A Million Suns (Across the Universe #2)

Chapter 4

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“Give me your hand.”

I raise my arm obediently, then hesitate, drawing it closer to me. Doc snatches my wrist before I have a chance to object and slips the bracelet wi-com over my hand. He tightens it quickly—not enough to cut off my circulation, but enough to stop it from slipping off my wrist. Before I can say anything, Doc secures the wires with a metal cinch.

“You’ll have to hold it to your mouth to speak,” he says. “And then hold it to your ear to hear coms. There’s an amplifier there.” He points to the tiny black mesh that circles the button. This whole thing is smaller than the earbuds I used when I went running before school, but it’s clearly far more powerful. When Doc tests it by sending me a com link request, it beeps loudly enough for me to hear from my wrist. Intrigued, I raise my hand to my ear and listen to the tiny electronic voice of the wi-com say, “Com link req: Doc.”

“You made this?” I ask, awed.

Doc hesitates. His unease is so unnatural that I stop staring at the bracelet wi-com and instead turn my gaze to his nervous face. “No,” he says finally. “I didn’t make this. I found it.”

“Where?” I ask. Dread wriggles through my veins like worms writhing in mud.

“In the Recorder Hall.”

I glance down at the wi-com on my wrist in revulsion. All I can think about is the angry, spiderweb scar that marred the side of Orion’s head, just under his left ear. I imagine the wires braided around my wrist being ripped from his flesh, dripping in blood and gore. “This was his?” I hiss.

Doc nods. “I found it among his possessions. He altered it himself. I don’t know why he kept it, even—but the design works perfectly.” Doc pauses. I didn’t know it was possible, but he looks even more uncomfortable as he meets my eyes. “There was . . . a note. He made this wi-com specifically for you.”

“For me?” I ask, peering down at the thing entwined around my wrist.

“He wrote that he feared for your safety, if something happened to him and the Eldest system faltered, as he thought it would. As it did.”

I don’t know what to do with this information. That Orion, who tried to kill my father, who did kill other people from Earth, helpless, frozen, and defenseless, that he would care enough about me to remake his wi-com . . . A twisted sort of emotion, part gratitude, part revulsion, snakes around my insides.

“Not that I really want a wi-com, but can’t you just make another one? A new one? One that wasn’t under someone’s skin?”

“We don’t have unlimited resources. There are more babies coming than we have wi-coms ready for, and the Shippers are already scrambling to make more. Besides which, I can’t program a used one for a baby; it runs a greater chance of wearing out over time.”

I fiddle with the metal clasp, trying to get the blasted thing off.

Doc’s hand twitches, but he doesn’t reach out to stop me. Instead, he says, “Amy, you need a wi-com. It’s this or get one implanted.”

“You can’t make me—” I start.

“No,” he says, “but Elder can. And we both agree—and you know it too—that you need to be able to call for help if . . .”

My hand stills. If.

Frex. He’s right.

Doc nods, satisfied that I’m not going to rip the thing off and throw it away. “Well. I just wanted to give you this. Let me know if . . . if you need anything.” He walks away, shutting the door behind him.

But me, I remain as frozen as when I lay in the glass coffin and the ice stilled my beating heart.

Frex is one of their words.

I am not one of them.

I, with a wi-com on my wrist, am not one of them.

I’m not.

I’m not.

5

ELDER

The words take a long time to sink in. “We’re . . . stopped?” I say. I scan the Shippers’ faces, hoping for some hint that this isn’t true, but the grim set of Marae’s jaw is evidence enough for me.

Oh, frex. How am I going to tell Amy this?

“How long have we been stopped?” My voice rises. I sound like a tantrum-throwing child, but I can’t help it.

“We’re . . . not sure. For some time. Maybe since the Plague.” Marae bites her lip.

“There was no Plague,” I say automatically. She knows this; she’s just used to calling the mutiny that happened so many gens ago the Plague, perpetuating the lie the Eldest system is based on.

Behind me, the ship’s heartbeat continues: whirr-churn-whirr. “How can we not be moving?” I ask. “The engine is still working.” Even to me, I sound desperate, a child refusing to believe the fairy tales aren’t real.

“We’ve been diverting energy since the Eldest system began, actually. We need it for the internal function of the ship. The solar lamp alone isn’t strong enough anymore.”

I force myself to meet Marae’s eyes. “So where are we?”

Marae shakes her head, thrown off by my question. “What do you mean?”

“How far away are we from Centauri-Earth? If we’ve been stopped for . . . for so long, then our projected planet-landing is . . . inaccurate, to say the least. So, how far away are we?”

“We don’t know,” Marae says. “We cannot be concerned with planet-landing now. We have to hold Godspeed together.”

The authority in her tone—the way she has given me an order—claws up my spine. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” I command. “One of you will be assigned to navigation. Exclusively. If we know how far away we are, we’ll know how big a fix we need to do on the engine. Maybe we can make the ship limp along, long enough to reach the planet. Maybe eventually we’ll have to discuss more drastic measures.” I level my gaze on Marae. “But we are going to focus more on making this ship actually reach Centauri-Earth.”

Second Shipper Shelby opens her mouth to speak, but Marae throws her hand up first to stop her. “I’ll do it myself,” she says, “but first, we want to make a request of you.”

The way she says “request” makes it feel much more like a demand, but I nod anyway.

“We want the Feeders to be put back on Phydus.”

My hand slips into my pocket. For a moment, I wonder if Marae knows that I’ve carried the wires from the Phydus machine with me every day since Amy ripped them out three months ago.

“No,” I say, firmly, as much to myself as to them.

“It wouldn’t be hard to fix the Phydus machine,” Marae says. “In fact, Second Shipper Shelby has already done a preliminary repair report—”

Marae holds her hand out, and Shelby gives her another floppy already flashing with a mechanical diagram.

I glance down at the floppy. It would be an easy fix. An easy fix—and an easy solution. A little bit of Phydus—maybe not even as much as Eldest used before . . . we could eliminate a lot of the conflicts we’re having . . . get people back to working without fuss . . .

“No,” I say adamantly, my voice low. “We’re not using the pumps.”

“It doesn’t have to be through the pumps,” Marae says. “Doc’s been working on some med patches for us using the Phydus compound.”

I cut her off. “No one needs Phydus.”

Marae’s lips tighten. She reaches across me and swipes her finger across the top of the floppy. The mechanical diagrams are replaced with a line chart. “Productivity decreased by ten percent the first week the Feeders were off Phydus. It’s down to nearly thirty percent now, and there seems to be no indication that it will rise again.” She offers me the floppy, but I don’t take it. “Our food supplies are dangerously low. This is a primary concern, but we’re running out of other necessities, such as clothing, as well.”

I open my mouth to speak, but she continues in an even voice. “We have crime now. Never had it before. But now we do. Domestic violence, theft, vandalism. With Phydus—”

And there it is. Doubt. They trust the drug more than me.

“I’ll take care of the people,” I say, my voice firm. “You take care of the ship.”

“But Eld—Elder,” Marae says, resting one slender hand on my arm. “Why bother? They don’t need to be anything but workers. We don’t need them to be anything else.”

“I understand what you’re saying.” I grip the edges of the floppy.

I don’t tell her that I’ve thought of all of this before.

I don’t tell her that’s why I carry the wires to the Phydus machine around in my pocket every day.

Instead, I say, “What we need is a police force. Like they had on Sol-Earth. I need people who I can trust, who can help me ensure that everything runs smoothly.”

Marae stands straighter. “A poe-leez force?”

This time, I’m the one who swipes the floppy and starts tapping on the screen. After a moment, I hand her an article about police and social sciences. She scans it briefly, then hands it to Shelby.

“Basically, I need people who can help enforce the rules. Investigate crime, stop people from doing wrong. If there’s trouble, I’ll need backup.”

“The Shippers have always been obedient to the Eldest system. We will make sure the system does not fail. In whatever capacity it becomes.” She means: she’s willing to try using police instead of Phydus. I’m not confident enough in her words or my position to ask what will happen if my latest suggestion fails.

I know the first-level Shippers better than nearly anyone else on this ship, even though I’ve only worked with them in the months since Eldest died. I can read their faces. Haile and Jodee and Tailor are nodding along with Marae, eager to accept this role. Prestyn, Brittne, Buck, and even Second Shipper Shelby look wary. I know they will follow Marae, though, even if they wouldn’t follow me. And while Marae sometimes still tries to boss me around because I’m younger, she never truly forgets my position as Eldest, even if I won’t take the name.

This might just work.

And, as soon as I think that, Shelby makes a noise of surprise. We turn to her. In her hands is the floppy she’d taken earlier. She holds it out first to Marae, but then she thinks better of it and hands it to me. The Shippers break their ordered line and crowd around me as I read the giant white words flashing across the black screen.

DO NOT ACCEPT THE OPPRESSION OF THE ELDEST SYSTEM

THERE IS NO LEADER

LEAD YOURSELF

“Someone has hacked into the floppy network,” Marae growls. Her fierce eyes meet mine. “Is this what you meant by needing a poe-leez force?”

“Yes.” My voice lacks her passion. These words flashing across the screen say I am nothing, and for the first time since Eldest died, I think they may be right.

Marae slides the floppy from my fingers and tries to swipe the screen clear. The last two words—LEAD YOURSELF—grow larger, filling the whole screen. Marae slides her fingers across the screen again. Nothing happens.

“Frex!” I’ve never heard her curse before.

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