Excerpt Tundra 37 by Aubrie Dionne
I’m losing her.
Abysme guides the vessel in silence, her blind eyes rolling as she senses our course, two hundred years away from Paradise 18. She’s scattered her thoughts among the stars, and her mind drifts farther from the sister I once knew. I fear the machine has engulfed her individuality. She’s forgotten the meaning of our goal, the oath we took three centuries ago. Most of all, she’s forgotten me, creating an emptiness inside me more profound than the desolation surrounding us.
If I had my arms, I’d reach out to comfort her and usher her back from the black abyss spread before us. As children, I kept her alive through the destruction, signing us up for the Expedition and winning two tickets off Old Earth before it succumbed to hell. But can I save her now?
I send impulses through my brainwaves and into the ship. Bysme, do you hear me?
Unlike her, I have one operating eye and can see the control chamber we hang from. Twisting my head, I search her features. Her skeletal face twitches. She writhes and the wires holding her in place stretch taut. I wonder what I’ve done to us, the shock of our disembodiment jolting me. Every input hole drilled into my skull snakes with activity. The ship surges through me, a vast intranet of information, names, status charts, and infinite trajectories. If I couldn’t feel the cold, regulated air on the remnants of my torso, I’d be lost in the machine too. I remind myself of our mission and the perseverance flows into my veins.
She doesn’t respond and the fear wells up from within me. Can I guide the ship alone? I realize I’ve left her at the helm for too long while I drifted into memories.
Status of Beta Prime? Bysme speaks in monotone computer speech as she turns to the corner of the main control deck where the orb glistens, tempting us with the mysteries hidden in the cosmic swirls within its core. Sometimes, I wish we’d blasted the ball off the hull after its tendrils attached to the outer frame instead of recovering it for study. We’ve guarded it for so long, Project Beta Prime has become part of us, yet we’re further than ever from unlocking its secrets. All I know is the insistence of my memories, like ghosts that refused to be ignored.
Unchanged. The weight of my voice in our mindspeak reflects my disappointment. Like everything else.
Bysme falls silent, and I scan the systems searching for answers that aren’t there.
The Expedition 2751
Names trailed in pairs along the wallscreen as the next batch of destinies unfolded. Gemme pulled her hair into a ponytail and sipped her synthetic coffee, reviewing the computer’s choices. Beside her, a constellation of stars glittered on the sight panel. She studied the spherical pattern, content to watch the world float by from the safety of the Expedition’s computer analytics wing.
She’d live and die on the decks of the aging transport ship. The certainty of her fate comforted her from the black void pressing in. Consistency gave her solace, and in her life regularity reigned. She lived through her work, finding life in numbers.
After another long sip, she gazed up at the screen and read the first pair of names.
Aaron Tixton and Cassandra Smith.
She accessed their profiles with the tip of her finger on her keypad. Both Lifers tested well in energy maintenance and ship repairs. Their personalities were type ISTP and type ENFJ, and their family trees didn’t intersect until third cousins in the first generation, providing a promising match. Neither showed any manifestation of the rare hypergene they’d searched for since they left Earth, but no one she’d ever matched had. There were no guarantees the Seers would last until the ship reached Paradise 18. Suppressing a moment of worry, she scratched her chin, then typed an affirmation on the touchscreen.
Ray Ellis and Melissa Stewart. Although they were three years apart, Ray being the senior, their genes were optimally compatible. With resistance to Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease, they would produce durable children. The touchscreen flashed as her finger pressed enter.
Molly Fritz and—
The portal beeped, interrupting her work. Who would visit so early on the first morning shift? She’d dragged herself out of her sleep pod for a reason. The Seers expected the next report by fourteen hundred, and she didn’t have time for unplanned meetings.
Gemme sighed and clicked off the screen. She couldn’t have an intruder spying on the new sets of matches. She pressed the portal panel and the particles dematerialized like falling stars, revealing a stellar beauty.
“Gemme.” Luna shifted and leaned her busty body against the portal frame. “How are you? I haven’t talked to you in years.”
For a reason.
Uneasiness spread through Gemme’s shoulders, making her neck tingle. A vision of Luna’s highly mascaraed teen face scrunched up in anger came back to her. “What am I going to do with you, you freckle-faced cybergeek? You make me look bad with all your studying and high test scores,” Luna had taunted before she smacked Gemme in the chest, leaving a bruise that had lasted for two months. Sure, Gemme had pushed her back, but Luna’s final shove had landed her in the recycling bin. She’d suffered in that cold, metal container for four hours before a custodian heard her banging for help.
Luna had claimed it was an accident, and as the Lieutenant’s daughter, and the descendant of the original founder of the Expedition, everyone believed her. Gemme hadn’t pressed the issue. No one messed with the Legacys. Since then, she’d stayed clear of the beauty and her bullying tactics. As Luna hovered over her, Gemme sensed where this conversation led, and it made the coffee in her stomach churn like acid.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do, Luna. What do you need?”
Luna flipped her wavy blonde hair behind her shoulder and stared at her as if she had a right to be there. “I want to discuss my pairing.”
“You know I can’t talk of future matches.” Gemme fought to keep her tone professional. “The computer makes the decisions. I only review the pairings and double-check for glitches.”
“You have more power than you let on, Gemme, dear.” Luna pushed past her and slinked across her office, tapping her fingertips along the keyboards.
Hot air flared out of Gemme’s nostrils. The nerve! Luna asked her to change the bylaws, to risk her job after years of bullying? Her cheeks burned like a supernova. The keys clicked under Luna’s long nails in a rhythmic pitter-patter. Thank goodness she’d locked down the system.
The blinking button for the screen stood out like a dwarf star. Luna inched toward it. Gemme squeezed by her and stuck her small body between Luna’s ginormous chest and the touchscreen, turning her back on her to protect the machine.
“I can’t change the pairings, only approve or disapprove.”
“You can disapprove of everyone for me.”
The harshness in her voice made Gemme whip around from the controls and stare her down. “You’re telling me you don’t want a lifemate?”
“You didn’t let me finish.” Luna’s lips slid into a smile. “Everyone, that is, except Miles Brentwood.”
Of course. Gemme could’ve guessed that request from a parsec away. The computer hadn’t assigned Miles Brentwood a lifemate yet. Five years their senior, not only was he powerful, attractive, and brilliant, his sweet charm could warm even the coldest reaches of deep space. Somehow, even though Luna was gorgeous, Gemme didn’t think she deserved Brentwood, and she reveled in the fact that she couldn’t honor Luna’s request.
“The computer decides the lifemates, not me.” Besides, pairing Luna with Lieutenant Brentwood would explode the mainframe of the lifemate pairing system. The computer’s choices had an excellent success rate, much better than the statistics she’d seen from Old Earth. She couldn’t imagine people choosing for themselves.
Luna shrugged as if she discussed tricking a five-year-old instead of defying a centuries-old system. “If you deny every pairing for me, eventually his name will come up.”
Gemme held her nose up, but her head only came up to Luna’s magnificent plunging neckline. Why didn’t her uniform ever look as good? “I’m not going to bend the rules for you.”
Luna pulled back and pouted her full lips. “I thought you’d say as much. That’s why I brought you a bribe.”
She dropped a piece of paper on Gemme’s desk. Before Gemme could reply, Luna slipped around her and jogged out the portal. “Think about it. Get back to me.” Her voice echoed down the corridor, cheerful, yet tense.
Gemme watched her leave, stunned. What could Luna have that she wanted, besides an apology? She’d already earned a cushy job with a cosmic view. Gemme picked up the piece of paper, feeling the strange thinness in her hands. Paper was only used for formal occasions. What could it be?
Opening the folds of the document revealed a border of glittering gold. The writing was etched in inky cursive. Gemme gasped as she studied the contours of the inscription.
Request granted. Please present this upon arrival on Control Deck 67.
A ticket to visit the Seers. This rarity was one more shred of proof the Legacys had advantages others didn’t have.
Why would she ever want to meet them? The Seers had sealed their chamber for the last century for fear of weakening their fragile bodies with germs. People whispered about their transformation from real humans born on Old Earth to skeletons and machines. Just thinking about how they’d severed their arms and legs after the limbs had atrophied to have wires run directly into their torsos made her squirm.
She realized Luna didn’t know her at all. Status quo contented Gemme more than any high position or special meeting. She wanted to live her life on the Expedition, drink her coffee, and play matchmaker in space.
Gemme slipped the document underneath her keyboard. She’d have to return it to Luna herself. This couldn’t be trusted with interdepartmental mail and she didn’t want Luna thinking she owed her anything.
After the portal materialized, she flicked on the button for the pairing system and the list of names blinked on her wallscreen.
Now where was I? Oh yes, Molly Fritz and—
A letter G stole her attention from halfway down the second column. She skimmed the names.
It couldn’t be.
Gemme gasped and backed away from the wallscreen. Her touchscreen fell to the floor and rattled.
Gemme Reiner and Miles Brentwood.
Her first thought was of Luna running at her with a laser gun.
But I didn’t choose it. The computer did.
She knew the day would come when her name would cross the screen, she just didn’t think it would be today or it would be him. Everyone would suspect she devised the pairing herself. She’d look like the most selfish, hypocritical computer analyst in the history of the Expedition. She might even lose her job.
She scrambled to the floor and collected the touchscreen. Her hands shook as she replaced it on her desk. Wasting no time, she highlighted their names and the reasoning for the pairing. They both had history of mild high blood pressure, and a few minor propensities for anxiety in their family trees. They weren’t incompatible, but they sure as hell weren’t a perfect match either. Although, their first names sounded so right together: Gemme and Miles.
Shaking the nonsense from her head, she forced herself to focus. The florescent yellow connecting her name and his made her uneasy. Her finger paused over the word delete. For a millisecond, she thought of his strong hands touching her cheek, running across the back of her neck and into her hair.
Why would such a man be matched to her? Obviously the computer had miscalculated. Here lay the one glitch she was destined to fix. Gemme’s finger trembled as she pressed the touchscreen. In an instant, their names disappeared, deleted forever in the vastness of deep space. Even the Seers wouldn’t detect it in their nets.
A response beeped on the screen.
Gemme breathed with relief. She couldn’t have people thinking she’d manipulated the system, especially Luna. Besides, attraction shouldn’t factor in any of the matches.
She picked up her coffee mug just as a crash echoed above her head. The floor rumbled beneath her feet. Had her deletion wreaked havoc on the whole system?
Two monotone voices echoed in unison out over the intercom. “Comet shower approaching. Collisions imminent. Evacuate the outer levels.”
Gemme froze. Danger to the Expedition? Impossible! The Seers would have detected any danger from a parsec away. They could never be wrong. The Guide said so.
Another crash shuddered the floor and she fell to her knees. The wallscreen flickered. She gazed out the sight panel at the familiar constellation. Balls of red with trailing tails streaked the sight panel. She fisted her hands. Had the Seers failed? She had no time to ponder the impossible. Her office lay on an outer deck. She had to get to safety.
Her first thought shot to the computers. Could she save her life’s work? For privacy, the Seers instructed each matchmaker to store all data on the computer in front of her. The lights flickered out and an alarm screamed down the hall. One of the fiery balls grew larger, hurtling right toward the glass separating Gemme from the void of space.
Forget the data.
Taking one look back at her touchscreens, Gemme sprinted to the portal and slammed her fist on the panel. The second it took for the particles to dematerialize tugged on her nerves. Visions of space sucking her out haunted her more than visions of being stuck to the ship like the Seers. Gemme clutched her hands together and bounced on her toes.
The particles disappeared, and smoke wheezed in. Bending down, Gemme covered her mouth with the sleeve of her uniform and ran. The ship pitched sideways, and she fell into the wall, bumping her knee. Her leg collapsed, but she forced herself up through the pain. The corridors lay empty. Was she the last one on the outer decks? She hoped so. Most of the Lifers slept in their cells at the heart of the ship at such an early hour.
“Hull breach imminent. Congregate to the inner decks immediately.”
Was there a hint of fear in the Seers’ voices? Gemme refused to believe it. The Seers had everything under control. They always did. They wouldn’t let anything happen to her, would they?
She punched the portal panel in front of the elevators, but nothing happened. Fear twisted her stomach, climbing its way up her throat. She breathed in, and the air seared the back of her mouth. Coughing, she slammed the panel harder.
Come on, you aging piece of junk.
The panel light flickered out like a dying sun.
Smoke filled the corridor and burned her eyes. She ran to the air shaft’s emergency ladders. Another crash hit the hull, and another. What were the Seers doing? Had they lost their minds? She clung to each ladder rung as she climbed down, afraid another shock would send her plummeting ten levels at once.
As she reached the next deck, the air spiraled over her head. Pressure sucked the breath out of her lungs. A warning buzz sounded, and the Seers’ unison voices echoed out, “Hull breach on Deck 86.”
Gemme searched below her feet. She could climb down ten more rungs to close the lower hatch, or climb back up five to close the upper hatch. Metal clicked, and the emergency systems made the decision for her. Beneath her feet, the particles of the lower hatch materialized.
Panic rushed up her legs along with the dwindling air. The Seers had locked her out.
Gemme stared at the spinning particles. If she fell too soon, she’d be stuck in the particles of the hatch and the portal would rematerialize inside her. She had to wait for the hatch to become solid.
The air grew thin and she gasped for breath. The force of the suction pulled at her, yanking hair out of her ponytail. Once the hatch formed, she leaped down on top of it. Scrambling in the folds of her uniform, she brought out her keytag.
Thank goodness she’d worn it around her neck. Sometimes the cord irritated her skin, and she took it off, setting it by her touchscreen. Now, she wasn’t sure if her touchscreen still existed. The thought of her office pummeled by comets flashed in her mind. She couldn’t go back for anything now.
She shoved the keytag into the portal panel and typed override. A message popped up.
Please enter your security code.
The temperature dropped and she shivered, sucking in one last breath. Gemme forced herself to type slowly to get it right. One missed touch would shut her out forever.
Her heart raced as she tapped the panel and the particles disappeared.
A wave of hot air blew by her as the hatch reopened. Gemme jumped down and slammed her fist against the panel to close it above her. As the particles solidified, she climbed down to the next level and kicked something blocking her way.
“Whoa! Look out.”
Miles Brentwood gazed up from the toes of her boots, his green-flecked eyes piercing the semidarkness. Gemme’s heart sped up. To see any person right now made her emotions crumble, never mind the man she’d been thinking of ever since she deleted their pairing. “If you’re going up, there’s no way out. I sealed the passage.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” He took the sight of her in, traveling up her cheek to her eyes and she almost lost her grip on the ladder rung. “I’m looking for you.”
Miles Brentwood had come to spend the end of the world with her? Gemme’s mind reeled. Nothing that morning had made any sense. She felt stuck in some sort of quasi-nightmare turned hot dream. “What?”
Although chaos crashed around them, his hair still looked perfect, the blond wave rising an inch above his broad forehead. “I’m retrieving all the stragglers. I followed your locater number.”
“Oh.” She looked away, feeling sheepish and small. How could she have ever thought he’d know who she was, never mind go searching for her in particular during this disaster?
He gestured over his shoulder. “There’s a safe chamber just down this hall. Follow me.”
Gemme collected her scattered emotions just as something crashed against the hatch above them. The screeching sound of crushed metal echoed down the vent shaft.
Brentwood shouted over the din, “This compartment’s losing pressure, come on!”
She followed him down two more levels and through a side passage she’d never have found by herself. They crawled through an air shaft, collecting dust webs under their fingers. A metal grating hung missing half its hinges. Had he come all this way just for her?
Brentwood looked back at her over his shoulder. “It’s not far. You can jump.”
He paused at the hole below them and waited for her to make the first move.
Of course, his valor screamed “ladies first.”
Gemme dangled her legs and judged the distance from the ceiling to the floor below her feet. If she fell the wrong way, she’d break both her ankles.
He must have seen fear cross her eyes because he offered his hands. “Here, I’ll help you.”
The warmth in his voice calmed her racing thoughts. She locked on his gaze. The flecks of green were so pure, they reminded her of the foliage in the biodome. Those eyes could have been hers to gaze into. She damned the pairing program. Why had it ever put such an outrageous idea in her head?
“Take my hands.”
Gemme blinked her thoughts away and slid her hands into his. Their palms molded into a perfect fit. His skin emanated heat, warming her cold fingertips. She closed her eyes as the ship crashed around them. She expected to feel pain, but a light-headed ecstasy bubbled over her.
When she opened her eyes, the airshaft remained intact with Brentwood eagerly waiting for her to move. All the crashing had happened inside her, levels being knocked down to reveal surprising emotions she didn’t think herself capable of. Yet, the feelings stirred an undercurrent of familiarity. Gemme searched his features to see if he experienced any of the same emotions, but his wide lips frowned. He was more concerned for her than drunk on possibility He hoisted her down and her feet hit the floor with a bounce. The ship pitched again, and she fell against the wall. Brentwood jumped behind her and ushered her forward, his hands along her waist.
“Just a few more steps.”
They ran to the belly of the ship, where the structural integrity would hold under pressure. Brentwood slapped a panel and the portal disappeared to reveal a bunch of colonists huddling together. Food rations were stacked against the far wall along with space suits. Panic worked its way up Gemme’s spine. If they needed those suits, they were dead already.
“Shouldn’t we run to the escape pods?”
Brentwood shook his head. “Not yet. The Seers believe they can salvage the ship. The escape pods would only scatter us into deep space.”
Gemme nodded and bit her lower lip. She’d known his answer. Escape pods were useless unless they found a habitable planet. It would only delay inevitable death.
He bent down, his face hovering a breath away from hers, lips slightly parted. Gemme froze in shock, noticing each light hair in his eyebrows and the moisture on his lips. Only lifemates leaned in so close. He pulled back, shaking his head as if recovering from a trance.
“My apologies. I must search for others.”
Before Gemme’s heart could beat again, he’d disappeared down the corridor, smoke trailing in his footsteps.