About the Author
Phoebe North is the author of Starglass and Starbreak. She received her MFA in poetry at the University of Florida. She lives in New York State with her husband, her daughter, and her cat. Visit her at PhoebeNorth.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
On the night of the riots, I wasn’t the only one who ran for the shuttle bay.
As I pressed across the frozen pastures, my hands balled into fists, my feet bare against the cold ground, I was joined by throngs of people. Citizens, their gazes drunk-dizzy and crazed, spilled out from the districts and the fields, clamoring for the aft lift. That day—my wedding day, the day we arrived on Zehava—was supposed to be a festive one. The citizens had been saving up their rations for weeks, stockpiling bottles of wine so they could drink from the first moment dawn cracked until the planet was stained black by the darkening night.
But the planet never went dark. Instead Zehava twinkled and glinted in the dome glass like a second sky. Lights. The northern continent was scattered with lights, clustered around the black oceans like gilt edging a page. Those lights could only mean one thing: people. There were people on our planet, the planet we’d journeyed five hundred years to find, the planet we’d been told would someday be our home.
Maybe they didn’t believe it, those citizens who ran by me, jostling and shoving one another. Maybe they were so drunk, they’d convinced themselves it wasn’t true. Zehava was theirs—their abbas had sung them songs about it; their mommas had told them about the good lives they’d live underneath the wide open sky. Maybe they thought the lights were something else, a trick of Mother Nature—phosphorescent algae or glowing rocks. Whatever the case, in their drunken fervor they’d convinced themselves that the path ahead would be easy. They’d take a shuttle down to the surface and find Zehava perfect and empty. It had been promised to them, after all.
I ran for a different reason, the pleats of my long golden gown clutched in my fists. Sure, I was just as starved as the rest of them. I wanted Zehava too; the Goldilocks planet would be our better, more perfect home. But that night? I mostly just ran for my life. When I squeezed myself into the crowded lift, the smell of sweat and wine and bloodstained wool all around me, I gave one last look back. I couldn’t be certain, but I thought I saw her there. Aleksandra Wolff, leader of the Children of Abel. The captain’s daughter—a woman so powerful that she’d kept her family’s name for her own, defying all of the traditions of the ship. Her black braid swung behind her as she ran.
When the door shut behind me, I put my hands on my knees, panting. The air felt cold and sharp inside my lungs. I remembered the expression on Aleksandra’s face—wild, hungry. I’d seen the whole thing, standing frozen in that cornfield as Aleksandra held that silver rope of hair in her hand and drew the knife across her mother’s throat.
An old woman stood beside me in the lift. She touched her hand gently to my bare shoulder.
“Aren’t you happy?” she cried. She was hazy with drink. “The Council, fallen! Fallen at last!”
I winced. The lift was filled with people, too many people, as it plunged into the depths of the ship. They sang and chanted, pumping their fists, but I couldn’t hear their words. Instead I heard an echo—Captain Wolff’s voice coming back to me, just before she made that last, strangled sound.
They won’t follow you. Not after they’ve discovered that you killed your own mother.
Aleksandra had answered easily: Good thing they won’t find out. But I knew, I knew—and worst of all? Aleksandra had caught me listening. On her belt she carried a knife, still hot with her mother’s blood, sharp as a straight razor and twice as quick.
But I had somewhere to go. Zehava. The purple forests writhed and shifted in the corners of my memory. And I had someone waiting for me too. The boy—my boy—the one who’d haunted my dreams for months. He’d keep me safe from Aleksandra, and from the bodies that jostled me in their drunken fervor as they spilled from the lift. He’d be my home. My haven. My sanctuary.
He just didn’t know it yet.
I stumbled from the lift into the crowded shuttle bay.
· · ·
Once, the bay had been closed to all but necessary personnel—shuttle pilots and their crews, the captain, the Council. But someone had cracked the lift’s control panel open. It trailed wires like a jumble of guts. When we arrived, the doors opened easily. Already the room was packed with people who elbowed one another, shouting. Most carried handcrafted weapons, table legs broken off or knives filched from their galley drawers. Someone had a shepherd’s crook they’d broken down into a splintered spear. I had to duck under it as I scrambled toward the air lock entrance.
At first I just stood there staring, my bare feet flat against the rusted floor. The air lock was open. Inside waited row upon row of shuttles, gleaming beneath the dim track lighting. We’d prepared for years for disembarking. In school Rebbe Davison had taken us through the necessary drills: meeting with our muster groups, filing in one group at a time. Of course, it had only ever been for practice. I’d only ever seen snatches of the air lock before—with its precarious walkway and its long tunnels that reached out into the universe beyond—just before the air lock shut.
I heard a familiar ding. When I glanced back, I saw the lift doors open again. Still more people spilled out. I was frozen, my dress in my hands. But then I saw a face in the crowd in the lift. Aleksandra, her pale features drawn, stood among the new group. I wondered if they knew that she was their leader. I hadn’t—it had been a secret, well kept. But now it seemed the news was spreading as quickly as a winter cold. Field-workers bowed their heads to whisper to specialists. Merchants lifted their eyes, squared their shoulders, and pressed two fingers to their hearts. They rushed toward her, flanking her on all sides. It give me time, but not much. I had to hurry as the people raised their weapons in salute. I pressed forward through the crowd, nearing the air lock door.
I’d almost reached it when I heard a familiar voice, touched with awe.
“Is that her, Deck? Is it true?”
I whipped my head up. There stood Laurel Selberlicht, her honey-brown eyes as bright as beacons. Deklan Levitt was beside her, one burly arm thrown over her shoulders. I’d known the pair my whole life; they’d been my classmates first, flirting during recess, passing notes to each other when Rebbe Davison’s back was turned. Later I’d grown used to seeing them in the shadowed library, to pressing my fingers to my heart in salute when we passed each other in the dome. He was a plowman; in one season his work had transformed him from a narrow reed of a boy into a well-muscled man. But Laurel was slight, willowy. Her shoulder still bore the rank cords she’d been given by the High Council. A silver twist of thread—a special color, reserved for shuttle pilots like her.
I didn’t even stop to think about it. I reached out and took her slender, cool hand in mine.
“Laurel,” I said. When she lifted her eyes, they went hazy. I could smell the wine on her breath. “Laurel, come with me. I need your help.”
“Sure, Terra,” she said, and though there was a note of confusion in her voice, she let me pull her through the crowd. But a gruff tenor called out to us. Deklan, his unruly eyebrows low.
“Hey, where are you taking her?”
We were almost at the air lock door when I looked back. He was following us, but he wasn’t alone. Two other rebels flanked him, one on either side, their expressions mirroring his concern. One, familiar—Rebbe Davison, Mordecai, our teacher, his lush black curls threaded gray. The other, a stranger, small in stature, whose shoulder bore the blue knot of a specialist.
“It’s okay!” I called through the clamor, but I don’t think they heard me. The trio followed us, as close as magnets, as I pulled Laurel down past the air lock entrance and into the long, dim hallway.
“What’s going on, Terra?” she asked as we stopped on the narrow walkway. The air was cooler here, quieter. Few citizens had made it into the air lock. Only a pair of dark silhouettes could be seen in the distance, standing beside one of the waiting shuttles.
“You’ve trained as a pilot,” I said, narrowing my gaze on her. “You can get us to Zehava.”
“But we’re not supposed to leave until we receive word back from the shuttle crew.”
By now Deklan and his companions had reached us. He grabbed her to him, holding on tight—as if I were going to snatch her away. To be fair, I had already snatched her away once. If I wanted Laurel’s help, it seemed I’d need to convince Deklan, too.
“She’s trained all year for this, Deklan. She’s a strong, capable pilot. Don’t you want to see her fulfill her dreams?”
His expression shadowed with guilt. He looked down at Laurel, and I saw then the love that tethered them together. He was proud of her vocation, of all she’d done with her life, no matter how much he hid that behind gruffness and bluster.
“Of course I do,” he said softly. Tucked beneath his arm, Laurel glowed. But she didn’t answer me, not yet. I glanced toward the figures behind them.
Rebbe Davison lurked there, his face clouded with concern. On a night when most of the ship’s population was alive with exuberant energy, he suddenly looked much older. I saw the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, the deep frown circling his mouth.
“Rebbe Davison,” I said. “You taught us our muster drills, all the procedures for disembarking when we were young. Who gave you those orders?”
He paused—behind him the sound of the crowd swelled.
“The Council,” he said. “The curriculum always came from the Council.”
“And what was all this for,” I demanded, gesturing back toward the shuttle bay, packed with bodies, “if we’re going to stay under their thumbs? They’d want us to wait, I’m sure. But that planet is our inheritance. Not this ship!”
“She’s right,” Laurel said. I blinked back my surprise; I hadn’t expected agreement to come so quickly. Deklan held her tightly, but she squirmed away. “No, Deck. This is what I’ve been training for. I can do this. The planet is ours. Isn’t it?”
Without waiting for an answer, she turned and walked away from him. There was a panel built into the wall. Her hands moved breezily over it. As she worked, I glanced back over my shoulder. The crowd was pressing closer now, threatening to spill over the precipice of the air lock. I saw a cutting figure among them, her wool-wrapped shoulders square. Aleksandra, knife in her hand, parting the crowd like they were sheep to be herded. Coming close.
But then the air lock door began to slide back into place. Her eyes widened. She shouted something, but the words were lost beneath the shouts and songs of the rebels who surrounded her. They didn’t matter. She didn’t. The door sealed shut, and we were left alone in the darkness.
· · ·
Laurel turned on the heel of her leather-soled shoe to make her way briskly through the air lock. At first I hesitated beside Rebbe Davison and his friend, watching as Deklan scrambled after her.
“You’re not going alone!” he cried, fixing a hand on her shoulder. She spun around, tossing her curls as she faced him.
“Then come with us.”
His eyes met mine, murky with confusion, as if he couldn’t believe what the rebellion had wrought: his love was ready to leap off the ship and into the void of space without him. Then he looked to the specialist and to Rebbe Davison.
“Are you going?”
At first our teacher looked wary, uncertain. But then he let his eyes slide shut. Behind us the sound of the rioting crowd could still be heard, a dozen muffled hands pounding on the air lock door again and again. When Rebbe Davison opened his eyes, they were filled with a new, razor-sharp certainty.
“Liberty on Zehava,” he said, softly at first, but then again, louder. “Liberty on Zehava! Terra’s right. The planet. The planet is ours.”
There was something strange, garbled about his words. In class this kindhearted man had always spoken with confidence. Even when someone misbehaved, he’d laughed it off easily, taking every disaster in stride. Now he seemed hazy.
Drunk. They were all drunk, I realized. I’d swallowed down a full skein of wine that evening myself, but now that I was driven by a single goal, the night had taken on an uncanny clarity. I could see the rust on the grating beneath us, every rivet on every shuttle, and the cobwebs that would soon be blasted away when the ship’s outer port opened. Anyone left behind in the air lock would be lost to the vacuum of space—and I wasn’t about to open up the door to the shuttle bay again. So even though I heard the slur in my teacher’s words, I nodded. I needed them to come with me, and fast.
“Good. Let’s board, then,” I said.
Rebbe Davison looked at the specialist, who considered for a moment, mouth open. But soon he nodded too. We all turned toward the shuttles and made our way toward one at the back.
“I only have access to this one,” Laurel said as we neared shuttle number twenty-eight. But the door was blocked by a pair of figures. An old man with a fringe of white hair and a bulbous nose—and a dark-haired girl, no older than ten. The man was my neighbor, Mar Schneider. He’d been a part of our clandestine library meetings too, and when he saw us, he lifted two fingers to his heart.
“She wanted to see the shuttles,” he said, almost apologetically, holding the girl’s hand tight. I recognized her as his granddaughter, who sat on his stoop with him sometimes to watch the traffic of the afternoon, but in that moment I couldn’t remember her name. As Laurel shouldered them aside to punch in her access code, Rebbe Davison set a hand on the old man’s shoulder. He spoke just a few decibels louder than necessary.
“Abraham, we’re going to the planet! Would you like to join us?”
Mar Schneider lifted a hand to touch his scratchy white beard. He smacked his lips, considering. But his granddaughter didn’t need time to consider. She jumped up and down on the balls of her feet.
“Yes! Yes! Zayde, please?”
As if it were nothing more than a request for a box of candy, he sighed. My heart was pounding. Behind me the door to the shuttle bay was pounding too—a low, steady thunder.
“Oh, I suppose.”
One by one we climbed inside. The shuttle was small, meant to carry only a dozen people. That night we were half that. But our meager crew would have to do. As we boarded, Laurel turned toward a storage space in back.
“The flight suits are in there. Everybody suit up. And be sure to buckle up.” She pulled the heavy door closed behind us. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I saw a shadow of doubt in her pale eyes. I ignored it. I needed her if I was going to reach Zehava—if I was going to find my boy, waiting for me. She added, “It might be a bumpy ride.”
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