Today's Reading

Now that I've had the time to think clearly, I realize the real trouble we are facing. Maybe Adalla can tolerate the thumb hanging, but even if she can, she'd be left with a criminal record. She'd end up a boneworker with ornate scars covering her whole body, bone chips in her hair, probably in a gang. Or worse, she'd be sent to swab the beast's bowels right as she is starting her years of courtship. What kind of wives and husbands would she find there among the refuse? Other criminals serving their time instead of respectable beastworkers? My heart weeps, thinking about the little bowel-swabbing child her family unit would share, a daughter most likely, her hair brittle from a nutrient-deficient diet, unable to hold the braids or twists or knots of her family line.

And then I am actually weeping, over the nonexistent future of a nonexistent child. Adalla lays her hand upon my shoulder.
 
"Are you okay, Seske?" she whispers into my ear. Wheytt walks several feet ahead of us, but I am certain he is listening.

There's not much I can do to deter my punishment, but Matris is expecting only me. If I can get Adalla free, it will be my word against Wheytt's, and whose word would Matris believe? I cringe. Wheytt's probably, but he'd have no physical proof and Adalla would be spared.

I take Adalla's hands in mine and draw the Vvanescript symbol for we. Adalla looks at me, confused. But then I cup my ear and nod at Wheytt to indicate that he might be eavesdropping, wink at her, and start the inscription again. We... Adalla's eyebrows crinkle as she looks at the strokes I made. Adalla's still learning, but she's sharp, and I'm not a bad teacher either. Yet when I retrace the script once more, slowly, she shakes her head.

"I don't remember," she whispers. How can she not remember? We've been practicing her Vvanescript for four months straight! We'd just had a session last night, right before—

Exodus.

I bite my lip. For me, it feels like hours ago, but for Adalla, it's been nearly half a year. Once our old beast's resources had waned beyond the point of being sustainable, Matris had ordered all nonessential Contour class family units into their stasis pods, while the Accountancy Guard began the meticulous task of taking stock of everything that would need to be re-created, and then beastworkers condensed or dismantled or eviscerated the insides until every last usable scrap from the beast had been harvested.

Daidi's bells. Why can't I ever catch a break? "Do you trust me?" I say to Adalla, more than a whisper, because there's no use trying to hide.

"Of course," Adalla says.

"Then give me your ley light and follow my lead."

Wheytt stops and turns around and approaches me. "What are you plotting, Matriling Kaleigh?" His brow is doing that patronizing thing again. It fires me up inside. And then I realize why. It's the same look Matris gives me when she's too disappointed for words. It is a flimsy imitation, though, and I refuse to be intimidated by it. I'll show him and his stupid heightened senses. Behind my back, Adalla's ley light sits coldly in my hand. I grab the goggles from Wheytt's face. Immediately, he winces and brings his hands to his temples.

The color of his eyes strikes me—his irises so pale, they're nearly white, and the pupils are like a burst of black ink, spilling out in all directions. I blink, stunned by their odd beauty...

Adalla tugs my arm. "I'm supposed to be following your lead..."

Ah. The ley light. I shake it vigorously, until the solution inflames and then shoots out a bright red light. I shove it right in Wheytt's face. His howl echoes through the cavernous, not-yet city of our beast. His hands go to his eyes and he falls to the ground. "You've blinded me!" he calls out.

"Only temporarily," I yell back, as Adalla and I make our way to the large knotted twist of a woodward canopy, more of a cave than a tree. We duck inside, but instead of the familiar neat paths I'm used to strolling upon, there is a thick tangle of reeds resting in a swamp of putrid burbling juices. Carnivorous plants snap at us, and thorny vines cling to the ceiling, scratching at our skin as we pass under them. I look back, and Wheytt is stumbling around, eyes clenched shut and hands outstretched. Then his nose sniffs at the air and he turns and starts walking right toward us. I've knocked out one of his senses, but he's still more than capable of tracking us down. Plus now, he's really mad.

I take a step and the spongy ground swallows my leg up to my calf. "Come on. We can hide in here. He won't be able to track us. Not with this smell."

"Seske," Adalla says to me in a way that makes me stop and look back at her. I'd asked her to trust me, but I can see in her eyes that it is taking everything in her being to do so. "Are you sure we're not just making things worse?"

I shake my head adamantly. "Your child is not going to be a brittle-haired bowel-worker with criminal parents!"

"My what?"

I don't answer, just tug her deeper into the canopy, carving my way through the native flora and fauna and those things caught between. I feel something slither past my ankles, and suddenly, one of those things caught between catches me. A tentacled frond spirals up and around my thigh and tightens until my circulation is choked off and my leg throbs like my veins are about to burst. I shriek. Adalla shrieks, caught by the tentacles as well. I pull my bone shard and cut like mad, freeing myself, then freeing Adalla.


This excerpt ends on page 16 of the paperback edition.

Monday, April 6th, we begin the book Frozen Orbit by Patrick Chiles.
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