From the New York Times and internationally bestselling authors of the Illuminae Files comes an epic intergalactic series filled with action, adventure, thrills, humor, and a lovable team of misfits tasked with saving the galaxy. Yikes! Start reading Aurora Rising now…
PART 1 The Girl Out of Time
I’m gonna miss the Draft.
The Hadfield is disintegrating around me. Black arcs of quantum lightning are melting the ship’s hull to slag. My spacesuit is screaming seventeen different alarms, the lock on this damn cryogenic pod still won’t open, and that’s the one thought blaring in my head. Not that I should’ve stayed in my rack and gotten a good night’s sleep. Not that I should’ve just ignored the damn distress call and headed back to Aurora Academy. And not that this is a really stupid way to die.
Nope. Looking death right in the face, Tyler Jones, Squad Leader, First Class, is thinking one thing, and one thing only.
I’m gonna miss the damn Draft.
I mean, you work your whole life for a Thing, it’s only natural the Thing be important to you. But most rational people would consider getting vaporized inside a derelict spaceship drifting through interdimensional space just a little more important than school. That’s all I’m saying.
I look down at the girl sleeping inside the cryopod. She has shortish black hair, with a strange white streak running through her bangs. Freckles. A gray jumpsuit. Her expression is the kind of blissful you only see on babies or the cryogenically frozen.
I wonder what her name is.
I wonder what she’d say if she knew she was about to get me killed.
And I shake my head, muttering over the scream of my suit alarms as the ship around me begins to tear itself into a million burning pieces.
“She better be worth it, Jones.”
Let’s back it up a little.
About four hours, to be exact. I know they say to start your story at the exciting bit, but you need to know what’s going on here so you can actually care about me getting vaporized. Because me getting vaporized is totally gonna suck.
So. Four hours ago, I’m in my dorm at Aurora Academy. I’m staring up at the underside of Björkman’s mattress and praying to the Maker that our training officers throw some kind of grav-failure or fire drill at us. The night before the Draft, they’ll probably just let us get some rest. But I’m praying anyway, because:
(a) Even though he never snores, Björkman is snoring now, and I can’t sleep.
(b) I’m wishing my dad could be there to see me tomorrow, and I can’t sleep.
(c) It’s the night before the Draft, and I. CAN’T. SLEEP.
I dunno why I’m so worked up. I should be cool as ice. I’ve aced every exam. Finished top of almost every class. Ninety-ninth percentile of all cadets in the academy.
Jones, Tyler, Squad Leader, First Class.
Goldenboy. That’s what the other Alphas call me. Some throw it as an insult, but I take it as a compliment. Nobody worked harder than me to get here. Nobody worked harder once they arrived. And now all that work is about to pay off, because tomorrow is the Draft and I’ve earned four of the top five picks, and I’m gonna have the best squad a senior class in Aurora Academy has ever seen.
So why can’t I sleep?
Surrendering with a long sigh, I climb out of my bunk, drag on my uniform, drag my hand through my blond hair. And shooting a look at Björkman that I wish could kill—or at least mute—I slap the door control pad and stalk out into the corridor, cutting off his snores behind me.
It’s late: 02:17 station clock. The illumination is set low to simulate nighttime, but the fluorescent strips in the floor light up as I mooch down the hallway. I ping my sister, Scarlett, on my uniglass, but she doesn’t answer. I think about pinging Cat, but she’s probably asleep. Like I should be.
I wander past a long plasteel window, looking at the Aurora star burning beyond, gilding the frame’s edge in palest gold. In old Terran mythology, Aurora was the goddess of the dawn. She heralded the coming of daylight, the end of night. Someone back in the day gave her name to a star, and that star gave its name to the academy now orbiting it, and the Aurora Legion I’ve given my life to.
Five years I’ve lived here. Signed up the day I turned thirteen, my twin sister right beside me. The recruiter on New Gettysburg Station remembered our dad. Told us he was sorry. Promised we’d make the bastards pay. That Dad’s sacrifice—all our soldiers’ sacrifices—wouldn’t be for nothing.
I wonder if I still believe that.
I should be sleeping.
I don’t know where I’m going.
Except I know exactly where I’m going.
Stalking down the corridor toward the docking bay.
Hands in my pockets to hide the fists.
Four hours later, I’m pounding those same fists on the cryopod’s seal.
The chamber around me is filled with a hundred pods just like it, all rimed with a layer of pale frost. The ice cracks a little under my blows, but the seal isn’t opening. My uniglass is running a wireless hack on the lock, but it’s too slow.
If I don’t get out of here soon, I’m dead.
Another shock wave hits the Hadfield, shaking the whole ship. There’s no gravity in the derelict, so I can’t fall. But I’m hanging on to the cryopod, which means I still get whipped around like a kid’s toy, smashing my spacesuit’s helmet into another pod and adding one more alarm to the seventeen already blaring in my ears.
Warning: Suit integrity breach. H20 reservoir compromised.
Uh-oh . . .
The girl in the cryopod frowns in her sleep like she’s having a bad dream. For a moment, I consider what it’s gonna mean for her if we make it out of this alive.
And then I feel something wet at the base of my skull. Inside my helmet. I twist my head and try to spot the problem, and the wetness sloshes across the back of my neck, surface tension gluing it to my skin. I realize my drinking tube has ruptured. That my hydration tanks are emptying into my helmet. That even if this FoldStorm doesn’t kill me, in about seven minutes, my helmet is gonna fill with water and I’m gonna be the first human I’ve ever heard of to drown in space.
If we make it out of this alive?
“No chance,” I mutter.
“No chance,” the lieutenant says.
Three and a half hours earlier, I’m standing in Aurora Academy Flight Control. The flight deck lieutenant’s name is Lexington, and she’s only two years older than me. A couple of months back at the Foundation Day party, she had too much to drink and told me she likes my dimples, so I smile at her as often as possible now.
Hey, if you’ve got ’em, flaunt ’em.
Even at this hour, the docks are busy. From the mezzanine above, I can see a heavy freighter from the Trask sector being unloaded. The huge ship hangs off the station’s shoulder, her hull battered from the billions of kilometers under her belt. Loader drones fly about her in a buzzing metal swarm.
I turn back to the lieutenant. Dial my smile up a notch.
“Just for an hour, Lex,” I plead.
Second Lieutenant Lexington raises one dark eyebrow in response. “Don’t you mean ‘Just for an hour, ma’am,’ Cadet Jones?”
Whoops. Too far.
“Yes, ma’am.” I give her my best salute. “Apologies, ma’am.”
“Shouldn’t you be getting some rack time?” she sighs.
“Can’t sleep, ma’am.”
“Fretting on the Draft tomorrow?” She shakes her head, finally smiles. “You’re the highest-ranked Alpha in your year. What’s to worry about?”
“Just nervous energy.” I nod to the rows of Phantoms in Bay 12. The scout ships are sleek. Teardrop shaped. Black as the void outside. “Figured I’d put it to good use and log some time in the Fold.”
Her smile vanishes. “Negative. Cadets aren’t allowed in the Fold without a wingman, Jones.”
“I’ve got a five-star commendation from my flight trainer. And I’m a full-fledged legionnaire as of tomorrow. I won’t go farther than a quarter parsec.”
I lean closer. Push my smile into overdrive.
“Would I lie to you, ma’am?”
And slowly, ever so slowly, I watch her smile reappear.
Thank you, dimples.
Ten minutes later, I’m sitting in a Phantom’s cockpit. The engines heat up and the dock systems load my ship into the launch tube, and with a soundless roar I’m soaring out into the black. Stars glitter outside my blastscreens. The void stretches as wide as forever. Aurora Station lights up the dark behind me, swift cruisers and lumbering capital ships moored at its berths or cutting through the dark around it. I shift course, feeling a rush of vertigo as gravity drops away, replaced by the weightlessness outside the station’s skin.
The FoldGate looms in front of me, about five thousand klicks off the station’s bow. Huge. Hexagonal. Its pylons blink green in the darkness. Inside it, I can see a shimmering field, shot through with bright pinpricks of light.
A voice crackles in my headset.
“Phantom 151, this is Aurora Control. You are clear for Fold entry, over.”
“Roger that, Aurora.”
I hit my thrusters, pushed back hard in my velocity couch as I accelerate. Auto-guidance locks on, the FoldGate flares brighter than the sun. And without a sound, I plunge into an endless, colorless sky.
A billion stars are waiting to greet me. The Fold opens wide and swallows me whole, and in that moment, I can’t hear the roar of my thrusters or the ping of my navcom. My worries about the Draft or the memories of my dad.
For a brief second, all the Milky Way is silence.
And I can’t hear a thing.
I can’t hear a thing.
The blob of water creeping up the back of my head has reached my ears by the time I get the cryopod unlocked, muting my suit alarms. I shake my head hard, but the liquid just slips around on my skin in the zero grav, a big dollop pooling on my left eye and half blinding me. Doing my very best not to curse, I pop the cryopod’s seals and tear the door open.
The color spectrum here in the Fold is monochrome, everything reduced to shades of black and white. So when the pod lighting switches to a slightly different kind of gray, I’m not sure what color it’s actually turning until . . .
Red alert. Stasis interrupted. Pod 7173 breached. Red alert.
The monitors flash a warning as I plunge my hands into the viscous gel, wincing as the chill penetrates my suit. I can’t imagine what dragging this girl out prematurely is going to do, but leaving her for the FoldStorm is definitely gonna kill her. And if I don’t get this show on the road, it’s gonna kill me, too.
And yeah, that’s still really gonna suck.
Luckily, the Hadfield’s hull looks like it was breached decades ago, so there’s no atmosphere to leech the remaining heat from this girl’s body. Unfortunately, that means there’s also nothing for her to breathe. But the drugs they pumped into her before they froze her will have slowed her metabolism enough that she can survive a few minutes without oxygen. With my water reserves still leaking into my helmet, I’m more worried about myself in the whole Not Being Able to Breathe department.
She hangs weightless above the pod, anchored by her IV lines, still encased in freezing cryogel. The Hadfield trembles again, and I’m glad I can’t actually hear what the FoldStorm is doing to the hull. A burst of jet-black lightning crashes through the wall beside me, melting the metal. The water leaking into my helmet is creeping closer to my mouth every second. I start scooping handfuls of goop off the girl’s face, slinging it across the chamber to spatter against yet more cryopods. Row upon row of them. Every one filled with this same freezing gel. Every one with a shriveled human corpse floating inside.
They’re all dead. Hundreds. Thousands.
Every single person on this ship is dead, except her.
The holographic display inside my helmet flashes as lightning liquefies another piece of hull. It’s a message from my Phantom’s onboard computer.
Warning: FoldStorm intensity increasing. Recommend immediate departure. Repeat: Recommend immediate departure.
Yeah, thanks for the advice.
I should leave this girl here. Nobody’d blame me. And the galaxy she’s going to wake up to? Maker, she’d probably thank me if I just left her for the storm. But I look around at those corpses in the other pods. All these people who punted out from Earth all those years ago, drifting off to sleep with the promise of a new horizon, never to wake up again. And I realize I can’t just leave her here to die.
This ship has enough ghosts already.
My dad used to tell us ghost stories about the Fold.
We grew up on ’em, my sister and me. Dad would sit up late into the night and talk about the old days when humanity was taking its first baby steps away from Terra. Back when we first discovered that space between space, where the fabric of the universe wasn’t quite stitched the same. And because we Terrans are such an imaginative bunch, we named it after the single, magical thing it allowed us to do.
So. Take a sheet of paper. Now imagine it’s the whole Milky Way galaxy. It’s a lot to ask, but you can trust me. I mean, come on, look at these dimples.
Okay, now imagine one corner of that paper is where you’re sitting. And the opposite corner is alllll the way over on the other side of the galaxy. Even burning at the speed of light, it’d take you one hundred thousand years to trek it.
But what happens when you fold the paper in half? Those corners are touching now, right? One thousand centuries of travel just became a stroll to the end of the street. The impossible just became possible.
That’s what the Fold lets us do.
Thing is, impossible always comes with a price.
Dad would tell us horror stories about it. The storms that spring up out of nowhere, closing off whole sections of space. The early exploration vessels that just disappeared. That breath-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling of never being alone.
Turns out the effect of Fold travel on sentient minds grows worse the older you get. They don’t recommend it for anyone over twenty-five without being frozen first. I get seven years in the Legion, and after that, I’ll be flying a desk the rest of my life.
But right now, it’s a little over an hour ago and I’m flying my Phantom. Crossing the seas between stars in minutes. Watching those suns blur and the space between them ripple and distance become meaningless. But still, I’m starting to feel it. That breath on the back of my neck. The voices, just out of earshot.
I’ve been in here long enough.
The Draft is tomorrow.
I should be getting my zees.
Maker, what am I even doing out here?
I’m prepping a course back to Aurora Academy when the message appears on my viewscreen. Repeating. Automated.
My stomach drops as I watch those three letters flash on my display. The Aurora Legion’s charter says all ships are duty-bound to investigate a distress call, but my sweep detects a FoldStorm near the SOS’s origin that’s about four million klicks wide.
And then my computer translates the distress call’s ident code.
Ident: Terran vessel, Ark-class.
“Can’t be . . . ,” I whisper.
Everyone knows about the Hadfield disaster. Back in Earth’s early days of expansion, the whole ship disappeared in the Fold. The tragedy ended the age of corporate space exploration. Nearly ten thousand colonists died.
And that’s when my computer flashes a message on my display.
Alert: Biosign detected. Single survivor.
Repeat: Single survivor.
“Maker’s breath . . . ,” I whisper.
“Maker’s breath!” I shout.
Another arc of quantum lightning rips the Hadfield’s hull, just a few meters shy of my head. There’s no atmo and my ears are full of liquid anyway, so I can’t hear the metal vaporizing. But my gut flips, and the water filling my helmet suddenly tastes like salt. It’s covering my mouth now—only my right eye and nose are still dry.
It had taken me a while to find her. Trawling through the Hadfield’s lightless innards as the FoldStorm rushed ever closer, past thousands of cryopods filled with thousands of corpses. There was no sign of what killed them, or why a single girl among them had been left alive. But finally, there she was. Curled up in her pod, eyes closed as if she’d just drifted off. Sleeping Beauty.
She’s still sleeping now, as the tremors throw me into the wall hard enough to knock the wind out of me. The water in my helmet sloshes about, and I accidently inhale, choking and gasping. I’ve got maybe two minutes till I drown. And so I just drag the breather tube out of her throat, rip the IV lines out of her arms, watch her blood crystallize in the vacuum. The whole time, she doesn’t move. But she’s frowning, as if she’s still lost somewhere in that bad dream.
Starting to know the feeling.
The blob of water covers both my eyes now. Closing in on my nostrils from both sides. I squint through the blur, hold her close and kick against the bulkhead. We’re both weightless, but between the Hadfield’s tremors and the water near blinding me, it’s almost impossible to control our trajectory. We crash into a cluster of pods, full of corpses long dead.
I wonder how many of them she knew.
Bouncing off the far wall, my fingers scrabble for purchase. The belly of this ship is a twisted snarl, hundreds of chambers packed with pods. But I aced my zero-grav orienteering exam. I know exactly where we need to go. Exactly how to get back to the Hadfield’s docking bay and my Phantom waiting inside it.
Except then the water closes over my nose.
And I can’t breathe anymore.
Which might sound bad, I know . . .
Okay, it really is bad.
But not being able to breathe means I don’t need my oxygen supply anymore, either. And so I aim myself at the corridor leading away from cryo. Reaching to the back of my spacesuit, I find the right set of cables and rip them loose. And with a burst of escaping O2 acting like a tiny jet propulsion unit, we’re flying.
I’m holding the girl tight to my chest. Guiding us with my free hand, squinting through the water filling my helmet. My lungs are burning. Lightning shears through the wall, carving the titanium like butter. The ship shudders and we bounce off walls and consoles, my boots kicking, somehow keeping us on course.
We’re in the docks now, my Phantom sitting on the far side, just a dark blur in my underwater vision. Vast, swirling clouds of the FoldStorm wait just outside the bay doors. Black lightning in the air. Black spots in my eyes. The whole galaxy underwater. I’m almost deaf. Almost blind. One thought building in my mind.
We’re still too far from the ship.
At least two hundred meters. Any second now, my respiratory reflex is gonna buck and I’m gonna inhale a lungful of water, and within sight of salvation, I’m gonna die.
We’re both gonna die.
Maker, help us.
Lightning crashes. My lungs are screaming. Heart screaming. The whole Milky Way, screaming. I close my eyes. Think of my sister. Pray she’ll be okay. There’s a rush of vertigo. And then I feel it under my hand. Metal. Familiar.
What the . . . ?
I open my eyes and there we are, floating right beside my Phantom. The entry hatch under my fingertips. It’s impossible. There’s no way I—
No time for questions, Tyler.
I tear the hatch open, drag the pair of us inside, and slam it closed. As the tiny airlock fills with O2, I rip my helmet loose and paw the water from my face, breath exploding from my lungs. I’m curled over, floating, gasping, dragging great heaving lungfuls of air into my chest. The black spots burst in my eyes. The Hadfield rocks and lurches, tossing my Phantom about in its docking brackets.
You’ve got to move, Tyler.
MOVE, DAMN YOU.
I claw open the airlock, pull myself into the pilot’s chair. Lungs still aching, tears streaming from my eyes. I slap at the launch controls, hit the burners before the couplings are even loose, blast out of the Hadfield’s belly like my tail is on fire.
The FoldStorm swells and rolls behind us, my sensors all in the redline. The thrust pushes me back in my chair, gravity pressing hard on my chest as we accelerate away. Oxygen-starved already, it’s more than I can take.
I manage to activate my distress signal with shaking hands. And then I’m sinking. Down into the white behind my eyes. The same color as those stars, twinkling out there in all that endless black.
And my last thought before I pass out completely?
It’s not that I just saved someone’s life or that I have no idea how we covered the last two hundred meters back to my Phantom’s airlock or that the both of us should most definitely be dead.
It’s that I’m gonna miss the Draft.
I’m made of concrete. My body’s carved from a solid block of stone, and I can’t move a muscle.
And this is the only thing I know. That I can’t move.
I don’t know my name. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know why I can’t see or hear, taste or smell or sense anything.
And then there’s . . . input. But like when you’re falling and you can’t tell which way is up or down, or when a jet of water hits you and you can’t tell if it’s hot or cold, now I can’t tell if I’m hearing, or seeing, or feeling. I just know there’s something I can sense that I couldn’t sense before, so I wait, impatiently, to see what happens next.
“Please, ma’am, just let me have my uniglass, I could tune in to the Draft remotely from here. I might be able to catch the last few rounds, even if I can just—”
It’s a boy’s voice, and in a rush I understand the words, though I don’t know what he’s talking about—but there’s a note of desperation in his tone that kicks up my pulse in response.
“You have to understand how important this is.”
“You have to understand how important this is, Aurora.” It’s my mom’s voice, and she’s standing behind me, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. “This is going to change everything.”
We’re in front of a window, wisps of cloud or smog visible on the other side of the thick glass. I lean forward to rest my forehead against it, and when I look down, I know where I am. Far below, there’s a glimpse of muddy green. Central Park, with its brown patchwork quilt, the roofs of the shantytowns and the little fields carved out by its residents, the gray brown of water beside it.
We’re on West Eighty-Ninth Street, at the headquarters of Ad Astra Incorporated, my parents’ employer. We’re at the launch of the Octavia III expedition. My parents wanted us to understand why they were going. Why we were looking ahead to a year of boarding school, breaks spent stranded with friends. This was about two months before they told Mom she was bumped from the mission.
Before Dad told her he was going without her.
Then, as I watch, the trees of Central Park start to grow, shooting up like Jack’s magic beanstalk. In seconds they’re the height of the skyscrapers all around them. Vines leap across to twine around our building in fast-forward. They squeeze like boa constrictors, and the plaster on the walls starts to crack, fine dust drifting from the ceiling.
Blue flakes fall from the sky like snow.
But this part of the memory never happened, and the sight is painful—unwelcome and unpleasant in a way I can’t put my finger on. I shy away from it, shove myself free of it, stumbling back toward consciousness.
Back toward the light.
The light is bright and the boy is still talking, and as I return to the confines of my body, I remember my name. I am Aurora Jie-Lin O’Malley.
No, wait. I’m Auri O’Malley. That’s better. That’s me.
And I definitely have a body. This is good. This is progress.
My senses of taste and smell are back, and I’m immediately wishing they weren’t. Because holy cake, my mouth tastes like two somethings crawled in there, fought a battle to the death, and then decomposed.
There’s a woman’s voice now, from farther away. “Your sister will be here soon, if you’ll just wait.”
The boy again: “Scarlett’s coming? Maker’s breath, is the graduation ceremony over already? How much longer do I have to wait?”
How much longer do I have to wait?
I’m in a vidchat with my dad, and that’s the question doing laps around my brain. The uplink delay is dragging on my very last nerve, the broadcast system making me wait a couple of minutes before my replies reach him on Octavia, a couple more before his bounce back.
But Dad’s got Patrice sitting beside him, and there’s no reason she’d be here except to break the news herself. I think I’m about to hear that the wait that has dominated my life for two years is nearly over. I think that all the work I’ve put in is about to pay off, that I’m about to be told I’m slated for the third mission to Octavia.
Today’s my seventeenth birthday, and I can’t think of a better present in all of time and space.
Patrice hasn’t spoken yet, though, and Dad’s rambling on about other stuff, grinning like his Megastakes numbers came in. His tent is gone—they’re sitting in front of an actual wall, with a real live window and everything, so I know the colony must really be progressing. On Dad’s lap is one of the chimpanzees he works with as part of the Octavia bio program. When my sister and I misbehave, he teases us by calling them his favorite children.
“My adopted family is very well,” he laughs, petting the animal. “But I’m looking forward to having at least one of my girls here in person.”
“So will it be soon?” I ask, unable to hold the question in any longer.
I groan inwardly, tipping my head back and resigning myself to a four-minute wait for a reply. But my heart drops when I see my question finally arrive at their end. Dad’s still smiling, but Patrice looks . . . nervous? Worried?
“It’ll be soon, Jie-Lin,” my father promises. “But . . . we’re calling about something else today.”
. . . Wait, did he actually remember my birthday?
He’s still smiling, and he lifts his hand up into view on the screen.
Mothercustard, he’s holding Patrice’s hand. . . .
“Patrice and I have been spending a lot of time together lately,” he says. “And we’ve decided it’s time to make things a little more official and share quarters. So it’ll be the three of us when you arrive.” He keeps talking, but I’m barely listening. “I thought you could bring rice flour when you come. And tapioca starch. I want us to have just one meal that didn’t come from the synth to celebrate being together again. I’ll make you rice noodles.”
It takes me a moment to realize he’s done, that he’s waiting for my reply. I’m looking at the pair of them, their hands interlocked, Dad’s hopeful smile and Patrice’s pained grin. Thinking of my mom and trying to process what this will mean.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I finally say. “You want me to . . . celebrate?”
Arguing back and forth with a four-minute delay doesn’t really work, so I keep my transmission on. Saying everything I need to before he gets a chance to answer.
“Look, I’m sorry you have to hear this, Patrice, but obviously Dad wasn’t considerate enough to tell me in private.” I turn my stare onto my father, my finger pressing the Transmit button so hard my knuckle turns white. “First off, thanks for the birthday wishes, Dad. Thanks for the congratulations about winning All-States again. Thanks for remembering to message Callie about her recital, which she nailed, by the way. But most of all, thanks for this. Mom couldn’t get clearance for Octavia, so what . . . you just replaced her? You’re not even divorced yet!”
I don’t wait to hear their delayed reply. I don’t want to hear new versions of the same old excuses or apologies. I stab a button to kill the transmission. But before I can rise from my seat, the frozen image of the two of them wavers.
I see a flash of light.
It’s so bright, the whole world burns to white. And as I squint against it, put my hands out in front of me, I realize I can’t see anymore.
I can’t see.
I can see.
I’m lying on my back, and I can see the ceiling. It’s white, and there are cables snaking across it, and somewhere above me is a light that hurts my eyes. I hold up my hands in front of it like I did in my dream, almost surprised I can see my fingers.
But weird dreams aside, I have my name now. And I remember my family. I was part of the third shipment of colonists to Octavia III. Progress!
Maybe I’m on Octavia now, and this is cryo recovery?
I stare up at the ceiling, eyes half-closed against the light. I can feel more memories hovering just out of reach. Maybe if I pretend I’m looking this way, away from them, they’ll come creeping out. And then I can pounce.
So I focus on something else and decide to try and turn my head. I pick left, because I think that’s where the guy’s voice is coming from. I feel like one of those strongmen you see in vids trying to tow a whole loader drone by hand as I strain against the inertia, putting every atom of myself into the effort. It’s the weirdest sensation—immeasurable exertion without feeling a thing.
I’m rewarded with a view of a glass wall, frosted to about waist height. The guy’s on the other side of it, pacing like a caged animal.
My brain goes haywire, trying to process too much information at once.
Fact: He’s hot as all get-out. Like, chiseled jaw, tousled blond hair, brooding stare with a perfect little scar through his right eyebrow, this-is-just-ridiculous hot. This fact takes up quite a bit of my mental real estate.
Fact: He’s not wearing a shirt. This is now making a play for Most Important Fact and currently seems very relevant to my interests.
Whatever those are.
Wherever I am.
But wait, wait a minute, ladies and gentlemen and everyone both otherwise or in between. We have a new contender for Fact of the Century. All other facts, please step aside.
Fact: Though the frosted glass obscures all the interesting details, there can be no doubt about it. My mystery man is not currently in possession of pants.
This day is looking up.
He frowns, making the very most of that scarred eyebrow.
“This is taking forever,” he says.
“This is taking forever.”
The man in front of me is whining again. We’re lining up for cryo, hundreds of us, and the place smells like industrial-strength bleach. There are butterflies in my stomach, but they’re not nerves—they’re excitement. I’ve trained for this for years. I fought tooth and nail for my apprenticeship. I’ve earned this moment.
I said goodbye to my mom and my little sister, Callie, yesterday, and that was by far the roughest part of leaving. I haven’t spoken to Dad since the Patrice Incident, and I don’t know what either of us will say when we’re reunited. Patrice herself has been okay—she’s sent through a few briefing papers she needs me to read, kept it friendly and professional. But of all the people he could’ve picked, my father had to start boning the woman who was going to be my supervisor?
Thanks again, Dad.
I shuffle a little closer to the front of the line. In a minute it will be my turn in the showers, and I’ll scrub myself within an inch of my life, don my thin gray jumpsuit, and step into the capsule. They knock us out before they get the breathing and feeding tubes in.
The girl in line behind me looks about my age, and nervous as all hell, gaze flickering around the place like it’s ricocheting off everything it lands on.
“Hi,” I say, trying on a smile.
“Hi back,” she replies, shaky.
“Apprenticeship?” I guess, aiming for distraction.
“Meteorology,” she says, her grin a little sheepish. “I’m a weather nerd. Hard not to be, growing up in Florida. We get all the weather.”
“I’m Exploration and Cartography,” I say. “Going where no one has gone before, that kind of thing. But I’ll be back at base a lot, too. We should hang out.”
She tilts her head like I’ve said something strange, and the whole scene shakes, shivers, a bright light flickering somewhere like a strobe. The girl closes her eyes against the flashes, and when she opens them again, her right eye has changed. I can still see the pupil, the black edge of the iris, but where her left eye is brown, her right has turned pure white.
“Eshvaren,” she whispers, staring at me like she doesn’t see me.
“. . . What?”
The whiny man in front of us in line whispers the word. “E-E-Eshvaren.”
When I whirl around, I see that his right eye has turned white, too.
“What does that mean?”
But neither of them replies. They just whisper the word again, and it spreads up and down the line like a forest catching fire.
Eye burning, fingers trembling, she reaches out to touch my face.
Oh, hello, touch. I see you’ve decided to join us. And now you’re here, I can tell every single part of me is hurting in ways I didn’t know had been invented yet.
Another wave of pain hits me, sweeping away the last of that creepy memory-that-wasn’t-a-dream thing and reminding me my body seems to be just as messed up as my head is right now. I’m reduced to panting, to whimpering with a raw throat that catches and gags at the effort, to just existing until the hurt starts to ebb away. But with pain, and touch, comes proper mobility. And that means I can push up onto my elbows and look across for the guy once more. His lower half has turned dark gray, and from this I deduce he is now, unfortunately, wearing pants.
This day really is turning out to be a bust.
The pants discovery prompts a tickle of a question in my head, and I look down beneath the light, silvery sheet that currently covers me to check what I’m wearing. Turns out that the answer is “nothing at all.”
I look back at the boy, and at the same moment, he turns to me, his eyes widening as he realizes I’m awake. I draw breath to try and speak, but I choke, my throat stinging like someone’s ripping out my vocal cords one by one.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“Is this Octavia?” I wheeze.
He shakes his head, blue eyes meeting mine. “What’s your name?”
“Aurora,” I manage. “Auri.”
“Tyler,” he replies.
And I should ask him where I am. If we’re on the Hadfield and I was pulled out early, or if I’m on Earth and they aborted the mission. But there’s something in his gaze that makes me shy away from the question.
He lets his forehead rest against the glass between us with a thunk. Like I did at that window on Eighty-Ninth Street. The memory catches me unawares, bringing with it a sharp wave of I-want-my-mom. This boy looks just as lost as I feel.
“Are you okay?” I whisper.
“I missed it,” he finally says. “The Draft. I missed the whole thing.”
And I’ve got no idea what a Draft is or why it’s so important. But I ask anyway.
“Had somewhere else to be?”
He nods and sighs. “Rescuing you.”
That’s not a good word.
“Who knows who I got,” he says, and we both know he’s changing the subject. “I was supposed to have four of the first five picks, and now I’m stuck with the bottom of the barrel. The dregs. And I was just following reg—”
“The news isn’t all bad, Ty.”
The low purr comes from somewhere outside my field of vision. A girl’s voice.
Tyler swings away from me like I’m yesterday’s news, plastering himself against the front of his holding tank. “Scarlett.”
I carefully turn my gaze that way—it still takes thought and strategy, my body refusing to do anything without a plan—to see who he’s greeting. There are two girls standing there in blue-gray uniforms, the same color as the pants he seems to have acquired. One has flaming red hair—orange, really, amazing dye job—cut in a sharp asymmetrical bob that swings around a chiseled chin just like his. She shares his full lips, too, his strong brows. Her uniform’s skirt is impressively short. She’s tall. And she’s gorgeous. Presumably, this is Scarlett.
The second girl has a narrow face and a soaring phoenix tattooed right across her throat (ouch). Black hair, longer and spiked on top, shaved to fuzz down the sides with more tattoos underneath. I can tell she has dimples and that her smile would be huge, but I have to deduce it all without seeing the real deal, because right now she looks like somebody killed her grandmother.
“Cat?” Tyler says to her. His voice is low, pleading.
“Ketchett tried to draft me,” Cat says. “And a bunch after that. I told them I already had an Alpha, he just couldn’t make it.”
“Told them, huh? Is Ketchett still breathing?”
“Yeah,” the girl smirks. “Next time you go to chapel, you might wanna say a prayer for his testicles, though.”
He exhales slowly and presses his palm against the glass, and she lifts hers to press it back in return.
The girl with the orange hair watches them. “I didn’t have to insist quite as hard,” she says, wry. “But I could hardly leave you out there alone. You’d probably get yourself killed without me to talk our way out of trouble, baby brother.”
Tattoo Girl pulls up her uniform sleeves, revealing more ink. “Speaking of getting yourself killed, you wanna tell us what you were doing Folding by yourself? Thinking with your other head again?”
Scarlett nods in agreement. “Rescuing damsels in distress is very twenty-second century, Ty.”
. . . Say what?
Tyler holds up his hands, like, What do you want from me? and the girls turn to look at me on my slab with curious eyes. Checking me out. Weighing me up.
“I like her hair,” Scarlett declares. Then, as if remembering I’m an actual person, she speaks to me, louder, a little slower. “I like your hair.”
The second girl sniffs, obviously less impressed. “Did you tell her the bad news about her library books yet?”
“Cat!” the other two snap in chorus.
An adult voice cuts in before they can get any further. “Legionnaire Jones, your quarantine has cleared, you’re free to go.”
Ty looks across at me, and our eyes meet. He hesitates.
Did you tell her the bad news?
“You can call in the morning to find out when you can visit,” the voice says.
He nods reluctantly, stepping out of his holding pen as the door hisses open in front of him. With a last glance at me, the trio leaves the room, Ty’s voice fading out of hearing as he disappears from sight.
“Hey, can I get a shirt?”
My brain’s starting to assemble more facts now, agitation creeping in as the lethargy of cryo slips away.
Where am I? Who are these people? They’re in uniforms—is this some kind of military facility? If so, what am I doing here, and am I safe? I try to croak out a question, but I can’t make my voice work. And there’s no one to ask anyway.
And so I’m left alone in silence, every nerve throbbing in time with my heartbeat, my head swimming with half-asked questions, trying to wade my way free of the confusion I didn’t know came with cryo.
I don’t know how much time has gone by when I hear voices again. I’m in the middle of another strange dream-thing, this one of a world thick with grasping green plants, blue snow drifting down from the sky, when—
“Aurora, can you hear me?”
With effort, I push away the image of the place I’ve never seen and turn my head. I must have been dozing, because there’s a woman beside me in the same blue-gray uniform as everyone else.
She’s perfectly white. And I don’t mean I’m-half-Chinese-and-you’re-whiter-than-me white, I mean pure-as-the-driven-snow white. Impossibly white. Her eyes are a pale gray—the whole eye, not just the iris—and they’re way too big. Her bone-white hair is pulled back into a ponytail.
“I am Greater Clan Battle Leader Danil de Verra de Stoy.” She pauses to let me digest that mouthful. “I am pleased to meet you, Aurora.”
Great Clan what now?
“Mmmm,” I agree, not game to risk a different kind of sound.
Nobody ever calls me Aurora unless I’m in trouble.
“I imagine you have many questions,” she says.
She’s evidently not expecting a reply. I nod a fraction, willing my focus to stay with this moment.
“I’m afraid I have bad news,” she continues. “I know of no way to break this to you gently, so I’ll be frank. There was an incident while your ship was en route to Lei Gong.”
“We were traveling to Octavia,” I say quietly, but I know the name of my colony isn’t the point. I can tell from the careful reserve in her voice that there’s something much bigger coming. There’s a pressure in the air, like the moments before a storm breaks.
“You were removed from your cryopod improperly,” she continues, “which is why you’re feeling like you’ve been turned inside out. That will improve soon. But the Hadfield was the subject of an incident in the Fold, Aurora.”
“It’s Auri,” I whisper, stalling.
Incident in the Fold.
“What kind of incident?” I ask.
“You were adrift for some time. You may have noticed I don’t look like you.”
“My mom always said it wasn’t polite to point out that sort of thing.”
She has a sad kind of a smile for that. “I’m a Betraskan. I’m one of many alien species Terrans have encountered in the time since you boarded the Hadfield.”
My mind flatlines with one long beeeeeeeeeeeeeeep, all coherent thought shutting down.
Does not compute, please reboot.
“Um,” I say, very carefully. My brain’s trying its best to throw out possibilities and getting nowhere good. Are these people conspiracy theorists? Have I been kidnapped by psych cases? Maybe they are military and they’ve been keeping first contact from us civilians?
“I know this must be difficult to process,” she says.
“We encountered aliens?” I manage.
“I’m afraid so.”
“But the Fold to Octavia was only supposed to take a week! If we didn’t even get there, it’s only been a few days, right?”
“I’m afraid not.”
Something’s trying to creep across the corners of my vision, like water seeping in, only this water’s phosphorescent, pricked with a thousand points of turquoise light. I shove it back and focus my attention on the woman at my bedside.
“How . . .” My throat closes over. I can barely whisper the question. “How long was I gone?”
“I’m sorry, Aurora. Auri.”
“. . . Two hundred and twenty years.”
“What? You’ve got to be kidding me. This is—” But I don’t even have words for what this is. “What are you talking about?”
“I know this must be difficult,” she says carefully.
I need to speak to someone who’s making sense. My heart’s thumping wildly, trying to burst out of my chest, matching the pounding in my temples. I clutch the silvery sheet to myself and sit up, setting the world whirling. But I manage to swing my legs over the edge of the bed and haul the sheet around me like a toga as I stagger to my feet.
“I want to speak to someone from Ad Astra, someone from the Octavia expedition. I want to speak to my mom or dad.”
I stumble my first few steps, and momentum carries me to the door, which slides open as I approach. Two women in blue-gray uniforms swing around to face me, and one steps forward.
I try to dodge, but I nearly fall over sideways and she grabs me by the shoulders. My hands are busy holding up my sheet, so I just kick her in the knee. The woman yelps, her hands tightening painfully on me, fingers digging in.
“Let her through.” It’s Battle Leader White Lady’s voice behind me, and in total contrast to my panic, she sounds calm. Kind of resigned.
The woman releases me, and my legs are shaking as I totter forward, my throat tight, as if someone’s squeezing it.
And then I see the windows across the hallway. I see what’s outside them.
My brain tries to understand what’s happening, flipping through options and discarding them at top speed. The view outside the windows isn’t a wall. It’s not a building. It’s a huge sweep of metal, studded with bright lights, stretching away from me in a long curve.
Those are spacecraft zipping around it, like a school of tiny fish darting around a shark.
This is a space station. I’m in space. This place is impossible—it makes the Cid Shipyards that the Hadfield launched from look like a gas station somewhere out in the boondocks.
This place is impossible.
Unless that lady really is an alien.
Unless I’m really in space.
Unless this really is the future.
Does not compute, please reboot.
I’m 237 years old.
Everyone I know is dead.
My parents are dead.
My sister is dead.
My friends are dead.
My home is gone.
Everyone I know is gone.
The next wave of the vision comes for me.
And this time I let the glowing waters sweep over my head.
And they pull me under.