Promise City. That’s the colony I’ve been aiming for all my life on the planet Liberty. The only thing standing in my way? The Machine. On my eighteenth birthday, this mysterious, octopus-like device will scan my brain and Test my deeds. Good thing I’ve been focusing on being Jay Lawton, hard worker and rule follower, my whole life. Freedom is just beyond my fingertips.
Or so I thought. Two weeks before my Testing with the Machine, I’ve stumbled upon a new reality. The truth. In a single sleepless night, everything I thought I knew about the adults in our colony changes. And the only one who’s totally on my side is the clever, beautiful rebel, Peyton. Together we have to convince the others to sabotage their Testings before it’s too late.
Before the ceremonies are over and the hunting begins.
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|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
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The Lying Planet
By Carol Riggs, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Carol Riggs
All rights reserved.
Right after morning sessions end on Friday, the scavenger team brings a charred body into the safe zone.
I'm heading down the walkway with my terraform class when I see the dingy yellow of the team's coveralls. My first impulse is to bolt. But since we're expected to check out the sight when it happens, we gather on the pavement like a herd of reluctant sheep. Other students join in as my girlfriend, Aubrie McKennis, reaches for my hand. All around us, smiles vanish and conversations halt while everyone stares at dried blood and crusty blackness.
Who died this time?
The thought hangs heavy in my mind as I step toward the body on the stretcher. By the build, I can tell it's a guy, despite the signs of genomide poisoning showing through the clear body bag. And now that I'm closer, I can see who it is under the blood-caked soot. It's Mick Garinger. There's no mistaking the wide nose, the mouth that has gone slack. Acrid odors of grease and sulfur fill the air.
Nausea rolls in my gut. Not long ago, Mick was kicking up his feet on the training room desks, harassing shy girls, picking fights with guys, and speeding around the zone on his hoverbike, terrorizing little kids. Not to mention the fire he set in the commander's front yard last year. With that track record, I wasn't surprised when Mick failed his Testing and got banished from Sanctuary.
My gaze locks onto the half-visible B seared onto his forehead. That branding is a silent reminder that banishment from a safe zone equals death.
The head of the team folds his tanned arms and surveys us one by one. "We found Mick in the outer zones. What's left of him. We'll take him to the incinerator complex after we unload our cargo."
No one responds. There won't be any services or stirring words said for a banished guy. Just a stark warning of the stakes. Swallowing hard, I look away from the four men standing on the pavement. I don't envy the team's job. Foraging for supplies and equipment is one thing — finding dead bodies is another.
Aubrie buries her head in the space under my jaw. "Let's go, Jay. I've seen enough."
I guide her away from the stretcher. We thread through our crowd of friends, passing troubled faces, watery eyes. Murmurs and mutters continue behind us.
"That was awful," Aubrie says in a near whisper, twenty meters down the street. "Only four months out there, and look at him."
"The bombed colonies in the outer zones must still be thick with fallout," I say. "If it would just rain here like the trainers say it does on Earth, it might help clear the dust."
"Well, I wish the team wouldn't bring the bodies back to our zone. It seems risky, even in decontamination bags."
"I guess the bags are sealed well." I grimace. Although Mick was a jerk, he didn't deserve to die like that. No one deserves to be slow-burned by a chemical dust that sifts into pores and settles into lungs. I hope after the team is done here they won't cart Mick to the primary education compound for a grisly show-and-tell, but they probably will. Once or twice a year, whenever they find a body, they make the rounds. I hate the idea of my two little sisters seeing something that gross.
Aubrie's slender fingers tense in mine. "Now that we're really close to leaving the safe zones, it feels scarier to see a dust-burned body. It doesn't matter if we're going to the other side of the mountains. Promise City is still in the outer zones."
I'm not going to admit I'm as shaken as she is, or she'll be even more freaked out. Both of us have taken less than a dozen work-project trips to the other two safe zones, and nowhere else past their borders. So what do we really know about what's out there? I shrug. "I don't see why it wouldn't be safe. Promise City sounds like a great place to live. No one wants to come back to boring old Sanctuary after their trial year."
She gives me a tight, crooked smile. "Or else everyone's dead."
"Hey, don't be negative," I say, pushing down my own doubts. "If everyone were dead, the leadership board wouldn't want us to live there, and no one would be left to fly the airships to come get us. We wouldn't be getting letters from my brother and your sister saying how awesome it is over there. We'd hear about it if people were getting sick and dying. Besides, Promise City was built after the War. It has to be dust-free." I nudge her with my shoulder.
Her answering grunt is subdued.
When we reach the preschool compound, I pull her close and give her a kiss. It's like embracing a limp pillow — as though viewing Mick's body has taken the muscles and bones right out of her. "See ya at the Nebula for dinner," I say, keeping my tone light.
"Okay, see ya." She gives me a half smile and a small wave.
As she walks away, her reddish-brown hair flows behind her, almost reaching her curvy hips. Her question about leaving scrapes at my brain. Has seeing Mick scared her so much that she's doubting the plan we've had for the last year? She can't get spooked just two short weeks before I leave. We're too close to my Testing, too close to the freedom we'll finally have when she Tests two weeks after me. Soon we'll be exploring new places, far from the drudgery of the safe zones. Farewell at last, Sanctuary, Refuge, and Fort Hope. She can't change her mind now.
A sleek black utility hover-vehicle cruises along the street, and I snap my hand up in a salute. Sir, yes sir! The commander graces me with a brisk nod and a rusty smile out the driver's window. Our zone leader owns the best of the twenty-two prized UHVs in the zone. His nose is like a hatchet, his eyes shrewd and vigilant.
Two lieutenants ride with him, part of his leadership board. Their heads turn like oiled machinery to watch me on the permawalk. They smile, too.
The vehicle continues down the central street, its ludmium-powered engine nearly silent. After another minute, a hoverbus transport glides past, hauling secondary students for the afternoon sessions — kids who do their community service in the mornings. Laughter, words, and shouts spill from the opened windows. I peel off my jacket, all at once too warm in the early summer sun. I know what gruesome scene awaits those students on the street by the education compound. They won't be happy much longer.
My steps quicken as I try to outrun the thought. I pass the supply station and the food center, then the database hub and the Nebula. And on the next street past the medical center ... I veer left for a detour. I always have a morbid curiosity for this place, but it's magnified by the scavenger team's fresh reminder of what will happen if I fail like Mick did. As I cross the springy plushgrass of zone square and reach the covered indoor stadium, my heart kicks into high gear.
Inside the enormous building, I walk by rows of empty bleachers. My footsteps slow as I near an imposing apparatus.
A full three meters tall, the Machine's silver arms flare out from a single seat, making it look like a predatory mutant octopus. A plexifiber dome encloses and protects it. A biolock secures access to the dome. It looks almost alive, as though it's waiting, sleeping ... conserving energy until it's time for the graduation ceremony.
Shivers crawl down my arms. Eerie as it is, the Testing Machine is my ticket out of Sanctuary. It'll show what I've contributed to the zone and prove I'm worthy to join the colony of Promise City. Thanks to the uncanny way it judges us — and the Board rewarding high scores and threatening banishment for low ones — productivity has skyrocketed. The Machine boggles my mind. For the last six years it's been here, ever since kids were eighteen and old enough for the Testing to start up, it has held the power of life and death on this planet.
A rowdy whoop echoes around the stadium, making me flinch.
"Hey, Lawton, ogling the beast?" a deep voice calls. "Making sure it's recording every single one of your dedicated community services?"
I turn to find one of my friends wearing a helioball cap walking into the building. Nash Redmond. A ludmium-powered pruning device and a maintenance bucket dangle from his hands. Two of our other friends are on landscaping duty with him, carrying tools and wearing gloves. Leonard walks beside him, his lanky form mimicking Nash's casual walk, but Peyton copies no one. Her petite, tomboyish body moves toward me with purpose. Her uniform is mismatched, an orange shirt paired with dark blue pants.
"Hey, Nash," I say. After what we've seen at the education compound, I don't know how he can act normal, almost cheerful. I give Peyton a half smile. "Why are you still hanging out with these guys?"
She grins, her slightly crooked teeth crisp and white against her naturally brown skin. "They're insane. I adore insanity."
"I hope you don't regret it." I toss a meaningful glance at the Machine, and it's not reassuring that she shrugs. She's changed over the seasons, gone renegade. Ever since that one Harvest Equinox party two years ago, when we stopped hanging out. Now she skips education sessions with Nash and Leonard and works at community service only long enough to log in her required hours. I doubt she'll flunk and get banished, but she won't score very high. Apparently the Machine doesn't spur everyone into being more productive.
"Peyton doesn't care, so why should you?" Nash asks me. "All we need to do is pass the Testing, not reach superhero-level scores. Take me, for instance. Do I look worried? No, because tomorrow at my ceremony, I'm gonna pass."
"Yeah," Leonard adds with his scratchy, needling voice. "You really have to pull some serious brainvoids to get banished. Like setting fire to the commander's front yard." Unable to help himself, he breaks into a wheezy cackle.
"Dude, that was priceless." Nash laughs. "Mick the rebel man. Too bad he didn't make it out there in the outer zones."
The emergency station's blaring siren rushes into my memory, along with the five days of sanding and refinishing it took to help fix the irathon-fiber exterior of the commander's dwelling unit. Nothing too hilarious there. Sure, Commander Farrow is a militant psycho taskmaster and no one except the lieutenants and the other adults like him much. But like the commander always says, a higher cause demands higher discipline in our post-War life.
Speaking of which, I need to get to my community service. "Gotta go. Good luck tomorrow night, Nash."
"No worries," Nash says. Beside him, Leonard snickers and gives a loud belch.
"Bye, Jay." Peyton's brown eyes settle on me in a gaze that almost looks mournful.
My eyes lock with hers. A jolt hits me from head to toe. With a shake of my head, I break the spell and hurry from the building, away from a strange, powerful wash of not-rightness that flows over me. What did that expression mean — pity? Does she think I'm so focused on work that I don't have any fun? It's a tricky balance. Our best bet for doing well after we graduate is to score high and get as many rewards as we can at our Testing. To earn a UHV or a cloudskimmer, like I'm aiming for. To own something valuable once we're free of this zone.
Unless Peyton's sad gaze means she misses hanging out with me like we used to when we were younger. Racing our hoverbikes, climbing trees, playing tag with water pistols in the summer, laughing and cracking jokes together ...
Yeah. It's easy to miss all that, but I'm not going to think about things that can't be changed.
Reaching the gardens, I fling my jacket over my hoverbike that's docked by the entrance. I stroll past the office. Beyond the domed greenhouses, the gardens spread out across the countryside, with new sprouts poking up everywhere. They're mostly Earth varieties that adapted well to this soil and climate, sprinkled in with a few native Liberty plants. Farther out, the wheat fields stretch for acres. The musty smell of dirt mixed with cow-manure fertilizer seeps into my nostrils as a yar-fly buzzes past my face.
Dad appears from behind a supply outbuilding. "Grab a shovel, son," he calls. His black beard is a stark contrast to his yellow shirt. "We're planting tomatoes."
"Coming." I nab gloves and a shovel. Dad leads me to a prepped area where quarter-meter-high fledglings sit in pots, clustered like shy, leafy infants. Mom and a pair of green-uniformed workers appear, carting more tomato pots from the greenhouse.
"There you are, Jay," Mom greets me, pushing back a strand of hair that has loosened from her ponytail. "Did you see the burned body at the education compound?"
Like usual, somehow she already knows about the scavenger team's find. Gross news travels fast. And she's always so flippin' casual about it. "Don't remind me," I mutter.
Mom throws me a smile, her hazel eyes softening. "It's a difficult thing to see. But I'm glad you're pushing on, continuing to work. You always set such a good example for the other kids."
"Uh, thanks." She's handing out her normal excess of motherly encouragement. The workers, two fourteen-year-old girls, giggle and send me sideways looks, eyeing the muscles on my arms, whispering loudly about my "gorgeous jawline" and "sexy thick hair." Um, right. Warmth spreads across my face, making Mom laugh as she walks away to continue working. I clear my throat, grab a pot, and get down to the business of tomato planting.
Mick's face haunts me as I work. The matted hair by the red welted B on his forehead. His pale lids closed forever. Yeah, those War-ravaged, abandoned colonies in the outer zones must still be contaminated, even after twenty-five years of ceasefire. At least those colonies are on this side of the ridge, in the western valley. I hope Aubrie's not right about what's east of the Corveira Mountains. If those lands are laced with genomide dust like the rest of the outer zones, it doesn't matter that Promise City has wireless communication, holographic movies, music stored on micro-discs, and all that other great advanced technology we've been told about.
Dad plunks a pair of tomato plants next to my boots. "Special delivery."
I grab one and ease it from its pot. "Dad, does anyone know for sure if it's dust-free on the other side of the Corveiras?"
"The exposure is tested down to possible traces." He ignores my shovel, scraping aside rich black dirt with his gloved hands to make a hollow bed for my plant. "Just like here in the safe zones. Relax. No place on the planet is totally dustless, because of the winds, but no one would stay there if it were toxic. The only thing you need to do is focus on Testing well, so you're not stuck in these zones any longer than you want to be."
That's good to hear. It's also great of Dad to support me even though I'll be leaving soon and creating a big hole in our family. I wish he didn't love this backward zone so much. All five of us could move to Promise City where my brother, Chad, lives. He loves it there, and the way he describes it in his letters sounds awesome. Not that I want to be under Mom and Dad's smothering care any longer than I have to, but if they lived there, my sisters would be a lot closer whenever I wanted to visit. "Yeah, I definitely need to snag a skimmer so Aubrie and I won't have to wait around for an airship."
With a somewhat wistful smile, Dad dusts his hands together. "Don't worry. I hear there's a cloudskimmer in Fort Hope reserved in your name."
I grin. Fabulous. The higher-ups have confidence in my ceremony results. I'm totally going to enjoy learning to fly that skimmer while I wait for Aubrie to join me.
Three hours later, I stretch my back muscles and put away my gloves. I hang the shovel in the supply outbuilding to keep the rising waters of the nightly ground-swells from rusting the metal. With my jacket tucked into my hoverbike's rear compartment, I pedal down the road, gliding just above the pavement. My speed whips the air into a cool breeze across my face and arms, rippling my shirt over my chest.
Hoverbikes may be a majorly prehistoric form of transportation, but mine gets me where I want to go. It responds like magic to my pumping legs. No fuel required, like I'm part of the smooth metal and the circling track propulsion and the hand grips. It's more than the "robust" exercise the Board members say it's good for.
Excerpted from The Lying Planet by Carol Riggs, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2016 Carol Riggs. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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