The Thousandth Floor (The Thousandth Floor #1)(4)


by Katharine McGee

“You’re back, it’s a special occasion!” Avery exclaimed.

Leda took a deep breath and smiled just as their hover pulled up. It was a narrow two-seater with a plush eggshell interior, floating several centimeters above the ground thanks to the magnetic propulsion bars in its floor. Avery took the seat across from Leda and keyed in their destination, sending the hover on its way.

“Maybe next year they’ll let you miss it. And then you and I can travel together,” Avery went on as the hover dropped into one of the Tower’s vertical corridors. The yellow track lighting on the tunnel walls danced in strange patterns across her cheekbones.

“Maybe.” Leda shrugged. She wanted to change the subject. “You’re insanely tan, by the way. That’s from Florence?”

“Monaco. Best beaches in the world.”

“Not better than your grandmother’s house in Maine.” They’d spent a week there after freshman year, lying outside in the sun and sneaking sips of Grandma Lasserre’s port wine.

“True. There weren’t even any cute lifeguards in Monaco,” Avery said with a laugh.

Their hover slowed, then began to move horizontally as it turned onto 307. Normally coming to a floor so low would count as serious downsliding, but visits to Central Park were an exception. As they pulled to a stop at the north-northeast park entrance, Avery turned to Leda, her deep blue eyes suddenly serious. “I’m glad you’re back, Leda. I missed you this summer.”

“Me too,” Leda said quietly.

She followed Avery through the park entrance, past the famous cherry tree that had been reclaimed from the original Central Park. A few tourists were leaning on the fence that surrounded it, taking snaps and reading the tree’s history on the interactive touch screen alongside it. There was nothing else left of the original park, which lay beneath the Tower’s foundations, far below their feet.

They turned toward the hill where Leda already knew their friends would be. Avery and Leda had discovered this spot together in seventh grade; after a great deal of experimentation, they’d concluded it was the best place to soak in the UV-free rays of the solar lamp. As they walked, the spectragrass along the path shifted from mint green to a soft lavender. A holographic cartoon gnome ran through a park on their left, followed by a line of squealing children.

“Avery!” Risha was the first to catch sight of them. The other girls, all reclining on brightly colored beach towels, glanced up and waved. “And Leda! When did you get back?”

Avery plopped in the center of the group, tucking a strand of flaxen hair behind one ear, and Leda settled down next to her. “Just now. I’m straight from the copter,” she said, pulling her mom’s vintage sunglasses out of her bag. She could have put her contacts on light-blocking mode, of course, but the glasses were sort of her signature. She’d always liked how they made her expression unreadable.

“Where’s Eris?” she wondered aloud, not that she particularly missed her. But you could usually count on Eris to show up for tanning.

“Probably shopping. Or with Cord,” said Ming Jiaozu, a suppressed bitterness in her tone.

Leda said nothing, feeling caught off guard. She hadn’t seen anything about Eris and Cord on the feeds when she checked this morning. Then again, she could never really keep up with Eris, who’d dated—or at least messed around with—nearly half the boys and girls in their class, some of them more than once. But Eris was Avery’s oldest friend, and came from old family money, and because of that she got away with pretty much anything.

“How was your summer, Leda?” Ming went on. “You were with your family in Illinois, right?”

“Yeah.”

“That must have been awful, being in the middle of nowhere like that.” Ming’s tone was sickly sweet.

“Well, I survived,” Leda said lightly, refusing to let the other girl provoke her. Ming knew how much Leda hated talking about her parents’ background. It was a reminder that she wasn’t from this world the way the rest of them were, that she’d moved up in seventh grade from midTower suburbia.

“What about you?” Leda asked. “How was Spain? Did you hang out with any of the locals?”

“Not really.”

“Funny. From the feeds, it looked like you made some really close friends.” In her mass-download on the plane earlier, Leda had seen a few snaps of Ming with a Spanish boy, and she could tell that something had happened between them—from their body language, the lack of captions under the snaps, most of all from the flush that was now creeping up Ming’s neck.

Ming fell silent. Leda allowed herself a small smile. When people pushed her buttons, she pushed back.

“Avery,” Jess McClane said, leaning forward. “Did you end things with Zay? I ran into him earlier, and he seemed down.”

“Yeah,” Avery said slowly. “I mean, I think so? I do like him, but …” she trailed off halfheartedly.

“Oh my god, Avery. You really should just do it, and get it over with!” Jess exclaimed. The gold bangles on her wrists glimmered in the solar panel’s light. “What are you waiting for, exactly? Or maybe I should say, who are you waiting for?”

“Give it a rest, Jess. You can’t exactly talk,” Leda snapped. People always made comments like that to Avery, because there was nothing else to really criticize her about. But it made even less sense coming from Jess, who was a virgin too.

“As a matter of fact, I can,” Jess said meaningfully.

A chorus of squeals erupted at that—“Wait, you and Patrick?” “When?” “Where?”—and Jess grinned, clearly eager to share the details. Leda leaned back, pretending to listen. As far as the girls all knew, she was a virgin too. She hadn’t told anyone the truth, not even Avery. And she never would.

It had happened in January, on the annual ski trip to Catyan. Their families had been going for years: at first just the Fullers and the Andertons, and then once Leda and Avery became such good friends, the Coles too. The Andes were the best skiing left on earth; even Colorado and the Alps relied almost exclusively on snow machines these days. Only in Chile, on the highest peaks in the Andes, was there enough natural snow for true skiing anymore.

The second day of the trip, they were all out drone-skiing—Avery, Leda, Atlas, Jamie, Cord, even Cord’s older brother, Brice—falling from the jump seats of their individual ski-drones to land on the powder, cut a line through the trees, and reach back up to grab their drones before the drop-off at the glacier’s edge. Leda wasn’t as strong a skier as the others, but she’d swallowed an adrenaline drop on the ride up and was feeling good, almost as good as when she stole the really good stuff from her mom. She followed Atlas through the trees, trying her best to keep up, loving the way the wind clawed at the contours of her polydown suit. She could hear nothing but the swish of her skis through the snow, and, beneath it, the deep, hollow sound of emptiness. It struck her that they were tempting fate, hurtling through the paper-thin air up there on a glacier, at the very edge of the sky.