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Under the Never Sky

Under the Never Sky

Under the Never Sky 31

Page 31

 

  “What are you going to do after you find Talon?” she asked, switching tactics.

  He relaxed over the rail again. “I’ll get him home, then form my own tribe. ”

  “How?”

  “It’s a matter of winning men. You get one who’s either willing or forced to follow your lead. Then another and so on. Until you have a group big enough to stake out some land. Fight for it, if need be. ”

  “How are they forced?”

  “In a challenge. Winner either spares the loser’s life and earns fealty that way, or . . . what you’d imagine. ”

  “I see,” Aria said. Fealty. Allies. Oaths taken at the point of death. They were ordinary concepts in his life.

  “Maybe I’ll head north,” he continued. “See if I can find my sister and get her to the Horns. Maybe I can fix that ruffle before it’s too late. And I want to see what I can find about the Still Blue. ”

  Aria wondered where that would leave him and Roar. It didn’t seem fair to keep two people who loved each other apart.

  “What about you?” he asked. “When we find your mother, will you go back to those virtual places? The Realms?”

  She liked the way he’d said Realms. Slow and resonant. She liked even better the way he’d said when we find your mother. Like it would happen. Like it was inevitable.

  “I think I’ll get back to singing. It was always something my mother made me do. I never . . . I never really wanted to sing. Now I have the urge to do it. Songs are stories. ” She smiled. “Maybe I’ve got my own stories to tell now. ”

  “I’ve been thinking about it. ”

  “You’ve been thinking about my voice?”

  “Yeah. ” He gave a shrug that managed to seem both shy and offhand. “Since that first night. ”

  Aria had to rein in a ridiculously proud smile. “That was from Tosca. An ancient Italian opera. ” The song was for a male tenor. When Aria sang it, she brought it up just enough to get it into her range, but still kept its lost, mournful quality. “It’s about a man, an artist who’s been sentenced to die, and he’s singing about the woman he loves. He doesn’t think he’ll ever see her again. It’s my mother’s favorite aria. ” She smiled. “Besides me. ”

  Perry pulled his legs around and sat against the rail, an expectant smile on his face.

  Aria laughed. “Seriously? Here?”

  “Seriously. ”

  “All right. . . . I have to stand. It’s better if I stand. ”

  “Then stand. ”

  Perry rose to his feet with her, leaning his hip against the rail. His smile was distracting, so she gazed up at the Aether for a few moments, breathing the cool air into her lungs as anticipation stirred inside of her. She’d missed this.

  The lyrics flowed out of her, springing straight from her heart. Words full of drama and wild abandon that had always embarrassed her before, because who flung themselves at raw emotion like that?

  She did it now.

  She let the words fly across the roof and past the trees. She lost herself in the aria, letting it carry her off. But even as she sang, she knew the man below had stopped cutting wood and the dog had stopped barking. Even the trees hushed to hear her sing. When she was done, she had tears in her eyes. She wished her mother could’ve heard her. She’d never sounded better.

  Perry closed his eyes when she was finished. “You have a voice as sweet as your scent,” he said, his words deep and quiet. “Sweet as violets. ”

  Her heart stopped in her chest. He thought she had a scent like violets? “Perry . . . do you want to know the words?”

  His eyes flew open. “Yes. ”

  She took a moment to think through the lyrics, and then to muster up the courage to tell him—everything—without looking away.

  “How the stars shone. How sweet the earth smelled. The orchard gate creaked, and a footstep pressed on the sand. And she entered, fragrant as a flower, and fell into my arms. Oh, sweet kisses, lingering caresses. Slowly, trembling, I gazed upon her beauty. Now my dream of true love is lost forever. My last hour has flown, and I die, hopeless, and never have I loved life more. ”

  They reached for each other then like some force had pulled their hands together. Aria looked at their fingers as they laced together, bringing her the sensation of his touch. Of warmth and calluses. Soft and hard together. She absorbed the terror and beauty of him and his world. Of every moment over the past days. All of it, filling her up like the first breath she’d ever taken. And never had she loved life more.

  Chapter 27

  ARIA

  When she went back to the Navel with Perry, only forty-seven minutes remained on the time counter. Roar was at the control table with Marron. She had a vague notion of them speaking together quietly, and of Perry pacing behind the couch. She couldn’t focus on anything beyond the numbers on the screen.

  Mom, she pleaded silently. Be there. Please be there. I need you.

  Perry and I need you.

  She expected fanfare when the counter reached zero. An alarm or some sort of noise. There was nothing. Not even a sound.

  “I have the two files here,” Marron said. “Both stored locally on the Smarteye. ”

  Marron pulled them up on the wallscreen. One file had a date and a timer on it. The readout showed twenty-one minutes of recorded time. The other was labeled SONGBIRD.

  Aria didn’t have any memory of Perry joining her on the couch or taking her hand. She didn’t know how she hadn’t noticed. Now that she did, he felt like the only thing keeping her from drifting off the couch.

  They’d decided to check the files before trying to contact Lumina. Aria asked to see the recording first. This was the file they both needed. Barter for Talon. Evidence that would clear her name. Then she braced herself for fire and Soren. For the sounds of Paisley dying. She couldn’t believe she actually wanted it to be there.

  A smoldering forest appeared on the wallscreen. Paisley’s panicked voice burst across the room. Images Aria had seen through her eyes played out on the screen. Her feet blurring beneath her. Flashes of Paisley’s hand linked with hers. Shuddering images of fire and smoke and trees. When it came to Soren grabbing Paisley’s leg, Perry spoke at her side. “You don’t have to watch all of it. ”

  She blinked at him, feeling like she’d stepped out of a trance. There were still six minutes left, but she knew how the recording ended. “That’s enough. ”

  The wallscreen went dark and silence came. They had the recording. It should have felt more like a victory, but Aria felt like crying. She could still hear the echo of Paisley’s voice.

  “I need to see the other file,” she said.

  Marron selected “Songbird. ” Lumina’s face took up most of the wallscreen. Her shoulders reached from one end of the room to the other. Marron adjusted the image to half the size, but she remained larger than human.

  “That’s my mother,” she heard herself say.

  Lumina smiled at the camera. A quick, nervous smile. Her dark hair was fastened as she always wore it, pulled back from her face. Behind her there were rows of shelves with labeled boxes. She was in some sort of supply room.

  “This is strange speaking to a camera and pretending it’s you. But I know it’s you, Aria. I know you’ll be watching this and listening. ”

  Her voice was loud, everywhere in the room. She reached up and smoothed the collar of her doctor’s smock.

  “We’re in trouble here. Bliss has suffered serious damage in an Aether storm. The Consuls estimate forty percent of the Pod has been contaminated, but generators are failing and the number seems to be climbing every hour. The CGB has promised help. We’re waiting for them. We haven’t given up. Neither should you, Aria.

  “I wanted to tell you when it happened, but the CGB shut down our link with other Pods. They don’t want panic spreading. But I found a way, I hope, to get this message to you. I know you must be worried. ”

  Aria’s heart had sto
pped beating. Lumina sat back. Her hands were offscreen but Aria knew they’d be folded in her lap.

  “I need to tell you something else, Aria. Something you’ve wanted to know about for so long. My work. ” She sent a fleeting smile toward the camera. “You must be happy to hear that.

  “I have to begin with the Realms. The CGB created them to give us the illusion of space when we were forced into Pods during the Unity. They were only meant to be copies of the world we left behind, as you know, but the possibilities proved to be too enticing. So we gave ourselves the ability to fly. To travel from a snowcap to a beach with a single thought. And why feel pain if you don’t have to? Why feel the brunt of real fear if there’s no danger of becoming hurt? We increased what we deemed good and removed the bad. Those are the Realms as you know them. Better than Real, as they say. ”

  Lumina stared at the camera a few moments. Then she reached forward, pressing something beyond the camera’s view. A colorful scan of the human brain appeared in a quadrant over her left shoulder.

  “The central area in blue is the oldest portion of the brain, Aria. It’s called the limbic system. It controls many of our most basic processes. Our drive to mate. Our comprehension of stress and fear and reaction to it. Our quick decision-making capability. We say a gut reaction, but actually these reflexes come from here. Simply put, this is our animal mind. Over generations in the Realms, the usefulness of this part of our brain has vastly diminished. What do you think, Daughter, happens to something that goes unused for time too long?”

  Aria let out a sob, because this was her mother. This was how she’d always taught her, asking her questions. Letting her form her own answers.

  “It’s lost,” Aria said.

  Lumina nodded as though she’d heard her. “It degenerates. This has catastrophic consequences when we do need to rely on instinct. Pleasure and pain become confused. Fear can become thrilling. Rather than avoid stress, we seek it and even revel in it. The will to give life becomes the need to take it. The result is a collapse of reason and cognition. Put simply, it results in a psychotic break. ”

  Lumina paused. “I have spent my life studying this disorder, Degenerative Limbic Syndrome. When I began my work two decades ago, incidents of DLS were isolated and minor. No one believed it would amount to a real threat. But in the past three years the Aether storms have intensified at an alarming rate. They damage our Pods and cut off our link to the Realms. Generators fail. Backups fail. . . . We’re left in dire situations that we’re incapable of handling. Entire Pods have fallen to DLS. I think you can imagine, Aria, the anarchy of six thousand trapped people who have come under this syndrome. I see it around me now. ”

  She looked away from the camera for a moment, hiding her face.

  “You will hate me for what I will say next, but I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again. And I can’t hold this knowledge from you anymore. My work has led me to research Outsiders in search of genetic solutions. They don’t have the dangerous response we do to stress and fear. In fact, what I’ve seen is the reverse effect. The CGB makes arrangements for us to bring them into our facility. That’s how I met your father. I work with Outsider children now. It’s easier for me after what happened. ”