by L.J. Hatton
(The Celestine Series #2)
Published by: Skyscape
Publication date: March 22nd 2016
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Earth, not so very long from now: the silent, inscrutable alien visitors who bathed the planet in transforming rains have moved on, leaving behind a world much changed.
Penn Roma, age sixteen, is blessed—or cursed—with supernatural talents she has always concealed. Her sisters, likewise afflicted, are prisoners of the Commission, the government agency tasked with controlling these strange children. Penn’s determination to save them only gains urgency when she learns of the horrifying plans the twisted Warden Dodge has for the peculiar charges.
But Penn herself must remain hidden, navigating a series of fantastical havens with her embattled allies, similarly enhanced teens also in the Commission’s crosshairs.
Worse, her vast, half-understood powers have become unpredictable, failing at critical moments and activating outside of her control.
Can Penn trust a rogue warden, supposedly opposed to Dodge’s schemes, to help free her family…or has the Commission set its most nefarious trap yet?
In the dream, I was a ghost haunting a reflection of the life I’d lived for sixteen years. There were no alien jellyfish slowly altering Earth’s children. My sisters were free, rather than captured by the Wardens’ Commission. Jermay was practicing magic tricks with his father, Zavel, who had been returned to life, and Birdie was still walking the high wire with her adoptive family, the Jeseks. The only thing out of place was the fact that Winnie was no longer mute—I was.
I was mute and invisible, and when I tried to warn the people I loved that they needed to run, they couldn’t hear me. I watched, screaming silently, as Wardens Nye and Arcineaux laid waste to them all and left the train a smoking heap of slag. There were no survivors— human, metal, or Klok, who was a little bit of both. He died at my feet, glassy eyes frozen open so that I couldn’t get away from them. It was exactly how I’d watched the mechanical re-creation of my mother fall, but my father had built Klok with my eyes, which made it worse. A piece of me died with him.
The train rose up in a monstrous, deformed amalgam of my father’s other creations: a cluster of horns from our unicorns and Scorpius’s tail whipping over the back of the Constrictus’s snakelike body. It had Bijou’s jeweled dragon wings and Xerxes’ gryphon claws and head. A peculiar spark in its eyes glowed red hot with the fury of Magnus Roma’s ghost. My robotic mother rode on its back, several times larger than she had been in life.
My father had created her to protect me, and now she was trying to kill me.
I ran, and the train pursued over water and air and land. There was no escape, so I did the only thing I could: I turned around, stood my ground, and called destruction down to save myself. I unleashed the full power of the Celestine without restraint, until the train and my mother were battered to dust and stopped trying to come back.
“I’m sorry,” I sobbed, but the words stuck in my throat, held there by a paste of tears and ash while the remains sifted through my fingers. “I’m sorry!”
I screamed so loud and hard the words could have cut themselves free from my throat, but they never made it to my mouth. My hands began to glow, and I felt the impossible heat of a fire that had never before burned me.
Hotter and brighter. Hotter and brighter, until my skin flaked off in twinkling bits.
I was a star swirling to life in the ruins of a universe beyond my control. Uncontainable energy that had been held in check for too long.
Skin and bone and muscle and tissue were unable to tether the reality of the Celestine awakened.
I became heaven’s fire. And in the final moment of my mortal existence, I screamed again. Unheard again. One last, horrible second of incineration before I woke up, still screaming, but far from silent.
Doors slammed up and down the halls inside the Hollow, the sup- posed haven my father had promised would protect us all, and I knew what came next. The monsters. That’s what I’d called the sounds as a child, before I knew the monsters were me. Bad dreams always caused my abilities—my touch—to flare. Groaning metal and creaking and shrieking from power lines. The chiming of chimes and the straining of gears. Every square inch of the Hollow was rushing to my defense, ripping itself apart to do so. The room’s rug caught fire. Pipes burst from the walls, flooding what had once been my nursery and dousing the flames. Next came a sour wind blowing havoc through the room. I never should have slept there, but I was obsessed with the nursery and everything in it, just for the hope that I could force a real memory of it to surface.
In my old life, when the train wasn’t a nightmare, this was where my father would have appeared in my door. But I’d lost him, too. Now silencing the chaos was up to me. I had to get control over myself before the call I hadn’t intended to send out reached the stars and brought them down, the same way I had called to them the night I was born— when I murdered my twin brother.
I threw my hands over my ears to stop the sounds, but all that did was dredge up walls of rock from under the Hollow’s foundation. They blocked me in on all sides, creating a cell that would isolate me from everyone else.
Alone and in the dark, I was able to get a handle on myself. I couldn’t hear the monsters anymore. I laid my palms flat to the cool slate, inhaled the earthy scent of soil with all its microscopic life, and my panic calmed. It would have been easy to leave the walls up, or even to command them to crush me so I couldn’t be a danger to anyone ever again. The wardens wouldn’t chase my friends without me. But that was the kind of stray thought a half-sleeping mind considers. I’d never really do it; I still had three sisters left to save.
My stone prison began to crack, letting fresh air and light through. Anise. She was terrakinetic, someone who could move earth by will alone, and she had a lot more practice at it than I did. She and my other sisters had been on display as part of our circus, but I’d had to hide myself, claiming the identity of my dead brother. I’d been a hunter wearing the pelt of her kill for a disguise so I could walk among the flock of so-called normal humans undetected.
“Are you coming out, or should I get the bear?” Anise asked through the crack in my defenses.
Each of my sisters had a particular skill for creating creatures from the element they wielded, the same way my father made golems out of metal and gears. Anise’s took the form of a Kodiak bear. Like a grizzly, only bigger and more aggressive.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Just give me a minute.” The stone cracked wider—that was a “no.” Not only was Anise in the room, but Jermay was there, looking
worried. His unnaturally blue eyes had dulled with sleep. He bent his pinkie at me, using our secret sign language to ask if I was really all right. I didn’t return the gesture, because he was the one person I refused to lie to. Winnie and Birch peeked in from the doorway, staying close but out of range in case I went off again. It’s always a good idea to stay out of the blast radius when you’re dealing with things that can explode in your face.
“I said I was fine,” I snapped, climbing out of the cell. If Birdie was there, she was hiding, making her the only one with any sense.
Once I’d threaded my arms through the gap, Jermay took my hands and pulled. My sister had made me an exit, but not a wide one. I had to work for it.
“This is not fine.” Anise’s short hair had frizzed into a rat’s nest that stood up around her ears; paired with the tattered shirt she’d been sleep- ing in, she didn’t look very threatening, even if she sounded it.
The room was a wreck of broken furniture and sloshing water. Anise dismantled my hiding spot, bidding the stones return to the ground, but she couldn’t do anything about the rest. Baby clothes that had once sat neatly stacked on shelves were now a muddy mess. The water was quickly soaking a wooden crate of books in the corner so that the pages turned translucent and stuck together. One book floated past, with a yellow duckling peeking out from the warped body of a brown dog.
“I’ll fix it,” I told her.
“Fixing things isn’t enough. You’ve got to stop breaking them in the first place. You’re getting stronger, Chey-chey. You’ve got to get control of yourself.”
This was humiliating. She was scolding me like a child, and the others were all watching.
“What if Jermay had been in here with you?”
Ever since our escape from Warden Nye and his Center in the sky, sleeping had been a problem. We all had our nightmares and our shared fear that the dream would overtake reality to prove we were all still prisoners. At some point in the night, there was an inevitable migration. I’d wake up to find Jermay had snuck in and was now sleeping beside me, or I’d wake up alone and creep down the hall to the room that was his. Winnie and Birch did the same thing, and on the occasions that we passed each other in the halls, no one said anything. No one looked anyone else in the eye. Our fears came with an unacknowledged shame, especially on the night everyone but Klok had ended up on the floor of Anise’s room, just close enough to touch so no one could get lost.
“What if Birdie had curled up to sleep in your chair instead of mine tonight?” Anise asked. “You could have hurt her, or worse!”
Didn’t she understand? It wasn’t me—it was the Hollow. Every inch was a reminder of why our house had never been my home. There wasn’t a single room I could use as a refuge from the guilt I carried for what I’d cost her and everyone else. She’d tried to convince me that my brother’s death wasn’t my fault, but that had been a fleeting comfort. I knew the truth. I’d lived it for sixteen years, and now it was choking the life out of me in retribution.
Absolute truth was so terrifying an idea that I still hadn’t found the nerve to access the memory chip my father left me for my birthday. I knew it had to be important, but I wasn’t ready for my world to twist again. I kept the chip with me always, tucked into a pants pocket when I was awake or a shirt pocket when I slept, but I absolutely could not open it. I hadn’t even told anyone else it existed for fear that whatever secrets it held would be worse than those shared by the walls around me.
“I have to get out of here,” I said. It felt like an admission of weakness, me begging for my big sister to protect me from the unseen things that gathered in the dark to scare me. “How long until Klok has the golems ready to go?”
My father’s metal son was the only one with enough foresight to leave me alone. He’d been in Magnus’s basement workshop for days, putting the final touches on repairs to Xerxes and Bijou so we could use them as transportation to reach whatever secret place Winnie knew. Not safe, she said, but free of the Commission, and that was free enough to let me breathe. Klok had been working nonstop, but I still wished he was faster. I had been ready to leave the day we arrived.
“Any time now,” Anise said. She seemed to notice the edge in her own voice, because she softened it to ask: “Honestly this time—are you okay?”
“Am I ever?”
The rocks were gone and the fire doused, but we were still ankle- deep in rising water. I placed my left hand against an exposed pipe and held the right out toward my floor. The leak stopped and reversed, flowing back into the pipe with everything that had drenched my room.
Once the rug was dry, I covered the break in the pipe with my palm and willed the metal to melt into a new seam.
“See?” I said to Anise. “It’s under control.”
“For now.” She scowled at me. “I’m making breakfast, if you want any. Do not leave this house.” Then she let me be. Winnie and Birch left my door, so only Jermay and I remained. I could almost hear Birdie’s ghostly steps running away unseen.
Or it could have been my mind playing another trick on me.
“So what was it this time?” Jermay asked me. “The Center falling out of the sky? Accidentally summoning an army of Medusae golems that dragged you into space?”
Nightmares were so common that we knew each other’s by name.
I shook my head and said, “The train,” so quietly I almost didn’t hear it myself.
“Mine was a man-eating clock tracking me through a poisonous jungle.” He grinned, so I couldn’t tell if he was telling the truth or not. One of his more frustrating traits.
“I left her,” I said. “Who?” “Iva. She was shot, and she died, and all I did was step over her body and save myself.” “You mean the robot?” “Don’t say it like that. You wouldn’t talk about Klok like that.” “Klok’s different,” Jermay said. “Why?” “He just is.” Jermay gave me the lopsided grin that used to be my greatest weakness, but he was trying old tricks on a new girl. I wasn’t that Penn any- more, and I wasn’t really Penelope, either. I was something new, hard and sharp because my edges hadn’t worn down yet. No matter what I said or did, I cut him.
“You didn’t know her,” I told him bluntly.
I wondered if I could have saved her. I had rewired Warden Nye’s mechanical hands without a manual or tools, using a few stern words and stubborn looks. That had been years’ worth of damage. Maybe even decades. Iva’s wound was fresh. Her systems were mostly intact. Surely I could have routed the rest around the burnouts. I could have done something—anything. But I left her there, and I didn’t think about try- ing to fix her until we were out of reach.
I forgot her, and now I knew what it was like to watch my mother die.
“Iva fulfilled her purpose,” Jermay said. “She helped save us. If it’s possible for a machine to feel satisfaction, then she died happy.”
“But she still died.” I started picking up the mess, one infant-sized toy at a time. Jermay sat down on the end of the bed I’d begged Klok to move in here for me. He surveyed the room.
“What d’ya say I snap my fingers and clean this place up my way?” His way meaning magic. Illusion. Deception. I’d blink my eyes, and he’d have everything hidden in the closet and under the bed before I opened them again. “That’s okay. I’ve got it.” I needed to ground myself in reality. Using my hands felt normal, and I’d nearly forgotten what that word meant. Sleight of hand wouldn’t help me remember.
“I’m sorry I can’t make it better,” he said. “So am I.” He flinched as if I meant that I blamed him for not being able to fix things, but I was only returning his apology. I was sorry, too. I wanted to make things better for him, but didn’t know how.
We were both orphans, most likely. I couldn’t say for certain that my father was dead, but he wasn’t there, and every new day withered my hope of finding him a little more. And yet, I still had that scrap of hope—Jermay didn’t. His father’s grave was right outside the door to the Hollow, and he was the one trying to make me feel better, when I should have been showing him the same compassion.
What was wrong with me?
“Anise is right. You are getting stronger,” he said when I sat down beside him on the bed.
“Not strong enough, and I can’t stay cooped up like this. I need air.”
The Show’s train had never stayed in one place longer than a week; we were always on the go. What I hadn’t realized was that we couldn’t afford to stop. The only time I’d ever been still longer than that was inside the Center. It took me a while to figure out the timeline, but between fleeing with Jermay and the others, being unconscious after we lost the train, and the days I spent imprisoned with Birch in the clouds, I lost six weeks. It felt like six lifetimes—one each for me, my sisters, and my missing father. Being inside the Hollow felt like six times more than that. There weren’t even any windows.
“I need to see the sky,” I said.
Something else Anise should have understood. She’d been weakened by having her access to the ground cut off inside the Center. I needed to see the sun and moon and stars, not have them reduced to the tingling agony of a ghost limb I could feel but not see or touch.
Time had lost all meaning in the Hollow. We slept because we were always exhausted and unable to relax enough to rest. No one knew if it was day or night outside. We didn’t even know how long we’d been there.
“You can’t go out,” Jermay told me. “Anise said—” “I don’t care!” A small tremor shook the room. “Sorry,” I said. “But that’s going to keep happening unless I get out of here.” “They’re looking for you.” “Nye was looking for me. The rest of them are licking their wounds.
We’re under a tree. What are the chances that someone from the Commission will wander through these woods at the exact moment I step outside?”
“About the same chance as you being possible,” Jermay said, more serious. “If you have a flare out in the open, someone could see it.”
“Fine—compromise. I won’t go out, but I’m opening the door before I suffocate. If I don’t, I’m liable to literally blow the roof off of this place, and that would be a lot easier to see from a distance than one girl in a random stretch of trees.”
“I don’t know, Penn . . .” “I’m going.” I was already getting up to leave. An alarm sounded. My room was suddenly awash in lights and noise. “Wha—” Jermay started to ask, but I shrugged. Unless Anise had wired me with motion sensors in my sleep, the alert had nothing to do with us.
We hurried into the hall. Anise ran past us toward the main room and the entrance we’d used to access the Hollow when we first arrived.
“Did either of you touch the outer door?” she asked. “Why?” “Did you touch the door?” she shouted. I’d never seen Anise lose her temper or composure. She was the one who kept the rest of us grounded. Whatever this was, it wasn’t good. “We didn’t touch anything,” Jermay said as Birch and Winnie joined us from the back. Klok stomped up the stairs from my father’s workroom. The trapdoor slammed open against the hall rug. “Check the sensors,” Anise ordered him. “Code Blackout. Turn everything off in case they’re skimming for energy signatures.” With entire cities going dark at night out of fear that the Medusae or another otherworldly race might see us, the Commission had devel- oped ways to scan for illegal tech in areas where it was forbidden. All of my father’s work was cutting edge, specifically because it was made for the Commission to buy freedom for our family. Their equipment could pick it up, easy.
Klok nodded and disappeared back into the floor. Two seconds later, the room dimmed to a candlelit glow.
“What is it?” I asked. “What’s wrong?” “The alert on the outer door. Someone’s coming in.” I reached for Jermay’s arm at the same time he reached for mine.
We twined them together with our pinkies interlocked for luck. Maybe some of the old Penn was still in there, after all.
A tiny invisible mass latched onto my other side so hard that I almost toppled over.
“Birdie!” Anise shouted. “I need to see you, baby.” “I think I’ve got her,” I said. Birdie slipped her hand into mine, slowly bleeding into view without a sound. Her eyes were wide and staring, her whole body shaking. She was barefoot and in a pair of red-checkered pajamas she’d rummaged from one of my sisters’ closets.
“Into the basement with Klok,” Anise ordered her. Birdie sprinted for the trapdoor, disappearing again as she went. Someone pounded on the outer door. The tunnel lights went out completely, robbing us of our view, and I backed up with Jermay, farther into the main room. There was only the one exit. We ran into Winnie and Birch so that the four of us formed a line. Standing together had given us an advantage before. Hopefully, there was still safety in numbers.
“What if it’s someone from The Show?” Jermay asked. “It could be . . . couldn’t it?”
The look Anise gave him over her shoulder wasn’t promising.
“Whoever it is, I’ll tell them to leave and forget how they got here,” Winnie offered. She was The Show’s siren in more than appearance, and if she told someone to do something, they did it.
“I doubt they’re alone,” Anise said. “They’re not going to give you the chance to speak to each one of them. All of you get into the workroom.”
“But—” She wouldn’t let me argue. “Do it, Penn!” she commanded. “If I don’t know the person on the other side of that door, I’m collapsing the tunnel, and then I’m bringing the rest of this place down behind me. You’ll have to make them a new way out.”
“I’m not leaving you!”
That was how I lost my sisters the first time. They guarded our escape from the train, and in return, they were taken by the Commission.
Anise growled, but she didn’t waste time arguing with me.
“Winnie, Birch, grab whatever’s worth taking downstairs and tell Klok to be ready to run. We can’t wait for perfection anymore.”
“Got it,” Winnie said.
She and Birch descended the workroom stairs as the seal on the main door broke with a creak. A new light appeared at the mouth of the tunnel. Something moving. As it came closer, it behaved strangely like a living thing, but it was definitely on fire. It ran the last several yards on padded feet.
“Samson!” I cried, relieved. There was no mistaking my sister Evie’s flame-dog once he was close enough to have a shape. I’d seen her summon him nightly for The Show for as long as I could remember. “Evie’s made it! She escaped!”
“Penn, wait!” Jermay pulled on my arm, though I could see Evie in the tunnel now. “Look at him.”
I turned my attention back to Samson. The usually playful pup stood with his legs braced, twisting his neck against an unseen leash, being forced to go where he didn’t want to be led.
“Evie?” Anise called. She kept her hands down, but I could feel her power rooting itself into the ground beneath our feet. She was preparing for an attack. Provoked, she could have a rampaging Kodiak between us and the door in a heartbeat. “If that’s you, say something.”
“This is wrong,” Jermay said, shaking his head. “We should—”
He lost his voice as Evie stepped into the main room with a hound’s collar around her throat and manacles on her wrists and ankles. She’d lost the glow that had always made her seem to shine.
“Run!” she said. Then the ball of flame in her hand leapt from her fingers.
L.J. Hatton is a Texan, born and raised. She sometimes refers to the towns she’s lived in by the movies filmed in them, and if she wasn’t working as a professional pretender, she’d likely be holed up in a lab somewhere doing genetics research. She is also the author of Sing Down the Stars, the first volume in her Celestine series.
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