Rebel Born – Amy A. Bartol

I’m not gonna watch the Opening Ceremonies of the Secondborn Trials. Everyone needs to shut up ’bout it, too, especially the Diamond-Fated announcers with their fancy clothes and celebrity gossip. I glance at the three-dimensional visual screens dappling the walls as I make my way from the shower closet to my locker. They installed these holographic monitors just for this tragic event, so none of us secondborns will miss just how insignificant our lives are to them. It makes me wanna puke. I feel a scowl wrinkling my nose when I look at the images of the bubbleheaded news anchor standing beside her counterpart with the high-pitched voice and glittering lashes. Neither of them would last a day as a Sword secondborn soldier. Not even for a minute. Water drips from my hair. I slump down on a steel bench. My muscles ache from dragging metal boxes of ammo cartridges after the supply-chain vehicles broke down today. I still have titanium shavings under my fingernails. Annoyed by the prissy chatter, I toss my wet towel at one of the nearby life-sized holographic projections, hitting it just right so that the light skews and cuts everything in half. The reporters now resemble severed bodies. The images’ shrill voices prattle on, though, ’bout Roselle St.

Sismode—’bout her ascension to heir after the death of her firstborn brother, Gabriel. “Ahh, Gilad!” Hazel gripes from her locker, several units down. She slams it shut with a bang. “I was watchin’ that!” “Nothin’ to see but a bunch of secondborn competitors at the Silver Halo,” I mutter. “They’ll be dead in a few days, and if we’re lucky, we’ll still be alive.” Hazel ignores my lack of enthusiasm. “They’re about to start the exhibition—Roselle St. Sismode and some firstborn dope from Stars are going to duel on a platform in the arena. She’s gonna crush him. She’s got the new Salloway Dual-Blade X17!” “She’s gonna be The Sword one day,” I snarl.

“You’d think they’d play it safe with her.” “But Roselle’s already a Sword anyway! She was one of us. Badass.” Hazel flexes, showing me her rippling muscles. She moves to the visual screen’s projection port and snatches my towel away. The hologram becomes whole again. “She doesn’t need anyone’s protection from anything.” “You never met her mom.” The coverage pans to the crowd in the sky arena above the Fate of Virtues. For a few minutes I can’t help but aggressively scan it for Hawthorne.

I haven’t heard from him since he left our Base. We were best friends when he was secondborn. I’d thought he’d find a way to contact me—tell me he’s okay, ask me how I am. I was wrong. I’ve heard nothin’ from him. He ghosted me the minute his brother, Flint, died. He’s firstborn now. Traitor. He’s probably at The Trials tonight, even though he used to hate it. Once upon a time, he’d be anywhere Roselle was.

He lost his damn mind for her at one point, thought he was in love with her, but then he ghosted her, too. I saw her around after he left. Like me, she took it hard. Now she’s firstborn, too. I wonder if she’ll forgive Hawthorne. I won’t. I would never have lost touch with him if our situations had been reversed. I hope he’s still in love with Roselle and that he has to watch while she marries that Salloway creep who the announcers say she’s engaged to, because karma. Suck on it, Hawthorne. My stomach aches.

Hurriedly, I dress for sleep. I just want to go to bed and not have to think about any of these people ever again. I slam my locker shut and pass a horde of orange-uniformed locker-room attendants. They move down the aisles, opening lockers and pulling out armor, tossing it into hovering collection receptacles. I grab an attendant by the arm, startling him. “Hey,” I growl at the young Stone-Fated secondborn, “where’re you takin’ our armor?” “You’re getting new requisitions—Burton Weapons Manufacturing’s upgrading ’em.” My eyebrow quirks. “Yeah?” “Yeah. This is our last air-barracks of the night. We were supposed to be done with our Tree by this afternoon, but we fell behind.

” “When do we get the new stuff?” “In the morning—first thing.” I smile and let go of his arm. My armor was starting to smell like dead rodents. I could use a new liner at the very least. I exit the locker room. The catwalk leading to my capsule is practically barren. Everyone’s either in their capsules watchin’ the Opening Ceremonies or in the airship’s rec room watchin’ it together. I don’t go to the rec room anymore. It reminds me too much of Edgerton and Hammon. An ache caves in my heart.

I clench my teeth and pant a little to work through the pain. I don’t know what happened to my friends. Hamm and Edge were here one day, gone the next. No explanation. No good-bye. No nothin’. That creepy freak, Agent Crow, thought I might have had somethin’ to do with it. He took me down into Census’s hole beneath this Tree Base and interrogated me. I thought he was gonna kill me, but he must’ve realized I knew nothin’ ’bout where they’d gone or why they’d left. I think he kept me alive so he could watch me to see if they’d contact me.

So far they haven’t. Whatever happened to them, I hope that steel-toothed, psychopathic Census agent never finds ’em, because if he does, they’ll probably wish they were dead. Exhausted, I climb the ladder to my capsule, crawl inside, and close the hatch and stretch out on my mat. The small space is a cozy cocoon, and I’d stay in it forever if I could. I just want to be left alone. I hate people now. Well, I don’t hate them. I just don’t want to be friends with any of them. It’s nothing personal; it’s just that they all die or leave. It’s not worth it—friendship.

I scrub my hand over my scarred face. I resist turning on the visual screen embedded in my ceiling, for a little while, but then I think about Hamm and Edge. What if, somehow, they show up at the Opening Ceremonies? Before I know it, I turn it on, blinking as my eyes adjust to the bright light. The scene is chaos. People running— screaming—in every direction. It takes me a second to understand that an attack of some kind is taking place in the Silver Halo. People are slaughtering each other. I sit up on my thin mattress and throw aside my blanket, knowing I should do something, but what? My nose wrinkles. An acrid scent burns my nostrils. I lift my hand to cover my nose and mouth.

Hissing clouds of white vapor fill the air through my capsule’s vents. My eyes water, but when I wipe them with the back of my hand, I find a streak of blood, not tears, on my skin. Sounds of coughing and moaning erupt in the airship. I clutch my blanket and try to cover the vents. Blindly, I fight to open the capsule’s hatch, but it won’t budge. Kicking it does no good, even with both feet, as hard as I can, over and over. Light-headedness overwhelms me. My lungs feel like they’re melting. Through the slit between my swelling eyelids, I witness the end of the world play out on the ceiling of my capsule until my last, dying breath. Chapter 1 The Poison of Our Age My wrists are bound with steel cuffs.

Hawthorne viciously prods me forward. I stumble behind Agent Crow, through the blue banners, and exit the Sword balcony at the back of the Silver Halo suite. I glance over my shoulder, but it’s not the ache of betrayal that wrenches my heart. It’s fear that whatever has happened to Hawthorne is irreversible. Silver light beams from his eye. I might have caught a glimpse of it the last time we were together, but I can’t be sure. I can hardly process what’s happening now. Screams of terror echo throughout the colosseum’s corridors. I’m surrounded by no fewer than a dozen Zeros. Fast and ferocious, these once ordinary people pounce on the scattering spectators fleeing the Secondborn Trials.

Switchblade-sharp claws extend from the monsters’ fingertips. The flesh of their victims rips. Blood, slick and gory, blooms in patches of red everywhere I look. I tug against the cuffs on my wrists. Hawthorne clamps his hand on my nape and squeezes until I wince. A warning that he can snap my neck in seconds if I resist. I stop struggling and stumble to keep in step with my captors. Through the chaos of the ensuing massacre, I study the Zeros. On the back of these predators’ hands, zero-shaped monikers suck in light like black holes. Silver beams extend from their left eyes.

They move as an otherworldly pack, in an intricate choreography, without fatigue or missteps. Like one machine, they slaughter with precision everything that moves, everything that isn’t one of them or part of Census. All except me. I shudder. They must be communicating, but in a language that only they understand. None of the other marauding Zeros approach the team surrounding me. Instead the monsters busily butcher everything with a pulse. Unafflicted firstborns and the secondborn competitors attempt to escape from the floating colosseum and are immediately pursued. My training and experience as a soldier keeps me from being sick. I can’t help anyone! Another shove compels me forward.

We pass a gondola station that leads to the training field below. Blood and carnage litter the platforms. Some firstborns jump to their deaths rather than be caught by the Zeros. The hairs on my nape stand on end. “Why are you killing firstborns?” I growl at Agent Crow. “Why not?” he replies in a blasé tone, reaching to brush wisps of my hair from my face as we walk. I recoil from his touch. “They won’t do well in our new society, Roselle. We’re doing them a favor.” His mouth curves up, exposing the steel teeth that stand in stark contrast to his supple lips.

The black disc adhered to his temple blinks with eerie blue light. It must be how he manipulates the silver-eyed cyborgs. Their obedience to him seems absolute. He doesn’t have to say a word. He somehow just thinks, and they respond. He’s depraved. The inky tattoos near his temples and on his throat are deceptive. Although hundreds of the socalled kill tallies are visibly etched into his skin, they only represent a fraction of the deaths he’s caused. His skin would need be covered from head to toe in order for it to accurately represent all the people whose slaughter he brought about tonight. Agent Crow guides us to a staging area where a nondescript medical-supply airship awaits with its ramp down.

The Census agent enters the front of the ship, while I’m shoved up the open ramp by the killers behind me. Inside the tail, I find that the airship doesn’t have any cargo, nor any seats. The monster that was Hawthorne flings me to the metal floor. Sitting up, I push myself to the wall, lean back against it, and draw my knees up to my chest and rest my forearms on them. I’m not sure how smart these Zeros are when they’re in Black-O mode or whatever it was that Agent Crow called it back when we were on the Sword balcony. The woman who’d cuffed me made the mistake of securing my arms in front of me. If I can reach a sword, I’ll have no problem cutting them off. But there aren’t any swords. No weapons of any kind here in the cargo hold. It’s just me and the Zeros.

The airship door closes, sealing us in. My throat tightens. Dim lights come on, but it’s still dark. The Zeros’ eyes glow like small moons in the night sky. Gore mottles their mouths, their clothes, and their fingers. The steel claws seem to have retracted into their fingertips, but I know they’re there. The vessel rumbles and lurches upward. The Zeros don’t move. They don’t talk. They gaze straight ahead.

They seem barely alive. Hawthorne sits across from me and several bodies over. He isn’t smeared in carnage like the others. I don’t think he was in the fight at the Silver Halo, which means Agent Crow wants to use Hawthorne some other way. More than likely against me. My wrists tremble on my knees. Or maybe it’s my knees trembling. Or maybe it’s both. I thread my fingers together, but the trembling doesn’t stop. Panic seizes me.

It’s hard to breathe. I feel dizzy. Sweat soaks the back of my white sparring outfit. Wisps of damp hair cling to my cheek. I have to wait for several minutes in the grip of the panic attack. When it finally subsides and my breath isn’t coming out in hacking pants, I try to get up, and all the creatures look at me at once. They’re ghosts; the real people are gone, and these demons are what’s left. It’s like I knocked back a shot glass full of pure adrenaline. My stomach roils with fear. I press myself against the wall and rise.

Carefully, I walk between the Zeros until I’m across from the ghoulish Hawthorne. I kneel in front of him. He stares, but it’s as if he isn’t really seeing me. “Hawthorne.” I try a normal tone, but it comes out in a breathless whisper. “Remember when we first met? It was in Swords, when the airships fell from the sky. Remember?” My voice quivers. Tears spill down my cheeks. “You tried to help me, and I hit you in the nose?” He doesn’t even blink. I sit down and cross my legs.

“You rescued me when I was Crow’s prisoner in Census. You were so brave. Nobody in my family lifted a finger to help me. It was you.” I touch his hand, wanting so badly for him to hold me. Suddenly he focuses. He pounces, wraps his hand around my throat, and squeezes. My face burns hot. My windpipe feels crushed. I hold up my hands to him, palms out, in surrender.

He lets go. I cough and sputter and gulp breaths, gasping when I finally get my voice back. “Okay, so no touching.” I wipe tears from my cheeks with my sleeve. My fingertips glide over my ravaged neck. “I know you’re in there somewhere, Hawthorne. We’re a half-written poem, you and me. Wherever you are—whatever basement in your mind they’ve got you trapped in—I’ll find you. I won’t leave you down there alone.” As if it’s just the two of us here, I remind Hawthorne of everything we’ve shared together.

Every stolen moment when we were secondborns. Every kiss. Every caress. My throat aches, but still I talk. Hawthorne stares straight ahead. No reaction. No indication that he hears me or understands me. Hours pass with no sign of recognition. The pain of it is too much. It’s too real.

It threatens to bury me. I hold my head in my hands and give in, sobbing quietly. The cargo ship begins to descend. The touchdown is smooth. Wiping my face with the back of my sleeve, I try to pull myself together. The tail opens. Humid air rushes in. The sky is still dark, but tall lamps loom above us, like those that line the secondborn military Bases in Swords, throwing stark white light on everything. Hawthorne stands in unison with the other mind-controlled monsters. He grabs my arm and roughly hauls me out of the hold.

Agent Crow waits on the hoverpad. The black beacon on the side of his head blinks blue. Around us palm trees sway in a salty breeze. Balmy air blows loose strands of my hair. “Pleasant trip?” Agent Crow asks. He smiles, baring his wretched steel teeth. Normally I try to have something scathingly sarcastic to say back to him, just so that he remembers he hasn’t beaten me. This time I don’t. This time he has destroyed me, reached inside me and torn my heart out, and I know this is only the beginning. “Where are we?” My voice is gravelly.

“A little place we call The Apiary,” he replies. “It’s a small island near the Fate of Seas, one of the first military Bases to have Trees. It’s been decommissioned, as far as most people are concerned. Not a lot of people outside Census know of its existence.” I can just make out the ocean in the distance. All around us lie the relics of a decrepit military Base. Ancient airships that I’ve seen only in holographic history files rust out in the open. Everything is at least a few hundred years old. The only lights shine from the Base’s Trees and infrastructure. Nothing but water lies beyond the Base, from what I can tell.

Behind us, rough, tree-lined, rocky crags dapple the horizon. No other signs of civilization. Viable airships hang from the Trees’ branches, but they’re not current models. I wouldn’t know if I could fly one unless I got inside the cockpit. Behind me the cyborgs form two lines, equally spaced. Efficient. Mindless. Controlled and manipulated by a psychopathic Census agent. Agent Crow strides ahead of me into a Tree’s trunk. I’m prodded to follow.

A familiar dimness greets me inside the Tree, but the smell isn’t the same as the military Trees I inhabited as a soldier. Energy thrums and snaps in the air. There’s an overcharged, singeing scent that, if I licked my fingers, I could probably taste on my skin. As it is, I feel it in my chest. The hair on my skin rises, from the smell and from fear. This structure, a docking station for military air-barracks that was tantamount to a small, thriving city for soldiers, has been resurrected to fit the needs of madmen. We enter a warehouse for hundreds of thousands of adult-sized canisters—cylindrical tanks filled with fluid. Blue neon light glows from the tops and bottoms of the transparent capsules. Inside each is a person, curled in a fetal position, floating. Some resemble modern Homo sapiens.

Others don’t. Some are amalgamations of different species. Others are unifications of human and machine. Above us are levels of canisters as far as I can see, arranged in concentric rings like the cross section of a real tree. Agent Crow teeters on the edge of mania. His insolent smile cuts through my haze of disbelief. “Would you like a history lesson of the Fates Republic, Roselle?” he asks. “Not the one you’ve been taught in Swords, about the nine Fates forming for the common good to create perfect symmetry between the classes. That’s mostly propaganda. I’m talking about a real history lesson.

” “Enlighten me,” I reply. He clasps his hands behind his back, and we stroll together through a ring of the glowing tanks. “Unimpeded progress in technology and medicine has always driven our civilization forward. Some advances came with unpleasant side effects, though. Years ago, the average life expectancy expanded exponentially in a very short period. Our population was exploding. We were on the brink of exhausting all our natural resources, of bringing catastrophic destruction to the planet. We were wasting away. Something had to be done. At the same time, a powerful ruler by the name of Greyon Wenn the Virtuous came into power.

Have you heard of him?” “Of course,” I reply. Like lurking rats, we continue between the glowing containers. “Greyon was a ruthless warlord and a brilliant strategist. Brutal in his tactics, he slaughtered his rivals when they surrendered, and he set about systematically toppling every other government until he became the first supreme ruler to dominate the world. He formed a single unifying government and presided over it with unmerciful aggression.” A sudden spasm of motion explodes in the cylinder next to me. I lurch away. Hands press against the transparent surface. An open mouth with sharp fangs gropes the glass. Black, glassy orbs bulge from the creature’s head.

Gills cover its neck. Webbed fingers paw at us through the fluid. Hawthorne shoves me away from the tank, propelling me in Agent Crow’s direction. Agent Crow snickers and keeps walking. “You surprise me, Roselle. You know our true origins. Your mentor, Dune, taught you well. You’re not as ignorant as most people I encounter.” “Dune always said, ‘Know your past so you can avoid it in the future.’” He chuckles.

“What else did he teach you about Greyon Wenn the Virtuous?” “Grisholm Wenn-Bowie was said to be a direct descendant of Greyon,” I reply numbly. “Yes, you could trace his family line all the way back to the supreme ruler . but the same could be said about you, Roselle. The St. Sismode line directly descends from Greyon. Some say that the Wenns and the Bowies have the name, but it’s your family that has the blood.” “They’re all dead now,” I say. “You and your minions decimated them.” “All except for you and your mother. But the Wenn and Bowie lineages lost their nobility and intelligence years ago.

We simply rectified the genealogical error. We relegated them to where they belong—a footnote in history. But getting back to Greyon . The world was staggeringly overpopulated and growing more so in peacetime. Greyon Wenn decreed that restrictions be enacted on procreation. His government began issuing birth cards, a rudimentary way to give permission to a couple to have a child. Firstborns weren’t the only ones allowed to have birth cards. It was based purely on genetics. Once undesirable traits were expunged, it became an issue of privilege. Cards were dispensed at higher and higher prices.

Families died off. Inherited wealth became a way to ensure the survival of the family name. Finances were pooled and given to firstborn heirs to keep family lines alive. Only the elite could afford to have children. “The government began issuing cards for secondborn children, but with the explicit provision that the child be given to the government when the secondborn reached adulthood. And voilà! The Fates Republic was formed. Of course, there will always be rule breakers, and enforcement of laws is essential—so Census was born.”

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