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PART ONE - TWIN SHIPS
The other ship hung in the sky like a pendant, silver in the ether light cast by the nebula. Waverly and Kieran, lying together on their mattress of hay bales, took turns peering at it through a spyglass. They knew it was a companion vessel to theirs, but out here, in the vastness of space, it could have been as tiny as a OneMan or as immense as a star – there were no points of reference.
‘Our ships are so ugly,’ Waverly said. ‘I’ve seen pictures, but in person . . .’
‘I know,’ said Kieran, taking the spyglass from her. ‘It looks like it has cancer or something.’
The other ship, the New Horizon, was exactly the same misshapen design as the Empyrean. It was egg shaped, covered with domes that housed the different ship systems, making it look like a Jerusalem artichoke, the kind Mrs Stillwell always dropped off with Kieran’s family after the fall harvest. The engines released a bluish glow that illuminated the particles of the nebula, causing the occasional spark to fly when the heat of the engines ignited a pocket of hydrogen. Of course, the ships were accelerating too quickly to be harmed by these small explosions.
‘Do you think they’re like us?’ she asked him.
Kieran tugged at one of her dark brown curls. ‘Sure they are. They have the same mission as we do.’
‘They must want something from us,’ Waverly said, ‘or they wouldn’t be here.’
‘What could they want?’ he said to reassure her. ‘Everything we have, they have.’
Inwardly, Kieran admitted that it was very strange they could see the ship at all. By all rights, the New Horizon should be trillions of miles ahead of them, considering it was launched a full year before the Empyrean, forty-three years ago. The ships had never been close enough to get a glimpse of each other. For some reason the New Horizon had reduced its speed to allow the Empyrean to catch up. In fact, given the distance and the velocity at which both ships travelled, it must have decelerated years ago – a radical deviation from the mission plan.
The other ship was a source of excitement aboard the Empyrean. Some people had made large welcome signs with big, exuberant lettering and hung them in the portholes pointed towards the other ship. Others were suspicious and whispered that the crew must have some disease, otherwise why wouldn’t the Captain let them come aboard? Captain Jones had made an announcement soon after the ship appeared, telling the crew not to be alarmed, that he and the other Captain were in negotiations and all would be explained. But days had gone by, and nothing happened. Soon the feeling among the crew had changed from excitement to restlessness and finally to fear.
The New Horizon was all Kieran’s parents talked about. The night before, Kieran had quietly spooned vegetable soup into his mouth, listening to them chatter about it.
‘I don’t understand why the Captain doesn’t make another announcement,’ said his mother, Lena, running nervous red fingers through her dark gold hair. ‘The Central Council should at least tell us what’s happening, shouldn’t they?’
‘I’m sure they will when they understand the situation,’ Kieran’s father replied irritably. ‘We don’t have anything to fear.’
‘I never said I was afraid, Paul,’ Lena said with a look at Kieran that communicated just how afraid she actually was. ‘I just think it’s strange, is all.’
‘Kieran,’ his father asked in his firm way, ‘has Captain Jones mentioned the ship to you?’
Kieran shook his head, though he had noticed the Captain seemed more preoccupied lately, and his palsy was worse – it made his hands tremble all the time. But he hadn’t said a word about the New Horizon’s mysterious appearance. ‘Of course he wouldn’t say anything to me about it,’ Kieran said.
‘Well,’ his mother said as she tapped thoughtfully at her teacup, ‘nothing explicit, of course, but . . .’
‘There was one thing,’ Kieran said slowly, enjoying the way his parents were hanging on his every word. ‘I went into his office too early yesterday, and he was just shutting off the com station and talking to himself.’
‘What was he saying?’ Lena asked.
‘I only caught one word. He said “liars”.’
His parents looked at each other with real concern. The lines in Paul’s face deepened, and Lena’s teeth worried at her bottom lip, making Kieran sorry he’d said anything.
Now, feeling warm and safe with Waverly, he decided he would ask today before his broadcast. The Captain might not like his questions, but Kieran thought he could get something out of him. Kieran was, after all, Captain Jones’s favourite.
That was for later. He’d had a reason for asking Waverly to meet him here, and there was no sense putting it off, no matter how anxious it made him. He forced his breathing to quiet.
‘Waverly,’ he said, wishing his voice were deeper, ‘we’ve been dating a while now.’
‘Ten months,’ she said, smiling. ‘Longer than that if you count kisses in grade school.’
She cupped his jaw in her hand. He loved her hands and the way they felt warm and soft. He loved her long arms, her strong bones beneath olive skin, and the silken hairs that wandered up her forearms. He lay back on the hay bale and took a deep breath. ‘You know how I can’t stand you,’ he said.
‘I can’t stand you, either,’ she whispered in his ear.
He pulled her closer. ‘I was thinking of taking our contest of wills to the next level.’
‘In a manner of speaking,’ he said, his voice vulnerable and small.
She was unreadable in the way she looked at him, waiting, saying nothing.
He drew away from her, leaned on an elbow. ‘I want to do this right. I don’t want to just jump into bed with you.’
‘You want to marry me?’
He held his breath. He hadn’t quite asked her, not all the way, but . . .
‘I’m not even sixteen,’ she said.
‘Yes, but you know what the doctors believe.’
That was the wrong thing to say. Her face tightened, almost imperceptibly, but he saw it.
‘Who cares about doctors?’
‘Don’t you want children?’ he asked, biting his bottom lip.
Waverly smiled slowly, deliciously. ‘I know you do.’
‘Of course. It’s our duty!’ he said earnestly.
‘Our duty,’ she echoed, not meeting his eyes.
‘Well, I think it’s time we think about the future.’ Her huge eyes snapped onto his. ‘Our future together, I mean.’
This wasn’t the way he’d meant to ask her.
She looked at him, her expression wooden, until a slow smile crept across her face. ‘Wouldn’t you rather marry Felicity Wiggam? She’s prettier than me.’
‘No, she isn’t,’ Kieran said automatically.
Waverly studied him. ‘Why do you look so worried?’
‘Because,’ he said, breathless.
She drew his face to hers, stroking his cheek with the chubby ends of her fingers, and she whispered, ‘Don’t worry.’
‘So you will?’
‘Some day,’ she said playfully. ‘Probably.’
‘When?’ he asked, his voice more insistent than he meant.
‘Some day,’ she said before kissing him gently on the tip of his nose, on his bottom lip, on his ear. ‘I thought you didn’t like that I’m not religious.’
‘That can change,’ he teased, though he knew this wouldn’t be easy. Waverly never came to the poorly attended ship’s services, but she might if the ship had a pastor, he thought. The few spiritual people on board took turns delivering the sermon during their meetings, and some of them could be kind of dull. It was too bad, because otherwise Waverly might see things differently, understand the value of a contemplative life.
‘Maybe when you have kids,’ he said, ‘you’ll care more about God.’
‘Maybe you’re the one who’ll change.’ One corner of her mouth curled into a smirk. ‘I’m planning on making you a heathen like the rest of us.’
He laughed and laid his head on her breastbone to listen to her heartbeat, breathing in time to it. The sound always relaxed him, made him want to sleep.
At sixteen and fifteen, they were the two oldest kids aboard the Empyrean, and their relationship had felt natural and even seemed expected by the rest of the crew. But even without the social pressure, Waverly would have been Kieran’s first choice. She was tall and slender, and her hair draped around her face like a mahogany frame. She was a watchful person, and intelligent, a trait that showed in the deliberate way her dark eyes found their mark and held it steady. She had a way of seeing into people and understanding their motives that Kieran found almost unnerving, though it was a quality he respected. She was definitely the best girl on board. And if he was chosen to succeed Captain Jones, as everyone assumed he would be, Waverly would make the perfect wife.
‘Oh no!’ She pointed at the clock over the granary doorway. ‘Aren’t you late?’
‘Damn it!’ Kieran said. He wriggled off the hay bale and slipped into his shoes. ‘I’ve got to go.’
He gave her a quick kiss, and she rolled her eyes.
Kieran ran through the humid air of the orchard, jogging between rows of cherry and peach trees, and took a shortcut through the fish hatchery, enjoying the spray of salt water on his face. His feet pounded the metal grating, but he skidded to a stop when Mrs Druthers appeared out of nowhere, carrying a tub of minnows. ‘No running in the hatchery!’ she scolded.
But he was already gone, racing now through the dense caverns of green wheat, where harvested sheaths hung from hooks on the walls and ceiling, trembling with the shudder of the engines. It took five minutes to reach the end of the wheat fields and then a quick jaunt through the humid mushroom chamber, before a seemingly endless elevator ride up to the Captain’s suite, where he was supposed to begin recording his show in four minutes.
The studio was really a small anteroom outside the Captain’s office, but it was where the Captain preferred to record their webcasts. The room was lined with large windows that looked onto the nebula, which the Empyrean had been traversing for the past year and a half. Below the windows were short couches arranged in a row, where anyone who wanted to could sit and watch Kieran’s show for Earth’s children or the Captain’s longer show that relayed the adult news back to Earth. In front of the couches was a small but very powerful camera and, above them, a row of bright hot lights shone on the desk where Kieran sat to deliver the news.
There were only a few people in the studio today, and Kieran hurried past them and straight to the make-up chair, where Sheryl was waiting with her powder puff.
‘You’re cutting it close these days,’ she remarked, wiping the sweat off his face. ‘You’re all sweaty.’
‘It never picks up on camera.’
‘Your panting does.’
She ran a small fan in his face to dry him, which felt wonderful, then patted him with talcum. ‘You need to be more mindful.’
‘We’re only recording it. We can’t send it until we’re out of the nebula.’
‘You know how the Captain likes to keep the archives up-to-date,’ she said with a smirk. The Captain could be fussy.
Kieran didn’t know why they bothered with the webcasts any more – there hadn’t been any communication from Earth for years. The Empyrean was so far from the home world that any radio signal would take years to reach its destination. And, when it did, it would be so distorted that it would require extensive correction before it could be understood. He might never know if there was anyone back on Earth listening to his newscasts, which made Kieran feel like a figurehead of precisely nothing.
He examined his reflection in the mirror, still undecided about his looks. He might be kind of handsome, he thought, if his nose weren’t so crooked and his chin weren’t so square. But at least his amber eyes weren’t bad, and he had nice rusty coloured hair that mussed in a thick pile over his forehead. He thought it looked good that way, but Sheryl ran a damp comb through the curls, trying to get them to lie straight.
Captain Jones came to stand behind Sheryl. A tall man with a potbelly and trembling, thick fingers, he walked as if listing from side to side, which on first impression made him seem aimless. In truth, the Captain was the most purposeful man on the ship, quick with his decisions, which were almost always right, and trusted by all the men on the ship, though he was less popular with women, Kieran had noticed.
The Captain frowned disapprovingly at Kieran, who didn’t mind it. He knew the Captain was extremely fond of him.
‘Kieran, you spend too much time with Waverly Marshall. I ought to intervene.’
Kieran forced a smile, though he didn’t like it when the Captain talked about Waverly this way, as though he owned her and were only loaning her out.
‘I trust you’ve practised?’ the Captain asked, eyebrows smashed down in an attempt at sternness. He let out a puff of air that disturbed the grey hairs of his beard, which he smoothed with his thumb and forefinger.
‘I read it all over twice last night.’
‘Out loud?’ he pressed with a glimmer of humour.
‘Good.’ The Captain handed a data-dot to Sammy, the technician, who was readying the teleprompter. ‘I’ve made a couple of small changes at the end, Kieran. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to wing it. I’d planned to discuss it with you ahead of time, but you were late.’
‘What are the changes?’
‘Just a small mention of our new neighbours,’ said the Captain with an attempt at nonchalance. When he looked out of the porthole, though, he sighed heavily.
‘What’s going on?’ Kieran asked, trying to sound carefree. But when he met Captain Jones’s eyes, all pretences sank away. ‘Why did they slow down?’
The Captain blinked a few times in that strange way he had, bottom lids flitting upward. ‘They have a new captain, or . . . leader, and I don’t like the way she talks.’
‘How does she talk?’ Kieran wanted to know, but the perpetually frantic Sammy jabbed his finger at Kieran.
‘Thirty seconds,’ he said.
‘Later,’ said Captain Jones, guiding Kieran to his seat in front of the camera. ‘Have a good show.’
Uneasy, Kieran placed his palms flat on the oak desk in front of him. Then he assumed the bland smile he wore at the beginning of every webcast and watched the opening montage.
It began with the crew of the Empyrean, two of them Kieran’s parents, young and fresh faced as they helped transplant a tobacco seedling in the occult nursery. Then came a scene of doctors in white surgical caps, leaning over a row of test tubes, carefully dropping samples into them with a long syringe. Finally there was a picture of all 252 kids on board standing in the family gardens, surrounded by apple and pear trees, grapevines growing up the walls, and baskets of fresh carrots and celery and potatoes. The image was meant to communicate plenty and prosperity so that the hungry people back on Earth could believe in the mission.
The light over the camera winked on, and Kieran began.
‘Welcome to the Empyrean. I’m Kieran Alden,’ he said. ‘Today we’re going to give you a special look at our fertility labs. As you might remember, long-term space travel can make it difficult for women to get pregnant with healthy babies. For six years, women aboard the Empyrean tried to get pregnant, and failed. This was a tense time, because if they couldn’t have children to replace the original crew, there would be no surviving colonists to terraform New Earth. So creating the next generation was more important than anything else. We’ve prepared a video for you that looks back at how our team of scientists solved the problem.’
The studio faded to black, and the screen behind Kieran showed the video segment about the fertility labs. Kieran had a few minutes to catch his breath while the video ran.
At the back of the studio there was a sudden flurry of activity. Winona, Captain Jones’s beautiful secretary, came running in and whispered something in his ear. The old man darted up and hurried out of the room.
Kieran watched the video, which showed clips of his own birth. Kieran was naturally shy, so it was uncomfortable to have the entire human species know what he looked like, slimy and screaming after emerging from his mother’s womb. But he was used to it. Kieran was the first successful deep space birth. When he was born there was a great celebration, not only on the Empyrean, but probably back on Earth as well, which was why Kieran had been chosen to host the web-vision broadcasts. He never got to decide what was said on his show; he only read the news. His job was very simple: give the people of Earth a reason to believe that Earth-origin life would not go extinct. Give them hope that even if they themselves could not emigrate to the new home world, maybe their grandchildren could.
The video was drawing to a close, and Kieran straightened in his chair.
‘Five, four, three . . .’ Sammy whispered.
‘Unfortunately, things didn’t go as well on our sister ship, the New Horizon. Though their scientists worked very hard, the women aboard the New Horizon never got pregnant.’
Kieran’s heart pounded. He had never heard this before. As far as he and everyone else knew, there were lots of children aboard the New Horizon, just as there were on the Empyrean. Now he realized that communication between the two ships had been minimal for a long time. Had that been intentional?
Sammy, whose face had turned ashen behind his round spectacles, made an urgent gesture for Kieran to keep reading.
‘No one knows why the New Horizon kept their fertility problems a secret,’ he went on, ‘but recently they’ve slowed their progress in order to rendezvous with the Empyrean, so we expect to find out soon.’
The theme music began, an upbeat melody with piano and strings, and Kieran tried to match the cheerful tone with his own voice. ‘This has been webvision broadcast number two hundred forty-seven from the Empyrean. I’m Kieran Alden, signing off.’
When the music faded away, Kieran heard shouting. The Captain, normally calm and self-possessed, was yelling so loudly that Kieran could hear him through the metal walls of his office.
‘I don’t care what you think you’re going to do! You’re not boarding this ship until I review the situation with my Central Council!’
He was silent for a moment but soon began shouting again, even louder. ‘I’m not refusing a meeting. Come aboard in a OneMan and we’ll have one.’
‘I don’t understand why you need to bring an entire crew, ma’am, if all you want is a conversation.’
Silence, an angry one. When the Captain spoke again, it was with intimidating calm: ‘I’ve given you no reason what-ever to distrust me. I have never lied to you, or deviated from the mission plan without an explanation . . . Oh, that’s just paranoid trash! There was no sabotage! I keep telling you!’
Kieran heard the Captain pacing. He felt guilty eavesdropping, but he couldn’t stop himself. Judging from the hush in the room, neither could anybody else.
‘If our two vessels cannot work together . . .’
Suddenly Sammy was in motion again, flicking switches on the studio console until the screen behind Kieran’s desk glowed with a video image from the starboard side of the Empyrean.
Someone in the room gasped.
The New Horizon loomed on the screen, huge and shadowy, close enough for individual portholes to be seen with the naked eye. At first Kieran thought the image must be magnified, but with a tightening in his gut he knew this wasn’t the case. In the short time it had taken him to do the show, the New Horizon had closed the three hundred kilometres between the two ships and was now cruising alongside the Empyrean at extremely close range.
A subtle movement caught Kieran’s eye, a tiny dot moving like an insect away from the New Horizon, towards the Empyrean. From its bulletlike shape, he guessed it must be a shuttle craft, the kind of vessel designed to carry the colonists and their equipment from the larger ships on short missions to the surface of New Earth. These shuttles were never intended for deep space travel or for docking from one ship to the other, but that was what this one was doing now. Whoever was aboard was clearly planning to land on the Empyrean.
‘Oh, my God.’ Sheryl sat in the make-up chair, hands clamped over her pink mouth.
‘How many people do those things carry?’ asked Sammy, sounding bewildered and frightened.
The Captain burst out of his office and pointed at Sammy. ‘This is an attack,’ he announced. ‘Sammy, tell the Central Council to meet me in the starboard shuttle bay.’
As an afterthought he added, ‘Call a security squad, too. Hell, call all of them.’
Kieran’s heartbeat tripped crazily. His mother was on a volunteer security squad, working every now and then to settle a dispute between crew members or help out during a community event. The squads never carried weapons.
‘What’s happening, Captain?’ Kieran asked, his voice cracking.
The Captain put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. ‘Honestly, Kieran,’ he confessed, ‘I just don’t know.’
IN THE GARDEN
‘Everything we have, they have,’ Waverly repeated under her breath as she marched down the corridor towards 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 was, 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 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 it 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.’
‘OK,’ 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 centre 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 neighbours.’
‘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 centimetres. ‘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 towards 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 towards 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 what would have happened if she hadn’t chosen Kieran. 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 towards 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 towards 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 towards 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, OK? Captain Jones’s 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 that 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 towards the starboard side.
Mrs Mbewe, her neighbour, was running towards 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 that led 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 colouring books lay haphazardly in the middle of the floor. A box full of flash cards had been knocked down, 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 towards 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 prised 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 towards 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 towards 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 250 children were really gathered into a single room.
Slowly, Serafina and Waverly made their way towards 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 three metres 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 disorientated 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 labouring, she looked down at Serafina, took hold of her small sweaty hand, and obeyed.
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