What May really, really wanted, more than anything in the world, was a tangerine. Juicy, tangy, cold from the fridge. Or hard-boiled eggs with lots of salt. Sticky rice with a solid glug of soy sauce on top. Sushi and mint-watermelon salad and, jeez, even those vaguely soggy allergen-free chicken nuggets from the school cafeteria would hit the spot right now.
And coffeeeee. What May wouldn’t give for a flat white with cinnamon on top right now. A triple. She pressed her thumbs into the inner corners of her eyes. She didn’t have a caffeine headache yet, but it was only a matter of time. One more in the enormous line of ticking time bombs. And not the worst one, either.
But there was no way to deal with it here, stranded in a thick tangle of trees and vines with no phone and no adult supervision—and a couple dozen teenagers. Or was it thirty? May hadn’t got a solid count. Partly because people kept moving around, but especially because a couple of those slouchy white boys were basically interchangeable as far as she could tell, so who knew how many there were?
May’s stomach made a noise, something high-pitched and whining like a depressed puppy. A girl jogged over from the bonfire, exactly as if she’d heard from ten yards away—the dark-brown-skinned one with the short hair, way too sweet to be for real, what was her name? Nevaeh.
“You should really eat something,” she said. “Come on, it’s not so bad. We have enough for everyone.” Nevaeh pressed a small rectangular packet into May’s hands.
“Enough” supplies was a matter of opinion. Enough for what, exactly? That was the question of the hour.
The others were clustered around a fire pit somebody had MacGyvered up by, what, knocking rocks together like a caveman or something. But there was not a phone or a map or a radio among them. Not even toilet paper. About half of them had come down with a backpack full of water and energy bars, but beyond that nobody had anything but their tacky red jumpsuits and those slip-on sneakers.
May stared at the packet Nevaeh had given her: one nutrition bar of unknown provenance. The packaging was made out of something like very thin wax paper, easy to tear. The other kids had said the bars tasted a little like spicy dried fruit, savory and filling, though on the dry side. Fine. May knew when being picky was a losing game. The problem was the label.
There was no label.
Everything followed in one disastrous chain of logic from that. Without a label, she couldn’t know what ingredients were in there, what allergens or cross contamination. Which meant she couldn’t chance it. She handed the packet back to Nevaeh. “I can’t,” she said. “You don’t understand, I have allergies.”
Nevaeh weighed one of those packaged bars in her hand. “You’ll feel better if you eat something. I’m sure it’s safe.”
“What do you know about safe?” May shoved the hand aside. She could all but feel her throat itching, then her eyes. Next would come the tightening in her throat, and then— “Look, I can’t chance that there’s even a single protein of corn in there. Some of us can’t eat just anything we feel like, okay? I can’t eat anything without thinking about dying.”
Nevaeh went still. “I’m no stranger to thinking about death, myself,” she said, her voice soft.
May turned away before Nevaeh could argue further, warmed her fingers by the fire. She should still be sleeping right now. Or maybe she had the time wrong, and she’d already be up and going through her flash cards for chemistry if she were home. Or was it a Saturday? Was she missing Model UN? The thought filled her with a crawling terror. She didn’t have any room for mistakes, for missing things. She didn’t have time for that.
But freaking out didn’t change the fact that she was still in the dark near countless tangled mounds made of overgrown skyscrapers, still with a bunch of total strangers, still slowly starving to death. May hadn’t eaten since she’d startled awake in . . . in . . . Let’s not think about that.
Her eyes went up, anyway, drawn toward motion. The stars here were wild, like nothing she’d ever seen before, bright and clear. The sweep of the galaxy across the sky was like a hole into somewhere else. And one of the lights was moving. Again. The dot flared and fell and grew as it plummeted down the line of lights and straight toward them.
“Another one incoming,” said Jing-Wei—she was the punky kid, blue and green streaks in her hair, but more chipper and less fight-the-system. “I wonder who we’ll get this time?”
The rest of the crowd gathered in little clumps to watch. Most of the kids stuck close to the one or two who’d come down from the space station with them. Some were drifting toward people with haircuts more like their own, or accents a little more similar. But there was one thing they all had in common. Each one of them had woken up in space and been sent down in the elevator to this place.
May still hadn’t properly sorted through everything that had happened since she’d woken up. Only a few hours ago, Jing-Wei had found her in a cramped metal room almost before May knew she was even in it, pulling her from dreams about knives and needles. “There’s trouble,” Jing-Wei had said, voice low. “Umta told me we have to get everyone out of here before it gets too dangerous.”
May hadn’t had the presence of mind to ask about Umta.
They’d gone down the rest of the hallway, opening all the doors that still worked, to find a few more teenagers, each as bewildered and subdued as the last. Then they were met by a small, hairy woman with a broad face. Umta.
She’d shepherded them into a round room, showed Jing-Wei where to put her hands, then loped away. May realized too late that they were surrounded by stars, and then they’d plummeted toward the Earth. Well—toward a planet.
They hadn’t been the first ones down. They’d followed the noise and smoke to find another handful of teenagers sitting around a fire, arguing.
New groups had come every so often all through the night, sometimes two people at a time, sometimes as many as five.
The kids who stumbled into the clearing this time were a boy and a girl. The boy was yet another unremarkable white dude with bad posture; the girl was almond-eyed and pretty, the kind of pretty that gets you places without working at it too hard.
May trotted over. “Let me guess. You don’t know anything, and you don’t have any food.”
The pair looked at each other, bewildered, and then looked around, clearly trying to make heads or tails of the situation. Oh, right. Some of the newbs came in fragile, and needed a lot more in the way of social graces. May took a deep breath. “Hi, I’m May. Let’s get you oriented. You are?”
“Seyah,” said the pretty girl.
“Holden.” He held out his hand, limp, but drew it back before May worked out that he meant to shake. “What the hell is going on here?”
“So you don’t know.” May sighed, and the crowd behind her mumbled their collective disappointment. “Nobody knows where we are, nobody knows how we got here, nobody knows—”
Then Umta came into the light too. Her face was as unsettling as it had been when May had first seen it. Umta’s forehead was squished in, her jaw square and jutting forward, like a cartoon bank robber’s. Listening to her talk gave May goose bumps, and not the good kind. May had to take another deep breath to collect herself before she could forge onward. “Nobody knows anything, basically. So far nothing makes sen—”
Holden interrupted her. “Is it safe here? Are there more of those things?”
“Things?” Jing-Wei was at May’s shoulder. “What, those spider robots?”
“Yeah, the . . . the caretakers. Are there any here?”
One of the bad-posture white boys shook his head. “They’re all up there,” he said, hitching his thumb toward the lights in the sky. Wait, May knew this one: the nerd, kept trying to push up glasses that weren’t on his nose. Wesley, like the annoying kid from Star Trek. Probably had nerd parents too.
“We have to get away from here,” Holden said. “Those things could follow us down at any time.”
Wesley all but chortled. “Well actually, the spider robots look pretty evil, but they’re totally harmless. We were scared at first, too. Don’t worry about it!”
Holden looked positively green. “No, we should definitely worry,” he said. “Did any of you meet Timothy? One of those caretakers—”
Umta placed her thick-fingered hand on Holden’s shoulder, sharing something in silence.
Holden’s eyes flicked to his feet. “I’m telling you, they’re dangerous.” There were rusty spots on his shoes, like when May’s dad had tried carving a woefully undercooked beef roast and wound up covered in meat juice.
Jing-Wei got there a second before May worked it out. “Are you guys okay?”
“We are,” Seyah said, “but not the other guy we met up there.”
“His name was Thomas,” Umta corrected, her eyes steady on Holden. Her expression was unreadable.
“They took him apart like a Barbie doll,” Seyah said. Nevaeh slipped to her side and threaded an arm around Seyah’s shoulders. She whispered something May couldn’t hear; sympathy, probably. Nothing that would actually fix any of this. Stupid platitudes.
That was one of her SAT vocabulary words. Platitude: a trite or dull remark used to make people feel better.
“Those things up there tried to kill us too,” Holden said. “The caretakers. I stopped the elevator for now, but we have to do something or else . . .”
Jing-Wei lit up. “You stopped it? How did you stop it?”
Holden looked back at the beanstalk, nervously. Hesitated. Made a decision. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
May’s phone buzzed, the Badtz-Maru sticker on it doing a little shimmy that never failed to make her smile. She was in the middle of a multistep math problem and she hated leaving it half-done even for a minute. But Mason was calling, so she picked up. “Did the history scores post?” she asked.
“Not yet.” Mason sounded tense. “Just, we have a problem with Saturday.”
Saturday. Model UN. It was a particularly important meeting—they’d be talking about finances and logistics for the assembly at the end of the year. May had it mostly worked out, and they’d need to do a little extra fundraising. Maybe run a raffle with donations from the local tech companies. But she still had to sell the idea to the rest of the group, and she was pretty sure Hunter Campbell was brewing some sort of coup, planning to accuse her of mismanagement because last year’s group hadn’t left her with enough cash to cover everything for this year.
That’s politics for you. The perils of being president. At any rate, she was going to need allies on her side. She was going to need Mason, who could explain these factual realities and not make them sound like excuses.
May left her desk and flopped onto her bed, a monument to excess worked in pillows and plushies. Like the rest of her bedroom, it was relentlessly pink, decorated at every turn with ruffles and flounces and a little more sparkle than taste would suggest was strictly prudent. A flash card surfaced in her memory. Prudent. Careful and practical in making decisions.
She braced herself for the bad news. “What’s the story?”
“It’s my grandmother’s eighty-fifth birthday,” Mason said. “And apparently there’s a party that day.”
“What? They couldn’t schedule it for any other time?” May plucked at the ruffled edge of her pillow with frustration.
“Before Model UN I have voice lessons,” he said. “And there’s a lacrosse match in the evening. Nana wants to see me play.”
“So there’s no getting out of it.”
“’Fraid not.” He could at least have apologized for putting her on the spot like this, but of course he didn’t.
“Drat.” She rolled onto her stomach to look out the window. No cars in the driveway; her parents wouldn’t be home for at least a couple of hours yet. The sun was still bright, and old Mrs. Choudhury was out walking her dogs. Boring as the day is long.
“It’s more complicated than that,” Mason said. “The thing is, I was supposed to give a ride to Lucas and Emma. Their dad is on a business trip to London or something.”
“Oh.” Model UN without Mason would be rough, but Model UN without the twins either would be disastrous. They were her treasurer and secretary. Without them, stupid Hunter would probably find a way to get her unelected. People hate hearing they have to fund-raise, so it would be easy. She rubbed her eyes. “I guess I’ll have to find them another ride.”
Whoosh. Fires to put out. And this one was a rager. She reviewed the roster in her head. The only one who lived genuinely close to the twins was Mason, so it was going to be a huge favor to ask of whoever did it. Hunter was the second closest, but . . . Yeah, that wasn’t even worth trying. Rani had been a little flaky so far this year, so May couldn’t even be sure she would make it at all, much less bring anyone else. The next closest one was May herself.
She wandered into the kitchen, planning out how to approach her mother to get the best result. She needed to take an ergonomic break anyway. She skimmed the label on an energy bar, double-checking just in case, but it was the same as always: rice bran, agave, dried cherries, the usual. Contains: wheat. But that was fine.
Then she decided she wasn’t really hungry yet, it was just the uncertainty making her look for something to do before the hard thing. She stuck it in her pocket for later, then took her phone out and leaned on the granite kitchen counter with her elbows to stretch her hamstrings while she texted. You know you’re dropping me off at 12 on Saturday, right, Mom? XOXO
Her mom’s message came back fast. Yes, baby. I know.
I just didn’t want you to forget
It’s been the same time all year, and all last year too. It’s on my calendar. May could hear her mom’s bottomless exasperation covered by a thin shell of patience.
I need a favor, we need to leave a little earlier
I can’t leave early, I have brunch with the book club, I’m already leaving early to take you!
It’s an emergency we need to give the twins a ride
There’s nobody else or you know I would never ask
Sweetie, you don’t have to be responsible for everyone else in the club.
May wandered up to her room, texting furiously. I said it’s an emergency! I swear this is the most important meeting of the year and I need them
The most important meeting of the year until the next most important meeting.
Can we take them tho? XOXO
Her phone went still as she waited for an answer to buzz back. May pictured her mother scrubbing at the hair above her ears, rolling her eyes, staring at her calendar.
Fine. Don’t say I never did anything for you, kid.
Thanks, Mom. Love you! XOXOXO
May rolled her shoulders to loosen them up, then sat back down at her desk. One problem solved, for now. And that should count as her next break, too—she’d wasted too much time on this, and her math was waiting. She set her timer for another forty-five minutes and returned to work.
The sun came up clothed in pink and gray, chasing the stars away. Well, most of them; a few bright dots stayed behind. And finally they got a good look at their surroundings in daylight. It confirmed the dim impression May had formed in the elevator on the way down. Their surroundings were dense with trees and undergrowth, and above loomed overgrown skyscrapers perhaps a half hour’s hike away. A city. A long-dead city, from the look of it. But those broken towers were in shapes and heights May had never seen before.
Where were they? And how, she wondered, were they going to get back home again? She wondered if Umta might know, but the woman had mumbled something about hunting and vanished with the night.
Seyah stayed behind with Nevaeh and most of the group—Seyah was about to have some kind of breakdown, it looked like, and she’d found some sympathetic ears. Good for her.
Holden led Jing-Wei and May back toward the elevator. Wesley tagged along behind, puffing a little at the effort it took to keep up with the others.
“So how did you die?” Wesley asked Holden brightly.
Holden stopped in his tracks and stared at Wesley, stricken. “Die?”
“Yeah, some of us have been talking about the last thing we remembered, and”—his voice lowered dramatically—“we’re pretty sure we all died.”
May grimaced. That’s not how she remembered that conversation. Sure, some of them were convinced they had all died. The theories only got more outlandish from there. Depending on who you asked, this was an afterlife, a government conspiracy, time travel, alien abduction, dimensional rift. In May's opinion, they didn’t have nearly enough information to figure it out yet.
Holden looked away, into the brightening jungle. “Car crash,” he said. “The last thing I remember is headlights.”
Wesley punched him in the arm. “Hey, death buddies,” he chirped. “I was in a wreck too!”
Holden picked up the pace. “We’re not dead,” he said. His tone was dead, though.
“Not dead,” May agreed. She pulled her hair back, wishing like anything for a ponytail holder. “That’s just stupid.”
Jing-Wei was the first one to reach the abandoned depot. They’d taken to calling the cable going up to the space station the beanstalk. None of them had seen it in daylight before now. The line itself was impossibly slender, not much thicker than a high-voltage power cable going straight up into the sky.
The creeping foliage came to a dead stop a few yards away from the building. It was bigger than they’d realized in the dark, easily as big as a bus station. Holden wedged the door open with a rock and led them inside. The pod they’d come down in was straight ahead. Corridors led away from either side of the room.
The doors to the pod were jammed open with chairs, so they couldn’t close. May raised an eyebrow. “That’s how you took care of it? Really? Chairs?”
“It was the best I could do,” Holden mumbled. “Figured if it couldn’t shut, then this pod couldn’t go back up, and nothing could come down after us.”
Jing-Wei cracked her knuckles above her head. “It’s not the worst idea,” she conceded. “But we can do a lot better. Let’s see if we can find controls.”
The place was just as creepy and derelict as May remembered; if anything, in the rising dawn, it looked even shabbier than it had before. “We’re looking for something to show us how this thing works,” Jing-Wei said. “Access panels, buttons, hinges, wires.”
May frowned. “Did you notice there aren’t any power plugs in here at all?”
Jing-Wei nodded absently, running her fingers along a wall. “No phone jacks, either. No cat five. I don’t even see any heating vents.”
Across the room, Wesley screeched and flailed. Everyone looked up at him sharply. “Giant spider,” he said. He pointed a shaking finger. “And it has hair.”
He wasn’t wrong. The spider was easily the size of May’s hand, and it was picking its way along the wall like it owned the place. Which it had as good a claim to as anything else did, come to think of it. She eased back a few steps. Spiders, sometimes they could jump.
Jing-Wei, on the other hand, moved in for a closer look. “Psssh,” she said. “Enormous, yes. But I’d bet cash money they’re totally harmless. I’ve seen spiders a lot like this visiting my grandparents in Taiwan.”
Holden knocked on one of the walls. It rattled a little. “Do you think we’re in Taiwan?”
“I don’t know where else those spiders live,” she said. “But this doesn’t look anything like the Taipei I’ve been to.”
“If this is any city we know, that means . . .” Wesley didn’t finish his thought. Just as well.
“Wait.” Jing-Wei brushed the wall where the spider had been; it had vanished. “Look, did you see that? It slipped through a seam between these panels.”
“They could be all around us?” Wesley’s voice grew increasingly shrill.
May pulled her hair away from her face, then let it go. “What else could be back there?”
Jing-Wei pressed her fingers against the wall at about waist height. The wall unfolded into a control panel and a sheet of glass. The giant spider scurried away again from the indignity of being discovered in its secret hideaway. It disappeared into the elevator pod.
Jing-Wei grinned. “Jackpot.”
Holden looked apprehensively at the array of lights and graphs that appeared. “Do you know what you’re doing?”
May frowned at the writing. What language was that, anyway? She was used to being able to tell what language something was written in, even if she didn’t know what it said. There were none of the few Chinese hanzi she knew, though it looked like maybe it could be related. Maybe she should’ve let her parents convince her to take those Chinese calligraphy lessons in fifth grade. The writing wasn’t Sanskrit, either; too blocky. And Korean always had those circles in the characters, so that was out, too. May bent her head for a closer look. Some of the writing, to be honest, looked suspiciously like emoji.
Jing-Wei squinted at it. “This looks a little like home in Chinese,” she said, pointing at a figure toward the bottom of the screen. “That might mean here on the ground. And if this string of lights is the elevator, then that could be the station. Right?”
“I guess,” Holden said. “Do you see anything that says ‘self-destruct’?”
Jing-Wei traced the text with one chewed-down fingernail, but the line scattered and reformed at her touch. “I can’t really read it,” she said. “It’s like, I don’t know, like trying to read Russian when you know English. Even if I think I know the characters, they’re put together all wrong.”
“Better than the rest of us could do,” Wesley said.
“If those caretakers are dangerous”—May bent over the control panel—“we need a plan to find a way to shut down the elevator for good, right? Do you think you could figure out the controls?”
“Nah. But we could just smash it up,” Jing-Wei murmured.
Everyone stared at her.
“Not the space station,” she clarified. “Probably not even the depot. But maybe if we tear apart all of the electronics we find here, we can keep it from operating, and we’ll be safe. It’s easy enough to break tech, right? Snip a wire here, pull out a transistor there, and before you know it the whole thing is busted.”
“But there aren’t any wires here.” May waved at the control panel. “We don’t even know if this has anything important in it, or if it’s just a display of something somewhere else. Like the board in an airport that tells you when the flights are.”
“You’re right.” Jing-Wei tucked a piece of turquoise hair behind her ear. “Let’s look around a little more. I don’t know what the control situation is, but if we can find something mechanical, I’m sure we can wreck it.”
Holden palmed the plate by one of the doors, and it slid open. Panels on the ceiling lit up, revealing a wide, long corridor. The outside wall had caved in, and the floor was covered with moss.
“So what exactly are we looking for?” May asked. “How will we know when we find it?”
“Look for something that screams ‘employees only,’ right?” Jing-Wei led the way down the corridor. “A door that looks different, or has more locks? Something that looks like the secure area of an airport?”
“Well actually, this could be an alien planet,” Wesley said. “And aliens might not have the same ideas about how to do this stuff, right? Like maybe a robot hive mind wouldn’t have any concept of an employee.”
“You think this is an alien planet?” Holden stooped to pick up a loose piece of rubble. It was porous, like cement. He tossed it back out through the gap in the wall, and something went scurrying away.
Wesley stalked farther ahead. “I’d rather it be an alien planet than Taiwan.”
“It’s not Taiwan!” Jing-Wei called back.
May trailed last of all, trying the doors they passed to see if any of them would open. Some wouldn’t function, or at least not for her. One was filled with empty shelves going up into endless darkness. “Storage closet,” Holden said, with a faintly pained expression on his face.
Another door branched off into another hallway, but there were no lights in this one. “We’ll come back if we can’t find anything else,” Jing-Wei decided. Nobody argued.
They spread out again. May found an access panel in the wall, but when she opened it, all she found were cobwebs and clots of webbing from hatched egg sacs. She backed away and tried a door tucked inside an alcove. She discovered a landing at the top of a set of stairs going down. “I think this is what we were looking for,” she called. “Come take a look.”
The landing looked over a cavernous space awash with filtered light from banks of dusty floodlights. They'd flickered on when the door opened. The place looked picked over and bare. A few hollowed-out shapes that might have been trucks hunched at the fringes of the room. And in the center, the inches-thick thread of the elevator was anchored into a block of stone as big as May’s entire house.
That block of stone was surrounded by hinged metal arms the size of ancient trees and a bristling mass of thin silver needles that might have been sensors of some kind. Banks of smooth glass jutted out in an arc around the stone, like rings around Saturn.
“Looks like we’ve found what we need to smash,” Jing-Wei said. A little too cheerfully, in May’s opinion. They made their way down, the echoes of their footsteps too loud across the emptiness.
Wesley tapped on one of the glass panels. They sprang to life, filled with enigmatic graphs and diagrams labeled in that unreadable writing.
Holden waved his hands. “Do you think you can . . . hack the system or something?” he asked Jing-Wei. “I don’t know how this is going to be more effective than chairs.”
“Nah, we’re never going to be able to hack this,” Jing-Wei said. “Not if we can’t even read it.” She sized up May. “You’re lighter than I am. Let’s boost you up.”
“To do what?” May stared up at the stalk, and those giant arms. It looked like a massive caretaker crawling out of the earth. Don’t be silly.
Jing-Wei shrugged again. “Try to break off those bristles, to start with. Maybe we’ll disable the elevator for good.” She made a stirrup out of her hands and boosted May up to the lip of the anchor.
May could just reach the edge; she clawed her way up, finally finding a metal bar to grab on to and haul herself over the top. She approached the stalk skittishly, like a feral cat. She reached one tentative hand forward and snapped off a needle, then another, then another. They were cold but brittle.
She tried a thicker one; this one wouldn’t snap, so she bent it into a loop. “Nothing’s happening,” she called down.
“As far as you know,” Jing-Wei called back.
Next May tried to pluck the thicker bristles like flowers. They came away easily, and left a faint spot behind, glistening with something that might have been oil. She grabbed a larger bunch and pulled them out. Then another. Soon there was a bare patch the size of her face. She began to circle around the center, trying to clear a complete ring, like finding the edge of a jigsaw puzzle first. Always set an achievable goal, right?
It was satisfying work, and she found herself getting some enjoyment out of the process. She only made it a quarter of the way around before something finally happened.
An alarm blared insistently, and red-and-yellow lights flashed up and down. There was a cracking sound, like a mountain shifting in its seat. The anchor rocked beneath May, just a little.
The thread of the elevator whipped up and away.
On its way out, it snapped the edge of the roof with a sky’s worth of tension. The strike cracked a huge chunk of concrete loose. It fell toward May, but hit one of the elevator’s metal arms first and deflected toward the far side of the room.
The shock wave as it hit the ground threw May back toward the edge of the anchor.
May crawled the rest of the way, shaking. The others were reaching for her. “Come down!” Jing-Wei shouted. “Hurry!”
May lowered herself feet first over the edge. Holden caught her as she dropped. She shook him away, but her legs didn’t want to hold her at first. She staggered, heart pounding.
“That was intense,” Wesley breathed.
“I guess it worked,” Holden said.
“Good job saving the day!” Jing-Wei beamed. May smiled back, then ducked her head. Never expected she’d get a turn at being an action hero. She didn’t like it much, it turned out. Not if it involved near misses with getting crushed to death.
A light foam began to fall from the ceiling. It was weightless, but sticky. It hardened on their skin almost instantly, like a candy coating. Wesley stared at the yellow foam in his hands. “What is this stuff?” He flexed his fingers, and the coating of foam split apart.
“Let’s get out of here!” May sprinted for the stairs, the rest of them flailing behind her. She kept her head down in order to keep her mouth, nose, and eyes clear. Every few steps she cracked her way out of a new shell and shed its fragments.
They made it back out to the ruined hallway, picking pieces of hardening foam from their faces. The lights and alarms were going off here, too; the foam was still falling. They fled out the hole in the wall and painfully made their way around the perimeter of the building, toward the path back to the others.
“Fire retardant system, maybe,” Jing-Wei said, leaning against a tree to catch her breath. She picked shards of foam from her hair. “That was great work, May. A shame we won’t be able to camp in there, though.”
Holden sagged a little. “At least we can cross murderbots off our list of things to worry about,” he said.
“Though I guess,” May said slowly, “it might mean we can’t get home the same way we got here, either.”
The sun was well past the horizon when they got back to the others, and it had brought changes. The morning cool was burning away so fast you could practically see steam rising from the mud. The bonfire had burned low; an adorable Boy Scout vigilantly stirred it to make sure it wouldn’t go out, but everyone else was drifting into the shade.
Bugs hidden in the foliage buzzed or clicked, filling the air with a heavy whirring sound, like machinery. As May watched, a pair of long-tailed birds, bright like parrots, flitted out of the trees and perched on the far side of the glade from them.
They could still hear the sirens from the depot, but distantly, like an alarm clock that couldn’t quite wake you up.
Gabe trotted toward them, his dark face glistening with sweat. He was tall and muscled under that red jumpsuit, the very picture of health and vigor. May found herself wondering how he’d died. Or almost died. Shot, maybe. Don’t be racist, she told herself. Maybe he was diabetic or something. Asthma. Allergies.
She rubbed at her thigh absently. She should have a bruise there, but if she ever had it was gone now.
“You’re Holden?” Gabe held out his hand and Holden shook it. “Welcome aboard.”
A thick-built boy joined them. His hair was cut close to his head, but it curled enough to make a white boy fro if it grew much longer. “Loki,” he said. He didn’t shake, just nodded soberly in Holden’s general direction.
“Loki?” Holden made a noise halfway between a snort and a laugh. “Sure, if you say so.”
May rolled her eyes. “What, like Holden is your real name?” A hint of something like a smile appeared on Loki’s face, then vanished so quickly it might have been her imagination.
“It is my real name. So what?” Holden crossed his arms.
May all but choked on the air she was breathing. “If you say so.”
Loki held a hand up. “Let’s stop this right here. What did you do at the elevator?”
“Broke it.” Jing-Wei’s face was barely broad enough to contain her grin. “Cut the rope free and it whipped away into the sky. And the building is full of . . . something, now. Fire retardant, maybe. And it’s pretty loud. I don’t suggest you head back there.”
“So we can’t go back up to look for information, or more food?” Gabe looked grim. “And we can’t even squat in there? We were starting to think that would be the best thing.”
“Yeah, but on the bright side, nothing is going to come down and murder us, either.” Holden looked around uneasily. “I don’t even know if we should stay here. There might be more caretakers around here somewhere.”
Loki looked from Gabe to Holden and back. “That rusted-out space station can’t be the only source of information there is around here.”
“We still have Umta,” May said. “She has to know something she’s not telling us.”
“She says she doesn’t. Took off a while ago, too.” Gabe shrugged. “Who knows what her deal is, anyway.”
Holden looked even more worried, if that were possible. “What, she just left us here?”
Gabe shuffled his feet. “Said something about hunting.”
May pressed a hand to her stomach at the reminder. “I am so hungry,” she said.
“Your share is eight bars, if nobody else arrives,” Loki said. “We took a count while you guys were gone. Unless someone else comes down—”
“Nobody else is coming down.” Jing-Wei grinned again. “No way.”
Gabe looked back toward where the stalk had been stationed. “I hope everyone got out all right.”
“Anybody who was still up there was already as good as dead.” Wow, Holden. May wondered if he was going to turn out to be the loud-nightmares kind.
“Give the bars to someone who can eat them,” May said. She scrubbed the back of her hand across her mouth, where beads of sweat were forming just above her lips and in the hollow of her chin. “I’ll sit it out. It’s not like we’re the only people on Earth, right?”
“If this even is Earth,” Wesley chipped in. May glared at him.
“A bunch of us decided to team up to explore and look for a source of water,” Loki said. “We should take care of that right away. We could go foraging for food, too, since it’s so urgent for you. This much wildlife, there has to be something edible.”
It was easy to only see the verdant growth and overlook the bones that lay beneath. Sun reflected through vines in a building a stone’s throw away, where intact windows remained. And in the far distance, there were spires that went higher than May had ever seen, so high the palms and ivy gave up on climbing halfway to the top. Those towers were dark and streaked with tear tracks from rain.
Dubai had tall, strange buildings—she’d heard they were building a skyscraper in the shape of a flower or something, and there were already buildings that shimmied and twisted their way past the clouds. But this couldn’t be Dubai, because that was in a desert. And this was the opposite of a desert.
“I’ll go,” May said. “But I don’t know if I’d recognize if anything was edible. Jing-Wei? You seem to know what you’re doing.”
Jing-Wei bounced with excitement. Or maybe effervesced. Bubbled up, like soda. “Nah. We need shelter, too, and I’ll be a lot more handy on a build crew. Amelia, be on my build team?”
A girl with a frizzed-out halo of strawberry blonde curls stood up. “Sure, count me in. Though I don’t know how much help all of my Habitat for Humanity volunteering will be if we don't have any lumber. Or hammers. Or nails.”
Building houses, thought May with a pang. I was going to do that.
“I'll help out on Team Shelter, too,” Gabe said. “Holden? Ready to earn your keep around here?”
“Aren’t we going to talk about what’s going on and make a plan?” Holden looked from face to face. “Shouldn’t we be finding civilization or something?”
“Who knows if there’s any civilization to find.” Loki motioned toward the buildings on the horizon. “There weren’t any lights on last night when we came down. Not on the whole planet. There’s obviously nobody home here. For all we know, this is all the civilization there is.”
Nobody said anything. A monkey crept along a vine, stared at them, then darted away. A butterfly the size of a salad plate flexed its wings on a low shrub. A breeze ruffled the trees affectionately.
“We have a plan,” May said at last. “Right now we’re going to find water and food, and we’re going to build shelter to get through the next day or two, and maybe by then somebody will come and find us. Somebody has to come and find us, right?”
“I’ll go with you,” Wesley volunteered. “I don’t like the bars that much anyway, so getting different food would be awesome.”
May regarded him with skepticism. “Do you even know what food looks like in the wild?”
Before he could answer, a thin, high voice broke in. “I’ll help.”
Oh, just great. The Boy Scout with the earnest crew cut. He seemed to be a lot younger than the rest of them, at best a middle schooler who got unlucky with the timing on his growth spurt. He was practically vibrating with enthusiasm. “I can help, I swear it. I’ve got all the badges for wilderness survival. And I go camping all the time back home in Utah.”
“What, in the famous Utah rain forest?” May felt a little bad as soon as the snark passed her lips. That wasn’t how a future Supreme Court justice should act.
Luckily the kid didn’t seem to notice. “It’s mountains, mostly, and desert, I guess. But I’ve been doing all kinds of reading about rain forests. I want to go on mission to Ecuador, like my brothers. Well.” He transformed into the perfect illustration for the word downcast. “I wanted to when I was alive.”
“Fine, just don’t get in the way,” Loki said. He scowled at the younger boy. “This isn’t a game. This is serious.”
May got through three more work/break cycles before she heard the garage door rumble open. Minutes later, her mom poked her head through the door. Her eye shadow had drifted toward the circles under her eyes, and she had her Important Meeting skirt on, the black pencil one that didn’t wrinkle. She’d be tired, then.
“You’re home early,” May observed. “Maybe you should take a nap with all your free time.”
Her mother gazed at her with May’s own dark brown eyes, and tucked her hair behind an ear with May’s own dark fingers. Or, more likely, it was the other way around. “Are you still doing homework? I should call the school. They give you way too much work.”
“It’s not too much.” May fixed her ponytail. “It’s not like I’m struggling, Mom. I get good grades.”
Her mother stepped into the room and crossed her arms. She had a faraway look of wistfulness, though what she could possibly be wistful about was beyond May. “You work too hard for them,” she said.
“Are you going back to work tonight?” May raised her eyebrows.
“Yes, but only for an hour. We have a call with Singapore. But—May, you’re only fifteen. You should lighten up a little. Play some video games. Watch some cartoons, like the other kids. There’s more to life than work.”
“You don’t get to be the first Chinese American Supreme Court justice by watching cartoons, Mom.”
Her mother sighed. “At least come down and have dinner with us? You know, like a happy family? Your dad will be home in half an hour, and he doesn’t fly out for that conference until late, so he’s here until seven.”
“I might.” May ticked off the checkbox in her agenda that said she’d successfully run through her Spanish vocabulary for the week.
Her mother crossed the carpet and hugged May from behind, their ears pressed together. “We want you to be happy, baby,” she said. “We named you May for May Sun, the—”
“The artist, yes, I know, you’ve only told me five billion eighty thousand times,” May interrupted. “But I’m not an artist. I can’t sing, I can’t draw, I can’t dance, I might as well be a robot. I’m good at other things, so let me do the things I’m good at, okay?”
Her mom squeezed her a little tighter. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” she said. “Sometimes you should do things because you love them, not because you’re good at them.”
May sighed with exaggerated weight. “Listen, the next debate isn’t going to memorize its own talking points for me. So unless you’ve got a time-traveling machine in your pocket, then—”
“Just come down for dinner, okay? I’ll have it on the table by the time Baba gets home.”
“I’ll come down,” May promised. She picked up her phone. “See? I’ll even set a timer.”
Her mom finally released her. “All right. I’ll leave you in peace until then.”
She didn’t leave, though, not right away. She leaned in May’s doorway, watching, until May looked up and asked, “What?”
“You got old so fast,” her mother murmured, and then she vanished toward the kitchen.
May’s phone buzzed on her desk. Emma calling. May picked it up.
“The scores for that last history test are up, finally.” Emma sounded a little breathless. “I only got a ninety-four, but Mason got a one-oh-five. I thought you answered the same as me on that thing about Franz Ferdinand? And I think that’s what I missed.”
May’s chest tightened, like a black hole had settled in and she was slowly collapsing into herself. “Let me check.”
She slid her tablet into her lap and navigated to the school portal. The notification was there in the corner, glowing with malice. The dread only grew heavier.
She tapped, and her grade came up. It was a 105. She was keeping up with Mason. She let out an explosive sigh. The heaviness lifted, then, with the relief of another test passed, another perfect score. She knew it was never gone for good—just until the next test, the next hurdle—but still. For now, she was still winning.
“It wasn’t Franz Ferdinand,” she told Emma. “I got one-oh-five, too. What did you answer for the one about Russia? Did you talk about the February Revolution?” Emma had not.
“Maybe you can make it up,” May said, with all sympathy. “Mr. Weiss said he’d give a little extra credit for community service, and we’re planning a beach cleanup in two weeks. On Saturday morning, before the debate team leaves.”
Emma said she’d think about it. May finished the conversation with a minimal amount of small talk, just enough to keep things amiable, and tried to get back to her work.
She stared at her debate notes, not quite able to focus. That was short-term thinking, but maybe she needed to focus on her long game a little more, too. She brought up a search engine. To be the perfect student that Harvard would want, the logical course would be to see what kinds of students were accepted, what their extracurriculars were, what they wrote about in their essays, what they wore and said and did during entrance interviews. Or maybe Stanford. But definitely top-tier, to meet the people she needed to meet to have the career she needed to have.
She couldn’t start applying yet—not as a sophomore—but the clock was running out to make herself look good enough, smart enough, hard-working enough. Her whole plan, fifteen years into the future, rested on getting into Harvard. Or Stanford. And getting into those schools was like getting a winning lottery ticket, even if you were perfect every day of your life. So May made it a point to be a little better than perfect. Always.
She went downstairs when her timer went off, like she’d promised. Her mother had put together a quick pasta with butter and parmesan and a side of sliced cantaloupe. May felt a little guilty; her mom worked so hard, and if it weren’t for her allergies, they could just order in Thai or maybe pizza like everyone else once in a while.
“Mom,” she said casually, getting a plate out of the cupboard. “I’ve been thinking about this summer. I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”
“Didn’t you want to build houses this summer?” Her mother ground a little pepper over the pot of pasta. “We have the paperwork already.”
“Lots of people do that,” May said. “If I want to stand out, I was thinking maybe I need to do something a little different. Didn’t you say your friend from yoga had a new startup? Something about providing internet access to disadvantaged populations?”
May’s mother set the pepper down with a harder tap than needed. “Yyyyessss.”
May helped herself to a generous serving of pasta, then sprinkled a little basil on top. “I was hoping you could get me a summer internship. Or at least let her know I’d be interested.”
“May. Since when do you care about internet access?” Her mother swirled white wine in a glass, looking into it like she might find out how to deal with her difficult child.
“It’s an important issue,” May said defensively. “And I’ve been looking at the freshmen at Harvard this year, and a lot of them seem to have focused on entrepreneurialism and social good, so I really think I should—”
“Home!” Her father’s voice boomed in about half a minute before he did. He was a little too round from sitting at a desk all day, a little too red-faced from biking home afterward. “Dinner’s ready? Great!” Then he sensed the tension in the room. He considered both of them in turn. “What’s the story here?”
“May wants to change her summer plans.” Her mother sounded even more tired than before.
May’s dad frowned. “I thought you were building houses? Good exercise, looks good on a college application, gets you out of your head and with other kids all day. Right?”
Ugh. May forgot she had sold them on the mental-health elements of the old plan. “The new plan is better,” she said brightly. “It’s not just good for me, it’s good for the world.”
Her dad bent over the pot to smell the pasta, then fixed himself a plate. “And I’m sure whatever this is will look even better when you apply to Stanford.”
“It would,” May said, her voice small. “It would be perfect.”
“You know, May, it’s possible that you’ll put in all of this work and still not get into Stanford. Or Harvard, or Yale, or any of them.” Her dad looked at her over his glasses. “What will you do then?”
“I’ll get in,” May said. “I have it all worked out.”
“Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, dumpling,” her mother said. “A good plan is a little flexible.”
“I’m super flexible.” May twirled a forkful of angel hair, then set it down on her plate without eating it. “I think the fact that I want to change my plan for the summer proves I’m flexible.”
“We’ll talk about it,” her dad said. “But not right now, okay? I’ve got some time before I run to the airport, you want to break out Ticket to Ride?”
“I still have to study my debate notes,” May said. “I’m a little behind schedule.” She bent and kissed her dad on the cheek, and then her mom. “I’ll be upstairs, okay?”
Her mother gave her a wan smile, and her dad shook his head. As soon as she was gone, they were going to confer in quiet voices about What To Do About May. But in the end they would decide, like they always did, that their daughter was who she was and all they could do was be supportive.
In this case, being supportive meant her mom floating the internship idea by her friend. If it didn’t work out, then May had a couple of fallback plans, too. But it was a good plan, and she was pretty sure that she could talk everyone into it.
May’s stomach panged again to remind her it was being neglected, not that she’d ever quite forgotten. The adrenaline surge from the space station had eased up her hunger for a while, but the gnawing feeling was back now, and with a vengeance.
She pushed that aside. Not the right time for it. She tried to find something else to focus on, but the litany of things that needed doing was empty, the schedule blank. Find water, find food, find shelter. And then there was the big question to answer, still: What’s going on here?
“Where do you guys think we are?” May asked. She pulled on a palm branch, and a shower of droplets fell on her face and shoulders. “This is some . . . ruined city, right?”
Loki shaded his eyes and looked up at the skyscraper. “I’m not sure we’re even on Earth anymore,” he said. “If somebody built a space elevator like that, the whole world would know.”
“This might be an alien city!” Wesley’s voice was hushed. “That would be so awesome.”
Loki pulled a vine free from the side of a building. “Unless the aliens are those caretakers. Not awesome. Anyway, the flora and fauna don’t look so alien to me.”
“We all died,” mumbled the Boy Scout. Hyrum, his name was Hyrum. “And now we have to wait here before we can pass on.”
“I never thought I could be so hungry if I was dead,” May said. She’d started to feel nauseous, not that there was anything in her body to bring up. May frowned over a stand of green berries.
“Actually, the more important question,” Wesley said, “is how we got here. There.” He pointed his finger at the sky. They could just see lacy patches of blue through the leafy canopy, but not much more.
Not that they would have seen anything, even with a clear view. The space station, or whatever it was, was invisible in daylight. It might even be gone entirely since they’d snapped its tether. “So how did we wind up there?” May asked.
“Wormhole,” Wesley said, with perfect confidence. “I bet those robots teleported us through a quantum wormhole so the aliens could study us.”
Loki rolled his eyes. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Pretty sure we’re all dead,” Hyrum said. He crouched down and pulled a plant up from its roots, frowned at it, and put it back down. “I didn’t think I’d end up here after I died, though, I tell you what.”
Wesley laughed outright. “What, you think this is heaven or something?” May felt a moment’s smug pride for her own, superior cultural sensitivity.
“Something,” Hyrum mumbled.
“Maybe it was cryogenics,” Loki suggested. “Maybe our parents had us frozen when we died, and we just now woke up. That’s why we never heard about that space elevator. It was built while we were sleeping.”
“My parents would never freeze me,” Hyrum said. He seemed horrified at the very idea.
Loki shrugged. “Just going on the evidence.”
“I wish this place had a way to tell us. A street sign or something.” May surveyed the jungle around them.
The city followed most of the patterns of cities May had visited before, if you looked hard enough. Very few of the buildings close to camp stood anymore—almost none. But you could still trace the shapes of the streets and intersections between mounds of overgrown rubble. Sometimes there were wide plazas; sometimes hollows, which should have led into tunnels or underpasses, but had instead filled in with accumulated soil and teeming life. There were birds in every tree, bugs under every leaf. Lizards and furry things scurried away as they tromped through the brush.
They stumbled into a patch of sunlight. A creek had cut its way through the trees, and it ran smooth and straight where once there was a road. The steady flow of water had cleared the pavement of dirt, but instead of asphalt, the surface was slick and smoky, like black glass.
A smile cracked Hyrum’s face. “Fresh water,” he said. “And not too far from camp, either. That’s a relief.”
Wesley bent over to scoop some water into his mouth.
“No!” Hyrum said hastily. “We have to treat it. Boil it or distill it, in case there are germs in it.” He grimaced. “My scoutmaster told us a story about this brain-eating amoeba . . . Anyway, don’t drink the water yet. It’s not safe.”
“Yeah.” Loki’s eyes burned. “Don’t be stupid.”
Wesley stared at his hands, then let the water flow back through his fingers into the stream. “I guess.”
“I’ll fill up the empty bottles so we can boil it later,” Hyrum said. He took his pack off and set about collecting water from the creek.
“Let’s stop and eat,” Loki said. “We need some rest.”
Hyrum nodded his agreement.
Wesley sat down next to Loki. “You guys can find the way back, right?” Wesley looked over his shoulder, toward the camp. Loki edged away while he wasn’t looking.
“Sure, I’ve been keeping track,” Hyrum said. “But if you get lost, look for the smoke.” He capped a bottle and put it into his pack. “Cole said he’d teach everyone how to keep the fire lit, since we went to all that trouble getting it started.”
“Cole?” May grimaced. So many names to learn.
Loki opened one of the mystery nutrition bars. “Big guy, blond. Farm boy.”
Hyrum and Wesley each opened their own bars. Hyrum paused before taking a bite. “May, are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll find something I can eat before long.” She ignored the wave of weakness that overcame her when the scent wafted her way. Eating would be an unnecessary risk. She wasn’t out of other options yet. But she couldn’t quite bring herself to sit there and watch other people eat, either.
May walked a short distance down the creek, picking her way carefully between rocks and roots to keep her attention on something beyond feeling sorry for herself. Her body was a traitor, though, and her mouth kept watering. She swallowed and tried a little yoga breathing, but it didn’t help much.
The creek coursed straight as an arrow as far as she could see, until it was lost in the dimness of light filtered by leaf. It seemed to go toward those standing towers in the distance. After a graceful amount of time, she went back. To her relief, the others were done eating already.
“Let’s keep exploring,” she said. “Maybe there’s something in those buildings we can use. Maybe there are even people living there.”
Loki nodded. “As good a plan as any. Hyrum, you ready?”
The young boy put his backpack on both shoulders and straightened it carefully. “I’m always prepared,” he said.
The day got hotter and hotter, and eventually even the shade wasn’t enough to keep them from the oppressive humidity. “We should take our shoes off and wade,” said Wesley. “It’s not that deep, right? And at least that way we could keep our feet cool.”
“Bad idea. Haven’t you noticed all the snakes?” Hyrum nodded at the water. They were hard to spot against the smoked glass lining the stream’s bed, but they were definitely there: thin, sinuous silhouettes passing in clusters, headed downstream.
Loki stared into the water. “Yeah, snakes.”
Wesley blanched. “Are they poisonous?”
“Don’t know,” Hyrum said. “Better not to take chances.”
“Fair enough,” Wesley said. He walked a little farther away from the edge of the water after that.
They kept searching for food along the way, which slowed their travel. Afternoon came, and the greenish light through the canopy became syrupy and golden. The chorus of birdsong changed.
May stared at every leaf as they passed, looking for something that resembled carrot greens, beet greens, raspberries or strawberries, mint or oranges. But none of the plants she found were remotely familiar. Once she discovered a thick cluster of fat salmon-pink berries. She called Hyrum’s attention to them. “Are these good to eat?”
His fingers hovered over them for a long moment. “Best not to chance it,” he said.
“Yeah.” May bowed her head. “That’s my motto, too.”
They went on a little farther, still searching. Then Hyrum darted ahead of the rest. “Bananas!” he crowed. “Bananas for sure.” He pointed to a stand of trees, each with a heavy burden of fruit somewhere in the spectrum between bright green and pale yellow.
“That’s great!” Wesley shook the tree experimentally. “How do we get them down?”
“I’ll do it.” Hyrum shimmied up the tree like he was part squirrel. When he got to the top he paused. “No knife,” he said. He was visibly distressed. “How do I cut them down?”
“Twist it,” Loki called up. “Or just peel off a few bananas at a time.”
Hyrum twisted at the bunch of bananas until, after a few minutes, the entire thing fell to the earth. Hyrum clutched the tree as it swayed back up, then slid down to the ground amid cheers from Wesley and Loki.
Wesley grabbed a banana and shoved it into his mouth almost before he split it open. “You must be so glad.” Wesley beamed at May through a mouth full of half-chewed banana. “There’s no corn in a banana for sure. Go on, eat one!”
“No corn,” May said, “but I’m allergic to bananas, too. Um. Please don’t touch me now, okay?”
His face fell. “All right,” he said, “I guess we’ll keep looking.” He hefted the fat cluster of bananas onto his shoulder and marched onward.
They were almost inside the towers before they knew they were close. Distance was hard to judge, and the towers, it turned out, were even taller and much closer than they had imagined.
Water cascaded from midway up one of the buildings. This was the source of the stream they’d followed. It cut a gully twice as tall as any of them, straight toward an opening; doors, maybe. On the higher ground, there were half-buried windows disguised by a rich growth of ferns and orchids.
They stared at the waterfall. “Where is all the water coming from?” Hyrum asked.
“Maybe somebody left the bath on,” Wesley said, then chuckled at his own wit.
“Should we go in?” Loki asked. “Maybe there’s something inside.”
But May’s attention was drawn elsewhere. On either side of the entrance, rooted into the water, were tall trees laden with bright orange globes. They were smaller than oranges, smaller than clementines. May looked at them, wide-eyed. “Are those . . . citrus? Like kumquats or something? Hyrum, can we eat those?”
Hyrum frowned in concentration. “Yes, these are safe to eat,” he decided. “We just have to get them down.”
Wesley reached over the water with one foot to kick at one of the fruit trees. A shower of ripe fruit splashed down. May grabbed a stick and tried to retrieve a few without getting too close to the snakes, but they bobbed out of reach and then were gone. She made a noise of guttural frustration. “How do we get to them? Without getting bitten.”
“Can’t climb the trees without going swimming with snakes,” Hyrum murmured. “Maybe if we made a skimmer to sweep them out of the water after we shake the trees?”
He backed up a few steps, as if a little distance from the problem would reveal a new solution. He tipped his head. “Do you smell that?”
Now that he mentioned it, there was a heavy, sour tang in the air, like garbage.
Hyrum turned and walked even deeper into the trees. “Guys? Guys, you’re going to want to see this,” he called.
When it was alive, the animal had been a stag, easily the size of a moose. The tines on its antlers looked sharp as razors and longer than May’s arms. Maybe as long as her legs. But its fur was matted with blood, and there was a gaping hole where its belly should have been.
“What could do that?” Wesley asked, wide-eyed.
“Let’s not find out,” Loki answered.
May suddenly became deeply aware that she was in the wild among things that would probably enjoy eating her, without so much as an aspirin to treat a headache. Certainly no antivenin, nothing to stitch up a wound, no antibiotics. A person could live three days without water, she recalled, but a week or more without food. A person couldn’t live as long as that if they’d been mauled by a . . . giant bear? A jaguar? What kinds of predators lived in this kind of jungle, anyway?
The prudent course became obvious. “Let’s just go back,” she said. “It’s going to be getting dark soon anyway.”
“But aren’t you still hungry?” Wesley asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “But it’s better to be hungry than eaten. Maybe we’ll find some berries on the way, right? And we weren’t the only ones exploring. Maybe someone else found something to eat. Didn’t that Umta woman say she was hunting?”
The other three looked deeply relieved. And the way back went much, much faster than their journey out.
May stretched and looked at the clock, at her notes, at her agenda book. Her mom had gone back to the office for that Singapore call, and her dad was off to the airport, so the house was completely still.
May hadn’t finished everything she wanted to—honestly, she never did—but she’d finished everything she strictly had to, and it was time for a little nourishing of the body.
She carefully recorded her time spent and progress made, shut down her tablet and set it up to recharge, tidied up the stacks of flash cards. She logged in to her running app and stared at the graphs while she took her ponytail out and retied it.
She could have a personal best today, if she really threw herself into it. She’d slipped a little over the winter, and that cold she’d had last month had thrown everything off schedule for a while. She’d had to beg to retake the test she only got a ninety-four on when she was first sniffling. Nobody had wanted to let her do it.
But today she was feeling good and strong, and she’d had a little extra late-afternoon coffee, which always provided an extra boost. Enough to feel like cheating.
As she changed her clothes, she ran through her list of reasons justifying this time spent away from her books. Studies showed clear correlation between increased exercise and brain development.
But when she was being honest with herself, she admitted she ran because it cleared her head. If she didn’t run, she didn’t really feel like herself the rest of the time.
She laced up her shoes, and then hovered over her fanny pack. For safety reasons, it was smart to always bring her epinephrine injector with her, and of course her phone. It was the sensible course. But if she were just a tiny bit lighter, maybe she could hit that personal best a little more easily. It wasn’t like she was going to get a cob of corn shoved into her mouth by a passing stranger.
No, not a risk worth taking. You don’t get to be a Supreme Court justice by taking stupid, unnecessary risks. She snapped on the pack, shoved an energy bar in for good measure, and locked up on her way out.
She walked a few blocks to warm up, getting all the way to the head of the running trail at the park. And then she started the tracking app and flew.
She always promised herself she’d use this time for the betterment of her brain and skills; running through vocabulary, thinking through scheduling problems, whatever needed solving. But it never lasted more than a quarter of a mile before everything fell away and she could just be.
Her feet hardly hit the ground, pushing her forward more than striking down. Her lungs expanded until she was full with giddy twilight. She became a being of pure rhythm and movement.
The trees on either side of the trail were conifers, though May never knew for sure what kind. They were half-brown from drought, but the carpet of fallen needles under her feet still let out puffs of fragrance at every step. She climbed up a steep hill, toward an overlook of the valley. The day grew darker and cooler as it faded into night.
For minutes or hours, May had no schedule and no responsibility. She had no plans, because there was no future. Only the endless now.
And then she arrived at the overlook, far away from all the things that chased her the rest of her time. Sunset was long this time of year, but a few twinkling lights had come on in the housing development below. More than there would be stars in the sky once night fell. Light pollution.
She checked her time on the app. Not a personal best, but not too bad; just fourteen seconds short. She tightened her ponytail and took out her energy bar to eat while she watched the suburb settle into the evening.
It was there, while she sat perched on the guardrail at the overlook, that a premonition of doom came over her. Something terrible was about to happen. Was already happening. And then her soft palate began to tingle, just a little bit.
May checked the food label on that energy bar. No corn, no corn derivatives. No bananas, no banana derivatives. No peanuts, no tree nuts. She coughed, twice.
Oh, God, she thought, it must be mislabeled, this must be a manufacturing problem. She shut her eyes. Maybe it was just a little cross contamination and it wouldn’t be so bad. But she shouldn’t linger here.
She started walking back into the woods, toward home, toward help. It wasn’t so far, not really. She could make it. She coughed again. Her eyes were itching now. She could feel the stretchy, numb sensation that meant her face was swelling. She wasn’t getting enough air.
Well. This was why you never took an unnecessary risk. Because sometimes life was going to get you whether you liked it or not. She took out her injector and braced it against her thigh. She pressed, hard like they train you to, hard enough to leave a bruise. And it hurt, but it didn’t pierce. She examined the injector through shaking fingers, tried it again. The needle wasn’t coming out. The stupid thing was jammed, after all that caution.
She took out her phone and called 911. “What is your emergency?” the lady asked, and somehow May managed to wheeze a few words: “can’t breathe,” “in the park.” The lady was cool and calm and promised May that EMS was on the way. She should sit tight. Like May could possibly do anything else.
May hung up and pressed a favorite contact. The phone dialed again and rang once, twice, three times. Her mother picked up. “May? I thought you were running. What’s up?”
May tried to talk, but her throat was too swollen now and she couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t get any words out. But she could still hold the phone to her ear, for these last moments. “May?” Her mother was concerned now. “May, are you okay?”
That’s the last thing she heard. And then there was a sense of falling, and it lasted forever.
Things had changed while they were gone. Cole and Jing-Wei were commanding a crew of half a dozen others in rigging together ramshackle collections of dead branches and leaves into something approaching a thatch-roofed shack. It looked pretty sketchy, in May’s opinion. It might work out better if they had some tools, at least. A machete would come in pretty handy right now.
Hyrum looked at their efforts with concern. “We shouldn’t sleep directly on the ground,” he murmured. “The snakes and spiders will snuggle up to you that way.” He dropped his backpack by the fire.
Holden was orbiting Seyah, staying as close as he could to her without actually having to talk to her. For her part, Seyah was huddled close to the fire, where Nevaeh was having some sort of heartfelt talk with her and the skinny Goth kid whose name May couldn’t recall. Nevaeh was supernaturally serene, even content, in perfect contrast to pretty much everybody else.
Hyrum hovered by May’s side for one more minute. “I should help with the building,” he said. “Are you going to be okay?” Aw, what a perfect little larval gentleman.
“Yeah,” May said. “I’ll be fine.” A new wave of nausea passed through her, this time with a side order of dizziness. She pressed her fists against her stomach. “I just . . . I think I need to sit down for a minute.”
She wobbled her way toward the fire. Someone had dragged a few stones and logs around it for seating. They were damp and mossy, but still better than sitting in the mud. She lowered herself onto a log and closed her eyes. Maybe Umta would come back with something she could eat. Or one of the other search parties would.
But she needed a plan. What was on the schedule for tonight, for tomorrow? The wheels spun. Water, check. Shelter, in progress, such that it was. But food? Even if she got some of those little oranges, kumquats or whatever they were, that would just mean she’d be starving to death more slowly. She needed a longer-term solution.
She wondered for the first time if snakes were edible. And if she might be allergic to snake meat. This was not a thought she’d ever expected to have. She should be studying for the SAT, prepping to dominate Model UN, practicing debate points. She should be running through her Spanish flash cards and reading the last couple of chapters of Lord of the Flies.
Maybe this was an exceptionally vivid dream based on her reading and weird meds in the ER. Maybe she’d wake up in the hospital and have a Wizard of Oz moment where it turned out Jing-Wei was the nice nurse and Wesley was the annoying kid on the other side of the curtain who’d sprained his wrist.
When she got back to regular life, she was going to be so behind. So, so behind. Look for a silver lining, May. Perhaps, she thought, this was the experience that would kick her admissions essays up a level. A million other girls got perfect grades and perfect test scores and ran five after-school clubs, but who else had this happened to? Even if it was just a vivid coma dream.
She bent over and pressed her forehead to her knees.
A warm hand rested between her shoulder blades. May sat up, shook it off. “Wesley says you came up empty for food,” Nevaeh said. With perfect sympathy. Of course. “You really should try to eat one of the bars. A lot of us have changed since we’ve been here. Wesley says he doesn’t need his glasses anymore. Cole and Sunita are missing scars, too. I think Sebastian is freaked out that some tattoos are gone. And I—” Nevaeh hesitated, and a distant, unhappy look passed over her face like thin clouds flitting across the sun. “I was very, very sick before we came here. I haven’t felt this good for as long as I can remember. I bet you don’t even have an allergy at all anymore.”
“But you don’t know for sure,” May insisted. “It’s a nice theory, but if I’m wrong, I don’t feel bad for ten minutes. I don’t have an upset stomach. I just die. That’s it.”
“You won’t die. Umta said the caretakers remade us. They fixed us. They wouldn’t leave something like that in you.” Nevaeh pressed one of the bars into May’s hands again. “You haven’t eaten anything in, what, eighteen hours? Twenty-four? And you were running around all day, so you can’t have any reserves left. You’re not in a good place to make a decision. Just eat. You’ll feel better.” She was so soothing. So calm. So completely annoying.
“Unless I’m dead.” May stared at the bar.
“It tastes a little bit like caramel corn,” Nevaeh said.
May dropped the package like it was one of those snakes. “I’m allergic to corn.”
“Stop freaking out.” Nevaeh sounded just like May’s mom—the shell of kindness, the ocean of exasperation. “Just eat something already. It’s going to be okay.”
Someone sat next to May, a little too close. Gabe, with patches of lighter mud mottling his dark hands. “Go on, just eat the bar,” he told her. “You’ll be fine.”
“I don’t want to die,” May said. Twilight was passing fast, and the sky overhead was rapidly filling up with a glory of stars.
“If it’s going to kill you, you can die fast now, or die slow by starving,” Gabe told her. “Which would you rather?”
May picked up the package from the ground. There was a streak of mud on it now. She wiped it off on the leg of her jumpsuit and weighed her options. She needed to survive long enough to be rescued, or find people, or find a way back home. One of these things was going to happen. It had to. It was just impossible that this was her life now.
All of the stranded teenagers started drifting closer to the fire to hear, to rest, to be together. Some opened up meal bars, some took bananas. Hyrum stared up at the stars. “Something I’ve been trying to figure out,” he said. His voice was tired and small. “I can’t quite figure out the constellations, they’re all funny. They’re just . . . wrong.”
“Wrong? Wrong like how?” Wesley perked up at the sound of a new mystery to solve.
“See the Big Dipper there? That’s supposed to point to the North Star, but . . . it doesn’t quite. And a bunch of bright ones shouldn’t be there at all.” The two of them conferred.
Evidence buzzed in May’s head. Die fast or die slow. Missing scars. Fixed myopia. Her own missing bruise. She wished she had a sheet of notepaper to write pros and cons, to try to make an educated decision. Maybe she could live off of kumquats, if they could gather some. Maybe the others would figure out a way to hunt or fish in quantity. But all of that was going to take time, and she needed food soon to make it that far.
Maybe she was going to die no matter what. So then it wouldn’t really matter how, would it? And at least one way was fast.
A boy came close to the fire, hands shrugged deep into his pockets. Holden again. “We’re not going to just stay here, are we?” he asked nobody in particular. “I mean, those robots—the caretakers—they could find us here anytime now.”
May tore the corner of the packet. It came apart like paper, venting a sweet, spicy smell. The release of saliva into her mouth stung. She took a deep breath.
“You’re going to be fine,” Nevaeh told her. Sure, for values of fine that really meant beyond terrible.
May broke off a piece of the bar, a tiny one, and put it in her mouth before she could think twice about it. It was very dry, and made her think of tamarind and curry. She chewed and swallowed.
Nevaeh looked at her expectantly.
Across the fire, Wesley had become excited. “Listen—listen! I know exactly where we are!” He waited for everyone’s attention. After a dramatic pause, he went on: “We’re in the future.”
Jing-Wei clapped him on the back. “I figured that one out already, sport. Earth life like ours, space elevator like we hadn’t built yet. You’re the only one who thinks it’s aliens.”
May choked a little, swallowing her bite. Was it her throat closing up? Or just her mouth being dry? She monitored for stinging or numbness in her mouth. She pressed her eyes and lips to see if they were swelling.
So far, so good. Again, for values of good that did not involve anything otherwise recognizable as goodness. May took another bite, a bigger one this time. All in, right? A future Supreme Court justice must act with confidence once a decision has been made.
She continued to not die.
Nevaeh grinned. “See? You’re fine.”
May felt a lightening, like when she confirmed she hadn’t missed a question on an exam. But it was a niggling sort of relief, the kind that knows there has to be another shoe hanging somewhere overhead, waiting to drop at any moment.
Holden cleared his throat, looking for attention again. “We’re going to move on in the morning, right? Go looking for help?”
Hyrum ducked his head. “When you’re lost,” he said, “you’re supposed to just sit tight where you are.”
“Not sure lost describes our situation real well,” Loki said.
Jing-Wei waved her meal bar at Holden. “Listen, if we’re here, it’s because somebody wants us here, right? Nobody would have gone through the trouble of getting us here, saving us from . . . whatever . . . just to kill us off again. Machines are tools, and tools belong to people. Which means the people who want us alive will be looking for us, right?”
The teens looked around at one another to try to decide what they thought and felt. They nodded and called out and shuffled their feet in agreement with Jing-Wei.
“Don’t you think we should talk about it, though?” Holden persisted. May saw him glance back at his friend Seyah, sad-eyed and quiet. “Those murderbots could still be out there. We could be sitting ducks.”
“Holden, we got rid of the space elevator. Nothing is coming down to kill you in your sleep. I promise!” Jing-Wei was amused, not angry.
“But if I’m right—” He pulled his hands out of his pockets and waved up at the brilliant sky.
“Nobody’s stopping you from going,” someone muttered. Loki? Gabe? May wasn’t sure.
“Fine.” Jing-Wei raised her voice, hands on her hips. “Let’s take a vote! Everyone in favor of staying here and teaming up to find food and build shelters while we wait for help to arrive, raise your hand.”
The forest of raised hands showed there was no need for Jing-Wei to present an alternative.
Jing-Wei tossed another piece of wood into the fire. It popped, sparks flying high into the night like an emergency flare. “See? It’s settled,” she said. “We stay.”
May stared at the empty wrapper in her hands. Sure, they’d settled one question. They were sticking around for a while. But there were a hundred more crowding in behind it. What if nobody came? What if they didn’t find food? What was the deal with the caretakers?
What had happened to them, anyway?