A Sky Unbroken excerpt
I wake up in a darkened room stiff and aching, and alone.
When I open my eyes, there’s nothing to see. Not a speck of light. The floor I’m slumped on is cool and hard. A familiar mineral smell laces the air. I grope out with my hands and feet and find walls on all sides. The space isn’t much bigger than my bedroom closet at home.
A wave of fire rushing through Earth’s atmosphere, searing across the planet’s surface as I watch from above. Flaming red-and-violet clouds roiling in its wake. Every particle of living blue and green burnt away.
My stomach heaves. I tilt my head, gagging on acid-soured spit. Then I push myself away, off the floor, until my back smacks the wall behind me. Sitting there, I wipe my mouth. My legs tremble. I don’t think I could stand up if I wanted to.
My home is gone. My house, my street, my school, the park where I ran cross-country practice, Michlin Street with its cafes and the pie shop and Angela’s favorite thrift store and—
Angela. Mom and Dad. Lisa. Evan. My grandparents. Every classmate and teacher. Every one of my neighbors. Everyone . . .
The horror of it swells inside me, suffocating me. My eyes burn.
Gone. They’re all gone.
My mind balks—twists away from the thought and skitters around the fringes like a mouse trapped in a cage with an elephant. There’s no room for the full truth of it inside me. But there’s nothing else. Just me, alone in the dark. I lower my head and rock.
I don’t realize I’m crying until the sobs start hitching out of me, tears dripping off my cheeks, salt on my lips. A strange, low sound rips up from my chest, as if my body is trying to drown out the truth. As if, if I drown it out, it will stop being true. I squeeze my arms around my knees, still rocking.
No. No. No. I refuse to accept it.
* * *
I’m not sure how long it’s been when I come back to myself. I’m suddenly aware of the rawness in my throat and on my face where I’ve rubbed it against my jeans, of the dampness seeped down the collar of my shirt, and of the multiplying threes spinning out like an echo in the back of my head: 3 times 19,683 is 59,049. 3 times 59,049 is 177,147. 3 times 177,147 is . . .
The knowledge of what’s happened is still there, looming like a distant mountainside behind my consciousness. I hold off from looking closer. As long as it’s over there, tangible but separate from the rest of my thoughts, I feel more like myself. I can’t deal with the enormity of this catastrophe right now. I’d get further trying to factor infinity.
Instead, I drag in slow and even breaths and press my palms against the cool floor. There’s a hint of a tremor in the surface beneath me. I’m still on a ship, I think. A ship that’s moving rather quickly, even by Kemyate standards, for that tremor to be perceptible.
I was on a ship when it happened. Tabzi’s brother’s pleasure jetter. In the navigation room, staring through the view screen at those churning clouds . . .
Win said the bomb used the same technology that led to the accidental destruction of his planet and forced the Kemyate survivors onto the space station orbiting above it millennia ago. I traveled down to their former planet as part of a mining expedition. There wasn’t the slightest sign of life, just dull brown land, dull gray water. That’s what Earth must look like now.
My gut lurches, and I shy away from the image. Not going there. I have to deal with what’s happening right now first.
My impressions of what followed the detonation are fragmented. A squad of Kemyate police burst in with Thlo in their midst. The six of us stared at them, and at her, the woman who’d led our group of rebels to that point. At her impenetrable eyes as she flicked her hand toward the Enforcers. I remember the out-of-tune twang of a blaster and Isis’s body crumpling, black-and-red curls scattering; Britta leaping up and shot too. Thlo gesturing to me. “Take care of that one.”
Win threw himself in front of me and caught that blast, but it didn’t matter. As I reached for him where he was sprawled and gasping, another crackle hit the back of my head.
Nothing after that but blackness.
I have no sense of how long I was out. Obviously I was moved from the navigation room—but how far? Am I even on the same ship?
And where are the others? The Enforcers shot to numb, not to kill . . . While I was watching, at least. They could all be gone too. Tabzi and Emmer, who I hardly knew, but who came through when we needed them most. Isis, who took charge in Thlo’s absence in her usual mellow but focused way. Britta, who risked her life with me, distracting the ships that came to stop us, smiling all the way. And Win. The one person I’ve been able to count on all along, who was protecting me right until the end.
I hug myself, feeling the echo of his embrace. The last time I held him, I knew it was supposed to be the last. I was supposed to leave and never see him again. But at least I was going to know he was okay, working toward the future he’d dreamed of.
Maybe he, and the rest of them, are still okay. I’m alive, after all, despite being an Earthling brought into Kemya illegally, allowed to witness every aspect of their lives and tech. “Standard protocol” would dictate I should have been killed immediately.
Unless the Enforcers wanted to interrogate me first.
Thlo wouldn’t like that, if she’s sticking to her cover story, pretending to be loyal to Kemya’s Council of leaders. So many things I could tell the Enforcers about who’s been behind the rebel activities all these years.
I brace my feet against the floor and my back against the wall. I don’t know what I’m going to do when someone does show up, but I’m not giving up without a fight. Even if my world, and all the people I was fighting for, are . . .
Not thinking about it. Not thinking about it. Not thinking about it.
Time passes, and the darkness doesn’t waver. The slight tremor in the floor never ebbs. No sound penetrates the walls.
No one comes.
My stomach is too unsettled for hunger, but my mouth has gone dry and ashy. The back of my head aches where the Enforcer’s blast hit it, though the skin itself doesn’t feel bruised. I could rest my forehead on my knees and shut my eyes, just for a moment—but I’m worried I’m so worn out it won’t be just a moment.
My eyelids are starting to droop of their own accord when a rectangle of light whispers open in front of me. I barely have time to register a silhouetted figure before the blaster twangs.
• • •
The second time I wake up, it’s to a spread of thin, interlocking lines glowing across a low ceiling. I’m lying down, with a pressure around my neck, forearms, and calves that prevents me from making any movement larger than a twitch. A stinging pain shoots up my arm when I test the restraints at my left, as if I’ve been stung on the inside of my wrist.
“It isn’t active yet,” a man says in Kemyate, beyond my view. “Ask her what you want, and tell me when to . . . it.”
What isn’t active? A figure moves into my line of sight. A woman, dark-skinned and muscular, with a blaster attached to the silvery belt around her waist. She’s an Enforcer.
I stiffen as her eyes meet mine. She cocks her head, the corners of her lips curled down.
“I have a few questions for you,” she says in English, her intonation flat. “You came from Earth, how long ago?”
Two months. Two months since Win and I chased Jeanant, the rebels’ former leader, around my planet and through its history, collecting the pieces of the weapon he’d hidden there when his mission to free Earth had failed. Two months since Win invited me come to Kemya with him, to see that mission finally carried through. I don’t know how much of that the Enforcers have already figured out. So I say nothing.
The woman doesn’t press, just moves on. “You aided your Kemyate ‘friends’ in planning to disable Earth’s time field generator?”
We didn’t just plan—we succeeded. For maybe ten glorious minutes, Earth was free of the Kemyate scientists and Travelers who’d been tweaking our past across thousands of years of experiments.
Ten glorious minutes before Emmer spotted the bomb dropping into the atmosphere.
“Yes,” I say. No point in denying the obvious.
“Did you intend to return to Kemya after this?”
“No,” I say. “I wanted to go home and forget you all even exist.”
I’ve choked up. The Enforcer’s mouth curls again, this time into what looks like a smirk. Am I amusing her?
“You dislike Kemya so much?” she asks.
“Kemya is fine,” I say roughly. “I just prefer Earth. I wanted us to be free, and to go back to my life the way it was. That’s all.”
Now all that is gone. It takes me a moment to find my voice again. I am not going to cry in front of her.
“I don’t know.”
“You wanted to free Earth,” she goes on without pausing. “Why do you think your ‘friends’ did this?”
Partly for the same reason as me, but I don’t think mentioning that will help. “Because they care about Kemya,” I say. “They wanted the experiments to stop so you would start looking for a new planet to settle on—a real home.”
“What did they have planned next?”
“Nothing. We were done. That was all we wanted.” Fear prickles through me. I can’t help adding, “Where are they? My friends?”
The Enforcer ignores me. She raises a hand to her ear, and then steps away. After a moment, she murmurs something I can’t make out. Talking to someone through a communicator?
“Finished,” she says after a minute to someone else in the room. “Start it.”
Finished? She hasn’t asked about the others who might have been helping us six, or who was leading us, or anything else I would have expected. Who interrupted the interrogation, and what did they say to her?
There’s a mechanical click near my head. My wrist stings again, but only for an instant.
“How long does it take to . . . ?” a new voice asks, nasal sharp. My chest clenches.
“The effect begins immediately,” the man from before answers. “It will take a short time to adapt to her . . . reactions.”
A different woman appears by my feet. A slim woman with sleek, white-blond hair and milky skin.
Kurra. The Enforcer who tracked Win and me on Earth, who almost caught me on Kemya. Who I watched turn a little Earthling boy’s face into a blackened crisp outside a cave in Vietnam. My pulse skitters as her ice-gray eyes peer down at me. She’s going to— I have to—
The rush of panic has barely hit me before it retreats, as if my body is a sponge and the feeling has been absorbed back into it. My throat prickles with a vaguely yeasty taste. I stare up at Kurra. Someone else is talking. Not my language. But I should be able to—
A few phrases penetrate my scattered thoughts. “ . . . orders were to . . . with the others . . . not a problem of . . .”
“You know me,” Kurra says. My attention snaps back to her. Another jolt of terror lurches up, and just as quickly is sucked away.
I can’t think. What was—
She’s looking at me. She asked a question. “Yes,” I say.
“I have you now,” she says. “Are you frightened?”
The next jab of panic is little more than a flicker, there and gone. I blink at her. I should be. The blaster at her hip. The boy . . .
But her figure fills my vision and everything is placid.
“I don’t know,” I say.
She smiles thinly and says something over her shoulder that I don’t catch. When she steps closer, the first woman returns, touches her arm. They exchange words, too quickly for me to follow. My mind swims in and out of focus. They’ve done something. They’ve—
The sense of urgency dulls as quickly as my earlier panic.
The other woman is reaching for my elbow. I flinch and my arm moves. The restraints are gone. A flash of relief is sucked back into the placid pool that’s filled me. A man grasps my other arm. They haul me to my feet. I teeter on the floor before catching my balance. Sleek beige and steel-like structures stand around me in the small room, glowing green displays with foreign characters floating among them. I’m tugged out the door. My legs move, left, right, following my captors.
We walk out into a narrow hall, pale gray walls and floor, low lights. Not where I was before.
The impression is hazy. As we turn a corner, I grapple with the jumbled images in my head: a soft, spongy floor; a broad navigation room with gleaming consoles and a screen stretching across the wall. My planet. Blue and green and white and rippling red and violet—
My breath catches.
I’m reaching for the pieces again when one Enforcer waves open a door, and I hear several voices falling into a hush.
She shoves me in. The lighting in this room is even dimmer than the hall. A couple dozen shadowy people stand and sit along the walls in small clusters. There’s a chill in the air. The door sighs shut behind me. Then a figure with long, black hair throws herself at me, arms wrapping tight:
“Skylar! Oh my God, I thought—”
I’m hugging her back before my mind has caught up. The smooth face pressing close to mine, the voice sunny even in her shock, the hint of jasmine-scented shampoo in that hair. Joy bursts inside me.
I’m already squeezing her closer. “Angela?”
When she pulls back, I gape at her. Angela’s here. Angela. Here. She should have been—
A pinch of pain.
“Skylar? Oh, honey . . .”
I’m wrapped in an embrace from both sides. Shaking arms, a kiss pressed to the top of my head, teary eyes. My eyes widen. For a second I can’t breathe.
The pool inside me swallows everything up, leaving only calm. It’s a dream. It has to be a dream. The atmosphere even has that dreamlike flavor, flimsy and vague. The way people keep saying things I don’t totally understand. The slipping of my attention no matter how hard I try to focus.
This is what I’d want to dream. My parents. Angela. Before, in the dark, I was—
My gaze wanders through the room as more words wash over me. There’s Evan, stepping toward us, and—Ms. Cavoy from physics? A few kids I recognize from that class. Over there—Daniel? And a couple of his friends. A dark-complexioned man I think teaches chemistry, and a ruddy-cheeked woman from the English department. There’s the Sinclairs from across the street, and Ruth and Liora from a few doors down . . .
It doesn’t make sense. I saw Earth catch fire. Everyone here, they should all have—
My emotions shift and settle so smoothly I lose the thread of that thought completely. Mom is still talking.
“—you’ve been. When you didn’t come home—no one had seen you—we’re just so happy you’re all right.”
“I didn’t come home,” I repeat. Getting the words from my brain to my tongue is like pushing them through mud.
“Yesterday night,” Dad says, and pauses. “If that is yesterday, still. That’s not important, Sky. What’s important is you’re here now, wherever here is.”
“We’ll find out what’s going on,” Mom says, her voice fierce. “I don’t know who’s responsible for this, but they can’t lock us up with no explanation—this is ridiculous!”
They don’t know. They don’t know this is a spaceship, they don’t know our captors don’t follow Earth rules, they don’t know that Earth—
My whole head has become murky, thoughts and memories and feelings like slippery minnows that dart in and out of view just below that still surface. I shake myself, but the water won’t clear.
“Skylar,” Angela says, clutching my forearm. I look down at her brown fingers against my paler skin and a glimpse of memory flickers by. A young woman, Yenee, vague and robotic. Tabzi, tapping her wrist, right there. The implant, it keeps her . . . relaxed. In a small room, with a—
What was I remembering? I fumble after the images and come up empty.
“Are you okay?” Angela’s asking me. “Did they do something to you?”
They did. Yes. Interlocking lights on the ceiling. A stinging in my wrist.
If I could pull those ideas together, maybe I could answer properly. But Angela’s peering at me with those wide, dark eyes, wider with each second I’m silent.
“I’ll be fine,” I hear myself say. I touch her arm. Grasp Mom’s sleeve. They are here. My fingers tighten, keeping them near. A single definite question drifts up. “How did you all get here?”
“Three young men,” Mom says. “We’d just gotten home from work—they must have broken in—and They walked right into the living room and—” She glances at Dad. “What was it they used, to knock us out?”
“They must have had Tasers,” Dad says, but he’s frowning.
Blasters, I think.
“I was at home with Mom,” Angela says, nodding to a short figure I hadn’t noticed earlier—her mother, crouched in a corner of the room—“and Evan, helping him with this photo thing . . . But Dad was upstairs. We haven’t seen him. You don’t think they’d have hurt him?”
Mom has started digging through her pockets. “I almost forgot. The one, right before he . . . zapped me, he made me take this. He said I should give it to you. Do you know what it means?”
She hands me a scrap of paper. I gaze at it dumbly. A line of alien characters is scrawled across it. My vision blurs and steadies as their meaning comes to me.
I did what I could. J.
That’s all. J. Dark eyes, warm lips, a low teasing voice. Jule. I gulp as pain slices through me. Those eyes anguished, a rawness in my voice. You put all our lives on the line for—
Placid. Deep, deep, deep, all the way down.
My hand has closed around the paper, crumpling it. Why are my teeth clenched? That’s gone too, the ripples on the water stilled. Jule did what he could. Then he is why my parents, Angela, everyone else is here—how?
I’m too muddled to stitch it together. My legs wobble, and Mom pulls me to her. I let myself sink into the comfort of her arms.
“It’s okay,” she says. “We can talk about it later.”
They’re here, somehow. On a ship. Heading to a space station like a shard of ice hovering above a barren planet.
The people there, they don’t like us. I know that much. And now my parents, my friends—they’re just as captive as I am.