When It Breaks
by Hannah Greer
I glare through my filtration mask at my dad, who sprawls across the limo bench opposite me. Thick, bleach-smelling smog drags against the windows, hiding the launch pad outside.
“We can’t leave Edie,” I say. She should be with us. Dad promised we were going to pick her up.
Dad leans forward, yellow hazmat suit crinkling. “If we stay, we’ll just die too.”
“But she needs us.”
“Edie deserves a good life, no matter how short it might be. And she shouldn’t have to die alone.”
Before he ran the largest oil company in the world, Dad designed hyper-efficient waste filtration systems. He could keep the filters in our bunker functional for decades. With him around to repair and maintain the systems, Edie could survive the few years her replacement heart would last.
“We can’t stay, and she wouldn’t survive the launch.” He gives me a flat look. “And I won’t send you up there alone. You need me up there. She’ll be okay.”
My throat tightens. She won’t be okay, and he knows it. So do I.
Through the reddish-brown haze, the silhouette of the starship looms ahead. I don’t have much time. I pull the door handle, but it’s locked.
“This is your fault.” The accusation, laced with bitterness, rolls off my tongue before I can think better of it.
“We all broke the world, Mazie.”
“Some of us more than others.”
His face falls; he’s unable to meet my gaze. “I never meant for any of this to happen.” He takes my hand. “If I could go back and do things differently, I would. But I can’t. And so I’m going to do whatever it takes to keep you safe.”
“I’m not leaving my sister.”
“Your safety is what’s important right now,” he says. “Edie understands that.”
Despite what he’s done, I want to trust him. To believe he knows best, like when I was little. In him, I still see the dad who gave me part of his lung when I was dying of pulmonary fibrosis at ten years old. He risked his life to buy enough time for the labs to grow replicas of my original lungs. But I was lucky. Most people don’t have the resources to survive the damage air pollution inflicts. Without the filtration systems maintained, Edie’s lungs will give out before her heart does.
For my sister’s sake, I have to forget all he’s done for me. Forget when I stepped in a hornet’s nest and he scooped me up to race me to the pond. Forget when, after my first breakup, he brought me tubs of strawberry ice cream, horror movies, and no I-told-you-sos. Forget he’s my dad and supposed to know best.
“I’m sorry, Mazie,” he says, “but it’s done.” The car stops.
I pull my hand from his. If he won’t see reason, I only have one option left. I won't let him do something he'll regret forever. I won’t let Edie die alone and afraid.
After a deep breath to ease the queasiness in my stomach, I call out the passcode he doesn’t know I’ve memorized. The doors automatically unlock. Before he can act, I grab the door handle, jerk it open, and dart outside. Within seconds, the warm smog hides me.
Dad shouts. I don’t turn back.
* * *
It takes ten minutes to race to the edge of the tarmac field, to the glass building serving as a waiting area for families of the departing. Just beyond it, an electric fence reinforced with steel cables and topped with razor wire keeps the crowd out. Metal rattles as rioters attempt to disable it. Even with the high voltage, the fence might not last much longer. The cries of the rioters echo through the smog, some calling for the death of those who will board the ship.
Dad’s name is repeated like a chant. People in dusty clothes and outdated masks wave cardboard signs with his face crossed out. Other signs claim he should have stopped the use of fossil fuels. Though I blame him too, I know it wasn’t all his fault. He confided in me how the board wouldn’t let him explore sustainable alternatives and hid the consequences of fossil fuel. But the crowd doesn't care. They can't see the man who did what he had to so his family would be safe and happy.
I turn away and wrench open the door to the waiting area. Edie has to be here somewhere. I scan the anxious faces. There. In a corner, Edie stands in her worn filtration mask and signature cowgirl boots. She’s never without those boots, even though she’s never been to a farm in her life. She likes the hardiness and height they give her.
I hurry over. Her eyes widen and she moves as though to touch me, but stops short.
“You shouldn’t be here.” Her voice is rough.
“I couldn’t leave you.”
She shakes her head. “You need to get on that ship right now.”
I just watch her. It’s been over a year since she last left our bunker. She’s so small and pale. At nineteen, she’s three years older than me but looks younger. So different from when we were little and she seemed invincible. After Mom left, she spent so much of our childhood looking after me. It’s my turn to look out for her.
“Mazie, I’m not kidding.”
“Don’t worry. Dad’ll be here before long.”
“Dad won’t stay.” Her eyes dart past me, towards the distant shadow of the ship.
“He was only ever going to leave to protect me. If I stay, he’ll stay too.”
My phone buzzes. I ignore it.
“This is hard enough as it is and you’re making it worse. Just go,” she snaps.
I retreat a step. “You’re mad I came back?”
She groans. “I love you, and want you to be safe.”
I stand tall. “I heard you. That night you and Dad were fighting in the kitchen. You asked him to stay but he said he had to take care of me. Well, now I’m here.” My eyes are wet and fogging up my mask, but I do my best to hide it.
Edie stares at me, as though I’ve stolen the air from her lungs. Maybe she didn’t think I could do something so selfless. Maybe she thought I wouldn’t understand. But I get it. And I won’t be able to live with myself if I leave her to die.
Edie starts. “That wasn’t—I didn’t mean—”
I cut her off. “I know. Just pull up the livestream.” Edie has always sacrificed for me. When she could still go to school, she gave up debate team to take care of me. When I developed an allergy to her dog, she rehomed him. She’s given up so much. She shouldn’t have to lose us too.
Edie grabs my shoulders. “You need to get out of here. Dad isn’t coming back.”
“He will. And he’ll be able to help.” I offer her a weak grin, making sure to crinkle my eyes since that’s the only part of my face the mask doesn’t obscure.
“No, Mazie, he won’t.” She shakes her head. “If you’re not on that ship when it launches, he’ll leave you behind too. I know him.”
“He wouldn’t do that to me.” I pull my phone out and swipe away Dad’s incoming call. She was supposed to understand, but she’ll see soon enough.
I load a livestream titled ‘The Last Disembarkment from Earth’ on my phone. The blurry video shows a line of people in high-quality protective suits. They’re the ones who will board and flee our dying planet. The comments flick by, thousands of angry voices trying to be heard. But their words will be lost, unheeded.
The livestream is showing off. They only film it because people like Dad think it’s something special that the human species will survive the end of the world. But no one cares if humanity survives when their friends and family will die.
The video focuses and I freeze. Edie curses, something she never does when she knows I’m in earshot. Dad stands on the ramp to the ship, the last in line. He scans the area, a phone pressed to his ear. The line moves and he moves with it.
Bile bites at my throat. He won’t. He can’t.
“Answer your phone,” Edie cries. I fumble to accept the new incoming call.
Dad’s ragged voice thunders in my ear. “Where are you?”
My throat constricts. All I can say is, “Don’t go.” The same words Mom ignored when she walked out of the hospital while I lay half-dead. The words that marked the moment our family of four became three.
“We’re supposed to go together. Get back here before it’s too late,” he says. But it’s already too late. I’d never make it back before the launch, more likely to be incinerated on the field as I scrambled to the ship than safely inside on takeoff. Not that I’d leave Edie, anyway. I made my choice.
“No buts. We’re going to be on that ship when it leaves. Understand?”
“You said you were only going for me,” I whisper. “I stayed. You were supposed to stay too!”
“I can’t fix this.” He sighs. “Just remember I love you, okay?”
The phone goes silent. It slips through my fingers and cracks on the concrete.
“You should have left with him.” Edie can’t look at me.
I retrieve my phone with trembling fingers. On the fractured screen, the line moves steadily. Dad pauses just outside the ship. My heart thumps. He has to walk away. He can’t leave me. Leave us. We won’t survive long without him. They announce the final call and I lean closer.
He hangs his head and steps inside. The doors seal shut behind him.
My stomach drops. I take a breath that catches in my throat and turns into a sob.
Edie tugs me close and says something, but she’s drowned out by the clattering of hundreds of protesters swarming over the fence. They finally broke it. They must not realize they’re too late.
“Mazie . . .” But Edie doesn’t know what to say. There’s nothing to say. Our family of three is now two. Too soon, it will only be one.
Jets of flame from the exhausts curdle the air, flooding the field with the scent of rotten eggs. The storm of protesters freezes, a blurry mass through my fogged mask.
I didn’t stay to watch Edie die. I unclip the mask and rip it from my face. The air stings my lungs as I wipe at my tears. I breathe freely in the world my father ruined.
The faint outline of the ship disappears into the smog.
Hannah Greer explores the sociological theories she studied in school through fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in PseudoPod, MetaStellar, and The Dread Machine. She is a first reader for Fusion Fragment, hoards books, and competes in combat sports. She resides in North Carolina with her partner, a trio of cats, and a small flock of pigeons. Find her on Bluesky @hannahgreer.bsky.social or her website hannahgreer.carrd.co.