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Under the Never Sky
Under the Never Sky 2
“I had to get him interested. ” She flicked a seed off her knee. “I’ll talk to him as soon as he calls off the fruit war. Then we’ll get out of here. ”
“Let’s get him to stop now. We’ll tell him we’re bored . . . which we are. ”
“No, Pais,” Aria said. Soren wasn’t one to push into anything. “I’ll handle it. ”
Soren leaped on top of the farming row in front of them, making them both jump. He held an avocado, his arm cocked back. His grays were covered in blotches of juice and pulp. “What’s wrong? Why are you both just sitting here?”
“We’re bored with Rotball,” Paisley said.
Aria winced, waiting for Soren’s reaction. He crossed his arms, his jaw working side to side as he stared down at them.
“Maybe you should leave then. Wait. I almost forgot. You can’t leave. Guess you’ll have to stay bored, Paisley. ”
Aria glanced at the airlock door. When had he closed it? She realized he had all the codes for the door and for resetting their Smarteyes. “You can’t trap us in here, Soren. ”
“Actions precede reactions. ”
“What’s he talking about?” Paisley asked.
“Soren! Get over here,” Bane called. “You need to see this!”
“Ladies. I’m needed elsewhere. ”
He tossed the avocado into the air before he jogged away. Aria caught it without thinking. It popped open in her hand, becoming a slick green mess.
“He means we’re too late, Pais. He already locked us out. ”
Aria checked the airlock door anyway. The panel didn’t respond. She stared at the red emergency switch. It was wired directly to the mainframe. If she hit it, Reverie Guardians would come to help them. But then they’d also be punished for breaking out and probably have their privileges in the Realms docked. And she’d lose any chance to speak with Soren about her mother.
“We’ll stay a little longer. They’ll have to go back soon. ”
Paisley pulled her hair over one shoulder. “All right. But can I hold your hand again? It feels more like being in the Realms. ”
Aria stared at her best friend’s extended hand. Paisley’s fingers were twitching slightly. She took her hand, but fought the urge to pull away as they walked to the far end of the dome together. There, the three boys stepped through a door Aria hadn’t noticed before. Another set of lights clicked on. For a moment, she wondered if her Smarteye had reactivated and she was actually seeing a Realm. A forest loomed in front of them, beautiful and green. Then she looked up, seeing the familiar white ceiling above the treetops, run through by a maze of lights and pipes. It was a huge terrarium, she realized.
“I found it,” Bane said. “How champ am I?”
Echo jerked his head to the side, his shaggy hair shifting out of his eyes. “Champ, man. It’s unreal. I mean, it’s real. Zap, you know what I mean. ”
They both looked at Soren. “Perfect,” he said, his gaze intent. He pulled off his shirt, tossed it aside, and ran into the woods. In the next moment, Bane and Echo followed.
“We’re not going in, are we?” Paisley asked.
“Not like that. ”
“Aria, be serious. ”
“Pais, look at this place. ” She stepped forward. Rotten fruit was one thing. A forest was a true temptation. “We’ve got to see it. ”
It was cooler and darker under the trees. Aria ran her free hand over the trunks, feeling the rough textures. Pseudo-bark didn’t grip like it might bite into her skin. She crushed a dry leaf in her palm, creating sharp crumbs. She stared at the patterns of leaves and branches above, imagining that if the boys quieted down, she might be able to hear the trees breathe.
Aria kept track of Soren as they headed deeper into the woods, looking for an opportunity to speak to him, while trying to ignore the moist warmth of Paisley’s hand. She and Paisley had held hands before in the Realms, where touching happened. But it felt softer there, unlike the constricting grip she felt now.
The boys were chasing one another through the woods. They’d found sticks, which they carried as spears, and they’d rubbed dirt on their faces and chests. They were pretending to be Savages, like the ones that lived on the outside.
“Soren!” Aria called as he darted past. He paused, spear in hand, and hissed at her. She jerked back. Soren laughed at her and ran off.
Paisley pulled her to a stop. “They’re scaring me. ”
“I know. They’re always massive scary. ”
“Not the boys. The trees. It feels like they’re going to fall on us. ”
Aria looked up. As different as these woods felt, she hadn’t thought of that. “All right. We’ll go wait by the airlock,” she said, and began to backtrack. A few minutes later, she realized they’d come to a clearing they had already passed. They were lost in the woods. She almost laughed at how unbelievable it was. She let go of Paisley’s hand and rubbed her palm against her pants.
“We’re going in circles. Let’s wait here until the boys come by. Don’t worry, Pais. It’s still Reverie. See?” She pointed up through the leaves at the ceiling and then wished she hadn’t. The lights above dimmed, flickered for a moment, and then came back.
“Tell me that didn’t just happen,” Paisley said.
“We’re leaving. This was a stupid idea. ” Was this the part of Ag 6 that had taken the damage?
“Bane! Get over here!” Soren yelled. Aria spun, catching a glimpse of his tanned torso jogging through the trees. This was her chance. She could talk to him now if she hurried. If she left Paisley there alone.
Paisley gave her a shaky smile. “Aria, go. Talk to him. But hurry back. ”
“I promise. ”
Soren was hoisting a stack of branches into his arms when she found him.
“We’re going to make fire,” he said.
Aria froze. “You’re kidding. You’re not really . . . right?”
“We’re Outsiders. Outsiders have fires. ”
“But we’re still inside. You can’t, Soren. This isn’t a Realm. ”
“Exactly. This is our chance to see the real thing. ”
“Soren, it’s forbidden. ” Fire in the Realms was a rippling orange and yellow light that gave off a gentle warmth. But she knew from years of Pod safety drills that real fire must be different. “You could contaminate our air. You could burn down Reverie—”
She broke off as Soren stepped closer. Water beaded on his forehead. It cut clear trails through the mud on his face and chest. He was sweating. She’d never seen sweat before.
He leaned in. “I can do anything I want in here. Anything. ”
“I know you can. We all can. Right?”
Soren paused. “Right. ”
This was it. Her opportunity. She chose her words carefully. “You know things, don’t you? Like the codes that got us here. . . . Things we’re not supposed to know?”
“Of course I do. ”
Aria smiled and slipped around the branches in his arms. She rolled up onto her toes, inviting him to whisper. “Well, tell me a secret. Tell me something we’re not supposed to know. ”
The lights flickered again. Aria’s heart gave a lurch. “Tell me what’s going on with Bliss,” she said, making her best attempt at sounding casual.
Soren stepped back. He shook his head slowly, his eyes narrowing. “You want to know about your mother, don’t you? Is that why you came here? You’ve been playing me?”
Aria couldn’t lie anymore. “Just tell me why the link is still down. I need to know if she’s all right. ”
Soren’s gaze dropped to her mouth. “I might let you persuade me later,” he said. Then he pushed his shoulders back, shifting the branches higher. “Right now I’m discovering fire. ”
Aria hurried back to the clearing for Paisley. She found Bane and Echo there as well. The brothers were building up a pile of branches and leaves at the center. Paisley rushed over as soo
n as she saw Aria.
“They’ve been doing this since you left. They’re trying to make fire. ”
“I know. Let’s go. ” Six thousand people lived in Reverie. She couldn’t let Soren risk everything.
Aria heard the clatter of sticks falling just before something struck her shoulder. She cried out as Soren spun her to face him.
“No one’s leaving. I thought I made that clear. ”
She stared at the hand on her shoulder, her legs softening beneath her. “Let go of me, Soren. We’re not getting involved. ”
“Too late. ” His fingers dug into her. She gasped at the shock wave of pain that ran down her arm. Bane dropped the large branch he’d been dragging and looked over. Echo stopped midstride, his eyes wide, wild. The lights shone off their skin. They were sweating too.
“If you leave,” Soren said, “I’ll tell my father this was your idea. With our Smarteyes shut off, it’s your word against mine. Who do you think he’ll believe?”
“You’re insane. ”
Soren let her go. “Shut up and sit down. ” He grinned. “And enjoy the show. ”
Aria sat with Paisley at the edge of the tree line and fought the urge to rub her throbbing shoulder. In the Realms, falling off a horse hurt. Twisting an ankle did too. But pain was just an effect, sprinkled in to boost the thrill. They couldn’t actually get hurt in the Realms. This felt different. Like there was no limit to the pain. Like it could go on forever.
Bane and Echo made one trip after another into the woods, bringing back armfuls of branches and leaves. Soren directed them to place more here, more there, as sweat dripped off his nose. Aria eyed the lights. At least they were holding steady.
She couldn’t believe she’d let herself—and Paisley—get into this situation. She’d known going into Ag 6 meant risk, but she hadn’t expected this. She had never wanted to be part of Soren’s clique, though he’d always interested her. Aria liked looking for the fissures in his image. The way he watched people when they laughed, like he didn’t understand laughter. The way he curled his upper lip after he said something he thought particularly clever. The way he glanced at her occasionally, like he knew she wasn’t convinced.
Now she realized what had intrigued her. Through those fissures, she’d seen glimpses of someone else. And out here, without Reverie Guardians watching, he was free to be himself.
“I’m going to get us out of here,” she whispered.
Tears pooled in Paisley’s bare eye. “Shhh. He’ll hear you. ”
Aria noticed the brittle crackle of the leaves beneath her and wondered when the trees had last been watered. She watched the pile grow one foot high, then two. Finally, with the pile at nearly three feet, Soren declared it ready.
He reached into his boot and brought out a battery pack and some wire, handing them to Bane.
Aria couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “You planned this? You came here to make fire?”