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The Clouded Sky excerpt

Chapter 1

My first doubt about leaving Earth comes five seconds too late for me to change my mind. Win’s Traveling cloth hurtles us into a round peach-toned room lit by glowing lines that lace the ceiling. “This is the Travel bay,” he murmurs to me as we step out. The other interplanetary rebels, the ones I encountered just a day ago by my time and less than half an hour by theirs, are already stand- ing scattered through the room. Thlo, their leader, nods to the curvy woman with crimson-streaked curls—Isis, if I remember right. Isis taps a band around her sinewy brown wrist.

“Stell,” she says, “hit it.”

A trembling spreads through the floor. And it hits me: I’m on an alien spaceship, on a course across the galaxy. I’m already farther from home than I’ve ever imagined being. When we reach our destination—the space station orbiting the devastated planet of Kemya— my planet will be a speck so small it may as well have disappeared. I’ll have journeyed hundreds of times farther than any human-made object has ever gone.

Any Earth-made object, I amend as I hug myself. Because the “aliens” surrounding me are as human as I am. Humans whose true home is Kemya, who populated Earth with their settlers thousands of years ago and let us forget our origins as generations lived and died. They wanted us to forget, to remain unaware while they used our planet as a vast experimental terrarium, shifting our history and watching the impact echo across the timeline without any concern for the way those shifts were degrading the fabric of our world down to the bonds between our atoms.

Several pairs of alien human eyes are watching me now. Win moves forward, his hand on the side of my arm. “You weren’t properly introduced before,” he says quickly. “Isis is the one I told you about who handles the tech work. Mako and Pavel have been with the group since Jeanant’s time—Mako’s specialty is finding resources and Pavel’s is, ah, information gathering, you’d call it. And you’ve talked to Thlo … and Jule.”

An edge has crept into his voice. Jule, who spent most of our first meeting taking jabs at Win, raises his eyebrows at the two of us, his smile baring teeth bright against his dark skin. “Hey, Skylar,” Isis says with a bob of her curls. Mako, a lanky woman whose caramel hair matches her complexion, glances over me as if unimpressed. She turns to murmur to the slightly pudgy man whose face has remained dour throughout the introductions—Pavel. Thlo motions the two of them and Jule over to her, emanating authority despite her short stature in the set of her broad shoulders, the cool tone of her voice.

I scoot closer to Win. He’s the only one here I really know, now that we’ve spent most of the last three days together, whisking through history and around my world to find the pieces of a weapon this group’s former leader left behind. The weapon that will destroy the time field that allows Kemyate scientists to alter Earth’s past, and stop their experimenting—and its continued deterioration of the planet—for good.

I have to remember that. The people in front of me aren’t like other Kemyates. They’re risking their lives to free Earth.

Abruptly, the lights go out. The floor shudders, and I stumble. My body feels oddly flimsy. There’s a little less gravity on Kemya than on Earth, Win mentioned before. They must keep the ship the same.

Win’s hand tightens around my elbow. A high voice pierces the darkness from somewhere above, speaking in Kemyate.

“The satellite’s directing a sensor sweep this way,” Win murmurs by my ear, the familiar British lilt to his English steadying me. “We’re going into minimum power mode so it doesn’t ‘see’ us, until we’re out of range.”

The research satellite over Earth houses not just scientists and Travelers but also the Enforcers, the Kemyate police who’ll shoot us down if we’re spotted. I wait, legs locked, heart pounding. The floor has settled back into the gentle trembling I noticed before. The voice above makes another announcement. The darkness is so dense I can’t make out even the outline of Win right beside me. I wish I were close enough to touch a wall, to remind myself that the space around us is not as vast as it feels right now.

I wish I had the slightest idea what to expect from this place.

Win is just saying, “It shouldn’t be much longer,” when the voice above peals out, this time sounding cheerful. A second later, the lines on the ceiling gleam back on. I blink in the sudden glare.

Mako and Pavel head straight out, Jule sauntering after them. Thlo looks at Win and me, her near-black eyes as impenetrable as the earlier darkness.

“I’d like you to adjust to the ship before we discuss the logistics of your stay,” she says to me. “We’ll talk further after first bunkdown.”

I nod.

“Try to stick to the job you’ve been given,” she says to Win dryly. Win has let go of my arm, but I feel him tense as she strides out of the room.

“Is she still upset that you disobeyed her orders?” I ask. Win wasn’t assigned to track down Jeanant’s weapon himself, just to keep watch. And he was never supposed to reveal their mission, or anything else about Kemya, to an Earthling like me. Never mind that the two of us accomplished more in those few days than the rest of them had in weeks. They might not have retrieved even one piece of the weapon if he hadn’t risked asking for my help.

“She’s happy with the results,” he says, swiping a hand through his jagged black hair. “I’m not sure she trusts that they were a result of quick thinking and not dumb luck.”

“It was a lot of initiative to take all at once,” Isis remarks from where she’s lingered by the doorway.

Win shrugs, but his deep blue eyes are pensive. Thlo didn’t mention what his current job is, but I’m going to guess he’s on babysitting duty. I drag in a breath, the crisp air leaving a faint mineral taste in my mouth. I don’t want him to regret inviting me to help see their mission through.

“So, here I am,” I say. “Give me the tour?” I’ll be more useful once I have some idea where—and what—everything is.

“Of course,” he says, shaking himself out of his thoughts.

“I’ll help show you around,” Isis says. She smiles, but the analytical sharpness of her gaze as it slides to me reminds me of Win when we first met, when he saw me as more of a scientific curiosity than a person. “We should get to know each other,” she adds. “You’re going to be staying with Britta and me when we reach Kemya.”

Her accent is thicker than Win’s or Thlo’s, giving her English a staccato rhythm. It takes me a moment to absorb what she’s said. “Staying …” I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I haven’t had time to.

Isis’s cheek dimples. “I assume that’s all right?”

“Yes. Thank you.” I’m not sure how big an imposition it is, letting me into her home. From what Win’s said, there’s not much room on the space station, which has been his people’s entire world since a technological accident poisoned their planet ages ago.

We step past the Travel bay’s doors into a narrow hall with one of those thin glowing lines running the length of the arched ceiling. The walls are the same peach tone as in the bay, the floor a silvery gray, spongy under my feet. “This is what we’d call a, ah, scrounging ship,” Win says. “Mainly used for gathering resources in the atmosphere, on asteroids … Not the fastest, but a decent cover for sneak- ing out here.”

His gold-brown skin seems dulled in the artificial light. I can’t help thinking of the way he basked in Earth’s sunlight. Those last few moments with me, hurrying to my house to pick up a few things before we jumped to the ship, they might be the last he’s truly outside in years.

Then he sneezes. Okay, so there are a few things he won’t miss about Earth, our cold viruses among them.

“Where do people on Kemya think you all went?” I ask.

“Thlo arranged a project that has us scouting and conducting experiments in a different part of the galaxy,” Isis says. “We’ve made sure all the official records reflect that.” She’s stepped closer to me now that we’re in the hall, just a sliver too near to be comfortable by Earth standards. Win used to get in my personal space too—it must be a Kemyate thing. I suppose when your living space shrinks, your sense of personal boundaries might too.

“Thlo could arrange a trip across the galaxy just like that?” I say.

“She’s on one of the councils—the groups that make all the decisions about what happens on Kemya,” Win explains. “She has a lot of influence when we need it.”

“In public she pretends to be completely supportive of the current policies, so no one suspects anything,” Isis says.

She waves open the first door we come to, and then the next, and the next. “Recreation bay, to keep fitness up. Supply room. Cafeteria. Laboratory. About three-quarters of the ship you won’t see, because it’s cargo hold.”

I catch my lungs clenching every time a new space opens up before us, my mind cataloging the details as fast as I can take them in. Seven doors down this hallway—strange cylinder as wide as the spread of my arms—rectangular table with ten beige stools around it—screens and lights and geometric patterns etched on walls. I’m so overwhelmed it takes me a minute to figure out why my body’s instinctively bracing. I’m waiting for a wrong feeling and the jolt of panic that would come with it. Those feelings struck most often when I experienced something new: new people, new music or movies … new places. Leaving me shaking and chilled and an inch from an emotional breakdown. It’s been a long time since I let myself take in so much “new” all at once.

But I’m okay here. I know where those feelings come from now—the inescapable sense that something isn’t as it should be was a real impression left behind when one of Win’s fellow Travelers made a shift to Earth’s history. It’s not even possible for a shift to happen now that we’ve left the time field behind. As long as I’m off Earth, the wrongness and the panic attacks can’t reach me.

Huh. I’ve wanted my whole life for the wrong feelings to stop. Turns out I had to leave the planet to get that.

The hall forks ahead of us. “Cabins,” Isis says, nodding to the left. “There are a few empty ones to pick from, but they’re all the same. First, why don’t you meet the rest of the crew?”

The door at the other end of the hall opens into a chamber about the size of my bedroom at home. A vast screen covers the wall opposite us, speckled darkness overlaid with floating orange-lit boxes and Kemyate characters. Three consoles with attached seats form a triangle in front of it. Mako sits at the one in the back, caramel skin tinted green by the display she’s peering at, which is projected into thin air over the ridged top of the console.

Two unfamiliar figures glance over at me from the consoles at the front of the room. Isis motions to the woman first and then the guy. “Britta and Emmer.”

Emmer raises a hand in greeting. He’s so tall his body seems to have been folded into the seat like an origami figure, topped by blunt-cut auburn hair. Britta’s tan face lights up as she smiles, though the smile is directed more at Isis than me. She’s as slight as her colleague is tall, and could do an accurate impression of a porcelain doll if it weren’t for the tattoo that frames her delicate features, weaving in and out of her hairline like a spidery vine.

“This is Skylar,” Isis says with such brevity I assume the two have already gotten a basic explanation of who I am. “Emmer’s our spacecraft expert, making sure the ship stays in one piece. And Britta’s our primary pilot—we couldn’t have made it here without her.”

“I’m sure you’d have found someone else somewhere who knows how to point a ship in the right direction,” Britta replies in a chirpy voice I recognize from the Travel bay speakers. Isis rests her hand on the other woman’s shoulder. When Britta reaches up to squeeze it, I remember Isis saying I’d be staying with the two of them. From the way Britta lit up when Isis came in, they’re more than just roommates. So I’m imposing not just on a couple of friends, but the privacy of an actual couple.

“The satellite never got a hint the ship was out here?” Win asks.

“We stayed out of sensor range until we got your signal,” Britta says. “And kept far-side, working around the pulses in solar energy. The Enforcers switched their usual sweep when I didn’t expect it, but we responded in time.”

She flicks her fingers toward the console. The airy display in front of her blinks to show a sphere that must be Earth, surrounded by a complex matrix of curved lines and dotted waves, and a reddish streak I guess is the ship’s course. I can’t read the characters scattered across the diagram, but the configuration strikes a chord of recognition.

“You had to adjust because of the planet’s magnetic field there?” I say, pointing to a dip in the course line.

Britta’s eyebrows leap up. “That’s right,” she says. “You’ve done a little interstellar travel before?”

My face heats. “No, I just—physics class, and I’ve done some extra reading. I like understanding the math behind how things work.”

Britta aims a grin fully at me this time, but it feels overbright. “Well, it’s about time we had a real numbers—what’s the word?— geek on board.” She drops into a mock whisper. “These two techheads, they’d toss theory down the chute and spend all day just playing with circuits and sockets if they could.”

“It’s not as much fun if you can’t hold it in your hands,” Isis says with a playful nudge.

“Yes, but you’d have nothing to hold if people like me hadn’t calculated how to make your tech work in the first place,” Britta returns. “The real power’s up here.” She taps her head, her amber eyes sparkling. I get the feeling this is a well-worn topic for the two of them. Then her voice takes on the same overbright quality as her grin. “You stop by sometime and we’ll chat velocity and magnetics and all that,” she adds to me.

As if I’m going to keep up with a professional who’s been zipping around the galaxy. “I’m not sure I have a grasp of the concepts at this level,” I say.

“Everyone starts somewhere,” she says. “You can’t help the limitations you’ve had.”

Growing up on a degraded planet with feeble technology. As gracious as Britta’s obviously trying to be, I bristle inside.

Win must catch my reaction, because his fingers brush my hand. When I glance at him, his mouth is tight. He used to be the one making thoughtless comments like that. But his attitude changed, and quickly, as he got to know me. I can hope everyone else’s will too.

Before Win can say anything, Emmer redirects the conversation, in a low voice that almost disguises his eagerness: “You met Jeanant.”

“Yeah,” I say, and my throat closes up. Jeanant, the leader Thlo was second in command to. The man who traveled all this way alone to try to save both our peoples. The man who died before my eyes yesterday and two hundred years in my planet’s past. I search for something to answer that eagerness. “He’d be impressed by how much you all have done.”

Emmer relaxes in his seat, looking pleased. Britta clicks her tongue to get his attention. “Grain cluster in 6-5. Time to get back to work. See you all later!”

The three of us step back into the hall. “She did mean that, about coming to talk with her,” Isis says. “But I think it’s best if you don’t just wander into the navigation room. It might look, to Thlo …”

“Like I didn’t care if I was distracting them?” I suggest.

“Yes,” Isis says, sounding relieved that I understood. “It’s going to take a little time for everyone to adjust to you being here.”

“But Thlo wouldn’t have agreed to you coming if she thought there’d be any trouble,” Win puts in.

We wander into the hall of cabins. “The … toilets are the last rooms on the end,” Isis says, and then points to the first door in the row. “Why don’t you take this cabin? It’ll be easy for you to remember which is yours. We’ll program it with your sequence and vocals …” She types something into a glassy panel beside the door. “Press your thumb here, and say, ‘Open.’”

A glowing circle appears on the panel. I touch the slick surface with my thumb. A prickle darts over my skin. Sequence—is it sampling my DNA? “Open,” I say. Isis taps the panel again, and the door hums into the wall. On the other side is a tiny room half-filled by a set of bunks.

“Bed,” Isis says, as if I couldn’t figure that out. “Desk.” She pushes a spot on the wall opposite the bunks and a thin slice of the sur- face peels away to jut out at a perpendicular angle. “Computer.” She waves her hand in front of the wall on the other side of the door, and a rectangular pattern of light blinks on.

“We can set it to display in English for you,” Win offers.

“Of course.” Isis ducks into the cramped room. Win leans against the doorway, covering a cough, as I sink onto the lower bunk.

It can’t have been more than an hour since he met me outside school and asked if I’d carry on this mission with him—I doubt it’s even five o’clock in the afternoon by my time—but I’m suddenly exhausted. Nothing, not the walls or the floors or the beds or the desk, is quite like the ones I’m used to. And they all have that faint edge of extra thereness, that I can feel even more as I rest my palms on the dense bunk padding. The difference I can sense between how solid all this Kemyate equipment is compared to my Earthling body with its atoms decayed by thousands of years of shifts.

“There you go,” Isis says, stepping back from the computer. “Is there anything else you need? I’m not sure what you’re used to.” She looks suddenly concerned, as if she’s brought home a puppy and realized she’s not sure she has the right food.

“I’m good,” I say.

“I can show you some programs you might find useful,” Win says. “Or—”

“I think I’d like to take this in on my own for a bit,” I interrupt.

“Oh,” he says, looking taken aback. “All right.”

My uneasiness is making me rude. It’s because of Win I’m getting this chance at all. Because he was brave enough to take a chance on me, when just talking to me went against every rule he’d been taught.

I scoot forward on the bunk so I can grasp his hand. “Sorry,” I say. “It’s just a lot all at once.”

His expression softens. “No, I should have realized. If you want me— Anything you need, just ask. My cabin’s three doors down. Convenient, right?” He smiles at the allusion to our shared knowledge of the way I’ve multiplied by threes to help my mind cope with the shifts. For an instant, holding his gaze, I don’t want him to go anywhere.

“Come on, Win,” Isis says. “We have to take care of the Traveler equipment.”

He squeezes my hand and lets go. “I’ll come by later so we can get dinner?”

“Sounds good,” I say. He bobs his head and slips into the hall with Isis. The door closes automatically, and I’m alone. I look at the smooth panel, suddenly picturing the front door of my house. I have the urge to make some sort of gesture, the way I used to click that lock open and shut three times to reassure myself everything was safe and secure. My hand’s already lifted before I catch myself. I was trying to keep myself safe and secure from the wrong feelings, and those aren’t here. Fidgeting with this door isn’t going to change anything. My little symbols of protection seem empty now that I know what the wrongness is, and that it was completely outside my control.

I lie down, testing the bunk. A small slant rises up to meet my head in place of a pillow. There’s no blanket around, but a hum arcs over my body, forming a layer of warmth against my skin as if the air has been shaped into an invisible duvet. It should be soothing, but instead it’s just one more alien intrusion. I sit back up, reaching for my backpack. I didn’t bring much— Win said it’d be easier for me to blend in wearing Kemyate clothes, carrying Kemyate tech. But I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving without a few reminders of home. My MP3 player. My tattered copy of Flowers for Algernon, which I expect to hold up to a few more rereadings. And two photographs: the most recent one I could find with Angela, Lisa, Evan, and me all together—an extra copy of the one a yearbook staffer took of us kicking our legs while perched on the railing by the school’s back door—and one of me with my par- ents, the last time we went on a family hike in the state park just outside the city.

I snap bits of sticky tack from the packet I brought and fix the photos to the wall between the bunks. My friends and family beam back at me, and the tension inside me starts to release. This gesture feels meaningful. It’s funny to think no matter how long I’ll be out here, the way Win can hop through time, I’ll be back before they know I’ve left.

I’m here for them, facing all these unknowns for them. And for me. So that I can come back knowing that no scientist from beyond the stars will ever make another change to our history, ever rewrite another life out of existence.

As long as I hold on to that, I can handle anything.

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