, weighed the lungs down with lead, set the gums to bleed, and fostered sickness that killed. These were Maris's thoughts as she sprinted wildly through the cooling wind and flying dirt and debris. She didn't notice the others stop to pull out the tent as the first drops began to spill, all but Richter who was still attached to her. Suddenly, Maris was jerked back harshly. Richter had stopped.
"W-watch your step, Miss Maris."
She'd almost run clear off a cliff, but he'd saved her at the last moment. She had to wonder how he'd seen it. The drop was steep and sudden, without warning. Plus, the air around them was now completely speckled in thick dust.
"Can't see nothin' out here," Glenna complained as she led the others to the ledge.
"Maris! Are you okay?" Isaac demanded as he grabbed her and pulled her farther from the drop off.
"Richter…" she mumbled. "He saved me."
"S-same as you did for m-me," the man in question answered shyly, finally releasing her hand.
"This is great and all," Spruce interrupted sharply, "but we got to get a move on before it down pours. We got a city to find."
"And if I remember correctly," Glenna cut in, "then this is Dead Man's Drop and The City of Ruins is…right about…there." She nodded her head in the direction of the drop. It was almost imperceptible through the flurry of dust, but as soon as Maris spotted the outline of massive towers through the haze it was unmistakable.
At the bottom of that steep decline was the city…
Once the initial excitement wore off the travelers were forced to set up camp until the rain let out. Glenna had the necessary gear, but climbing down an already slippery cliff like that in acid rain was quick suicide. Maris grumbled and protested, but even she was forced to relent. Time was still a major concern, though, and even Glenna knew they couldn't hold the fort for long. As soon as the rain stopped the group set out for the city, down the steep, wet ledge after nightfall. Richter clung to his rope like the lifeline it was and whimpered softly to himself the entire way down. He did not, however, voice his terror. What was the point?
It was dark when they reached The City of Ruins. Spruce and Glenna lit up some firestones and hung them from a narrow pole they found just outside the city. The light didn't illuminate much, but Maris could tell that the city went on for miles. She could see why it was called The City of Ruins; it certainly was in ruins, after all. Massive skyscrapers sprung up all around them, created from once glimmering metal and glass that now appeared broken, rusted, bent, and collapsing. Remnants of giant screens, trains, and vehicles of every sort littered the streets like sleeping ancestors never to share their stories. The city was dead, perhaps even more so than the desert because there were still echoes here. Echoes of a people long since gone, but still felt. Echoes that were real and cold like icy breath.
"Wow!" Isaac screamed, his overzealous voice bouncing down the empty streets and repeating back to him. Leave it to Isaac to be completely lost when it came to heavy feelings. "We're really here! It's amazing! It's huge!"
"A bit too huge," Maris mused, her wonderment reflected in her wide brown eyes. "Where do we start?"
"Electricity," Richter answered. "If w-we can get it working in the village, we can certainly get it w-working here. The old plants still got it if you know h-how to access it. Th-then…there must be a communications tower somewhere…"
"On it. I know just the place," Glenna beamed, taking command of the small party once again.
Maris and Isaac were sitting together just outside the tower as the others worked. Richter managed to get the power going, but it was unpredictable at best. Still, it would have to do. All that was left was getting the radio working, and Richter was a wiz with that sort of thing. Glenna and Spruce offered him their assistance, but ordered the Stern kids to take a rest while they had a chance. Their muscles ached, their heads throbbed, and sleep was a distant memory. Still, there was something about being there in the city, something about reaching their destination, that kept them going.
"Eroica flies tomorrow," Maris said to her brother. "Do you think we'll make it in time?"
"Without a doubt," replied Isaac, wrapping an arm around her and pulling her close. "After what you just put us through, nothing's going to stop us." She giggled at his enthusiasm.
"What do you think New Hope will be like?" she asked. He smiled broadly before answering.
"Whatever we make of it, Maris," he said. "Not our ancestors' world, but ours. And that's exactly what we need."
"A fresh start," Maris agreed before slipping into the quiet. She wished she could see the stars, but the sky was thick with the desert itself. It always had been. Perhaps she'd see stars from the Eroica, or even from New Hope where they'd have a completely different meaning.
"We're ready," Spruce's voice came from behind, startling Maris. "Richter says they should be able to receive our signal now. We just thought…Miss Maris, we thought you should speak for us. You did it so well back at the tavern and all."
Maris pushed herself up and followed the boy into the tower with Isaac at her side. She'd never been inside a building of this magnitude, or even one made with glass. The concrete buildings in her village were tiny cubes that didn't even have windows. Windows were dangerous during dust storms and sunlight was dangerous always. The practices here seemed foreign and foolhardy to her now.
The others awaited her at the top of the communications tower. Richter quickly pressed a microphone into her hands and nodded. The microphone had been rigged to a radio device that Richter had managed to repair. The technology was surprisingly old and the room was filled with the sounds of static.
"Can anyone hear me?" she shouted into the device.
"You have t-to push the button, Miss Maris," Richter informed. She blushed slightly, but did as he said.
"Can anyone hear me? The Wastelands are not abandoned. We need assistance. Please!" She sighed despondently at the long pause that followed. The roar of static crippled the room and grew louder as they waited. "Please," she begged. Nothing.
"We read you," a voice cut through the static, so low at first that Maris doubted her ears. "We read you. There's some distortion from your end. We thought you said you were in the Wastelands."
"I did!" the girl shouted into the microphone. Glenna and Spruce pulled each other into a quick hug, clapping their hands together manically. Isaac bounced up and down and pumped his fist in the air. Even Richter looked relieved. "There's a village here still! There are 38 of us. We know about the Eroica! We need help!"
"There are people out there?" The voice was baffled.
"Yes! Who am I speaking to?" Maris questioned.
"This is Captain Elwood Burke. Lady, you just hold tight. We're getting a lock on your location now," the man assured her.
"Woohoo!" Isaac bellowed as he grabbed Maris around the waist and twirled her around the room. "This is it! They're coming for us!"
"No more gruel!" Spruce added with a clap of his hands.
"I sure hope the huntin's good!" cheered Glenna.
"R-real tech," Richter added. "Not just the obsolete stuff we f-find in the desert. I'll g-get to w-work with it for real."
"You did it, Maris! You did it!" Isaac shouted as he finally set her down.
Glenna passed out what was left of the rations that night, and the party made a great (not in taste, rather, but in size) feast out of what they had. Spirits soared as they talked about New Hope and plans for the future. Plans for the future. Real plans! From the minute they heard about the Eroica and the fate of the sun none of them dared plan for a future they'd never have, but now they were a part of it too. Everyone can be saved. Everyone will be saved!
"Ma'am?" Captain Burke burst over the frequency and the meal was abandoned. "Are you still with us?"
Maris darted up from where she sat and grabbed the microphone, screaming into it. "We're here! Did you find us?"
"We know where you are, ma'am," Burke stated quietly. "I'm sorry. You're too far out. We can't reach you in time. You have to understand, we fly tomorrow. There are 1.3 billion people from the remaining cities checking into the Eroica and being placed as we speak. We need our people here; we can't afford to send a team out to the middle of the Wastelands for 38 individuals of unknown health who've lived a lifetime exposed to the radiation. I really am sorry."
Suddenly, the room was silent, depleting of all forms of celebration and joy.
"What?" Maris shrieked abruptly. "We aren't sick! Most of us aren't anyway. We've been living here for generations. We make it by the best we can! We're worth saving!"
"We wish you the best, ma'am," the Captain droned impatiently. "It will be quick in the end. Find solace in that." And then he was gone.
Maris slunk to the floor in defeat, flinging the microphone across the room. It banged hard against the wall before clattering to the cold floor. No one else made a move. Even Isaac didn't try to comfort her.
"So, that's it then?" her brother muttered to himself. "They know we're here, but they just don't care?"
"No!" Richter shouted as he shot to his feet. "Y-you said you couldn't rely on me, Miss Maris, but n-now's my chance to prove myself. We're going to be on that ship!"
"That's nice, Richter," Spruce grumbled. "How are we supposed to do that exactly?"
"With this," the spectacled man answered, lifting up a strange contraption they'd never seen before. "I-it's a video camera. We're in a news b-broadcasting tower."
"So?" Spruce asked with a twitch of his brows.
"I get it!" Maris exclaimed, approaching Richter and clasping him on the arm. "All those people sitting and waiting in the Eroica. How do you think they're keeping them from panicking? Keeping them entertained?"
"Television!" Isaac bellowed.
"And you can cut in on the signal?" Glenna wondered. Richter nodded his head eagerly.
"Then let's do this," Maris commanded. "I have a few things I'd like to say!"
It didn't take Richter long to get everything set up; he'd always been a natural with anything electronic, always read the old books, tinkered with the old toys. And now he was as determined as ever. A couple hours later and he was ready to go, and so was Maris. As soon as that red light flashed on she knew exactly what to say. After all, Captain Burke was one man, and surely the rest of the world, the common citizens who had all suffered in their own ways, would not all agree with his lack of sympathy. Besides, she wasn't about to be defeated by some guy named Elwood.
"My name is Maris Stern," she began, "and I am from the Wastelands. There are 38 of us living out here. We have lives, families, dreams, and we have a right to survive. Five of us journeyed for four days for this chance to reach out to you. We've seen horrible things in the desert: dust storms, wild beasts, acid rain, treacherous winds, cliffs and canyons. We risked everything for this chance. All the while, we put every ounce of hope in the Eroica's slogan. Your message traveled through the deserts and reached us in the Wastelands. 'Eroica flies! Everyone can be saved!' Well, here we are! Save us! Please, save us." And the light went out.
"W-we've lost transmission," Richter confirmed.
"Then let's hope that caused enough of a stir," Glenna said with a wink. No one slept easy that night as they waited for further response. All they had was hope, but maybe that was enough. Hope was everything, after all. They'd grown up on it, relied on it, and it guided their path through the desert just as they'd known it would. Now they placed their hope in humanity, in the compassion of mankind, in the ability of the many little people to pressure the hand of the great few in power. They would see it through or die still believing because there was time for nothing else.
Early the next morning, the radio buzzed to life with the voice of Captain Elwood Burke. "Ms. Stern? Do you read me, Ms. Stern."
"We're here!" she answered, looking expectantly to her nervous companions.
"We're on our way, Ms. Stern. There's a shuttle coming for you. Keep a look out, ma'am." Even Captain Burke sounded relieved. Maris closed her eyes and smiled to herself. So the promise of the Eroica was genuine after all.
"The planned departure of the Eroica was delayed several hours today as soldiers were sent on a rescue mission to the Wastelands based on a unanimous vote," Isaac read from the print article. "However, the mission was deemed a success, and no casualties or injuries were reported. The Eroica, now fully boarded, is set to fly this evening at 20:00. This impressive spacecraft is cited to be carrying 1,312,004,251 passengers from the cities of Slyveer, Rubitz, Danton, and New Paris along with 39 passengers from the Wastelands…"
"Wait, 39 passengers?" Maris asked bewildered. Isaac just shrugged his shoulders.
"Tracy Jane had her baby while you two were out running through the desert," Father informed them with a joyous smirk. Here they were, together again and aboard the Eroica at last. Captain Burke even offered them his own personal apology when they boarded…and then Maris kicked him in the shin.
"Good for Tracy Jane," Maris mused to herself.
"Good for all of us."
Maris turned to find Richter in the cabin doorway. He wasn't wearing his spectacles, and the light danced in his eyes as he smiled warmly at the girl. She smiled back, glad to see him she realized. He was the coward who shut out cowardice to save one girl with a hot temper and fire in her veins. She trusted him, relied on him, and maybe even loved him. She was willing to find out.
Father watched the interaction with amusement.
"Is there something I should know about?"
"Best not," Isaac answered with a chuckle as he led the man away from the two. "I'll explain later."
Alone at last, Richter entered the room and took Maris by the hand. "You inspire me, Miss Maris."
"No stutter?" she asked.
"I think some of your confidence rubbed off on me," he clarified. "Now, if you'll just listen for a moment…
I have a few things I'd like to say."