First Chapter: The Ark by Laura Liddell Nolen
Title: The Ark
Author: Laura Liddell Nolen
Genre: YA Scifi
There’s a meteor headed for Earth, and there is only one way to survive.
It’s the final days of earth, and sixteen-year-old Char is right where she belongs: in prison. With her criminal record, she doesn’t qualify for a place on an Ark, one of the five massive bioships designed to protect earth’s survivors during the meteor strike that looks set to destroy the planet. Only a select few will be saved – like her mom, dad, and brother – all of whom have long since turned their backs on Char.
If she ever wants to redeem herself, Char must use all the tricks of the trade to swindle her way into outer space, where she hopes to reunite with her family, regardless of whether they actually ever want to see her again, or not . . .
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On the last day of Earth, I couldn’t find my hairbrush. That probably seems like a silly thing to worry about, what with the imminent destruction of, well, everything, but my mom was always after me about my usual ratty ponytail. Normally, I’d ignore her. Or, if I were having a really bad day, I’d tell her what she could do with her hairbrush. But like I said, it was the last day of Earth. And I figured, since it was the last time she’d ever see me, I wanted it to go smoothly. I wanted her to remember me, if not fondly, then at least without anger.
A girl can dream.
I slipped out of my cell as soon as the door swung open. I’d done the same every day for the past month, and my family had yet to show up. Their OPT—Off-Planet Transport—took off in eighteen hours, so they still had time. Barely. I couldn’t blame them if they didn’t come. It wasn’t hard to imagine that they’d rather escape to the stars without so much as a backward glance at me, their big disappointment. Even my father’s influence couldn’t persuade the government to give me a spot on an OPT.
Turns out, when humankind is deciding which of its children to save, the last place it looks is in prison.
But I was pretty sure they’d come. West had said as much in his last transmission. The thought of my younger brother actually halted me mid-step, like one of those punches in the gut where you can’t breathe for a few seconds.
“Looking for something?” The lazy drawl floated out of the nearest cell.
Against my better instincts, I turned to see Cassa lying on her bunk, her arm draped across Kip. My Kip. Or at least, my ex-Kip. Whatever. In twenty-two hours, I wouldn’t have to think about him anymore.
See? Silver lining. And they called me a perpetual pessimist at my last psych workup.
They barely fit next to each other on the flimsy mattress, but that wasn’t the weird part. The guys’ ward was separated by a substantial metal wall. We were kept apart during evening hours, for obvious reasons. Not that anyone cared anymore. The med staff had been the first to go, followed by the cleaning crew, followed by the kitchen crew. To show you where girls like me fell on the government’s list of priorities, there was still a skeleton crew of guards lurking around, despite the fact that I hadn’t had a real meal for going on a week. The guards would be gone soon, too, and then there’d be no one in here but us chickens.
I figured either Kip had a key, or the guards had left already. A key could be useful. My curiosity got the best of me. “How’d he get in here before the first bell?”
He cocked an eyebrow. “I got some tricks you ain’t seen, babe. Why don’t you join us? End of the world and all.”
The guards were gone, then. I felt a small trill of anxiety deep in my chest. If the guards were gone, my family was even less likely to show. But it was never smart to show fear. “The Pinball could be headed straight for this building, and I still wouldn’t be desperate enough to touch you. Oh, wait. Guess you don’t have to take my word for it.”
I turned to leave, but he continued. “Now is that any way to treat your dear ole partners? Be nice or I won’t give you back your stuff.”
“Ugh, you were in my room?” I flexed my shoulder blades, making sure my gun was still tightly secured between them.
“Don’t worry, Char. I didn’t handle the merchandise. Didn’t want to wake you up. Just lifted me a few keepsakes.” He pronounced my name the way I like: Char, as in charred. Something that got burned.
I wasn’t sure what Kip and Cassa were planning, but I knew I wouldn’t like it. They were thieves and liars. I would know. I used to be one of them. That was before the last job, when Cassa had attacked an elderly man in the home we were robbing. She’d kicked him until he stopped fighting back. Kip had called her off after a few licks, but I just stood there, staring. The old man looked at me, like right at me, while we made our getaway, and my stomach twisted into a knot so tight that I tasted bile. That was the moment I knew I wanted out.
But by then, no one believed me. Or, if they did, no one cared. Except for Kip and Cassa, of course. They’d taken the news pretty hard, to put it lightly.
If I lunged for the box, I could probably grab my hairbrush and get out of there. I wouldn’t have time for more than that. Then again, I’d be doing exactly what they expected, and I didn’t have time for delays. My family could be in the commissary any second now.
“Ahem. Seeing as it’s your last day of life, I might let you have one thing back,” said Kip.
“In exchange for what?”
“I’m hurt. All our time together, and you still don’t believe in my inherent generosity. But now that you mention it, I’ve got a hankering for some peanut butter crackers.”
“Sorry, Kip. I’m fresh out of food. Kinda like everyone else.”
“Nice try, Charrr.” He drew my name out, as though tasting it. “I saw them yesterday. Figured you were hiding them under your pillow when I couldn’t find them last night.”
“You figured wrong.”
All I could think about was my brother’s face. And how I had this one last chance to apologize to my parents, for everything. I shrugged and turned to leave.
That was probably a mistake.
About five steps past Cassa’s cell, an enormous weight tackled me from behind. My chest and face hit the dirty concrete. My anxiety over my parents leveled up into near-panic territory. I could not afford to deal with this right now. I flipped onto my back and jerked my knee upward, and Kip let out a groan.
But Cassa was already there, standing over us. She kicked my head, and my arms and legs quit obeying me. I was vaguely aware of the dispassionate stares coming from other cells as Kip and Cassa dragged me back to their room.
“Now, now, love,” Kip murmured. “That was no way to treat your old friends.”
“She’s gone soft. Must have been distracted.” Cassa wasn’t British, but she had the intensely annoying habit of using a fake accent. Not all the time, either. Just with certain words or phrases. In my opinion, that made it even worse. It was probably an attempt to impress Kip. Or to prove to everyone she spent a lot of time with him.
They propped me up against the wall, and Kip began tying my wrists with a twisted black cord he pulled out of nowhere.
“Is that any way for a lady to talk?” he said cheerfully, slipping his hand up my shirt. His fingers were like ice, and I winced. “Aha—found them.” He removed a packet of crackers and waggled them in front of my face. Those were going to be my last meal. I bit back a curse. Wouldn’t have made much difference in the end, anyway.
I didn’t fully panic until they tied the ends of the cord to the exposed pipe of the sink.
“Wait, no. My family’s going to be here. I have to get downstairs.”
“No one’s coming for you. And even if they were, do you really think they want to see you?”
Cassa grinned down at me. “But me and Kip, that’s a different story. We’re busting out of here.”
“Figured we’d do a bit of traveling in our twilight years. I mean, hours. See the world, that sort of thing. So we need all the supplies we can get. And no one has supplies like you,” said Kip.
Cassa spat. “And if you hadn’t rolled on us, we might be bringing you along. Think about that while you wait for the Pinball. Alone.”
I kicked at them, once, and Cassa responded by plopping down on top of my legs. Normally I’d have been able to deal with that, but nothing about today was normal, and I had to settle for growling at her. Somehow, that made me feel even more helpless. My face was abruptly hot, and I gave myself temporary permission to hold my breath. If I cried, I’d never get over it.
I didn’t breathe until I had to. Gradually, my head cleared. “Don’t tell me you’re going hunting for the Remnant. They don’t exist.”
Cassa paused, just for an instant, and Kip gave me a hard look. “She couldn’t possibly know that.”
“She’s friends with the Mole.”
Kip rolled his eyes. “He couldn’t possibly know that. He doesn’t know everything, Cass.”
“You sure about that?” I said. “He knows the way out. He wouldn’t still be here if they exist. If there were even a chance.”
Cassa bit her lip, but Kip ignored me and continued his search. He was a bit rougher than before. “Ah, what have we here? Little blade-stick-doohickey?” He pulled a makeshift knife from the leg of my pants and twisted it in his fingers. “Fair enough. Not your best work though, if I’m honest.”
“Hello, what’s this?” Cassa yanked me forward and pulled my shirt up in the back. There was a tearing pain as she ripped the duct tape off my shoulder blades. “Bingo. Char, you never disappoint.”
Kip held the gun up to my face and grinned while peeling the remainder of the tape from the barrel. It had been my finest moment. The guard I stole it from never saw it coming. I consoled myself with the thought that, in a few short hours, I would never need a gun again. The thought was a lot more comforting than it should have been. It was probably the only silver lining I would cling to, in the end. No more guns, no more eternally disappointed family members. No more pitying glances from judges or lawyers or parole boards. Or West.
“I believe our work here is done,” Cassa said. She couldn’t get away from me soon enough. “Time to make our way in the world.”
“Good luck with that,” I muttered.
They stood to leave, but Kip stopped at the door. “Here,” he said, pulling my shoebox off the bed and tossing it to the ground in front of me. “For old times’ sake.”
And then they were gone.