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My newfound freedom is as exhilarating as if the air itself has changed on the outside. I had a taste of independence on a few expeditions before the collapse of my dome's government, but the liberation of my people under one collective makes it that much sweeter. Everyone who wanted out has joined us on the outside. Tonight, the people of Dome 1618 express themselves with cries of joy and loss. We can't forget the truths that are finally running across the telescreens, showing images of the missing; those experimented on in the lower levels of the dome.
The expedition trucks drive out in the dark of night, filled with supplies. Someone starts a fire. Another person plays music. I can't help but remember Waldorf, the scientist who found that music player on the outside. But now he's gone — another sacrificed for the cause.
People begin to dance, holding their arms up in the crisp night air hailing the sky for the first time in four generations. Others wrap their arms around one another, unafraid of any reprimand from Order members. The Order has fallen. Waldorf's gone. In only one day, our entire world has changed.
I dance until exhaustion consumes my legs and then nestle close to Evan, who embraces me until I allow the clear night sky to lull me to sleep. Here the stars shine brighter than I ever imagined, welcoming us into their fold.
In the morning, I wake to the sound of a woman screaming. For a moment, I'm pulled back into our last moments inside the dome, as members of the Order beat those trying to flee. As the screams grow louder and more numerous, others begin to wake. I stand, and my screams catch in my throat as it all plays out in front of me.
A pack of infected has infiltrated the edge of the camp. They thrust themselves at people, biting and clawing at them like monsters. I watch in a dream-like trance as a man has his arm ripped from his body, his terror curdling the morning air.
Last night seems like forever ago in this moment of terror. Evan and I danced and laughed with the others. We were free for the first time since we met; I am free for the first time in my life. Now, in the early morning air, that freedom has come to collect its fee.
Evan shakes me from my daze. "Nat!" he yells. "We need to get out of here!"
"No," I say. "We need to help them."
"It's too dangerous."
I remember the gun we used to help us escape the dome, stashed somewhere in Evan's things. He taught me how to shoot it to protect myself, and I can't stifle the need to extend that to the others now. I drop to my knees and rifle through his bag as my pulse bangs against my eardrums.
"There's no time to get our things!" he yells, grabbing my arm. "We have to go now!"
My hands touch the cold steel of the gun, and I clasp my fingers around the grip. In one quick sweep, I pull the gun from the bag, knock Evan's arm from mine, and jump up from the blankets we slept on last night into a sprint.
The pack pours out the side of the dome from the vicinity where I tossed a bomb last night. It was my attempt to kill all the infected who had been held underground, former residents who had been taken against their will and experimented on. I didn't stick around to see if the bomb had worked. Could I have blown a hole in the dome?
I aim the gun carefully at the closest infected who has pinned a woman to the ground. I pause, looking at the assailant's face, remembering that this infected was once an innocent resident of Dome 1618. Nevertheless, once they're infected, there is no cure. I pull the trigger and watch as he drops dead on top of his victim. Another one lunges at me and I duck, dodging his reach, and then spin around and shoot him too.
Ahead of me, an infected grabs a little girl. I aim at his head, but someone grabs me from behind. For a second I think it's Evan, but the raspy breathing in my ear gives it away. I turn and hit my assailant repeatedly in the head with my gun until it lets go. I don't stop there — I lose control. I beat the monster relentlessly with the butt of my gun until two hands wrap themselves around me from behind, yanking me away. It's Evan.
"Nat," he says, as I struggle against him. "It's going to be okay."
"No," I sob. "We need help. We can't do this alone."
"Nat." Evan grabs me tighter. "Wake up."
I push away, fighting until I realize he's on top of me, pinning me down in my bed — shaking me from the same dream I've had for nearly a month. A dream that has plagued me since I left the dome. I'm not sleeping under the stars. I'm in my room — a temporary residence where Evan sleeps every night on my floor, joining me only when I need to be calmed from my nightmares.
Since I met Evan, my tiny world has collapsed from the haven I believed it to be into a mess of corruption, death, and terror. Stress has caught up with me and brought with it intolerable guilt.
I tossed the bomb on B3 and killed the infected.
There were no survivors.
Not one of those innocent people, stolen from their lives, would ever have a chance at life again.
Their deaths are on my hands.
Every night, they come to me — reaching, grasping, pulling — their ghosts pleading to have what's happened undone.
I imagined our freedom would be an idyllic kind where life carried on as it had inside the dome, only now we traded in our grid-covered surroundings for open skies. That's the thing about dreams — they're not real. In reality, freedom is not all sunshine and fresh air. It's complicated, filled with emotions, exhaustion, and expectations.
Some of the biggest problems are the expectations. Expectations regarding survival, like securing food and water, were the easiest to sort out. Samson, the former Delegate in charge of the Agriculture division, has helped start crop development on the outside. With any luck, the Outer Colony will have its own food source within a year.
As for water, Brandt has been invaluable. A broad fellow and former Delegate in charge of engineering and construction trades, Brandt's previous contributions were essential in keeping our dome running all these years. When you've got little to no natural resources, an imaginative mind is the most invaluable means once can have. Brandt had the brilliant idea of digging a trench, to redirect water from the river. It's been hard, and a month later, we're still working on it.
However, the biggest expectation was housing. Never once did I imagine people, who had lived piled on top of one another in the apartment districts, would go head-to-head on the location of their dwelling. But after decades of being confined to the outer edges of society, my people proved me wrong. No one wants to live on the outer edge of the colony; they're still wary of what lies beyond. Then there are those who don't want to be too close to the dome, a reminder of the prison of lies that kept us confined all our lives. Sometimes I think it would just be easier if everyone moved back inside until we finished building the houses, and then we'd draw names on who gets to live where.
But now that people have had a taste of the outside, there's no going back.
Unless you're my grandmother. She's part of a group that stayed on the inside, swearing they'll never leave the dome. No matter how hard Alec and I have tried to convince her, she still refuses to take a single step outside.
"Absolutely not." Grandmother slaps her hand on the table. "I was part of the first generation born here. Now you're telling me living inside isn't good enough?"
"That's not what I'm saying —"
"Quit lying," she cuts me off. She's as good at that as she is at making me feel insignificant. "That's the entire reason you're here."
Grandfather sits with his arms crossed against his chest. Today is his birthday, which is the real reason I came here. Of course, Grandmother chooses to forget that.
"I'm just saying to come check it out, you might like it."
"Never." She shakes her head.
"Now, Mother," Alec speaks up, "I have to agree with Nat on this one. If you never come out, you'll never know what you're missing."
Her face softens as it always does when Alec is around. Her youngest child, resurrected from the grave, returned to make her life whole once again. He's tall and broad, and only ten years older than I am. His mannerisms sometimes remind me of my dad, who was the age Alec is now when he died. Now all I have is Alec, and I hope that I can trust him.
"That's the point," Grandfather pipes in. "If she doesn't know what she's missing she won't regret it. I, on the other hand, would love to peek."
"Not you, too," she says, elbowing Grandfather. "It's bad enough with these two running around out there. We still don't know all the dangers. We should just sit and wait a bit longer until we're sure it's safe."
Grandfather puts his hand over hers before speaking up. "We've been waiting for seventy years. Maybe Nat and Alec have a point. Maybe it's time for a change."
"Hmpf," she grunts, snatching her hand out from under his and crossing her arms over her chest. How my grandfather has stayed with this woman these many years is beyond me. Growing up without my parents, Grandfather was my caregiver while Grandmother was the iron fist who ruled us. But no matter how she acts, he stays faithfully by her side.
I roll my eyes, but she doesn't catch me. Aside from the occasional visit to see my grandparents, I've spent as much time as I can outside in the last four weeks we've been free.
"You don't know everything, Nat," she lectures. "Don't forget that."
How could I forget when she's always here to remind me?
I may not know everything, but I do know that life is better now that we have freedom, even if it's brought new issues to light. The life we can have outside the dome is different from the one before — there are no hidden agendas and no threats of disappearing in the night. Nevertheless, many people think like Grandmother. Many people are too afraid of what change might bring. I'm not naïve. Grandmother and I will never see eye-to-eye on this issue — yet another example of her inability to accept me. I was never more than her obligation, a constant reminder of everything wrong in this dome — her son's death, the corruption. She never could see me as just a grandchild.
"Can we stop talking about the outside for a moment?" Grandfather pipes up. "I'm pretty sure Missus Sharp made something special for today."
"Only because I ordered it," Grandmother says a little too quickly. I see a flash of jealousy in her eyes before she turns and leaves the table. Missus Sharp owns the only bakery inside the dome. She's a longtime friend of Grandmother's, as well as the dome's resident gossip queen.
"Now that's one thing you won't get on the outside," Grandmother says, rummaging through her refrigerator. "Muriel Sharp says she will never step foot outside this dome, and that applies to her baking as well."
"I don't think she can stop people from taking it outside," I grumble. Alec stifles a laugh.
"Maybe not." Grandmother reappears with a beautiful single-tier cake, iced with hues of deep blue. "But she sure can ban them from shopping in her store."
My mouth drops open. "You're telling me that people in the dome are going to start banning those who live on the outside?"
"No." Grandfather stares at Grandmother with a warning in his eyes. "No one is banning anyone. Now, it's my birthday. I want no more of this talk. Understand?"
Grandmother sets the cake down and purses her lips so tight the pink begins to pale. How can she be so stubborn? No. How can I be so stupid? Of course she'd want to ban those on the outside. But the fact that Missus Sharp is talking about it as well concerns me. That means there are more of them, unhappy with the changes. As if we don't have enough problems on the outside.
I eat my cake in silence. Its sweetness melts in my mouth and lights up my taste buds, reminding me of the time I spent living in the Axis. Such luxuries, like daily access to fruit, were things the apartment district didn't get. This is why I believe in the Outer Colony — a place where everyone has a chance to be equal.
"I'm going to be leaving soon," Alec says. Grandmother sets her fork down with enough force it makes me jump.
He continues. "Only for a short bit — a month or so."
"You've barely been back." Grandmother scowls. "Where in the world would you need to go?"
"I need to go back to my old home." Alec grabs a napkin and carefully wipes his mouth. "I have to tie up some loose ends there before I can make Dome 1618 my home again. Nat can keep you company."
"Don't be ridiculous. Nat has lived here all her life." Grandmother slaps her hand on the table. "This is your home. It always has been."
"Mother." Alec's voice stays even. "I lived there for nine years. I have a life there. Responsibilities. It's only for one month."
Grandmother doesn't pick up her fork up again. Instead she stands, letting her chair squeal against the vinyl floor, and leaves the table. Everyone is silent until her bedroom door shuts with a bang.
"I'm sorry," Alec apologizes to Grandfather.
"Now, now." Grandfather nods. "It's quite alright. Your mother has a short temper, that's all. She'll be just fine."
"Happy birthday, Dad."
Grandfather smiles. "Maybe I'll try to get out there, to this Outer Colony of yours, before you leave. You could give me a tour."
Alec's face lights up. "I would love that."
"It's a deal, then." Grandfather turns to me. "And you, young lady, I hope you'll join us."
A warmth seeps into my skin, breaking through the stress that Grandmother always leaves in her wake. Grandfather. What would I do without him?
I leave the apartment, walking down streets and alleys as if I was the same girl who once ran them blindly. The girl whose parents died, leaving her with a grandfather who cares, and a grandmother who doesn't care enough. Who am I now? The girl who started the Outer Colony? No, it took way more people than me to do that.
The fact is, I'm not sure who I am anymore.
The dusk of evening colors the skies above the dome, where the grime of past years has been wiped clean to reveal its view. Soon I'm presented with the break in the fence at the edge of the Outer Forest; only a knowing eye can spot the opening through the undergrowth. The moment I'm through, I break into a run. This is the truest freedom I've ever known.
Trees whip past me, but my feet still remember where to dodge to keep me safe. It doesn't take long until orange skies shine through the foliage, presenting me with a clearing, minus one hollow tree.
So much has changed in so little time. I no longer carry my mother's notebook, scribbled with her secrets — those are now public knowledge. Nor do I carry the naïve innocence I have for the last eighteen years. When you realize your entire life has been a string of lies, you can lie down and die or stand up and fight. I choose the latter.
I move to the glass, the one thing that has protected generations of residents from the radiation of the Cleansing Wars, and press my hand against its cool, smooth surface. This was it, the moment that changed it all. The moment I saw the Outsiders and life as we knew it changed on the inside. Grandmother's right to fear it. There's still so much we don't know. Through the glass, I can see a bonfire blazing high in the sky in the middle of camp and I suddenly realize I'm late for the meeting.
People's mutterings fill the air as I get closer to the bonfire. But worse than their sounds are their smells. One thing we don't quite have worked out on the outside is the plumbing. A river runs nearby, but some are too afraid to venture that far from the dome, while others just don't give a damn.
There's a lot of that going around. More don't-give-a-damns seem to be popping up every day. They make me nervous. You can't control don't-give-a-damns. They're an open invitation to anarchy.
"You're back." Evan's arms slip around me from behind, the breath from his words grazing against my neck. My body melts back into him.
"So, how's your grandmother?" I wrinkle my nose at the emphasis he puts on her name. It's no secret — Grandmother wants nothing to do with Evan, and his feelings toward her are mutual.
"The same. She doesn't want to leave the dome, and so forth. Sometimes I see where she's coming from." A sigh escapes me and I feel his body tense for a moment. I spin in his arms and tilt my head up to his. "But, of course, I don't agree."
His eyes flicker back to their relaxed façade. He doesn't need my assurances — it's not as if I could be the cause of his panic. We've both seen much worse than a person's changed opinion.
"Thank you for coming, everyone." Jak's voice comes from near the bonfire. "Let's get down to business, shall we?"
Excerpted from "Here Skies Surround Us"
Copyright © 2017 Melanie McFarlane.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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