HOPE HAS A PRICE
Nick Prasad has always enjoyed a quiet life in the shadow of his best friend, child prodigy and technological genius Joanna 'Johnny' Chambers. But all that is about to end.
When Johnny invents a clean reactor that could eliminate fossil fuels and change the world, she awakens primal, evil Ancient Ones set on subjugating humanity.
From the oldest library in the world to the ruins of Nineveh, hunted at every turn, they will need to trust each other completely to survive…
The exceptional debut of Premee Mohamed, for which the term "genre-defying" might well have been invented! – Lavie Tidhar
"Gasp-out-loud astonishing"– Charlie Jane Anders
"A wonderful adventure"– Chuck Wendig
"A galloping global adventure"– Brooke Bolander
"A perfect balance of thriller, horror and humour"– Adrian Tchaikovsky
My earliest memory of her smells like blood.
I remember just enough.
I woke in twilight, a violet dimness, and looked at the hospital bed next to me: reek of dried blood and disinfectant, the unfamiliar profile of a pale girl visible through a clear mask.
They had loaded me with enough drugs to erase my body. I thought: I am a head. I am just a head. A head in a bed.
I suppose they thought it would be monstrous to let a little kid feel that kind of pain.
People used to ask how we met. I would always say, "Our moms are friends. That's how we made friends." Two lies.
That was then; this was now, leerily waiting for her at International Arrivals. These were unfriendly times to be nervous-looking and brown and alone, after what happened last September—those two planes nearly hitting the World Trade Towers, overshooting, crashing into the river. It didn't matter that the hijackers had failed; what had mattered was that they were Muslims. Kids I had known half my life had hurled slurs at me after school—terms for Muslims that I didn't even know, more generic insults that I did. Kids that knew I wasn't Muslim. Who cared, when all you needed to know was that the terrorists had been 'brown'?
And people in uniform had started giving me long, cool looks everywhere I went: mall, airport, walking home from school. News stories about turbaned men beaten at train stations late at night, one kid walking with his hijabi mother shoved into traffic by a jeering group of frat boys at the university while she watched. Someone had spray-painted 'terrorist' on the sides of both a mosque and a synagogue. People were so batshit scared they couldn't even be racist right.
I ignored the stares and tried not to look too anxious as I waited for my best friend to deplane. It wasn't that it was a big deal or anything. Just that she could have gotten a cab or a limo or sent a driver, but instead she had called me after we hadn't seen each other for six months—and I wanted that to mean something again. Like the old days, when we silently denied that she was getting more extraordinary and I was getting more ordinary, and one day our friendship would die out in a way that couldn't be rekindled.
There she was at last, caught in the moshpit at the gate as cameras that I hadn't seen in the crowd began to flash. Goddamn digital cameras that people could fit in their pockets, instead of the big black rigs that you could watch out for. I towed her out and propped her next to a vending machine while the tide of people ebbed around us, so that the reporters had to photograph my back instead of her exhausted face.
"Welcome back, Baby Einstein," I said. "Buy you a Coke? I think I've got a toonie. Or straight home?"
"Home? What's a home? Oh my God, Nick, that flight, no words, not in the English language, maybe in Latin... Can we go get a Happy Meal? Or a Starbucks? God, I could really use a coffee. Or maybe not, I dunno, I threw up like three times on the plane and then I ate a pack of Mentos and Mentos aren't really food food are they, they're almost sort of a, sort of, you could almost use them like aeronautical epoxy to—"
"Slow down for a second, Johnny."
"I said I-think-I-need-caffeine-more-than-I-need-processed-poultry-products-but-the-jury-is-very-much-out."
"You sound like you've literally been drinking nothing but coffee for a week."
"Not a week. Not literally."
"Where's your minder, for Chrissake?" I said. Her assistant Rutger was usually steps behind her. "I thought he was supposed to keep this kind of thing from happening." Being ambushed by paparazzi, I meant. She often managed to sneak in and out, smuggled down airport pedways, through tunnels in strange cities, emerging under her hotel or in university parkades so that people joked about teleportation, when really Ye Shall 'Ru The Day secretly did all that.
"He's coming in tomorrow. We borked up our flights. And don't call him that!"
Back at the car, I cautiously revved the elderly engine and said, "All right, which do you really want, nuggets or coffee? I'm working at noon, I don't have time for both."
Silence. She had passed out, head lolling against the window, her open mouth all pink tongue and razor-sharp teeth, like a cat. Her sleep was so deep that her eyes cracked open, showing a sliver of iris past the lashes. That, too, just like a cat. Not a housecat though. One of the little wild ones.
She roused herself enough to hand me a twenty as we reached the parking kiosks, and then we hit the highway, where the hum of the wheels put her back under. Ever the doting friend, I stuffed a Taco Time napkin under her chin to catch her drool.
Her house didn't smell as fusty and dead as I would have assumed, but then this wasn't her first rodeo; she'd probably had a service in to housesit. The jungle at the front entrance looked springy and green. Johnny staggered in and started slapping random panels on the wall, opening blinds that let in flecked planks of sunlight.
"Go sleep," I said. "Stop fucking with that stuff. You can turn on all the lights later."
"I had an idea, on the plane. A big one. A big one."
Oh no. I knew that tone of voice; insomnia, late-night phone calls, and probably several chemical burns were on the way. "Sleep!"
"I have to get it down first, because there's a—"
"I said sleep!"
"You're not the boss of me!"
"Jetlag is the boss of you," I said. "Call me when you're up, if you ever get up."
"Oh my God. If I don't get up, do you still want me to call you?"
"Correct. Night of the Living Dork."
"Thanks for the ride," she said, already halfway up the stairs, dragging her bag. "There's snacks in the freezer if you want anything. I owe you!"
"Everybody knows that."
Still yelling at each other after all these years. That aura around us both, cursed by our meeting, the smell of blood following us. Or was it? How cursed were we now?
When I got home from work, the noisy house stank of burnt toast, so that for just a second I tried to remember if that was caused by having a seizure or a stroke, but maybe one of the kids had set something on fire in the toaster oven again, which happened so often that the glass was smoked black, like a drug dealer's back windshield. Moreover, they weren't supposed to use it without a grownup around, so the system had failed somewhere.
My sister Carla tiptoed into the kitchen, pale, baggy-eyed. Her Mickey Mouse nightgown was faded into transparency; I looked away. Skinny for eleven. You'd expect her to still have some baby fat, but I think she burned it all off worrying. Funny to see that skinniness and know it's nerves, when you consider how fat some of our family is. Me, I'm turning into a perfect copy of Dad: pencil legs under a slowly developing gut, like a ping-pong ball on toothpicks, even though I know—we all know, we're too polite to say it—I'm not eating enough. All my uncles on both sides back in the Caribbean looked like Dad, and so they looked like me too, or I looked like them. Genetics is powerful, Johnny always says. It's powerful. It fights you—whatever you eat, whatever you do, wherever you live, your genes fight you.
Carla stooped to pop the cabinet lock, digging for something under the sink.
"Hey," I said. "You all right?"
She jumped a foot. "Oh my God! Nicky, you scared me. I didn't see you. I can't sleep. My tummy hurts."
"I think there's some Pepto-Bismol above the sink," I said. When it became clear that she was just going to stand there rubbing her eyes, I forced myself out of the kitchen chair.
She headed back to the kids' room still absentmindedly carrying the pink-smeared spoon, the noise clearly identifiable now as music, broken by the gabble of a radio DJ. God knows it can't be easy for the twins to share a room with their sister, but it's not easy on any of us and the rest of us generally manage not to be shits about it. I mean, what's the first commandment of two adults and three kids in an eight-hundred square foot duplex? That's right: Don't Be A Shit. Oughta be our family motto. Matching tattoos.
I shoved at the bedroom door, which moved slowly: Chris and Brent had wedged it with a chair and a couple of phonebooks. They turned drowsy, round, identical faces to mine from the bunkbed, dark hair fluffed straight up.
"Off. Now," I said, pointing to the radio, blasting No Doubt.
"Can we turn it down instead?" said Brent, reaching for the volume knob. Oh, so it was going to be one of those nights.
I beat him to it and hit the power button, then yanked the plug out of the wall and picked it up, ignoring their whining.
"Sleep. Now. I don't care if it's the weekend, it's way too late for this."
I stowed the radio in Mom's closet, stripped to my undershirt and boxers and climbed onto the couch, so hungry for sleep that I was drooling, like Johnny in the car. Ten hours of stocking groceries is a dog's work—I was exhausted—yet I felt weirdly wired, as if I had just heard a favourite song I hadn't heard for a while.
Was that it? The familiar song of envy and resentment and adoration and excitement of having Johnny back in town? A song I'd heard my whole life in fits and starts, as she flew around for work. She'd missed her birthday (mine too), the anniversary of our meeting, my high school graduation; she'd missed so much.
I'd last seen her at Christmas, and barely at that. I had picked at my plate of caviar and lox while she and Rutger yelled about lecture dates, and all the other party guests, of whom I knew not one well enough to talk to, danced and drank and exchanged presents and air-kissed each other and talked about prions and gravity lensing. At the end of the night Johnny got the caterers to make a package of treats for the kids and that was it. I didn't even get to say goodbye before I left, and she was gone before the new year.
When you miss someone, the best thing is to wait it out till it fades; but the ache had not gone away in half a year, not even lessened. We'd tried to keep in touch—there had been a few phone calls, always her to me. I never knew where she was and could never have afforded to call so far away anyway.
Each time I had imagined her lying on a huge hotel bed, all white sheets and gilt angels, like in a movie, with a decorated porcelain phone, bare feet, unironed dress, her short blonde hair sticking up like feathers, the Coliseum or a medieval castle outside her window. But I never asked if it was true. Too embarrassing.
Nothing new, she always said, yawning down the line. She was tired, the churches were beautiful, Rutger was being ten pounds of crap in a five-pound bag, how do people get married and spend all their time together without murdering each other? Someone had tried to photograph her in the shower in Berlin, her mother had suggested suing the hotel, she had gone to the Eiffel Tower, she didn't throw up, she threw up at the bottom, when she came back she was definitely working on motion sickness drugs, forget cancer or malaria, she had bought two geneticists and a geophysicist and would now splash out more cash on English lessons and facilities for her new people, like putting fresh paint and a spoiler on a used car; the purpose of science, after all, was to make more money to buy more science.
"Your nothing new is waaaay different from my nothing new," I told her.
"New is relative," she said. "Like so many other things. You don't know how big a figure is without a scale bar."
"All I can say is, it sure is quiet around here. I can actually hear myself think."
"Ha ha, and then another ha ha," she said. "I was gonna send you a postcard, but now all you get is my unending loathing."
"I had that already."
"Now you get all of it. Except what I still need for that piece of shit in Berlin."
"God yes. Fucking pervert. I mean who tries to photograph a seventeen year-old in the shower. Sue his scrotum off."
"Oh my God you said a bad word."
"Scrotum is not a bad word and I still want a postcard."
Shouting down the wires, as if we had been standing right there, laughing at each other the way we always did, like donkeys, all our teeth out. Six months. We had never been apart for so long. And I could never tell her how lonely I'd been, for fear of embarrassing us both. The world wanted so much from her; how could I make any more demands?