Chapter 1

THE LANTERNS and gaslights flickered in the rough, cold winds, casting lively tricks of light and shadow all around. Dev hugged his wool cloak tighter around his neck. He despised deck duty on bleak evenings like this, when the cold bit like winter—though in reality it was still autumn. But no one was exempt from a shift at the helm, not even Dev, for all he was the captain of this scout airship. He couldn’t wait for Stork to relieve him so he could retire to his bunk for the night and dream of… impossible things.

The two-story airship was small enough to enable him to peek at the earth below while manning the wheel. The sun had set moments ago. The horizon still blazed orange, but the land beneath was pitch-black. No lights anywhere.

Dev harrumphed. No people anywhere. Not since the Cataclysm.

The door to the cabin opened at Dev’s back, and someone stepped out, audibly protesting the chill. Dev knew whom to expect without looking.

“Good evening, Shay,” Dev said, a half smile curling his lips.

The young man grunted. “What’s so great about it, Captain Endeavor?” In that moment, Shay sounded nothing like the shining sunbird that had given him his chosen nickname. In fact, his current disposition was the opposite of sunny and shiny.

Dev shrugged, mostly to aggravate the young scholar he liked to tease. “Beautiful sunset, cool winds, smooth sailing. What’s not to love?”

Shay inched closer to the railing, back to Dev, trembling under his thick but far too small cloak.

He was slender and short, with shoulder-length wavy blond hair, a few strands of which had escaped the ribbon he had used to tie back his tresses. Tresses? Dev briefly considered choosing another word, even in thought. Could one call a man’s hair tresses? Well, one word fit as well as the next—for a man with a limited vocabulary.

Dev mentally compared himself to Shay, imagining what the two of them looked like side by side. Where Shay was small, Dev was big, robust, muscular, and hairy, dressed in coarse clothes that barely fit his massive size. He kept his wild black mane cut short, hating when it obstructed his sight and tickled the sides of his face, and his beard neatly trimmed to keep his chin warm without irritating him.

Shay wore simple but elegant clothes. His father must have been wealthy back in the day, for Shay had grown up on a sprawling estate with access to food and clothes sufficient to provide for him in a newly inhospitable world.

Dev had not been as fortunate. He’d grown up in a shelter with dozens of other children like him, lost souls who had not been reunited with their families. But he had never allowed his misfortune to overwhelm him. Whatever strengths and virtues his parents had bestowed upon him, Dev had utilized them all to become the man he was today—an airship captain in his own right.

Shay peered at the countryside below, his brow furrowed. “Anything?”

“Nothing.” Dev shook his head even though Shay faced away from him. “What did you expect? Candlelight vigils? Burning cities?”

Shay seemed unwilling to rise to the bait. As he leaned cautiously over the railing, his expression remained glum, almost yearning. “Both. Neither. I don’t know. Something. Anything. Proof we were here once.”

Dev heard what Shay left unsaid. Here before the Cataclysm. “It’s been twenty-three winters. If there was anyone else still alive, the scouts would have found them by now.”

“I don’t know,” Shay said slowly. “It’s a big world out there. Earth, I mean.”

That, at least, was true. Dev scanned the darkening horizon with no small amount of anxiety. From maps made before the Cataclysm, it was clear the world had grown small in those days, every nook and cranny discovered and occupied. But now it was all unknown again.

Wracking his brain, Dev sought the elusive memories of before. But nothing other than a vast black emptiness lay where his memories should have been.

Sighing, Dev wished he recalled even a glimpse of his life before he awoke as a nine-year-old boy in a room full of other children, all as distressed and at a loss as he. Later he learned the building was called a school. But his lost memory provided no connections to the word.

No one’s had. Their past? Erased from existence.

Shaking himself out of his gloomy reverie, Dev said, “You weren’t even born when the Cataclysm happened. Why did you sign up for this expedition?”

Shay regarded him over his shoulder, silent and solemn, but also curious. “Why not? The world is as unknown to me as it is to anyone else. I may have been born to a world that had lost it all, but I have the same questions buried within me as you do.”

Dev turned the steering wheel an inch to the left, more on instinct than at the advice of his sextant or compass. The big helium-filled balloon above him billowed, the thick fabric rippling slightly as the breeze brushed against it.

When Shay turned to observe him, Dev sensed his eyes on him. “Do you know how to read?” Shay asked.

Dev nodded without looking at Shay. “Yes. I was still able to learn. I was young when the Cataclysm happened. Older folks weren’t so lucky.” He still remembered how hard reading and writing had been after he’d found himself sitting at his school desk, awake but with no memory of what had come before. The odd squiggles in books and on the schoolhouse walls meant nothing to him. But over time he’d managed. “Speaking came easier, though.”

Shay smiled ruefully. “I understand. Humanity might have forgotten everything from before, but pride remains. Older folks have found it hardest to adjust, I think, having to endure the embarrassment of being taught how to talk, read, and write by the younger generations.”

This was nothing new as far as Dev was concerned. “Time and tide wait for no man.” He’d read the quote on a piece of paper in a library when he’d seen seven winters after the Cataclysm. It seemed appropriate to describe how the world did not stop even though humans found themselves at a standstill. Pure as the driven snow they’d been.

“We all had to learn new skills,” he commented dryly.

Shay snickered. “Every skill was new back then. Thankfully, we have advanced since then, I think.”

Another truth. Nothing had worked back then, so humanity had to rebuild from scratch, to start anew. It had been hard. Heck, it still was. Maybe in a century….

Dev decided it was high time to change the sad subject. Talking about the Cataclysm depressed him. Unless they could all travel back in time—which they couldn’t—it was worthless contemplation of what would never come to pass.

“So where are we heading again?” Dev knew the answer, but he longed to speak about the future, not a past that no longer mattered.

Shay swiveled, scanning their surroundings with his sharp eyes. “A small coastal town by the name of Innsmouth.”

“Right.” Dev shivered for some reason, chills going up and down his spine.

“Yes. Innsmouth, Massachusetts.” Shay pronounced the last word very slowly. It was a complex word, with lots of hissing sounds. Most uncomfortable. Dev wouldn’t have even tried such a ridiculous-sounding word, known only thanks to maps in schools, libraries, what used to be government buildings, archives, and post offices.

Shay’s eyes glowed as he successfully managed to enunciate the difficult word. Dev liked that look on him and smiled.

Swallowing hard, Dev squelched the silly feeling inside him. Even when he had woken after the Cataclysm, he’d felt different. He liked other boys. Well, mostly. Sometimes he liked girls too. But more rarely.

The newspapers discovered after the Cataclysm spoke of a harsh world where those who liked their own sex were regarded poorly and violently, with bigotry and prejudice. But no one could remember why that hatred had existed, so like many other things, it was put aside in favor of rebuilding a global society. Sort of. Shelters and hovels were the most people could manage to build these days. The majority of people lived in the big cities, where defenses had been constructed to protect people from the growing wilderness.

It had been hard when nothing worked. In huge cities, they were surrounded by odd devices that didn’t function. Machines, they were called. Some of these machines had buttons, levers, and toggles, but pushing, switching, or flipping them did nothing. So they too were abandoned in favor of relearning the basics—how to talk and interact, how to find food, water, and shelter, and if there was a way to determine who was related to whom.

It had been a chaotic time.

Sometimes Dev couldn’t believe over twenty winters had passed since then.

“You’re brave,” Dev said, hoping Shay would look at him again. “I know it’s not easy to be out here.”

Shay snorted without glancing at him, and Dev swallowed his disappointment.

“As if it is any easier in other places. Canal City, for instance. Billions died in the upheavals after the Cataclysm. The surviving populace of a few million had nothing, and life is still a struggle. Yes, there’s shelter and safety in numbers, but there’s a shortage of food, water, clothes, medicines, pretty much every bare necessity. Out here… it’s serene and wild. You know, quiet.”

Dev was about to point out it was the calm of the grave but bit down the words. He’d come to view all the traveling the scout ships engaged in as a hopeful endeavor, which was why Endeavor was the name he’d chosen for himself to replace the forgotten name he’d been given at birth. He still believed in a brighter future.

Despite the fact nine out of ten places they had visited in the past ten years had turned up empty and abandoned, ransacked, or destroyed—decimated graveyards.

He still had faith, even if he’d most likely spend his days alone, without a warm body next to him in the dead of night, without someone to call his own, to love and be loved by.

He sighed inwardly and stared at Shay’s unmoving back, both of them silent.

“Did you see if Stork was up?” Dev asked finally, needing to hear Shay’s vibrant voice in all the lifelessness surrounding them.

Shay snickered. “Sleeping in the galley with a bottle of moonshine. Again.”

“Where the heck does he keep finding new places to hide those infernal things?” Dev shook his head, grumbling under his breath in dissatisfaction.

Admittedly Stork was much older than any of them. He’d probably seen more than fifty winters in his forgotten lifetime. But he had signed up for this mission of exploration, so he had to contribute along with everyone else. There were only the five of them—Dev, Shay, Malia, Stork, and Wren. They all needed to pull their weight.

Shay looked back at Dev, grinning. “Shall I go and wake him up? I’ll be ever so gentle.”

Dev chuckled. “I’ll give him a boot up his ass if he doesn’t show up soon.”

Shay’s smile slowly faded, and his blue eyes got a faraway look, glazing over. “We’ve been out here for a long time, haven’t we?”

Dev had to admit that was true. This was his and Shay’s seventh trip together in the past two winters. Less of a success story than one might assume. “Yeah.”

After that he ran out of things to say. Probably because he wanted to say so much but didn’t dare. He liked Shay, and they were friends. Shay was one of the few friends Dev had. Talking about feelings and such would only break their amicable relationship.

Still, he tried once more to change the subject to shake his melancholy mood. “What do you think we’ll find in Innsmouth?”

He didn’t ask if Shay believed they would find people alive there. Most towns and villages were a mess, with the panicked remnant of their residents in hiding. Worse were the places where the darkness within men reigned supreme and death hung heavy over the blood-soaked land. Barbarism had risen again. Murders, thefts, and rapes were commonplace for people who had no knowledge of anything better, only instinct, want, and need to guide them. During the first upheavals, that was all they’d known. Thankfully things had improved since then, if only by a smidgeon.

“I hope at the very least we’ll find libraries intact. We need books now more than ever. Perhaps then we can figure out how to work machines—and what went wrong.” Shay’s optimism lifted Dev’s spirits.

“Have you read many books?” Dev asked, curious. Shay must have because he was an acknowledged scholar, which was a fancy word for someone who could read and understand what he read. Being able to recognize the alphabet and words didn’t equal understanding.

Shay smiled, happiness evident on his face. “Yes. I’ve read 314 books.”

Dev whistled low. “That’s three hundred books more than I’ve read.” A somber mood came down upon him. “At least that I remember.”

Shay slipped away from the railing to stand at Dev’s side. His smile was encouraging. “Most people have only read a handful of books. It’s nothing to feel ashamed of. Libraries are few and far between, and paper books even rarer.”

Dev frowned. “I’ve heard talk among the scholars that people before used weird contraptions to store and gain knowledge. Oh, I can’t remember what they’re called.”

“Com-pu-ters.”

Shay enunciated the word perfectly, or so Dev liked to believe, appreciating the soft, sweet cadence of his voice. Briefly Dev imagined how wonderful it would be to wake up to that voice crooning in his ear. Then perhaps Shay’s warm, adept hand would inch lower, past his abs and navel to his—Dev visibly shook the ridiculous notions out of his head. This hopeless crush would do neither of them any good.

“Yes, those things.” Dev nodded firmly, wanting Shay to see him as smart too, even if he hadn’t read hundreds of books.

“That is what we assume,” Shay said, sounding skeptical. “Since the parts inside all of the ones we have studied are completely burned, singed, or exploded, there’s no way to know. But the manuals speak of vast amounts of knowledge stored in them.” He sighed, frustrated if his tone was anything to go by. “But we can’t get any of them to work.”

Over time, scholars—the younger generations—had learned that the devices required something called electricity. But since all those devices had burned, it seemed electricity was a dangerous route to take. Trying to recreate and harness electricity didn’t seem the best course of action, so people had turned to steam power. That, at least, they could control. Some machines could be converted to work on steam, and airships had proved their best, most useful invention, given the importance of transportation. But many gadgets had to be completely reinvented, and the appliances of old abandoned or reutilized as scrap metal.

Shay swayed a little, attesting yet again to his lack of sleep. The young scholar was an excitable sort who preferred to work instead of rest.

“When was the last time you’ve slept through the night, Shay?” Dev asked, annoyed that their sole source of knowledge on this voyage was practically dead on his feet. “You need a good night’s sleep.”

Shay pursed his lips in fake irritation, his eyes dancing in mirth. “It’s too cold in the cabin.”

Dev rolled his eyes. “Then put more wood in the brazier.” He liked that word. Brazier. He’d learned it from a book, and found it pleasing. Sometimes words evoked a certain feeling inside him. That word whispered of warmth and flames and safety. He couldn’t recall why.

“It’ll be a long, chilly night still until we reach Innsmouth,” Shay complained good-naturedly. “Unless we find survivors, we might not land before then. I don’t want to burn all of our firewood reserves into cinders.”

Dev scoffed, a lopsided grin on his lips. “We can make emergency stops to replenish our supplies. No one is going to watch over our shoulders how we spend time out here as long as we get the job done.”

Shay smiled, his dimples showing. “You’re always so practical, Dev. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” Then he rose up on his tippy-toes, kissed Dev lightly on the cheek, sauntered toward the cabin door, and vanished inside.

His heart beating almost out of his chest, Dev touched the spot Shay’s lips had brushed against. Dev’s face was roughened by the harsh weather they encountered flying high, but his skin… yes, his skin remembered.

A kiss. Shay kissed me.

Suddenly Dev felt feverish, a fire burning inside his body, in his groin.

When Dev and Shay had met three winters ago, they had become friends immediately. But soon, for Dev at least, it had become more. Every morning, his first thought had been of Shay. Dev couldn’t wait to see Shay’s eyes dance with mirth at Dev, his sweet smile rising on his lips, his contagious enthusiasm, his bright eagerness, and his endless kindness. Days when they were apart were gray, sad, and pointless. Dev’s whole life these days revolved around Shay.

That single spark had grown into a wildfire. Those feelings would engulf Dev in the end, burning his heart and body to ashes. Shay’s kiss, an act of friendship alone, didn’t help matters.

Now Dev feared he might never be able to live without that touch for the rest of his life—with Shay so close and yet so far, quite beyond his reach.

Shay can never be mine. Not with… Malia onboard. She’s a dream come true for any red-blooded man. And despite his youth, Shay is a man. A man who loves a woman.

Dev closed his eyes, a deep, sorrowful pang in his chest, hollowing him out.

“…what are all these kissings worth if thou kiss not me?” Dev mused in silence. Whoever this Shelley person was, he sure hit the nail on the head.