Earth, 5674 NCE
I’m sweltering inside my UV suit as I race to the blown transformer. The timer on my arm is counting down from 0800. Eight minutes to dash 200 meters, change out the melted hunk of metal with a dampener, and race back 200 meters before the next CME hits the surface. It’ll melt the material of my suit if I’m caught out here, so I’ve got incentive.
“Sena,” the voice in my earpiece crackles, “seven minutes fifty-eight seconds to impact.”
“I got it, Dax!” I huff into my helmet; a cloud of condensation momentarily obstructs my view. “Jealous it’s not you out here?”
“Stay focused. Seven minutes forty-five seconds to impact.”
Without warning, I trip over something and fall hands first against the scorched Earth. I’ve been trained for a fall. I’ve got time for a fall. I get up quickly, never looking back, and keep racing toward the target. Even with the fall, I make it to the transformer in a little over thirty seconds. When I get there, the adrenaline finally wears off and I notice how my wrist is bent at an unnatural angle.
“Shit.” I forget that I’m on an open comm.
Dax breaks in almost immediately. “What’s wrong? Do you need assistance?”
“Negative.” I wince a little when I try to move my wrist, hoping he can’t hear that over the comm too.
With my uninjured hand, I tear off my backpack and slam it down beside me. I flip open the shield on my helmet. Outside it smells like charcoal and singed hair. The red dwarf we call the Sun only needs five minutes to give my skin third-degree burns without the protection of my visor. I only need two — under normal circumstances — to use my tools and pry off the charred metal box. I’m not sure how long it will take with one good hand.
Knowing I can’t risk my Sub Level being without power for another minute, and with solar flares heading toward Earth, I pull out the mini crowbar and jam it between the transformer and the connecting line. It doesn’t budge. Instead of using my hands for leverage, I kick at it with my feet, and then try to use my body weight to pry it off.
“It looks like the thing’s been wielded down. We’re gonna need more than eight minutes and one runner.” I hate admitting that I can’t do something, busted wrist or not.
“Return to base at once,” Dax says. “You’ve got five minutes.”
Five minutes is an epic amount of time.
Dax must sense my thoughts because he follows that up with, “Sena, that’s an order.”
“Roger that,” I say. But I don’t mean it. I never mean it.
Mom and Dad and everyone else in Sub23 are counting on me to get this done in the next — I look down at my timer — four minutes fifty-five seconds. I find a weak spot in the connecting line and pull off a section. With the pliers and my teeth, I manage to get the wires straightened out and connected to the dampener.
“Why aren’t you back? It’s three minutes two seconds to impact.”
“Stop interrupting me! I’ve almost got it!”
“Damnit! You’re going to get yourself fried out there.”
I ignore him. Every time I try to use the wrench with my hurt arm, it slips from my grasp, and a little yelp escapes my lips. My left hand is absolutely useless with precision work. Sweat pours off my forehead into the tiny space I’m trying to work in. I hope that doesn’t affect the electrical wires. With the dampener finally in place, I tuck it back under the solar panels. There’s a huge gap at the end. This isn’t going to hold for very long.
“One minute nineteen seconds until impact.”
I can’t leave my tools. They cost my family more credits than we had. I’m a runner to pay off the debt. Dad’s serving time in the mines. We should have them paid off in five years. I’m not willing to work when my tools are hunks of twisted metal because of a stupid solar flare. I flip my visor back down and concentrate on getting all the tools back into my backpack.
“Fifty-five seconds until impact. Do you require an evacuation?”
I shove the last screwdriver into my pack and race to my feet. The cloth strap makes an audible snap. In my hurry, I forgot to zip the bag shut. I watch in horror as my tools are scattered in an arc in front of me.
Dax grabs my hand. “I’ll help you, but we don’t have much time left.”
I stare at him. I don’t have time to think about why he’s out here, or what his hand on mine means. I blink twice. Then I move like I’ve never moved before. Even my injured hand cooperates as I stuff tools into the remains of the bag.
Another voice breaks the silence, “Twenty-nine seconds to impact. You two better be running in my direction.”
I reach for the last wire clipper — hope like hell I don’t fall on the way back — and make a beeline for the terra hutch.
“Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven.”
Dax makes the hutch a few seconds before I do. It’s automatically closing so it can submerge and protect the exit from the radiation about to pulverize us. Dax is pulling on the automatic door with all his might. I streak past him and slam into the wall opposite. He tumbles in beside me, the sound of his suit being slashed apart by the closing hutch.
“That was close,” Dax says. He’s breathing hard against his visor, fogging up the Plexiglas.
I fall against his UV suit and breathe in the smell of singed flesh and my very much still-alive best friend.
“But I saved my tools,” I say with a smirk. “Plus, I fixed the breach.”
He leans against me and sighs. “My hero!”
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Photograph © Copyright, Rebecca Lowry 2012. All rights reserved. Used with permission.