Authors: Beck Nicholas
Tags: #Science fiction, #teen, #young adult, #space, #dystopian
What really happened to Zed and Samuai?
Why would the head Fishie lie about it?
What does Lady think a slave can do what she can’t?
Fear settles in my belly like a stone. Heavy and hard. I am not going to be able to work out any of this without help. All my allies are in the lower levels of the ship. While I think Lady is on my side, the madness could return at any moment. My only option is Davyd.
Davyd, who—even as he saved his mother—said he wouldn’t help me. Davyd, whose touch skitters awareness across my skin. Davyd, who I argue with every time we speak. Somehow, without letting him know my true purpose, I’ll need to ask for help.
I have no reason to trust Davyd, not personally, but he’s not hiding how important his mother is to him. And she asked me to find out about Samuai. Maybe if her questions are answered she’ll be able to grieve properly, and then the clear-eyed woman who visited me in the night will return and stay.
I don’t care about Lady. Not really.
Samuai, Zed, the rebellion. For them I’ll get to the Control Room. Whatever it takes.
Sitting in Samuai’s room, it’s hard to escape the fact that he’s gone, but I dreamed of Zed. A simple memory of playing hide-and-seek when we were children. Waking to the knowledge I’ll never see him smile or hear his too-loud laughter again made my eyes sting and heart ache, but I have to be strong.
There’s a knock on the door.
“Come to breakfast.” It’s Davyd.
My already stretched nerves wind up to a breaking point. “Coming.”
I open the door with a thumping heart, but the small hallway is empty.
I’m supposed to be here. I’m invited
No matter what Lady says, I’m a trespasser here. I’ll never belong. A sharp tug of longing for my life and family below digs beneath my ribcage. When will I get to see them again?
My hand shakes on the kitchen door handle. I push it open. My heart stops. Davyd and Lady aren’t alone. The head Fishie has joined us for breakfast.
“Come in,” he says. His puffy face wobbles in what I guess is a jovial smile. His hair looks like a furry animal was laid to rest on his scalp. This man has the power to order all my friends and family cremated on a whim. He executed my father for mutiny.
I bow my head in obedience. “Sir.”
His laugh is like slime dribbling down my spine. “Call me Huckle.”
I hope the sound I manage is taken for agreement. Does no one here remember the generations of class divide? I step forward. One step, two. And I sit on the chair he indicates.
Do I act like servant or guest? I clear my throat that panic seems to have swollen shut. “How can I help?”
Lady raises her hand to stop me before anyone else speaks. “You’re our guest.”
My Lifer uniform makes a joke of her assertion, but I don’t dare argue. I should have prepared for the head Fishie’s presence, but I forgot about him amid the drama of Lady’s collapse and late night visit.
I eat the food put before me. Part of my brain registers it’s delicious but mostly I’m preparing for what my breakfast companions will do next.
Lady’s back to happy crazy. Light and airy, she twitters about nothing to fill in the silence. Davyd’s silent. His glare rests equally on me along with the others and I wonder what new thing I’ve done to annoy His Royal Fishie-ness. But the person I’m most aware of is Huckle. He’s studying me like one of the samples from a new crop down on the farm being tested by the workers.
At the end of the meal, I’m permitted to help clear the table and load the dishes into the chute for the kitchen.
“Leave us now.” Huckle’s command cuts through the silence. I head for the door, but his hand comes down heavy on my shoulder. “Not you.”
Lady is gone in a blink but Davyd takes his time. The look he shoots me is full of something. There’s the usual disdain for my station, the sullenness of earlier, and there, just before the door closes, a flash of sympathy.
My nerves solidify to dread.
I do as ordered. At the same time, I try to read his face. His is a face that has nothing of Davyd or Samuai. The bloated cheeks, fat lips and upturned nose remind me of the pigs from the Earth recordings, animals that died out before one generation had passed on board. Is he angry?
He sits next to me. The expression ‘too close for comfort’ suddenly makes a whole lot of sense—and that’s from someone raised in the cramped Lifer quarters where physical privacy is only a dream.
I resist edging away.
He leans in close. There’s a sour note to his breath. “I know about the new rebellion.”
Somehow I don’t choke or cry out or faint or react at all. On the outside anyway. “What rebellion?”
His clenched fist slams into the warm wood of the tabletop. “Don’t play games with me, little girly. You know what happened the last time your people tried to take control of the ship.”
I try not to flinch. What would my mother do in this situation? She’d be silent, stoic, never break. As sure as I know this, I feel that Huckle would hate her for it. And because he’d hate her, she’d find out nothing.
I need him to keep talking. He doesn’t have to sit me at his kitchen table with his family to punish me. So he must want something else. I mentally cross my fingers and do what I haven’t dared to since mother informed me of Zed and Samuai’s passing. I cry.
Once I start it’s easy to let the hot, salty tears flow. I taste my grief on my lips and pray that wherever they are, the dead boys will understand my show of emotion. I keep it to gentle sobs, like I’m trying to be strong.
It works. Huckle’s chest puffs and he sits straighter. There’s a satisfied slant to his mouth. “Get control of yourself,” he says with scorn.
I hiccup and fake bringing the tears under control. “Sorry, Sir.”
His waved hand dismisses my words. “Of course we have spies planted in the lower levels, but you are uniquely placed to give us information.”
Spies? How could a Lifer betray the rest of us? Who? More importantly, what have they told the Fishies?
If our masters know about the rebellion, then as leader, my mother’s in terrible danger. My heart squeezes at the thought. I will not lose someone else.
My brain races with a million terrified questions before I remember my act. “I just don’t want anyone else to get hurt.” I make sure there’s a tremble in my voice.
He nods as though he expects my answer. “Weak. I thought so. Your avoidance of the training rooms told us you’d be the right person for this important job. We know Neale was groomed to take over from your father.”
“How did you know?” I don’t have to fake shock. Whoever’s reporting to the Fishies is deliberately misleading them. Mother’s the leader. Our staff captain’s more like an old woman than a rebel. He’s more concerned with us servants fulfilling our duties in the traditional fashion than inciting change.
Mother’s role has not been compromised.
“We have sources,” Huckle continues. “This’s what you’ll do. Under the pretext of visiting your mother, you’ll plant a listening device under Neale’s bed.”
Now I understand what he meant by me being well-placed. Neale’s bed’s only one over from mine. I guess the cameras set above the screens in the Lifer quarters could monitor activity. They’ve been in disrepair for years but no one’s bothered to use the limited supplies to repair them. It’s only this generation that there’s been a plotted rebellion.
“I’m scared,” I say softly.
This time the pat on my shoulder is more of a rub. The hint of dampness from his clammy hands through my thin top makes it hard to keep down the small amount I managed for breakfast.
“If you fail, or the intelligence we receive from the device suggests you warned them, we’ll kill your mother.”
He speaks so matter-of-fact that it takes a few seconds for my brain to process the threat. My relief that they don’t know Mother is leader of the rebellion evaporates. In its place bubbles blind panic.
If I don’t deliver the device she’ll be killed. But Neale isn’t leader. Even with a hundred listening devices planted on Neale, they will learn nothing.
And she’ll die.
I don’t exaggerate the heaviness of the burden he’s given me. My head drops to the smooth surface of the table and rests there. Maybe if I move quickly when I plant the device I’ll have time to warn Mother.
I look up but don’t dare to meet his blue eyes in case he sees the fight in mine. “I-I’ll do it.”
He stands and slides a small clip across the table. “I’ve arranged with Lady for you to be released from her duties this afternoon. To make sure you comply with my orders, Davyd will accompany you.”
Huckle leaves but I don’t see him go. I’m too busy rubbing at the pain building in my neck. Tension makes the muscles so tight I’m afraid I’ll snap. With Davyd for company there’s no way to warn Mother.
And I need to get his help in order to keep my promise to Lady and fulfill the task I set myself when Samuai and Zed died—find out the truth.
Now I have two missions. Either one could get me or people I care about killed.
The game’s speed is insane, even with my enhanced focus. The ship’s an extension of my body. I fly and evade and fire and dodge and don’t have time to think.
There’s a lull in the aliens and I circle up high, using some metal debris as cover. A ship moves into range. I fire, squeezing with my left hand.
I must have hit a weak spot, or maybe it was already wounded, but the side of the ship splits open, exposing bare, vulnerable feet. The ship free falls, bouncing off rocks and debris on its way to the ground. My mouth dries. Were they Megs’ feet?
I’ve been so caught up in the game that I didn’t think about Megs being my competitor.
I pass low over the shattered ship. There’s a three on the hull. Not Megs. But the next one might be. I rise back into the main game space with some of the joy missing.
Everyone here chose to play
. But the thought doesn’t wipe away my fears of being responsible for hurting someone else. For fun.
The next wave of aliens stops my musings. In between, I fly mainly to avoid. Hanging back lets me observe. Megs isn’t merely good, she kicks ass. Every time she has a chance to take a clean shot she nails it and her flying of the clunky ship is damn near graceful.
After the third wave of aliens it’s just the two of us left in the air.
Can I take her down to win?
An image springs to mind. Megs on the stretcher. Bleeding because of me. The second of distraction leaves me open and Megs takes the shot. I jerk my knees up and chest down to roll but it’s not enough. I’m hit. Pain shoots from a cut above my eyes and I blink away blood. The seal I noticed when I was getting in is skimmed and catches alight. The flames distort my readouts and I’m flying half blind.
My legs are warm. Then hot. Then holy crap the fire’s through. Pain. White-hot and tear-inducing, it bites into my right knee. I smell meat cooking. Me. My stomach revolts but part of me manages to keep flying. Anything not to get hit again. I fire indiscriminately while I scan the half-lit display. I saw something. Where was it? Where. Was. It?
Slamming my head back releases a fluid through the ship. I groan aloud when it reaches my leg and brings instant relief. The pain isn’t gone but it’s not spreading. I grit my teeth and drag my mind back into the game. Get it finished, then get some treatment.
I could give up. Land. Pretend I’m too injured to continue. My brain rejects the notion. It’s one thing to lose but I can’t give up. I won’t. The solution is simple. I must win.
The ship’s less responsive than before and it takes me a few seconds to locate Megs. She’s up high, almost hiding. Maybe I was lucky enough to hit her. Good. The better to end this thing.
I head up. The relief from the fluid’s short lived. It stopped the fire but sweat from the pain dribbles down the side of my face and I blink it from my eyes. I can’t afford to muck around with tactics. I fly straight for Megs. All guns firing. The plan is straightforward. I’ll hit her before she hits me. It works.
I land a few seconds after her and have to wait a frustratingly long time to check she’s not hurt. The damage to my ship means it takes a few minutes for the tech guy to cut me out.
The hatch cracks open and his grinning head fills the space in front of me. “You won, bro,” he shouts. “You didn’t just win but you beat Megs.”
Is that awe in his voice? A flush of triumph dulls my pain. “Is she okay?”
He chuckles. “She wishes she didn’t bring you along.” He finishes undoing the harness and hooks a hand under either shoulder, then hesitates. “Any injuries?”
There’s a stab of pain in my leg like the question reminded it to hurt. “A burn.”
He jumps off the ship, inspects, and then comes back up. “That’s a good one. Nothing for it but to rip you out. I’ll make it quick.” He gives me what looks like a sweet. I place it in my mouth and feel a pleasant numbness flow through my body. “One. Two.”
There’s no three. Just the agony of tearing my thigh from where it has melted and fused with the interior of the splintered ship.
With the tech’s help I manage to get to the ground and then use the side of the ship to support my weight. My unburned leg shakes and the burned one…The material of my jeans is mixed with bubbling flesh, blistering before my eyes. I swallow hard to keep the liquid I drank earlier in my gut and look away fast.
“You missed three,” I growl.
“Better to get it over, bro.”
He’s probably right but that doesn’t make me any less pissed. Or steadier on my feet.
“Nice win, need a bucket?” It’s Megs and she’s grinning.
I fight to keep my upset stomach under control. She wasn’t kidding about the motion sickness. “I’ll be fine. Great game.”
She shrugs. “Haven’t lost one in a while. I’ll be wanting a re-match.” There’s challenge in her words.
“Must have been beginners luck. How come you can walk so easy?”
“Experience.” Her gaze sweeps over my leg. “Better get you cleaned up before you meet your new fans.”