Rylla McCracken dreams of escaping her family’s trailer in the Dust States to go to college, but on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, her mother demands she drop out of school to work for Lockburn chemical refinery instead.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Sim Kern’s debut novel Seeds for the Swarm, the beginning of a new YA solarpunk series—out from Stelliform Press on November 1st.
Rylla McCracken dreams of escaping her family’s trailer in the Dust States to go to college, but on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, her mother demands she drop out of school to work for Lockburn chemical refinery instead. When Rylla learns Lockburn is planning to dam the Guadalupe River—the last flowing water in Texas—she defies her mother to protest in the state capital. The protest ends in disaster, but her ensuing viral infamy gains Rylla an acceptance to the mysterious Wingates University.
At Wingates, Rylla befriends a diverse group of students, all working on new technologies to save the planet. Besides mountains of homework, Rylla struggles with guilt for leaving her brother behind in the Dust, where tensions with the Lush States are escalating towards civil war. Succeeding at Wingates seems like Rylla’s best chance to help her family, until she uncovers a terrible secret about the school’s billionaire backers. Now, Rylla and her friends are in a race against the rich to reclaim the world-altering technology they’ve developed—before it’s too late.
Strolling down the corridors of Ward 4, Dae-Dae skipped ahead, and Azam walked arm-in-arm with Rylla, grilling her about life in the Dust States. Outside, the sun was sinking low over the meadows of Wingates. At the junction with the Chemistry wing, Azam broke off.
Before Dae-Dae followed her, she turned to Rylla. “Got a test running in the cryo lab. Can you find your way back to your dorm?”
“I’ll walk her,” Theo said. Dae-Dae arched an eyebrow. “What? I’m heading back anyways to work on my proposal.”
Rylla was perfectly capable of getting herself back to her room, but she didn’t protest the friendly offer. Dae-Dae and Azam waved goodnight and headed off together, glancing back at Rylla. Something was going on here.
“Come on,” Theo said. “Let’s take the Jet Stream. It’s the quickest way to get between Wards.” He led her down a stairwell.
They emerged onto a wide subterranean platform. Beyond the edge, five tunnel openings yawned, each perfectly round and glistening with a black, oily substance.
As they waited, Theo slouched next to her on the platform, loose strands of hair falling into his eyes. His silence was making her nervous, and she racked her brains for something to ask him. “So… you and Dae-Dae have been friends a long time?”
“Ever since my first day at Wingates. We had math together, and she had to help me with long division.” He rolled his eyes. “She still throws that in my face.”
“Are your parents professors too?”
He laughed. “No. I am a local, though. Started out at a public school a few miles from here. My kindergarten teacher thought I was a sociopath, so they sent me for psychological testing.” He tapped a finger against his skull. “Figured out I’m just a genius.”
“A kindergarten sociopath?” Rylla laughed nervously. “Why’d she think that?”
“I may or may not have replaced my teacher’s koffy creamer with pure sodium.” His hands made an exploding motion, and he mouthed Boom! “Oh, don’t look so horrified—she wasn’t seriously hurt. And I’d warned her to give it a rest with that insipid Rainbow Fish book.”
Before Rylla could respond, the elevators behind them opened, and five people in military dress uniforms stepped out. In the lead was a pale, middle-aged person with a thickly muscled neck, a large bust, and black hair pulled back in a severe bun. Their eyes swept over Rylla with as much interest as they’d give to ants beneath their feet.
A gust of wind blasted the platform, and a white pill-shaped capsule shot out of the far-right tunnel. It stopped at the edge of the platform, hovering in mid-air. The pod door slid open, and the military personnel boarded.
“Hey!” Rylla whispered. “Wasn’t that our pod?”
Theo just scowled. “That’s the third time I’ve seen the army snooping around this week. It’s like they’ve moved in or something.”
The pod sped into the far-left tunnel. A moment later, another pod appeared, and a group of brown-shirted students got off. Theo gestured for Rylla to enter after them.
The pod bounced slightly on its magnetic field as she climbed aboard. Even though there were a dozen empty seats, Theo sat directly next to her, which made her anxious. As the capsule door slid noiselessly shut, claustrophobia gripped her chest. “So, uh—” she forced her voice to sound nonchalant “—what’s the army doing here anyways?”
“I wish I knew,” he said.
“We should follow them and find out,” she said—joking, of course, but Theo’s face lit up.
“We should. I like your style, Tex.”
“Wait, I was kidding—”
But Theo’s MANI-studded fingers were already drumming on his knees. The holoscreen at the front of the pod filled with code.
“What are you doing?”
“I’ve been at Wingates a long time,” he said with a smile. “I may have figured out how to do some light hacking into its internal operations systems.” The holoscreen filled with data that was incomprehensible to Rylla, but Theo peered at it closely.
“Okay, here’s the pod log. It came from Ward 3 and headed to—” Theo frowned. “But that doesn’t make any sense.”
“This has to be a mistake. Hang on.” The code reappeared, and his fingers flew again, typing furiously. “If I delete their log, I can trick the system into thinking this is the pod they were in. Then I’ll rerun the protocol, and it should take us where they went.”
Rylla suddenly pictured Professor Watt looking very angry. “Is this allowed? Are we going to get in trouble?”
He grinned wolfishly. “Would it be so bad to get in trouble with me?”
His words sent something electric shooting through her, chasing away the responsible part of her mind. She was dying to know what the army was doing here, and she didn’t want to let Theo down—not when he was gazing at her so intensely. She didn’t know the rules of Wingates—whether being an accessory to “light hacking” could get her expelled—but Theo had gone here nearly all his life. He must know what he was doing.
“Okay,” she breathed. “Let’s do it.”
Theo waved his hand and the burst of speed pushed her back in the seat. After a few moments, they took a hard right turn, then her stomach lurched as the pod hurtled deeper underground.
“Fascinating,” Theo said. “I never knew this tunnel was here.”
Rylla’s ears popped with the pressure change and the pod stopped suddenly, like it’d slammed into a wall. They were thrown out of their seats. Red lights bathed the cabin, and a siren blared.
“Uh-oh.” Theo got to his knees. The pod doors slid open into the middle of a pitch-black tunnel.
A voice in Rylla’s microvibe speakers announced, “THIS IS A RESTRICTED AREA. YOUR GENETIC CODE IS NOT AUTHORIZED.”
“Shit!” Theo typed furiously.
“SENTINEL HAS BEEN DISPATCHED TO YOUR LOCATION. REMAIN STILL WITH YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR.”
Heart hammering, Rylla stretched her hands above her head. “Theo? What’s Sentinel?”
“I’m trying to get us out of here before we find out,” he said. “But the system’s locked. Hang on—”
She pictured a gun-wielding drone speeding down the tunnel towards them, and her arms trembled overhead with fear.
“There!” Theo flicked his hand, the door slid shut, and the pod shot back the way they’d come, throwing Rylla against the wall.
As they climbed out of the pod in the Ward 6 station, Theo muttered, “Walk normally,” which made doing that twice as hard. Rylla kept expecting someone to yell “freeze!” or feel a gunshot in her back. She had to concentrate to make it across the platform and into the stairwell without breaking into a run. Theo didn’t say another word until they burst through the doors into the meadows outside.
After they’d gone a few paces down the path, he looked over his shoulder, then visibly sagged. He let out a long breath. “Okay, I’m pretty sure we’re in the clear.”
“Pretty sure?” Rylla’s voice came out shrill.
“I was able to wipe our DNA signatures and make it look like a pod malfunction.” He interlaced his fingers and stretched his arms overhead. “That was wild, huh Tex?”
“I need you to explain what just happened,” she said in a trembling voice. His nonchalance made her want to throttle him.
“What just happened?” He sounded giddy. “What just happened was we found Ward 7!” He laughed, grabbing her by the shoulders. “Ward 7 is real!”
“A secret lab block, deep underground, where professors and their top graduate students work on the really dangerous, classified research.” He skipped a step and turned back to Rylla, eyes bright with excitement. “There’s rumors about it, but I never knew where it was.” He chewed a thumbnail. “Man, I hope my proposal gets me access.”
She couldn’t believe that he was acting so cavalier. “What would have happened if ‘Sentinel’ got to us?” she demanded. “What kind of ‘dangerous research’ are you talking about? What the hell kind of school is this?”
“Woah, chill,” he laughed, holding up his hands. “Look, I’ve been at Wingates a long time. If we’d been caught, the worst thing that would’ve happened would’ve been a lecture from Professor Watt.” He smirked. “As for what kind of school this is? Trust me, whatever research they’re doing down in Ward 7, I guarantee it’s all good stuff, for the benefit of humankind,” he said, quoting the school motto.
Rylla narrowed her eyes. “Then why is the army visiting Ward 7?”
“Now that’s a good question.” He tapped his lips with a finger. “Maybe they’re trying to steal our research, so they can weaponize it against the Siberians.”
It all sounded so outrageous—like the plot of a holo-thriller—but after what they’d just been through, Rylla couldn’t help wondering if he was right.
They took the winding path through the meadows to reach her dorm, Theo rattling off all the rumors he’d heard about the dangerous, futuristic tech being developed in Ward 7. With the sun setting, Rylla was distracted by how chilly—actually chilly—it was, and in April! When they finally reached the prairie-covered topside entrance to her dorm, she was shivering, but didn’t feel like heading underground just yet. The air was too crisp, what they’d gone through was too unbelievable, and she wanted to linger under the wide-open sky, hugging her arms to her chest. Theo made no move to leave, either. He stood there staring at her, from between long, dark lashes.
“Well, that was … intense,” she said to break the silence.
“It was! And not all bad, right? You have to admit you had a little fun?”
“Ehhhh,” her voice trailed off. She wasn’t sure. She’d been truly terrified for her life, but according to Theo, they’d never been in any real danger. Now, her blood was charged with adrenaline, and thinking of all they’d gotten away with—she couldn’t help grinning.
“I knew it! Well, I’ll spy on the U.S. army with you anytime, Tex.” Theo smiled down at her. Something was definitely happening here, and it sent her into a panic.
“Okay, good night,” she squeaked, turning to fling open the glass door into the artificial hillside.
Relieved that Magenta wasn’t around, Rylla fell face-first onto her bed, giving in to her jumbled feelings. Theo was a bioengineer, and awfully arrogant, and she should hate him for it. On the other hand, he was very tall.
He liked her, right? As they’d said goodnight—that look he’d given her! She was pretty sure that was flirting. But doubts rushed in: she’d insulted his major, and she’d even shouted at him. He probably thought she was some backwards, anti-science redneck. Was that why he kept calling her “Tex?”
To distract herself, she powered up her OGlenses and found a message from her mother. Amaryllis was halfway through removing her makeup when she recorded the vid, so one eye was black-and-pink with eyeshadow, while the other was pale, wrinkled flesh. She said she didn’t have no money to be sending, so Rylla was going to have to fend for herself, don’t even bother asking.
“Nice,” Rylla muttered. “Real comforting, mom.”
She couldn’t believe that just that morning she’d hugged her mother and her whole life goodbye. Visions from the day crowded her mind, like scenes from a nightmare—Emigrant City and the Wall, the cataclysm drill, army officers, and the dark tunnel to Ward 7. Most of all, though, she thought about Theo, with his crooked grin. Theo calling her “Tex” as he backed away. All these images were connected, somehow, like threads in an intricate pattern. If she could just zoom out far enough, the strands would form a picture, something terribly important. But whatever it was, she fell asleep before it came into focus.
Excerpted from Seeds for the Swarm, copyright © 2022 by Sim Kern.