Author : Alicia Cerra Waters

“Don’t touch that,” I said as I slapped Henry’s hand. His doughy cheeks formed a pout as he let go of the zipper of his thermo suit. Somehow, hiking through the mountains of a planet on the brink of being engulfed by a dying star had not helped melt the baby fat away from his face. I thought about telling him that the silvery material that covered his body was much lighter and more comfortable than it had been thirty years ago when my sister and I settled here, but it probably wouldn’t have done any good. There was no forgetting his horrified expression as he got off the shuttle and took in the crumbling mountains, saying

“This is a planet?!”

Through the plastic of his helmet, I saw him frown the way that he did when all that was left for dinner were dehydrated peas. “It itches. I hate this.”

“The rays from a sun this hot will give you cancer in about three minutes, not to mention burn off your skin,” I told him, for the thousandth time. “If you want to live, don’t take off the suit.”

Henry dug his toe into the sand and made an angry, red tornado out of dust. What did I expect? My sister raised him on one of the developed blue planets where every building had indoor plumbing and you were the poor kid if you didn’t own at least two hoverbikes. For a moment, I felt sick. She never imagined her son would live here.

“This is where we’re sleeping,” I said. We were behind the crest of a mountain, which offered a small portion of shade. I took off my pack, and instantly my head and shoulders felt light enough to float away from my body. Sometimes I thought that getting us off of this planet would kill me before the exploding sun got a chance.

I unfolded the tent, wondering if today would be the day that I finally managed to get the anchors to stay in the crumbling earth. Henry was watching a black salamander crawl down the side of a boulder. The salamanders were some of the only creatures that hadn’t gone extinct in the heat; except for a few rare birds that scientists had rescued, every other life form had already perished.

The salamander crawled into the palm of Henry’s hand and raised its head as if it were searching for something. I was about to ask the kid to help me, but then he said, “My mom used to live here, right?”
I put down the anchor. “Yeah, we lived here when we were your age.”

He squinted. “Why are we leaving?”

“The sun is going to swallow this planet soon.”

Henry turned his head towards the red orb and watched it sink wearily towards the mountains. “So, where will everything go?”

“Nowhere. It’ll be dust floating through the galaxy.”

“This mountain, those rocks, those dead trees,” he said as he looked into the valley.
“I guess.”

Where he grew up, he used to have a hoverbike and a nanny with scaly purple skin who was an immigrant from one of the outer planets. He used to have other rich kids for friends. He used to have a mother.

Henry lowered his pointer finger onto the salamander’s head and gave it a light touch. His round, dark eyes were fixed on the small creature as its pink tongue flicked in and out of its mouth, as if he were still waiting for the real answer.