Today we have an excerpt from The Contaminants by Devin K. Smyth. The Contaminants is a unique sci-fi novel about a girl trying to find her father on an Earth ravaged by a nuclear holocaust. Check out the synopsis:
“When America attempts to "purify" earth to maintain its own dominance, it sparks a worldwide nuclear holocaust. Teen friends Jessil and Soraj are among the few survivors. They escaped on a cruiser that now orbits the planet and is designed to regenerate the earth's ecosystem.
But when Jessil discovers a message indicating her father may have survived the holocaust back on earth, she’s determined to rescue him immediately with Soraj's help. Can they succeed even though the planet they return to is very different from the one they left—and that their success could mean failure for the regeneration process?”
Excerpt from The Contaminants:JESSIL – DAY: 1,095; TIME: 0600
Another nightmare. But not really. That makes it sound like what happened in my dream didn’t really happen. Because it all did. Sirens blaring. People screaming. My dad shouting out Ben’s name, trying to find him, while holding on to Lo and me. Dad’s hand squeezing mine so hard I think he’s going to crush it as we run for the ship. The chaos of loading onto it. Explosions everywhere. The ship’s engines rumbling to life. Dad getting torn away from us—forever…
I shake it all out of my mind, which is getting easier after three years. The hum of the ship fills my ears as I roll over and slide up the shade covering my porthole. Beyond the glass, the earth, sun, and black of space all greet me. It’s going to be a good day. Raj tells me to say that every morning.
Squinting up at the ceiling of my blindingly white sleep pod, I notice the photo of my dad taped there. That always brings a smile to my face, memories of Dad. Raj printed the image from a recording he took after I told him how I didn’t bring anything of my own on the ship—we were in too much of a rush to escape earth. I touch the photo, which is a side shot of me and Dad. He always said how much I reminded him of my mom, especially our long, auburn hair, our pale faces, the patches of freckles on our cheeks. But I definitely have Dad’s eyes. So green—and his, always so intense, like he could stare right through you. I think being in the army makes you that way because like Dad, most of the soldiers on the ship are serious all the time. Not that there’s much to be happy about up here.
Up here. I should probably stop saying that as if being on this ship is temporary. It might be home for the rest of my life the way things are going. Earth still looks as empty of life as the moon despite Dr. Guyat’s promise that we’ll be able to return one day. If this ship is where I spend the rest of my days, I figure I’ll be lucky to live to thirty, twice as old as I am now. Because this place won’t be able to support everyone forever. But that’s negative thinking. I’ve got to stop that, too.
Going for a run helps clear my head, so I open up the clothes bin at the end of my pod. The fit is tight in here, but I can at least sit up to get dressed. My older brother Ben is a giant like my dad and can never extend his legs all the way straight in his pod, even when he lies down on the bed. I put on a sweatshirt, shorts, and the pair of track shoes Raj all found for me.
Our quarters are connected to the lab, so when I flip open the door of my pod, I can see the banks of screens and meters and gauges lighting up the hallway between the two areas. I slide out of my pod, then stretch my arms and legs—even though I’m not quite as big as Ben, I’m tall enough that the pod cramps me, too. Walking down the hallway, I can see the glass-enclosed room in the middle of the lab where all of the most important controls are located. Only Dr. Guyat seems to understand what they do. Maybe Raj does, too.
There’s a guard on duty making sure no one tries to get in that special room. He doesn’t even notice me though because he’s projecting a game through a SOLE like the one Raj has. I don’t know what the name stands for, but I don’t like it. The thing replaces one of your eyeballs so that you can always be connected to every bit of information ever thought of, captured on camera, or recorded in some way. Its lens makes holograms appear—people call them “fabs”—so that you can watch with the eye you have left. The fab can be a game like with the guard or a still like Raj took of me and Dad or even something from real life in real time.
Besides the guard’s projection and the other screens, the lab is dark, including my station, because it’s still early. Even though the sun rises and sets every forty-five minutes, the ship keeps the rhythms of earth time—military-style to make it simpler to know whether it’s day or night—so that things seem normal. Except there’s nothing normal about our situation.
I wake up early because it’s easiest to run before everybody is up, especially Lo, who I have to get ready for the day since he’s eight and still doesn’t know how to take care of himself. After I slip past the guard, I find the door for the stairwell and cross another much longer hallway. It’s dim, but the name of our ship stands out on the wall to guide me. Painted in fluorescent blue is “United States Orbiting Shuttle Colin Powell.” Right beneath it is the Lockheed-Monsanto logo that’s also on just about every cup, piece of clothing, and machine on the ship.
When I get to the stairs, it’s only a few flights up to the ship’s main level—the Promenade Deck. But it’s like entering another world, where you can really see how enormous this cruiser is. Dad said that five football stadiums could fit inside the Powell and that fifty thousand people could—and were supposed to—live on it. The Promenade is where they were all going to play, I guess. It kind of looks like an amusement park for adults, and maybe an outdoor mall with how high the ceiling is and how open everything seems. The length is probably a quarter-mile from front to back. There are restaurants of every ethnicity, dance clubs, a casino, two theaters, and bars and more bars—all in a row like you’re bouncing from one thrill to the next. One level above, there’s a spa and salon, a playground, a massive pool, a video arcade, a library, even a zoo. Below the Promenade are suites and more sleeping pods where the others live, all spread out among the generators, kitchens, fire and police offices, and a jail, which is more crowded than it should be according to Dr. Guyat. There’s also a chapel, but I think it’s a supply room now because most people gave up hope a long time ago.
Ringing the entire Promenade is a seamless wall of glass, twenty feet high, so that you feel like you could just drift off into space with another step. The view takes my breath away every time. But my wonder stops there—or at least changes—because the Promenade is abandoned. Not just abandoned—ruined. Walls are cracked with holes punched in them, tables are overturned, stools are scattered everywhere. One of the dance floors is covered in broken glass. Poker chips are littered around like confetti. Captain Monumba manages the rest of the ship as tightly as Armstrong Air Base was run back in South Dakota. But she’s let the Promenade fall apart. She probably has enough to worry about aside from if people can still entertain themselves.
There’s a kind of trail through the mess that leads to a shopping area, which has about thirty side-by-side stores that curve around in an oval shape. This is where I like to run. At the very top of the ship is a dome that covers a playing field with a track surrounding it. But the grass that was planted died a month into our orbit, so the place smells funky—a bad funky. The shopping area doesn’t smell a lot better—it’s a little bleachy—but at least the area is clear because everything’s been picked clean. There’s not a stitch of clothing on a rack or a single shoelace on a shelf or any other trinket that remains. I have no idea where the people left on board have stored all of the stuff that used to fill these stores, but I know I didn’t get any of it, unless what Raj has given me is salvaged from here.
Every night before I go to bed, I ask Raj if he wants to run with me in the morning, and he always says the same thing: “Maybe tomorrow.” The funny part about that is I believe he truly means he might. But often I have a running partner anyway—Captain Monumba herself. She’s beaten me here today, and in the glow of the security lights, I can see sweat already streaming down from her close-cropped hair to the collar of her gray sweatshirt that all the soldiers seem to wear when they’re off duty.
“Good morning, Miss Jessil,” Captain Monumba says to me as I get in stride with her pace, which isn’t too hard considering she’s a half-foot shorter than I am.
“Morning, Prez.” Calling her that is a lame joke of mine that she tolerates. With our ship likely the only one that survived the attack, Captain Monumba is probably the Commander in Chief. “You’re up early.”
“Couldn’t sleep,” she says. “You know what today is, right?”
I shrug as we round past the empty jewelry store.
“One year from now, we begin our descent,” she says, then turns to me, her eyes wide like she’s really excited. “Just one year and we’re back on earth—can you believe it?”
“I can’t,” I reply. I should have remembered it’s a year because Dr. Guyat is always stressing about the countdown. But it still seems like such a long time that I don’t give it much thought.
“Everything we’ve gone through, it will all be worth it if this works,” Captain Monumba says.
I nod. The “this” is Dr. Guyat’s project, the one that’s supposed to create a “New Dakota” for all of us to land on and start over, I guess. So far the chances of his project working don’t seem likely—although Dr. Guyat would never admit that. But I’m trying to run away from dark thoughts, so I look out the glass pane beyond the storefronts.
Besides the stars and planets that paint a mural for us to run past, there’s a half-finished propulsion ring floating nearby. It’s part of a series of rings Dr. Guyat says were being built to help with colonizing Mars. I’m not sure how they were supposed to work or why no one finished the rings. But there one is, rotating around like a huge horseshoe in search of a stake.
After about three miles of running, I’m starting to get thirsty, mainly because the air is always so dry on the ship. But quenching my thirst isn’t a problem. One of the few things that operates on the Powell is the filtration system, so there’s plenty of water to drink. But I’m also getting hungry—which is a problem. Because the ship had to launch way ahead of schedule, lots of supplies weren’t loaded in time. Captain Monumba also said missiles destroyed several of the refrigeration units, so much of the food we did have spoiled quickly. Ever since, we’ve mostly been on rations, sharing army MREs, meals-in-a-bag that are supposed to last a decade—but the flavor definitely doesn’t last that long.
I say “mostly” been on rations because for a short time, there was actual food that didn’t look like it had been dehydrated and rehydrated. That was about the time we noticed that of the few zoo animals that made it aboard the ship, most were disappearing from their cages. I still don’t know if the animals died from us eating their food—or from eating them.“I’m just ready for this to be over,” Captain Monumba says, and even though I haven’t been listening closely to her, I know she’s not talking about our run. “It’s been a nightmare.” I’m not the only one who has them. On previous runs, the captain has told me how hard it was for her to launch the ship early knowing that she was leaving her husband and daughter behind. She’s a stronger person than me—I don’t think I could’ve followed those orders.
It’s our last lap, and we race for our agreed-upon finish line—the SOLE store that doesn’t have a single one left. Captain Monumba bursts past me at the last second like usual. Heaving for breath, I set my hands on top of my head to let more air in. “I better check on Lo,” I say to her. “Thanks for the run.”
Captain Monumba gives me a salute, then jogs off toward the stairwell that leads up to the bridge. I find the towel that I leave hanging off one of the racks in the bath and bedding shop, then wipe away the sweat dripping into my eyes. When I glance out at the propulsion ring again, it looks closer than ever. Probably just an illusion.
As I head back to the lab, a few more people are roaming around the Promenade. I try to avoid them, which isn’t hard considering on the ship, there are only about a thousand of us left—none of them my friends and just my two brothers for family. Most walk with a dead look in their eyes that melts any optimism I have. A year until our descent probably seems like a long time to them, too.
When I reach the lab, it also has a few more people roaming around. Dr. Guyat is inside the glass room frowning at a screen and pointing something out to Raj. They both start to nod, Dr. Guyat’s nearly bald head moving in time with his son’s thick head of hair. Each of them seems as though they’re sitting behind a terminal, but actually, they’re both just that short. I think even Lo could pass them by in a couple years.
Speaking of Lo, he’s probably wondering where I am. I pass by the glass room with a wave to Raj, who can only acknowledge me with a lift of his eyes so that he doesn’t seem like he’s ignoring his dad. Back in our quarters, Ben’s already left for the medical ward, and Lo’s pod is open—and empty. Now I’m wondering where he is.
I go back to the lab and ask the new guard on duty if he’s seen a chubby-cheeked, dark-haired, dark-skinned runt. The guard has no idea, so I continue the search for my little brother.
Lo isn’t actually my real brother. He was adopted by us—by Dad. When we had to leave the base in Alabama after the state seceded from America, Lo’s mom was deported to Mexico or somewhere. Somehow she convinced Dad to take Lo, and he’s been my burden ever since. Worst of all, he’s the reason we had to stow away on the Powell, instead of getting aboard with what was called a “summons”—a certificate saying you’re “pure” by whatever standards there were to get on the ship. Dad said that because our whole family wasn’t approved, none of us would take a slot on the Powell. When the attack occurred though, Dad tried to save us all at the last second. A second too late because he got left behind. Lo cried and cried for Dad. I never loved the kid as much as I did then.
He’s getting on my nerves right now though. “Lo, where are you?”
Like that, he pops out of my pod with his arms raised and hands curled into claws. He growls like a rabid dog. “You can’t get away, Silly,” Lo snarls at me. I hate that he picked up Dad’s nickname for me.
“Callate,” I say back, telling him to shut up in Spanish before Dr. Guyat hears. Sometimes Lo’s native language slips on to my tongue because that’s all he understood when Dad first adopted him. I peek over my shoulder, but luckily Dr. Guyat isn’t standing in our doorway with an angry look on his face. I turn back to Lo. “Get your clothes on. Your shot is this morning.”
“I don’t want a shot,” Lo says.
“Too bad. Now get dressed.” I don’t want the shot either, but Dr. Guyat has been giving us one every month since we were discovered on the ship. He says we need the boost to our immune system so that we can survive in space this long. Whatever’s in the shot must be working because neither Lo or me or Ben caught the strange flu that killed so many people last year, the epidemic cutting the number of us on the ship in half. That’s another reason I try to avoid others on the ship—too easy to catch something. And with Ben always saying how few medical supplies we have, the chances of shaking whatever made you sick are low.
As Lo sulks off to his pod to put on clothes, I go to mine and get ready, too. I push the button on the air shower, which vacuums off my sweat, then perfumes me after so that I don’t smell like the dead grass around the fitness track. Next I put on my black unitard, then the lab clothes. They’re just a khaki jumpsuit that hangs off me like a deflated balloon and some boots that clomp with every step because they’re three sizes too big for me. Raj did his best to get me these, so I try not to complain too much. He did stencil my name on the back—J. CALLOWYCK—so that I seem more official in the lab even though about all I do is make sure my computer isn’t going haywire.
I duck out of my pod and check on Lo. “You ready yet, hermanito?”
He pushes himself out of his pod and nods. “Can Ben give me my shot?”
“Sure, I think so.” Ben always wanted to be a doctor ever since I can remember. Dad would be happy to know that Ben is getting a chance to learn how because Dad never wanted any of us to be in the army. He said we could do better than be a grunt like him. But I don’t think Ben ever wanted to be a doctor because of Dad—the main reason is because no one ever figured out why our mom died. She’s barely a memory to me since I was so young when she got sick. But even though Ben’s only three years older than me, he remembers a hundred stories about our mom—how she made the best sweet rolls, how she taught him to shoot a gun, how she could make Dad laugh with the dumbest jokes in the world. That’s something I wish I could have kept in my head, an image of Dad laughing. I’d never need anything to remind me to stay upbeat then. “Let’s go, buddy,” I say to Lo. “It’s going to be a good day.”
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