Echo couldn't remember when the debate had started - maybe within a month of them getting on the ship. It wouldn't have started with Murphy or Emori: they were still walking on eggshells back then, every move oriented toward survival. Of course, they weren't the ones Bellamy had threatened to float. He may have been joking, but it had lingered in the back of Echo's mind for a long time, especially whenever John and Emori had shared a furtive, worried look. At least they were together in their belief that they were at the bottom of the food chain. Echo had been alone in her unease.
Monty or Raven, then, since Bellamy didn't have the knowledge and Harper didn't have the interest. At any rate, once it took hold, it kept coming back.
“If we can't find any other way...”
“We have five years, it won't come to that...."
“But there is always the hydrazine...”
Of course, there was always the hydrazine. That was the only reason they were here in the first place. They wouldn't have returned to the Ark Ring if they hadn't known that they could make water. But now it had become a zero sum game – fuel or water. As long as the hydrazine was being used in the water generator, the byproducts would be recaptured in the closed system to make more hydrazine – which would then be used to make more water.
If they made the decision to use it for fuel, though, it was a one-way trip. No more water generator. No more water. No coming back.
“But we wouldn't need to.” John always argued both sides of the equation. Echo honestly couldn't tell what he actually wanted, but she imagined that when it came down to it, he would side with Emori, who wanted to stay. Spacekru may be family, but Emori was still everything to him. Even now.
Echo looked at Bellamy, who was staring out the viewfinder at their second pass of the east coast that day. He didn't appear to be listening.
If only everyone were as transparent as John Murphy.
She gently covered his hand with hers. The start was so small, no one who knew him less well than she did would have noticed it. When his gaze found hers, though, he smiled with a warmth that flooded her with relief and reassurance. He was her Bellamy, again. Living out their days on the Ark, burning up in the atmosphere on The Princess, or somehow catapulting their way back down to the Ground, nothing could shake his devotion to her and the rest of the Kru. Why did she keep questioning that?
She forced herself to speak. “We would if it went wrong. If the takeoff didn't work, or if something went wrong during the flight and we made it back....” Even as she said it, she knew what the response would be. At this point, she knew Raven well enough to have entire debates with her in her own head.
“But that's the whole point. Once we initiated take-off, there would be no turning back.” Unlike when they had first started having this conversation, when it had been more of a way of passing the time than anything else, Raven's voice was now taught, thrumming with tension. “Emori is right. If we go, we need to really understand that we only get one shot.”
Though she said it, she had already made her position clear. As soon as the fifth year had begun, her search for an alternative source of fuel had reached such a fevered pace that Echo had worried that Becca was eating away her brain again. Raven had explained that she had gotten rid of Becca once and for all, but Echo knew that ghosts didn't always leave so easily.
So when, one night, Raven had come to the dinner table – an absurd practice, originated by Skaikru, of sitting at a table to choke down their algal preparation as a group – with a tired, defeated look on her face, Echo was at first unsure of who would speak: Raven, or Becca.
But there was no mistaking it when she opened her mouth. “We're floated,” she said, grimly. “All of us.”
Bellamy only frowned, silently, so Echo took over, as she had been doing more and more lately, as he had seemed to fade more and more into himself. “What are you talking about?”
“I've tried everything. I mean everything. Things that were far beyond the technology even of the first Ark; things I never would have known about if it weren't for Becca. The fact is, we just don't have the knowledge to find an alternative fuel source – and if we did, we don't have the tools to harvest it.”
“So we're stuck here.” Emori's voice was flat, but Echo thought she detected something just underneath it. “For good.” Relief? It sounded how Echo felt, and she didn't like it. Azgeda warriors didn't hide from danger.
“Unless we use the hydrazine.” Harper spoke quickly, as if she wanted to get it over with.
“Harper, we can't be impulsive.” Monty often took this tone with them these days – patient and chiding. It made Echo want to scream. Now, she suddenly realized why it bothered her so much. It was a hollow imitation of the gentle insistence that Bellamy had used so many times to bring one of them back to themselves when they were losing it.
“Impulsive? We've been talking about this for five years.” Of everyone, Monty least deserved for her to snap at him, but she couldn't help it. Monty acting like Imitation Bellamy was just a painful reminder of how badly they needed the real Bellamy to step up. “We can't keep going back and forth like this. We take a vote, now, and stick with the decision.”
Raven swallowed and winced. After all of this time, she was the only one who hadn't gotten used to the rank taste of the algae. “So what, if we vote to stay, that's it? We live out the rest of our lives and die on this fucking ship?” She looked around the table. “Bell? Hey. Bell. Is that really what we fought for? Is that what Clarke died for?”
It hit Echo like a gut punch, but not because Raven was arguing to leave. It was because she knew, as Raven had, that bringing Clarke into the conversation was the one thing that would make Bellamy care about it.
He looked up. “No. Clarke died to keep us alive. If we throw ourselves into space on a suicide mission, then she died for nothing.” Echo could recite the rest of the sentence by heart. “And I won't let that happen.”
It hadn't always been like this. When they first – she never knew what to call it. It had felt so inevitable. She just fit with him, as surely as Emori fit with John and Harper with Monty. When it finally happened, the only acknowledgment in the group of the change had been a brief, warm squeeze on the shoulder from Raven, reassuring Echo that she was OK with it. That Echo was part of the family, not some usurper.
Usurping what, anyway? It had never been like that between Clarke and Bell. And anyway, Echo reminded herself fiercely, Clarke was dead. Long dead. She had died on the ground so that the rest of them could live.
At first, that was exactly what it had felt like: Clarke had died, and the rest of them were living. Sometimes, when she and Bell were together, the silence would wrap around them like the galaxy itself, and it genuinely felt like they were the last two people in the world. She knew that he felt it too, because in those moments, he would look at her and smile a tiny, relieved smile that mirrored how she felt exactly. They had made it. They had found each other, and nothing could take that away.
Clarke still haunted them - all of them - but she was a ghost Echo could live with. She had sacrificed herself for them, so Echo felt that it was right when, twice a day when they drifted past the east coast, no matter where Bell was on the ship, he would look up like an animal with a scent; that in the night, sometimes, he would shake and cry himself half awake, Clarke's name on his lips; that some things were never spoken of between them, ever. It was only right that Echo didn't have all of him. She owed Clarke that, and besides, after everything she had done to them, it was a miracle that he loved her at all. She didn't need to possess his whole heart. She left some of it on the altar in his mind - in all of their minds - in tribute to Clarke, the girl who died so that she, Echo, might live to be this happy.
But Clarke was a demanding ghost, and Bellamy had started to sink into himself almost as soon as the fifth year came and went with no solution for getting to the Ground. In spite of his comment at the dinner table, she knew that he was thinking about it nearly all the time. She heard him speaking in hushed tones with Raven late into the night, arguing with Monty in the aquafarm. Usually, with something like this on his mind, he would think about it out loud with Echo first, and only then bring his conclusions to the others. But whenever he was alone with her and she tried to bring it up, weighing out the pros and cons – she was far from decided, herself, at the time – he simply changed the subject.
That was when she knew that his hesitation, his staring out of viewfinders and arguments with Monty and Raven, weren't about the Kru at all, or even about survival. There was only one no-go topic between Bellamy and Echo.
If there was a reason he didn't want to go to the ground, it was Clarke.
Madi couldn't remember when the debate had started, but she must have been very young. Even so, she always won. She wondered why Clarke bothered to go through the motions anymore.
“You are staying with the Rover.”
“I am not.”
“Madi, we don't have time for this. That was a ship I've never seen before, and you're safest in the Rover, at least until we find out what it is.”
“I'm safest with you, and you're safest with me. That's what you always say.” This was Madi's trump card. It always melted Clarke's resolve. She usually tried to build to it a bit more slowly, throwing in a pout here and there, but as Clarke had pointed out, they were running short on time.
“That's cute, but you're still staying here. I'm taking the rifle; you keep everything else loaded and ready to go. If I'm not back within an hour, you drive. Understand? Get to the art store.”
“The art store? But I'm... Clarke, I'm not allowed to go there alone.” Madi was still stunned that her trump card hadn't worked. She didn't process the absurdity of reciting this rule to the person who had made it.
Clarke briefly drew Madi close and kissed the top of her sleep-warmed head. “You can find it without me, right?”
“Through the Red Waste, keep the bunker to your left all the time. You'll see it. I know you can do it.”
“But I won't have to, right? You'll be back?”
“Of course I'll be back. This is just in case.”
“Clarke? Maybe it's your friends. Maybe they found a different ship. A better ship.”
“Maybe.” Madi recognized the tone. It was the same one Clarke used to tell her stories at night. There is a ship sailing the stars where seven special people live. There is a land underground from which a wonderful, kind healer will emerge someday. There once was a land in the forest ruled over by your kinswoman and she lives on in the stars, in the ground, in our blood.
Maybe this ship holds friends. Maybe this ship will not kill us.
Madi clutched the semi-automatic more tightly in her lap. The firing mechanism had been jamming lately, but it would get off at least a few shots. Hopefully it would be enough. Clark shouldered the her own rifle and turned to go, the familiar motion that Madi knew so well. She had to hold herself back from falling in line behind. They weren't going hunting or to the training grounds today; they weren't going to the river for water or back to Arcadia to stock up on supplies. For the first time in five years, Clarke would be more than shouting distance away from her.
She felt the panic well up in her, nearly blocking her throat. “Clarke-” she started, then - “Mom.”
Clarke paused, but didn't turn. Her own voice was as steady as the set of her shoulders. “I'll be back soon.” Only then did she turn to meet Madi's wide eyes. “And Madi, if you do go to the Store...”
“I know.” Madi flicked the safety off and then back on, testing her speed with it. “I'll bring the guns.”
There were weapons on the Ark, and Bellamy had insisted that everyone keep up with their training: target practice, weapons drills, and hand-to-hand combat training with Echo. Everyone was required to attend at least once a week, but most of them came more often, and she was kept busy in the improvised gym that they'd set up in the center of the old Sky Box. Even Raven learned to use her brace to her advantage when facing an enemy on the field.
Echo didn't know if it was just to keep everyone from going crazy, or whether Bell really believed that when they got back to the Ground, there would be anyone left for them to kill. Either way, she enjoyed kicking his ass on the regular. He had improved as a fighter under her training, but not so much that she didn't still win more matches than she lost.
In the old days, getting physical with him was always fun, no matter how it happened. These days, it was more often a way for her to take out her frustration with him for being so goddamn distant and depressed all the time.
He never won anymore. It almost took the fun out of beating him. Almost.
“Are you going to tell me?” He was down again, and she was barely breathing hard.
“Tell you what?” He struggled to his hands and knees in time to catch her foot in his ribs, and was back down.
“What you really think about making the trip back down. Since you don't have a problem talking it through with every – other – goddamn – person – on – this ship.” Planting her knees on either side of his torso so that she was pinning his arms, she punctuated her words with blows to his ribs.
“E, I don't know what you're talking about.”
Disgusted, she got off of him and threw him a towel. In addition to the ammunition, another thing that they had almost limitless supplies of was scraps of cloth and linens, and she never grew tired of the luxury of dirtying fresh laundry, much to Murphy's vocal chagrin when he was on laundry duty. “Fine. Get up and don't come back here until you're ready to take training seriously.”
“Echo, what's your problem with me?” He wiped the blood and sweat from his eyes, frowning in her direction with a slightly wounded look. She hated when he looked wounded. It was his most effective weapon, and he didn't even know it.
“My problem? Are you serious?” She held out her hand to haul him to his feet, more an assault than an offer of aid. “My problem is that yesterday afternoon I heard you ask John “Cockroach” Murphy what he thinks about the hydrozene question.”
“You know none of us think of him that way any-”
“My problem is that when we all get together to try to hash this out, because we actually give a fuck about the survival of the human race and, you know, about each other, you're dead silent, because you're too busy making puppy eyes out the viewfinder at the earth. My problem is that you used to be a leader on this ship and now you're acting helpless.” She took a deep, shaky breath, hating herself for saying it, hating him for making her feel it. “My fucking problem, Bellamy, is that I'm scared, and I need you, and the only person you haven't bothered talking to about this is also the person who really, really needs to talk to you about it.”
Except that she didn't. She already knew what she wanted. To grow old with him, like this, on this stupid ring, spending their days fighting and eating algae and figuring out how to get out of laundry duty. To die together, looking out at the stars. She only needed to know that he wanted the same thing.
She had hit him many times, but he had never looked at her like this before – wide-eyed and stricken. “Echo.” She couldn't bear it. Having him know how much he meant to her, not knowing whether she meant anything at all to him anymore. She had to go.
“I can't talk to you about it because I can't let myself care.” The words were rushed, and didn't make sense, and she was too hurt to let herself believe that they had the power to make anything better; but she stayed, because in the end, he would always have the power to keep her from walking away.
She turned back, wearily. “The fuck are you talking about, Blake?”
He looked so weary she almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
“If I knew what you wanted, I would care. And then I might make the wrong choice.” He took a deep, shaky breath. “They listen to me, you know? I don't know why, anymore. I mean, Raven knows more than I do about … everything. And Monty is more level-headed, he probably makes better decisions than me. I don't know why they look to me, but they do. So if I'm going to have an opinion, it has to be... unclouded.” He sat on the concrete, arms braced against his knees, as though literally weighted by the decision.
Would Clarke have clouded you?
But Clarke was a ghost. And Ice Nation warriors, while they respected the dead, did not live in fear of ghosts.
She placed her hand on his cheek, still wet with blood. His head wounds always bled so heavily. Always so dramatic in everything. He leaned into her hand and closed his eyes, briefly, before she drew it away. “I will make my own choice, and you will make yours. We will cast our vote with the others, and then we will live or die with the consequences.”
When she walked away from him, he remained in the center of the floor, alone and still. Like something broken.
Clarke followed the movement through the sight of the rifle. One, two – three? No, just two. Two figures were patrolling the ramp to the ship. It was an old, outdated model, but some of the tech – like the weapons they were holding casually braced against their shoulders – looked a bit newer, and very well-maintained.
They were also wearing full radiation suits, meaning she couldn't see any identifying features. Was that a curl of dark hair? She couldn't see from here... one of them definitely was very tall, but thinner than Bellamy. Still, she didn't know what 6 years in space might have done to him.
She didn't mean to step on the branch, and the Clarke of six years ago would have been more cautious. But this Clarke hadn't seen another human being, except for Madi, in so many years that she had forgotten the habit of being afraid all of the time. There wasn't even any big game left to stay silent for. So when she shifted her weight, and the twig broke open the dry air like a gunshot, there was no cushioning or mistaking the sound.
When their weapons found her, she dropped her rifle and put her hands up almost immediately. Later, she would admit to herself that at that point she still had hope that the slight figure could have been Raven, or even Murphy; that the tall, stooped figure might have been a worn-down version of the one she had sketched over and over again, until Madi asked her to draw something else for a change.
She should have run, or at least fought back. But she didn't. And when she stepped into the clearing with her hands up, and saw the faces behind the radiation suits, there was no fooling herself any longer. These were no friends of hers.
Bellamy was tired.
He was tired of being wrong. He had been wrong to let Clarke go alone to the satellite dish instead of sending her after Monty and going to the dish himself. It had been clear what the more dangerous job was, and he had let her take it.
Before that, he had been wrong about following Pike. He had been wrong about destroying the radio that Raven brought down from the Ark. Hell, maybe he had been wrong to come down from the Ark in the first place. Octavia might have been better off without his “protection,” and he could have sacrificed himself with the rest of Section 5. Who might be alive now if he had done so?
He was tired, too, of missing people. All day, every goddamn day. The ones who would never come back: Jasper, before the world poisoned him. Finn, when he still believed that they could do better than the people who had come before. Gina, who had deserved so much more than the half-hearted love and fiery death that Bellamy had given her.
Somehow worse was the pain about the ones who might still be alive. Kane. Bellamy heard his voice in his head all the time, with every decision he made. If he could go back in time and tell himself how badly he would end up needing the man who had floated his mother …
But that was the point, wasn't it? Every time the world changed, it became unrecognizable to the him who had inhabited the one before. Could he have ever imagined that he would have left his sister in a bunker underground while he went to live in the stars, after sacrificing everything to get down there to be with her in the first place? Or, when he first stowed away on the ship, that he could ever feel as fiercely protective of another family as he had towards her - that his family could ever be larger than just the two of them?
It should give him hope – that there were infinite lives for Bellamy Blake to live, infinite chances at redemption. Instead, it just reminded him there were infinite losses ahead that he could not even begin to anticipate. Because every time the world tore itself apart and stitched itself back together again, a few more pieces of himself seemed to have been lost in the rift.
And because Octavia and Kane and Finn and Jasper weren't the only people the world had torn from him, and some losses were too searing to bear.
The first five years had been fine – good, even. He had lived around the absence, stepping carefully, not allowing himself to plunge too deep. He lived each day by asking himself what she would have wanted for him, and that was how he kept from shutting himself down, pushing people away so that he would never have to survive another loss like that. That was how he had allowed himself to love Echo. He repeated it to himself like a prayer - head and heart, head and heart. If he shut down his heart, as he had wanted so badly to do in that first year, he would be letting her down. She would have died for nothing.
And he couldn't let that happen.
So he did it. He orbited the pain like a sun, but didn't let it swallow him whole. And quietly, guiltily, he began to feel happy for the first time in a long time. For the first time since he was eight years old, he no longer had to think about Octavia's safety in every decision he made. His only responsibility now was to himself and his SpaceKru. He had a family, a woman who loved him more than he deserved, and Clarke … well, he had done what she would have wanted. He was trying to make her proud. He may not have been able to protect her, as he had promised himself he would, and he may not ever be able to get the better of the pain of losing her, but he could damned sure make her proud by living a good life.
Then year five came and went, and the Ground became real to him in a way that it hadn't been almost since the moment the hangar doors closed, leaving Clarke on the other side. Every day was the day that the bunker might open, that Octavia and the rest of their friends – if any of them had made it – would emerge from beneath the earth. And suddenly, running beneath his every though was the radioactive possibility that the nightblood treatment had worked – that Clarke, against all hope, had survived.
The dreams, when they came, weren't always bad. It was so good to hear her voice - It somehow made him feel like himself again. Even better, he could see her – not as she had been, but as she would be now, five years later. Her hair was shorter, and her face looked … not older, exactly, but more lived in. Knowing.
And she was talking to him. Telling him things, nothing and everything, about her life down there.
“We found a rabbit. Not much, I know, but the biggest game I've seen around here since Praimfaya, so we were excited. By the time we cooked it, it was down to nothing... still. Big day, right?”
“Day 1,925.... and still doing this. You could be down here with me, you know. Yesterday we hiked 12 miles and found nothing. No game, no supplies, no signs of life. See what you're missing? Find a fuel source and come home, Bellamy.”
He didn't know who “we” was. Maybe his subconscious just didn't want her to be alone.
“Day … I don't know. I'll look it up and tell you tomorrow, when I do this again, which I will, because I will do this until the day I die, which better be long before the day you die, because I need you to be alive up there. I look up at the stars and I know you are up there. If you aren't... I don't know. I don't know what any of this is for if you aren't up there. I can't explain that. Whether you guys made it or not, it doesn't change that it's just me and her down here, every day, maybe forever. I know that keeping her safe should be enough … but I really need you to be out there too, you know? I really need you to be alive.
And hey, happy, if possible, OK? Sometimes I think... I worry that you think you need my forgiveness. For leaving. I would have killed you if you'd stayed - you know that, right? You don't need forgiveness, Bellamy, so I'm not giving it to you. Just be alive. Whether or not you ever come home. Stay alive.”
That had been a bad one. Sometimes, he tried to reply, or would even begin to cry with the desperation of not being able to reach her. When that happened, Echo would be there, her arms around him, and he would let her believe that he was drifting back to sleep. There was no need for her to know that waking up was like losing Clarke all over again, the hangar doors closing, the fire sweeping her away. It would only hurt her, and he was hurting enough for both of them.
When the rest of the Kru began to talk seriously about using the hydrozine to get back to Ground, he kept quiet and kept out of it. He listened to what they said, asked their opinions, tried to get a feel for what would be best for the group. And when he knew no one was near, he talked to her about it. The Her that he was always carrying with him.
What are you doing, Bellamy? You guys are good up there.
I'm not good.
You could be. You have it better than either of us ever dreamed was possible. We did it, Bell. We made it. We saved our people.
But I couldn't save you. You're not up here with us.
So what? I'm probably not down here either, remember. And you're safe. Have you really forgotten what it's like down here? Keep them safe, Bellamy. What do you think I sent you up there for?
But you're not safe down there without me.
Like I was safe with you? There is no safe here, Bell. What did I tell you on the last day?
To use my head, not just my heart.
What is your head telling you?
That there may be no one down there. That I may be in charge of the survival of the last of our people. Your people. That I owe it to you to keep them alive.
We bear it so they don't have to, Bellamy. Don't have a fucking vote. Tell them what to do. Make the choice. They need that from you.
What if I can't bear this?
Then I died for nothing.
And I can't let that happen.
When the conversation got too real, he looked out the viewfinder and tried to be somewhere else before he went completely insane. Because the reality was, sometimes he didn't want to end the conversations in his head. Imaginary Her was better than no Her at all.
Echo had finally figured it out. He got off watch one evening and climbed into bed beside her to find her, still awake and watchful.
“You want to go.” He had never heard her voice so flat. It was much scarier than the many, many times she had held swords to his throat.
“E, no. I don't... I don't know.”
“You think she might still be alive.”
“No.” Please, yes. “We've known all along what a long shot that would be.”
“But not such a long shot that you're not willing to risk everything we've built up here for it.”
“Echo, I'm not voting.”
“Why not?” She rolled over to face him, but her eyes weren't any warmer than her back had been. Azgeda. It had been a long time since he'd seen that look on her face.
And still longer since he had risen to the challenge. He tightened his jaw. “What do you want me to say? I'm not voting because I think people will listen to me. I'm not voting because I don't think it would be fair to influence things that way. I'm not voting because I want people to think what they think, not think that Bellamy Blake has some great plan. For the first time in almost eight years, we're safe. We could be safe up here forever, if we wanted. I'm not going to take that away from people just because I....”
She waited for the silence to age, grow old, and to die looking out at the stars.
Finally, she spoke. “That was not what I wanted you to say.”
“Well, what did you want?”
She rolled over again, leaving a space between them that he could have sworn was frosted over with actual ice. “The truth.”
Monty was first, and voted to leave, decisively. “Not just survive, but live, remember?”
Harper avoided his eyes as she placed her stone in the other bowl. “I'm sorry. I want to survive and live.” Monty shook his head and sighed, but Bellamy noticed that they never stopped holding hands. Could any relationship really be so placid?
Murphy clearly wanted to wait for Emori to vote first, but she wouldn't. Bellamy wondered if she was, like him, feeling conflicted about the amount of power she held. Finally, John threw his stone in the “stay” bowl so hard it nearly rebounded. “Screw it.” It wasn't his best one-liner, but Bellamy felt for him. He looked miserable.
Quietly and without fanfare, Emori placed her stone in the “stay” bowl. No surprise there. Bellamy started to relax. It would be out of his hands. With only Raven and Monty wanting to go, he couldn't sway the vote even if he wanted to. The ghost in his head would be at peace.
Raven huffed as she tossed her stone into the “leave” bowl. “Cowards.”
“I'm sorry, Raven.”
Raven rolled her eyes, but returned Harper's plaintive gaze with a tight smile. “Hey, we revisit the vote in another five years, right? That's the agreement.”
“No time at all.” But her voice had a defeated edge, and Bellamy thought about how many hits she'd taken since sacrificing everything to get to Earth and Finn, only to realize that he was already lost to her. And still, Earth hadn't been finished with her. It seemed to be a world with an insatiable appetite for sacrifice. He was grateful that the choice to go back there wouldn't be up to him.
He was looking down when Echo's stone made a soft clink against the side of a bowl.
He hadn't wanted her to tell him, but he had known just the same what her vote would be. She was happy here. He had been happy here, too. They could be happy again. He would make sure of it.
So he barely noticed the quick intake of breath, only glancing up briefly to say, “I abstain.”
“Bellamy.” Raven's voice was sharp. “You can't.”
He looked at the bowls. Three stones in each.
Echo had voted to leave.
Could he have been so wrong? No. He had known her for 6 years, loved her for almost that long. She had wanted to stay. Either she was so angry with him, so hurt, that she was willing to risk her own life, and the lives of their friends, to get away from this life with him, or....
She met his eyes across the table. Hers were still and cool as ever, but her hand still hovered over the bowl, as if she wished that she could take it back and cast the stone into the other one. You can, he wanted to say. But of course, that wasn't true. A vote cast was a vote cast. And she had cast her vote for him: because if she wanted to leave, then he could tell himself that he was doing it for her. She could give him a reason to take them all to the Ground.
She is doing this for you. Because she thinks you'll never be at peace until you know the truth about me. Tell her she's wrong.
No. I'm not going to start lying to her now.
It wasn't too late. He could quiet the ghost in his head, vote to stay, and keep his SpaceKru safe from the sacrificial fire that burned ceaselessly down below. Or he could gamble the survival of the human race on the chance that the ghost in his head wasn't a ghost, after all.
Echo was already turning away by the time his stone bounced into the "leave" bowl. She had known all along that the world that they had painstakingly built for themselves - the peace that they had snatched back from the jaws of war - was about to be burned over in their own private Praimfaya. She didn't have to stand around and watch.
The hour had come and gone, and still Madi didn't leave. She didn't let herself think that she was disobeying Clarke, exactly. It was more a variation on the “five more minutes” game she played when Clarke told her to do something that she didn't want to do, like go to bed. She couldn't ask for another hour, but usually Clarke was willing to give her five more minutes; and by asking for several “five more minutes” in a row, she could wheedle the full hour anyway.
So she kept telling herself that she would set off for the art store if Clarke weren't back in another five minutes, and then in another, and then in another hour, and then two, until finally the sun was going down and it was too late to set off for the art store anyway. She curled up in the Rover with her back to the opening. She knew that this was an unwise position, but it was the only way that she could see the drawings that Clarke had hung across both walls, the roof, and the backs of both of the seats. She faced her favorite set, of the seven friends in the sky, focusing fiercely on their faces.
Madi knew Clarke's friends like the back of her hand. The people they were – had been – came through, no matter how Clarke drew them. Whether tending to plants with his head cocked attentively as though he was listening to them, laughing with Raven, or gazing off into the horizon, Monty's eyes were soft, always. Madi didn't understand how someone could be so soft and not be destroyed, but Clarke said that Monty was one of the strongest people in this world or any other, and that was how.
Echo made more sense to her, but then, they were both Azgeda. She looked like the women Madi remembered from a long time ago – hard, and distant. Clarke said that Echo was different, and that she was braver than the others because she chose to trust, the way Clarke and Madi trusted each other. That didn't make any sense to Madi, so she ignored it, and looked at pictures of Echo when she wanted to remember her mother. Her first mother. It made something deep inside of her feel sad and safe at the same time.
Harper made sense, too – she looked the way Madi would expect someone like Monty to look if they weren't one of the strongest people in this world or any other: wounded and afraid. Clarke said that wasn't true, that Harper was also very brave and strong, and Madi didn't say anything about it, because Harper was Clarke's friend.
Other than Echo, Raven was Madi's favorite. She was the one that Clarke had drawn the most, except for Bellamy. There were pictures of her doing everything – laughing, talking, working, fixing things, thinking, looking angry. Her eyes were always alive. Clarke told Madi that she should try to grow up to be like Raven someday, that that would make Clarke happier than anything else Madi could ever do. Madi didn't tell her that she wanted to be like Clarke, because she knew, without knowing how she knew or why, that it would make Clarke sad for her to say that.
Murphy and Emori were interesting, but like a different species. They didn't have a clan and Clarke said they were family, but they didn't share blood. That didn't make sense to Madi, either, but she had given up asking Clarke about it.
The only one Madi didn't understand was Bellamy, and he was the one there was the most of. It made her uncomfortable, because his face and his eyes were always shifting, like Clarke didn't quite remember them right. Sometimes they were looking down, sometimes right out of the page with an intensity that scared Madi. Sometimes he was smiling, but when he was, it was always at someone else in the drawing – never directly out. It left Madi with the eerie impression that, of all of the group, he was the only one who had never smiled at her. So when she couldn't sleep at night, like now, and she played her game, he was always lurking in the corners, but he almost never spoke. Only when it was time to tell the others to go.
“I'm worried about her.” Harper was scared, as usual. Harper was always scared.
“She's fine.” Madi didn't mean to snap, but Harper got on her nerves sometimes. “It's Clarke. She's the strongest.”
She rolled over so that she was facing the drawing of John Murphy with his mouth quirked upwards, looking out from the page as though nothing in the world scared him. “Yeah,” he said. “We don't need to worry about Clarke. We need to worry about whatever it is she came across.”
Madi rolled again, this time facing a picture of Monty tending plants in a greenhouse, so his voice in her head was slightly distracted. “Maybe she's with us.”
Harper's voice was hopeful. “You think?” Then it fell again. “But if that's true, why would she stay away so long?”
John sounded amused. “She hasn't seen us in 6 years. Give her a minute to enjoy it, you know?”
Now Monty sounded unsure, too. “I don't know. I don't think she would leave Madi for this long, even if it was to hang out with us. Why wouldn't she just bring us to meet Madi?”
Harper sounded even more worried now. “Yes, that's true. She would do that first thing. She couldn't wait for us to meet Madi.”
John laughed. “That's what she said. But maybe she saw us and forgot all about Madi in the excitement. We were her best friends, after all. Madi's just some kid.”
“Her kid.” It was all Raven said this time, but her voice was fierce.
Emori rarely spoke, but when she did, her voice was hard and soft at the same time. “Not her real kid.”
There was a moment of silence, and then some of the other voices chimed in, murmuring in agreement. “That's true... not her real kid.”
Madi hoped that Raven would say something else, but instead Bellamy spoke from the corner, where a close-up of his face was looking down. “You really think that after she hasn't seen me for 6 years, she's going to walk away after one hour just to babysit you?” He gestured towards the stacks of drawings of himself, hidden under the Rover seats after Madi had made Clarke take them down, not telling her that they gave her nightmares. “What do you think all of these are for? Where are the pictures of you, Madi?”
Madi rolled over and tried to block out his voice. She stared, hard, through the blur in her eyes, at the only picture of Echo than hung in the Rover, a close-up of her face in Azgeda war paint. She had asked for Clarke to hang it where it would be right next to Madi's head while she slept, and she often dreamed of Echo.
“Is it true?” She whispered to Echo, so that Bellamy wouldn't hear.
“Does it matter?” Echo's voice was hard.
“Because I love Clarke.” Madi could hear her voice begin to rise and forced herself to calm down. She didn't want Echo to see her cry.
“What is love? Can you see it?”
“Eat it? Does it keep you warm?”
“Clarke says it's the difference between surviving and living.”
Echo snorted, and Madi felt embarrassed. “Can you hold it to someone's throat and watch as it makes their blood spill?”
“Then love isn't real. What is real?”
Madi was confused. Bellamy spoke. “Echo, stop wasting your time. It's time to go.”
“No, please, tell me. I'm sorry.” Madi tried to keep the desperation out of her voice. She hated Bellamy. She hated him. He took everything. He was the reason Clarke disappeared with the radio every day and came back sad. He was the reason Clarke had left Madi for 12 hours instead of one.
Echo spoke quickly. “Would you die for Clarke?”
“Kill for her?”
“Then what is she?”
“She is my family.”
“No. What is she?”
A long pause, then Madi had it. “She is my clan.”
Echo sighed with relief, and Madi realized that she had felt as desperate as Madi to help before Bellamy made her leave. “Clarke has her reasons for being away from you. Does it matter what they are?”
“A clan member has been taken from you. What do you do?”
I find her. I get her back. And as soon as Madi thought the words, Echo was gone.
Leaving the day after Unity Day had been Echo's idea, though she tried to pretend like it was Harper's, because the sentimentality of it embarrassed her. They had been ready two days earlier, and Raven had wanted to leave as soon as possible, but Echo wanted one last Unity Day on board.
It was silly, but Unity Day had become important to the Kru, even the Grounders. The first one had come six months after their return, and when the original Skaikru members explained Unity Day to the Grounders, they decided to celebrate because they hadn't had anything to celebrate in so long. Harper, Monty and Raven, with the help of Monty's new still, had even tried to perform the pageant for everyone, and for the first time in her life, Echo had laughed so hard that she was sore the next day.
From then on, they celebrated every year. Bellamy never understood why Echo wanted to, and she wasn't entirely sure, either. It was partly that, as she explained to him, this was her history, too. Just because the humans in space hadn't known about the humans on the ground didn't mean that they weren't there the whole time, fighting wars and performing their own versions of silly pageants. It was just coincidence that some of them took place among the stars.
But more than that, it was an anniversary for her. It was the first night they had all gotten drunk together, and that meant that it was the first night that she had let down her guard, completely, with anyone on the ship other than Bellamy. That was important to her. So if they were leaving all of that behind, she wanted to do it one last time.
Monty emptied his still and they all carried the jars, jugs and mugs into the cockpit, as usual, so that they could drink with the sight of the earth looming over them like an omen. In the past, it had made Echo feel close to her ancestors. Now it just made it impossible to forget what was coming tomorrow. Raven wasn't drinking, because she thought that at least one of them should be “sober enough to get our asses back to Earth,” as she put it. She and Monty were consulting about something in the corner, even though she had officially given him the night off. Bellamy had filled Jaha's old scotch bottle and had, as usual, brought it to the viewfinder to stare at the earth and stars. Murphy was drinking as though it was the last day of his life – which, Echo considered, it probably was. Raven rated the chances that any of them would survive the landing at about 78%, but their chances of a completely fatality-free landing was only 27%. When she had said that, Echo had tried to avoid immediately ranking them – the members of her family, of her clan – in terms of their preferred order of death. But then, Earth had a tendency to make you think that way.
“Earth skills.” She grinned at Emori, who was crouched next to her, as though the still were a fire to keep them warm. Emori had never lost her Grounder way of moving. Echo, in contrast, had felt right away that she had been born for space.
“What?” Emori glanced at Echo, clearly lost in her own thoughts. Well, tough. Echo wanted company in hers.
“It's a class they used to have to take on the Ark – Earth Skills. Bell told me about it. Hunting, tracking, that kind of thing. But those aren't the real Earth Skills, are they? Sacrifice, impossible choices, betrayal, murdering your friends. Those are Earth Skills.”
“Fuck, E. That's dark.”
“Well? You voted to stay. There was a reason for it.”
“You voted to leave.” Emori snapped back. It was the first sign she had given that she had any hard feelings toward those who had outvoted her. “What was the reason for that?”
Echo sighed. “I don't know.” Because if I voted to stay, he would never have forgiven me. He didn't know it, but she did, and that was how weak she had become. How weak he had made her.
Time to change the subject. She nodded at Bellamy. “He said he wasn't very good at it. The class.”
“Huh.” Emori looked at Bellamy. “You'd think he would have been. Ended up being pretty good at the real thing.”
Echo shrugged. “I think he was too busy keeping his sister alive.”
“Yeah, that's Bellamy.” A hard edge to her voice. Echo hadn't realized before how angry she was about being made to leave. Emori rarely allowed herself to get angry anymore. “Always busy keeping someone alive. If all the people he loved were ever really safe – if there was really nothing for him to obsess about - I don't know if he'd actually be able to happy.” She paused, tossed one of the voting stones at an empty jar, hard. It bounced off. “Sorry.” The edge to her voice was gone. She seemed to have gotten out whatever it was that she needed to get out.
“For what? It's true.”
“No, it's not. He was happy here.” She sounded so sad that Echo avoided looking at her. She had never seen Emori cry, and she didn't want to now. “We were all happy here.”
There was a long, tired pause. Echo could have argued, but the moonshine had made her tongue heavy, and what was the point, really? Time to change the subject again.
“What happened there?” Echo nodded at John, who was watching them from the corner. When she looked over, he looked quickly down, but Emori didn't need to look to know what Echo was referring to.
She sighed. “Does it matter, if we all die tomorrow?”
“I don't know. Maybe that's the reason that it does matter. Look, If you want to know if something matters in the big scale – if you want a big, poetic answer – ask Bellamy. Or Monty. Raven, even. But if you just want to get it off your chest and know that it won't go any further....” Echo made a sweeping gesture that landed with her hand on her own chest.
Emori was silent for so long that Echo assumed that she had decided against speaking. Fair enough. When she finally did, the moonshine had made Echo's eyelids so heavy that she thought at first that she was dreaming.
“Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be alone in the world with the person you love? I mean, truly alone? The last two people who exist?”
“Yes.” She spoke more quickly than she would have sober.
Emori smiled tightly. “You think, great, right? I mean, lonely maybe, but at least you have each other? But that's the thing. For me and John, that's the way it was from the very beginning. We were always the last two people in one another's worlds. We had both been cast out so many times... it was like, we didn't even choose each other. He loved me because he had to, because he had all of this love to give and nowhere else to put it.”
“That's not true.”
“But how do you know? Bellamy chose you. Not because of who's on this ship – I don't mean he could have loved Raven, or me, or whatever. I mean that he could have loved anyone, or he could have been alone, because he's been loved before. He carries it with him, inside of him. When he loves, it's like growth from that love that he already carries. Same with you, and Monty, and everyone else here. You loved your people so deeply that your love for Bellamy is like an extension of that – can you see that? And his love for Octavia, and then for ... well, it grew to include all of us, because it was so big already, so fierce.”
Stop this. Echo knew what name Emori had omitted in her brief pause. Always so quiet and steady - how long had Emori been quietly collecting shards of people's souls? How long had she held these weapons sheathed?
But Echo had asked for the truth, and it wasn't her fault that Emori just happened to be striking a nerve with it.
“John – he's never really been loved, and neither have I. We were so broken that all we knew to do was to break everyone around us. So when we found each other – someone else who understood that love is more terrible than a Praimfaya – we had two choices. We could kill each other and any hope of redemption, ever, or we could love each other with everything we had, and face the fire together. Do you understand?”
“No.” The knot in her heart was easing now that they were back to talking about Emori and John. “You can love, Emori. You love us. And... and we love you.” Not the kind of thing she would have said sober.
“But only after I loved John, and only because I loved him. Only because... only because John brought me to his people. To Clarke, who was willing to take the nightblood herself rather than test it on me. And to you all, who brought me with you – who made a space for me on that stupid rocket and on this Ark, even when supplies were short. Who count my vote, even when the vote doesn't go my way.”
“No. That's what I mean. It's 'of course' for you. You expect to be counted because you've always been counted. It will never be 'of course' for me. I will always be afraid, Echo. I will always think that tomorrow will be the day that you will see me – really see me. The me who was such a monster that my own mother cast me out to die. The me that John saw – recognized immediately – and loved with his own whole, worthless, broken self. No matter how much you show me otherwise, there is a piece of me that will always believe that when you finally know me, you all – my family – will cast me out, too.”
“But not John.”
“I could murder an innocent infant in front of him and John would still love me completely. John will never cast me out.”
“Then why push him away?”
“Because I could murder an innocent infant in front of him and he would still love me. That makes him a monster. That makes us both monsters. There should be things that are more important than the person you love, but for me and John, there was nothing. We were alone in our own personal world – this world where everyone else had the power to destroy us at any moment. And it was a terrible world.” She shrugged. “I may never be able to live in your world, but I don't want to be in that world anymore either, this wasteland that he and I were haunting together. I don't want us to become monsters. Either of us.”
“Do you love him?”
Emori looked like Echo had struck her. “Always.”
“Do you love someone else?”
“Then I'm sorry, Emori, but this is stupid. Maybe I'm just not smart enough to understand it, but you love someone who loves you – only you. And we might all die tomorrow, and you're making both of you miserable.” She was on the downslide now. The moonshine had ceased to make her either elated or numb, and now she was pitching back down to earth with dizzying speed. “I just know that if you both die miserable, it seems like a waste to me.”
Emori sighed and tilted her head so that it was resting gently on Echo's shoulder. “There is that. I guess I just... try not to think about it.”
Echo surprised them both by snorting with laughter. On Earth, she had never once snorted; now it seemed like it happened fairly frequently.
“Uncertainty. Doubt. Making terrible choices for the people we love. Trying not to think about it.”
“What?” Emori's voice was drowsy.
“We could teach another class. 'Space Skills.'”
Emori was still smiling against Echo's shoulder when Echo drifted off to sleep. Later, Bellamy shook her awake and led her to their bed. It was too late, and they were too drunk, to do anything but hold one another, but she was glad that he had woken her for the final few hours that they would be home, spinning together through the stars.
They wouldn't find Madi. That was the important thing. The art store was nearly a day's drive from here, and even if they knew to look for her, they would never find it. She kept repeating this to herself, trying to ignore the persistent doubt. Madi, after all, was 13 years old, and following orders wasn't her defining characteristic.
“If you take those off, you'll die.” She was sitting across from the tall, stooped figure. How could she ever have imagined that it might be Bellamy? A thousand years in space wouldn't have done this to him. Everything about the way he carried himself seemed... wild. Feral. As though he was built of stripped wires. The other figure seemed was still, and compact. It was wearing a hood over its face, and Clarke could tell nothing about it.
The tall figure smiled. “You're not wearing one.” He nodded at her noticeable lack of a radiation suit.
“I'm a special case.” She shrugged, her heart in her throat. “Go ahead, test it. I have nothing to lose.” She had no way of knowing if a non-nightblood could survive in the atmosphere right now. Until recently, she had been praying that it was safe. A year ago, before she and Madi started sabotaging them, the counters outside of the bunker had indicated that levels were returning to habitable, but were still slightly more elevated than expected. At the time, she had been afraid that Bellamy and the others would return too soon. As it turned out, it wasn't Bellamy's ship that she needed to worry about.
The shorter figure leaned over to say something in the taller one's ear. The tall turned to look at Clarke. “You're lying.”
What was giving her away? She was holding his gaze, her hands weren't shaking. She had faced down tougher foes than this bent, rail-thin ghoul. And all she needed to do was convince them of two things: That she was alone, and that the atmosphere wasn't safe. Neither so very far from the truth that it should have been a stretch.
“So our sensors are lying to us?” Damn. That was a pretty obvious oversight on her part – of course they would have a way of monitoring radiation other than exposure. They weren't 100 kids being sent down on a cobbled-together ship as lab rats; they were on a private corporation prison ship, and they had tech.
She shrugged, feigning indifference. “Your funeral. Except, obviously, I won't be giving you one. I tried to warn the other girl, too, but you know. People see me out here, without a suit, they get excited, they want to take theirs off, too. I get it.”
It was such obvious bait, they almost didn't take it. She could see the tall one thinking about it. While he did, she weighed her options. The body was about a day's hike from here, in the direction of the store. That was bad; that meant taking them in the direction of Madi. Also bad was the condition of the body. It had been dead for about two years at this point, and she would have to convince them that it was recent enough to be indicative of current radiation levels. What would they buy? Had they ever seen a body decompose after it had been exposed to radiation?
Either way, that was a whole new set of problems, and Clarke decided that she liked them better than the set she was currently facing. She had slowly dropped her hands as they spoke; now she raised them again in a gesture of surrender. “I wouldn't believe me either, but the body is less than a day's walk away. I can show you.”
“Why would you care?” The tall man glowered at her, clearly uncertain. That was good. He was holding a weapon on her, so the fewer things he felt certain about, the better.
“Seriously? Because I want you to leave me alone, and the sooner you see that this planet isn't habitable for you, the sooner you'll do that.”
The two figures exchanged a long look. Finally, the tall one turned back to her and spoke. “OK. We'll go with you. But if -” He didn't get a chance to finish the sentence before the slighter figure moved, and moved quickly. The tall man's weapon was knocked to the ground and his suit slit open in one smooth movement. With his other hand, the slight figure hit a button on a device hanging by the suit's side, and the hatchway leading to the ship, for which the tall figure had started a panicked dash, began its inexorable close as the slighter figure held the man in place.
The man screamed as if he had been lit on fire. It was a death that Clarke had seen too many times, even to enemies. She looked away, but heard as the slighter figure knocked the tall man to the ground and kicked him, where he began to writhe and moan. Without a second glance, the standing figure turned back to Clarke and held his weapon steadily on her. It had all happened so quickly, she had barely begun to turn to run.
“Don't move. Don't be stupid.” The voice was a low growl. She still couldn't tell if it was a man or woman, and the ice-blue eyes behind the mask gave nothing away. The figure nodded at the figure at the ground, whose movements were slowing to stillness. “Stupidity can be a terminal illness on this planet.”
She didn't move. Not until the figure gestured with its gun for her to follow towards the now-open hatch, into the darkness of the prison ship.
Madi almost made a run for the closing hatch, but Echo held her back. “Coward,” whispered Bellamy. It had been his only contribution so far.
She still knew that it was a game, but she was afraid to stop. What would happen if she let herself believe that she was alone out here? So she let Echo guide her back to the shelter of the trees and crouch down beside her, as though they were making camp in the days before Praimfaya, and imagined her drawing on the ground with a stick. “Look, we're here, right? The ship extends this way, all the way back, away from us. If we'd followed them in, they would have known we were here, and we'd be trapped. But if we run back along the outside of the ship, and check for other entrances....”
“We might be able to take them by surprise.”
Madi felt pleased to have gotten the answer right. It was kind of like lessons with Clarke. What would you do if you got stuck in that island in the middle of the river? What would you do if people came out of the ground and tried to take you away from me? What would you do if I didn't come back one day? As long as it was only a game, it was fun. The sooner she solved the problem, the sooner they could get back to the Rover, and Clarke would draw pictures and tell her stories about her friends, and the world that had come before.
But Clarke had always said that there needed to be at least two solutions to every problem, because sometimes one didn't work, so having one solution was like having no solutions. She said that Raven had taught her that, and that Raven and Monty were the two smartest people she knew.
So now Monty said, “What if there is no other entrance?” Raven came to crouch down, too. At the treeline, Emori and John kept watch. Bellamy stood in the shadows, watching.
“Then we wait.”
“That's not a solution.” Madi had really preferred it when Bellamy didn't speak up so much.
“Yes, it is.” Raven was always brave enough to stand up to Bellamy, even more so than Echo. “Because when you wait, things always change, and they might change in your favor. If you can afford to, you should always wait before taking a risk.”
“Or they might change for the worse. She could be dead by the time we get in there.” John spoke up from the tree-line. But he wasn't being mean, like Bellamy. Just worried. That was OK. Madi was worried, too.
As if reading her mind – she is reading your mind, she is inside of your mind, they are not real – Raven said, “It's OK to be scared, Madi. You can feel scared and do something anyway.”
“I know. Clarke told me. She said she used to be scared almost all of the time, and she always had to do the things that scared her anyway. She said she turned out OK, and I will too.”
Bellamy scoffed, but Raven patted Madi on the shoulder. “That's right. She did, and you will too.”
Echo had been scanning the ship for signs of movement. There were none. “OK, solution number one, another entrance. It's dark, so if you stay close to the ground, they won't be able to see you even if they're looking out. Let's go.”
So the solitary little figure left the shelter of the tree-line and stayed low as she crept towards the dark, hulking ship. She was nearly there when the sky parted and, with a clap that even frightened the friends in her mind, re-formed itself around the second ship to come hurtling towards the ground that day.
“Should we be going at night?”
Echo was glad that Harper had said something. She had been worried, too, but it was always easier to wait for someone else to ask the question.
“It's fine. I just took a little longer running the pre-launch checks than I thought I would. It turns out that without guns in my face or the apocalypse breathing down my neck, I kinda like to take my time and be thorough.” Raven scanned the faces looking back at her. “Look, we'll land where we land. It's not manual, so we don't need to see. The coordinates I programmed in should put us right back on the island, so that – so that we can get our bearings.”
Echo almost rolled her eyes. She wished that Raven would just admit that they were going back to the place they had left Clarke. It was like an unspoken agreement; they referred to Clarke only in the past tense or obliquely. Everyone's individual private memories of her were their own, but to the group, she was bigger than just one person. No one told funny stories about Clarke; no one talked about Clarke's mistakes. It was as though she was there for protection and blessings, as if she were a saint or a god - not a living, breathing girl who had chosen to burn to death so that the rest of them could live. Echo knew that Bellamy hated it, even as he himself acted as though her memory was too sacred to touch.
Even the name of the rocket that had brought them here, and which would be taking them back, was about the concept of Clarke, not Clarke herself. The Princess. When the others started referring to it that way, almost as soon as they landed and Raven began repairing the damage and readying for takeoff again (God forbid, Murphy had pointed out, she take a few days off; it wasn't like they had five years or anything), Echo assumed that Bellamy had started it. It seemed like the kind of nickname he might have coined, anyway: a mockery that hid a deeper truth.
So Echo did it too, more out of respect for him and his loss than anything else. She thought that it was sort of silly to name a rocket after a person, but every clan had their own way of grieving. Trikru planted the ashes of their people in the earth so that the spirit would be rooted and could always be found. To the Azgeda, an infinity spent tied to one place was what the weak and traitorous were cursed to; the honored were burned and cast to the four winds. If Skaikru wanted to put Clarke into a rocket, that was their call.
It was only when Echo casually referred to the rocket as “Princess” in front of Bellamy one evening, while they were on bow watch together, that she realized that he hadn't been the one to name the rocket.
“Don't call it that,” he snapped.
“The Princess?” She was genuinely startled. Was this an honor to which only Skaikru was entitled? It was true that only Azgeda could handle Azgeda ashes. Maybe this was like that?
But Bellamy softened almost immediately. “I'm sorry. I just mean... she's not a rocket. Clarke. She's... not our good luck charm.”
Echo understood immediately. “She's just Clarke.”
Bellamy turned back to staring at the earth, watching for asteroids and other space debris that never seemed to come. “She's just Clarke.”
It was naïve. She could never be “just Clarke,” again, Echo knew. She had died so that they could live – didn't he understand what became of the memory of people like that in the minds of those who lived on? Religions had been built on less.
But he had already lost her once. Echo couldn't bring herself to take his memory of her – the real her – away, too. To the others, the rocket was a memorial. But for Bellamy, the idea of memorializing Clarke – of fixing her, unmovable and distant, in the past – had been unbearable. He hadn't been ready, then or now. She doubted he ever would be, even if he got back to earth and found himself standing over her decayed body.
Still, the name stuck, and seemed to stop bothering him, though he never used it himself. Echo got used to it and even began to like it. It made her feel close to the girl who had been so loyal to Echo's king, even when the rest of Skaikru betrayed him. Clarke had made many terrible decisions, but they had been for her people. Echo could understand that. She had never shared her grief with anyone, because they had lost so much more. But Clarke's death had made her terribly sad, and in the depth of her bones, she wanted to believe that the girl lived on, her courage somehow protecting them still, through the rocket.
But now, with Raven refusing even to say the sacred Clarke's name – as though either the memory or the hope of her had not been at the heart at every decision made about this journey from the moment they had decided to go – Echo was reminded of Bellamy's old grief. Did he still feel that way, she wondered? Did he wish, just once, that he and Raven could talk about her as if she was dead and gone, and just miss her? Raven went on, and Echo didn't look at Bellamy to see how he had taken the slanted reference to Clarke. “Look, we can wait, but there's really no point. The life support system is functional so we can stay on board until it gets light, if we want, but it's either gonna be waiting in the dark down there, or waiting in the dark up here.”
No one wanted to do that. To walk through the rooms that they would never see again, visit the places where they had sat together and built friendships that might soon be torn away from them, felt like mourning something that was not yet dead. It was macabre.
Besides, in spite of herself, Echo could feel the old thrill. Riding out. This morning, she had fought the urge to paint her face for the first time in six years. Today she would die, or she would live. Her only foe was chance, but it was more of a foe than she had faced in a long time, and she had missed the battle.
“We go.” Bellamy's voice was firmer than anyone had heard it in a long time, and loud, as though he were trying to speak over something only he could hear. “We've waited long enough.”
“Fine, Dad, geez.” It had been a while since John had used the nickname – created in the early days, when Bellamy was constantly checking in on everyone's health and well-being – but it seemed to lighten the atmosphere.
John was the first to swing himself into the Princess. As ever, he was turning his own courage into a joke; shielding them all from their own fear by taking it onto himself. “Look, if we go down in flames, I'm just saying, I voted to stay.”
“We'll put it on your grave marker.” Echo had learned from the library on the Ark that on the old Earth, humans had dug up big slabs of stone to mark graves, and written things on them about the person who had died. She liked the idea, and sometimes amused herself by thinking about what she would write for herself or her friends. “John: He Voted to Stay.”
“Echo: Kinda Bitchy til the End.” John's voice rang out from inside. “Anyone joining me?” His head popped back out, eyes wide. “Oh my god. Was this all a big prank just to get me off the Ark?”
Harper rolled her eyes and shoved him back in, following closely behind. Monty checked again to make sure that the transportable components of his aquafarm were strapped in. It was only nerves: they were already packed more securely than the Kru themselves would be. If anything made it, it was going to be the goddamn algae. He hopped in behind, followed closely by Raven, who had finally finished the external check to her satisfaction.
Emori went next, casting a last, longing glace around her first real home.
Echo turned to Bellamy to make a joke about stalling, and was caught off guard. His eyes were wide and full of pain. “Echo-” He started, “I'm so sorry.” He gestured around, helplessly, at the place where they had been happy – yes, in spite of it all, happy more often than not – for six long years. “I don't know....”
If he chose now to tell her that he didn't know if they had made the right decision, she would kill him. She might kill him anyway, for waiting until this moment to open up to her.
Instead, she gently took his hand. “Too late to turn back now.”
As she pulled them both aboard, she closed her eyes and whispered what felt more than ever like a prayer. “Princess, bring us home.”
The ship was dark and still. Clarke hadn't seen this large of an enclosed space in a long time, and it took her eyes a few moments to adjust. When they did, she realized that, once the ship doors had closed and sealed, the figure in front of her had taken off both its radiation helmet and the mask beneath. The mask had begun giving her the terribly creepy feeling that she was going to recognize the face beneath it, so she was unreasonably relieved when it was unremarkable, other than for being one of the very few other humans she had seen in the past six years. His skin was smooth, but his age was indeterminate. He could have been a few years younger than Clarke, or a decade older. The only defining characteristic was a dramatic scar that gashed across his face from his left ear to the left side of his mouth, obscuring most of that half of his face. It looked like a burn scar, but an old one.
He was checking a bay of computer screens in front of him. His back was to her, but the easy confidence with which he had turned made her think that he was prepared for any move that she might make. Besides, she was in no hurry. He wasn't actually threatening to kill her at the moment, and the longer she kept him busy, the farther away Madi was getting.
Most of the screens were self-evident – temperature, barometric reading, radiation levels. A few appeared to be monitoring vital signs, though Clarke couldn't see any evidence that they were hooked up to people. One of these screens began an urgent beeping as the man brought up, on the screen next to it, a close-up of what looked like an ID card. Picture, name, serial number. And a date, but the date couldn't be a birthday. It was from old Earth, over a hundred years ago.
“Shit.” The muttered curse made him seem less confident, and Clarke re-assessed her estimate of his age. Definitely more of a boy than a man. He looked worriedly between her and the screen.
“Anything I can help with?” she asked sweetly.
His face hardened again, and she wondered if she had pushed her luck too far. But he just grabbed her wrist and piloted her down the rows of humming equipment until finally they came to a stop in front of a spot that was emitting a beeping that matched that of the computer at the front. “Yeah, Clarke.” She turned to him, panicked, and he sneered, clearly relieved at once again having the upper hand. “Oh, you didn't know that I knew your name?” He pushed a few buttons on the remote still dangling from his side, and the lights above them hummed into action. He pushed another button, and a panel on the wall in front of them slid aside to reveal another panel, this one clear. The man who had somehow known Clarke's name reached beneath the panel and pulled it out on a sliding drawer, like in the old morgue they had had on the Ark. “You want to know how you can help? Fix him.”
Clarke's breath caught in her throat. She was looking at a man, younger still than the one who had slid out the drawer. He was unconscious, but breathing – barely. He looked as though he was choking on his breathing tube. Clarke thought he had probably somehow aspirated a part of the tube – something that could happen with old or poorly maintained equipment. She might be able to help him, or she might not – it would depend a good deal on what equipment she had available to her, and chance.
But that wasn't what caught her breath and rendered her unable to respond to the man in front of her, this mysterious man who had landed on her planet, hers and Madi's, committed the first murder in years without blinking an eye, and who somehow knew her name.
One drawer, one man, one life support system. The computers at the front of the ship, beeping away, raising the alarm when one system detected a problem. But how many systems were there? She looked up and down the row where they were standing, thought about how many rows she had walked past on the way to this one.
A lot. That's how many. What would she and Madi do if these people all woke up? The radiation would keep them inside for now, but what if it fell to a livable level? Or what if – her chest tightened, and she wanted to scream for Madi to run, run – what if they discovered the nightblood solution?
She couldn't save this man. Where would it end? She shook her head, mutely, and stepped back. “There's nothing I can do for him. I'm sorry.”
The boy with the blue eyes raised his pistol to the side of her head, careful to angle it up so that the bullet wouldn't hit any of the life support systems piercing her skull. “Then there's nothing I can do for you.”
Clarke realized this was the moment she had been waiting for since she stepped on board the ship - that a part of her had been waiting for for six years. She was... sad to leave Madi. But what a small feeling that was, compared with the overwhelming relief. She could be finished. No more missing people, no more living with ghosts. No more living with the things she had done, seeking redemption in vain. And Madi would be safer with one less nightblood in the world, one less way for people to discover the solution.
She closed her eyes, waiting. She knew that it was coming. His voice always came to her in moments like this. It had been so long since she'd heard it, for real, she sometimes wondered if it could really have been so soft and still have held so much power over her.
We save who we can save, today.
She opened her eyes and sighed. She should have known he wouldn't let her rest that easy. “I might be able to help. I'm not making any promises. But I'll need something sharp, and clean. And before we do anything else, you'll need to get him out of that box.”
Harper, Raven, Emori and Murphy all got pretty banged up on re-entry. Echo hit her head, but didn't bleed too badly; Bellamy hit his head and bled all over the damn place.
Both Monty and his algae were untouched.
“Ha! Perfect landing! Perfect landing!” Raven struggled to remove her harness. It was the first time she had made the trip in a fully functional craft that hadn't had at least one or two improvised parts, and Echo could understand why she was excited at the success.
“Excuse me? Tell that to my.. ow. Monty, ow.” Murphy struggled to his feet and collapsed again as Monty, in his haste to check on everyone, elbowed him in the ribs.
“Are you OK? Is everyone OK?”
“I would be better if you would wait until we could see to – ow.”
The foot that Monty had stepped on got added to the list of casualties, but as Raven pointed out, no one had died, which, everyone had to admit, did make the landing pretty perfect.
They stared at the door.
“What do the monitors say?” Harper's voice trembled.
Raven looked at the screen in front of her. “Radiation is higher than we would expect it to be, but still livable for us. It would kill a mountain man within seconds.”
Bellamy took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “Good thing we're not mountain men.” They hadn't wasted space on the Princess with radiation suits. If the planet was still radioactive, they were dead, anyway, and they needed the space for things like Monty's aquafarm – ways to survive on a planet that might be nothing like the one they had left behind. “OK. I'll go first. Close the hatch immediately after I'm out, and don't come out until you hear me knock. I'll let you know that it's safe.”
He turned away from them, and it was as though the last six years had blown away like smoke. Here he was again – Bellamy the leader. If anyone was going to fry, he was going to make sure he was the first to go up in flames.
Except – the last six years had happened.
“Nice try, Blake, but I'm the one who got us down here, so I'm the one who gets to touch ground first.” Raven's tone brooked no argument.
“Yeah, asshole, you dragged us down here and now you're going to make us wait in the ship while you go exploring?” John's tone was light but his eyes were hard. He had changed, too. He was every bit as determined to survive as he had always been, but now he was just as determined to keep the rest of them alive with him.
“Bell, don't waste time. We're all going, and you know it.” Before he could argue, Raven pulled a lever, and the ramp was opening.
How was it that he had lived here for less than two years, and it still felt more real to him than any other place than he had ever been? A moment ago, inside the Princess – Bellamy hated that name because Clarke would have hated it, but it had become habit to think of the rocket that way – “home” had still been the Ring. It was gone, probably forever, but it was “home” nonetheless.
But now, with the night sky expanding in front of him, looking at the stars from below – the way humans were meant to see them – smelling real air for the first time in so long, his body remembered. He belonged here.
I should never have left.
No time for that now. There was so much to do. He kept one hand on the rifle at his side, and he could feel Echo holding the same stance with her sword. So many years of training with one another, but when danger came, they would always fall back on the weapons of their own people.
For a moment, it all felt so familiar. The dizzying fall from the Arc, the opening of the doors, the first few cautious steps forth. He almost expected Octavia to turn to him, her boots on the Ground for the first time, with those wide, excited eyes of hers; to be able to turn around and watch as Finn made the fateful first steps toward his love for Clarke.
And if Bellamy could have stepped out of his own body in that moment, seen himself seeing her for the first time, what would he be watching? What had he been taking the first steps into?
But the feeling was fleeting. That day, they had been surrounded by green. Today... there was green. Some. But more than that, there was red. Searing, empty, aching red as far as the eye could see. With patches of dead gray, where granite heaved itself up between the seas of red sand. It was unlike any landscape Bellamy had ever seen, and his heart broke for the paradise he had left.
Still – it was Earth. They were home. And if there was one thing he knew about Earth, it was that you couldn't let your guard down for a moment. So when the trees rustled, Bellamy was ready. He had hope, but he wasn't a fool. The bunker should have opened a year ago now, and if there was a second thing he knew about earth, it was that alliances forged in crisis dissolved just as quickly back into war when the crisis had passed. For all they knew, they had landed right in the middle of a Wonkru civil war.
So when the little girl stepped out of the clearing and began to walk towards them, he didn't waver, but held her in his rifle sights.
He didn't move when he saw that she was wearing Clarke's old jacket.
And he didn't move when she drew close enough for him to see, at last, Clarke's father's watch – the watch that Clarke would never have given up willingly; the watch over which an entire Trikru village had been slaughtered – around her neck, and his last whisper of hope gave up and flew away, leaving his heart as empty and lifeless as the silent, irradiated forest before them.
It was them, and not them. Monty looked worried, and Monty never looked worried. Murphy and Emori weren't standing together, but in the drawings, they were always together. Raven looked confused. Bellamy – well, Bellamy looked right, anyway. He was holding a gun on her. And his eyes were as unreadable as ever.
She kept walking, even though his gun was still on her. Echo wouldn't let him shoot her.
She was right. Echo held out a hand and placed it on top of Bellamy's gun, forcing him to lower it.
“What are you doing?” she hissed, loudly enough that Madi could hear, even though she was still 30 paces away. “She's just a little girl.”
“She has Clarke's watch,” Bellamy responded through gritted teeth.
“She is wearing. Clarke's watch. Around her neck. Like a goddamn war trophy.” His breath was coming fast, as though he had been running, but Madi knew that they had just gotten off the ship. She had watched them. He swung his gun back up and held it on her again, steadily, though his voice had been shaking with rage.
Oh. Her hand went to her throat, where she wore the watch on a chain that Clark had made out of an old, broken part that they'd had to replace in the Rover. They were going to want it, of course. They were going to try to take it, and then she would have to fight them. Clarke's friends. Or she would have to explain to Clarke why she didn't have the watch. Either way, she was going to get into trouble.
She stopped and clutched at the watch, tugging it on the chain as she thought. The man who was Bellamy-but-not-Bellamy didn't move, though the rest of them had lowered their weapons to their sides, even Echo. Usually, if Madi had a difficult choice to make and she couldn't talk to Clarke about it, she would get out one of the pictures and play the game. Raven gave the best advice, of course, unless it was about war, in which case she would ask Echo.
This was not about war. She hoped.
The girl in front of them had stopped and was staring at them, frowning.
“You're scaring her. She's just a kid,” Echo had seen the look on Bellamy's face and was genuinely afraid for the girl, and for him. She had heard about what happened the Trikru village the last time someone had stolen Clarke's watch. It was just a fucking watch.
“We're on Earth. No one is 'just a kid,' here. Remember?” Reluctantly, Bellamy had started, again, to lower his gun, but he snapped it back up as the girl's hand moved towards her pocket. “The fuck is she going for? Raven, back in the rocket, guard the supplies. Monty and Echo, with me. Everyone else, cover us.” The others moved uneasily into position, even Raven, edging slowly back to the hatch.
She froze, though, when the girl spoke, calling out across the distance. “Raven? Can you come here please? I need to talk to you for a minute.” Her tone was plaintive, but not pleading. It was as if it hadn't occurred to her that they would find it strange for her to know Raven's name, as if this was something they all did every day.
“Don't move. It's a trap.” Bellamy himself took one slow, cautious step forward, and called out, “No one is going anywhere. Where did you hear that name?”
But Echo was beginning to notice things. Not just the jacket and the watch, but how the girl did her hair – curly and mostly loose, with one slim, long braid woven through it. It was a Trikru style, but the girl had no other Trikru markings. Echo had seen Clarke wear her hair like that sometimes. And the look of the girl was... odd. She didn't look like Skaikru, but she didn't have the markings of any of the other clans that Echo had known. Of course, there could be new clans, but this girl had no markings at all. She looked … cared for, so she wasn't an outcast. Not an outcast, no clan. Not hardened enough to know not to walk up to a group of strangers in the middle of nowhere.
Someone was taking care of this kid.
When Raven still didn't move, the girl's voice grew slightly panicky. “Or Monty? I can talk to Monty. Or Echo or Emori. Please, just come here? I just... I just really need to talk to you?” Her breath hitched, making the last statement sound like a question. She was fighting tears.
Bellamy's voice was no more than a growl. “How do you know our names? How did you get that watch?” The girl frowned, as though it was a strange question.
Then her eyes grew wide, as though she was realizing something – something that scared her. “Oh....” it was almost a moan. She turned and for a moment Echo thought she was going to run, but she turned back, frightened and confused. Something was keeping her here. She was afraid, but she couldn't leave them. It was as though they were providing her with the only sense of safety she had left.
That was when Echo knew, but she couldn't say it. The words stuck in her throat.
“I just have to talk to one of you, please. Any of you.” Finally, in desperation. "You can have the watch, OK? You can have the watch!"
“Fine.” Bellamy seemed to relax now that she was done listing names. “You can talk to me.” He started forward, rifle still in hand.
The change was immediate. The quaver was gone from her voice, the eyes went from tearful to hard in a moment. “No. One of the others. Not you.”
“Because you don't know me?” He looked almost triumphant, as though this little girl were his nemesis and he had scored a point on her.
The girl glared at him, then frowned, as though struggling to explain something. She shifted her weight and sighed, looked down. Her hand drifted to her pocket again, but she didn't try to take anything out.
Finally, she looked back up at Bellamy and spoke. Her voice was calm, and her eyes were still cold as ice. “I know you. Of course I know you. You're Bellamy." Bellamy's face fell. Whatever theory he had been forming about how she had known their names had clearly come crashing down under this new blow.
"You're the reason she's sad.” The girl paused as this sank in, as one by one the Spacekru heard the words and, one by one, realized what they might mean, what Echo already knew. The girl held Bellamy's gaze and, for the first time since she had stepped out of the woods, he let his rifle fall. He had stopped breathing, and was watching the girl as though, if he took his eyes off of her, she might vanish.
“You're the one who left her to burn.”