By C. J. Darlington
A fast-paced, character-driven space adventure that’s reminiscent of science fiction’s golden age. —KATHY TYERS, author of the Firebird series
In 2160, a teenager becomes the bait to capture her missing revolutionary parents she thinks are long dead.
Grey Alexander has one goal—to keep herself and her younger sister Orinda alive. Not an easy feat living unconnected in the North American Wildlife Preserve, where they survive by smuggling contraband into the Mazdaar government’s city zones. If the invisible electric border fence doesn’t kill them, a human-like patrol drone could.
When her worst fear comes true, Grey questions everything she thought she knew about life, her missing parents, and God. Could another planet, whose sky swirls with orange vapors and where extinct-on-Earth creatures roam free, hold the key to reuniting her family?
Grey Alexander crouched behind a fat saguaro cactus and tried not to think about getting killed.
“Hear anything, Rin?”
Her younger sister Orinda listened with her auris plug then shook her head. So far, she’d heard nothing but a thundering herd of thirsty zebras. But that didn’t mean they were safe.
Grey knelt in the hot, gritty dirt. Flyovers didn’t happen often in the Preserve, but with a bounty on the heads of the unconnected, some pilots considered them easy money. And Mazdaar didn’t care if the bodies were still breathing or not.
She tapped at her bracelet controller, and the turquoise stone transformed into a grid of thumbnail touchscreens. Running her finger across the grid to activate the ocelli contact lenses in her eyes, Grey focused on a stretch of sage-pocked desert a quarter mile away. They hadn’t been able to afford implants for both of them, instead designating Rin as the ears of the mission and Grey as the eyes.
The ocelli immediately brought the area into sharp focus. Along the edge of Grey’s vision field, tiny red numbers indicated 8x zoom and F16 aperture. She sometimes imagined she could see the voltage of the invisible electric border fence shimmering in the desert heat.
Grey tapped her wrist again, wishing the lenses could perform x-ray scans. What if she missed a robot drone?
“Looks clear to me,” Grey said, giving her sister a thumbs-up. They sprinted across the desert floor, darting around the scattered scrub and ironwood trees. Her heavy pack thumped uncomfortably against her back, making her glad Orinda had the lighter one.
The sisters zeroed in on their target, a sandstone rock they’d strategically placed to mark where they’d dug under the fence last time. As soon as they reached it, Rin tuned in for any sounds of a patrol. Grey waved her hand over the ground. Her DNA registered in the chameleon cloth sensor and an outline appeared in the dirt, revealing a three-foot=square piece of fabric. Able to match the image of any surface and project the picture onto itself, it masked their hole perfectlyh. Grey had traded a month’s worh of food for it.
Quickly jerking the chameleon cloth away and being careful to keep her hand on her side of the fence, she stared at the thick, black wire snaking across the ground above the hole. Grey licked at her cracked lips and slipped out of her pack. Luckily, the fence only emanated an electric force field upward and Mazdaar hadn’t bothered to bury the wire more than a few inches.
She shoved her pack under the wire before slowly slithering after it on her stomach. Many had died trying to cross this border, and now she could hear the wire humming with voltage that could kill her too. Halfway across, with the wire only inches from touching her tack, she sucked in a breath and caught a mouthful of dust. She suddenly felt trapped, pinned down, and unable to escape.
“You have plenty of room,” Rin encouraged her.
She forced her body through the rest of the way and clambered to her feet on the other side of the border, gasping in air. She gave the area one last scan, glad no cameras were installed out here. It was just them and the lizards.
Grey waved for Rin to follow, and her sister didn’t hesitate. She slipped under the wire and joined Grey on the other side. Grey repositioned the chameleon cloth, and they were off again at a jog.
This stretch of the border between the Alamo Republic and the North American Wildlife Preserve was always the least patrolled. Only drones traveled this far from the city zones, and the few unconnected people who managed to stay alive in the land of canyons, cacti, and lions didn’t want anything to do with Mazdaar.
Still, they could never be too cautious. As far as Mazdaar was concerned, both she and Orinda were outlaws just by being unconnected. The contents of their backpacks alone could send them to the Mars prisons, not to mention their black-market implants and the small, unregistered coilgun Grey wore in a holster around her ankle. It would never be as powerful as any of the laser weapons of Mazadaar, but it would protect them.
Grey huffed a little as they jogged, sweat trickling down her temple. If she and Orinda were to race, Rin would win every time. Thinner, stealthier, and with the grace of a coyote, her fourteen-year-old sister was the only reason Grey had taken these smuggling jobs in the first place. Alone, she might’ve given up when Mom and Dad disappeared, but Rin gave her a reason to survive.
“Two more miles.” Rin was barely breathing hard.
“He said to wait in our usual spot,” Grey said. She pulled out a rag and tried to clean up her dirt-streaked face as they slowed their pace. She didn’t want to look like a wild animal when they met up with Jet.
Rin sent a grin her way. “Tired?”
They laughed, but Grey kept award of her surroundings. They could still be shot on sight.