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Under the Never Sky

Under the Never Sky

Under the Never Sky 6

Page 6

 

  Chapter 5

  ARIA

  Aria woke in a room she’d never seen before. She winced, pressing her fingers against the throbbing at her temples. Heavy fabric crinkled over her arms. She peered down. A white suit covered her from neck to feet. She wiggled her fingers inside loose-fitting gloves. Whose clothes was she wearing?

  She sucked in a breath as she recognized the Medsuit. Lumina had told her about therapeutic garments like this. How could she be sick? Reverie’s sterile environment eradicated disease. Genetic engineers like her mother kept them physically well. But she didn’t feel well right now. Gingerly she turned her head left and right. Even the smallest movements brought shocking aches.

  She sat up slowly, gasping at the sharp pinch in the crook of her elbow. A tube filled with clear liquid poked out of a patch in the suit by her arm and disappeared into the thick base of the bed. Her head pounded and her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth.

  She sent a hurried message. Lumina, something’s happened. I don’t know what’s going on. Mom? Where are you?

  A steel counter ran along one side of the room. A regress screen sat on top, two-dimensional, like the sort used a long time ago. Aria saw a series of lines on it, the vital signals her suit transmitted.

  Why was Lumina taking so long to respond?

  Time and location, she requested from her Smarteye. Neither came up. Where was her Smartscreen?

  Paisley? Caleb? Where are you?

  Aria tried cruising to a beach Realm. One of her favorites. She stiffened as the wrong images streaked through her mind. Burning trees. Smoke that moved like waves. Paisley’s wide-eyed terror. Soren on top of her.

  She reached toward her left eye and poked herself, jerking back as she blinked. Nothing but a useless eyeball. She flattened her palm over her naked eye just as a slender man in a doctor’s smock entered the room.

  “Hello, Aria. You’re awake. ”

  “Doctor Ward,” she said, momentarily relieved. Ward was one of her mother’s colleagues, a quiet 5th Gen with a serious, square face. It wasn’t unusual to only have one parent, but a few years earlier Aria had wondered if he was her father. Ward and Lumina were similar, both reserved and consumed by their work. But when Aria asked, Lumina had answered, We have each other, Aria. That’s everything we need.

  “Careful,” Ward said. “You have a laceration along your brow that’s not fully healed, but that’s the worst of it. Your tests came out clear on everything else. No infection. No damage to your lungs. Remarkable results considering what you must have gone through. ”

  Aria didn’t move her hand. She knew how horrible she must look. “Where’s my Smarteye? I can’t get to the Realms. I’m stuck here. With no one. ” She bit her lip to keep from rambling.

  “Your Smarteye appears to have been lost in the Ag 6 dome. I’ve ordered a new one for you. It should be ready in a few hours. In the meantime, I can increase the dosage of sedative—”

  “No,” she said quickly. “No sedatives. ” She understood now why her thoughts felt scrambled, like important things had been rearranged or lost altogether. “Where’s my mother?”

  “Lumina is in Bliss. The link has been down for a week. ”

  Aria stared at him. A beeping from the monitor announced the spike in her heartbeat. How could she have forgotten? She’d gone into Ag 6 because of Lumina. But how could Lumina still be unreachable? She remembered resetting the Smarteye and seeing the “Songbird” file.

  “That can’t be right,” she said. “My mother sent me a message. ”

  Ward’s eyebrows drew together. “She did? How do you know it was from her?”

  “It was called ‘Songbird. ’ Only Lumina calls me that. ”

  “Did you see the message?”

  “No, I didn’t have a chance. Where’s Paisley?”

  Ward drew a slow breath before he spoke. “Aria, I am sorry to have to tell you this. Only you and Soren survived. I know you and Paisley were quite close. ”

  Aria gripped the edges of the bed. “What are you saying?” she heard herself ask. “Are you saying Paisley’s dead?” It wasn’t possible. No one died at seventeen. They easily lived into their second centuries.

  The monitor beeped. This time it was louder and persisted.

  Ward was talking. “You left the secure zone . . . with disabled Smarteyes. . . . By the time we responded . . . ”

  All she heard was beep-beep-beep-beep.

  Ward trailed off and looked at the medical screen. At a graph that showed, in rising lines and soaring numbers, the collapsing sensation inside her chest.

  “I’m sorry, Aria,” he said. The Medsuit stiffened, crinkling as it puffed around her limbs. Cold surged into her arm. She looked down. Blue liquid snaked its way through the tube and disappeared into her Medsuit. Into her. He had ordered the sedative through his Smarteye. Ward stepped closer. “Lay back now before you fall. ”

  Aria wanted to tell him to stay away, but her lips grew numb and her tongue became a strange limp weight in her mouth. The room lurched to the side as the beeping slowed abruptly. Aria fell back, hitting the mattress with a thud.

  Dr. Ward appeared above her, his face anxious. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “It’s the best thing for you now. ” Then he left, closing the door soundly behind him.

  Aria tried to move. Her limbs felt weighted and pulled, like a magnet held her down. It took all her concentration to bring her hand toward her face. She scared herself, not recognizing the gloves over her fingers or the emptiness around her left eye.

  She let her hand fall away, unable to control it any longer. Her arm slipped off the edge of the bed. She saw it, but she couldn’t bring it back.

  She closed her eyes. Had something happened to Lumina? Or was it Paisley? Her mind had filled with a thrumming sound, like a tuning fork deep within her skull. Soon she didn’t have a clue what had saddened her.

  She didn’t know how much time had passed when Dr. Ward returned. Without a Smarteye, Aria felt like she didn’t know anything.

  “I’m sorry I had to sedate you. ” He paused, waiting for her to speak. She kept her eyes on the lights above, letting them burn spots into her vision. “They’re ready to begin the investigation. ”

  An investigation. Was she a criminal now? The Medsuit slackened around her. Ward stepped forward, clearing his throat. Aria flinched as he removed the needle from her arm. She could stand the pain, but not the feel of his hands on her. She pushed herself upright as soon as he stepped back, her mind reeling with dizziness.

  “Follow me,” he told her. “The Consuls are expecting you. ”

  “The Consuls?” They were the most influential people in Reverie, governing all aspects of life in the Pod. “Consul Hess will be there? Soren’s father?”

  Dr. Ward nodded. “Of the five, he’ll be the most engaged. He’s the Director of Security. ”

  “I can’t see him! It was Soren’s fault. He started the fire!”

  “Aria, hush! Please don’t say any more. ”

  For a moment, they just stared at each other. Aria swallowed through a dry throat. “I can’t tell the truth, can I?”

  “It won’t do you any good to lie,” Ward said. “They have means to get at the truth. ”

  She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

  “Come. Any longer and they’ll condemn you solely for making them wait. ”

  Dr. Ward led her through a wide corridor that curved, so Aria couldn’t see what lay ahead. The Medsuit forced her to walk with her legs and arms slightly apart. Between that and her stiff muscles, she felt like a zombie shuffling after him.

  She noticed cracks and streaks of rust along the walls. Reverie had stood nearly three hundred years, but she had never seen signs of its age until now. She’d spent her whole life in the Panop, Reverie’s vast and immaculate central dome. Most everything happened there, on forty levels that housed residential, schooling, repose, and dining areas,
all organized around an atrium. Aria had never seen a single crack in the Panop, not that she’d bothered to search very hard.

  The design was purposely repetitive and uninteresting to promote maximum use of the Realms. Everything in the real was kept bland, down to the grays they all wore. Now, as she followed Dr. Ward, she couldn’t help wondering how many other parts of the Pod were deteriorating.

  Ward stopped before an unmarked door. “I’ll see you afterward. ” It sounded like a question.

  Aria didn’t see the five Reverie Consuls when she stepped into the room. That’s how they always appeared in public address, the five speaking from a virtual, ancient Senate house. Only one man was seated at a table.

  Soren’s father. Consul Hess.

  “Take a seat, Aria,” Consul Hess said, indicating the metal chair across the table.

  She sat and looked down, letting her hair fall in front of her bare eye. The room was a steel box, the walls pocked with dents. It smelled strongly of bleach.

  “One moment,” Consul Hess said as he stared through her.

  Aria crossed her arms to hide her trembling hands. He was probably sifting through reports of the fire on his Smartscreen, or maybe talking with an expert on how to proceed.

  Soren’s father was a 12th Gen, well into his second century of life. She supposed he and Soren resembled each other, both being even-featured and stocky. But their likeness wasn’t obvious. Aging-reversal treatments kept Consul Hess’s skin as thin and tender-looking as an infant’s, while Soren’s tan made him look older. But like everyone over a hundred years old, Consul Hess’s age showed in his eyes, which were sunken and dull as olive pits.

  Aria’s gaze moved to the chair next to her. It shouldn’t be empty. Her mother should be there instead of hundreds of miles away. Aria had always tried to understand Lumina’s dedication to her work. It wasn’t easy, knowing as little about it as she did. “It’s classified,” Lumina said whenever Aria asked. “You know as much as I can tell. It’s in the field of genetics. Important work, but not as important as you. ”

  How could Aria believe her now? Where was she when Aria needed her?

  Consul Hess’s attention closed on her like a focusing lens. He hadn’t spoken yet, but she knew he was studying her. He clicked his fingernails on the steel table. “Let’s begin,” he said finally.

  “Shouldn’t all the Consuls be here?”

  “Consuls Royce, Medlen, and Tarquin are attending to protocol. They’ll see our conversation later. Consul Young is with us. ”

  Aria looked at his Smarteye, growing conscious of the missing weight on the left side of her face again. “He’s not with me. ”

  “Yes, true. You’ve been through an ordeal, haven’t you? I’m afraid my son bears some responsibility for what happened. Soren’s a natural code breaker. A difficult trait at this age, but one day he’ll be quite useful. ”

  Aria waited until she knew her voice would be steady. “You spoke with him?”

  “In the Realms only,” Consul Hess said. “He won’t be capable of speaking aloud for some time. New bones are being grown for his jaw. Much of the skin over his face will have to be regenerated. He will never look the same, but he survived. He was lucky . . . but not as lucky as you. ”