Y’all already KNOW the golden age of YA sci-fi is continuing! And what do you get when you combine a pulse-pounding, out of this world thriller with the undead? Well, you get CONTAGION by Erin Bowman! It’s the first book in a new duology about a skeleton crew sent deep into space on a standard search and rescue mission—that turns out to be anything but standard. No, they find that their trip won’t be as simple as they hoped.
Think Resident Evil but in outer space.
The book isn’t out until July 24th, but we’ve got the first two chapters right here today!
In the ransacked Black Quarry base, the boy climbed into an overhead vent and secured the cover behind him. Peering through the crosshatched metal, he watched the engineer consider the pistol in his lap. Blood dripped from the man’s brow.
“Go,” he’d said to the boy just moments earlier. “If you want to take your chances, go now. Otherwise . . .”
Otherwise I’m shooting you.
Because he blamed the boy, maybe, or because of the undeniable truth: they were both doomed. The shot would be a mercy killing, before he saw to himself. Help wouldn’t arrive for ages, and they were out of time. Even now, the boy could hear their final reinforcements being breached, the screech of metal hot in his ears.
He watched the engineer hook his foot beneath a utility cart, pulling it nearer so he could retrieve a damaged Tab. The screen was cracked. The signal, weak. It had barely worked when they tried to contact the drilling crew that morning, but the man booted it up and began to record an SOS.
Another screech of metal ripped through the base, so close it rattled the vents and set the boy’s pulse on fire.
The engineer swore, tossing the tablet aside. He looked at the gun, the door, the gun again. He knew what was coming, how he’d be unable to hold his ground.
With a trembling hand, the engineer brought the gun to his temple.
And the boy fled, scrambling down the air vent on all fours.
I: The Evacuation
NORTHWOOD POINT RESEARCH FACILITY
Soter, Trios System
Althea Sadik had barely finished positioning a new slide on the microscope stage when the evacuation alarm blared, reverberating through Northwood Point.
“Red alert!” someone shouted behind her, as if the distinctly red-colored lights flashing across the research lab’s metallic counters didn’t communicate just that. A more helpful response would have been what “red alert” meant. Thea raked her memory. What had the Company officials said in orientation? Red signified . . . a breach in the ice sheet? A fire? No. Inclement weather. That was it. The radio had been crackling about a brewing arctic storm all morning, and Northwood Point was finally being evacuated. Two storms had blown through the base in the four weeks since Thea arrived, but neither had required evac. This weather system must be unusually dangerous.
Thea’s mentor, Doctor Lisbeth Tarlow, leapt to her feet and scrambled to gather their samples. Her trembling fingers fumbled the small vials of salt water, sending them scattering over the countertop.
“I’ll get them,” Thea said, catching one before it could fall. “You submit the logs.”
The doctor nodded and turned to the computer. She suffered from a benign tremor—an annoying side effect of age, but one that made tasks requiring fine motor skills incredibly trying. It was the reason Hevetz Industries had hired an intern to assist her, and not a day went by that Thea didn’t thank her lucky stars that she—an orphan from Hearth City—had won that position.
It wasn’t unearned, of course. Thea had slaved for her exceptional grades. Labored over essays, sacrificed social gatherings like her junior gala. She’d even broken up with Mel. Me or the internship, he’d said at the end of the school year, and Thea had chosen her dreams. Now a single storm was threatening to cut the internship of a lifetime short.
She focused her attention on the remaining vials, threading them into the metal carrying case as Dr. Tarlow pecked frantically at the keyboard. Behind them, the rest of the lab workers hurried to stow away samples and back up research.
The small crew had spent the past month monitoring water temperatures and ice sheet thickness, ensuring that Soter’s caps would be an ideal site for Hevetz Industries’s next drilling venture. As the Union’s largest supplier of corrarium, the energy company was ruthless about staying on top. Every potential location was studied and scrutinized, risks and benefits weighed, and that research had to be protected.
Thea slid the water samples into the fridge. “Now what?” she called as she entered her four-digit PIN to lock the door.
“Now you board Odyssey,” came an authoritative voice.
Thea spun to see Dylan Lowe standing beside the doctor. The forewoman rarely made appearances in the lab, but she looked no different than she had the few times Thea had crossed paths with her over meals or in the halls: pissed off and irritated. Her pale nose was scrunched up as though she’d just smelled something foul, and her short, dark hair fell to her jawline, the cut as severe as the glare she was currently shooting them.
“She’s determined,” a brown-skinned Hevetz temp named Nova had told Thea during her first week on-site. “Takes her job seriously.”
Thea could appreciate determination. Illogical orders were another issue.
“Odyssey won’t hold everyone,” Dr. Tarlow argued, which was precisely Thea’s concern, but she wasn’t about to openly question a superior.
“I’ve got most of the crew boarding the Muriela,” Dylan said, “but Hevetz is requesting you and, by extension, your intern, at the Black Quarry base.”
“Black Quarry?” the doctor echoed. “Never heard of it.”
Neither had Thea.
“It’s a newer project. I’ll update you in transit. Right now, we’ve got twenty minutes to evacuate. Hevetz is saying this blizzard’s gonna pummel Northwood for nearly a month straight. If you don’t want to freeze when the generators fail, I advise you get your things in a hurry.”
Thea didn’t care where she completed her internship, just that she did. The Black Quarry base would be fine. Maybe it would even be located somewhere warm. She missed the humidity of home, the thick heat Hearth City always provided.
Perhaps the storm hadn’t ruined everything after all.
Nova Singh tossed items into her duffel, attempting to block out the headache-inducing evacuation alarm. They were five hundred kilometers from the nearest town, and with a Cat-5 blizzard closing in on them fast, the window for an easy evacuation was shrinking. Flying in this would be a bitch.
At least she’d finally get to prove her worth at the yoke. If everything went smoothly, Hevetz Industries might consider hiring her as a full-time employee months ahead of schedule. There was no glamor in being a temp, and the pay sucked, too.
The door to her bunk burst open. “Ever hear of knocking?” she grumbled.
“I’m not in the mood, smart-ass.”
Nova snapped to attention at the sound of her boss’s voice. Dylan Lowe was never in the mood—not for sarcasm or relaxing or basically anything but work. That one night of cards the day they arrived at Northwood was clearly an outlier. Dylan had the most serious demeanor of anyone Nova had ever met, and Nova had spent eighteen months training with the best fighter pilots in the Union. She knew plenty of uptight asses.
But this uptight ass was her boss, and Nova spun to face the door, the duffel forgotten.
Dylan said, “Hevetz lost contact with one of their drilling crews and just issued a distress call on their behalf. We’re the nearest team, and they gave us orders to investigate.”
Nova muttered a swear. “What happened?”
“That’s what we’re going to find out. Come with me.”
Nova yanked the zipper closed, slung the duffel over her shoulder, and grabbed her parka. Then she darted after Dylan, jogging up the hall. The doors to most quarters were open, crew members scrambling to pack their things and make it to the hangar.
“I need you to get Odyssey prepped while I round up a team,” the forewoman said as they shoved between two research techs. “Tarlow and her intern might already be onboard.”
“Intern meaning . . . Thea?” Nova had eaten lunch with the girl a few times in the break room. They’d bonded over being the only two at the base who couldn’t legally drink. “You’re bringing an intern to investigate a distress call? That sounds kinda risky.”
“So is having a temp do my flying, but Anderson’s the only other pilot on site, and he doesn’t have interstellar training. So he’ll do the evac, and you’ll do this.”
“Touché,” Nova said, trying to hide her excitement at the word interstellar. A chance to finally do some serious flying.
“I’m gonna pull together a small crew,” Dylan continued. “Cleaver and Toby, probably.”
“Toby’s had a mustard stain on his polo for the last three days,” Nova pointed out.
“He’s our only on-site tech admin. He doesn’t have to be coordinated at eating, just good with computers.” She pulled up just outside the communications room. Nova stopped, too, the weight of her duffel sagging into her back. “Any other suggestions?”
“Sullivan,” Nova said.
“Come on, Dylan. Please?”
Sullivan Hooper was the only reason Nova even had this trial of a job. He’d been a mechanic with Hevetz for about five years, and being the universe’s best cousin, he’d pushed her application onto the right desks when she’d needed it most, praising her skills.
But while Sullivan thought highly of Nova, his opinion of Dylan could not be more opposite. In fact, Sullivan seemed to make it his mission to gripe to Nova constantly, arguing that Dylan didn’t deserve her promotions and that her father was the only reason she’d climbed Hevetz’s corporate ladder so quickly. Even Nova could admit that running research ops—and now captaining a possible rescue mission—was a lot for a twenty-three-year-old, but Nova suspected Sullivan didn’t see Dylan fairly. The woman was a blunt, uptight ass, sure, but she was also effective. She got things done. Nova had worked a site evaluation job in the tropics of Eutheria with Dylan a few months back, now this one on Soter’s polar caps. Dylan’s harsh shell had become a challenge to Nova, a game. Two smiles, she’d tell herself. I bet I can make the uptight ass smile twice today.
After working with Dylan for half a year, Nova’s record was still just a whopping three. With the exception of that night of cards, which Dylan had made clear didn’t count.
“We will need a mechanic,” Dylan said, fiddling with a thin silver bracelet on her wrist. “I’ll make Sullivan an offer. But if he agrees to come, you’ve gotta keep him in line.”
“Well, that was a quick fold. Also, I will not assume responsibility for a grown man’s actions.”
Dylan smirked. That counts as a half, Nova thought. Today’s tally: 1.5.
“All right. I’m gonna round up the others. See you on Odyssey?”
Dylan shoved into the comm room, and Nova carried on for the hangar, her heart beating wildly against her ribs. She shouldn’t be this excited. Not when the blizzard was a threat to everyone at Northwood Point and Hevetz had spent good money to ensure the location was a viable site for future drilling. Plus, this unresponsive Black Quarry crew could mean nothing good.
But Nova hadn’t dropped out of high school at sixteen to taxi workers to research bases, twiddling her thumbs until everyone needed to be shuttled home again. She’d dropped out to enlist in the military, to serve and protect. She was supposed to be a decorated fighter pilot like her late father, only she’d developed a rare, degenerative eye condition that had robbed her of everything.
Not even a semester into her second year of training, her top scores suddenly meant nothing. Her skills at the yoke became worthless. When your peripheral vision gets compromised, the military won’t touch you, not even when laser treatment stops the progression of vision loss and reverts it to nearly where it was before. Surgically altered eyesight disqualifies anyone, they’d told her. It’s not personal.
It seemed a sham. Every damn bit of military tech was state of the art, advanced and enhanced, and yet this was where officials decided to become traditionalists—only allowing unaltered, pure eyes to sit in a pilot’s chair?
It was bullshit to the fullest degree.
But it didn’t change the fact that she’d become ineligible to ever fly in combat.
Her mother, who had been furious with Nova for dropping out of school, refused to take her back in. “This is your mess,” she’d said. “You wanted to be an adult so badly, thought yourself too good for school? Well, now you can deal with finding work and paying rent.”
Nova had turned to private companies, hoping a job as an interstellar pilot might satisfy her need to be in the air. It didn’t matter that only the smallest fraction of her peripheral vision was damaged. No one wanted to take a risk on her. No one but Hevetz Industries. The multibillion-unne drilling conglomerate had said she could shuttle their workers around for a year, and if she didn’t screw up, they’d consider bringing her on full-time. Maybe even get her a job in shipping, where she could expect to be in transit most of the time, always among the stars. So here she was, just a few months from nineteen, fighting tooth and nail for a job that would pay the bills while everyone else her age was training and studying for a promising career.
Nova burst into the hangar. The main doors were already open, the deathly cold of Soter’s caps whipping through the space. She shouldered her way through the throng of workers trying to board the Muriela and raced up Odyssey’s gangplank.
On the bridge, she stared at the pilot’s seat.
This was her chance.
Battling her way through snow and hail to get off-planet. Flying through the dark expanse of space. Touching down as smoothly as a dragonfly on water.
She was prepared for it.
She could do it with her eyes closed.
She’d impress the hell out of Dylan, who’d mention it all to her father, and Hevetz would hire her immediately. The chains would be off. Her wings reinstated.
Nova felt lighter already.
“You’ve never heard of Black Quarry?” Thea asked Dr. Tarlow as they raced for the hangar, packed bags flung over their shoulders.
“Never.” A harsh line had appeared on the doctor’s brow. It aged her slightly, but the truth was that Dr. Tarlow always looked decades younger than her nearly seventy years. Part of it was her wardrobe—fitted trousers and designer flats that always peaked from beneath her lab coat. The rest, Thea assumed, was just good genetics. Even now, with her pale hair pulled into a tight bun, Thea thought Dr. Tarlow’s cheeks looked flushed with youth, her green eyes lively. It was as if decades of fieldwork and late nights staring at a screen had barely affected the woman. As if her body had decided to stay shy of forty forever.
“But Hevetz’s drilling ops are always on the news,” Thea said.
“The ones funded by the Union are. But the Company has plenty of private contracts, too, and the details of those operations are never disclosed. Same with surveys for future drill sites. Wouldn’t want competitors sweeping in to steal a fertile corrarium vein, would we?”
Come to think of it, Thea hadn’t seen a drop of coverage on the Northwood Point project, and even the job listing for her internship hadn’t disclosed a location. She’d only learned she’d be spending her summer on Soter’s ice caps after she’d accepted the position. Black Quarry could be anywhere. She could be headed from one pole to another. Or back to her home planet of Eutheria, even.
A sharp burst of wind whined around Northwood Point, and the base plunged into darkness. Thea froze, putting a hand on the wall to steady herself. A second later the backup generators kicked on. Floor lighting illuminated with white markers, and doorways gleamed teal. She couldn’t get Dylan’s warning about failed generators out of her head. How long would these run before powering down?
The doctor pushed her way into the hangar and Thea followed, a gust of frigid air cutting right through her. The Muriela was gone, and the world beyond the external hangar doors was a whirlwind of thick, heavy snow. A shiver racked Thea’s body. Forty below was not something you got used to—not even in an industrial parka.
Odyssey’s landing lights were on, and a massive security detail who went by Cleaver was driving a rover up the lowered gangplank. Dylan stood in the mouth of the cargo hold, barking directions to him.
“There you are!” she shouted when she spotted Thea and Dr. Tarlow approaching. “Winds have turned for the worst. Nova says we’ve got about five minutes to get out of here, so get your asses buckled in.”
Dr. Lisbeth Tarlow fumbled with the straps of her harness.
Just a year ago, her tremor had been barely visible, a whisper of a twitch that would appear at random. She’d chalked it up to stress and exhaustion. Now it was a constant. She couldn’t eat dinner without pieces of her meal flying off a quivering fork. Her signature had grown sloppy. Preparing slides and entering data into the computers took twice as long as it used to.
Hevetz had put their foot down and demanded she get an assistant. The pool of job applicants had been dismal—
Lisbeth hadn’t approved of a single one—and so the Company had hired an intern while they continued the search. “We’ll look for one more quarter,” Aldric Vasteneur had said through the vidscreen. “One more quarter and then if no one’s up to your standards, you’re getting whoever I deem best. It will be nice to have a dedicated, full-time assistant,” he’d gone on. The words were forced, laced with insincerity, but that was always true of CEOs. “Someone to talk to. Less time spent alone.”
But Lisbeth Tarlow liked quiet. She liked solitude. This was what Hevetz never seemed to understand. She worked best alone—had to be alone. Assistants only slowed her. The Hevetz family had understood this. But they’d sold the Company a few years back, and the new management had been trying to convince Lisbeth to hire help ever since.
Probably she shouldn’t complain. Another employee in her shoes might have been replaced by now; a more cost-efficient solution than adding an assistant to the payroll. But she was Lisbeth Tarlow, renowned microbiologist, an expert on a type of microbe that thrived in the Trios oceans and played an intricate role in the balance of the ecosystem. She’d been running environmental assessments at drilling sites before, during, and after Hevetz drilling ops for over forty years. She was the reason they continued to receive government grants and impressive Union contracts. Science and technology could work together. They could do good, but also do it responsibly. Protect the future, the Company slogan said, but that was only possible if they continued to monitor the ecosystem, if they were deliberate and careful in selecting drilling sites.
Hevetz needed her.
In fact, it was concerning that they had another assessment in the works that she’d never even heard of—this Black Quarry project. Research gigs commonly overlapped in schedule, but Lisbeth was always consulted before they began. She always knew what was happening and where.
Lisbeth made a fist and again shook it out, then returned her attention to the harness. Using every bit of focus, she guided the anchor plate into the latch. When it gave a satisfactory click, she leaned back in her seat, smiling. Halfway there.
Someone nudged her with an elbow. Lisbeth glanced up to find Thea nodding at the harness, her brows raised in offering.
This was what Lisbeth loved about the intern. The girl was polite and professional and didn’t ask questions unless they pertained to the job at hand. In the month they’d worked together, they’d developed their own language, Lisbeth able to communicate next slide, please with a nod at the microscope, or bring that closer, if you don’t mind with a beckoning finger. Most days, they rarely used words. It was a pity Thea was still a student. Lisbeth would have liked to hire her permanently.
“I can manage,” she said to Thea, “but thank you.”
Lisbeth readjusted her grip on the remaining strap, hand wavering. As she slid the buckle home, she considered that her condition, while benign, could also be hereditary. Her father had suffered a tremor like this. It appeared shortly before his death.
Liftoff wasn’t as loud as Thea had anticipated. There was a roar, yes, but the sensation was worse than the noise. Even the pilot’s warning—this is gonna be rough—didn’t prepare her for the full force of the storm.
Positioned on the bridge and strapped into one of several chairs behind the pilot’s seat, Thea braced against the turbulence. The ship rattled and shook, the rest of the crew bouncing in their seats beside her. Thea’s teeth chattered, her ears hummed, her vision bounced. For one brief moment she feared she might be sick. She clamped her eyes shut, feeling as though her stomach had fallen into her feet, that her eyes were loose inside her skull, that the harness holding her in place was going to snap her in two.
As suddenly as the pain began, it dispersed, the pressure dissipating as the inertia dampeners activated. Thea’s chair ceased to jostle. She felt suddenly weightless, almost in free fall, and then the artificial gravity must have kicked in because she was merely sitting in her chair.
Thea opened her eyes.
The world beyond the bridge window was so drastically opposite the scenery she’d experienced in the last month that she felt temporarily blinded.
Nothing but inky black and pinpricks of light as far as she could see.
The charcoal leather of the pilot’s seat was cool and familiar against Nova’s spine, the glow of the cockpit controls comforting as she gripped the yoke.
It had been too long since she’d flown like this. Too long since she’d felt free.
Odyssey was only a UT-800, a standard small-class transit ship. It didn’t have a fraction of the kick or power of the fighter jets she’d flown at the Academy. But she was sailing with the stars again, and it was better than nothing.
Behind her, she heard Dylan request a debriefing, ordering the crew from the bridge. Harnesses unlatched and boots stomped off.
“I need you to chart a course to the Fringe,” Dylan said, sitting beside Nova. “Achlys, to be exact.”
Nova gaped. There had to be some type of mistake. Achlys was an uninhabitable, storm-ravaged rock in F-1, and roughly two months from Soter, even with an FTL drive. Plus, every drop of corrarium Hevetz had ever extracted had been pulled from a planet in the Trios. You needed thriving oceans for corrarium. You needed complex life. Of all places to find the sustainable energy source, Achlys seemed as unlikely as a gas giant.
“You’re kidding,” Nova said. “Did they find corrarium on Achlys?”
Dylan merely frowned. Nova should have seen it coming. At Northwood, Dylan had mentioned interstellar flying. Of course they were leaving the Trios. But to head to the Fringe . . .
As respectfully as she could manage, Nova said, “What the heck is Black Quarry?”
“Just chart a course and come to the debriefing. I’d prefer to only explain this once.”
He could hear it. Everything. The screeching metal and the crash of colliding bodies and the blast of the engineer’s gun.
The clamor echoed in his mind. He heard it with his hands clasped over his ears. He heard it even when he made it to engineering, where the whirr of Celestial Envoy’s power units thrummed around him.
It had been a nightmare getting there. Once he’d exited the vents, he’d been a rat in a maze. He crept carefully, listening at every corner and adjusting his route accordingly. More than once he’d been forced to backtrack—moving away from his destination before heading for it again. It took twice as long as it should have to reach the engine room, but he’d arrived in one piece.
Now, standing before the row of breakers, the boy considered his options. Cutting the power wouldn’t change the fact that one of their pilots had flown for help, or that the engineer’s SOS might have gotten out. But if someone tried to hail Celestial Envoy and couldn’t make contact, maybe that would be enough to keep them from returning. Maybe Hevetz would consider the entire Black Quarry op a lost cause, an unfortunate sacrifice on a planet too dangerous to risk revisiting.
The breakers were yellow, wide, and heavy. They’d require two hands.
It would be worth it, the boy reasoned. He knew he wouldn’t last until help arrived—he’d be lucky if he made it through the night—and it wasn’t worth subjecting more people to this place, to that darkness . . .
He reached out and grabbed the first breaker.
II: The Transit
Toby Callahan hadn’t expected Odyssey to be so similar to Northwood Point, but here it was, overwhelming him with its uninspired blandness—industrial angles, narrow corridors, and rugged stairwells, all illuminated by sharp fluorescents. The ship even smelled similar—metallic and a little bit stale, despite the air he could feel filtering through the vents. But there was no ignoring that exit signs here would lead to escape pods, not ice sheets. Only a carefully engineered hull and fully functioning air locks separated the crew from the endless and deadly expanse of space.
A shiver slid over his limbs. Toby had read about ship manufacturers on New Earth who were using weakened materials to build the rigs they exported to the Trios, saving the best-made vessels for the Cradle. It was just a theory, of course, yet to be proven, but it sounded about right. The Cradle was the heart of the Union, and so they got the best, while the Trios was just a series of veins, being bled dry for their corrarium.
“Everyone grab a seat,” Dylan said as they approached a lounge area just opposite the galley. Toby crashed on an armchair, kicking his feet up on the table. Sullivan did the same, and the intern sat beside Tarlow on the couch like a loyal lapdog. Hevetz had been on the doctor about getting an assistant for ages, and now they’d let a high schooler play the part, forcing Toby to set up accounts and passwords for an underqualified teenager who’d be gone by the end of the summer. A complete and utter waste of time and resources, if you asked him, but no one had.
“Long story short,” Dylan began, “Hevetz lost contact with Black Quarry.”
“That another drilling op?” Cleaver asked.
Dylan nodded. “My father’s overseeing it, actually.” Which meant it was important. Toby leaned forward in his seat, suddenly interested. “The crew failed to report yesterday, and Hevetz issued a general distress call on their behalf today. We were the nearest crew, so based on Company policy, we’ve been tasked with responding to it.”
“But we can’t be nearest,” the intern said. Well, look at that, she speaks! Toby thought. And clearly she had a spine after all—or was just plain dumb—because everyone knew better than to argue with Dylan Lowe.
Dylan jerked her jaw toward the intern, her glare pointed.
“Well, we’re off-planet,” the girl said quietly, her dark eyes downturned as her pale fingers laced together. “There must be a closer team already stationed on Eutheria, right?”
“We’re not headed to Eutheria,” Dylan said. “Black Quarry’s stationed on Achlys.”
A confused murmur passed through the group and Toby watched the intern’s face scrunch up, her too-thick brows dipping as her lips puckered into a pout. He knew what she was thinking. It was what they were all thinking: There was nothing on Achlys. It was tidally locked to the red dwarf star, F1, meaning one side of the rock always faced the sun, burnt out, and the other side was plagued by nightfall. There were theories that if you stuck to the terminator—the area between the night and day sides—you might be able to avoid the worst of the planet’s storms, but the Union had long ago deemed it not worth the risk (or efforts) of colonization. It was basic knowledge, taught in every universe history class.
“I thought we ran environmental assessments before drilling?” Cleaver asked. The bulky security detail was still hovering behind Dylan, his semiautomatic ray-rifle held so the barrel pointed at the floor.
“We do,” Dylan said. “Did you forget Witch Hazel?”
Cleaver’s face went as contorted as the intern’s had a moment earlier, and Toby didn’t miss how Lisbeth Tarlow bristled at the mention of the past project.
“Witch Hazel,” Toby repeated to Cleaver. “The first and only environmental survey that Hevetz ran on Achlys. It made our Dr. Tarlow here a legend.” He nodded at the woman, but Cleaver remained perplexed. “Come on, man. Everyone knows about Witch Hazel. Even the intern knows, don’t you, Thea? Wanna give us all a rundown?”
She shook her head adamantly, causing her dark hair to ripple like an inky river.
Toby had been pestering her about the doctor’s history every chance he could get. Did Tarlow tell you how she survived yet? he’d say over meals in the break room. I heard she killed the whole crew in their sleep. It wasn’t the nicest way to initiate someone, but the girl was just so criminally easy to toy with. Toby could pick any crazed conspiracy theory—from Tarlow being a murderer to Achlys’s air turning toxic—and throw it at Thea, and she never told him off. She had to be smart to have snagged her internship, and yet she rarely showed it.
“Oh, you mean that Witch Hazel,” Cleaver said, drawing all the vowels out about twice as long as necessary. “Wasn’t that, like, fifty years ago, though?” His mouth pinched with suspicion as he eyed Lisbeth Tarlow. Even Toby could admit that the doctor didn’t look old enough to have been a part of the op. Maybe she’d undergone some pricey skin rejuvenation procedures.
“I was only a kid at the time,” the doctor said, “allowed to stay with my parents in their bunker because of the duration of the three-year survey.”
“And the only one to survive,” Toby said.
A massive storm had struck while the crew was taking samples, and when the rescue team finally arrived, they found Lisbeth Tarlow locked in the bunker, shaking like a leaf.
She’d been all over the news, a headline to fascinate a
generation—the girl who survived a survey no adult had. The bodies were never found, and while no foul play was discovered, the entire operation had left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. Speculations flooded the Interhub and continued to pop up on forums to this day. While Toby didn’t put much stock in the “Tarlow was a kid serial killer who murdered the whole crew” conspiracy, he maintained that the public hadn’t gotten the whole story. Bad tastes were like foul odors—they meant something was being covered up.
Even now, he felt like Tarlow was hiding something, her hands clasped in her lap, her posture ridiculously sharp. She was too calm. She’d lost her parents on Achlys—lost her entire crew—and she had nothing to say about revisiting the place?
Boots clanked back near the bridge, and Nova joined the group.
“What did I miss?”
“Hevetz must have found corrarium on Achlys,” Toby said. It was the only explanation for why a crew might be there.
The doctor bristled again, but when she spoke, her voice was calm. “Witch Hazel found conflicting evidence regarding the possibility of corrarium veins, and Hevetz declared Achlys unsuitable for drilling just months after I came home. Unpredictable weather, an insurance nightmare, profit margins too small to outweigh the risks; all the same reasons the Union never seriously considered colonizing the planet. It makes no sense for a crew to be drilling there now. If they’d bothered to ask me my opinion on the matter, I’d have said to avoid the place. Indefinitely. It’s too dangerous.”
“Yeah, but corporations are no better than governments,” Toby said. “Greedy bastards trying to line their pockets at the expense of everyone else.”
“This again?” Nova moaned. “Not everything is a conspiracy, Toby.”
“Right. If we just sit around ignorant, we won’t notice the corruption, and it will almost be as if it’s truly not happening.”
“Can it, both of you,” Dylan spat. “I’ve had to listen to your bickering over every damn meal at Northwood Point, and I’m not about to do it again on this ship. Look, Hevetz is five billion unnes stronger than they were at the time of Witch Hazel. There’s enough red tape and confidentiality records around any mission, and maybe circumstances we don’t fully understand are at play here. Maybe Hevetz has a very good reason to deem Achlys ‘worth the risk.’ It doesn’t matter why they sent a crew, just that they did and that now they’re not responding. We have an obligation to look into that.” Her eyes moved over them one at a time as she spoke, boring in, daring someone to challenge her. “Black Quarry has been on Achlys for several months, but they only broke ground a few weeks ago. Setting up the drilling site took longer than expected because of poor weather. There’s a good chance the weather is also to blame for their failure to report, causing an equipment malfunction or blocked signal.”
“Shouldn’t they be able to fix that themselves?” Sullivan asked.
“After the Witch Hazel disaster, Hevetz didn’t want to waste any time getting a crew out. We were nearest, and luckily, we were able to hit the skies before that storm kept us grounded.”
“Yeah, so lucky,” Toby deadpanned. “A crew of novices is speeding off to the Fringe.”
“Watch it, Callahan,” Dylan barked.
He didn’t know what had gotten into him—talking back like this. It was Sullivan who ran his mouth, complaining about Dylan behind her back and rolling his eyes when he didn’t think she was looking, and one of these days, it was going to get him fired. Or maybe, if Sullivan was really lucky, just suspended for a few months. Toby had always taken the safest route: fuming in silence. Until today.
“It’s not as if you have decades of experience under your belt either,” Dylan added.
“But that’s exactly my point,” Toby said, working to keep his voice calm. “Look, with all due respect, you’ve got one half-assed crew here. I’m only a year out of university. Cleaver’s so trigger-happy Hevetz only stations him at isolated bases where there’s no civilians to mistakenly shoot. Plus, we’ve got a high school intern and a temp pilot rejected by the military?”
“That doesn’t mean my skills aren’t top-notch,” Nova gritted out, brown arms folded across her dark green jumpsuit.
And you, Dylan, Toby felt like saying. A Company darling, on account of your father, who runs surveys and is highly underqualified to captain a rescue mission.
Instead, he only said, “This still doesn’t feel like a rescue crew.”
Sullivan grunted in agreement.
“I don’t care what you think it feels like,” Dylan said sharply. “Hevetz initiated this distress call on Black Quarry’s behalf, and while we don’t have details right now, Hevetz assured me they will keep us informed while in transit. As for our crew, I rounded up the best-looking team that Northwood Point had to offer, and that included our only interstellar pilot, and yes, a high school intern, because Hevetz strongly suggested I bring Tarlow.”
“Because of her previous experience?” Toby muttered. “From when she was ten.” He had the wits to say it quietly enough that Dylan couldn’t hear, but Tarlow’s eyes flicked his way.
“I don’t like it.” Sullivan ran a hand over his shaved head. “We should turn around, have them send a more qualified crew. I’m a mechanic. I do EVA repairs and calibrate FTL drives. I don’t search barren wastelands for storm survivors.”
“We don’t even know if there was a storm,” Dylan snapped. “If a specialized crew is needed, Hevetz will send them. They’ll make that call in the next seventy-two hours. But in the meantime, I’m not turning my back on Black Quarry.”
On him, Toby thought. This wasn’t about the crew—it was about Dylan’s father. He was the only reason she had her job, and she had to protect that. Maybe she even cared for him a little, too, but Toby doubted it.
“I am following Company orders,” Dylan continued. “If anyone here has a problem doing the same, please let me know so I can draft a letter to Hevetz advising for your termination. As for all those bullshit horror stories you’ve heard about Achlys? Get them out of your head. Right now. They’re not real. The air doesn’t burn people up. People don’t disintegrate during storms. Black Quarry has software to predict volatile weather, and the crew knows when to hunker down. We’re not going to have to ‘search barren wastelands for storm survivors.’”
If that was true, Toby didn’t see why Hevetz would need to send a crew to Achlys in such a hurry to begin with.
Sensing that her argument wasn’t winning over the crew, Dylan turned to the doctor. “Tell them, Tarlow. Please.”
The doctor ran her dainty hands along the front of her white lab coat, smoothing the material in her lap. “It’s a dangerous, desolate place,” she said finally. “But we’ll be fine, so long as we’re careful and keep an eye on the weather.” Her fingers shook, and though Toby knew it was the product of her tremor, it was far from reassuring.
After adding water to the three compartments of her dehydrated dinner pack, Thea was rewarded with soggy peas, runny mashed potatoes, and bland pork, all of it the same watery consistency. While most of the crew sat crammed around the mess table, she remained in the lounge, eating beside Dr. Tarlow while attempting to stifle her anger.
Dylan Lowe had just stolen months of Thea’s life—four, to be exact. Maybe Hevetz employees were used to sacrificing time like this. It was merely a long commute, a lengthy meeting, time on the clock. But to Thea, it was her world, and Dylan Lowe had just hijacked her future. A future in which every step mattered.
Thea had planned it out oh-so carefully. Having grown up in a foster home, Thea knew she had to fight for herself. She’d been hoping the Hevetz gig would help her stand out when she applied to Linneaus Institute in the fall, especially if Dr. Tarlow wrote her a favorable reference letter. Maybe it would even earn her a healthy scholarship. As it was, Thea couldn’t even afford airfare to the Cradle where Linneaus operated on New Earth, let alone a single credit.
But none of that seemed to matter. All her carefully laid plans were collapsing, imploding like a dying star, and by the time she returned from Achlys, the application deadline for Linneaus would have passed.
The foster warden back home would be so smugly pleased. He’d needed to approve Thea’s travel visas for the Hevetz internship, and he’d laughed when reading the details. “Hevetz?” he’d said with a snort. “A research gig off-planet? You’re not qualified, Althea.”
“It’s Thea, sir.” He glanced up, brow pitched. “My name. I prefer Thea.” She’d told him this a hundred times.
“The sooner you learn that kids from Hearth City don’t amount to nothing, the better off you’ll be. You following? You’re not going nowhere. You’re not qualified for this gig. Just move on already. Accept that this is the best it’s
Those words had stung like salt water in a wound, nudging at a very real insecurity that forever lingered in the back of her mind.
She felt it again now.
She was unprepared. She was in over her head.
“What do you think happened to Black Quarry?” she asked Dr. Tarlow, shoving that negative voice aside.
The doctor scooped up some runny potatoes, her fork wavering in her grasp. “It’s probably something small—an equipment failure, a jammed signal. I wouldn’t be surprised if Black Quarry makes contact with Hevetz in the next few hours and Nova has to turn this boat around.”
Did she truly believe this, Thea wondered, or did she hope it? With her history on that planet, Thea suspected it might be the latter.
“And if they don’t call us off? I signed up for a summer-long internship on Soter’s ice caps, not investigating distress calls. I’m supposed to be back in school by September. I have university applications due in early fall.”
“Thea,” the doctor breathed. “I’m so sorry you got dragged into this. That’s on Dylan.”
No, it’s on you, she felt like saying. Where you go, your intern goes. I never had a choice. But she knew that wasn’t fair. The doctor couldn’t control her tremor. Thea was taking out her frustrations on the wrong party.
“On the bright side,” Dr. Tarlow went on, “think of how amazing this will look to the Linneaus admissions board. I doubt most university-bound students can add ‘experience in deep space and on uninhabited planets’ to their resume.”
Thea forced herself to mirror the doctor’s weak grin. It was true that this would be an incredible learning experience. Working an internship alongside Dr. Lisbeth Tarlow was one thing, but assisting the doctor all the way into the folds of space? Those were the type of credentials that would make a renowned university seriously consider an application—
even one submitted post-deadline.
Kids from Hearth City don’t amount to nothing.
Oh, she’d amount to something. Thea would amount to so much that no one in the whole universe would be able to ignore her. Not Hevetz. Not Linneaus. Not a single damn soul.
Lisbeth Tarlow retired to bed as soon as she finished eating. She couldn’t stand being around the crew anymore, didn’t trust herself to keep her nerves hidden.
They couldn’t go back to Achlys. It wasn’t safe. And yet they were already headed there, at Company orders. Her word couldn’t override Aldric Vasteneur’s.
What was he playing at? Hevetz instructed Dylan to bring Lisbeth along today, and yet they’d refused to ask Lisbeth her opinion when starting the Black Quarry op? She should have known about the project when it was first proposed. She should have known the instant it was even being entertained. Lisbeth would have done her damnedest to see that it was never green-lit.
She stepped into her quarters, shutting the door. The room was narrow and drab. Two beds and one desk and a strip of track lighting that threw everything into a sickly yellow glow. The intern would likely share this room with her, and if Lisbeth was going to cry, now was the time to do it.
She sat on the bed and stared at her hands.
They trembled as she unbuttoned her lab coat.
There was no changing the past, but if she had to go back to that place, she would make sure the past wasn’t repeated. In the process, she might even find answers. She’d been digging and hypothesizing and researching for decades in the Trios to no avail. Perhaps returning to Achlys, while terrifying, was also a blessing.
Her parents’ faces flashed before her, and Lisbeth clamped her eyes shut. Even in the darkness, she saw them. And Achlys. And an inky blackness that swam and twisted and curled like ribbons.
She pressed her fingers to her eyelids until the image was gone.
Thea gathered up her dishes and took them into the kitchen. As she scraped them clean, the crew rambled behind her.
Sullivan: “Hevetz better be paying us overtime for this.”
Nova: “Just be happy you’ve got decent pay, Sull. My temp wages are criminal.”
Toby: “We’ll all get better wages if the Trios goes independent.”
Nova: “Says who? If we pull out of the Union, the import taxes on pharm and tech products from the Cradle alone would bankrupt us.”
Cleaver: “Pass that pork.”
Toby: “So we up export taxes on corrarium in return.”
Nova: “And slowly bleed each other dry? How does that—”
Dylan: “I think we have bigger things to worry about right now.”
Sullivan: “Oh, like your father’s unresponsive crew and how you didn’t bother to tell us we were answering a distress call until it was too late for us to bail?”
Cleaver: “The potatoes, too.”
Dylan: “I was out of options with that storm slamming us. You would’ve done the same thing in my shoes.”
Sullivan: “I’ll never be in your shoes, ’cause I don’t have a father working for Hevetz who can promote me before
I deserve it.”
Dylan: “That same father could get your ass fired, Sullivan. I could get you fired.”
Cleaver: “Toby, you gonna finish that meat?”
Dylan: “Actually, I think I’ll go write that letter documenting your insubordination, Sullivan. How’s that sound?”
Sullivan: “No, don’t. I’m sorry. This whole thing’s just gotten me riled. I didn’t mean it.”
Cleaver: “Toby! Your meat. Are you gonna eat it?”
On and on it went, as Thea dried and stowed away the dishes. She’d listened to similar bickering in the break room at Northwood Point. Sullivan was constantly criticizing Dylan, though never to her face like this. Nova and Toby were always arguing about politics. Thea was of the same mindset as Nova: the planets that made up the Trios were strongest when they were part of the United Planetary Coalition. Leaving the Union would only create new problems, and she didn’t understand how the Radicals—a long-standing and ever-growing group of Trios citizens angling for independence—couldn’t see that. But even if Thea didn’t share the pilot’s opinions, she would have sided with Nova during these debates—anything to get back at Toby for teasing about Dr. Tarlow’s past and spewing nightmarish fiction.
Thea had just hung up the dishtowel when a signal blared from the bridge, halting the bickering behind her.
“Proximity alert,” Nova said, standing. “See you clods on the other side.” She tossed her napkin down and took off running, Dylan calling after her, “Thread the needle, Nova-Girl!”
Thea watched the pilot disappear from the mess, her dark braid flapping behind her like a rope.
“When will she sleep?” Thea asked no one in particular.
“When we’re through the asteroid belt,” Dylan answered, “which should be in a few hours. Impressive accelerator drives might have us cruising at a twentieth of the speed of light right now, but that’s not gonna get us to the Fringe any time soon. Once we’re sufficiently beyond the Trios, we’ll engage FTL.”
“Which is when we’ll all sleep, right?” Sullivan asked. “I’m tired as hell.”
“You’re not sleeping for the long haul until you’ve run checks on every last component. I’d say tomorrow around oh nine hundred we’ll lock in for good.”
“For good?” Thea echoed.
Sullivan pointed a fork her way. “Sedation, kid. Cryo-
stasis. Even traveling faster than light, it’ll take us roughly two months to make the trip to Achlys. You think there’s enough food on this rig to sustain us that whole time and once we’re there? Nah, we’ll go under and sleep our way to the destination. It’s the best way to travel, really. Feels as quick as a yawn.”
It was difficult to wrap her head around. The flight from Thea’s home planet of Eutheria to Soter had been thrilling, but had taken place at the interplanetary speeds Dylan had mentioned. Thanks to the relatively close position of the planets at that time, they’d covered 116 million kilometers in roughly two and a half hours.
But to engage FTL, to speed between star systems, covering sixty light-years in roughly two months . . .
“You better wipe that starry, dazed look off your face before people realize you’re just a confused intern and not a legitimate member of this crew. Oh, shoot!” Toby put a hand to his chest in mock regret. “Did I give away your secret?”
This was precisely why Thea preferred science to people. Numbers and data made sense, but people were impossible.
She left without acknowledging Toby’s dig.
“I heard you’re bunking with the doctor tonight,” he called after her. “Stay safe in there. Wouldn’t want Witch Hazel 2.0.”
Nova reclined in the pilot’s chair as Odyssey hurtled toward the Lethe Belt. She’d already adjusted their course and wasn’t really needed anymore. The shields were up to deflect smaller matter, and the larger asteroids in the belt were roughly fifty thousand kilometers apart—nowhere near a threat. In fact, the ship was already back on autopilot. But Nova remained in the chair, staring into the abyss. Once they passed the belt, they’d be completely out of the Trios, tearing for the Fringe, getting farther from civilization with each passing second.
Just chart a course and come to the debriefing. I’d prefer to only explain this once.
Had it been wrong of Nova to expect Dylan to be upfront about Black Quarry’s location? The captain could have told her back on Soter, during Northwood’s evac. Yes, time was of the essence due to the incoming blizzard, but Nova was the only person capable of piloting Odyssey and she was now flying them toward a planet known for weather so volatile it had claimed the lives of the entire Witch Hazel crew, minus Tarlow. Hell, it might have already claimed the lives of some of the Black Quarry drillers. What if Nova couldn’t handle the winds while landing? What if she got them on the ground but couldn’t get them out again? It was a lot of responsibility to shoulder, and the very least Dylan could have done was explain exactly what was at stake to begin with.
So turn around. Hevetz will send a different crew.
Nova’s subconscious presented this option as though she had a choice. As if disobeying orders wouldn’t cost Nova her job. Besides, what kind of asshole didn’t answer a distress call? A coward. Not the type of person Nova wanted to be.
She heard someone on the stairs outside the bridge, and a moment later, hands cupped her shoulders, squeezed reassuringly. “How you feeling, Nova?”
She beamed up at her cousin. “Like a star made for streaming.”
The corners of Sullivan’s lips lifted, brightening his entire demeanor. His skin was tawny—lighter than hers—and with his shaved head, broad shoulders, and sharp nose, Sullivan’s exterior presented something sterner than the cousin Nova knew him to be. He’d recently turned twenty-eight, but working for Hevetz had aged him. Or maybe it was just working for Dylan. There were creases around his eyes that Nova didn’t remember him having a few years ago, and back then, he’d worked exclusively for Hevetz’s shipping department, running maintenance for rigs that hauled corrarium from the Trios to the Cradle. It was a thankless job, with strict schedules and lots of time spent in transit. He’d transferred to this current research position so he’d have more time at home with his family, and now he was on Odyssey, flying away from them yet again.
“Crew quarters are going to be tight tonight,” he said, the smile fading. “Our lovable captain says you and me are bunkmates.”
“That sounds cramped,” Nova said.
“‘Cozy’ was the word she used. Also: ‘Family reunion.’”
“She would twist it like that.” Odyssey was equipped with five bedrooms—two with double capacity and the rest, singles. The obvious solution was to pair off the women: Dylan and Nova, the doctor and the intern. But if Nova had learned anything about her boss these past few months, it was that Dylan Lowe could talk her way out of every corner, turn a catastrophe on its head, somehow make you believe the worst thing to ever happen to you was actually the best. She was queen of silver linings.
“She should have bunked you with Toby or Cleaver,” Nova said to her cousin, “and doubled up with me.”
“She had her own room as a forewoman at Northwood Point. She wasn’t about to demote herself now that she’s captaining Odyssey.”
Nova rolled her eyes.
“Ah, come on, Nova. I’m not that much of a drag to hang out with. You could at least try to mask your disappointment.”
“It’s not you, Sull. I promise.”
“Oh, I know,” he said. “It’s Dylan. You like her.”
“That’s not true.” But even as she said it, her heart beat wildly in her chest.
That night of cards flashed in her mind. Dylan betting bold, throwing back drinks, shooting coy smiles across the table. She’d kissed Nova before staggering to bed, then claimed the next morning that it was a mistake. “It can’t happen again,” she’d said. “I can’t be involved with my subordinates.” Nova had agreed. She hadn’t gone looking for the kiss, but after it happened, she kept thinking about it constantly. Watching Dylan’s mouth whenever she spoke, imaginging it pressed against her own.
She looked away from Sullivan, her cheeks feeling warm.
“A word of advice: never get involved with your boss,” her cousin went on. “Murky waters. Tragic endings.”
“Don’t waste your breath, Sull. There’s nothing there.”
“Whatever you say.” His boots clanked off.
“That’s how you’re gonna leave things?” Nova called after him, swiveling in the chair. “Where the hell are you going?”
Sullivan paused in the doorway. “I gotta record a message for Mikko, let her know I’ll be gone for a while. I’m gonna miss the twins’ birthday again. Working research was supposed to fix this problem.”
“Mikko will understand,” Nova said. “It’s not like you can control distress calls.”
“It’s not her I’m worried about. It’s the boys. They’re just four, and all they’re gonna see is Daddy missing another party.” He prodded the doorframe with the butt of his fist, mouth in a hard line. “Anyway, I’m serious about that
advice, Nova. Dylan’s not worth it. She’s selfish, and even if
she wasn’t, she’d manage to get you fired if things ever
“I appreciate you helping me get this job, but I can take care of myself from here.” She turned back to the window.
“I’d just hate to see you—”
“Good night, Sull.”
Long after the din of his boots faded on the catwalks, Nova was still staring at the stars.
At 0900 the next morning, Dylan called for cryostasis.
Thea reported to a small room positioned below the bridge and at the very nose of the ship, where cylindrical glass compartments lined the perimeter. As she’d been settling in the night before, the ship had engaged FTL. Thea had felt a subtle pressure as they accelerated, then nothing. When she’d found a window to peer from come morning, the stars outside were thin white streaks. Now, in the windowless cryostasis room, there was no way of sensing that Odyssey was barreling toward Achlys at nearly one hundred times the speed of light.
“System check?” Dylan barked at Sullivan.
“FTL drive running steady at eighty percent. That’s the fastest I feel comfortable pushing Odyssey for a trip this long. Anything more could weaken the inertia suppressor, and then we’re bugs on a windshield.”
“Plotted,” Nova confirmed. “We’ll be pulled out of FTL—and stasis—as we close in on Achlys.”
“Perfect,” Dylan said. “Until then, sweet dreams.” She entered some commands into a processing unit in the middle of the room. The doors to each chamber slid open.
Thea chose one beside Dr. Tarlow. After she stepped inside, the doors slid shut, and Thea leaned back, resting her head in the designated area, her arms in the wrist cuffs. A fan kicked on. A few minutes later, she sensed reality shifting. It was like that moment between dreaming and waking, a realm of limbo. Thea grew vaguely cold. Her eyelids became heavy.
Through the chamber’s glass door, she saw Dylan close her eyes across the room.
And then Thea, too, was drifting.
It was not as quick as yawning, like Sullivan had promised.
Thea moved in and out of sleep. If she dreamed, she didn’t remember the details, and when she was awake, her thoughts weren’t much better than nightmares.
The distress call.
What they might find on Achlys.
Where she’d find herself in a few months.
Thea could think, but she couldn’t see or hear or feel. She only knew that she existed, that her body filled space, that she was trapped as the ship drew steadily nearer to
Thea was floating.
A sample in a jar of formaldehyde.
Nova dreamed of stars and flying.
She was alone on a small transport ship, chasing a beacon that led her to a space station with a massive breach. Inside, objects floated in zero gravity—droplets of water, droplets of blood, a thin silver bracelet.
Something hovered near the far air lock. A person, wearing a leather jacket and fitted pants. Short, dark hair splayed out around their head like a halo, and a stun gun was holstered at their thigh.
Nova pushed through the space station, propelling herself off ladders and walls until she reached the woman. She grabbed her, spun her around.
Dylan’s eyes were missing, replaced with gaping holes.
A scream tore from Nova’s throat, and then she was back on her ship, drifting among the safety of stars. Time passed at a rate she couldn’t calculate, her memories fogged. And then there was a beacon again, and a space station on the radar.
The dream repeated.
Lisbeth Tarlow swam through darkness. It was thick, viscous. It choked and smothered.
Just before snatching her last breath of air, the liquid thinned, transforming into clear water. Dark seaweed danced below, tendrils glinting. Lisbeth’s toes grazed the uppermost blades.
There was a voice in her head—Don’t tell them, don’t tell, don’t—and then an echo, from somewhere deep in the water. Tell, tell them, tell them now.
Waking was what felt like yawning. Satisfying, eager, an overdue stretch.
When Thea opened her eyes the world was blinding. Her limbs felt detached from her body and heavy. So heavy.
The door to her chamber was open, and she could hear a distant sound, ebbing, flowing. As it grew clearer, she recognized it as the proximity alarm from when they’d approached the Lethe Belt.
Two months ago.
Had it really been that long?
Nova shot by her line of vision, a blur of brown skin and moss-green jumpsuit as she tore for the stairs. The others descended from their chambers, stretching and groaning.
Thea stepped onto the metal floor of the cyrostasis room, surprised that she didn’t find the weight of her own frame a labor. She’d expected her knees to buckle beneath her, to have lost all her muscle. Didn’t hospital patients have to relearn how to walk after months in a bed? But Thea only felt a vague tightness in her joints; a stiffness that suggested she’d dozed off in an awkward position for a few hours.
“Bridge,” Dylan snapped, and Thea told her legs to move, following the others from the room and up a flight of stairs.
On the captain’s orders, everyone strapped into their seats on the bridge, but Dylan lingered near the window a moment, fiddling with a silver bracelet on her wrist.
Achlys loomed in the distance. The day side was a scorched expanse of barren, endless brown; the night side was bathed in shadow, seemingly black from their position. Thea didn’t think the terminator looked very habitable. If there was water along that meridian, it wasn’t in any large quantity. From Odyssey, the land between the day and night sides simply looked brownish gray.
“I reviewed the updates that came in from Hevetz while we were under,” Dylan said. “They’ve confirmed that Black Quarry is still unresponsive, and shortly after we entered stasis, an additional backup crew was shipped out. They will be arriving in roughly twenty-six hours. In the meantime, we’re to set down and get in touch with Black Quarry, figure out what happened.”
Dread laced through Thea’s body. Backup should have been reassuring, but all it did was make her wonder why backup was even needed to begin with. Wasn’t the Odyssey crew enough? Did Hevetz know something they weren’t sharing?
This all felt suddenly much larger than her internship and the experience point she was hoping to add to her applications when returning home. Toby had been right all along, just like the foster warden.
I’m really not qualified for this.
The planet reminded Nova of a massive eyeball, the terminator roping around the rock like a murky, brown iris. It stared, and she stared back.
She double-checked Odyssey’s radiation shields. Active and running strong. F1 was only a red dwarf star—cooler, smaller, and far less luminous than the Trios’s and Cradle’s suns—but it was just as capable of burning them up if they flew too close for too long. She kept them on course, and soon the pilot’s chair was shuddering against Nova’s back, Odyssey entering a dance with gravity.
Here comes the fun part.
She engaged the rear thrusters and the ship roared. Inertia suppressor readings spiked on the dashboard during entry, then dropped off as the g-force exerted on the ship also lessened. The pressure came from all angles, though, her blood beating like a fury in response. Grip firm on the yoke, Nova pulled them out of their dive, and her heart hammered in her chest. God, she’d missed this.
Cruising some three thousand meters above the scorched side of the planet, Nova turned her attention to the radar.
“Tracking software,” Dylan prompted, as if she’d thought of it first.
“Already on it.” A beacon blipped on the screen—somewhere in the terminator. Nova grabbed the radio.
“Celestial Envoy, this is Odyssey. Do you read me?”
“Celestial Envoy, this is the Hevetz-manned Odyssey re-
sponding to a Company-issued distress call. Do you copy?”
“Let’s go to them,” Dylan said.
Nova adjusted their course and flew on. As they left the scorched side of the planet behind them, visibility grew worse, slipping into something akin to twilight. What Nova could make out of the planet below appeared rugged—mountains and ravines, crevices and craters—and the sonar mapping depicted something similar on her dash. The in-
famous Achlys storms were absent. For now.
Well into the terminator and nearly on the dark side of the rock, they finally came upon the research and exploration ship that had transported the Black Quarry crew to Achlys months earlier. Celestial Envoy stood out against the rugged landscape, the polished exterior winking under Odyssey’s lights. But nothing winked from within. No lights, no signs of activity.
“Set us down at a distance,” Dylan ordered.
Nova took Odyssey in wide circles, searching out a place to land. Achlys was a mess of crevices and cracks and spears of rock that shot upward from the ground like angry blades, but with careful work at the yoke, she eventually set them down several kilometers west of Celestial Envoy.
“Nicely done,” the captain said, giving Nova a rare smile. It was the first of the day and should have brightened Nova’s sprits, but her stomach was uneasy.
She powered Odyssey down. The sound of harnesses releasing filled the bridge.
Nova knew what would come next. Gear and stun guns and flashlights. Search and rescue.
This was what she’d wanted—to prove herself a worthy and skilled pilot who Hevetz couldn’t wait to get on their payroll. She’d just expected to do it by more traditional means.
It was too late for wishful thinking. The only way out was through.
Nova released her harness.
Thea waited in the cargo bay alongside the others as Sullivan suited up and stepped into the air lock. After opening the exterior door to the elements, he checked Achlys’s atmosphere with a handheld device, then returned to the cargo bay.
“Everything looks stable. Roughly seventy-six percent nitrogen, twenty-three percent oxygen, and sixty-nine thousandths of a percent carbon dioxide. Plus, trace amounts of argon, methane, and helium.”
“CO2’s a touch high,” Nova pointed out.
Dylan batted a hand. “People have worked in worse.”
“For an hour or two,” Sullivan said, tucking the device into his pocket. “Not indefinitely.”
“Well, we’re following Black Quarry’s protocols while on Achlys, so it’s environmental suits for everyone so long as we’re exposed to the elements.” Dylan pointed to one of the lockers lining the perimeter of the cargo hold.
Thea located the smallest suit and pulled it on. The
material was thin but durable; not quite skintight, and not an impairment to her mobility, either. Compared to the numerous layers she’d been used to wearing the past month while gathering water samples at Northwood Point, it felt almost freeing. A utility belt built into the suit hugged her waist, and reinforced panels lay across her chest and biceps to monitor her vitals. The bulkiest and heaviest part of the suit fell across her shoulder blades, where the oxygen reserves were stored.
“Everyone start your clocks,” Dylan continued. “We’ve each got about ten hours of oxygen and should be back long before those run low, but keep an eye on the time.”
On Dylan’s cue, Thea reset the watch that was built into the wrist of the suit. Milliseconds began ticking off. The crew pulled on their helmets, and Thea hurried to do the same. When it clicked into place, creating a seal with her suit, her vitals flickered on the helmet’s glass visor, just in the corner of her vision.
It was fancy tech, but also intimidating. Having her pulse and blood pressure constantly displayed only made Thea think of all the types of employees to have worn these suits before her—the situations they saw themselves in, the need to even have vitals monitored to begin with.
I’m not qualified for this, she thought, and her pulse readings spiked in response.
Thea exhaled through her nose, forcing away the thought as she tried to steady her breathing. The last thing she needed was to burn through her oxygen too quickly. The numbers fell, stabilized.
One thing at a time.
That was how Thea had gotten here, after all—one assignment at a time, one aced test, one perfect essay, one application, one internship, and now one foot after the other yet again. Toward Celestial Envoy, then through it, then back to Odyssey. Back home. Back to her life, her future.
She could do this.
Dylan punched a button to open the air lock. They all stepped in. Another punch to seal it, a third to open the exterior door.
The gangplank lowered.
And Achlys beckoned.
He’d seen them coming. In the endless state of near darkness, it had been impossible to miss. First, the emergency tracking software had been engaged remotely. He’d been scavenging the ship again, restocking his supplies, and the steady beep-beep-beep drew him to a halt. When he’d raced for the observation deck, he could make out the ship in the distance, a tiny star shooting toward Celestial Envoy.
It held a search and rescue crew; he was sure of it.
They’d kill him for what he’d done. And what he hadn’t done. And who he was.
The boy retreated into the shadows. His eyes adjusted, almost instantly now. The last two months had forced him to adapt, this much was certain.
He would need a plan, carefully constructed, foolproof. Earning trust in a situation like this wouldn’t be easy.
The boy breathed deeply, envisioning every stairwell and hallway and turn he’d need to navigate before moving. Then he pushed off the railing and ran.
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