Sep 13 2011 10:00am
IN THE GARDEN
“Everything we have, they have,” Waverly repeated under her breath as she marched down the corridor toward the living quarters she shared with her mother. Sometimes it seemed the more serious Kieran got about her, the more patronizing his tone. If he thought that she was going to be a passive little wifey with no thoughts of her own, he was in for a nasty surprise.
Still, of all the boys near her age on the ship, he seemed to be the best, and not just because he was tallish and well made. He was kind, and intelligent, and she liked how energetic he was, how lithe his body, and how well he controlled it. She liked looking at his face, at his long jawline, his pale tawny eyes, the red hairs that grew on his upper lip. And when she talked to him, he bent down and trained his ear on her as though he couldn’t bear to miss a single word. He would make a good husband. She should consider herself lucky.
But there was doubt inside of her. Everyone expected them to marry, including the Captain and their parents, and she wondered if that pressure had made Kieran propose. Did they love each other enough to be happy together? If there weren’t concerns about fertility, would she marry Kieran, or anyone, right now? She wasn’t sure. Few people would have sympathy for her hesitation. There were larger concerns at play than her mere happiness.
She opened the door to her quarters and walked into the living room. Remnants of hemp and cotton covered the dining table, the leavings of a dress Waverly had been trying to sew with little success. She’d had to rip out every seam she’d put in and was considering throwing the whole mess away. Her mother’s loom stood in the corner, strung with wool yarns in a blue stripe—probably a blanket for someone. The walls were covered with family photos: of Waverly as a chubby toddler; of her mother and father rosy cheeked, holding hands in the cold conifer bay; of her grandparents with their melancholy eyes, left behind so long ago on Earth. There were pictures of Earth’s oceans, and mountains, and white clouds in a pale sky. “I wish you could have seen the sky,” her mother often said, which Waverly always thought so strange. She was in the sky, wasn’t she? She was surrounded by it. But no, her mother insisted, she had never seen it. She wouldn’t see the sky until they landed on New Earth in forty-five years.
Waverly heard pounding in the kitchen. “Mom!” she called.
“In here!” her mother answered.
Regina Marshall was tall and brunette, just like Waverly, though she wasn’t as slim. She was kneading dough for rough peasant’s bread and kept her back to her daughter as she worked. When it was bread-baking day, Waverly had trouble getting her mother’s attention, but she knew today would be different.
“Kieran proposed,” Waverly announced.
Regina whirled around, nuggets of dough flying from her hands, and with two eager steps she had Waverly in her arms. “I knew it! I’m so happy!”
“You are?” Waverly asked, wriggling in her mother’s tight hug. “Really?”
“Waverly, he’s the best boy on this ship. Everyone thinks so.” Regina’s eyes shone. “Did you set a date?”
“No. It seems strange to plan for anything right now.”
“You mean because of the other ship? Life goes on, honey.”
“But don’t you think it’s strange—”
“Oh, let’s not spoil the occasion with that talk,” Regina said lightly, but Waverly saw the anxiety in her eyes. “The corn harvest is in a few weeks. Why not have the ceremony right after, when people are ready to relax?”
“There’ll be some lovely flowers. The lilies will be blooming.”
Waverly sat down at the table, set for two. “I think Kieran’s going to want a religious service.”
“Yuck.” Regina wrinkled her nose. “That’s one thing about the Aldens no one can understand. Why they weren’t chosen for the other ship...”
“The other ship?”
“Oh, you know this.” Regina returned to her bread, kneading the dough with floury hands. “The people who designed the mission chose the crews for each ship on the basis of values, for group cohesion. So we ended up with one secular ship, one religious.”
“Is that why the other ship came back? To convert us or something?”
Regina shaped the loaf and set it on the counter. “I don’t know.”
“Well, I think something strange is going on. They’ve been here for days, but no one has come aboard.”
“That we know of.”
“And the Captain must be talking to them. Why doesn’t he tell us what they want?”
“Don’t worry about that,” Regina said sharply. She never liked when Waverly speculated about the Captain, as though keeping Waverly quiet would keep her safe. From what, Waverly never knew. When Regina turned around, though, she had a twinkle in her eye. “You’ve got a wedding to plan.”
Waverly sighed. “You were twenty-five when you married Dad, right? And you dated him for two years.”
“Yes, sweetie. But things have changed. You’re at your most fertile now. We can’t take any chances with the next generation.”
Waverly had heard this a million times. “It’s just so soon.”
“It’s never too soon when you’re talking about the survival of the species. You know that.”
The mission was the most important thing in everyone’s life. It had to be. The survival of the human race depended on it. Strong young crews from both ships were needed to settle on their new planet and get it ready to support human life, and that meant that all the girls on the voyage had to have at least four babies each. Everyone expected Waverly to marry and be a mother as soon as possible. End of discussion.
Waverly didn’t know how to ask for time to let her heart catch up to her duty.
“I wish your father were here,” Regina said. “I get so angry when I think about—”
“It was an accident, Mom. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.”
Regina seemed to retreat inside herself at the memory of her husband’s death. For a moment, Waverly thought she noticed a vague fear pass over her mother’s features, and a possibility came into her mind that she’d never allowed herself to entertain before.
“Mom. It was an accident, right?”
“Of course it was, honey,” she said with a tight smile.
“Is there something you’re not telling me?”
Regina took her daughter in her arms. “I just meant I’m angry it happened at all. You’re right, there’s no one to blame.”
“Okay,” Waverly said slowly. Ever since the other ship had arrived, her mother had been acting strangely conflicted, and her expression was always brooding when she didn’t know Waverly was watching. But whenever Waverly asked her about it, she’d smile brightly and say nothing was wrong, she was just getting old.
“I just miss your father so much at times like this,” Regina said wistfully.
“Would he like Kieran?” Waverly had been so young when her father died that he was practically a stranger.
“I think he would. I like Kieran. He’ll be good to you.”
“He’ll have to be,” Waverly said. “I know just how to punish him if he isn’t.”
“Hey now,” Regina said reprovingly. “Just because you can make Kieran walk out an air lock for you doesn’t mean that you should.”
“Don’t worry. He’s not as spineless as he seems. He just needs . . .” Waverly trailed off. She wasn’t sure what Kieran needed. He might not have the same stubborn core inside of him that she had, but she suspected there was something strong in him, deep down. He was a thoughtful, quiet person, and he considered things deeply before he would speak about them. With time he could learn to be a good leader, she thought. But this was one of the things she wanted to find out before they married. “He’ll toughen himself up,” she said, hoping it was true.
“I suspect marriage to you will be more than enough to toughen that poor boy,” Regina said with a playful swat. “Have you checked the garden today?”
“I’ll go now.” She wanted to be alone anyway, and working in the loose soil always calmed her mind.
Down the corridor and two flights of stairs, the family gardens were in the center of the ship in a bay so large that it was difficult to see from one end to the other. The lamps over the plants were set to a noontime glow, and the heat felt good on her shoulders as she walked between the rows of squash, tomatoes, lettuce, and broccoli. Every family aboard the Empyrean had their own plot where they cultivated an array of heirloom vegetables. Because there was no way of knowing which crops would flourish on New Earth, everyone grew different strains. Waverly had chosen a pretty yellow tomato to grow, a plant that produced a delicate, tart fruit. They didn’t taste as good as true red tomatoes, but they were so beautiful. She knelt before the largest plant, near the main walkway. One fruit hung fat and golden, almost ready to be picked, and she fingered the smooth skin. She was tempted to take it now for dinner but decided to give it one more day to ripen. Instead, she pulled a weed.
“You sure have grown up.”
Startled, Waverly looked up to see Mason Ardvale, the ship’s head pilot, leaning on the fence that bordered her plot. He was almost as old as Captain Jones, who was his good friend. Waverly had never really liked him, and she’d grown to like him even less in the last two years when he started looking at her in a new, slithery way.
“I didn’t see you there,” she said uneasily.
He smoothed a strand of fine blond hair out of his eyes. “I saw you.”
She shrugged and went back to pulling weeds, but when she looked up, he was still there.
“Everyone’s in a tizzy these days. People think I’ll tell them things because I’m the head pilot.” His chest swelled as he said this, and Waverly wondered if he was trying to impress her. “I get tired of getting asked questions I’m not allowed to answer.”
He looked at her as though tempting her to ask, but she didn’t want to play his game. Instead she said, “Can you blame them for being curious? After forty-two years alone out here, suddenly we have neighbors.”
“Don’t be too worried about that,” Mason said with a crooked grin. “If anything happens, I’ll protect you.”
“I’m not worried,” she said, ignoring his innuendo. “I just think everyone would be more at ease if the Captain would explain what they’re doing here.”
“You’re not on this ship to worry about things like that.”
“Oh no?” she challenged.
“You’re for other things,” he said slowly.
Waverly sat back on her heels and gave him a cool stare. When his smile faded, she said, “What is that supposed to mean?”
“You can’t expect a grown man not to notice you. Not unless he’s blind.”
Waverly picked up her trowel. “It’s none of your business what I expect.”
“Is that so?” With a gleeful smile, he started over the fence that separated them.
Waverly sprang to her feet and threw her trowel at him, missing his face by inches. “Stay where you are.”
He ducked, then glared at her. “You could have taken out my eye!”
“Everyone on this ship knows what a creep you are, Mason Ardvale. All the girls laugh at you.”
“Dad?” Mason’s son, Seth, came down the walkway toward them, carrying a bale of straw. “What’s going on?”
“Go to the plot,” Mason barked. “I’ll be there in a second.”
“I can wait.” Seth dropped the bale and sat on it, his sullen eyes on his father.
Is he trying to protect me? Waverly wondered.
“You shouldn’t throw things at people,” Mason said to Waverly. “That’s not the way for a young lady to behave.”
“That’s right. I’m young, Mason,” Waverly said. She picked up a hand rake, tossed it in the air, and caught it in her fist. “I’m not for you.”
A dark look passed over Mason’s features, but he tilted his head toward the sound of laughter coming from the back of the room. Mrs. Turnbull and her husband were digging up turnips, well within earshot. He backed away from her, oily and slow, picked up a sack of mulch, and went on his way down the furrowed path. Seth stayed behind.
“He’s not how he seems,” Seth said, unable to look her in the eye. He picked up the trowel Waverly had thrown and handed it to her.
“Thanks for sticking around.”
Seth nodded, embarrassed.
Seth was unpopular aboard the ship, but Waverly had always felt an affinity for him. The same accident that took her father had also killed his mother. Seth was a few months younger than her, but already his bones were heavy, his voice deep, and his jewel blue eyes piercing. Waverly had always noticed his eyes, ever since they sat next to each other in fourth grade.
Once, when they were still little, Seth had even kissed her in the playroom. They’d been working together on a puzzle, and she’d been conscious of his steady breathing and how he moistened his lip with a quick tongue. She’d just put in the last piece and smiled at him. “We did it!”
He paused and then with a tortured voice whispered, “I love you.”
Her mouth popped open. She pulled her skirt down over her scabbed knees as a fiery blush ignited her cheeks. “What do you mean?”
Suddenly he leaned in and kissed her, very softly. But it wasn’t the kiss she remembered so well; it was the way he’d let his mouth linger, the way his breath had caressed her cheek, once, twice, until he suddenly ran out of the room. She watched him go, thinking the word Stay. But she didn’t say it.
The next day when Seth sat next to her in class, he looked at her, hopeful. She turned away. It was too much feeling, and she didn’t know what to do with it. And later that week, when Kieran Alden asked her to the Harvest Cotillion, she accepted. As she danced with Kieran, she pretended not to see Seth standing by the punch bowl, hands in his pockets, looking at the floor.
Now she wondered why she’d chosen Kieran. There’d been a reason, but she couldn’t remember what it was. On impulse, she said, “Do you remember that day we did the puzzle?”
He seemed surprised by the question. “Of course I do. Why do you bring that up?”
He looked at her, waiting. Suddenly she realized how tall he was. Taller than Kieran. He stood leaning toward her, arms loose at his sides. She felt a force pulling her into him, like gravity.
“It’s just . . .” She cast around. What could she say? How could she keep from betraying Kieran? Had she already? “It’s a sweet memory.”
A smile opened Seth’s face, but then he spoiled it. “I thought you and Kieran were still . . .”
“Yes.” Her breath caught in her throat.
His smile folded up again. “Makes sense, you two getting together. Him being the golden boy and all.”
“He’s not a golden boy.”
“Oh yes, he is.”
They looked at each other for a beat.
“I guess you don’t like him much,” she said.
“Let’s just say I have an instinctive distrust of perfection.”
Waverly tried to sound disinterested. “You have your eye on anyone?”
Seth lifted his gaze to hers and held it. She knew she should do something to break up this moment, so she said the first thing that came to her. “Do you ever wonder about the accident?”
He didn’t have to ask what she was talking about. “You do?”
“Something Mom said today made me wonder.”
Seth glanced toward his father, who was bent over a melon patch. “Yeah. I wonder about it.”
“Because I always thought it was an accident, but . . .”
Seth took a step toward her. “That’s what you need to go on thinking.”
“What do you mean? Have you heard something?”
Seth dug his toe into the roots of a pepper plant. “Let’s just say I have reason to doubt your boyfriend’s benefactor.”
“He’s not the kindly old man people think he is.”
“What are you talking about?”
Seth’s chin dropped and he looked at her shoes. “You know what? I’m paranoid. Always have been.”
“You tell me this instant what you know.”
Seth’s eyes lingered on her face, but finally he shrugged. “Waverly, to be honest, it’s just a feeling I have. I don’t know anything more than you do.”
Waverly narrowed her eyes at him. He was holding something back. “I don’t believe you.”
“Just be careful with Kieran, okay? Captain Jones’ friends tend to lead . . . complicated lives.”
“Are you talking about your dad?”
“We’re not talking about anything.”
“Who are you trying to protect? Your dad or me?”
Again the boy looked at her, and there was such sad longing in his face, she had to look away. She dropped to her knees and started digging at a weed.
Seth turned to follow his father, back bent under the hay bale. Waverly watched him go, waiting for him to look back at her, but he didn’t.
Suddenly the ship’s alarm blared. The Captain’s voice came through the intercom, so shrill and loud that she didn’t understand the words. She looked around her to see Mr. Turnbull dropping his spade and racing down the corridor toward the starboard side.
Mrs. Mbewe, her neighbor, was running toward her. “I need you to get Serafina.”
“Why? Where is she?”
“She’s in my quarters for her nap. Actually, gather all the children and take them to the auditorium!”
“Why?” she asked, dumbfounded. She dropped her trowel, which fell painfully against her anklebone. “What’s happening?”
“All hands have been called to the starboard shuttle bay. I have to go,” Mrs. Mbewe called over her brown shoulder. “Just go to the nursery to make sure all the children are on their way to the auditorium, and then find Serafina!”
Serafina was Mrs. Mbewe’s daughter of four years whom Waverly sometimes babysat. She was a sweet little girl whose curly black hair hovered in two round puffs of pigtails at the top of her head. Serafina was deaf, so she wouldn’t hear announcements and would need help getting to the auditorium.
Waverly ran to the nearest com station and keyed in the emergency code to make a shipwide announcement. “This is Waverly Marshall! All children report to the auditorium immediately!”
Then she ran to the central stairwell and sprinted up to the nursery room. It was slow going, because streams of adults were running downstairs at top speed, and she had to shoulder her way through the crowd. She wanted to ask what was happening, but the terror on their faces made her afraid to interfere. Once on the level for the nursery, she burst into the corridor and ran into Mr. Nightly, who was holding a bloody rag to his face. She stopped him. “Do you need help?”
“There’s no time!” he yelled.
“What’s happening?” she tried to ask, but he was already running away from her. Nothing was making sense.
Her limbs felt cold and floppy with fear, but she made herself run even faster. She saw Felicity Wiggam walking, dazed, in the opposite direction, and she stopped. Felicity’s blond hair was mussed, her porcelain cheeks flushed, her tunic hanging askew on her long, lithe frame. “Help me with the nursery!” Waverly shrieked at her.
At first Felicity only stared, but Waverly grabbed her wrist and dragged her down the corridor.
When they finally reached the nursery, it was empty. Building blocks and coloring books lay haphazardly in the middle of the floor. A box full of flash cards had been knocked over, splayed over the central table. “They must have already evacuated,” she said, breathless. “Thank God.”
“They’d have heard your announcement,” Felicity said through the curtain of pale hair hanging in her face.
“Felicity, what’s happening?”
“I don’t know. Where were you when it started?”
“The garden. You?”
“In my quarters.” She held her bony hands over her stomach. “I’m scared.”
“Me too.” Waverly took hold of her friend’s hand and squeezed her cold fingers. “I’ve got to go get Serafina. Can you check the kindergarten on your way to the auditorium?”
Felicity only stared at Waverly, impassive. She seemed in shock.
“Go!” Waverly shouted at her over her shoulder as she sped back down the corridor.
Just then the floor under Waverly’s feet seemed to shake, and she heard a rumbling that she’d never heard before. Something had gone very wrong.
Another river of adults ran past Waverly. She looked desperately at the passing faces, hoping to see her mother, but everyone was moving too fast.
She trotted along with the adults, but when she got to the central corridor, she turned toward the Mbewes’ quarters. She found their door, which was covered with a mural Serafina’s mother had painted of the African savanna. Waverly pushed the button for ingress, but the door didn’t open. Serafina must have locked it from the inside. There was a keypad for a numeric code. Once upon a time Waverly knew the code, and she tried several combinations of numbers, but the door remained locked.
“Serafina!” she screamed, pounding on the door. But of course Serafina couldn’t hear. Waverly would have to break in.
She pulled from her pocket the folding knife she’d received as a gift when she’d turned fifteen. She opened the blade and slid it behind the faceplate that housed the door lock. She worked the metal plate off, then pried away the numbered keypad to reveal a mess of wires underneath.
She could cut the wires, but she was pretty sure that would leave the door locked permanently. No. She had to enable the mechanism that would open the door.
“There’s only on, and off.” She recited the lesson about circuits she’d learned last year in electronics class and looked for the mechanism to slide the door open. It was encased in yellow plastic, but the copper ends of it were exposed and fastened under a hinged copper plate. Right now, the plate hung open. Could it be so simple? Waverly pressed on the copper plate, holding it to the wire.
A shock of vicious electricity punched through her arm and into her chest. For long moments, she was frozen in an altered state, aware only of her frantic heartbeat and her burning hand.
Emergency. There was an emergency. She couldn’t go into shock. She forced her breathing into an even cadence. When she could think again, she saw the door had clicked open.
“Serafina,” she whispered as she limped through the small apartment. The electric shock had bunched up the muscles on her right side, especially in her arm. She limped as quickly as she could to the girl’s room, which looked empty, but the door to the closet was ajar.
Waverly opened it to find Serafina huddled in a ball on the middle shelf, hugging her knees to her chest, eyes screwed shut. She must have felt that strange tremor that went through the ship. Waverly placed a gentle hand on Serafina’s hip. The little girl opened her eyes, terrified at first, but she seemed relieved when she saw who had come for her.
“We have to go,” Waverly said, and held out her good hand.
Serafina took Waverly’s hand and followed her through the apartment and down the corridor toward the auditorium. Just as they entered the stairwell, the lights blinked out. Serafina’s fingernails dug into Waverly’s thumb. Waverly’s heart galloped from the shock she’d gotten. She thought she might be having a heart attack.
The emergency lights came on, casting a dull orange glow over the metal staircase, and the girls started toward the auditorium.
Waverly felt another shudder go through the ship—an aching groan in the metal itself. The air in the corridor started to move as though an invisible fan had been turned on.
They turned the corner to see the auditorium, dimly lit. At first Waverly thought the other children must not have made it because there wasn’t a sound, a seeming impossibility if all two hundred and fifty-two children were really gathered into a single room.
Slowly, Serafina and Waverly made their way toward the open doorway until they could see in.
“Oh, thank God, they made it,” Waverly murmured.
She saw Felicity huddled on the floor, surrounded by a dozen kindergartners, all of them focusing on a single point in front of them.
When Waverly was about ten feet from the door, Felicity caught her eye. She shook her head, barely perceptibly, and held up one hand, telling Waverly and Serafina to stay where they were. Serafina stopped, but Waverly wanted to get a little closer so she could discern what Felicity was trying to say. She limped nearer to the open doorway and waved at Felicity to get her attention, but Felicity stubbornly would not look at her.
Neither did Seth, whom Waverly could now see, looking angry—no, homicidal—in the corner of the room. He had his hand wrapped around one big-boned wrist, and he twisted the skin of his arm as though trying to unsheathe a sword.
Waverly was about to back away from the doorway, ready to run away, when a man she’d never seen before appeared in front of her.
“Well, hello,” the man said.
Waverly blinked. She had never seen a stranger before.
He wasn’t a tall man, and he had an ugly scar along the left side of his face that made a deep fissure when he smiled. He was holding an emergency landing weapon. Waverly recognized it from the training videos she’d watched in class. The weapons, guns they were called, were meant for use only in the unlikely event that there were hostile animals on New Earth. They lay locked in a vault in the deepest holds of the Empyrean. No one was permitted access to them.
The man pointed the end of the weapon at Waverly’s face and shook it. “You know what this does, right?”
Waverly nodded. If he pulled the trigger, a projectile from the gun would rip into her flesh and shatter her bones. It would kill her.
Waverly looked again into the room and saw several strange men, about five of them, looking at her. She felt disoriented to see such unfamiliar features: brown almond eyes, chunky noses, white lips, chipped teeth. The men seemed about her mother’s age, maybe a little older, and they stood panting, waiting to see what she would do.
The children crouched on the floor along the base of the stage, hugging themselves, hands gripping ankles, elbows on knees. They cowered away from the men.
She tried to make sense of it: men holding guns in a room full of children. A part of her considered that she ought to feel afraid.
“Don’t worry,” the man with the scar said. “This is a rescue mission.”
“Then why do you need that?” Waverly pointed at the gun.
“In case something goes wrong,” he said in a lilting way, as though he were talking to a girl much younger than Waverly.
“What would go wrong?” she asked.
His smile was thin. “I’m glad we understand each other.”
He jerked his gun at her, gesturing for her to enter the room. The way he turned his back on her showed that he did not expect, would not tolerate, disobedience.
Her breath laboring, she looked down at Serafina, took hold of her small sweaty hand, and obeyed.