The Skyfire Saga
Her designation is H124-a menial worker in a city safeguarded against the devastating storms of the outer world. In a community where consumerism has dulled the senses, where apathy is the norm and education is a thing of the past, H124 has one job: remove the bodies of citizens when they pass away in their living pods.
Then one night, H124's routine leads her into the underground ruins of an ancient university. Buried within it is a prescient alarm set up generations ago: an extinction-level asteroid is hurtling toward Earth.
When her warning is seen as an attempt to topple the government with her knowledge of science, H124 is hunted-and sent fleeing for her life beyond the shield of her walled metropolis. In a weather-ravaged unknown, her only hope lies with the Rovers, the most dangerous faction on Earth. For they have continued to learn. And they have survived to help avert a terrifying threat: the end of the world is near.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.53(d)|
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Ben had barricaded the door and been as quiet as possible, but now they'd come for him. He could hear them pounding on the door. He scrambled out of his hole beneath the floorboards. He'd found tunnels down there. Rooms. Maybe there was a way out, a tunnel he could escape through. But he wasn't sure, and he could die down there if he got trapped. He just couldn't stake his life on it. He hadn't had enough time to explore.
He knew they wouldn't find the hole. They wouldn't know to look for it and wouldn't waste the time anyway. He spent precious seconds heaving himself up through the hole and then replacing the floorboards. As he threw the rug in place, the strange beeping emanating from those parts below stopped. It had started a few days ago, coming from somewhere under the building, in that dark catacomb of rooms. He'd never found the source. And now the Repurposers were here.
He shouldn't have unplugged from the network. He knew that now. But he had had to unplug because of the chatter. How could he listen to the mysterious beeping over all that chatter? He'd never noticed it before, the constant talking. But suddenly, when he tried to concentrate on that strange alarm coming from below, he realized he couldn't hear anything but the monotonous drone of meaningless voices: What handbag was the star of High Rise Living carrying in last night's episode? — Win 80,000 creds by playing the beta version of Maximum Shopping! — Get a new look for your avatar!
They must have immediately noticed his absence from the network and sent the men. He had to get out of there. He ran to the barricaded front door, ready to throw the furniture aside. When he peered through the peephole, he saw men waiting in the hallway. They'd covered this escape route.
There was no other way out of his apartment. No windows that worked. No back doors. Just the front door and the tunnels beneath, which as far as he'd explored had not led out.
A deafening buzz erupted on a wall he shared with his neighbor. They were cutting through. He had to get out of there. He grabbed a chair, ran up next to the wall. As the plaster caved in, he waited until a head appeared. He brought the chair down hard. The man crumpled, but another took his place, and Ben struck him too. He grabbed the second man, pulling him through the hole, then dove through the opening into his neighbor's living pod. He'd never seen the neighbor in person before, though he'd lived next to him his whole life. There he was, sitting on his couch, eyes fixed on his display, hands flying over the virtual keyboard. The man didn't even turn.
Ben ran. He threw open his neighbor's front door and dashed into the hallway, smashing into one of the Repurposers waiting there. Then he bolted in the opposite direction, not knowing where to go. He'd only been out in the hallway once before, when they first installed him in his living pod. He had to make it to the street that he'd seen so many times from his window. Maybe someone could help him. He banged on doors as he ran, shouting for help. No one came out. No one even stuck a head out to look at him. Even though he knew the building was filled to capacity, it felt dead inside.
At the end of the hall he saw a door. He burst through it, and sudden heat struck him in the face. He stared around, not sure which way to go. He bolted left at random. He sucked in the torrid air, happy just to be outside. He'd only been outside once before, the day he came here all those years ago. Back then it had been freezing.
The streets lay empty. No one walked around. He could hear noises from the living pod buildings all around him, huge structures that reached into the amber sky. Light and sound emanated through the windows, coming from thousands of displays and entertainment channels. He shouted again for help, then thought better of it. No one was even coming to the windows to look, and shouting only gave away his location. For someone to help, they'd have to detach from the network. That's what he had done, and now they would make him pay for it.
He spotted a shadowed place next to a building and ran to it. Pressed into the dark, he heard the whirring of some kind of machinery coming from inside. The wall felt hot, hotter than the sticky air. He caught his breath, then dared a look around for the men who followed him.
As his eyes adjusted to the shadows, he saw an old metal door in the wall. He ran to it and yanked on the handle. An even hotter blast of air hit him, along with a dazzling light. Squinting, he stepped inside, closing the door behind him. Raising his hand, he shielded his eyes against the glare of overhead lights. He stood on a steel platform with stairs leading down. Below him stretched a hive of activity. White steam billowed in the air, and the whirr and groan of machinery almost deafened him. Dozens of people milled around long tables, some folding laundry, some preparing food cubes. One man sat at a bench repairing a food delivery drone. The people weren't using displays. They didn't have keyboards. They weren't plugged in.
He glanced this way and that. No sign of the men who'd come after him. He ran down the stairs toward the man fixing the drone. The man looked up as Ben reached him.
"Can you help me?" Ben asked, trying to catch his breath again.
"What's wrong?" The man put down his tools.
"Men are after me!"
"After you?" The man's brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"
"They mean to repurpose me."
The repairman stared at him, noticing the network jack in the side of his head. "You're from the living pods?" he asked, looking amazed.
"And you aren't plugged in?"
Ben glanced at the others. They took no notice, just continued their work.
"I thought you couldn't live without being plugged in."
"What do you mean?"
"That's when the corpse cleaners come. When someone has unplugged from the network."
Ben shook his head. His mouth had gone dry.
"You die without it."
He backed away. "I don't think it works like that." He'd been unplugged for days now, and he was fine.
"The men will come and plug you back in," the repairman assured him.
Ben turned. He had to get out of there.
He ran back toward the stairs, but just then the door banged open. The three men from his living pod stood on the platform, pinpointing him on the busy warehouse floor. He pivoted and ran the other way, but not before two more men entered through a different door.
Closing in from all sides, they homed in on him. Panic swelled up inside him. He made a dash toward all the people folding laundry and making food. He sped through them, his pursuers close behind. Then one of the Repurposers tackled him, sending him sprawling across the floor. In an instant the rest fell on him, grabbing Ben's hands, wrists, and legs. He thrashed, crying out for help. The workers stared down at him, and one advanced, but the Repurposer waved her off.
"No need," he told her. "He unplugged from the network and is going a little crazy. We need to take him back to his pod and reconnect him."
She nodded and went back to folding laundry.
"No!" Ben shouted. He kicked his legs, but still they carried him toward the metal door. They lifted him up the stairs and dragged him outside. As he thrashed in horror they retraced his footsteps, hauling him back to his building, down the hallway toward his living pod, in through his neighbor's place, and through the hole.
"It's not killing me to be disconnected! You've got it wrong!" he screamed.
The men remained stoic. They pulled him into his bathroom. He thrashed, knocking over his supply cabinet, spilling towels into the shower. A vase fell off the sink and shattered. Still they held him tightly. None of them made eye contact. He wasn't a person. Just a thing.
"Hold him down," one said. They flipped him onto his stomach, and one knelt on his back.
He felt the man's gloved hand on his head, pressing down, parting his hair over the network jack in his skull. The man brought out a gleaming metal instrument with a circular saw on one end.
Ben kicked out on the cold tile, but the others held down his arms and legs.
The man brought the tool up to his head jack, and Ben felt a blistering pain in his head. Everything went gray, then black-and-white. All their voices became muffled.
"The jack is corrupted," he heard the man say. "I don't think we'll be able to repurpose him. There's dust in here, some weird debris. What has this guy been up to?" He felt the men readjust their weight on him. "I'll give it a try."
He brought the tool in again, and a searing flash of heat erupted inside Ben's head. He flailed, fought against them, but all he could smell was burning flesh. Suddenly a white-hot eruption filled his eyes, and his brain felt too big for his skull. He screamed as it swelled, his teeth cracking against the tile. He squeezed his eyes shut. An agonizing pain racked his body. His legs skittered on the floor. His fingers opened and closed. His eyes fluttered, and he couldn't breathe. Blood leaked out of his eyes, drowning out his vision. Then the black came, seeping over him, filling up all the cracks in his view. His body went slack. "We're losing him," one of the men commented.
"Looks that way," said the one with the tool.
Air rushed out of Ben's lungs as the black took over his mind.
H124 waited outside the door, closing her eyes and concentrating on the theta wave receiver by the door lock. She mentally sent the message "unlock," and the door hissed open. Quietly she stepped inside with her gear, then stopped as she heard noise coming from the main room. Someone still lived in this pod. Her employers had told her that the only way to access the corpse was through the neighboring pod. Weird, but she didn't ask questions. Maybe the deceased's lock was broken. Still, she'd never been inside someone's place while they still occupied it, and she felt uncomfortable, a stranger in someone's home.
She crept into the main room. Her instructions told her they'd created a hole in the wall there. A light flickered on the wall as she moved forward. Not wanting to disturb the occupant, she stepped lightly in her work boots. She knew she'd get in trouble if she interrupted him. She stepped around the corner and saw him, seated before his display, his button pad shimmering in midair just below his hands. The light from his display hovered in the air before him.
She knew about these display setups and button pads that most people were equipped with. But she'd only been in these living pods to clean out the previous tenants after they'd passed on, so she'd never seen the equipment turned on before.
Just ahead, she could see the ragged, dark hole in the wall, but her eyes returned to the floating display.
She'd never seen anything so beautiful. She knew she wasn't supposed to, but she stopped before stepping through the hole. Unable to help herself, she stared at the display. Six windows filled the screen, and the man's eyes darted from one to the other. Both hands fluttered over the button pad, fingers pressing down in such a rapid sequence, she didn't know how he could possibly make sense of what he was doing. In one window he controlled an image of a little man who moved through different rooms of a building, pulling levers and pressing buttons on walls. In another flashed a sequence of unintelligible numbers. Another window held an animated avatar of someone else, a woman, with text flying across the screen just beneath her face. Every few seconds, his hands would stream over the buttons and more text would fly by. A group of people talked in yet another window, sitting around a table chattering about someone named Phil, and how they couldn't believe that he had opted for the small swimming pool when he could have had the bigger one. Along the bottom of the screen scrolled more text: THIS YEAR'S MOST IMPORTANT DECISION! Pick the right candidate! Vote wisely! Watch the candidates' videos! Yes! Vote for your favorite reality TV star in this all-important election to determine which show will be renewed!
In yet another window a little graph fluctuated up and down, beeping out sounds every now and then. Whenever it beeped, the man entered text in the window, pressing some more buttons until it stopped beeping. His eyes never left the display, and his fingers never stopped working at the keypad.
It fascinated her that he could attend to so many things at once. What was he even doing in each of the windows? She had no idea.
He stood up suddenly, and she leaped back into the shadows. He walked to his wall slot as a delivery drone clattered in the vent and came through. The display followed in front of the man, while his fingers kept typing away. The drone hovered briefly, laid down the man's new food tray with the food cubes, then took away his empty tray from earlier that day. It buzzed and vanished back into the vents. Rapidly the man reached out, grabbed the squares, and shoved them into his mouth. Then he returned to his seat, his attention on the display not once faltering.
Her face burning, H124 realized she'd been standing there far too long. If her employers found out, she'd be ticketed. Or worse. They could assign her even more extra duties. She was lucky the man hadn't noticed her. She stepped forward quietly and reached the hole in the wall. Without a sound, she stepped through it into the dead man's apartment.
She could smell the corpse before she saw it. She wondered why they'd waited so long to call her onsite. She followed the sickly sweet smell down a dark corridor to the bathroom. He lay sprawled on the bathroom floor, legs twisted at an odd angle. His bloody head lay in a pool of crusted red on the white tile. She crept closer, staring down at him. She'd never seen a death like this before. She'd seen heart attacks, disease, a broken neck once. But this was different. Violent. She didn't see how he could have done this to himself, even if he'd slipped and fallen on the tile, cracking his head open. She bent closer, looking at his skull. It wasn't a fracture he'd bled from. It was an evenly cut hole in his skull.
She'd heard that if jacked-in citizens unplugged from the network, they risked death. Is this what happened? Had the man's cranial implant malfunctioned?
She slung her tool bag off her shoulder, placing it on the floor. The coppery scent of blood hung strongly in the bathroom, lingering above the fetid smell of decay. She tried to breathe through her mouth and pulled out a thick plastic body bag from her supplies. Kneeling over the body, she rolled him onto his back. She tugged on his shirt, and his face came free from the dried pool of blood. He was heavy, tall and flabby, probably around thirty-five or so. She unzipped the bag and moved it along the floor until it lay flush to him. She sat back on her heels, preparing to roll him into it.
Grabbing his arm, she stopped. A sound echoed up from beneath her. A beeping sound. She paused, listening. It was muffled, like it wasn't coming from this unit. Cautiously, she stood up and walked back into the hall. Craning her neck, she tried to pinpoint the sound. She moved back toward the hole in the wall, thinking it might be coming from the next living pod, but it wasn't. She walked back toward the bathroom. The beeping grew louder. She walked past the bathroom toward the man's bedroom. She stopped at the end of the hallway, just before its doorway. The sound was loudest here, an incessant, unfamiliar beeping. She knelt down, and it stopped.
She waited, but after minutes of silence, she stood up and returned to the bathroom. Stooping down, she rolled the body into the bag. She began zipping it up and looked back at the man's head. The wound was circular and clean, right where his implant should have been. Curious, she leaned closer, staring at the hole. The man's implant hadn't malfunctioned; it was completely gone, and something had seared his brain tissue. She stared down at the blackened flesh, wrinkling her nose at the acrid smell that wafted up.
She looked around the bathroom, seeing a shattered vase, a group of towels spilling out of the hutch above the toilet. Her gut roiled around inside her. Something wasn't right. This wasn't a natural death or an accident.
His brain had been destroyed, violently. He had struggled, fought against someone.
Who had removed his implant? And where was it now? Who would have had access to his pod? Only her employers or a worker like herself. Maybe someone had tried to save him when his implant shorted out. She didn't like it, and she grew nervous, wanting to finish the job.
Excerpted from "Shattered Roads"
Copyright © 2018 Alice Henderson.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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