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297.84 grams cirium
CAVES MAKE GOOD hiding places. But this close to the flashfall, they also make the most likely places to die. The creatures dwelling in the deep caverns are rabid by-products of the flash curtain, altered by radioactive particles. And they’re starving.
Which makes them almost as desperate as us.
My boots scrape the cavern ledge, and a red marker illuminates at my feet. Danger. Do not cross. Behind me, Dram shifts, and in the soft jangle of climbing harness and anchors, I sense the questions he’s not saying aloud.
My mother once told me I have magic. She didn’t speak the words, nothing as dangerous as that. The day she guided me down my first tunnel, she simply pressed my hand to the cavern wall, and I knew.
I have magic in a place where it is outlawed.
My father would call it something different—bioadaptability. That’s really what we Subpars are, adapted to the curtain’s fallout and resistant to its elements in ways that Naturals aren’t.
But he doesn’t know what I feel when I’m down here.
I tip forward, and musty air caresses my face like the breath of a ghost.
“You passed the boundary marker,” Dram says, his soft warning drawing me back.
I lean past the ledge, my heart thundering. My headlamp penetrates the first few meters of darkness.
“Secure an anchor,” I command softly. “We’re going down.” When he doesn’t move, I glance back. He studies me, blue eyes narrowing beneath his headlamp. “There’s cirium down there, enough to earn more Rays.”
“Rays don’t mean much if we’re no longer breathing.”
My gaze slips to his arm, to the seal of our city-state and the two curving metal bars he wears pinned beside his designation. Each Ray represents 100 grams of cirium mined in service to Alara. If we earn two more, the director will pin them beside the others and then we will never have to wear these suits again.
“Step in my steps,” I murmur. He sighs, loud enough for me to hear it through my earpiece, then kneels to anchor a line. I’ve invoked our cavers’ creed, and there’s not much you can say when someone commands you to follow blindly. Besides, there’s more than that going on here, and Dram knows it.
At least, I hope it’s more than me just being reckless. And desperate, my mind whispers.
“When you were little,” Mom told me once, “I couldn’t keep you from climbing the Range. You’d press your cheek to the stone and tell me it was singing to you.” Her eyes had grown anxious then, so I didn’t tell her that the cirium called to me so much stronger from beneath the mountains—that it reached for me like a hand in the dark.
“Use it to get free, Orion,” she had said. A week later, tunnel seven swallowed her in a waterfall of rock.
Now, at sixteen, I’m the caver closest to earning a place in Alara, the city safe behind the cirium shield. As much as I want to live beyond the reaches of the flash curtain, far from the flashfall, I wonder how much of what I risk is for her. So that the part of her I carry inside me will know a place beyond this dust and ash.
I move my pickaxe to the holster on my back, watching Dram secure the bolt. We stand in a place where light filters down through cracks in the rock ceiling. I can almost pretend that it’s sunlight, instead of fallout from a solar incident that occurred over a century ago. The flashfall is like this—hinting at the curtain’s beauty, painting our excuse for a sky with luminescent clouds, quietly killing us while we’re mesmerized.
“Anchor’s secure,” Dram says, giving the rope a tug. He knots the other end and throws it over the side.
“Be sure to mute your lights before you descend.”
“At that depth, even muted lights will draw the gulls—”
“I know the risks.” Tension pours from me, like I’m bleeding out with all the worry I’ve kept buried for days, and since despair will immobilize me, I lean into anger. I face Dram, trying to decide how to confront him.
Protecting Alara isn’t the only reason we’re down here.
My caving partner is keeping things from me, and while it’s true I’m keeping things from him, my feelings aren’t going to get me killed. His secret is a clock ticking down to death.
“Let me see your Radband,” I say. In the sparse light threading past the flashfall, I see his face register shock. “Five years we’ve been scouting tunnels together—”
I grasp his wrist. “Did you really think I wouldn’t notice when you started covering your Radband?” My fingers tighten over the biotech dosimeter we’re all fitted with at birth—the band that monitors our radiation levels and sets us apart as Subpars. “How bad is it?”
He mutters a curse and holsters his pickaxe, all the while meeting my stare. He flicks open a knife and cuts the cloth wound over his Radband.
“There.” He holds his wrist in front of my face. “Satisfied?”
For the past year, I’ve watched his glowing green indicator dull to the muted shade of cave moss, but this gleaming light hits me like a kick to the stomach.
“How are you at yellow?” There are only two colors beyond it, and no one in the flashfall lives long with a red indicator.
He doesn’t answer, and I know—I know—it’s this cursed tunnel. Nine is bigger than all the rest, with the most potential for cirium. And the most potential for exposure.
“Why did you hide this?” I whisper.
“I got tired of looking at the damn thing!” His tone is hollow, but I hear the fear there. He’s only eighteen, in prime health otherwise … but his body’s cumulative radiation levels indicate yellow. It’s the warning before amber, when you really start dying.
Subpars are resistant to the curtain’s particles, but not immune.
He squeezes my hand. Some of what I feel must be showing on my face. “There’s nothing I can do about it,” Dram says.
“You can get to the protected city.” And it’s like I’ve dropped over the ledge; my blood pounds through me like I’m falling. “There’s a vein of cirium down there,” I say, pointing past the boundary marker. “I’m certain.”
He studies me, as if he’s listening for the words I’m not saying. Then he lights a flare, steps to the edge, and tosses it over. We watch it fall, red fire sputtering against the darkness. One second, two, three … the smoking flame grows smaller as it drops … six, seven … I know Dram’s counting, measuring the distance to gauge how much climbing line we’ll need, what it will take to get us down and back up again.
I barely watch the flare. In my mind, I’ve already made the drop. The truth is, I stepped off this ledge the moment I saw Dram’s Radband.
“You understand the risks of going down there?” he asks.
“I understand the risks of not going.” The statement hangs between us, but I don’t look away, not even as his gaze locks with mine.
He threads the rope through my rappel device and secures it to my harness. I’m aware of his touch, his closeness, and I try to make my breaths sound normal, in case he can hear them through his earpiece.
“You’re shaking,” he says. I don’t answer because he’ll hear the emotions rioting through me—anger, fear, and something new that feels out of place down tunnel nine. A longing that probably belongs more with a Natural girl in the protected city who doesn’t have an entire mining outpost relying on her. A normal girl who isn’t trying to save her best friend with a pickaxe and a reckless disregard for boundary markers.
“Alara needs this cirium,” I say. But it’s not duty to our city-state that gives me the courage to grasp the line and lean back over the chasm.
“Careful,” Dram says.
“Step in my steps,” I murmur, thinking how many hundreds of Subpars have echoed those words. I’m not the first to scout the unknown, to face my fears and drop.
I’m just the youngest.
I rappel, my stomach dropping as I give in to gravity. The silence of the chasm presses around me, and I feel like that flare, tumbling through a void. Cold creeps in through my caver’s suit, making me shiver as I descend. My heart beats in my ears, and it sounds like too deep, too deep, too deep.
But then another part of me comes awake.
Ah, yes, this.
The innermost parts of me—places I think of as distinctly Subpar—stir, as imprinted memory and sensation come to life.
My feet touch bottom. I free myself from the line and kneel, pressing my bare hand to the chasm floor. Humming. A faint vibration I feel deep inside. I stand, turning in a slow circle as my headlamp skips over walls wet with rivulets of water. Fear seizes me, a reactive instinct, but no orbies lurk in this water, piling atop one another to reach me, to taste me.
“Abseil clear!” I call, giving the rope a tug. The descending line is free. Safe to follow.
Moments later, Dram drops beside me. He pulls free of the rope and grasps a knife. “Lead the way.”
As I mute my lights, his Radband glows in my periphery, a flash of yellow. I feel the color, an undeniable warning, pushing me on. We forge through a crevice, the rock so tight around us our Rays scrape the stone. I hear each one of Dram’s breaths. Then, a sound louder than our sliding and scraping. Soft mewling, like the cry of an infant for its mother. But not a human mother.
“Orion…,” Dram breathes, so close I feel his breath against my ear. He says a hundred things in that one utterance, his tone confirming my worst fears.
I turn my head and meet Dram’s eyes. We share a conversation in the space of a few shattered breaths. Survival instincts fire along my synapses.
There’s a knife clenched in my hand that I don’t recall reaching for.
“Right behind you, ore scout,” Dram whispers. He turns off his headlamp and all his suit lights. We are going to cross beneath this gulls’ nest blind, and he trusts me to lead the way.
I force myself to take one step, then another, and all the while we listen as the mother gull feeds her baby with a clicking of beaks and the dying sounds of some creature. We are soundless, holding our breath as we hug the wall and pass the rows of roosting father gulls, anxiously awaiting their turns to feast. I look up—just once—and the light of our Radbands illuminates the knife-point feathers of dozens of gulls. I want to cover my hair so badly. It would be the first thing they’d tear into—but I force my attention to the widening of this pass I can just see about ten meters ahead. After that, we’ll at least stand a chance fighting back. Or running.
I let my senses move beyond me, a part of me detaching and finding its home in the call of the caverns. Free of its bonds, the cavern creature within me stirs, listening from a place of bone and marrow.
Slowly, impressions filter through my mind, and passages overlay my senses like the pages of a map. The vein of cirium is down here.
I just need to find it.
The youngling gull cries out for more, and talons scrape the stone. The mother is off to hunt.
And so am I.
Copyright © 2016 by Jenny Moyer