Running was all that mattered now. Her heart hammered wildly, her ears strained for sounds of pursuit over the whoosh and thrum of her own blood. She dared not turn around. She clung to the hope that it wasn’t behind her, following, hunting. Her foot caught on a tree root and she nearly fell. She reached out in the darkness, palms scraping against the furrowed bark of a tupelo tree. Her eyes probed the shadows for a clear path. Bushes and thick undergrowth choked much of the forest floor but there were places near the tallest trees where the ground was mostly clear. She zig-zagged through the barest places, her shoes digging into soft dirt and rotted leaves, her legs numb with exertion. She’d been running for so long that the burning pain of overworked muscles had grown dull.
She could do it. She could escape with her life. She had to.
Then she heard it: a low, haunting moan that seemed to echo from all around. Her breaths escaped in raspy coughs. There were no other sounds in the forest, not even the rustle of a bird or the harsh chirr of katydids calling for mates. The forest knew what was following her and wanted no part of it. And she was losing light. The sun had set. The last traces of rosy dusk filtered through the forest canopy wherever the leaves allowed.
Just ahead, the edge of a ravine leapt up from the gloom. She skidded to a stop, narrowly avoiding a nasty tumble down the dangerously steep slope. She looked around. To the right, an opening in the leaves above provided a reprieve from the heavy shadows but the forest floor was heavily roped with twining strands of ivy. To the left, the forest thickened into a mass of dark, broad trunks but at least there would be less undergrowth.
Suddenly, the area all around her began to glow, as if some hidden light behind her was slowly coming to life. Thin pine and tupelo trunks were painted in a fiery red light, bright enough that each tree cast a threatening shadow. The creature was near. She ran left, thinking about her family and blinking away stinging hot tears. She hoped to see them again. She hoped to tell her husband and her daughter how much she loved them both. Her body, numb, expected death at any moment but she refused to give in. Ahead, she could see an end to the forest. And something else …
A fence! An old fence whose links were being pulled earthward by heavy vines with thick stalks and fat, crescent-shaped leaves. And beyond the fence: a dim pool of white light illuminated a squat building at the far edge of a barren lot. The building must be an emergency supply depot, no doubt running solely on stored energy from the solar panels attached to the roof, slanted up at the sky. The depot would contain emergency equipment and maybe some kind of weapon. It would have a communication system, too.
She could jump the fence. She could take one step on the constrained chain links and reach the top and hop over. She could reach the building. She could survive. She’d carried a child in her womb for nine months, seven days and an additional fifteen excruciating hours of labor. Her back had endured. Her legs had endured. This pain she felt in her shins now? It was nothing. It was an annoyance.
She could do this. She could send a warning.
All around her, the forest glowed a dark red, as if fire lurked deep inside the trunk of each tree.
She reached the fence and jumped, sticking out one foot and pushing off the damaged diamond-linked metal wires. Her hands fumbled with the cold bar at the top and she held on for dear life, the toes of her shoes digging between the wires. She pulled herself over, dropping to the ground. A sharp pain coursed through her left ankle. She tried to put weight on the joint; it was impossible.
Her family, Kaya and Gustav, if she could send out a warning, then someone would know, someone could ensure her daughter and her husband were safe.
She limped toward the building. From behind her came another low howl that seemed to vibrate all the way to the center of her bones. Biter bile rose from her stomach to coat the back of her tongue. The sun was long gone behind the mountains beyond the squat building but the dark red glow remained. The creature was behind her, so close that she cast a shadow in its bloody light. With each move it made her shadow bounce and stretch, as though desperate to abandon her.
“Kaya … Gustav … I love you,” she rasped, watching her shadow shorten. Her hunter was closing in. It would overcome her and steal the life from her, an alien thief, a parasite. A ghost.
A ghost with dangerous secrets.
She had to survive. If she didn’t get the warning out, the last of Earth’s remaining cities could be doomed. Her family ... she shuddered to think. They’d been so wrong. So wrong about everything. They thought they knew their enemy. This creature closing in on her, this ghost, they did not know it as well as they thought.
She was close to the door of the building now. She could see its touchscreen lock—her thumbprint would open it. And then all that mattered was sending the warning. She thought of her Kaya, and how last she saw her had been almost a year ago, and Kaya had just started primary school and had become obsessed with the periodic table and used pastels to color in the families of elements. She had been so proud of her daughter. Her two-week leave had made her ache to retire from her position so she could return home for good.
But the research was important. The secrets they were uncovering …
The door! She pressed her shaky thumb to the touchscreen. The locking mechanism turned green. Her brain allowed an optimistic surge of dopamine. She grabbed the handle to the door and pulled.
The door refused to open.
“No!” she shouted. The bloody glow spread over the exterior of the building. The creature behind her advanced and her shadow seemed to duck down in fear. She could not hear her hunter moving closer … she could feel it. The soft hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She pressed her thumb to the touchscreen again and again its light turned green. She tried the door again.
Again it refused.
“Please!” she screamed, punching the touchscreen again and again with the palm of her hand. A click—a click! She tried the door again.
This time it opened.
She could get away—
Chapter 1: Skye
The train moved rapidly over its mag-rail, shuddering ever so slightly as it turned north toward downtown Neo-Berlin. Skye’s memory automatically recalled all the relevant information that had been drilled into her brain by Spartan drillmasters. Twenty million people. Fifty-seven skyscrapers taller than fifty stories. Three Phenocyte reactors—two to power the city, one to power the energy shield.
103 VR cannons.
Ten thousand Spartans stationed inside the city proper.
Well … ten thousand and three. Technically.
Skye turned and glanced down at her brother. He was sitting beside her, staring at the opposite window as the tunnel lights zoomed by. His curly brown hair was getting too long; it would need to be cut soon to maintain regulation length. Her eyes were drawn of their own accord to the narrow, puckered scar on his right cheek.
“A scar is a badge,” Father had told Cassidy. He’d said it with pride.
Cassy had only forced a smile, saying nothing. That had been months ago.
The scar would probably always be with her brother. A reminder of the training accident. A reminder of a mistake made during a rifle-training exercise, when all of the 13-year-olds—the Young Adults—crawled in mud underneath razor wire before swarming a hologram of a Specter. The enemy. Some of the kids fired while still running, afraid of the life-like creature whose pre-programmed motions only allowed it to pace and watch its enemies close in. It was a Sebecus Specter, the kind that looked like a humanoid crocodile, with a long snout and a long tail and a row of spikes along its back.
If it was real, it wouldn’t have waited for the kids to surround it.
Skye remembered watching her brother getting stuck underneath the web of razor wire, crying when one of the barbs sliced his cheek. He’d looked so foolish. All of the kids had looked foolish. Too young. Too little.
But I looked the same at that age, no doubt.
It was funny, but the way Skye remembered it, the Young Adult training had seemed too grown-up. Too real. So very serious, with live VR ammunition in the pistols and the eerie, haunting moans of the Specters piped in through loudspeakers. The first real training to become a Spartan.
That had been five years ago. Now, she was a New Adult.
Father was standing just beyond the rows of seats lining the train car, his hand resting on the back of the conductor’s chair. The conductor wore Clan Sparta’s traditional red service uniform. One could mistake him for an Elite, except that he was piloting the mag-train, which was obviously not a coveted position. In fact, the man was most likely not even driving at all. The mag-train had an autopilot feature.
But of course any autopilot program worth a darn was written by someone in Clan Persia. And of course Father didn’t trust Clan Persia any more than he trusted Clan Athens. And so obviously the auto-pilot had been turned off and the conductor was indeed driving the train using the complex array of brightly colored buttons on the massive glass touchscreen console. It was a thankless task and a waste of a soldier.
Father could be just a little paranoid from time to time.
He was looking at Cassidy with narrowed eyes. His upper lip ticked—it was barely visible underneath his heavy white beard. He’d lost most of the hair on his head over the years and had been happy to lose it. No Athenian gene therapy for him; no, he wanted to go bald just like his ancestors did and relished the opportunity to show that he wasn’t moved by vanity. Just because you could cure baldness didn’t mean you needed to. And where some equated baldness with weakness, Father had nothing he needed to prove. His Coterie had killed numerous Specters in the course of their duty.
And that meant glory. Glory was earned. Glory was owned. Glory was affixed to one’s chest in the form of medals and colored ribbons. In Clan Sparta, glory was everything.
Father was off-duty for the day but still wore his Spartan dress uniform, complete with the honorary red half-cape hanging over his shoulder. His cape was affixed with a gold chain. The matching gold buttons on his uniform strained in their buttonholes to keep the fabric in place around his broad chest. He’d rolled up the cuffs of his sleeves, and his narrow wrists belied his otherwise vigorous appearance. He was getting old. Soon, younger Spartan officers would begin challenging his authority.
But Father wouldn’t give in.
When they arrived at Parliament, Father would unroll his sleeves and put on his black gloves to hide his thin wrists. He always did that, Skye noticed.
“Cassidy. What is a Specter?”
“The enemy,” Cassidy whispered.
Skye nudged him. “Speak louder.”
“Cassidy, how do you destroy a Specter?”
Her brother’s hands caught Skye’s attention. His fingers were twiddling madly. He wouldn’t look at Father. “VR bullets.”
“Explain.” The strain in Father’s voice was obvious. Cassy’s hands briefly clutched the red cushion of his seat, then returned to his lap. The seats had no armrests. Clan Sparta’s mag-train was designed to transport as many soldiers as possible. That meant tight seats along one wall and a weapons locker along the opposite wall. A few windows, only to provide a visual of the field.
Don’t let your nerves get to you, Cassy, she thought. Don’t do it …
“A proton pulse,” Cassy whispered. He had a high-pitched voice, soft. It already sounded weak, but when he whispered it made him sound almost pathetic. Father hated when Cassy whispered.
“Cassidy. How do they hunt? Speak up now.”
He shrugged. Finally, he couldn’t control himself. His hand went to his mouth. He began biting nervously at his knuckles. With one long stride, Father was in front of them both. He slapped Cassy across his face. Cassy’s eyes welled with tears. He stared at Father’s gold belt buckle.
Skye fought the urge to flinch. Flinching was a sign of weakness. She wanted to protect her brother but knew any gesture to comfort the boy—even so much as wiping the tear off his cheek—would only set Father’s rage upon her instead. Father was not their biological father. They’d both been created in a test tube, the product of Athenian in-vitro fertilization. Both Skye’s and Cassidy’s parents were nothing more than the frozen eggs and sperm of ancient honored warriors. Still, such things meant nothing to her. Cassy was her brother, plain and simple. And the urge to protect him erupted inside her like a thunderstorm when she saw he needed help.
“Wipe your tears,” Father ordered. He turned to Skye, looking down. “Answer for him, then, since you’re so obviously willing.”
Skye drew in a sharp breath. “Specters are solitary but will call to each other if they sense danger. It’s an instinctual act, one that can be exploited by forcing multiple enemies into tight spaces. They can’t phase through solid surfaces without expending energy, and they’ll draw energy from each other if they’re too close. Shoot the strongest one first, maim it. If it tries to drain energy from the others, kill the weakest ones.”
Father turned to Cassy. “You hear that, boy? Look up.”
Cassy looked up, quickly wiping another tear away.
Father reached out, gently touching Cassy’s chin. Father’s stern expression softened just a bit. The wrinkles on his forehead thinned out. Skye felt a twinge of jealousy. That gentle forgiveness was reserved for Cassy.
“You must know this, boy. The survival of the human race depends on us.”
“I know it,” Cassy said, his voice high and whiny. “I just couldn’t remember it all.”
“Someday, you will be called upon,” Father said. He turned, staring through the curved windshield of the mag-train. The vehicle had begun to slow. Skye watched the conductor’s left hand as he drew his finger slowly along a red switch on the display panel. Inside the rails on either side of the train, the electromagnetic suspension system adjusted flawlessly to the change in speed. Underneath the train, secondary magnets kept it floating. No friction. No wheels traveling along rails. One of Clan Persia’s technological feats, Skye mused.
“Will we see them?” Cassy asked. “Do I have to shoot my gun?”
Father didn’t answer.
“I’ll protect you,” Skye said. She aimed her finger like a gun. “They’ll be farther away than a Disc Toss goal.”
At that, Cassy’s eyes lit up just a bit. He loved Disc Toss—it was a game hesitantly tolerated by Clan Sparta, and only because the elders recognized it to be good fitness training. Skye enjoyed watching Cassy play. In the game he shed his shy, nervous demeanor. He was nimble and quick, but never threw the plate-sized discs for goals. Instead, he maneuvered his way to the opponent’s goal and then passed the disc to a teammate. Skye watched him with a touch of pride. He was going to grow up to be fast.
Now if only he could be a little more aggressive.
Then Cassy will be Father’s favorite, without a doubt. “Skye who?” he might say when someone points out that he has a daughter, too. Maybe I’ll even have to remind him from time to time.
She shook the thought. That was neither here nor there.
“I don’t wanna shoot them,” Cassy whined.
Father spun. “Want.”
“Fine. I don’t want to shoot them.”
For a moment, Skye thought Father might close the distance again and deliver another slap. But instead, Father simply drew in a deep breath. “You’ll do whatever you must to complete your Proving. The Proving isn’t a game. The Proving is your first step to adulthood. You will be tied to the other members of your Coterie for the rest of your life. You will depend on each other. And you will protect the people of Neo-Berlin when called upon.” He made a fist in front of Cassy’s face, causing the boy to flinch. “Glory.”
Cassy looked down. His feet didn’t quite touch so they hung over the floor, swinging slowly. He looked funny, wearing his little gray Ecosuit. The spidersilk fabric was incredibly strong, and just durable enough that it wasn’t a discomfort. The shoulder plates, shin guards and wrist guards were all made of a ceramic fiber, strong enough to temporarily stop a weaker Specter but mostly only good for protecting against more physical threats.
Which, for an awkward thirteen-year-old, mostly meant bumping into things. Kids were so clumsy. Skye couldn’t remember ever being as clumsy as Cassy. He seemed to always have bruises and cuts.
She looked down at her suit—at least it fit well. Her boots were a little snug, but not so much that they were uncomfortable. And the armor was “breathing” like it should, keeping her from overheating. She’d had one of the Spartans in the armory remove the three emergency rations on her belt and replace them with an extra fuel cell. The cell could be used to power the VR rifle or her Xenoshield system, depending on what she needed more at any given time. The short-wave shield wasn’t on yet—if it were, she would feel a very gentle force pushing her butt away from the seat, so subtle that you would completely forget about it a few moments after you turned it on. When it was on, it would be a thin, invisible protection against a Specter attack.
They’d all heard stories of shields failing. Sebecus Specters pulling themselves from the ground, glowing a sickening reddish orange, their lizard-like eyes singling out an unfortunate victim. Coteries who had completed their Proving had a hard time explaining what it was like, coming up against the creatures. The veteran Spartans always said the same thing: “Imagine ghosts. Long-dead ghosts of long-dead creatures that no longer exist. They glow like they’re on fire. You can see through them. They move like they’re swimming underwater. They moan.”
And then they touch you. They move through you. And then you die.
“Listen to your Parliamentarian,” Father ordered. “His name is Gabriel. He will assume leadership. If he’s a good leader, he will seek consensus. If he’s a poor leader, he will try to give orders.”
“Who are the other kids?” Cassy asked.
Father ignored him. He was looking at Skye now, piercing her with his dark brown eyes. He rarely looked into her eyes for so long—her left eye crossed just a bit from time to time, and though it didn’t affect her vision, it made Father uncomfortable. A visual sign of weakness. “Trust the other clan members only as much as you need to. You. You, Skye. You will be their protector. They will depend on your martial skills. They’ve wasted generations skulking in front of their computers and lab equipment while the Specter threat grows. Don’t forget that.”
“I won’t,” Skye said. She felt a touch of pride in the way he was talking to her—like an adult.
Father turned to Cassy. “When I was eighteen, my Coterie underwent our final Proving in the southern swamps of Wei-Gan. Satellite data had pinpointed a small nest of Specters that were getting too close to the rice farms. There was worry that they might damage the farming equipment, and so it was our job to wipe them out. When we arrived, we found ourselves surrounded by more than a dozen Specters. Someone from Clan Persia had made a mistake with the satellite data. Or perhaps not.”
“What do you mean?” Cassy asked, sitting straighter. He’d never heard this story, but Skye had. She’d heard it five years ago when she’d been the little one, the Young Adult, going through the Proving for the first time.
“Clan Persia failed in their duties. They monitor the satellites. They provide tactical data. And they nearly killed us.”
“But Father was too strong,” Skye told Cassy, smiling. She nudged him with her elbow. “He had a few tricks up his sleeve.”
“The clans maintain an alliance because it’s the only way to survive against the Specters,” Father said grimly. “Others will speak of unity and togetherness and all manner of ridiculous notions of brotherhood, but you must always remember that Clan Sparta is the strongest. We are the warriors. We are the ones whose weapons protect the last of the human race. Trust your Coterie no farther than you can spit.”
Don’t trust anyone. Don’t trust the clans, and don’t trust the citizens. Don’t trust Parliament. Don’t trust your neighbors. Don’t trust your shields. When Father spoke, he didn’t make eye contact with Skye. But she understood he was talking mainly to her. It would be her job to keep her brother safe. Some thought the Proving was a dangerous waste of time but Clan Sparta relished the opportunity to take its children out of the safety of the shield. See what Earth was really like.
Ever since the Specters fell from the sky.
The train slowed further. They were close now, moving underneath the massive skyscrapers in the center of the city. Skye leaned back and closed her eyes. She thought back to five years ago, when she and four other Young Adults had followed four New Adults north, beyond the safety of the Shield and into wilderness where Specters lurked. They’d seen only one, just one, but it had been enough to send a jolt of energy through Skye’s entire body. Energy she’d never been able to release, like a spring had coiled tightly somewhere within her.
They had been deep inside an old forest full of new growth and the charred remains of tall, much older trees that had burned in a fire years prior. The black trees stood like skeletal fingers, looming. It was a frightening place, and the sun seemed to set faster than usual so that they were still half a mile from their vehicle when darkness fell. The New Adults had made a mistake. They were confused and arguing with one another. The boy from Clan Sparta and the girl from Clan Athens shoved each other at one point and then one of the Young Adults started crying.
18-year-olds arguing. 13-year-olds crying. And Skye, ever alert, clutching her VR pistol just as she’d been trained. Then she saw it: a lizard-like creature with a long crocodile snout and narrow eyes. A tail. Diamond-like spines protruding from its back.
Its ghostly body lifted out of the ground.
Skye fired her pistol. Again and again and again.
“They hide underground,” Father told Cassy. “They can move through solid objects, but not extensively—it costs them too much energy. That gives you time. When they emerge, shoot them. Don’t hesitate. Don’t be afraid. They can be killed, like all things.”
Father turned back to the windshield. Cassy brought up his hand to bite his knuckles again but Skye caught him, grabbing his hand and pulling it down. She met his eyes and shook her head. He scrunched his face, frustrated.
His face wasn’t clean. Skye leaned in, examining his skin. There were still faint black marks on his cheeks, and cut-like lines under his chin. The marks were from last night’s Carnivale, a silly tradition of the Free Citizens that merged with the clans’ own festivals dedicated to ritual customs. For Clan Sparta, that meant a night of face painting. Black lines were drawn on faces to signify the passing of knowledge. Lines were made sharp with the use of needle-like ink dispensers. Some Spartans simply tattooed them on but most used a washable ink, as the custom had changed over time and facial markings of any kind—with the exception of scars—were frowned upon as “flamboyant.”
The ritual was a rare opportunity to celebrate as a clan and give parents an excuse to publicly dote on their children. For Skye and Cassy, that had meant seeing Father and Mother smiling and laughing as artists—free citizens, mostly—went around and decorated the children’s faces with creative markings in various colors. For the adults, those markings became much more codified: black lines only, except on the darkest skin when white lines were permitted. Each line signified a piece of ancestral history. Knowledge passed on. Each dot one the cheek was a Spartan in one’s own bloodline. A Spartan who had earned glory.
And while Cassy had been content to run around with his friends under the soft blue light of fireworks exploding in the night sky, his sister had spent the entire evening sitting on a stool, back aching, pride burning, as an artist ran a hundred little lines across her head. Father and Mother stood beside the artist, watching with stern faces.
And with each new line, Father told a fresh story about their family lineage.
Now Skye touched her own face, second-guessing her own cleaning abilities. Had she washed away every line? It would be embarrassing to show up at her Proving with a dirty face, a sign of weakness. Cassy seemed to recognized the fear in her eyes and gave a little shake of his head, which satisfied Skye.
“Ah, it looks like we’re the first to arrive,” Father said proudly. The train slowed to a stop. Through the side windows between two black weapons lockers, Skye could see a small, empty station. This was a private stop, directly underneath Parliament. Only authorized mag-trains stopped here.
“Father,” Cassy whispered, pointing.
Skye craned her head to look out the windshield. A single young man was standing beside a white support pillar. On the pillar was an ad screen offering the newest deals on EcoMeat Light, promising fewer calories and twenty percent less sodium than the regular EcoMeat. The bright colors of the ad bounced off the young man’s face. He had narrow eyes and a sharp jaw and a skinny neck. He was wearing a combat suit but it looked too big. A white half-cape hung from his right shoulder. His head was shaved.
“Who is that?” Cassy asked.
“He is your Historian,” Father said in a low voice. “Trust the Historians least of all.”
Chapter 2: Ben
The corridor was empty. S-LED bulbs hung from the ceiling, protected by whorled brown shades reminiscent of seashells. Each one was unique, thin enough that the light from the bulbs glowed through.
Artist’s guild, Ben assumed. All of Neo-Berlin’s underground corridors had their own design. They ran beneath the streets, each with their own conveyor belt to assist in faster travel. Some, in the poorer sections of the city, were simpler. Underground shops advertised products in their windows with smartglass technology that scanned passersby and estimated their consuming habits. In the more affluent sections of the city, the lights hanging from the ceiling might feature some kind of crystal, and instead of underground shops there would be art lining the walls. Or maybe just a simple paint scheme: dark gray, with a dark brown wooden trim and a few mirrors.
Ben preferred the tunnels under the Microscopy building on his school campus. Screens hung from the walls, cycling through images taken by electron microscopes. An eyelash. A butterfly’s wing magnified so that you could see the individual scales with their iridescent colors. A bee’s eye. A drop of salt water, teeming with a dizzying array of microorganisms. On his way to classes, he tried to avoid as many of the commercial districts as possible. They were too bright and too loud.
Tahlia reached up and grabbed his hand. “Look at those, Ben.”
He followed the line from his sister’s little finger to the blue walls on their right, where tall picture screens hung between arcing steel support beams. The screens were cycling through images of Earth’s last remaining cities. Now here was something even better than microscopy: buildings. Bundles of towering skyscrapers distinguishable by their style: Deco-Glass towers were lined with solar panels between tall panes of glass. Brutalfire towers could always be spotted because of the lights snaking up their exteriors. Lifecycle-style buildings always found a way to incorporate plants—plants running up the buildings, plants on patios, even plants on rooftops. “We’re going too fast to get a good look,” he said.
Tahlia turned to their mom, who was standing behind them on the conveyor. “Can we just walk the rest of the way? I want to see all the pictures.”
“All right,” she said. “We’ll get off at the next stop.”
“But we’re going to be late,” their dad said. He stood beside their mom, a full head taller, a full decade older and grayer. Not quite totally gray, not yet. Just a few spots here and there, places where the topical treatment wasn’t doing its job. Ben could fix that. He knew it was a problem with the chemical compound Dad rubbed into his scalp every week. Dad would want his gray hair fixed because he liked to look young. Why not? The technology existed, and simple topical treatments weren’t illegal.
Mom, on the other hand, was the perfect picture of natural, ageless beauty. For a mom, Ben supposed. She was slender, had long brown hair and not a single wrinkle blemished her face. Her body responded well to approved gene therapy, and it might do so for another thirty years or more, depending. Depending on a lot of things. The body is a machine. A self-contained wonder whose little parts work together to make the whole. Don’t want wrinkles? Don’t worry … there’s a procedure for that. Don’t want gray hair? Try this topical treatment. Need a new lung? Just let Clan Athens grow you a new one using your very own stem cells.
But when it came to enhancement … well, then Parliament had a problem with it. Nanobots, genetic therapy to “turn off” or “turn on” certain genes that gave certain people advantages … those were all illegal unless they were of a clear health benefit. There were so many laws against genetic enhancement that Ben couldn’t understand how Clan Athens navigated them. Turning on the “Einstein Gene” to increase brain capacity? Illegal. Turning on the “Super Gene” to add muscle mass? Illegal.
But using optogenetics to let scientists create new neural pathways in the brain? That was legal, although only when it was used to help stroke victims. People like Ben’s dad, who hundreds of years ago would have spent the rest of his life suffering the debilitating effects of a stroke. But instead, Dad completely recovered. It had taken therapy, both physical and genetic. It had been a trying year, one that could have been simplified with a simple nanobot repair algorithm.
Why, exactly, should nanobots be illegal if they could make human beings better?
Ben took a deep, shaky breath. “I think we should walk, too. I’d like to find a restroom before we get to the station.”
“You’ve been outvoted, love,” said Mom, smiling wryly at Dad. He frowned, leaned down and kissed her on the head.
“Gross,” said Tahlia. “Don’t embarrass us in public, please.”
That just encouraged them to snuggle more, floating past picture screens whose built-in cameras identified the romantic gesture and brought up pictures of beautiful sunsets and exotic forests. At the bottom of each screen was a message:
THIS ROMANTIC VIEW BROUGHT TO YOU BY KABULIN ENTERTAINMENT.
Ben felt his stomach lurch, although not for the same reason as his sister’s.
“Don’t use gross,” their mom said sternly. “Not while you’re out on your Proving. The Historian records everything, and language purity is important to Clan Athens.”
“That, and not getting killed,” Ben added. He immediately felt awkward. Bad joke, he thought. Bad, bad joke.
His parents were instantly transformed, their good humor gone.
“Don’t joke about death,” Mom said. “Please, sweetie.”
Dad put an arm around her shoulder. “Everything will be fine. When my Coterie went through our Proving, we didn’t see a single Specter. We went out, repaired some farming equipment, then came back. Kudos all around! I think we even threw a party. Fernando didn’t join us, though—he’s my Spartan teammate, so you know … all seriousness, no fun.”
“They are who they are,” Mom noted. They stepped off the conveyer. About ten feet ahead was another pair of conveyors. The one on the left was moving in the opposite direction. They walked between the conveyors, taking their time. Ben tried to nudge them to walk faster, setting the pace. He needed a bathroom. He could feel sweat gathering at his forehead; sharp pains had begun stabbing him in the stomach.
It could just be nerves. Or it could be something worse. His mind ran through a dozen different scenarios, but the only one that made sense was some kind of side-effect of the injection.
Not good. Not good at all.
“What city is that?” Tahlia asked, pointing to a large cityscape hanging on the wall to their left. The image moved in time-lapse. As they walked past it, the sun rose behind the tall shimmering glass skyscrapers, painting the water along the shoreline a dark orange. The sun moved, disappeared out of frame, and then very slowly the light faded. The lights in the skyscrapers became more visible.
Stars appeared in the dark sky.
They all stopped, admiring the image.
“Stars are so beautiful,” Tahlia said. She reached over her shoulder. “Mom? I have an itch.”