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Authors: Sara Creasy

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BOOK: Song of Scarabaeus
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Edie rolled over and tried to sleep.

She counts the bruises while she waits. Four little ones on Ursov's neck where someone grabbed him. Two along his jawline. One very black eye. Eight grazes in a neat row along his knuckles, each one now ringed in white because he's clenching his fists as he sits opposite her, still smarting from the indignity of it all.

In her arms she clutches a white teddy bear that he gave her. Her legs are swinging because her feet don't reach the floor. A clean floor made of stone, unlike anything she's seen before. She's never seen so many straight lines, either. Perfectly flat and vertical walls aligned with perfectly level floors and ceilings. Who would have thought the rugged mountain peaks of Halen Crai were hiding such perfect form and structure within?

Ursov gives her an encouraging smile, and she returns it. But she's devastated by those marks on his skin. It's all her fault. One of the elders sent a group of young men to attack him as they were leaving the camp. She's ten years old and they've always ignored her, and now they suddenly decide she's worth fighting for? She hates them for hurting Ursov as he was trying to help her. His milit uniform is torn at one
sleeve, and from the way he fussed with it all the way here, she knows he's ashamed of that.

“Don't be nervous,” he says, but she is very nervous.

She knows that her life starts today.

A perfectly square door slides open. Ursov stands and leads her inside. She grips his huge hand, feeling dizzy, and the teddy bear dangles from her free hand. The room is enormous, bigger even than the elders' council meeting hall, and the ceiling is a lot higher. Looking up, she sees a balcony running all the way around the wall, supported by intricately carved stone arches.

Ursov's boots tap and echo on the hard floor. She trots to keep up, her new boots scuffling softly. They don't fit properly and she has a blister on her heel.

At the far end of the room is a tall woman in quiet conversation with two smartly dressed people. It takes a long time to reach them, and then the woman turns from the group. She has silver icicles hanging from her ears and her hair is pulled back so tightly that it stretches the skin around the edges of her face. Her scarlet lips curve into a smile but her eyes are frowning.

“Does she understand me?” she asks Ursov.

“Sure,” Ursov says. “She speaks Linguish real good.”

“Goodness, she's very…small.”

Ursov gets defensive. “You said you'd help her.”

“Well, we have many tests to run before we'll know if she's suitable.”

“But you can't send her back there. They don't treat her right.”

The woman's smile turns brittle. She doesn't want to deal with difficult questions. She doesn't want to deal with Ursov at all.

“Thank you for bringing her to Crai Institute. Leave her with us now.”

Ursov falters, realizes he's been dismissed, lets go of her hand. He squeezes her shoulder once and then he's gone,
he's nothing but fading footsteps while she stares up at the woman who has saved her, who will give her a future.

“Edie, it's lovely to meet you. I'm Liv Natesa.” She reaches for the teddy bear, her dark painted lips a cruel smudge. “You don't need this anymore.”

“I do need it,” she whispers, keeping a firm grip on its paw as Natesa tugs.

“You're a big girl now. You need big-girl things. I'll give you everything you need.”

Natesa smiles at her, but the smile is brittle. Edie wants the real smile back. She needs to please this woman, or Ursov will get into trouble and she'll go back to the camp. She lets the bear out of her grasp. The soft thing disappears, dropped on a table and discarded. Insignificant.

“You're very special to me,” Natesa says, holding out her hand.

She doesn't want to take it. It looks cold and bony, not safe like Ursov's. But Ursov is gone, her old life is gone. There's no one else. And she's no longer insignificant. Not to this woman.

She takes Natesa's hand.

 

“Hey.
Hey!

The dark shape of Finn's body filled the hatchway. His voice had woken her up, and apparently that had been his only intention—once he saw her eyes were open, he returned to his bunk.

In a cold sweat, Edie drifted on the surface of consciousness, floundering in old memories and dream images as her heart raced. Had she cried out in her sleep? Did Finn care enough to wake her from a nightmare?

Ursov's face came back to her, his heavy weathered features and toothy smile. She couldn't remember how she met him—one of dozens of milits who guarded the Talasi camps—or how they'd become friends. She only knew he'd meant more to her than anything else on that lonely, frightening day. But the moment she stepped through that square
stone door, everything changed. Natesa's obsessive schemes and detached concern were no substitute for his stories and warm smile.

The annex glowed faintly from a single striplight. Part of Finn's bunk was visible and he turned restlessly under the covers.

Finn threw off his blanket with a grunt and again moved to the hatchway. As he leaned against the arch, he rubbed the back of his neck slowly with his hand.

“You need to calm down.”

Edie stared at him. “What?”

“Your mind. Whatever is going on in there—I can feel it.” His voice was gravel-edged. “You need to stop.”

She sat up, confused. “I don't know what you mean.”

“I can feel it. In here.” He touched his temple. “Your mind, your body, your…
awareness
. It's not pleasant.”

“That isn't possible.”

“Well, it's there. Ever since they initialized the link when I boarded. Thought at first it was a side effect of the surgery, but it's not. It's you. All day, all the time. Right down to that nightmare you just had.”

She set her jaw, refusing to be drawn. “My splinter sends out a signal to let yours know I'm alive. A basic brainwave pattern and a locator, that's all. It shouldn't even reach your consciousness.”

“Well, something's getting through.” He glared at her. “Just stop it.”

As he turned away, Edie slipped out of bed and grabbed a diagnostic rod from her tool belt. Padding into the annex, she found Finn sitting on his bunk, elbows on knees, massaging his temples. He flinched when she touched his skull, and she opened her hand and let him see the tool, then tipped his head and pressed the sensor against the scar at his temple. It calibrated to his splinter and blinked a brief display.

“It's reading fine,” Edie said. Was he just trying to unnerve her? But she remembered when he'd come into her room that morning, wondering if she was okay. He'd picked
up on her state of mind then, too—even if he hadn't been fully aware of it.

Finn's brow furrowed. “It's not
fine
. It's…a whisper. An itch. With these flashes of light when your emotions run hot.” He brushed her hand and the tool away and looked at her pointedly. “Irritating.”

The mention of her deeper emotions left her feeling vulnerable. Standing in her underwear before Finn, who was himself half-naked, wasn't helping. Too much skin and tension in a confined space, and her heartbeat was still unsteady from the dream. In a self-conscious gesture she wrapped her arms around her body.

“You're telling me you can feel what I'm feeling?”

He shook his head. “More like an untuned comm. White noise. Nothing specific. And then it fires out of control. You need to learn some mental discipline.”

“This has nothing to do with me. I'm not doing anything.”

Finn shook his head and stretched out on the bunk with his hands behind his head, leaving her helpless in the face of his resentment.

 

“You would not believe what I've seen dished up on some cruisers and called food.” Cat tore apart her fried roti and shoved a piece into her mouth.

Edie pushed around bite-sized patties with a fork and tried to work up an appetite. Cat had cornered her in the gym that morning, by jumping into the exercise bay next to hers, and made her agree to sitting together for lunch. Edie decided to return the friendly attitude. She and Cat would have little contact with each other during the course of their shifts, and as the only other woman on board—except for Gia, the cook, who apparently had no contact with anyone outside of meals—Edie decided to make the effort with Cat.

Finn found himself a seat at a long table that Edie suspected was reserved for the serfs. For now, the table was otherwise empty.

“You worked on other ships?” she asked Cat.

“Sure. I had a life before the
Hoi
.”

“Where are you from?”

“Originally? Cameo. Left when I was fifteen. What a place.”

Edie gathered from her disparaging tone that she meant it was a bad place. “Is that an original Terran colony world?”

Cat nodded, mopping her plate with the last of the roti. “A forgotten, abused hellhole. Only reason we didn't completely wipe ourselves out was because the Crib came to the rescue after our government—if you could call it that—offered up a few hundred recruits to fight in the Reach Conflicts. I jumped at the chance to leave. They taught me to fly. I did it for the thrills. Earned a few medals, then decided I'd had enough of their war.” It seemed Cat thrived on stress and adventure. She'd obviously enjoyed her wartime action.

“So, illegal seeding is more your thing.”

“It's illegal only because the Crib decides the rules, Edie.” Cat waved her fork for emphasis. “We're all taught to think of the Crib as this wonderful and benevolent force because it's the birthplace of humanity. But it just wants control. It controls worlds. It controlled your life, and mine.”

“Why did you leave the milits?”

“I did my tour. It's not like my heart was devoted to Fleet. I just wanted to fly.” She noticed Edie's thoughtful expression, but must have mistaken it for disapproval because there was a hint of defensiveness when she added, “You think I'm a rat for switching allegiances.”

“No—actually, your story is kind of familiar.”

Cat gave her a dark look. “It can be a dangerous thing.”

“What?”

“Not trusting, not belonging. Losing faith. You can end up with no indicator for what's right, and they use that. They grab pieces of you, pushing you every which way. They can make you do things and you don't even know or care if it's wrong.”

“Is that a warning?”

“Eh. Call it a life lesson.”

Edie considered the advice but said nothing. If Cat was referring to her own situation on the
Hoi Polloi
, she was perhaps hinting that her loyalties were flexible. That could be useful down the track.

Cat looked over Edie's shoulder. “Huh. Rackham just came in, and he
never
comes in here. I guess you must warrant special consideration.”

Edie turned to see the captain heading straight for them, ignoring the murmured greetings from his crew. Zeke sat with an older man, presumably one of the engineers. Kristos sat alone eating a sickly-looking fluorescent dessert. Haller must be manning the bridge.

“Remember, say yes sir, very good sir,” Cat said with a wink. She pushed back her chair and stood up as Rackham stopped at their table to fix Edie with a steely glare. “Good afternoon, Captain.”

“Lancer.” He flicked her a look, then returned his attention to Edie.

“Sir, may I introduce our new teck, Edie Sha'nim. Edie, this is Captain Francis Rackham.”

Rackham was less imposing than Edie had imagined. Her impressions had been of a mysterious, elusive leader with exotic tastes in art. He was compactly built, middle-aged, with cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a trimmed beard. His clothes were neat and traditional, and looked expensive. She bobbed out of her seat to exchange a nod with him, unsure of the protocol, and sat when Cat did so.

“Welcome aboard, Sha'nim. I trust my executive officer has seen to your needs.”

“Yes, sir.”

Rackham tipped back on his heels and glanced casually around the mess, as if searching for a conversation topic. His attention was drawn to, of all things, a gray splotch on the floor near their table.

“What the devil is the matter with our cleaner toms today? I don't expect to walk in here and see this morning's breakfast on the deck.”

He wasn't talking to either of them in particular, so they stayed silent.

“How's it going with your bodyguard?” he asked Edie.

She looked over at Finn, who was finishing his meal and watching her with his usual impassivity. If he was curious about the captain, he didn't show it.

“No complaints.”

Rackham's absently fingered a badge on his lapel as he studied her. Edie realized it was a medal, and remembered what she'd read about him being a war hero.

“Word on the bridge is that you have an aversion to using the drub.”

Cat shifted uneasily in her seat and reached for her drink. Edie would get no help from her.

“Finn isn't violent, sir,” Edie said, “or disobedient.”

“Generally, we don't let lags wander about on the loose. The rest of the crew would feel better if they saw you carrying it.” Rackham bestowed a benign smile upon her, nodded to Cat, sneered at the stain on the floor, and moved off to the galley to speak with Gia.

Cat looked like she was about to say something when Zeke, who had hopped up from a nearby table, dragged over his chair and straddled it backward.

“Ladies.”

Cat regarded him with good-humored annoyance. “You're interrupting.”

BOOK: Song of Scarabaeus
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