Seventeen-year-old Lake spends her days searching a strange, post-apocalyptic landscape for people who have forgotten one very important thing: this isn’t reality. Everyone she meets is a passenger aboard a ship that’s been orbiting Earth since a nuclear event. The simulation that was supposed to prepare them all for life after the apocalypse has trapped their minds in a shared virtual reality and their bodies in stasis chambers.
No one can get off the ship until all of the passengers are out of the sim, and no one can get out of the sim unless they believe it’s a simulation. It’s up to Lake to help them remember.
When Lake reveals the truth to a fellow passenger, seventeen-year-old Taren, he joins her mission to find everyone, persuade them that they’ve forgotten reality, and wake them up. But time’s running out before the simulation completely deconstructs, and soon Taren’s deciding who’s worth saving and who must be sacrificed for the greater good. Now, Lake has no choice but to pit herself against Taren in a race to find the secret heart of the sim, where something waits that will either save them or destroy them all.
Strange Exit, Parker Peevyhouse’s near-future, stand-alone thriller, is available January 14th from Tor Teen.
Lake followed the arrows her fellow passengers had scratched into the ship’s walls. Most of the ship’s hallways led to locked doors, pitch-black rooms, groaning machinery, barricades of smashed supply crates. Some led to dorms or toilets, or to makeshift workshops strewn with broken bots, or to banks of red-flashing panels Lake had long ago given up trying to decipher. The arrows passengers left for one another were the only way to stay oriented.
Lake’s stomach was begging for food, but she couldn’t stop herself from doing this—searching. Willow’s not here, she told herself. She’s not on the ship.
She had to prove it to herself every time she woke up.
Somewhere in these hallways, the boy she had rescued from the simulation must be stumbling along, weak from stasis. Someone had probably already found him and was taking him to get food and water. Lake would check on him later.
She ended up at a locked door and then decided to go back and scratch a mark to warn others about the dead end. She used a screw from a dissembled bot to do it. A girl heading out of a dorm room shot Lake a suspicious look. “Someone should make a map,” Lake said lightly, but the girl hurried past. Everyone on the ship acted like they were still coming out of the fog of sleep, still trying to shake some bad dream.
Lake’s stomach grumbled again. Okay, I get it. Time for the eatery.
At the end of the next hallway, the eatery buzzed with skittish energy, as always. It was the place most passengers hung out, hungry or not. Lake wouldn’t call it crowded, exactly, considering it was meant to service a few hundred more people than had managed to get on board. But even with its tall view-screens and high ceiling it felt cramped, full of nerves and hunger and grumbling voices.
Lake kept her head down when she walked in, avoiding huddles of passengers who’d staked out their usual tables, where they played poker with makeshift cards, or went through all the same arguments over how to fix wheezing air vents and divvy up protein bars. Might have been a different scene if the passengers hadn’t all been underage—but that was something Lake tried not to think about too much, the whole pied piper situation.
Scrawled all over the walls of the eatery were names of passengers lost to the simulation. Lake had been checking the names off one by one. Ninety-seven check marks. Only fifty-three left to go. Fifty-two, now.
And where were they all? It used to be easy to find people in the sim, even if it was hard to get them out. Now, she was more likely to find empty landscapes. Where in the sim could fifty-two people be hiding?
The eatery’s overhead lights flickered.
Meanwhile, the ship’s getting worse every day.
“Where are you coming from?” a boy barked at her as she tried to edge past his table.
Kyle. He’d been in Lake’s government class back home, where she’d barely noticed him. Now, she couldn’t avoid him—he liked to stand on tables and bark orders at people, as if studying power structures qualified him to create his own. He glared at her, arms crossed so he could show off his muscles in his ship-issue shirt.
“Catching up on my sleep,” she said.
He caught her arm as she tried again to walk past. “You didn’t go back into the sim?”
It was all she could do not to yank free. Eager as she was to escape his sweat-and-algae smell, she couldn’t afford to fight Kyle. He was known for shoving people into the private dining rooms that ringed the eatery and served as makeshift holding cells. “Always out, never in,” she said, the stupid motto everyone kept repeating. “Otherwise, we all just keep getting stuck.” She forced a smile.
Kyle squinted at her.
Dummy—how do you think you got out of the sim? If I hadn’t gone back in and found you barricaded in a school closet…
He was still gripping her arm, trying to decide if she was hiding something.
“Got anything to eat?” she asked, still smiling.
He let go of her arm like it was burning hot. “Sorry. Check the other tables.”
Worked every time.
Lake found a chair at a mostly empty table and reached into the food box there. Empty. Her stomach complained.
A young girl sitting across the table silently chewed a protein bar. Lake had rescued this girl from the sim days ago. A week ago? Hard to keep track of time on a failing ship. She’d found the girl in an empty house, waiting for parents who would never come.
Was she any better off now, waiting to leave the ship?
The girl broke off half the protein bar she was eating and held it out to Lake.
Lake hesitated, surprised. “Thanks.” She tapped her half against the girl’s. “Cheers.”
The girl was maybe thirteen—Willow’s age. Eyes held that same challenge and curiosity. Probably had strong opinions on which music was the worst, which books the best, which Pop-Tart flavors were better cold or hot. Lake was willing to hear it all.
“You remember me?” Lake asked her. Is that why you’re sharing your food?
The girl shrugged. “Sure. You come in here, sit by yourself. Leave alone.”
Lake winced. “But you don’t remember…” Of course she didn’t remember Lake rescuing her. Lake was always careful to change her appearance when she went into the sim. Otherwise, people like Kyle would catch on and lock her up. “Never mind.” Disappointment mingled with the loneliness Lake thought she had done so well at squashing.
She shifted her attention to the view-screens. “Best view around.” She gazed at the glowing curve of Earth and imagined herself looking through tall panel-windows. White swirling clouds, as beautiful from above as they had been from below.
Her throat ached at the thought.
How much longer until I’m under them?
“He likes it too,” the girl said, and Lake shifted in her seat to see who the girl was pointing to.
The boy from the tiger yard.
Someone had shut him into a private dining room currently serving as a makeshift holding cell. He stood with a shoulder pressed against the glass door, staring at the distant view-screen, trembling so hard it was a wonder the glass didn’t shake. Fresh out of stasis, and no one had bothered to feed him.
He caught her staring. Raised one shaking hand to press against the glass.
Lake looked away, rattled. But he couldn’t have recognized her. He only wanted help.
She couldn’t give it to him. She was trying to keep off everyone’s radar. Sorry. She’d rescued him from one cage only to get him locked in another.
She chanced another quick look. He was so weak. Don’t do it, she told herself.
But she got up and slinked to a drink dispenser. Hope he likes algae smoothies. Nothing quite like the feeling that you’re drinking a fish. He wouldn’t be able to keep much more down. He’d been getting all his meals through an IV.
She set the drink on the table someone had pushed in front of his cell to barricade it shut. Then she dragged the table from the door, wincing at the squeal of metal scraping over metal.
“What are you doing?” someone barked.
Kyle again. He strode over, his glare undercutting her sense of accomplishment at budging the table.
“Did you ever have a pet?” Lake mustered the nerve to keep dragging the table. The boy behind the glass stood straighter, watching her progress with wide eyes. “You know how they die when you don’t feed them?”
Kyle shoved the table back toward the door. “He’ll be fine for a few hours. Take the fight out of him.”
“Fight? He obviously just got out of the sim.”
“The new ones always try to go right back in.”
Lake glanced at the boy trapped behind safety glass. Skinny and sad. They always looked like that when they first woke up. It almost made her feel sorry for saving them. “So you’re going to keep him in there until… ?”
“Until I feel like letting him out,” Kyle said. “He gets trapped in the sim again, we’re that much worse off.”
“So explain it to him.” Lake turned to the boy behind the glass. She owed him eye contact while she delivered the bad news. “We’re going to die unless everyone gets out of the sim so the ship will let us go home.”
The boy broke her gaze but didn’t otherwise react. Hard to process anything when you were exhausted.
Kyle slapped the glass so that the boy jerked back. “They never understand. They think it’ll be easy to get out again.” Kyle crossed his arms, somehow looked authoritative even in his sweat-stained ship-issue uniform. Maybe he’d been captain of a sports team back at school and all uniforms were the same to him. He spoke at the glass. “You know anything about avalanches? Ever heard of people dying because they dig downward instead of toward the surface? They get tumbled around in the snow, get disoriented. That’s how the sim is. Even when you know you’re in a simulation, you end up losing your bearings and digging yourself in deeper.”
Lake thought about how it had felt to wake from the sim not half an hour ago. That first gasp of breath, Willow’s name on her parched lips. He wasn’t wrong.
Lake pointed her algae shake at the prisoner watching from behind the glass. “I don’t think he wants to go back into the sim. I think he’s just thirsty.” She moved the cup from side to side and the boy’s gaze followed it. “I’ll keep an eye on him, make sure he doesn’t go anywhere.”
Kyle crossed his arms again, considering. “Always out, never in,” he said finally. That obnoxious motto again.
“Like burps and farts,” Lake said with a smile.
Kyle looked more annoyed than amused.
But he didn’t stop her when she went back to dragging the table.
The moment she cracked the door open, the boy behind it grabbed the cup from her.
He made a face at the taste. “Yeah, I know,” Lake said apologetically.
He downed the rest and leaned heavily against the wall, exhausted. “Thanks,” he croaked.
“How do you feel?”
“About right, for a dead person. I’m assuming this is hell.”
“No…” Lake looked back, past the turmoil of the eatery, to the screens that showed Earth’s distant surface. “That’d be what we left behind when we got on this ship.” Smoking craters and impact fires and blackened skies.
“The lucky ones did.”
“And then… I was in a simulation?”
“You leave stasis, then you enter the sim before you fully wake up. It’s supposed to show you what Earth’s like now: war over, skies clear.” She pointed at the distant view-screen he’d been staring at earlier, where white clouds still swirled. “But it didn’t get everything right. The sim’s broken. Like the rest of this ship.”
“The ship’s… ?” He couldn’t seem to bring himself to finish the sentence. His hand shook so much Lake thought he might drop the cup. “What do you mean?”
“The ship was never meant to be an emergency bunker. It was supposed to be for exploration. You know the guy who made the virtual reality app Paracosm? He had this ship built so he could, like, boldly go. But I guess it wasn’t quite finished when the war started and we all hurried aboard.”
The boy’s legs shook. They weren’t used to holding him up. Lake thought about telling him to take a seat, that all the news she had was bad news anyway. But he was pressing up against the wall as if he were trying to get as far as possible from what she was saying.
“I was trapped in there, wasn’t I?” he asked. “In the sim.”
Lake gave him a sympathetic smile. “Now you’re just trapped on the ship. Until everyone gets out of the simulation. The ship won’t let us leave until then. Won’t let us access most of its areas, let alone the shuttles. We’ve got a whole group of volunteers trying to beat down the doors to the shuttle bay on a twenty-four-hour rotation. But I’m pretty sure those doors can withstand a lot more than homemade battering rams.”
This was usually the point when the newly rescued went back to slumping. The boy just gave her a determined grimace. Fine, he could join battering-ram duty when he found his strength. She wouldn’t stop him from wasting his time.
“How do we get people to wake up?” he asked.
Lake’s shoulders stiffened. A normal question, she told herself. It doesn’t mean he knows it was you in the sim. “We let them figure it out on their own.”
He eyed her like he knew she was lying.
Lake ducked his gaze. She leaned forward and took the empty cup from his trembling hand before he could drop it, noted the stars tattooed on his forearm—some constellation. “What’s your name?”
“Don’t try to go back into the sim, Taren. Forgetting reality feels nice for a while, but in the end, it only makes you more miserable.” Trust me.
He stared at her a long moment, and Lake couldn’t decide whether he believed her. The new ones usually didn’t. “What’s your name?” he finally asked.
“Why did you look at me that way before, Lake? When you were eating at the table? No one else bothered to notice me.”
Her skin itched. He’s going to figure it out. And then they’ll put me in here. “I have an eye for potential organ failure.” She shrugged. “Just—don’t go back into the sim. If anyone finds out, they’ll lock you up for good.”
She slipped back out the open door, dropped the cup on a table, and left the eatery, forcing herself to take it slow under the weight of his gaze.
Excerpted from Strange Exit, copyright © 2019 by Parker Peevyhouse.