MY BARE FEET POUNDED THE black floors, my breath coming in short, sharp gasps. Strings of flickering lights illuminated my way, and I jumped over a piece of something unrecognizable lying in the middle of the corridor. By now, on my twelfth loop, it was a conditioned response.
A thin sheen of sweat covered my body, one I wouldn’t be able to rinse away, and my foot throbbed slightly. Reed, our resident healer, had fixed my earlier injury, but either he hadn’t managed it completely, or I was experiencing ghost pain. Life on this alien ship had made me soft. No exercise regimen, no training sessions, nothing but sitting around worrying and ignoring increasingly frantic messages from my dad on Earth until my comm ran out of battery. I couldn’t afford to lose my edge. And so I ran, around and around the ship until I collapsed from exhaustion.
Cage kept pace beside me, bare arms gleaming, muscles sharp and defined even with our recent enforced inactivity. I scowled and put on a burst of speed, but even without using his powers, he easily kept pace. With his abilities, of course, he could have lapped me a dozen times before I blinked.
Like everyone else on this alien ship, Cage was an anomaly, a superpowered teen recently escaped from the orbital prison Sanctuary. Of course, even though I was an anomaly too, I’d worked as a guard before being taken hostage by the prisoners. I’d only banded together with them to survive an attack from vicious alien creatures, all while discovering my own lurking powers, which gave me much more in common with the prisoners than with Omnistellar, the company I had once devoted my life to. By capturing this alien ship on a wing and a prayer, we’d barely avoided the aliens hell-bent on assimilating us, and for some stupid reason, I’d thought that now things would calm down a little. Sure, we still had Omnistellar to deal with, and we were all criminals on the run, but the combination of freedom and a near-death experience had to count for something, right?
Not so much. Not living in the very pit of the vipers who’d tried to kill us. Taking the alien ship had been a victory. It was the only reason we’d survived their attack on Sanctuary and escaped with our lives. But every time we turned around, we faced alien technology, alien architecture. The ship didn’t want us here. We’d taken it, but it wasn’t ours. And nobody forgot that for a second.
As if constant prickling unease weren’t enough to keep me busy, I had my dad back on Earth probably thinking I was dead. I’d ignored his messages at first because I didn’t know what to say, how to tell him about Mom’s death or confront him with my knowledge that he’d implanted the power-controlling chip in me when I was young. As time went by, things only got worse, and now my comm battery was dead, so I couldn’t talk to him even if I wanted to. Add another layer of guilt, please.
And I wasn’t the only one who’d lost people. With so many friends and family members vanished from our lives, living with the perpetual shadow of the things we’d done to survive, it was no wonder our escape hadn’t proved an easy solution.
Some of us seemed to be able to live with those things more easily than others, of course. Cage jogged to a casual halt in front of me, leaning his hands on his knees and casting me the boyish grin that always made my lips twitch in return. Our current workout seemed to absorb every bit of his attention without a hint of the relentless stress in the back of my mind. Cage set the mood for the others, and I knew he took that role seriously. But even with me, he hadn’t offered any indication that his past decisions cost him a moment of sleep. “I give up,” he gasped now. “Mercy.”
“It’s not a competition,” I said, although it totally was, and I had totally just won—the test of stamina, anyway. Cage had more than matched my speed.
Cage pulled a bottle of water out of one of the supply bags
we’d strung along the walls and passed it to me. Our fingers brushed, more contact than we’d had in two weeks, and I tried to keep my face impassive as I cracked it open. “Thanks,” I said, draining half the bottle in a single gulp.
He grabbed a bottle of his own and sank to the floor. I sat across from him, and we gazed at each other. The tips of our toes were almost touching, but the space felt wider with all the words and fears unspoken between us. Something had happened after Sanctuary. The night we’d escaped, I’d huddled against Cage and we’d clung to each other like a lifeline. But as the days passed and reality intruded, those touches, those shared jokes, those moments of peace and refuge vanished beneath the mountain of things we’d done to make those small moments possible.
I glanced both ways to make sure no one was in earshot and said, “I’ve been thinking . . .” About Matt. About what happened back on Sanctuary, that terrifying, horrible moment when the gun jerked in my hand. The shot I thought would save him, which ended up being the shot that ended him.
“Did it hurt?”
I rolled my eyes. “That’s a joke my dad would tell.”
Cage smiled, although the effort never quite made it past his lips. “That’s what I’m known for. What are you thinking about?”
Everything. The moment he’d argued in favor of killing the aliens on this ship, and how little the thought of genocide seemed to bother him. Rune shouting at her brother,
desperate to prevent him from murdering an entire race of creatures, Cage’s furious response, his desperation to eliminate the creatures before they awoke and came after us again. The way every sound in every corner made me freeze in terror as if an alien might leap from behind a wall. The tension on the ship, so thick you could almost bathe in it. I settled for the thing most frequently on my mind: “Matt.” Matt. My friend, Cage’s friend, everyone’s friend, really. He’d been one of the only prisoners to treat me with respect from day one. And then the alien had attacked him, and I’d been the one with the gun.
I’d shot, of course. Who wouldn’t? To save a friend?
But I’d missed. In the wake of that horror, of Matt lying breathless and sightless on the floor, it had been Cage who’d dragged the body away, Cage who’d convinced me to lie, to say the alien killed him. And I’d been lying ever since.
A cloud settled over his face. “Kenzie, we’ve talked about this.”
My stomach twisted and scuttled for cover. So much easier not to discuss these things, to laugh and change the subject. But I’d been searching for the opportunity for days. “I know. And you were right, at first. Back on Sanctuary, we couldn’t tell anyone what I’d done.” The prisoners on Sanctuary had already viewed me with suspicion and hatred. If they’d known that I shot their friend, even accidentally, they never would have followed me off the ship. The truth would have killed us all. But now . . . “We’re all stuck together. I’ve gotten to know people better. They trust me, or I think they do.”
“They do.” He leaned forward, fixing me with his earnest gaze. “Or they’re coming to. But what do you think will happen to that trust if they find out you’ve been lying to them for weeks?”
That tore through me. “I’ve been lying to them?”
“We’ve been lying to them,” he amended quickly. “But that’s not how they’ll see it. And even if they do, I have history with them. They’ll forgive me before they forgive you.”
I closed my eyes, took another swallow of water, and thought about how I’d react if I found out Rune had been lying to me all along, that she’d secretly jettisoned the aliens herself despite arguing against it. Cage knew these people better than me. They were just coming to trust me as Kenzie, instead of the Omnistellar guard representing all their fears. I supposed there might be a few other corporate citizens on this ship, but most of them were probably government kids who’d grown up with only the most basic supports. Even if I hadn’t been a guard, I was still a representation of corporate citizenship and all the benefits and privileges that came with it, especially in a huge corp like Omnistellar. It was only natural that they viewed me with suspicion and resentment.
Now, finally, I was getting past that surface, convincing them to see me for who I was and not what I represented. If I threw that away, if they turned on me, I couldn’t protect myself, not even with Cage’s support.
But that meant I had to carry the burden of what I’d done
all by myself, see my guilt reflected in the growing trust of my friends. Feel it widening the gulf between Cage and me with every word we didn’t say. “Look,” I tried again, searching for the words to change his mind, or maybe my own. “I don’t . . .”
Voices rose in the distance. Our eyes met, and as one, we heaved ourselves to our feet and jogged in their direction. Tensions ran high on this ship. If we didn’t break arguments up before they got out of hand, they tended to escalate in a hurry.
But by the time we got there, the situation was under control, thanks to Reed. He stood in one of the waist-high crevices scattered across the alien ship, only the tip of his dark hair visible as his voice echoed through the corridor. “I’m not kidding,” he said, his voice somehow teasing and yet carrying a hint of authority. “If the two of you get into any more fistfights, I’m not patching you up.”
Cage groaned inaudibly at the word “fistfight,” and we both quickened our step.
A boy sat on the floor of the crevice with Reed crouched over him, fingers against his temples. The boy twisted his head to scowl at us, revealing blood caked along his face, but before my eyes his nose twitched, repositioning itself, knitting back into shape.
“Again?” said Cage irritably. I bit my lip against a similar response. At least Reed had the presence of mind to pull them into a more isolated area. More fights were not going to help the already tense mood on board this ship.
The boy—what was his name? John? Jason? Something with a J—scowled. “Tell Keith to stay away from my boyfriend and we won’t have a problem.”
“I’m not telling anyone anything, and you need to figure out how to solve your problems without punching each other.”
Reed finished his healing and the boy launched himself to his feet, dragging himself out of the crevice and shoving past us. “You’re one to talk,” he tossed over his shoulder as he stormed down the corridor. “How did you deal with the aliens?”
“That was Mia,” Cage said crossly to the kid’s retreating back. “And also, bloodthirsty aliens. So, you know, not the same thing.”
Reed flopped back in the crevice and stared up at us, shaking his head. “This is getting worse, you know. More fights. More stupid little arguments. People waking up screaming because someone passed them on the way to the bathroom in the night. The original plan, the drifting through space to freedom thing? That’s not going to work unless we get a whole team of psychiatrists in here with us.” He looked thoughtful. “Think Omnistellar would sponsor us? It’d make a hell of a live vid series. Watch the Anomaly Kids of Sanctuary deal with their alien-induced PTSD, on the aliens’ ship, no less! Live and in color!”
Cage stared at him blankly. “In color? What else would it be in, shades of green?”
“You really need to learn your history,” Reed sighed.
I jumped in before he could launch into a lecture. Reed was usually about the best-natured among us, but get him going on spaceships, or racing, or technological history, or anything, really, with an electronic focus, and you’d be there the rest of your life. “Thanks, Reed. We’ll keep an eye on things.” I caught Cage’s sleeve and dragged him in the opposite direction.
Once I had him around the corner, though, I glanced both ways and met his gaze steadily. “He’s not wrong. People are starting to freak out. We’re living on an alien ship, Cage. Every inch of it reminds us of those things.”
“If you have another plan, I’m all ears.”
I shrugged helplessly, and once again that tension built between us. Cage and I had been together every step of this journey, from the moment the aliens attacked Sanctuary, through our devastating near misses, discovering the chip that meant I had powers of my own, escaping the station . . . We hadn’t known each other that long, but the sheer breadth of our shared experiences made it feel much longer. We slept side by side in the same crevice at night, worked out together during the day, argued over the best course of action.
And yet . . . every day, we seemed to grow further apart. Lying about me killing Matt? Cage’s idea. Venting the aliens into space? Ditto. And he kept doing it, every moment of every day. I couldn’t help but wonder . . . was he doing it to me, too?
“Hey,” he said, reaching out. For a moment it seemed like he might take my hand, and my skin tingled in anticipation,
but his fingers fluttered softly back to his side. “You all right? You vanished again.”
Heat rushed to my cheeks. I was used to being the strong one, always on guard against any sign of weakness. But even I had to admit the alien ship was taking its toll. “I don’t want to be here anymore,” I confessed. The lights we’d strung across the corridor flickered, illuminating the smooth, blocky alien architecture, a constant reminder that we weren’t home. We weren’t anywhere humans were meant to be. “And no, I don’t have anything better to suggest at the moment. The second we’re spotted, Omnistellar will descend on us. We’ll all end up back in prison—if we’re lucky. If we stay here, we eventually run out of supplies, or we all kill each other due to stress. I don’t see a way out.”
He grinned bleakly. “You’d think escaping the most secure prison in the solar system would be the challenge, huh? Or the vicious aliens. Not keeping everyone’s heads together in the aftermath.”
I examined his eyes, warm and dark and sparkling and yet with a layer over them that kept anyone from seeing his true self, even me. “Don’t you feel it?” I demanded, fighting the nervous tremble in my voice. “You’re always so . . . so calm. Don’t you feel fear? Remorse? Worry? Does any of it touch you?”
For a moment that veil dropped, and turmoil raced behind his eyes. “Kenzie, you have no idea.”
And I didn’t. Because he didn’t tell me. Didn’t trust me.
The silence between us grew taut and cold, and at last I forced a smile. “Our course was going to take us near Mars today. I’m going to check in with Rune, make sure we’re outside the range of their sensors. I’ll see you later.”
“What?” I faced him, arching an eyebrow, affecting an annoyed demeanor even as I hoped he would have something to say, some way to make things better. To alleviate the guilt. The fear. The pain.
But he only sighed. “Right. See you later,” he said.
“Yeah.” And with bitterness gnawing at my heart, I stalked across the corridor and out of sight.