We are the last generation. We’ve known our whole lives that we would be. Our sun, once a cheerful yellow that I vaguely remember from when I was little, now burns an angry red in a foreboding dark purple sky. Most days, it’s too hot to go outside. Soon, in another decade or two, it’ll be too hot for us to survive at all. I often wonder exactly how much longer we all have left to live.
After we’re gone, the oceans will boil away. The sun will consume all its nearest planets, including this one. It’ll slough off its outer atmosphere and destroy everything else, and all that will remain will be a white-hot core, a white dwarf, which will slowly cool and fade just as we ourselves have done. Then nothing will be left here but darkness.
My name, though I’ve never once heard it spoken, is Audra. I’m only fifteen, and I won’t live to see forty. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I hate it here on this planet, how we’ve given up long ago and resigned ourselves to this fate.
Our race could have explored the solar system generations ago, our whole galaxy even, and we could have started over on a whole new world by now before things ever got this bad. We didn’t. Pettiness and short-sightedness got in the way. Then it became too late to make it off-world. The best our scientists can do now is to send a probe out into space, filled with a time capsule of sorts to show what we once were.
What will it matter then? Who will find the probe, or even care if they did find it?
We’ve lost who we were generations ago. I see that in the glimmers of humanity, of life, of a spark of something that people in the ancient vids used to have. Even the buildings were colorful and had character back then. And the walls! There used to be actual artwork and even group photos on the walls. Now there’s just nothing. The instructors don’t show us those vids often, but the brief clips are enough for me to have noticed the stark contrast between the vibrancy of those long-ago people and the empty, hollow eyes of everyone around me now. What we’ve become isn’t worth advertising to whoever might be out there.
I reflect on all this for the first time as I sit at my glass cubicle and watch the small, flat monitor displaying the current history lesson. I hate it here at this “boarding school,” too. This is where we girls live. None of us knew our birth parents, even though I know we must have had them. We were removed from them at birth to avoid any sort of family connections. Thirteen other girls about my age are in the room with me, but none of us speaks. None of us even really looks at each other. It’s not allowed. Each of us might as well be utterly alone here. It suddenly seems so unnatural that we know nothing about each other. We can’t share one thing about our innermost thoughts with each other, or even discuss something as simple as our favorite things to eat or what books we like to read. We’ll live our lives in silence and then die never knowing anyone else, and never being known.
“Preparations are underway to introduce a new sterilization shot everyone will be required to receive. We don’t want to risk introducing any new human life…” I quickly tune out as the voice of the blonde lady instructor drones on, oblivious to the fact that she’s completely lost my attention. One advantage of prerecorded lessons. What she’s saying is just too painful to hear. I don’t want to take that injection! Isn’t it bad enough that they control every other aspect of our lives? It doesn’t make sense to bother with such an extreme precaution, anyway. We’re not allowed near boys. I’m not sure I’ve even seen any boys in my lifetime except in the vids.
After the lesson, I walk silently down the stark white hallways illuminated by harsh, too-bright lights. Silence is an absolute law except for teachers and the authorities, and even then speaking is only allowed in explicitly prescribed situations. Anyone breaking that rule will be confined to physical solitary for the rest of their lives, no questions asked, no excuses accepted.
It’s been that way since living memory, and no one alive can really explain why this law came into effect. It had ostensibly been declared as a law of mourning once it was discovered that our sun would soon be going nova. It was originally meant to be temporary, a time to prevent panic in the face of the initial announcement. A moment of silence to reflect on our humanity and what it meant, what we wanted to preserve.
They simply continue to enforce it because it helps them keep the peace.
The lawmakers realized that it served as a useful form of crowd control. No discussions means no disagreements, no conspiracies, and no divisions. No interaction means that people don’t hurt each other in panic, because we’re simply that isolated from each other. It also makes us numb to each other, so the grief won’t be as great this way. No connection, no real sense of loss. What they forget is that it keeps us from really living our lives in the time we have left.
Now that I’m free for the day, I decide to take advantage of the increasingly rare days when it’s cool enough to safely go outside. The temperature warning system indicates green, so I exit the sleek domed building and head toward my usual retreat down by the beach to escape being around everyone. It’s much easier to bear the solitude when you’re actually physically alone.
At the beach, I find more people gathered than I’d expected. Like a good girl, I find a place to sit away from everyone else. The cameras are watching, always, even here. I take off my shoes and socks, and drop them on the sand, then sink down beside them to gaze out over the clear blue-green waters of the sea. I love it here. It’s so peaceful, and for a time I can almost forget everything else. Almost.
The sun out across the horizon dominates the sky much more than it should. It’s blazing hot against my skin. Soon, it’s too hot to just sit here on the sand in this long-sleeved silver dress uniform, and I stand up. Even the white sand is so hot it nearly burns my feet as I run to water to cool off and splash around. We’re allowed to wade in the water, but going out further than that is forbidden. Once there were such things as lifeguards, ages and ages ago, but nobody could rescue another person from the water now. Touching is forbidden.
You know what? I’m going to take my chances out in the sea. I don’t want to die never having really lived. Determinedly, I slip out of my dress and leave it on the shoreline – he immodesty of this act alone will probably get me into solitary – and wade out into the water, resisting the urge to turn and flash the hovering cameras a triumphant smirk. I’m grinning. For the first time in my life, I’m truly excited about doing something. What a rush! Soon I’m up to my chest in water. People are probably looking at me like I’m crazy, and some are probably alarmed at what I’m doing, but I don’t care. This is heavenly! I venture further and further out, until my toes can no longer touch the bottom.
I see the cameras flashing, and some of the other girls surreptitiously waving me in. I shake my head. I’m not going to solitary, or worse. I lay back and try to float, astonished when I find that I can, then kick my feet to move further out into the water. I hear the sounds of splashing closer to shore; and to my shock, some of the other girls are venturing into the waters. I try to swim back toward them, but can’t. I’m in over my head, and nobody taught me how to swim.
Frantically, I scream out, primal terror consuming me. I don’t have the word for what I need: help. It’s a foreign concept, which has no word in our language. The only thing I can do is scream.
The girls cautiously dare to look at one another, as if silently asking each other what to do, as I flail and struggle to get back to where I can stand. Someone – is that a boy? – yells out, “Hang on! I’m coming.”
His words, and the look of concern on his face, kindle feelings within me that I never knew existed. Joy. Relief. Exhilaration. It gives me the strength to keep bobbing, treading water, and grabbing gulps of air to last until he can get to me. He jumps into the water, executing a perfect running dive once he’s in deep enough, and swims over to me like he’s been doing this his whole life. His arms wrap around me, buoying me as he pulls me back in to where I can stand. I cling to him like a lifeline, and we’re still holding onto each other even when I’m finally out of the water and sinking down onto the sand near my discarded dress.
“Are you all right?” he asks huskily, gazing into my eyes. I can’t help but stare back. He’s beautiful, tall and tanned with an athletic build, dark hair, and hazel eyes.
I swallow nervously and nod. “I’m fine. T-thank you for saving me.” It’s the first time I’ve used my voice, and it sounds strange to my ears, low and soft, like it’s an effort to produce the sounds.
He smiles brightly, his eyes sparkling. “Not a problem. Glad you didn’t drown out there. I’m Kyle, by the way.” He says this so naturally, as if this were the most natural, ordinary thing in the world. He holds a hand out to me, and I shake it.
“Audra. It’s great to meet you, Kyle.” I smile, enjoying the feel of his hands on mine. I’d never realized how intoxicating a mere touch could be. Neither of us wants to let go of the other’s hand, so we don’t. We’re still holding hands, entranced in each other, when the other girls come up to us accompanied by, presumably, some of the other boys who go to Kyle’s school. As though a dam had burst, everyone starts talking, and we’re all clustered in a group. Together.
“Were you hurt?” This timid question comes from a small blond girl. Out of everyone in my boarding school, she’s the one I’ve most wanted to talk to all these years. She has such a sweet face, and I’m sure she’d be the kindest of us all.
I give her a gentle smile. “I’m fine. I just panicked for a second out there, but it was totally worth the adventure. I’d do it all over again for this, having you guys all here to talk to.”
The smiles lighting up everybody’s faces when I say this melt my heart. The looks in their eyes show that they’d been hungry for this chance to connect with each other, too. Now that we’ve all started talking, we can’t seem to stop.
“You were really brave to go out there! I always wanted to do that.”
“Unbelievable rescue!” This comment from one of the boys draws a grin from Kyle.
“I was so worried!” The brunette girl, slightly older than I am, launches herself at me and wraps me in a hug. It’s an indescribable feeling, and I return the hug just as eagerly.
“Guys, we’ve got trouble.” Kyle’s voice cuts sharply through the chatter, so we all fall silent and follow his gaze. The other girls start to panic, clutching each other for dear life. Kyle and I stand up together, side by side, facing the incoming threat. It’s the law.
“We have to do something. We have to convince them that it’s wrong the way we’ve been having to live,” I say.
Kyle slips his hand in mine again. “They won’t listen to us, and we can’t fight them here. There’s too many of them.”
“There has to be a way!” I protest.
“Not here, not now. We’ll take a stand and shake things up, but we have to be smart about it. Come on, I know where we can go while we figure it out. We need to get to the caves!”
The caves? They’re supposed to be dangerous. Nobody, not even the law, would dare go in there. Or maybe that’s just propaganda to keep us from exploring. Kyle doesn’t look worried. Maybe he’s been in the caves before.
I nod. “Let’s go.”
We all take off running, leaving our old lives behind. The freedom of doing this is exhilarating! My heart pounds furiously in my chest, partly from exertion and partly from fear about being caught before we can get away. Along the way, the small blond girl trips and nearly falls more than once, struggling to keep up. Kyle and I each take one of her hands, and we practically drag her so she doesn’t fall behind. The other stronger runners do the same to help everyone else, so that none of us get caught.
“Stop right there, citizens! You have broken the law, and are to be transported to solitary confinement.” The voice is close, too close for comfort. We all run faster, ignoring the command. None of us wants to risk getting caught now. We don’t even turn our heads to look back.
“Forget it!” I shout back. “We don’t want to live by your rules anymore!”
I swear that out of the corner of my eye, I see one of Kyle’s schoolmates making a rude gesture and smirking at the law enforcement. We’re all laughing, but we don’t allow ourselves to slow down. I’m actually kind of shocked they don’t have some sort of weapons to try to stop us. I wait for a blast that never comes, maybe because they could hit other innocent people around us or maybe because we’re out of range.
We make it to the cave, and Kyle ushers all of us inside. I spare one glance backward at the enforcement officers, and see that they are utterly astonished by our actions. They have no idea what to make of it. For one heart-stopping moment, I think they might not freeze at the cave entrance, but they do.
“You’ll have to come out sometime,” one of the officers says, narrowing his eyes. He looks very much like he wants to come in after us and is only restraining himself because his orders forbid him doing so.
“This way,” Kyle urges, wrapping an arm around me and leading me away from the officers. I can tell he’s wary of what they might do and is eager to get further into the cave, where he’ll feel safer. He leads us deep into the cavern, where it gets so dark we all have to hold hands to stay together. Finally, we emerge into a chamber lit from above by a skylight of sorts, a crack in the cliffs overhead. There’s a river through the middle of the floor, and the light reflecting off the waters creates a rippling effect on the walls. “I found this place a few years ago. I knew it would come in handy, someday.”
“It’s fantastic,” I say, beaming. Now this is a place with character, and beauty.
“An amazing find,” one of the guys agrees, settling himself on the cave floor. “So, let’s get this party started! We have planning to do.”
“I have an idea.” The small girl pipes up, sitting down beside him. “We need a way to show everyone what this is like. They all need to see it for themselves and then they’ll know.”
“Yes!” I nod enthusiastically, pulling her into a hug. We rest our heads together, grinning as the plan takes form. “We’ll show them what they’ve been missing their whole lives, and it will wake them up. Our generation doesn’t have to do what everyone before us has done. We can go back to living the way those people in the vids used to.”
Kyle’s eyes light up. “Not to brag, but I’m excellent with programming. As long as we can get access to a computer, I can hack into the system to play our videos to everyone.”
“We’re really going to pull this off, aren’t we?” The brunette girl who gave me my first hug laughs in sheer delight at the idea.
“Oh, yeah!” I’m laughing, too, because I believe we’ll succeed.
Just like that, we’re all sitting down together, laughing and talking and getting to know each other as if we’d been doing this forever. This is the best day of my life. No matter what happens from here on in, we won’t let them stop us from doing this. They can come after us and try to stop us, but it doesn’t matter. We will defy the darkness by never giving in. When we send up that probe, we can show we didn’t just give up. We lived, till the end.