When the alarm blares over the ancient megaphone system, I stop what I’m doing and hold my breath to count the sirens. After the third shuddering beep, my gaze drifts to the water and its winding path that swings toward us and our little city. Our overflowing city.
Like all of them along this river, we perch high above the wastelands. We’re all that’s left now. It’s only safe here because the pestilence can’t eat away at the rock base of the waterway.
On a bad day though, like yesterday, the stench still reaches us. It’s on those days the air reeks like the rotting flesh of the beasts left behind on the earth below; of the rotting vegetation left to die like everything that couldn’t make the trek to this altitude.
The sails of Refuge are visible over the horizon and the excitement causes my stomach to clench and flip flop. I welcome the nausea though, because this time there’s an added tingle down through my finger tips. This time – it’s different.
In the teachings, the books with their fading pages, we’re told that nature always finds a way, she always survives. And that’s where we are now – singled out by our nature to live.
Today, like every time Refuge pulls into port, some of us will get to move onto the next stage, to the next area. Not everyone can go at once, after all. They need to make sure they can accommodate all of us. Once a month they call a few of us out and send the lucky ones from each town on their way to a better place. It’s the chance to escape the close quarters here in the city and head toward the future our leaders promised mankind.
I can see the reflection of the sun, her bright yellow fingers dipping into the water and turning her shades of purple and pink before the gold swallows it whole. Sails whisper in the slight breeze as the hull groans a little while the vessel navigates the twists and turns of the river.
Our bags are packed, they’re always packed and with us no matter what we’re doing during the day. No one dares throw away their future on something so trivial. My mother clutches my hand like she has since I was a child and we weave through people to stand on our assigned dock awaiting the arm that may lead us to the ship.
Only in this light can I see the next city over, just a glimpse in the distance. A shiver runs down my spine. It could be the chill of the air ushered in from the water, but I know it’s excitement.
The metallic clang of the megaphone system whirrs to life again and three names drone over the speakers.
My stomach churns at the pause after the last, and I can barely believe my ears when a final name is intoned.
My heart skips a beat, thudding in my chest. I’m too young to remember before the rising, I wasn’t even born. My entire life has been about this, about getting called to move on. Even though it means leaving my mother behind, I can’t help be happy. I’ve been chosen for the next stage.
My time is short. There’s only a moment to embrace my mother and wave to my friends before I start the walk down the arm the Refuge extends for us to board. The footing is unsure, so I can’t run toward the ship like my brain tells me to. Instead, I pull my suitcase behind me and board with the others.
I huddle on the deck with the others from my city and those before us. There’s a sad smile on my mother’s face and I think I spy a tear. I know it’s not for me, but for herself and yet again being left behind. She’ll follow me soon though, she has to.
Two stops later and the people are sandwiched together. Claustrophobia threatens to engulf me, but I can see the splendor of gold on the horizon and I know it’s waiting for us. Refuge groans beneath the weight of all her passengers, fighting her way up stream and for a moment I wish she were bigger and stronger.
The excited buzz in the air is contagious and though I vaguely know the other people from my city, I stand proudly with them, eagerly awaiting our ascension to a new life.
Refuge slows, and a few of us elbow to the bow, eager to see our new home. I’m confused. The river appears to stop here, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to see where the water flows to.
I crane my neck and suddenly the excitement vanishes from my stomach, replaced by true nausea as it clenches up in fear. The drop off in front of us is endless and black. I try to backpedal, but hands push at me from behind. Murmurs of surprise and confusion surround me and as the girl a few over from me falls we realize the sides of Refuge are falling away. The screaming starts.
There’s nothing to hold onto, only those around me. The wooden bow is suddenly slick and everyone reaches for each other, trying to find a way to hold onto the suddenly tilting floor.
My belongings dive before me and as my fingers lose hold of the other’s, I realize the G on the hull is newer, painted over another. Over an S.