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IN WHICH OUR HEROINE FALLS ON HER ASS, LIKE, A LOT
As far as scientists have been able to determine, the primary function of the human coccyx, or tailbone, is to remind us that once upon a time we were all monkeys or something. But I happen to know that it can still serve a useful purpose. Say, for example, that a pregnant teenager three weeks from her due date, who weighs, oh, approximately 145 pounds (lay off, all right? The baby loves ice cream), were shoved down forcefully on a Treadtrack in gym class by a bitchy cheerleader. This so-called vestigial growth would most definitely act as a shock absorber, preventing serious damage to the rest of said pregnant chick’s body.
Basically what I’m trying to say is that evolution saved my ass. Well, evolution and the fact that when you’re orbiting the planet this high up, the artificial gravity is bound to be a little more forgiving. But that’s not nearly as poetic.
I guess I should be thanking my lucky stars, seeing as I’m still in one piece, but instead I’m furiously scrambling to yank my pregnant keister off the Treadtrack and away from Britta McVicker.
“Need some help?” she sneers in a tone that I’m sure is supposed to sound sincere. Britta is the aforementioned bitchy cheerleader. We go way back, Britta and me—too far, if you ask me. She doesn’t remember, but I’ve known the girl since she first mocked my Hercules lunch box in second grade. We are the only two students at the Hanover School who knew each other before the school year began. Because apparently the universe is not through punishing me just yet.
I scramble to my feet quickly so that I don’t roll with the Treadtrack all the way into the wall. Balance is not my strongest trait at this point in my pregnancy, but I still have the maturity and poise to flip Britta the bird without stumbling again.
Britta snorts. “Jeez, tubbo,” she says, beginning what I am already positive is going to be one of her classic McVicker slams, “how’d you ever trick anyone into pity screwing you?”
That’s when one of Britta’s innies comes over to take in the scene. She’s this girl who glommed on to Britta the second we launched into orbit and who spends so much time stroking Britta’s ego that in my head I only ever think to call her Other Cheerleader.
“Pity screw or not,” Other Cheerleader says, jerking her head in my direction, “the guy must’ve been blind and deaf.” And I have to admit, that one stings a little, until she decides to take it a step further. “And had, like, no sense of smell,” she adds. “And he also didn’t have—what’s the other one? Touch. Yeah, he was touchless.”
I bite the inside of my cheek as I yank my sweat shorts down at the hem. I avoid making eye contact with Britta. Would she be so smug if she knew that . . . ? No, I decide, staring at my shoes. I’m not going to go there. Britta McVicker is not nearly worth it.
But I guess I should’ve gone somewhere, because before I even notice what’s happening, Other Cheerleader has punched the Treadtrack control, jacking up the speed to max. I topple over again as the exercise track flies under my feet, and I crash into a girl running behind me. She falls on top of me, and together we slam into the wall, the track still running underneath us. The thing damn near burns a hole right through my ugly running shorts.
“Turn off the track!” comes a cry from the far side of the gym. It’s Dr. Marsden, Hanover’s school physician, rushing over to us past the station of Japanese fit-bots, with our PE teacher, Mr. Zaino. Other Cheerleader shuts the track down and tries to put a concerned look on her face. Although, if you ask me, it just looks like she’s eaten too many beans and is holding in a nasty moon rocket. When Dr. Marsden reaches us, he looks down at me with concern. “That was quite a spill, Elvie,” he says kindly, helping me to my feet. “You all right?”
Even though he’s my school doctor and all, I blush a little bit when he takes my hand. I am not into the whole May–December-romance thing, but you’d have to be from another planet not to think Dr. Marsden is one damn fine specimen of a man, standing nearly two meters tall with broad shoulders and just enough stubble to let you know that he’s sophisticated but still a little dangerous. But I try to play it off cool. “It’s not the last time I’ll fall on my butt,” I say with a shrug.
Zaino is more accusatory than inquisitive. “What happened?” he asks. Zaino’s a pretty good-looking guy himself, although he’s a little too rah-rah about dodgeball to seriously crush on.
Britta gives me this look like, You better not rat me out, and while nothing would give me more satisfaction than watching her and her doppelganger lackey run laps for the next hour, I know I won’t say anything.
“I just misjudged the speed,” I lie, dusting myself off. I turn to the girl who toppled over behind me on the Treadtrack. It’s this chick from my trig class who is, like, always chewing on her hair. She’s currently looking at me like I’m the world’s biggest doof—although, hello, she’s the one with an entire braid crammed into her mouth. “Sorry,” I tell her.
She mumbles something in reply, although who can tell what through all that hair?
“Are you sure you’re not hurt?” Dr. Marsden asks again. I look at Britta and smirk a little.
“Well, I am kinda sore, but I’ll survive,” I say with as much earnest reluctance as I can fake. “I’m mostly just worried about the baby.” I place my hands under my swollen belly and put on my most concerned frown.
The doc nods. “Why don’t you go back to your quarters and lie down for a bit? I’ll give you a pass to skip yoga next period, and we’ll see how you’re feeling at your checkup this afternoon.”
Game and match. I’m pretty sure there’s not one girl on this ship who wouldn’t give her right arm to get out of a single day of underwater prenatal yoga.
Chewie spits the braid out of her mouth. “Uh, maybe I should lie down too,” she says.
“Just run it off, Sanderson,” Mr. Zaino replies.
On my way out of the gym, I offer Britta and her friend my smuggest grin. “Enjoy yoga, ladies,” I tell them.
“I can see your fat ass through the hole in your pants,” Britta shoots back.
I want to ask her if when her baby’s born she’s going to cut the horns off right away, or wait until the kid is older. But I’m a civil sort of gal, and civil sorts of gals don’t say things like that.
Did I not mention earlier that Britta McVicker—former cheerleading captain and most popular girl at Lower Merion—is now simply another knocked-up teenager at the Hanover School for Expecting Teen Mothers, just like me? Due to pop any day now too.
Okay, so it’s not like I actually wanted to end up preggers in outer space or anything. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be here on this ship, and with Britta McFreakingVicker to boot, I’d’ve told you to check the dosage on your Phezalin prescription. But, you know, shit happens.
I guess, if you want to be specific about it, the first shitty thing that happened was that I got the hots for Cole Archer, which was the perfect example of what my dad would call “one’s loins speaking more loudly than one’s brain.” My dad finally stopped using that expression when I told him that saying the word “loins” was the most psychologically damaging thing a parent could do to a child. But maybe I should have let him stick with it, because when it came to Cole Archer, my brain didn’t stand much of a chance. His eyes were this unearthly blue-green-blue-again that could, like, make you melt or something. And that part wouldn’t have been so bad—the getting the hots and melting, I mean. But somehow that single, solitary time we got steamy, I—hello, biology class!—got knocked up. And then Cole totally bailed, leaving me with one bun and no baker. Which, you know, sucks and stuff.
The second shitty thing that happened was that I was forcibly enrolled at the Hanover School for Expecting Teen Mothers. Since I’m a member of Hanover’s inaugural class, they don’t have a motto yet, but if they ever decide to get one, my vote will be for “Catapulting Troubled Young Ladies into Outer Space Since 2074.” Well, technically we’re in low Earth orbit, but that’s not as catchy. I’ve been here for three full months now, and even though my baby is due to pop fairly soon—the week before Christmas, like someone’s idea of a gag gift—I’ll be spending the rest of my junior year here with all the other Hanover girls. I mean, it’s not like they can just land the whole ship for winter break or anything. I can’t decide if life on board the Echidna will be better or worse after the baby is born. As meticulously scheduled as my every second is now, I get the feeling that once the Goober arrives and I hand it off to the adoptive services coordinator, I’m going to have a redonk amount of free periods. Which, given the bafflingly terrible connection speeds and limited flat pic library up here, could actually be more of a curse than a blessing.
As I travel the ten levels on the lift from the Health and Wellness Center up to the living quarters, I decide that a bruised coccyx is a steep but acceptable price to pay for an hour’s respite from the inane chattering of my classmates. I’m only a few steps from the door to my stateroom when I feel a buzz in my back pocket. I yank out my phone and check it. A blink from Ducky. Smiling, I tap the screen while the phone’s still vibrating.
check it out found britta’s online dating profile.
I tap the link and shut the door, and then flop down onto my bed in my holey gym shorts while the new site is buffering. It’ll take, like, nine hundred years. Shit takes forever in space. Which totally blows, because my blinks with Ducky are the only thing keeping me from going completely bonkers at Hanover.
When I finally get to the site, it’s not a dating profile. It’s a vid of a baby elephant peeing. Like, this fire-hydrant torrent of pee.
I snort so loud, a little snot comes out my nose. I shift my phone around until I get a good angle against my belly, and I blink back to Ducky.
britta’s never been that hot in her life. flippn skank just tried to take me out in gym. :(
I told Ducky once that Britta McVicker was my arch-nemesis, and he told me she was more like my arch-nematode. Which really just goes to show that while I was busy getting knocked up, Ducky was actually paying attention in life science. But nerd king status notwithstanding, he was right. Britta McVicker is a genuine grade-A worm. The lowest form of life on the planet—and now, God help me, in space, too.
I mean, really, I know that I’m not exactly a saint, but I swear that in my former life I must have been a claims adjuster or something, because there is no other way to explain why fate decided that Britta McVicker should follow me into the cosmos. If only I’d gotten a screen cap of my face three months ago on launch day, when Britta showed up with two trunks, eight garment bags, three totes, and a big-ass baby bump of her own. Up until that point I thought the worst thing I’d have to deal with until my love child popped out was suffering through morning sickness in zero grav. I didn’t even know the girl had gotten herself storked. But she had, of course. She trumps my due date by two whole weeks. Which made sense, once I did the math. But I don’t care to think about that particular math very often.
I’m guessing the surprise wasn’t a pleasant one for Britta, either. As soon as she saw me, she got a look on her face like she’d just accidentally used the wrong hair smoother. I think maybe I deal better with shock than some other people.
I feel a rumble on top of my bump. Another blink from Ducky.
:( heres something to cheer u up, E-fab.
I tap the link, and twenty thousand years later it opens. Ducky’s gone and bought me another poster. I smile. Damn you, Ducky. Way to make me cheer up just when I’m getting a really good funk on. I aim the phone at the last square of remaining white space on my wall, tap IMPRINT, and snap! The image is pasted on my wall next to the last poster he sent me, of The Godfather. Ducky knows I have a thing for classic flat pics, so lately whenever I’ve been feeling particularly gruesome, he goes and buys me a poster of one of my faves. So far I have The Princess Bride, Transformers 5 (totally the best of the series, no matter how hard Ducky argues for number 7), Rebel Without a Cause (Mom was really into James Dean, Dad tells me), and now, the crown jewel, Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus: The Musical. Call me a sap, but I eat up that tortured unrequited love stuff with a spoon.
As I’m rummaging through my closet for a change of clothes, I set a hand on my belly and feel around for the Goober—that’s what I’ve decided to call the mini Cole who up and ruined my life. Sure enough, the little bugger’s lodged itself lengthwise in my uterus. It’s weird to be able to feel a tiny thing inside you. That’s something they never mention in health class, that you can actually feel it, especially when they get bigger. Head here, over there an elbow, foot poking into what used to be your gallbladder. It’s a little gross if you think about it too hard, being a human hotel room for some kid you’ve never even met before. So I try not to think about it very often. Instead I try the trick Dr. Marsden taught me, rubbing my belly in tight little circles, slow and steady. Dr. Marsden says this calms the kid down, lets it know you care about it. I told Dr. Marsden that all I cared about was the little bastard not kicking me in the bladder anymore, and he just handed me my vitamins and told me the rubbing would probably work for that, too.
After I’m changed into my “favorite” pair of maternity stretch pants, I check my clock. Almost an hour until my physical, and not a thing to do.
Thank you, Dr. Marsden.
The trauma of gym class has left me famished, so I decide to make a trip upstairs to see what grub I can rustle up. I grab my phone as I head for the door, just in case Ducky decides to send me any other choice Britta vids, and make my way down the corridor toward the elevator.
The Hanover School is actually an old recommissioned low-orbit luxury cruise liner. The kind that folks my dad’s age used to travel on for tacky ooh-look-we’re-playing-shuffleboard-in-space style vacations back in the fifties and sixties, when being in orbit was still sort of a novel experience. These days, of course, you can’t throw a rock out the viewport without hitting a vacant ship or orbital station that’s floating aimlessly through the void. Most of them have been empty for decades, or are home to some less than desirable characters, but in recent years there’s been a real push to refit them as residential, commercial, and educational estates. “Ozone re-gentrification” my dad derisively calls it. The L.O.C. Echidna is supposedly pretty small by space cruiser standards, but the first time I set my swollen feet on board, I have to admit I sucked in my breath at how freaking huge it is. It’s pretty kitsch, honestly, but it’s not all bad.
My cabin is on deck eighteen, same as the other girls. There are more than a thousand rooms on board, but the place is mostly empty. There’s just forty-six of us girls, and about half that many teachers and counselors. Apparently hundreds of applicants were turned down for matriculation. I guess I should feel honored that I have such a desirable set of ovaries, but mostly I just feel how deserted and lonely this place is. The faculty all sleep on the next floor up, deck nineteen. Kate Mueller once told me that the faculty’s rooms are much bigger, although how she came across that information is probably more interesting than the square footage. There are twenty-five decks total, ten for staterooms, one each for the mess hall, auditorium, and the athletic courts. There’s a big honking hangar for shuttles that runs nearly half the length of the deck, and it’s situated in the lower fore section of the ship. Leading off of that is the entry parlor, the game rooms, and the Health and Wellness Center. The HWC houses all the medical suites, in addition to the fitness center and the understandably (given the condition of most of the school’s residents) underutilized sauna. The lido deck has the big lap pool and “sunbathing area,” which reflects sunlight through a system of adjustable mirrors so that people can work on their melanoma even in space. I’m heading for the uppermost level of the ship, the observation deck, where the snack kiosks are.
I’m steps away from the elevator when I run into someone barreling around the corner. For the third time this morning, I find myself flat on my ass. Although to spice things up, this time I’m covered with dozens of tiny, hard, and stinky round objects.
Brussels sprouts. I’m covered in brussels sprouts.
“Good grief, Miss Nara. Would it really hurt to look where you’re going?”
I look up at my brussels sprout attacker. It’s none other than Fred, Hanover’s “chef.” I’m no gourmand or anything, but even I know that someone who serves up succotash more than three times a week needs to think about returning to culinary school.
“Sorry,” I mumble, flipping over to my hands and knees before grabbing a handful of the vile little veggies to toss back into Fred’s crate. I shouldn’t be apologizing. Fred was the one who wasn’t looking where he was going. And what the heck is he even doing walking around the girls’ living quarters carrying a crate of brussels sprouts, anyway? But I’m not going to argue with a dude who holds my gastrointestinal fate in his hands.
He just growls at me, ever the picture of friendliness. “Shouldn’t you be in class?”
“I have a pass from Dr. M,” I tell him.
Fred harrumphs like he doesn’t believe me, but I guess playing truant officer is low on his list of priorities at the moment, because all he says to me is, “Try to stay out of trouble, will you?”
“I’ll do that.” I plop the last sprout into the box and shuffle as quickly as I can to the elevator.
When the lift doors open on the observation deck, I find the floor totally deserted. This is my favorite deck—completely encircled by curved, six-meter-high windows, permanently bathed in Earth light. The first few weeks after launch, anytime we didn’t have class or yoga or some other mandatory project, you could always find all the girls up here, faces plastered against the windows, staring at Earth as it shifted down below us. It takes a little less than two hours to make a full orbit around the globe, and for those first few weeks, just watching that sucker sweep by was like tweaking out in geography class. “Look, there’s Japan!” “Holy crap, it’s the Nile!” “Guys, check it. I can cover up Greenland with my thumb.” But once they’d seen Earth go by a few times, they seemed to get over it. Now the observation deck stays pretty much empty around the clock.
The only reason most girls head to the observation deck these days is for the snack area. It’s basically just an alcove filled with vending machines. Junk food, juices, and some sort of dehydrated dessert called Astronaut’s Delight, which I think is someone’s idea of a joke. That corner of the spaceship is a pregnant lady’s neon-lit paradise. But there’s one machine that is calling to me more than any other—the one stuffed with pint-size cartons of Midnight Craving. Yes, the flavors and ad campaign that are specifically targeted at pregnant women border on the offensively stereotypical, but damn, sometimes you do just want to dive into a pint of Double Cheese’N’Chocolate Pretzel Swirl.
The vending machines on board the Echidna work on the HONOR System—Honest Operations Necessitating Objective Reward. You do something the faculty thinks is pro, they give you points for vended nachos. I slap the button for my ice cream and hold my HONOR bracelet up to the scanner. The scanner beeps and flashes red, and then the robotic voice I’m beginning to loathe informs me: “You currently have zero HONOR points. Request for Cherry Marsala denied.”
It’s not like I’m shocked that I’m out of HONOR points, since for some reason the Hanover faculty doesn’t seem to condone my ditching Mandarin class, or napping during study hour. Still, I could really go for some craving cream right now. I take a step back and stare at the vending machine for a minute, the scanner blinking its infuriating red eye at me in this, like, Morse code, which I am positive means “No-ice-cream-for-you-no-ice-cream-for-you.” But I do my best to ignore it, and focus instead on what my dad likes to call the “thinking behind the machinery.”
I was six years old the first time my dad strapped a tool belt on me and took me out to the garage for what he liked to call lessons in self-sufficiency. “Elvie,” he told me seriously, “no matter how advanced a machine is, there’s a brain behind its creation. A human brain. And you”—he tapped my skull—“you have a human brain too. Right?” I shrugged. I was pissed because I wanted to be inside playing Jetman online with Ducky, not in the garage with my dad staring at a broken toaster. “You do,” he told me. “You have a brain. A good one. Which means that no machine is a match for you. Now”—he plopped the busted gizmo on the worktable in front of me and yanked a screwdriver out of my tool belt, wrapping my six-year-old fingers around it—“you can come back inside when you’ve fixed the toaster.”
“But I don’t even like toast!” I hollered at my dad as he shut the garage door behind him. It took me five hours to fix the damn thing. And to this day Ducky still totally kicks my ass at Jetman.
Looking back, it probably would’ve been better if my dad had taught me how to survive hunky boys and bitchy cheerleaders, but at least now I know I can defeat this vending machine in three minutes tops.
First I unhook my Swiss Army knife from my belt and use the mini screwdriver to pop the top panel off the vending machine’s scanner, exposing the vid card and laser reader. Then I take my dad’s lucky old five-dollar coin from my pocket and slip the sucker between the card and the magnetic strip at the bottom of the panel. After a few seconds I swipe my bracelet again, and BEEP!—“You have one million HONOR points. Request for Cherry Marsala accepted. Your remaining balance is one million HONOR points.”
I peel off the top of the ice cream carton and pop out the tiny spoon underneath. Then I settle myself into one of the observation chairs, staring down at Earth while the ice cream melts into smaller and smaller ovals on my tongue.
I lean forward in my chair and study Earth below. Having passed over the western coast of Africa, we’re now directly above the Canary Islands, with the Atlantic Ocean stretching out in front of us. When I was a kid, I used to spend hours poring over my mom’s giant book of maps, running my fingers over the lines of rivers she’d planned to raft down, or cliffs she wanted to climb, or valleys she wanted to hike. I’d study the careful curve of her letters in all the spots where she’d written Can’t wait! or Won’t this be fun? All the places she would’ve gotten to if she hadn’t had me and then died, like, a nanosecond later. I must’ve memorized the whole world through that book. And even though I never really officially met the lady, every time I’m up on this deck, I feel like maybe I know my mom a little bit better—staring down at her book of maps blown up life-size.
Just as I notice the East Coast of North America coming into view, I get a pang in my belly that at first I think means I have to pee but that I soon recognize as homesickness. Honestly, I’d rather need to use the toilet. I sigh and flop back into my chair, doing my best not to squint at the continent to pinpoint which blobby part is Ardmore, Pennsylvania. I miss my dad. I miss Ducky. I even miss that goddamn high school.
You’d think that life two hundred and fifty kilometers above Earth’s surface would be totally different from life in the suburbs of Philadelphia. But it turns out it’s almost exactly the same. I still spend more time doodling in English than diagramming sentences. I still talk to Ducky more than anyone else. And I still have to deal with mega-skank Britta McVicker. I can’t even believe cheerleaders are allowed to breed.
From my ice cream container I hear a dull thunk. My spoon has hit the bottom of the pint without me realizing it. I’m just debating how much my hips will hate me if I go back for another pint, when from behind me comes a soft, quick rumble, and the ship rocks under my feet. It’s over almost as soon as it began, but if there’s one thing I know about orbiting the planet, it’s that bumps are bad. As I’m heading to the window to see if maybe we collided with some debris or something, there’s another thud, and my jacked-up center of gravity lands me ass-down on my ice cream carton, bringing the grand total to four pratfalls in one afternoon. The intercom from the far-up corner of the observation deck crackles to life, but all that I can make out is static.
I hoist myself up onto my feet, and I’m sure I have flecks of cherry, butterscotch, and mushroom smeared on the butt of my maternity stretch pants, but at the moment I’m slightly more concerned about the ship. The lights above me start flickering, dimming and sparking back to life. In and out, light and dark. The displays by the door are glitching too, and now I’m starting to freak just a little bit. I’m trying to remember the Survival Checklist for Emergencies in Space my dad made me memorize before launch, but all I can get through is “Oxygen? Check!” before my feet roll out from under me again.
Okay, this is starting to get old.
And now the Goober is at it too, kicking me in the bladder.
“Listen, bud!” I shout, flat on my back, my right elbow wedged under a chair. “Stop kicking me! I do not want to pee right now!”
I manage to right myself again, and I make it to the window as the intercom sputters back to life. Someone is saying something over the static, I can tell that much, but I can’t make out what it is. Whoever it is certainly isn’t speaking English. The sounds are deep, creaky, guttural. Like no language I’ve ever heard.
I press my body against the full-length window, so close to it that the Goober can probably see out too, and together we examine the length of the ship. We have a full 360-degree view from here, but I’m so busy looking for debris that it’s several seconds before I spot the obvious.
Protruding from the starboard side of the Echidna, like a giant tumor, is another ship.
I race to the door, ignoring the Goober kicking me the whole way, and I’m just about to fly down the main staircase when something passing by the foot of the stairwell makes me reconsider that course of action.
Dudes in helmets. With guns.
I duck behind the door and try to hide the best someone can with a fetus jutting out her front end. I don’t know who these dudes are, and I can’t see their faces, but I know for a fact that they weren’t on board ten minutes ago. The faculty doesn’t pack heat. They usually stick with demerits. Which means that the L.O.C. Echidna is under attack.
Lights flickering, intercom crackling, I suddenly realize: Everyone else is on the lido deck doing underwater prenatal yoga except me.
And that’s when I think something else. Probably the most real, true thought I’ve ever had.