Vera rotated the lever to transfer the next set of refugees into the airlock. Below, the Earth glowed red like a blossoming rose in a time-lapse video, the petals unfolding, spreading out across the seas.
“Do we have an update on the toll?” She asked Avery through her com link.
Avery sighed. “You’re just torturing yourself; you know.”
The elevator compartment opened the doors for the people to move into the airlock. Vera pushed a few buttons and waited for the people to empty, then re-set it for descent. The space station had four elevators. Just four. Each elevator could fit 750, but just 500 had boarded before the timed lift-off. Avery said, “So far we’ve rescued 5,358.”
The rose unfolded another petal across the Atlantic. Another wave of heat, killing all in its path. But she felt nothing from so far away. The space station elevator room ran a little chilly. It didn’t seem fair. Had her sister escaped? The closest elevator to Nebraska lifted out of Chicago. Not the one she operated. Would Riley even have had the strength to push through the terrified, desperate crowds in the city?
Vera pressed the approval button and the elevator compartment shot down, down into the red. Twelve minutes to land.
Riley’s smiles had never reached her eyes in those bikini photos. Vera should’ve figured it out from that. At the very least, she should have known from the family reunion when Riley had swiveled from the mirror with a frozen grimace like a modern medusa. But she hadn’t. Tragedy looked like beauty from far away, and Vera had been so far away for so long, longer than she’d worked at the space station.
The elevator dinged, signaling that it had reached the surface once more. Ten minutes for boarding. How many people would make it on? 300? 350?
Riley had texted her three days ago, before everything. “Miss you, Vera.” At first, the same thoughts had clamored in her mind: how her hair had darkened to brown while Riley’s had brightened to gold. How she was the astronaut, she had trained for the stars, and still her sister had outshone her at that stupid family reunion.
But then, yesterday, she’d noticed something in Riley’s picture. The angle showed something in the mirror behind her: the jutting of her hips, and the bumps of her spine through her shirt. Riley had mastered selfies a long time ago, she’d sent this picture on purpose. A distress call.
Vera had texted back, then. “Can I call you?”
And then the solar flare had reached its long arm out and dripped seeds of fire onto Earth. Her sister’s phone, like everyone else’s, no longer had service to space or service at all. Her sister had reached out, but Vera hadn’t responded in time. She’d disconnected from the surface for so long, maybe she’d lost that thing called empathy. Was that why she watched this tragedy, and instead of crying, she wondered at its beauty and observed how unfairly it resembled a flower?
The rose grew outward, blossoming to full, showing all its folds and all its bones, its mockery of beauty billowing. So far away. What did it look like on the ground, those waves of heat and storms of flame? Did Riley feel that way inside, like a burned and smoking shell, crying out for anyone to see her ablaze?
Ten minutes had passed. 623 people had made it on, a bigger batch, and the elevator shot back up on its timed schedule.
Not something to be jealous of.
“419 more from Chicago,” he said. She swallowed. Maybe she’d see Riley up close again, as she should be seen.