Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Steal the Stars

Nat Cassidy

Tor Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1


RIGHT BEFORE I heard the guy’s collarbone break, I remembered a print hanging in my grandmother’s house. In the guest bathroom, written in an innocuous font over a pastel flower: “There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing joy on the face of a friend.

My grandmother had obviously never thrown a guy twice her size across a room before.

Now, look, I’m not a violent person by nature. I don’t actually enjoy fighting. It stresses me out and makes me feel the bad kind of tingly for the rest of the day. But when a guy sidles up to you in one of only a handful of bars you have the option to patronize and his breath smells impossibly of socks and he leads with maybe the tritest pickup line in history, making it both annoying and insulting? Well, you make sacrifices.

“Excuse me,” he breathed, he exhumed, and if I’d had a force shield I would have deployed it. He tried again, his voice low and (snort) sensual. “Excuuuuse me.”

I made the mistake of responding. Not much—barely more than a sustained blink, not even looking in his direction—but he took it as leave to continue. It set him up for the clincher: “Was your daddy a thief?”

* * *

THE THING nobody tells you about the end of your life is sometimes you have so much damn longer to live afterward.

I’m talking days, weeks—hell, decades—from when your life ends until your body finally gets the message. In my case, my life ended the day after I threw this guy across the bar and I’ve been running ever since. I didn’t even get, like, a five-minute break to mourn.

And it’s all your fault, by the way.

Of course, I say my life ended that next day, but the truth is I’ve had difficulty pinning down the exact moment it happened. Believe me, I’ve tried. I really can’t help myself—I may not have been a scientist, but overthinking is something you catch hanging around them, like a disease.

When was the precise moment my hull breached, my engine failed, my horse went tits up? Was it when I looked at your bare chest and realized I could see your heartbeat? Maybe it was before then, that first handshake, looking into those eyes? Maybe it’s the most accurate to say my life ended the day I dropped everything and started working at Quill Marine in the first place, signing my life (and all my fraternization rights) away?

Yes? No? All of the above? Who fucking knows? Technically, it’s not the bullet that kills you, it’s the lack of oxygen to your brain due to the ruptured blood vessels, right? You parse something long enough and it loses all meaning.

Except those eyes. If anything, the more I parsed those eyes, the more meaning they took on.

Anyway. Back to the guy at the bar.

* * *

“I’M ASKING, was your daddy a thief?”

I’m asking myself how a guy’s mouth can smell so much of feet.

I usually have one drink on the way home. No more and, if there’s a just and loving God, no less. I could just as easily have that one drink in my house, but for whatever reason I prefer not to drink in silence.

There are a surprising number of bars around this tiny town—or maybe it’s not that surprising, if you’ve ever lived in a tiny town—but I usually stick to this one, the Heron. It’s got a better juke. Also, of course, consistency helps avoid unwanted run-ins with co-workers. Again: fraternization.

“Because he musta been a thief—”

Here it comes.

“—cuz he musta had to steal the stars from heaven—”

Feeeeeet.

“—to put them in your eyes.”

Uuuggh. At last, I turn to him, hoping these eyes he’s so fond of have somehow found the ability to shoot poison.

“No.” I turn my attention back to my glass.

It’s a word I’m sure he’s heard a lot. It whisks off him like a drop of water off a windshield.

“I, uh, I see you in here a lot, you know.” He’s rubbing his fingers back and forth across the bar while he talks, absently, clumsily. Like a piss-poor massage. I put my rocks glass down as close to those knobby worms as I can, trying to send out the signal that I’m okay with crushing any part of him that gets too close to me.

“I’m not gonna fuck you.” I make direct eye contact once again.

His eyes widen. “Whoa! Who said anything about—? Jesus, I’m just trying to talk to you here. Just talk to me for a second! People always look at me cross-eyed but once we get to talking, they like me!”

There’s a trace of sullenness there. I’ve hit a sore spot. And here’s my next mistake: I’m a sucker for accidental vulnerability. It fascinates me. It makes me want to stay and watch what happens. So I don’t get up and leave. I let him talk a little bit longer.

“So … you work at Quill Marine.”

“What was your first clue?” I ask, picking up my glass again.

“Hmmmm. The uniform!” he responds with a smug smile. Oh, no, it thinks it’s clever. I’m, of course, still wearing the charcoal canvas coveralls that I foolishly hoped would be shapeless enough to render me invisible. Stitched on the arm are the words “Quill Marine.”

“That’s really impressive,” I say.

“Hey.” He pulls out the stool next to me and sits down—actually sits down next to me, and somewhere in the back of my mind I’m already preparing for violence. “What is it you guys do in there, anyway?”

His voice has dropped to a conspiratorial tone. I match it.

“Are we going to have a problem here?” I ask.

“I mean,” he chuckles, “we kinda already have a problem here. You guys … you don’t hire local. Why is that?”

He’s still smiling, but poisonous clouds are gathering around the edges of his voice. Another sore spot. I have little doubt he came over here to flirt first, but, if that mission winds up being a failure, he might as well air some grievances. Never underestimate the ability of a spurned man to shuffle emotions like a monte dealer.

I don’t respond and he keeps going: “No, seriously. Why is that? It’s not like there’s a ton of jobs out here. But then there’s big ol’ Quill Marine, taking up valuable real estate and refusing to let people sign on. I mean, what, we don’t make ’em good enough for you guys out here?”

He’s still smiling, trying to show me this is all just harmless, charming ribbing, but his mouth has tightened and the look is grotesque.

I don’t hear the bar door open behind us.

“I bet I know why,” he goes on. “You guys are making weapons in there. That’s it, isn’t it?” He nods at my lack of comment. “Yeah. You know … my cousin made a delivery there once. He says he saw weapons inside. He swears it. Just lying around.”

No. No. It’s too much. Too stupid, too confident, too goddamn aromatic. I have to respond.

“I can promise you,” I finally say, regretting the decision immediately. “Nobody’s cousin saw weapons in there.”

His face lights up.

“Ah! See, but: now you’re interested in me.”

Maybe it all could have been defused. This wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten an earful like this from a disgruntled townie. Maybe I could have talked him down, shit-talked paper tiger versions of my higher-ups or the company that owned Quill. Maybe I could have avoided what happened next. But, then, enter: her.

WHAT. THE. FUCK?!

The guy blanches and spins around on his stool.

“Janey?!”

What the fuck are you doing?!

Janey is standing in the middle of the bar, having just walked in and spotted her man, dear old Feetbreath, chatting to the gorgeous specimen in the charcoal coveralls at the bar. Janey is upset. Janey looks like a bedraggled heroine straight out of a Springsteen song: long-suffering, exhausted, ready to snap.

Feetbreath’s voice does an impressive switch from wannabe lothario to whiny teenager: “Jeeeeeeeesus, I can’t get one minute to myself?”

Janey’s not to be deterred. She’s probably been practicing this: “You wait ’til I’m asleep and you come up here—you wait ’til I’m asleep and creep out like a fucking raccoon getting in the garbage?!”

“I can’t get one minute to get outta that shithole and clear my head?”

Meanwhile, I’m draining the rest of my rocks glass into my face. I’ll be goddamned if this soap opera is going to rob me of my hard-earned buzz.

But, then, with impressive speed, Janey’s on the other side of me, actually holding my arm.

“How long have you been seeing him?”

I almost choke on my whiskey.

“What?”

“He’s been with me six years. I bet he didn’t tell you that.”

Feetbreath pulls her off of me not a second too soon.

“I’m just talking to her! Can’t I talk to a person?”

“Has he mentioned me at all?!” Janey is shouting into my ear.

“I can’t just get out of the house and talk to a person?!” Feetbreath is shouting at her through my other ear.

“You’re supposed to talk to me!”

“I can’t get a break from your voice for like ten fucking seconds—”

“I wash your pants, I suck your dick—you wanna talk to somebody, you talk to—”

SMACK!

Okay.

Let it be said, Feetbreath started it. Let it be said, once again, that I’m not ordinarily a violent person, and that very much includes having a zero tolerance policy toward men who strike women. Not that I haven’t met a huge amount of women who could easily hold their own in a fight—it’s just damn rude to hit someone smaller than you first.

He got Janey in the eye. She stumbles backward, stunned, almost falling. And it looks like he might try for another shot.

So I grab his arm. Hard.

“Huh? Get the fuck off of me.”

“Walk out with me,” I tell him, calmly, evenly.

“Get your fucking hands off of—you wanna die?”

“I wanna walk out with you. Come on.”

He’s twisting, trying to get free. Ain’t gonna happen.

The bartender has been watching this the whole time, of course. We are far more interesting than whatever catch-the-ball breakdown is happening on ESPN right now. He finally chimes in: “Dak, you need me to—”

“Nope. I’m good,” I tell him. “In fact, I’m great.”

And it’s true. Because at the very least, I’d managed to finish my drink.

* * *

MY NAME was Dak, by the way. Short for Dakota. But you know that.

* * *

I START dragging Feetbreath to the door. He is actually grunting, “Do you wanna die?” at me, which is possibly the funniest thing I have ever heard.

A few feet from the door, I catch a glimpse of Janey. She’s reconnecting with the world, and her increasingly clear eyes catch mine. First with shock … then an unmistakable hatred. It actually takes me aback for a moment. Just a moment, long enough to loosen my grip on Feetbreath, who manages to twist around enough to position his free arm exactly where I don’t want it.

“Cuz if you wanna die, I’ll—”

And he swings at me.

He telegraphs the punch like a year in advance. I have plenty of time to stroll out of the way. He tries and fails again. And this time I engage.

Three rules for winning a fight against someone way bigger than you:

One. Don’t let them get a single hit in. I’m stocky and solid, but this guy is lumberjack big and has almost half a foot on me. All the training in the world doesn’t protect you from sheer poundage, that’s just physics.

Two. Every one of your hits has to count. No chest, no upper back, no shoulder. You gotta aim for solar plexus, kidneys, balls if that’s an option. Dirty? Sure, I guess. Every fight is dirty. And shame on you if you jump into one you don’t plan on winning.

Three. You have about thirty seconds. If you don’t put them down in thirty, draw or run.

In this particular case, about ten seconds into the scuffle, he gives me a wide, sloppy cross that I basically use as a trebuchet.

* * *

THIS BRINGS me back to my original point.

Sorry, Grandma. There is nothing, nothing, more satisfying than throwing a man twice your size—especially one who just hit a woman after sloppily trying to worm his way into your pants—all the way across a goddamn alehouse.

“Satisfaction” is the right word for it. That feeling of his bulk leaving yours, of shrugging him into orbit, handing him over to the gods of gravity as if to say, “This is yours, do with it what you will”? It satisfies. It feels like everything is operating the way it’s supposed to.

It would be a long time before I got to feel that again.

* * *

FEETBREATH IS not trained in the art of being thrown. There’s a sickening crack we all hear when he lands, followed by a howl of pain one slow synapse later.

Whoops.

Janey rushes to his side. Meanwhile, the bartender looks at me and shrugs.

“I had to call the cops, Dak. This is your chance to get out of here.”

There’s no malice in his voice. He’s doing me a solid. Rules are rules and business is business. I slap an extra ten dollars down on the bar.

Janey is cradling Feetbreath. The area around her eye is already beginning to swell.

“Look at what you did to him!” she screams at me. There’s such hurt in her voice you’d almost think it was her who just snapped a bone.

“In about thirty minutes you’ll be able to see what he did to you. Hope you look good in purple.”

I mostly mumbled that second part to myself, though. She was already screaming over me.

“It’s not your business! It’s none of your business!” And then she turns her attention to her wounded, moaning partner. “Baby, baby, are you all right? Baby, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’ll do better, I’m sorry.”

The bartender picks up my ten dollars and says to me, “I’ll say it was someone I don’t know.”

I tell him to go ahead and say it was me. The cops won’t give me a problem. I work at Quill Marine.

And with that I head for the door.

On my way out, though, I turn back and survey the scene. Janey’s on her knees, helping her man stand up. She’s babbling to him in soft, soothing tones.

“I didn’t know, baby, I won’t bother you so much, I didn’t know. I didn’t know I was bothering you so much, I’ll stop. Let me get you home.”

Snapshot, I thought. Right there: everything you need to know about love in one handy image. So neat and tidy you could put it on a print and hang it in Grandma’s house.

I walked out of there, shaking my head, suddenly very tired.

* * *

THAT’S NOT my last real memory of the woman that was Dak, but it’s certainly the most representative. And like I said, by some point the next morning, that life was over.

And like I said, it’s all your fault.

But I’m not mad at you. Not for ending that life, at least. That life wasn’t all that spectacular to begin with.

Besides, here’s something people have said about the end: sometimes paradise is waiting on the other side.

It might only last a few moments. It might take a whole lotta hell to get there. But it’s there.

So let’s fucking get to it already.

2

ASK ME where I worked and I’d tell you: Quill Marine.

Ask me what we did there and I’d tell you: marine stuff.

I could get more specific—why, I could wax for hours about the reproductive cycle of the noble sea urchin and how it relates to the water’s tonicity balance; or how phytoplankton secrete an enzyme that helps us produce a more sustainable kind of plastic—but I rarely got the opportunity to go too long. That’s by design. And anything I said from that point on was gonna be 100 percent bullshit anyway.

The real Quill Marine Labs is protected by layers upon layers upon layers of bullshit, most of it so boring and eye-glazing as to dissuade any in-depth investigation.

Being boring is the most effective guard dog there is.

Still, the naval base is located a few minutes off of the water in a pretty small town in Northern California and, to quote our old friend Feetbreath, it does take up a fair amount of real estate. So people talk. People guess and assume. Surely, something interesting must go on in that immense, faceless compound, right? And it must be connected to why they never seem to hire anyone local, mustn’t it?

* * *

“HOW’S ALL the mind-control stuff going?”

Sam, the owner of the Seaview Diner, asks this as he lays down my veggie omelet and cup of coffee. Every time.

“I knew you were going to ask that,” I respond.

“That only proves my point,” he tips back.

Every morning I’m on shift I stop by the Seaview, and every morning it’s the same repartee. Although that morning was a little different.

“I heard you had a rough night at the Heron last night,” Sam tsked.

I heard the sound of Feetbreath screaming, of his clavicle snapping, and wished I could control even my own mind.

People talk. People wonder.

“Miss? Miss? Please, just tell me that there’s no chance of a Chernobyl sorta situation over there? Please? I have children,” a woman once whispered to me desperately at the supermarket while I was standing in the deli section, looking for the tofu dogs.

But honestly, besides the occasional embittered townie who wishes we took his job application, the interest in Quill Marine is mostly circumstantial. Fanciful, even.

Hell, it’s not even as if Quill is the only research lab in the area.

Most people who live in the area are commuters—they go inland to work in the Sustain Farms or south to Silicon Valley or up to Trinidad to work for the next closest research facility, Humboldt Marine. In fact, Humboldt, formerly Humboldt State University Marine before its privatization and now known by the enviable nom de guerre “The Bone Factory” for its research in bone regrowth, is one of Quill Marine Lab’s saving graces. As far as we know (as far as I know, I should say, since somebody always knows more), they’re a legitimate research lab, and they do enough actual work that Quill Marine gets to act as a sort of plucky younger sibling—always trying, but never in danger of coming close to the big guy’s reputation.

Then again, as someone who worked at Quill Marine, I’ve learned not to really believe the thing that anybody or anything presents themselves to be. The Bone Factory could actually be the ones dabbling in mind control. They’re owned by the same private defense contractors that bought Quill Marine almost ten years ago, after all. They could be manipulating our every thought, constructing our entire reality out of whole cloth. Everything you’re seeing right now could have been conjured up by them and you’re just sitting in an empty metal room none the fucking wiser!

See? Isn’t parsing fun?

Quill Marine has its own covers and initiatives. It conducts marine studies and releases verifiable results. It does a pretty phenomenal job presenting itself as a by-the-numbers aquatic research facility. It has a front. And then evidence behind the front. And then evidence behind that evidence. The only remotely notable aspect of the company is that it chooses its new hires from a very specific, very remote talent pool.

So none of us in Quill Marine ever begrudge, or even take that seriously, the occasional line of questioning about What We’re Really Up To. It’s more fun for everyone to imagine we’re doing something spectacular.

I’m sure you entertained a few fantasies yourself before you found out the truth.

And in this case, it’s not like you were wrong.

* * *

IT TOOK me some time to get used to life out here. And honestly, a big part of the adjustment was shedding the implications of terms like “California living.”

After all, California living was part of how the job was sold to me. I’d be so close to the beach, to wine country—what an ideal place to ride out the rest of your career, they chirped! After war zones and hell holes and Washington, D.C., now it would be surfboards and floral shirts. Sunshine and seagulls. The twang of a Dick Dale guitar lick always just finishing off an echo somewhere.

Life this far north, though?

Replace all your palm trees with firs and redwoods.

Replace all your surfers with lumberjacks.

Replace your sandy beaches with rocky cliffs.

Replace all your fantasies of lounging in the sun next to a cooler full of Coronas with getting caught in a downpour while trying to read a book on how to better handle seasonal depression.

Now when I think of the beach, it doesn’t conjure up images of escape. Instead, it’s more like encasement. I don’t want to mislead, though: depending on the day, that could actually feel like a good thing. After all, one of the first things you learned on incursions in the service was to find a safe place to set your back. Up here, with the sprawling chaos of pretty much the entire continent stretching out before us, the impenetrable rocky shoreline acts less like a getaway and more like a bulwark. I felt cornered … but for someone like me that’s actually more relaxing than having everywhere to run.

And, sure, sometimes you need to drive a bit longer to get to places. Nearby towns like Trinidad, with its population of around four hundred, don’t always have the most recent movies in theaters (they just got a new one called Kindergarten Cop, is it any good? Don’t tell me). But there are plenty of bars and I could still hear the ocean. It was my own version of California living and, on my best days, I actually cherished how different it was from the one I thought I was getting. I could look at the rest of California, so jarringly different from this one, and it was a little like being the only single friend in a room full of married couples. Yeah, we had our own problems, but we were also untethered from some massive amounts of bullshit.

It’s nice. I thought I’d even grown to love it.

I really thought that.

* * *

THANKS TO the incident at the Heron and my inability to stop replaying it, I showed up to work at Quill the next morning with the unshakeable feeling that I’d forgotten something. Parker, our guy at the front gate, did his usual thing of studying my ID in his little booth for a full minute, silent (even though we’d both worked there together eight years at this point), giving me plenty of time to sit in my jeep and stew over what it was that I wasn’t remembering.

Lloyd isn’t ready to try out his new suit just yet, and we’re not scheduled to run any more tests on the dogs, thank God. The visit from Sierra’s corporate assholes isn’t for another couple of weeks. I have plenty of time before the Harp powers up. What am I forgetting?

It was like I’d undergone brain surgery and someone left a nickel in my skull before sewing me back up. I could feel the thing sitting there, but I couldn’t … quite …

“Date of birth?” Parker finally asked in his flat, impersonal voice.

I gave him the answer automatically. January 12, 19awhileago.

“Middle name?”

I told him I don’t have one.

“Cool.”

He handed my ID back to me, and, with that part of our day dispensed with, his entire demeanor flipped. He leaned out of his booth window like a gossipy housewife.

“So,” he clucked. “The guy got here about five minutes ago and I’ve got him in holding. We taking bets on this one?”

“The guy? What guy?” Then: the realization. “Ah, shit!”

Parker chuckled. “What, did you forget?”

I had a rough night, asshole. “Arrgh! When’s Power-Up?”

“If it’s regular?” Parker checked his watch. “Like, nineteen minutes?”

Plenty of time, right? On a normal day. But on a newbie day? I growled and tightened my grip on the steering wheel. Parker smirked.

“Better get a move on.” He pressed a button and the gate slowly trundled open. As I drove ahead he called after me. “So that’s a ‘no’ on taking bets, right?”

I parked in my spot and walked as quickly as I could to holding.

* * *

MAYBE THIS was the exact moment my life ended.

Then again, maybe not. I mean, I certainly wasn’t impressed.

At the very least, this is when the whistling of approaching bombs could be heard.

* * *

THE LITTLE waiting room they built near the front gate isn’t shitty at all, and that’s by design. If there’s a mix-up in clearances, a person could be waiting here for hours while we wait to get them vouched for. The coffee’s solid. The sofas are comfortable.

And there you were. Not sitting on any of them. Standing in the middle of the room, ramrod straight. Not at all looking like the god of destruction you’d turn out to be. There was no Shiva here. No eater of worlds. Just a tall, skinny young man on pause. Like a horse gone to sleep.

You saw me. And then you actually saluted.

Internally, I pitched a sigh that could’ve powered a steam locomotive at least halfway across the country.

“Lieutenant Commander Matt Salem, ma’am.”

I stared at you for a moment. Then I said, hopefully with not too much malice: “You wanna try that again?”

I could actually see your thought process, rolling over everything that had just happened, and then—oh! there it is!—realizing your mistake.

“Ah, shit.”

“Literally everybody does it.”

“I’m just … Matt Salem. Hi.”

“Feels naked, right? Just saying your name all by itself?”

“I kinda hate it.”

We shook hands, like normal people do. I looked at your eyes. Big, eager, underneath long, almost feminine lashes. Physically very attractive, beautiful even, but also kinda cute, in a lost puppy sort of way. But I was someone who definitely couldn’t own a dog.

“So, listen, we need to get going—”

“Oh, do you need to see my clearance doc? They sent it to my phone, so I can—”

You pulled your phone out of your pocket and my guts fell down around my ankles. It took all my willpower to not smack it out of your hands.

“Don’t ever bring a phone here again.”

“I’m … sorry, ma’am. I just thought I’d need it to identify mys—”

“Don’t ever. Bring that. Again.”

“I’m turning it all the way off and I will never bring it here again.”

I could tell you meant it. I could tell that if I asked you to throw that phone down on the ground right now and do an Irish jig on its shiny face, you’d do it without even a moment’s thought.

I considered it. Instead I told you to leave it here, under one of the couch cushions if that made you feel more secure, to be picked up at the end of the day. I was feeling generous.

We identify you,” I said. “You’ll see what I mean in a minute. Come on, we’ve gotta hustle.”

I watched you pat the couch cushion down and I think I experienced a moment of pity. Bringing a phone was a misstep. I was already dreading what I would have to do if there was another one.

It’d be a shame, I remember thinking. You smelled weirdly good.

I pushed open the door to holding and we made our way back outside to the front door of the lab.

* * *

I LIKED to think of Quill Marine, the real Quill Marine, as a giant, segmented, man-eating insect, and only the right people are immune to its digestive juices.

Maybe what we actually did there prompted me to look at the world a little more grotesquely, I don’t know. For whatever reason, it was hard for me not to think of being swallowed whole and starting on some sort of peristaltic journey every time I clocked in for a shift.

From the outside, of course, it was nothing special. Before Quill was privatized, back when it was just Quill Naval, they tried to make everything look as unremarkable as possible. If it weren’t for the fences and guards it’d almost look like a community college.

The main building itself was a pretty standard office building: there were hallways and rooms (which mostly sat unoccupied), offices, innocuous hanged wall art.

You wouldn’t realize that this whole area was actually a mouth.

A guest wouldn’t notice, but there were teeth there—guards with weapons behind walls ready to deploy and chew stuff up if it didn’t actually belong.

Failing that, though, everyone went through a series of steps to make their way through, and the first step was easy enough: a sign-in counter. A tablet embedded in the wall, tilted at an angle for ease of writing, next to a metal door. I thought of this station as, like, the uvula.

Do giant, segmented, man-eating insects have uvulas?

I don’t know. Fuck you. This one does.

I signed in.

Your turn came, and as you leaned over to work the stylus over the screen I thought again how good you smelled and how it’d be a shame to shoot you in the back of the head.

I hoped it didn’t come to that. And maybe it was the urgency I was feeling to get through all our checkpoints in time before the Power-Up, but I suddenly realized how tired I was of all this security, of all the steps and secrets and, well, the brutality.

With your sign-in complete, the screen processed for a moment, then the door unlocked with an audible thunk. You looked at me. There was no real expression on your face at all, yet somehow I knew you were feeling giddy surprise, and even a smidgen of pride. How could I know that? It’s like you were a language I didn’t know I could already speak.

“So, that’s it? We just walk in?”

“Not even close.”

* * *

ONCE INSIDE there was a winding hallway and another metal door. This door had a Plexiglas window set into it. On the other side, looking very much like some placid mental patient, was Rosh. His dark, receding hair was messy but his pencil-thin mustache was neat. He stood, wearing coveralls and a patient, prudish smile, holding a tablet like a fig leaf, in front of his beloved machine and, surprise surprise, another metal door.

“Wow, what is that?” you asked as we approached the door. The machine looked like a pharmacy blood pressure machine and an old Atari had somehow successfully reproduced. Except instead of a pressure cuff there was a long, white stick with a chin guard sticking up in front of the screen.

“That would be Rosh and his scanner.”

“Oh, but I don’t have an issued ID yet—”

“You are the ID.” I opened the door. “Hey, Rosh!”

“Hello, person I don’t yet recognize!” Rosh chirped—then looked at you, eyes narrowing. “Alongside a person I genuinely don’t recognize.”

“Matt Salem. It’s his first day—you get his vitals?”

“One moment, stranger, I shall check.” Rosh conferred with the tablet in his hands.

God, I hoped this went quickly. Rosh was easy to adore … but usually only in retrospect. Probably out of necessity, Quill Marine employs a lot of weirdos. None of us, with the exception of Trippi, the woman who works reception upstairs and needs to sound as normal as can be, are that socially well adjusted (probably means Trippi’s the most damaged of all of us). Rosh was one of our more, let’s say, indulgent personalities.

“Behold!” he crooned. “Right here in my system, a Matthew Salem! Will wonders never cease? But is that really you?! Why, you could be anyb—”

“Let’s run me through first, please,” I said, sitting down at Rosh’s machine. “Where are we with the Harp countdown?”

“I wouldn’t have the first clue what you’re referring to, stranger,” he barked disapprovingly.

I grunted and settled in, placing my chin on the guard, looking straight into the bottomless black of the concave screen. Rosh intoned the directions as if I hadn’t heard them a full seventy million times by now.

“Take a deep, fulfilling inhalation!” I did. “Now, without blinking, very gently exhaaale.” I did. The scan mulled everything over, made an affirmative little beep, and Rosh threw his hands up in triumph. “Aaaand suddenly I recognize you! Quill Marine Security Chief Dakota Prentiss!”

I’d already stood up, smoothing out my legs. It was a nifty little device, what Rosh liked to call a three-in-one: retinal, facial recognition, and vapor biometric scanner. Most places would probably stop their security protocol there, but we had miles to go. “Now can I get the time?”

“But of course, close friend.” Rosh looked at his tablet. “That would be fourteen minutes, nine seconds and descending.”

“Fuck. Okay, Salem, get over here.”

“They … already have my information on this?” you gawked.

“Let’s find out, Mr. Second Person I Don’t Recognize!” Rosh gestured like a showroom model. “Place your chin here and fill your lungs with rich, nurturing air—”

“Less of the funny stuff, Rosh, I gotta get him there before Power-Up.”

You looked at me with questioning eyes—“What’s Power-Up?” those eyes were asking—but Rosh patted the back of the scanner and tsked.

“Face front. Breathe in. Don’t worry. It doesn’t hurt. Much.”

He burst into a mad scientist cackle and I wished I’d had it in me to have gotten a nice, quiet job at a coffee shop somewhere.

* * *

WE HUSTLED down more hallways.

“We’re heading to another checkpoint, aren’t we?” you asked. “You’re walking like we’re not even close.” I grunted affirmatively. “Jeez. We didn’t have security this intense at Camp Victory and people were actually trying to kill us out there.”

“Get comfortable, you gotta do ’em all again coming out the other way, too. The Big Bug pukes you out the way you came in.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

“We’re … we’re not doing something involving bugs, are we?” There was some actual panic in your voice. But, again, not on the surface. Subliminal. Private. Readable only by me—I was even finding myself starting to respect your ability to mask it. And, of course, me, ever the gormandizer of unexpected vulnerability: I had to smirk.

“Don’t worry.”

We rounded a corner.

You chuckled. “I’m starting to think we actually do make weapons or mind control here.” And that, for whatever reason, made me laugh too. A small laugh, an in-spite-of-myself laugh.

“Sounds like you’ve spent some time in town.”

“Moved in over the weekend.”

“Well. Welcome to the jungle.” What? “It’s easier if you mostly stay home.”

“Is that what you do? Stay home?”

“Mostly.”

The talk of homes, specifically yours and mine … Jesus Christ, why was I suddenly feeling weird? Warm in my gut, icy in my extremities.

Then I remembered: the fight. Feetbreath. The bad kind of tingly. I was still on edge from the night before. Ugh. It was like a hangover. Anxiety had flooded my body, and it was seeking a perch, something to land on.

Get it together, Dak. Shake it off. You’ll be in the dark soon.

At last, Lauren’s booth appeared. Her image—short, cropped white-blond hair, huge, suspicious eyes—was muted and scratched behind layers of thick, ancient Plexi, but I could tell she was already scowling. She looked as refreshing as an oasis.

Her booth was situated on the left-hand side of the wall. The room itself was narrow and in the center was one chair, one table the size of a foldout card table you might find in some amateur poker player’s basement, and, draped over both, the Rhinestone Cowboy.

Sadly, Glen Campbell was nowhere to be found. Just the white, shiny apparatus we named in his honor. The Rhinestone Cowboy looked like a jacket that had been attacked by some scissor-happy fashionista. It was basically two large white cuffs to go over your arms, connected garment-like by a net of white wires and electrodes stretched between them, which connect to the skin. Other wires feeding off that mess ran up and around the table, then down into the wall. There was no machine there on the table, save for the cybernetic jacket. All the information went straight into Lauren’s booth.

Oh. And, of course, there was the unlabeled bottle of jelly on the table as well.

Lauren’s voice crackled over an aggressively out-of-date speaker (one we could have easily updated, but, no, this was how Lauren wanted it). She was staring at you.

Cccrackle. “My manifest warned me.” She spoke in her usual weird, flat monotone.

“Yeah. Newbie. Want me to suit up first?”

Cccrackle. “Please put on the apparatus and apply the electrodes to the appropriate areas.”

“On it.”

I sat down at the table, unzipping my coveralls a few inches and feeling weirdly energized all of a sudden. Grateful for something active to do, I guess. I had this down to an art, like a street magician walking a coin down her knuckles. Slide the cuffs on, squirt some of the jelly onto my skin where the electrodes attach (nowhere exciting … but not too far away from exciting), slap on the electrodes themselves, and then the final piece—

“Am … I allowed to ask what that is?”

You almost startled me.

“You wear it like a jacket, see? Then the electrodes here … here … and here.”

“What’s that stuff all over it?”

“Some of the best lie-detection tech in the world.”

“And…?” You were pointing to the last bit of tech: a black metal plate attached, hinged, to some sort of band. No wires.

“That goes last. Like this.” I placed the band around my head and brought the plate down over my face. It was like an opaque welding mask; the idea was total isolation, total blackness. Just you and your truth. Louder, I said, “All dressed up and ready to go!” My voice muffled slightly against the plate.

Cccrackle. “Are you here at this facility with the intent of sabotaging or removing any materials or personnel on site?”

“No.”

“Haven’t you worked here for, like—” you began.

Cccrackle. “Are you here at this facility with the intent of damaging, removing, or otherwise interfering with Moss, the Harp, or Object E?”

“No,” I answered. “Speaking of the Harp, where are we countdown-wise—?”

Cccrackle. “Excuse me, please. Assessment is in process.”

It sounded personal. I apologized. Lauren was someone who liked her patterns, who used monotony as a snorkel to breathe in this messy world. She didn’t take kindly to aberrations.

Whatever it is she did in that booth, she did it, and then:

Cccrackle. “Thank you, Security Chief Prentiss. You are cleared to descend to Hangar Eleven.”

“Oh, boy,” I deadpanned, already swiftly removing the faceplate, the probes, and rubbing the lubricant into my skin. You were watching. Studying.

“Now it’s my turn?”

“Unless you want to stay here all day.”

You took my place in front of the table.

“Stick your arms out,” I said. I slipped the sleeves on. “And now, we gotta apply the electrodes to the … appropriate areas.” I felt myself getting warm again. For fuck’s sake, anxiety. I cleared my throat. “Okay, so I’m gonna unzip your coveralls a little bit. By saying ‘yes’ you’re indicating that you understand that this is for the purpose of assisting you in the process of clearing you for duty.”

“You’re gonna unzip—”

“I need a verbal ‘yes,’ please.”

“Top-secret facility still complies with harassment liability laws. Fascinating. Sorry. Yes, please.”

“Hold still.”

I unzipped your coveralls a few inches.

Underneath, I could see the light imprint of ribs beneath your skin. The faint divot where your sternum forked. You were maybe the skinniest man I had ever undressed. Like a tree without leaves. Or a really old painting of Jesus. Your chest was utterly hairless.

“It’s not harassment liability,” I was saying. “It’s for the fraternization policy. You read it before you signed it, right?”

I squeezed some of the tube’s contents onto my fingers and massaged it onto your skin. That’s when I noticed—

I could see your heartbeat. Faintly. Very, very faintly; I probably wouldn’t be able to see it if not for my angle and the stark lighting.

Just under your sternum, the slightest hint of movement.

“Oh, right,” you responded. “Yes, I read it.”

Lauren crackled over her intercom. Cccrackle. “Did you actually read it? Everybody signs it but—”

“I did, I promise!” you averred.

Cccrackle. “Quote for me the Quill Marine prohibition against fraternization between security team members.”

“Is this part of the test? I don’t know if I can quote it exactly—”

It would have been easy for you to assume Lauren was being cheeky. She wasn’t. There was a reason she was the facility’s truth seeker—she went after facts like a goddamn Terminator (although Terminators probably had a better sense of humor). I would have actually been impressed to see her engaging in a dialogue—but for the moment I wasn’t really paying attention.

Something about your heartbeat.

It was so very … small.

I thought about Feetbreath nursing his broken collarbone (not too far a location from where his own heart beat). I thought of how he screamed when he hit the barroom floor. I thought about Janey, probably trying to help him convalesce and probably taking shit for it … probably also getting just enough rewards to keep her coming back, too. I thought about idiocy and fragility and love and death. I thought about pain and the futility of living creatures, fighting for life, only to die one way or another. I thought about it in the context of Moss and the questions we had about him.

All this in an instant, looking at a teeny expanding-contracting shadow just underneath your ribcage.

I realized: if today’s training went south and I had to do what I thought I might have to do to you?

I was going to quit.

I’d follow through with the protocol, no doubt; I’ve done it before, I understood its necessity. But if today ended with you failing your final test, with me having to stop that heartbeat … I decided right there to tender my resignation immediately thereafter.

Today very well might be my last day at Quill Marine. The end of this life, as it were.

* * *

MEANWHILE, DURING my little revelation (no biggie, just potentially pulling the rug out from my entire existence here), Lauren was reciting the fraternization policy, in full, from memory.

I’m sure you were impressed. And probably a little put off. Lauren had both effects on people. But this particular feat wasn’t quite so magnitudinous.

Here, see. I can do it too.

Relationships of the same and opposite genders are prohibited if they compromise or appear to compromise supervisory authority or the chain of command, are or are perceived to be exploitative or coercive in nature, involve or appear to involve the improper use of rank or position for personal gain, or create an actual or clearly predictable adverse impact on discipline, authority, morale, or the ability of command to implement its mission. Such relationships are frequently sexual in nature, but this is not always the case, and is not necessary for this prohibition to apply.

Hold your applause.

Did everyone at Quill Marine Labs have this particular passage memorized? No, probably not. I’m sure Lauren crammed every letter of the rulebook into her rapacious, zealous brain, and I’m sure there were a host of other, er, indoor kids on staff who might have done the same (some maybe accidentally, in that way that only eidetics can). But the majority of us, myself included, were less special and more specialized. To say nothing of the fact that almost every single person working at Quill Marine was the sort who preferred solitude to company—an asset ferreted out and encouraged during our initial interviews, no less—so the fraternization policy actually seemed like one of the most redundant and unnecessary sections of the handbook.

I only have that particular passage memorized simply because, after things started to get bad, I read it a lot. I read it over and over and over again.

* * *

“CAN WE get this over with? We’ve got like ten minutes left.”

You nodded. “Sorry. I’m—this is all very impressive. And cool.”

Cccrackle. “It’s not cool. It’s basic. It’s a minimal requirement. Are you done, Dak?”

“Yeah, almost.” I finished applying all the doodads and gadgets and other technical terms onto you.

“Thanks,” you whispered.

“You’re on your own next time, so—”

“I paid attention. Don’t worry.”

I lingered. Just a tiny bit. Purely unintentionally. Just studying you for a moment. Maybe enjoying your scent. Lauren rapped on the glass. We both looked at her.

“Ready,” I shouted, way louder than I needed to.

“Lauren! The ink on your wrist—” you said brightly as I stepped away. When she’d given the glass her little knock, the most fleeting impression of a faded fragment of skull and crossed oars had been visible on her arm. “You were in Amphibious Force Recon?”

Impressive that you caught that.

Cccrackle. “I will now ask you a series of questions. Your answers must take the form of either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ No other answers are permitted.”

“Got it.” You slid the plate down over your face.

Cccrackle. “What did I just say?”

“Sorry.”

Cccrackle. “Are you here at this facility with the intent of sabotaging or removing any materials or personnel on site?”

“No.”

Cccrackle. “Are you here at this facility with the intent of damaging, removing, or otherwise interfering with Moss, the Harp, or Object E?”

“I don’t know what any of those things are.”

Cccrackle. “There are only two acceptable ans—”

“Sorry, sorry: No. ‘No’ is my answer.”

Cccrackle. “Please remain still and silent until I tell you otherwise.”

We waited. And waited.

And waited.

What the hell was taking so long?

Maybe because he’s new, maybe because his heart was beating hard, maybe because I’m never going to actually start this day and life is a meaningless—

Cccrackle. “Thank you, Matt Salem. You are cleared to descend to Hangar Eleven.”

You removed the Rhinestone Cowboy—not as fast as me, but with reasonable confidence. You even put it right back the way we found it, recapturing the drape of wires over the chair.

“What do I do with—?” you gestured to the goo still on your skin.

“You can rub it in, it’s okay.”

We made our way to the elevator. The last, and largest, in a long series of metal doors.

I pressed the button and muttered, “Come on. Fuck. I hope the Gnome is in a good mood.”

“The Gnome?”

The elevator chimed and the huge doors spread open, up and down. We stepped in: a massive freight elevator with no buttons, only one destination.

“They don’t call it Hangar Eleven because we have eight more checkpoints to go, do they?”

“Next up is blood, stool, and sperm. Hope you’re a quick shot.”

You looked at me with bulging eyes. “Wait. Seriously?”

* * *

OBVIOUSLY, THINGS didn’t end there, there were definitely more stops to be made on our way down to oblivion, but by the time I realized I’d already somehow gotten comfortable joking with you, that I’d even somehow looked forward to seeing your response to stimuli, the path was set. Like I said before, I’m a sucker for unintended vulnerability, and you seemed to traffic in the stuff.

In many ways I feel like I’ve thought about nothing else over the past months. I’ve analyzed, I’ve overanalyzed, every step we made to get to where we ended up. I can definitely say for sure that by this point, when we stepped onto that elevator, my life was done.

You felt it too, right? A great priming. Or maybe you were just thinking about your new job and all its bizarre protocols. Maybe you weren’t thinking of me at all yet.

The elevator lurched and dropped down with a rattling roar.

“I like to think of myself as someone who doesn’t scare easily,” you said. I don’t know if you were saying it to me or to the universe in general, but either way I had nothing to say in response.

We made our way down into the stomach, the literal belly of the beast.

We made our way to meet Moss.


Novelization copyright © 2017 by Tom Doherty Associates. Based on the podcast Steal the Stars by Gideon Media.