Vy supposed the Torth could have been abducting humans for centuries.
Jonathan Stead might have done his deeds on another planet, or a long time ago. According to Kessa, other Torth-ruled cities existed. The important point was that someone else from Vy’s world had gotten enslaved by Torth—and escaped.
Escape was possible.
“When did it happen?” Cherise asked Kessa. “When did Jonathan Stead kill Torth?”
The little ummin consulted with Weptolyso, and replied in her careful English. “Long ago. When elders were young.”
That could mean a few years, or it could mean a few centuries. Their worst miscommunications tended to be about units of time. Kessa proudly claimed to have been a slave for nearly four hundred “blinks of Morja,” which seemed to imply the phase cycle of the biggest moon. Yet that was preposterous, because Vy had been keeping track of the passing days by tying knots into the fringes of her rag skirt every sleep shift. By her reckoning, ten weeks had passed, and that was apparently one “blink of Morja.”
If the moon phases were that slow, then Kessa was over seventy years old.
The ummin must have miscalculated or miscommunicated. Surely no one could endure slavery for that long. No one sane.
“How did Jonathan Stead steal weapons?” Vy figured the legendary hero must have stolen a blaster rifle or two. Gloves and rifles were keyed to Torth owners, and Vy had no way to obtain a valid passcode of indecipherable Torth glyphs.
“Tsk!” Kessa was predictably mortified by the idea of stealing from Torth. “Jonathan Stead was a storm. He could kill gods. No weapons.” She made explosive sounds and hand gestures, as if throwing lightening bolts.
Slaves weren’t allowed to think about escape, but it seemed they were okay with swapping legends about runaways and heroes.
They let those stories molder. They fantasized about miracles that would never happen.
Just like Cherise fantasized about a rescue from Thomas.
Vy was finding it harder and harder to live that way. She couldn’t imagine her disabled foster brother as a storm god, or as any sort of maverick who would pull off a rescue. All she knew for certain was that the Torth weren’t human enough to take care of a severely disabled prisoner.
Thomas was almost certainly dead.
Perhaps Jonathan Stead had felt as helpless, lonely, and frustrated as she felt? He must have done something proactive to get back to “paradise.”
Delia, meanwhile, sank back into her uncaring state. Her skin looked thinner than tissue paper. Dirt accentuated her gaunt cheeks. She looked and acted like a homeless sleepwalker.
For a short while, she had looked awake. The name from Earth had provoked a frown. Vy had hoped Delia might have something to say about Jonathan Stead.
“We’d better get Delia to bed.” Vy steered the older woman towards their bunk-room.
The mob finally began to break up. It seemed the gang of tough-looking slaves were letting the humans live, at least for another day of work shifts.
We aren’t going to grow old here, Vy knew.
If only the legend could have yielded something better than vague, mythical answers.
“Do you want to sleep on the floor?” Vy gently asked Delia. That would be safer than climbing to their top bunk shelves. After the legend of Jonathan Stead, Vy hoped the local slaves would not harass them.
But Delia was already climbing.
Vy sighed and followed her, shelf by shelf. ”Careful.” She supported Delia, keeping her tone encouraging. “Up.”
A fall could end Delia’s life. A bad injury would do it. Their shelves were quite high, on the top row beneath the dank, moldy ceiling. They practically had to do pull-ups to get onto their beds.
“I remember now,” Delia said in a sleepy tone, pulling herself up past each shelf. “I thought his name sounded familiar.”
“Whose name?” Vy said. “Jonathan Stead?”
“Will had a book about psychics.” Delia trembled as she hoisted herself up another shelf. “You know, because of all the rumors about old Garrett. There was a paragraph in there about the Dovanacks.”
Vy was aware of Cherise climbing up the shelves below her, listening. And Kessa. Weeks ago, a bunch of local slaves had pressured Kessa to give up her floor-level bunk, forcing her to sleep just below her human friends.
“Was Jonathan Stead in that book?” Vy asked.
“Mm hm.” Delia paused to rest. An ummin glared resentfully at her. “He was active about a hundred years before Garrett. But yeah, he was in there.”
“Did he have storm powers?” Cherise asked.
Vy watched Delia in the dimness. She wanted a clue, even if it was just a facial expression.
“I don’t remember.” Delia wheezed as she crawled onto her shelf.
Vy hid her disappointment. She hauled herself onto the adjacent shelf, a cramped and chilly space.
She leaned over to spread a rag blanket over Delia. Then she pulled up her own threadbare blanket. She curled up and tried to get comfortable on the metal surface. If only she had a mattress and pillow. Or her mother’s touch and the sounds of home.
“That book included Garrett just because he won a lot at poker,” Delia said sleepily. “But in all fairness, he was secretive. I guess there were things he never told anyone.”
Vy pictured the opulent Dovanack mansion. Old Garrett Dovanack must have won more than a few high stakes poker games.
She closed her eyes, and pictured Ariock. She wished she could talk with him again. His deep voice had been a comfort, calm and implacable, like a protective wall. Judging by his taste in books and media, he would be fun to talk to.
“Garrett told us that he got abducted by aliens, once,” Delia said.
Vy opened her eyes.
“And he stole a spaceship to get home,” Delia said.
Implications hung in the air.
Vy was fully awake. She propped herself up on her elbows so she could stare at Delia. “He really said that?”
“Old Garrett said a lot of things,” Delia said. “He had all kinds of stories. You never knew which were true, if any of them.”
Vy glanced towards Cherise, and saw her foster sister looking back at her. If Garrett Dovanack or Jonathan Stead had escaped slavery, then they had to find out how.
The withered ummins nearby snored, oblivious to conversation. Most of the slaves who slept this high up were somnambulistic. Only Kessa was alert, listening on her nearby shelf.
Delia pulled something out of her rags and handed it to Vy. “Here,” she whispered.
It was a folded, creased paper.
Vy unfolded a photograph. A family smiled in paradise, in that world where happiness and kindness were normal. The mother in the photograph was recognizable as a healthy and younger version of Delia. She had wind-tousled hair and a carefree grin. Her husband was dark and handsome, and had his arm around her in a loving embrace. Together, they restrained a freckle-faced boy with an innocently dazzling grin.
They knelt on an inviting green lawn and a blue sky. Part of the Dovanack mansion was in the background.
Tears blurred Vy’s vision. She hadn’t expected to see paradise.
“I was afraid to show it you,” Delia said in a low tone, “because of all the mind readers. I try to forget I have it, during our work shifts. But I would like you to hold onto it when I’m gone.”
Vy wanted to reassure Delia that she would survive. They would all survive.
Instead, she remained quiet. Delia had a fatal form of pancreatic cancer, and she knew the difference between reality and empty, false reassurances.
Vy scrutinized the photo closer, marveling that the little boy looked too normal-sized and happy to be the giant she’d met. Was that really Ariock?
“It’s my only picture of Ariock,” Delia whispered. “I was smart enough to take it out of my phone case and hide it, before they stole my phone.”
Vy visualized the transformation from cheerful child to brooding giant. Ariock would have had to be careful with all the antique furniture in the mansion. He would have felt awkward in his own body, ducking beneath chandeliers and twisting under doorframes.
“I think this shows who he really is,” Delia said. “Happy. He became withdrawn after the plane crash.”
“Crash?” Vy glanced at her.
“When Will died,” Delia said. “Ariock almost died in that crash, too.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” Vy said words that would have meant something on a better world.
“I know this sounds strange,” Delia said, “but I miss Ariock’s voice most of all. He isn’t a whole lot like his father—he was robbed of the chance to go to college, to be social—but sometimes, when I heard him talk, I thought, just for a second, my husband is with me. He sounds a lot like Will.”
“It’s not strange,” Vy said.
Cherise looked curious about the dog-eared photograph, so Vy handed it over. She fought an urge to warn Cherise to be careful with it.
That photo was their only scrap of paradise. It was a treasure. It encapsulated everything they had lost. Not just their families and homes, but everything. Seven billion people they had never met. Entire continents they had never visited. The internet, music, futures, oceans, forests. All of it.
“If he’s alive,” Delia said, “then he’s trying to save us. I know it. He nearly died trying to save his father. He ran back in there, into fire and smoke, and tried to drag people out. He was only eight. Everyone said it was a miracle that he survived.”
Vy thought of the giant she had met, and nodded. Ariock had tried to protect them from the Torth.
Cherise handed the photo down to Kessa, on the shelf below hers. Kessa studied it with extra-wide owlish eyes. The Torth had a lot of pretty vistas in their windows, but they didn’t have pictures of happy people. It must look alien to her.
“He could have saved Will,” Delia said in a low voice. “If I’d listened. If I had known what he could do.”
Vy rested her cheek on the shelf, listening. She wanted to encourage Delia’s talkative mood. “What can he do?”
“We were supposed to go to his grandma’s funeral.” Delia fixed her gaze towards a distance that only she could see. “Everyone died that year. Will’s brother died in an ice hockey accident.” She ticked events off on her fingers. “His sister-in-law died of an accidental overdose. Then Will’s mother, Rose, got into a car and drove off a cliff.”
Vy wished she could offer adequate words. “Sorry to hear that.”
Delia waved away the sympathy. “No one was all that sad about Grandma Rose. Will arranged her funeral in Florida, and booked a flight for the three of us.”
“Wait,” Vy said, recalling an earlier conversation with Delia. “Was this the grandmother who had nightmares about Ariock? The one who said she dreamed he was a storm?”
Kessa stirred. Cherise looked their way. Luckily, no one else in the bunk-room could understand English.
“That’s the one,” Delia affirmed. “She was a bit crazy. Anyway. We packed for the trip, and…” She sniffled. “Ariock woke us up, screaming. He said the plane would catch on fire.”
A chill rippled over Vy.
Delia went on in a pained tone. “Will thought it was nothing. We had gone to a lot of funerals that year, and it was tough to explain death to an eight-year-old. But Ariock was a cheerful boy. That night? He wasn’t happy. He threw clothes out of our luggage.”
Delia paused. Her tone was thick, and Vy realized that she was weeping.
“I decided not to go. Ariock was acting really out of character, and I begged Will to let him stay home with me. But Will wouldn’t listen. It was his mother’s funeral, Ariock’s grandma. That was the only serious fight we ever had. Will stormed out of the house—and he took Ariock with him.”
“I’m so sorry,” Vy said. She could almost feel Delia’s long-ago pain, like a stab to the heart, aware that Delia had never seen her husband again. Her last moments with the man she’d loved were tainted by fury.
“Did Ariock predict the Torth were coming to get us?” Cherise asked, propped up on an elbow.
That was a good question, Vy thought. Kessa listened, alert and curious.
Delia seemed to mull it over. After a while, she said, “I think he knew something bad was coming. He was restless all that week, asking me to check the back-up generator and things like that. He said he thought there would be a bad storm.”
That was an understatement.
Vy wished she could talk to Ariock again. If he could actually predict the future…? He might be good at self-defense. He might still be alive.
“That’s why I was a little out-of-sorts when you showed up,” Delia said. “It had started to snow, and then I saw headlights in our driveway. You were an unexpected factor. But if Ariock had a specific dream, he didn’t tell me. He probably dismissed it as a meaningless nightmare.”
Vy curled up under her thin blanket. They might as well be talking about a dead world, not just plane crashes and funerals.
“Why would he dismiss it?” Cherise asked. “Didn’t he remember what happened to his father?”
“No.” Delia’s tone was heavy with sorrow. “I think it’s selective amnesia. He remembers the aftermath of the plane crash, and I think he has memories of trying to save his father. And failing. But the night and day leading up to it? Nothing.”
Vy had worked with victims of violence, and she understood. Extreme trauma could do strange things to a person’s memory.
“I brought it up once,” Delia said. “I said, ‘you had a predictive nightmare.’ And he just gave me a blank look. I never mentioned it again. I didn’t see the point. Ariock is pretty good at manufacturing reasons to hate himself, and I’m sure he would take it hard, to think he could have prevented his father from boarding that plane.”
She seemed unaware of the guilt in her own voice.
Vy reached across the shelves to grip Delia’s bony hand. “You couldn’t have stopped him, either.”
Delia squeezed back. “I tried. I tried to get him to stay home.”
“I know,” Vy said. “You did what any sane, loving person would have done. What happened isn’t your fault.”
“What caused the plane to crash?” Cherise asked. “Was it a storm?”
Ariock seemed to predict storms. His oddball grandmother had predicted that he would become a storm. And there was a supposed storm god, Jonathan Stead. His name appeared in a book along with the name of Garrett Dovanack, Ariock’s great-grandfather.
Vy tried to make the tidbits of information fit together. It felt like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces.
“No,” Delia said. “There was an engine failure. An investigative committee said they found evidence of sabotage.”
“Someone made the plane crash?” Vy asked.
“They never found out, for sure,” Delia said. “The blame never got put on anyone. But forty-seven people died. My son was the only person who survived.”
Vy guessed that Ariock must have a case of survivor’s guilt. That would fit with his tendency towards self-blame.
Vy lay on her back and stared at mold stains on the ceiling. She kept daydreaming about stealing weapons or vehicles, or sneaking out of the city. But she knew it was futile. Such plans meant death.
But what if Ariock was alive? What if he had some sort of power to see the future?
“How did Ariock survive that plane crash?” Vy asked.
“I don’t know,” Delia said.
Vy began to imagine powers. Ariock might fall short of being a superhero, but he did have superhuman size and strength. What if, like Thomas, there was more to his abilities than she imagined?
What if they were going to be rescued after all … just not by Thomas?
“We’re doomed,” Delia said, her tone full of defeat. “That’s all I know. Ariock isn’t their Jonathan Stead.” She sounded as if she had run through daydreamed scenarios a million times. “Or ours.”