Waverly, Kieran and Seth are in a race against time – and with the future of humanity hanging in the balance, there’s no room for mistakes…
After a desperate escape from the enemy ship, Waverly has finally made it back to the Empyrean. The memory of home has been keeping her alive for the past months… but home is nothing like she left it. Forced to leave their captive parents behind on the New Horizon, she’s returned only to find that Kieran has become a strict leader and turned the crew against Seth. What happened to the Kieran she thought she knew? Now Waverly’s not sure whom she can trust. And the one person she wants to believe in is darkly brilliant Seth, the ship’s supposed enemy. Waverly knows that the situation will only get worse until they can rescue their parents – but how?
Before they have time to make a plan, an explosion rocks the Empyrean, and Seth and Waverly are targeted as the prime suspects. Can they find the true culprit before Kieran locks them away… or worse? Will Waverly follow her heart, even if it puts lives at risk? Now more than ever, every step could bring them closer to a new beginning – or a sudden end.
Seth Ardvale wasn’t aware of what woke him; he only remembered the fading dream of a rumbling sound that shook his bones. He sat up on his lonely cot in the brig, deep in the bowels of the Empyrean, and rubbed his eyes. He listened for voices. Sometimes he could catch hints about what was going on from the chatter of his guards, but there was no sound at all.
This isolation was part of his punishment, along with the lights being kept on twenty-four hours a day. Seth had come to accept that it might be a very long time before he was out of the brig. If Kieran Alden stayed Captain of the Empyrean, Seth might never get out. He supposed he deserved imprisonment, not just for the failed mutiny he’d staged against Kieran. He deserved to be here because of who he was. “I’m my father’s son,” he said aloud.
The sound of his own voice startled him. He hated that he’d begun talking to himself, but that was how to survive solitary confinement. He had long, internal conversations, and he always imagined talking to the same person: Waverly Marshall. He would close his eyes and see her on the other side of the bars to his cell, sitting on the floor, her hands wrapped around an ankle, chin leaning on her knee. The conversation always picked up where they’d left off a month before, after he’d asked her to get him out of the brig. She’d only looked at him, a haunting hesitation in her deep brown eyes, the rest of her lovely features smooth and expressionless. He knew her well enough to see she didn’t trust him.
“Get me out of here,” he’d said, pleading, a hand on one of the cold bars between them.
She’d looked at him for a long time before finally saying through a long, exhaled breath, “I can’t do that.”
And she’d gotten up and walked away.
Could he blame her? He’d staged a mutiny against her boyfriend, Kieran Alden, had thrown him in the brig, withheld food from him, and, some would say, tried to kill him. It had all made sense to Seth at the time; that’s how crazy he’d been. The time had been crazy. Out of nowhere the New Horizon had attacked the Empyrean, taken all the girls, and caused a containment leak in the reactors that ended up killing Seth’s father. But that didn’t excuse him. All the kids on the Empyrean had lost parents or were separated from them; all of them had terrifying responsibilities to run the ship without a single functional adult on board. Among them, Seth Ardvale had the lone distinction of acting like a sociopath.
“Maybe that’s what I am,” he whispered, then covered his mouth with his hand.
Waverly had been right to walk away.
But he still imagined a million different things he could have said to get her to stay. “You’re right. You shouldn’t risk it,” or, “I understand you can’t betray Kieran,” or simply, “Don’t go.”
Then he’d imagine how she would look as she turned back to him, how he might make her smile or even laugh. How she’d tuck her hair behind her ear just before glancing away again—a small, demure gesture that pierced his heart every time she did it.
But he’d said nothing that day. In his shame he’d let her leave.
If he ever did get out of here, he’d show her he could be a good person. It didn’t matter that he could never have her. He just couldn’t stand the thought of her thinking badly of him. And maybe, just maybe, he could help her, too. Because whatever had happened to her on the New Horizon had pulled her downward, bent her back, hollowed out her eyes. If he could see her again, he’d take nothing from her. He wanted nothing. He just wanted to help—be a friend.
Seth curled himself into a compact ball. He felt heavy and lethargic. The sound that woke him must have been a change in the engines, another increase in the ship’s acceleration in a vain attempt to catch up with the New Horizon, where all the parents were being held hostage. It would never work, Seth knew, but he would never have a say in the decision-making process again. He would always be a pariah.
“Sleep, sleep, I can sleep,” he whispered. It sometimes helped. “I’m just a body, I’m not a mind. I’m a body that needs to sleep.”
Then he heard the whine of the ship’s intercom, and Kieran Alden’s voice: “Evacuate to the central bunker!”
The alarm light in the corridor started twirling in blue and red.
Seth threw aside his bedclothes, ran to the bars of his cell, and yelled down the corridor, “Hey! What’s happening?”
No one answered.
“You can’t leave me in here!” Seth stepped to his right to try and get a look down the corridor between the cells, and tripped over a plate of bread and miso spread that had been left for him. He saw only rows of cold iron bars, and shadows. “You have to let me out!”
In his panic, Seth pulled helplessly on the door of his cell.
It slid open easily.
He stared, dumbfounded, and took a stealthy step outside and looked down the corridor.
There was no one.
Slowly he crept down the passageway, past Max Brent’s cage, which also hung open and was empty. He went to the door that led to the outer corridor and listened, then inched it open.
Down the hall, a booted foot was sticking out of the maintenance closet. Seth approached cautiously, his eyes on the boot, looking for the slightest twitch that would send him running, but the boot didn’t move. He nudged the door open and saw his guard, Harvey Markem, lying on the floor. Seth leaned over him, his ear to unmoving lips, and waited until a warm puff of air escaped them. A clotted mass of blood showed from beneath Harvey’s wiry red hair. Seth took the boy’s walkie-talkie off his belt and pressed the call button. “Hello?”
From the other end he heard only static.
“I need medical assistance down here,” Seth said, and listened.
No response. He looked at the many channels and frequencies, trying to guess which one would reach Central Command. But he didn’t have time to go through them, not if he wanted to escape, so he dropped the walkie-talkie on the floor.
Seth started down the corridor, telling himself Harvey would be all right. When he reached the stairwell door, he turned again and looked at the foot. It hadn’t moved, not a centimeter. What if Harvey was bleeding in his brain? What if he died?
Sighing, Seth went back to the closet, dragged Harvey out, pulled the boy into a sitting position, then draped him over his shoulder in a fireman’s hold. When he stood up, the pressure of Harvey’s weight seemed to squeeze all Seth’s blood into his face, and he broke into an instant sweat. Swaying with the strain, he started down the corridor again. Harvey was big anyway, but with the additional inertia from the Empyrean’s increased speed, he felt as if he were made of wet cement.
Seth’s legs shook, and for a moment he considered taking the elevator up, but he’d be spotted by the security camera immediately, and if the doors opened to a group of people, there would be nowhere to run. So Seth struggled up the stairwell, where there were no cameras, sweat pouring down his face and pooling in the hollow at the base of his ribcage.
“Jesus, Harvey,” he groaned. “What do you eat?”
The stairs were endless, disappearing into a bleak vanishing point above. He had to get Harvey to the central bunker, which was so many flights up Seth didn’t have the energy to count. That’s where everyone would be during an emergency, and it would be the only place Harvey could get any help.
Twice Seth sank to his knees. But if he left Harvey in the stairwell, the boy could die there, so he kept on climbing, every step painful.
When he heard voices, he knew he was close. The last few steps were torture, but Seth threw his weight forward and forced himself up, knees popping, spine bent. He paused to listen at the doorway and heard two girls talking in the hallway outside the central bunker.
“Did they come back?” said a squeaky little voice on the other side of the door. “Are they coming to get us again?”
“If they are, panicking won’t help.” This sounded like that frecklefaced little spitfire, Sarah Hodges.
“What if the hull blew up?” the little girl fretted.
“If the hull blew up, you and I wouldn’t be here,” Sarah said.
Slowly, Seth lowered Harvey to the floor and bent over with his hands on his knees to wait until his breath came back. When he was sure he could run, Seth rapped his knuckles on the door and took off, sprinting down three flights of stairs before he heard Sarah Hodges calling into the stairwell, “Hey! Who’s there! Oh my God, Harvey!”
Seth had covered another five flights when he heard footsteps coming after him. He only needed another four flights and then he’d be home free. “Please, please, please.” Seth repeated the word in his mind, pushing away the pain in his limbs, sending his exhaustion outside of himself so that he could run.
When he finally reached the level he needed, he gripped the door handle. As quietly as he could, he swung the door open and slipped through it, then pelted down the corridor and ducked into the nearest doorway.
Immediately his senses were filled with the fresh, loamy air of the rain forest. God, he’d missed this. The humid air moistened his prisondry skin as he ran through the coconut groves, past the lemon trees, where he turned into the undergrowth of the Australian species. He dove into a stand of eucalyptus and huddled there, his heart pounding on the wall of his chest, hands wrapped around his ankles, and he listened.
Not a footstep. Not a whisper. He’d escaped! Until he could find out what had gone wrong with the Empyrean, he would wait here.
Now that he was safe, he grasped the strangeness of what had happened. Someone had let him out, but who? Probably whoever had caused the explosions had also let him out; the two events couldn’t be coincidental. Whoever it was had probably caused the explosions as a smoke screen for his release.
His mind turned to Waverly. She’d never hurt Harvey or endanger the ship, but she could have found a way to let Seth and Max out. Then Max could have been the one to hit Harvey over the head and cause the explosions. Would Max do a thing that vicious?
When they’d shared a cell, Seth had listened to Max rave about all the things he’d do to Kieran Alden when he got out of the brig, how he’d lie in wait for him and pummel him, or use a knife, and then he’d go after his pencil-necked little friend Arthur Dietrich, and that traitor Sarek Hassan. The more he heard Max’s sick revenge fantasies, the more Seth wondered why he’d ever chosen the boy as his right-hand man.
Yes, Seth decided, Max was capable of endangering the ship and the mission to serve his own selfish purpose. Someone needed to find that son of a bitch before he did any more damage. But that wasn’t the only reason to find Max.
Whatever Max had done, whatever those sounds had been, Kieran would surely blame Seth for the whole thing and would likely use it as an excuse to keep him in the brig forever. If those booming sounds were bombs, and Seth was blamed, everyone would believe he was a traitor.
And what would Waverly think of him then?
Seth had only one choice: He had to find Max and turn him in. He had to prove to Kieran, Waverly, and everyone else that he had not done this.
And somehow, he had to do it without getting caught.
Waverly was in her quarters, brewing a pot of tea before she had to go to the cornfield to work on a busted combine. She’d never thought of herself as a mechanic, had never planned for it as her profession, so every day was a new exercise in guesswork. She’d chosen this job because it was one of the few positions that didn’t require her to talk to anyone. Besides, no one else wanted to do it. She had cuts and scrapes all over her hands from using unfamiliar tools, and she found the work so challenging that she had little time to think about anything else, and even less time to remember.
Still, whenever she closed her eyes, burnout images would appear on the dark screens of her eyelids: the congregation of the New Horizon all dressed in black, swaying to gentle guitar music; the glowing face of Anne Mather speaking to her flock; the lab where they’d operated on Waverly, taken the most essential part of her to create their next generation of apostles; the horrible red gash in her leg where Anne Mather’s cronies shot her; having to abandon her mother and the other parents trapped in a cage, where Mather could do anything to them she wished; the red burst of blood when she shot the man who’d stood between her and escape.
When she’d become a killer.
“I don’t think about that anymore,” she said into the empty room, and covered her eyes with the flat of her hand. No one else on this ship knew what she’d done. She hadn’t told anyone about the most singular event of her young life, the moment in time when she stopped being Waverly Marshall and instead became a killer. She was a stranger in her own home.
When the disturbance came, it was so distant at first she might have missed it—a slight shaking of the picture frames on the wall, the barely audible groan deep in the metal of the ship.
She sat up. Something wasn’t right.
Then, so deep she felt it in her chest—an explosion.
Her teacup jumped in its saucer, spilling black tea over the rough wooden table.
She bolted out of her chair and ran into the corridor, where dozens of panicked kids were emerging from their quarters, crying and clutching dolls to their chests. Melissa Dickinson was standing at the end of the hallway, surrounded by little boys and girls. She was a petite girl, barely taller than the children she cared for so tenderly.
“What’s going on?” Waverly had to shout over the din.
“I don’t know,” Melissa said. Usually placid, her hazel eyes darted around anxiously. “Boys, girls, stay close!” she called down the hallway. Like magic, the children gathered together, all eyes on her.
The ship’s intercom crackled, and Kieran’s voice came over the speakers, calling the entire crew to the central bunker.
Every conversation halted; silence loomed over the children as they stared in alarm at Melissa.
“To the elevators, everyone!” she called, and herded them toward the central elevator bank. Melissa was only twelve years old, but she’d taken charge of the orphaned children who were too young to help with the running of the ship. Every day she dutifully reported to the nursery, where she and various helpers played games and planned lessons to keep the kids occupied. At night, Melissa’s story hours had become quite famous on the ship, and even some of the older kids came to the library, where she read to everyone from books like The Wind in the Willows or James and the Giant Peach. Then she tucked each and every child into bed in a group of apartments at the end of the hallway, leaving all doors open in the night so that she was only a whisper away. It was no wonder all the little children loved her. Even Waverly found Melissa’s presence comforting.
“Are they coming back?” asked Silas Berg, a boy of six with a knack for voicing everyone’s fears in the most straightforward way.
“No, Silas,” Melissa told him firmly. “The New Horizon is millions of miles away. And we’re not in the nebula anymore, so they can’t sneak up on us ever again.”
“I’m scared,” whispered Paulo Behm as he wove his small brown fingers into the sash of Melissa’s bathrobe.
“I am, too,” Melissa said, and she stroked his cheek with the backs of her fingers. “But we’re all going to stay together, right, Waverly?”
Waverly nodded and tried to smile reassuringly at the children.
“Don’t ask her,” piped up squeaky little Marina Coelho. “She’s the one who left our parents behind.”
“If you could have done better, why didn’t you?” Melissa said. The words were firm, but her tone was gentle. “Why was it Waverly’s job?”
“She’s fifteen!” little Marina squeaked, as if that explained everything. “She’s the oldest girl, so it was her job.”
“She had no choice but to leave when she did,” Melissa said angrily, and shot an apologetic glance at Waverly. “She and Sarah rescued us all. I think Waverly is a hero.”
“I don’t,” Silas spat with little-boy contempt. “No one thinks that except you.”
Melissa shook her head in exasperation as the elevator opened for them, and everyone stepped on in a scraggly herd.
Waverly turned her back on them to face the elevator doors, but she sensed their accusing stares on the back of her neck. She felt a small body pressing against her leg and glanced down to find Serafina Mbewe looking up at her, her hair two puffy pigtails hovering like clouds over her dainty face. Waverly used to babysit Serafina, who was four years old and deaf. Waverly tried to smile, but turned away too soon and Serafina shrank away. I should be there for her, Waverly thought. But it hurts too much.
The elevator opened to a chaotic central bunker, an immense room with rows of bunks along the walls and emergency lights hanging from the ceilings. At the end of the room was a large galley where communal meals could be prepared. Kids huddled in groups along the walls, sitting rigid on cots, talking in hushed voices. Waverly tried to ignore the angry stares from a group of girls led by Marjorie Wilkins, a preteen girl with knobby knees, who had an obvious crush on Kieran. Marjorie was a vocal supporter of Kieran, and she would goad anyone who didn’t attend his services.
“What did your friends do this time?” Marjorie spat at Waverly as she walked past.
Waverly knew she should ignore her, but she couldn’t let this go by without answering. “I don’t know who you mean.”
“I mean the people you left our parents with,” Marjorie said. “They must be your friends, otherwise why would you have left our families there?”
“Would you rather grow up on the New Horizon? Maybe I should have left you there, too,” Waverly said, and tried to face her down with a cool stare, but the girl wasn’t in the least intimidated.
“Everyone thinks you’re a coward,” said Millicent, Marjorie’s little sister. Both girls had lost their father in the shuttle-bay massacre, but they were holding out hope that their mother was still alive on the treacherous sister ship, the New Horizon. These girls were the most vocal critics of Waverly’s failed rescue attempt. Waverly was racked with guilt every time she saw their mean-eyed glares. Because she should have tried harder. It didn’t matter that Mather’s thugs were shooting at her. It didn’t matter that they’d winged her shoulder. She should have stayed just a little longer and made that lock give way. The parents would have spilled out of that cargo container and overwhelmed Anne Mather and her thugs. They could have piloted the shuttle back home, and everything would be okay. If only Waverly had stayed another few seconds, or a fraction of a second, instead of turning coward and running. And she’d never have gotten away at all if the crew of the New Horizon hadn’t turned against Anne Mather at the last moment and helped the girls escape.
Waverly tried to tell herself that if she hadn’t run and at least rescued the girls, Marjorie and her sister and all the little ones might have ended up as reproductive slaves on that ship. They’d have their eggs stolen and put into surrogate mothers, and they’d have to watch their babies be raised by strangers. That’s what they’d done to Waverly, Sarah, and all the older girls. But it seemed useless to try to tell Marjorie that. She didn’t want to listen.
The only thing that could help now would be for the parents to get away themselves. For days, then weeks after the girls’ escape, everyone on the Empyrean had waited, hopeful that the civil unrest the girls had left behind on the New Horizon would lead to the release of their parents. As their hope dwindled, Waverly found more and more kids glaring at her as she went about her duties. Sometimes she didn’t even want to leave her quarters.
“I tried my hardest,” Waverly said to Marjorie, but she heard the weakness in her voice.
Marjorie curled her upper lip in disgust. “That wasn’t good enough, was it?” she said with a bitter scowl.
“No,” Waverly said, meeting every accusing eye in turn. “It wasn’t.”
They had nothing to say to that, but she could feel them scowling at her as she walked away.
This is why I hide under tractors and combines, Waverly thought bitterly to herself. No one can see me. No one can say anything to me. And I can just be alone.
Only the teenage girls who’d had their eggs stolen like Waverly understood why she had to run. Alia Khadivi, Debora Mombasa, and Sarah Hodges were all sitting on a bunk at the far end of the room, and Waverly wove through the crowd to get to them.
“Did that bitch Marjorie say something to you?” Sarah asked, sending a hard glance in the girl’s direction. Sarah was compact and intense, and every emotion she had skitted across her freckled face with unmistakable clarity.
“Don’t worry about it,” Waverly said. “Do you know what’s going on?”
Sarah shook her head. “Everyone thinks we’re being attacked again.”
“The New Horizon is nine million miles ahead of us,” Waverly said.
“I know,” Alia said through pursed, deep pink lips. Her long, thick hair draped over her shoulder in an ebony cascade. “Maybe Seth got out.”
“No,” Waverly said instantly. “Seth wouldn’t do anything to hurt the ship.”
“You better hope the problem is Seth,” Debora said with a grim laugh. She ran her fingers nervously through the tight curls in her black hair. “Because if it isn’t him, it’s the New Horizon.”
Waverly sat down on the end of the cot next to Sarah. She wanted to reach out and take her friend’s hand, but she didn’t want to act like a scared little girl.
“I wish Kieran hadn’t hidden all the guns,” Alia said. A practical girl, Alia had taken on the task of trying to harvest as much produce as possible from the family gardens, which had become sorely neglected in the last few months. She and her volunteers brought endless baskets of fresh fruit and vegetables to the living quarters, and often they would work together in the ship’s galley to make enormous pots of vegetable stews for the younger children to eat. Alia rarely betrayed emotion, but now she jiggled her foot inside her red silk slipper, making the cot the girls sat on tremble.
“They’ll have to follow me out an air lock if they want to take me back there,” Waverly said. She tucked icy hands under her thighs.
“Don’t talk like that,” Sarah said automatically.
“Why not?” Waverly said.
She felt Debora studying her for long moments with her luminous eyes before finally saying, “You got us off that ship. No one could have done better. You know that, don’t you?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Don’t pay attention to Marjorie and those idiots,” Sarah said.
“I don’t,” Waverly said coolly, but she knew Sarah didn’t believe her.
In the center of the room, a girl named Megan Fuller held up a hand, calling everyone to attention. Megan wasn’t classically pretty, with her over-plump cheeks and scraggly brown hair, but her smile lit up her face beautifully. “Let’s all gather around, everyone!”
“Oh God,” Waverly said. “Will they ever give it a rest?”
“It makes people feel better,” Alia said with unexpected equanimity. “You have to admit that.”
A surprisingly large number of kids gathered around Megan. People bowed their heads as she prayed in a singsong: “Dear God, guide our leader, Kieran Alden. Whatever happens tonight, please protect us from our enemies until the day you reunite us with our families, either in this life or the next. . . .”
“It’s a nice thought, seeing our parents again,” Debora said distantly. Shortly after arriving back on the Empyrean, Debora had learned that her parents died in the shuttle-bay massacre. She was brave about it, but she hardly mentioned them, and she seemed to prefer the company of the small herd of sheep and goats she took from field to field throughout the ship, watching them graze with empty eyes. “I feel my mom talking to me at strange times.”
“I used to talk to my dad after he died, when I was little,” Waverly said, remembering those sad, lonesome nights. “Just as I fell asleep.”
“Maybe Megan isn’t so wrong to pray, then,” Alia said.
Waverly looked at Megan, who held her hands over her head as she prayed aloud. She knew the girl was a great supporter of Kieran; whenever he entered a room she stared at him with a heaven-struck look on her face. It made Waverly sick. “She sounds like Anne Mather.”
“You know,” Debora said, an edge of impatience in her voice, “not every religious person is like that woman, Waverly.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You don’t have to,” Debora said, her eyes on Waverly’s knees. “Anyone can tell it’s your attitude.”
“I thought you didn’t like Kieran’s little cult, either,” Waverly said, knowing she was getting defensive but unable to help herself. “After Anne Mather, how could you?”
Debora shrugged, sullen. A hunk of her springy hair moved into her eyes, and she impatiently jammed it behind her ear. “Megan isn’t Anne Mather. Neither is Kieran. You of all people should know that.”
Sarah and Alia looked at Waverly with sympathy but dropped their eyes to the floor rather than join the discussion.
Waverly opened her mouth to protest, and shut it again. I didn’t overreact, she told herself. Kieran is dangerous.
But Anne Mather was worse. And maybe she had found a way to sneak up on the Empyrean. Maybe she was boarding the ship with her thugs right now.
Waverly doubled over, leaned her forehead against her knees. I won’t go back there, she promised herself. I’ll die first.
Spark © Amy Kathleen Ryan 2012