A street smart, snarky heroine narrowly escapes a life of imprisonment and finds herself the latest recruit on a team of underdogs heading for an outer space adventure. Sound good? We think so too. Luckily for both of us, we have HONOR AMONG THIEVES!
Co-written by Ann Aguirre (remember ENCLAVE?!) and Rachel Caine, this book puts a new twist on the space adventure story with the Leviathan—a sentient race of alien spaceships. That’s right. Living. Alien. Spaceships. As Zara takes off on her mission, she comes to realize that the partnership between humans and these aliens may not be as harmonious as it seems, and that there may be mysterious dangers lurking in space.
This read combines pulse-pounding suspense with surprising twists. As the beginning of a new series, we already can’t wait for the next installment! You can get HONOR AMONG THIEVES on February 13th, but luckily you can start reading the first two chapters right now!
The Lower Eight
My mark moved with an expensive, high-heeled strut, the kind that said she’d grown up fed with a silver spoon. That tracked with the haircut and outfit that tried to look edgy but just looked money instead. Not much older than I was—eighteen, max. I’d been trailing her for blocks, but she’d never once looked around for trouble.
This one, she belonged in Paradise on the other side of the invisible wall, where the suckers thrived—full of brand-name merch and clean, wide streets. Full of polite good mornings and how are yous.
But she was in the Zone, my Zone: gritty, dirty, the shops full of knockoffs and people Paradise didn’t fit. Like me.
My mark swaggered down the cracked sidewalk and clearly expected others to make way and . . . they did. An old lady hobbling on a walking stick flinched to avoid a shoulder check, and my target didn’t even break stride. The street, she felt, was hers. With a designer bag dangling, she looked like the tastiest score I’d seen in months. She deserved this. Plus, she had to be up to no good, slumming in my neighborhood: the Lower Eight, the only blight still remaining on the ripe peach of New Detroit. We could see the graceful old lines of downtown, preserved and refined, from where I stood. That didn’t mean we were part of it.
Moneygirl seemed to be aiming for a dive a block down. I moved faster, got closer, and before she could dodge inside, I flicked the knife open that I’d been holding ready in my hand. I quickly reached out and sliced the strap on her purse. Hardly a hiss of resistance, and no security cable in it at all. The prize fell into my hands like a ripe fruit, and I kicked off the broken sidewalk to a run.
I raced around the corner and pushed against the side of the building.
“Thief! You’re dead when they catch you!” Good luck with that. Enforcement drones were hard to come by in the Zone because people were always trapping and scrapping. She’d have even less luck finding a human patrol officer. Her shrill cries faded as I bounded over a fence and cut through an alley, high on success.
With this haul, Derry and I could eat and drink for a week. One more week of freedom. I crouched in the shadow of the VR porn studio and wedged myself in to take a quick inventory. It was every bit as lush as I’d hoped—all kinds of tech, some meds that would sell high, and . . .
I pulled out a metallic box. It had a thumb lock on the lid, but that was a fancy’s ignorant precaution; I popped the hinges and got the thing open within seconds. Inside, there was a single clear pack that quickened my pulse. Glittering crystals, flashing multicolored in the weak sun. Some kind of chem. Definitely nothing I’d seen on the street before, but new ones showed up all the time. Might be worth coin. Under that, a slender little data tab. Only a right fool would take traceable tech, so I stuck the chem in my pocket, stashed the metal box with the data tab still in it under some bricks, and bolted.
I crisscrossed twice and backtracked once before darting down a crumbling set of concrete stairs. Constantly glancing over my shoulder, I knocked on a rusted metal door in code reserved for Conde’s clients. A bony hand reached out and dragged me into the den, but I’d done this before, so I just shrugged out of Conde’s grasp and offered him the heavy embossed bag. The leather—real leather!—rippled like silk. Buttery soft. Cash in every inch.
“Make it quick, man. It’s warm,” I said.
Conde didn’t like to be told what to do. He was a skeletal old fence, pale as spoiled milk, gray hair ratty around his shoulders, but he was smart, and he didn’t argue. He shuffled to the counter, which looked like it had been ripped out of a kitchen. That was the only homey touch, though, as electronic guts, glowing screens, and dangling wires covered every square centimeter. His den swam with shadows and smelled vaguely of piss and rodent droppings, but Conde was the best in the Lower Eight, we all knew it.
“Nice,” he grunted. Not a big talker, Conde.
As he unpacked the bag’s contents, one of the wired-up screens on the bench lit with a broadcast, and a woman as flash as the one I’d ripped off smiled at me from the screen. The holo title pulled out and expanded into the room so you couldn’t miss the thing as it spelled out HONORS in spinning, swirling gold. Damn. It was that time again. This was Countdown Season, close to Honors Return.
Ugh. The Honors. I was already sick of hearing about them, and the season had only just started. Sure, when I was little, I believed all the hype about the arrival of the live ships; unlike SF invasion vids, these aliens were good, helped us out with discoveries and knowledge, and healed the planet that we’d screwed up. But one thing I’d realized about the histories they fed me in school: they weren’t the real story. They were polished and half-true at the best.
Earth was still spilling over its banks, Mars could only take so many, and there was a waiting list for the moon, which had basically become a country club. While the Leviathan had solved a lot of problems for humanity, they couldn’t create additional landmass.
The planet was all nice again, thanks to their tech, but it wasn’t like we’d earned our redemption. The Leviathan showed up out of the blue, offering salvation, and asking for volunteers in exchange; they picked a hundred humans a year to ride along in some alleged cultural and scientific exchange. The way the media spun it, it sounded like the Honors spent their year abroad riding unicorns and farting rainbows, and I was sick of the whole spectacle.
Right then, the announcer was offering a boring retrospective. “Thanks to the biotech supplied by these amazing living ships, humans have not only survived a global crisis that threatened to destroy us, but we now have clean energy, safe food and water, and incredible advancements in medical care. We continue to be grateful to them, and excited about the annual Honors selection process.”
His costar added, “Across the board, technological gains have led to the booming space program and the shining beacon of hope that is Mars colony. And speaking of Mars colony, let’s get the latest gossip on what’s hot in the dome!”
And off they went, to another segment that I immediately tuned out. I’d always wondered why nobody back in the day questioned the Leviathan’s motives, but the world was so screwed that it must’ve been like dying slowly in a pit; you don’t ask questions of somebody tossing down a rope. In my world, there was no free lunch, and eventually the bill for saving our world would come due. I could feel it.
Not that it mattered to me. Those were Paradise problems. I’d never seen an Honor except on the vids, and I didn’t care about their magical lives and media-friendly adventures. Let the rest of the world throw parties and consume every bite of the media crap. I just wanted some food and maybe a drink and a place to sleep. I’d lived in their picture-perfect world and I turned my back on it. I’d rather be cold and hungry than trapped and steeped in propaganda.
Not that it was easy to escape it, even here where people rejected most of the alien-driven advancements that made living on the other side of the fence so nice.
I hated nice.
Conde growled and yanked wires to short out the holo. He wasn’t a fan of the show either, I guessed. I could see him tallying the value of each item he pulled out of the bag I’d brought—a brand-new H2, tricked out with shimmery crystals. Damn, I’d never had anything but an old tablet; this was next-gen holo-tech. There was also a nice case of nanotech makeup and some device too new for me to even recognize. When he finished, he named a figure that seemed a little low.
“Are you kidding me? You’ll get twice that just from components.”
“I’m taking all the risks here, kid.”
“I could offer this haul to Gert instead.” That was Conde’s primary competition.
With a little growl, he upped his offer. “Final bid, take it or leave it.”
“Deal.” I hid my smirk. Haggling was just one of the charms the Zone had to offer. Before paying me, he popped open the H2 and snapped the tracking chip. He’d also strip and crack the other devices before resale, but that didn’t concern me. He paid in old money, no longer minted but still accepted by vendors in the Lower Eight. The other roamers would be convening in the squat by now, and I pictured Derry’s grin when I showed up flush. We didn’t mess with e-money in the Zone: too easy to track, and we’d worked out our own system, different values than anywhere else.
Maybe I’ll buy a fifth of something fun before I go home. . . . After all, it was Honors Countdown, right? The Flash were partying. Why shouldn’t we? Better alcohol than chems. Maybe if I got to him fast enough, I could convince Derry to have a drink with me instead.
Three blocks over, an entrepreneur sold rough homebrew out of a leaky still, and it would blur the edges. Waving to Conde, who was already working on the unit to break it down, I let myself out. It was second nature to scan my surroundings to make sure nobody had tracked me, but I’d been doing this a while, and the coast seemed clear. Tucking my pay into my undervest, I sauntered down to Moonshine Charlene’s. As usual, she was sitting on her front stoop in her housecoat, which was more than a little grimy. Came from using her bathroom for business instead of hygiene, I suspected. Her hands were filthy, but the process of fermentation would kill any bacteria, so I didn’t let it trouble me.
“Got anything good?”
“You know it, cookie.” She rose with an audible pop. “You want sour mash, dirty gin, or dry lightning?”
While she went inside to fill a plastic bottle with cloudy amber goodness, I extracted exactly enough coin to get the crew buzzed.
“You look like a dry lightning girl to me. Enjoy.” Moonshine Charlene settled on her porch with a grunt.
Deal made, I hid my contraband in a milky old-days plastic bag. Wasn’t especially worried anybody would try to jump me for it, but I knew better than to tempt fate . . . or other crims. People who preferred life in the Zone to Paradise also tended to make their own rules. Me included.
Ever since I was little, my personal file had been marked with judgments like “violent tendencies,” “impulse control issues,” and “serious problems with authority.” My family had been fractured a long time—my mother and sister had tried hard, but I hadn’t been right with living in Paradise, not like they were. Now they were gone, off to a new life on Mars, and all I had left—if you could call it that—was my father.
Better to think of myself as an orphan.
Currently I was supposed to be banged up in a reform facility learning to be an upstanding member of society, but like all the other group homes, Parkview couldn’t keep me for more than a couple of days. Derry always came, and when Derry appeared outside my window, he meant freedom. And freedom was pretty much all I wanted.
I stopped at a street stall and bought a bag of steamed meat buns to go with the homebrew, and there was still a reassuring jingle of coins in my pouch. More good stuff tomorrow, it promised. My belly growled, reminding me that I’d had nothing but a handful of sticky rice sometime yesterday, but going hungry sometimes was a proper tradeoff since I no longer had people telling me when to run, read, eat, shower, shit, and sleep.
I also no longer had anyone whispering that I was bent and wrong, a failure and a burden. Humming a few bars of a song that had been playing in Conde’s shop, I turned down the cul-de-sac half-barricaded by rubbish bins that led to our little corner of the world.
Something was very wrong in our world. I’d walked up on a face-off.
Derry held a broken board, his pretty mouth curled back in a snarl. His coppery hair shimmered like nanotech magic, and his pale skin was smooth, despite rough living and the chems he couldn’t give up. I knew him, down to the shadows in his eyes, the shake in his hands. He’d scored something while I was gone.
And it was wearing off hard.
A man in a suit stood facing him. Facing them. The rest of our crew—Lo, Timo, JJ—had bottles or blades, but they all seemed wary. Odd, since it was only the one guy. But he wore an expensive Paradise suit, custom-tailored, and I made out the telltale bulge of concealed weapons under the fabric.
One knife too, and maybe a second shoulder holster. This is not good. What was he doing here? He wasn’t slumming it. He hadn’t just stumbled on us, either.
The stranger had deep-set eyes, a prominent brow, and jaw that could crack open a beer. Not a handsome face but a strong one, fearless even. He half turned at my quiet approach. His smile chilled my blood.
“Ah,” he said. “There you are. I’ve been waiting.”
I put the booze and food down; no sense in having it get in the way. As I did, I let the folded knife drop from my sleeve into my palm. Not open yet. I didn’t want him expecting it. “You don’t know me.”
“Zara Cole. You made a mistake today.” The gentle tone contrasted completely with the promise of violence in the man’s flexing hands. “Your last, gutter rat. Where’s the box?”
He took a step toward me.
I didn’t back off. I’d learned fear made you weak if you paid mind to it. But he’d said the box, not the purse. And I was thinking about the broken metal case I’d hidden in the alley, and the shimmering chem in my pocket.
“Get away from her,” Derry growled.
He might as well have been talking to the wind for all the attention the suit gave him. “Do you know what you did wrong?” the man asked me softly.
“It’s a long list,” I said.
The man laughed. “Did you think we wouldn’t come looking? It was easy to ID you. Witnesses tend to be cooperative when you mention Torian Deluca’s daughter.”
Even I’d heard of the legendary Deluca. In the rush to rebuild on the ruins of Old Detroit, he’d come up hungry and ruthless. He’d made billions from strong-arm deals, but these days, he was a legit businessman with a lingering reputation for cruelty. People said he was rich and crazy, but never within the big man’s earshot.
And I robbed his daughter.
I should have known that strutting bitch had never felt afraid a day in her life—for good reason. Daddy’s rep was an invisible shield. But this? It still seemed like an overreaction.
“Yeah? Better call the cops,” I said, and squared my shoulders. Finger on the switch to open the knife.
“Mr. Deluca prefers private justice.”
That didn’t sound so good. I pictured myself tied to a chair, beaten to a pulp. Days later he’d hide my corpse in the foundation of some real estate development. My ass. I’m not going out like that.
It’s five against one. We can fight it out.
This ugly suit was reading my mind, because he smiled even wider and drew his gun. “Drop the knife.”
“Run!” I shouted, and took my own advice, but I wasn’t fast enough.
Deluca’s strongman ignored the rest of the crew as they scattered and was on me before I took three steps. He twisted my arm behind my back, and I went with it, rolling my shoulder so it popped out of the socket. This wasn’t the first time I’d used that trick, and the flash of pain didn’t slow me down. I kicked hard at his knee but couldn’t get the right angle, so my foot raked down his shin. Painful, but he didn’t seem to care.
The guy laughed, digging his fingers with intent to bruise. “I guess you already know how this turns out.”
From behind him, Derry said, “Yeah? You don’t.” He slammed the board upside the guy’s head, hard enough to stun. His face was set like one of the Paradise statues.
The suit let go of me, and I lurched forward, tumbling into a rubbish heap a few meters away. Glass broke my fall and sliced into the skin above my elbow. The stink of rotten food mingled with the coppery tang of my blood. As I stumbled to my feet, the thug charged, and at the last second, I used the wet garbage to skid aside, narrowly avoiding a hit that would’ve dropped me. Rebounding on the wall, I kicked off to a better defensive position while the goon rounded on me.
Derry booted him toward me as I searched for something—anything—to use as a weapon. There was a pile of broken pipes nearby, so I grabbed one and swung for the fences. The impact toppled him sideways and he landed hard on a metal cylinder that speared right through his fine suit. He coughed, tried to breathe, flailed . . . and went still.
He was dead. Really, really dead. The shakes set in.
I won’t panic. I can’t.
The others had already disappeared. It didn’t matter that we’d been together for six months. Survival and freedom at any cost, right? Only Derry didn’t leave. He dropped the board and wrapped his arms around me, not saying a word about how I should’ve known better, even though it was true. I held him hard, listening to his heart.
Stroking my back in soothing sweeps, he whispered, “We’ll hide the body and disappear. Nobody will ever know.”
From Honorspedia, August 21, 2142
HONORS, THE: A program administered by the Worldwide Honors Selection Committee (WHSC, see topic) under the direction of the nonhuman race collectively known as the Leviathan.
Program announced on September 1, 2042, following humanity’s first encounter with the Leviathan at the International Space Station, where the Leviathan rescued ten doomed astronauts (see topic, film, documentaries).
The Honors program a) provides a worldwide database of humans between the ages of sixteen and forty and b) contacts, transports, and trains those selected as Honors each year. Selection of one hundred Honors per year is done by a representative Elder Leviathan. It is unknown what process they use to select these individuals, but statistically, a higher proportion of scientists and musicians have been chosen than would seem probable (see the Lao Formula for detailed calculations). Recently, the Lao Formula has been amended with a new weighting variable to account for an increasing number of outlier selections from nontraditional areas and specialties, including two selections last year of military specialists.
Of the Honors chosen to travel with the Leviathan each year, most—an average of 92 percent—retire from the program after carrying word to their replacement Honors of their selection. The remaining average 8 percent is chosen to, and agrees to, take the Journey (see topic), a lifetime commitment to travel as part of a Leviathan crew.
Although no one knows what occurs on the Journey, some experts speculate that the Leviathan are learning as much from humanity as humanity is from them, and that this may pose a potential security issue for the future.  [unattributed] [marked for deletion]
The Lower Eight
Popping my shoulder back into place wasn’t pretty. I managed not to yelp as Derry twisted and pressed. Once the bone slipped back into the socket, the pain gave me a hard, electric jolt and then subsided. I breathed through it. Like always.
“Good,” Derry said, but I could tell his attention was on the dead man impaled on the pipes a few meters away. “Help me get him off there?”
I was the practical one, the planner, and Derry went to salvage some scrap of plastic big enough to wrap the body. I walked over to stare at the corpse. Didn’t bother me, though it was gruesome.
He provoked us, I reassured myself. Who sends a kill order over a stolen purse?
That made no kind of sense . . . except to a narcissistic sociopath like Torian Deluca. The box might have held his daughter’s personal chem stash or maybe it went deeper, but this was also about his stung ego. By exterminating me, he’d wipe off the stain to his pride and send a message to anyone who might be thinking of messing with his property.
This wouldn’t end like he wanted. I wouldn’t go out that way.
That was what I tried to tell myself. But despite Derry’s apparent coolness, he was still shaky, coming off whatever he’d scored while I was out hunting up our lunch money. I wondered how much he’d spent on his high. And where he’d gotten the coin.
While Derry was gone, I rifled the corpse’s pockets and came up with an H2, late-model thing, encrypted. It didn’t have a simple fingerprint unlock; I tried pressing the dead thumb to it, to no effect. Deluca bought next-level stuff. We can take it to Conde, I thought, but then realized that wouldn’t be smart; Deluca would have real-time tracking on his men, and finding this device would be child’s play. Conde would kill me if I left him exposed like that, and he’d never touch this if he knew how bloody it was. He was probably pissed enough that I’d sold him stuff stolen off a Deluca.
I’d seen him crack enough cases to know the basics, so I grabbed a thin piece of metal—had been a fork once, maybe—and pried the thing open. The chip sat nestled in the center of all those tiny connections, gleaming lush gold. I yanked it out, put it on the cracked pavement, and used a brick to bash it to pieces.
Then I pocketed the device. What Conde didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, and it’d be a waste to destroy such a pretty piece of work. I could sell it later, probably.
The dead man had a fat pouch of old currency coins instead of an e-money card, which I guess wasn’t a surprise; he was a crim, after all. Funny. I was making more off his death than I got off Deluca’s daughter. You killed somebody. You should feel bad about it.
But I didn’t. He’d been a dick, and now he was dead, and that was that.
Derry came back with a tattered but sturdy length of plastic from the dump nearby, and together we lifted the body off the pipes with a nasty squelch. It leaked, but the tarp took care of the mess. I tied it closed around his neck, waist, and feet with scrounged bits of wire and cord.
Swiping the sweat from my face left a smear; I felt the stickiness of blood, breathed in the copper. I’d forgotten about the gash on my arm. If enforcement scans the scene, they’ll find it’s lousy with my DNA. Not that enforcement spent a minute more than they had to out here in the Lower Eight anyway.
“Z,” Derry said then, as I secured the last bit, and I looked up at him. His face was set and pale, and there was a bad tremor in his hands. “They’ll kill us for this.”
“Deluca won’t call in the cops,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter. He sent this snake for you, and he’ll keep coming.”
“Then we run.”
“Where? Where does Deluca not get us?” Derry’s eyes shone bright amber with fear. He’d comforted me at the start, but reaction must be setting in, and he was starting to think about his own chances. Plus, he was coming down; he’d been on and off the stuff as long as I’d known him. For some, that was how they coped with life in the Zone. I never asked why, because in the Zone, the past was a minefield, and some borders shouldn’t be crossed.
I hesitated, considering the chem in my pocket, rich-girl goodies, probably potent as hell. I should give it to him. But I’d been trying to keep Derry off the stuff. But it might keep him focused. You need him steady.
It surprised me a little to be so calm as I analyzed our odds of escape. Damn. Derry’s right. Torian Deluca had a worldwide reach. He was absurdly rich, ruthless, and dedicated. You didn’t get to stand where he did without being willing to commit to the body count.
“I didn’t kill his kid, I just stole her purse! He might let it go.”
“Now?” Derry tilted his head at the body. “You think? That guy sure acted like this was bigger than a snatch and grab.”
He was right. Getting rid of the suit had been necessary, one way or another, but his death opened up a whole new barrel of shit. “We sell his device and use the cash to get out,” I said. “Way out. We’re not on the net anyway. He’ll have a shit time tracking us once we’re off our usual turf.”
Derry didn’t look convinced. I wasn’t either, but it was our best hope.
At last he nodded. “We’ll bury him in the dump. Let’s go.”
Quickly, I found a tattered, filthy rug that someone had set out for garbage collection. While the Zone might not be as surveillance-hot as Paradise, we’d still draw unwanted eyes hauling a bloody, person-shaped plastic package. I rolled the body up in it and then doused the area with the grog I’d bought earlier. If I was lucky, the cheap booze would degrade the evidence.
Since when have you ever been lucky, Z?
“Ready?” I asked.
In answer, he shouldered half the burden. The suit had been a big guy, and dead, he seemed to weigh twice as much. Derry was shaking, pasty, unsteady, but he managed.
Wasn’t pleasant, but we did it, sweating, mouths and noses covered against the stench as we carved out a deep trench in the mountains of trash—we called it Mount Olympus—and dumped the rolled body into it. I’d have scavenged the nice suit, but the pipes had ruined it, along with the blood. I shoved trash over his makeshift grave. In less than half an hour, he’d vanished without a trace.
Time for us to do the same.
Our friends hadn’t come back, but attachments were flexible around here. They could smell danger a mile off, and I didn’t blame them for scrambling. This place would be blown for a while as Deluca sent thugs to search for his man. They might find him in the dump. They might not. But they’d rip apart anybody they found in the area to ask questions.
Better if our crew found new friends. Other holes to hide in.
We were three blocks from Conde’s when I saw the black tail of smoke rising, and a cold feeling crawled up my spine. It can’t be Conde. Everybody deals with Conde. He’s got protection.
Some sinister whisper in the back of my mind said, From Deluca? Nobody does.
Derry didn’t say anything, but we exchanged a look and broke into a run. The streets were strangely bare now; the rats of the Lower Eight knew when to go underground, and they must have sensed real trouble.
Real trouble they had. The entire block of Conde’s shop was deserted, not a single face in a window. The acrid smell of smoke hung everywhere, and something worse.
Derry and I turned the corner and stopped. We just stared at the smoldering hole where Conde’s building had been. Deluca had tracked the purse. He’d probably raided the place, searched it, and not found what he was looking for.
Then he’d sent a drone to make a public statement.
With a shuddering breath, I grabbed Derry and dragged him into the shadows under an overhang. Everybody was off the streets because they’d seen what happened. Somewhere up there, in the low-hanging clouds, the drone might be circling, looking for another target.
Looking for us.
I dug the dead man’s device out of my pocket and threw it hard. My aching shoulder twinged, but the thing flipped end over end, catching the brief glitter of sunlight, and plunged into the inferno that had been Conde’s shop.
Before today, I’d never seen Derry shaken; hungover, high, coming down, strung out, all that, but scared? No. He’d always been cocky and assured, a smooth criminal, confident he could go anywhere and do anything. But looking at this, he knew better. So did I. The problem was, he’d stay. We’d met in my first forced rehab, separated when I got released ahead of him, but when they let him go, he found my house and persuaded me away. Then they sent me to reconditioning, and he came for me again. And again, until finally the last time I’d left, my family had too. For Mars.
The past few years, Derry—flying or falling, chemmed or sober—had been my one constant. He wouldn’t leave me now. Not unless I made him.
I had to make him.
“Derry,” I said. His eyes were dark and bleak, and I took his hands in mine to get his full attention. “D. Time to split up.”
“No.” He said it quietly, but he meant it.
“Listen. You can’t stay with me. Not this time. Maybe this will cool off, but it won’t do it soon.” I squeezed his hands hard, contrasting the chilly pallor of his to the warm brown of mine.
He pulled me close, wrapping his arms around me. We both reeked, but I didn’t care. There was only his trembling body, the fast rhythm of his breathing. He was on the verge of breaking.
“He’s not after you,” I said.
“I helped you kill his goon, Z!”
“He doesn’t know that. All he knows is he sent a guy for me, and the guy died. Derry. It’s on me. I’ll handle it.”
He shook his head. His hair brushed my face, soft as feathers, and I pulled in a deep breath. I had concrete in my soul, but he had a way of breaking it. “You can’t just leave me on my own, Z. It’s Deluca. I need something to cool me out. Get me something?” There was a pleading note in his voice. A bite of desperation under it.
“I can’t,” I said, which was a lie; I had a sweet little bag of chem burning a hole in my pocket. “They’ll have people on the streets, and it’s my face they’re scanning for.”
He pushed me away and paced. I knew the harsh, fast way he moved, the jerky steps, the tic in his cheek. Sometimes, the chem’s burndown left him angry. Now, he was pissed and scared. Bad combination. “I need something. Right now. You did this. You did.” It was rare his anger turned on me, but it had happened before. I’d learned to back off when I saw the flash of it.
“I’m going back,” I said. “To Parkview. They’ll send me to lockup this time. And lockup is way safer.”
I was right, and he knew it. Derry was a street kid; he’d grown up fighting. But this death, it was an important one, life-changing. And he must’ve parsed that before me, back in the alley. Layering that on top of his natural
coming-down paranoia . . . It was bad.
Bad enough that I worried he’d make a mistake. Do something we’d both regret.
“I’ll get you out of there,” he said. “Don’t I always, Z?” He hadn’t let me go yet, but he would. He had to.
“Not this time,” I told him softly. “Don’t look for me. Just look after yourself.”
“I will,” he said. When I turned to go, he moved. He grabbed my arm and spun me hard toward him, and kissed me. That melted me, but then he whispered, “You have to find something to get me through. I can’t—without . . . Get it for me. Please.”
For months, I’d tried to keep him off the chems; it had worked, sometimes. But never when he was like this.
I silently reached into my pocket and pulled out the chem I’d taken from Deluca’s daughter and pressed it into his hand. “Careful,” I whispered. “I don’t know how strong it is. Hell, I don’t know what it is. Just a taste, okay? Only when you need it.”
He took in a gasping breath and pressed his forehead to mine, then kissed me again. Sweet, this time, but it still left a bitter taste in my mouth.
I might never see him again. It hurt like pulling bones out of sockets. Hearts out of chests. But neither one of us were the type to say that or let it show. He lifted his head at a whisper-whir in the clouds; the drone would be one of the quiet models, stealthy. A murder drone. And it was scanning for us. No. For me.
He didn’t let me go. I opened my hands and stepped back.
Leaning in, I kissed him fiercely, and ran.
Heart burning like Conde’s building, I kept to the rat’s maze—covered walkways, tunnels, camouflaged nets that flapped overhead. The Zone residents were always wary of drones, though mostly they were trying to protect themselves from enforcement models, not murderbots. I had military-grade heat on me, so I moved fast.
Parkview Rehabilitation Home was technically in the Paradise part of New Detroit, but barely. It was on the outskirts, within sight of the thick fences of the Zone. You could tell the difference at a glance, a sharp divide between the haves and have-nots. Money and suffocating conformity versus cheap, dirty freedom. The world was largely sparkling these days, orderly and gentrified, but most cities had an underbelly, full of those who wouldn’t—or couldn’t—follow the rules.
Even Parkview, scruffy by Paradise standards, had a cleanly manicured look, with soft grass and trimmed bushes and new paint on the old bones of the house. Sunny yellow and deep black accents on the window and door frames. It looked like luxury to someone like me who dossed in damp ruins and ate sticky, day-old ration rice from street cookers.
Luxury was a trap.
I checked the sky. No sign of the drone; it was probably circling the area near Conde’s shop, and I’d left that a mile back. I was probably okay. I hoped Derry was. He is, I told myself. Derry’s a survivor. He knows how to dodge.
Somebody had repaired the braided-wire fence where I’d cut my way out last time, and judging by the warning sign, the voltage was working again. Closer to the heart of Paradise, there was tighter security and human sentries. Here on the ragged border, we had drones, robo-patrols, and lightning gates.
At first I just hid beneath a sprawling old tree and counted, timing the sweep of the robo-patrol from inside the perimeter. Four minutes, okay. I could work with that.
When the first raindrop hit me, I swore. The deluge splashed the leaves overhead and trickled down to hit cold on my head. I pulled my gray hood up to conceal my face, tucked in my dark curls, and hoped the drone didn’t have DNA sniffing; some did, especially the newer military models.
When the next four-minute interval started, I left the tree and slid into the beating curtain of rain. The air smelled sharp with it, spiced with the earthy tang of mud, and I moved faster as the downpour started to soak through my hood. Parkview’s lights had switched on, and the house glowed warm gold in the gloom.
But I was still on the wrong side of the lightning gate.
Keeping low, I circled the property until I found the drainage ditch. Dirty water poured from the narrow pipe. It wasn’t big enough for me to crawl through, but the earth was soft and sunken. I buried all ten fingers in the soil, hauling it away in muddy scoops. Between the dark and the driving rain, it felt like I was digging my own grave. If I didn’t get inside—to the relative safety of the system—I might have to do just that.
Every four minutes, I flattened and froze. The robo-
patrol wasn’t programmed for nuances, and I needed to be sent to the right facility when I was caught. I trusted Mrs. Witham enough to arrange that.
No telling how long I burrowed, but eventually I had enough room to crawl under. Probably. If I’d miscalculated, I’d fry. Best to count it down.
As soon as the bot passed, I squirmed forward, pulling myself with palms and elbows. There was a spark as I drew my feet out, and I dropped, avoiding the patrol for the last time. When the light passed, I got up and sprinted for the house.
I vaulted the steps onto the porch. It was mostly dry, though there was a leak near the corner that drizzled a silvery stream; it snaked across the concrete and under the welcome mat at the door. It was all sickeningly familiar. I hadn’t spent a lot of time at Parkview, but the smell of the place, the feel of it, was like every other rehab stop.
No, not quite the same. I caught another scent as I raised my hand toward the bell. Vanilla, butter, something light and warm and sweet.
They were making cookies.
The smell sparked memories in an uncontrollable rush. I saw my mother’s face. I hadn’t wanted to think about what this was going to do to her, but there it was. In her last message, she’d looked so tired, and though she’d never admit it, I was the one who’d put those years on her face. She’d fought so hard for me—at university hospitals and research clinics, in and out of rehab. They fined her every time I ran away, and she still hadn’t let go. I was the oldest. I should have been helping her, not constantly adding to her burden.
I closed my eyes for a second, and there it was, the memory of me shattering my family forever. Mom had held my hand, anxious, staring at a document that already had my father’s signature on it. Shaking her head. “I don’t want to do this. Kiz and I, we’re making a fresh start on Mars. There’s a place for you, baby. Come with us. Away from here. Away from him!”
She meant my father, or Derry, or both, and it did sound tempting. New Detroit offered a lottery to all citizens, and the ones picked to join the Mars colony were guaranteed food, housing, job training if they needed it. They’d won the shot. But if I felt confined on Earth, imagine how it would be, living forever inside a snow globe. No amount of security would let me breathe right in that life.
I didn’t tell her about my fears. I just said, “Sign the form.”
She’d wept as she wrote her name, dressed in her Sunday best and a fine hat with silk flowers and delicate lace. She’d given me the freedom I wanted, and walked away, because I hadn’t given her any choice. I’d watched until I couldn’t even see her shadow anymore. Most of my good memories had gone with her. Before the pain, before my family fractured under me, there was Mom and singing and butter cookies and—
Shivering, I shoved away that old weight. I already felt trapped, and I hadn’t even stepped inside. I rang the bell and yanked back my hood as the locks clicked and alarms beeped. Then Mrs. Witham opened the door and looked me over with a cool gaze shaded by cat’s-eye reading glasses. She didn’t need them, really. She just liked how they looked. Like the apron she wore over her clothes, and the way she put her graying hair up in a bun. She thought those touches made her seem grandmotherly.
“Zara,” she said without a smile. “It’s an ocean out there. Come in.”
No where have you been or threats or punishments. Not yet. I stepped in, and it felt like a cage door slamming. I felt short of breath and shaking, and it wasn’t just from the cold and wet that had soaked into my hoodie. Mrs. Witham shut the door and turned toward me. With the dim light, it was hard to read her expression, but I didn’t imagine it would be friendly.
At least she’s not working for Deluca. That was why I’d chosen to be processed by someone who played by the rules. Mrs. Witham might push my buttons with her adherence to rehab policies, but hopefully, that meant she wouldn’t sell me out, either. At the police station there would be more tech, more chances for Deluca to spot me and have me hauled off to his private compound under the aegis of a bogus transfer order.
I could hear other kids—younger kids, kids who deserved a break—talking and laughing as they made cookies. Parkview had a nice kitchen. Warm. Dry. The food wasn’t bad, even if it was cheap and processed. Not like I hadn’t eaten worse. Or not at all.
I said, “Look, you need to send me to Camp Kuna.”
That surprised her, and she stepped forward into the glow of the cheap hall light. It revealed widened eyes behind the cat’s-eye glasses, but nothing else changed in her expression. Not even a frown marred her smooth, dark skin.
“We can talk about this, Zara.”
“I’m trying to keep you safe. Somebody’s after me. Somebody bad. They’ll find me soon and—” And I can’t have this place ending up like Conde’s. I can’t carry that too. “Safer if you get me to rehab. For me and the other kids too.”
The reminder that her other charges were in danger got Mrs. Witham focused. She studied my face for a few seconds, then reached in the pocket of her shirt and pulled out her H2. Punched the emergency alert and put it on the table.
She didn’t even hesitate, and I wasn’t sure if I felt good about that or not. Didn’t really matter. It was what I’d needed her to do.
“Better smash something,” she said. “They’ll need evidence of violence to take you.”
I looked around. She had plenty of nice things here, probably old. I picked up a big vase and looked at her. She said nothing, but I saw a muscle twitch on the side of her face. I put it back and picked up something else, a fragile china plate with flowers etched on it, and saw the minuscule nod.
Then I smashed it into bits against the table it had been sitting on. Sharp fragments skittered all over the floor.
“That enough?” I asked.
She nodded and sat down. From the other rooms, voices had gone to quiet whispers, and I saw a face looking around the corner. Couldn’t remember her name. She’d only been there a couple of days when I left, and I never really cared about their names anyway.
“You okay?” the girl asked Mrs. Witham.
“Keep everybody calm,” the woman replied. “Everything’s fine. Zara will be leaving soon.”
“Thought she already skipped.” The girl had a Lower Eight accent, I realized. Maybe she was a charity case. Or maybe her family had clawed their way up to Paradise before being thrown back on the dumping ground, and she’d hung around.
“Never mind, just do what I told you.”
The girl disappeared, and the door into the other rooms shut, locking us in together.
We waited in silence two minutes or so, until sirens flared and enforcement bots scanned the situation. Then human agents from Camp Kuna arrived to take me into custody.
“Zara,” Mrs. Witham murmured as they fastened my restraints. “Take care of yourself.”
It was the nicest thing anybody who wasn’t Derry had said to me in a while.
BREAKING NEWS REPORT:
Dateline New Detroit | August 21, 2142
Honors Countdown week continues on our twenty-four-hour coverage, with hour-long special features on each of 2141’s Honors as we welcome them back home for their triumphant return. Each of these heroes will complete their assigned duties with the Selection Committee upon landing, which we’re told include rigorous debriefing, medical and mental health checkups, and of course, their assignments to welcome this year’s new Honors. We can’t wait for the dramatic reveals!
Today we’ve already noted the scheduled arrivals of twelve of last year’s Honors, including fan-fave Marko Dunajski and his flight partner, Zhang Chao-Xing. They’ll be restricted from interviews until after the new Honors are delivered back to the New York training facility, but we’re burning to ask: Are they going on the Journey?
Stay tuned to our nonstop coverage to discover the answers, and don’t forget to take our neural test. . . . Are you suited to be an Honor?
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