She understood why she’d been chosen. That didn’t make it easy.
“Imagine it, Sykes,” said Jason Iskinder, dark gaze weighing her down, holding her in place. “No more deviations. A world without the inhuman, without the monster. Forever.”
She could imagine, all right.
Earth was dying. There was a way out, for those who wanted to take it: servitude to the inhuman creatures who wielded magic, who offered mysterious, new homes apparently unconnected to this world.
Iskinder offered survival without following monsters into shadow, but with a price. Only humans like her qualified: intelligent, physically fit, and genetically pure.
Pure humans couldn’t use magic. If she said yes, she’d be saying goodbye to magic forever.
This was a “best bad choice” scenario. Dammit.
“We will sleep the whole journey,” Jason Iskinder promised. “By the time we arrive on Kepler 212a, a long time will have passed, but we have solved the aging and deterioration vectors. We shall wake up much as we went to sleep. We have thought this through, Sykes. You are essential to our success. We need you . . . and you need us.”
It helped that he was handsome. It helped that she wanted to survive—on her own damn terms. “I’m in,” she said.
“Water!” shouted someone. “Freaking . . . water everywhere! What the hell! This isn’t where we were supposed to land!”
The words clogged her mind like hair in a drain. Was she hungover? Felt hungover. “Uh?” she moaned.
“We’re sinking!” someone else screamed.
That woke her up. She slammed open her sleep-pod and fell hard to the floor, shirt twisted, pupils rejecting the brightness of this room, and remembered everything.
They were in space. No, they couldn’t be in space if they were sinking in water. All the pods but one were already empty, their inhabitants out in the hall. Move it, Sykes! she commanded herself, and staggered over to a viewport.
The screamers were right: water outside, water all around. She slid open a panel and typed queries, squinting through one eye.
The intel was mostly good. They could breathe the air. There was enough of an atmosphere to protect from solar radiation. But there was water everywhere.
The only landmass detected was the one directly under the ship. Oh, no.
“Sykes,” Iskinder croaked, staggering from his pod to crash into the wall beside her. His hair pointed in all directions. He looked like a man in great need of a toothbrush. And he was the most delicious thing Penelope had ever seen in all her life.
He stared back at her like he’d never seen her before, never seen any woman before, and only now realized what he was missing. Then he shook his head sharply. “After-effects of suspension. Yoon said we would . . . hormones. Focus. What is happening?”
Penelope reported around desire so hot it hurt. “I don’t know where we are, but it isn’t Kepler 212a. The ship is surrounded by water. There’s no land other than the islet beneath us.”
Iskinder shouldered her aside from the console and typed quickly, never glancing at his hands. His jaw tightened. “We are on a moon.”
“A moon?” Sykes rubbed her eyes. Wake up, damn you. “Kepler 212a has five moons.”
Iskinder frowned. “All of which were bare rock. This makes no sense.”
“Water!” Somebody howled out in the hall, and something crashed.
“Go calm down the idiots, would you?” said Iskinder, gaze locked on the screen. “It is time for you to use your particular talent for crowd control.”
Penelope rolled her eyes, but marched out anyway. Best stop them before they broke something irreplaceable. Best of humanity, indeed.
When she returned, Iskinder was on his knees, forehead pressed to the wall.
Penelope paused. This man was neither humble nor religious, and he’d shown no fear at any point. Now, he looked like he was drowning.
Not good. She secured the door. “Iskinder.”
He didn’t move. He didn’t speak. His breath hitched as though he’d been crying.
Oh, wonderful. He was broken.
She still wanted to touch him, needed to, and it was distracting. He was right—hormones or something. Focus. “Iskinder,” she said again, kneeling beside him.
He breathed slowly, deep in and deep out. “We are screwed.”
“We cannot leave. This place looks good. The air is right. We can survive, and there are lifeforms here, which we can hopefully hunt.”
“But it is too small. We chose 212a for a reason. We will overpopulate this place in a few generations, assuming we survive that long.” A slow breath. “Screwed.”
Penelope studied him. “Okay,” she said again, too casually, too calmly, and he responded exactly as she’d expected.
“What do you mean, ‘okay?’” Iskinder snarled up at her, finally pushing away from the wall. “Do you not understand? We have only delayed our end!”
She had him; now she had to hold him. “We’ll figure something out.”
“No we will not! The scan found nothing! No materials we could use to refuel, no reservoirs of oil, just this damned water! We—”
She kissed him.
Why not? She’d wanted to since before they left, since he’d first visited her in England and paced in her windowless room, arms waving, painting a future among the stars. If he was right, then she would go out on her own terms and satisfied. If he was wrong, they still both needed this.
She fisted his hair and he growled, reaching under the thin, soft synthetic she wore, and she took him there on the floor in front of the computer’s cold calculation of extinction, took him and screamed his name because life was fire and instinct and passion, and he might be ready to give up, but she was not.
After, Iskinder lay sprawled beneath her, arms over his head like she’d taken him prisoner. “Wow,” he said.
“Uh-huh,” she said.
“Wow,” he said again.
Penelope smirked and rolled off him.
“The chemical effects of isolation,” Iskinder rationalized.
She raised one eyebrow. “Do you feel better?”
He hesitated. “Yes.”
“Good. Then let’s get to work.” She stretched, sweaty, relaxed. “It’s not over yet, Iskinder. Let’s look at the practical first: can we drink this water? If not, can we purify it? Because if we—”
Like a bomb, the room suddenly filled with things.
Things, creatures, a dozen blobs of constantly changing shape and color and screaming trilling bass-rumbling sounds, and Penelope shouted and scrambled backwards as Iskinder’s word “lifeforms” fully registered: this place had alien life.
Her shout and Iskinder’s scream melted in the flood of sound, and then the things weren’t blobs anymore; they were wrongly familiar, half-dogs and half-gorillas, or people-faces on fish bodies, or eyes on butterfly wings with tails like dinosaurs. Their sounds were changing—howling, yipping, trilling, and then . . .
Then one of them spoke.
“Beautiful humans,” it said, so black it seemed to absorb the light. “Beautiful humans.”
Aliens. Alien life. This had not been a consideration, not been in the plans, because all the scans said there was no life on Kepler 212a but they weren’t on 212a and this was alien-freaking-life— “You can talk?” she croaked, standing, ignoring her nakedness, ignoring the shaking fear that threatened to unsteady her. Behind her, Iskinder gasped raggedly.
“You are beautiful,” said the black blob, and then it elongated. Grew arms and legs. Grew something like a head.
One by one, the things chose shapes, combinations of shapes, none identical to another, peering at her with newly-formed eyes that rippled like still water touched by insect feet.
Communication should not be possible. Think, Sykes! “You speak English?” she said.
“Yes,” said the spokesthing, growing facial features, growing fingers and toes and nipples.
“HOW?” roared Iskinder, making her jump, making her turn. He was still on the floor, had pressed into the corner, knees up as if to protect himself, both hands clawing the walls behind him as if he wanted to climb into the ceiling and disappear. “You cannot speak our languages! How?”
He was panicking, and if these creatures were dangerous, that would set them off. “Iskinder,” she said slowly. “Pull it together.”
“We speak it because you speak it,” said the black-skinned creature, and the top of his head exploded in a bloom of silky black hair that grew until it almost touched the floor. The spokesthing smiled with white teeth it had not had a moment before. “Do not be afraid! N’aie pas peur.” French? “No tengas miedo.” Spanish. “Ðừng sợ.” Vietnamese. “Osoreru koto wa nai.” Japanese.
It kept going. Arabic. Swahili. Cantonese. Somali. Hausa. Latin. She knew what it was saying in them all: Do not be afraid.
A small, wondering part of Penelope Sykes’s heart perked up like a child’s, joyful and hopeful. Was this magic? This couldn’t be magic. Could it?
“Stop!” Iskinder cried, startling her, pulling her away from wonder.
The creatures stared at them, trilled, whistled, made sounds like laughter or hooting.
“Easy, soldier,” she murmured, unable to take her eyes from these creatures, which had yet to do anything directly threatening. “You’re scaring us,” she said slowly. “Do you understand that?”
The spokesthing had become magnificent, a long, slim, androgynous being with irises of brilliant orange-red and ebony hair that moved on its own. “Why?” He blinked slowly, a too quickly learned imitation that chilled her to the bone. “Oh. We are too different?”
The ice in her bones turned glacial. “You’re reading our minds.” Magic.
“No,” Iskinder moaned. “No, no, it cannot be.”
“You are welcome here,” said the black-skinned one, imitating human warmth and human gentleness, while behind it, the others whirred or chirruped or barked. “You are lost.” it said. “You have no home. You . . .” Its brow knit with what looked like compassion.
“Stop,” Iskinder whispered, and Penelope hushed him.
The spokesthing shook its head slowly, side to side. “You are sundered! Oh, no! You are sundered!”
“What?” said Penelope, glancing at Iskinder and back at herself. “Sundered?”
“We will heal you!” said the thing with a bright smile, and raised its brand-new hand.
In one second, every thought and memory from every human being in the ship slammed into her like a cinder block to the head. In the next, knife-sharp pain shuttered the world black, and she only knew that she fell.
Penelope woke on the floor, face sticky with blood from her ears and her eyes and her nose, and hitched one terrible sob before getting hold of herself.
It hurt. It had hurt. It . . . no longer hurt? Her head felt fine—an odd echo of pain, ghosting, like her nerves remembered but the source was gone.
She was also alone in her head. Her fellow shipmates weren’t in there. That was good.
“That was not good,” said the spokesthing dolefully, crouching in front of her. “You cannot be One.” All the creatures nodded together, somber wide-eyed. “We have repaired the injuries,” said the spokesthing.
“Repaired,” Penelope managed.
It tilted its head (how quickly did it learn, how fast, how frightening). “You are repaired,” it repeated.
Had that been an attack? No. They’d done such harm by accident. “Thank you?” she said.
“How can you be sundered?” said an orange frog-looking thing so ugly it was cute. “To be One is to be whole. You believe you are whole, yet you are not One. What is loneliness? Sadness? Frustration? Intimidation?” It seemed to be pulling negative words out of nowhere like they had no relatable meaning, were gobbledygook.
“You brought us here,” Iskinder accused from the floor. Dried blood painted his face with madness, with strain and a twisting, growing rage.
The spokesthing shook its head back and forth again. “We did not.” And then its eyes went very wide. “You believe that we did. This one believes we did not. How?” Wonder lightened its tone to a honey tenor. “You believe different things? How?”
“Stop,” said Iskinder, struggling to sit up. “Do not listen to my thoughts. Stop.”
A moment of silence. A moment when Penelope knew, knew, they were all communing together, at once, like a person thinking to themself. “We will stop,” the spokesthing decided. “This makes you happy?”
What? Were they that trusting? She’d never give up such a tactical advantage. “Really?” she said.
“Yes.” It showed puzzlement at her doubt.
“What is tactical advantage?” said the orange one.
“None are injured,” said the ebony one. “We repaired!”
The orange one did a little caper.
Penelope swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. They were beautiful. Dangerous and crazy and terrifyingly, but beautiful.
Magic. We came all this way and we found magic.
“You are beautiful,” repeated the ebony spokesthing.
She swallowed back the lump. “So are you. God help me. So are you.”