Thirteen-year-old Caden Aire spends his days working in the fields and his nights sleeping in a horse stable, all under the watch of Metl—Earth's mysterious and artificial second moon, a looming relic of humanity's lost era.
But Caden's simple life changes when one night, a fiery red X suddenly appears on Metl's surface, and the same red Xs start glowing on his palms.
Now Caden must find the only person who knows what's happening to him, but he doesn't have much time. Metl has started on an impact course with Earth, and to stop it, Caden will have to face both the unsettling truth about his world … and about himself.
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Caden lined up with the Nobodies outside. All the other children were dressed in their best outfits — boys in clean trousers and button-down shirts, girls in long dresses and bonnets — but Caden wore the only clothes he had, his stable-cleaning uniform. Thick boots, a stained shirt, and a heavy pair of denim overalls all fit loose on his wiry frame. He could never quite get the stench of horse manure out of them, no matter how hard he scrubbed.
The Nobodies formed an orderly row in the grassy front yard of the Home, a long cottage built from a mishmash of wood donated by the town carpenters. Behind the Home rolled one hundred acres of farmland that the Nobodies tended, bursting with corn, potatoes, hay, grain, and apples, along with pens for chickens and pigs, a barn for cows, and a stable for horses. It was only noon, but the Nobodies had already spent a full day working the fields. Up at five, prayer at five ten, breakfast of boiled eggs and potatoes at five fifteen, and then outside to work by five thirty wasn't an easy schedule, but it was better than starving alone in the streets.
Above them Earth's metallic second moon Metl shimmered bright in the clear blue sky.
Today was adoption day, the first in months. As soon as it was announced, Caden heard the same whispers that always preceded adoption days: everyone hoping they'd be picked. As usual, Caden wanted to join the excitement, but he couldn't. He'd been through more adoption days than any of the Nobodies, and each one had ended with him still at the Home.
The children stood shoulder to shoulder in order of how long they'd lived at the Home. At one end was a little girl no older than five in daffodil bows and pigtails. She'd been brought in just a few weeks ago; she was still soft and pale. At the other end was Caden with shaggy blond hair, gray eyes, and a tan face hardened from working outdoors all day every day. Between them stood twenty-two other children of varying ages and heights, their heads forming peaks and valleys in a mountain range of Nobodies.
Mother Mildred was limping down the line, giving everyone one last look over. She was the oldest Mother at the Home and was in charge of the Nobodies. She had ashen curls, dark wrinkled skin, and stone-colored robes from shoulders to ankle like the other Mothers, but she was the only one with a warm smile that could thaw you out of bed on a cold winter morning, or soothe a frightened newcomer to sleep during a summer storm. A wooden pendant in the shape of an ant dangled around her neck as she crouched in front of each Nobody, making some final adjustments to get everyone looking their best.
"Dominic, pull up your pants," she ordered gently. "Hoyt, wipe that dirt off your cheek. No, your other cheek. Annika, dear, please do try to smile. You're so pretty when you smile."
Mother Mildred was always stressed during adoption days, even more than the Nobodies. She was like a real mother to them all, and an adoption meant saying goodbye to one of them. She put on a brave face, but Caden had seen enough adoptions to know that she missed every Nobody who left. Vacancies never lasted more than a few days. The Home was almost always full, and Mother Mildred liked it that way.
Honestly, living at the Home wasn't bad. Sometimes the Nobodies didn't even want to leave after being adopted. But they didn't have a choice. They had to save their souls.
"Here they come!" shrieked one of the Nobodies. From the clearing in the woods at the far end of the property, three figures appeared: the Home's other two Mothers and today's adopter, all slowly trotting in on horseback. Everyone squinted, trying to see who it was, but it was impossible to tell from so far away.
Caden felt a pang of jealousy. Even though caring for the horses was his job, he'd never ridden one into town. He could only ride them when collecting crops, or hauling around cartfuls of manure to fertilize the fields. The Nobodies weren't allowed to leave the Home, not until they'd been given a new purpose. That was half the reason Caden wanted to be adopted so badly, just for a change of scenery. The Home was nice, but he'd give anything to see the ocean, or a bakery, or even a stone street.
But as soon as Caden saw the adopter, he knew that he wouldn't be leaving today. The man rode in on a massive red stallion that dwarfed the Mothers' horses next to it. He was a rich merchant — Caden could tell by the way he dressed. He had a flowing fur cloak, puffy shorts with stockings, and a droopy black hat flopping over his bald head. But the biggest tell of all was his face scrunched up in judgment as he gazed down at the Nobodies. He was probably looking for someone to mold as an apprentice, or someone smart to help with bookkeeping. Caden had seen his kind before — he'd seen every kind of adult at adoption day. Lumberjacks looking for strong ax-swinging arms, mothers looking for a nanny, stonesmiths looking for precise hands. No one was ever looking for a kid whose only skill was shoveling horse poop.
The Nobodies fidgeted in line, flicking their fingernails to rid any last bits of dirt, girls running their hands through their hair and smoothing their dresses, boys sniffing the air around them, probably wishing they'd taken up Mother Mildred's offer of an extra bath. All of them except Caden. There was something else dirty about him, something that no amount of washing or flicking could ever clean off. It would follow him forever, even long after the horse stench eventually went away, and it would ensure that he was never adopted.
Despite the merchant's old age, he dismounted the horse in one smooth movement, sliding down from the stallion five feet above the ground right onto the grass. He brushed himself off and Mother Mildred hobbled over to exchange bows. The other two Mothers led the Home's horses back to the stable, and Mother Mildred cleared her throat and turned to the Nobodies with warm, loving eyes.
It was time to begin.
"All right children," she announced. "This is Mr. Stercus. He runs Stercus Imports in Salem, and he's looking to adopt an assistant. So stand up straight, answer any questions he has, and if the Great Gotama up in Metl in the sky deems that you and Mr. Stercus are meant to be family, then perhaps you'll leave us for a new home."
The line of Nobodies grew by about two inches as everyone stood at attention and stuck their chins high in the air. Caden followed suit, out of habit, like he'd been trained to ever since he'd arrived at the Home. Mr. Stercus surveyed them like livestock. He walked down the line, scrutinizing each child, leaning in with glaring eyes and flared nostrils to get a close look and a good, deep sniff. With each step he took, Caden watched the heads of the children he passed slowly lower, their hopes deflating, while the next ones in line straightened up with excitement. It was like watching the sun rise, then set, over and over again.
Then, five Nobodies in, he stopped.
"You girl," Mr. Stercus barked. "What is your purpose?"
She was a girl about Caden's age with brown skin and long black braided hair. As soon as Mr. Stercus opened his mouth, her face flushed. She looked past the merchant to Mother Mildred.
"Go ahead, dear," she said in a calm but authoritative tone.
"My ... my purpose is to work the fields," the girl stuttered. Mr. Stercus waited for more, but nothing came.
"My purpose is to work the fields ... sir," he corrected.
"Yes. Yes, sir. Sorry. Sir."
"And what was your name?" he asked.
Whenever someone new was brought to the Home, they lost their name. They became a Nobody; that's it. The Nobodies and Mothers still used their first names among themselves, but last names were never allowed to be mentioned. And during adoption days everything had to be done by the book — your name was Nobody unless told otherwise. Not that Caden really minded. As far as he knew he'd never had a last name.
"Annika Crane," she said.
Annika. Caden felt like he'd heard the name before, but aside from one other boy — who Caden would give anything not to know — he didn't interact with many others at the Home. Spending all day and every night with the horses will do that.
"Ah yes, the Cranes," Mr. Stercus said. "I remember them. Very sad, very sad indeed. Now, Annika, tell me. How old are you?"
Annika balled her hands into fists, squeezing so hard they turned white.
"I'm thirteen," she said through clenched teeth.
"You mean, I'm thirteen, sir," Mr. Stercus corrected lazily. He was losing interest.
"Yes. Sorry. Sir."
"And what else can you do?" he asked with a bored look. "Besides working the fields?"
"Well, I can ... or, I mean, I think I can —"
"All right, that's enough," he groaned, waving his hand. "I have no use for someone who can't even spit out a full sentence."
And just like that, he moved on. The faces of the children left in line lit up as they stood back at attention. Caden felt bad for Annika; she'd messed up her chance at adoption. Although, maybe it was his imagination, but he thought he saw a look of relief in her eyes.
Mr. Stercus continued down the line in silence. He passed over five, ten, fifteen more Nobodies. Most adopters didn't bother to come down this far. The Nobodies toward the end had spent years and years at the Home, and there was usually a reason for it. The ten-year-old girl next to Caden had been missing her right hand ever since she showed up as a toddler. The boy next to her was deaf and mute; he could only perform simple tasks. Maybe the merchant coming down this far meant that no one would be adopted today. It was rare, but it happened.
But then Mr. Stercus stopped. In front of Caden.
"You boy," he said. "What is your purpose?"
Caden's heart leaped into his throat. No adopter had spoken to him in years.
"My purpose is to care for the horses, sir," he said, trying to stay calm.
"How old are you?"
"You smell like a hard worker. What else can you do?"
Caden racked his brain for something to say. This was his chance at a life. A real life. He needed to speak up before —
"Mr. Stercus, sir," came a voice from midway down the line. All heads turned. It was Dom, a boy with messy, ginger hair who was a foot taller and wider than Caden. He had a smirk on his potato-shaped face, an expression Caden had seen many times before.
"Excuse me!" Mother Mildred cried. "Nobodies are not permitted to speak unless spoken to!"
"It's okay," Mr. Stercus said. "What is it, boy?"
Dom bowed politely. "Pardon me, sir. I just wanted to say that you probably shouldn't even consider Caden down there. He sleeps in the stable, and he's not even a Nobody. He's just no one."
There were gasps and murmurs among the children at hearing Caden's name used during an adoption. But Dom was right — Caden wasn't a Nobody, so it didn't matter if they said his name. Caden felt the buzz of their words cover him like bees. Embarrassment fumed off his face.
"What do you mean he's no one?" Mr. Stercus asked.
Mother Mildred stepped forward. "Caden is a little different than the others. He never knew his parents. He was dropped off here as an infant."
Caden knew the story. He'd heard it a thousand times. All the other Nobodies at the Home were sent here by the Church after their parents had been taken away for committing the ultimate crime: using Iltech, evil technology from the past. Anything metallic, mechanic, or — Gotama forbid! — electric was forbidden in Metlism.
No one knew what happened to the parents after they were taken away, but their children lost their names and became Nobodies. Adopting a Nobody with a tainted soul and giving them a second chance at salvation was seen as a great act of kindness, something that would be rewarded by the Great Gotama in the afterlife inside Metl in the sky. But adopting someone who just happened to live at the Home their entire life — like Caden — wasn't anything special.
"I see," said Mr. Stercus. He gave Caden one last look then marched away. Caden was furious with himself for even thinking he might be adopted, but his anger turned to shock when Mr. Stercus walked to the middle of the line right up to Dom.
"You boy," he said. "What is your purpose?"
"I fulfill all Six Virtues, sir!" Dom announced like a soldier. "My purpose is to worship Gotama daily, to work hard with the crops and animals, to rule —"
"Yes, yes, Six Virtues, great," Mr. Stercus said. "What was your name?"
"Dominic Lurcher, sir," Dom said, chin up and shoulders straight.
"And how old are you?"
"Can you lift heavy objects? I need someone who can unload ships."
"I can lift over one hundred pounds, sir. I carry the feed buckets to the pigs twice a day, no problem. Any other Nobody would take two trips to do what I do in one. Sir."
Mr. Stercus nodded in approval. "Excellent. Then I suppose you wouldn't mind if I asked for a little demonstration?"
"Sir?" Dom asked, confused.
"I don't have time to watch you go carrying pig slop, so let's just make do with what we have here. The girl standing there, the stutterer. Can you pick her up?"
Dom looked at Annika. She froze.
"Sure," Dom said. "That's easy."
Without wasting a second, Dom walked over, squatted down, scooped up Annika in his beefy arms, and hoisted her above his head, eliciting a scream from her and gasps from the rest of the Nobodies. Annika pounded against Dom's arms but he stood as solid as a rock with a proud smile on his face. Caden didn't know what to think. Nothing like this had ever happened at an adoption before. Mother Mildred's mouth hung open and Mr. Stercus crossed his arms in satisfaction.
"Perfect," he said. "Now, the easiest way to unload a ship is by throwing the crates onto the docks. So if you wouldn't mind, could you demonstrate a little ... toss?"
"Mr. Stercus, please!" Mother Mildred begged. "This is too much!"
"Oh, come on," he growled. "Worst it'll do is knock a little sense into her. Come on then, show me what you've got, boy!"
All eyes were on Dom. Caden couldn't believe what was happening. Even Dom seemed a little disturbed with the idea of throwing Annika, who was still struggling and screaming above his head. But he only hesitated for a second, and then with every ounce of strength in his body, he tossed her as far as he could.
At that moment the world around Caden went into slow motion. Annika shot into the air, her dress flapping in the breeze, and something inside Caden clicked. He knew no one else was going to do anything; they were too worried about getting in trouble. He was too, but at that moment, he didn't care. Without thinking he sprinted out of line, past Mother Mildred and Mr. Stercus, right underneath Annika who was now slowly crashing toward the ground. He extended his hands and braced for impact, not quite sure how he was going to even catch her.
And then he got a pair of leather shoes right in the face.
The world came back to full speed. Annika slammed into Caden like a bag of bricks, sending him crashing to the ground. He'd managed to break her fall, but she'd knocked the wind out of him. All he could feel was a sharp pain in his face and stomach. Caden wanted to say something cool or heroic, but the only thing that came out of his mouth was:
Everyone rushed over to Caden and Annika. Mother Mildred helped Annika to her feet, then knelt on the ground next to Caden.
"Caden!" Mother Mildred said. "Are you all right?"
Before Caden could reply, Mr. Stercus let out a laugh.
"What a catch, boy!" he bellowed. "Great Gotama, that speed! I'd be a fool not to take you too. Mother Mildred, I'll come back tomorrow for the lot of them, the thrower and the catcher both, if you please."
Caden was pretty sure the words he was hearing meant that he was adopted, but he couldn't be sure. He just lay there on the grass, throbbing in pain, looking up at the noontime sky. It was perfectly clear. Caden could even see the moon.
And next to it — just as large — the metallic moon Metl stared back at him from far away.CHAPTER 2
Last Night at the Home
Mother Mildred ordered Caden to spend the rest of the afternoon lying down indoors. The Home wasn't big enough to have an infirmary, so she had him lie on a burlap mattress in the boys' bedroom, a room Caden hadn't been in for years. He lay there alone in the cramped space surrounded by eleven empty mattresses, the light from the open window in the wall slowly fading as the day went on.
The whole time Caden could only think about one thing: he'd been adopted. He'd been dreaming of this day his entire life, but now that it was finally here he'd give anything to stay at the Home. Even being a stable boy for the rest of his life would be better than living with Dom and working for a man who thought throwing people around was a good idea.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Metl"
Copyright © 2019 Scott Wilson.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
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