Authors: Beck Nicholas
Tags: #Science fiction, #teen, #young adult, #space, #dystopian
But I don’t know what to expect.
“Ready now?” An excited grin accompanies Lady’s question. Her eyes glitter beneath the bright downlights. Shining with joy or madness.
She has to be talking about the surprise. I’m only here at all because she’s ordered it. I want to be here for answers about Samuai and Zed, for myself, and information for the rebellion, but part of me is just a little bit excited. I’ve never been given a present. The only special occasions marked below are when the screen showing the time to destination ticks down another year. Even then it’s not like the big annual ball they have on the upper levels.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say.
The change in Lady is instant. Her eyes narrow. Deep lines appear on her brow and color blooms in angry slashes above her cheekbones.
“I. Told. You. To. Call. Me. Lady.” Fine drops of saliva spray from her mouth with each word. They hit my face. Slide in a trail of disgust down my cheek.
I step back. Automatically, I lift my hands to prepare for the blow that must, must, must accompany such fury.
A heartbeat passes. A heavy thud rocks my chest and leaves my knees weak. Then the wildness leaves her face and again she’s the warm, friendly woman who served me afternoon tea.
But I can’t forget so easily. I breathe in soft pants as I lower my hands back to my sides. My mother’s warnings make sense now. This woman is more than grieving; she’s downright crazy. But it doesn’t alter my desperation to see what’s in that room.
I swallow the fear, fighting the urge to wipe my face. No amount of time in the training room could’ve prepared me for this kind of danger. “I’m ready whenever you are, Lady.”
“Come, my dear.”
This time I know where we’re going. Again she reaches out and rests her hand on the silver handle of the yellow door.
My stomach flutters like it’s become home to a nest of ship moths, the tiny flying creatures that hover close to the vents late at night. I take a shaky breath. The door swings wide.
It’s dark inside. I don’t know what I expect. More yellow certainly, but beyond that?
Lady reaches inside and the room lights up.
Hot tears sting my eyes. My throat swells. I blink. Blink again, and my nails dig into my palms. Behind the yellow door is a shrine to the boy I loved.
“Samuai.” I breathe his name on a sigh of longing. I have no ability to filter my words for the company I keep.
Every surface is adorned with images of Samuai. Some recent, still more showing a smiling chubby baby, a dark-haired boy with a mischievous smile, a young man on the brink of adolescence, all awkward shyness.
My hungry gaze flicks from picture to beautiful picture.
How I’ve missed you
My cry goes unspoken. Somehow I pick up the strands of my composure and pull them back in, wrap them around myself, trying not to let my insides spill out onto the black, shining floor.
“You like it.” Lady breaks my stunned silence. “I knew you would.” Her whole body vibrates in a jig of excitement.
Wonderful. Horrible. Heartbreaking. Agonizing. A million inappropriate words spring to mind and I discard all of them.
“Nice,” I settle on eventually.
She leans in close and her floral scent fills my lungs. The sweetness is now cloying. Suffocating me. I have to force my feet not to run for the lower levels.
Instead of arching away as I long to do, I hold myself on the threshold and hope my smile doesn’t look more like a grimace.
“His loss was a tragedy,” she says.
She says it like he was the only one. Part of me wants to shout my brother’s name to force her to acknowledge his existence, but as far as she’s concerned, he didn’t exist. I bite down on the words, offering silent sympathy instead.
She rewards me by cupping her hands around my ears, peering into the room and then back along the hallway. Her breath tickles.
“I know something secret about how he died.”
“How did Samuai die?”
The question spills from my mouth. It hangs there for a long moment. Her eyes, almost the same shade of brown as her lost son’s, regard me with a triumphant expression.
“Yes, Mother. What’s your latest theory to explain the tragedy of Wonder-Boy?”
Davyd’s velvet-on-metal voice has us both spinning to face him.
He stands at the end of the hallway, only a few feet away. His gaze rests on Lady, but I know he didn’t miss my question. Exactly as he told me not to. My hand rises to my chest to calm my thumping heart.
The light flicks off behind me, and the yellow door slams shut.
“I’ve told you before,” Lady says. “What’s in here is none of your business.” Her back is pressed against the door and her arms are wide. She’s gripping the doorframe like she’s preparing to be pried away. Her eyes dart from Davyd to me like either of us could pounce at any second. I drop my gaze to the floor, aiming to project the image of an obedient servant.
The way Davyd’s arms are folded show defined muscle from the training rooms. He could get past her if he wanted to use force. Now that I’ve seen them together I couldn’t imagine him trying.
“Don’t worry, I’m not interested in the shrine,” he says. “I was requested to check on the suitability of the new servant.” He speaks as though she’s standing normally and waves a hand in my direction.
The tactic kind of works. She straightens and shoots me a surprised look.
“Asher is not my servant,” Lady proclaims. “She’s my friend.”
His jaw locks. “Have you taken your medicine?”
“I’m not sick.”
He takes a step toward her, his hands clenched at his sides. “You promised you’d take it if you were permitted to have Asher here.”
His lowered voice carries clearly in the small hallway. From the tense line of his shoulders, it’s obvious he hates to have to say it in front of me.
Now I know the reason Davyd came for me personally. He wants his mother well. For the first time I understand a small part of what drives him. And there’s an echo inside me.
I would do the same thing for my mother. Lady slumps to the floor. Her knees buckle and her head hits the doorframe as I turn. Brown eyes roll back in their sockets before she crumples to the ground. There, her mouth hangs open and her pink tongue flops about inside as a seizure wracks her body.
Is she breathing? I don’t think she’s breathing. There’s a speck of dirt on her cheek
She hasn’t told me what she knows
Why am I thinking inane thoughts when I should do something? I must do something. I will my legs to move, but it’s all happening so fast.
Davyd isn’t frozen. His confident hands turn Lady onto her side and make sure her airway is unobstructed. He clears the surroundings, I guess in case of another seizure. I move closer to be of assistance but he’s so in control and assured. There’s nothing for me to do but rock back on my heels and try not to get in the way.
When his hands take mine I gasp. Electricity sizzles across my skin, but he’s not even looking my way. He places them carefully on Lady’s crossed arms.
“Hold her still.”
“Okay.” I blurt out agreement.
He strides to the kitchen and pulls a small jar from a shelf. From inside the jar he selects a pink tablet.
I’m thankful he warned me; because when she begins to shake again it takes all my strength to keep her arms from flying free and injuring us both. Then he’s back and kneeling beside me.
When she stills at last, his gentle but firm fingers open her jaw, unavoidably smearing the cherry red lipstick onto her cheeks. He presses the tablet against her tongue and gently closes her mouth.
“It will dissolve,” he explains.
Movement of the sagging skin at Lady’s throat suggests she swallows. Her chest heaves and she’s breathing again. Rasping, angry breaths.
Davyd’s smile for her is genuine
Relief washes over me. I’m sure he’s just saved his mother’s life.
“Maybe you’re not all bad,” I whisper. I don’t mean to speak aloud.
His hand grips my wrist before I see him move. His fingers are strong, just this side of painful.
“I’m bad. As far as you’re concerned. Never confuse me with your dead boyfriend.” He jerks his head toward Lady, his usually expressionless, gray eyes burning with emotion. “
is my mother.
are a servant.”
I would not have done this for you
The words he doesn’t say shouldn’t hurt. I won’t let them. “I could never confuse you with Samuai,” I say softly. It’s meant to hurt, but he doesn’t show he’s heard.
He drops my wrist and I rub at the red marks he’s left behind. I am not afraid.
“What did you mean?” I ask the question that’s been nagging at me since he gave me my new orders and ridiculed my ritual.
“What did I tell you about asking questions?”
His jaw’s set and good sense would tell me to shut the hell up. He’s a Fishie, or close enough to one, and it’s not my place. But having seen him care for his mother it’s not that simple, no matter what he said.
“You told me not to ask your mother questions.”
We’re close enough that I feel the rumble of amusement in him. It makes me brave. Or maybe today’s been so strange I’m thinking it could be a dream, and if it’s a dream I’m going to wake up soon, and if I wake up without asking him, it will haunt me. “Why wasn’t Samuai worth mourning?”
“I don’t want to speak ill of the departed.”
He shakes his head. “Trust me, you don’t want to know.”
My voice rises and Lady stirs at the noise. Davyd moves quickly to his mother’s side and my opportunity passes. Together we carry Lady to the sofa in the big yellow room. I’m careful to make sure our hands don’t touch. Davyd’s always made me feel uncomfortable and uncertain. Spending time in his home seems to have amplified my reaction. I don’t like it.
Reacting to Davyd is a distraction I don’t need.
He stops me edging away with a hand on my shoulder. “If details of her illness become public, I will know who spoke out of turn.”
The words are empty because there’s nothing about the upper levels we don’t share. From Ms. Brella-May needing clothes made in a bigger size than anyone else on board, to Mr. Fitz preferring his bathroom attendant to be young. Talking about our masters is a favorite pastime.
Lady spends the rest of the afternoon reclining with her eyes closed. I do what I can, get her water, offer her food, but she doesn’t want anything. Thankfully the pink tablet has stopped her fits, and I manage not to beg Davyd to stay when he explains he’s going out.
He doesn’t even look my way. “I will return in time for dinner. The order has been put through to the kitchen already.”
“What should I do?” I hate the tentative note in my voice.
Annoyance ripples across his usually emotionless features and he tugs a hand through his messy blond hair. “Your job. Care for my mother.”
I stand from my seat next to where Lady rests and cross the room. He can be annoyed all he wants, but I will not let him treat me a dumb slave. I have a brain, I have valid concerns, and I matter. Our eyes are almost level and I tilt my chin to make up the difference. “What if she collapses again?” I ask.
“Ever? What if you aren’t here the next time? Should I leave her to die?”
The pulse throbbing in his throat is the only sign my words have made a point. It’s enough.
“Here.” He presses a slightly discolored patch on the wall next to the sliding door. A panel opens and inside is some kind of intercom system. It involves small screens with each of the family’s names below, as well as other key places on the ship. “Press Davyd and it will put you through to me.” He taps a black unit at his waist.
I nod, but am trying to memorize as much about the intercom’s layout as possible. There are more than the names, including a button with ‘alarm eighteen’ marked on it, and something about air purity. We knew the units the Fishies and Nauts wear and knew about the room-to-room communication system, but I didn’t realize the two were linked. If we could get our hands on one of those units we could use it to see into the Control Room and affect all the ships’ systems.
One screen’s name is taped over. It takes me a moment to process the reason. Samuai. Then I can’t think of anything else. What would happen if I pressed it now?
I shake the fanciful thought free. On a ship where everything is recycled, people are the only exception. It’s tradition to cremate the bodies of those who die and release the ashes into space.
He’s somewhere out there in the darkness. I can’t call a star.
Davyd slams the panel shut. “Use it only for an emergency.”
I nod my obedience. “What’s wrong with her?”
His gray gaze fixes on me. “Grief.” He shrugs. “It’s only happened these last few weeks. Hopefully over time it will get better.” His lips press together like he’s already told me too much, shown he cares.
He strides from the room and I’m alone again with Lady. Time ticks by slowly on an antique clock brought from Earth that sits on the bookshelf in the corner. Tick. Tick. Tick. The only other sound is Lady’s deep, regular breathing.
I have nothing to do but sit. The plush armchair is like a big squishy cuddle and I settle back into it. Zed would never sit still. I used to tease him that he had ship motes in his uniform and he’d wriggle even more, his pretend slaps at the non-existent bugs invariably making me smile. Now the thought of him makes me ache.
Rarely do Lifers get the chance to relax. I move the pillows and manage to find a comfortable position where I can watch Lady for signs of her waking and needing me. I’m bored in about five minutes.
The shrine in the room with the yellow door tugs at the empty places inside me where my forbidden love used to be. I long to see Samuai’s face again. The quick look I got before Lady’s collapse wasn’t enough.
I could investigate the intercom system. Then I would have better information to report to Mother when I finish my shift. But Lady could wake at any moment. Or Davyd might return. I drum my fingers against the armrest. I stand and check Lady’s water is filled. I count the number of rooms I’ve seen and make a mental map of the space.