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Read the First Two Chapters of A Conspiracy of Stars!

Get ready to explore new planets in the deep recesses of space this winter! A CONSPIRACY OF STARS by Olivia A. Cole is coming out on January 2, 2018 and it will take you on a wild ride. On this journey, you’ll find monstrous creatures, a corrupt government, and high concept science; what else could you want in your next favorite sci-fi read?

In A CONSPIRACY OF STARS, we follow Octavia, who wants nothing more than to follow in the footsteps of her whitecoat parents- scientists who study the natural wonders of Faloiv. When the new leader of the Council of N’Terra opens up the labs to allow students inside, it looks like she’s finally going to get her chance. But Octavia fears this new leaders extremist views have gone too far when she witnesses something awful happen one night to the indigenous people of Faloiv. Something that just might mean war between this exotic planet and the home she knows. And she just might be the catalyst for it all.

Lucky for you, you don’t have to wait until January to start reading. We’ve got an exclusive excerpt for you to start reading today!

 

Chapter 1

 

My father and I live under different suns. In reality, it is the same: red and hungry, an intense crimson eye that sends the sweat fleeing from my skin. It’s as beautiful as it is harsh, but my father sees none of the beauty. The past has dulled his wonder, and so the light of this planet shines differently in our eyes. For me, it is part of home. For him, it is a beacon over a prison. Like others in N’Terra, he had his heart set on another sun. This one is a poor replacement.

“Slow down, Octavia,” he says.

I tighten my hands, made thick with the white driving gloves I wear, on the steering column. My father has been allowing me to pilot the chariot since my birthday, but still insists I drive too fast. I decelerate, but only slightly—I love the feeling of the wind, tinged with the scent of the jungle, whipping across my face. This is one of the only times I feel relaxed.

My father says nothing else, so I squint at the intense green of the wilderness that blurs more slowly past us now, allowing the colors to blend. A smallish smudge of brown catches my eye—I’ve seen that mottled texture somewhere before in one of my research projects.

“Kunike,” I say out loud without really meaning to. Usually I would keep my observations to myself when driving with my father, but kunike are difficult to spot—I’ve never seen a live one—and I’m surprised to have happened across them. There are two: small and standing impossibly still at our approach. Their fur has blended into the grasses that surround them.

My father nods, unsmiling.

“Stop,” he says.

I bring the chariot to a gentle halt, tamping down the eagerness that swells in me like helium. My father lifts one hand from where it rests on the front bar and presses the signal key by the steering column. A short, sharp sound barks from our vehicle, and the two kunike become fully visible immediately. Their fur turns vividly red, and now I can see them clearly: small and fuzzy with large, wide ears like sails. One rears up on its back legs, baring its surprisingly impressive fangs.

Years ago, my father would have prompted me for knowledge: “Purpose? Adaptational trajectory?” That was when I was still a kid, allowed out of the compound and into the open air of Faloiv for the first time. By now he doesn’t need to ask: he signaled the kunike merely as a demonstration—a hint of his rare generosity when it comes to his only child. But I find myself answering in my head anyway: The sentry kunike turn red to signal the rest of the pack. In the event of an attack, they would stop and fight while the others got away. The red coloring doubles as a diversion for the predator. Before, when my father and I would actually talk, he might have told me that the kunike turn a different color if what’s approaching can be considered prey. This alternate color would signal the hidden pack to attack rather than flee. But these conversations are long past. At sixteen, I’m expected to know these things already, and I do.

I’ve guided the chariot into motion again—the kunike fading back into camouflage behind us—and the wind picks up dust from the road, swirling it around us in rust-colored clouds. Our goggles protect our eyes but he motions for me to fasten my face guard. Ahead, what looks like a scarlet bird hovers in the air, scanning the ground for food. I recognize it as a carnivore from its claws. But before I can even identify it, another creature—larger, a winged blue reptile—zooms in from out of nowhere and buries its talons in the red bird’s body. Both plummet to the ground, struggling.

“I’ll say one thing for this miserable planet,” my father says. I can barely hear him over the wind: I’m driving too fast again, but he hasn’t yet noticed. “It has an interesting predator-prey hierarchy. Carnivores preying only on other carnivores? Fascinating.”

I say nothing. When it comes to my father’s feelings about Faloiv, I tend to keep my opinions to myself. He hasn’t always hated it here, but many things have been different since my grandmother died five years ago, lost in the jungle on a scavenging trip. Perhaps the knowledge that this planet can swallow us up so easily had stirred some feelings of desperation. Faloiv has been his home for over forty years, after his birth planet became hostile to human life, and I doubt he remembers much of life before Faloiv. But home isn’t just memory, I’ve decided: it’s knowledge, knowing where you belong and where you fit in. My grandmother’s loss ignited something restless in him, something angry and afraid. Faloiv is different for me. Greencoats—green, the color of a young branch; the sign of our inexperience but also of our commitment to growth—were born here. This is home.

“Sir,” I venture. “Will we see Dr. Adibuah today?”

“Yes,” my father answers, keeping his eyes trained on the dust path ahead.

“Does Dr. Adibuah ever come to the Paw to collaborate on your projects?” I ask, refusing to let his monosyllabism irk me. “Or do you just come here because you’re on the Council?”

“I’ve told you not to refer to the Mammalian Compound as the Paw, Octavia. It’s adolescent and unspecific.”

Behind my goggles I roll my eyes. The greencoats have our own set of expressions: we call the Avian Compound the Beak, and the Amphibian Compound—where my best friend Alma lives—the Newt. Not exactly clever, but it is efficient—even if it is unspecific and adolescent. And we’re supposed to be clever, we students of N’Terra, children of whitecoats. It is our skills that will determine our survival. The founders of N’Terra had not meant for us to stay forever: Faloiv was the only habitable world their scouts had time to chart before evacuating the Origin Planet, and a meteor to the Vagantur’s hull during descent damaged the ship’s power cell irreparably. What had originally been envisioned as a brief stop on the hunt for a more survival-friendly sphere had become the final destination of the Vagantur. The original Council tried for twenty years to fix the ship before they gave up. Now here we are.

Outside the Beak, I pull up to a woman standing by the white, smooth-walled wigwam that serves as a gatehouse. I’m surprised by the buzzgun she carries—more and more guards have them these days, and it’s jarring to see it slung so casually over her shoulder. The woman had been smiling before we pulled up, but when she sees my father alongside me, she tucks the smile away. He has that effect on people.

“Names?” she says. She has a thin, almost-transparent slate in her hands. It’s a formality: she knows who we are. My father is a member of the Council—the twelve-person congress that makes decisions about N’Terra. My mother is on the Council as well, which makes for some interesting debate when we eat our evening meal. Or at least it used to, before my grandmother’s absence filled all our mouths with an ash of silence too thick to talk through.

I lean back as my father stretches across the steering column.

“Dr. English, Octavius. Mammalian Compound. Daughter: English, Octavia.”
“Dr. English,” she says after a moment, nodding in confirmation.

The guard passes the slate to my father, who applies his thumb to the screen, then passes it to me to do the same. I take the slate, center my thumb in the red square beside a picture of my face and profile, and the slate’s screen goes blank. I pass it back to her.

The solid white gates ahead of us slide apart and the woman with the buzzgun nods us through. Under my hand, the chariot whispers forward toward a cluster of other vehicles, where a small group of whitecoats stands conversing. One of them wears a strange article of clothing that I’ve never seen: a red cloak with a tall collar that extends well above his head, which then curves forward and outward like the palm of a hand. It covers his face in shade: I can’t make out his features until I’ve parked alongside another chariot and the red-cloaked man moves toward us.

“English,” the man says, raising a hand gloved in the same red, scaled material as his cloak.

“Dr. Albatur,” my father says, nodding. He’s removed his traveling gloves and his hands look comfortingly human in comparison to Dr. Albatur’s red fingers. “A pleasure to see you.”

So this is Dr. Albatur. I’ve heard his name a lot in the last year—he’s the recently elected Council Head of N’Terra. Somehow I’d pictured him differently. Younger. Stronger.

“Looking forward to hearing your proposals,” the cloaked man says. My parents have debated Albatur’s policies many a time at evening meal, but they’ve never mentioned his hood. I study it, trying to guess its purpose. He seems to see me for the first time and forces what could be interpreted as a smile onto his narrow mouth. “Ah, your daughter.”

“Hello, sir,” I say, nodding respectfully, but my eyes still wander to his covering.

“I see you’re curious about my hood,” he says. His tone is unpleasant to my ears, the sound of someone drawing a line and daring you to cross it.

“Yes, sir,” I say without hesitating.

He squints at me.

“So. Ask.”

I consider his expression, wondering if he means it. I almost look at my father for confirmation, but the idea of asking him for permission to ask a simple question irks me.

“What animal did we learn this technology from?” I finally say.

Dr. Albatur smirks.

“So very N’Terra of you, Miss English,” he says. “To assume everything we know is from this hot little globe. No, what I wear isn’t an innovation of Faloiv. This technology is of the Origin Planet: the material is from the hull of the Vagantur.”

My forehead wrinkles involuntarily.

“I wasn’t aware we dismantled the ship for personal items,” I say.

Dr. Albatur’s expression clouds and he fixes me with a sharp look.

“The Vagantur has not been dismantled,” he says quickly. “Nor will it ever be. And this is not merely a personal item. My skin and the sun of Faloiv are . . . incompatible, you see. This material acts as an effective barrier in order to keep me alive. A scrap of the hull that was damaged in the landing was salvaged when my condition became apparent.”

“Oh. But why will the Vagantur never be dismantled?” I go on. “Faloiv is our home. We’re not going anywhere.”

Dr. Albatur’s eyelids seem to thicken and droop: suddenly they too seem to be wearing a hood like the one over his head. He stares at me hard, the corner of his mouth twitching ever so slightly.

And then he turns his eyes to my father, transferring his gaze without moving his face. He addresses him now as if I’d never said a word.

“Dr. English,” he says. “How goes the progress on our other project?”

I look at my father to hear his response and note a change in his eyes. Normally round and wide like mine, they’ve narrowed slightly.

“It continues. We are still attempting to locate a specimen,” my father says. “I will alert you the moment we find one.”

“Good,” says Dr. Albatur, nodding from deep inside the hood. “Good.”

He turns abruptly, the bulky redness of him moving away from us and toward the doorway to the Beak, which guards with buzzguns are now opening—Albatur’s posture suggests that he’s bending slightly, bowing his head away from the sun. The whitecoats that accompany him scurry at his heel, staying close. I expect my father to follow him directly, but instead he’s rubbing the material of his gloves between two fingers, staring after Albatur with an expression of preoccupation.

“I guess I shouldn’t have asked,” I say when Albatur is out of earshot. “It just seems strange that he was so adamant about not dismantling the Vagantur.”

“Dr. Albatur has many ideas as the Council Head,” my father says, and I’m surprised that he’s not angry with me. “The Vagantur is just part of them.”

“What else?” I ask. This is one of the longest conversations we’ve had in some time.

“The Solossius,” he says.

“The what?”

He looks at me then, quickly, his eyes refocusing.

“Dr. Adibuah will be waiting for us.”

My father had prepared me for what awaited in the main dome of the Beak—an absence of cages, with the herbivorous birds allowed to fly freely in the wide expanse of the dome. I duck immediately upon entering, two flurried pairs of wings darting just above my head in a flash of gold and crimson. From outside, the large dome appears to be solid white, but inside, sunshine pours in through slow-traveling clouds at the highest point of a transparent ceiling. The clouds are both real and not, my father has told me: made of moisture like real clouds but engineered indoors to provide the birds with a lifelike habitat. With the birds all around me, and the clouds above, it’s almost like being outside, beyond the borders of N’Terra.

Dr. Adibuah is approaching, and my enjoyment of the dome fades momentarily. His usually sunny disposition seems dimmer today, the tension in his jaw turning his face somber.

“Octavius,” he says. He shakes my father’s hand firmly. “I didn’t know Albatur was coming.”

I catch a glint of something like regret flit across my father’s face before he buries it again.

“Apologies. I assumed you knew.”

“I didn’t.” Dr. Adibuah looks at me, his eyes losing some of their gloom. “And here’s O, on my turf for the first time.”

I like when people call me O. Sometimes Octavia is unbearably close to Octavius: my father had claimed my name like a scientific discovery, a new species; something he thinks he owns. My mother had at least insisted on me having my own middle name, Afua.

“Hello, Dr. Adibuah.”

I follow my father and Dr. Adibuah through the dome, simultaneously admiring the Beak and eavesdropping on their conversation. We pause as a large flightless bird appears at the edge of the path eyeing us almost irritably, as if commanding us to make way. I’ve seen this species before—the molovu—but only in the floating three-dimensional displays of the Greenhouse. It’s so close now – just out of arm’s reach. My head seems to buzz with the wonder of it. I squint, looking for the tentacle it hides in its orange breast plumage, an opposable trunk-like limb that it uses to essentially vacuum seeds from the jungle floor. But the bird disappears into the bushes on the other side of the path.

“Today is the first day that we were able to manipulate the oscree pattern to appear on a skinsuit,” Dr. Adibuah is saying, not bothering to conceal his excitement.

“Good,” says my father, who never gets excited about anything. My grandmother’s death had stolen the light from his eyes, and she wasn’t even his mother.

Dr. Adibuah opens his mouth to add something else, but a flash of red through the trees draws his attention, and mine. We’re almost through the indoor jungle to the entrance of the Zoo, and ahead Dr. Albatur stands with his cluster of whitecoats like a drop of blood seeping through gauze, the red hood still shielding his face from the sun pouring in from above. The gloom returns to Dr. Adibuah’s eyes. He turns to me as if to distract himself from the sight of Albatur.

“You’ll be in the Zoo with us one day,” he says.

I smile at Dr. Adibuah’s teasing use of “Zoo”—whitecoats don’t usually call it that; it’s another greencoat nickname for the laboratories in each compound, and is the place where greencoats such as myself desire to go most – a territory we won’t be allowed to enter until we’re twenty-one. It’s where all the important animal-focused research takes place, and while I’ve heard rumor that Dr. Albatur wants to cut back on zoology for other avenues of research, the Zoo is still the place where my grandmother said we would find the keys to our survival.

Ahead, Dr. Albatur is absorbed in conversation with one of the guards, but he turns to eye me, as if I’ll come charging at the doors to the Zoo with a battering ram. Dr. Adibuah must notice my scowl because he pauses to give me one more smile before he and my father join the other whitecoats.

“One day at a time, O,” he says, and it seems like something he might be saying for his own benefit as well. “I hear they’re considering introducing internships, so you may be in sooner than you think.”

“Internships? Seriously?”

“I hope I haven’t given anything away,” Dr. Adibuah says, smiling. “Let’s keep that between us.”

“Yes, sir,” I say.

“Octavia, you can occupy yourself while I’m with Dr. Adibuah? You have your research?” my father asks as we near the Zoo’s doors.

He doesn’t wait for me to say yes, instead turns to the guard, who stands aside and allows my father and Dr. Adibuah to register their thumbprints on the scanner. The door slides open without a sound. Dr. Albatur doesn’t bother to scan his thumb—he sweeps in through the entrance and everyone else follows like soldiers.

When the door closes, I turn back to the main dome of the Beak. As much as I’d like to be in the labs, the fact that I’m unaccompanied for my first visit to this compound means I can actually explore. Everywhere there are whitecoats with slates and recording equipment, standing and observing different birds as they hover and dart and do the things that birds do. Some of the white-coated doctors are even perched in trees, motionless as they watch a bird in a nest or an egg hatching. The animals go about their business. Many of them were born in the compound; they don’t know anything else. Like me.

I eye a whitecoat twenty paces away using an oxynet to snag several avian species from a passing flock. The triggering of the oxynet is silent, but the net itself makes a whistling sound as it flies through the air, trapping the birds in a sort of bubble. It’s a new technology that’s supposed to be gentler on the animals than an actual net. Part of the Faloii’s rules when we settled, I’m told, is that we’re forbidden to cut down trees or harm wildlife in the building of N’Terra, and as I wander along the dirt path, letting reaching branches brush my arms, I’m glad. I look up. Beyond the arched dome ceiling, I catch a glimpse of a cluster of birds not contained in the Beak flying fast and free. I envy them as I breathe in the scent of the towering ogwe trees. It’s hard to explain, but even their smell is striped, like their trunks: smooth but complicated, with a pattern of undertones that cross each other inside the nose when you breathe deeply.

“What are you smelling?”

My eyes snap open—I hadn’t even known they’d been closed. Beside me is Jaquot, the braggart of the Beak, and my classmate in the Greenhouse.

“The trees.”

“Which ones?”

He’s testing me, like all greencoats do to one another.

“The ogwe.”

“Distinguishing quality?”

“Each ogwe leaf is perfectly identical, for one,” I say.

“Why?”

“No one knows. But we will.” I recite N’Terra’s motto, reluctant to give him what he wants.

“Good,” Jaquot says smugly, as if he’s satisfied I’m not an idiot. “Except one thing: ogwe trees don’t have a scent.”

“What?” I don’t need him to repeat himself, but what he’s said seems so stupid that I’m not entirely sure I’ve heard it correctly.

“No smell,” he says, smiling in a way that shows too much of his gums. “Not discernable by humans, anyway.”

“Wrong,” I say.

“No, I’m not.”

Jaquot leaves my side and walks toward the center of the dome where the trees grow thickly. The back of his head is flat and I mentally compare it to the thick-headed marov that stump around the bushes of the jungle. I don’t follow him, but when he notices he’s alone he turns back and beckons at me.

“Come on, English!”

“Do you ever get sick of the sound of your own voice?” I stay where I am.

“Oh, you don’t want to defend your theory?”

I follow him so he’ll keep his voice down, and we approach an ogwe tree. He reaches out a palm, laying it flat against the gray striped skin of the trunk. He closes his eyes and inhales deeply through his nose, lifting his chin for dramatic effect. I roll my eyes.

“See?” he says. “Nothing.”

“You can’t prove that empirically,” I say. “I have no way of knowing what you do or do not smell.”

“You smell something?”

I inhale deeply. I don’t need to close my eyes: there it is again, the powerful, cross-hatched smell of the ogwe.

“Yes,” I say. “It’s strong.”

He looks uncertain, but smiles sarcastically. “You can’t prove that empirically either.”

I shrug, indifferent. I’ll save the debate for the Greenhouse when I have evidence to back me up.

“What are you doing here anyway?” he asks, leaning against the tree. When we were kids I had a crush on him – mainly because of the color of his eyes, the same shade as the leaves. He’s still handsome. But annoying outweighs attractive.

“My father takes me to the other compounds when he goes to meet with other scientists. Occasionally.”

“Seriously?” he says, impressed. His lack of conceit takes me off guard. He’s always talking or bragging, and I hadn’t expected him to be interested in what anyone else has to say.

“Yeah.” I’m hesitant to give away how excited it all makes me—I can almost hear my father calling it adolescent. But Jaquot doesn’t seem to have any concern about seeming juvenile.

“That’s amazing,” he says, pushing off the ogwe to face me directly. “Have you been to them all?”

“All except the Fin,” I say, referring to the Aquatic Compound.

Jaquot moves his hand like he’s sweeping the Fin away.

“Eh, you might be able to skip that anyway. I’d rather hear Dr. Espada lecture on grubs than fish. Mind-numbing.”

I laugh. I’ve been rolling my eyes at him since we were six, but maybe he’s not so bad anymore. I make a mental note to send Alma a message about it when I return to the Paw. We’ve always thought he was all talk and no insight, but I’ve never considered that he may have changed. That seems fairly unscientific, now that I think about it.

“That is really cool, though,” he continues and turns to go back down the original path that leads toward the main entrance. “What does the Slither dome look like inside?”

We walk and talk, birds flying around us like tiny, colorful comets. Some of the comets aren’t so tiny: one bright orange bird lands on a branch above us, so large that the branch makes a groaning sound. No sooner does it land than it takes off again.

“Species?” I say, pointing.

“Roigo,” he says after the briefest pause. “I think. It took off too fast.”

“Distinguishing quality?”

“They hatch at their adult size.”

“How?”

“No one knows. But we will.”

We grin at each other. It’s nice to talk about specimens without all the gravity that accompanies it with my parents and the whitecoats. For many of my peers, I know being a greencoat is just about memorizing facts. For me it’s more. I open my mouth to tell Jaquot this, or some less serious version of it, when there’s a commotion somewhere through the trees.

“What’s that?” I look around.

“I don’t know,” he says, craning his head to try to get a glimpse through tree trunks. “I’ve never heard anyone yelling in the dome.”

There’s more than one someone. There’s a chorus of voices, rising and falling.

“It’s coming from around the main entrance,” says Jaquot. “Let’s check it out.”

We follow the worn path through another cluster of trees. The flora in the dome isn’t quite thick enough to mimic walking through the real forests of Faloiv—or at least how I imagine them to be. We approach the tree line. There are just bushes and rocks after the trees thin out, a clearing before the dome wall and its door.

“Oh man, look!” Jaquot’s hand whips out and grabs my wrist, unconscious of how tightly he grips me. His eyes are wide, his mouth open. I almost jerk away from him, but then I look.

Four or five whitecoats shout, their words a combination of curses and caution; their bodies a flurry of waving arms and shuffling feet. One woman’s spectacles fall off, and I watch her scramble to recover them before they’re crushed…under a foot.

The foot isn’t human. It’s not even a foot: it’s a collection of claws and scales, attached to a leg as thick as my calf. My breath catches in my throat, as if those claws are around my neck, choking me. The red of the plumage is shockingly bright. I’ve heard things described as blood red before, but it was never accurate until now. This creature is the true color of blood, and huge: my eyes travel up its body, taller than I am. Its wingspan is as wide as the wigwam outside and the scientists from the Beak scramble to subdue the animal, to pinion its wings with thick brown straps. One of those wings buffets a whitecoat, sending him sprawling. Then the animal throws back its colossal head, opens its curved beak, and emits a sound like a roar and a screech, a deep reverberating cry that echoes into the trees. A headache blooms in my skull.

“It’s a philax,” Jaquot breathes. He’s still gripping my wrist and I’m too shocked to shake him off.

“We’re so close,” I breathe, pushing aside the headache.

“Look out!” one of the whitecoats yells, and swings one of the thick straps over his head. Fastened to the end are two smooth round objects, heavy, I can tell, by the way they whirl. After a few rotations, the whitecoat lets go and sends it sailing toward the philax, where it spins around and around the animal’s feet, entangling them. The philax screeches again and it’s as if the sound shakes every cell in my body. The creature totters, wavers, and then falls, crashing to the ground in a tangle of blood red feathers and scales.

When the philax is prone on the ground, the whitecoats leaping on top of him to secure his wings with more straps, he stretches his neck out so that it’s fully extended and gives one more long, cavernous screech. And in that moment, my eyes meet his.

Lightning flows through my body, a sudden jolt of an electric current. A storm of charges invades my head, my fear becoming enlarged, intensified by some titanic presence. My body goes rigid and the eyes of the philax drill into me, wild with terror. His fear vibrates in my fingernails and in my tongue: I feel it in my earlobes and in the sudden throbbing of my head. The philax’s panic builds a nest in me alongside my own fear, which is now small beside his, dull next to his intensity. I can’t tear my eyes away from his.

“Octavia! Octavia!” Jaquot is shaking me by my shoulder, but I can’t quite hear him. My mind is gray, busy, filled with noise . . . and behind it all, something taps.

Someone near the philax shouts, words I can’t make out, and a lab door opens to reveal a whitecoat with a tranq gun. Behind him is Dr. Albatur, raising his hood as he steps back out into the sun of the dome. His face is hard as his mouth forms the words, “Shoot it.” The whitecoat aims the tranq gun at those beautiful blood red feathers, pauses, and then pulls the trigger. I only hear the whispered zip of the dart leaving the barrel, and then the philax is falling, I’m falling, into dark, dark space.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

I’m dreaming of my mother. She’s standing in a green field, with plants that I’ve learned to identify on Faloiv. They are as deep green as they are in life, but richer somehow, their smells even more complicated. And among it all stands my mother: she’s younger than the way I know her to be, her locs shorter, her face slimmer. But it’s my mother and in the dream she opens her arms, although I’m not sure if she’s opening them to me or to everything around us. My feet are bare, which would never be allowed on Faloiv, and buried in short green plants bearing round purple buds.

“Listen,” says my mother.

“Mom?”

In the dream she puts a finger to her lips.

“Listen,” she repeats.

I listen. I hear wind. I hear birds: the chipper sound of the oscree and the booming caw of the muskew. Both are soft. I hear water, somewhere distant.

“Listen,” my mother says a third time.

I strain my ears. Plants swaying against each other. The creak of branches in the trees that line the meadow we stand in. My breath sighing through my nostrils. And then I hear it.

My name. I hear my name, the syllables whispering through the grass under my feet, slithering up my legs, and sliding into my ears.

“Octavia . . .”

“I hear it!” I say. “I hear it!”

“Octavia . . . Octavia?”

Dr. Adibuah is gently nudging my shoulder with the back of his hand, his voice close and soft. A doctor’s voice, I think as I come awake. Calm. Soothing.

“Octavia, are you alright?”

I open both eyes and stare at him for a moment before answering.

“I think so.”

It’s hard to sit up—a pain throbs in my neck; a deep, sharp pain—but I do. My vision swims, and my body is clammy with sweat. Our skinsuits were designed to radiate our bodies’ heat out and away from us—a technology we learned and borrowed from the cellular structure of an animal called a maigno’s ears—but usually its benefits aren’t needed indoors. I look down and realize my skinsuit has been unfastened to the waist, meaning I’m lying there in my chest wrap in front of Dr. Adibuah. I cross my arms over my chest and struggle to fully rise.

“What happened?”

“You were unconscious,” Dr. Adibuah says in his doctor voice. My father sits behind him with his hands on his knees.

I was? Why was I unconscious? The memory comes back like a spark of fire. The philax . . . his eyes . . . falling . . .

This time a pain in my head flowers, lancing out and down, gripping my heart. I cry out without meaning to, falling back onto the bench where I’ve been laid. I’m in a small room and the sound is louder than it should be.

“Octavia, what’s the matter?” Dr. Adibuah has my shoulders in his hands and leans down over me. My father remains seated, watching.

“I . . . my head.”

“What happened, Octavia?” My father stands now, his hands in the pockets of his white coat.

“The—the bird . . .”

I can’t tell him. It’s the feeling you get pulling your hand back from the fire before you even touch the flame—instinct. I swallow my words.

“A philax managed to escape a facility room,” Dr. Adibuah says. “It somehow got out into the main dome. Did it hurt you?”

Dr. Adibuah’s eyes roam down my bare arms with renewed concern, looking for wounds.

“No, it didn’t hurt me.”

“Did it upset you?” he asks, his voice gentle.

Did it upset me? It seems such an illogical way to describe what I felt in the dome.

“Yes,” I say slowly. “It . . . upset me.”

The lie tastes sour in my mouth.

“Octavia is sensitive,” my father says. “I’m sure it was a shock. It happened very quickly.”

I say nothing, glowering.

My father studies me, his hands still in his pockets. Dr. Adibuah’s eyes are softer.

“Do you want to get her home, Octavius?”

My father doesn’t answer Dr. Adibuah right away. His fingers are curled below his lip and rest there, motionless, as he takes me in.

“Yes,” he says eventually. “Octavia, can you walk?”

Pulling my skinsuit back up over my upper body, I stand quickly to prove that I’m fine. I’m punished with an array of spots before my eyes, the room spinning. I ignore it and nod, but don’t speak.

“Before you leave,” Dr. Adibuah says, his finger raised, “you should allow me to apply some of the narruf. For her neck.”

My father looks at me, his face stone. But he nods.

“I’ll get it,” Dr. Adibuah says, and leaves us alone.

I lean back against the platform where I’d awakened. My head isn’t spinning and the noise that had crowded my brain earlier has subsided to a whisper. But I feel strange, open. Like a room in my mind has been unlocked; the door ajar, but the room empty.

Dr. Adibuah returns with a beaker containing a gelatinous substance. He’d said “narruf,” which I know is a species of bird, but I’d half-expected him to return with the animal itself, not a jar of orange-colored goo. I want to ask what it is—these are the things I love about what we do here: the mysteries that, once deciphered, might mean our continued survival. But my father’s face is granite, so I close my mouth around the question.

“This is a substance from inside the narruf egg,” Dr. Adibuah says, as if he can sense my thirst for the knowledge, dipping a small, thin spatula into the goo. “It’s collected at hatching. It has healing qualities for injuries sustained after leaving the egg, such as falling from the nest.”

He wipes off the excess on the jar’s rim and motions for me to turn my head to the side. I obey, and he reaches forward to spread the thick substance along the side of my neck, from just under my ear down to the outside of my shoulder. My throat begins to tingle.

“Does it feel warm?” he asks, the spatula hovering.

It does. The warm feeling spreads, a small sudden fever. I nod.

“Good.” He drops the spatula into a sanitation pouch hanging from the wall and returns the lid to the jar.

My father opens the door.

“Let’s go.”

 

My father and I ride in silence, this time with him steering the chariot, at his insistence. We travel the same red dirt road, but something has changed. The distance between us is always present, but now it feels like a chasm.

“Next time I go to the Avian Compound, I know to come alone,” my father says.

I jerk as if his words are a spear he’s lodged in my ribs.

“Wait, what?” I say, ignoring the little stab of pain leftover in my neck that spikes when I raise my voice. “Sir . . .”

“Octavia,” he cuts me off, making an effort to sound nasty. “You do realize that to do what we do—to be a scientist—you must control yourself, don’t you? Are you aware of that?”

“What? Control myself?”

My father takes his eyes off the road for an instant to glare over at me. I’m almost as tall as he is but suddenly I’m rendered small. Even through his driving goggles I can feel the intensity of his stare, shrinking me.

“Science requires reserve. Calm. Control.”

Reserve? It’s my passion that makes science so appealing to me. Doesn’t that count for something? And what about Jaquot—always bragging and telling jokes? I can’t remember anyone lecturing him about reserve.

“Do you believe that you exhibited calm and restraint at the Avian Compound today?”

I start to tell him it wasn’t my fault, but he cuts me off again.

“We study life forms, Octavia,” he says sharply. “Your first time seeing a specimen up close, and you behave this way. How do you expect to be a whitecoat when you get emotional at the mere sight of an animal being tranquilized?”

“Emotional.” I repeat.

“Fainting at the sight of a tranquilization is hardly the behavior of a logical human being. A scientist.” He’s raised his voice: it rings out loud over the thrumming of the chariot.

“I’m not emotional!” I say, even louder. He’s not hearing me. “I felt . . . I felt . . .”

I want to say afraid, but that’s not right. He doesn’t understand what the fear felt like, shoving its way in and occupying my body. “I felt—something!”

“It’s not about what you feel!” my father shouts. “It’s about what you know!”

I have nothing to say. He’s not listening anyway. The Paw appears up ahead but jumping off the chariot and walking into the jungle currently seems more appealing. I set my jaw and stare blankly as the guards—more buzzguns—stand aside to let us enter the compound.

“Control is how we will survive,” he says, more quietly, but still with noticeable sharpness. “I have seen entire cities fall because they weren’t free to command their circumstances. N’Terra will not lose control. And neither will you.”

The chariot comes to a stop between two others just like it, and I don’t wait for my father to switch off the power cell before I leap off the standing platform and walk quickly away toward the main dome of the Paw. He calls me but I continue on, my steps long and hard. Right now the sound of my own name sounds too much like his, and I don’t want it to belong to me.

The air of the Paw flows over me and fills me with a sense of comfort that I welcome. I jog through the sparse jungle of the main dome for a minute or two. I want to get farther away from the entrance before I rest, so that my father doesn’t immediately spot me when he comes in. When I’ve trotted a sufficient distance, I stop and lean against an ogwe, breathing deeply. I smell the smell that Jaquot says doesn’t exist: the multi-layered scent seems to curl into my nostrils. My mind feels clearer now, the noise that’s invaded it earlier fading into silence. Don’t be emotional, I think, and even though the thought makes me as annoyed at myself as I am at my father, I tell myself that maybe he was right.

I hear voices and peep my head around the trunk of the ogwe to look back the way I came. My father with—of course—another whitecoat, the two of them following the other path at the fork, the one that leads to the labs. Typical, I think bitterly, he’s going to the Zoo on his rest day, even when we’ve been at the Beak for hours. He disappears down the path, his back tall and straight, his right hand gesturing to emphasize some point he’s making to the whitecoat, who’s nodding vigorously. “Yes, Dr. English,” he’s probably saying. “You’re right, Dr. English. You’re so brilliant, Dr. English!” I roll my eyes.

When my father and the whitecoat are out of sight, I carry on down to the communal dome. The doors open on their own for me when I approach.

With the main dome constructed on a small hill, the commune is built into the shallow valley alongside it. Above is the characteristic arching roof, transparent to let the sky in, but I’m more focused on the commune below. Things change so quickly lately and every time I come home I pause to make sure everything is as I left it. Last week I’d returned from the Greenhouse to find that the curving stream which divides the dome had two additional bridges constructed across it. From here I can see the stumps of the three young trees used to build them. My father says the trees were dying.

Today a team of engineers is painting the roofs of several wigwams. Our homes are low and smooth, and with the light coming through the dome roof, they light up and shine like white stones in water. The paint must serve some kind of purpose, I think, watching them work: insect repellant, perhaps—we need that. Surely it can’t be for the aesthetic alone—they’ve chosen red—as there are ordinarily so many colors in the commune already: swatches of fabric dyed with plants grown around N’Terra, draped on the sides of ‘wams and hanging from poles driven into the ground. But there are fewer flags and streamers than usual. A new decree by the Council perhaps, I think, like the one that had authorized the construction of the tower.

The tower has grown since I left the dome this morning, planted there in the exact center of the compound, a spiny looking gray tree of a structure that the Council had ordered construction of eight weeks ago. The shadow of it falls across the commune like a thorn. After so many years standing in this same spot on the hill, the protrusion of the tower is strange. Instead I choose to focus on my ‘wam: even from here I can see the yellow cloth that hangs on our door. It was brought here all the way from a place called Englewood, where my grandmother was born. I wonder if I—if we—will ever stop missing her. As I descend the curving steps down into the commune, I brush my fingers along the flowers that grow on either side, tiny petals that curl closed at night, bright yellow in the morning and deep blue by dusk. As always, they lean away from my fingers. I smile, sympathetic. That’s how I feel right now too.

At the bottom of the stairs, it’s as if some blanket of silence has been pulled back, and I’m grateful for the chaos of children laughing and running. Far across the commune the first beats of a drum rhythm come to life, people relaxing after spending their day at various kinds of work. I frown, thinking of when my father used to play. It’s been a long time.

I’m so focused on the sound of the drum, I run straight into someone on the path.

“Stars!” I curse, stumbling. The sudden jolt of my body reignites some of the ache in my neck and I grab it with both hands as if to clamp down on the pain before it spreads.

“Sorry,” says a low voice.

I know this voice, but am surprised to find it here—it belongs to Rondo, who, until now, I’ve only ever seen in the Greenhouse.

“What are you doing here?” I blurt, and I realize too late that I’ve snapped at him, still irritated from hurting my neck.

“I live here.” He adjusts the burden under his arm, a medium-sized black case.

“Since when?”

“This morning.”

“That explains why you look lost.”

Rondo doesn’t answer. He merely smiles in the quiet way that I always see him smile in the Greenhouse. Rondo is the one our classmates listen to when he speaks, myself included. Maybe it’s because he talks so rarely. There’s something interesting about a person who knows what they have to say is correct but chooses to keep it to themselves.

“What’s in there?” I ask, nodding at the case under his arm. I realize suddenly that this is how my father apologizes—by changing the subject, making his voice gentle. Never really an apology.

Rondo withdraws the case from under his arm. I don’t recognize the smooth black material.

“An izinusa,” he says.

“A what?”

“An izinusa. It’s an instrument.”

“For the lab?”

He chuckles low in his throat. The sound has a rhythm of its own, as if it too belongs in the drum circle.

“No, a musical instrument.”

“Oh.”

“It makes a beautiful sound.”

“You can play it?” I’m impressed. My dad had tried me on his drum once or twice, but it wasn’t a skill that had come naturally to me.

“A little.”

“How did you learn?”

“A woman in my compound was teaching me before she passed. Now I’m teaching myself. This was hers.”

“Can I see it?”

We catch eyes for an instant, his as deeply brown as mine but the lashes thicker, making his expression gentle. I look away, at his hands where they grip the edge of the case.

“Of course you can.” Something about the way he says it—soft—makes my face hot.

With the case being so rigid, I envisioned the izinusa itself as metal, serious. Instead the instrument is like a lovely fruit hidden inside rough peel. I sigh at the sight of it: sloping brown wood almost the same color as his skin, elegant strings, Rondo reaching in the case and lifting part of it out so I can see better.

“Wow,” is all I can say.

“I know.” His voice carries a smile—I can see it without having to look.

He carefully settles the izinusa back into the case. His fingers are like instruments themselves.

“You’re not going to play me something?” I tease.

“Not today, O.”

He talks to me as if we’ve been alone like this before. As if we’re always alone. Now we stand in silence, looking at each other without looking at each other. It’s strange that in a class as small as ours—thirty of us, together year after year—I’ve never spoken to him one on one. N’Terra encourages rivalry, and the result is much self-chosen independent study. You have a few good friends, and everyone else is competition. Rondo has strictly been the latter. Perhaps we’d be closer if he had lived in the Paw. And now he does, I think.

“So you’re just carrying that thing around?” I ask to distract myself.

“It was just delivered from the Beak. My dads ‘forgot’ to bring it when they finished transporting our stuff today.”

“You play that badly, huh?” I smile. “They tried to leave it behind?”

He grins at this, and a thrill shoots through me.

“I think they’d just prefer that I focus on my studies. I’m not exactly the best pupil.”

“Disagree. Dr. Espada loves you. Whenever you contribute you’re rarely wrong.”

“Contributing and doing assignments on time are two different things,” he says. He runs his hand along the curve of the izinusa one more time before closing and latching the case.

“Well, you’d better get it together. I heard a rumor about them introducing internships.”

Why did I tell him that?

“Hmm.” That’s all he says, and I’m disappointed. Any other greencoat would have snapped at the bait, but as his eyes wander over the commune, I become more and more sure that Rondo isn’t like any other greencoat.

“What do you think the tower is for?” he says, nodding at it. “They’re building one in the Beak too.”

I turn to follow his gaze.

“An observation deck is what I hear.”

“Observing the commune?”

“No. What purpose would that serve? It’s to observe the sky. The stars.”

“The stars,” he says, and that’s all.

“Yeah. You know how it is. Always trying something new.”

He nods.

“I need to get back,” I say. I’m reluctant to leave. “I don’t want to run into my dad out here.”

“Why not?”

I hesitate.

“It’s a long story.”

“Maybe next time.” He catches my eye and the pain in my neck momentarily subsides, or maybe I’m just distracted by the tingle he infects me with.

“Yeah, next time.”

I turn away before he has a chance to catch my eye again—otherwise I might end up standing in the commune all night. Still, I can feel his gaze on my back until I turn the corner and go out of sight. Even then I feel like I can still see his eyes.

I follow my feet along the wide path to my home, the ground made smooth by the daily travels of many feet. When I reach my ‘wam, I slide my hand across the illuminated panel and the front door hums open.

I’d assumed my mother would be home from the Zoo since it’s my parents’ rest day but the ‘wam is dark and quiet. While some whitecoats run shops during their days outside the lab, rest days never really mean much to my mother and father. The Zoo is the only thing that distracts them from their grief.

My grandfather died long ago: before the Vagantur even rose into the stars. But somehow losing my grandmother was a different level of tragedy for my parents. She was my mother’s mother, but my father had loved her just as much. Me too. I didn’t see her often: she was even more obsessed with science than my parents. But my mother says I got my logic from them, and my passion from my grandmother.

“Hey you,” I jump at the sound of my mother’s voice. I hadn’t even heard the door hum open, which she walks through carrying a slate and a box of slides.

“Oh, hey.” I peer at the labels of her slides to see if there’s anything interesting I can sneak a look at later. “You’re just getting home?”

“Yes. And I ran into your father in the lab.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, oh,” she says, placing her slides on the kitchen platform. She levels her gaze at me, and it’s like looking into deep water. I can see my reflection, but there’s so much swimming behind it. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine now. I don’t even know what happened.” Once upon a time I might have looked to her for comfort, a refuge from my father’s stoniness. But his words on the way back from the Beak have lodged themselves in my skull: emotional. Irrational. The implication of ineptitude is too much. Bending to it now—even with my mother—might make it true.

“They say you were unconscious.”

“I guess.”

“What do you remember from before it happened?”

I pause before answering. Sometimes I can’t tell if my parents actually care or if everything is an experiment to them.

“Not much,” I say. “I mean, I remember the philax.”

“Yes, your father told me.”

We’re silent, and I wonder what it is that’s hanging inside the quiet, if she’s thinking what my father was thinking.

“Do you think I’m emotional?” I ask.

She crosses her arms over her chest.

“Why do you ask me that?”

“I’m just asking.”

“Someone told you you’re too emotional?” I can hear the edge in her voice, the rare tone that makes whitecoats falter when telling her something they were so sure of a moment before. I feel closest to my mother when she’s angry: she lights up, fierce compared to the calm, cool scientist’s manner that she usually carries.

“No,” I lie. As much as I like to see her when she’s fired up, I don’t want it directed at my father. “I’m just wondering why I fainted.”

My mother hmms and goes to the kitchen, where cupboards dug into the clay wall are filled with round fruits of orange and green, plus the long thick sticks of zarum, which are dried plant tubers but taste, I overheard my father say once, like something called meat. My mother takes down one of the green hava fruits and slices it with the bowed knife that hangs on the wall. The sliced fruit goes into a misshapen ceramic bowl my grandmother had made, another artifact of her life.

“Passion, compassion, is not a weakness,” she says. “No matter what your father says.”

Seeing her now, her cheekbones still visible but less defined, I suddenly remember my dream, the one I’d had when waking in the room at the Beak. I open my mouth to tell her, but she’s moved on to talking about a project she’s working on in the neurology department, studying the brain of a kalu they’d found dead outside the compound. She loves talking about brains, almost as much as I love hearing her talk about them.

“Have you finished your research for tomorrow?” She’s cleaning up the hava skins, feeding them into the biotube in the kitchen.

“Yes, I finished most of it before class was over.”

“My girl.” She smiles without looking up.

The lights flicker a little as the hava skins are fed into our energy surplus.

“Do you know anything about internships?” I ask.

“Internships.” Her eyes are on me now and I shrug.

“Yeah. Dr. Adibuah said something about it at the Beak.”

“Internships for whom?” Her eyebrows are almost touching in the middle where she’s scrunched them.

“Greencoats.”

“Greencoats,” she repeats.

“That’s what he said. But he said he wasn’t sure,” I add.

“Did your father know about this?”

“I don’t know. I couldn’t tell.”

“I see.”

She doesn’t say anything else, so I don’t either. It’s easy to be quiet in a house that’s already silent so much of the time. She finishes disposing of the hava skins and wipes her hands on a cloth.

“Alright, Afua,” she says. “I have work to do.”

She scoops up the slate and slides she brought in with her and moves toward the hallway, where she’ll disappear into her study and hunch over her desk until well after I’m asleep. She stops at the mouth of the hall and looks back.

“I’d avoid him tonight,” she says. “I think it’d be better if you two discussed things on another day when you’re both less . . . stressed.”

I raise and drop one shoulder. No answer necessary.

 

I sit alone for a while at the platform in the kitchen. My body feels heavy. I look down at my white skinsuit—which is almost like an actual second skin, as tight as it is—and realize I’ve been wearing it all day. My scalp is gritty at the root of the braids that my mother calls cornrows. At one point I asked what this word meant and she couldn’t remember. But the word survives, stitched into my head, part of Faloiv now. The grit in my hair motivates me to take a shower and I finally drag myself up from the kitchen platform. I pad down the hall, unfastening the neck of my skinsuit. I’m halfway to our bathroom, the material peeling off, when my mother’s voice, soft and low, floats to my ears from her study. I drift closer.

“I knew nothing about the internships. And yes, they do give me great cause for concern.”

She pauses.

“I imagine it would be the entire age group,” she says. “Pulling Octavia and no one else would be unusual. I don’t want to draw attention to her.”

My stomach lights up with anxiety. She’s talking about pulling me out of the internships? The internships that haven’t even been announced yet? My grip on the skinsuit slips as my fingers begin to tremble. I press even more closely to the door, determined to learn more.

“Yes, she had an episode today. With a philax. No, I don’t think she understands.”

Silence for a long moment: whoever she’s talking to goes on for a while. I hold my breath.

“It’s not the time for that kind of talk,” she says. “They wouldn’t understand how she . . .”

The rest of her sentence is lost as my ears pick up a sound from the front of the ‘wam: the sigh of our front door opening. My father is home. Lungs fluttering, I scramble away from my mother’s study and into the bathroom, turning on the water in the slim bathing cell. I don’t even step in the water yet: I wait, my hands shaking, still half-dressed, until I hear my father make his way down the hall and into my parents’ room.

I finish shedding the skinsuit, unfastening my chest wrap, and finally step into the cell, careful to keep my mouth closed. I rinse my body off thoroughly, letting the water run over my scalp and through my braids. I don’t have time to wash them tonight. I must finish quickly: it takes a lot of energy from our surplus to bathe, and I don’t need another grievance to add to the list my father already has. I step out, drying myself with the largest size cloth from the wall holes and wrapping myself in it.

When I slide the door open, I poke my head out into the hall. There’s a light in my mother’s study and a light in my parents’ room. Separate again, I think. I pause in the hallway one more time, and I can hear each of their voices murmuring: two rooms, two conversations. I enter my own room, where I unsheathe from the wrap like a hatching insect. I take the little bottle of oil from my desk and sit on the edge of the bed to oil my scalp. Usually the feeling of the warm oil and the pads of my fingertips relaxes me, but the events of the day churn through my head in an endless parade of shadows. When I lie down, restless, it’s as if the philax is lying beside me, his fear shortening my every breath.

 

I don’t remember falling asleep, but my room is bathed in midnight when the sound of my parents’ bedroom door wakes me. My father’s long stride moves almost soundlessly down the hall, toward the front of the ‘wam. A heartbeat later, the whisper of the front door gliding open and then shut.

Back to the Zoo, I think, but I rise and go to my small window, sliding the shade aside. It feels strange watching him like this, but in a way it’s comforting: to see him and love him without the burn of his eyes staring back. I follow the shadow of him as he moves down the path, but instead of toward the labs, he veers deeper into the commune. Odd. I lean sideways in the narrow window to keep watching.

He stops at the base of the tower that rises against the moonlight like a fang. Something curls in my heart; a sinking feeling, like watching a bird about to be crushed in the talons of a predator. But there is no shadow other than my father’s: he places his hand against the slick trunk of the tower and leans heavily forward, as if it’s the only thing in the world keeping him up. I watch until the clouds shift over the moon and the commune is lost in black.

 

 


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