Authors: Lara Morgan
Five hundred years into the future, the world is a different place. The melt has sunk most of the coastal cities and Newperth is divided into the Haves, the “Centrals”; the Have-nots, the “Bankers”; and the fringe dwellers, the “Ferals”.
Rosie Black is a Banker. When Rosie finds an unusual box, she has no idea of the grave consequences of her discovery. A mysterious organisation wants it – and will kill to get it.
Forced to rely on two strangers, Rosie is on the run. But who can she trust? Pip, the too attractive Feral, or the secretive man he calls boss?
From Earth to Mars, Rosie must learn the secrets of the box – before it’s too late.
The first gripping volume in the Rosie Black Chronicles.
Rosie shone her torch down among the scattered bricks. The light picked over dust and thick spider webs, and slid down into a deep fissure in the tunnel wall. She leaned forward to peer into it, then let out an exclamation that echoed in the darkness.
“What is it?” Juli said.
“There’s something in here.”
Rosie bent over and reached down into the gap. Her fingers brushed past cobwebs then touched something hard. It felt like a box. She grasped it and pulled, waggling it from side to side until it came free.
“Ew.” Juli recoiled at the thick dust and the spider webs clinging to Rosie’s arm.
“It’s only dirt.” Rosie held up her find. It was definitely a box, slightly larger than her hand and with a raised design of some kind on the lid.
“Hold this.” She thrust her torch at Juli who shone the beam of light down onto the box. Rosie rubbed at the dirt covering the lid, but not enough came off for her to make out the design on top.
“I wonder what’s in it,” Juli said. “Maybe it was buried before the Melt.”
“I don’t think it’s been here that long.”
“It’s dirty enough.” Juli clamped the torch under one armpit and shrugged her pack off. “We should clean it up so we can see what it is.” She pulled a water bottle from her pack and flipped open the lid.
“Wait, what’re you doing?” Rosie grabbed her hand.
“What? Oh, yeah.” Juli looked embarrassed. “I forgot it wasn’t a refill.”
“You mean this isn’t even recyc? It’s pure?” Rosie couldn’t believe Juli had been about to tip out a bottle of spring water that cost more than her shirt.
Juli made a face and snapped the lid back on. “Sorry, that’s my vacuum suckage brain. You better have this.” She shoved the bottle into the pack Rosie was carrying and grinned at her. “Come on, let’s blast out of here. This place is creeping me out. Also, I’m starving.”
Rosie rolled her eyes and took her torch back from her. For a skinny person, Juli was hungry a lot. “Okay. We can wash the box in the river.”
They climbed up and out of the tunnel, both of them squinting as they emerged. The afternoon was hot, sunlight a glare against the ruined buildings surrounding them. On her left a patch of cracked asphalt had salt-twisted trees growing up through it like weeds and on her right the rusting carcass of what might have been a car lay half buried under a wall. Rosie knew they shouldn’t be here. The Old City was a narrow strip of mud and broken buildings alongside the river and was full of obvious and hidden dangers. It was outlawed, not even the gangs came here. The last time she’d come she’d almost been tagged by a Senate surveillance copter on her way out – not to mention there was always the risk of running into a Feral – but it was worth it. Some of the stuff she’d found here had bought enough food for a week.
“We should be able to get down to the water over there.” She pointed towards an opening between some trees and a dilapidated building on the riverbank.
Juli squinted. “You sure that wall is all right? It’s really leaning.”
“We just came out of a half-collapsed tunnel and you’re worried about that?”
“Better safe than squished.”
Rosie dumped her pack on the ground. “Come on, it’s been there hundreds of years. I don’t think it’s going to fall down right this second.”
“Suppose not.” Juli sounded doubtful but followed as Rosie pushed through the clumps of knee-high salt reed to the water’s edge.
Far out in the middle of the river and further west towards the sea, the tips of a few old skyscrapers rose above the swirling current, and King’s Island, the tall stone memorial to the city that had once been, was a dark spike against the slowly dropping sun. In stark contrast upriver were the glimmering towers and buzzing shuttle lines of Newperth. The city was high-density, geothermal-powered shiny brightness – well, Central was, anyway. Outside Central things were less shiny and more prone to murk and power outages, but from where Rosie crouched, it was the apartment towers of the wealthy that stood out, the reflective UV shields shimmering in rainbow hues. Beyond them was the enormous monolith of plasglass and biostone that was the Orbitcorp complex where her aunt worked. Orbitcorp had its own spaceport, right in the middle of Newperth. Even now she could see the faint trail of ultra-heated vapour extending up into the atmosphere from one of the transports. She wondered if Aunt Essie knew anyone on it.
“Mars to Rosie.” Juli squatted beside her. “The tide will be in soon if you don’t hurry.”
“Yeah, okay. I’m doing it.” Rosie sluiced warm river water across her find, rubbing at the mud.
A dark blue, round-edged box made of lightweight metal emerged. There were four silver buttons, each the size of a fingernail, on the front, and stamped into the centre of the lid was the raised design of a half-sun with the rearing figure of a horse and rider rising above it.
“What is it?” Juli traced the sun with her finger.
“Don’t know.” Rosie frowned. There was something familiar about it, but she couldn’t quite grasp where she’d seen it. She tipped the box upside down, searching for a handle or opening mechanism of some kind, but there were no indents, no keypads or slots, only the silver buttons. She turned the box over again and something clinked inside. They looked at each other. Juli’s eyes widened. “I wonder–”
She didn’t get to finish as a branch cracked behind them and someone said, “What are you two doing here?”
They scrambled to their feet and turned around, Rosie hiding the box behind her back.
A boy with dark hair twisted into a mass of dreadlocks was watching them. Rosie’s insides lurched as she guessed he had to be a Feral. He was about her age, or a little older, it was hard to tell. He wore a pair of filthy jeans with holes in the knees and a stained beige T-shirt over a spare muscular frame. He had a small, slightly flat nose and blue eyes, a colour so bright and clear they seemed odd in his dark dirty face. He was good-looking, in a grubby, bad boy sort of way. If you liked that type.
He also had a knife slung around his waist in a fabric sheath. He stood with his weight resting on one hip, snapping a twig between his fingers.
Rosie tried to appear confident, despite her thudding heart. “We’re just looking around,” she said. “We were about to leave.”
“That your boat I saw, is it?” The Feral’s gaze was sceptical.
“No, it’s mine,” Juli said, “and you can’t have it.”
The Feral smirked at her. “How are you going to stop me?”
Rosie sent her a furious look and shook her head as Juli opened her mouth to retort. She shut it again and the Feral smirked some more.
“What’ve you got there?” He nodded at the arm Rosie was hiding behind her back.
“Nothing,” she said quickly.
He raised his eyebrows. “I’m not stupid, you know.”
“Really, it’s nothing,” Juli cut in, “but I’ve got some food and fresh water in my pack. You can have that.”
Crap. Rosie almost groaned aloud. Why did she have to say that?
The Feral’s smirk disappeared. “I don’t need your charity.” He snapped the rest of the twig, tossing it away, and Rosie felt real fear constrict her throat.
“Wait.” She held out her free hand. “It’s not charity, really. That’s not what she meant. Take the pack – we just want to go home.”
“Too late now,” he replied and began to walk towards them, his hand on his knife.
Juli gripped Rosie’s arm and Rosie looked around desperately for some kind of weapon, but the only thing she had was the box in her hand. Maybe she could hit him with that. Their backs were to the river; there was nowhere to go. She tightened her grip. The Feral came closer.
“Please,” Juli whimpered. “Please don’t.”
The only thing between them and him was Juli’s pack, which she’d dropped on the ground.
The Feral glowered at them, then grinned and snatched up the pack. “Thanks for the present.” He laughed and jogged away, disappearing beyond the buildings.
For a moment neither of them said anything. They just stood there, staring after him. Rosie felt alternately stupid, relieved and annoyed.
Juli let out a long breath and released her death grip on Rosie’s arm. “Was he a Feral?”
“Pretty sure.” Rosie glanced at the river. “The tide’s coming in, we should go. I’ve got to get home before my dad or he’ll lose it – again.” She walked back to where she’d left her pack.
“You know,” Juli followed her, “he was scary, but also kind of cute.”
“Are you serious? He stole your bag.” Rosie picked up hers then swore.
“He went through my stuff.” The water and an old cup she’d found earlier were gone. Great. Rosie shoved the box in her pack and flung the bag on her shoulders. No extra credit for vegetables this week then.
“My boat!” Juli cried. “He’s probably gone to get it.”
Rosie swung to face her. Why hadn’t she thought of that? “Come on, let’s go.” She ran towards the trees.
They jogged along a mud track past the derelict buildings then struck out into the undergrowth before winding back again towards the river. They’d left Juli’s boat on a bank anchored to an old metal pole and Rosie was relieved to see it still there, bobbing up and down in about half a metre of water.
They waded through the silt and clambered in. Rosie dumped her pack in the watertight luggage hold under the solar panels, while Juli flicked a switch on the console. The engine burred into life. A curve of transparent pyloflex rose up around them to form a hermetically sealed bubble and a soft hiss sounded as purified air started to cycle.
“Ready?” Juli said.
“Go.” Rosie deactivated the anchor as Juli pushed the throttle forward. The boat slipped out into the current and sped up, a wake flowing like muddy silk behind them as they buzzed along, staying close to the bank.
“That was lucky,” Juli said. “Mum would have killed me if I’d lost the boat. Wonder why the Feral didn’t take it.”
“Probably couldn’t bypass your secure starter,” Rosie said.
The boat gathered speed and the overgrown walls and remnants of the Old City disappeared behind them. The wide expanse of water glimmered in the rays of the setting sun, stretching to the north bank three kilometres away. Ahead of them, Newperth sprawled along the river edge and back towards the hills. The towers of Central glinted, catching the sun’s last light, while on the waterfront the shanty dwellings looked as flimsy as cardboard backed by the squat squares of the Banks’ housing complexes.
Rosie squinted at another boat cruising along in the centre of the river and felt a tremor of unease. She picked up a pair of sights and peered at the larger vessel, then swore softly as she recognised it.
“What is it?” Juli said.
“The south ferry.”
Rosie’s guts were tight; her dad would be on it. “Can this go any faster?” she said.
“Yeah, but I’ll have to take us closer to the current in the middle, there’s less drag there, but there’s also more chance of hitting logs and stuff.”