Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
This is really, really not going the way I'd planned.
The two scavengers below are talking to each other in Spanish, laughing and joking about something I can't understand. Lying facedown against the rock, I wriggle forward just enough to see the tops of their heads over the edge of the overhang. One of them is taller, bulky in the shoulders. He's around thirty or thirty-five, and easily twice my size. The other one's smaller, a woman, I'm guessing, by the way she stands — but even she'd have the edge on me if they knew I was here.
You were right, Mink, I should've taken that gun. At the time, it felt good to surprise the Contractor — to make her eyebrows shoot up underneath her bangs and stay there. "I don't need a gun," Id scoffed, not bothering to add that I wouldn't know what to do with one anyway. "No one will ever even see me down there." Because if I were home, if I were scavenging a city on Earth, that would be true.
But studying the topographic surveys and satellite images of Gaia's surface didn't prepare me for just how barren this landscape is. This isn't like the ruins of Chicago, full of sewer tunnels and half-collapsed skyscrapers, with infinite places to hide and move around unseen. There aren't even any plants on this lifeless world, no shrubs for cover or trees to hide in. The scans scientists took from orbit didn't show so much as a microbe. Not surprising, given that something about Gaia's two suns gives off a flare every generation like clockwork and nukes the whole planet. There's just open desert on either side of the canyon, and I'm screwed.
The raiders are filling up their canteens at the little spring under the overhang, the same spring marked on our pirated maps, which drew me to this spot. Though I can't understand their language, I don't need to know the words to tell that they're grumbling about the dusty, sandy quality of the water in the pool. Like they don't get how lucky they are that there's water on this planet in the first place. That there's air we can breathe — sort of — and the right temperature and gravity, though the solar flares dashed all hope of a permanent colony here.
It's still the closest thing we've ever found to a habitable planet, besides Earth and Centauri. And one of those is rapidly dying, the other far beyond the reach of our technology.
We only found Gaia because we followed the instructions left by ancient creatures long dead. There's no telling when we'll find another world like it, unless we find more coordinates in the ruins left by the Undying. Ironic that the aliens called themselves that in the very broadcast describing the way they wiped themselves out.
I hold my breath, hoping that the scavengers don't look around while crouching to replenish their water. My pack isn't exactly well-hidden, since I wasn't expecting company, but they haven't noticed it yet. Idiots. But I'm an even bigger idiot, because I broke my cardinal rule — I let go of my stuff. I put it down because I wanted to see what was over this ridge. The desert is marked by groupings of immense rock formations stretching up toward the sky, swept into shape by the wind, and by water that's long gone now. I'm going to end up marooned a billion light-years from home with no supplies because I wanted to admire the damned scenery. Just a few chunks of red-gray rock stand between the raiding duo and my only hope at survival in this terrain.
Not only does the pack contain my food rations, my climbing gear, my water, my sleeping mat, and everything else I need to live out here — it contains my breather. The atmosphere here's got just a little more nitrogen than Earth's. Eight hours a day or so, you need to strap on a breather and suck in oxygen-enriched air, or you stop being able to think straight, and then your body shuts down. And my breather — my lifeline — is in the bag a meter or two from a pair of raiders.
The man lifts his head and I jerk back, rolling over and gazing up at the empty blue sky. The light of the binary suns is harsh on my face even through the protection of the kerchief, but I don't move. If I don't get my stuff back, I'm dead. I won't even be alive when they come to get me in three weeks, much less carrying enough loot from the temples to pay my exit fee.
My mind scrambles for a solution. I could call Mink — except my sat-phone is in my pack, and the comms satellite won't be over this part of the planet for another six hours anyway. And even if I did find a way to signal her, she made it clear when she dropped me on this rock that I was only getting a ride back off the ground again if I had something to make it worth her while. It costs big to smuggle scavengers back and forth on official supply shuttles through the portal to Gaia, a shimmering gateway in space patrolled and guarded by International Alliance ships. She's not going to bother getting me back through to Earth unless I can pay.
I have to get that pack.
"Tengo que hacer pis," says the man, making his partner groan and walk off a few steps.
I hear the sound of a zipper and then a grunt, and then — after half a second — the sound of something trickling into the spring water.
Oh, for the love of — very nice, asshole. Like you're the only ones on this planet who might've wanted to use that spring.
"Ugh," protests the woman, echoing my sentiments exactly. "En serio, Hugo?"
I tip my head just enough to get a glimpse of the guy standing, feet apart, over the spring, with his hands cupped around his groin — then I clamp my eyes shut again before I can see any more. I so didn't need to see that.
I ought to try to get the jump on them while he's busy peeing, but my hands are shaking, and not from lack of O2. I put up a good front with Mink, and even with the other scavengers I beat out for this job when Mink quietly put out word she was looking. A few knew me from the fences in Chicago, others had come from farther away and only met me while we all scrabbled to get hired. The kid, the little girl, the one who's going down all by herself to raid the temples. What a badass, they said, laughing. What a punk. But in Chicago, no one ever saw me.
The reason I was so good, the reason I convinced Mink to let me work for her, was because no one ever saw me. I never had to fight over turf. I never had to run anyone off. I never had to hold off two experienced and probably armed raiders while I retrieved my gear.
I try to breathe, sucking in air through the kerchief and making it clamp against my chapped lips. I feel for a moment like I'm suffocating, like someone's put a plastic bag over my head — I have to remind myself that it's only cloth, that I can breathe fine, that I don't need that extra oxygen dose for hours and I'm just scared. Just wait, I tell myself. They haven't seen your pack yet. You're fine.
But like that thought was a jinx, the very next sound I hear is the woman's voice, sharp with surprise, summoning her partner. The guy's fly zips back up and booted footsteps crunch across the loose stones and sand — heading toward the boulder half-concealing my pack.
"¿Esto pertenece al grupo?" A boot connects with fabric, and something hard beneath it. They're kicking at my pack.
But that's not what makes my heart sink. Because while I don't understand what they're saying, I do know one of those words. Some of the gangs in Chicago spoke Spanish. Grupo means "group." These two aren't here alone. Mink warned me there were other contractors using this supply and survey mission to smuggle raiders down to Gaia's surface, but I assumed theyd be in ones and twos, like me.
Which means I either get my stuff back now, or they take it back to the rest of their gang, and I have to try to take it back from half a dozen looters instead of two.
I move before I can talk myself out of it and roll over to drop off the edge of the overhang, only a few meters from the scavengers.
The woman jerks backward, half-stumbling in her surprise. "Qué chingados!" she blurts, hand going to her waist, where something in a holster glints in the light.
The guy's less jumpy, though, and merely tenses, watching me suspiciously — and standing between me and my gear.
"I just want my stuff," I say, deepening my voice until it makes my throat ache. I can't make myself look any bigger, but with all my gear on it's not blatantly obvious I'm a girl. Maybe if they think I'm just a short man, they'll think I'm less of a target. I point at the pack. "My stuff," I repeat, more loudly, glancing between them.
I'm wishing I'd paid more attention in Languages before I dropped out — maybe I'd speak more than a few words of Spanish. The only A I ever got was in math, and though it might be the universal language — the Undying broadcast proved that — it doesn't do me much good right now.
"Who the hell are you?" asks the man. Though he speaks with an accent, he tosses the English at me easily. Well, at least that's something.
"Amelio," I shoot back. Not exactly true, but close enough. "And I'm here same reason you are. Just give me my stuff and I'll be on my way."
The woman is recovering from her shock, and straightening as she comes to stand beside her cohort. She's in her mid-forties, I'd guess, with a sun-weathered face. The layer of dust coating her features lightens her skin by a few shades — the dust splits as she grins. "Just a kid."
The guy grunts agreement, and in an easy motion, pushes his coat back so he can hook his thumb into his pants pocket — and, coincidentally, I'm sure, reveal the pistol resting in the holster at his side. "Maybe we take your stuff, enjoy the extra O2, and you run back to Mamá, kid."
I suck in a lungful of air, waiting until I'm sure that frustration won't make my voice rise. "My 'mamá' isn't back for weeks, just like yours. Give me my stuff. Trespassing's bad enough, you really want to add murder? You're not gonna shoot me. I'm one of Mink's raiders. Cross her and you'll wake up dead once you get back to the station." It's a bluff — true, Mink's my backer, but I'm pretty sure she wouldn't give a damn if not all her crew came back from Gaia's surface.
The man, who's easily a head and a half taller than I am, rubs at his chin. There's a few days' worth of stubble there, and the movement rasps audibly through the dry air. "Nobody gonna find you here," he replies. "No body, no crime, eh?" "Hugo," the woman breaks in, squinting at me. "No es niño, es niña."
Shit. I know enough Spanish to understand that. So much for trying to look less like an easy mark.
"Take off your helmet," the man orders.
My heart, slamming in my rib cage, takes over from my brain. "No."
The guy takes a step forward, hand still lingering at his waist by his gun. "Take off your helmet or take off your shirt, your pick."
Instinct tries to make me reach for my knife, but I know it'd be a death sentence. I'm outnumbered and outgunned. Trying to figure out if I'm a young man or a girl isn't going to keep him occupied for much longer, and the truth is these guys won't care I'm only sixteen. They won't care that they'd be killing a minor. They've already broken the IA's planetary embargo just by landing on Gaia, and that's a life sentence all by itself.
The International Alliance doesn't mess around when it comes to off-world law, not after it lost the project that brought Earth's nations together in the first place. Three hundred people boarded that ship headed for Alpha Centauri, the star system closest to ours in the vast emptiness of the cosmos, trying to reach the only potentially Earth-like planet we've ever found. Maybe the reason they failed, the reason they were left to drift and die in space, is because people like this managed to con their way onboard and mutiny. The only way these two got here is the same way I did — by breaking the law — and breaking one more law isn't going to bother them.
I swallow hard, gritting my teeth. Millions of light-years from home, standing on the surface of an alien planet, it never truly hit me until now that the biggest thing I'd have to fear here would be another human being.
Tension sings through my body, the effort of staying put threatening to knock me down — half of me wants to run, the other half to fight, and caught between the impulses I just stand there, frozen. Waiting.
And then a new voice breaks into the conversation. "Oh, thank goodness, I thought everyone might have left!" The words cut through the tension like scissors through a rubber band, and all our heads go snapping toward the source.
A boy not much older than me appears over the lip of the overhang and then comes sliding down the slope of loose scree, laden with a pack so large I could fit inside it with room to spare. He drops it to the ground with a thud, straightening with a groan and rubbing at the small of his back. He's got brown skin and black hair in tight curls cut close to his head, and a broad smile that looks like it could charm the rocks right out of the ground.
His clothes scream "money," with matching khaki cargo pants and vest, a spotless button-down shirt, and boots so new they're still shiny on the toes through their fine coating of dust. He's tall and lanky, with that slight stoop to the shoulders that comes from hours spent poring over tablet screens and keyboards.
Academic, my mind sneers. His type would show up occasionally in Chicago, studying the weather and the climate and whatever else contributed to the mass exodus, and theyd almost always get chased off by a scavenger gang. What the hell are you doing here? The IA doesn't even have the surface open for research crews yet. Hence us bad guys taking advantage of the empty space while we've got it.
He glances between the three of us, brow furrowing. "Where are the others?" he asks, the vowels elongated and the R's softened — English or something, like someone on TV. When he gets no reply, he tries again. "Da jia zai na li? Waar is almal? Wo sind alle? No?" He jumps from one language to another without skipping a beat.
Silence sweeps in to follow him, his smile dimming a few degrees in confusion. It hangs in the air, thickening and thickening until finally the woman snaps. "Who the hell are you?"
The boy's smile flashes back into brilliance at this, and as though he'd gotten the politest of greetings, he steps forward to hold out his hand. "Jules Thomas," he says, inclining his torso a little. He's bowing. He's actually bowing, what the hell? "It's a pleasure to meet you all. If you'd be so good as to direct me to the expedition leader, I can present my credentials and —"
He's cut off by the click of the safety coming off a pistol, as the woman pulls it out of her holster and levels it at the boy.
Jules stops short, smile fading and hand lowering. His eyes flick from the gun to the face of the woman holding it, then to the other raider, and then, finally, to me. And whatever he sees written on my face — fear, exhaustion, general what-the-actual-hell-is-goingon panic — makes his smile vanish.
"Oh," he says.
Well, this could certainly be going better. "I'm the linguistics and archaeology expert," I say, slowly and clearly, lifting both my hands to show them I mean no harm. "I was hired by Charlotte Stapleton — you're with the expedition from Global Energy Solutions, aren't you?" "Global Energy," the woman echoes, gripping the gun like she'd really appreciate the opportunity to use it, if I'd just be so kind as to step a little bit closer.
Mehercule. It's all I can do not to utter the epithet out loud. I knew when I signed on with Global Energy Solutions's not-so-legal plan to bypass the law that the crew I'd be joining was rough around the edges, but I expected to live through my first five minutes of the expedition.
At least they've got decent security, I suppose. That'll be an advantage, once we've sorted this out.
"I'm Jules Thomas," I say again, in case it helps. It's not my real surname, of course. I didn't need my contact Charlotte's repeated warnings not to reveal my true identity. I know better than to let anyone in this crew aside from its leader know who my father is.
Excerpted from "Unearthed"
Copyright © 2018 Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner.
Excerpted by permission of Disney Book Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.