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
“Where are we?” Carly’s voice wafted up from the back of the hovercraft in a soft murmur, barely audible against the roar of the engines.
Skye whipped around in her seat. “She’s awake.”
She fumbled with the buckles as James pressed something on the panels controlling the ship and leaned over to help her with her restraints. His hands brushed against hers as he popped the buckle open on the first try. They hustled to the backseat where Carly lay. For Skye, seeing her eyes open was like seeing light after a century of darkness.
“Carly, are you feeling okay?”
“My head hurts.” She put her hand up to her forehead and felt the bump. “What happened? Where are we?”
“We’re on a hovercraft. We made it out of the city, Carls.” Skye tried to keep things positive, wondering if she’d remember anything that had happened. “We’re headed toward a big ship in the Barrens.”
Her heart sank to her feet. The ugly truth sat on her tongue like poison. How could she tell her? “What do you remember?”
Carly rubbed her eyes. “I don’t know.”
The roar of the engines beneath them heightened the anticipation. Skye didn’t want to say anything right now if she could help it. Her finger brushed the lump on the little girl’s forehead. “You need to rest.”
Carly’s gaze wandered around the cabin area and focused on something far away. “I had the strangest dream. We were in a greenhouse, and I’d just eaten so many berries, my stomach hurt. Then I saw Daddy. He was sick.”
Skye’s fingers shook. “What else do you remember?”
“That’s it. Where’s Daddy?” This time her question came out as a demand.
Skye looked to James, pleading for some miracle.
James nodded as if he knew how to handle it. He leaned over. “Your daddy was very brave, but he didn’t make it, honey.”
“What?” Carly’s chin trembled. She put both hands on her head and scrunched up her hair in her fists.
James placed a hand on Carly’s shoulder. “He couldn’t come with us.”
“Why?” Her voice squeaked as her face fell apart.
Skye watched as James thought over his response.
His face turned from apologetic to resolute. “Your father loved you very much, and he wanted you to be safe. He tried hard for you but he didn’t make it.”
Carly wiggled out of James’s touch and looked at him as if he were a demon. “You left him there?”
Skye interrupted. “No he didn’t, Carls. James helped as well.”
Shooting upright, Carly stuck a finger at James. “I wish stupid green-hair had stayed behind instead.”
“Carly, you don’t mean that,” Skye scolded her.
“Yes, I do.” Tears flowed down her cheeks and she blinked to see through them. “I hate him, and I miss my daddy.”
She pulled away from Skye and ran into the cargo hold. Skye moved to go after her, but James put a gentle hand on her arm, holding her back. “Give her time.”
Carly’s pain stabbed Skye in the gut, and she held her stomach, wanting to shield Carly from the truth and shield James from Carly’s wrath all at the same time—and failing at both endeavors. “Why didn’t you tell her the whole truth?”
“I told her what she needed to hear. Her dad did love her, and he wanted to keep her safe. That’s what she needs to know.”
“But she’ll hate you forever. She’ll think you left him behind.”
James smiled sadly. “What was I going to do? Tell her that her dad had turned into a monster? I’d rather her hate me and feel loved than have nightmares of what really happened. No child should see their parent like that.”
“She’s got to know the truth.”
“We’ll tell her someday when she’s older. Right now, she’s had enough heartache.”
Skye looked deeply in his eyes, seeing emotion simmer inside the misty depths. “You care about her, too.”
James opened his mouth to respond, but an alarm buzzed from the cockpit.
“I’m sorry.” He darted back to his pilot seat as if fleeing laser fire.
Torn between helping Carly and finding out what was wrong, Skye followed him. Carly needed time to cool off, and Skye couldn’t help her if she didn’t know what they faced.
She slipped into the cockpit and leaned over James’s shoulder. He tapped on one of the panels and flicked a few switches.
“What is it?”
“Drained energy cell. Looks like our good friend, TL, didn’t mean to fly this ship very far.”
Skye searched the horizon. Nothing but the husks of abandoned buildings cluttered the ground. Dust blew everywhere. The desert had taken the land. “What are we going to do?”
“Look for something to power the ship.”
“And what if we can’t find anything?”
James quirked an eyebrow. “We’ll walk.”
“In the middle of a desert?”
“If we have to. The nuclear fallout will contaminate this area as well. We need to keep moving.”
“You really think they’ll nuke it?”
“They blew up Utopia and the State building, didn’t they?”
His words slapped her in the face, and she looked away, cheeks burning.
James reached out and squeezed her arm. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to mention…”
She sniffed and put her hand to her mouth, waving him off. “It’s not your fault, remember?”
James gripped the controls with white knuckles. “Someone’s got to take responsibility for all that’s wrong with the world.”
Yes, but did it always have to be James? Skye wanted to share his burden, to help him achieve his goals, but could she really be a hero herself? It seemed like such an insurmountable task, and she had her own problems to work out.
She reached through all her weaknesses and pulled out a kernel of courage. “I will.” She spread her hands. “I just don’t know how to start.”
James looked up from the controls with intensity brewing like a storm in his eyes. “You’ve already given me more to fight for. I mean…you and Carly.”
Heat blossomed from the back of her neck to her cheeks. The storm in James’s eyes traveled to stir up emotions in her heart.
What does he mean?
Skye wanted to press further, but her tongue wouldn’t work. What he had with Mestasis sounded like true love, and who was she to intervene? Her eyes broke his turbulent gaze and sought refuge on the horizon.
A light appeared from the gray nothingness like a nugget of gold. Skye pointed, her finger pressing against the glass. “Look! Over there. I see something.”
James turned the hovercraft toward it. “It’s coming from a building.”
“If they have light, then they’ll have energy cells.”
“Thing is, will they want to part with them?”
“Hell, yeah,” Skye said with attitude. They had the ultimate bargaining chip. As an alley rat, Skye knew how to deal. “Offer them a ride off this planet, and they’ll be begging at your feet.”
He nodded, considering her advice. A spark in his eye told her she’d impressed him with her shrewdness. “Good idea.” He flicked a switch and pulled a lever by his thigh. “I’m taking the ship down. It would be safer if you could get Carly to belt herself in.”
Skye nodded, thinking it would be easier to command the heavens to save the planet. “I’ll try.”
Running to the back of the hovercraft, Skye found Carly sitting against a supply container, hugging her legs like a lost orphan, reminding Skye so much of herself at that age. Of course, Skye hadn’t met either of her parents. At least Carly had a chance to get to know her dad. But Skye didn’t know what was worse—never having parents, or having them taken away.
“We need to belt ourselves back in, Carls. We’re landing.”
Carly didn’t move. “I don’t care.”
“Well, I do.” Skye grabbed her arm and pulled her up. It was about time Skye started acting like a real mother. Sometimes that meant being the bad guy, just like James. “You’re not turning into a hovercraft pancake.”
The authority in Skye’s voice worked. Carly dragged her feet to her seat and Skye belted them both in. The hovercraft sank underneath them, flipping her stomach. Carly’s eyes widened as their hair fanned around their shoulders.
Skye reached out and squeezed her hand. “It’s gonna be all right.”
The buildings grew larger underneath them, turning a burned model village into a full-fledged war zone. Skye wanted to tell Carly about the beach where they’d filmed
, but she figured it would just make Carly angrier she’d missed it. Instead, Skye settled for giving her a comforting smile.
After a smooth landing, the engines died down.
Skye squeezed Carly’s hand. “See, we made it.”
Carly started to smile, but then her face fell. Skye glanced up to see James looking more relieved than she thought he should after landing a dying hovercraft in the middle of nowhere.
James settled sideways into the seat in front of them. “I just got a message from my contact in the city. He said there’re two more colony ships set to take off in the next few days, so we have more time than he initially thought. They won’t nuke the city until the higher-ups have all made it out.”
“What about the others who didn’t make it on a ship?”
James shrugged. “Guess they’ll have to come with us.”
Skye smiled so much the muscles in her cheeks burned. Every minute she spent with James, she found another reason to like him. “The Radioactive Hand of Justice won’t mind the company?”
“We welcome all.”
“How did you get to be so heroic?” Although her tone was sarcastic, she was only half joking.
“Someone had to step up.” James gave Carly a hesitant wink and stood up to pull some blankets from a cargo hold.
“We can rest until daylight. Moonshiners don’t like sunlight, so it will be safer to travel through the buildings in the morning. Try to get a few hours of sleep.”
Like Skye could sleep at all on a stolen hovercraft in the Barrens with a nuke ready to go off over their heads. She took a blanket and covered Carly as the little girl lay down across the back seat. The little girl still didn’t speak to either of them, but Skye knew to give it time.
James checked the door lock and then slipped back into the pilot’s seat. He spoke over his shoulder. “I’ll keep watch.”
“You don’t need sleep?” Skye whispered. Carly had closed her eyes, and Skye wanted her to get as much rest as possible.
“Strangely, I’m not tired.” He looked surprised, as if he didn’t trust his own body. A rip current of anxiety rose inside her as her eyes flicked to his bandaged shoulder, but she said nothing.
What if I lose him, too?
She searched his eyes for any sign of blackness, but the misty silver color still mesmerized her.
His face softened as he caught her staring. “You should get some rest. You’ve had a busy day. I’ll be all right at the helm.”
The confidence in his voice only alleviated a sliver of her doubt. But she couldn’t stand there and stare at him all night.
“Look.” James stood up and walked toward her. He reached into his holster. “Here’s my laser. If anything happens to me—”
“I can’t.” Skye avoided looking at the weapon.
“You saw what happened to Grease.” James held it out, insistent. “You can give it back to me in the morning.” His words sounded like a promise. So far, he’d always kept his end of a deal.
“Okay.” Skye’s hand rested on his for a long moment before she took the laser. She didn’t feel comfortable handling a weapon again. “See you at dawn.”
Swallowing her fear, Skye left him in the cockpit. She settled in next to Carly, like they’d done for the last three years, and closed her eyes. Her thoughts sped like hovercrafts in her head.
Grease is dead.
I killed him.
Reality stung her again and again, and she kept prying the truth open, as if through frequent exposure she’d come to terms with the ugly facts. Grief and pity mixed in her chest like a poisonous soup. The laser felt cold against her skin as she cradled it in her arms. Would she ever forgive herself?
I shot Grease to save Carly. There’s nothing else I could have done.
Red splotches burned against the back of James’s lids. He fought through grogginess and peeled open his eyes, staring down the sun as it crested the broken-toothed horizon of ruined buildings. How long had he been asleep?
He jumped to his feet, fighting dizziness to check on Carly and Skye. His miniscreen fell off his lap, the flight program designed to help him control the
flashing a virtual crashed ship by his feet.
“Dammit!” He’d dozed off on his watch all the way until sunrise. That wasn’t like him at all, and his momentary slip of control scared him more than the pain radiating underneath his arm.
Skye slept on her back, holding his laser in both her arms like a precious gift from a lover. Carly snuggled beside her. James paused, watching Skye’s peaceful face. She never made such a serene expression while awake. Asleep, she looked like a Celtic princess under a spell. A tough Celtic princess; one who had saved his life.
He resisted the urge to leave her be. They needed to take advantage of the daylight. Stepping toward her, he slipped his fingers into her hand and squeezed. “Time to get up.”
Skye shifted and blinked. Her face turned from angelic to suspicious and her hand darted to the laser.
James laughed and held up his hands. “I’m still here.”
Her features crumpled into relief. She pulled herself up, her red hair falling around her shoulders. “How do you feel?”
“A little sleepy, but okay.”
“Thank goodness.” She looked like she was about to leap up and throw her arms around him, but she froze and handed him back his laser instead. An agenda formed in her green eyes. “Let’s find the source of that light.”
“Wake Carly. I’ll scout the best way to get there.”
She nodded and he reached into his pocket and handed her three oranges. “I know it’s not a well-rounded breakfast…”
Skye smiled and scooped up the oranges. “We’ll live. It’s much better than old soycaroni.”
He wrinkled his nose. “I
your apartment smelled like burned pasta.”
“Well, I’m not the best cook.”
“But you’re still the best mom I know.”
Skye looked to the floor. “I’m waiting for the day Carly thinks so and calls me
.” She laughed, looking more vulnerable than amused. “I guess I have to earn it first.”
He felt the urge to put his arms around her, but his muscles tensed and he held back. He couldn’t allow himself to get any closer to this woman. A deeper aching underlined his urge to comfort her, an aching he shouldn’t have. Besides, with his hurt shoulder, who knew how long he had? And the fate of all those left behind was at stake. He couldn’t allow himself to get distracted. While he was with Mestasis the whole city had fallen apart.
“I’ll be right back.”
James pressed the panel and the hatch opened with a whiff of stale, burned air. He jumped down and walked to the edge of the roof, his tenseness dissipating in the wind. The city smelled like ash and mold, and nothing but rats crawled in the alleys. Something had plowed through this part of the district, demolishing a chain of buildings and the corridors connecting to the one they’d landed on. He hadn’t seen the wake of destruction in the darkness last night.
James followed the trail of debris to a crashed lunar freighter, the front hull crumpled against a building two blocks down.
“What happened here?” He jumped at Skye’s voice as she poked her head out of the hatch, following his gaze to the ship. Had they already wolfed down those oranges?
“I guess it lost control.” He tried to remember any news story about a lost lunar freighter, but for some reason, the government must have covered it up.
“Do you think it has a working energy cell?” She helped Carly jump from the hatch. The little girl clung to Skye’s arm, her eyes shifty. James couldn’t imagine what it would be like to learn your dad didn’t make it, and you’d never see him again. He gave Carly an encouraging smile. She buried her head against Skye, and James went back to studying the ship.
“Probably not. Looks like it’s been here for a while. I bet alley rats looted it right after the crash.”
“So our best bet is to pay a visit to whomever still has that power source,” Skye concluded, taking Carly’s hand.
“You’re right.” James pointed three blocks down to a corridor the fallen ship hadn’t smashed in. “And I think I found the quickest way.”
“We’re coming with you.” Skye’s gaze told him there’d be no way to dissuade her. “We’re not staying in that hovercraft locked up, waiting for you to come back. As the only shiny thing within a hundred miles, it’s a sitting duck, and you have the only working laser.”
“You’ve got a point.” James admired her determination. She had more bravado than some of the Radioactive trainees. “Come on. If we leave now, we’ll reach it within the hour.”
He gave the little girl a steady glance. “Carly, you ready?”
She nodded, pulling away from Skye.
“Good. You’re very brave. Stay close by Skye and don’t run off.”
“I won’t, James. I promise.”
James jerked up in surprise. He raised an eyebrow at Skye, feeling like the little girl had just pledged her friendship to him. “All righty then, follow me.”
They scuffled across the roof to a stairway. He pointed his laser down the dark shaft but sensed no movement. Glancing over his shoulder, he motioned for Skye and Carly to follow him.
Dust and ash covered the stairs in a thick carpet—looked like no one had been up here since the crash. The eerie stillness made James nervous. It was almost too easy. Surely some moonshiner lurked nearby, ready to lunge. They hadn’t
stormed the city walls, had they?
James opened a door three levels down. They emerged into an office building with abandoned desks, cups of coffee filled with muddy sludge, and toppled papers, strewn like giant snowflakes over the carpet. Some of the doors had been forced open, and James wondered if people from the lower levels had come up to loot, or if moonshiners had stormed their way in. Someone had definitely breached security.
Drawers were pulled open and overturned, electronics and light pens sprawled on the floor. When he turned around he could see Skye’s eyes alight with curiosity. It must be hard for her to resist pillaging.
“Looks like this place has already been stripped,” James whispered as they scurried down the main corridor. “No use in spending time to scrounge.”
“I know,” Skye whispered back defensively. “I’m just keeping my eyes open. You never know when something valuable has been overlooked.”
James regarded her and suppressed a smile. She must have made a successful alley rat in her day. The Radioactive Hand of Justice could have used her resourcefulness. If he could get her on that ship, they still might.
She caught him staring. “What?”
“Nothing.” He shook his head and continued. He knew how much she hated gangs. Telling her she’d have had a high position in his would only make her angry. “We’re almost there.”
The connecting corridor from their building to the one with the energy source had been too high for the lunar freighter to hit. Usually corridors were installed at least ten levels down for security reasons, but this office building must have been a prime gathering place—maybe the city capitol itself—because corridors branched off into numerous directions from only the third level down.
They walked through the suspended corridor, where the glass walls provided a sideways view of the crashed freighter. The massive hull spanned three buildings altogether, the nose sticking into the fourth. One wing stood up like an obelisk challenging the heavens, and the other lunged into the building, tearing a hole thirty stories up. Looters had peeled away the side of the ship, the metal protruding out. Whoever wanted what was inside must have been desperate.
“Come on.” James nudged Skye by placing the palm of his hand underneath her arm. “We’ve got to keep moving.”
The corridor connected to a grand atrium guarded by bronze lions rising to a head above James. The lion on the right had a stoic, noble face framed by giant curls of mane, and the one on the left opened its saber-toothed mouth in a silent roar. The floor spread out in a carpet embroidered with green ferns to pillars carved in the likeness of vines.
Skye came up and whispered in his ear. “You think Tarzan lives here?”
James’s lips curled. “Whoever it is definitely has a distinct jungle theme.”
She shook her head.
“Makes no sense why people chopped down the jungles in the last century if they coveted them so much. Now, anything having to do with extinct wildlife is worth a fortune.”
“Too bad I’m not an aboriginal.”
Skye rolled her eyes but smiled, the exact reaction he wanted. “You hardly look like one, and at this point, it wouldn’t do us any good.”
A stone stairway led to a greenhouse bubble at the center. The morning sun filtered down through colored glass, illuminating the lobby. Affluent higher-ups had offices even in the city’s outskirts. James wondered if good-old TJ had a cousin.
There was no sign of the golden light from last night, yet James was certain this building was the source. He gestured for Skye and Carly to stand behind him and took a few steps beyond the lion’s claws.
“Hello?” His voice echoed into the shadows of the ceiling.
A laser blast erupted over their heads, spewing chunks of marble and fake ferns.
Skye and Carly ducked behind the lion statue, and James held up both hands. Moonshiners didn’t fire lasers. This person was still awake, still human. “Whoa! Hold your fire! We mean you no harm.”
He waited. No further laser blasts came. An old man’s voice wafted up from the withered greenery and James made note of the direction. “You’re not moonshiners, are you?”
“No. We still have our brains, thank you very much.” A pause and then, “What do you want?”
James took a step forward. “We’ve come to trade.”
“Go away. You have nothing that I want.”
James figured as much. His voice changed from authoritative to curious. “What about a ticket out of here?”
“Hmph. Don’t want to leave. Now go away!”
Skye stepped out from the lion and James waved her back, but she didn’t listen to him.
“Please, sir, my boyfriend’s wounded and my little girl needs to rest. The city’s been overrun with moonshiners, and we’re fleeing the area before they nuke it to the ground. We have a hovercraft and a plan to finagle a starship out in the Barrens.”
James was more shocked she’d called him her boyfriend than the fact that her words stopped the laser fire.
Surely she did it to win favor with this stranger.
Shuffling came from the greenhouse, and brown leaves rustled. James’s hand hovered over his laser. A man swung down on a vine, landing in front of them, and James whipped out his weapon as the man righted himself. His hair stood up in a wispy mess. Sharp, round hazel eyes stared back at James underneath slanted eyebrows. Smoothing down his waistcoat, the old man wrinkled his bulbous nose.
“I thought you said you mean me no harm?”
“This is just a precaution,” James replied, the laser not moving a millimeter.
“It’s not necessary.” The man waved the laser away and looked at Skye and Carly with curiosity. “Are you going to come in or not?”
Skye gave James a questioning look and he raised his eyebrows as if to say they had no other choice. They needed his energy supply, so they had to be polite. He holstered his laser and nodded.
“Name’s Charles Grant, MD.” Charles offered his hand and James took it, feeling soft, wrinkly skin.
“You’re a doctor?”
“Used to be.” He shook Skye’s hand next. Carly shook her head, and the old man settled for a wave. He led them up the stairs to a table and chairs underneath the glass dome, talking all the way. “I have to take extra precautions these days. You never know who’s out pillaging. I don’t get many visitors, none seeking medical attention. They’re already way too gone.”
The man’s mouth was flying a mile a minute, and James had a billion questions on the tip of his tongue. “What happened to the outskirts?”
Charles Grant poured four glasses of water and they sat at the table as if he’d invited them over for dinner. He took a sip and cleared his throat. “People here ran out of food. Shipments stopped coming from Utopia. I heard it was blown up by a gang.”
Skye looked down at the table and James put his hand on her shoulder. He looked back to the old man and prompted him on. “So where did everyone go?”
Charles Grant unbuttoned his waistcoat to join them at the table, and James marveled at how old habits died hard. Even at the end of the world, this man didn’t forget his manners. “They fought over what little food we had left. People scavenged for anything they could eat, and my wife, Beatrice, and I fought them off. We have a small arsenal in here, and we used everything we got to hold them back. If it weren’t for that lunar freighter crash, we would have been overrun long ago, but the ship came in and wiped out a lot of the corridors running to our building. The one you came through is about the only working one left.”
“What about people coming up from the lower levels?”
“We cemented it over months ago with the good stuff that repels hypergrenades. Beatrice had a sixth sense for these types of things. She convinced me to do it way before the food shortage hit.”
“Wow. So you’ve been stuck here ever since?”
“Not stuck. I’m here because it’s the safest place to be right now, and I don’t want to leave her.”
He pointed to an oak box set on top of a pedestal at the far end of the atrium. Pity panged in James’s chest. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“It was her own choice, I’m afraid.” Charles’s face fell, his eyes watery. “When the food shortage hit, people turned to moonshine to keep their bodies going. They could subsist all day with only one dose and a pint of water. The hellish substance staved off hunger and provided the user with the energy necessary to carry on. That lunar freighter was full of it. Beatrice and I had our greenhouse, and we lived off of that for a month before the plants started to die.”