Aunt Paula and I were having breakfast when the Administrator summoned me. My first thought was that I was in trouble, maybe for the unsanctioned mural I’d done in the Bunker’s generator room. We looked at each other over spoonfuls of oatmeal, the Administrator’s message blinking blue on the wall screen.
“Fighting the Coulson brothers again, Miri?” she asked.
“They were teasing Britney!” I hesitated. “Do you think…with my birthday, could it be aptitude testing?”
“There was a backlog.” Aunt Paula was a test proctor. “Maybe it’s just finally your turn.”
I jumped up and squeezed around the table, hurrying to my room. I’d decorated it like the other Bunker girls did: photos from antique fashion magazines, papers I’d scored well on, sketches of my friends. I’d also hung up my paper targets – firearms champion in my age bracket three years running. I liked to think my parents would be proud.
I frowned at my reflection and pulled my hair into a bun. If I still had pimples on my forehead, at least my hair could look grown-up.
Aunt Paula was pacing the tiny kitchen. She smiled when she saw me, but it was a tight, forced smile. The summons on the screen was gone, replaced by a faux view of a sunny meadow.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“Everything’s fine.” She held up a small black tube.
“Wow – lipstick?” I’d never worn it before. Britney’s brother had brought her one from Outside, the expedition before he disappeared. All the girls coveted it.
“Special occasion.” She helped me apply it, a wine color that made me feel worldly and pretty. “Now, please be polite to the Administrator. And come straight home when you’re done, understand?”
I was already out the door. “Okay!”
I paced the Administrator’s office while I waited for his receptionist to find him. The walls bore paintings of long-lost landscapes: tropics, mountain forests, deserts more colorful than the one my dad had died in. Aunt Paula, having already lost her sister, formally protested when they sent him Out on expedition: I was five years old at the time, already motherless, what were they thinking?
The Administrator sent him anyway. Their best guess was that he got caught in a radiation storm, but no one ever found a body.
I sat on a threadbare green couch and instead daydreamed about my work placement. Maybe I could work in Hydroponics, or – I hardly dared dream it since I was so young – maybe my marksmanship scores were good enough that I could teach firearms classes.
“Miss Skye?” The Administrator emerged at last. “Thank you for coming on such short notice.” He looked busy, distracted – maybe he was remembering my dad – but he made eye contact and shook my hand. The receptionist stood behind him.
“I’m looking forward to taking the aptitude tests, sir.”
His handshake stopped. “Aptitude? Of course – you’ve just had your sixteenth birthday. Well, that isn’t why I called you here today.”
My wisp of a wish to teach marksmanship vanished.
“The truth is, we already know your greatest attribute, don’t we?” He clicked a remote and his wall screen displayed footage of me, eyes focused behind safety glasses as I emptied a rifle clip into the center of the target 300 yards away.
“You’re going Out.”
He said it like I should be proud. Other kids dreamed of going Out – maybe they’d find fuel, or fresh water, or some little luxury like makeup and be Bunker heroes – but my dad had gone on expeditions. I knew the most likely things you’d find Outside were sand and death.
“Your expedition leaves tomorrow morning,” he was saying. The receptionist handed me a requisition chip for my gear. Her smile was tight, like Aunt Paula’s had been.
“What about my test?” I whispered. I could feel the stupid lipstick flaking. “My aunt said there’s a backlog.”
The Administrator shifted. “Yes, there’s…well, the truth is our greatest need is explorers, like you. The Bunker requires some very specialized equipment, and we’re sending many explorers Out to find it. Think you’re up to the challenge?”
The fighting. The graffiti. My mind raced: Britney’s brother had gotten caught distilling alcohol. And Sarah’s mom had gone Out after those rumors of hoarding rations…
“You’ll do our Bunker proud, Miss Skye.”
The requisition chip cut into my palm as I clenched my fists. There would be no argument; the best revenge I could get would be to come back alive.