Even though the fire was far behind them, Carrie still felt like her fur was burning. She looked up. A huge light in the sky was the source of the heat. Beneath her paws was a floor of grainy powder that smelled like rocks and reflected the heat. The space that stretched before them made the only world they had known-the laboratory-seem tiny. Joy gave energy to Carrie's tired limbs. She raced toward the cluster of dots that showed where the rest of the group was waiting. Once they were reunited, she turned her attention to the injured. To her dismay, she saw that many rabbits had serious burns. Even more were coughing from smoke inhalation, including her.
Bentley rushed up to her, fur bristling.
"So what's your brilliant plan now," he spat.
"We need to keep going," Carrie replied calmly.
"No, we need a new leader," Bentley growled.
"Let's see you do better, then," the brown rabbit challenged.
"Maybe I will. Follow me," said Bentley, walking in a random direction. Several rabbits stayed motionless, unable to move on burnt paws or wheezing from the smoke. They weren't fit to move.
"Forget them," the brown and white rabbit said. "They're as good as dead anyway."
"Yes, but they're still alive," said Daisy. "We should give them a chance."
"I'm the leader, and what I say goes. Like us, we're going."
Carrie stayed. She couldn't leave these rabbits to die.
"If any of you are fit enough to move, help those who aren't. We're going in the opposite direction." She looked around and noticed that most of the rabbits who remained had straight ears. The lop-ears hadn't bothered to stay and help. Anger surged through her. But she couldn't do anything about that now. They had to find shelter. So she took her place in the front of the group and led them toward a line of distance sand dunes. She looked back and saw dots on the horizon that showed where half of the escapees were heading. From what she could see, several rabbits had already collapsed from exhaustion.
"Should we go back and help them," asked Daisy.
"If you don't think it's too far, you can take a few rabbits with you," Carrie responded.
Daisy nodded and led six more escapees toward the collapsed rabbits. Carrie watched from a distance. The white and brown dot at the front of the group stopped and raced toward the small patrol, which had reached the first unconscious escapee. Bentley shouted insults and Daisy retaliated. She managed to bring back two out of the five sick rabbits. When she returned, her fur was dusty and she was weary and sad. She had with her two lop-ears: the pregnant Juniper and her mate Barley. Juniper had gray fur and Barley had tan fur that blended in with the sand.
"Three of them were dead when we arrived. These two are barely alive."
There was a cry of pain from the female.
"Oh, and Juniper is going into labor."
"Now? But this is the worst time to give birth!" Carrie cried.
"Well there's nothing we can do about it but help her."
The lop-ear lay on her side in the sand, her ears covering her eyes. Her mate sat near her head and groomed her ears. When the ordeal was over, two new kits were introduced to the world. Carrie and Daisy groomed the lop-eared kits and placed them near Juniper's gray head. She sat up and made a small, joyful sound. Then she slumped to the ground. Barley watched in horror as the last breath left her body. He looked up at the two straight-ears.
"We should have kept going. Bentley would have led us to a better place far sooner. My kits and I will die," he growled.
"We saved your life. Bentley wouldn't have let you catch up. He was pushing you guys too hard and not caring who was left behind."
"I guess I'll go with you then," Barley said with a sigh. "It's better than going alone."
"What will you name your kits," asked Daisy, trying to change the subject.
"That's my business."
Daisy was smart enough to keep her mouth shut. The group finally reached the foot of the sand dune before they couldn't go any farther.
The light in the sky dipped below the horizon, tinting everything reddish-orange. The air cooled. At first, it was a welcome relief. Then when the big light disappeared and hundreds of tiny white ones replaced it, the cold intensified. Carrie could still feel the warmth in the ground. What if the light was underneath them? Would they ever see it again? She dug into the sand to make a hollow. It wasn't perfect, or stable, but it was shelter. Everyone else followed suit.
Light hitting her eyelids woke her up. She crawled out of her den, which immediately collapsed, and leaped for joy. The big light was back, and the chilly air was already warming. They soldiered on, despite the fact that they were hungry, thirsty, tired, hot, and injured. Eventually they reached a path that was left by the strange machines humans used to get around. The sound of a motor made Carrie jump. A car was coming. The sound got louder and louder. Was it the humans? As it sped into view, Barley jumped on her and held her down. She struggled to her feet as he jumped away. There was a loud screech as Carrie lay in shock on the road. The tire of the car touched her back, then stopped. A human got out and shouted at the rabbits, who ran the opposite direction the machine was going.
"You almost killed me," Carrie cried at Barley.
"You're too stupid to live," he answered.
"That doesn't make any sense. I'm as smart as any rabbit, and you know that."
"Correction: You were smart in the laboratory. You always were the humans' pet."
Carrie's fur bristled with rage. "Nobody. Calls. Me. Pet," she shrieked.
"What can I say? I'm an honest rabbit," said Barley. This was the last straw. Carrie leaped at Barley, who sidestepped her and kicked her in the side. She rolled onto her back and kicked him in the chest. He fell with a thud on the sand. The lop-ear got up and shook off the grit. Then he nonchalantly walked ahead. "Let's go," he ordered.
Carrie longed to give him a piece of her mind, but she was in no condition to fight any longer. Besides, he had just lost his mate and might lose his kits. He had gone through enough. Finally, the big light sank below the horizon again and they had to shelter from the cold. Carrie dug with aching paws until she had built a hollow for herself. She drifted into a dreamless sleep.
The light rose to signal another cycle. As Carrie watched everyone waking up, she noticed that several rabbits had infected wounds. She did too. The twenty-four rabbits who had started this journey was now reduced to seventeen. Seven rabbits had died. The remainder were close to death, or too exhausted to do anything.
The group passed by a garbage can. Carrie stopped and lifted her nose to the hot, bone-dry air. Yes, there was food in there! She leaped onto the can and swayed, tipping it over. Salads, fruit, and a full head of lettuce spilled out.
"Okay, you get points for leading us to food," Barley admitted around a mouthful of carrot. "But you need to let us stop walking at some point. Do you realize seven rabbits have died because of you?"
"I'm sorry. I honestly feel terrible about their deaths. But most of our group was injured in the fire, in case you forgot."
"Because of your stupidity," Barley shouted, stepping protectively in front of his tan-and-gray patched kits.
"I didn't put the vat of chemicals there!"
"I'm not sure I look forward to a future led by you. My kits will die for sure.
"You won't have to worry. I'll go alone."
Daisy chimed in. "No you won't. I'm going with you." Carrie felt reassured by her friend's presence.
A truck drove down the road and slowed to a stop. The humans opened the back of it and unloaded boxes. Carrie raced toward it, with the group-excluding Barley and his kits-trailing behind her. Barley shouted, "You're nothing but a pet."
"Go to hell," Carrie retorted.
"No. I don't want to see your ugly face every day," he growled. The last thing Carrie saw before the door closed was the lop-ear glaring at her.