Authors: Aubrie Dionne
Tags: #new adult, #Sci-fi, #space, #haven 6, #space opera, #tundra 37, #Romance, #Science Fiction, #scifi, #paradise 21, #apocalypse, #aubrie dionne, #a new dawn
“You’re going to teach me how to fly a star-liner, a deep space colony ship as big as a city with a
?” James leaned over Dal’s shoulder as the old man brought up on his miniscreen what looked like a flight simulator program.
“We’ve tweaked the parameters to correspond to the
’s maneuvering capabilities. You fly hovercrafts all the time, right?”
“When I can get my hands on one, yes.”
“Flying is flying.” Dal handed him the screen. “Make sure you take a look at it.”
James clicked off the monitor to save the energy cell and stuck it in his backpack. They walked to the concrete door, passing by guards on either side. “Right. I’ll play it while I fight off the moonshiners.”
Dal’s voice hardened. “Flying’s not the hard part.”
James stopped and turned toward him. “What
the hard part?”
The old man pursed his lips. “Getting to it.”
Son of a Razorneck!
James realized he’d accepted the mission without even asking about the
’s coordinates. That was typical James—he ignored the odds. That’s why the Radioactive Hand of Justice promoted him in the first place.
“Where is the
Dal scratched his head. “Outside the city, in the Barren Lands on a secret government base called Project Exodus. I’ve input the coordinates onto the miniscreen.”
The mission sounded more and more unattainable, but James stifled his doubt. They had no other choice. “Wow. Getting to the top of the high-rises is one thing, but getting out of the city?”
“You’ll have to steal a hovercraft.” Dal said it as if he suggested James lift a damaged holoscreen from a Dumpster.
“With the moonshiners breaking in, I don’t think there’ll be one left to take.”
“Try Thadious Legacy’s tower.” Dal tapped his shoulder. “The man has enough money to own ten of them in all the colors of the rainbow. And I don’t think he needs any where he’s going.”
Dal was right. Thadious’s tower was probably empty and unguarded, and no one except the people on that ship, Dal, and James would know. At least they had a plan.
James nodded to one of the guards, a young man with purple-black crescents under his eyes. For a moment, James wondered why he hadn’t made it onboard the
. Did he choose to stay? Or was he rejected because of some singular strand of his DNA that held a recessive disease?
No matter; James was his only hope now. That thought placed a burden on his shoulders, but it was a burden he was used to. Besides Dal, he was responsible for his gang.
The concrete rolled back, and men pointed lasers into the darkness.
James peered out, and his hair glowed into the shadows, revealing an empty tunnel. He turned back to Dal. “Prepare yourself in case I don’t make it back. This mission is almost impossible.”
Dal smiled, surprising him. “That’s why I asked you to do it.”
James hurried through the old subway tunnel to the stairs leading to the upper levels. Reluctance vibrated through every bone in his body, yet he propelled himself forward like a seeker missile. To visit Thadious Legacy’s building would reopen memories he wanted to keep stashed away. He had taken Mestasis there for her interview with the credit hound, and she’d secured the deal allowing James’s people on board the
. Of course, she thought he’d be invited as well. Fate didn’t always work the way you expected.
He tried not to remember how she’d kissed him after the meeting, or the promise of a life together that rested in her dark eyes.
Movement stirred in the alley as he reached the top of the stairway. James fell back into the shadows to pull on his black cap, hiding his glowing hair. His association with his gang was best kept secret. A moonshiner scurried back and forth in a blur of movement. The man stopped every few seconds to crane his neck at an impossible angle toward the upper levels.
James considered sneaking back down and reemerging at the next stop, until he followed the man’s gaze to a balcony not too far up. A woman and young girl hung from a railing, legs dangling. An elderly woman with overly large, darkened eyes perched on the balcony railing, wearing a yellow apron and floral skirt. The moonshiner woman flitted from side to side, sniffing the air as if trying to figure out why it smelled like ripe humans.
James brought out his laser, but the man on the ground ran too quickly for him to lock on any target. James fired into the blur to get his attention. Black eyes stared in his direction as the man froze and zeroed in. James started firing, hoping he’d get at least one clean shot in the seconds before the moonshiner reached him.
The man sprinted so quickly, his shoes skimmed the alley and kicked up empty energy cells, the plastic tubes ricocheting off the building. James ducked as the man leaped toward him, his finger never leaving the trigger. White light shot out in a stream as the moonshiner flew through the air with outstretched arms, palms opening and closing. James hit the moonshiner’s shoulder, and the force of the laser fire threw him back against the building into a heap of old rags. Before he could recover, James targeted his head. The man hit the building and slumped forward.
James searched the rows of balconies, fearing the woman’s grip had slipped, but she hung quietly underneath the old woman’s radar. With the weight of the child on her back, she didn’t seem to have the strength to hold on much longer. James shot at the balcony, but three floors up was too far to hit anything that moved almost as fast as light. The old woman jumped, skirts flying up around her torso as she plunged to the alley floor after him.
James watched with morbid wonder.
Surely she couldn’t survive that fall
She landed in a heap of old mattresses and sprang up, flying toward him like a demon.
He fired, feeling as though he was moving in slow motion in a fast-forward world. She crashed into him, and they flew back into a trash heap.
This time, he made a point to hold onto his laser.
He climbed over old boxes and tattered clothes. The woman squirmed above him, biting anything in her way, but she’d lost him in the mess. He fired and she stilled, hanging over a shattered wallscreen. A locket hung from her neck, showing a holopicture of an old man’s face. James closed the locket and placed it in the hollow of her neck.
Rest in peace
Wondering why an old woman would bother with moonshine, James pushed his way up through the garbage. He shouted at the woman and child hanging from the balcony. “Hold on; I’m coming.”
James dug in his backpack and pulled out a retractable cable rope. He fired the hook up along the side of the building. The three prongs landed on the balcony floor of the woman’s level and he dragged it forward until it caught the railing. Yanking to make sure he’d secured the hook, James fastened the end of the cable rope to his belt and held on as it retracted, pulling him up.
As he rose, he saw the pair in detail. The woman looked to be in her early twenties, startlingly beautiful with curly Irish-red hair and fox-like features. The girl had blond hair and dark eyes, with a cute mushroom-shaped nose and chubby cheeks. He climbed over the railing and offered his hand.
“I’ll pull you up.”
Her jade eyes flashed him a wary glance before she grasped his arm. He gripped and heaved, lifting her and the little girl over the railing. After wrapping his arms around them, he carried the pair to the end of the couch sticking halfway out the door. One look at the shards of glass told him the moonshiner had put it there.
“Are you okay?”
Shock shone in their wide, blank eyes. He tried the question again, and the woman nodded, hugging the little girl close.
“How long did you hang out there?”
She croaked, “Too long.”
Stepping inside the apartment, he scanned the countertops. A smudged plastic cup lay on its side, a crack running across the bottom. He picked up the cup and tried the faucet to see if they still had water rations. A light stream trickled out. He filled the fake glass until the water petered off and brought it to the balcony, offering it to the woman.
The cup shook in her hands as she sipped. He wanted to bend down and hold it steady for her, but he didn’t want to seem too forward, so he stood back and allowed her room to recover.
She offered the girl a drink and glanced up at him. “Thank you.”
He waved away her gratitude. “No problem.”
“I mean it.” A fierce fire simmered in her emerald eyes. She looked like someone out of the old Celtic fairy tales the nurses in the orphanage used to tell him at bedtime. He couldn’t imagine why any colony ship would want to leave her DNA behind.
“Thank you for saving us.”
“You don’t have to thank me. It’s what I do.”
He contemplated taking them down to the hideout, but he had to press on. The city would be a target soon, and he had to reach the
before the world leaders considered it a contaminated zone.
“I need to hurry. Stay here. Wait for a signal from the sky. I’m bringing a ship to evacuate the city.”
He turned to leave, but she caught his arm. For someone with small and dainty fingers, she had the grip of a cobra. “Wait! Take us with you. I can help.”
He paused, his arm still in her grip. Could he tell her the truth? A stirring in his gut made him trust her, and the city was falling into ruins around them. Who would she tell? “I’m heading to Thadious Legacy’s tower to steal a hovercraft. From there, I’m flying across the Barren Lands to a secret government base to hijack a colony ship. I’m not sure it’s any safer than staying here. Besides, how can you help? I have to travel quickly.”
“I can’t stay here. We have no weapons.” She stood up, hands on her hips. “But I can watch for moonshiners. You’re gonna need a lookout while you finagle a hovercraft.”
James scanned the ruined apartment. The front door to the hallway hung by its hinges. Their level was dangerously close to the sewers and moonshiners could storm in at any time. He only had one laser, and he’d need it where he was going. But he couldn’t resist those eyes, full of intensity and spirit. And she was right. Three sets of eyes were better than one.
“All right. Pack your belongings; we may not come back.”
“What about Daddy?” The girl spoke for the first time, her little hands wrinkling the woman’s shirt.
James raised his eyebrow in question. He didn’t want to take some other man’s family away from him. What was this woman thinking?
“He’s gone, Carls, and we have to keep moving.” She stepped near James and whispered under her breath. “He’s not coming back.” Anger hardened her voice.
The girl sniffled, wiping her nose with her hand.
James suddenly felt like an intruder. He shook his head. “Look, I’m not getting in the middle of a family dispute—”
She kept her tone low so the girl couldn’t hear. “He was with the Razornecks when they bombed the State Building. Besides, he was half-gone to that moonshine crap when he left.”
“Oh.” James’s throat tightened as he fought the urge to wince. The Razornecks? What had he gotten himself into? He couldn’t possibly shelter the family of one of his enemies. What would she think if she saw his neon hair?
Movement rustled in the alley below. They didn’t have much time. He had to make a decision.
Hugging the little girl, the woman gazed at him desperately. “We’ve got nowhere to go.”
He had no time to tell her of his affiliations. Besides, he didn’t have the heart to give her any reason to distrust him. He couldn’t leave her and the girl alone. If he did, he’d always wonder if they survived.
“Okay. Let’s go inside and pack up anything you think you’ll need.”
She thrust out her hand. “I’m Skye O’Connor.”
He took her hand, feeling soft skin and small, feminine fingers. “James. James Wilfred.”
“This is Carly.”
James bent down to her level and offered her his hand. The girl eyed him suspiciously and buried her head in Skye’s shoulder.
He took his hand back, knowing he was just a stranger to her, but feeling rejected all the same.
Skye stood up and offered him a sympathetic smile. “Don’t worry. She doesn’t trust any strangers. It took her a whole month to say one word to me.”
Skye dragged Carly down the hallway, following James as he kicked in a panel she’d passed by a thousand times and never thought to open herself.
“Where are we going?”
The metal clanged and he smiled as the panel settled. “Shortcut.”
She had no choice but to trust him. To stay in that apartment would doom her and Carly both. There wasn’t any food, and the moonshiner had busted the door. If one person could do so much damage, she couldn’t imagine the destruction caused by an army of those monsters.
Carly pulled on her arm. “I don’t wanna go.” Her lower lip trembled and Skye bent down to meet her eye to eye.
“It’s the only way, Carls.”
Besides, she realized she did trust James. He had an innate confidence and meaning about the way he held himself, like he served some greater purpose and had nothing to hide. He also looked like he’d walked right out of a comic book, with a strong-boned face, sleek dark hair, and lean, rounded muscles rippling down to his stomach underneath his tight black shirt.
Trying not to stare as he peered in the hole he’d made, she curbed her hope. What he said about saving people for a living seemed almost too good to be true. Who does that? A superhero?
James signaled them in. “Come on, the coast is clear.”
“But what about Daddy?” Carly tugged on Skye’s arm.
She couldn’t wait for Grease forever. Skye sighed and looked back over her shoulder one more time, feeling a pang of guilt. “I left a note in a secret place only he’d think to look, telling him where we’re going, okay Carls? If he comes back, he’ll find us.”
Carly bit her lip, tucking Jennifer into her coat. “Okay.”
Skye wished they could leave the doll. Carrying a nonessential item would only slow Carly down. But a few years back, a man dressed as Santa had come around to their apartment on Christmas and given it to her. It wasn’t just a doll—it was a sign that humanity still existed in the small cracks between the Morpheus users.
Ducking into the hole, Skye followed Carly onto a landing platform to a maintenance shaft. A series of metal rungs led to the upper levels. “Carly, you go first. Can you hold on tight?”
“Move one foot at a time, and don’t look down.”
“What if I fall?” Carly reached up and grabbed the next rung and Skye’s heart leapt as her little hand slipped and then clung again.
“I’ll catch you.”
“But what if you fall, too?”
“I’ll catch you both.” James spoke up from underneath them. The certainty in his voice must have convinced Carly, because she kept climbing.
They reached Level Twenty within the hour. Skye thought they’d meet laser barrels at the top, but someone had sealed the passage a long time ago, and no one guarded it.
“How did you know about this?”
“Building plans.” He clung to another rung beneath them and shot a glance down to see if anyone followed them. “You’d be surprised how many secret passageways architects hid in these high-rises.”
If only she’d known. She could have saved those passes in the first place.
James kicked in the panel on Level Twenty, checking to see if anyone was in the hallway. After winking back at her, he led them into the same corridor she’d been granted access to just hours ago. He put his finger to his lips, and they tiptoed to the working elevator. He pressed the panel for Level Fifty-Four.
“We’re not going to the top?” she whispered, afraid the guards that had let her through could hear them down the hall.
“No. Level Fifty-Four connects to the recycling factory, which connects to Thadious Legacy’s tower.”
The elevator beeped, and they stepped in. She felt the platform rise underneath her sneakers and was grateful to leave the lower levels behind. “How are you going to get by the guards?”
“They’re not there. No one is. Thadious Legacy left this morning with all of his people on a colony ship called the
“No way.” Skye had only heard rumors. It was strange to think of people abandoning Earth, leaving the rest of them behind.
“It’s true. They kept it top secret because they didn’t want a horde storming the ship, trying to get on.”
“I’ve heard generations will live their entire lives on the ship.”
James nodded, his lips set in a grim line. “That is correct.”
“It boggles my mind. What do you think about living your whole life on a ship?”
“I try not to think about it.” James’s smoky eyes darkened as if he was hardening inside, shutting her out. He looked away, studying the elevator panel as the numbers ascended.
His silence intrigued Skye. She’d touched upon a sensitive subject. “Did you want to be on that ship?”
James winced and turned away. “I couldn’t be on it. That’s all I’ll say.”
Couldn’t be on it? Skye picked at her fingernail as questions swirled through her head.
Carly made circles in the chrome with her sweaty fingers. She’d drawn a flower and a smiley face. “Are we almost there?”
“Soon, Carls.” If she’d wanted to ask James anything further about the
, the time had come and gone. Best to drop the subject and allow him to focus on getting them out of the city.
The elevator beeped and a monotone voice announced, “Level Fifty-Four.”
The doors parted to a lobby area with live tropical ferns and windows the length of the walls. The moon gleamed through the glass like a pockmarked face, with dark spots where the mining crews had splurged.
James paused. “This isn’t supposed to be occupied.” People mingled around tables drinking cocktails, and waiters dressed in black suits carried food on trays. Had they forgotten the end of the world? Or were they untouchable?
Skye glanced down at her yellow stained T-shirt. “I can’t go out there in this.” She felt like a ragamuffin going to a princess’s ball.
James took her hand and squeezed. He whispered in her ear, “We don’t have time to backtrack. Besides, you look stunning. Just act normal, like we’re a real family.”
Stunning? Skye’s cheeks flamed at the compliment and she looked away, feeling her palm burn against his. He held out a hand for Carly, but the girl scowled and scurried behind her. Skye took her hand instead. “Okay, dear husband, lead us on.”
The corner of James’s lips curved up at her comment. He directed them behind the majority of the congregation, around a stone fountain. Dolphins leaped above cascading water to glittering rocks in a pool below. Carly moved to grab a tail, but Skye pulled her back.
“Not now.” She didn’t want them attracting any unnecessary attention.
The trays of food smelled sublime: honey roasted chicken, baked crab, and lemon meringue pie. Skye’s stomach murmured and she stifled her raw hunger, trying to remember the last time she had food in her belly. The opulence of the upper levels disgusted her so much, she almost lost her appetite. She glanced over at James and watched him flinch as a waiter passed. Had he the same disdain for the upper class?
“Skye…I’m hungry.” Carly tugged her arm to get closer to the silver trays.
“No, absolutely not.” She felt like such a prude, but she couldn’t explain to Carly how much danger surrounded them. She didn’t want to upset her. Besides, they had no cards with credits. She couldn’t so much as buy one bite.
“Soon.” James flashed his misty eyes at Carly, and she quieted, staying by Skye’s side.
A woman in red silk sat on the fountain’s edge, watching Carly stare at the dolphins like watching an imp steal a piece of cheese. The woman raised her hand to brush back her wavy, auburn hair, exposing a series of blue numbers on her wrist. Everyone on the upper levels had the barcodes, identifying their status. Hers and Carly’s had disappeared in twenty-four hours, like the guard had said. If anyone saw their bare wrists now, they’d thrown them back into the alleys—if they were lucky.
Skye twisted her wrists down to hide the pale, bare skin, feeling ugly, naked, and small among the cultured citizens with their sleek hair, straight white teeth, and tailored clothes. It was like walking into a movie on the wallscreen, where everything and everyone looked picture perfect.
“You’re doing great,” James whispered in her ear, as if sensing her self-consciousness. “Just a few more steps.”
They reached the far side of the room, where a ramp attached their building to the next.
A voice boomed on the intercom. “The
will be accepting its first round of passengers in one hour. Everyone with A-group boarding passes may report to the roof immediately.”
“Seems we’ve stumbled upon a farewell party,” James whispered as he bowed to another man like he knew him. “Good day, sir.”
“And yourself.” The man waltzed off with a complacent smile on his face. Skye watched him through the crowd, narrowing her eyes as she heard him compliment the weave of the napkins.
He must be in A-group.
She wondered what it felt like to live the life of the elite, to never freeze in an alley or chew plastic to stave off hunger. Yes, they were beautiful, but they were also soft, their conversations pleasant but meaningless, which made them more vulnerable than she was. For a moment she was proud of her orphan upbringing. It had molded her into a survivor.
And she planned to stay that way.
Just a few more tables separated them from the ramp leading to the adjacent building. Skye glanced over her shoulder, feeling her skin prickle. The woman in the red silk dress spoke with a security guard near the fountain. She stared in their direction, and then turned back to the guard. Skye tensed, trying not to break into a run. She squeezed James’s hand and he bowed his head to hear her voice over the conversations in the room.
“I think we’ve been spotted.”
He kept his eyes on the ramp. “We’re almost there.”
A guard speaking into a mini mic stood in the middle of the ramp. He gave James a wary look. “Let me see your family’s boarding passes, sir.”
“We’re not going on the ship. I merely came to say good-bye to a friend.” James’s voice was smooth as velvet, and Skye thought the guard would buy it. She would have.
The guard took one look at the thermal stuffing falling out of Carly’s coat. Jennifer’s head poked out, the doll’s scraggly blond hair falling across Carly’s arm. He narrowed his eyes. “Turn over your wrist.”
James released Skye’s hand gently. “Honey, I think it’s time to run.”
Skye froze in shock as James’s fist arced up and hit the man in the jaw. The security guard went down, but another shouted from the room behind them. “Outsiders!”
“Run!” James repeated, whipping out his laser.
Adrenaline rushing, Skye picked up Carly and sprinted down the ramp. Her sneakers squeaked on the chrome like tiny alarms, and laser fire erupted behind her as James shot to keep the other guards at bay.
She reached the bottom of the ramp and darted to the right, guessing which way to go. Large vats of brown sludge gurgled beneath her feet as she ran across metal grating. The stench of mold and rot wafted up and Carly covered her nose. What were they recycling?
James reached the bottom of the ramp just as she found a connecting balcony that led to the other side. He paused, firing shots around the corner, than followed her down the metal walkway.
“What is this place?” she shouted as they reached the other side and leaped down the stairs two at a time.
“A food recycling facility.”
“What’s in the vats?
“You don’t want to know.”
Laser shots fired from the opposite balcony, singeing black marks in the chrome above her head. Skye ducked, shielding Carly’s head with her hand. “Which way do we go?”
They jumped off the metal platform onto the concrete floor below. The vats towered over their heads like giant, steaming cauldrons. Hiding behind one, James pressed a panel, and a hatch opened to reveal a chute lined with a greasy substance.
“No. I’m not going down there.” Even Skye had her limits.
“They won’t follow us,” James replied. “Guaranteed.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“There’s no easy way back, and they wouldn’t want to miss their ship.”
Skye considered a ride down the chute as the laser fire multiplied. The metal grating clanked above them as the men neared. Every moment the dark chute looked better.
James gave her a half smile full of mischief. “Surely, a woman who hangs off a balcony three floors up isn’t afraid of a little slime?”
She gave him a sharp stare. “Oh, all right.”
James gestured toward the chute like a chauffeur escorting someone to a diamond-studded hovercraft. “After you.”
Skye lifted Carly and climbed in behind her. Before she could adjust to the darkness, James gave her a gentle shove, and she slid down with Carly between her legs.
“Wait, I’m not ready!”
The slick sides of the chute gave her no leverage, and her hands slipped as she tried to slow down. Carly shrieked, and Skye joined in. They flew off the chute into absolute darkness and splashed into chilly water. The world muted. Carly’s screams were gargled by water, and Skye struggled to find which way was up.
The darkness was absolute. Panicking, Skye thrashed her arms until she broke the surface. She gulped in air and shouted Carly’s name.
Water splashed to her right, sprinkling on her cheek. “I’m over here.”
Skye swam toward Carly and felt the little girl’s face in her hands. Relief rushed up in a wave. “Thank goodness you’re all right. Where did you learn how to swim?”
Beach Party Rules
Skye laughed, wrapping her arms around Carly. “Who knew
Beach Party Rules
would save your life? All those hours I thought you were wasting your brain.”
“Does that mean you’ll let me watch it all the time?”
“Absolutely not.” She didn’t want Carly growing up thinking life was cocktails and swimsuit parties, and that you had to look like a stick with giant breasts to get any attention. Besides, you had to know influential, famous people to get anywhere near a beach these days. “How about more
? I thought you liked Kyro the alien bird.”