Jun 28 2013 4:00pm
We hope you enjoy this excerpt from Starglass, a YA outer space thriller by Phoebe North available July 23rd from Simon & Schuster!
For generations, those aboard the Asherah have lived within strict rules meant to help them survive the journey from a doomed Earth to their promised land, the planet Zehava–which may or may not be habitable, a question whose imperative grows now, in the dwindling months before touchdown.
Sixteen-year-old Terra’s situation is tough. A dead mom. A grieving dad. A bitchy boss, and a betrothed who won’t kiss her no matter how bad she wants it. She’s doing her best to stay afloat, even when she gets assigned a vocation she has no interest in: botany.
But after Terra witnesses the Captain’s guard murder an innocent man, she’s drawn into a secret rebellion bent on restoring power to the people. The stakes are higher than anything she could have imagined. When the rebellion gives Terra an all-important mission, she has to decide where her loyalties lie for once and for all. Because she has started to fall for the boy she’s been sent to assassinate…
The next morning I hustled across the ship, pushing my sleeves up over my hands and listening to the clock bells strike out the quarter hour. It wasn’t entirely my fault that I was late, of course. The labs were practically a world away from the grimy port district where we lived. To reach them, I had to make my way through the commerce district, then the fields, then the pastures, then cross the narrow footbridge between the library and school. The concrete buildings that housed the labs rose up out of the ground near the far wall of the ship.
I made my way through the winding hallways, smiling nervously to the other specialists as I passed. They hardly noticed me as they rushed by, white coats streaming. When I finally reached the door to the botanic lab, I hesitated.
Truth be told, when I pressed my hand to the panel by the door, I hoped, for just a moment, that the door would stay shut.
No such luck. It slid away, revealing metal floors and walls. Everything would have been gleaming if it weren’t for the junk everywhere. Metal shelves reached up to the ceilings, but the books had begun to topple off them. Waterlogged papers spilled off a row of steel tables like leaves. And there were plants everywhere. Vines curled out of pots of soil and from planters overhead. Little trays of seedlings were stacked along the floor. Open bags of fertilizer steamed heat into the cool air.
The lab smelled like disinfectant, soil, and heady pollen. I wrinkled my nose.
“Hello?”I called, as the door slid closed behind me. I walked carefully, doing my best not to trample any of the books that were set open on the floor. For a moment there was no answer. But then I heard movement near the rear of the lab. A woman hovered over one of the desks behind a massive monitor. The computer terminal looked like it wasn’t often used. The keyboard was strewn with papers.
The woman was sharp-eyed, with gray-threaded hair cropped close to her head, and a hook-shaped nose. And she was tiny—much shorter than I was, and slender, too, though her coat fit much better than mine. It had been taken in at the waist and sleeves, tailored to her. I watched as she squinted down into the long tube of a microscope, her expression a sort of grimaced wink. She didn’t acknowledge me standing there, waiting.
“Um, Rebbe Stone?”I said, clearing my throat. “I can come back later if you want.”
She waved a hand at me, but her gaze didn’t move from the microscope. “Don’t call me ‘Rebbe’! The Council might think they can make me teach you, but they can’t force me to be as formal as all that.”
I chewed my lip. “You didn’t request me?”
“Bah,”Mara said. “‘Request.’ They’ve been trying to strong-arm me into retiring for years. They think you’ll be my deathblow. Sit down!”
The only chair was behind her, and it was piled high with books. So I crouched in place between a stack of field guides and a prickly-needled bush.
“On Earth, there was a country called Iceland,” she began. She had a craggy, sort of froggish voice. It matched her nose. “Of course you haven’t heard of it. Their chief cultivars were potatoes, kale, cabbage. Hardy grasses. That sort of rubbish thing, and limited to the warmer lowlands. But with geothermically heated hothouses, they could add almost anything to their diet. Tomatoes for vitamin C. Grapes, for wine. Small scale, mostly, but still. They’ve been an excellent model for us.” She finally looked up at me, one eye still squinted.
“Only problem is for the last year, blight has been hitting our hothouse fruit trees. And Zehavan fruit salad’s going to be exceedingly bland if all we have is crabapples and figs. You know, when they told me they were sending me a girl, I was worried you’d be an addle-brained fool. But I’m glad to see they didn’t send me one of the pretty ones.”
I blanched. I’d long known that I was no Rachel—my frame was gawky, and my fair hair hung in a frizzy curtain down my shoulders—but I wasn’t used to people saying it so plainly, either. The woman scowled.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. You’re fine. It’s better off, anyway. You’ll be doing all sorts of digging around for me. Wouldn’t want you to be afraid to get your hands dirty.”
I didn’t say anything. The woman looked amused. She offered me her hand.
“I’m Mara Stone.”
Her knobby fingers were cold. “I know,” I said. “My father told me... ” Then I trailed off. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to share what my father had said.
“Terrible things, I’m sure.”Mara turned to her microscope. “Terra, isn’t it? It’s an interesting name, considering. Do you know what it means?”
“No,” I said, and then added: “Considering what?”
“Considering your new vocation. Terra was another name for Earth. But also for the stuff on it. The land, the soil.”
“Oh,” I replied, not really sure of what to say to that. “It’s a family name. My mother named me after some ancestor.”
“Your mother, yes.” With those words, something about Mara’s expression changed. Her hard mouth didn’t exactly soften, but her frown sort of crumbled away. “You know, I’m sorry about that. Well, not sorry. I didn’t do it, you know. But sorry enough. The founders tried to safeguard us against that. But they couldn’t anticipate every eventuality.”
I was used to people apologizing for my mother’s death, but I wasn’t used to this. “It’s okay,”I said at last. And then we just stood there, staring at one another for a minute, the terrible silence stretching out.
“What do you know about plants?” she finally demanded. I opened my mouth, letting it form a helpless “o.”
“I know the names of some flowers,” I offered. “My mother taught me. Daffodils and cyclamens and—”
“Ha!” Mara said. “Lot of good daffodils’ll do us. Here.”
She strode over to the desk in the corner where a heavy volume waited in a nest of papers. It was open, the pages yellow from water that had drained from the planters above. She fanned through it. There were illustrations of plants on every page, each one lavishly illustrated in shades of brown and green. I wanted to reach out, running my fingers over the images. But there was no time.
“I’ll take you into one of the greenhouses. You’ll find each of the marked plants, and bring me a cutting.” She fished a pair of rusted shears out of her deep pocket. I took them from her, and then glanced down at the book. Even looking at it sideways I could see that almost a third of the pages were marked, the corners folded over.
“All of them?” I asked, doubt seeping into my voice. Mara showed me her teeth. It didn’t look so much like she was smiling as hungry.
“Yes,” she said. “All of them.”
She led me to one of the adjacent greenhouses, where, beneath the condensation-dusted canopy, a jungle of green seemed to have exploded. A few workers milled about, tending the plants. But they didn’t even look up at us. It was like they were somewhere else entirely. Mara and I stood on the central path, where we listened to the steady alternating sound of the sprinklers coming on in different parts of the room. The air here was muggy. I began to regret the heavy sweater I’d put on that morning between my undershirt and lab coat.
Mara gestured to a few of the plants. “Cycads. Gnetophytes. Bryophytes. Pteridophytes,” she said, like that was supposed to help me. Maybe it was. Other than a few pea plants, none of them were marked. I stumbled over her last word, sounding out the syllables: “Pter-i-do-phytes?”
Mara wrested the shears from my hand, knelt down in front of some sort of scrubby bush, and showed me how to clip a branch off. She dropped the gnarled thing into my palm. “Start with that,” she said. Without another word, she clomped down the path, leaving me there alone.
I turned to the first dog-eared page.
“Gnetum gnemon,” I mumbled to myself. “A mid-sized tree. Evergreen. Emerald leaves, with fruit-like st-strobilus.” I tried to commit the image of the red, clustered nuts and green-fingered branches to memory and hustled off through the tangled mass of plants at the greenhouse’s center.
It took hours. By nineteen o’clock—a few hours after the other workers had departed, smiling apologetically at me—my sweater was soaked with sweat, my trousers caked with mud. I wandered in circles through the overgrown paths. When I finally dragged myself into the lab, I felt dizzy, waterlogged and exhausted. But Mara didn’t say a word when I set the book on the desk in front of her. I watched as she typed something into her computer, carefully ignoring me.
“Well?” she said at last. I gestured to the book. She spun the volume around and opened it, eyebrows ticked up in annoyance.
“Good... good... no, this isn’t right. Neither is this one. This is M. intermedia, not M. struthiopteris.”
Mara pulled my clippings out, tossing them down at her desk. She scattered them over the mess of papers. Then she hefted the book in one hand and passed it to me. I extended a hesitant hand, taking it form her.
“I’ll do better tomorrow... ” I said, my voice trembling; I almost instantly regretted how weak I sounded.
“What you’ll do is go back out there and find them.” Mara’s voice was firm.
“But the time... ”
She didn’t say anything. Instead, she just stared me down, flaring her nostrils.
I pressed my lips together, trying to stop my chin from trembling. Then I shuffled down the hall.
Two hours later I was finally finished—each clipping carefully pressed between the rumpled pages. My back ached from crouching low all day in the bushes; my eyes felt heavy and watery. There was a long rake of scratches across my arm from where the thorns of one plant had dug in. I dragged my muddy boots against walkway floors, so tired I could hardly lift my feet.
But I straightened a little when the door opened and I found the once-bright lab dark. At the rear of the room, I found a torn scrap of paper tapped to the dim computer monitor. I held it up to the light that spilled out from the corridor. “Couldn’t wait any longer,” it read, in thin, jagged script. “Will see you tomorrow. Promptly at nine.”
I clutched the heavy book in both hands, feeling rage swell my ribcage and crest in my throat. For a moment, I considered slamming the field guide down against the desk, letting the legs shake, sending her papers and her precious slides flying.
But I didn’t. I only stood there for a moment, breathing, shivering. My anger faded from a prickly mass of light within me to a dull, tired gray lump. I tossed the book down on Mara Stone’s desk, and headed home.
There were two ways I could have walked home that night: I could have cut across the pastures, then through the commerce district. It was probably the way I should have gone—the most direct route, and the safest.
But it was late and I was tired. I knew the streets would be crowded with shoppers at this late hour—I’d see people I knew there, who would try to prod me into small talk about my new job.
So I went the other way, past the greenhouses and labs and down the lift, then across the second deck of the ship. There, forests edged the fields of purple and yellow. The overgrown dirt paths were practically empty now except for the crickets who called to one another, their song echoing beneath the ceiling.
At the edge of a field, a scuffed wall rose up out of the soil. A single door was cut into it, and it formed an imposing rectangle of black. Inside were the engine rooms, and the long corridors that looped around the now-silent machines. The dark hallways led to the large central lift that went straight up into the districts. This section of the ship wasn’t off-limits, not exactly, but it was the type of place you didn’t venture off to alone except on a dare. For one thing, our parents always warned us that the engine rooms might be dangerous, all those skinny pathways suspended above the ship’s inner works. For another, they were spooky. They seemed like the kind of place where you might stumble across a ghost—if you believed in ghosts.
But I didn’t. I was almost sixteen. Soon I’d be earning a wage, finding a husband, living on my own. I had no reason to be afraid of the hollow, echoing corridors. So I stepped through the narrow doorway.
When I was little, I’d been scared of the dark. I wasn’t anymore. Still, these hallways were so quiet. The only thing that I heard was my footsteps.
Momma told me once about her great-grandmother who remembered the days when the main engine still ran. She’d hear the vibrations all the time, even at night, humming through the thin walls of her quarters.
But now we only coasted to our destination. They’d shut the main engine off ages ago, when great-great-grandma was still a girl. Someday soon they’d activate the reverse thrusters, stopping us completely. But that was months away. Now, everything was quiet, and there were no workers left littering these rooms. Just me and my noisy boots, shedding mud against the hollow floor. Alone, or so I thought.
Until I heard a scream.
It came from the far end of the corridor. The lights here were dim, and they flickered, bathing whole sections of the hall yellow, then black. It looked like I was alone, but there was a scramble of movement in the distance, then a shout.
“Grab him! Don’t let him get away!”
I don’t know what made me run toward the distant voices, but I did, turning a corner and making my way down the narrowing corridors. At last, I reached the end of the hall, then spilled down a step into a wide-open space. I barely managed to catch myself with my hands. Beneath my weight, the metal grate swayed. I could see massive tubes spiraling down into the darkness through the gaps in the metal. They hugged the frozen engine tight, holding it aloft. There was the sound of wings fluttering from one end of the darkness to another. Apparently, bats had taken up residence there.
“What was that?” A woman’s voice pulled me out of myself. I pushed my hands against the grate, scrambling to my feet.
“Nothing!” A second voice—a man’s—answered. “It’s nothing! Hold him down!”
The rail that bordered the walkway was thin and precarious, lit only by a series of amber lights. I took hesitant steps, following the curving pathway around the massive central column. And then I stopped, peering forward.
In the flickering light stood Aleksandra Wolff. Her wool-clad shoulders faced me. She held her hand against the hilt of her knife like a silent threat, watching as two of her comrades wrestled a man to the floor.
I crept forward. Past Aleksandra and the scuffling trio, there was another pair of men in the shadows—another guard who held a man against the ground. Long red locks hung in the citizen’s face. I noted the white cord on his shoulder. Academic class. A flash of recognition lit my mind. It was the librarian’s talmid. Vin or Van or something.
That’s when I realized who his companion was. Benjamin Jacobi. The librarian, who’d spoken to me about my mother in kind tones only the night before.
He was on his knees. One of the guards held the blade of a knife against the soft underside of his jaw.
“The names! Give them to me!” the man on his left shouted.
But it was Mar Jacobi’s student who answered.
“Leave him alone!”
I watched as he struggled toward his teacher, stepping into the feeble light. He was hardly even an adult. Though his compact body was covered in lean muscle, there was a curve of adolescent softness to his features.
“Get back, Hofstadter!” Aleksandra snarled. “This isn’t your business!”
And then I heard Mar Jacobi’s voice. It was soft, gentle. “Van, it’s all right.”
The boy gave an uncertain nod. But then his gaze ambled up through the dark. His eyes were green, and they seemed to glow even in the dim light. He’d seen me watching in the shadows. He mouthed words to me, forming the syllables silently with his trembling lips: “Run. Now.”
Before I could obey, I heard Mar Jacobi’s gentle voice rise up one last time.
“Liberty on Earth,” he said. I saw the guard’s blade glint as it lifted. “Liberty on Zehava!”
The knife came down.
I did my best to ignore the strange gargle of sound that followed me as I raced down the twisting hallway. When I reached the lift, I jammed my hand against the panel over and over again. But before the door could shudder open, I heard Van Hofstadter’s voice barrel toward me through the silent corridors.
“Ben!” he sobbed. “Benjamin!”
I was still shaking when I stumbled through the front door. The sound of Van’s anguished cries kept echoing through my head. I didn’t even see my father sitting stone still at the table, waiting for me.
“Terra. You’re late.”
I jumped, nearly dropping my bag on Pepper. There was my father, hands flat on the table top, a series of covered dishes laid out before him. And he wasn’t alone. Koen Maxwell sat across from him, his brown eyes wide. He seemed afraid to speak, or even breathe. I knew that feeling.
“I know,” I said, shaking my head. “Something happened—”
“I don’t care what happened. I made supper for you so we could eat like a family for once. I expect you to come home at a reasonable time.”
I was doing my best to keep my cool, but I could hear the emotion cresting in my voice already. “Mara kept me late, and then I came home through the engine rooms and—”
“Don’t talk to me about Mara Stone. And the engine rooms are no place for a girl to go off walking alone!” He slammed the flats of his hand against the table. The dishes shook. Koen’s eyes got even bigger. I wondered if he regretted his vocation. But that wasn’t my problem.
“I’m not a girl! I’m fifteen years old—”
“I don’t care, Terra!” He pushed up from the table. As his chair came crashing to the floor behind him, Pepper darted up the stairs. My father towered over me. He was still so much taller than I was. “So long as you live in my quarters, what I say goes, and I won’t have you roaming the ship like some hooligan!”
As if he didn’t roam the ship alone all the time!
“Abba— !” I clamped my hands over my mouth. The syllables had squeaked out like a baby’s cry. Beneath my fingers, my face burned with shame. My gaze shifted to Koen, who was staring down at the table top, pretending he was somewhere else.
My father didn’t notice my embarrassment. He was still caught up in our argument. “Don’t ‘Abba’ me! I won’t have you roaming the ship like some worthless little slut!”
I’d heard those words before, of course. They always hit me just as hard as any blow. Between my clamped-down fingers, I let out a small noise. A cry. I fought it. I didn’t want to cry in front of Koen. I didn’t want to let him see the way things were in our house.
So I took off running for the stairs and locked my bedroom door behind me.
I stood there for a moment, trembling. I wasn’t sure if I was angry, or hurt, or terrified, or all of those things; the only thing I knew for sure was that my heart was thrumming furiously in my throat. At last, I threw myself face-first into my blankets. The bed was unmade, still rumpled from the morning before. My father had given up trying to get me to straighten my sheets in the morning years ago. That used to be our old battle—my messy room, my twisted blankets. Momma had been my defender.
“What’s it matter what her room looks like in the morning,” she asked, “so long as she gets to school on time?”
Now there was no one to defend me. Just like there had been no one to defend Benjamin Jacobi.
And now they’re both dead, I thought, weeping into my pillowcase.
Starglass © Phoebe North 2013