Mom says, “Watch the heat today.”
I nod and hug her and go to school like normal. Her concern’s nothing out of the ordinary. And neither is the heat.
At school, after lunch, I walk through the school’s old parking lot, keeping my head down so that the mist doesn’t get in my eyes. The vapor sprays out from above, causing a layer of green gel to settle on my skin and hair. I run my hands through my hair to try to smooth it, but it’s no use; the cooling gel only makes the curls get wilder.
Heat waves ripple over what remains of the black tar, disturbed by a random cactus here and there. A couple years ago they finally tore up the blacktop and attempted to plant some native greenery, but everything except the cactus had a hard time taking root. I take my time before my next class, soaking in the heat. Everyone else complains about it, but to me, the heat finds a way to sink into my soul and give me strength.
For the school to be spraying gel, the heat has to be extreme. Just before I walk back inside, I glance at the bright orange numbers of the thermometer plastered on the side of the school. It blinks one hundred and twenty-one degrees Fahrenheit, the uppermost boundary of the orange zone. The temperature hasn’t climbed this high since we moved to Austin four years ago. It rarely even reaches into orange at all, staying below one hundred and sixteen most of the time. I pull out my FON to double-check it, and it registers the same. One degree more and …
The sirens start blaring in an earsplitting pattern of high and low, up and down. One degree becomes a reality. The numbers turn red. The temperature reads one hundred and twenty-two. The risk of heat-related death doubles.
I step inside, and for a second, all the kids just look around at one another, like the sound hasn’t yet registered. Like they’re all waiting for someone else to move.
“It’s another drill,” one guy to my left says.
“Didn’t we just have a drill?” someone else asks.
I shake my head because I know this isn’t a drill; I’d seen the thermometer. But I don’t want to cause a panic. The principal comes on the intercom system and does the job for me.
“Report to your designated cooling areas immediately. This is not a drill.”
Realization sinks in, and the hall erupts in chaos. Since I’m on the Disaster Student Council, I need to help out. I push my way through the crowd until I escape into the science hallway. The concrete makes the sirens even louder as the sound bounces from one wall to the next, then off the floor and ceiling and straight into my ears. I check each classroom to make sure it’s empty, and then I circle back to the gym—the designated cooling area for our high school. I take up my position at the door on the far left and start directing kids inside.
We have drills every month. Drills consist of kids walking, talking, and making stupid jokes about the Global Heating Crisis. But there aren’t any jokes now. Just a whole lot of pushing and screaming and everything else they tell us not to do during a real disaster. That one degree has made everyone go crazy.
My job is to make sure everyone who comes through my door is accounted for. I stand to the side of the door and try to scan each person with my FON as they walk through. But the crowd’s too thick; I’ll have to wait until they’re inside.
Only three other student council members and I are already in position by the gym. Chloe’s supposed to be next to me, but she must be trapped in the crowd. I don’t want to think about her getting stuck outside in the heat. The last time she got too hot, she passed out.
I text her. where r u?
She responds in under five seconds. b there in a sec
When I look out across the crowd, I catch her waving.
My FON is almost back in my pocket when it vibrates again. I don’t have to look to know who it is.
“Hey, Mom.” I cover one ear with my free hand.
“Piper, why haven’t you answered? I’ve called you five times today.”
She’s actually called me seven times. “I’m at school, Mom.”
“You have to come home right now.”
“I can’t,” I yell over the sound of the sirens. Two kids start pushing to get through the door faster, but one of the teachers breaks it up. I motion them inside with my free hand.
“You have to.” Her pleading comes through even amid the disaster. She has to hear the sirens in the background. Does she think I’m going to just cut out in the middle of the crisis?
“I’ll be home when this is over.”
“Now, Piper.” And she uses her commanding voice. But it only makes me want to do the exact opposite of what she’s asking.
“I can’t leave,” I say. “They need me to help out.”
“It’s a heat bubble. It’s covering the whole city.”
I don’t speak as her words sink in. A heat bubble means we could be stuck with deadly temperatures for weeks. The last time one of the pockets of hot air formed, the city was evacuated. Almost a thousand people died.
“I’m here,” I say, but a sick feeling forms in the pit of my stomach. Heat bubbles are the newest, worst threat of the Global Heating Crisis. Cities all around the world are testing different ways to get rid of them, but it seems like the more done to combat them, the more frequent the bubbles become. Three months ago, one formed over Central America, and a third of the population died. They suffocated from the heat. Scientists called it the most horrible natural disaster since the tsunami fourteen years ago that wiped out most of Indonesia.
“The city’s going to disperse the bubble. And activate the domes,” my mom says.
Disperser missiles have never been tested on a real bubble. “But—” I start.
“Take cover. And get home before they seal the domes. Please,” she says, and then she ends the call.
I’m still holding my FON when Chloe shows up next to me. I give her a quick hug to reassure her—or maybe myself. “I was worried about you,” I say.
“Why? You know I love the heat.”
This is what I adore about Chloe. Even in disaster, she finds a way to stay upbeat. But with temperatures in the red zone, and given her last reaction to the heat, she needs to be extra careful. “There’s a heat bubble coming.”
Chloe hardly misses a beat. “Please tell me we’re not going to be stuck at school all weekend.”
I lean in and whisper right in her ear so no one else will hear. “They’re going to launch a missile.” And from what my mom’s heard, there’s no telling what a missile will do to the heat bubble. They’ve only been tested in the deserted regions of western Texas.
Chloe knows this. Her face pales. “They’re not.”
I can only nod because all of a sudden at least thirty freshmen are trying to get my attention. I give up entirely on scanning them and motion them all inside. If the city really is going to try to disperse the heat bubble, we need to get everyone behind the sealed doors.
“Let’s talk later,” I say, and Chloe nods.
It takes another few minutes before the hallway finally clears. Anyone stuck outside now is going to have to find some other shelter.
Once everyone’s in the gym, faculty members pull the doors closed. One of the teachers swipes his FON in front of a scanner, and thick walls of plastic start lowering to the ground, forming a shield to protect us from the outside. My entire body relaxes when the shields touch the floor. We’re going to be safe.
Most of the freshmen are sitting next to their friends, crying and consoling each other. I’m not going to stop them; most people do think the Global Heating Crisis will end the world. If the heat keeps getting worse, everything on Earth will die except maybe the cockroaches. Already most of the smaller vegetation is gone and people are crowding inland because of the rising sea levels.
Overhead, the giant industrial air conditioners kick in. The city has mandated they can only be turned on in times of disaster, and only then, set to cool to eighty-nine degrees. Otherwise, most of humanity has to settle for eco-friendly A/C, which cools to a toasty ninety-three degrees.
I take out my FON and scan each kid’s identifier until it beeps. One by one, I make my way down the line, but I stop when I notice a girl sitting against the gym wall with her knees pulled up against herself and tears running down her face. Her arms are covered in red blisters, and standing over her is some empathy-challenged sophomore girl and her boyfriend who even in the midst of disaster tries to act like he’s above it all, the heat be damned. The whole situation gets under my skin. I detest bullies.
I walk over to them. “What’s going on?”
The girl and her boyfriend spin around, and their eyes widen. But she recovers her composure quickly. “Nothing,” she says.
The girl on the ground scratches her blisters and stares straight ahead.
“Doesn’t look like nothing,” I say.
The sophomore girl puts her hands on her hips and shifts her stance. Any intimidation factor I had before is gone. She motions at the girl sitting against the wall. “She’s scared. And she’s freaking everyone out about it.”
I shift my stance to match hers because I’m not going to have some underclassman talking down to me. “Maybe you should be scared, too.” I know I am.
Her boyfriend pulls on her arm. “We should go.”
“Good idea,” I say. “You should go.”
Only once they walk away do I squat down next to the girl on the ground. “Hey, it’s going to be okay,” I say.
She bites her lip, but her tears are still coming.
I point at her blisters. “You’re allergic?”
She nods and then pulls her arms away and tries to move them to the inside of her legs.
She shouldn’t be embarrassed. One out of every ten people is allergic to the cooling gel, but this was deemed acceptable by the city council since it helps more people than it hurts. My mom was furious about the decision, but her vote was in the minority.
“I’m Piper,” I say.
The girl’s eyes finally meet mine. “Everyone knows who you are.”
“Only ’cause my mom’s on the city council,” I say.
“You know my mom swears fennel tea will help reduce the allergic effects of the gel.”
Hope fills the girl’s eyes. “Fennel tea?”
I nod. “It’s supposed to counteract the chemicals they use. We grow all sorts of it at home.”
“At the Botanical Haven?” she says.
“Yeah. The Botanical Haven.” Apparently everyone knows where I live, too. I guess that’s the price of living in the largest private greenhouse in town. “I’ll bring you some on Monday if you want to try it.”
“Really?” Her face lights up like I’ve told her I’ll be her best friend.
“Yeah, really,” I say. I give her a smile and stand up and am about to start scanning more kids when, over the wail of the sirens, there’s a boom so loud I feel it deep in my bones. It sounds like a bomb has dropped just outside the school walls. The ground rumbles, the bleachers rattle, and the A/C overhead gives a final clunk and turns off. All sense of order vanishes.
Someone shouts, “We’re all gonna die,” and people start screaming and crying. The sirens are still blaring, and the thermometer on the wall reads ninety-two. As I watch, it creeps up to ninety-three. Ninety-four.
Everyone’s eyes are fixed on it, like it’s some electronic symbol of their fate. I hold my breath. The sound from outside could only be the disperser missile. Maybe everyone is right. Maybe this will be the end of the world.
The temperature keeps rising. Ninety-five. Ninety-six. If the ventilation doesn’t kick back in with some fresh air, we’re in serious trouble. The gym won’t be unsealed unless the outside temperature drops.
The thermometer clicks to ninety-seven, and I think this is it. This is going to be the end. The missile failed, and the temperature outside is still rising and it’s going to keep getting hotter in here and we’re all going to run out of oxygen and die.
The sirens go silent.
And the thick plastic walls lift.
And then there’s the sound of the doors to the gym unsealing, and twelve hundred kids start cheering, myself included. Whatever the missile was supposed to do to disperse the heat bubble, it must’ve worked.
The principal comes back on the intercom.
“School is canceled for the rest of the day,” he says.
The cheering increases, and I can barely hear his next instructions, so I check my FON for the Emergency Alert System message instead. It reads: Domes being activated. Return home immediately.
One step outside, with no cooling gel, and it’s like an inferno. Even if the bubble’s dispersed, it could take hours for the hot air to drift away. The domes are supposed to help force the hot air out more quickly, which is part of why they’re being built, and why, once they’re sealed, they’ll stay that way until deactivated.
Overhead the school, the steel struts of Beta Dome extend into the sky. Twenty-four domes are being built above Austin, but only the first eight are operational so far—Alpha through Theta. Our Botanical Haven isn’t inside any of them, and I don’t want to be caught on the wrong side. My mom would freak, though I have to admit the thought of being away from my mom for a weekend is appealing. I could stay with Chloe. We could stay up late and watch ridiculous videos on the tube and eat popcorn and talk about which guys are hot and which ones she’d never date even if they were the last guys left on earth. But I keep walking.
I’m hardly out of Beta Dome when the glass starts to grow between the beams of steel. I can’t pull my eyes away. Inch by inch, the glass forms like the shell of some iridescent sea creature. It’s almost beautiful except for the fact that it’s separating me from my best friend. I watch until the dome is completely sealed, take a deep breath to drink in the heat, and then head home to face my mom.
Copyright © 2013 by Patricia Jedrziewski Hoover
Reader’s Guide copyright © 2013 by Tor Books