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Under the Never Sky

Under the Never Sky

Under the Never Sky 9

Page 9

 

  The man took the straps from her and fastened them with a series of snaps. Then he sat on the opposite side with five other men. They ran through coordinates using military jargon she hardly understood, falling silent as the door sealed with a sound like a gasp. The craft whirred to life, vibrating, buzzing like a million bees. Near the cockpit, something inside a cabinet shook, creating a metallic chatter. The noise set off her headache again. A cloying chemical taste slid into her mouth.

  “How long is the journey?” she asked.

  “Not long,” said the man who’d buckled her in. He closed his eyes. Most of the other Guardians did too. Did they always do that? Or were they just trying to avoid staring at the blank spot over her left eye?

  The lurch of liftoff pressed her down into the seat, then sideways, as the craft thrust into motion. With no windows to peer through, Aria strained to listen. Had they left the hangar? Were they on the outside yet?

  She swallowed the bitter taste on her tongue. She needed water and the seat straps were too tight. She couldn’t draw in a full breath without pushing against them. She began to feel light-headed, like she couldn’t get enough air. Aria ran through vocal scales in her mind, battling against the shrill note of her headache. Scales always calmed her.

  The Dragonwing slowed much sooner than she’d expected. Half an hour? Aria knew she wasn’t tracking time properly, but it couldn’t have been long.

  The Guardians pressed at wrist pads on their gray suits and donned their helmets, moving in quick, practiced movements. Soft light glowed from within their visors, shining clear through their Smarteyes. Aria looked around the cabin. Why hadn’t she been given a helmet?

  The black-gloved man stood and unfastened her seat restraint. She finally drew a deep breath, but didn’t feel satisfied. A strange weightlessness had come over her.

  “Are we there?” she asked. She hadn’t felt them land. The Hover still hummed with noise.

  The Guardian’s voice projected through a speaker in his helmet. “You are. ”

  The door opened with a blast of light. Hot air gusted into the cabin. Aria blinked furiously, willing her eyes to adjust. She didn’t see a hangar. She didn’t see anything that looked like Bliss. Empty land ran clear to the horizon. Desert, reaching as far as she could see. Nothing more. She didn’t understand. Couldn’t accept what she saw.

  A hand clamped onto her wrist. She screamed and reeled back. “Let go of me!” She grabbed the seat restraints, clutching them with all her strength.

  Hard hands fell on her shoulders, crushing her muscles, tearing her from the straps. They pulled her toward the edge in an instant. She looked down at her cloth-covered feet. They were inches from the metal lip. Much farther below, she saw cracked red earth.

  “Please! I didn’t do anything!”

  A Guardian came up behind her. She caught a glimpse of him as his foot crashed into the small of her back, and then she was falling through the air.

  She pressed her lips together as she struck the earth. Pain speared through her knees and elbows. Her temple smacked against the ground. She stifled a cry because making any sound—because even breathing—meant death. Aria lifted her head and stared at her fingers splayed on rust-colored dirt.

  She was touching the outside. She was in the Death Shop.

  She turned as the hatch closed, catching her last glance of the Guardians. Another Dragonwing floated beside it, both glistening like blue pearls. A buzzing sound shook the air around her as they glided away, kicking up clouds of red dirt as they sped across the flat expanse.

  Aria’s lungs tightened in spasms, aching for oxygen. She covered her mouth and nose with her sleeve. She couldn’t fight the need to draw air any longer. She inhaled and exhaled at the same time, choking, her eyes watering as she fought to settle back into her breath. She watched the Hovercrafts blend into the distance and marked the spot where they disappeared. When she could no longer see them, she sat staring at the desert. It looked bleak and barren in every direction. The quiet was so complete she could hear herself swallow.

  Consul Hess had lied to her.

  He’d lied. She’d been prepared for some kind of punishment when the investigation was done, but not this. She realized Consul Young hadn’t been watching her interview through Hess’s Smarteye. She’d been alone with Hess. His report would probably say she’d died in Ag 6, along with Paisley, Echo, and Bane. Hess would blame her for thinking up the night and letting in a Savage, too. He’d probably tied up all his problems and tossed them out with her.

  She stood, her legs trembling as she fought waves of dizziness. The heat of the earth soaked through the fabric of her Medsuit, warming the soles of her feet. As though on cue, her suit blew a rush of cool air over her back and stomach. She almost laughed. The Medsuit was still regulating her temperature.

  She looked up. Thick gray clouds blotted the sky. In the gaps, she saw Aether. Real Aether. The flows ran above the clouds. They were beautiful, like lightning trapped in liquid currents, thin as veils in some places. In others, they gathered in thick bright streams. The Aether didn’t look like something that could put an end to the world, yet that had nearly happened during the Unity.

  For six decades, when the Aether came, it had scorched the earth with constant fires, but the real blow to humanity had been its mutative effect, as her mother had explained to her. New diseases had evolved rapidly and thrived. Plagues had wiped out entire populations. Her ancestors had been among the fortunate few who’d taken shelter in the Pods.

  Shelter she no longer had.

  Aria knew she couldn’t survive in this contaminated world. She hadn’t been designed for it. Death was only a matter of time.

  She found the brighter patch in the cloud cover, where light shone through in a golden haze. That light came from the sun. She might get to see the real sun. She had to fight off the urge to cry, thinking about seeing the sun. Because who would know? Who would she tell about seeing something so incredible?

  She headed toward where the Rovers had disappeared, knowing it was pointless. Did she think Consul Hess would change his mind? But where else could she go? She walked with feet she didn’t recognize on earth that looked like giraffe print.

  She hadn’t taken more than a dozen steps when she started to cough again. Soon she grew too light-headed to stand. But it wasn’t just her lungs rejecting the outside. Her eyes and nose streamed. Her throat burned and her mouth filled with hot saliva.

  She’d heard all the stories about the Death Shop, like everyone else. A million ways to die. She knew of the packs of wolves as smart as men. She’d heard of the flocks of crows that picked living people to pieces, and Aether storms that behaved like predators. But the worst death in the Death Shop, she decided, was rotting alone.

  Chapter 8

  PEREGRINE

  Perry watched as his older brother strode into the clearing. Vale paused and lifted his head, scenting the wind. He held the buck’s rack in his hand, a huge snarl of horns, thick as a small tree. Impressive. Perry couldn’t deny it. Vale searched the crowd and spotted Perry, then Talon at his side.

  Perry became aware of a dozen things as his brother came forward. The Dweller device and the apple, both wrapped in plastic, deep inside his satchel. His knife at his hip. His bow and quiver slung across his back. He noticed the way the crowd quieted, easing into a circle around him. He sensed Talon shift at his side, drawing back. And he scented tempers. Dozens of bright scents, charging the air as much as the Aether above.

  “Hello, Son. ” Vale ached, gazing at his boy. Perry saw it in his eyes. He also saw the swelling around Vale’s nose, but wondered if anyone else would notice.

  Talon raised a hand in reply, keeping back. He didn’t want to show weakness in front of his father. How he hurt, both from grief and illness. Once it had been Perry hiding from his father behind Vale’s legs. But hiding didn’t work around Scires. Scents carried.

  Vale raised
the rack. “For you, Talon. Choose a horn. We’ll make a handle for a new knife. Would you like that?”

  Talon shrugged. “All right. ”

  Perry glanced at the knife at Talon’s belt. It was Perry’s old blade. As a boy, he had carved feathers into the handle, making a design fit for him and later, Talon. He saw no reason for him to have a new one.

  Vale finally met his gaze. He looked at the bruise on Perry’s face, suspicion flashing in his eyes. Vale would know he hadn’t given it to Perry. He hadn’t landed any solid punches that night across the table.

  “What happened to you, Peregrine?”

  Perry went still. He couldn’t tell Vale the truth, but lying wouldn’t help him either. No matter what he said, people would think Vale had given him the bruise, just as Brooke had. Blaming someone else for it would only make him look weak.

  “Thanks for caring, Vale. It’s good to be home. ” Perry nodded at the rack. “Where’d you bring him down?”

  “Moss Ledge. ”

  Perry couldn’t believe he’d missed picking up the buck’s scent. He’d been out that way recently.

  Vale smiled. “Fine beast, don’t you think, little brother? Best one in years. ”

  Perry glared at his older brother, holding back the bitter words that sprang to his lips. Vale knew it annoyed Perry to be called this in front of the tribe. He was no longer a boy. There was nothing little about him.

  “Still think we have overhunted?” Vale added.

  Perry was sure of it. The animals had left. They’d sensed the Aether growing stronger each passing year in their valley. Perry sensed it too. But what could he say? Vale held proof there was still game like that out there, ready to be brought in. “We should still move,” he said without thinking.

  A smile spread over Vale’s face. “Move, Perry? Do you mean that?”

  “The storms will only get worse. ”

  “This cycle will play out as they all do. ”

  “In time, maybe. But we may not survive the worst of it here. ”

  A stir ran through the crowd. He and Vale might argue like this in private, but no one crossed Vale in front of others.

  Vale shifted his feet. “Then tell us about your idea, Perry. About moving more than two hundred people into the open. Do you think we’d be better off without shelter? Fighting for our lives in the borderlands?”

  Perry swallowed hard. He knew what he knew. He just never said it well. But he couldn’t back down now.

  “The compound won’t hold up if the storms get much worse. We’re losing our fields. We’ll lose everything if we stay. We need to find safer land. ”

  “Where do you want us to go?” Vale asked. “You think another tribe will welcome us into their territory? All of us?”

  Perry shook his head. He wasn’t sure. He and Vale were Marked. Worth something, purely for their blood. But not the others, the Unmarked, who weren’t Scires or Auds or Seers. Who made up most of the tribe.

  Vale’s eyes narrowed. “What if the storms are worse in other territories, Peregrine?”

  Perry couldn’t answer. He wasn’t sure if the Aether raged elsewhere as it did there. He only knew that last winter, the storms torched nearly a quarter of their territory. This winter, he expected, would be worse.