“My report,” Doc says, sliding a floppy across the desk as he sits down.
Before I look at it, I say, “Will Evie be okay?”
Doc nods. “The Phydus patch is just like any other med patch—it’s just that the meds inside it are a variation of Phydus. It’s strong enough to act quickly, but I’ve also developed an antidote patch, just in case.”
I’m still hesitant about using Phydus in any form, but at least there’s an antidote. I let the subject drop.
For a moment, I consider telling Doc what I now know about the ship, how we’re stopped. If Eldest had known, he would have told Doc. But I’m not Eldest, and Doc’s not my friend. Instead of speaking, I examine the report Doc handed me.
SHIP HEALTH EVALUATION REPORT
Previous ship population: 2,298
Current ship population: 2,296
Fluctuations in population: -2
Jordy, Rancher: suicide
Ellemae, Greenhouse Keeper: complications in external injuries
Disease and injuries:
+3 infection due to previous wounds
+18 gastroenteritis due to improper food preparation
+6 workplace injuries
+9 self-inflicted injuries and violence
+43 alcohol-related problems (poisoning, injuries, etc.)
Psychological and health issues
+2 deviant sexual behavior
I click on the deaths and read the names carefully, memorizing them. Because here’s the simple truth—if I hadn’t taken the ship off Phydus, people like Jordy and Ellemae would still be alive. And while I could say that a shorter life with feelings is better than a longer life without, the dead can’t tell me their side.
I pause at the malnourished and overfed. Some of this is linked with the hoarding, I’m sure. People are afraid they won’t have enough food later, so they’re saving it now rather than eating it. Or they’re eating as much as they can before supplies run out.
I can’t help but think of Bartie’s warning. The way to a revolution is through people’s stomachs.
When I get to the end of the report, I ask, “Two new pregnancies?”
Doc takes the floppy back and reads over it, even though he must know what’s on it. “Oh, yes,” he says. “Both had lived in the Ward and chosen not to participate in the Season. They have, however, since decided to procreate.”
“Doc,” I say, curiosity making my voice rise. “If we wanted to increase the ship’s population, then the Season’s not very effective, is it?”
Doc swipes the floppy off and sets it on his desk, poking one side until it’s square with the desk mat. “I, er, why do you say that?”
I lean forward, sitting on the edge of my chair. “I used to think that the Season was just the way things were, like how the animals mate on schedule. But it’s pretty obvious now that the Season isn’t natural. And if it’s something engineered by you and Eldest, and if we’re still trying to rebuild our population from the so-called Plague . . . well, the Season doesn’t make sense, does it? One mating Season per gen? That would reduce our population, not recoup it. . . .”
My voice trails off, but Doc doesn’t answer right away. The more I speak, the more I realize how right I am. The Season is just a frexing loon method to rebuild a population.
“Well, for some gens we had two Seasons,” Doc says defensively. “And we’ve engineered it so many couples have multiple births.”
For a moment we both stare at each other.
“It started a few gens ago,” Doc says finally. His voice is hollow; it’s like he’s confessing a sin to me. “We figured it would be best to slow the population growth. We’re having trouble producing enough food as it is.”
“What happens when we can’t produce enough food?” I ask.
Doc looks at me silently, and I can tell he’s evaluating whether or not he will tell me. With the Shippers, I can demand truth and be assured they’ll give it. But with Doc, I have to wait and hope. Doc was in favor of Eldest’s use of Phydus, and he was in favor of Orion’s methods—after all, he was the one who kept Orion alive when Eldest ordered him killed. But I don’t think Doc has made up his mind yet on whether or not I’m a good enough replacement for either of these men.
Apparently, though, I can be trusted with the truth. At least in this case. He finally says, “Eldest had thought of that. We have in storage a supply of over 3,000 black med patches.”
“Black?” I ask. I’d never seen patches that were black.
Doc nods curtly. “In the event that the ship is no longer capable of sustaining life, the black patches will be distributed to the ship’s population.”
And now I understand what the black patches are for. A quick death, rather than a slow one.
I PROP HARLEY’S LAST PAINTING UP ON MY BED AND STAND back. His laughing eyes are even with my own, but there’s no Mona Lisa–like illusion that he’s looking at me.
“So,” I say aloud to painted Harley, “just where is this clue Orion says is here?”
I’m hesitant to touch the paint—I don’t want to do anything to damage it. Instead, I scan the painting with my eyes, looking for some hidden message from Orion.
I get lost in the image—there’s Harley’s face, and the stars, and the tiny koi fish swimming around his ankle. There are all the memories. How can someone I knew for so short a time have left such an indelible print on my soul? Seeing him look this way, so happy and free, makes me remember that something about Harley, that spark, that joy, that something that makes me wish he was still here, now.
I force my eyes to unfocus, to look past the image and into the paint. But there’s nothing there.
I run my hands along the paint-splattered sides of the canvas. Nothing.
Then I flip it over.
I’ve never really looked at the back of the painting before. But now that I do, I notice a faint, almost invisible sketch made with a piece of charcoal or pencil from the looks of it. I squint, lean in closer, then pick the whole painting up and hold it up to the light.
A small animal—this isn’t Harley’s sketching; his pictures were much more realistic. This cartoonish creature looks a little like a hamster, but with huge, exaggerated ears . . . a bunny. And beside it, a circle . . . or, rather, a flattened circle that’s more of an oval. In the center of the circle is a tiny square that looks like one of those super-thin memory cards Mom had for her fancy camera. It’s stuck to the canvas with something tacky, but when I slip my fingernail under the edge of it, it pops right off.
I hold the object up on the tip of my index finger. Black plastic encases a thin gold strip of metal woven with silver threads of circuitry. What is this? It seems so familiar. I turn it over, but the other side is just hard plastic.
And then it hits me—I have seen something like this before. I rush to my desk and pick up the small screen that showed Orion’s first video. Connected to a small port in the corner of the screen is an identical piece of square black plastic. The thing from the back of Harley’s painting is like a memory card . . . if I could just figure out how to swap it with the one already there.
I squint at the back of the painting again, hoping for some other clue. And there, just under the sketch, are tiny words, barely legible.
Follow me down the rabbit hole.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” I say.
It takes Elder about 2.5 seconds to reach my room after I com him.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, skidding through the door.
I laugh at the way his eyes search my room, looking for a dragon to slay for his damsel in distress. “How’d you get here so quick?”
“I was in Doc’s office.”
The laughter fades. In the quiet, I’m reminded of the name he called me, freak, and the shape of Elder’s lips as he formed the word.
“Listen, Amy, I’m sorry.” I start to open my mouth, but Elder continues. “Seriously. I never meant to say that. I’m really sorry.”
“I’m sorry too,” I say, looking down at my hands. It’s silly for me to dwell on one word said in anger when we have the whole ship to think of.
Silence spreads between us, but at least he doesn’t look away from me.
“So,” Elder says finally, “what’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” I say. “Just . . . strange. I found this.”
I hold out the small black chip I peeled from the back of Harley’s painting and the screen I found in Dante’s Inferno.
“A mem card and a dedicated vid screen!” Elder says, laughing. “I haven’t seen these in years! Floppies pretty much replaced them.”
“How do you use this mem card thing?” I ask, offering it to him.
“A dedicated vid is just a digital membrane screen,” Elder says as he gently pops out the original memory card and replaces it with the new one. The square chip snaps to the screen as if there was a magnetic pull between them. “It’s like a floppy, but you have to have a mem card in the back to make them work.” He places the old mem card on the edge of my desk, then flips the dedicated vid over and swipes his finger across the screen. A glowing square pops up.
“Here, let me,” I say, taking the video screen from him and pressing my thumb onto it. The glowing box fades away, replaced with a video that starts playing automatically.
“That’s . . . that’s the cryo level,” I whisper. The angle makes it look like security camera footage.
Elder shakes his head. “That’s not possible; the cams down there were destroyed before Orion started to . . .”
Started unplugging the other frozens.
For several moments, nothing happens on the screen. I’m just about to ask Elder if it’s paused or broken when there’s movement at the corner of the video.
A shadow first, snaking across the floor like a clawed hand.
And then . . .
“That’s me,” Elder whispers.
I glance at him, unsure of why his tone is so high and worried.
“Let’s—uh. Let’s not watch this. I don’t think we should watch this.” His hand moves to stop the video, but I snatch it away.
“Why?” I demand.
Elder bites his lip, worry smeared across his face.
The Elder on the screen creeps forward. There’s no sound to the video, which makes it even weirder when on-screen Elder stops as if he’s heard something. After a moment, he turns to the square door that looks like it belongs in a morgue. He twists it open and slides the tray out.
And then I’m not looking at Elder anymore. I’m looking at me.
That’s me, frozen in ice. So still. I look dead. Horror curls my lip. That’s my flesh, my body. Naked. That’s Elder, looking at my naked body.
“Elder!” I screech, and smack him upside his head.
“I didn’t know you then!” he says.
“I didn’t know you were such a creeper!” I shout back.READ MORE >>