Table of Contents
“We preside over a planet of what, five million souls? A peaceful society, a stable society. And what keeps it so? Epic.”
“Do Central Allocations even think about what it means to split up friends and families? But what can we do? Even to challenge them on a small decision is to be killed in the arena like your mother. Let alone if someone suggested a really radical change.” Injeborg was worked up, talking as much to herself as to Erik.
“Did you ever daydream about dueling Central Allocations and winning?” he asked her, the thought soaring up from the bottom of his heart.
WHERE SCIENCE FICTION SOARS™
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Copyright © Conor Kostick, 2004
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THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS HAS CATALOGED THE VIKING EDITION AS FOLLOWS:
Epic / Conor Kostick.
Summary: On New Earth, a world based on a video role-playing game, fourteen-year-old Erik
persuades his friends to aid him in some unusual gambits in order to save Erik’s father from exile and
safeguard the futures of each of their families.
[1. Fantasy games—Fiction. 2. Role playing—Fiction. 3. Video games—Fiction. 4. Science Fiction.]
I. Title. PZ7.K85298Epi 2007 [Fic]—dc22 20060199958
eISBN : 978-1-101-17653-5
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume
any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.
A DEATH IN THE FAMILY
A sea mist
had coated the window of the farm’s kitchen with minuscule drops of rain. Erik was trying not to think of the terrible gamble taken by his mum. His nervous attention was focused on the droplets. Erik sat perfectly still, watching the flecks of water as some of them joined together to form larger drops, and these in turn amalgamated. Eventually, a raindrop grew to the point where it could no longer cling to the glass, and with an erratic plunge rushed downward, moving all the swifter as it gathered up the water in its path—a catastrophic event in the world of the million mist droplets.
Next to Erik, apparently paying equal attention to the faded patterns in the wood of their well-worn table, sat his dad. Neither of them had spoken in over an hour, and their shoulders were hunched from tension. At long last, hollow footsteps rang out, changing in tone as they moved from wooden stair to tiled floor. The kitchen door latch was raised and his mother entered.
“Well?” asked Erik. But as soon as his mother had set foot in the kitchen, he could see from her gaunt, pale face that the news was bad.
“I’m dead,” Freya replied, a tremble in her quiet voice.
Harald stood up and pulled out a chair for her. She grasped the chair with a shaking hand and slid into it, not meeting their anxious eyes.
“The poison did no good service, then?” inquired Harald gently.
“No.” She shook her head. “I didn’t penetrate his armor.”
Taking her hand in his, Harald tried to comfort her. “You did your best. We knew it was nearly impossible.”
“At least she fought.” Erik stood up suddenly, energy flooding through him after so much stillness. His dad was a kind man, but Erik was unable to control the bitterness that came from nowhere to rage through him. Mum at least had entered the arena on their behalf; she was the truly brave one. Harald had hidden; he always hid.
“We will find a way.” Harald pointedly ignored Erik, and put an arm around Freya.
“Will we?” She let out a gulping half-cry, a sound that shook Erik with the realization that she had run out of answers too. It was frightening to see someone who had been so steady all his life unable to control herself. “Let’s be honest with each other. At least we have that.” Her eyes were tearful. “We are going to be reallocated.”
Reallocation. Work on the farm was hard. But not as hard as in the coalmines, or on the saltpans, or a great many of the other tasks that had to be done on the planet of New Earth. Reallocation would mean leaving Osterfjord and his friends, and probably it would mean being parted from his parents. Their lives were no longer their own.
“Why don’t you issue a challenge, Dad?”
“Stop it,” Harald snarled angrily. “Still you will not take my word.”
“No. I won’t. Not anymore. It doesn’t make sense.” Erik could feel shrillness rising in his voice and paused to take a breath. “What can be worse than being reallocated?”
“There is worse,” replied Harald ominously.
“Leave it, Erik. We’ve had this out a thousand times.” Freya looked up for the first time since entering the room, and met his eye. “Your father cannot fight for us. That’s the end of the matter.”
“But why?” Erik pleaded.
“I cannot say.” Harald was grim-faced.
“Blood and vengeance. I’m fourteen now. I’m old enough. Tell me.”
Even before he knew he was going to do it, Erik threw the clay mug he was holding against the wall. It cracked apart crisply, the clatter of shards resounding around the kitchen as they fell to the tiled floor, leaving a reddish mark on the whitewash. All three of them stared at the remains in silence. He knew what they were thinking: a massive catastrophe was about to overwhelm the family, yet they were regretting something as inconsequential as the loss of a mug. Almost at once, his anger subsided and Erik felt embarrassed and guilty; it was indeed a waste.
As they paused, each uncertain as to what needed saying, footsteps could be heard running through the yard. Hurriedly rising from her chair, Freya began to gather up the jagged pieces of pottery. Then came a rap on the door.
“Come in!” Either Harald did not care that the visitors would see the broken mug, or else he actually wanted them to.
A golden-haired girl flew in, bringing a breeze and her stocky brother in her wake.
“Injeborg, Bjorn, welcome,” Harald greeted their young neighbors. Freya placed the shards of clay behind a basket and stood up.
“Hello. We’re very sorry about the duel,” Injeborg said earnestly. Behind her Bjorn added his condolences with a nod.
With a forced smile, Freya lifted a stray hair back behind her ear. “Thank you. And thank your parents for the sword and the potion. They must have been worth months of effort. I’m sorry they went to waste.”
“Oh, don’t worry, they don’t regret it. Yours was a good cause. We will miss you terribly if you have to go.” Injeborg’s eager face suddenly clouded over as though she wished to take back her words.
“Erik, take your coat and go with your friends. Your mum and I have much to talk about.” Harald gestured to the door.
“Aye, and behind my back as always.”
Erik slammed the door as he left, the latch rattling and failing to catch. He noticed Bjorn and Injeborg exchange a glance of alarm, but no one spoke. The three walked in silence away from the farm, the hoods of their woollen jackets up over their heads, putting them each in their own world. Erik set a fast pace, even though it meant Injeborg was having to skip from time to time in order to keep up. Bjorn, however, plodded along behind with measured strides. Only when they had crested a hill and brought the sea into view did Erik relent from his moodiness. There was no point fueling his anger and despair, especially in front of his friends; they only wanted to help.