A Recommended June Read from Hello Giggles and Tor.com
When the world ends, where will you go?
In a breathtakingly vivid and emotionally gripping debut novel, one woman must confront the emptiness in the universe—and in her own heart—when a devastating virus reduces most of humanity to dust and memories.
All Jamie Allenby ever wanted was space. Even though she wasn’t forced to emigrate from Earth, she willingly left the overpopulated, claustrophobic planet. And when a long relationship devolved into silence and suffocating sadness, she found work on a frontier world on the edges of civilization. Then the virus hit...
Now Jamie finds herself dreadfully alone, with all that’s left of the dead. Until a garbled message from Earth gives her hope that someone from her past might still be alive.
Soon Jamie finds other survivors, and their ragtag group will travel through the vast reaches of space, drawn to the promise of a new beginning on Earth. But their dream will pit them against those desperately clinging to the old ways. And Jamie’s own journey home will help her close the distance between who she has become and who she is meant to be...
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Anne Corlett
When Jamie woke the next morning, the cabin was growing gradually lighter. The previous occupant must have set the lighting to simulate a natural dawn, although on board a ship like this, day and night were nothing more than a consensus.
She washed as best she could in the sink before pulling on a blue T-shirt and the long denim skirt she used to wear on warm evenings back on Calgarth. There was a tiny mirror above the cabinet, and she brushed her hair and fastened it back. There were still shadows beneath her eyes, but her reflection didn’t look quite so drawn as the one she’d glimpsed in that bar window back on Soltaire.
There was no one else down in the hold. She was conscious of an out-of-place feeling, like being a guest in someone’s home with no understanding of the unspoken rules.
She made herself a coffee and stood at the counter to eat a bowl of cereal and rehydrated milk. She’d almost finished when footsteps clanged on the stairs. A few seconds later, Gracie stepped through the gap in the crates.
She gave Jamie a cool nod. “Morning.” She paused, as though scratching around for how this sort of exchange should go. “Sleep all right?”
Gracie opened the fridge, apparently satisfied that she’d met her conversational obligations. As Jamie hurried down the last few mouthfuls, not inclined to linger in awkward silence, there was a sharp crackle of sound, and Callan’s voice echoed through the hold, distorted by the comm.
“Engineer to bridge immediately, please.”
The message snapped off. Gracie didn’t show any reaction to the peremptory summons, throwing a hasty cup of coffee together and heading back to the stairs. There was a brief collision of voices as she reached the top, and after a few seconds Lowry appeared.
“Good night’s sleep?” he said.
She nodded. “You?”
He smiled. “Not too bad. The engines take a bit of getting used to. Have you traveled much?”
“Not that much. I went from Earth to Alegria when I was twenty-two, then Soltaire a few weeks ago. I did a couple of short trips when I was living on Alegria, but that’s about it.”
“Not back to Earth at all?”
“Do you have still have family there? I mean, did you have . . .” Lowry rubbed his brow. “Sorry. There’s no right way to talk about it, is there?”
“It’s okay,” Jamie said. “My father died a few years ago, but my stepmother was still in Belsley. I’m not sure where my half sisters were living. We didn’t really keep in touch.”
“And your mother?”
“She died when I was fourteen.”
“That must have been hard.”
Jamie looked away. Twenty-four years ago and millions of miles away, and people still always wanted to know what had happened and how she’d felt about it. It was as though you weren’t allowed to leave anything behind.
The clank of a door provided a welcome distraction, and she looked up to see Callan walking through the gap. He nodded at the pair of them before shoving his tin mug under the hot-water tap and tipping a large spoonful of instant coffee into it.
“Morning,” Lowry said. “Everything all right?”
Callan nodded. “We may be making another stop. We’ve picked up a signal.”
Jamie’s heart gave a hopeful leap. More survivors. More proof that the statistics were wrong.
“From where?” Lowry asked.
“Mining colony on Pangaea.”
“I haven’t heard of it,” Lowry said.
“It’s in the Gemmel cluster,” Callan said. “Fairly wealthy, if I remember rightly. Small-scale platinum mining. Gracie’s trying to raise someone.”
“Do we know who it is?” Jamie asked.
“No,” Callan said. “It’s your basic distress beacon. Date-stamped a couple of days ago.”
“So we’ll be landing,” Lowry said.
Callan gave a noncommittal shrug. “Let’s see if Gracie gets any response. Then we’ll make a decision.”
“What do you mean?” Jamie felt a sharp surge of adrenaline. “We can’t just leave someone down there.”
Callan tipped powdered milk into his coffee and swirled it around. “Well, we can. If we can’t raise anyone, I’m not inclined to land on spec. We won’t know the fuel situation.”
The memories were shoving for space inside Jamie’s head. Her cold stone floor, gritty and unyielding. Her arms wrapped tight around her body as she tried not to break into pieces, alone. And running through her mind, that relentless fugue—zero point zero zero zero . . .
“No.” She wrenched her thoughts back.
Callan’s eyebrows went up. “No?”
“I didn’t mean . . .” She shook her head, trying to clear it. “I just . . . whoever’s down there, they may think they’re the only one.”
Callan was still looking at her, and she felt a flash of resentment. He’d never had to face that possibility. None of them had.
“Like I said.” His tone was level. “If Gracie can raise someone, then we’ll see.”
“What if they can’t get to the comm in time?” Jamie could hear her voice rising. “What if they’re injured?”
“That’s a lot of what ifs.” Callan tapped his fingers on the scratched surface of the kitchen unit. “How about I add one? What if there’s no fuel?”
“You stocked up on Soltaire,” Lowry put in, his tone neutral. “Do we have enough to take off again?”
“Yes,” Callan said. “But it would mean another stop somewhere. That’s an unnecessary complication.”
“Unnecessary?” Jamie gave a harsh laugh. “Saving someone’s life?”
“It’s an established settlement,” Callan said. “It’s not like we’d be abandoning them on some backwater to chase their dinner with a homemade bow and arrow.”
“But they’d be alone.” Jamie could feel a tremor trying to break through her. If she started shaking, she might not stop. “You don’t know . . .” She broke off. The memory of those first hours was too close, too personal. But she had to make them understand. They couldn’t just sail off into the void, never looking back. “I was alone,” she managed. “I thought I was alone.”
Callan sipped his coffee, studying her over the rim of the mug. “You must have known you weren’t. The infomercials said . . .”
“It doesn’t matter.” There was a panicked edge to her voice. “When you wake up and there’s no one . . .” She drew a deep breath. “If we just fly on, and leave whoever’s down there, we might as well have murdered them.”
“There’ll be survivors all over the place,” Callan said. “We’re not responsible for every one of them.”
“But we’re responsible for this one.”
“How do you figure that?” Callan said. “If we’d never picked the signal up we’d never have known there was anyone there.”
“But we do know,” Jamie said. “We can’t stop knowing it just because it’s not convenient for you.”
A quick flash of anger crossed Callan’s face. “Is that what you think? That I just can’t be bothered?”
“Looks like it from where I’m standing,” she shot back.
“You’re standing on my ship,” Callan said. “And if I hadn’t picked the three of you up, you’d still be standing on Soltaire.”
“And we’re grateful,” Lowry said. “But Jamie’s right. We can’t just leave someone behind.”
He drained his coffee and put the mug down. “Let’s see what Gracie picks up.”
As he walked away, Jamie stared after him, a whole plethora of furious responses running through her mind. She wanted to scream, or hit something. But she knew she wouldn’t. She never had. She’d always kept everything shoved down inside her, growing harder and denser, hidden away, but never forgotten.
“Let it go.” Lowry stepped up to her side. “Let’s see what happens.”
Back upstairs, she’d just reached the door of her cabin when the comm crackled and Callan’s voice came on.
“Commencing approach to Pangaea in five minutes. Strap in for landing.”
The tight knot inside Jamie’s chest loosened. One of the other doors slid open and Rena appeared. Her hair was clumped at one side of her head, as though she’d been sleeping, but her eyes were suspiciously red.
“What is it?”
“Survivors,” Jamie said. “There was a signal.”
“More survivors?” Rena’s hand went to her forehead, as though she were about to cross herself, but she caught herself on the edge of the movement and pressed her hands together in front of her chest instead. “How many?”
“I don’t know.”
Jamie turned and walked along the corridor. After a few seconds there was a patter of feet and Rena fell in beside her.
She gave Jamie a quick, tremulous smile. “It’s starting. People will come together.”
“We need to get strapped in,” Jamie said, before the other woman could get into her stride. “Come on.”
Callan’s skill in handling the ship had been apparent when the Phaeacian had set down on Soltaire, and this landing was no less deft. Jamie barely felt a jolt as they touched down.
Callan appeared just as they were undoing their harnesses. “You three stay well back in the hold,” he said, walking toward the door.
“Who’s out there?” Rena asked.
Jamie stared at him. “Didn’t you speak to someone?”
“No. So stay back.”
“You expecting trouble?” Lowry said.
“I don’t know what to expect. You never know how someone will react when they’re frightened, and stupid is hot-wired right into some people.”
Sharp sunlight cut through the gap as the doors opened. Callan took a couple of steps outside, his hand resting on his gun, and then stopped. He stood still, looking at something out of Jamie’s view, before turning and beckoning to them.
As Lowry and Rena hurried forward, Jamie hung back, conscious of an echo of the same feeling she’d had on Soltaire. As long as they stayed safely sealed inside the walls of the ship, she didn’t have to think about what was out there. She could choose to believe anything at all; that they were alone in the universe, or surrounded by living worlds, full of living, breathing people.
By the time she reached the entrance the others were walking down the gangway. The port was bigger than the one on Soltaire, and they’d set down on one of three platforms around a central loading area. The sky was a darker blue than on any other planet she’d seen, giving the place a pregnant, storm-heavy look despite the white-gold glare of the sun.
There were two people standing a few meters from the end of the gangway: a girl who looked to be in her early twenties, with a tall, thin lad of around eighteen or nineteen standing a few paces behind her, arms soldier-straight by his sides.
The girl was small and fair-haired, dressed in a pale blue dress that looked like something a child might wear to a party. It floated down to just above her knees, and her arms and legs were bare. Her expression was wary, and as Callan reached the end of the gangway, she held up a warning hand, shooting a quick glance over her shoulder at the lad.
“Sorry.” Her voice seemed too light and flimsy for the heavy, industrial surroundings. “Could you stop. Please.” The lad had risen up on his toes, shifting his weight back and forth, his gaze resting somewhere above the heads of the new arrivals. “He doesn’t . . . I mean, he finds people difficult. It was hours before he’d talk to me. But we get along fine now, don’t we, Finn?” She smiled over her shoulder. It looked forced, but the lad stopped his gentle rocking and nodded, a quick jerk of his head.
“What’s your name?” Callan said.
“You the only two here?”
Something flickered across the girl’s face. “I haven’t seen anyone else.”
“That’s not an answer.” Callan had picked up on the careful shape of her response. “Any sign of anyone else?”
Unexpectedly it was Finn who replied. His voice was flat, his words delivered without intonation. “There’s the bad man.” He had dropped his gaze slightly, so that he was staring at the flanks of the ship.
“The bad man?” Callan said.
Mila tried to smile. “It’s nothing. Just a joke I made when I thought . . .” She broke off, reaching up to wrap a strand of hair around her fingers. “I keep thinking there’s someone here. Someone’s moving things. Or maybe I did it. Or Finn. I’m never sure.”
There was a shrill note in her voice, and Finn went up on his toes again. Mila instantly turned to him, dropping into a soothing monotone. “It’s okay, Finn, it’s okay.”
Callan glanced around the landing site, then looked back at Mila, regarding her appraisingly. As Jamie moved farther down the gangway, she could see what he was looking at. The girl had a mottled shadow of bruising along her jawline and a healing cut in front of her ear. There was also the faintest suggestion of a fading black eye hidden beneath her careful makeup.
“What happened to you?” Callan asked.
Mila flushed. “Someone hurt me.”
“I can see that,” Callan replied. “Is that someone your bad man?”
“No. It was before.”
Callan nodded, his expression still contemplative.
Mila’s face creased in an anxious frown, and then her expression changed, and she lifted her hand to push her hair back from her face. It was a slow, deliberate gesture, and when she smiled at him, there was a hint of practiced coquettishness about it.
“So,” she said. “Here we are.”
The words sounded too old for her. They didn’t fit with her child’s dress and her thin frame.
Callan gave her a long, level look. “Here we are. What now?”
Mila glanced away, her mask slipping a little, as though she didn’t have the right script for this. When she looked back, she was herself again, young and uncertain. It was as though she’d shrugged on someone else’s skin for a moment, but it hadn’t fit.
She chewed at her thumbnail. “Can we come with you?”
“If that’s what you want. We’re going to the capital.”
“Anywhere with people,” Mila said. “I don’t care where it is.”
She glanced over her shoulder as she spoke, and Callan followed the direction of her gaze. “You really think there’s someone else?”
Mila shook her head slowly.
“What?” Callan’s voice was sharp with impatience. “What are you not telling us?”
“There was a gunshot,” she said, after another long pause. “A couple of nights ago.” Her brow creased. “At least I think there was. Maybe I dreamed it. I don’t know.”
“Did he hear it?” Callan jerked his head toward Finn.
“He sleeps really deeply.” Mila’s tone was defensive. “But I know what I heard.”
“I thought you said you weren’t sure.”
“I . . .” Mila bit her lip. “I didn’t dream it. I just told myself that. I know what it was.”
“Shots.” There was a hint of skepticism in Callan’s voice. “From a bad man who’s hiding and doesn’t want to be seen. Maybe he decided to end it all, and that’s what you heard.”
Mila’s expression darkened. “No. I think there was someone else. The bad man . . . he’s still here. Sometimes I hear him at night, scratching around, as if he’s trying to scare us.”
“He?” Callan said, as though it had just occurred to him.
“That’s what it feels like.”
“And you haven’t gone looking for him?” Callan said.
A hint of anger sparked in Mila’s eyes, but Callan held his hand up. “That was a question, not a criticism. I’d have thought you’d want to find out if someone else was here, and what their intentions were.”
“I didn’t think . . .” Mila looked down. “I was scared. He felt . . . it felt wrong. Like I said. Bad.”
Callan regarded Mila for a few more seconds, then turned away. “Well, if there is someone here, he’s got half an hour to present himself. If he does show up . . . well, we’ll see. The two of you go get your things. I need to check the fuel situation.” He turned to Jamie. “Can you find the port depot and see if there are some medical packs we can load easily? It might be a good idea to have something worth trading.”
As he walked away, Jamie followed him.
“Are you sure we should be wandering about the place?” she said. “You heard what she said.”
“I heard her say she might have dreamed it.”
“She sounded pretty scared.”
He stopped walking and looked at her. “They’ve been alone here for days. Of course she’s scared. She’s probably jumping out of her skin at every bit of rubbish blowing in the street. If there really was a bad man, why wouldn’t he have shown himself? They’re not exactly much of a threat. And . . .”
He stopped abruptly.
He shook his head. “Just thinking there are some things that probably never change. A girl like her, alone. There’ll always be someone out for what he can get.”
“She’s not alone,” Jamie said.
“The boy’s hardly likely to be much protection,” Callan said, setting off again.
Jamie fell into step beside him. “You really think she was imagining things?”
“I do. I can’t see any reason why someone would hide from them, but I can see a whole load of reasons why someone wouldn’t.”
There was a dark logic to his words, and Jamie nodded. “I’ll go check the depot. Anything in particular you want me to look for?”
He gave her a faint smile. “You’re the vet.”
Jamie found the depot easily enough. It was a wide-fronted prefab building, with the main entrance on a service lane leading off the landing site. Inside, Jamie checked the signs on the end of each aisle until she found the medicines, her footsteps echoing between the shelves, as if someone were keeping pace with her in a parallel aisle.
She loaded a stack of portable med kits onto a cart and pushed it around to a roll-up shutter at the back of the warehouse. When she tugged at the bottom edge, it didn’t move, and as she adjusted her grip, her knuckles scraped against the concrete floor. She yanked her hand back. There was a puckered graze across the back of her fingers, with a couple of tiny speckles of blood beading on the skin. She was about to turn and push the cart the long way around when she felt an irrational flare of certainty.
There was someone else in the building.
It wasn’t a sound exactly, but a particular kind of silence, like someone holding their breath.
“Hello?” Her voice sounded high and thin. “Is someone there?”
Was that a footstep?
Her pulse was beginning to thud. Mila’s nerves had infected her. There was no one here. But somehow she didn’t want to make her way back through the empty, echoing warehouse. She turned back to the shutter, reaching down to scrabble at the lower edge again. As she turned, feeling for a better grip, she caught sight of a lever just to the side of the door. When she yanked it down, the shutter clanked and strained, then slid slowly up into the roof. Jamie grabbed the cart and shoved it out onto the sunlit landing site.
By the time she reached the ship, her pulse had steadied, and she was uncomfortably relieved that no one else had witnessed that irrational moment of panic.
Mila was sitting on the edge of the gangway, next to Lowry. There was a clutch of small bags around her feet, clothes spilling out their tops, speaking of hasty and indiscriminate packing. Finn was pacing nearby, his steps careful and precise. A small backpack sat high up on his shoulders, with the chest strap pulled tight, like a child on a day trip from school. Rena was standing a little way apart, watching the pair of them through narrowed eyes.
“Are you sure you need all that?” Jamie nodded at the bags. Reds and golds, chiffons and satins. From one bag a blue sleeve hung limp, covered in sequins, some of which had pulled away, leaving trailing threads. “The ship’s pretty basic.”
“These are the only clothes I have.”
Jamie looked out across the rooftops. Callan had said that the settlement was wealthy, but the port didn’t look like the sort of place where women would have much call to float around in sequined chiffon. It was solid, industrial, and flanked by the scrubby slopes of a miserly hillside.
“You’re a prostitute,” Rena said suddenly. It was a pronouncement, not a question, and her tone was blunt and accusatory.
Mila flinched and reached out to touch the sequined sleeve with her fingertip. After a moment, she lifted her head, another of those bright, artificial smiles pinned on her face.
“Why not? Money’s good, and it’s not as though work’s easy to come by in a place like this.”
“Rena . . .” Lowry began, but Jamie cut in, preempting anything the other woman might say.
“I don’t think we need to worry too much about money.” She tried to keep her tone light, but the girl’s smile faded.
“Is it like this everywhere?”
“I think so. But there might be more people on the capital.”
Mila dropped her head to her knees and began to cry. Finn stopped his pacing and turned to look at her, his face puckering in the first emotion Jamie had seen there. One hand clenched into a fist, the knuckles rubbing on the back of his other forearm, as though he was trying to scrub something off his skin.
Mila gave her face a hard swipe, knocking the tears away. She scrambled to her feet and moved toward Finn, stopping a couple of feet away, hand raised but not touching him.
“It’s okay,” she said, in a low, singsong voice, like a mother talking to a troubled child. “It’s okay, it’s okay.” Jamie was assaulted by an image that was both brutal and oddly tender: Mila, in her chiffon and sequins, lying back on a bed, a male head on her breast, her hands soft on the stubby hair. It’s okay, it’s okay.
Finn was still rubbing at his skin, and he’d started to rock a little. Mila stood up on tiptoe, trying to catch his gaze.
“Look up,” she said. “Look at the sky. Look how blue it is. And look at the ship. It’s going to take us up there.”
Finn shook his head violently, but he lifted his gaze to the sky. Gradually his rocking slowed and stopped. The rubbing continued, but with less force to it, slowing until it was just an occasional pluck at his skin.
Mila said something else, her voice barely above a whisper. Finn tipped his head, listening, although he kept his face turned up toward the sky. After a moment he nodded, turned away, and resumed his careful pacing.
Mila turned back to Jamie. “He’s okay.”
“How did you know what to do?” There had been something simple and instinctive about the way Mila had soothed the lad.
“I just figured it out. He likes the sky, and open places. He doesn’t like being touched. And he doesn’t like people getting angry or upset.”
“How did you survive?” Jamie said, then hesitated, not sure how to clarify her meaning with any sort of delicacy. The disease had been spread and respread through human contact. And Mila was . . .
“I wasn’t working at the time.” Mila lifted her hand to touch the bruise beneath her eye. “I had a client who got angry when I wouldn’t . . . well, it doesn’t matter. They told me to keep out of the way until I healed. He was someone important, and they didn’t want trouble. I stayed upstairs and someone brought my meals up. When I got sick no one came.” She looked down, fingers twining together. “I thought I was going to die. I tried to get downstairs. I could hear people. Some shouting. Someone crying. But I couldn’t walk. And anyway . . .” She gave Jamie a swift look, as though assessing how much this stranger might understand. “I thought if I was going to die, maybe dying alone would be okay. Being with someone isn’t always better, is it?”
Jamie didn’t reply. What would have happened if she’d still been with Daniel when the disease struck? They didn’t touch as casually as other people they knew. There were some couples who brushed one another’s arm when they spoke, or leaned against one another, as though they had to keep reminding themselves that they were one of two. Daniel had learned when to touch her and when to let her have her space. So maybe they would have made it, the pair of them.
Callan and Gracie appeared around the side of the ship. The engineer was shaking her head, and Callan looked irritated. Another dispute over this fresh set of survivors, no doubt.
Callan came over, casting his eye over the stacked cart. “That the medicines?”
“Is there likely to be any Lycidine in there?” Lowry said.
“Probably not in the multipacks,” Jamie said. “But there were some more specialist supplies. Do you need some?”
He nodded. “I’ve got a rather irritating little heart condition that surfaces at times of stress. If you tell me where the medicines are, I’ll go and look.”
“Quicker if I do it,” Jamie said. With the moment of their departure growing closer, she had an irrational urge to go back to the depot, to prove to herself that there’d never been anyone there.
That they wouldn’t be leaving anyone behind.
As she stepped back through the door, Jamie could feel the back of her neck prickling.
It was just the sudden chill of the place. That was all.
Her gaze fell on a doorway tucked into the alcove at the side of the shutter. She could see through it into a small office. A desk was tipped on its side in front of the door, as though to form a barrier of sorts. Jamie walked over to look inside, stopping dead on the threshold. The little room had been converted into something resembling a bunker. There were crates stacked around the walls, and a mattress was pushed into the corner, with a tangle of blankets on top.
And the body of a man lay facedown on the floor.
Jamie suddenly seemed to be breathing ice, fear crackling inside her lungs.
The man looked to have been about fifty, with thinning hair and a muscled frame. Now he was slack and gray-skinned, the only color about him coming from the rusty stains on the concrete floor, where the blood had seeped from the ragged wounds in his head and side.
For a moment the implications of the scene failed to register. There was just the utter shock of that lifeless form. In all the days since she woke from the fever, Jamie had never once seen death. Just dust. Just emptiness. But this was death in its most solid, undeniable form. As she took a stuttering step backward, her foot twisted and almost gave way. She grabbed at the door frame as a scatter of flies leaped up from the body with a buzz of noise that echoed the sudden ringing in her ears. She twisted around, her breath catching in her throat, utterly certain that she would find someone there, watching her from the shadows.
The depot was still and silent but for the buzzing of the flies, but there was a sense of menace so palpable that she could almost feel it pressing against her skin.
The bad man.
Mila’s voice echoed in Jamie’s thoughts as she broke and ran, ducking out of the doors and onto the concourse. Her legs were just fractionally heavier than they should have been, the planet’s unfamiliar gravity registering for the first time. It was like one of those dreams where you try to run and your body only half responds. As she reached the ship, Callan and Gracie stepped out onto the gangway. The engineer suddenly stopped and pointed, not at Jamie, but at something behind her.
Jamie looked back over her shoulder and saw smoke rising from somewhere beyond the surrounding buildings. Her feet clanged on the metal gangway as she stumbled toward Callan and Gracie.
“The depot . . .” she began, but Callan cut across her.
“Forget it. Let’s go.”
“Tank’s not full yet,” Gracie said.
“We’ve got enough to be going along with.” He looked across at the smoke. “I’m not inclined to hang around.”
“It could be a signal,” Gracie said.
“You think?” Callan gave the engineer a blistering look. “Let’s get going. Maybe the girl wasn’t so far off the mark with this bad man talk.”
“She was right.”
They both turned to stare at Jamie.
“The depot. There’s a body. A man. Someone shot him.”
Gracie hesitated for a moment, then scrambled down the side of the gangway and jogged over to detach the fuel hose.
As Callan turned to watch her, his eyes suddenly widened and he spun back toward the ship, shouting his engineer’s name.
Fire. Licking up in the corner of the shipyard, close to the great fueling tanks, the reflected flames dancing in the muted rainbow surface of a slick of spilled oil.
As Jamie stood frozen, there was a misleadingly quiet thump of sound, and that shimmer disappeared in a leap of flame, almost as high as the tanks.
“Gracie.” Callan yelled it again, grabbing Jamie’s shoulder and shoving her toward the doors.
The engineer yanked the fuel hose free, then slammed the panel closed and ran for the gangway. The doors were already closing as she reached them, and she pushed through the narrowing gap, knocking Jamie aside.
There was an acrid stench in the air, and Jamie’s throat was already starting to itch. Then the doors closed and the sharp sting of smoke gave way to the familiar, slightly stale taste of the ship’s air supply.
Callan ran for the stairs, ignoring the other passengers, save for a swift “Get strapped in” thrown back over his shoulder.
“What’s going on?” Rena stared after him, one hand going to her throat.
“Fire.” Jamie stepped forward.
Mila’s eyes widened. “The bad man?”
“Yes. No.” Jamie was already tugging the row of seats down. “It doesn’t matter right now.”
They were leaving. There was someone out there and they were leaving them alone.
She strapped Mila in and reached for Finn, but he twisted out of her grasp.
“Finn, we need to go.”
Mila was saying something, but her voice was high-pitched and frightened and it wasn’t soothing him this time. He flailed at Jamie, stiff-limbed and silent, backing away from the seats, until she swore at him through gritted teeth.
Lowry stepped in, talking to the lad in a calm, matter-of-fact tone. Finn grew still, his head tilted as though he was listening, although he did not look at the old man. Lowry kept up his soothing patter and somehow managed to steer Finn toward the seats. As the engines leaped into life the lad stiffened, but Lowry kept talking, describing the takeoff process in his soothing tone until his voice was drowned out by the ship’s dull crescendo. By that time the edge of Finn’s panic had blunted and Lowry had been able to strap him into his seat, where he sat with his knees drawn up, as though the floor were dangerous, his fingers curling and uncurling where they rested on his shins.
Jamie leaned back and closed her eyes as the ship carried them back to the safety of space.
Once Callan’s voice had come over the speaker, giving terse permission for them to undo their straps, Lowry turned to Jamie.
“What happened down there?”
“I don’t know. There was a fire.” There’d been a panicked unreality about those moments when the flames were leaping into life. Jamie had a sudden image of fires springing up all over the settlement, licking closer and closer to the ship, as though someone would rather see the whole world burn than share it with others.
Despite it all—the fire, the body—she felt a stab of guilt. Yes, that unknown presence had done everything in its power to ensure that they saw it as a threat, but whoever it was, did they deserve to be alone, perhaps for the rest of their days? Her head said yes, but she was conscious of a scratch of unease at how readily that answer came to her. Life was life. If she started making judgments about who was worth saving and who was not, then where did that end?
She shook the thought away and gave the other passengers a quick, dispassionate account of the events that had led to their precipitous departure. Callan arrived just as she finished.
“So there was someone there,” Mila said, shooting him an accusatory look.
“Seems so,” he said, levelly.
“Well, that’s a lesson learned, I suppose,” Lowry put in. “Not everyone who survived is going to welcome us with open arms. I thought . . .” He sighed and rubbed at his face. “Never mind. Did we get the fuel?”
“Not enough,” Callan said. “We’ll have to make another stop at some point.”
He was looking at Jamie as he spoke, and she felt a flicker of resentment. Was he blaming her?
“Come on,” Lowry said. “Let’s get our new arrivals settled in.”
They set Mila up in the quarters next to Jamie’s and left her to settle in, while Lowry checked the cabins on the other side of the corridor. One had been commandeered for extra storage, but the second was empty, with a bed made up. Finn was tense, standing stock-still in the middle of the floor and shooting suspicious glances around the cabin. It was a few moments before Lowry could persuade him to unstrap his backpack and place it on the desk.
“Do you want to unpack your things?” the preacher said.
Finn gave a quick affirmative jerk of his head, coupled with another furtive recce of the cabin’s far corners.
“Would you like us to help, or do you want to do it yourself?” Lowry asked.
“Do you want us to leave you to it, or shall we stay?”
Finn considered, frowning down at the floor. “Stay.”
Lowry nodded and stepped back. Finn opened the rucksack and took out some neatly folded clothes.
“Here.” Jamie opened one of the lockers so that he could place the clothes inside, tops on one shelf and trousers on another. Then he went back to his rucksack and took out a burlap drawstring bag, printed with the logo of a well-known dry foods supplier. A comb poked out of the top and the contents clinked as he placed it carefully on the desk. A brown-covered notebook followed, along with a clutch of colored pencils, fastened together with two elastic bands. The final item was a cracked and faded cardboard box, with a picture of a beach on the cover, and 1000 pieces blazoned along one edge.
“You like jigsaws?” Lowry asked.
“Yes.” Finn was holding the box in both hands, his gaze fixed on the printed seascape.
“Would you like to do it now?”
“How about we go down to the galley? There’s a table there.”
Finn hesitated, glancing first at Lowry and then at Jamie. After he moment he nodded. “Yes.” He blinked, a small frown puckering his face, as though he was trying to remember something. “Yes, please.”
When they reached the galley, the table was in use. Rena and Gracie were sitting on either side of it, drinking coffee and not talking. Finn shifted from foot to foot, his hands tight on the jigsaw box, and Jamie saw Rena shoot him a quick unsmiling look before turning away.
Jamie looked around. There were a couple of pallets just to the side of the galley area, and some boards leaning against a nearby crate.
“Here.” She slid one of the boards on top of the pallets. “We can use this.”
Finn placed the box on the makeshift table and slid into the gap alongside, tucking his knees underneath him.
Lowry looked down at the slatted floor with a grimace. “If I get down there, I may never get back up again. I’ll leave the two of you to it, if that’s okay.”
Jamie wasn’t sure she would be as easy with the lad as Lowry, but the old preacher was looking tired and his hand kept going to the side of his chest.
“Are you all right?”
Lowry gave her a wry smile. “Just old age.”
Jamie suddenly remembered his request back on Pangaea. “The Lycidine . . .”
“I still have a few tablets left,” Lowry said. “I’ll take one and lie down for a bit. You carry on.”
Finn had already tipped out the puzzle. He was carefully turning the pieces face up to show scattered fragments of golden sand and blue sky. Jamie sat down opposite him, noting the neat, precise way he handled the puzzle. Was he as focused as he appeared to be, or was his fear and confusion playing out in a loop, like her tangle of statistics? If it was in turmoil, he gave no outward sign.
“How do you like to do it?” Jamie kept her tone light and matter-of-fact, like Lowry’s. “Do you start with the edges?”
“Corners first.” Finn picked up four pieces in quick succession, laying them out at a precisely judged distance.
“You’ve done this before.” Jamie smiled at him, but his only response was a questioning look that made her feel stupid, talking about nothing at all when that kind of time-filling chatter was probably what he found most difficult. On Alegria, every social situation had been a seething mass of that sort of conversation. Even she’d sometimes found it hard to navigate. For Finn it was probably incomprehensible.
Finn was picking up straight-edged pieces of blue, some clear and featureless, others brushed with the faint suggestion of clouds. Jamie couldn’t see anything to distinguish the pieces, but Finn laid them down without hesitation, leaving precise gaps. It wasn’t a puzzle for him, she realized. It was a meditation, something he could do without having to figure out the whys and the wherefores.
The sofa scraped on the floor as Rena stood up, turning toward the galley. As she squeezed past, her skirt snagged the edge of the board, knocking a handful of pieces onto the floor. Jamie snatched at them but only managed to save a couple before the others disappeared between the floor slats.
“Shit.” She slid her fingers into the gap. “Sorry, Finn. I think we’ve lost them.”
Rena muttered something and tugged her skirt free, almost dislodging another piece. Jamie put her hand out to steady the board.
A dull red flush rose along Rena’s jaw. “You were in the way. Can’t he do this in his cabin?”
Finn was gripping the edge of the board, staring at the space where the pieces had been. At Rena’s comment, he scrambled to his feet, grabbing at a crate for balance.
“Finn.” Jamie stood up and put her arm out, not thinking. He shrank away, and she immediately snatched her hand back. “Sorry. Don’t go. We might be able to find the pieces.”
Rena stalked away to the galley, where she slammed down her cup and busied herself with the hot-water machine.
Jamie turned to Gracie, who was sitting in silence, watching the commotion. “Can we get under the floor?”
“Not without moving the crates and unscrewing the whole panel.”
Jamie looked back at Finn. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “Maybe we’ll be able to get them back when the crates are unloaded.”
“That won’t be anytime soon,” Gracie said. “They belonged to a family relocating out to one of the Mercian colonies. I don’t suppose anyone’s still waiting for them.”
Finn knelt back down and began shoveling pieces back into the box. There was a jaggedness to the movement, at odds with the deft way he’d been placing the pieces when the puzzle was whole. As Jamie watched the fragments of sea and sky disappear in a formless tumble into the box, an idea occurred to her.
“Wait there. I’m just going to get something.”
Up in her cabin she picked up the jar of sea glass and hurried back to the hold. Gracie was gone, but Rena was back on the sofa, her hands clasped tightly together. When she saw Jamie, she rose out of her seat with an awkward, stiff-limbed movement.
“I’m sorry.” She made a vague gesture toward Finn. “I didn’t mean . . .” She stopped, her mouth working as though the words had suddenly become unpalatable. “It was in the way,” she went on, more aggressively. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Okay.” Jamie knew she sounded short, but she didn’t want to get drawn into a postmortem, in which she’d have to navigate the uncharted waters of Rena’s changing moods.
“It was in the way,” Rena said again. There was an odd, almost pleading note in her voice. “It wasn’t my fault.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Jamie turned away. “Just leave it.”
As Rena muttered something incomprehensible and stalked out of the galley, Jamie sat down opposite Finn, who’d finished packing the jigsaw away and was sitting silently, knees tucked to chest. When she opened the jar, he lifted his head, watching as she emptied out the fragments of glass and pottery. One piece, aqua blue and almost perfectly spherical, skittered across the board toward him, and he picked it up between finger and thumb.
“It’s sea glass,” Jamie said. “The pieces have been in the sea for years, so all the sharp bits have worn away.”
Finn replaced the blue marble and reached for a curve of deep red, running his thumb along the frosted surface.
“Pieces of what?” he asked.
“All sorts of things. You find it all along the coast where I grew up.” She ran her palms over the fragments, spreading them out so that the colors and textures were apparent. “The clear pieces could be anything.” She picked up a green teardrop. “These are from old bottles. There was a glass factory just down the coast, and they used to throw their leftover glass into the sea.” She brushed through the pile until she found an smooth oval, shot through with lines of blue and amber. “They call these pieces end-of-day glass. They came from the glass the factory workers used at the end of each day, with all the leftover colors mixed together.”
Finn reached into the center of the pile and picked up a piece of delft pottery, the faded sky-blue figures just visible against a crackle-gray background. He put it down in front of him and reached for another with a similar pattern but stained with speckles of rusty pigment. He pushed the two pieces close, turning them around, trying to butt their corners together. Frustration creased his brow.
“They don’t fit.”
Jamie put another piece down, dusty pink this time, with gray spider-thread lines across its smooth surface. “They won’t,” she said, adding a piece of terra-cotta tile with a worn floral pattern carved along its edge. “They’re all from different things. And they’ve been worn away. Even if you had all the pieces, you’d never be able to put them back together.”
Finn reached for another piece of pink and gray. “These are the same.”
“You do sometimes find pieces that look like they come from the same thing.” Jamie had always found that fascinating. All that great bulk of ocean and time, and some of the fragments had held together. She’d sometimes wondered, if you sat there long enough would you find the whole thing? And if you did, would there be a way to put it back together, so that it still held some vestige of what it had been before?
Her grandfather used to take her up to the pebble beach north of Belsley, usually on a Sunday morning when her grandmother was in church. You only ever found pottery fragments in any great number on that particular stretch of coast. Boulmer and Craster were for clear glass, and some light blues and greens. You got the cobalt blues at North Sunderland and Seaham, and the latter was the sole repository of the reds and purples and mixed hues. But Belsley was pottery, and she and her grandfather would walk up there when the tide was low.
They’d met a woman once, engrossed in the same activity. She wasn’t local, too smartly dressed for the beach, with damp sand clinging to her suede toes. She had a whole handful of pieces of blue and white that looked as though they were from the same thing. A bowl most likely, from the way the pieces curved. She’d shown them, her face bright with discovery, and said that things like that were the reason she believed in God. Jamie’s grandfather had smiled at the woman and said it was why he didn’t.
When they were alone, Jamie had scuffed the sand with her toes and asked him what he’d meant. He’d said that if there were a god he’d give you all of it, or he’d give you nothing. He’d test your faith, or he’d verify it. He wouldn’t leave it all so wide open that everything could be a pattern, or else nothing at all.
Finn ran his fingers through the fragments again, picking up a handful of tiny beads of glass. Jamie had always gone after the bigger pieces, the ones that caught your eye from a long way away, but her grandfather sifted through the fine shingle for the tiny scraps of almost-nothing, the ones that had been in the sea for so long that they were close to disappearing.
“What are they for?” Finn asked suddenly.
“What do you mean?”
“What do you do with them? If they don’t go back together.”
“They’re not for anything,” she said. “My grandfather used to make jewelry, but I just liked to look at them. Sometimes I used to make pictures.” She moved a few pieces of red and blue around until she had two concentric circles, like a double-layered flower, and then she added a stalk and leaves of small green nuggets. “Like that.”
“You’re from Earth.” Finn brushed the glass petals with a careful fingertip.
“The other lady said we’re going to Earth. She said we were going to start again.”
“We want to go to Earth,” Jamie said. “I’m not sure if we’ll get there. And I’m not sure about the other bit.”
Finn nodded and returned to his contemplation of the sea glass.
Jamie looked up at the echo of footsteps and saw Callan approaching.
“Can I borrow you for a minute?” he said.
She glanced at Finn. “Can we talk here?”
“No,” Callan said. “I need you to do me an inventory of those new medicines. I want to know what we’ve got, and whether there’s anything else we need.”
“Won’t most places have stockpiled supplies?”
“The remote settlements may, but places closer in will have relied on regular deliveries.”
Jamie felt a brush of irritation and envy. What must it be like to see things as unemotionally as Callan did? They had no idea how many people had survived, or how any new society would function, but here he was, talking about stockpiles and inventories, as though they were on a run-of-the-mill trading trip rather than making their way to the heart of a broken world, not sure whether they’d find it still beating.
“I don’t want to leave Finn on his own,” she said, lowering her voice.
“He’ll be fine. Not much he can get up to.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Jamie glanced at Finn, who was studying a curve of green glass. He’s . . . it must be hard for him.”
“He survived on his own until Mila found him,” Callan said. “You don’t have to treat him like a child.”
Once again Jamie felt a stirring of annoyance. What did he know about being vulnerable, and lost in a world you couldn’t understand?
Callan leaned past her to address Finn directly. “Boy.”
Finn didn’t respond.
Callan raised his voice. “Finn.”
Finn looked up.
“I need Jamie to help me with something,” Callan said. He spoke clearly and precisely, with a note in his voice Jamie hadn’t heard there before. It sounded almost gentle. “Will you wait here till she comes back?”
Finn tipped his head, considering this, and then nodded.
Callan turned back to Jamie, his tone brisk once again. “See? He’s fine.” Then he turned and walked out of the galley, leaving her with a faint, lingering resentment.
She turned to Finn. “You sure you’ll be okay?”
He looked up at her, his brow creasing. “Yes. I told him.”
“Okay.” Jamie hesitated, but she couldn’t think of any valid reason not to do as Callan had asked, and she wasn’t sure why she was looking for one.
The task took longer than she expected, and by the time she returned to the hold, Finn was gone and there were signs of people having already eaten and dispersed. The sea glass had been placed back in the jar, and the makeshift table dismantled. She made herself a quick dinner, then returned to the sleeping quarters, where she knocked first on Finn’s door, then on Mila’s. There was no answer from either of them. She was about to go into her own cabin when she heard the scrape of another door and turned to see Rena peering out. The other woman’s eyes looked red and scuffed, and she was picking at the skin of her forearm.
“I looked for you earlier.” Rena’s lips twisted into a tight rictus that was probably supposed to be a smile. “I couldn’t find you.”
“Callan asked me to catalog the medical supplies.” Jamie reached for the door handle. Conversations with Rena were like some sinister obstacle course. One minute you’d be ambling along on solid footing; the next moment the ground had opened up and you were being sucked into a dark underworld, where fate and the gods waited to harangue you with their own version of why things were.
Rena took a couple of uncertain steps out into the corridor. “I could have helped you.”
“It wasn’t exactly a big job.”
“But I’d like to help.” Rena crossed her arms across her chest. “You’re helping, and I’m not doing anything.”
“You could try not upsetting Finn.” Jamie opened her cabin door. “That might help.”
Rena looked down at the floor, her arms tightening around her thin frame.
“I’m sorry.” She sounded brittle. “I didn’t mean to make things difficult for you.” She moved her hands in a nervous gesture. “People like you. You can talk to them and they understand what you mean. I don’t . . .” She twisted her fingers together, then continued in a rush. “I always get it wrong. Say the wrong thing. People don’t . . . I can’t make them understand. I can’t make them like me.”
“It’s not about making things difficult for me.” Stiff with discomfort, Jamie decided it was safest to ignore the other woman’s halting confession. “It’s about Finn. It must be hard enough for him without . . .” She caught herself before she could finish with the accusatory you.. ”. . . people making things worse.”
“It’s not . . .” Rena stopped, nipping at her lip with her teeth. When she continued her tone was edged with something that sounded almost like defiance. “I don’t understand why he survived.”
“I don’t know. I guess he must have been fairly isolated.”
Rena shook her head. “That’s not what I mean. So many dead. Those of us who survived . . . it must have been God’s will. He has a plan for us, a place for all of us in his new world.”
Jamie stared at her for a moment, and then understanding dawned. “You don’t think Finn’s good enough for this new world of yours. That’s it, isn’t it?”
Rena gave another shake of her head, a quick, spasmlike movement. “You don’t understand. It’s not that simple.”
“Seems pretty simple to me.” Jamie’s dislike was a sour taste on her tongue. “Brave new world, but only by your invitation.” She deliberately let her lip curl. “Or your god’s.”
“I don’t . . . you see? I never make people understand.”
“I understand perfectly.” Jamie turned away. “I’ll leave you to your plans for the perfect world.”
“Jamie.” Rena took a step toward her, her voice almost pleading. “I’m sorry. I didn’t . . .”
“It doesn’t matter.” Jamie went into her cabin. “Good night.”
As she closed the door behind her, she heard the other woman say something else, but she couldn’t make out the words. She stood still for a moment, waiting to hear the sound of footsteps, but it was several long moments before they came. Her heartbeat was a dull, resentful thud, and she took a steadying breath. She was conscious of the faintest edge of guilt to the outbreath. There’d been something vulnerable about Rena in the first moments of that exchange. What would have happened if she’d been gentler with the other woman?
She walked away from the door, undressed, and climbed into bed. It wasn’t up to her to bring Rena into the fold. She just wanted to get where she was going and find Daniel. Then she’d know what all this was about. They could start again, just the two of them.
As her thoughts began to splinter into sleep, three words echoed through her mind in a mocking tone that sounded like Rena.
Brave new world.
Reading Group Guide
Readers Guide for
the space between the stars
1) The novel features a physical journey across the stars, but the characters are also on an emotional journey. How does each character change over the course of the book?
2) A deadly virus has claimed the lives of the vast majority of humanity. What is it about our characters that led to their survival? What would you do to survive?
3) How does the title of the book fit into the story? What relevance does it have to each different character?
4) How do the short memory sequences help create a picture of Jamie? Why do you think the author chose to present these scenes in a nonchronological structure?
5) Jamie lost a baby before the book begins. How does this affect her during her journey?
6) The characters in the book have to make choices about how they are going to live in a postvirus world. Out of all the minor characters—such as Elsie and Mrs. Lawson—and major ones, whose choices do you find the most interesting?
7) When Jamie finds Daniel on Alegria, he is closely involved with the administration’s attempt to rebuild society. Jamie is appalled by the methods they are prepared to adopt, and she rejects Daniel’s entreaties for her to stay. Do you sympathize with Daniel? Why or why not?
8) When we first encounter Mila and Finn, Mila mentions a “bad man,” and Jamie later finds the body of a man who appears to have been murdered. Do you think there really was someone stalking Mila and Finn, or was it all in Mila’s head? Are Jamie and the others right to leave without trying to make contact with a potential survivor?
9) Sea glass is a recurring image in the story. What does it represent?
10) The search for patterns and meaning comes up throughout the book. How is this presented in each of the different characters?
11) Why do you think Callan changes his mind about abandoning the other travelers? How does his backstory influence the choices he makes in the book?
12) Jamie is reunited with her stepmother toward the end of the book, and their relationship is much stronger than it had been before the virus. What has changed?
13) Do you think Jamie and Callan’s relationship will last? How is it different from Jamie’s relationship with Daniel?
14) Near the end of the book, we find out that something has gone wrong with the attempt to rebuild society on Alegria. What do you think happened, and why?
15) It is implied that Jamie is pregnant at the end of the book. We also know that another survivor has managed to conceive, despite the administration’s fears that the virus rendered everyone infertile. Would the ending have felt different without these pregnancies? What do you think would happen to a community without a future generation?
16) The book ends with a sense of hope for the future. How do you think each character’s story line will pan out?
17) Imagine yourself in Jamie’s position, in a largely empty world. Where would you go, and what sort of future would you build?