Bones

 

Chapter One

The Genetic Revolution began after the destruction of Earth. In the century after humanity was scattered to the stars, those colonies that could maximize the genetic potential of future generations were the ones that survived. Genetic manipulation, so long Earth’s greatest taboo, became the only way to ensure the long-term preservation of the human race.

The human genome had been sequenced and decoded long before war tore the planet apart, and it was only a matter of time before those who escaped turned their sights to the very code that made them human. They studied and tinkered, and in the end stumbled upon a number of genetic combinations that would maximize society’s collective chance at survival. Each of the preferred combinations contained among them genes most likely to foster intelligence, social cohesion, and stability. These genetic predispositions were further ingrained and expressed with rigorous nurture programs. Genes that coded for autoimmune diseases, neurological disorders, and other traits seen as undesirable, were suppressed.

In the end, the seven “presets” were created – seven stable, pre-populated human templates that would fill seven desired niches in society. No two children were the same, given natural mutation post-conception, but all bore obvious similarities, and all underwent rigorous training specific to their type from infancy through early adulthood. The program was a massive success, and is seen as the single greatest contribution to the rise and dominance of Arvun Cristi in the post-Earth age.

 

- The Rise of Arvun Cristi, by Heinrich Strauss

 

Fifteen-year-old Augustus Hale pulled himself from the wreckage of the downed cruiser, gasping for breath. Darkness surrounded him, and for a heart-pounding instant he thought the crash had blinded him. He raised a hand to his head, and then gasped as pain raced up his side. His chest was tight, and a hot stickiness plastered the right half of his shirt to his body.

Lacerations – possible rib fractures – can I breathe?

He sucked in air and immediately coughed it back out again. The ensuing burst of hacking doubled him over and flipped the switch of his vision, allowing him to make out hazy, indistinct shapes through the thick black smoke that stung his eyes and burned his throat. Searching for fresh air, he knelt to the ground and brushed a hand across his forehead; it came away thickly smeared with a muddy mixture of soot and sweat. His chest ached, and a rattling wheeze followed every breath.

He gritted his teeth and probed beneath his jacket. A list of symptoms in red lettering ran down the right side of his vision, generated by his bionic eye.

Moderate lacerations; contusions; possible fractures; excessive smoke inhalation –

The downed ship sparked threateningly. Augustus threw himself to the side and covered his head with his hands, but it was a useless gesture. With a boom, a wave of blistering heat plucked him from where he lay and tossed him through the air.

Some synapse short-circuited in his brain, and his thoughts scattered. When they came back to him, he was on the ground. With a grimace of pain and still more coughing, he sat up and brushed off a layer of dirt and leaves. Adrenaline drove him to stand, and so he gathered his shaking feet and pushed himself upright.

The blast had thrown him clear of the billowing smoke, and he found himself surrounded by a wall of trees that looked like enormous, crooked buildings. Wild grass grew beneath his feet, astonishingly green in the late afternoon sunlight, and rich black soil smeared his sooty palms. Humidity squeezed him from all sides, so different from the ventilated air of Arvun Cristi, and aside from scraps of the downed ship, there was not a single piece of metal in sight.

Sudden vertigo clutched him, and he fell to his hands and knees. He almost retched, but slammed shut his eyes and breathed through his nose to hold back the bile. The feeling abated long enough that he dared to look at the world once more, but as soon as he cracked his eyelids he again felt sick. Nothing looked right, nothing flowed into anything else. It was all crooked, bent, curving – even the straight lines of the trees that towered above him were broken by bursting flowers, twisted vines, and smoking burns.

Burns… from the crash.

The ship – where’s the ship –

He turned back, trying to find it, trying to find some piece of Arvun Cristi he could latch onto, but when he finally caught sight of it, a cold wave of dread swept over him.

The jumper lay like a ravaged animal, its belly ripped open, almost torn in half. The long, sleek body had survived the initial crash intact, but the fuel cells had blown once the fire had reached the rear compartment. A hollowed-out hull, scorched and twisted, was all that remained. Smoke billowed up into the crystal blue sky of the planet, almost obscuring the floating city orbiting above.

Augustus’s mind reeled, and this time the vertigo was so intense that he couldn’t hold back. Bile rose up in his throat, burning and choking him, and he turned away from the sight of his home to vomit across the alien grass at his feet.

Grass… there was only one place with grass on the whole planet.

The Rift. I’m in the soldamn Rift.

Disjointed pieces of memory came back to him: racing into the jumper when the breach alarms went off; hoping desperately that he wouldn’t be sucked into space; knowing that his only chance of survival was to find a way inside. He shouldn’t have been there, mother had always told him never to go to the shipyard –

But why had the breach alarm gone off? What had happened?

He grabbed his right arm with his left hand; heat emanated from beneath the organic mesh skin. The bionic limb was running internal diagnostics, checking major systems for malfunction. It must have woken him when he’d blacked-out after the impact, which was a good sign – it meant the BCI was still intact and functioning.

He twisted his right hand to expose his inner forearm. As he did, the skin pulled back automatically, revealing the manual input panel beneath.

The screen was blank.

Fear welled up in him. If the sleeve was broken, he was alone, with no way to activate his comms system or pull up a location map.

The Rift. I’m in the soldamn Rift. Are there even maps of the Rift?

The full scope of his predicament pierced the thick veil of shock that had cocooned him. His skin crawled, and his breath came in short pants. He recognized the signs of a severe panic attack just as his eye began to reel off his biometrics, the symptoms marching down the right side of his vision only increasing his anxiety.

Elevated heart rate approaching an excess of one hundred and sixty-five bpm; breathing too shallow leading to over-saturation of the bloodstream; loss of fine motors skills imminent –

The sleeve’s blank screen blossomed with light, and the BlackHat OS image appeared. The Balthazar Industries insignia came next, superimposed over it, and then a progress bar that slowly began filling from left to right.

Restarting. The system had crashed, that was all.

Relief washed over and through him. As long as the WhiteSleeve was functional he could communicate. An odd electric tingle pulsed through the back of his mind as the BCI reset, booting up to connect his brain to the bionic arm and the various chips implanted throughout his body.

The organic mesh skin closed seamlessly over the manual interface, resealing itself. He tried to cup his fingers, and they responded sluggishly. He refused to let himself panic, though: the sleeve had the ability to self-clean when shut down improperly, and maybe it was simply doing the digital equivalent of some furious mopping. Still, the WhiteSleeve was only a prototype… could it be permanently damaged?

His fingers abruptly leapt together, and he managed to take a full, calming breath. He thought toward the sleeve – a trick it had taken the better part of a week to figure out – and thin slits appeared beneath each of his nails. The skin pulled back and repositioned to reveal tiny projectors that ran down the center of each finger. Thin red beams pulsed out, wavering and adjusting until all five were focused on a single point, and then snapped off. The projectors themselves turned on, and a small, holographic image appeared over his palm, ghostly white.

He thought again toward the WhiteSleeve; the blank image shifted and blurred. The more external of the two comms chips embedded at the base of his right ear vibrated to tell him he had connected to the satellite network orbiting the planet. The chips relayed the image he wanted to the sleeve, and the projection over his palm became a tiny full-color replica of the city floating in orbit above him.

Arvun Cristi – his home.

A thrill of anticipatory fear raced through him before turning quickly to surprise and confusion. The city-station was… fine, or at least appeared to be. It was exactly as it always had been – a thin, flat disc with a long spindle below that pointed toward the planet, and the city itself rising in waves above, capped by a dome of artificial atmosphere. The projection made the city look tiny, like a child’s spinning top, but as Augustus shifted his gaze up to the sky, peering through the thin film of atmosphere and smoke, the sheer size of it awed him. He had seen images, of course, had learned all about the city’s creation, but he had never been outside of it, never seen it for himself.

It loomed in the sky like an enormous moon. The planet Spes had a natural moon, Opis, in deeper orbit, but from here Arvun Cristi dwarfed it. The city was tilted to point toward Salus, the central star of the system, and therefore granted Augustus a perfect view of what should have been a disastrous atmospheric breach.

But the dome was fine. Nothing was out of place.

He blinked hard, trying to think. It didn’t make any sense. He’d heard the alarms, they’d been all throughout the city. Response teams should have been mobilized. What had happened to his parents? Had they been inside? Everyone was taught from birth that to be caught outside in a dome breach meant death. If it had been a false alarm, though… but no, it had to have been a breach. There had never been a false alarm in the whole history of Arvun Cristi – Type Ones monitored the system around the clock.

Having trouble controlling his panic, he looked back down at his hand and thought toward the sleeve. The panel on the inner side of his forearm slid open again. He typed furiously, and as he did the hologram shifted.

The projection zoomed in on the dome, and with a rush of mingled relief and anxiety he realized he’d been wrong; there was activity. It was only centered on one spot, though, at the very apex of the dome, and the small, single-person ships sent to examine the breach were… moving away.

He looked back up at the sky, squinting in an effort to see through the smoke that had clouded the pristine air, but he couldn’t distinguish any details. It just didn’t make sense – the alarms were only in place in case the unthinkable happened. Types Ones had designed the city’s prediction algorithms themselves, making them nigh on infallible. If a foreign object had been in-bound, automatic adjustments should have been made so that the object would have bounced harmlessly off the atmospheric field.

Had something slipped through a hole in the calculations? Was there a bug someone hadn’t caught?

Metal shifted and screeched behind him.

He dropped the hologram and threw himself to the ground, covering his head with his hands. The screeching came again, but no explosion followed. He looked up from where he lay at the base of a tree draped in arm-thick vines – a tree! A living, planted-in-the-soldam-ground tree! – and glanced back.

A new figure emerged from the wreckage, pushing against a sheet of dislodged metal paneling that had trapped it inside. With a heave, the newcomer threw the obstruction aside, hacking and coughing as it did. Yet more smoke poured out of the hole, and the figure staggered forward and resolved into a teenaged boy scrubbing his hands across his face in an attempt to clear his tearing eyes.

A shot of adrenaline ignited Augustus, and his training took over. He rushed forward, already raking his gaze over the new arrival. His bionic eye began listing diagnostics line by line along the right side of his vision:

Burns on left shoulder, first degree; patient holding right side, possible rib injury; staggering but bearing weight, check right knee and ankle –

The ship shifted, and a threatening hum filled the air. He had just enough time to dive out of the way, pulling the other boy with him, before the pent-up explosion cracked through the air. It rushed over them, knocking the wind out of their lungs and driving them into the ground.

Stars winked across Augustus’s vision as he gasped and choked for breath. He flopped onto his back and tried to steady himself, forcing his heart rate down. When he finally managed to catch his breath, he sat up. Ringing filled his ears, muffling all other sound, but he confirmed that all of his limbs were in their proper places and felt a small rush of relief.

The explosion had ripped the ship into rough thirds – the front half here, the back half there, and the center strewn all over the narrow valley in a hundred pieces. Trees leaned drunkenly all along the crash path, broken and tilted where they had not been ripped from the ground entirely. Small fires smoldered in the grass, though the air was so humid that none of them had developed into a blaze.

Again, hazy memories of the events leading up to the crash flashed through his mind: the ship starting on its own; the doors slamming shut; the autopilot engaging and flying them down through one of the docking platforms; a flash of green as they disengaged and shot straight for the surface of Spes....

And the other boy. He jumped in when I did.

He looked over at his fellow passenger and saw him staring at Augustus with a fierce, evaluative gaze. Eyeing each other warily, they both rose to their feet. They were within a year of each other, that much was clear, but the other boy was taller and full of thin, sinewy strength that showed through the sooty remains of his standard issue clothing. His thick sandy hair was so tousled that it stood on end like a keratin halo above eyes an astonishing electric blue.

“Are you all right?” Augustus asked. “How do you feel?”

“What are you doing here?” the boy replied.

“I – the ship… ”

The boy looked him up and down in one quick flick of his eyes.

“Who are you?” Augustus asked.

“Jack,” the boy said, his eyes standing out against his sooty skin like stars in deep space. His tone and gaze were wary. “Who are you?”

“Augustus Hale, Type Two Preset.”

The boy’s eyes narrowed.

“Hale,” Jack said. It wasn’t a question, but Augustus answered it anyway, confused.

“Yes.”

Jack’s expression flickered. It happened like a sudden eclipse, Augustus’s confirmation passing over him and blocking out the light. His eyes darkened first, and then the darkness spread to the rest of him like a drop of ink on fresh paper. His brow furrowed, and his lips thinned into a tightly pressed line. Augustus was confused – no one had ever looked at him like that before, looked at him with something like hatred, so sharp it could almost cut.

“Hale,” the boy repeated. His upper lip twitched.

A distant throbbing broke the tension. They turned as one to see a shape emerge in the distance, over the top of the hill that had halted the jumper’s skidding crash.

A ship, making its way toward them.

“Damn!” Jack said. He rushed toward the ruined jumper, moving with surprising speed even as he coughed and wheezed from the exertion.

“Wait!” Augustus said. “Wait – it’s still dangerous!”

The other boy didn’t listen. He plunged back into the smoke, and Augustus was just able to make out a flurry of movement near the navigation console. Jack removed something and stuffed it into a cleverly concealed pocket sewn to the inside of his tattered red and black jacket – Red and black? What family wears red and black? – and then rushed back past Augustus, ignoring him completely. He ran toward the slope of the hill and began to ascend, only held back from a flat-out sprint by the steep incline and his still-inhibited breathing.

“Wait – where are you going?”

Jack neither replied nor halted. Cursing and wondering if the boy might have suffered head trauma in the crash, Augustus launched up the slope after him. His side throbbed with pain every time his right foot hit the ground, but the bleeding had stopped and his breathing had eased. He agreed with the diagnosis his eye showed: severe contusions, light lacerations, no fractures.

Lucky, he thought, shooting a glance back over his shoulder at the wreckage. Both of us, lucky to escape...

He slowed, and then stopped.

The insignia of Balthazar Industries stood out in the afternoon light on a twisted piece of metal paneling. Long burn marks marred the chipped paint, but the “B.I.” over the bionic arm was unmistakable.

We just crashed a B.I. ship.

But before he could bring himself to contemplate the full gravity of the situation, something else caught his attention: the thick trees at the other end of the valley had begun to shift and sway.

A spike of fear jabbed through the floor of his gut, cramping his stomach. The cracking, snapping sound of the burning wreckage, the whoosh of the billowing smoke, and the deep throbbing hum of the approaching rescue ship all seemed suddenly very far away. He had been worried about the crash, about pulling himself from the wreckage, and then about the other boy; but now the true danger had arrived, the true terror.

The Rift had not been made for humankind.

The trees shook more violently, accompanied by the steadily growing sound of heavy footfalls that penetrated the shocked silence of his mind. Fear, raw and primal, squeezed him from every side, spurring him to action. He turned and ran, not daring to look back even when a high sucking sound, as of air pulled down a wet hole, joined the solid, vibrating percussion of the footfalls. He heard trees crack and topple, and their impact made the ground jump as he continued up the slope of the hill, pushing his already burning legs for every last bit of effort they could muster, knowing that his only hope was the approaching ship.

In his haste, he stumbled and fell sideways, catching himself on a rock outcropping just before he fell face first into the dirt. From behind him came the sound of a massive limb impacting solid ground – a deep muffled thump – and with it a shrieking cry that made his hair stand on end. He turned against his will, and found himself staring at a nightmare.

The creature was larger than most buildings. A dozen multi-jointed limbs sprouted from its back, covered in skin an offensively bright scarlet, and it had no head to speak of. It did have two immense forelimbs that ended in black claws, and hundreds of short legs that scuttled its gargantuan weight across the ground. Its thick, hairless skin was covered in sticky mucus that glistened in the light of the sun, and as it advanced the creature opened a circular orifice in the middle of its torso to reveal row upon row of needle-like teeth leading down a slimy corridor that ended in darkness. It seemed to swell, taking in air, and then it rent the air with another horrible, screeching bellow.

Visceral terror propelled Augustus the rest of the way up the hill. He scrambled and threw himself forward, all the while fighting to fill his lungs as his pounding heart swelled to take up extra space in his chest. He dug his boots deep into the rich soil for purchase and pulled out clumps of rock and grass as he scrabbled for handholds. Jack was above him, cresting the summit. What would they do when they got there? How far away was rescue?

The creature bellowed again, this time much closer. Augustus knew they had no chance if the ship didn’t make it in time – the creature was one of hundreds of species kept in the Rift, creatures selected and bred for their lethality. Even if he and Jack somehow managed to escape this one, they would not escape the next. Nothing survived the Rift – nothing except the beasts.

He crested the hill, and found himself staring out at a barren landscape.

The jumper had crashed down just inside where the Rift’s dome of artificial atmosphere met the inhospitable surface of the planet. Massive towers were visible in the distance on either side of the hill, two of thousands positioned around the perimeter of the Rift to contain the artificial atmosphere through a combined manipulation of gravity and magnetism. This close to the edge, the barrier was a thick, hazy film. The barren surface of the planet – the true surface – was just visible through it: a never-ending expanse of gray, sparsely broken by streaks of red and orange.

And high above that desolate landscape, flying toward them through the natural atmosphere of the planet, was their rescue ship.

Relief shook Augustus. The ship approached rapidly, growing larger with every second as the pounding whomp whomp whomp of the engine rattled his teeth. It began to slow as it neared the Rift, readying to pierce the dome of artificial atmosphere at a safer speed, and as it turned to perform the maneuver, a cold shiver ran down Augustus’s spine.

The ship did not bear the mark of Arvun Cristi.

In place of the red-and-white insignia of the floating city was instead something gold and violet. As the ship continued its approach, he realized that the body wasn’t right either: it didn’t have the sleek, single-body shape of a Watcher ship but was instead shaped like a diving bird of prey from old Earth. It was run down, too – old, with a distinct gray cast – and had a number of non-standard modifications, including mounted guns.

Scavengers.

The ship slipped through the hazy Rift atmosphere and began to descend, centering on the far side of the hilltop. Augustus covered his face with his hands as wind rolled off the ship and tore at his clothes, and Jack waved his arms madly. Augustus spun to look back at the creature, which had slowed but not stopped. Ships were not something it had dealt with before, so while it was wary it would not fear them; the Rift landing base was heavily regulated for just that reason.

Landing base – where’s the landing base?

He tore his eyes from the advancing creature as the thought seized him. He looked back out over the cliff, through the artificial atmosphere, and saw nothing but the bare surface of the planet. He looked left, then right, scanning the area where the atmospheric dome met the ground, but saw no trace of a landing platform. He realized that the pale yellow orb of Salus was slowly creeping toward the horizon on his right, and that meant he was facing south.

We’re at the southern end. We’re on the wrong soldamn side.

The scavenger ship dropped to earth with the heavy mechanical sigh of landing thrusters, balancing easily on three thick legs that detached from the underside of its body. The resemblance to a diving bird of prey was striking; the craft had a thick central frame, an oval head, and two wings that swept back to either side. As it settled, the blue light of the landing thrusters cut out and the engine spun down, dropping the wind factor significantly.

A bellow of triumph came from behind him, and he spun back around.

The scarlet behemoth surged up the hill with renewed speed. Now that its rival, this metal bird, was land-born, it began to attack the steep slope of the hill with vigor, scurrying upward on the hundreds of legs that bore its weight.

Jack rushed toward the ship, hair whipping wildly in what was left of the wind. After only a second’s hesitation, Augustus hurried after him, fear of the advancing creature far outweighing his fear of the unknown cruiser.

He clutched at the torn sleeves of his coat and tried to shield his eyes. By squinting, he was just able to see the ship’s loading ramp detach from the underside of its body. Figures emerged holding military-grade particle rifles and wearing full exosuits in varying degrees of wear. None of the suits were new, and many of them looked to have undergone several years of intense use.

Scavengers, Augustus confirmed to himself, with no small sense of unease.

Both boys threw their hands skyward. The scavengers were larger than life, and with their helmets up and their solar visors down, they exuded secrecy and danger. The creature let loose another screeching bellow behind them, and Augustus cricked his neck as he turned back to see the scarlet behemoth crest the hill.

Fear gripped him so intensely that he thought his knees might give out. He began shouting incoherently, gesturing at the creature even though there was no way the scavengers could have missed it. He shouted for them to shoot it, to shoot it now, his mind nothing but a thousand terrified slivers of broken thought.

The scavengers opened fire.

Augustus had never seen or heard a particle rifle discharged, so when beams of blazing white-blue heat cracked from the ends of the muzzles, he was so shocked that his knees actually did give out, depositing him on the ground. The beams hit the creature and bored through various limbs, burning away patches of scarlet flesh and forcing it to pull up short in its headlong charge. The quality of its call changed from triumph to agony, and then the suited figures were in front of Augustus, blocking his view as they continued to fire, driving the creature back.

Others emerged from the ship, wearing an even more motley collection of suits, some of which looked to be not just years but decades old. One of them came straight for the boys, a figure with wide shoulders wearing black and gold and holding a particle rifle at the ready.

Instinct took over, and Augustus tried to retreat, but the figure grabbed him and held him in place. Another figure appeared, in the same black-and-gold suit as the first, and grabbed Jack.

The first scavenger pulled back Augustus’s jacket and made a grab for his right wrist. Augustus struggled, fighting back as much as he could, but it was no use. The scavenger ripped back his jacket sleeve, and revealed the bionic limb beneath.

 


Chapter Two

The Genetic Revolution that established Arvun Cristi as the new center of humanity was driven by a number of families, chief among them the Strauns. Cassius Straun, who discovered the planet Spes, was one of the original immigrants that helped found the city. The Titan, his ship, was the first privately funded colonization vessel to leave Earth. Many did not think the plan would work, but once it did, a number of others followed.

The decision to leave Earth before her fate was decided, though, was seen by many as an act of cowardice. Most still hoped that the wars would end and the world would go on as it always had. Straun and the other First Families did not share that hope, and it was their pessimism that saved them and their descendants.

Every family aboard the Titan was there for a reason. Those that managed to bribe their way on board did so not with money but with accomplishments, skills, and genetic traits. Straun brought in a dozen families total – the largest of which were the Zhous, the Tomlins, and the Hales.

 

- The Rise of Arvun Cristi, by Heinrich Strauss

 

Augustus’s right arm revealed, the man holding him froze. For a long moment, Augustus didn’t dare to breathe. Would the man know the WhiteSleeve on sight? It was a prototype, but the idea had been played with before and maybe –

The man hit a button on the sleeve of his suit, and the visor inside his helmet retracted, baring his face. The rest of the helmet followed, unlatching and folding into the neck of his suit to reveal a square jaw, tan skin, and thin eyes. The man gripped Augustus’s arm tighter and turned it over, looking for the external BCI ubiquitous throughout Arvun Cristi.

There was nothing to find. Even the integration sockets of the Brain-Computer Interface were absent – they’d been removed when the B.I. techs replaced Augustus’s real arm with the WhiteSleeve. The new arm felt real, and the skin even technically was real, but it bore none of the telltale signs of integration any Arvun Cristi citizen should have had. Anyone who knew what to look for would have seen the signs of the WhiteSleeve – the hairless skin, the lack of freckles and scars, the thicker, wider fingernails – but otherwise it looked to be nothing but a natural arm.

The scavenger finished his cursory inspection and turned to call back to the others:

“No bionics! We’ve caught a natural!”

Augustus experienced a brief instant of disassociation where he was sure that the man was speaking about someone else, but then the words actually sank in. Shame and mortification washed over him, and his cheeks flushed with anger. He had never been insulted like that in his entire life. He’d never even been called a natural as a joke.

In his anger he didn’t think, he simply acted. He ripped free of the man’s grip, pulled up his left jacket sleeve, and thrust out his arm.

“I am not a natural,” he said. “Scan me. Do it! Scan me!

Taken aback, the scavenger examined him from under thin eyebrows the way he might have examined a five-legged cat. He did look down, though, at the arm Augustus had thrust toward him, and his gaze locked on to the swirling black lines. It was the code that specified his biological make-up, including information on his Preset class and his heritage as a Hale, all in keeping with Arvun Cristi law. No natural would have had that – only a legal citizen of the city-station.

The scavenger tapped a command into his suit sleeve, and a piece of the thick material pulled back to reveal a typical BCI implant. The man punched in another command, and the thin red light of a scanner came on. He ran his arm over the swirling black marks imprinted in Augustus’s skin, and then a sharp ping sounded.

The scavenger looked down at the screen. His eyes widened and his face paled as he read the results, and Augustus felt a surge of satisfaction. He knew what the man was seeing: the profile of a Type Two Chromosomal Preset, complete with training records and birth certificate that marked him as a member of the primary branch of the Hale family. This would all be dealt with easily, now – no one touched a Type Two, much less one born to the Hales.

Then things went sideways. The man’s face reddened as the blood that had so recently drained away flooded back, and his upper lip twitched with contempt.

Another scavenger appeared beside him, shorter and slighter. The new arrival’s helmet folded back and away as the first scavenger’s had, this time to reveal a woman. Augustus was shocked to see that she had the light olive skin and single-lidded eyes preferred by the Zhou family. In fact, she looked so akin to Wei Zhou, the famous Type Seven, that she could have been his daughter.

What is a Zhou doing here?

“A natural?” she asked.

“No,” the first scavenger said with a sneer. “A Hale.”

The woman’s eyes widened. The man held out his sleeve; she glanced at the screen and then looked Augustus full in the face. For a long second she just stared at him, her bright hazel eyes wide. Then, her expression slowly changed, turning from surprise to…

Recognition?

I’ve never met her before in my life – why is she looking at me like that?

“Jenson!”

The harsh shout pulled the woman around, and the moment broke.

“We need to get back to the ship!” called a man who looked to be leading the group of scavengers holding rifles. His suit was black with gold highlights, just like the two men holding the boys. No house colors were black and gold – where had he gotten that suit?

“How much time?” Jenson, the Zhou woman, called back.

“None – they’re here!”

The man pointed, and Augustus followed the outstretched arm to the sky. Another ship was approaching, this one the sleek white and gold of an official Arvun Cristi Watch cruiser. Hope swelled his chest: help had come after all. That was his way home; he wouldn't be stuck in the Rift after all, wouldn't be caught up with scavengers –

“Grab what you can, we're leaving!” the woman shouted down the hill. Augustus realized that the scavengers had converged on the downed B.I. cruiser and were stripping it bare. A the sound of Jenson’s order, the scavengers redoubled their efforts, hauling back pieces of metal and pulling out valuable components. They had already picked clean the navigation console and dug through the guts of the single surviving landing thruster, so after a final sweep for any remaining scraps, they threw their loot on a chipped yellow hover-platform and hurried up the hill.

The scavengers with particle rifles had succeeded in pushing the Rift creature back to the tree line, but with the crew’s imminent retreat, it sensed a new opening and burst into motion, ignoring in its craze the agony of its wounds. It was no use, though, Augustus thought – the scavengers would be back on their ship and gone before it regained the hill.

“What about the boys?”

Shocked back to where he was, Augustus glanced at the man holding him, and then toward the woman, Jenson. She had moved toward the loading ramp, but stopped and turned back before ducking inside. Her gaze swept once more over Augustus, and then came to rest on Jack. He had not fared as well as Augustus had: the scavenger holding him was thickset, with a wide jaw and brooding forehead, and the boy sported a bloody lip and further tears in his already tattered coat.

“Bring them.”

Augustus had no time to react before the first scavenger seized his waist and lifted him from the ground. He shouted in pain as his bruised ribs met the man's shoulder, but no one seemed to care. He tried to struggle away, not at all sure where he'd go if he managed to fight free, but found himself too securely slung.

The pair of scavengers ascended the loading ramp as the ship’s engine spun back to life. Augustus just managed to catch a glimpse of the second scavenger shoving Jack before him – the man did not seem willing to test his luck by slinging the boy over his shoulder – and then they were in the dark interior of the ship and his light-blinded eyes could make out only vague shapes.

As soon as they crossed the threshold, the monster's cries and the heavy sizzle-crack of particle fire were replaced by shouted orders, the sound of boots on grated metal walkways, and the deafening thrum of an ion engine. They moved through a wide area covered with large clusters of concealed cargo toward a door and staircase that led to a lower level. The stairs spat them out into a short, bright corridor that ended in a solid bulkhead door with a large wheel affixed to its center.

Without slowing, the scavenger holding Augustus walked the corridor, grabbed the wheel, and spun it with a single-handed jerk. He heaved the door open, stepped through, and unceremoniously deposited Augustus inside. Seconds later, the other scavenger threw Jack down beside him, and then the pair left, slamming the door behind them. The wheel creaked as it spun, locking them in, and then the boys were left in silence.

The impact against the hard metal floor had badly jarred Augustus’ ribs, and he groaned and sucked in air as he tried to lever himself upright. He clapped a hand to his side beneath his jacket, and when he pulled it away traces of fresh blood glinted across his palm. He pushed himself the rest of the way up regardless, ignoring the protest of his tortured muscles, and looked around.

A single overhead light illuminated everything dramatically from above, rendering the nondescript room clearly visible. Slate-gray metal made up the walls and angular ceiling, and the floor was vaguely pentagonal. There was no furniture or ornamentation of any kind, and no other prisoners.

Augustus managed to pull himself into a seated position, still clutching his side. He caught sight of a wide horizontal vent high up one of the walls; as he watched, the slats shifted on oiled hinges, opening and closing at a measured pace to maintain a proper air mixture for the room. A small readout beside the vent blinked and glowed with pale-green numbers that fluctuated by the slightest decimal value every few seconds. Augustus had only ever seen something like that once in his life, but he knew what it meant. This wasn’t a jumper built for short runs from Arvun Cristi to Spes or Opis – this was an interplanetary cruiser with full air regulation meant for extended deep space travel.

The pieces fell together: the way the ship was built, the suits the crew wore, and now the sophisticated circulation vents for ship-wide air regulation. Add that to the ship’s heavy ion engine and the large cargo hold...

This wasn’t some intra-system scavenger crew. These were inter-system pirates.

He swallowed hard, trying to work moisture back into his mouth. He knew next to nothing about ships – only what his father had shared with him on late nights when he couldn't sleep. Was he being a complete fool, jumping to conclusions?

A hacking cough broke through his spiraling thoughts.

Jack had risen to his feet and looked notably calmer than Augustus felt. His expression contained no trace of fear or panic, but deep concentration furrowed his brow and his lips were set in a thin, straight line. He coughed again, clearing his throat and spitting out a glob of sooty phlegm, then took in the vents, looked back at the bulkhead door, and finally focused on Augustus. It appeared as though he might speak – he opened his mouth as if to do so – but just then the ship quivered beneath their feet.

Augustus fell back against the wall as the floor began to vibrate with shocking intensity. Jack did the same across the room, and then without warning the ship tilted. The engine began to pound in earnest, and pressure pushed down on them.

We’re in the air.

The shaking redoubled, pitching Augustus violently forward onto his hands and knees. He bear-crawled into the nearest corner, flipped over, and tried to anchor himself in place as the room tilted even more severely. The holding cell’s single light flickered as the ship diverted power to the wildly thumping engine straining to take them up and out of the Rift's artificial atmosphere at speed.

The shaking continued, and with it came a building pressure that made it hard to breathe. An explosion rocked the ship from the outside, forcing it to veer violently before continuing its ascent and flattening the boys against the floor.

And then just as abruptly as it had begun, the shaking cut out entirely, and there was silence.

They were out of the concentrated atmosphere of the Rift, and maybe even out of the thin atmosphere of the planet altogether. Augustus felt a peculiar soaring sensation in his stomach as the pressure crushing him against the floor suddenly disappeared. Seconds later, he was floating.

Vertigo gripped him as his mind sought desperately to orient itself. He closed his eyes and shook his head, but the darkness behind his eyelids only made him feel as if he were floating in an endless void. He had been on a cruiser before, but never one without some source of artificial gravity; this was the first time that he had ever been truly weightless, and he decided immediately that he hated it.

He grabbed on to a set of straps attached to the wall, and told himself with as much conviction as he could manage that he would not be sick. He looked behind him, thinking that maybe he would be able to orient himself based on the direction of the door, and in doing so caught sight of Jack.

The boy’s momentum had propelled him to the center of the room, where he now rotated slowly in midair. His eyes were closed and his head thrown back, his arms spread wide and the muscles of his face completely slack. It was as if every thought, every worry, had been pulled out of him, kept planetside by the gravity that had tried and failed to hold him down.

The image was so incongruous to how Augustus felt himself that he almost missed the glimpse he caught of the boy’s inner forearms as his jacket sleeves floated free. Both arms were bare, showing no evidence of either implant scars or genetic identification.

Jack was a natural.

The ship jerked, and the world spun. The reintroduction of gravity yanked Augustus back downward, but he held on desperately to the straps set in the wall – what he now realized were safety straps meant to hold him in place so that he wouldn’t smash his head against the holding cell’s metal sides.

The ship veered, slowed, changed course entirely, and then accelerated again with shocking speed. Augustus lost his grip on the straps, flew through the air, and smashed into the unyielding metal ceiling. His left wrist broke with a loud crack. He made a sound halfway between a whimper and a cry, and the WhiteSleeve began pumping painkillers into his bloodstream, numbing the wound until it could be dealt with. Still, the pain was so intense that it was only with a huge effort of will that he managed to free his arm by rolling onto his back. The ship continued to vibrate and shake, much more violently than when they had left atmo, and Augustus found his mind devoid of thought.

He was looking down at the floor now – the solid metal floor he would slam into when the ship next changed direction. Depending on the speed, he might even hit with enough force for the blow to be lethal. He was staring his death straight in the face, and there was nothing he could do about it.

As if reading his thoughts, the ship rolled and then shot upward. He shot down, and the floor rushed up to meet him, solid metal ready to dash out his brains… but the impact never came.

Arms appeared out of nowhere, grabbing him around the waist.

The impact of the catch was so painful against his bruised ribs that he almost blacked out. He lost a second or two of time, and when he came back to consciousness, Jack was straining with the effort of holding him. The boy's tan face was almost purple with exertion, and a heavy vein throbbed along his forehead. He didn’t seem to have any effort left to breathe, but his hands were locked tight, and even though his bare, sinewy arms shook with the strain, he refused to let go.

The shuddering stopped; the pressure lifted.

With a grunt, Jack released him. Augustus fell the last few feet to the floor and managed to land upright. He staggered as the room spun, and then backed up against a wall. He slid slowly down until he was seated on the floor, shaking uncontrollably.

He realized distantly that they were either back in full atmo or else someone had finally engaged the artificial gravity. His stomach began to settle, but his head continued to throb. The fingers of his broken left arm twitched and jerked in the aftermath of the pain, and he gaped at his lumpy wrist in bewildered fascination. The sight was horrific, but the painkillers had acted so quickly that all he could feel was a dull ache where there should have been agony.

Boots thumped against the metal floor as Jack disengaged himself from the safety restraints that he, at least, had managed to use properly. He crossed the room toward Augustus, but stopped a few feet away and seemed to consider something. Those electric blue eyes stared down at him with an intensity fit to burn a hole in the side of the metal bulkhead. Finally, he seemed to reach a decision, and he held out his hand.

Augustus stared at the it – tan and calloused, with dirt under the nails – for a long time before he looked back up into the boy’s face. The darkness from before had faded – the darkness that had come when Augustus had revealed himself as a Hale – but there were traces of it still, traces that clung around the edges like dirt on a gilded frame.

The moment broke when something heavy thudded against the bulkhead. The wheel turned, the bolts retracted, and the door began to open.

 

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