Kaia pulled back her hood and pressed her ear to the bunk’s exterior wall. There was no trace of the mommy phara’s thunderous footsteps outside, only the sound of rain pummeling the observation facility as it had for hours. The eggs in the mommy’s nest need her, Kaia thought. She held her breath and listened one more time, still nothing. She sighed and looked back to the video on her viewpad.
A reporter raised his eyebrows and tapped the news desk. “The climate is changing, yes, but does the Council really know best? We’ll return to our non-stop coverage of the Tragedy in Tremva after the break.” The video cut away to an ad for an in-home nature projector, featuring over one hundred landscapes from the “breathtaking past.”
Kaia rolled her eyes the same way her daddy did whenever it came on and could almost hear his voice saying, “That’s just what we need! A greedy corporation profiting from pictures of nature before greedy corporations ruined it.”
She set the viewpad down on the mattress and pulled her purple blankie off the top bunk, then over her head to hide from the storm. Her suit’s protective coating crinkled as she raised her knees to make a little tent and rested the viewpad against her legs.
“Play the Tremva deconstruction again,” she told the pulsing red dot at the center of the screen.
A dark city skyline filled the display. The camera panned across the towering buildings of downtown Tremva to the trash-laden harbor, where crowded refugee ships sat low in the water, steaming toward the open ocean. The broadcast zoomed in on a long pier, where Kaia knew the deconstruction was about to begin. At the end of the pier sat an iridescent orb twenty cubits wide, with protestors gathered around to hurl insults at it, as if that would stop the Council from signaling the orb to start. The group parted as a lanky man wearing a red full-body habsew suit, in contrast to their standard-issue gray suits, made his way toward the front. He stepped out into the open space between the protestors and the shimmering sphere, causing a chill to run down Kaia’s spine. She wondered if he knew what was about to happen as he examined his reflection on its smooth surface.
He turned to face the protestors and scanned their faces before looking to the city beyond.
Kaia noticed his chest rise and fall and wondered what he was thinking as he looked out at the crumbling four-story seawall enclosing the city. The camera zoomed in on his face, visible through his helmet’s visor. He looks sad, she thought. She had seen a photo of the same seawall from before she was born and thought the mural of a beach at sunset looked pretty. But now algae stains marred the picture’s vibrant hues. Did Captain Set remember how pretty it used to be? Or maybe he remembered when the sea level was lower, and the beach was real? It was hard for Kaia to imagine a real beach without pictures like the one on the wall, or nature projectors like the one her father despised.
The man pointed to the city. “We will not abandon Tremva. Deconstruction is not the only option! Soon, the entire world will see that”—he turned to the nanomech orb and pumped his fist in the air while shouting—“WE MUST…”
The protestors chanted in response, “STOP THE COUNCIL!”
Captain Set joined in and everyone repeated, “STOP THE COUNCIL! STOP THE COUNCIL!”
At that moment, a piercing siren blasted through the viewpad’s speakers.
Kaia cringed when Captain Set’s knees buckled. He and everyone in the crowd raised their hands to cover their helmet microphones the way she remembered doing to stop the same type of siren. Although, this time, the sound was warning them of something much worse than the hailstorm that buried her schoolyard under two cubits of ice.
“They can’t do this to us!” Captain Set yelled and rushed toward the tranquil orb. Kaia knew nanomechs stayed in suspension only until the Council sent the signal. She knew it was not smart when Captain Set drew his elbow back, curled his gloved hand into a fist, and punched. Signal sent, her inner voice tried to tell him.
Ripples raced across the sphere’s surface, like the waves behind the departing refugee ships. The siren dropped several bone-shaking octaves as it faded away.
The protestors roared when Captain Set pulled his hand out and raised it in triumph. He turned and looked at the crowd, but they fell silent, eyes widening.
A man pointed at him and yelled, “The air! Protect him from the air!”
Captain Set lowered his hand as pieces of his glove flaked off and blew away in the wind. He dropped to the pier and writhed in agony. Kaia winced at the memory of the time a fern thorn poked a pinhole in her habsew and let in the same hot, acidic air. The camera zoomed in on Captain Set’s face as it scrunched up in pain.
“MAKE THEM STOP!” he yelled, but the nanomechs pulled his protective suit apart molecule-by-molecule, just as Kaia had seen them do to the miniature model city in class. A few people helped Captain Set to his feet and rushed toward a small boat. They lowered him into its berth and sped away as the pier disintegrated behind them.
The camera zoomed out to a wide view of the city. Kaia’s breath lodged in her throat. The Council’s deconstruction plan, unleashed, was terrifying. The nanomech sphere melted into a thousand glistening rivers, flowing across the waterfront toward downtown Tremva. Within seconds, the seawall turned to a pile of gray dust, and the harbor-front transit tube sank into the shoreline. Everything Jacana-made was broken down to its most basic elements and returned to the bare soil below. The silver tendrils advanced through the city streets and scaled the city’s empty skytowers.
Except—Kaia gripped the viewpad hard, knowing what was about to come—they were not quite empty.
Near the top of one of the apartment buildings, at least 150 floors up, a bulky white habsew suit stood out against the dingy gray of a balcony. The video closed in on the man. A small furry animal flicked its tail while it shuddered in his arms. A pet affi, she recognized. He stood, stroking its tiny body with one hand and leaned over the balcony rail. Streams of nanomechs climbed past him to the top of the building. He stepped back and seemed to look straight at the camera. He held the animal close as the balcony melted away beneath his feet. Kaia’s heart sank, like it did every time, as he plummeted into the massive cloud of dust, still cradling the pet affi.
Distant thunder rumbled beyond the facility wall, startling her from the image on the screen. The patter of rain rose above its usual din.
“Pause,” she said. She squeezed her damp eyes shut and let go of the viewpad. It slid down her legs, coming to rest against her stomach.
Kaia first witnessed the Tremva deconstruction on her viewscreen with her parents two days ago. They explained why deconstruction was necessary. She understood that most cities could not survive sea level rise, or droughts, or hypercanes, or the many other things a warming planet had in store for her civilization. Yet her young mind still struggled to comprehend it all. That destructions like this would happen over and over in every single city except one: Puna, her home. She missed it even though she also loved being at the wildlife refuge. She knew it would never be the way it was when her family left for the assignment, because the Council was sending so many refugees there, to the last place not ruined by climate change.
Kaia pulled the blanket away and shut off the viewpad. Her gaze settled on a photo taped to the bottom of the top bunk. Her father’s eyes were wide in mock terror while she sat on her his lap, laughing. A phara eye the size of a dinner plate and a gigantic mouth of jagged teeth loomed through the thick glass behind them. She remembered how warm and full her heart felt, like it might burst even, when earlier that day her parents accepted the assignment to the phara wildlife refuge. Best of all, the Council said they could take Kaia with them. They went straight to Puna’s zoo to celebrate. At the phara enclosure, Kaia impressed everyone as she rattled off facts about the ferocious giants to other kids, and adults, in an impromptu lecture on how there was only one phara nesting ground left on the planet of Nu and how important it was to save them. She grinned from ear-to-ear when a zookeeper thanked her for educating the visitors, because the zoo received more donations than ever before.
My family, she thought, smiling at the picture. Her thoughts wandered back to the man left behind in the skytower, and she frowned. After the accident, the newsfeed reporter found out who the man was and shared a photo of him with his family standing under dappled rays of light shining through an artificial tree canopy. Kaia recognized the background as the old-growth forest exhibit at Puna’s Natural History Museum. The man and woman wore wide smiles, hands resting on the shoulders of their two cute kids. The girl was a toddler, and the boy looked about Kaia’s age with his awkward grin. Maybe she could figure out which school he was going to after the Council resettled his family. The viewpad should have that information, she knew, and turned it back on when a familiar thud rattled the bed frame. She set the viewpad down and pressed her ear to the exterior wall to listen again. There—another thud, distant but unmistakable.
“The phara is coming,” she whispered and leapt up, dragging her blankie on the floor as she ran toward the observation room.
The door slid open, and Kaia smiled at the sight of her parents standing in front of the observation window. Dark acid rain streaked down the glass, but she knew they were still monitoring the nesting ground by the way they hunched over the consoles and their fingers danced over the glyphpads. They were the smartest grown-ups she knew, and she hoped to do important work like them when she grew up.
Her father looked up to the window. “Anything on the sensors, Rhea?”
“What do you think, Ory?” her mother snapped back.
“Right, sorry,” he said.
She straightened up and rubbed her temples. “No, no, I’m sorry.” She turned toward him. “It’s not your fault. It’s the Council’s. Only two wild pharas left on the planet, and we can’t track them. Did you hear anything back on that work request for the sensor tower?”
He shook his head. “The Council still won’t authorize a work crew to come out with all these storms.”
“Wildlife is not their priority these days,” she lamented.
“I’m sure it’s the Dawn Project.”
She nodded in agreement. “It’s getting all the money.”
“And all the attention.” He rested his hands on the edge of the console and gazed outside.
“I can’t wait to hear what it’s all about tomorrow,” she said, arms crossed.
“Me too, but no matter what it is, I’m afraid forcing all those people from their homes is going to cause even bigger problems.”
“You know they couldn’t stay, Ory.”
“I know, but the ‘Tragedy in Tremva,’ as the newsfeeds are calling it, will only make things worse. I can’t get over that an innocent person died while the world was watching.”
“Not the best start to the project.”
“Captain Set would be dead, too, if the protestors hadn’t gotten him to the boat in time.” He shook his head. “It will be much easier for him to win hearts and minds.”
“Seeing all this resistance and division over the Council’s actions reminds me of the early days of the third great war.”
“You’re right, it feels like that. And you’re also right that they had to do it,” her father said, glancing over to the center viewscreen.
Her mother followed his eyes and took a deep breath without saying a word.
Kaia knew the pattern of circles represented phara nests, and knew there were no longer forty-two of them left. All the circles were red, with one exception glowing green.
Her mother grimaced. “Rapid change never ends well—for us or for the animals.”
“Even the last one is worth saving,” her father reminded.
She exhaled. “Is it?”
“Hey,” he reached over and rubbed her shoulder, “It is worth it, Rhea. We’re doing our part while thousands of other scientists are doing theirs. Our lives are going to make an impact, I’m sure of it.”
A clap of thunder caused Kaia to take a step backward. She peered around the edge of the doorframe. Another flash of lightning followed to reveal the wetlands outside the window.
Her mother waved a hand toward the bunk room door. “I’m just afraid of what the future holds for—”
“For what, Mommy?” Kaia said, taking a cautious step forward.
Another thud shook the facility. Light fixtures swayed, causing shadows to dance around the room. Kaia ran to her mother’s side.
She bent over and patted Kaia on the head. “Hey, it’s okay.”
“I’m not afraid,” Kaia insisted. “I’m excited to see the mommy phara!” She stood on her tiptoes to look out the dark window. “What were you and Daddy talking about?”
Her mother looked up at him. In that moment, Kaia thought her eyes seemed sad, like Captain Set’s had been in the video.
She kneeled down to Kaia. “Well, my little Chirps, the world is changing, and sometimes change is scary because it means things will be different.”
Kaia pointed to herself. “I’m not afraid of things being different,” she proclaimed. “Other kids are, though. I had to teach them why just because wild pharas are big and scary doesn’t mean we shouldn’t save them. They take care of their babies just like our mommies and daddies take care of us!”
Her father chuckled. “And people always listen to you, Kaia. Now, what do you say you do some, uh, field observations of the phara for your class back in Puna?”
Kaia jumped up and down. She loved studying the pharas and couldn’t wait to be a real biologist. “Do you think I can work at the zoo when I grow up?”
Her mother bent down and patted her head again. “You can do anything you want, Kaia. You’re in control. Never forget that.”
Ory walked across the room and pulled a large case from its compartment in the wall, then scooted it across the floor toward the console. “Here, hop on this so you can see outside.”
“Careful, honey, that’s the medical emergency kit,” her mother said, shooting her father what Kaia called her “I mean it” look as she helped her onto the case.
Kaia stood up tall and peered outside, trying to identify the dark shapes made blurrier by the rain on the glass. “Daddy, can we turn the lights on?”
“Sure, Chirps,” he replied and swiped down from the top of the glyphpad.
The facility’s exterior lights hummed to life. In the clinical white light, Kaia could see the remains of the phara nests on the wetland outside. The facility sat on a small hill where the forest thinned out to grass yellowing tufts of grass. A wide, rushing stream wound through the marsh on its way to the sea a few hundred cubits away. She struggled to imagine a bunch of scientists like her parents studying all the living nests, until she started counting all the broken eggshells floating in the deepening mud puddles. There used to be many more wild pharas, she remembered.
Kaia looked to the edge of the woods. “I still don’t see the phara.”
Her mother glanced outside. “Don’t worry, I’m sure she’s still on her way here. She stops by like clockwork to check the nest.”
Her father added, “Maybe she’s walking through soft mud, so we can’t feel her coming.”
Kaia reached up and touched the window. “Daddy, how much longer is it going to rain?”
“Let’s find out.” He drew a circle on the glyphpad and swept a line halfway around it. A radar map appeared on his viewscreen.
The vast, swirling arms of a hypercane storm covered the narrow sea that divided the continent. He swiped to the right, and a red line appeared on the image. “It won’t last much longer, but it will make landfall soon.”
Kaia caught the concerned look he flashed to her mother before smiling again. She decided the storm’s tentacles looked scary because they were so close.
Her mother knocked on the wall. “We’ll be safe in the facility.”
Another thud. Kaia shrieked in delight, “The mommy phara must be close!”
The ground shook again, and this time, a huge leg passed by the window.
Kaia jumped up and down. “There she is!” she squealed, clapping as the other leg strode past. The mother’s tail whipped back and forth for balance as she slid down the small hill to the stream.
Water flowed around the mother phara’s ankles as she waded across the water and into shadow past the outside lights’ range.
Kaia’s voice quivered. “What was that red stuff on her legs?”
“It looks she must have gotten hurt,” Rhea said.
“I’m not sure, but it must have been big.” She turned to Ory. “Please switch to the spotlight.”
He moved his finger up the glyphpad and the light outside focused onto the mother phara as she reached her nest.
Kaia cupped her hands and her face closer to the window to marvel at the giant. She saw them many times at the zoo, and even more since they’d come to the wildlife refuge. Still, each sighting felt as exciting as the first time she met the amazing animal. They were so strong and tall!
Rhea nodded to the data feeds on the viewscreen above her console. “The mother is in range. Her heart is racing, and her core temperature is too low.” She looked up as the phara collapsed to the ground with a loud thud.
Kaia yelled. “We have to help her!”
Rhea looked to Ory, then to the airlock.
He shook his head. “It’s too dangerous.”
She turned back to the window. “I have to, Ory. She’s the last female.”
Ory rubbed his hand down his face and exhaled. “Keep your distance, though. Okay?”
Rhea chewed her lip.
“Hey, I’m serious,” he said.
Rhea nodded, already lifting Kaia off the medical supplies. She kneeled and reached for the case’s clasp to open it. Kaia did not know what any of the vials inside did, but she always thought they were pretty colors.
Rhea snapped the case shut again. “Everything is here.” She stood and walked toward the airlock at the rear of the facility.
Kaia held up a helmet. “Here you go, Mommy.”
“Thank you, honey,” Rhea said, bending over and kissing Kaia’s forehead. “I’ll make her feel better, I promise.”
Ory turned his chair around. “Kaia, why don’t you grab yourself another case to stand on and let your mother get going? I’ll even let you press the airlock button…”
Kaia hugged Rhea’s leg and bounded toward the red button on the wall.
Rhea lowered the helmet over her head and checked the seal around her neck. She stepped over the threshold inside the small, brightly lit chamber and turned to wave. “Keep an eye on Daddy,” she said and winked. “Now press!”
Kaia mashed the red button, and the airlock door slid open. She turned to her father and grinned. “I’m the head biologist at this facility now.”
He chuckled. “Rhea, be careful out there.”
“Always,” her mother said as the airlock door slid shut.
Ory stood close to Kaia and pulled Rhea’s camera feed up on his viewscreen. The stairs looked slippery from the rain as she stabilized herself by leaning against the saucer-shaped shuttle docked to the facility. As she trudged across the ground, mud built up on her boots until she arrived at the stream, which Ory thought looked higher now than it had when the phara crossed. Rhea’s face was visible on a small overlay of her camera feed, eyes narrowed and mouth tight as she tried to keep her balance while wading across the knee-deep stream with the bulky medical case in tow. By the time she reached the other side, sweat beaded on her brow. Her exterior camera showed flattened clumps of grass dotting the landscape. The spotlight flickered, and they heard a thud as Rhea tapped the side of her helmet to turn on her headlamp. She looked down to step around the mother phara’s muddy footprints.
“Kaia, I bet thirty of your footprints would fit inside this one I’m looking at right now.”
Kaia laughed. “And you think my feet are big!”
Ory chuckled, too, then asked, “Rhea, how is it out there?”
“Hot. I can almost feel the sticky air through this suit,” Rhea said. She looked up, and the camera showed the dark figure of the mother phara lying on the ground ahead. “I’m almost there,” she said, in a lower voice this time.
Ory crossed his arms, then uncrossed them, trying to relax as Rhea approached the nest.
“I can’t see Mommy’s light now,” Kaia told him.
“She is getting close though, see?” he said, pointing to the viewscreen.
Kaia leaned away and watched, transfixed.
Rhea crept up to the phara. The mother lay still, her body curled in a wide arc around the outside of the nest like a protective mountain range. Her short arms twitched in the mud between breaths. Rhea lowered herself to her knees and set the medical case down. She opened it, pulled out the handheld scanner, and aimed it at the mother.
“The cuts on her leg go to the bone,” she noted, continuing to scan up the immense body, “and she has at least three fractured ribs. Her core temperature is still falling.” She lowered the scanner to the ground. “Too low…” she trailed off.
“Is it too—” Ory asked but did not finish.
“I-I believe so. Her injuries are severe,” Rhea replied.
Ory sighed, hearing the pain in Rhea’s voice. He knew she would take this hard.
Rhea observed the way the mother phara’s stomach rose and fell, each breath growing shallower than the last. She shut the case, picked it up, and took a few cautious steps closer until the mother raised her head and snarled. Rhea froze. The mother sniffed the air again, then laid her head back down in the mud. Rhea exhaled, not realizing she’d been holding her breath.
The mother wheezed. Each time she blinked, her eyes stayed shut a little longer.
“It’s okay, momma,” Rhea whispered.
Rhea felt the weight of the case in her hand, knowing she could help ease the pain of the mother’s last moments. She turned around toward the facility and shielded her eyes from the spotlight. Kaia should not have to see this, too, she thought. She raised her hand to the side of her helmet, flicked off her camera, and flashed her headlamps.
The spotlight from the facility dimmed. Ory had understood. Another of the many reasons she loved him. They’d been on the same wavelength since their first date on the plateau overlooking downtown Puna.
She heard Kaia’s protest. “Wait! What are you doing Mommy? I can’t see anything!”
“Kaia, I need privacy to help her, okay?”
Rhea eased the case down in the mud again, opened its clasps, and removed a blue vial. She drew back the feathers on the mother’s neck and pressed the injector to the brown scaly skin below.
She looked into the fading orange eyes of the magnificent creature. I’m sorry for everything we’ve done to you.
Rhea exhaled as she pulled the trigger. The blue liquid disappeared into the mother’s veins. The phara’s last breath rattled, then faded to a hiss. Rhea reached up with a tender touch and slid the mother’s eyes shut. She tossed the empty injector into the case and draped her arms over the mother’s snout, allowing herself to cry for a moment while the unforgiving sky rained down on them.
Ory gave her a time, but Kaia demanded to know, “Mommy, is she okay?”
“Hey, shhh, Kaia,” he said. He thought he heard a sniffle through the microphone.
“It’s okay. She’s sleeping now, honey,” Rhea said. “Ory, you can raise the lights.”
He swiped up on the illuminated triangle. The spotlight brightened outside.
“Are there babies in the nest?” Kaia asked.
On the console viewscreen, Rhea’s camera feed reappeared. The mother’s body cast a shadow over a depression on the ground.
“There are two eggs,” Rhea said, stepping down into the depression.
Kaia jumped and clapped. “Two!”
Ory mustered a shallow smile. “Are they both—” He paused and looked over at his daughter, who was squinting through the big window. “Are they both healthy?”
Kaia looked up at him. “We can help them while their mommy sleeps!”
On the screen, Rhea’s hand reached out and rested on the first egg. With a jerk, her hand skipped to the second one. This time, it lingered in a caress. She whispered into her helmet, “Ory, Kaia, you’re looking at the last baby phara on all of Nu.”
Kaia shrieked, “Watch out, Mommy!”
Ory realized what was happening at the same time as Kaia. Through the window, the mother phara had risen on her hind legs.
Rhea gasped, and her camera feed swung from the eggs to the looming silhouette of the phara above her: equal parts majestic and terrifying.
Ory panicked as the image on the viewscreen turned chaotic: boots slipping in the mud, dark sky, dead trees, and falling rain spun on camera as Rhea scrambled backward, trying to get out of the nest and back away from the mother. The phara’s long mouth rose to the sky as she let out a heartrending roar to the storm above. The mother took a single step forward; her eyes blazed in the light from Rhea’s headlamp. Another low, guttural roar started but turned into a cough that spattered blood onto the visor. The mother’s eyes rolled back into her skull. She collapsed, sending muddy water in every direction.
“Mommy!” Kaia yelled.
“Are you okay?!” Ory said, the lump that formed in his throat threatening to choke him.
Static cracked, and Rhea spoke through clenched teeth. “Momma’s head landed on my leg.”
Ory and Kaia looked to each other, both letting out shaky breaths.
Ory sprang into action. “Is it broken?” he asked as he rushed toward the airlock.
“I-I don’t think so,” she said. “But I’m stuck.”
“I’m coming.” He put on his helmet and snapped the seal shut around his neck.
Ory internalized Kaia’s fear and let it focus him as her eyes darted between the window and the feed from her mother’s helmet.
“Kaia,” he said. She turned around. “I need to go help your mother.”
She nodded, hopped down from the crate, and headed toward Ory. “I want to go with you.”
Ory bent down and looked into her eyes. He placed his gloved hands on her shoulders and squeezed once. “Do you remember the stream, Kaia?”
Kaia nodded again.
“Well, it’s getting deeper with all this rain. I’d have to carry you, and I might lose my balance. It’s too dangerous, okay?”
Kaia looked at the floor. “Okay…”
“Good.” He patted her shoulders. “We will be back soon, Chirps. Besides, we need you to stay here and let us know if the Council sends a storm warning.”
She nodded again, pecked his helmet in the general location of his cheek, and raced back to hop on top of the supply crate.
As Ory made his way down the outside stairs, he flipped on his helmet camera. “Kaia, you should be able to see my feed now.”
“I can see it, and Mommy’s, too,” Kaia confirmed.
Ory headed to the nest, trying to balance speed with caution. He made his way through the grass, which was more of a mud slick now with the accumulating rain, and down to the stream. As he waded in, the once knee-deep water surged up to his thighs, threatening to knock him off his feet.
“Daddy be careful,” Kaia begged.
“I’m fine, Chirps,” he said, panting, trying to reassure himself as much as Kaia. He trudged through the water with careful, deliberate steps until he reached the other side.
The inside of his helmet fogged up, but he stumbled on toward Rhea.
“Rhea!” he yelled. “I’m almost there.”
“Be careful,” she warned as he approached.
The facility’s spotlight faded.
“Kaia,” he said, trying to keep his tone even, “please don’t lean on the glyphpad.”
“Oh, sorry,” she said. The spotlight returned.
He fell to his knees next to Rhea and pulled the scanner from the medical case still wedged in the mud. He swiped the scanner up and down her body. “You twisted your ankle.” He paused where the mother phara’s jaw pinned Rhea’s leg to the ground. “But nothing looks broken.”
“Mommy, you’re okay!” said Kaia.
“I’ll take it.” Rhea propped herself up, with her arms behind her. “See if you can lift momma’s head enough for me to get out.”
Ory put the medical scanner in the pocket of his habsew. He crouched down and slid his fingers under the mother’s jaw. “One, two...” He lifted until his thighs burned but only managed to raise the phara’s head a fraction of a cubit.
“It’s no use,” Rhea groaned.
He looked toward a dead tree nearby. “I’m going to find a branch so I can get some leverage.” He stood up and began walking away but stopped when he noticed one egg rocking back and forth.
“Wait, I think it’s hatching, Rhea.”
“Now,” he said, pointing to the egg.
It wobbled from side to side until a crack appeared on its top.
“It’s coming!” Kaia’s squeal was loud through the helmet.
“Go help it, Ory,” Rhea said, pointing to the facility. “We need to get it to the incubation chamber.”
He looked at her leg.
“I’ll be fine. Go,” she demanded. She reached down and pressed a red button on her suit’s forearm controls. “I’m recording our camera feeds and transmitting them back to Council headquarters in Puna. This may be the last time anyone sees a hatching in the wild.”
“Maybe it will inspire them to spend some money on preservation again,” Ory said while scooting over to the nest. He cupped his hands and was scooping up the egg when the top popped off. “Kaia, look!”
She squealed with joy. “It’s a baby phara!”
A fuzzy white arm popped out. Ory reached up to help pull the eggshell away. Its tiny head pushed another piece off with a small growl. It clawed at the sky as rain pattered its face.
“It’s so cute!” Kaia shrieked.
The baby phara chittered, then froze. Ory felt it in his boots. The ground was shaking again. He looked down to the nest and saw ripples radiating in the puddle at the bottom.
He stood up to scan the edge of the forest. The clouds were darker, but there was nothing to explain the rumbling.
“What is it?” Rhea asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said. He bent down to hand the baby phara to her and pointed back to the tree. “I’m going to get up higher to check.”
Rhea cooed at the baby and lifted its tail. “I see you’re a healthy girl, aren’t you?” she said.
Ory reached the tree and scrambled up the empty branches. Clinging to the central trunk, he peered into the distance. There was nothing but curtains of rain in between the flashes of lightning. Then he heard it: another roar. The father. Not close yet, but he knew they would not have much time.
He clambered down as fast as he could and jogged back to Rhea.
Fear filled Rhea’s eyes when she asked, “Was that a roar, Ory?”
“I’m not sure,” he lied, “but we need to get back now.” Ory pushed the branch under the mother’s head and rested his body weight on the other end. The jaw budged enough for Rhea to pull her leg free before the stick broke, and the mother’s head dropped back into the mud. Ory wrapped his arm around Rhea. “Can you stand?”
She tried and groaned, “Not by myself.”
“Here,” he said, wrapping his arm around her and lifting her up, “I’ve got you.”
She winced in pain but used her left leg to support herself.
The baby phara, now cradled in Rhea’s arms, chirped at the excitement as they made their way toward the stream.
Another roar. Closer this time.
Rhea turned to Ory. “I’m pretty sure that was the father.”
“Hang on,” he said, pulling her along as much as he was supporting her steps.
This time, there was no mistaking the deep, distant cry.
“What was that?” said Kaia. “What’s going on?”
“It’s okay, Kaia. It must be the daddy phara,” said Rhea.
The father began roaring again, but something cut it short. A low, rolling thunder reverberated under their feet.
“That’s not good,” Rhea said between painful steps. “It sounds like it’s coming this way.”
Ory pulled her forward, now dragging her. “I don’t want to be out here to find out.”
“Mommy, Daddy, what’s happening? Can you feel that? Everything is shaking inside.”
He looked to the facility and saw the lights swinging from the ceiling. “Don’t worry, Kaia, we’re almost there.” Thunder clapped.
“H-hurry!” Kaia cried, her voice thick.
Ory and Rhea slid to a stop at the stream. Except it wasn’t a stream anymore—raging white-capped rapids flowed over the banks on both sides.
Ory panted inside his helmet. He looked at Rhea, then to the water. He tapped off transmission mic so Kaia could not listen.
“The water is too deep, Rhea. And the current looks too strong.”
Rhea nodded. “It would wash us away in no time.”
Ory looked to the facility in frustration. They were so close, yet it may as well have been all the way to Puna when it occurred to him.
“I’ll radio for help.”
Rhea glanced down at the baby phara sheltered in her arms, then up at Ory, her expression desperate. “What can they do, Ory? They’ll never make it here in time.”
He pointed to the docked shuttle. “We may not need them to get here if headquarters can fly that to us.”
He tapped the side of his helmet to get long distance comms. “Come in, Puna. This is Ory Badra at Wildlife Refuge No. 7, requesting emergency assistance.”
A flat voice crackled through the helmet, “Puna Control Center, go ahead, Ory.”
“We’re stuck outside in a storm with an impassable stream between us and the facility. Oh yes, and we’ve got an irate male phara on our tail. We need someone to fly our shuttle to us. Our daughter, Kaia, is in the facility, but she’s only seven. There’s no way I’d be able to step her through piloting the shuttle.”
There was another voice in the background.
“Uh, one moment,” the man said.
His voice sounded muffled as he spoke to, or more like argued with, someone; female, older, and angry.
Her smoky voice grew louder when she picked up the comm herself. “Ory, we’re looking at the radar, and we’ve got bad news. The storm has made landfall near you, and it doesn’t look good. You say Kaia is in the facility, yes?”
“She is,” he confirmed.
“Good. You need to get her into that shuttle. The facility isn’t safe.”
“Okay, we’ll do that now.” Ory switched back to local comms and looked at Rhea as he spoke. “Kaia, I’m talking to headquarters, okay? We can’t get across the stream, and the storm’s getting worse. We need you to get to the shuttle—”
“Daddy, you need to hurry! Look behind you! The trees are disappearing!”
Ory turned, and terror gripped him. Distant treetops shook, then sank into a wall of water. “A storm surge,” he said, unable to process the severity of what he was seeing.
Rhea yelled, “Kaia, get to the shuttle now!”
“But I won’t be able to help you,” she protested.
Her father raised his voice. “Do it now.”
“Kaia,” Rhea said over the comm. “You need to listen. Get in the shuttle, now. Puna is going to fly it over to pick us up, so go.”
Kaia stepped away from the observation window and disappeared into the facility. The swish of a door sliding open and shut followed her footsteps.
“Okay, I’m inside.”
“Good, get strapped in, and I’ll talk to you again soon, okay?” Ory pressed the comm button on his helmet again. “Puna, a storm surge is coming. Kaia’s in the shuttle. You need to come and get us fast.”
The woman clicked her tongue, and he could almost see her shaking her head when she replied, “It’s unfortunate, you know, this Tremva situation. It has forced us to make some tough calls.”
“What situation? What do you mean?” Rhea demanded.
The woman continued, “We’re dealing with mass protests aboard the refugee vessels. Captain Set’s shenanigans have riled everyone up. People are angry, distrustful of our plan, of the whole Dawn Project itself!”
Rhea fumed. “Have you considered that it’s not only Captain Set? You forced people from their homes. A man died in Tremva! Do you expect them to thank you?”
“We don’t expect them to thank us, not yet,” the woman cleared her throat, “but the Council’s work is critical to the future of all Jacana, and we need to turn this tide. We need to give the people something else. An event or, say, tragedy to rally around.”
Ory listened in horror as a thousand sickening cracks filled the air, closer now. He noticed the shuttle’s lights turning on and the landing gear retracting.
“Look, we can talk about this later. Just get the shuttle over here.”
“Well, that’s the thing,” the woman said.
Ory’s heart sank as the shuttle rose. It moved in the opposite direction, away from the storm surge, away from the stream, away from them.
“No!” Rhea shouted.
The woman on the comm sighed. “As I said, it was a tough decision, but your sacrifice will help us continue the Council’s plan. And do not worry about young Kaia. The Council will watch over her. We’ve noticed she’s quite precocious, that sweet girl. We’ll make sure she continues your work. She will be more than yet another child refugee. Kaia will be a figure all Jacana can get behind.”
Ory yelled at the top of his lungs, “You won’t get away with this!”
“I suggest you use what time you have left to say goodbye to your daughter. And consider your words carefully. This is all she will have left of you. Oh, one last thing, thank you both for your service.”
The transmission clicked off.
Kaia didn’t understand what was happening. The shuttle was moving, but not toward her parents.
“Kaia, can you hear us?” Ory’s voice boomed through the console. The glyphpad lit up with commands, as if entered by a ghost.
“I can hear you, Daddy!” she replied. “Wh-what’s happening? Where are you? I don’t see you. I-I think something is wrong with the shuttle.” She set aside her blankie and reached for the controls. They flashed red, locked. Not that she knew how to fly a shuttle, anyway.
“Kaia,” Rhea said through tears, “listen, we don’t have long, okay? We need you to remember that our people, our species, are the reason the world is dying. We are the reason for these hypercanes, the reason the animals are all going extinct. But you have a gift, Kaia. You have a way of making people understand. You can make them care, just like that day at the zoo. They listen to you, Kaia.”
Her mother’s words lodged in her subconscious. “Where are you? Why won’t this thing stop?” Kaia slammed down on the emergency button, but the shuttle kept moving. She could no more stop the shuttle than she could stop the storm. She remembered a video glyph and scribbled out a rough box with a triangle on the front on the glyphpad. The interior helmet cameras from Rhea and Ory appeared on the shuttle’s viewscreen.
“Mommy! Daddy!” she cried. “I can see you now. Can you see me?”
“Yes, Chirps, we see you.” Her father had tears in his eyes.
Rhea said, “You’re in the pilot seat now, Kaia.”
Kaia realized that the shuttle wasn’t turning around, wasn’t going back for her parents. Tears began streaming down her face. She picked up her blankie and squeezed it against her chest. “Mommy, Daddy, I n-need you.”
“You’ll be okay, Kaia. You’re strong and brave,” Ory said.
Rhea cleared her throat. “We are so proud of you, Kaia. So proud of everything you’ve done and for all the things you will come to do.” She coddled the baby phara and Ory wrapped his arms around her.
Behind them, the storm surge burst between the trees at the edge of the wetland. “Run!” Kaia yelled.
The dying forest transformed into a barrage of deadly missiles as it raced toward her parents unimpeded. Ory and Rhea pulled themselves close and clung to the baby phara.
Rhea did her best to soothe their daughter. “We will always love you, Kaia.”
Ory turned to the approaching torrent, then back to Kaia in the shuttle. He looked into his daughter’s eyes on the video feed. “Remember what your mother said, Kaia. People listen to you. You can help them understand what we’ve done. You can—” he choked back tears. “Kaia, you can save the world from us.”
Her parents’ video feeds went dark.
Kaia jumped up and pounded on the console. “Nooo!” she yelled at the blank screen. “Nooooo!” she yelled again, this time at the crushing wave that washed away her entire life.
She looked up at the dark acid rain streaking across the cockpit window and thought of the recording, of the boy and girl whose father died in the Tremva deconstruction. Her life felt deconstructed now, too. She slumped into the pilot’s chair and pulled her hood down tight. Her mother and father’s last words played on repeat while an unseen hand transported her into an uncertain future.
“We will always love you, Kaia.”
Her feelings swirled—fear—sadness—anger.
“Kaia, you can save the world from us.”
She forced her eyes open and stared into the darkness ahead while a new, grown-up feeling transcended all others. Determination.
Mom, Dad, I will.