Under the Never Sky

Under the Never Sky

Under the Never Sky 10

Page 10


  “We leave this land, we die,” Vale said, his tone suddenly hard. “Try thinking once in a while, little brother. It might serve you. ”

  “You’re wrong,” Perry said. Didn’t anyone else see that?

  Several people gasped. He could almost hear their thoughts through their excited tempers. Fight, Perry. This’ll be good to see.

  Vale handed the rack to Bear. It grew so quiet that Perry heard Bear’s leather vest squeak as he moved. Perry’s vision started tunneling as it did when he hunted. He saw only his older brother, who’d defended Perry countless times as a boy, but who didn’t believe him now. Perry glanced at Talon. He couldn’t do this. What if he killed Vale right there?

  Talon shot forward. “Can we hunt, Father? Can Uncle Perry and I hunt?”

  Vale looked down, the darkness in his gaze vanishing. “Hunt, Talon? Now?”

  “I feel good today. ” Talon lifted his small chin. “Can we go?”

  “Are you so eager to show me up, Son?”


  Vale’s deep laugh roused a few forced chuckles from the crowd.

  “Please, Father. Just for a while?”

  Vale raised his eyebrows at Perry, like he thought it fitting that Talon had stepped in to rescue him. That look nearly launched Perry forward.

  Vale knelt and opened his arms. Talon hugged him, his skinny arms closing around Vale’s broad neck. Covering the Blood Lord chain. Stealing it from Perry’s sight.

  “We’ll feast tonight,” Vale said, easing back. He cradled Talon’s face with his hands. “I’ll save the best cuts for you. ” He straightened and motioned Wylan over. “Make sure they stay close to the compound. ”

  “We don’t need him,” Perry said. Did Vale think he couldn’t protect Talon? And he didn’t want Wylan along. If the Aud came, he couldn’t give Talon the apple. “I’ll keep him safe. ”

  Vale’s green eyes settled on Perry’s swollen cheek. “Little brother, if you saw yourself, you’d know why I don’t believe that. ”

  More laughter, unchecked this time. Perry shifted on his feet. The Tides saw him as a joke.

  Talon pulled his arm. “Let’s go, Uncle Perry. Before it gets late. ”

  Perry’s muscles filled with the need to move, but he couldn’t give his brother his back. Talon let go of him and ran ahead in pitiful lurching strides.

  “Come on, Uncle Perry. Let’s go!”

  For Talon, Perry followed.

  Chapter 9


  When the coughing fit passed, Aria lay on her side. Her ribs hurt. Her throat was swollen and sore. But she’d survived. Her skin hadn’t melted off and she hadn’t gone into shock. Maybe the stories were wrong. Or maybe that would come.

  She hauled herself to her feet and began to walk again. She’d accepted that she wouldn’t get anywhere. What mattered was pretending she might. That by taking one step after another, she had a chance of finding shelter. She convinced herself of this so completely that when she saw rough shapes in the distance, she thought she was imagining them.

  Aria walked faster, heart pounding as the forms became more distinct and the ground grew uneven with debris. Broken pieces poked through the soles of her Medsuit, hurting her feet. She stopped, scanning a sea of cement. Pieces of iron stuck out of the rubble, sculptural, bent and rusted. A great city once, she thought. Defiant, here in the middle of nowhere. Now it wouldn’t even provide shelter for her. She pointed herself in another direction and set off again.

  She avoided her thoughts as long as possible, but they came, stampeding beyond her control. Ward had seen her alive. Had Hess pressured him to keep quiet? Was her mother grieving now? What had Lumina said in the “Songbird” message?

  Aria sat down to rest. She remembered the last time she’d been with her mother in Reverie. A Singing Sunday.

  At eleven o’clock every Sunday of her life, Aria had met her mother in the Paris Opera Realm, a replica of the lavish Palais Garnier. Lumina was always there first, waiting with her hands folded neatly in her lap, her back straight in her favorite front row seat. She came dressed the same way every time, in an elegant black dress, a thin strand of pearls around her slender neck, her dark hair pulled back in a tight, perfect bun.

  For an hour, on a stage built for four hundred performers, Aria sang to her. She became Juliet or Isolde or Joan of Arc, singing about doomed love and grand purpose and resilience in the face of death. Aria let their stories soar on her dark falcon soprano voice, across gilded columns and crimson curtains, up to a fresco of angels. She performed every week for Lumina because her mother was there for that hour, and that was more time than Aria got from her all week.

  She did it, though she hated opera. She hated everything about it. The overblown sense of drama. The violence and lewdness. No one had ever died of heartbreak in Reverie. Betrayal never led to murder. Those things didn’t happen anymore. They had the Realms now. They could experience anything without taking risks. Now, life was Better than Real.

  Her last Singing Sunday with Lumina had been different from the start. Lumina’s cool hand on Aria’s bare shoulder had jarred her awake.

  “What is it?” Aria had asked. Her Smartscreen read 5 A. M. “What’s wrong?”

  Lumina was perched at the edge of the bed. She wore a gray traveling jumpsuit with reflective stripes along the arms, not her usual doctor’s smock. Somehow she still looked elegant. “The transport team wants to avoid some weather. I need to leave earlier than planned. ”

  Aria swallowed the tight feeling in her throat. She didn’t want to say good-bye. They’d planned to meet every day in the Realms, but Lumina would be far. They wouldn’t be in the same Pod anymore.

  “Will you sing to me now?”

  “Mom, now?”

  “I look forward to this all week,” Lumina said. “Don’t make me wait until next Sunday. ”

  Aria flopped facedown on her pillow. Opera first thing in the morning? It seemed criminal. “Why do you have to leave? Why can’t you just do your research in the Realms?”

  “I need to be in Bliss for this assignment. ”

  “Why can’t I go with you?” Aria asked.

  “You know I can’t tell you why. ”

  Aria pressed her face deeper into the pillow. How could her mother sound so calm? She made it seem so easy to keep things from Aria.

  “Please,” Lumina said. “I don’t have much time. ”

  “Fine. ” Aria rolled over and glared at the ceiling. “Let’s just get it over with. ” She found the Opera Realm on her Smartscreen. The icon should’ve showed the columned front facade of the opera house, but Aria had changed it to an image of her pretending to choke herself. She chose it and fractioned, her mind easily opening to another world. She was in two places now. There, in her cramped little room, and in the extravagant, cavernous opera hall.

  Aria had chosen to appear behind the main curtain. She glared at the heavy swath of red velvet. Lumina could wait a few more seconds. That would irritate her. When she stepped through, she didn’t see Lumina in her usual front row seat. The opera house was empty.

  In Aria’s bedroom, Lumina leaned forward, resting her hand on Aria’s arm. “Songbird. Will you sing to me here?”

  Aria yanked herself out of the Realm and sat up, stunned. “Here? In my room?”

  “I won’t be able to hear your real voice once I’m in Bliss. ”

  Aria pushed her hair behind her ears, panic coiling in her gut. She looked around the tiny room, at the neat drawers built into the walls and the mirror above her sink. She knew her voice. She knew its power. Her voice would shake the walls in such a confined space. It might carry beyond the small living room outside and make it out to the Panop.

  What if everyone heard her?

  Her heart began to race. This had never happened before. It was too strange. Too big a change from their routine. “You know it’s the same as in the Realms, Mom. ”

?s gray eyes bored into her, urgent and pleading. “I want to hear the gift you have. ”

  “It’s not a gift!” Aria cried. It was genetics. Lumina loved opera, so she’d crafted Aria’s DNA with enhanced vocal traits to create a daughter who could sing to her. If it was a gift Aria had, then it was a gift Lumina had given to herself. Her own personal songbird, Lumina’s pet name for her. Aria had never seen any sense in her upgrade. No one sang outside of the Realms—at least Soren’s tan made him look good in the real—but that’s what she got for being a geneticist’s daughter.

  “Please do this for me,” Lumina said.

  She wanted to ask why again. Why, when Lumina only seemed to care about work or opera. Why should she do anything for her mother, who was leaving her? Instead she rolled her eyes and threw back the covers.

  Lumina held out grays for her, but Aria shook her head. If this was going to be different, then it would be really different. She waved a hand over her scant underclothes. “I’ll sing like this. ”

  Lumina pursed her lips, unamused. “Will you perform my aria?”

  “No, no, Mom. I’ve got something better,” Aria said, hardly able to contain the smirk on her face. Lumina folded her hands together, suspicion lurking in her gaze. Aria drew in a few breaths, and then she sang.

  Your heart is like cannibal candy

  Cannibal candy, cannibal candy

  Your heart is like cannibal candy

  And I’ve got a sweet tooth for you!

  She laughed her way through the last lyrics, one of her favorite Tilted Green Bottles songs. But then she felt bad when she saw Lumina’s face. Not because her mother looked disappointed. She didn’t. But Aria knew she was hiding it, and for some reason that made it worse.

  Lumina stood and gave Aria a quick embrace. Her cool hand lingered on Aria’s cheek. “That’s quite a tune, Songbird,” she said, and left.

  After that Sunday, something had changed between them. Aria dropped her daily voice lessons, not caring if it upset Lumina. She gave up Singing Sundays, too. She wouldn’t give her mother that hour anymore. Lumina had still checked in with her every night from Bliss, as promised, but their visits had been strained. She’d been so stupid. Aria saw that now. She’d wasted the time by acting sullen and bored. All she’d really wanted was for Lumina to come home.

  The Medsuit crinkled as she crossed her arms. The light was fading across the desert, but the Aether looked brighter. It flowed in glowing blue rivers across the sky. Aria’s breath came faster as the need to sing built inside her.

  She sang the Tosca aria—the one she’d refused to sing the morning Lumina had left—but the words came out choked, in crumbling, broken sounds. Sounds that weren’t worth hearing. She stopped herself after a few verses and hugged her knees. She’d give anything to be in the opera hall with Lumina now.

  “I’m sorry, Mom,” she whispered to the emptiness around her. “I didn’t know it was the last time. ”

  Chapter 10


  Perry set their course toward the ocean and let Wylan pull ahead. He kept his pace slow, not wanting to push Talon. As they crested the last sand dune, the bay unfolded around them. The tide was clear and blue, like it had been when he’d swam last night. People said the water had always been clean before the Unity. Never coated with foam or reeking of dead fish. Plenty of things had been different then.