Even as they were plugging her into the machine, they were stressing that she was a volunteer.

“You know that you don’t have to do this, Kate,” the doctor said.

And then a hand was brushing back her bangs to rest on her forehead. Kate opened her eyes but saw nothing more than a collage of blurred shapes and colors.

Elf,” she muttered.

“What a pretty word?” asked a feminine voice. “What does it mean?”

Mom?” said Kate, rising onto her elbows and blinking until the world came into focus.

Her bed was a mass of woven reeds, soft and edgy. Her mother was sitting cross-legged to one side on the red, sandy ground.

“You must have been having a bad dream,” she said, patting Kate’s hand.

Everything was intact in Kate’s world, confusing but at the same time so normal as to be unnoticed: her mother’s gracefully pointed ears, the crimson walls of their caves and the slight acidic glow of the walls that never dimmed. All things were as they should be but she knew deep loneliness.

“I think I did have a bad dream,” said Kate, slipping out from under the covers.

“I was going to wake you for lunch, but you seemed so peaceful. But now it’s time for dinner, and you’re eating even if I have to make you.”

Kate slipped on red sandals, leggings and a loose shirt that matched the walls before joining her family in the dining area, where her sister was already cross-legged at the table with her father.

“Kyla?” Kate asked, rubbing her eyes.

“We learned history at school today,” said Kyla, who was four.

“Why don’t you tell Kate what you learned today,” said her father.

“We learned about Orona,” she said, “and how we all used to live there before the savers came.”

“Savers?” asked Kate.

“Slavers, honey. She means the Anoushians. Go on, little one.”

“And how they took us all in a big ship to come live at Anousha to work for them. And then we didn’t want to work and we went to the caves and how they’ll never, ever find us here in the world.”

Kate rolled her eyes.

“Come on now,” said her mother, who’d finally sat down. “What’s the matter with you? When you were four, they taught you the same thing.”

“But it’s n-o-t-t-r-u-e.”

“No spelling,” said Kyla.

“We’re safe here,” said her father. “Now eat, before you drive your mom crazy.”

That night, when the rest of the family had gone to bed, Kate roamed the familiar caverns and tunnels, feeling oddly like she was reacquainting herself with an old friend. Orona was an outside place, but though she’d been born in the caves, it was like she could close her eyes and know what that really meant. And there was the dream of open waters, metals and strange people.

“Hey Kate,” came a voice from a greenish shadow, “There’s a rumor going around that we’re going to have to move again.”

“Shut up, Tanie,” she answered. “My father says it’s safe here.”

“It’s true and you know it.”

A young man, dressed in approximately the same clothing Kate was wearing, that everyone wore, stepped into the light.

Some of us are hanging out by the pools. Want to come?”

“Not really,” said Kate, pushing past him.

“Suit yourself,” he called after.

She found out he was right, coming home late the next morning to find her parents crouched over the rolled up form of their belongings and speaking in hushed tones while Kyla absorbed herself in wrapping up a reed doll to make her own bundle.

“The A-n-o-u-s-h-i-a-n-s are c-o-m-i-n-g,” said her mother.

“I said no spelling,” said Kyla, halfheartedly.

“I know,” Kate said.

“How could you possibly know?”

“I just do.”

She did.

“We’re moving further back into the caves tomorrow,” said her father. “The front post was a-t-t-a-c-k-e-d.”

They traveled in a long line for two days before someone from another family far in the back went from group to group bringing the news that they were being followed and that the enemy was close behind. The elders were at the front of the trail that led deeper into the world, passing instruction down the line and choosing the route. On the third day, word came that the elders knew of a network of maze-like caves where everyone would be able to hide safely. They kept on.

A day later, the firing started from far down the tunnel and voices screaming, “run, run!” Kate scooped Kyla into her arms and was caught up in a wave of people all running for their lives toward the cavern that was supposed to save them.

At first there was silence, then the sound of destruction, of rocks exploding, shattering into the sand and, Kate imagined, heated debris fusing into glass. People were streaming into the wide mouth of the cavern, past the boulder she was ducking behind and into the caves beyond. She saw Kyla, who she had finally let down when fatigue had won over, was with one group, trailing on the end of a family running with linked hands. She let go and stepped over to Kate’s hiding place when she saw her. Kate pulled her down.

“No, little one, you have to go with them. Find mom and dad, and tell them I’m waiting for the Anoushians.”

“Make it all better?”

“I’m trying, Kyla. You have to go hide with the others.”

“Make it better,” Kyla said in a tone that seemed too stern for a four-year-old, before joining another group of runners and disappearing.

If that isn’t responsibility, I don’t know what is, thought Kate, still wondering what to do while the density of the runner groups diminished and the sound of the Anoushian troops got louder. She waited, watching the last few dash into the cavern.

“There are no more,” called a young boy who looked like one of Tanie’s younger brothers. “I’m it.”

Kate stood up and walked out from behind the boulder. Somewhere in her mind, a hazy history of nervous days, embarrassing situations and fearful nights alone dissipated like fog in sunshine. She watched the boy until he was out of sight and then pivoted to face the dark opening. The sound of firefighting had stopped, but the rumble of thousands of feet marching in unison grew steadily louder. She dug into her pocket and found something, just where it should be. A word came to mind: Device. She pulled it out and flipped the switch.

Alone, the fire-flash, which hit only the rock at the far wall, shook her, but she stood firm until the first Anoushian came into view. She’d never seen one in person and found, that when certain things were overlooked-sunken eyes, rounded ears and pug noses-they weren’t very different. Nevertheless, Kate lifted the device and pointed it at the mouth of the cavern.

“Stay out,” she yelled and pressed a sequence of buttons.

A thread of blue light shot out from the small black and gray box and gracefully wove a barrier, separating the troops from the cavern. They fired at it, but it held, and Kate placed the device, which was still sending out its glowing line, onto the ground. That done, she walked back to her place behind the boulder, sat down with her back propped against the large stone and fell asleep.

Many people calling her name at once woke her. When she opened her eyes, the twenty-four elders were standing in a group before her, vying for space and interrupting each other.

“What it is?”

“Are we truly safe?

“I’ve never seen anything like that before!”

“Tell us where it came from.”

“I don’t know,” said Kate.

They looked at one another, relieved and puzzled.

“It just came to me,” she continued. “And I don’t mean the idea. I don’t know where I got the device, but I know how to use it.”

“Device?” a number of the elders said at once.

“It’s called a device, and no, I don’t know what the word means.”

“Gentlemen,” said one of the elders, “It is as I saw in my dream. The device is that which will send us home to Orona, where we will be free. The thing of the others, who have answered our prayers.”

Kate bent to look around the boulder and saw that the Anoushians had left. She knew, as they all must have, that they had not given up and would be back.

“To use the device,” she said, “you’re going to have to turn it off and that will mean leaving the cavern unprotected.”

The elders nodded.

“If you bring the people deeper into the caverns, I’ll try to draw the Anoushians away from here,” she said, firm in her conviction, and ready.

She explained how to turn on the device and how to scan their bodies to send themselves back to Orona. Then, standing and taking a moment to flex, she walked over to the device, switched it off, kicked it toward the elders and started to run in the direction the Anoushians had come from. She didn’t run long before a sentry fired on her, missed and called out to his comrades. She ran past him, ignoring the stitch in her side, and into a cave, where she frantically searched for a way out but found nothing.

“I’ll block this tunnel until I’m dead,” Kate lied as fire rained down around her. Her guard ended when a chunk of rock fell from the ceiling and crashed into her head.

When Kate came to, she was in pain and somehow knew that no matter how hard she tried, she wouldn’t be able to move. Bright light held the world prisoner, making the sand and rock glow white, and granting moving shapes halos. But she was comfortable even through the pain, laying in the shade of some kind of grotto, the lip of which she could just see if she rolled her eyes up as far as they would go. That the moving shapes were people was something that became evident after her eyes adjusted. Not her people, but human beings of all races, though she didn’t know why or how she knew that.

“Her blood pressure is dropping,” said a voice.

It struck her that she should feel the grit beneath her body, should acknowledge the hurt that’s flowing up and down her legs. She knew she was going to die. Too tired to care, she watched a little boy, an Asian, grab his mother’s hand and pull the confused woman into the shade. So close, all Kate saw was their sandal-clad feet and golden yellow ankles.

“Who is this woman?” asked the boy.

“I do not know, my son,” answered the woman.

“Why isn’t she moving?”

The woman is dying.”

The little boy knelt down in the sand, put his face close to Kate’s and grinned. She tried to smile back and failed. He crawled past her so that his feet were next to her head.

“I like her,” he told his mother. “Bring the bird back to life.”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “Her soul is already dead.”

“Save it, save it, save it,” he said, “and I will be good all day.”

She sighed and sat down in the sand beside her son. Kate was still watching, though without enthusiasm or true comprehension. The mother shifted her seat and brought the limp body of a little white bird into Kate’s line of vision.

She’s coming back to us,” said the voice.

“Look,” she said, stroking the animal.

Kate closed her eyes and listened to the faint pulse of blood in her ears, like footsteps in the distance.

“There now,” said the mother.

The little boy giggled and Kate fell asleep.

Most of the people were gone, giving the world a stillness so complete that it made Kate shiver as she stood and walked through the empty caverns to the traveling place. Her parents, two of the last, were sitting side by side on a low bench, holding the device.

“You are not my mother and father,” she said plainly, “and yet you are.”

“And you,” said her father, “are not our daughter, but will always be.”

It’s insane. How can it be possible?”

He shrugged. Her mother was crying.

You left me to die,” said Kate.

“We waited for you,” said her father.

“We had to leave you,” her mother suddenly sobbed. “It was the only way, to sacrifice you to save our race. They told us that you have to be left behind or we will be trapped forever.”

Kate nodded and turned to walk away as Kyla ran past, straight into their mother’s arms.

“No.” Her father took her firmly by the wrist and brought her back around. “You will come with us.”

Kyla clapped. He held her with one hand and flipped the device’s switch with the other. The lights danced as he moved box up her arm and around her shoulders while it beeped out its cadence of impossible rhythms meant to send them all to a home none of them had ever seen. When it was complete, he released her.

“My turn?” asked Kyla.

“Not yet.”

They waited. Her family, even the little one, had eyes full of hope, but Kate didn’t care whether she made it or lived out the rest of her life as the Anoushians’ only remaining slave. Leaving now was just as confusing as staying.

“Your turn, little one,” her father said after nothing happened.

Kyla was scanned and then their mother. Both disappeared within moments, just like in the stories of sorcery vaguely remembered from some childhood. Her father flipped the device’s switch, turning it off. Kate backed away and shook her head.

“You don’t belong here,” she said.

“You don’t either.” He dropped the device. “None of us do.”

It hit the sand just as Kate, blinded by a flash of light in her head, started to fall. Her father was too slow to catch her, but he rushed to her side and landed cross-legged on the ground beside her.

“Now you can go,” she said and blacked out.

Blind, Kate tugged and struggled at unseen straps holding her wrists and ankles. She opened her mouth to scream but the air in her mouth and nose was so cold she was shocked silent.

“She’s doing it again, and we won’t be able to keep stabilizing her forever,” said a voice.

Someone was brushing aside her bangs.

“Katie? Can you hear me?”

Red light illuminated the tracks of blood vessels in her eyelids.

“I think that’s it. She’s too far gone.”

“We killed her, doc.”

“She saved them. Hell, we saved them. It was voluntary and she knew what she was doing.”

Saved who, she wondered, and then it came flooding back: the world, the Anoushians and Orona, Kyla and the elders, her life before. She pulled at the straps but they held fast.

“I’m going to put her on a Diprovan drip.”

Let me die,” Kate whispered.

“Doc, did you hear that? Katie, say something, let us know you’re okay.”

The red light appeared again.

“I think you’re imagining things. You should get some sleep. I can handle things from here.”

“I’m not imagining things. Listen.”

Let me die.” She was hurt and tired and wanted to sleep, “Let me.”

There was a clatter of metal scraping on metal.

“You know she deserves it, doc. First contact.”

“Yeah, but you do it.

She could feel light again, but not red and green or searing white or in pulses, this time, and she wasn’t cold anymore. A hand was holding hers.

“Wake up, sleepyhead,” said her mother, “and let it go. The dreaming is over.”

Somewhere, rooms away, Kyla was laughing.

Terminal illness means tomorrow's not guaranteed. It changes the way you live.

What is my five year plan?

Does it matter if you can't be sure you'll be around after five years?

All this talk of mindfulness and living in the moment, but yeah, it takes on a whole new significance if your universe could come to an end any second.

But you know what? I'm not special. It's not just me. It's you. Life itself is a terminal illness. Most people just forget.

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