”Careful,” Vy said, supporting Lynn as they climbed the shelves together. “Up.” She kept her tone encouraging, although as they climbed higher, she grew more terrified that Lynn would fall. A bad injury would end her life. Their bunk shelves were three stories up, the top row beneath the dank, moldy ceiling, and they practically had to do pull-ups to get onto their beds.
“Are you sure you don’t want to sleep on the floor?” Vy asked gently. “I think it will be safe tonight.” The last time any of them had tried sleeping on the floor, aliens had kicked them and thrown feces at them. A mob had practically chased them up the shelves. But that was before the legend of Jonathan Stead. Now that the legend was widespread, circulating throughout the Tunnels, most slaves treated the humans as if they might be distantly related to royalty.
“No,” Lynn moaned in her feeble voice. “Don’t make me.”
“All right.” Vy sighed, wishing the legend could have done more for them. Jonathan Stead sounded like a name from Earth. Whoever he was, he must have been a human who escaped the Torth . . . he must have found a way . . . but when Vy begged for details, all she got was vague, mythical answers.
“When did it happen?” she’d asked Kessa. “When did Jonathan Stead kill Torth?”
The little ummin had 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. Vy’s worst miscommunications were about time. Kessa proudly claimed to have been a slave for nearly three hundred “blinks of Morja,” which seemed to imply phases of the biggest moon. Yet that was preposterous, because Vy kept track of passing days by tying knots on the hem of her rag skirt, and by her reckoning, ten weeks had passed, and she hadn’t even seen one completed “blink of Morja.” Her hem was a mass of knots. If the moon phases were that slow, then Kessa was over one hundred years old. The ummin must have miscalculated or something. No one could survive as a slave to the Torth for that long.
Vy supposed the Torth could have been abducting humans for centuries. Other Torth-ruled cities existed, so the Jonathan Stead event might have happened on another planet, maybe a long time ago, but it had happened. Escape was possible. That was the important thing.
She had tried to find out how Jonathan Stead had stolen weapons and blasted his way to freedom. Torth glyphs were utterly foreign to her eyes. But Kessa, predictably, was mortified by the idea of stealing from Torth. “He did not use a blaster glove,” she had insisted. “He was a storm god.” She’d made explosive sounds, as if reenacting a battle.
Slaves weren’t allowed to think about escape, yet they swapped legends about freed slaves, and heroic runaways, and different ideas of paradise. They waited. Just like Cherise waited for Thomas. Vy supposed that most people were content to die while waiting for a miracle, but she was finding it harder and harder to live that way. Perhaps Jonathan Stead had felt like her. Lonely, and faced with death every day, and desperate to find a way home.
“I remember now,” Lynn said in a sleepy tone, pulling herself up past each shelf. Her skin looked thinner than tissue paper, hanging off her bones. Dirt accentuated her gaunt cheeks. “Jonathan Stead. I thought his name sounded familiar.”
Vy watched her, afraid that she would forget whatever she had just remembered. Lynn had claimed a few times that the name sounded familiar.
“Will had a book about him,” Lynn said now. “About people with powers, like everyone claimed old Garrett had. A book about psychics.” She trembled as she hoisted herself up another shelf.
“Jonathan Stead had psychic powers?” Vy prompted. She was aware of Cherise and Kessa climbing the shelves below her, listening. A mob of slaves had pressured Kessa to give up her low-level bunk, so she slept next to the humans.
“Witnesses said that he could make objects fly across a room with the power of his mind,” Lynn said.
“Storm powers?” Cherise asked softly.
Lynn chuckled. “That book made it sound like he could do anything mysterious. It was ridiculous. They put Garrett in there, too. Because he won a lot at poker.”
Vy remembered the opulent Dovanack mansion, and wondered how often Garrett had won.
“It’s funny,” Lynn said, wheezing as she crawled onto her shelf. “Old Garrett liked to be mysterious. He liked to make people guess where he got his scars. He told everyone a different story.” She collapsed in exhaustion. “He told me he got abducted by aliens, and stole a spaceship to escape.”
Vy froze, in the process of pulling a threadbare blanket over Lynn. “He got abducted by aliens?”
Lynn waved dismissively, oblivious to the connection to their own situation. “That’s what he said. I don’t think he was serious.”
Vy exchanged a look with Cherise. Another grueling day of work was ahead of them, and another, into a hopeless, joyless, early death, unless they could escape. If Garrett Dovanack or Jonathan Stead had escaped slavery, then they had to find out how.
“Thomas would have been in that book,” Cherise said, climbing up to her own shelf.
Frustrated, Vy climbed past Lynn and hauled herself onto her top shelf, and curled into a fetal position in order to stay warm. They didn’t have enough blankets. If only she had kept her winter coat.
If only she had a pillow and mattress, or her mother’s touch, and the sounds of home. She couldn’t imagine her disabled foster brother as a storm god, or as any sort of maverick who would steal spaceships. Cherise seemed to survive on the certainty that he was planning an elaborate rescue, but Vy knew better. The Torth weren’t humanitarian enough to take care of a disabled prisoner. Thomas was almost certainly dead.
“I wasn’t thinking of Thomas,” Lynn said.
Implications hung in the air.
Vy leaned over the edge and peered down at Lynn’s troubled face in the darkness.
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.
“Do you mean . . . Ariock?” Vy hesitated to say his name, because she privately figured that Ariock must be dead.
Lynn pulled something out of her rags, and handed it up to Vy. “Here,” she whispered.
It was a folded, creased paper. As Vy unfolded it, she could guess that it was a photograph.
A family smiled in a world where happiness and kindness was normal, kneeling 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 keep it close to my chest,” Lynn said in a low tone. “I kept meaning to show it you. I want you to hold onto it when I’m gone.”
The mother in the photograph was recognizable as a young, healthy version of Lynn, with 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.
The boy must be Ariock. Vy scrutinized him closer, because he looked far too happy and normal to be the giant she’d met.
Lynn whispered, “It’s my only picture of Ariock. He destroyed the others.”
Vy imagined the transformation from cheerful child to brooding giant. He would have had to be careful with antique chairs, and duck beneath chandeliers. He would have felt awkward in his own body.
“I think this shows who he really is,” Lynn said. “Happy. He became withdrawn after the plane crash.”
“Crash?” Vy glanced at her.
“When Will died,” Lynn said. “I know this sounds strange, but I miss Ariock’s voice most of all. He wasn’t like his father—he was robbed of that chance—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 had also found Ariock’s deep voice reassuring.
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; their treasure. It encapsulated everything they had lost. Not just their family and their home, 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,” Lynn 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 miraculous that he survived.”
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 city, but they didn’t have any pictures of happy people.
“He could have saved Will,” Lynn 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. “What?”
“We were supposed to go to my mother-in-law’s funeral.” Lynn’s gaze was fixed towards a distance that only she could see. “Everyone died that year. My family was fine, but Will’s brother died in an ice hockey accident.” She ticked events off on her fingers. “His wife died of an accidental overdose. Then Will’s mother, Rose, got into a car and drove off a cliff.”
“I’m sorry.” Vy wished she could offer more adequate words.
“No one was sad about Rose dying.” Lynn waved away the sympathy. “Will arranged her funeral in California, and booked a flight for all three of us. I had some misgivings, after all the deaths that year. Then . . .” She sniffed, and Vy realized she was weeping. “Ariock woke us up, screaming that the plane was on fire.”
Vy privately thought that she would have cancelled that trip.
“Will dismissed it as a child’s nightmare.” Lynn spoke in a pained tone. “We’d just gone to two funerals that year, and it was tough to explain death to an eight-year-old. But Ariock was usually a cheerful kid. That night, he threw clothes out of our luggage, and tore up the boarding passes we’d printed.” Lynn’s voice grew quiet. “I begged Will to stay home. He refused, because it was his mother. I couldn’t talk him out of it. That was the only fight we ever had. Will stormed out of the house, and he took Ariock with him.”
“That’s terrible,” Vy said. “I’m so sorry.”
Cherise scooted to the edge of her shelf, apparently to hear better. “Has Ariock predicted other things?”
It was a good question, Vy thought. Kessa listened, alert and curious.
Lynn seemed to mull it over. After a while, she said, “I think he knew something bad was coming just before the Torth showed up. I told you about how he’d been restless all day. He was like that all week, really, asking me to check the back-up generator and things like that. He said he thought a storm was coming. That’s why I was a little out-of-sorts when you showed up on our doorstep. It had just started to snow, and there you were. It was weird.”
Vy wished she could talk to Ariock again. Maybe he could sense when someone was about to attack him, and take measures to defend himself. He might still be alive.
“If he had a prophetic dream about the Torth,” Lynn said, “he wouldn’t have told me. He stopped opening up to me after the plane crash.”
“It wasn’t your fault.” Vy rested on the edge of her shelf, gazing down at Lynn. “You did what any sane person would have done.”
“Maybe.” Lynn sounded guilty. “Ariock doesn’t remember warning us. I tried to bring it up, years afterward. I said something like, ‘Ariock, you had a nightmare before your father died,’ and he just gave me a questioning look. I guess the trauma erased it from his memory. And I didn’t want to remind him.”
Vy rubbed chills off her arms. They might as well be talking about a dead world, not just a plane crash. Maybe Ariock had dreamt about the Torth, and dismissed it as a meaningless nightmare, unaware that his dreams could predict the future.
Kessa spoke up in her careful English. “Why did you not tell him?”
“If he believes he could have saved his father,” Lynn said, “he’ll hate himself even more than he already does.” She seemed unaware of the guilt in her own voice every time she spoke about her husband.
Vy reached down to grip Lynn’s bony hand. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I mean, the plane crashed by accident, I assume.”
“It was a freak storm,” Lynn said.
Vy thought of Jonathan Stead, the supposed storm god. Jonathan Stead and Garrett Dovanack were in the same book. Ariock predicted storms. She tried to make the tidbits of information fit together, like a puzzle with missing pieces.
“Forty-seven people died,” Lynn said. “Ariock was the only survivor.”
Vy guessed that Lynn had a case of survivor’s guilt, and Ariock probably did, as well, if he was still alive.
“We’re going to try harder to find him.” Vy sat up, hunched to avoid the moldy ceiling. All this time, she’d worked on futile, illegal plans to steal weapons or vehicles, or to sneak out of the city, knowing that such plans would get her killed. But if Ariock was alive somewhere on this alien world, he wasn’t trying to escape the city. He must be looking for his mother and the rest of them. He wasn’t a storm god, and maybe he wasn’t a hero, but he was more than he seemed.
“We need to find him and Thomas,” Vy said. “No matter what it takes.”