The clasp opens at my touch, and I slide under the robe. The weight of it pushes my shoulders down, makes me hunch over. The hem drags the floor by a good inch or two, and my chest isn’t broad enough to fill out the robe; the stars cave in around me.
I look ridiculous.
I pull the robe off and shove it back into the closet.
I HAVE TO GET OUT. I HAVE TO LEAVE. NOW. I CAN’T STAY here. Not with him. Escape. Must escape. Now. NOW. But there’s nowhere to go. He crosses the threshold and is at me in two strides. Luthor draws closer to me, so close that I can feel the heat of his body burning my skin. When I suck in a lungful of air to scream, I suck in some of his exhaled breath too. Luthor reaches toward me, and the scream in my throat dies, choking me and leaving me breathless.
Luthor flips the hood away from my face. He grabs hold of my maroon head wrap, and I jerk away, my hair spilling out over my shoulders. The bookshelf behind me is an unyielding wall. Luthor slides his hand down the side of my face and grabs a fistful of my hair. He yanks it, hard, pulling me closer to him. I strain against his grip. I don’t care if he rips the hair out of my head, I am not going to let him control me. I reach behind me and grab two books from the shelf by their spines. As Luthor twines my hair around his hand, forcing me to face him, I whip out the books, slamming them on either side of his head.
“Augh!” Luthor shouts, an inhuman roar of pain. He clutches the sides of his head, a string of curse words—some I know, some I don’t—following me as I drop the books and duck under his arm.
“Come on!” I yell at Victria, who is still hiding behind the last bookcase. She steps out and I grab her wrist and drag her behind me, out of the fiction room and toward the hall.
Luthor follows quickly, but we’ve got enough of a head start that we make it to the crowded entrance hall before he reaches us. I stop when we reach the center. The message that had filled all the screens before is gone, and the floppies have returned to normal. A short woman wearing the immaculately starched dark clothing favored by the Shippers stands near the Science floppy, deep in conversation with the group that had been studying the engine schematics earlier. A few people look up, startled by our sudden entrance, but for the most part, no one notices us.
Luthor stands with both arms gripping the doorway that leads to the hall, glaring at us. He won’t do anything now. Not with everyone else here. It’s not the Season anymore; there’s no more Phydus. He doesn’t have an excuse.
Victria yanks her hand out of my grasp. “Thanks,” she mutters, the sound more like a growl.
“Hey!” Luthor’s voice echoes throughout the entrance hall. Most people turn to look at him, but Victria dips her head low and hurries for the exit, abandoning me in the center of the hall as Luthor pushes up from the door frame and heads toward me.
“You think you can just walk away from me?” Luthor shouts.
“I know I can,” I say, and I actually make it a few steps closer to the exit before he grabs me by the elbow and spins me around.
I scan the entrance hall. Everyone’s watching us. A few have drawn closer, and from the worry in their eyes, I can see that they’re on the verge of coming to my aid. Still—they hesitate. Because he’s one of them. And I’m not.
“Things are different now,” I hiss at Luthor, yanking my arm out of his grasp. “You think you can take whatever you want, but you can’t.”
I step away quickly, determined to escape this room without him laying another finger on me. His laughter rings out, a disgusting sound that sends chills down my spine. “Things are different!” he bellows after me. “We haven’t got a leader anymore!”
I spin on my heel. “Elder is leader!” My voice is high and loud; it comes out as an angry screech. I can’t help but remember the message that flashed across the floppies earlier.
Luthor snorts in contempt. “You think that boy can stop me? You think that boy can stop any of us?” He sweeps his arms wide, indicating the entire crowd of people who are now staring avidly as we scream in the middle of their usually silent hall.
“We can do anything we want,” Luthor says in a low voice only I can hear. He grins broadly and looks around him, then lifts his voice in a mighty roar, “We can do anything we want!”
I see it in the faces of the people around us.
The realization that what he’s said is true.
“ELDER?” A VOICE CALLS OUT AS ELDEST’S DOOR ZIPS SHUTS behind me.
“The frex?” I mutter, peering around. No one has access to this level but me.
Red hair swings around the door frame of the Learning Center. “Amy?” I ask, shocked, rushing forward.
She smiles—not a grin, just a gentle curve of her lips that doesn’t quite reach her eyes.
“I hoped you’d be here,” she says.
“How—how did you get here?”
She steps all the way out of the Learning Center and into the Great Room with me. She raises her left hand.
“Doc gave it to you!” I say, examining the wi-com encircling her wrist.
Amy nods. “I figured . . . it used to be Orion’s, so it would probably give me access to the Keeper Level, and . . .” She shrugs. “It did. I tried to com you before, but you didn’t pick up. Or did I do it wrong?”
“No, I got some coms that I ignored.”
Amy punches me lightly on the shoulder. “Ignoring me, huh?”
“I couldn’t if I tried,” I say.
She smiles again, another wry twist of her lips with no light behind it. We stand a few feet apart—her near the Learning Center door, me closer to the middle of the Great Room, and the silence falls between us like a tangible, awkward thing. She pulls her necklace out from under her shirt and twists the charm in her fingers.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Nothing,” she says immediately, dropping the necklace.
I narrow my eyes but let the moment slide by.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” she finally says. She hasn’t moved away from the Learning Center door, so I move closer to her. She puts one hand in her pocket and looks for a moment as if she’s going to pull something out.
“I had to go settle some problems in the City and then . . . on the Shipper Level.”
“Now it’s my turn to ask you,” Amy says, withdrawing her empty hand from her pocket. “What’s wrong? Did you see the message that was on the floppies?”
“Yeah,” I growl. “The Shippers were able to reverse the hack, but . . .” I shrug, and although I mean to appear nonchalant, even I know the gesture is bitter. “Damage done. I’ve asked Marae and the first-level Shippers to serve as my police force.”
“Good,” Amy says with such vehemence that I stare at her. “It’s just—I’m glad you’re finally doing it. Getting police I mean,” she adds when she notices my look.
“I should have done it a month ago.” I say, then wait for her reaction.
Her hand twitches, as if she’d like to reach out to me, but she doesn’t. “You’re still not telling me something,” she says softly.
Neither are you, I think, but I can tell from the hardness of her eyes that she won’t tell me whatever it is that’s bothering her. Instead, I confess my truth. About the engines. And the lies. How we’re not moving, and we don’t even know where we are. I tell her what I haven’t told anyone else on board.
“And we can’t tell them,” I add. “If the Feeders knew . . .”
Amy bites her lip but doesn’t argue. For now.
I run my fingers through my hair, trying to pull my answer up through the roots. “We’ve been stopped a long time. The ship’s not going to last forever. It’s . . . Godspeed is falling apart.”
When I say it now, to her, I finally realize the truth. And I finally see the things I’ve never seen before, and what they really mean. The dwindling food production, despite the fact that we’re pumping all the fertilizer and nutrients we can into the fields. It’s true that most Feeders haven’t been working as hard as they did while on Phydus, but even their lack of productivity can’t excuse the way the crops barely have enough strength to push their way up through the soil.
That year when we had so much rain—was it just for research, or did the irrigation system break? The chemically derived meat substitute used in wall food at least twice a week—is it really a better source of nutrition or just the best Doc and the scientists could make when the livestock was no longer enough to feed everyone?
I’m starting to see why Eldest was so . . . so desperate.
I think of the sound of the engine, even if its energy is just being diverted to the internal functions of the ship: that churn amid the whirrs. It’s not a healthy sound.
When I’m done talking, I realize how silent she’s been the whole time.
“Amy?” I ask softly.
She meets my eyes.
“Does this mean . . . can I wake my parents up now?”
“What? No!” I say immediately.
“But . . . if we’re not going to land—if there’s no hope at all that we’ll ever land—then, why not?”
“We might still land! Frex, give me a chance to fix this problem.”
“Maybe one of the frozens can fix it. There are scientists and engineers frozen too, you know.”
“Amy—no. No. My people can handle this.”
She mutters something I don’t catch.
“What?” I demand.
“It’s not like they’ve done that good of a job so far! Hell, Elder, how long have the engines been dead? Since before you were born! Maybe even decades—or longer!”
“I don’t need this!” I roar. “Not from you too! I don’t need you telling me what to do or that I’m not good enough.”
“I’m not questioning you!” Amy hurtles the words at me. “I’m just saying, someone from Earth could probably fix this problem!”
“You’re just saying that we should wake your parents up!”
“This isn’t about them!”
“With you, it always is! You can’t just wake up your parents because you’re a scared little girl!”
Amy glares at me fiercely, an angry flush staining her cheeks. “Maybe if you’d admit you weren’t good enough to do everything on this effing ship yourself, you could see that you have people who could actually help you right underneath your feet!”
I know she said it in anger—that I wasn’t good enough. But her words do hurt, like a hot knife slicing through the center of me. “Haven’t you figured out that half my problems are because of you? If I didn’t have to watch out for the freak, maybe I could get something done!”
As soon as the words slip past my lips, I wish I could grab them with my hands and crush them in my fists.
But I can’t.
The words are there.
I’ve called Amy a freak, the one thing I swore I’d never do.READ MORE >>