Authors: Beck Nicholas
Tags: #Science fiction, #teen, #young adult, #space, #dystopian
I settle close to Mother. The confidence she radiates from her slender frame and her soft honey scent used to make me feel safe. Since Zed and Samuai were pronounced dead, there’s no such thing as safe, but the comfort still draws me. I fill my lungs, trying to recapture that feeling.
“I have been told to report to the Lady.”
“No. You can’t. I’ll tell Neale.” Her face hardens in a way I’ve never seen directed at me.
I don’t understand. It’s stupid but this makes the tears of grief harder to keep at bay than the pain of the needle. I was so sure she’d be eager for me to go. Now more than ever, we need information or we’ll never know what happened to Zed.
“The request came from above. It’s an opportunity to spend time on the upper levels. I thought you would be pleased.”
She must hear the confusion in my voice because her mouth softens a fraction. “Yes. You’re right. It could be important.”
I wait, but she says nothing more. “So I should go? Because Davyd is waiting.”
She’s silent for a long moment. Has she heard me? I can’t linger here when Davyd expects me. I don’t want to make a mistake so soon. Not when the post could give me the answers I need about those I’ve lost, as well as information for my people. Not when I want the chance to prove Davyd wrong about his brother.
“If the Lady,” her lip curls at the title, “needs someone so desperately, we could send Sela or Kaih.” She names my friend and another Lifer girl a little older than me. Both excel in the training rooms where we challenge each other or provide sparring partners for Fishies and Nauts.
“You don’t think I can handle it.”
She pats my knee. Placating. Condescending. “I’m surprised, that’s all. The other girls attend the meetings, they know the kind of information we need if our plans are to be successful.”
And I don’t.
Of course I support the idea of the rebellion, but I’m not interested in the chest-thumping we’re-gonna-kill-the-Fishies mob. There has to be a way we can coexist on the new planet that doesn’t involve more loss of life. It was a dream Samuai shared.
“I can gather information. I’m not stupid.”
Instead of rising to the argument in my voice, my mother remains steady. “Asher, it’s not that simple. You are not the first.”
.” Mother’s hands clench.
I hesitate. I didn’t know. “The other girl?”
Fear slides a lightning trail down my spine. More deaths in service to our forced masters. More reason to do everything I can to get the information I need.
“I might not seek the fight, but I’m no coward.”
“I know, but after what happened…”
The memory of Zed sits between us, heavy and painful. I know she’s hurting. I am too, and I need to do something about it. Zed would have expected it of me, his adored big sister. I stand. “Davyd said I was recommended specifically.”
“Davyd said?” There’s an edge to her voice as she parrots me.
My throat gets hot and I’m thankful for the dim light, I know what she’s getting at. While we never spoke of it directly, she knew about my feelings for Samuai and I’m certain she didn’t approve. She couldn’t be more wrong if she thinks I’m just going to transfer my affections to his brother.
“Do I report or do we miss the opportunity?”
She blinks at my rough tone. “Report.” Her hand brushes my arm and her voice lowers. “But be safe.”
I change my slippers, feeling my mother’s gaze on me. It’s like her worry settles as an extra cloak across my shoulders. For the first time I’m not sure of her reasons. Does she fear for me as a mother who has lost her only son? Or as the leader of the Lifer rebellion who would wish for a better-trained gatherer of intelligence?
I can do this
But I don’t say it aloud. As I’m about to exit the Lifer quarters, I glance over my shoulder. It should be too far to tell, but when I make out the shape of my mother standing by her bed, I
she’s still watching me.
As I wait for the lift, there’s a flutter of anticipation in my belly. I’m taking action at last. I put my mother and her unsettling reaction out of my mind.
He’s right where he said he would be, watching one of the sparring matches in the huge training room through the big windows by the lift. I cross quickly to meet him, resisting the urge to apologize for the time I’ve taken. My steps slow. I’ve avoided this place since Zed and Samuai died.
Davyd doesn’t look away from the fight as I approach. It doesn’t bother him that our brothers died in a fight like this one.
There’s a scuffle down the hall between two Lifers waiting to battle. The sounds of raised voices and fists on flesh send a few Fishies scurrying past us toward the upper levels. Fishies are now choosing to fight only amongst each other, scared of the pain their servants inflict. Except Davyd. He thrives on the battle.
This match is between two Lifers but I can’t make out their faces as they move in the blur of low gravity. It’s set up to mirror our destination planet. We are allowed to train here if none of our superiors have booked the room, and only hand to hand combat. Obstacles are allowed; however, these combatants created a dangerous looking game space. Collisions with the polymer constructs are inevitable. My stomach churns in time to the spinning of the two combatants.
I look away but can’t avoid hearing the crunch of impact. Game over.
“Ready?” As usual, Davyd seems unaffected by other people’s pain.
I stare straight ahead as he presses his wrist against the blood scanner. Moments later the lift dings and the doors slide open. Access to this part of the five-level ship is strictly regulated. It takes seconds to ascend to the level above, but it’s taken me over sixteen years to get up here.
Davyd and I don’t speak on the short walk down the hall. Mostly, I’m trying not to obviously gape. My usual working shift rotates between the Farm, the sewing subsection of Manufacturing, and the minimal class time young Lifers are permitted.
This is my first time in this part of the ship and it might as well be another planet. It’s bright and open. The hint of brown in the wall color adds a sense of class and warmth I’ve never experienced in the sterile rooms below. It reminds me of the mansions in the Earth recordings we’re forced to watch periodically about before the Upheaval. I couldn’t reach the ceiling here if I was standing on Davyd’s shoulders. Airtight seals remain around the doors like we have in the lower levels. But there’s no lingering scent of animals or chemicals.
In fact, there’s a slightly sweet smell. Not exactly like the honey I associate with my mother, but something. I inhale deeply, trying to place where I smelled it before. It’s a little like the compound plants they feed the rabbits and the chickens but less earthy.
Whatever it is, I like it.
The hum, the buzzing of machines and pumps recycling water I’ve barely noticed because it’s existed in the background my whole life is gone. I strain to listen. No, the sound is not gone completely, instead muffled to whisper quiet.
The pressure to remember everything to report back to my mother drags my footsteps on the shiny floor. While cleaners are required to work on the ship’s upper levels on a regular basis, their access to the private quarters of the head Fishie and his Lady is intermittent.
Davyd halts at a set of double doors.
It’s all I can do to stop in time so I don’t smack into his chest. That faint smirk is there again when I look up. Can he guess why I was distracted? Or does he assume it’s general wonder at the life of my betters?
. I need to do this better, heed the warning in my mother’s words. Too many people are relying on me. I need to do this for my brother’s memory.
Instead of blurting out a question or quip about Davyd nearly causing a collision, I wait for him to speak.
He looks over his shoulders at the doors and then back to me. “The Lady is—” His pause is long. Loaded with something I can’t read. “She’s unwell. We are concerned. Do as she asks. Whatever it is.”
“Don’t upset her. Don’t ask any questions.”
There’s tension in the set of his shoulders as he presses his arm against another wrist scanner that I didn’t notice in a small panel above the handle. The doors swish open.
My breath catches.
“Yes. It’s bright,” Davyd mutters.
Bright is an understatement. Every wall’s painted a hyper yellow and the color presses in on my eyes until it hurts to keep looking. The white of the furniture provides only a small relief. The chemical odor in the air suggests a recent painting.
Does Mother know already? Such an odd paint request would be news in Manufacturing, and the work detail should go up on the rosters, yet I’d not heard a whisper. It must be that the color scheme of the Lady’s rooms doesn’t matter to the rebellion. Or a Lifer didn’t do the work.
I glance at Davyd’s hands and they’re clean of yellow. Not him then. I can’t picture him with a paintbrush anyway.
The Lady herself bursts into the room from another door before I can step over the threshold. She wears a flowing green dress and I imagine a summer meadow from the Earth recordings. I’d mentally prepared for an invalid, or at least someone weighed down by mourning her son.
This blond-haired woman radiates energy and life in a whirlwind of movement and a wide, guileless smile.
“Asher, you’re here at last, come in.”
She knows my name? I take a wary step, keeping my head bowed. My gaze flicks to Davyd’s for direction on how I should greet his mother. He responds with the slightest of shrugs. I should have known he’d be less than helpful.
The Lady takes the decision out of my hands. She embraces me in a hug and squishes me. Shock stills me. Her soft body envelopes me, and I have to force myself not to step back to breathe. Up close she reeks of the scent I noticed in the hallway. What was pleasant is now overpowering.
My nose must wrinkle or something because she giggles. A high, creepy tinkling sound. “It’s flowers, dear.”
“Flowers, my lady?” I’m not sure of how to address her. When she doesn’t answer I add, “Ma’am?”
Lady.” Her mouth curves up. “These flowers are from plants inedible to us and the animals. Not useful in the slightest. Just beautiful flowers.” She giggles again. “What a wonderful thing.”
I know what flowers are in theory, but I didn’t expect them to smell so nice. My work detail has covered every inch of the Farm. There, the food we don’t produce chemically is grown, and I have never seen anything as frivolous as flowers for no purpose.
What power must Lady have if she can order the growth of flowers for their appearance? Where did she get the seeds?
Seeing my interest, she hooks a thumb over her shoulder toward a white low table. In the center stands a tall vase. Green stems holding yellow blobs of sunshine, or at least that’s what they remind me of, lean askew out the top. Their color almost matches the walls. No wonder I didn’t notice them before. I take a step toward the curious sight before I remember my role and the need to be on my best behavior.
After all, Davyd hasn’t moved from his station at the door. Silent and intense as always. I’m on trial, and I don’t know what I need to do to pass.
But Lady doesn’t seem to mind. She pushes me gently toward the table. “You may look.”
It’s an order. Crossing to the flowers allows me to reassess. It’s taking time to get my mind around the work I thought would be involved in caring for a sick person and the reality. In my mind, I replay the scene in the hallway. Davyd hesitated before he used the term unwell. Maybe this over-the-top exuberance from his mother is the reason.
“Thank you for escorting Asher. We’ll be fine from here,” says Lady.
I glance up from pretending to examine the flowers in time to see Davyd shake his head. “I’ll stay.”
Lady’s mouth flattens. “Shouldn’t you be following Maston around?” Her question has a biting edge.
I freeze. Maston is the head Naut. He’s a figure of legend in the Lifer levels of the ship. The Control Room where the Nauts work is completely out of our scope. I have to stifle a shiver. My father died trying to reach it.
Lifers can’t change their place in our society; at least not until we land and can serve out the sentences passed down through the generations. But we aren’t the only ones. Fishies will never be any more than the bureaucrats running our lives. The ultimate power lies with the Nauts. They are the thirteen people we all depend on. The Nauts rule all of us. That Davyd associates with Maston is exactly the kind of information I need for the rebellion.
He’ll end up a Fishie. It is law. So why is he following the head Naut around?
Davyd ignores her question. He leans back against the wall, all leashed power and brooding intensity. Clearly he’s not planning on going anywhere.
I meet his gaze. It radiates suspicion. Lady might use my name and act like I’m here as a guest, but Davyd has no intention of leaving her alone with me. However, he’s not in charge here.
“You may go.” Lady dismisses Davyd with a flick of her wrist.
He doesn’t respond.
She turns to face her son and I imagine he flinches, but that would be ridiculous. Nothing and nobody bothers Davyd. It’s why he rules the training room. Be it a mental or physical foe, he excels at beating them. The only one who came close was Samuai.
My heart cramps at the thought of Samuai’s nonchalant grin after a bout. Samuai didn’t care about the fight like the other boys on the Pelican. And I loved it about him.
“Go. Now.” Command strengthens Lady’s voice.
He does. The doors close with a quiet swish but there’s a slam implied in the way Davyd strode through them.
Lady stares after her son. It’s obvious she was once a beautiful woman, before time and the luxuries of Fishie life took hold. Beneath the soft cheeks, there’s a hint of Davyd’s cheekbones, and her smile has something of Samuai about the shape of it, warmth I can’t help being drawn to. Her hand lifts, as though she’s about to reach out after Davyd, but that doesn’t make any sense. She told him to go. Not thirty seconds ago she demanded he leave. Lady stands statue like, her side toward me.