Karen Healey's dystopian novel When We Wake was fantastic, and now she's published a companion novel, While We Run. The Australian government's cryonics experiments on teens are getting creepier, and our heroes are struggling to survive. We've got an excerpt.
Here's the plot synopsis, from publisher Little, Brown:
Abdi Taalib thought he was moving to Australia for a music scholarship. But after meeting the beautiful and brazen Tegan Oglietti, his world was turned upside down. Tegan's no ordinary girl - she died in 2027, only to be frozen and brought back to life in Abdi's time, 100 years later.
Now, all they want is for things to return to normal (or as normal as they can be), but the government has other ideas. Especially since the two just spilled the secrets behind Australia's cryonics project to the world. On the run, Abdi and Tegan have no idea who they can trust - and, when they uncover startling new details about the program, they realize that thousands of lives may be in their hands.
The very special dinner party was hosted by Valda Simons, Australia's most notoriously untouchable criminal. Where there were extortion, racketeering, illegal arms dealing, cybercrime, and human trafficking, there was Mrs. Simons, taking a cut and ruling the roost, her smile as tight as her short blond curls.
And here she was now, shaking my hand, nodding at Diane, and ushering me into the hotel's private dining room, where a table had been laid out in black and gold, crystal glasses shining in the soft candlelight.
Candles were greatly looked down upon in Australia, where burning things was considered a savage Earth-killing practice for thirdies, but like so many things, it was different for the wealthy. Besides, if you were Valda Simons and didn't balk at
ordering murder or kidnapping, you probably didn't have many qualms over a few candles.
"I'm so glad you could make it, Abdi," Valda said gently. She didn't sound like a ruthless crime lord. Her hand was soft and manicured, her aging face sweet. But her blue eyes were cold. I couldn't see anything of the person behind them. "Ruby is very much looking forward to meeting you—ah, there she is now."
I looked across the length of the room to see a young woman make her entrance and instantly knew that the dining room's decor had been chosen to set her off.
She was stunning.
Her golden skin—actually golden, the result of an expensive skin mod that bonded light-reflecting particles into the top layer of the epidermis—glowed, and her short, spiky hair was a deep, rich red. The long black trousers and matching vest were really the background for the piece of art that was her body. She had a black cord tied around her upper arm with long dangling ends, a fashion trend I'd seen on some of the younger people in my audiences. As she moved closer, I saw the red stones embedded in the loose ends glitter. Rubies, of course.
Valda smiled. I thought it might have been genuine pleasure.
"Ruby, darling. Meet our special guest."
"Abdi Taalib," Ruby said, her voice smoky, her accent indeterminate. She reached for my shirt lapel, but I caught her hand before she could touch me, bowing over it.
"Enchanted, madame," I said, and wondered where her accent was from. After nearly three decades of the No Migrant policy, I was usually the only person in the room with an accent out of the norm. Ruby's accent must be as contrived as the rest of her.
"Madame? No. Call me Ruby." Her gaze drifted down my tailored suit and back up to meet my eyes, deliberately slow. "Call me anything you like."
Aware of Diane's eyes on me, I flirted back. "It's a delight to meet you, Ruby. It's clear why you were named for a treasure."
"Oh, stop," she said in a laughing way that meant please keep going, and moved a little closer.
"We're on a schedule," Valda said, her tone mild, but Ruby snapped to attention.
"Of course, Mother. Abdi, come sit with me. I want to hear everything about you."
I glanced at Diane, who inclined her head. There was a smirk hovering around the corners of her mouth, and I braced myself for whatever horrors the evening might hold. When Diane was this happy, I was usually about to become very sad.
It was a select group—five couples, including Ruby and me, who were seated at the head of the table. Valda flew solo at the foot, Mr. Simons having died in a regrettable incident over twenty years ago when he'd tried to lead a coup against his wife's interests.
The food was excellent, the conversation trivial. Ruby might have pretended to want to know about me, but while my presence was clearly a triumph for her, she was much more interested in herself. I sat through story after story about snubs she'd received and personal victories she could gloat over—this fashion show she hadn't been invited to, that social event she'd kept a rival from.
It wasn't so bad, really. I'd been trained to handle this kind of mindless small talk since I was very young, when my mother first decided on me as the natural heir to her political ambitions. My older sister, Ifrah, was too outspoken, and my brother, Halim, couldn't master the ability to feign interest. They went into engineering and medicine instead. But I'd loved the "pretend game" my mother played with me from when I was four. Hooyo would say outrageous things, and I had to keep a straight face. Or she would tell me two truths and a lie, and I had to pick the lie from her facial expression—or entirely from her tone, with my eyes closed, straining to pick up the minutiae of inflection. She started taking me to political functions when I was seven. It's amazing, the things people will say in front of a quiet child.
Ifrah grumbled that I was my mother's favorite, and Halim rolled his eyes whenever she praised me, but it wasn't my fault I had the skills they didn't.
Unusually, Diane wasn't signaling me to keep talking, which meant that the Special Australian Defence Unit must have already gotten the money it wanted from the Simons women.
My presence was their reward. I was an ornament for the occasion.
"Here, Abdi," Ruby said, and speared a lump of something in a creamy sauce with her golden fork. "Open wide!"
"What is it?" I asked.
"Pink handfish!" she said triumphantly. "Cooked to a special recipe."
My family never ate fish. At home, it was considered a disgusting animal that only the most desperate people would touch. But I couldn't let my revulsion show for a second. As Ruby maneuvered the cold lump into my mouth, I closed my lips around the fork and smiled, swallowing hard.
"Delicious," I said, making my accent stronger. I knew what Ruby wanted to see. The exotic thirdie, suitably civilized, but provokingly different.
"Yes, you are," Ruby said, and wiped a smear of sauce off my lower lip. Her touch lingered possessively, and my gaze jumped to Diane, who was calmly standing at the other end of the room.
Diane only left me alone with people who were rich when they wanted something from me. Sometimes it was an assurance that I was fine and had really changed my mind about the Ark Project. More often, it was sex. Sex sold ideas as much as it ever had products.
Of course, SADU would never take the risk of letting me move out of their hands and into a secluded area, no matter how much they wanted my would‑be seducer's money. But the tease of thinking that it might be a possibility had managed to get extra sponsorship out of quite a few people who were curious to try out the government's famous thirdie. I was willing to bet that Ruby Simons was in that category.
Diane was smirking again. The fish settled in my stomach, the cold lump growing there.
Valda Simons stood up, and everyone quieted immediately. I couldn't deny the woman had presence. "I'm delighted you could all be here to meet our special guest," she said, and I acknowledged the light murmur of agreement by lifting my water glass. "And I have to eat a little bit of crow. You see, when Nathan Cox first told me about the Ark Project, I was dubious. 'Nathan,' I said, 'this might be all right for thirdies who need someplace to go, but you're never going to get real Australians as paying passengers on that ship. It's too much of a risk.' " She laughed, and the guests laughed with her.
I laughed with them, burning inside. So the president of Australia was on first-name terms with Australia's biggest crook. Well, I wasn't naive—my mother's campaigns had donations from people whose hands weren't clean, either. But Cox's confidence in future elections suddenly made more sense.
I'd been to the camps that held the people Valda dismissed as "thirdies who need someplace to go." The children there had lined up with their parents to sign the forms volunteering them for cryonic suspension and indentured labor, far, far away. I'd smiled for the bumblecams and cracked jokes in French and Arabic and Somali and nodded solemnly as carefully selected and meticulously coached refugees had made their statements to the gathered media about being grateful for an amazing opportunity, about reaching for the distant stars.
There had been a group of teenagers hanging around, staring at the SADU uniforms my escorts wore. The kids muttered to themselves, then began to talk more loudly. When they started to shout, the camp guards took over and SADU ushered the journalists out.
But I'd seen what had happened next: the blood, the broken teeth. Nothing deadly—but enough to show those kids what happened when you tried to disrupt the story the government wanted to tell.
My head was pounding. Valda had said something else about the starship, about her arguments against it, and I'd missed it.
Now she shook her head mockingly. "Nathan just looked at me and said, 'Valda, my dear, you're not thinking of the future.' He was right! I'm an old fuddy-duddy, but our young people are the brave ones, the pioneers. And I'm very pleased to be able to tell you that my beloved daughter, my darling Ruby, is one of them."
Ruby stood up, her black cord dangling gracefully. "That's right!" she said. "Welcome to my going-away party! I undergo cryonic suspension tomorrow morning."
I gasped, and the other guests gasped with me—a massive inhalation that could have been funny if it weren't for the seriousness of the situation. Ruby Simons was choosing to die?
There was real emotion in Valda's eyes as she looked down the table at her daughter. "I love you, darling. I'm going to miss you more than I can say. And I admire you more than you can imagine."
The guests broke into applause. I clapped with them, but my mind was whirring. Most of the wealthy benefactors of the Ark Project who'd gotten themselves frozen had been ill or old. Ruby Simons didn't seem to be sick. And she looked about twenty-five, which was far too young to be worried about anything that might destroy brain function before her doubtlessly well-drilled cryo team could spring into action.
Ruby waited for silence. "I love you, too, Mother," she said, and then with an elaborate sweep of her hand, "but I have to claim the future! Tomorrow is the day before my thirtieth birthday. I'll go to sleep and wake up somewhere wonderful,
and I'll be ready to take on the world. And I won't be old and boring." The guests, some of whom were fairly old themselves, laughed politely at that. Ruby's teeth glittered at me. "Will I see you there, Abdi?"
The guests gasped again.
In a world built on slave labor? The thought was appalling.
"We'll have to see," I teased.
She laughed and kissed my cheek as she sat down, her painted lips moist against my face. Dinner became noisier after that, as people came up to congratulate Ruby and admire her bravery. Valda watched her daughter with sad eyes. Once, Ruby hugged her and I thought both of them might have shed tears, if it wouldn't have spoiled their careful eye makeup.
Abandoned, I took a moment to have my water glass refilled and drifted closer to the balcony wall, open to the warm night air. I could see city lights outside, a long way down.
A shiver of pain ran down my spine in warning, and I stopped six feet away. Diane wasn't going to let me get that close to any kind of freedom.
When I turned around, meaning to rejoin the party, Ruby was there.
"Running away?" she asked.
"From you? Never."
She smiled, moving even closer to me, and brushed her hand down my arm. My skin crawled at the cool stroke of her long fingers, but I made myself sway toward her. "So, Tegan's away," she said. "How long has she been on this international tour?"
It was the first time she'd mentioned Tegan all evening. I should have noticed that earlier. Usually, all anyone wanted to talk about was the Living Dead Girl. Now the resentful note in Ruby's voice set off all my warning bells.
"She's been gone two months."
"Two whole months! You must really miss your lady love."
Ruby paused. "Unless you don't love her anymore?"
"Tegan and I are very good friends," I said, giving the rote response that had been drilled into me. "But we prefer to keep our private lives private." I looked up at her from under my lashes, putting a promise into my eyes.
"Really?" Ruby said. "I'm fond of privacy myself. Shall we go and find some?"
That was usually the moment Diane would turn up again with an apology for the interruption. She'd stay with me until Ruby left frustrated. But Diane was loitering by a couple some distance away.
"Abdi," Ruby whispered. She draped herself artistically over my shoulder. Her breath was warm on my ear. "I want to show you something. Let's get out of here."
Diane could hear everything. I knew she could. Why wasn't she stopping this?
The realization was a blow to the head, leaving me sick and dizzy, a low throb at the base of my skull. She'd told me to be nice to Ruby. Diane wanted me to be very nice to her. After all, what was the risk? Ruby was going to die tomorrow, to sink selfishly into her icy chamber, waiting for the dawn of a new world to thaw her out. Ruby wouldn't risk her future on the word of a handsome boy, whatever he told her about what was really going on. But she might make a final donation for the chance to bed him.
Please, I thought, staring across the room, willing Diane to hear me and rescue me at last. Please don't do this to me, too.
Ruby followed my gaze, and her tone sharpened. "Why are you looking at her?"
Diane turned away.
My tongue was thick, moving like a sluggish snake in my dry mouth. I made a noise that couldn't be mistaken for words, while I groped for self-control.
I couldn't say an outright no to this woman. I couldn't even be unpleasant in the hope that she'd reject me.
"We could dance," I suggested, my stomach flopping around like a dying fish. I summoned a smile that strove to be playful.
Ruby smiled in return, taking the gesture as compliance.
"There's no music," she said. "We can dance in my hotel suite."
Which was no doubt being monitored by SADU. They'd be recording everything. Did Ruby know? Did she even care?
But I could think of no escape. Even the balcony behind me was too far away. Perhaps inspiration would strike on the way to her rooms.
In the elevator, Ruby leaned against me. She'd drunk a lot of the wine during dinner, but I didn't think she was that intoxicated.
"I'm going to miss my mother," she said.
"I miss mine," I said, unable to keep the sadness from my voice.
"But I won't miss anything else," she continued, blithely ignoring me. "All these boring people, these boring parties . . . I want something new, Abdi. I want an adventure."
And that was what I was to her—an adventure, not a person.
As we moved out of the elevator and into the penthouse suite, her hand slipped under the hem of my shirt, stroking up the plane of my belly. I stared into that beautiful, blank face and wondered if it might not be so bad.
I saw the white bed over her shoulder, lush and soft.
No. No matter what it cost me, no matter what it cost Tegan when I didn't comply, I couldn't do it.
I caught Ruby's wrist. "No," I said simply.
She blinked. "What?" I was guessing people didn't say no to Ruby Simons. "Is this about Tegan? She'll never know. You can keep your little girlfriend; I'll be gone tomorrow. I thought you wanted to have some fun."
My mouth wasn't working properly again. "No. I can't do it."
Ruby leaned in and kissed me.
I shuddered, a full-body rejection that I couldn't disguise, and pushed her away from me, almost violent in my disgust.
"Hey!" she said. "I don't like that. They told me you'd be nice."
And that was it. The dams that kept my anger curbed burst, and rage flushed through my body, hot and roiling.
If I was going to be punished anyway . . .
My fingers bit into the soft flesh of Ruby's arm. "Don't go," I said.
She stared at me, right on the edge of panic. "What?"
"Don't freeze yourself! Don't board the starship. You'll be profiting off slave labor, making money out of human misery. Don't do it, Ruby!"
"But I'll get old," she said.
The former Abdi could have found an argument to persuade her. Appealed to her vanity in some way, made her think about the fame she'd acquire if she tried to stop the Resolution and find a better solution for the dying world. But all I had now was fury and despair, and I was clumsy with it. The last two months' work, of making Diane think I was being good, of trying to lower her suspicions and curb my rebelliousness, had just been utterly wasted.
Only my mother's training could save me now. I was reaching for the answer, grasping for any rhetorical strategy I could muster, when Diane activated the implant and my world exploded into pain.
I hit the floor, the taste of my own blood sharp in my mouth as I writhed. Ruby screamed for help, even as she knelt by me.
"It'll be okay," she was saying, hands frantically patting at my cheeks. "What's wrong, Abdi? Stop it! Stop it now! Somebody help him!"
"Holy crap!" an unfamiliar voice said, and then there were shiny shoes around me as hotel staff and SADU security surrounded me, calm voices soothing Ruby's distress.
The last thing I saw was lavender silk and Diane's angry eyes before my nervous system overloaded with agony. I passed out on Ruby Simons's pretty, pretty carpet.
Pick up a copy of While We Run now!