What May really, really wanted, more than anything in the world, was a tangerine. Juicy, tangy, cold from the fridge. Or hard-boiled eggs with lots of salt. Sticky rice with a solid glug of soy sauce on top. Sushi and mint-watermelon salad and, jeez, even those vaguely soggy allergen-free chicken nuggets from the school cafeteria would hit the spot right now.
And coffeeeee. What May wouldn’t give for a flat white with cinnamon on top right now. A triple. She pressed her thumbs into the inner corners of her eyes. She didn’t have a caffeine headache yet, but it was only a matter of time. One more in the enormous line of ticking time bombs. And not the worst one, either.
But there was no way to deal with it here, stranded in a thick tangle of trees and vines with no phone and no adult supervision—and a couple dozen teenagers. Or was it thirty? May hadn’t got a solid count. Partly because people kept moving around, but especially because a couple of those slouchy white boys were basically interchangeable as far as she could tell, so who knew how many there were?
May’s stomach made a noise, something high-pitched and whining like a depressed puppy. A girl jogged over from the bonfire, exactly as if she’d heard from ten yards away—the dark-brown-skinned one with the short hair, way too sweet to be for real, what was her name? Nevaeh.
“You should really eat something,” she said. “Come on, it’s not so bad. We have enough for everyone.” Nevaeh pressed a small rectangular packet into May’s hands.
“Enough” supplies was a matter of opinion. Enough for what, exactly? That was the question of the hour.
The others were clustered around a fire pit somebody had MacGyvered up by, what, knocking rocks together like a caveman or something. But there was not a phone or a map or a radio among them. Not even toilet paper. About half of them had come down with a backpack full of water and energy bars, but beyond that nobody had anything but their tacky red jumpsuits and those slip-on sneakers.
May stared at the packet Nevaeh had given her: one nutrition bar of unknown provenance. The packaging was made out of something like very thin wax paper, easy to tear. The other kids had said the bars tasted a little like spicy dried fruit, savory and filling, though on the dry side. Fine. May knew when being picky was a losing game. The problem was the label.
There was no label.
Everything followed in one disastrous chain of logic from that. Without a label, she couldn’t know what ingredients were in there, what allergens or cross contamination. Which meant she couldn’t chance it. She handed the packet back to Nevaeh. “I can’t,” she said. “You don’t understand, I have allergies.”
Nevaeh weighed one of those packaged bars in her hand. “You’ll feel better if you eat something. I’m sure it’s safe.”
“What do you know about safe?” May shoved the hand aside. She could all but feel her throat itching, then her eyes. Next would come the tightening in her throat, and then— “Look, I can’t chance that there’s even a single protein of corn in there. Some of us can’t eat just anything we feel like, okay? I can’t eat anything without thinking about dying.”
Nevaeh went still. “I’m no stranger to thinking about death, myself,” she said, her voice soft.
May turned away before Nevaeh could argue further, warmed her fingers by the fire. She should still be sleeping right now. Or maybe she had the time wrong, and she’d already be up and going through her flash cards for chemistry if she were home. Or was it a Saturday? Was she missing Model UN? The thought filled her with a crawling terror. She didn’t have any room for mistakes, for missing things. She didn’t have time for that.
But freaking out didn’t change the fact that she was still in the dark near countless tangled mounds made of overgrown skyscrapers, still with a bunch of total strangers, still slowly starving to death. May hadn’t eaten since she’d startled awake in . . . in . . . Let’s not think about that.
Her eyes went up, anyway, drawn toward motion. The stars here were wild, like nothing she’d ever seen before, bright and clear. The sweep of the galaxy across the sky was like a hole into somewhere else. And one of the lights was moving. Again. The dot flared and fell and grew as it plummeted down the line of lights and straight toward them.
“Another one incoming,” said Jing-Wei—she was the punky kid, blue and green streaks in her hair, but more chipper and less fight-the-system. “I wonder who we’ll get this time?”
The rest of the crowd gathered in little clumps to watch. Most of the kids stuck close to the one or two who’d come down from the space station with them. Some were drifting toward people with haircuts more like their own, or accents a little more similar. But there was one thing they all had in common. Each one of them had woken up in space and been sent down in the elevator to this place.
May still hadn’t properly sorted through everything that...