As They Slip Away (Across the Universe #2.5)

Chapter 1



Three Months before I Die

I stare at the basket of hypodermic needles. So slender and pretty, each filled with a yellow liquid that reminds me of gold paint.

“Inoculations, ” I say. I consult the floppy that contains my instructions for today’s labor.

Across the top of the screen is a chart and the words GENETIC MODIFICATION.

That’s . . . not right. These needles are filled with inoculations.

Eldest told me so. That’s what he said this morning, when he brought me the basket himself.

“ Selene,” he had told me, his voice warm and kind, “these are inoculations for the rabbits. Inject one full dose per rabbit today. ”

My eyes burn with pain as I scan the text on the floppy. There’s nothing about inoculations here.

Sharp pain shoots through my head.

Eldest told me these were inoculations.

“Inoculations, ” I say, a soft smile curving my lips. I pat the basket of needles as if comforting it in the knowledge of what it truly is.

It doesn’t matter what the chart and words on the floppy say. It only matters what Eldest says.

Everything is only what Eldest says it is.

The rabbit field is quiet, but not silent. That is what I like about it.

I like sounds.

Soft thumps on the ground as the rabbits hop around. The little chirruping noises they make. The gentle clacky-chewy sounds as they nibble on grass.

I sit down in the grass field.

For a moment, I look up at the sky. Made of metal and painted with clouds that never move.

My sky is a certainty. That’s nice.

Sometimes, I think about how I’m living aboard a spaceship hurtling through the stars toward a new planet. But those thoughts are too big, and so I don’t think them often.

I blink and see darkness.

I open my eyes and see blue.

Blink. Dark.

Light. Blue.

Blink. Dark. Dark. I don’t open my eyes. Dark.


I open my eyes.

I do not like the dark.

I stand. There is work to do.

The rabbits are fat and lazy. But they do not like it when I try to grab them. Perhaps they know that sometimes when I snatch them up, I send them to the butcher and they are made into food. But if they do know this, they’re not too concerned about it. They scamper away, but only a meter or so. Then I sneak. I sneak behind them, where they can’t see, don’t know I’m coming.

They think I am their friend.

And then I lunge.

I tackle the nearest rabbit, pinning it down by its shoulders. After scanning its identification chip— Number 424, the screen says—I plunge a hypodermic needle into its back leg.

“ Number 424, inoculated,” I say aloud.

I don’t have to say it aloud.

But I like sound.

This is my day. Sneak up on rabbits. Lunge. Grab. Hold. Inoculate.

Sometimes I look at the sky. Sometimes I look around me, at the green hills. I see someone running through the fields, a swing of color, bright against the normal green.

I hum, and I work.

And then.

Then a girl shows up.

She is a freak. Eldest told me she is a freak, told all of us on the ship. A genetically modified experiment gone wrong. She looks like a freak. Pale skin, almost the color of the fluffy white tails of the rabbits. Bright, bright hair. Red hair. With orange and gold in it.

Like the koi in the pond by the Hospital.


“ Hello,” the girl says.

I look at the girl. I look at her koi-fish hair. “Hello,” I say.

She is different. She reminds me of . . . something. A sharp pain shoots through my head again. I look down, away from her.

“You’re the genetically modified experiment,” I say. I wait for her to confirm this is true, even though I know it is because Eldest said she is. “Eldest has said we don’t have to speak to you. ”

The girl is mad at me. I know because of her voice. I like sounds. I pay attention not just to which words are said, but how they are said, and this girl says them angrily.

But she doesn’t go away. She keeps talking to me. She asks about the rabbits. She asks about the needles.

She talks a lot.

“I saw you running,” I say suddenly, realizing that the person I saw before was this girl, the bright color in the green fields was her koi-fish hair.

A strange feeling washes over me. My heart is loud and slow, and my head hurts.

“ What were you running from?” I ask. My voice cracks. I pay attention to sound. Even the sounds I make. And the sound I am making is fear.


“ Just running,” the girl says, as if it isn’t strange to run for no reason.

She talks more. Questions, questions. I have work to do.

But then I remember more about what Eldest told us about this girl. That she was to live in the Hospital.

I ask her, and she confirms it. She lives in the Hospital.

“ My grandfather was taken to the Hospital,” I say.


“Is he better now?” the girl asks.

“ He’s gone. ”


“I ’m sorry,” the girl says. Her voice surprises me. She means it. She means that she’s sorry.

“ Why? ” I ask. “It was his time. ”

The girl stares at me for so long I think she’s done speaking. But then she says, “You’re crying. ”

I touch my face.

My fingers come away wet with salty tears.

“I have no reason to be sad,” I say.

It’s true.

I have no reason to be sad.

None at all.


Seven Years before I Die

I suppose I should be upset that I’m crazy, but I’m actually quite pleased about it. Being crazy means I don’t have to work in the fields or the City. It means I get to stay here, in the Hospital. With my friends.

“ Selene,” Kayleigh drawls from the sofa in the common room. “Come sit with us. ”

Victria, who had been by the window staring at the open fields that separate the Hospital from the rest of the ship’s population in the City, plops down in the center seat of the orange sofa made of scratchy wool. She wiggles in closer to Kayleigh, and the two girls look almost like sisters, with the same shade of olive skin and same length of dark brown hair. Everyone on the ship has similar coloring, but I think Victria tries to make herself into a shadow of Kayleigh. She deigns to glance in my direction. She doesn’t mind me, exactly, she just likes to know the order of things.

And the order of things here is that Kayleigh comes first, and Victria is always beside her, and sometimes, trailing at the end, is me.

It’s almost time for lessons. Doc and the nurses like us all to take meds at the same time, just before the solar lamp in the metal ceiling clicks on.

“I hate the meds, ” Kayleigh says under her breath as Doc walks into the common room.

He and the nurses distribute the pills, and we all swallow them down obediently. Except Kayleigh.

She stares at the pill until Doc notices, and he doesn’t look away from her until she gulps it down with some water.

I don’t mind the Inhibitor pills, not like Kayleigh does. Swallowing one blue-and-white pill a day is a small price to pay for life at the Hospital. So we’re loons. So we have to take mental meds. It’s not so bad that Eldest keeps us here, removed from the rest of the ship, on the other side of Godspeed, in the Hospital, away from the normal people. It’s not so bad being abnormal here, where everyone else is weird too.

But if that pill is supposed to keep me from being crazy, it doesn’t do a very good job.

Instead of making me less loons, sometimes I worry it makes me more. I’m different. We—all of us in the Hospital—are different. I didn’t have to see the way my parents’ glassy eyes would flicker with concern when I spoke to know that the things I said weren’t normal.

Doc says we’re special, but “special ” is just a nice way of saying “freak. ”

“ Sometimes,” Kayleigh whispers, “I think it’s everyone else who’s weird. ”

Victria’s eyes dart around the common room, lingering on the nurses gathered around Doc by the door. One of the first things we learned was not to ask too many questions or draw attention to ourselves, and Kayleigh’s words are incendiary.

“ No, ” I say. “We’re the freaks. ”

And we are. Everyone else on the spaceship Godspeed doesn’t stay up late at night, worrying about whether or not the ship will ever land. They don’t spend their time doing useless things like singing songs or drawing pictures. They never worry about whether Bartie will be able to rip his gaze off Victria long enough to notice anyone else. . . .

“ We’re not that freakish,” Victria says. “I heard Elder takes the mental meds too. ”

I gasp in surprise. Elder, our future leader, is on mental meds like us? He’s still young— living in the City now, awaiting the time until he comes of age and joins Eldest on the Keeper Level of the ship—but even the hint of madness in our leader disturbs me. “Will he come to live at the Hospital?”

Victria nods. “I heard Doc talking to Eldest about it. Elder will be moving here in a few months, after going to one of the farms for a bit. ”

I want to know more, but Kayleigh interrupts us.

“It’s better. Being on the mental meds. I hated it before I started taking them,” Kayleigh says. Her voice is clear and slow, as if she’s measured the weight of each word and determined its worth before speaking it.

“You don’t remember what it was like before. None of us do. ”

“I remember,” she insists.

“Yeah?” My voice is a challenge. “What was it like?”

“ Nothing. ”

“Tell us,” I demand.

“ Nothing. It was like nothing. It was like being empty inside. ”

Victria and I exchange a look.

“ Sometimes . . . ” Kayleigh sighs. “There’s a lot about this ship that doesn’t make sense. ”

“Liiiike,” a voice calls out from the other side of the room, “how you won’t let me kiss you! ”

Kayleigh picks up a pillow from the sofa and throws it at Harley—not too hard, but hard enough. Harley tosses it aside easily, laughing. If I had to describe Harley as nothing but a sound, that would be it: laughter. He’s always smiling, his white teeth unable to bite back the sound. He sees the world in shades of joy. Harley picks the pillow up from the ground, and I notice paint is caked under his nails, leaking out onto his fingertips.

“ We were having,” Kayleigh says, her voice punctuating each word, “a private conversation. ”

“Yeah, yeah, and meanwhile the rest of us are going to lessons. ”

“ Going to lessons? ” I ask, leaning forward. “But the lessons have always been here before. ” I don’t know if there’s much of a point in teaching crazy people things, but Doc insists that it’s our duty to “hone our inherent talents. ” Every day, he or the nurses leads a discussion on topics relevant to studies: art, math, science. Things like that. And they’re usually done here, in the common room, where there are enough seats for everyone and nothing to distract us from learning beyond the perfectly symmetrical and evenly spaced green fields outside the window. “ We’re going to the Recorder Hall,” Harley says, a mischievous light in his eyes. Kayleigh rolls her eyes. “You made it sound like we were doing something important today,” she says. “We’ve been to the Recorder Hall before. ”

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