Stars above, p.8
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       Stars Above, p.8

         Part #4.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
 

  Blood rushed to his face.

  Mind control.

  A surge of defiance crawled up from the base of his throat. Z scrunched his face up, and, with every bit of concentration he had, he forced his legs to freeze. He found himself in an awkward stance, his legs caught midstep, his hands fisted at his sides. He was already panting with the effort.

  He pried open his eyes and looked at Master Jael. He was surprised to find amusement, not anger, in the thaumaturge’s expression. Through his teeth, he said, “Thank you, Master, but I can walk without your help.”

  Jael grinned, and with a snap Z felt the hold on his mind release.

  “But of course,” Jael said. “Please, join the line.”

  Letting out a breath, Z turned toward his new pack.

  He gasped. The leader—Alpha Brock—was now less than an arm’s distance away, a snarl showing the points of his canines.

  Before Z could think, a fist collided with his jaw, knocking him onto the floor and shoving the wind out of him. For a moment his lungs burned with the need for air and his head rang from the punch. The pain in his jaw was the worst, his gums still sore from the surgery. The throbbing brought tears to his eyes.

  “Don’t ever disrespect Master Jael again,” said Alpha Brock. With a grunt, he landed a kick to Z’s ribs.

  Z cried out and crunched into a ball, trying to protect his stomach, but another kick didn’t follow. Tasting blood, he spit onto the chalky ground. He was glad that none of his new teeth came with it.

  Shaking, he risked a glance at Master Jael, but the thaumaturge was standing calmly back, his hands in his sleeves. When he caught Z’s gaze, his eyebrows rose without mercy and he said, very slowly, “Get up and join your pack.”

  Standing seemed impossible. The world was spinning and he wondered if that one kick hadn’t broken a rib.

  But more afraid of the repercussions of ignoring an order than of the pain, Z pulled himself to all fours and, with a grunt, pushed himself onto wobbly legs. The Alpha stared down at him as Z stumbled to the end of the line. The other soldiers had not moved.

  “You will soon learn,” said Master Jael, “that your placement in this pack is determined by strength, courage, and the ability to defend yourself. You will not see such mercy again.”

  * * *

  Z began to lose track of time. First the days and then the weeks and months merged into constant training. Formations. Strategies and tactics. And fights—so many fights. Like wolves in the wild sometimes fight for dominance, these soldiers fought all the time. Constantly trying to best one another, to show off, to prove their worth, to improve their station. Almost all of them seemed to have a thirst for violence that Z couldn’t claim, though he often pretended to desire the taste of blood and the crunch of bones as much as any of them. There wasn’t much choice.

  He didn’t win all his fights, but he didn’t lose them all, either. After a year and a half—or what he guessed was close to a year and a half, with neither the long days nor the long nights to judge by—he found himself solidly in the middle of his pack. An average beta. After that one punch from Alpha Brock, he had never again allowed himself to be caught by surprise, and he had developed a knack for parrying and blocking. Offensive tactics didn’t come as naturally, but he could often avoid being hit for long enough to tire out his opponent.

  It would never make him Alpha, but it kept him from becoming the tormented Omega.

  Alpha Brock, on the other hand, remained ever on top of the pack. Undefeated, he picked more fights than any of them, as though he had to constantly remind himself and everyone else how much better he was. Z tried to stay out of his way, but it was impossible to avoid him entirely, and when Brock wanted to fight, there was no denying him. Z had received more bruises and scars from those fists than he could count.

  The pack was standing around watching an impromptu brawl between Betas Wynn and Troya on an otherwise unremarkable afternoon when Z caught the scent of Master Jael approaching, along with another scent. Familiar and strange at the same time.

  Z tore his eyes from the fight as the others picked up on the scents. The two fighters took another moment, but in a breath, they had released each other, and together they all rushed to line up for Jael’s entrance. Z recognized the cadence of Jael’s footsteps beside something awkward and shuffling. Jael had not brought anyone new to their barracks since Z himself had joined the pack.

  Master Jael stepped out of the cave and into the training cavern, a new conscript at his side.

  Z couldn’t keep back a gasp. Beside him, Wynn flinched at the noise, and he was sure they’d all noticed his reaction. He wasn’t the only one with advanced hearing.

  The new conscript was his brother. Taller now, but otherwise not much had changed.

  Ran took longer to notice him. Standing half a step behind Master Jael, dressed in uniform, pale and wide-eyed, he was busy scanning the faces of his new family.

  Until his eyes landed on Z, and he froze.

  “Alpha Brock,” said Jael, “this is the final recruit for your pack, Beta Ran Kesley.”

  Together with the rest of the pack, Z clasped his fist to his chest.

  “Beta Kesley, you may join your pack.”

  Z gulped, waiting for the moment when Ran’s legs would betray him and recognition would flash across his face.

  And it came, and Ran’s eyes did widen, but then he bowed his head and put up no resistance as his body joined the others at the end of the line and his balled fist hit his chest.

  Z found that his heart was thundering. He wondered if the others could hear it.

  He heard Ran’s breathing, three bodies away from him, as Jael released his control.

  “Welcome to your new family. Training will commence at 06:00 tomorrow. You have much to be caught up on.” Jael spun on his heels and left them without ceremony.

  No one moved until both the sound of his footsteps and the scent of his cologne had dissipated.

  Then Alpha Brock snorted. The noise sent ice rushing through Z’s veins.

  The pack broke formation and within seconds had Ran surrounded.

  “Well,” said Alpha Brock. “You did better on your induction than your arrogant brother, at least.”

  Ran’s gaze flickered to Z, a look of fear and uncertainty, before flying back to Alpha Brock.

  “I honestly didn’t think Master Jael could handle one more member,” Alpha Brock continued, smirking. “You must be pretty weak-minded for him to have taken you on.”

  Ran took half a step away. Z could see he was still dazed from the surgeries, his pupils dilated and a sheen of sweat on his brow.

  “Leave him alone, Brock,” said Z, stepping into the circle. It was the only time he could recall addressing him directly.

  Brock turned and peered at Z from the corner of his eye. “What’s that, Kesley?”

  “Give him some time. We all know you’re Alpha—you don’t have to bully every twelve-year-old kid who comes in here to prove it.”

  He thought he heard a snicker behind him, but it was stifled as Brock’s expression darkened. He turned toward him fully and Z was surprised at the relief that rushed into him. At least Brock wasn’t targeting Ran anymore.

  But then Brock spun so fast, his leg lifted for a roundhouse kick, that Z wasn’t sure he could have blocked it. Brock’s foot smashed into Ran’s head, hurtling him into Beta Rafe.

  White spots flashed in Z’s vision, and he didn’t realize what he was doing until a roar emerged from his throat and his fist collided with Brock’s jaw.

  Brock stumbled back, surprised, but it was short-lived. Snarling, he flew back at Z and used the leverage of Z’s second punch to spin him around, catching Z’s head in the crook of his elbow. With one arm pinned at his side, Z growled and tried to toss Brock over him, like he’d learned to throw others when they had him in such a position, but Brock was too big. Z’s free hand beat uselessly, pathetically against Brock’s ear.

  “This is my pack,
” Brock said. “Don’t you ever tell me how to treat them.”

  The second he was released, Z pushed himself away. But Brock still gripped his wrist. As Z mindlessly sought to put distance between them, he felt something sharp puncture the flesh beneath his elbow. He cried out and yanked his arm away, and the sting ripped down his skin, cutting his flesh from elbow to wrist.

  Z stumbled away and clutched his arm against his chest. Brock grinned. He’d taken to filing his nails into knife-sharp points, a trend quickly picked up by the other pack members.

  Now Z understood why.

  Trying to ignore the pain and the blood dripping down between his fingers, he raised his fists for the next attack.

  But Brock merely wiped Z’s blood off on his pants and turned away, unconcerned about retribution as the rest of the pack watched.

  Z’s stomach sank as Brock turned and spat at his brother, who was still on the ground. Brock’s spit landed on his shoulder. Ran didn’t back away or bother to wipe it off.

  “Lesson number one,” said Brock. “Never let someone else take your fights for you.”

  Z didn’t let his fists down until Brock had led the rest of the pack away. Then he whipped off his shirt and wrapped the fabric around the wound. It didn’t take long for the blood to soak through.

  “Ran—are you all right? Is your jaw broken?” He stumbled toward his brother and held a hand toward him. But when Ran met his gaze, it was not with gratitude, but anger.

  “Why did you do that?” he said, rubbing his cheek. “Did you have to embarrass me on my first day?”

  Z drew back. “Ran…”

  Ignoring the extended hand, Ran climbed to his feet. “You always have to show me up. I thought this was my chance to prove myself, but of all the soldiers, I have to be grouped with you. Stuck in your shadow, again.” He shook his head, and Z thought maybe there was wetness in his eyes before he spun away. “Just leave me alone, Z. Just … forget we were ever brothers at all.”

  * * *

  It had been nearly five years since Z had undergone the genetic modifications. Five years without seeing his parents. Five years spent underground—fighting and brawling and training. Not another word had ever been spoken about the possibility of being chosen for the queen’s special soldiers, but it was never far from his mind. He frequently awoke from dreams of long syringes and fur covering his body.

  There were fifty packs that had been held back from the full surgeries, and they gathered daily for an hour-long feast in the dining hall. It was during the feasts that Z felt most like the animal they wanted him to be. The stench was overwhelming—sweat and blood from all five hundred soldiers mixed with rare cuts of meat that were presented on slabs of wood and stone. They often fought over the choicest bits, resulting in yet more brawls. One more test. One more way to stake your place among your brothers.

  There had been a time when Z had sat back and waited for the leftovers, living like a scavenger, rather than join the flying fists and gnashing teeth. But his hunger was as strong as any of theirs—the kind of hunger that was never satisfied—and a few years into his training he had made the decision that he would never again be served last. After only a few victories, his pack brothers had stopped challenging him.

  He still avoided Alpha Brock’s wrath, despite having grown taller than him in the last year. Z did notice that even Brock hadn’t seemed eager to pick any fights with him for a while, instead directing the majority of his cruelty toward mocking and manipulating Ran.

  Or, Omega Kesley.

  It had been clear from the start that Ran was the weakest. Z had hoped it was only because of his age and size, but soon it was obvious that his brother simply didn’t have the fortitude necessary to carve out a place of respect among the pack.

  Worst of all, he didn’t seem to understand why he remained at the bottom of the chain. He idolized Brock, mimicking the way he talked and attempting to duplicate his fight moves, though he didn’t have the upper-body strength to pull off most of them. He had even begun sharpening his nails.

  It made Z sick to see it. At times, he wanted to pull his brother aside and shake him and explain that he wasn’t helping himself. By cowing to everything Brock did, he was only making himself an easier target.

  And yet, Ran had never given any indication that he wanted Z’s help, and so Z had let him be. Had watched as his brother clung pathetically to Brock’s side, hoping for recognition and receiving only table scraps.

  Z was watching his brother gnaw on one of Brock’s abandoned bones, the meal whittled down now to pools of blood and shreds of charred flesh, when he caught the scents.

  So many aromas. Jael among them, but the others were unknown. Forty … maybe fifty …

  He whipped his head toward the main door of the dining hall, his brow furrowed.

  It took a few moments of rowdy talk and chewing before the soldiers around him hushed. A hesitation—thaumaturges never came to the dining hall—before they all pushed back from the tables and jostled around one another to form their lines, wiping juice from their chins.

  Jael entered, along with the forty-nine other thaumaturges, all in black coats. They spread out so that they formed a funnel from the entryway. Jael’s gaze found his pack and narrowed. A subtle warning.

  Z drew his shoulders back until the muscles began to complain.

  The silence was startling after the feast’s chaos. Z found a piece of meat stuck in a molar and tried to work it out without moving his jaw too much.

  They waited.

  And then, a new scent. Something floral and warm that reminded him of his mother.

  A woman stepped out from the wide cavern, wearing a gauzy dress that billowed around her feet and a sheer veil that covered her face and drifted past her elbows. On top of the veil sat a delicate white crown, carved from shimmering regolith stone.

  Z was glad that he was not the only one who gasped. He instantly peeled his gaze away from Her Majesty and stared straight ahead, at the black cavern wall. His palms began to sweat, but he resisted the urge to wipe them on his pants or check his face for remnants of his meal.

  The piece of meat blissfully relinquished its hold on his tooth, and he swallowed.

  “Gentlemen,” said the queen. “I am here to congratulate you on the progress you’ve all made as soldiers in my formidable new army. I have been monitoring your training sessions for many months now, and I am pleased with what I’ve seen.”

  A low rustle slipped through them—the faintest of fidgets. Z did not know how she could have watched them without their knowing. Maybe their training sessions had been recorded.

  “You are all aware,” the queen continued, “that you are among the soldiers being considered for a unique mission that will aid in the hostilities between Luna and Earth. This is a role of honor, reserved for those who have risen above the confines of their past, the limitations of their bodies, and the fear of the unknown. They will be my most prized soldiers, chosen not only for their strength and bravery, but also for their intelligence, cunning, and adaptability. My court and I will be making our final selections soon.”

  Her words were blurred in Z’s thoughts and he could think of nothing past a bead of sweat making its way down his temple and how his fingers were beginning to twitch with too much energy and no outlet.

  The queen, who had been as still as the soldiers until now, a faceless sheet speaking to them, lifted one arm and gestured to the thaumaturges. “I’m sure that I do not need to remind your thaumaturges that those who are in control of the selected packs will receive instant advancement in their court status.”

  Z dared a glance at Jael and saw that his dark eyes had gone fierce, his jaw set.

  “Gentlemen.”

  Z snapped his gaze back to the wall.

  “Your thaumaturges have asked for the opportunity to showcase some of their brightest soldiers. I look forward to the demonstration.” She swirled her fingers through the air and the thaumaturges spread out into the c
rowd.

  Jael’s walk was tense as he reached them. “Alpha Brock,” he snapped, “you will be fighting. No teeth, no claws—I want to show your skill. Understood?”

  Brock fisted his hand against his chest. “Yes, Master Jael. Who will be my opponent?”

  Jael’s gaze swept to Beta Wynn. Though technically all Betas had the same rank in the pack, everyone kept a mental record of wins and losses, of victories and failures, and everyone knew that Wynn wasn’t far behind Brock in his abilities.

  But then Jael let out a slow breath. “Ze’ev.”

  Z’s eyes widened, and he glanced at Master Jael, heat flooding his face. But Jael showed no humor or uncertainty, only a stern determination as he paced past the others and came to stand before him. Their gazes clashed, and it was with some shock that Z realized he was now taller than Master Jael too.

  “She wants a show,” he said. “This time, don’t hold back.”

  Z’s brow twitched, but he tried to remain neutral as he saluted his thaumaturge.

  His thoughts were frenzied as they were marched into the largest training room. Her Majesty had been escorted onto a platform on one end and placed atop a throne so that she could watch the proceedings in comfort.

  Fifty packs. Fifty fights.

  Z’s stomach was roiling as they began. He couldn’t focus on the brawls. He was only seeing Jael’s dark eyes, hearing his words over and over again. This time, don’t hold back.

  Did Jael think he faked his losses? Did Jael believe he was capable of defeating Brock, or did he only want to ensure that he lasted as long as he could?

  Only once did he dare to glance over at his opponent and saw that Brock had a furious scowl. He obviously didn’t think Z was a worthy opponent, not in front of the queen herself.

  Ran, too, looked sullen, and although not a person in the room would have expected Ran to be chosen as one of Jael’s examples, Z sensed that Ran had fantasized about such a chance to prove himself more than once.

  Finally, their turn came.

 
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