Chapter One: Annie

I used to be a heavy sleeper. A bomb could go off and I wouldn’t stir.

Then one day, a bomb did go off.

Now, the slightest noise brought me out of my slumber.

This morning, it was the soft sigh of my younger sister, Cassie, as she rolled over on her sleeping mat.

Usually, it was my older brother Helix that woke me. He often talked in his sleep. He used to be a city official in Duvest before the sky cracked open and everything changed.

Once I was awake, there was no going back to sleep. I squinted across the room to the clock placed on the floor and sighed. I would’ve had to get up soon anyway. At least now I could take a little extra time with breakfast.

It was hard to move quietly in the house. It consisted of only two rooms, not including a washroom, and was built almost entirely of scrap. From the outside, our house looked like pieces of four different houses stitched together. One of our walls was entirely metal and slightly curved. Apparently, it came from the alien space ship that had defeated the Xathi.

Helix refused to touch that wall. His sleeping mat was placed as far away from it as it possibly could be. He didn’t have anything against the aliens that had saved our planet.

He’d be a fool if he did. But he didn’t like anything that reminded him of the Xathi.

Helix was on duty when the Xathi swarmed Duvest. He faced one head-on in order to give people a chance to escape. He survived, but only just. The Xathi took off the lower half of his left leg. Helix was retired from being a city official with the highest honors, but that hadn’t helped him find work since.

The floor creaked under my feet. It wasn’t a proper floor, just rows of flat-ish planks lined up next to each other to keeps us off the dirt. I heard my father snore in the other room. He and my mother used to own a general goods store. The Xathi destroyed that, too.

“Andromeda, be quiet,” Cassie groaned. “I only got home an hour ago.”

Andromeda was my full first name. I had no idea what possessed my mother to give me such a formal, old-fashioned name. For as long as I remembered, I’d insisted on going by Annie.

Cassie only called me Andromeda when she was in a foul mood, which was more often than not.

“That’s not my fault, Cassiopeia,” I snapped, invoking her equally awful first name in return. “What are you even doing out so late at night?”

“Pretending I live anywhere but here,” she replied.

“If you got a job, you could live somewhere else,” I replied.

“I guess I won’t be sleeping in this morning,” Helix groaned.

“Sorry, Helix,” Cassie mumbled. She didn’t mind vexing me, but she hated disrupting Helix.

“Any plans today?” I asked him.

“Liddy Burris is trying to open up a grocery on the other end of town. I’m going to offer to do her books,” he replied.

“I think that would suit you,” I smiled.

“Me, too,” Cassie grinned. “Want some coffee?”

“I’m the oldest. Neither of you should be babying me,” Helix chuckled.

“We don’t baby you,” Cassie said defensively.

Maybe we did baby him. A little.

“Cass, do you even know how to use the coffee maker?” Helix asked.

“Annie does.” Cassie jerked her chin in my direction. I bought the coffee maker last week. The week before, I bought a hot plate and skillet. Both were placed on the floor in the corner farthest from our sleeping mats.

Next week, I wanted to buy a bigger food storage unit. The one we had now didn’t keep perishables well enough. We couldn’t afford to keep throwing away food. Rent was due next week, as well. It wasn’t much. Everyone living in Somerst paid a monthly fee to keep the town running. I paid my own, as well as the fees for the rest of my family.

I opened the storage unit and pulled out three eggs. A quick sniff told me they were still edible but I would have to go to the market today after work. The cheese had gone bad overnight. That’s what you got when you bought stuff that they were ready to throw out because it was the only thing you could afford.

I opened a window and tossed the cheese out onto the unpaved road. Somerst had yet to develop a suitable waste disposal system. The City of Nyheim offered to collect our waste for a fee, but everyone in Somerst agreed the fee was too high.  

Councilwoman Vidia assured us she was working on a solution.

“Cheese is bad. But the bread is still good.” I held up a bagged loaf of dark brown bread.

“I wouldn’t call that bread good,” Helix joked.

“It won’t poison you,” I corrected with a laugh. I’d met others who’d suffered injuries at the hands of the Xathi. Many were angry, many were sad. Helix always had a smile on his face. His sense of humor never faltered. He was my hero for that.

“That’s all a man can ask for nowadays,” he replied.

“Is there any butter?” Cassie asked.

“We finished it two days ago,” I reminded her. “I’ll pick more up tonight.”

“Eggs and dry toast for breakfast then?” she grumbled. I ignored her as I cracked the eggs into the skillet and turned on the hot plate.

“I hope Liddy Burris does manage that grocery. The market in Nyheim is always so crowded.”

“Go at a less busy time, then,” Cassie suggested.

“I would, except I work, like so many others do,” I sighed. “Why can’t you get a job, again?”

“Nowhere will take me,” Cass replied. “I’ve asked everyone in this heap of wreckage.”

“This heap of wreckage is your home, Cass.” Helix had a warning tone in his voice. It was slight, but it was enough to get Cassie to change her tone.

“Not for long,” she said. “We’ll all move to a nice big house again. We’ll all have our own rooms again.”

“How about you ride into Nyheim with me? There’s plenty of jobs there,” I suggested. Cassie opened her mouth to speak. No doubt she had an excuse prepared in advanced, but Helix gave her a look.

“That’s a good idea,” Cass said.

She was in her first year of university when the Xathi attacked. The college still hadn’t reopened.

“Maybe there’s an opening at my lab,” I said brightly.

“No offense, but you have the dullest job on the planet,” Cass replied.

“The job isn’t dull. My assignments are dull.” I was a geologist in Nyheim. I had the least seniority out of all the other workers, so I always got the short end of the stick when it came to jobs. I didn’t mind, though. I still got a decent paycheck.

“Still going to have to pass,” Cass replied. “You’re burning the eggs.”

“I am not. I don’t like runny eggs.” I scrambled the eggs with a wooden spoon, except the spoon part broke off a few weeks ago.

“Take some off for me then.” Cass grabbed one of our chipped plates. “I need something to soften the toast.” I scrapped some gooey eggs onto her plate and placed a piece of bread on the part of the hotplate not covered by the skillet. Cass grabbed the bread before it was toasty and devoured everything on her plate in less than a minute.

“I’m going to wash up. I shouldn’t smell like I slept on the floor when I apply for jobs,” she declared.

“Don’t use all the hot water,” I warned her. After Cassie shut the door, I turned to Helix. “She’s going to melt my brain.”

“Remember, she’s only known the cushy life. She didn’t have to help mom and dad in the shop like we did,” Helix said. Our parents’ shop really took off when Cassie was five and too young to be useful. Helix and I spent most of our childhood sweeping, counting, and stocking. For most of Cassie’s life, she’d wanted for nothing.

“She doesn’t wear hardship well.” I grabbed another plate and scooped a generous portion of eggs for Helix.

“Put some of mine back. There’s not enough for you,” he insisted.

“There’s plenty for me,” I replied. “Besides, I can always pick up something else in the city.”

“You shouldn’t have to,” Helix said. “You do everything for us. The least we can do is give you the lion’s share of breakfast.”

“That would be silly, considering you’re the lion of the family,” I smiled.

“I still have no idea what a lion looks like,” Helix laughed. That was one of the many inside jokes we shared as a family. Dad thought it was funny to use Earth expressions that made little sense here on Ankou. Don’t wake the bear was a particular favorite of his.

“I think it has green scales and twenty eyes,” I said.

“No way. A lion breathes fire and three legs,” he insisted.

“You win. Breathing fire is way cooler than twenty eyes,” I admitted. Steam pouring from underneath the bathroom door caught my eye. I groaned and stood from my crouched position over the skillet.

“Cass, easy on the hot water!” I banged on the door.

“You’re going to bring the walls down if you keep banging like that!” my mother called from the other room. I rolled my eyes and said nothing. I was well into my twenties, but that didn’t stop my mother from scolding me like a toddler.

“I’m going to fetch more water,” I told Helix. “Cass is bound to use it all. Can you watch my food?”

“You got it,” Helix grinned.

I opened our flimsy front door and grabbed the bucket sitting just outside. Lucky for us, we lived close to the water dispensary. The line was long, but it moved quickly. We were only allowed to fill up one bucket at a time to make sure the well didn’t run dry.

When I brought the filled bucket back to the house, I dumped its contents into our water tank. Just as I thought, Cassie nearly used up all of it. Dad would need to get more.

When I went back into the house, Cassie was still in the shower. She must’ve planned this. She knew I wouldn’t risk being late to work.

“Crap,” I groaned. “I have to go.”

“What about breakfast?” Helix asked.

“Just eat my eggs. I don’t have time,” I urged him. “Tell Cassie her plan worked.” 

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