Epilogue: PUNISHMENT (REPRISED)
“DANE,” AERIN SAID AS SHE BALANCED ON THE scaffolding. The boards felt warm under her bare feet, and the high sun beat down on her forehead. Her hands tapped the rails running the length of the black tube in front of her. The spiral of the Spindle. Unmoving. “I think we may have underestimated Dr. Livinski.”
“What gives you that idea?” he said over the whirr of the handheld slicer as he guided it through the ironite surface.
“That she caught us every time we broke the rules, or that she has us providing her with free labor thousands of feet above the ground.” He curved the Ephesian slicer to the edge and watched the chunk of solid black material fall into the catch basket.
Aerin pulled in the basket, checked the hooks on the pulley system, and let the container sail down toward the ground. She ignored his lame complaint. “The fact that she created a punishment that helps us all.”
“Oh really?” Dane flipped off the switch. The whirr subsided as he hung the lightweight tool on a nearby pole. “And what,” he said, hefting their lunch box onto his shoulder, “is so great about spending our summer deconstructing this spinning death threat?” He grasped the rails of the scaffolding and ascended the side of the spiral, failing to wait for an answer.
Aerin climbed up beside him, securing a perch on the sloping ironite.
He settled the lunch box by the railing and handed her a water bottle. She grappled with him over an apple, lost the fight, and snagged a nectarine instead, then returned to the earlier thread of the conversation. “Well, from Dr. Livinski’s perspective, she gets to have us clean up our fathers’ mess.”
Dane groaned. “I should have known this tube was the brainchild of my father’s insanity.” He took a bite of the prized apple and frowned at it.
Aerin grinned, glad that he could now talk about his father. According to the principal’s grudging admission, the Spindle’s blueprint had been the senior project for her and her once close-knit friends. The simulator had been Emma’s invention; the elevator, Dr. Livinski’s, and Dane’s and Aerin’s fathers were to blame for the moving spiral.
“You know none of them ever meant to place anyone in danger,” Aerin reminded him. “They thought the tube would deter people from trying to enter the Spindle. After all, who would be reckless enough to fly into such a thing?” She ducked as Dane hurled the apple at her.
“As I was saying,” he said, “how does Dr. Livinski’s order to dismantle this deathtrap help us?
“We get to stay here all summer,” Aerin replied. “Neither of us has to find a place to live or a short-term job.”
“Right, because working thousands of feet above the planet’s surface is such a cushy position, we wouldn’t want to give that up.”
Aerin leaned back on one hand and took a bite of the soft nectarine. Its rich juice drizzled over her tongue. She stretched out her bare feet in the sun and let them enjoy its healing warmth for several minutes as she dropped her gaze to the scene below, not the Great Hall or its surrounding lawn, but beyond the outer wall to the mile upon mile of city buildings, parks, libraries, and bookstores—just waiting to be explored. “At least we’re free to travel beyond the Wall,” she said, “all summer long. And we don’t have anyone to supervise our work.”
“You’re right.” Dane drew closer, the shade of his brown eyes changing. “That is a plus.” He leaned forward, hair falling in front of his eyes, and lowered his mouth as though to kiss her.
Then stopped, his eyes asking permission.
The sun’s rays radiated up from her feet, through her legs, her arms, her face. There was no shudder, no chill, no irrepressible desire to flee. She linked her hands behind his neck, pulling his mouth close. And felt the warm taste of certainty as her toes curled beneath her.