When I awake, Mischa is praying over me again, lips moving soundlessly as she utters a litany of prayers. I keep my eyes closed. The moment Mischa sees I am awake, she will spring upon me with another tearful petition of the life I have left to live and the joyous virtues of motherhood.
Mischa believes, quite passionately, that the lives of we women are set in stone. We are the tenants of New America, the pride of our subterranean worlds; it is our fruitful wombs that bring forth the brilliant laborers of New America. My uterine linings carry the dwindling destinies of menfolk. For Mischa, my desire to permanently erase my genes from existence is positively catastrophic in nature.
I think Mischa is full of horseshit.
Not that we have either. Horses have been extinct since the first earthquakes, and our pipes system process human waste neatly and quietly, in little satisfied keens that announce, ah, yes, Suite 301 just shat. We like to think of ourselves as a neat and quiet society, us New Americans, hiding deep beneath the Appalachian Mountains. We are not the only ones. There is Utopia, in the northern region they used to call Canada. There is the East Republic, thousands of miles away, under the Yellow Sea. The Sub-Confederation and the Grande Résistance share the trenches of the European underground and the secretive Prussia Union operates somewhere close.
But it is our region that bursts with fame within our little post-apocalyptic worlds. We deem ourselves the strongest, the fastest, the ones who still keep even as the world savages our broken bodies. Our proof hangs in our Wall of Heroes. Racers of ours almost always place first.
Racing. The thought sends my heartbeat into a frenzy. As soon as I sit up, Mischa launches herself at me, holding onto my hands and brushing my hair.
“Aida, please, change your mind,” she pleads as I begin dressing. I am not sure why she is still trying, but I give her credit for sisterly devotion. It is an unspoken rule: once you apply, you cannot back out. My training started as I turned seventeen, but I made my choice far earlier, when Mischa’s belly began swelling with the first of her many children. A life like Mischa’s, I decided years ago, was not really a life at all. We are opposites.
In another room, Naven cries out, and Mischa shuffles away. I take a final look around our suite. I would not miss the drainage pipes crawling across the stalactite beams, the decaying bulbs peppering our cement ceilings. But there were a few things I would miss, like Mischa’s aluminum bird clock or even the misshapen plastic drawers I had designed for my middle school graduation project. And most of all – well. Naven, Dal, and Silas have never been the most artistically inclined, but I spend several minutes committing their childish, waxy cinderblock drawings to my memory.
Mischa’s footsteps ring out, and she comes back with the traditional final gowning. Leaning down, my sister begins carefully applying my makeup. I have always done my own, and to have Mischa so near my face is strangely intimate. There is not much makeup left down here, not after 13 years away from the surface. But we make do. Mischa smudges ash to darken my eyebrows, taps chalk to brighten my face, smooths juice onto the apples of my cheeks. Her touches are careful, light, and measured; I note, with an acute sense of finality, that this is both a first and a last. A first because no one has ever done my makeup before and a last because, well, this is the last time I will ever have any makeup layering my skin.
I sneak a glance at the mirror. At first glance, Misha and I easily pass as clones. We share the same thin, dark hair and brows, the same gray eyes. The similarities end there. My midriff is flat and pale, unmarked and muscled. In contrast, Mischa’s abdomen is scarred and grimaced with little clumps of cellulite. The understanding that my body will never look like Mischa’s empties my stomach, but only just a little. This has always been my choice.
“Are you nervous?” Mischa finally asks, as I begin lacing up my boots. My gowning is made specifically for survival – elastic leggings and a camouflage top attached to a helmet heavier than iron. I snap on my racing goggles and peer at Mischa through thick oily lenses. I must look utterly ridiculous and Mischa giggles in a hysterical sort of way, cupping my face and stroking her thumbs across my lips.
"Oh, Aida,” She says. “Oh my god. You’re really doing this. I can’t believe this.”
I am not an affectionate person. And yet, Mischa is my sister. I was five when the world ended, when the sea began frothing and the satellites came crashing down. It was Mischa who held my hand and rowed our makeshift raft to safety, even as our parents sunk somewhere in the ocean behind us. In the thirteen years since, it has been just us.
I hold Mischa’s hand in silence. She understands.
For a minute, we are one.
When we arrive at Capitol Hall, the seats are already full. Citizens from the nearby compounds begin to buzz like flies as I walk in. My compound waits in the front, which only makes things harder. I say good-bye to Zio, to the Webnes, to Riva and her ten children. I say good-bye until my throat is hoarse and tears threaten to spill out from my eyes. By the time President Madison’s cohort arrives, the tachyscreen is already on and the radios hiss noisily with static.
“Big day, huh, Miss Gray?” Madison says, his smile as plastic as my driving gloves. We pose together for my final portrait. One will be hung on our Wall of Heroes, and the other, Mischa will keep. In my head, I picture my empty smile plastered to Mischa’s cinder block walls, forever eighteen.
My thoughts are interrupted by words crackling on the radio. Utopia’s racer is ready. The minutes are counting down. It sinks in that I will never see New America again.
Madison ascends the stage and begins his speech. Nausea lingers under my tongue. I am a wreck. But it is too late to turn back or change my mind; New America would be left without a racer. We all have duties to fulfil. Especially because I volunteered for mine. My country looks down upon cowards, and so do I.
Still. I wonder if I have made the right choice. A life like Mischa’s is not inherently bad. A life like Mischa’s is calm. Predictable.
But then I think of Mischa, eighteen, waiting for her husband to come home. Lying back, thighs open, waiting. Calmly. Predictably. I think of Mischa, eyes twitching, panting, writhing with the force of her contractions. I imagine myself in Mischa’s shoes: sealing away my life to a stranger twice my age, my existence defined by a single body part. Anything is better.
Madison pins my ID to my collar. The crowd roars in excitement as we leave, chanting my name gleefully. This, I realize, will be the first and only time they will ever see me alive. I straighten my back and walk with a confidence I do not feel.
Only immediate family may see racers off, and I am forced to listen to Mischa’s snuffling sobs as we head to the garage. Ahead, the path climbs to a steep set of heavy iron doors. Directly before me…I hear Mischa gasp in awe.
“A thing of great beauty, isn’t she?” Madison whistles slyly. “It’s always their favorite project. Year after year. The engineers are quite proud.”
It is my first time seeing my car. She is as sleek and small as a bullet, with thick glass windows on each side, her top rising in a gentle dome. Her coat is a solid, dull black. Thousands of tiny solar panels shield her top, next to two glittering antennas. Three sets of solid white wheels, humming, waiting quietly for my approach.
Indescribably beautiful. The simulators I played while training are nothing compared to this work of art.
“It is an honor to serve New America,” I tell Madison, as I climb into the driver’s seat.
I strap myself in. “I hope I can bring our country glory. Set a new distance record.”
“Certainly. If there’s any racer that can do it, it’s you. You’ll ace that record, Miss Gray. Nothing’s out of your reach.”
I am sure Madison says the same words to each racer, but it is comforting to hear all the same. Carefully, I place my hands on the wheel. Back in practice, my trainers gave me a plastic disc connected to a tachyscreen. Holding an actual wheel in my hand, with all of its alien bumps and ridges, feels almost unnatural. I glide my fingers over the glossy black command pad is located underneath. This, at least, is familiar; I practiced with the same console in my simulator.
I turn the key, and the car lights up at my command. Mischa, Madison, and his fleet of officials step back. I shift the car and turn. Mischa lifts her hand in farewell, and I have just enough time to smile through the crystalline windows before the iron doors grind open with an awful screech.
I think of my nephews. The sunlight swallows me whole.
And then, I am gone.
I emerge into scorching desert. Behind me, the iron doors have sealed shut once more. They will never open for me again. My heart aches. For a moment, I feel utterly alone.
But thoughts like these are no way to start a race. Instead of dwelling on what I have left behind, I focus on my mission. I check the oxygen canisters on my command pad. Full for a solid eight hours. If I survive that long, I will have to roll down the windows and take my chances in the alkaline air. From now on, I have only one objective: drive as long as I can. The placements are always compiled later, because signal travels slow from the Eurasia continent. But I certainly won’t take last.
I check communications. The radio and cameras are both on. They’re set up to be one-way only; I won’t hear anything from New America, but they will hear everything from mine – sounds from home are nothing but distractions to a fading racer. For a bit of company, I tune the radio into Utopia’s frequency.
It will drain my battery faster.
I am determined not to die alone.
The road beneath me is parched and withered, eroded from years of heat and racing. In the distance, I spy the skeletal corpse of a decaying city skyline. But for now, it is just me and the worn desert. The earthquakes have crumbled the Appalachians into twisted sorrel pillars, dotted with occasional spurts of dull green. I look up at the sky, at the murky gray clouds and the ashen sun. I am driving in a ghost world.
My radio hisses open. “Hello?” Says a dainty foreign voice. “Hello! This is Utopia.”
I ignore her. I keep driving, and she stutters out faint greetings before giving up. The Utopia drivers, I know, usually die under blistering hail storms or crash on the frozen roads.
I wonder how I will go. No one has driven for more than six hours straight. The Earth is not kind to us drivers. Usually it is the heat that gets us, that stalls the car and forces you out into the steaming air. Two years ago, it rained, and our racer literally disintegrated under the acid storm.
An hour in and driving grows monotonous. The landscape shifts from desert to urban wasteland; I drive through fractured highways littered with sun-bleached skulls and automobile husks. Fading billboards from departed worlds slump over make-shift slums, advertising liquor and jewelry and other useless hedonisms. The sun beats down until I am squirming in a puddle of my own sweat; I end up driving with only my right as my left-hand swells with cramps. The wind scrapes sand against the car so thick I am forced to squint out of my side windows. There is nothing to do except think.
And so, I do. Racing serves New America well. It gives us a sense of patriotism, that our cars and drivers last far longer than the rest of the remaining world. It weeds out possible rebels and sends them away. Then there are the cameras, I know, tucked somewhere beneath my car, that track the world for a hint of livability. The end result is girls like me, ill-content with the burden of broodmaring, driving out to our deaths in the name of honor and scientific research.
Three hours in, and the heat begins to take its toll on my car. My wheels shift unevenly, wheezing with each turn of the road. The temperature controls have completely died, and my car grows warmer with each passing second. I am not faring well either. My goggles dig into my eyes. The ash in my brows bleeds down my face in rivulets of black. Worst of all, my throat is as parched as the land outside. I picture Mischa reaching into my throat and tearing out my larynx. In my mind, she splits me apart like the broken ground; a spiderweb of bloody sinew.
I taste vomit.
I almost consider pulling to a stop and resting, when my radio squawks to life. Someone is sobbing. In the background, I hear high-pitched whirring and odd, dull thumps.
“Please, New America,” The Utopian racer cries. “Please answer. I don’t want to die alone. I am so scared. I miss my mama. I miss my –”
A blunt roar from the other end. A jeering crash. Mewling whimpers, fading away into the primordial wind. Ten minutes later, there is nothing but silence. The thought occurs that I have just heard her dying words. I wonder what her name was, what she looked like, why she volunteered. I wonder if she was like me, caught in a twisted system, defiant to the point of literal death. Either way, it does not matter, because Utopia is gone.
It is just me on this continent.
Three more hours before I break the record. If I break the record. With Utopia’s dying sobs in my mind, I resolve to keep going. I envision myself stopping, watching the bony landscape. Sitting there, my thighs, growing wetter and hotter by the passing second, until they melt into the plastic cover of my seat. The skin on my lips, peeling away, my mouth a gaping hole as dry as the air. I blink. The sky is still pallid, as dry as bone.
With a start, I accelerate, chasing my gruesome thoughts away. I veer down another sloping hillside turn and the entire car jolts so sharply I am afraid it will collapse. But the moment passes and fades, and I am left once again with my thoughts. Stopping is a fantasy. Our countries can’t exactly send out teams to recover our bodies. We die wherever we fail.
The fifth hour draws near. A dull sense of accomplishment pervades me, but mostly, I feel numb. Time is meaningless. The only thing that remains is the road. Instead of sweating, my body blisters red and crusts over with flaking scales of wrinkled skin. Breathing begins to send painful tremors down my body. I note with a vague, distant interest that I cannot feel my left leg. Every instinct screams at me to roll down my window and allow the wind to sweep me away, but I only accelerate harder.
The car jolts, rattles, and then, seethes to a sudden stop. My mind feels as grimy as the road. It hits me then that my race must be finished. My car is broken; my duty is over. It is time to close my eyes and sleep.
When I wake up, I will be lying in my bed again.
The command pad beeps. I crack my eyes open and note the bloodshot warning symbol blaring across the screen. And then – some ancient instinct pulls me awake again. I lurch forward. The engine is dead. Not enough lubricant.
My head is dizzy with dread, foggy with futility. If I had any liquid, I would be drinking it myself. And then I realize the one thing left to give. I fumble at the car doors, my fingers thick and stupid. Mischa’s voice echoes in my head, pleading me to fight.
My helmet is no match for the outside air. I am suffocating under the weight of my own head. Acid stings at my cracked lips. Bitter puffs of sour ozone hammer my lungs. Somehow, I manage to crack the steaming car lid open. Where –?
There. I peel back my gloves, until my wrist is exposed. And then I am biting forth into my own flesh, my flaking skin giving way like butter. Blood gushes forth in a fountain of scarlet, fizzling in the atmosphere. Hissing, the engine groans in agony as it begins to toil once more. I can barely keep my eyes open long enough to stumble back into my seat.
The car shudders to life, one last time. A second later and I am driving again, my gloves slick with my blood. My wrists throb. My thoughts are as disjointed as the wind.
In the distance, I think I see Mischa.
I think I see the sun setting.
J R Tucker High School
Richmond, VA 23294
Awards: Science Fiction & Fantasy
One Earth Award, 2020
Gold Medal, 2020