A SHIP’S BEACON SWEEPS OVERHEAD, BATHING US in light. My hand stretches out as though to beckon the ship toward us, but I draw my hand back to shield my eyes, fear supplanting the brief thrill of knowing we are not alone on this planet. Fear the Guild has cultivated in me since they took me from my family. It is more powerful than the hope growing roots within me.
The hull of the ship is bloated and torpid, making its flight a reluctant crawl across the sky. It doesn’t change course when it coasts over us, and although the brilliance of the watchlight fades past us, blood pounds through me, reminding me of one thing: even a world away from Arras, where no one has reason to harm me, I’m not safe. But I understand now what I couldn’t before. My parents were wrong about me. They taught me to hide my gift.
But my hands are my salvation, not my curse.
I watch the ship ride low along the skyline, skimming across the glittering night sky. If it stays on its current trajectory, it will collide with the mountain range nestled against the metro I spy on the horizon.
“Did it see us?” Jost whispers as though the pilot might be able to hear us. His usually bright blue eyes are dark, nearly matching his curly, shoulder-length hair, and I can see the fear in them.
“It couldn’t have. Where’s it going?”
Jost squints in concentration and he cocks his head, trying to see it more clearly. “I think it’s on patrol.”
Then it hits me. The ship isn’t soaring birdlike, it’s hanging from a patchwork of rough strands like a puppet dangling from a master’s strings. The sky is wrong. I thought it was stars sparkling overhead, like the ones that peppered the evening sky in Arras. But these stars are long, and they seem to fade into a tangle of light that twinkles erratically over us. I stare for a long moment while the truth sinks in. These aren’t stars nestled into a night sky.
It’s the same strange, raw weave that we came through when I ripped us out. Loricel, the Creweler who trained me and the most powerful woman in Arras, showed it to me in her studio, explaining that it was a buffer between Arras and another world. She revealed the truth to me that day: that Arras was built on the ruins of Earth.
“It has to be the Guild,” I say. I already knew the Guild had a presence on Earth. If I had stayed in Arras, it would have become my job to help them drill for elements here. Of course they would have security forces guarding the buffer between the worlds. The hope building in my chest evaporates, giving way to complete panic. I spot Erik to my left. He’s too far away from us for me to protect him, but I can’t sit by and do nothing, and before I can plan my next move, the watchlight washes over us again. I respond instinctively; my left hand lashes out and rends the air around us, looking for something to latch onto and warp into a shield of protection. There is no delicate, precisely knit weave on this planet. It’s not constructed like Arras, which means I’m useless here.
And yet, I can feel the strands of Earth. They snake against my skin, and if I could calm my racing heart, I think I could even hear them because the space around me crackles with vitality. These aren’t the uniform strands of Arras, but they’re composed of the same material. They’re loosely connected and flexible. Their vibrancy shivers across my damaged fingertips, the threads more alive than any I felt in Arras. There the weave pricked dully at my touch after my hands were scarred during Maela’s torture session. But these threads aren’t neatly woven into a pattern and they are full of unexpected life. During my time at the Coventry, I could warp time strands into a separate moment, protecting Jost’s and my conversations and giving us time alone. Those moments were easy to construct because of the uniformity of the Coventry’s weave. However, the Earth strand doesn’t warp into the bubble of protection I expect. Instead the thick golden strand coils into my fingers, pulling farther and farther into the sky until it snags across the hull. The ship groans loudly, changing from tarnished steel to bloody rust, bits flaking and falling off. It crumbles more with each second until it plummets to the surface in a flood of sparks and debris.
Jost yanks me along as he runs toward the metro that lies miles away, farther under the hood of the strange raw weave of Arras. The other direction would take us toward the ocean and there will be nowhere to hide there. I stumble behind him, tripping against rocks in our path. Fragments of the wreckage drift by us as we run. The small sparkles of fiery debris are lovely against the black air but the clattering maelstrom behind us scrapes at my ears, and I reach up to cover them. I can’t attach what’s happened to me. How could I have done that?
“In here!” Erik’s cry stops our flight toward the metro. He waits against the rotting door frame of a shack that blends like a smudge into the shadowed landscape. The shack isn’t sturdy or large enough to have been a home. It’s hard to tell what purpose it once served—one lone building isolated miles from any other, withering and forgotten.
“You probably shouldn’t lean on that,” I point out as I near him.
He knocks the wooden frame with his fist and some dust sprinkles down as I duck inside the shack. “It’s sound enough.”
I think that is supposed to reassure me.
Erik steps outside. He’s keeping watch, waiting, like me, to see what will happen now. The downing of the ship won’t go unnoticed.
The air is heavy here. The chill of it and the lack of light remind me of the cell I was kept in at the Coventry—and of the cells I visited only hours ago with Jost before we made our escape. It feels like years have passed already.
Someone flips on a handlight and I wonder what treasures we’ve brought from Arras in our pockets. I’m suddenly aware of weight in my own—the digifile. It will be useless here, I realize.
The battered structure and the somber darkness outside remind me how lost I am, and so I wait for something to change. Something to indicate I haven’t made a terrible mistake, but not even a breeze disturbs us here. We can’t hide for long now that I’ve attacked the ship. The Guild will find us whether we stay here or head back toward the metro. I can almost see the gloating look that will be on Cormac’s too-perfect face when his officers catch us. By then they will have patched up the hole I ripped in the Coventry’s weave to get to Earth. He won’t waste any time sending me to be altered once he has me back. It will be straight to the clinic for me, to be made into an obedient Creweler and wife. Dread locks me to the spot, and I wait for the Guild to come and drag me away again. Erik, Jost, and I sit in silence for a long time before I start to relax. We’re hidden for now. Sheltered and safe, but most important, no one has come after us yet.
I want to go outside and search for the ship—to see what I’ve done. I want to study the strange raw weave that floats above us here. Instead I scrape through a layer of dust on the window to peek out. Jost stands beside me and brushes ash from my hair. He frowns, examining one of my arms. I look down. Small burns speckle my pale skin, some have even blistered. I’d been too terrified to feel it.
“Does it hurt?” Jost asks.
I shake my head and a bobby pin tumbles to the floor.
“Here,” he says, reaching behind me. He tugs at the remaining pins until my hair swirls down across my shoulders in a cascade of scarlet. I shake it, trying to get any remaining debris out.
“Better?” I ask. We’re so close that my green eyes reflect back from his blue ones.
Jost swallows, but we’re interrupted before he can respond.
“What happened back there?” Erik demands.
“I caught the ship, but—”
“Nothing,” Jost cuts me off. “It was an accident.”
“Looked more like suicide to me. They’ll know exactly where we are now,” Erik says, taking a step toward his brother.
“What if it was looking for us?” I ask, balling my fists. “At least I bought us some time.”
“You destroyed it,” Erik says in a soft voice. Our eyes meet and I turn away. It was an accident, and he knows that. He isn’t accusing me of doing it on purpose. No, the accusation in his words is far more cutting. He’s accusing me of not being in control.
“I want to go check things out,” I say.
“We should wait until morning,” Jost suggests.
I take a slow, steadying breath. “I don’t think morning is coming.”
“They don’t have daylight here?” he asks.
“No.” Erik steps in. “Didn’t you see the sky? They don’t have a sun. It’s that weave we fell through when she ripped us from Arras.”
So Erik noticed the raw weave suspended above Earth, too. But how much did he notice? Did he see the ship was attached to the sky?
“I want to get a better look at it,” I say, and start toward the door.
“If there are any survivors on that ship, they could be out there,” Jost argues.
The splitting hull flashes through my mind and the memory of ripping metal scratches in my ears. No one could live through that.
“There are no survivors,” I say.
“She’s right,” Erik says. It’s not a friendly agreement, but it isn’t hostile. He’s cool and distant.
“I won’t be long,” I assure Jost.
“Do you think you’re going alone?” he asks.
“I can take care of myself. I’m not some helpless girl.”
“She’s right again,” Erik calls from the dark recess he’s crouched in. “Look what she’s gotten us into.”
I bite my lip. That was hostile. Definitely not his usual friendly banter.
“I know that,” Jost says loudly. “But none of us should be wandering around on our own.”
I study his face for a moment, wondering if he would be so eager to escort his brother to check out the landscape. I decide not to ask.
But Jost continues. “Of course you’re welcome to wander off anytime.”
I guess that answers that.
“Clearly the fact that we are in some type of forsaken alternate reality is much less important than your grudge against me, so can we get this over with and move on?” Erik asks. He moves out of the shadows to face his brother. Standing there, they mirror each other, and for the first time I study them as brothers. I’d only just figured out the real reason they were cold to each other at the Coventry: they were both hiding that secret. They’re exactly the same height, something I’d not noticed before, but Jost is bulkier from his work at the Coventry. He’s dressed in casual work clothes, unlike Erik, whose suit, while wrinkly, is still smart. Erik’s hair brushes his shoulders and Jost’s is longer, but although they share the same unruly waves, Erik’s silvery hair is smoothly slicked into place. Jost’s wild dark locks look like you’d expect after as much action as we’ve seen. The one thing that’s exactly the same is their piercing blue eyes.
“Grudge?” Jost laughs, but there’s a hollowness to it. “You think watching my wife, our sister, our mother get wiped from Arras resulted in a grudge?”
“Then why are you here? What purpose does it serve to run to the Guild if you hate them so much for what they did to Rozenn?” Erik demands.
“That’s our problem.” Jost steps closer to him. “You’ve never understood. Even I knew why Rozenn’s brother and his friends were discontent. I know what the Guild is capable of, and so do you. How can you turn a blind eye? You’ve become one of them.”
“Jost, you were at the Coventry for two years, and I never once let it slip you were from Saxun.”
“It would have given away your own secret. You wouldn’t want those officials knowing you were a fisherman’s son,” Jost accuses.
Erik’s jaw tightens. “I never once gave them a reason to suspect your motives, but I’ll be honest with you, I don’t understand what you were waiting for. I expected you to attack them, maybe even kill the Spinster who did it. Anything,” Erik says. “I wouldn’t have blamed you. I stood back, and you did nothing. I actually thought maybe you’d formed some type of twisted dependency on them.”
“That’s not it.” Jost sighs, and the lightest of lines remain on his forehead and around his eyes. “If you understood, then you’d know I wasn’t looking for some quick, simple payback. I want to understand how the system operates.”
“How will that help you heal?” Erik demands. “What can you possibly gain?”
“Myself? Not much. But understanding the system and getting the information into the right hands could do more damage.”
“So that’s it,” Erik says in a quiet voice. “You were plotting treason.”
“And killing Spinsters wouldn’t have been that?” Jost asks, responding to the allegation in his brother’s voice.
“Killing the one responsible would be reasonable,” Erik says. “But destroying the system would undermine the peace the Guild has established.”
“Peace?” Jost echoes with a laugh.
I think of the people who have been ripped, the neatly organized proof in storage at the Coventry, the look of defeat on my father’s face as he tried to shove me into the tunnel the night the Guild came to claim me. No part of me wants to laugh.
Jost grabs my arm. “Ask Adelice. Ask her what it’s like to rip someone from Arras. Ask her if it’s peaceful for them.”
I open my mouth to protest being dragged into the middle of this, but Jost doesn’t wait for me to respond to his point.
“Or better yet, ask me, Erik. Ask me what it was like to see it happen.” Jost’s voice drops down and trails off. None of us speak. “I watched it. I saw her slip away piece by piece. I watched as they took her away from me.”
“I’m sorry,” Erik offers. He sounds sincere, but even I know his words are far from enough.
Jost shakes his head slightly as if to clear his thoughts and looks out into the dark. “Rozenn was better than any of us. You or me. So was our mother.” He pauses. “And my daughter.”
Erik’s shock registers like a slap across the face. “Daughter?” he mouths. No actual sound comes, but the heaviness of the word presses on my chest, and judging from their expressions, they feel it, too.
“You missed out on a lot when you took off.” Jost’s words are dismissive, but he doesn’t look away from Erik.
“You could have telebounded me,” Erik insists. Now he’s the one who sounds accusatory.
“And what?” Jost asks. “You would have come to visit? You didn’t come when Dad got sick or I got married. I knew where we stood with you when you left to serve the Guild. Your family couldn’t help you move forward politically, so we were of no use to you.
“You wouldn’t have cared,” Jost continues. “You were busy cozying up to Maela, following her orders like the perfect Spinster’s errand boy. Just like you’ve been busy weaseling your way into Adelice’s heart.”
I should put a stop to these accusations before they kill each other, but part of me wants to see how Erik reacts. I know how Erik feels about Maela, the power-hungry Spinster he worked for at the Coventry. Erik and I both counted her as an enemy. Jost’s charge sends a thrill through me, because deep down I always suspected Erik’s reasons for getting close to me were about more than friendship.
“But that backfired when Ad brought you here. All that work you did to get to the top is gone. You’ll never convince them that you’re loyal again. You’re through with the Guild,” Jost says.
Erik’s face contorts into a mask of rage. “You barely know me or why I came to the Coventry, but don’t let that stop you from making unfair accusations. It’s rather entertaining, and it doesn’t look like there’s much else to do around here,” he spits back.
“There is a lot to do around here and fighting isn’t on the list,” I intercede, before things get more out of control. “Save your personal problems for later, we have work to do.”
“What do you have in mind? Rebuild the city?” Erik asks. “Or should we skip to the repopulating part?”
“Shut up,” Jost commands. “You aren’t funny.”
“Why? That’s the nice part of getting stuck on a completely forsaken piece of dirt.”
“You better hope that you find someone to help you do it then, because she’s taken. I’m sure there’s a nice dog around here somewhere. Maybe you should stick to your own species,” Jost says.
I’m between them before Erik releases his fist, and I barely cringe when I see it moving toward my face.
Jost catches Erik’s fist, and Erik freezes. But his surprise at my near-disastrous intervention is quickly replaced by a glare, leveled directly at his brother.
“We’re going to check things out,” Jost says through gritted teeth.
“Suit yourself,” Erik says. “I certainly don’t need you here, moping about the joint.”
Jost grabs my arm, a bit more roughly than usual, and drags me from the shack. I pull out of his grasp, my hand flying to rub my throbbing skin.
“That hurt,” I inform him.
He stares at me for a moment and then his eyes soften. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. Erik just—”
“I know,” I say quietly, “but I’m not Erik. Don’t take it out on me.”
He nods his apology and I take his hand to let him know we can drop it. We have more important things to worry about right now.
The metro is still several miles away if I can trust my generally poor sense of direction. The ocean now lies far enough behind us that although I can make out its glassy surface, I no longer hear the beat of its waves. We stand between this world and the one we left. Between the danger that lies ahead of us in the metro and the abyss behind us that will swallow us whole. Every choice we make now will have a consequence I can’t foresee, because I don’t understand this world yet.
The quick crunch of approaching footsteps makes it seem as if someone has made a choice for us. We’ve been caught. A handlight blinds us to our approaching captor.
“Who’s there?” Jost calls. He pushes me behind him, but I step back out. He doesn’t try again.
“I should be asking you that.” The voice is rough, but feminine. The light fades away, and I blink against spots of phosphorescence left in my vision. A girl blurs into view. She wears no cosmetics but is still quite beautiful. Not in a Spinster way though. Her features are angular, sharp and chiseled, and her dark hair cascades down her back. There is nothing artificial or stylized about her. Her clothes are practical—leather pants that lace up the side, a belt slung low on her hips, and a thick silk tunic. This is a girl who doesn’t belong in Arras.
“We saw the ship go down. We came out to see what happened,” I lie, hoping against everything I’ve been led to believe about Earth that the metro ahead of us is populated.
“And you had nothing to do with bringing the ship down from the Interface?” She gestures up to the raw weave that covers the sky.
The girl’s eyes sweep over us. Jost might pass her inspection. His clothes are as utilitarian as hers, but there’s no denying that I look out of place in comparison, in my lavender suit, stockings, and pumps. Nothing about me, down to the emeralds clipped to my ears, correlates to what I’ve seen of Earth.
“Let me see your necks,” she says.
“Why?” I ask.
I hesitate for a moment but then acquiesce. I don’t know what she’s looking for, but I know she’s not going to find it. I pull my hair up, Jost does the same, and when we turn back around to face her, a rifle is leveled at us.
She utters one word: “Fail.”
Time seems to slow as her finger presses against the trigger, and I scream, “Wait!” It surprises even me, and the girl takes a step back. She’s checking for a mark, and I have one—a techprint burned into my wrist by my father, who was hoping I would escape the retrieval squad.
Shoving my sleeve up, I thrust my arm out to her and point to the pale hourglass imprinted on my skin like a scar.
The rifle slips in her hand, the barrel now pointing at the ground.
“Your left hand?” she whispers.
She’s shocked, but as quickly as the rifle appeared, it disappears across her back. She pushes my sleeve down to cover the techprint.
“Go to the Icebox,” she says, “and lie low. We’ll find you. You aren’t safe here.”
“What’s the Icebox?” Jost demands.
“The Icebox is the city ahead of you,” she says. “It’s Sunrunner territory and outside Guild control.”
“Where are we?” I ask.
“The remains of the state of California,” she says. “The Icebox is the only inhabited city in this territory. You’ll be safe from the Guild there—for now. Stay put and stay hidden. Don’t go out after hours and don’t let anyone see that techprint.”
“Sure,” I mutter, and the girl’s hand seizes my arm.
“Your life depends on it,” she says.
I nod to show that I understand, even though none of this makes sense. What does my father’s techprint have to do with Earth? What’s a Sunrunner? But I know she’s right about one thing: the Guild is coming for me, and we aren’t safe here.
She strides away without giving us her name. Her warning hangs in the air. I don’t watch her, even though she’s not headed to the metro but back toward the ocean.
“Why would she care about your techprint?” Jost asks, but I ignore him as we start to jog back to where we left Erik. We need to get out of here, and if there are people in this Icebox, we can blend in and hide until I figure out how my techprint is linked to this girl.
Nothing tied to the night of my retrieval can be ignored, especially when that thing is a mark left before my father showed me that he and my mother were more than dissenters.
They were traitors—like me.
Copyright © 2013 by Gennifer Albin