Jarill snuck out of bed and stared at herself in the reflective walls of her sleeping quarters. Light purple skin, everything else black—form-fitting uniform, eyes, long hair. Nothing special. So why did Tarron choose her?
She crept past her sib’s bed.
“Shall I tell Maz you’re sneaking out?”
Startled, Jarill glared at Aronna. “Want your secrets kept?”
Aronna smirked. “Fair enough. Don’t do anything stupid.”
“Great advice from the master.”
Ducking the thrown pillow, Jarill slid open the suite door manually to avoid the hum of the auto-meck system. She squeezed through and tiptoed across the dimly-lit central living chamber. One more door. Slender fingers pried it open.
Jarill slipped into the empty maze of the spacecraft’s transit tubes. Her hand instinctively flicked toward the IPT unit in her pocket. She dared not use it for instantaneous transport or the sensors would pick her up. Though it was required that everyone be in zizz-sleep except those running the ship at night, Jarill worried about being discovered on the way to her destination deep inside the vessel. After all, she wasn’t asleep.
Moisture seeped down her neck. She could not possibly be hot. No Ice Lord ever suffered heat, accustomed to the frigid lands of their home planet, Zirrekk. Stupid nerves.
She frowned when purified air assaulted her senses. How she missed the fresh, sweet breezes, moist soil, scents of a world she would never see again. She swallowed the bitter taste in her mouth at the memory of leaving home. Maz and Daz leaped at the opportunity to explore space. Aronna agreed only because her intended partner-match rejected her. Fourteen seasons of Jarill’s life carried little weight when she protested. They ripped her away from her fonds, her elders, her beloved granmaz, and forced her to live on a spaceship with strangers. She might have accepted the decision if her planet were dying, diseased, or overpopulated. Never voluntary exploration of the universe. Two seasons of her life had already been stolen.
Jarill scowled out the massive windows of the transit tube into unlimited space. Star clusters and several bright planets did nothing to appease her. Nor the beauty of their spacecraft. A hundred giant, metal and crystal pillars jutted in every direction—luminous and hurtling at a tremendous speed to an unknown destination. She moved forward, hiding in the shadows of space that crept across the metal floor of her flying prison.
She didn’t know if she trembled from fear or excitement as she raced down corridors that led to her meeting with Tarron: the only one who paid attention to her, the only one who made her life worth living. Her granmaz’s last words drifted into her mind. “Remember you are worthy of your own life. Do not rely on anyone for your happiness.”
Jarill whispered, “I have to, Granmaz, or lose my mind.”
She finally reached an almost-hidden door and removed her three-star crystal earring to light the way. Smaller, inky tunnels led her deeper into the belly of the ship. She reached the entrance to the Secondary Interface Station—a perfect place to meet away from prying eyes. Smoothing her hair, she took a deep breath and stepped inside.
Two chairs faced the wall-to-ceiling electronic panels. Tables clustered before color-coded lights, indicator switches, and levers perched between dozens of monitors that displayed the cosmos from every angle of the ship. A billion stars shimmered in vast space. Awe took her breath away.
Tarron pulled her into his arms. “Am I not important enough for you to be on time?”
She stared into the violet eyes of the handsome son of Ambassador Ryokk. His cropped silver hair, high cheekbones, and muscled body tempted every unattached fem on the ship.
She smiled. “Worried I wouldn’t come?”
He chuckled and pulled her closer, gently kissing one cheek, the other, her nose. Tingles streaked through her body in waves of longing when he reached her mouth. His lips tasted of sweet and spicy berreez.
Her lips melted, soft and pliable under his, until she forced herself to pull away. He must not know how much she needed him.
He grinned. “No one can hide their feelings from me. Especially you.”
“Get out of my mind.”
He laughed. “You know I don’t read minds.”
With burning cheeks, she yanked away when he tried to kiss her again. “How is trespassing into my feelings any different?”
Tarron raised one silver eyebrow. “It is as natural to me as breathing.”
“You are the only person on the ship with such a gift. What if I invaded your emotions?”
He ran a finger down her cheek. “You have.”
She stalked away from him. “It’s not the same. What you do is dishonorable.”
He stiffened. “No one speaks to me like that.”
“Someone has to.”
He threw himself in a chair, violet eyes dark with anger. “No one would dare.”
She grabbed his hand. “Didn’t anyone teach you control?”
“Several guardians tried. My faz encourages my gift. He considers it extremely useful in his position.”
Jarill shook her head. “That doesn’t make it right.”
“You have no idea how difficult it is to be the Ambassador’s son. It’s not my choice to inherit my father’s position.” He pulled her onto his lap and whispered into her hair. “How I envy your freedom.”
“It might be different when our Commander decides to colonize a planet instead of exploring the whole frackling cosmos,” she said.
“You do not know my faz.”
She knew enough to be glad the Ambassador wasn’t related to her. Thoughts of his stern, sharp-face were interrupted by a small beep.
Jarill leapt out of his arms. “What’s that noise?” She whirled to locate the sound. “There.” One yellow light pulsed irritably on a lower panel.
“Nothing to concern us. Central Control is quite capable of handling the minute details of running our ship.”
“Why haven’t they?” Nerves twitching in her fingers, she pressed buttons and scrolled over the timetables. Unease slivered down her neck. “This started seven suns ago.”
“Are you sure?”
“I grew up watching my maz transcribe interstellar phenomenon. I think this section relates to deep space.”
Terron grinned. “Beauty and intelligence, an enticing combination.” His hand caressed her cheek before he leaned in to kiss her.
She pulled away. “The ship might be in danger. I have to talk to Maz.” She checked the monitors, found the panel for the ship’s communication system, and entered Maz’s private code.
“Do you have any idea what my faz will do if he finds us together?”
His face hardened and he tugged her toward the door. “You’re coming with me.”
She slugged his arm.
“I’m sorry. The ship’s safety is more important.”
Maz’s voice boomed from the communicator panel. “Jarill. You are not in your room. Where are you?”
She would not lie and took a shaky breath. “The Secondary Interface Station.”
“Your daz will be furious.”
Jarill forgot it was his turn to pilot the ship. “Maz, listen to me. There’s a flashing yellow light on the section that warns of interstellar anomalies.”
“I will call you back after I check with your daz.”
Nervous as the wild jaguarats locked in the holds, Jarill flinched when the beeps changed to red and grew more insistent.
Tarron turned her to face him. “I’m sorry for not taking you seriously.”
“I’m used to it.”
Time dragged, unlike the racing of her heart.
She hardly recognized Maz’s tear-filled voice. “Here. What’s happening?”
“The corresponding section malfunctioned in Central Control Navigation. The crew missed the warning. After quick calculations, your daz discovered the
problem. A fast-moving black hole crashed into an asteroid, changing its course. It’s headed toward us at 900 million miles an hour.”
“Are we in danger?” Tarron asked.
“Who’s that with you?”
Jarill winced. “Ambassador Ryokk’s son.”
Maz sighed softly. “The pilots conferred and decided to use SurgeThrust to implement a gravity-assist trajectory around the nearest sun. They hope to lessen the impact.”
Jarill quivered. “The asteroid is going to hit us?”
Tarron’s light purple face paled to silver. “What is the projected survival rate?”
“Sixty percent if the ship survives the collision and lands safely.”
Uneasy heartbeats jabbed into the walls of Jarill’s chest. “Four hundred of us will die?”
“We have warned everyone to do what they can to insure their safety.”
“How long, Maz?”
“Not long enough.”
“I will be up as fast as I can.”
“No. Both of you stay there.”
“But, Maz, I want to be with—”
“As your superior officer, I command you to remain where you are. It is the safest place on the ship.”
Panels, screens, and a mass of colors whirled before Jarill’s eyes. Her knees buckled.
Tarron caught her before she fell. “Steady.”
Maz’s muted voice floated into her unaccepting mind. “Secure yourselves. And Jarill?”
Jarill’s voice caught in her throat. “Y-yes?”
“You have the strongest will in our family. I believe in you. Never forget that. You can do anything. Whatever happens, remember, I love you.”
Jarill doubled over, spikes twisting her stomach. How could this be happening? Fear smothered her senses. “Maz, I love you so much. Tell Daz and Aronna.”
She staggered toward the monitors to observe the deadly asteroid hurtling toward the ship. The gigantic, irregular mass of ugly gray rock grew larger. So did her feelings of helpless insignificance. She buried her face against Tarron’s shoulder. “I haven’t started living.”
He held her tight. “There is always hope. We will survive.”
She took comfort in his words, wanting to believe the lie.
The ship hit SurgeThrust, slamming them to the floor. They scrambled to lock themselves into the chair harnesses.
Empty blackness filled Jarill’s mind like the lifeless craters that gouged the enormous asteroid.
“Where do you think it will hit us?” Tarron asked.
“Depends on our velocity and its relationship to the asteroid’s speed.”
“You are very young to know this.”
She bit her lip. “Too young.”
The spacescraft shifted sideways under them.
Jarill’s eyes raced across the panels. “We reached gravity-assisted trajectory.”
Tarron clutched her hand. “Does that mean the danger is over?”
“It only changes the equation since this sun’s gravity is involved.”
Tarron stared at a monitor and sucked in a sharp breath. “The asteroid is going to hit the back thrusters!”
Jarill yelled. “Hang on.”
The impact threw her out of the chair’s restraints ripping a scream from her throat. The ship spun out of control. Jarill smashed against a wall. Explosions reverberated in every bone like needled hammers. Blood dripped from the gash in her head. Her body clenched in hard knots as space swirled outside.
Monitors shattered overhead. Tendrils of red smoke curled toward the ceiling. Shrill alarms blared in defiance.
Tarron crashed against another wall. He shrieked—a sickening horror in his eyes.
Jarill’s fingers clawed over the floor to reach him. Every muscle strained against the force pinning her against her will. One inch. Another. Sweat trickled down her neck like a wet spider. She maneuvered her body and slammed against Tarron. “Are you hurt?”
Anguish distorted his face. “Can’t control . . .too many . . .”
“Tarron. Look at me.”
He stared at her in glassy terror.
She could hardly think with the unceasing sirens screeching their warnings.
Horror shook Tarron’s body. He screamed. “Agony . . . dying, dead . . .”
“Control your feelings.”
His heartbeats thumped next to hers.
“Tarron. Listen to me. Stop feeling everyone.”
His heart beat fast. Faster. Too fast.
She fought to pull back her fist. Punched his face and he passed out. She let out the breath she didn’t know she was holding.
Every light in the room flashed off. The sirens stopped. Eerie silence hushed the room.
Jarill took a shaky breath, feeling safer in the darkness. Refusing to think of anything happening outside the room, she closed her eyes from the spinning of the ship and concentrated on the warmth of Tarron’s body.
The whirling tore her thoughts away. Blackouts gave her welcomed relief until nausea wrenched her awake, choking her with dry heaves. During short terms of lucid consciousness, she hung onto Tarron. His steady heartbeat reassured her and she kept repeating, “Please, let us survive. Please let us survive.”
An eternity later, the ship lurched and stopped revolving. Lights glared on.
Jarill eyes dragged open in a squint of pain. She gently touched Tarron. “Wake up.”
He grabbed his head and moaned. “I still feel . . .everything.”
“This is not over.”
Tarron grabbed his head and heaved himself off the floor. “You’re hurt. There must be something here to clean your wound.”
“I need to try the communication system.” She stumbled up. Her hand trembled as she pushed in Maz’s code.
“Is that you, Jarill?” Maz asked.
Jarill burst into tears. “You’re alive.”
“We’re safe, Officer Ryz,” Tarron said.
“Daz? Aronna?” Jarill asked.
“Without harm. I do not have information about your family, Sub-Ambassador Tarron.”
“What happened to the asteroid?” Jarill asked.
“It left this solar system. There is too much damage to keep our ship in flight. Your daz is setting a course for the nearest habitable planet.”
“When will we land?”
Maz paused. “We cannot land safely. Our ship is unable to complete the correct maneuvers.”
“I’m coming up.”
“There isn’t time. I wish I could see you once more. May the stars give you life, Jarill.”
The communicator sparked and died. Jarill stared at the panel in despair and slumped to the floor.
“We need to prepare for impact,” Tarron said. “Help me.”
Total exhaustion seeped into her body. “Why?”
“We survived the asteroid. We’ll survive the crash.”
Her heart couldn’t contradict him.
“Help me find something to secure us,” he said.
Jarill crept to the belts on the mangled chairs in the corner. “These are unsalvageable but the tungstonium hooks in the floor are intact.”
She jerked open the doors under the broken monitors. Electric sparks shot everywhere. “Help me disconnect these cables.”
“The shocks won’t kill us.”
“I’ll do it,” Tarron said. His hands jerked when he unscrewed two cables, but he didn’t cry out.
Jarill secured them both to the tungstonium loops.
The spacecraft blazed through the solar system toward their obvious destination, a blue and green planet shimmering in sunlight. She didn’t want to live there, but knew the ship could never be rebuilt after a second collision without her planet’s engineers.
“That is our new home,” Tarron said.
“If we live.”
“I prefer not to give up hope.”
She gazed into his determined eyes. “I think I felt yours. Can you send hope to everyone on the ship?”
“I can try.” He closed his eyes.
The spacecraft hurtled through the atmosphere.
She snatched Tarron’s hand and held tight.
“I love you,” he said.
“Are you afraid we’re going to die, or do you mean it?”
“I never lie.”
A fountain of happiness spilled into her, overpowering her dread, if only for a second.
A great expanse of azure water and a small island of land filled a cracked monitor before the ship crashed into the ground with an ear-splitting blast. Thrown about, but secure in the cable, Jarill watched in terror.
The spacecraft veered sideways sheering off mountainsides. It ripped through trees, somersaulted through the air, hit rock, and plunged nose first into the ground. Sand flew five-hundred feet into the air, filtering down to bury the ship and its crystal spokes.
Furniture collided over Jarill and Tarron. The lights wavered, but stayed on. They grabbed their ears against the horrendous grinding of crystal and metal.
Complete silence scared Jarill more than anything. She and Tarron hung upside down, the floor now a wall. Spirals of red vapor slithered toward them.
“I think my hand is broken,” Tarron said. “Can you release me?”
Jarill coughed, her throat raw. Blood hammered in her head. Every muscle screeched, refusing to move. She forced herself to untie her cable and dropped to a stack of jumbled tables. “We’ve got to get out before that vapor kills us.”
Her fingers fumbled with Tarron’s cable. “Are you in much pain?”
“I’m alive and thankful for that.”
They pushed through the destruction and out the crumpled door into complete darkness. She looked back at the red vapor filling the room. One message faintly blinked on a monitor.
“SURVIVAL RATE 4%, SURVIVOR RATE 4%, SURVIVAL RATE 4%.”
Chills clawed down her neck. She sagged. “Only forty made it.”
Tarron clung to Jarill. “Too much . . .can’t.”
She took his face in her hands. “You won’t live if you can’t shut them out. What do you do when you don’t want to feel others?”
“Concentrate on intricate mathematical equations.”
“Do that. Come on.” She took out her crystal earring and lit their way across the jagged cracks in the metal floor.
“We need to find a doctor to treat our wounds,” Tarron said.
Frustration and anger joined her growing panic. Her voice cracked. “We need to find famlezz and dig ourselves out before we run out of air.”
“One task at a time. We’ll find those still alive and hope there is an officer who can delegate authority.”
She clutched the sharp ache in her chest. Tears dribbled down her face and she forced her mind away from thinking of her daz’s bravery in the captain’s chair at the front of the ship.
Tarron stuck his broken hand in a pocket and used one hand to climb up the distorted floor. “After we’re organized, we’ll gather supplies, equipment, and anything we’ll need above ground to start a new life.”
Her planet was gone, maybe her whole way of life destroyed. Somehow his words gave her unexpected comfort. She kissed his cheek. “You make me believe we can survive anything together.”