“Seventeen minutes to final boarding,” The app on my holo-device alerted me.
Seventeen minutes. That was how long I had to save Evangeline.
I could feel her heartbeat against my chest, her dark-haired head bouncing on my shoulder as I carried her through the ruins of the war-torn city. Blasts of light illuminated the night sky, and I could hear the popping echo of gunfire in the distance. The shuttle terminal was only a few blocks further, but a mob of dark shapes blocked the street ahead.
A shabby figure approached. “Do you have tickets?!” The man asked, his hoarse voice charged with sheer desperation. I didn’t answer, pushing past him, plunging into the mass of bodies.
“Daddy,” I heard Evangeline whisper in my ear. “Are we going to make it?”
I gritted my teeth. “We’ll make it bunny.”
I looked down and found her anxious brown eyes peering up into mine.
She was almost six years old. Her birth parents had been Taiwanese refugees, displaced during the wars brought on by the climate crisis. Both had perished while attempting to enter the North American exclusion zone, but Evangeline had miraculously survived. My wife Maribeth and I adopted her, and when Maribeth passed away from sickness when Evangeline was three, I became an only father.
I hurried forward with her in my arms, the muscles in my legs burning from miles of walking. Over the tops of people’s heads, I could see the entrance to the shuttle terminal rising in the distance, an immense structure surrounded by armed guards.
I turned and found a gun aimed at my head. The man holding wore heavy clothes and had a hollow face. My insides locked up as I stared into the barrel of the weapon. Evangeline let out a sharp scream, and I pressed her head to my chest. “Everything’s gonna be alright bunny,” I told her.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” The man growled. “Just give me your tickets.”
I swallowed in a dry throat and hardened my heart. I couldn’t do that, not without dooming myself and my daughter. It would be better to let him shoot us both. Was there a chance the gun was empty? It seemed unlikely. He had his index finger resting on the outside of the guard, good trigger discipline, and not something you’d do if you were wielding an unloaded weapon.
I took an experimental step back. “Don’t move!” He screamed, and just from the tone of his voice, I knew he would do what he had to to get our tickets.
Evangeline was crying. “I’m going to set you down sweetie,” I told her. I had to practically pry her arms off my neck, as I lowered her to the ground. “Daddy will take care of this.”
I looked up at the man with the hollow face. His resolve had not lessened, he still held the gun as though he were ready to use it.
“The tickets are on my holo-dash,” I said slowly. “It’s in my pocket.”
The man studied me, then gave a weary nod.
I pulled the holo-device from my pocket and made the necessary configuration changes, then held it out.
I stepped towards the man, putting myself between him and Evangeline. He outstretched his hand, and we edged toward one another. A little closer, I thought, then—
I lunged for his gun arm, grabbing him by the wrist and reangling the weapon so it was aiming upward.
“Hey!” He exclaimed, then screamed, as I bit down on his forearm through his jacket. The human jaw has a bite force of one hundred and sixty pounds per square inch. I just needed to weaken his muscles enough that he’d release his grip on the gun. I sunk my teeth through the fabric and into his skin, tasting the metallic twinge of blood, as I used my hands to wrestle for the gun. He slapped and clawed at my face with his other hand, and I felt my skin ripping, but I did not relent. Whatever horrible agony I was inflicting overcame him, and I felt his grip loosen. I ripped the gun away.
In an instant, I had taken a pace back, and turned the weapon on the man, who was desperately clutching his bleeding arm.
Before I even knew I’d pulled the trigger, a bullet had punched through his chest. The man’s face went blank with shock, as he looked from me, down to the expanding red stain on the center of his jacket. He fell.
My ears were ringing. I could still taste his blood. I just killed a man.
My heart was hammering in my chest. I shook my head. I can’t go into shock. Evangeline…
She was sitting in the street, hands clutched to her face. Did she see what I did?
I forced myself to take deep breaths. I wanted to rid myself of the gun, but instead, I turned the safety on and tucked it into the back of my waistband. Other people on the street were eyeing us, and I could see the desperation in their eyes. I grabbed my holo-device from where I’d dropped it during the struggle, tucking it safely away. I went to Envangeline and picked her up. I was afraid she would resist, but she didn’t. “Everything’s going to be okay, it’ll be okay,” I said, reassuring myself more than her.
I trudged forward. The street ahead was packed with people. Soon there were bodies all around, pushing against us. The crowd got thicker and thicker, until it became an impenetrable wall. The terminal entrance was only a hundred yards ahead, but we weren’t going to make it.
“Cover your ears,” I told Evangeline, and she did.
I reached into the back of my waistband, pulled out the gun, and fired five shots into the air.
I let the empty gun clatter to the ground as people screamed, scurrying to get away, breaking the tension of the crowd. I used the chaos to fight my way through, pushing and shoving when necessary. I felt myself step over something with the soft consistency of a human torso, but I did not look down.
I reached the front, where a line of armed guards in white uniforms was standing. Without hesitating, the one in the lead aimed his weapon at me.
I pulled my holo-device from my pocket and showed him the two tickets. He waved me through. “Last one!” I heard him call.
The entrance to the terminal began to close, as the guards retreated. There were screams from the mob, and they surged forward. A bottle exploded against the helmet of one of the guards. I heard the captain shouting orders.
I held Evangeline’s head against my chest, cupping my hand over her eyes and ears, so she wouldn’t see the flashes, or hear the rattle of gunfire as the line of soldiers opened fire into the crowd.
The inside of the terminal was dark, illuminated only by pale walkway lights. I followed them to a rail station where a tram car was waiting, and we boarded. It was empty beside us. As the doors closed, I set Evangeline down, and we sat side by side.
The tram took off, rattling through a tunnel. We were silent. I looked down at Evangline and found her staring straight ahead. Will she ever be able to look at me the same, after all that’s happened?
I reached down and pet her black-haired head. Her eyes darted up at me.
“I love you, sweetie,” I said.
“I love you to,” she said, kicking her feet.
The tram ground to a halt, and we disembarked.
We were in a large space. There were armed guards stationed around the perimeter. A line of people was walking through a set of double doors. We made it, I thought, relief flooding through me. There was a man in a blue uniform at a raised desk, and I approached, with Evangeline holding my hand.
“Tickets,” said the man.
I pulled up the tickets on my holo-device. He studied them, then turned back to me, his face blank.
“I’m afraid the ship has reached capacity. We are only loading priority passengers at this time.”
My heart thudded in my chest. I opened my mouth, but words would not come.
“What?” I managed to stammer.
“The ship is at capacity,” the man repeated. “We are only loading priority passengers.”
“But—but I have tickets!” I exclaimed, gesturing to the holo-device. “I paid for them!”
No sympathy registered on the man’s face. “I’m afraid that due to an error, the ship was overbooked. The only passengers we can currently accept are those with priority tickets.”
“This is bullshit!” I shouted. “This is the last ship! You’re dooming us to—”
One of the guards stirred, adjusting his weapon, and I cut myself off. My skin felt like it was burning.
“If you cannot afford to upgrade to priority tickets, then you will be escorted out,” said the ticket taker. He nodded to one of the guards, who began to approach.
“Wait!” I cried.
Panic was setting in. I didn’t have the money to upgrade our tickets; I’d spent every last dime just to get them in the first place.
Suddenly, an idea occurred to me.
I looked down at Evangeline. I had to save her.
My eyes returned to the ticket-taker. “I would like to… I would like to sell my ticket.”
He raised an eyebrow. We both knew the rules: If I sold my ticket, it would default to the first person on the waitlist, some poor soul outside the terminal who was probably already dead. I’d be entitled to a full refund.
I was half expecting the ticket-taker to deny the request, but instead, he nodded. “Very well. Would you like me to transfer the funds back into your account?”
My hands shook. “No. I would like to use the funds to upgrade my daughter’s ticket to priority status.”
The ticket-taker nodded once more, then turned to the computer at his desk and began to type.
I felt a small hand tugging at the corner of my jacket. “Daddy, what are you doing?”
I had to wipe tears from my eyes as I knelt down to look at Evangeline. I didn’t want her last memory of her father to be of me as a blubbering mess.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” I told her. “We’re just going to be separated for a little while. I’ll get the next ship.”
Her lip was trembling. “But I thought you said there wasn’t going to be another ship—”
I put my hand on her cheek. “There will be,” I lied. I looked up at the ticket-taker, fixing him a hard stare. “Isn’t that right?”
The ticket taker looked down, eyes darting between me and my daughter. He gave a small nod.
“See,” I said, “Everything’s going to be okay.”
My daughter lunged forward, wrapping her arms around me, clinging to me with all her strength. “I don’t want to get split up! I don’t want—”
She burst into tears.
I lifted her and carried her towards the line of people waiting to board the ship. Many were lavishly dressed, with carts full of luggage, and averted their gaze as I approached. I spotted a family of four, dressed cheaply, with barely any belongings. I could tell they were like us—that they’d sold everything they had to afford passage.
The mother looked up as I got near, eyeing me, before her gaze dropped to Evangeline.
“Please,” I begged. “Look after her.”
The woman did not respond, but gave only a hard nod, as she stared into my eyes. She reached out, and took Evangeline from me.
A guard appeared at my side, taking me by the arm and pulling me away.
“NO!” Evangeline screamed, struggling and reaching out for me. “DADDY! NO!”
I turned away, finally letting tears fill my eyes, as the guard escorted me from the terminal. I was thrown out of a metal door, which was promptly shut and locked behind me.
I fell to my knees and sobbed until my eyes were dry and my throat burned. When I could cry no longer, I stood, and let my feet carry me away.
I walked beyond the outskirts of the city, into the barren desert that lay outside. In the days before the climate crisis, the land that I walked might’ve been home to farms and crops, but those days were gone. Now there was nothing but dust and bones.
I climbed atop a dune, then sat myself down and waited. The stars twinkled above. From the direction of the terminal, there came a flash that lit up the horizon like a sunrise. I saw a bright orange speck ascending into the clouds, like the flickering flame of a candle. I watched it until it was nothing but a tiny dot, then it disappeared entirely.
I tried not to expend any pity on myself. After all, what was I but a bundle of cells marooned on a now-dead world; a memory in the mind of a little girl headed to a far-away planet? Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.