The World Forgot
In Which We Attempt to Hit the Ground Running
Come on, already. Is it too much to ask for a little time to myself for once?
I spot Cole on the other side of the deck, where he slouches over the rail, staring out at the water. For a split second I consider turning around and heading back belowdecks, but Cole spots me before I make up my mind. He gives me a quick nod, then turns back to the water and takes a slug from a silver can. He makes no movement toward me, leaving me in the unenviable position of having to either be an antisocial jerk and ignore him or choose to hold an actual conversation.
You’d think that chatting with Cole would be easy enough, despite our current dire situation. I mean, we did conceive a child together. That kind of thing doesn’t happen when you’re communicating solely by semaphore. But after the realization I had back in Antarctica that I’m changing in really unexpected ways while Cole, for better or worse, is pretty much always going to be, well, Cole, I’ve been having a hard time acting normal around him. The fact that Cole’s testing to see if I’ll approach him is proof enough that even he has picked up on this.
I take up a spot about an arm’s length away from him along the ship’s railing and follow his gaze out to the horizon. The wind is superbrisk, but thanks to my Enosi hybrid genes, I adapted to the chill long before we even disembarked.
“Where’s Ducky?” Cole says to me, still not looking in my direction.
“He’s down in the bathroom. Barfing again.”
“I’m surprised you’re not down there holding his hair,” Cole says. “You’ve barely left his side since we set sail from Cape Crozier.”
“Cole, I’ve been with Ducky because Ducky’s been with Marnie, and Marnie’s been the one taking care of my dad. Remember? Harry Nara, middle-aged, out-of-shape engineer-slash-world’s-oldest-and-most-chuteless-skydiver?”
Cole takes another long drag from his nondescript tin can, then hurls it overboard. I want to chastise him for being an ocean litterbug, but I somehow manage to stop myself. I guess I’m growing as a person. Cole bends down and pulls two more cans from a crate at his feet on his other side.
“You’d think he’d have his sea legs after two weeks at sea,” he says, offering me one of the cans.
I don’t take it. “He’s spending twenty hours a day in a medical gel bath recovering from frostbite, hypothermia, and more than a few broken bones, Cole,” I reply, more than a little rankled. “I hardly think sea legs are his biggest—”
“I meant Ducky.”
“Oh. Well, I think he was hoping that Oates’s contact would come pick us up in a fancy spaceship or something, instead of an old oil tanker. But I guess beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to which smugglers aid in your escape from prison.” I do take the can from him then, but I don’t open it. It’s shiny and silvery smooth, like a can of peaches with the label pulled off. I play with the pop-top, lifting it slightly up and then letting it snap back onto the lid. “Besides, I’m sure Ducky’d barf in a spaceship, too. I’ve yet to discover any form of transportation gentle enough for his world-class motion sickness.”
“At least Oates had friends out there who could pick us up,” Cole says. “Even if they are kinda shady. After those pricks on the elevator platform left us stranded.”
“Well, the elevator was kinda sorta completely destroyed,” I remind him. “Those guys didn’t have any way to send a transport to pick us up before they left.”
“They could have left us something,” Cole argues. “Instead of scrambling back home with that weak-ass excuse about a ‘communications blackout.’ If it weren’t for Oates’s pals, we’d still be stuck in the snow.”
I look at Cole’s profile, a beautiful silhouette against the white sunlight. There are things we need to be talking about. Another conversation entirely.
I’m not sure I’m ready to have it.
“They’re still fighting down there,” I say, darting my eyes down to the deck below, where all the Almiri and Enosi trapped with us in Antarctica have been battling it out for the past several days. They stop only for meal breaks. “Oates is doing his best to referee, but no one’s seeing eye to eye on the whole let’s-go-back-to-Almiri-headquarters-and-hug-this-out plan we’ve got going.”
“Well, probably because it’s a shit plan,” Cole says.
“It’s the only option we have.”
Cole turns and looks at me. “Elvs, the hybrids are never going to be okay with going to HQ. We Almiri have been huge dicks to them for centuries. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon just because we all took a boat ride together.”
“The Jin’Kai invasion is coming,” I say, and I hate to admit it, but even I can hear the hint of desperation in my voice. “Marsden said as much. A fleet of those Devastators is on its way to Earth. Our only hope is to make sure everyone who calls Earth home—Almiri, Enosi, human—learns to play nice and form a unified resistance.”
“That’s all well and good to say,” Cole says, “except that’s not why you want to go back to HQ. You think Byron knows how to find Olivia.”
“Yeah,” I snap back. “And so what if that’s my reason? You act like wanting to find my daughter is some sort of crime.”
She stole her. My own mother kidnapped my daughter, right out of my hands, and handed her over to Dr. Marsden.
“Our daughter,” Cole says, and when I give him a funny look, he bores his stony eyes into me. “You said ‘my.’ You keep forgetting that Olivia’s my daughter too.”
I do. I do keep forgetting that. Probably because Cole hasn’t been acting much like a parent lately. Probably because he’s been acting more like a whiny, entitled baby, sulking on the deck when he should be helping Oates to get everyone to play nice like I’ve been doing for two weeks straight. Suddenly I feel butterflies climbing into my throat. I haven’t felt butterflies, not truly, since I was home in Ardmore, before any of this alien invasion craziness was a thing. A million years ago, in my bedroom in Ardmore, when Cole touched my hair, and I looked into his eyes, and he kissed me for the very first time.
Those were very different butterflies.
“I think we should break up,” I say softly. The words hover in the air between us like they’re in a cartoon speech bubble. Cole barely reacts at all, but I notice the corner of his mouth twitch. For several seconds the only sound is the crashing of the waves against the hull of the ship. I wait, as patiently as I can, for the explosion of feelings that’s probably welling up inside him right now.
“Whatever,” Cole says finally.
Not exactly what I was expecting.
“Whatever?” I snap back.
“What do you want me to say, Elvs?”
“Something more than ‘whatever.’ We have a child together, for Christ’s sake.”
“You’re the one who just said you want to break up!”
I’m at a loss. I want so badly for Cole to understand. I want to tell him that he’ll always be my first true love, that he’ll always be the father of my child, and that there will always be a special place in my heart just for him. That I’ll always want him in my life, but that I’m growing into a different person from who I was when we met, and that I need to figure out who this new person is going to be. I want to tell him I’m sorry.
“Fine. Whatever, then,” I shoot back at him.
My mouth feels like I’ve been chewing on cotton balls. I crack open the silver can and take a huge sip, only to immediately spit it back out in a glorious spray over the bow of the ship.
“Jesus, Cole! What in the hell is this?” I run my finger along the lip of the can, picking up the thick white liquid. “Have you been drinking condensed milk?”
“It was all they had in the galley!” he shouts. “And, hey, I don’t have to explain myself to you, because we just broke up!”
With that, he storms away, brushing past Captain Oates, who is walking toward us. Cole doesn’t break his stride and starts running as he gets farther away from me. Oates looks back at him before turning to me with a concerned look on his face.
“Miss Elvie?” he asks. “You’re crying.”
“It’s nothing,” I say, holding up the can of syrupy milk. “Just went down the wrong pipe.”
“Ah.” Oates settles in right beside me and looks out at the water. I can tell he doesn’t believe me, but he’s way too British to let on. “It’s quite lovely, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I say, sniffing.
“It’s been too long since I’ve been on the water. I hadn’t realized how much I truly missed it.”
“Well, seems like you could have called your buddies here to escape from prison anytime you wanted to.”
“I broke the law of my people, even if I felt that law to be unjust. If I wanted my actions to mean something, I could not run away from their consequences.”
“I didn’t realize extra hanky-panky was such a weighty subject for you,” I say. Seriously, I’ve always thought the Almiri “code” was a bit bogus—deciding who a dude gets to sleep with, and then locking him up indefinitely if said dude can’t keep it in his pants—but my buddy Oates has taken things to a new level of bogusitude.
Oates looks me dead in the eye. Now I’ve done it. I should just keep my mouth shut for the rest of the trip so that I don’t piss anyone else off.
“These sailors who aid us in our journey home . . . ,” Oates begins.
“The smugglers? What about them?”
“They are not smugglers. Well, they are, but not in the manner that you suppose. They are freedom runners. They transport the, shall we say, recently liberated, to safer harbor.”
“You mean like escaped convicts?” I ask.
Oates shrugs. “Perhaps, sometimes. But not always. They have been making their covert runs for centuries now.”
“They’re Almiri?” I’m stunned. I mean, I guess they were handsome enough dudes, but with this entire alien race war being such a sausagefest, I’ve been getting kind of immune to hot guys.
Oates nods. “They have helped to transport freed slaves. Illegal prisoners of war. And even men and women like yourself.”
“Enosi,” I say, slowly beginning to understand. “You mean they’ve helped hybrids escape from Almiri camps. But how did they . . .” And then it dawns on me, full force. “You!” I turn to face Oates straight on. “Cape Crozier wasn’t originally for Almiri Code-breakers with extra ants in their pants, was it? The Almiri held Enosi captive there, back when the continent was unexplored. And you . . . your trip to the South Pole in the twentieth century . . . you were freeing them.”
Oates is way too classy a dude to even acknowledge his own heroics. He simply rubs the palms of his hands along the cool rail. Me, being not so cool or classy, I slap him on the arm.
“Why didn’t you ever say anything? You helped rescue, what, a hundred Enosi prisoners? A thousand? You need to tell them that! They need to see that not all Almiri are raging prejudiced asshats.”
“The time may very well be at hand,” Oates agrees. “I am equally concerned with convincing the Almiri Council that they have been, as you put it so poetically, ‘asshats.’”
“So you, what? Stayed in the prison as a statement to Byron and the others?”
“I did. And it has already had some positive effects.”
“Well, your grandfather sent you to me, did he not?”
Byron, aka James Dean, aka my grandfather. Who would have imagined that sending your granddaughter to an Antarctic prison could be considered a relaxed position in the whole Almiri-Enosi conundrum?
“So he sent me to you to keep me and Olivia safe,” I say.
“That was the idea. God laughs at all our plans, child.”
I feel the tightness in my chest that comes whenever I allow myself to think about my daughter. “Byron will help us get Olivia back, won’t he? I mean, I know the world is coming to an end and everything, but . . .”
“We will find your daughter. I gave you my word. But you must be patient. There are many developments that we must account for now, not the least of which is the imminent Jin’Kai invasion.”
I clench my teeth and say nothing. I mean, I know he’s right, that there are bigger things going on right now. That I need to be patient.
But that doesn’t mean I can do it.
I grip the railing and smell the salty air as a frigid breeze blows across the deck of the rickety old boat. There’s a bitter taste in my mouth, which can only be blamed in part on the milk residue on my tongue.
“How did you know?” I ask.
“You stayed trapped for so long, because you thought it was the right thing to do. How did you know when it was time to free yourself?”
“We are all captains of our own destiny,” he says, putting an arm gently around my shoulders. “When the time comes, you just know.”
And for some reason that starts me bawling, crying like some sort of girl. I press my face into Oates’s coat, letting it absorb my tears. He pats my back.
“There, there, Miss Elvie,” he reassures me. “Everything’s all right now. You’re almost there.”
And as I look out at the water, I can almost allow myself to believe it.
Hold on, I think to my daughter, wherever she may be. Just hold on a little longer. Mama’s coming for you.