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NO MATTER HOW BADLY I want it to be different this time, in the end I still die.
We all do.
I lie on the cot, cold sweat clinging to my skin, arms raised to my face, stuck like a marionette tangled in its own strings. The dream feels so real. Another breath — count it out. In, two, three, four. Out, two, three, four. My heart slows, my mind no longer caught in the grip of the terrifying dream: a battle in which I play a critical role, yet I'm no soldier. This nightmare stalks me night after night, and even though I know I'm dreaming, I'm powerless to prevent the inevitable — the coming of Death.
The alarm on my personal electronic device, or PED, chirrups three times: 05:00. Not much sleep during the dark hours, again. I squeeze my shoulders, rubbing away the dull, muscular ache, and try to remember the fading embrace of a brother who now feels far away. A deep breath in, a slow exhale out. Get up already, Mila.
The frigid floor stings my bare feet. I shrug into a few less-than- clean garments and pull on my boots. The stale smell of the attire fills my throat. A shiver crawls across my skin. Sard, it's cold. Gotta find something warmer. After rummaging through a pile of soiled clothes that lie in the corner of my room, I pull out a short leather jacket, its collar lined with fur — though from what animal is unclear. Shaking it hard a few times, I stare at the fur lining. I know the lice are in there somewhere. No time to try and clean it now. The jacket slips over my shoulders, the ice-cold collar snugging up around my neck. It stinks like dead rat.
My PED and my precious collection of writings go into my satchel, carefully so as not to crush the worn old picture that lies at the bottom. I fish out the faded image of Zevry and me. I can be no more than eight-years old in this photo. He's grinning, as usual, with one arm wrapped around my shoulder. It was taken more than twenty years ago — yet little seems to have changed. Still have roughly cut short hair, now with a streak of color in the front. Still have a lean, almost boyish frame — though I've added some piercings and tattoos over the years in an attempt to distinguish myself. And then of course there's my scar — cutting its pink path across my forehead and left eye. Slashed deep into my face not long after this picture was taken, it's a permanent reminder you don't walk the streets alone in a place like Etyom.
No time for this. I stuff the picture back into my satchel and head out the door without locking it. Anything worth stealing is already on me — and it wouldn't take much to force the door to my closet- sized room anyway.
My boots creak on the rickety stairs leading into the bar below. It's quiet now, a far cry from the bedlam hours earlier. Smoke hangs lazily in the air, like the memory of an old ghost.
"Come on, Clief." I cough. "How do you breathe this stuff night after night?"
The man at the bar raises his head but continues to wipe down the counter. "Oh, it's not that bad. Sorta like burning plastic." He offers a tired smile. "Off so early?"
"Every day." Still pinching my nose and squinting, I make my way toward the door. "I'm serious. Get some fresh air in here. That botchi is going to scramble what's left of your tiny brain."
He huffs out a laugh. "And that out there? That's where you get the fresh air?"
"You know what I mean."
As I push open the door, the wind hits me like a frozen punch in the mouth. Going out in this icy hell never gets easier. The streets are dark and cold, shadows upon shadows concealing the horrors of Etyom. It's hard to believe this place was once considered a haven. Long ago, it was a vast, sprawling gulag-turned-mining community called Norilsk. Between World War III and the New Black Death, nearly nine billion people around the world lost their lives. Those who were left fled their homes and cities in search of someplace safer. For many, this barren hellhole was it. The conflict hadn't fully destroyed the city, and the New Black Death struggled to take hold in the brutal Siberian climate. Survival was possible here.
A mass migration followed; the Russian government was helpless to stop it. Outside Norilsk, organized social structure, at least the way people understood it then, gasped its final dying breath. And then, silence. Communications with the outside world went dark. Zev said anyone who hadn't died in the war succumbed to the New Black Death. It was then everyone here knew they were truly alone. They chose to isolate themselves, even renamed the city Etyom. My brother and I weren't born for another few hundred years, the descendants of those who fought to survive. We're fighters, Mil. Survivors. Nothing can keep us down. That's why we're called Robusts. But then why didn't you come home to me, brother?
I pull the jacket closer around my neck. Bilgi's place is only a block away, and it's a good thing, too, because with average temps below zero, the wind is cutting through me like a razor. I half run, half walk, down the quiet street, torn between wanting to get there fast and not wanting to bust my tail on the ice.
Six raps with my knuckles in the practiced manner and the rickety door immediately opens. Bilgi waits inside. His simple place is lit by a single oil lamp. It's barren and less than inviting, but I'm not here to be pampered.
"Love me so much, you just wait for me by the door now?"
"If you would rather stand on the stoop a little longer, then be my guest," he answers in a clipped tone, ushering me in.
"Come on, let's do it already. I need to get my blood pumping."
The words are barely out of my mouth, my arms still stuck in the sleeves of my jacket, when he lunges forward. I see it coming, but the impact still throttles me as Bilgi's heavy hands encircle my neck and drive me against the wall. My hair scatters across my face. Bring it, old man. The jacket comes free, and with a flurry of punches and a swift roundhouse kick to Bilgi's thigh, I drive him back.
"Very good, young krogulec."
"I'm nothing like the sparrow hawk. I'm faster."
He smirks and comes again. This time I'm ready. Dodging to the left, I evade his attack. Parrying a second punch, I deliver a brutal knee strike to his midsection and a palm-heel strike to the side of his head — but in the process I've let down my guard. His spinning back fist catches me across the bottom of my jaw, snapping my head around.
I stumble back and collide with a short table before tumbling over it to the floor. Bilgi wastes no time bringing the fight to me. He tries to stomp on my head, but I roll to the outside and launch into a flying uppercut, which skims past his chin. Back and forth we evade and parry one another's strikes.
Bilgi finally raises his hand. Sweat beads on my brow, my chest heaving, fists still raised. The old man doesn't even appear winded.
"That's enough for now, Mila," he says, stepping away and fetching a small pot from the rudimentary stove. "May I offer you some krig?"
He only keeps enough of the strong, caffeinated drink to have some for himself once in a while. It would be rude of me to decline. "Of course, thank you."
He pours the krig and hands it over, the hot black liquid warming my fingertips through the tin cup. The ability to cultivate or manufacture sugar, in any real quantity, ceased long ago. My krig is taken black, like everyone else's.
Bilgi directs me toward the fire and offers a seat. I sink down by the hearth.
"Why sparrow hawk? Where did that come from?"
"You remind me of them — the way you move," Bilgi replies. His old, muscular frame shuffles back and forth as he pours himself a cup of the ink-colored stuff.
"Tell me. I have never seen one."
My mentor half closes his eyes, the recollection of some distant memory forming. "They glide, swooping in to take their prey. Fierce predatory creatures, they have the ability to dip and dive through the trees, riding the wind."
"Oh." How it must feel to be free. "I would very much like to see them dancing through the trees, or to see whole forests at all, for that matter."
"Hmmm." Bilgi holds the steaming cup to his lips.
I glance up from my drink. "Your son? How is he?"
"The sickness in his lungs seems to be getting worse." Bilgi's face bears no emotion. "Breathing too much of the spores from the deep mines below, I think." He gives a practiced smile.
"You're going to Fiori to visit him today?"
He nods. "Maybe my visits will help him recover."
"May Yeos see it so."
"And you, dear Mila, you still are not sleeping?"
"A little." I nod, but don't raise my head.
"Your vision returns to you. A specter of what once was. Or is it what is to come?"
What am I supposed to say? That Yeos speaks to me in dreams I don't understand? That I see Death?
"Well?" he presses.
"It's not that —?
"I believe it is, my dear. I can read it in your face. I recognize it because I understand it all too well." He's staring at me, waiting for an answer. "Mila," he begins, then seems to labor over some hidden thought. "I have been teaching you now for years. Many mornings we meet here, and we spar. You have hardened yourself and grown quite skilled in your chum lawk. I have taught you everything I know of it. I now have little else to offer you, apart from my charming personality." He flashes an enigmatic grin. "Mila, dear, I'm proud of you and your hard work. It's just ... it is a dangerous world out there, even when one doesn't go looking for it."
I take a slow sip from the steaming cup and wait for the inevitable lecture. The potent, bitter liquid warms a path down my throat and into my belly.
"No amount of training can protect you from yourself. Don't let your hate devour you."
"What are you saying?"
"Don't throw your life away, Mila. We have one life to live, one life to give in the service of the Lightbringer. Use yours to make a difference."
"Very poetic Bilgi, but —"
The old man gently touches my arm — an uncharacteristic gesture for him. "Just do something that matters with the time you've been given, Mila. Don't fade away, as so many do, out here among the ruins of the old world."
The words sink into my heart, stirring something deep within. Bilgi is right. Because he knows, just as I do, that all of humanity is dwindling — but most of all, our people, the Logosians, are fading fast. If we lie down and submit to the Musuls or the Graciles, or anyone else who decides we should cease to exist, then cease to exist we shall.
I slurp down the last of the krig, throw on my jacket, and get on with my day, giving little more than a simple farewell. Yet Bilgi's words follow me, clinging to the dark recesses of my heart: We have one life to live, Mila. Use yours to make a difference.CHAPTER 2
THE SWITCHBLADE CATCHES on the seam of my pocket but eventually frees from the twists and folds of the inner lining. Slowly and purposefully, I draw the razor-sharp edge of the blade across my naked forearm, dragging it with appreciable force along the well-worn furrow in my skin. The face in the bathroom mirror winces with the familiar burning — flesh splitting apart, hot blood erupting from within. The heat pulses in waves along my arm and into my brain. This is my body. This is my pain. This is my blood dripping to the floor, smacking these flawless white tiles.
Whining again, little zalupa? the voice in my head says.
"Please, not today." The hand towel is already saturated with my blood.
Every day, you pathetic kozel. There is no escape from me — from us.
"Just leave me alone, Vedmak."
I decided to give it, give him, a name a long time ago. It only seemed right. He is Vedmak, a creature who emerged from the concoction of horrors described in my many books on old Russia. Ghastly tales, from the very real Bolshevik war to horrible fairy tales told to children. I have never seen him, only heard his menacing voice. If he did have a form, he'd be a tall, thin man with cold blue eyes and colder white skin. He'd have long gray hair and boiled- leather clothing, wrapped in a heavy wool cloak.
Pah. Books? Always have your head buried in those relics. Why don't you use the neuralweb like everyone else? my demon rasps. His voice is like gravel being rubbed into the soft tissues of my brain.
"I have enough voices in here; I don't need to cram in anything more. Besides, you know as well as I do that if someone fished around in here, they might find you. Then we'd both be dead."
Defects of all types are weeded out of Graciles. Imperfections are diagnosed in the neo-womb or as a youngling, and then the being is erased. And by erased I mean euthanized. Murdered. Axiotimos Thanatos, the Leader calls it. We call it being Ax'd. Schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder — whatever my affliction is, it will never be tolerated. It must be kept secret at all costs.
Such a little coward.
"Just go away, Vedmak." How juvenile.
Did someone call my name? The voice is muffled and distant.
"Mitya, who are you talking to?" calls the voice.
Damn. Nikolaj. He must have heard me through the bathroom door.
Vedmak snarls. Tell him to get lost.
"Mitya, are you even listening?"
He always calls me Mitya. A nickname, an abbreviation of Demitri from the old world. Thinks it makes him sound intelligent. My younger neo-brother, just two years my junior, is incredibly arrogant. Vedmak hates him.
In a practiced motion, I wipe up the blood on the floor with the hand towel and stuff the red-stained rag into the cleansing chute. I slather my wound in derma-heal gel, then roll down my sleeve. One last scan of the room for evidence of my injury, and then I slide open the bathroom door.
"Mitya? Are we going to the lab today or not? We're running late." Nikolaj's eyes flash angrily. He's already in his environmental suit. "You're not even listening to me, are you?"
"I am. And don't call me Mitya, Nikolaj. You know I hate it."
Ha. The sheep has learned how to bark, Vedmak says, cackling.
Don't listen. Just focus on Nikolaj. "Of course we're going to the lab. The accelerator calculations are still pending, and we're on a deadline."
"Good. Get your ass in gear. Put on your suit, and let's go." Nikolaj gestures toward the door and runs off to retrieve his helmet from his bedroom.
A moment later he returns, his wavy chestnut hair newly combed over his head and fixed into place with the usual inordinate amount of lacquer, his skin glowing from a quick cryorejuvenation blast. Just like me, he has almond-shaped hazel eyes, chiseled cheekbones, caramel skin, and a smooth jawline. Like all Gracile males, he stands an impressive two meters tall, with all the right muscles in all the right places. Neither of us needs to exercise to achieve our physique. We're the latest generation of Graciles — grown in glass wombs from carefully designed DNA maps. Our kind is constantly revised and improved. Initially genetic modification was so we could create immune systems that would resist the New Black Death, the NBD, but we're far past that now. These days, modifying our progeny feels like vanity more than survival.
Nikolaj wedges his helmet between his arm and his hip, then eyes me critically. "Sometimes I doubt we came from the same neo-womb, you know that?"
I know that. He tells me often enough.
"You should grow your hair out. Crew cut is so last year."
Why bother? I'll never be Nikolaj, never really be accepted. "C'mon. Let's get a move on. Can't be late," I call over my shoulder, fumbling with the door lock. Though I'm unsure if I'm talking to Nikolaj, Vedmak, or myself.CHAPTER 3
PERCHED ATOP A MAINTENANCE platform jutting out from one of the foundational support pillars of a Gracile fortress, my legs dangle precariously over the ramshackle buildings below. Had to ditch my jacket during the climb that brought me to this place, but now the wind is starting to cut again, sweat-dampened clothes chilling my skin.
The worn leather slides back over my shoulders, my hand fishing around in my satchel for a piece of hardtack wrapped in paper and my writings — a crumpled and poorly bound set of papers with meandering lines scrawled by my own hand. The Words of Yeos. I hold it to my chest in silent prayer, then set it aside in favor of my breakfast. The dense unleavened bread isn't good, but it's something.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "It Takes Death to Reach A Star"
Copyright © 2018 Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington.
Excerpted by permission of Vesuvian Books.
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