Hi All! – This is the first chapter of my next book OUR VOYAGE BACK. This is a draft and is likely to change upon the official release! Enjoy!

CHAPTER ONE: LANDING

8.

“Are you anxious today?”

It’s just her and I in the small room on station North. She sits by an oval window, a silhouette. The room is dark, the only source of light the distant stars. I can barely see her face and yet it feels like she’s a breath away from me. She’s the ghostly woman.

Although she terrifies me, I want to believe she’s here to help. “Orlo,” she says. “Are you anxious today?”

She knows the answer. She knows all the answers. The only reason she’s asking me is because she likes to play games, and she feasts on her control over me. I mean, of course I’m anxious, otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting with her for another one of our sessions. I’d be with the other teens, living a normal life on North. I’d be perfect like the rest of them.

“Orlo?”

“Not like yesterday,” I respond, trying to sound sincere. What I really want to say is, “These walls suffocate me. And the darkness, the tightness of this room, why do we meet in here? This place drains me.”

I can’t say it.

The ghostly woman leans forward, showing a hint of her crooked smile. “A better today is the right direction, even if it’s slightly better. Did you have any dreams last night?”

“I don’t remember. I don’t think I want to remember them.”

“Did they cause you panic?”

“Stress.”

“Why are you stressed?”

Another question for which she already knows the answer. Why can’t she cut out the trickery and be straight with me? I can handle it. Of course, that would ruin her fun. “The adults on North are sick,” I say. “The virus could spread to us.”

“Us?”

“Under the age of twenty. It—”

“Orlo.” She leans closer, a blurry, smothering presence. “The virus will not reach you. You’re too young, and that’s why you’re chosen for the voyage back to Earth. Aren’t you excited to see where your ancestors lived?”

“It’s all buried in snow.”

“It’s not as bad as it used to be. We wouldn’t send you if it were. I promise you that, Orlo. Your safety is our priority. Believe me.”

Believe me are two words signifying an imminent downfall. The small room darkens as the stars drift away. I try to focus on the light outside the window, but the ghostly woman’s blurry face emerges from the shadows. Her presence locks me in place.

“Can you hear me, Orlo?”

I want to see her eyes. I want to see the way she looks at me when she talks, but there’s only a voice. “Yes. I’m not anxious today.”

She waits a moment to respond. “Depressed?”

“I know how to deal with it now.”

“That’s not what the others say, and we found you in the garden. Why did you go to the garden?”

I no longer want to speak. Freedom, I crave it. Need it. I can’t listen to another one of her manipulative questions, and to make matters worse, I realize I’m no longer sitting across from her. I’m on a table, strapped. Trapped.  She hovers over me, and my skin crawls. Where is the woman who only tries to help me? Did she ever want to help? I need out of this room. I can’t be here, or breathe, it’s sucking the life out of me.

The garden calls my name, wanting me to escape the small room.  Soft blades of grass touch my wrists and ankles, and birds chirp, and the ceiling is a bright blue sky. A sky usually only seen in pictures, I have it to myself in the garden.

“I was there,” I say to the ghostly woman.

“You were. What happened at the garden, it was the first violent act in the history of North. Did you know that? The Universe designed humans as peaceful creatures. We are not meant to commit acts like you did. It’s okay, though, Orlo. Now we will help you. We’re not to be feared, and you’re not alone.”

I know what I did was wrong. It was never my intention, though, it… just happened.

But, why is she focusing on me when there’s a deadly virus wiping out all the adults? “You’re dying,” I say. “You’re leaving us. How can you help me?”

“You and the others will save us.”

“You don’t believe that.”

“Of course I do.”

“No.”

“You have nothing to fear.”

I try to look away from her but my head is locked in place. “You scare me,” I whisper. 

“I scare you? Why?”

“Because you haven’t told us the truth.”

“What truth?”

“Why we’re going back.”

“You’re saving us, Orlo. You know that. The cure is there, and you’ll give it to us. The virus will be destroyed.”

My neck strains as I try to turn my head. I catch a glimpse of the oval window. The stars outside the room, they tease me of a new world.

“Why don’t you believe me, Orlo?”

Why? There are so many ways I can answer her question, but I go with the simplest of responses. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“What do you mean?”

“How do you know there’s a cure? Nobody has been back. Unless that’s a lie. Have you been back? Has anyone?”

She doesn’t answer me, and seems to drift away to the shadows. The room darkens completely. For the first time since our sessions began, I feel like I can breathe. I defeated the ghostly woman at her own game, had fought back with armed questions, and she’ll no longer treat me like the fool she believes me to be.

I’ve won.

The sting comes to my neck like something bites me.. A giant needle. Fluid shoots into my veins. I jolt on the table, my body convulsing, held down by the straps on my arms and legs. My heart races as I try to find the stars, but they vanish into nothingness. The stinging expands through my limbs, and my skin burns like someone is scraping it, and all I want to do is yell for help and be pulled from the small room forever.

Then it’s over, as if someone snaps their finger and makes everything better.

“Orlo,” she says. “Are you here?”

I find my silent breaths beneath the ghost. “Yes.”

“How are you feeling?”    

“Calm.”

“Okay. You’re doing great. Now, I need you to answer one question before it returns. Can you do that?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” Her blurry face, a hidden identity, is right above me. “Why were you in the garden?”

I see Becks, a hint of her face, a scent of her blowing hair. The sun behind her, I know it’s not real. Nothing in the garden is real. But when I’m with Becks, it doesn’t matter. She whispers my name.

“Orlo.”

I want to respond. I want to tell her everything.

“Orlo. Are you with me?”

I am, Becks. I always have been.

“Orlo?”

Why can’t I say anything? Why can’t I tell her the truth?

“Orlo. Orlo.”

I’ll tell you everything. I promise.

“Orlo. Orlo. Or—”

7.

“ORLO,” screams the voice next to me.

Red lights flash in sync with frantic beeping. My entire body is jerked in my seat like I’m a rattle in a baby’s hands. My jaw smacks the thick harness over my shoulders. Reality stings my teeth.

I’m inside the passenger bay with the others. Inside the TBU-1 shuttle to Earth.

“We’re going to crash!” yells one of the boys across from me. The others, their faces flash red, black, red and black.

From the seat next to me, someone grabs my hand. “Thought I lost you,” she says. When the bay turns red again, I see my best friend, Becks. She smiles at me, a smile which usually provides calmness, but she seems to be forcing it beyond the terror in her eyes. “Stay with me, Orlo.”

I want to answer her but can’t find my voice.

“Do you hear me?” she asks. “We’re going to be fine.”

The passenger bay rocks like it’s smacked by an asteroid. Becks loses her grip on me, and her scream is loud and quick. She grabs her harness, shuts her eyes, and mouths something. Her fear terrifies me more than anything else, because she’s the toughest person I know. Nothing seemed to phase her until the expedition to Earth, and we haven’t even landed yet.

I focus on the floor and try to block out the mayhem. All the pain I suffered on North has prepared me for this moment. I breathe, silencing the chaos, sending my mind into a peaceful plane of stillness. When I’m in my place of tranquility, I’m free from the constantly surrounding dark weight. It’s almost as if I’ve returned to the garden, during the good days.

Unfortunately, I’m still new at this meditative practice, and a distressed voice easily sucks me back to the passenger bay. “We’re getting close,” Kace, the pilot, says over the TBU-1’s intercom. “Hold on, everyone!” Her heavy exhales remain online, and I assume she forgot to turn off her mic. “You got this,” she says in a tense whisper to herself. “You got this, baby girl. Come on, come on, come on, baby!”

Some of the passengers laugh, others cheer on Kace.

The shuttle drops like it’s fallen off a cliff. A collective gasp unleashes throughout the room. Passengers cry, while others scream like it gives them a better chance to survive.

“Holy furk!” Kace yells over the intercom as we fall. “Oh no. Oh no!”

“She’s going to kill us,” one of the passengers say.

“Kace will get us there, you guys. Just let her do her thing and—”

“We’re goners!” Kace screams.

The shuttle plummets. The beeping and the flashing explode into a violent dance. Flash. Beep. Flash. Beep. Flash, flash, flash. Beep, beep, beep.

FLASH.

Then dead, empty silence.

6.

“Where did you go?” the ghostly woman asks, sitting in the corner of the small room on North.

“The garden,” I say.

“Yes. What about it?”

The garden, with Becks, was once my sanctuary from the prison of station North. The two of us would talk and work through problems. We would make each other laugh. A respite from our lives, it’d once been our beautiful place. 

I feel her there, and the surrounding grass and sky. Our arms are near each other, my hand wanting to grab her hand. For so long I wanted to touch her. She leans up next to me and smiles. “Tell me again,” she says.

“What again?”

“What made you laugh so hard you spit up your drink? What brought you so much joy this morning?”

I wish I knew. I remember waking up, feeling free of the grim weight that burdens my body, or as my mother likes to call it, my dark cloud. When the cloud looms, my disconnection worsens. I don’t feel present in my body, or like I exist. Sometimes the dark cloud will smash me, forcing me into the floor so I’ll be stepped on for the rest of my life. When that happens, it feels like no one can save me. The only way to avoid it is to run away, curl up in a ball, and hide. Usually even that doesn’t help.

Usually I lose all hope.

Not in the garden, though. Not this morning with Becks. The fictitious sun glows behind Becks’s head, and the wind blows a strand of black hair across her cheek. It’s real. Connected. The sparkle in her smile glimmers like the twinkle in her eye. Her soul sets me free.

It’s real, but the ghostly woman takes it away, sucking my mind right from tranquility. “Orlo,” she says. “Where did you go?”

“There.”

“Why?”

“I was alive with her.”

“When they found you in the garden, you were alone.” The ghostly woman rises, stepping from the shadows. Her face is still a blur, and she can’t be an actual person, and the small room doesn’t exist. None of it is reality, except for my time with Becks. “Let’s focus,” she says. “I want you to forget about Rebecca. I want you to dig in deep and see the truth, Orlo.”

“What truth?”

The ghostly woman’s smile survives the falsity of her existence. “See that you don’t love her.”

5.

The TBU-1. Our shuttle.

I’m in the passenger bay, my vision clearing. The rattles of the landing are gone, so either we made it to Earth, or we’re somewhere much worse.

Unfortunately my entire body is numb, limp, and although I’m in the bay with the others, it’s as if I’m locked in a different world. I can’t speak or move. I’m still strapped in my chair by my harness. Helpless, I watch while the others rejoice in their safe arrival to Earth.

That must be nice. I want relief. I want to feel anything. Even Becks brings me nothing when she kneels at my feet, and she’s my favorite person. She’s in her skin-tight thermal suit. Her grey eyes and flushed cheeks glow from the bay’s red illumination. Her light brown hair is tied back in a ponytail, revealing some sweat on her forehead.Touching my neck, she moves her mouth but her words come out in a jumbled mess. Then I hear, “You still have a pulse. You’re okay.”

I can’t answer her. Nothing is okay. What happened to me?

Behind Becks, the other teens are a crowd of silhouettes, until the tallest one of them towers over her. Levin. His eyes narrow on me. “What’s wrong with the freak?”

“Don’t call him that,” Becks says, keeping her hand on my neck.

“Yeah. Sorry. What happened?”

“Concussion from the landing, I think.”

Levin wipes his clean-shaven head. “His eyes are open. He’s faking it.”

“He’s not. You can be unconscious with your eyes open.”

Becks is one of the best medical officers on North, even at the age of sixteen, so if she says I’m unconscious, I believe her. However, why do I still hear them? Why am I aware of my thoughts? Maybe I’m in a dream.

Levin crouches next to Becks and touches her shoulder. “Hey,” he whispers like he’s sympathetic, as if he’s trying to be a good boyfriend. “What can I do to help?”

Still, she doesn’t look at him. “See what happened to Captain Suller on the bridge.”

Something happened to the captain? That must be why her daughter Kace took over the TBU-1 when we broke Earth’s atmosphere.

“What are you going to do?” Levin asks.

“Get Orlo outside. Maybe the fresh air will wake him up.”

He groans. “I’ll need approval from my dad before we open the ship.”

Levin’s father is commander of the Rangers of North, and an even more miserable person than his son. Most of the rangers are grumpy bastards, though. I don’t like them, or trust them. However, they’re supposedly here to protect our group.

Supposedly.

Standing, Levin lingers for a moment while still touching Becks. She reaches up, grabs his hand, and looks at him. “We’re here,” she says, smiling. “We’re going to save them.”

“Be careful,” Levin says and then stares right at me. “Especially with him.” He vanishes into the crowd, just as there’s an eruption of claps and cheers.

Kace Suller enters the passenger bay to a standing ovation.

“You got us here!” someone yells excitedly.

“Nice landing, pilot,” says another. 

“We made it!”

“You’re the best!”

“Thanks for not killing us.”

Eventually Kace makes it through the crowd to the back of the bay where I’m locked in place like a worthless pile of trash. She stands next to Becks, her eyes bloodshot, her short platinum hair a disheveled mess.

Becks launches up and hugs her. “You got us here,” she whispers. “How’s your mom doing?” 

“I think it was the virus,” Kace speaks in a mumble. “I don’t know. Levin’s dad is with her.”

“Cozart will take care of her.”

“I know.” The pilot pulls away from Becks and looks at me. “What’s with him?”

“He hit his head on the landing. It knocked him out.”

“Then why are his eyes open?”

Becks laughs. “Levin said the same thing. Will you help me get him outside?”

“You got it.”

The girls release my harness. I’m slumped to the side, unable to move. Useless. I don’t understand how I can sense everything, but my body is shut down. I know I’m here. I have to be. Is this shock? Effects from medication?

My vision blurs again as the girls carry me to the TBU-1’s elevator. It’s just big enough for the three of us. Once inside, the girls place me on the floor and Kace hits a bright blue button that says LOADING DECK. She then fidgets with her jumpsuit’s collar.

“You okay?” Becks asks, observant as usual.

“Yeah. You?”

“You seem nervous.”

“You aren’t?”

“Keeping focused.”

Kace nods at Orlo. “Not worried about your boyfriend?”

Smiling, Becks says, “Shut up. I’m with Levin.”

“I know,” Kace says. “Who doesn’t love that mad boy?”

Becks laughs “Lev is harmless.” Then, seemingly timid for a second, she adds, “Usually.”

Levin is many things, and those things don’t equal a boy who deserves Becks. She’s a spark of hope in a world of disconnection, and he’s an impending doom. One day their relationship will end in disaster.

I’ll be the one to—

The elevator jerks and then the doors open. The girls carry me into the landing bay. Becks holds my arms while Kace has my legs. The landing bay’s walls are brightly lit, similar in appearance to North. Metal railings outline a catwalk surrounding the loading deck in the center of the bay. Two staircases lead to the deck. When we reach a control panel on the catwalk, the girls lower me to the floor. I stay there, helpless.

By the control panel, Kace raises her wrist scanner to her mouth and says, “Bridge. Requesting clearance to lower L-deck.”

“Clearance denied,” a deep, hardened voice says. Sounds like Levin’s father. “Wait until I get down there.”

“Becks said we—”

“Wait, Kacey.”

The Walsh men are known for being short with people, so I’m not surprised by his response. Kace looks at Becks and shrugs. “I guess we wait.”

“Guess so.” Becks kneels over me and slides a hand around my neck. She must be checking for my pulse again. All her concentration is on me, and I hope she figures out what’s wrong with me soon enough.

Kace lingers over us. “Do you think he’ll be okay?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Kid has been through enough already.”

Rather than responding to her, Becks shines a small light on my face. The light doesn’t burn my eyes, or make me squint, or have any effect. Behind her, Kace paces, looking more anxious than me on my worst days.

Becks notices this and asks the pilot if she’s okay.

“Sure,” Kace says. 

“You’re twitching.”

“We’re on a planet that doesn’t want us here, so yeah, I’m twitching.”

I remember sitting in class years ago, I think I was seven, and my teacher showed us a video of Earth, of what it once looked like before the ice. The different continents and oceans and sky. The buildings and people. Trains, ships, and planes. A colonized beautiful world.

Now it’s nothing but white powder. The exact cause of the new ice age is still unknown, but according to most of the evidence, it was a natural phenomenon that couldn’t be stopped. I suppose I believe that. The planet changed so it could no longer support our existence, is what many say. Others say it was intentional, that Earth got rid of its pests.

I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I also tend to question everything.

Becks goes to Kace and takes her arm as she guides her several steps away from me. She’s a kind spirit, and a good friend. “Tell me what’s really getting to you.”

Kace nods. “Okay.”

“Well?”

“Damn I hate when you insist, but, what’s the first symptom of the virus?”

“Depends on the patient. Why?”

“Just wondering.”

“Your mom will be fine. Even if she has it, we’ll retrieve the cure in time to save her.”

The cure. When I hear them speak about it, I hate I can’t tell them—

The door next to me slides open. Boots clank against the catwalk as a swarm of teens dressed in all black surround us. The Rangers of North, led by Levin. They’re geared up, holding their weapons, ready to protect the Earth expedition. However, I suspect they have other motives than keeping the group safe.

Maybe I’m biased because of Levin’s hatred toward me.

“What are you doing?” Kace asks.

“Heading out,” Levin says. “Your mother wants to see you on the bridge.”

Kace sprints from the loading bay like something chases her. I know she’s very close with her mom. I understand her terror. At least, I want to believe I understand. Who knows what really goes on in someone’s head, or how someone really feels?

“What happened to drone boy?” one of the rangers ask.

“He has a name,” Becks says, kneeling over me again. “He’s out but he’ll get better.”

“But why are his eyes open?”

“Come on,” Levin commands under a groan. The rangers step around me, one after the other. I try to turn my head to see where they’re going, but I’m locked in place. Helpless once again. This is so obnoxious, and all I want is to—

The bottom of a boot sends my world dark.

4.

“—you don’t love her,” the ghostly woman says.

Her words nearly make me gag. “I do. I always have. I always will.”

“Your mind is corrupted. I need you to work with me. See the lie in your heart.”

She’s wrong. My heart is the one thing in my life that doesn’t lie to me. I can’t take her manipulation anymore, or her voice, or her presence. I know my response will get me the needle, but I don’t care. Becks is worth every stab to the neck. “You’re the lie,” I say. “She’s real.”

“So be it,” the ghostly woman says. She nods at someone behind me, someone I can’t see because I’m trapped on the table. I sense the needle’s approaching sharp point. My skin burns at the thought of another injection. I squirm, but it’s futile.

There’s no fighting the ghostly woman. I’ll forever be a—

3.

A stream of white crosses over me. I’m lowering. My eyes adjust slowly, but I figure I’m on the loading deck with the others.

Sure enough, the rangers come in to form. They’re standing around me, while I’m on the floor and being held by someone who I assume is Becks.

The platform lowers into the brightness of Earth. I imagine a rush of cold air filling the TBU-1, but once again, I feel nothing. Apparently a boot to the face didn’t heal me.

Which Ranger stomped me, I wonder. My best guess is Redge, because I doubt Levin would make the same mistake twice and suffer the repercussions from Becks. Plus Redge is Levin’s loyal henchman. Sometimes I wonder if those two have a secret love affair and that’s why Levin is so angry all the time.

“What do we shoot first, boys?” Redge says.

“Hopefully nothing,” a ranger responds.

“There’s nothing left to shoot,” another says.

“Yeah, I guess.” Redge sounds disappointed. “But I want to blast the head off something.”

“Relax, Edgy Redgy.”

“Yeah. Right. Sorry.”

He’s a moron.

Everyone keeps quiet for the final seconds of the descent. Then, the deck hits the snow between the ship’s two massive landing skids.

“It’s beautiful,” someone says.

“It’s empty,” a girl answers.

I see nothing but white. My immobility is really starting to frustrate me. What in the Universe is happening? Maybe the dark cloud has finally shut down my body, but my mind remains alive to torture me for the rest of my days.

No. I’ve had enough sessions to maintain hope. I can beat it and just need to power through. Something good will be on the other side of all this. There has to be.

Levin shouts orders to his rangers. They scatter off the deck and across the snow. Meanwhile, Becks looks down at me as she holds my head on her lap. Her thermal suit covers her head and orange-reflective shades hide her eyes. She looks made of rubber in her suit. “This is it,” she says. “This is Earth, Orlo. You’ll wake up soon and see it.”

I want to tell her I know I will, but of course my mouth won’t move. Maybe she can see it in my eyes.

Levin kneels by her. “Hey.” He lingers for a moment like he doesn’t know what to say. “Is your thermal suit at a nice seventy-four?”

“Of course. Are you set at a cool sixty-eight?”

“You know I am.”

I don’t even know if my thermal suit is on. Will I freeze if I’m already numb?

“Help me get Orlo on the snow?” Becks asks, touching Levin’s wrist.

The ranger gives her a long stare, like hearing my name interrupts his world. “Sure,” he says. “The sooner he wakes up, the better.”

They carry me off the deck and place me not far from one of the ship’s landing skids. I wonder what the snow feels like against my body. I mean, I’ve been in the simulators on North, but how close are they to the real thing?

In my experience, reality always betrays dreams.

Once again, Becks holds me on her lap, her hand on my neck. Tell me I have a pulse, Becks. Please. Unfortunately, I have no idea what she thinks is wrong with me. All I can do is look up at the sky, not that I have a choice. Sunlight fights its way through thick grey clouds, and maybe when the sky clears, I’ll be brought back to life.

Nah, that’s too absurd.

“What’s that?” Levin asks, sounding like he’s talking through his earpiece. “Understood. Send the civilians down.”

The civilians, they have no idea what’s waiting for them. I suppose I don’t know either, but I have a better understanding than everyone else. One of the perks of being the President’s son, I assume. Most days it feels like a curse. Positions of power aren’t easy, but I suppose people without power feel the same way.

Levin, standing over me, touches his earpiece. “Redge? What? What was that?” He starts pacing. “Say it again. Do you hear me? Say it again!” All of a sudden the ranger drops to his knees. He seems like he’s digging at the snow in a frantic panic, but I can’t see exactly unless someone turns my head. “No,” Levin says. “No, no, no.”

Becks lets go of me and crawls to her boyfriend. “What is it, Lev?”

Levin says something to her but I don’t hear it. It’s not like I need to, because after she let go of me, my head turned toward them. I see what brought Levin so much fear.

We landed on ice. A large crack runs through it, all the way up to my face.

My vision fades.

2.

The ghostly woman sits at the edge of the table, her identity still hidden by the shadows. Whatever she injected me with gives me a false sense of calm. It’s a trick to keep my mind stable. “Are you anxious today?”

“No,” I say.

“Tell me about the dark cloud.”

“My mom calls it that.”

“What do you call it?”

“What normal people do. Depression.”

“Ah, but Orlo. Normal people who live with, as you say it, depression, they don’t commit acts like the one you did in the garden.”

I don’t want to think about the garden anymore because it’s a lost place I’ll never get back. And, as much as I don’t want to accept it, the ghostly woman is right. Normal people don’t act like me. Only I’m to blame for losing the garden. I’m a freak. A mindless drone. A boy without a soul. The others are right about me, and I don’t belong with them, or anyone else.

Wait, I understand now. We’re going back to Earth to get rid of me. I’m the flaw in their system, and they don’t want to deal with me anymore. I bring nothing but pain. A burden. A curse.

The ghostly woman rises from the table. “What’s happening to him?” she asks the other person in the room who I can’t see.

“I don’t know,” the person responds. “He’s reacting differently to the medication.”

“Inject him again.”

“Ma’am?”

“Do it!” The ghostly woman lunges over me, her distorted face smothering like all those other times in the small room. “Your thoughts, Orlo, the thoughts created by the dark cloud, or the depression, or whatever you want to call it, I need you to fight them. I need you to be stronger than it. You hear me? I need you to breathe!”

Instead, I smile at her.

1.

Cold air pours down my throat. My chest pounding, I sit up and touch my cheeks, feeling my skin for the first time in what seems like an eternity. The numbness has faded. I’m here. Alive.

Unfortunately my peace in existence is short lived. 

Cries come at my ears like vicious, howling winds. Nearby, the group of at least twenty teens all look in one direction. At first I think they’re staring at me, my pitiful self, but the cries come from behind me. I turn around.

Kace is on her hands and knees at the edge of a massive hole in the ice, She unleashes tremendous pain, and her loudest wail hits me with reality.   

The TBU-1 is gone.

Dread surrounds me worse than when I was in the small room with the ghostly woman. Even her voice can’t chill me like this planet.

“Orlo,” she says once more. “Are you anxious today?”

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