A Million Suns (Across the Universe #2)

Chapter 2

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Elder mocked me for praying once, and I spent an hour berating him for that. He ended up throwing up his hands, laughing, and telling me I could believe whatever I wanted if I was going to hold onto my beliefs so hard. The ironic thing is that now everything about me, including whatever it was I once believed in, is slipping through my fingers.

It was simpler before. Easier. Everything was all laid out. My parents and I would be cryogenically frozen. We would wake up after three hundred years. The planet would be there, waiting for us.

The only thing on the agenda that actually happened is that we were all frozen. But then I was woken up early—no. No. He woke me up earlier. Elder. I can’t let myself forget that. I can’t let myself ever forget that the reason I’m here is his fault. I can’t let the three months that have passed between us wipe out the lifetime he took away.

For a moment, I think of Elder’s face—not handsome and noble like I know it now, but blurry and watery like the first time I saw him, as he crouched over my naked, shivering body after pulling me from the dredges of the glass coffin where he found me. I remember the warm cadence of his voice, the way he told me everything would be okay.

What a liar.

Except . . . that’s not true, is it? Of everyone on this ship, even the frozen bodies of my parents, Elder’s the only one who handed me truth and waited for me to accept it.

The watery image of Elder comes into sharp focus in my mind’s eye. And I’m not seeing him through the cryo liquid anymore; I’m remembering him in the rain. That night on the Feeder Level, when the sprinklers in the ceiling dumped “rain” on our heads so heavy that the flowers bent under the force, when I was still scared and still unsure, and droplets trailed from the ends of Elder’s hair across his high cheekbones, resting on his full lips . . .

I shake my head. I can’t hate him. But neither can I . . . Well, I can’t hate him, anyway.

The one I can hate? Orion.

I wrap my arms around my knees and look up at the frozen faces of my parents. The worst part of being woken up early, without your parents, on a ship that’s as messed up as this one is, is that there’s nothing to fill your days but time and regret.

I don’t know who I am here. Without my parents, I’m not a daughter. Without Earth, I barely even feel human. I need something. Something to fill me up again. Something to define myself by.

Another drop splashes down.

It’s been ninety-eight days since I woke up. Over three months. And what should have been fifty years before we land has become nothing but a question mark. Will we even land?

That’s the question that brings me down here every day. The question that makes me open my parents’ cryo chambers and stare at their frozen bodies. Will we ever land? Because if this ship is truly lost in space with no chance of ever reaching the new planet . . . I can wake my parents up.

Only . . . I promised Elder I wouldn’t. I asked him, about a month ago, what was the point of keeping my parents frozen? If we’re never going to land, why not just wake them up now?

When his eyes met mine, I could see sympathy and sorrow in them. “The ship is going to land.”

It took me a while to realize what he meant. The ship will land. Just not us. So—I keep my promise to him, and to my parents. I won’t wake them up. Not when there’s still a chance their dream of arriving at the new world is possible.

For now I’m willing to let that chance be enough. But in another ninety-eight days? Maybe then I won’t care that the ship might still land. Maybe then I will be brave enough to push the reanimation button and let these cryo boxes melt all the way.

I lean up so my eyes are level with my father’s, even though his are sealed shut and behind inches of blue-specked ice. I trace my finger along the glass of the cryo chamber, outlining his profile. The glass, already fogged from the heat of the room, smooths under my touch, leaving a shiny outline of my father’s face. The cold seeps into my skin, and I flash to the moment—just a fraction of a second—when I felt cold before I felt nothing.

I can’t remember what my father looks like when he smiles. I know his face can move, his eyes wrinkle with laughter, his lips twitch up. But I can’t remember it—and I can’t envision it as I stare through the ice.

This man doesn’t look like my father. My father was full of life and this . . . isn’t. I suppose my father is in there, somewhere, but . . .

I can’t see him.

The cryo chambers thud back into place, and I slam the doors shut with a crash.

I stand slowly, not sure of where to go. Past the cryo chambers, toward the front of the level is a hallway full of locked doors. Only one of those doors—the one with the red paint smudge near the keypad—opens, but through it is a window to the stars outside.

I used to go there a lot because the stars made me feel normal. Now they make me feel like the freak that nearly everyone on board says I am. Because really? I’m the only one who truly misses them. Of all the two-thousand-whatever people on this ship, I’m the only one who knows what it is to lie in the grass in your backyard and reach up to capture fireflies floating lazily through the stars. I’m the only one who knows that day should fade into night, not just click on and off with a switch. I’m the only one who’s ever opened her eyes as wide as she can and still see only the heavens.

I don’t want to see the stars anymore.

Before I leave the cryo level, I check the doors of my parents’ chambers to make sure they locked properly. A ghost of an X remains on my father’s door. I trace the two slashes of paint with my fingers. Orion did this, marking which people he planned to kill next.

I turn, looking toward the genetics lab across from the elevator. Orion’s body is frozen inside.

I could wake him up. It wouldn’t be as easy as pushing a reanimation button, like waking my parents would be, but I could do it. Elder showed me how the cryo chambers were different; he showed me the timer that could be set for Orion’s reanimation, the order of the buttons that needed to be pushed. I could wake him up, and as he sputtered back to life, I could ask the question that hollows me out every time I look at his bulging eyes through the ice.

Why?

Why did he kill the other frozens? Why did he mark my father as the next one to kill?

But more importantly, why did he start killing now?

Orion may believe that the frozen military personnel will force the people born on the ship to be soldiers or slaves . . . but why did he start unplugging them when planet-landing is impossibly far away?

He’d hidden from Eldest for years before Elder woke me. He could have stayed hidden if he hadn’t started killing.

So I guess my real question isn’t just why, but . . .

Why now?

3

ELDER

I STARE AT MARAE, MY MOUTH HANGING OPEN. “WH-WHAT the frex do you mean?” I finally stammer.

Marae rolls her shoulders back, straightening her spine and making herself appear even taller. My eyes flicker to the other Shippers, but I notice that hers do not. She doesn’t need them to affirm who she is or what she believes. “You have to understand, Eld . . . Elder,” Marae says. “Our primary duty as Shippers is not to fix the engine.”

My voice rises with anger and indignation. “Of course your frexing duty is to fix the engine! The engine is the most important part of the whole ship!”

Marae shakes her head. “But the engine is only a part of the ship. We have to focus on Godspeed as a whole.”

I wait for her to continue as the engine churns noisily behind us, the heartbeat of the ship.

“There are many things wrong with Godspeed; surely you’ve noticed.” She frowns. “The ship isn’t exactly new. You know about the laws of motion, but have you studied entropy?”

“I . . . um.” I glance around at the other first-level Shippers. They’re all watching me, waiting, and I don’t have the answer they want to hear.

“Everything’s constantly moving to a more chaotic state. A state of disorder, destruction, disintegration. Elder,” Marae says, and this time she doesn’t stutter over my chosen name. “Godspeed is old. It’s falling apart.”

I want to deny it, but I can’t. The whirr-churn-whirr of the engine sounds like a death rattle ricocheting throughout the room. When I shut my eyes, I don’t hear the churning gears or smell the burning grease. I hear 2,298 people gasping for breath; the stench of 2,298 rotting bodies fills my nose.

This is how fragile life is on a generation spaceship: the weight of our existence rests on a broken engine.

Eldest told me three months ago, Your job is to take care of the people. Not the ship. But . . . taking care of the ship is taking care of the people. Behind the Shippers are the master controls, monitoring the energy sources applied to the rest of the ship’s function. If I were to smash the control panel behind Marae, there would be no more air on the ship. Destroy another panel, no more water. That one, light. That other one, the gravity sensors go. It’s not just the engine that’s the heart of the ship. It’s this whole room, everything in it, pulsing with just as much life as the 2,298 people on this level and the one below.

Marae holds her hand out, and Second Shipper Shelby automatically passes her a floppy already blinking with information. Marae swipes her fingers across it, scrolling down, then hands it to me. “This past week alone we’ve had to perform two major fixes to the internal fusion compartment of the solar lamp. Soil efficiency is way below standard specs, and the irrigation system keeps leaking. Food production has barely been sufficient for over a year, and we’ll soon be facing a shortage. Work production has decreased significantly in the last two months. It’s no small thing to keep this ship alive.”

“But the engine,” I say, staring at the floppy, full of charts with arrows pointing down and bar graphs with short stumps at the end.

“Frex the engine!” Marae shouts. Even the other Shippers break their immobile masks to look shocked at Marae’s cursing. She takes a deep, shaky breath and pinches the bridge of her nose between her eyes. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“It’s fine,” I mutter, because I know she won’t go on until I say this.

“Our duty, Elder, is clear,” Marae continues, clipping her words and holding her temper in check. “Ship over planet. If there is a choice between improving the life aboard the ship and working on the engine to get us closer to Centauri-Earth, we must always choose the ship.”

I grip the floppy, unsure of what to say. Marae rarely reveals what she’s feeling, and she never loses control. I’m not used to seeing anything on her face beyond calm composure. “Surely we could make some sacrifices in order to get the engine back up to speed. . . .”

“Ship over planet,” Marae says. “That has been our priority since the Plague and the Shippers were developed.”

I’m not going to let this go. “That’s been . . .” I try to add up the years, but our history is too muddled by lies and Phydus to know exactly how long that’s been. “Gens and gens have passed since the ‘Plague.’ Even if the ship is the top priority, in that amount of time, we must have come up with some way to improve the engine and get us to the planet.”

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