Amalie Howard, author of The Riven Chronicles, has a new E-short out! Check it out below!
A Short Story Prequel in The Riven Chronicles
First appeared on YA Books Central
Part I: In the Outers
The sun is riding high in the sky, sending blinding waves of undulating heat across the scorched plains. The water in my eyes evaporates as fast as I blink. The gauge on my temperature guard reads a hundred and twenty degrees . . . and climbing. My odds of survival descend with each hike in temperature.
Spitting a mouthful of red-tinged saliva to the cracked earth, I stare down at the body struggling beneath my fingers and twist just enough to sever the creature’s spinal cord. It doesn’t make a sound as it dies. I watch the light fade from its eyes, an ugly yellow glow that pales to gray, and then nothing. Its socket-less gaze doesn’t waver, eyeing me balefully even in death.
My entire unit had been ambushed, attacked by a Reptile raiding party of some sort, and I’d taken a blow to the back of my head. I stayed conscious long enough to see the creatures rip apart two men under my command before blacking out. When I woke, only one of the Reptiles remained, the others destroyed by the pair of Vectors who’d answered our desperate distress call. I stare down at the remnants of the Reptile I just killed.
I’m not even sure how I’ve survived.
One of the Vectors scans the area with a blue stream of light, checking for data patterns to send back for analysis. Standard protocol. I stare at the red-streaked sky, and haul myself to my knees, grunting. My brain is fuzzy, but that’s to be expected after that kind of crack to the skull. The base of my head throbs in tune to my pulse and I press the heel of my palm there. My fingers come away red and sticky. Wincing, I check off some personal facts to clear my head—everything I can remember about myself.
My name is Dorn. I am a soldier of Neospes. I am seventeen. I was recruited three days shy of my fifth birthday. I am second legion—a commanding officer. And my men are dead because of me.
I am Dorn. I am a soldier, I repeat forcefully, banishing the last thought. Men die in battle every day, more so here in the Outers than anywhere else, and I’m lucky to be alive. Holden and Banks will be remembered as brave heroes who gave their lives to defend Neospes.
Wiping the bluish ichor off my gloves on the rusty sand, I glance to the side at the rotting mess of flesh and wire lying on the dusty earth. The creature is not even human, constructed of random bits of decaying flesh weaved into metal. Reptiles. They’re a scourge on the earth. I kick the thing in the head, disgusted. They are one of my world’s most hideous abominations—an inhuman marriage of organic tissue and artificial intelligence.
I glance at the Vector who crouches next to me, its milky eyes unsettling, and revise my earlier sentiment. Reptiles aren’t the only abominations in Neospes. In some ways, the Vectors are worse. They are purified corpses and, like the Reptiles, wired and controlled by internal programming. But at least they are loyal and not capable of independent thought. The Reptiles are rogue; the Vectors are complicit.
I study the red smears on the ground—what’s left of my companions’ bodies after the Reptiles finished scavenging. Black stringy worms creep up from the fissures in the ground to consume the meager remains. A rush of bile stings my throat—nothing goes to waste in the Outers. It would have been smart to have a team of Vectors on patrol instead of three vulnerable humans. But we’d been foolish . . . taking on scout duty without them, thinking ourselves superior. Better.
I’d been foolish. And my men had paid the price.
I cringe as the medicinal smell of the Vector’s body beside me assaults my nostrils. It doesn’t speak, only watches, waiting for orders in the hazy silence. Sometimes it’s comforting that they don’t have active vocal cords. They’re ominous enough without speech.
“You got the call?” I ask it roughly. It nods. “Good. Report it, and let’s get out of here.”
The Vector relays the information real time to the base computers back in the dome via the chip its brain, and then blinks, staring unnervingly at me. I hate feeling like the Vectors can see right through to all my darkest secrets. Clenching my jaw to hide my revulsion, I drag my gaze away to stare once more at the creature I’d killed.
This isn’t the first time a Reptile has attacked so close to the perimeter of Neospes, and it isn’t a good sign. It means they’re low on food, which makes them braver—more desperate. Fourteen humans, mostly derelicts out foraging themselves, had been murdered and taken for parts. All we’d found of the fourteen bodies were bone shards picked clean, their ivory color dull, not one drop of blood, tissue, or hair remaining.
We’ve known for years that we couldn’t underestimate the Reptiles—after all, they are remnants of the powerful Machines that once controlled every part of our world. But remnants aren’t the same. They’re shadows of what used to be.
At first, the perimeter reports had been sporadic, but recently the attacks had become more consistent, as though the Reptiles were scouting . . . searching for structural weaknesses in the dome.
The Reptiles wanted in.
It’s what I’d do if I were them—an ongoing, methodical check for flaws, seeking a crack in the earth that I could burrow beneath in order to get into the dome. Or, better yet, systematic attacks to draw the humans out into the open where the wastelands would kill us more efficiently than they could. The Reptiles are smart—far smarter than we give them credit for.
“Let’s go,” I say to the Vector.
I cough, spitting another mouthful of dark red chalk onto the parched ground before climbing into the back of the hover vehicle. My head is spinning slightly, but I think I can make it back without passing out. There are black spots in my memory, hazy patches of fighting and sleeping and bright lights. I can’t make head or tails of the sketchy recollections, but I’ve had worse concussions before. A few minutes in a med-lab will fix me right up.
A warm, dry wind spins a cloud of dust toward the truck like a miniature cyclone. The waning sandstorm had been perfect cover for a Reptile attack. We’d been hit not suspecting a thing.
“Move out,” I order as one of the Vectors initiates the command unit on the hover. Gunning the engine, we race across the red desert. It’s red because of the rock, but people still say that it’s because of all the blood the land had consumed. The Outers are a wasteland, and isn’t a place where anything human can survive. Only the Reptiles have managed to scrape out an existence here.
For a sharp second, I wonder whether Corporal Banks and Second Lieutenant Holden would be gutted for parts.
But it’s a stupid question. I already know the answer.
I think of the glistening pile of bones we’d found and bile fountains into my mouth. Retching, I close my eyes, letting the slow comforting rocking of the hover soothe my scattered nerves. We arrive back at the dome—the hub of Neospes and one of the bigger human cities rebuilt in the Eastern hemisphere—in barely any time at all. Taking the portable navigation tablet from my suit, I tap in a sequence of numbers and the screen lights up with an urgent message from my commanding officer, General Riven.
I’ve known her for years, but just the name on my tablet sends a spiral of dread through me. Even though she’s much younger than me—barely fourteen—she’s as hard as they come . . . and far more deadly. The daughter of the man behind Neospes’s bio-robotics engineering unit and the mind that invented the Vectors, Danton Quinn, she inherited her father’s rigid, ruthless core. At eleven, she’d been the youngest recruit to lead as a commanding officer, and now she’s a general, the highest-ranking officer in Neospes, and part of the king’s private guard.
The Vectors obey her without question, and although working with them makes my skin crawl, she shows no such reaction. Other soldiers joke that she’s one of them. But Vectors are dead, and she’s as alive as we are. Still, that doesn’t make her any less cold or forbidding. She follows orders to the letter, executing them without conscience or question. To her, mercy is weakness, and compassion a flaw. Truth is, all things considered, she may as well be one of the Vectors.
The holograph scanner on my tablet tells me exactly where she is, and after decontamination, I make my way to the communications building, despite my lingering grogginess. Shaking my head to clear it, the scanner accepts the Neospes identity chip implanted in my wrist and opens the thick metal doors, granting me entry.
Captain Reck Dorn, Second Legion, flashes from red to blue in bright lettering. I’m scanned three other times before I’m allowed access into the inner sanctum where the general is waiting. Keeping my eyes averted away from the Vectors guarding nearly every access point, I walk down the narrow hallway to the archway at the end.
In a wide room bordered by metallic walls and standing alone beside a flat table displaying a holographic map of the Outers, the general is slight in stature with short dark hair braided close to her scalp and a single blue and silver ranking braid hanging over her ear. There are no Vectors in this room, which strikes me as odd since she’s never without them.
The general doesn’t acknowledge me, but I’m sure she knows that I’m here. My arrival would have been announced at the first entry point, and she isn’t the sort of person that one can sneak up on. At first glance, she seems small and vulnerable, especially without any guards, but looks are deceptive. She’d kill me in half a blink before I could even formulate a plan of attack.
I take a deep breath that makes my neck and skull ache. “General,” I say. “You wanted to see me?”
“Captain Dorn,” she replies. Her voice is lilting but detached as she shuts down the hologram with a swipe of her finger. “You were attacked?”
“Yes, by a Reptile raiding party.”
“Twelve. They were more organized than I’ve ever seen the Reptiles. I would be dead if it hadn’t been for the two Vectors who answered my distress call.”
She’s frowning. “The Reptiles have always been organized. They may seem ragged, but they’re still robots . . . intelligent robots. We shouldn’t underestimate them. Were you hurt?”
“One of the Reptiles got in a lucky blow. Nothing that a med lab won’t take care of,” I add confidently, despite the insistent pounding in my brain that seems to have gotten louder in the last few minutes.
“See to it, then. You were lucky to survive after being out there for such a long time.”
A long time? I must be confused or she received incorrect information.
In spite of being summarily dismissed, I hesitate as she turns away. “General, we should contact the next of kin of the other two men who were with me on Outers detail—Corporal Banks and Second Lieutenant Holden. They were both killed in action.”
She turns, as though in slow motion, her eyes like lasers on mine, and the hollow numbness from my neck spreads across my back and around to my stomach. Her gaze is assessing, moving systematically from my face to my feet. She frowns so sharply that I can almost hear the crack of skin across her brow.
“Captain, you were on solo perimeter detail. There were no others with you.” Her words are inflectionless. Tiny pinpricks of sweat dot my brow as I process what she’s saying, but there’s a gaping hole in my head where answers should be. I glance dumbly at the tablet in my hand as if I might find them there.
Had I imagined the attack?
No, it’s not possible—I’d seen the Reptiles rip the other two soldiers to pieces with my own eyes. I’d smelled the blood vaporizing in the heat. Hadn’t I? My head aches and a wave of dizziness makes the floor tilt.
“No,” I say slowly. “You’re misinformed. Corporal Holden and Second Lieutenant Banks were with me. I saw them die.”
“Holden and Banks?” she asks, and I nod. The general consults something on her own tablet, then looks back up at me with guarded eyes. “You were all part of the same Outers detail, yes, but Corporal Holden and Second Lieutenant Banks were killed in action two years ago. Captain Dorn, are you sure you’re all right? Perhaps you’re confusing events. I saw in the report that you suffered a blow to the head. You’ve only been gone for three days.”
I stumble backward, the dizziness turning into full-on vertigo. “Three days?” I repeat dully. “That’s impossible. No . . . it was only hours before the Vectors came.”
“Captain, you’re dehydrated and disoriented,” the general says in a tone that makes chills race down my spine. Her mouth is pinched at the corners and her icy blue eyes, narrowed. “You were in the Outers for three days, not three hours. Three days. Your distress beacon came on an hour ago—the Vectors reported that they found you huddled in a cleft at the base of the Peaks. You were lucky that the electromagnetic interference of the area prevented the Reptiles from following you there.”
She walks toward me, her face impassive, but her movements purposeful. My head feels like everything inside of it is being sucked into a black vortex lined with pulsing neon commands as she steps within reach. She is weaponless, but I know better. The soldier in me senses danger and before she can get within two feet of me, my body is tensing in automatic attack mode.
My thoughts crash into one another in violent succession in my brain. Commands—of things I am meant to do, things I am meant to disable. And she is one of them. Each pulse makes the pain worse, pushing me to a threshold that I immediately know my body will not be able to withstand. Unless I comply.
Secure the area.
Every cell in my body surges forward, compelled by some unseen force, and my arm hooks around the general’s neck in a backward choke-hold. I can see her face reflected in the shiny surface of the opposite wall. That impassive face isn’t so emotionless now. Her mouth is in a tight white line and her eyes are so cold I can feel death blowing like a winter storm in my direction. But, strangely, I feel no fear. Only purpose.
“Don’t move,” I warn, tightening my arm.
“Captain Dorn,” she gasps, her body cool against the hot skin of my forearms. “I’m going to give you one chance to think about what you’re doing. You’re tired and clearly not thinking straight. You’ve had a shock from being in the Outers for so long. You’re ill and need medical attention. Release me immediately.”
The monotone of her voice is hypnotic but has little impact. I only recognize its timber from afar as if something in my brain is keeping me shielded from the power of her words. The pain has receded to a dull thud at the base of my skull as a new wave of orders hovers in front of my eyes.
Locate the target.
“General Riven, please stand down. I don’t want to have to hurt you.” Although my lips are forming the words, the message isn’t mine. It’s coming from somewhere else deep inside my head where the pain is at its worst.
Secure the target, my brain thuds.
The orders are simple and I must follow them. It’s the one thing that will eliminate the throbbing pain in my head—that’s the only fact I know for certain. It’s the single motivation driving me to action. I don’t question it. I obey it.
My eyes meet the reflection of the general’s in the silver wall. She stares me down, unafraid, studying me. Her nose wrinkles slightly and I see a shadow of understanding break across her face.
“You think I haven’t faced your kind before?” Her words are like hollow point bullets, detonating in every part of me.
“My kind?” I repeat, tasting the weight of the words—mine now—on my tongue.
Her eyes blaze blue fire. “Reptiles.”
Part II: Mind Over Matter
The world falls away beneath my feet, and I’m falling backward into an abyss. . . . It feels as if I’m splitting into fifteen different parts of myself—fragmenting bits of flesh held together by nothing but stringy tissue and shattered bone. My scattered pulse mimics her words in sonic bursts.
Flashes of light and wire and blood ignite in my memory. As if in response to the tune of my thoughts, the faint smell of rot fills my nostrils, and I glance down at the space between the cuff of my sleeve and my gloved hand clutched around the girl’s neck. The thin swatch of skin there is discolored and lined with dark blood vessels atop larger bruises of coagulated blood. I blink, forcing the image away. I’m imagining things. Or hallucinating. But when I reopen my eyes, the pale graying flesh is still there.
“No,” I say in disbelief.
The General’s head smashes into my nose, dislodging my hold as she twists in a fluid movement, her knee cleaving into the soft tissue of my stomach. The breath whooshes out of me, but not before I react to slam an uppercut into her jaw. She shifts her head to the side, the blow sliding off toward her ear, and then she’s crouching, her foot snapping out to sweep mine from under me.
I barely feel the slam of the unforgiving floor before I’m jackknifing up to grab her arm and twist it hard behind her back. She utters a grunt of pain and spins under her own arm, the sharp crunch of her shoulder popping loud in the silence. It gives her enough momentum to kick me hard in the groin. I know I should be in agony, but I’m not. Something isn’t right.
Staggering back, the hot pressure of a blade pushes into the meat of my torso. To my surprise, I barely feel it, but the pungent smell of decomposing blood throws me. I release the general, my hands falling to the thick wet sludge of my belly.
“Smell that?” she asks, thrusting the slick gore-covered dagger into my face. “That’s you.”
“No,” I say, staring down at the brackish, fetid blood covering my fingers.
“Yes, you’re dead.” The general’s eyes are uncompromising, calling out the truth. “That’s why they left you, why they let you live. They chose to leave you. They wanted you to come back here, to infiltrate the dome. Why?”
The door opens behind us and four Vectors slip in, followed by a slim, dark-haired man with a thin face and a hooked nose, whom I recognize as the general’s father, Danton Quinn. The man behind it all. His face is as emotionless as his daughter’s.
The base of my skull warms as communication races along the receptors there, transmitting something, and I brace for the pain. But none comes.
Secure the target.
The sudden emptiness in my brain takes me by surprise and I savor the sensation of peace, free of discomfort. My orders are crystal clear. The target is the man, not the girl.
The general narrows her eyes at her father, suspicion flickering in their depths. “Why are you here, Danton? I didn’t summon you.”
Danton’s gaze slithers to me. “Why is Captain Dorn here? He was supposed to report to the med lab, but I was told you overrode my orders.”
She shoots her father a measured look. Her voice is conversational as she studies the knife in her hand. “Did you know he was a Reptile?”
“What? Is that you, Dorn?” Danton asks, noticing my fresh wounds, his nostrils flaring at the smell and sight of my entrails. The Vectors snap into action, but the general raises a hand, stalling them.
“Stand down, it’s under control.” The girl’s mouth flattens into a slash. “It’s not Dorn. Like I said, it’s a Reptile. One like I’ve never seen. One that is more human than machine. They wanted him here. And I want to know why.” Her eyes never leave my face.
“It looks like Dorn,” Danton says, mildly.
The girl shoots him a surprised look as if she’d expected a different response. His face is blank, but there’s a careful, calculating expression in his eyes that he’s trying to hide.
“Smell that?” she says, thrusting the knife at him. “That’s something dead. He doesn’t know what he is, but I’ve killed enough of them to know. That is a Reptile.”
“No, I’m not!” I shout. “I’m Captain Reck Dorn, Second Legion. An officer of Neospes.” But even as I utter the words, I don’t believe them. Deep down, I understand that what the general says is true. A hot wetness soaks my face as they both stare at me with opposing expressions—hers horrified and his, exhilarated. And then I’m laughing hysterically at the absurdity of being able to weep even though I’m clearly nowhere near anything alive.
The laughter is replaced once more by pain searing through me like razor-sharp blades and cutting away the last vestiges of my resisting humanity.
Complete the mission now.
Compelled, I dive forward with renewed purpose, dispatching one of the two Vectors lunging toward me with a blow to the temple. The other I smash into the metal wall with all the force I can muster. It slumps to the ground, loosening its grip on a deadly electro-rod, and my eyes swivel back to my target.
But before I can reach Quinn, a body tackles me. The sick crack of bone fills the room as I thump to the ground, both legs severed at the knee and useless. Lethal swords in hand, the girl shoves me down and straddles my chest. Sharp points press into my neck. Her eyes are like chips of pale blue ice.
“You’re already dead, but I’ll destroy you in seconds if you so much as twitch. Why have you come here? Why did they send you?”
My gaze slides, unbidden, to the dark-haired man at her side, and I see her eyes widen with grim understanding. “It’s not me you want. It’s my father.”
She glowers at him, suspicion etched on her face. “What would the Reptiles want with you? Or you with them? Why was he supposed to report to your lab?”
Something in her voice tugs at me—a faded memory, perhaps, locked somewhere deep in this decaying brain of mine. The general, who fears nothing, fears this man.
Quinn’s reply is mocking. “Protocol.”
They remain locked in a silent battle of wills, and I take advantage of the moment to buck her off, smashing my fist into the side of her head. Despite her earlier threat, my only objective is to get to the man at her side.
His expression is greedy, as if something is nearly in his grasp, and I realize that he wants me to come to him. I can feel the force of it radiating outward like a beacon. He’s no soldier, but for some inexplicable reason, he is a hundred times more menacing than his daughter. I’m far more afraid of getting anywhere near him, even as the agonizing stabs of pain in my head compel me to crawl forward, arm-over-arm.
The girl’s fear has become my own.
Or, maybe, we were always afraid of him. Still, one truth drives us.
He is the key to our survival.
Blinking, I process the voices swirling in my head as if I am part of some kind of omniscient hive mind. Who am I? The pain at the base of my skull explodes again, and all I know as the commands in my head pulse with liquid fire is that I need to reach him. He is our target.
But before I can get there, the girl twists into a side lunge and darts between us. Her eyes are so brilliant, piercing right through me—the human part of me—and I freeze. For a second, a phantom echo of a heartbeat pulses its way out of my chest.
“Escort my father out,” she says firmly to the remaining Vectors. “That is a direct order from your commanding officer.”
“No—” Danton snaps.
Her eyes are hard. As much as she might fear him, she doesn’t give in. The human part of me understands that he has hurt her terribly in the past. I see it in the set of her jaw, in the rigid slope of her shoulders, shielding her from his latest machinations.
She’s only a girl—a fierce one—but still a girl. And though I may be a pawn in a game that’s bigger than both of us, I want to help her. But even as I think that, the programming blasts along my veins, demanding that I fulfill my purpose. It burrows into that spot at the top of my spine to enforce its demands with agonizing beats of pain.
No, I will it, forcing it into quiet submission. The heartbeat I’d imagined strengthens. I know who I am. I am Reck Dorn. I am a soldier. And I am still here.
“Out. Now!” General Riven shouts. Without a second glance, the two Vectors grasp the man’s arm and remove him from the room. He’s livid, but proud, too, a brief emotional burst that’s eclipsed by fury. The door slides shut, leaving me alone with the general.
For a moment, I wonder at the odd relationship between the father and the daughter—as if she is some kind of creation that he is inordinately proud of, and yet despises in the same breath.
His daughter, the feared and respected general.
If I were alive, I’d laugh at the absurdity of it.
But I’m still alive, aren’t I? The phantom heartbeat flickers again like some kind of strange ignition, firing into my neural connectors. Despite the programming slamming into me on all sides, I feel human. I’m something more than someone else has decided I should be. The synapses in my brain fuse together, strengthening the existence of some emotional cognition not yet forgotten. Perhaps I am not yet dead.
Like an artificial pacemaker, I will my ghostlike heartbeat to reappear, and it does—beating silently, but rhythmically—forcing the abnormal Reptilian nature frothing within me into a pocket. I stare at the girl, silencing the pain in my skull to a near whisper. I can do that now, I realize. After all, I am dead. And pain is nothing.
Pain is nothing.
I am more than what they have made me.
The seconds tick by and I count them as silent throbs in my chest. They’re just markers of time—beat by tenuous beat, moment by moment. I’m not exactly sure how much time I have, but it feels like I have control over myself once more, no matter how fleeting it may be.
I am Reck Dorn. I am a soldier of Neospes.
I am me.
“Help you,” I manage to say, though my tongue is thick and unwieldy.
“Dorn?” The girl’s eyes are like the sun on a winter’s morning—bright, unerring, and intense. I bask in the light of them, remembering how it feels to have sunlight on my face, how it feels to know that someone won’t forget who you were . . . who you are. Despite what she knows I’ve become, she doesn’t loathe me.
“Yes.” I force my hands to turn palm up, a gesture of compliance—not that I need to. I want her to know that I’m here, despite how I may appear. If possible, her eyes flare even brighter. I wonder at the otherworldly shimmer of them. Or why she has no fear of what I have become.
“Captain Dorn,” she says gently, crouching next to me. “What is your mission?”
“To secure the target.”
“The man,” I say with numb, uncooperative lips. A new flurry of orders surges in my brain, commanding me to silence any answers to the general. They are listening—those that have twisted me—from deep behind my eyes, the signals transmitting information like electricity. But they do not control me. Trying to resist, I clench my teeth together so tightly, I can feel them fracturing along my jawline. “Father . . . is . . . key.”
“The key to what?” Her voice sounds urgent but unsurprised, as if she has guessed what the man is capable of—that he will conspire with his enemy to satisfy his own desires.
“Coding . . . tech.”
“Artificial geneto-robotic technology?” Her eyes widen in delayed understanding as she answers her own question. “Reptile with human pairing.”
Wireless commands fly like lasers as fast as I can process them, ordering me to shut down. The agony is lava-like, pouring through me—punishing—but I won’t go down without a fight. I can’t. My teeth fracture inside my mouth and I can only nod in answer to the general, swallowing shards of hard white fragments even as my eyes roll back in their sockets.
“Thank you,” she says, her fingers trailing along the side of my temple. I flinch, but they are unexpectedly tender, as is her voice. “Somehow, you’re still in there, aren’t you, Dorn? How is that possible?” she murmurs. “If you were truly a Reptile, you would have fought me to the death. Something inside of you is alive, fighting against any artificial programming.”
“Imsorry—” I slur raggedly. It’s the only phrase my lips can form. I don’t know if I’ve even made a coherent sound, but she knows what I mean. Her eyes flare a little. My own burn with an emotion long forgotten, the traces of something lost years ago in the Outers where Captain Dorn died.
“We’ll fix you, don’t worry. I’ll find a way.”
But I know she doesn’t believe the words any more than I do. I’m a goner. Already I can feel the programming overriding the conscious fragments of my fading humanity despite my renewed efforts to resist it. It won’t be long now. I am their instrument. Their weapon.
“No, it’s not. My father will fix—”
My eyes close. “Hedid . . . it.”
Part III: Sins of the Father
The girl rocks onto her heels stunned, my words worse than any weapons. My claw-fixed fingers reach over to touch hers. Despite the rigid leader I know her to be, her sudden vulnerability ignites my waning compassion. I want to comfort her but don’t know how. I’m not a father or a brother. I’m a boy myself.
A dying boy.
A dead boy.
Not yet! My lips crack open and I find her eyes once more.
“You,” I grit through the thickness weighing down my tongue. “Kill me.” A mouthful of some foul fluid—a mixture of clotted blood and saliva—seeps into my mouth, but I blubber past it, “While me.” She nods, her face stricken. “Kill it,” I whimper through the wet froth on my lips, “before . . . hurt you.”
“It? Who?” she whispers, leaning in. Raising my arm, I grab the blue and silver brain hanging down from her hair, jerking it tightly in my grasp so that her face is nearly pressed to my cheek.
I nod, feeling the last remaining neurons in my head failing like dimming stars. I don’t have much longer. The ones who created me would have me dead rather than hand over any intelligence that could be used against them. I can feel the poison from the chip they’ve implanted starting to leach into me, demolishing any vulnerable organic material.
“What tech? Reptile tech? How? Dorn,” she says more urgently. “How?”
“S . . . sorry,” I whimper, the half sounds becoming static cries of pain. “Kill. It. You. Tech.”
She nods, her eyes fierce, and I can only hope that she understands what I’m saying. “I will make this right, Dorn. I will. I promise you that.”
“Do it,” I choke out.
She raises her hand, one of her short curved swords in her fist, and I close my eyes waiting for the final merciful strike.
But it never comes.
Instead, the door hisses open on its seamless hinges as a small army of Vectors surges in. The alarms are cacophonic, filling the room with shrieks and a flurry of activity. “Secure General Riven,” a man’s voice commands, muffled by a plastic mask. “Her security is compromised. Her life is in danger. Do it now!”
Out of the corner of my eye, the general is swept away from me in seconds. One of the Vectors slips a clear mask over her face. “No!” she shouts, flailing against the dead but resilient arms holding her and dragging her away. “STAND DOWN!”
But the Vectors don’t listen, pulling her farther away with each step as the man watches in triumph through his mask. He has won, I realize dully. The general’s life is tantamount, and her father has returned with a clever and calculating strategy. If her life is at risk, the Vectors are programmed to protect her, even from herself.
“Code Twelve,” the man barks in an insidious tone, confirming my guess. “Don’t struggle, Riven. It’s designed to protect you and to override all other orders. Your life is in danger from this traitor.”
“He’s not a traitor,” she snaps. Her fingers dig at the mask on her face. “You’re the traitor.”
Her father’s smile is oily. “So says the deadly nerve gas his body secreted a few seconds ago. Leave the mask alone or you’ll die.”
“What? No, there’s no gas.”
“Dorn?” Her eyes meet mine across the cold silence. I let the truth of it surface in them so that she understands, and I watch her hands slowly flutter down to her sides. The nerve gas I’d released a second ago would have been quick and painless. She would have died just as I would have once she destroyed me. Neither of us would have been turned into monsters.
At least she would have been safe. I would have protected her. I could have.
If it weren’t for him.
I lunge forward in a demented rage, crawling forward on arms fueled by fire, unimpeded by the legs that no longer support my body. The man is ready for me. He crouches down to meet me, his fist crunching into what is left of my face, and smiles. It’s a callous smile—one that tells me in no uncertain terms who the victor is.
It’s not him. It will never be him.
A single whimper seeps out of the corner of my mouth like a wraith . . . the last drop of what’s left of Captain Dorn. The man’s hand brushes across my clammy forehead, catching the hot bead against his fingertip and erasing its existence. His grin widens in gruesome delight, as if he’s taking pleasure in crushing the last bit of mortality from me.
“Don’t fight it,” he whispers.
Reaching around the base of my neck, he digs into the ragged flesh there without hesitation. I see the barest flash of silver—a disc that he pockets—just as a shock of electricity surges through my body. Looking down to his other hand, I see that he is holding the Vector’s fallen electro-rod from earlier.
It’s set to liquefy.
“Curious that his humanity almost circumvented the programming,” he whispers so no one else will hear, leaning down to peer deep into my eyes and ignoring my slurred words. He’s not speaking to me, I realize, but to the ones who have built me. “I will need time to restructure the coding. You have completed your part of the bargain as agreed.”
A cloud of static fills my mind as if there’s some kind of transmission wiring tripping in my ear, and then there’s only emptiness and the bits of me that used to be. My remote hosts are gone—having fulfilled whatever vile agreement they’d had with the man. For a second, I wonder what he would have promised them in exchange for their technology.
“Danton, stop,” the general shouts from behind us, her tone pleading. In my last moments of lucidity, I understand that she’s begging for me just as I had for her. “Please. It needs to be interrogated. Dorn is in there. I spoke to him.”
“Whatever he is, he tried to kill you, Riven,” Danton says loudly, thrusting the weapon forward. “The punishment for dissension is death.”
“It was the programming. You can help him.”
But it’s too late. I am a liability—the only one who knows the truth, and if he has his way, the truth will die with me. Quinn initiates the spark on the electro-rod.
A sweep of gut-wrenching fire rips through me like a storm, mercifully taking with it every single bit of pain. And in the silence . . . those precious few seconds between the few cells firing in my brain, fighting for life, I find clarity.
I stare at the girl, seeing more emotion on that face than I’ve ever seen in all the years I’ve known her. I want to tell her that it’s going to be okay, that she’ll overcome whatever is coming around the corner. But I can’t.
Because it’d be a lie.
With what the man is planning, there’s no hope for any of them. Not even her.
The blood slows beneath my clammy-cold skin for the last time, shocked into final stillness from the inexorable bolt of the electro-rod. The robotic programming in my brain seizes in response, its internal wiring melting like the all-too-fragile decayed human cells inside my body.
And Reck Dorn is nearly gone.
But I hold out, focusing on the girl-general’s face and the sound of her voice. She believes in me. She sees me as I am. As I was. I hold on to the vision of her eyes—the pale blue light behind them telling me that I’m not alone.
My lids drift closed, the artificial life seeping from my already inert body, taking with it the few facts about myself I remember—the ones I cling to with the very fabric of my being—the parts that makes me so unequivocally human, and so not them.
I am strong. I am worthy. I am human.
I am a soldier.
My name is—
The Riven Chronicles:
Seventeen-year-old Riven comes from a world parallel to Earth, a world that has been ravaged by a devastating android war. As a Legion General, she is the right hand of Prince Cale, the young Prince of Neospes. In her world, she’s had everything: rank, responsibility, and respect. But when Prince Cale sends her away to rescue his long-lost brother, Caden, who has been spirited to modern day Earth, Riven finds herself in uncharted territory.
Armed with the mindset of a soldier and racing against time to bring Caden home, Riven must learn how to blend in as a girl in a realm that is the opposite of all she’s ever known. Will she be able to find the strength to defy her very nature? Or will she become the monstrous soldier she was designed to be?
Riven has fought for a hard-won peace in her world, and has come to shaky terms with who and what she is—a human with cyborg DNA. Now that the rightful ruler of Neospes has been reinstated, Riven is on the hunt for her father in the Otherworld to bring him to justice for his crimes against her people.
But when she receives an unwelcome visit from two former allies, she knows that trouble is brewing once again in Neospes. The army has been decimated and there are precious few left to fight this mysterious new threat.
To muster a first line of defense, her people need help from the one person Riven loathes most—her father. But what he wants in return is her complete surrender.
And now Riven must choose: save Neospes or save herself.