I’ve got two old shirts wrapped around my mouth and nose but, even so, I can still feel the dust coating my teeth, prickling on my tongue, and the thought of breathing it in, of swallowing it, is making me feel sick, The world is gyrating insanely, like a child’s spinning top just before it tumbles over. I close my eyes but it only makes things worse. My gut churns and the little food that I had for breakfast leaps into my throat.
I fight back the urge to puke, swallowing hard, afraid that it will only mean gulping in more of the fucking dust. Forcing down the razor-sharp bile that’s slicing at my throat brings tears to my eyes.
I drop to one knee, causing another cloud of the dust to rise up around me, and cradle my head in my hands, praying for the nausea to end.
I feel a touch on my shoulder and look up into Areus’s solemn gaze. He is wearing his heavy rebreather mask, the one everyone covets but no one dares to touch. There’s something insectile about the way he looks with that mask on. It makes him even more intimidating.
“Are you okay?” He asks, his voice muffled by the rebreather.
I shake my head. “You?”
Areus stands up straight, looking out at the plain of dust that stretches to the horizon in every direction, broken only by scattered fragments of shattered buildings. He draws back his shoulders and raises his head against the slight flick of wind. He’s imperious. I can see why some of the younger ones practically worship him. With his long dark hair and heavily muscled torso, he has the look of a demi-god.
Then he swoops and kneels beside me, leaning close and never once breaking eye-contact. There’s something in the way he looks at me that is chilling. I have been assessed and I have failed to meet his standards.
“It’s only dust,” he says. “Get back to work.”