FIVE YEARS BACK . . .
Far enough in the desert that they could no longer see smoke from the coast, or hear the quake sirens, Smits Perez parked his banged-up Airstream and climbed out on the roof. He heard a rattle of a martini shaker. His roommate, Trey Lowell, and their best friend, Stephanie Bask, were right behind him.
“We made it,” Trey said. He poured the martini into a paper cup, opened a bottle of beer with a promotional Code Overload Magazine opener, and passed that and a bottle of water to Smits and Steph. “I’d say we’ve all earned a drink.”
“We were this close to graduating!” Stephanie groaned, still in shock. “What are we going to do now?” When the others toasted, she lifted her water bottle in solidarity.
“Not graduating from Oxy is nothing,” Smits replied. “That entire section of LA is gone. We got out alive. A lot of people didn’t.” He sipped solemnly at his beer. This wasn’t a celebration. This was a wake.
“Lucky thing you bought old Moonshot,” said Trey, patting the Airstream’s silver side affectionately. “If you hadn’t, we’d be heading for refuge south of the border with the other survivors, probably.”
“I hope they’re allowed to cross,” Stephanie said, worry creasing her dusty brow.
Smits nodded. “It wasn’t luck; I’ve been thinking of spending some time in the desert after graduation for a while. Plus, I like to have multiple plans in case of emergency.”
The drive across LA and into the desert had been chaotic, and he was still reeling from everything they’d seen. The people they couldn’t save. The sinkholes and the heat were far from the worst of it. The worst was knowing that his survival plan had been necessary after all. All of their burns and minor injuries were evidence of that. And it could get worse.
Steph, after looking below to check on their TA, Lakshmi Singh, who was resting with a concussion, asked, “What if Bastheon won’t take us without degrees?”
They were all still young, and universities would probably reach out to offer in-kind transfers, but the fact was Occidental College had been their testing ground for some pretty experimental stuff, and–– just a month too early––Oxy was gone. One earthquake after another, until nearly everything was lost, including all their AI research.
“Bastheon still wants us,” Trey said “They’re offering to create an incubator site, and possibly a new division.”
Smits let out a low whistle of relief. Trey had been on the phone most of the drive, doing deals, trying to get them somewhere safe.
“They say IARPA has a new timeline, given recent events––we have only five years to get a terraforming plan in motion, not the thirty we thought. If we want to hop on for the ride, they’ll take us. Won’t pay exactly as much, but with time-in, plus patents and options, that won’t matter.”
Stephanie snorted. “Anything to cut their offers down, satisfy the bean counters?”
Smits winced at Trey’s pained look. Trey had already signed with the company. His salary was locked in. But it wasn’t his fault the others hadn’t signed before the college got wiped out. Stephanie could be sharp sometimes, especially under stress.
“Hey, at least we’re actually going to have jobs,” Smits said.
Stephanie blinked, then exhaled. “I appreciate you negotiating for us . . .” Trey nodded, and they all relaxed for the first time since LA.
With a whir, Moonshot’s generator automatically shut off and the desert got really quiet. Using his phone, Smits dimmed the lights in the cab below.
With the moon just setting, the stars and planets shone bright for a few remaining hours.
Smits cracked his back and stretched, then lifted his pride and joy from a large sack he’d brought up with him. It felt ridiculous that he should still have this, when so much else had been lost, but it had been in the Airstream. Smits had bought it in hopes of taking someone to the desert to go stargazing. Of course, he’d never gotten out of the AI lab for long enough to find the someone.
So now he had his two best friends, an antique Celestron telescope with a 90 mm refractor, a van––essentially that’s what the Airstream was, a Scooby van for technerds––that slept four, and enough NASA freeze-dried meals to last them a few weeks. Plus, an injured TA. Steph had stashed some water out beyond New Jack City during her last bouldering expedition, so they’d doubled their water supply on the way to the coordinates Trey gave...