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Author: Michael Grant

Series: Gone #6

Genres: Science Fiction , Young Adult

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ONE

88 HOURS, 39 MINUTES

THE LITTLE GIRL’S hair caught fire. It flamed magnificently, for she had her mother’s lush dark hair.

Sam fired again, and the little girl’s flesh burned at last.

But all the while the girl, the gaiaphage, its face turned away from onlookers, stared at Sam in undiminished fury. The blue eyes never looked away. Her angelic mouth leered in a knowing grin even as it burned.

Gaia had started a fire in some twigs that Diana had gathered. It wasn’t much of a fire. It would die out soon, and Diana would sleep, again, on the cold ground.

There had been a moment, two days earlier, when Diana might have gone to Caine. Caine had been with Sam, and she could have broken away from Gaia then and run to him.

Maybe Drake, Whip Hand, could have stopped her if she had tried that. Maybe Gaia could have as well. But for some reason Gaia had kept Drake from killing Caine, and then, seconds later, Sam had burned Gaia with his deadly light and . . .

. . . and right then, Diana could have run to Caine. She had wanted to.

Had she stayed with Gaia out of some new maternal instinct? Gaia had cried in genuine, terrifying agony from the burns. She could be hurt. She had been hurt.

Yes, Diana thought now, too desperate, hungry, cold, that had been part of it. Gaia was her daughter. What an impossible idea! Gaia had been created inside Diana’s body, egg and sperm, Diana and Caine, the world’s oldest story. And when Gaia was born in pain and blood, Diana had felt a connection. It had been good, that connection. It had been reassuring, because Diana had not been sure she would feel it. She had not been sure she was capable of feeling it. The connection meant Diana was human, that she was a woman, that she could feel something for the baby she had delivered.

That there was, despite everything, some hope for Diana.

But she had also felt fear. Gaia was a beautiful baby girl when she was born. She would be beautiful again, no doubt, when she finished healing herself of the deep and terrible burns that had turned her skin into something that looked like the top of an overcooked lasagna. (Gaia seemed unconcerned with all that.) But she would never be just a girl, the daughter of Caine and Diana. Because there was a third force, greater than egg and sperm and womb. Greater even than a mother’s love.

Gaia was the creature of the gaiaphage. The gaiaphage had taken her. It had brutally suppressed whatever slight, tenuous personality the baby might have had, and it had imposed itself. Diana had seen it and had cried out against it, but the gaiaphage didn’t care. It didn’t care when it was a seething mass of green seeping across the floor of a deep cave, and it didn’t care now that it was a girl with half-healed burned flesh and hair only now growing back, staring into a fire.

“Nemesis,” Gaia whispered, not for the first time. Like she was whispering to a friend.

Diana’s daughter was never going to love her. She’d been an idiot to even imagine it, to even dream of it.

But maybe . . .

Maybe what? Maybe what? Diana taunted herself, as pitilessly judgmental with her own self as she was with others. What ridiculous hope are you holding on to, Diana? You know what she is. You know she’s not yours, not really yours. You know she’s not a “she” but an “it.”

But so pretty by firelight. Imagine, Diana tortured herself, imagine if she was really just a girl, your daughter. Imagine what a miracle you would see in her. Imagine how you would feel, Diana, if this beautiful girl was really yours.

Yours and his.

A beautiful, perfect little girl . . .

A dark and terrible creature.

“It won’t hurt, my little Nemesis,” Gaia said, but not to Diana.

Would Diana once again let herself be swept along in the wake of an evil person, first with Caine, now with Gaia? Was impotent snark all that Diana had to offer in opposition?

During her abbreviated pregnancy she had allowed herself to fantasize about being a mother, a better mother than her own. She’d pictured herself becoming a good person. She could do that, she’d told herself. She didn’t always have to go on being what she had been and what she had become.

She could have been saved.

“The end is the best part of any story,” Gaia whispered, talking to no one that Diana could see. “The end.”

Diana had imagined redemption, forgiveness, a new beginning as a young mother.

But she was mother to a monster who cared nothing for her.

“I don’t make good choices,” Diana whispered as she lay down in the dirt and wrapped her arms tightly for warmth.

“What,” Gaia snapped, looking up at her.

“Eh,” Diana said with a sigh. “Nothing.”

Little Pete was getting littler. That’s how it felt, anyway. He could feel himself sort of shrinking, and he wasn’t so sure it felt bad. Maybe it was a relief.

Life had always been strange and disturbing for Peter Ellison. From the moment of his birth the world had attacked him with noise and light and scraping touch. All the sensations that were easy for other people to make sense of were terrifying and overwhelming for him. Other people could filter things out. Other people could turn down the noise, but Pete could not. Not while he’d been in his body.

That body had been the problem. The severe autism that had crippled him had been in his body, in his physical brain.

It had been a relief to be out of that body and brain. When Astrid, his sister with the cutting blue eyes and the yellow snake hair, had thrown him to his physical death, he had been . . . relieved.

Pete had been able to create a new thing for himself, a new place that was not a body. He had carried his power with him, but with that power he had made terrible mistakes. He saw that now. He saw what he had done to Taylor. He could no longer do things like that; he could no longer play with the abstract patterns that were actually human beings.

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