Authors: Beck Nicholas
Tags: #Science fiction, #teen, #young adult, #space, #dystopian
He’s talking about the weapon. I resist patting my pocket where it’s stored. “I was thinking finders keepers.”
So it might be a twist on disarming Janic and taking it, but I sense that backing down to Keane won’t win me any respect. He’s in charge here and while he might not be able to solve who the hell I am, he’ll be able to tell me what officer versus green robes war I’ve stumbled into.
If the officer who shot at me and Megs outside the warehouse realizes I took the hit but wasn’t hurt like Janic, then ‘the tall guy who doesn’t go down under Q assault’ would have to be in his report. Then they’ll be looking for me too.
“Who sends a kid out armed with a weapon?”
I’m disadvantaged here as it is, in their stronghold with no idea of who I am. I don’t play all my cards at once.
Keane is silent for so long I don’t think he’s going to answer, but then he sighs, and the leader is just a man.
“He wasn’t sent out. He shouldn’t have had access to the weapons.”
No wonder Janic was so nervous and so easily disarmed. He stole it to play with the big boys.
“So I can keep it?”
“For now. But I want some answers. Who are you?”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
He stands, knocking the chair so it smashes against a bench, shattering one of the plastic legs. His hands are fists. My heart thumps. “This isn’t a game.”
I rise to my feet, ignoring the stab of pain in my leg. There’s only a foot separating us but thanks to my height he looks up to meet my gaze. If I want answers I’m going to have to give something in return, but when I say the words aloud it’s harder than I thought.
Just get it over
“I’m Blank. It’s my name and it’s who I am. I woke up yesterday morning with no self. I function, mostly, but I don’t know this place and I have no memory of my life or where I’ve come from.”
Keane blinks but other than that doesn’t show any surprise. “Then you probably really need sleep.”
“No, my turn. Why the raid?”
Keane considers. “Because the game’s our freedom. They don’t control it and they don’t like it.”
“So they want to control everyone?”
“You’ve had your question. Rest now. As interesting as you are, we have people out there missing and I’m needed to help.”
The exhaustion comes over me in a wave so sudden I fear they’ve drugged my food.
But the nap I took hours ago at the gaming bar’s only a blip in a grueling day. “Why should I trust you enough to stay here?” My words slur.
“I’m not sure you have a choice.” When I fold my arms and say nothing he adds, “There are Company people out on the streets. There’s no way you’ll be getting back to the gaming bar anytime soon.”
“Sleep doesn’t give me any answers.”
“You’ll get some answers after you rest. I’ll have Toby show you to a bunk.”
“You have my word.”
There’s no arguing with that, even if I thought I could stay awake to do so.
Like he’s beckoned by some pre-arranged signal, Toby appears in the doorway with some fresh jeans. They match the ones I’m wearing. It reinforces my suspicion that the green robes and the market are somehow connected. The station’s an oasis of life in what looked like a pretty rundown, deserted place when I walked through it with Megs.
“Thanks,” I say. I go to follow Toby, but stumble and have to fight the need to vomit.
He’s stronger than he looks and props me up with one arm as we walk. “The game and
does this to some people. Sleep and you’ll be fine.”
I’ve lost all ability to argue. He opens the third door, revealing a plain room with a single bed against the far wall and a set of drawers beside it. There’s no window but thanks to a skylight I know it’s still dark outside. “You’ll find a blanket in the top drawer. There’s a bathroom across the hall.”
“Looks good.” With the weight of the escape through strange streets, combined with the comedown from the game, it does look good. I can’t wait to take the weight off my aching legs and close my gritty eyes.
But I have a question Toby might be able to answer first. “Has anyone else returned?” I think of the girl victorious in the game before mine, of all those people who spoke to Megs before we played, of the guy I beat.
Toby hesitates in the doorway. “We appreciate what you did for Janic, but if you’re found anywhere in the station other than here or the bathroom, you’ll be shot.” He offers me an apologetic smile and closes the door.
Before settling on the bed, I retrieve the blanket from where Toby said it would be. I don’t change my jeans, unwilling to risk opening the wound by putting material over the top of it. I do reapply the balm, exhaling in pleasure when it completely numbs the area. Logic tells me that sleeping here and leaving myself unguarded is insane, but I’m too weary to stay awake a minute longer.
I settle back into the bed’s soft embrace and close my eyes, making sure the weapon lies within easy reach. All I can rely on here is my instincts. My instincts tell me Keane, while ruthless and maybe deadly, won’t break his word. So far he seems like my best hope for answers and that’s worth the risk.
Besides, what could they do to me in sleep that they couldn’t do while I’m awake?
“I’m sure you have better things to do than come with me,” I say to Davyd as we wait for the elevator to the lower levels. “You could take me down and come back in say, half an hour.”
He shakes his head. “Father might believe the sweet little innocent act but I know better.”
There’s not much else to say. I plan to wait for the right time to ask him for help getting to the Control Room and the logs. The tightness of his jaw and stiff shoulders suggests now isn’t a good time to ask for a favor.
A soft ding indicates the elevator’s arrival. We step inside, Davyd never more than an arm’s length from me. He takes his role as guard very seriously. We reach to press the button for the training level at the same time. My hand slides over his.
He jerks away like I have razor blades hidden in my fingertips. His gaze fixes on the doors. Anywhere but at me.
I think back to the moment of heat between us in the hallway last night. Maybe Davyd wasn’t as in control as I thought. Could he hate me less than he seems? Something like anticipation skitters up my spine even as I reject the notion.
Then the doors slide open and I don’t have time to think. My fellow Lifers look at me as I walk through the hallway toward the sleeping quarters. Davyd’s a glowering shadow behind me but the stir of interest is muted. Fishies don’t come down here, but questioning one isn’t worth the risk.
I ignore them all. The listening device in my palm’s tiny. It couldn’t possibly weigh as much as it feels like.
We pass Kaih near the doorway. She offers me a tentative smile, flashing white teeth. Still here for me if I need her despite my brushing her off so many times the last few weeks. The device in my hand grows heavier.
Back when my whole world was wrapped up in Samuai and our secret romance, I’d be late all the time or forget to meet her. As bad as I feel about it, I don’t regret those captured moments now that Samuai’s gone, but she deserves a better friend. One not carrying in her hand the possible destruction of everything she holds dear.
I send her a message with my eyes and my attempt at a smile.
. But I don’t say the words aloud. Not with Davyd here. I walk past her without a word and fail my oldest friend again.
Think Asher. There has to be some way to warn everyone
I duck to enter the sleeping room. And gag. Lingering body odor mixes with musty damp since the air circulation isn’t at its best down here. Why didn’t I ever notice the smell in here before? The day I’ve spent in the clean, fresh air of the upper level’s made the dank, cramped quarters down here even more depressing.
I look for Mother. Did she worry when I didn’t return last night?
There’s no sign of her tall, svelte shape among the Lifers gathered at the sinks or in the one or two small groups talking quietly on the beds. My search becomes more frantic. If she’s in the training rooms or swapped shifts with someone, I’ll have no hope of giving her a message.
I’m deliberately clumsy as I walk the route between the beds to Neale’s area, glad he’s nowhere to be seen to earn me a lecture about proper behavior around my betters. I gain a few more seconds to think, or more accurately panic.
“Get your things, inform your mother, and get a move on,” Davyd says a pace behind me.
I reach my area and fumble for a bag or something to put my clothes in. I try to draw it out, but the task is over far too quickly. I rise to my feet. “Mother’s not here.”
Davyd grunts. “Too bad.”
I know what he’s thinking: his task was to chaperone me down here and ensure I plant the device for his father. It doesn’t matter to any of them whether I actually get a chance to speak to my mother and let her know I won’t be back for the foreseeable future. It was only ever a cover story. But it matters to me.
“Kaih,” I call. Davyd steps close behind me so that I feel his breath on the back of my scalp. A prickle spreads across my skin. It’s a warning. A reminder he’s here.
My oldest friend’s at my side in a moment, eyeing Davyd with suspicion. “What’s up?”
I hoped she might see me with Davyd, worry, and linger nearby just in case I needed her, but the actuality of it makes my tongue thick with emotion. “Where’s Mother?”
A perfectly valid question
Kaih frowns. “Elex should be back by now.”
I’ve delayed all I can. I offer Kaih a tight smile. “Thanks.”
She gets my conversation-over tone and walks away but not before I’ve seen the concern she can’t hide in her eyes.
Davyd’s hand grips my elbow, firm but not hard enough to hurt. He forces me to face him. “Get it done.”
I nod. Like I have a choice. He releases me and I move toward the end of my bed. I fake a stumble. My momentum lands me in Neale’s space where I use his bed frame to drag myself up. And leave the device behind.
I close my eyes for a second. There’s no going back now.
“Asher?” My mother’s voice, but warped almost unrecognizably high-pitched it carries out across the sleeping quarters. “Is that you, darling?”
Darling? That’s a new one. Must be for our visitor. “It is me, Mother.”
She hurries between the beds and I move to meet her halfway, feeling Davyd follow. I need to get away from the device and think of a way to warn Mother. It’s going to be pretty difficult with Davyd close enough to hear every word.
When she embraces me I notice dampness on her back and strain in each breath. Kaih must have run to find her while I planted the device. Mother presses me close and her heart races against my own chest.
I open my mouth to tell her and feel Davyd’s hand on my back. He’s too close.
“I’ve been asked to stay on the upper levels with Lady,” I explain loudly.
Her eyes narrow at the woman’s title but she manages to keep her response to the expected worries of a parent. “For how long? Will you be allowed to visit? I’ll miss you.”
“I’m not sure.” I glance over my shoulder at Davyd but he shrugs. I guess the whims of his mother are as mysterious to him as they are to me.
My mother asks some more questions I don’t have enough answers to and lectures me on good behavior. None of my words are the warning I need to give her. I’m hoping we get a little time before Davyd escorts me back to the upper levels since the whole pretext of our trip was seeing my mother.
As I listen, I’m thinking. How do I get Davyd far enough away from us to be able to speak to Mother undetected? It’s not like I’ve ever been able to vomit on command and I saw how he was with his mother, a fake collapse wouldn’t bother him at all.
What bothers Davyd?
I flash back to the elevator when I touched him unexpectedly.
trouble Davyd sometimes. There’s a connection between us that he likes about as much as I do. And he’s always strange when I remind him of my relationship with Samuai.
It’s the barest glimmer of a plan, but launch it, I have to try something.
With perfect timing Mother, perhaps recognizing I need a delay, goes on about how I must always present myself in neat and clean attire when dealing with the Fishies.
I clap my hand over my mouth. “Oh my, you’re right.”
“I am?” Mother sounds a little surprised.
“I wore this top to sleep in last night. I should change it.” I immediately start to dig in my bag for a replacement.
“Lifer.” Davyd’s voice holds a warning.
As though I’m unaware of his tone I turn so I’m facing him. His arms are folded across his chest and there’s tension in the veins in his shoulders revealed by his tight black training tank top, a match for the one of Samuai’s I’m wearing.
“It won’t take long,” I promise, allowing a small, embarrassed smile to play on my lips.
My fingers grip the lower hem of my top and the tank beneath. I meet and hold Davyd’s gaze. His gray eyes appear black in the shadows but they’re fixed on me. The room around us fades. The tug of awareness zaps between us. Usually, I’d look away to hide from the intensity of him, but not this time.
The flesh of my lower lip is tender under the onslaught of nervous teeth. The pain gives me courage. Focus. Down here there is no privacy and no point in attempting to change anywhere but in the open.
I lift my left hand a little first, then my right. A slow reveal of the bare flesh of my midriff. Davyd’s gaze drops to my skin and then returns to mine. Hot. Challenging. I lick at dry lips. I lift my hands higher still.
He doesn’t look away. Heaven help me. Is that appreciation in his eyes?
I’m holding my breath, trying to remember the point of what I’m doing. Distracting Davyd, driving him away. That’s right. The future of everyone I care about depends on this working.
I lift my hands high enough to reveal a hint of bra. A curve of breast. His smile is satisfied. All male.