I have never seen my father so worried. “Just a vacation,” he says. But we have never been able to afford a vacation out of the planet. Across the hall, I notice kids who I have never seen outside of a screen before. Lea is taller than I thought. She’s been in my class for two years. Cam’s eyes are bluer in person.
The other children tap their feet nonchalantly, waiting for the debrief. Most of them have left the atmosphere before. I have never been more aware of my worn shoe soles or hand-me-down pants. Papa stares morosely at the linoleum. I ask him why he isn’t more excited. I ask him what’s happening for the sixteenth time this morning. “Just a vacation,” he promises.
A tall man enters the room and wrings his hands together, scanning the crowd. “You all know why we are gathered.” The words rush out in one breath as he points toward a door. “This way, please. Pregnant, elderly and those with special needs.” A handful of people surge toward the opening.
Lea looks unfazed across the room. But her parents also glance around with furrowed brows. They must have told her this was a vacation too. “What’s happening?” My dad blinks. Seventeen. I’m too confused to care if he is annoyed. He kneels down, explains to me things I already know. The oceans sizzle in the summer. The ice stubs were once snow-tipped glaciers. There used to be trees where our home was. A time when people could gaze at the stars every night. Imagine that! Every night.
“What’s this have to do with vacation?”
He is interrupted by the tall man. “Those with small children.” I don’t know if I count as a small child. I assume I don’t when Papa turns back to me and continues explaining. He tells me we must give the planet a break. We’re all going to take a vacation to a place where the oceans don’t sizzle, and where we can see the stars.
A few minutes later, the tall man gestures for us to pass through the doors. I have never been surrounded by so many people. We swarm through the opening, and I try not to let go of Papa’s hand as I think about being on a planet where we don’t see a sputtering otter with a clothesline wrapped around its neck float ashore every week. One more down. I was surprised they lasted so long in the hot seas. A planet where steam and smoke didn’t drift out of factories and mingle in the air and cause our grandparents to cough.
I hear families speaking in quiet tones as we exit the building through security sensors and approach a launching station. “It is an exodus.” “How long can we last there?” “It will only happen again.” Even the spring sun scalds the back of my head these days.
We stand in front of a row of towering titanium structures. A group of people file onboard one of them before the door slams shut. The door to the next one opens. A woman stands in the corner, muttering into a headset microphone about functioning thrusters and sufficient resources.
Beyond the launching station, I see empty skyscrapers bursting through the barren earth and reaching to prod at the drifting smoke.
There is crumbling dirt where there was a trickle of water when I grew up. Papa once told me it used to be a whole river when he was little. The whole world has evacuated. In the distance, I hear the thunderous roar of another station in the distance. Three black dots are fired into the murky air in quick succession. The ships just a few paces away tower over me, but the ones in the sky are smaller than my fingertip.
I imagine the families sitting inside those dots. Perhaps there is a child somewhere, like me, who has never before flown in a spacecraft. Perhaps there are children like Cam and Lea, who have been to space almost every summer holiday since elementary school. Perhaps there are those harried like Papa who promise themselves it is just a vacation.
The sound of another launch rings through the air. I search the clouds for a black dot, and find nothing but wisps of yellow-grey smog. I wonder how long they will fly for. I ask Papa. “Two weeks,” he sighs.
“Two weeks?!” Our vacation will end by the time we arrive. He chuckles, telling me it once took six months just to arrive on Mars. I should be grateful we can travel to another planet in just a month. I wonder if he ever imagined this would happen.
“Boarding for batch 5A will begin momentarily,” the tall man’s voice booms from somewhere behind us. Papa tenses, and I clutch his hand. Androids lead people into a space shuttle. As we approach the front of the line, I glance back, at the concrete ground interspersed with dying weeds. At the sun’s vicious glare through a mask of pollution and dusty air. At the children milling around, unaware that they are leaving their homes forever.
This is not just a vacation.