Stars above, p.9
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       Stars Above, p.9

         Part #4.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
 

  Jael bowed to Her Majesty and introduced them—Alpha Brock fighting Beta Kesley.

  Z could smell the blood from the previous fights, still warm and salty, mingling with the regolith dust. He and Brock trekked to the fighting circle and stared at each other.

  Only when he sank into his fighting stance did he feel the panic and confusion subside.

  He didn’t win all his fights, but he won more than he lost. He had become strong and fast. He would not make a fool of himself in front of Her Majesty.

  And if they impressed her, perhaps she would choose their pack for her special mission. He would never have to go through the rest of the surgeries. He would never become a mindless beast in her army.

  Brock’s eyes flashed. There was a burning in his gaze that Z didn’t recognize, but he was sure it carried a promise of pain.

  Brock came at him first with a right hook aimed at his jaw. Z ducked easily—too easily. Brock feinted at the last moment and drove his other fist into Z’s side. Z clenched his teeth and pushed himself back, retaliating with a front kick to Brock’s stomach.

  They backed away from each other, bouncing on the balls of their feet, hands poised in front of their faces. A trickle of sweat dropped down Z’s spine.

  He squinted, watching the way Brock’s body swayed, noticing how he briefly clenched his left fist.

  A roundhouse kick was coming.

  No sooner had he thought it than Brock whipped forward, aiming his foot at Z’s head.

  He caught it and pulled, throwing Brock onto his side.

  Z danced out of Brock’s reach, panting. Salt was beginning to sting his eyes. Brock didn’t stay down long. He flashed his sharp teeth and rushed forward—

  Jab to the ribs. Elbow to the face. Sideswipe kick.

  He saw them all happening an instant before they did. Block. Block. Jump. Attack.

  Teeth snapped as he landed an uppercut to Brock’s jaw. A left hook to his side.

  Brock withdrew, face contorted in fury. It was difficult for Z to hide his own surprise at this newfound skill.

  But it wasn’t new. It was from years of sitting on the sidelines, watching and studying and inspecting every fight, every brawl, every punch thrown, every victory won. He knew how Brock fought.

  And he suspected that if he were pitted against any one of his pack members, he would have seen the same signs, recognized the same tricks and tells.

  He could beat them.

  He could beat all of them.

  Brock stretched his neck to one side and Z heard the sound of his spine popping. Brock shook it out like a dog, then sank into his stance again.

  His eyes glinted.

  Bolstered, Z shot forward.

  Jab. Blocked.

  Cross. Blocked.

  Uppercut. Blocked.

  Knee—

  Z gasped, pain ripping through his abdomen as five nails dug into his side, piercing the flesh above his hip bone. Brock squeezed, digging his fingers deeper into the flesh. Z nearly collapsed, catching himself on Brock’s shoulder with a strangled grunt.

  “I will kill you before I let you win this fight,” Brock breathed against him.

  He let go all at once and stepped away. Without his support, Z fell to one knee. He pressed his hand against the wounds, not daring to look at Jael or the queen, to see if anyone noticed or cared that Brock had disobeyed the rules Jael had laid out for them.

  But no. They were wild animals. Predators who ran on instinct and bloodthirst.

  Who would expect a fair fight from such monsters?

  All she wanted was a show.

  He heard a low growl and didn’t at first realize that it was coming from his own throat. He dared to look up. Brock’s stance had relaxed. There was blood up to the first knuckles of his fingers.

  Flashes of red sparked in the corners of Z’s vision. His side throbbed.

  “Best just to stay down,” Brock said.

  Z snarled. “You’ll have to kill me.”

  He pushed himself off the ground and lunged forward. For a moment, Brock seemed startled, but then he was blocking again, knocking away every advance. But Z was fast, and finally a punch landed against Brock’s cheek.

  With a roar, Brock reached toward Z’s wound, but Z dodged away and grasped Brock by the wrist, pulling him so close he could smell the meat lingering on his breath. With his free hand, he grabbed Brock’s throat. Hesitated.

  Kill him.

  The words stole into his head like the long night came upon the cities—sly, but complete. They possessed him, their command working their way into his desires and hunger and desperation and crawling down into his pulsing fingertips.

  I want to see how you would do it.

  He gritted his teeth.

  Brock’s nostrils widened. His eyes glowed with disdain as he sensed Z’s indecision.

  Z felt the shift in his opponent’s weight and he knew it was coming. Fingernails in his side, the blinding pain, the white spots in his vision.

  With a roar, he let go of Brock’s wrist and grabbed the back of his head.

  Snap.

  He dropped the body to the ground before the light went out in Brock’s eyes.

  Z’s heart was thumping painfully, his blood a tsunami rushing through his ears.

  But outside of him there was silence. Complete and endless silence.

  Licking his salted lips, he tore his gaze away from Brock and the way his neck was bent all wrong.

  His pack was watching him with disbelief and awe, but to his surprise, there did not seem to be any hatred there.

  His gaze continued. They were all gaping at him. The other packs, the thaumaturges. All except Jael, who didn’t look exactly pleased, and yet didn’t seem surprised, either.

  Only when the queen stood did he dare to look at her. Her head was listed to the side, and he imagined a pensive expression behind the veil.

  “Clean and efficient,” she said, bringing her hands together for three solid claps. She had not applauded any of the other fights. He did not know what it meant. “Well done … Alpha.”

  His stomach flipped, but the queen was already gesturing for the body to be removed, for the fights to continue, and Z had to stumble off toward his pack before she retracted her praise. Her words followed him, as kind and gentle as a bell.

  Well done, Alpha.

  He had killed Brock, and in the law of the pack, he was now to take his place as the undisputed leader.

  He was the new Alpha.

  He paused in front of his pack brothers. None of them seemed surprised by the queen’s words. They had all known it the moment Brock hit the ground.

  As he watched, they each brought their fists to their chests in mute respect. In silent acceptance of his victory. Even his brother saluted him, but there alone was bitterness. There alone was anger over Z’s success.

  Z nodded twice—once to acknowledge the show of respect, and once at his brother, so that Ran would know that he saw his disappointment.

  Then he slipped past them all and headed toward the barracks. He did not care if Jael would be furious or if rumors of his insolence would spread throughout all of Luna by the time he emerged again.

  He knew that Jael’s pack would be chosen for the queen’s mission because of him. They would become her special, prized soldiers. Their bodies would not be tampered with again.

  With that one kill, he had ensured that she would never turn him into a monster.

  He knew it as sure as, somewhere on the surface, the long, long day was coming.

  Carswell’s Guide to Being Lucky

  Carswell dunked the comb beneath the faucet and slicked it through his hair, tidying the back so that it was neat and pristine, and the front spiked up just right. Boots sat on the counter, watching him with her yellow slitted eyes and purring heavily, even though it had been nearly ten minutes since he’d stopped petting her.

  “Today’s goal,” he said—to the cat, he supposed, or maybe the mirror, “is eighteen uni
vs. Think I can do it?”

  The cat blinked, still purring. Her tail twitched around her paws as Carswell turned off the water and set the comb beside her.

  “I’ve never made that much in one lunch hour before,” he said, pulling a skinny blue tie over his head and cinching the knot against his neck, “but eighteen Us will put us at a total of fifteen hundred. Which means”—he flipped down the shirt collar—“the bank will upgrade my account to ‘young professional’ and increase the monthly interest rate by two percent. At this rate, that would trim nearly sixteen weeks off my five-year plan.” Carswell reached for the tie tack that lived in the small crystal dish beside the sink. The school uniform only allowed for personal tastes to show through in the tiniest of accessories, which had led to a trend among the girls of tying little gems onto their shoes, and the boys of splurging on diamond-stud earrings. But Carswell had only this tie tack, which he’d dipped into his own savings for rather than ask his parents, because he knew his mom would insist he buy something tasteful (code: designer) instead. It hadn’t been much of a setback. The tiny steel tack had cost merely three univs, and it had since become his signature piece.

  A tiny spaceship. A 214 Rampion, to be exact.

  His mother, as expected, had hated the tie tack when she’d noticed it for the first time nearly two weeks later. “Sweetheart,” she’d said in that sweet tone that just bordered on condescending, “they have a whole display of spaceship accessories at Tiff’s. Why don’t we go down there after school and you can pick out something nice? Maybe a racer, or a fleet ship, or one of those vintage ones you used to like? Remember all those posters you had on your walls when you were little?”

  “I like the Rampions, Mom.”

  She’d grimaced. Literally grimaced. “What under the stars is a Rampion ship, anyway?”

  “Cargo ship,” his father had jumped in. “Mostly military, aren’t they, son?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “A cargo ship!” Exasperated, his mom had set her hands on her hips. “Why would you want a tie tack of a cargo ship, of all things?”

  “I don’t know,” he’d said, shrugging. “I just like them.”

  And he did. A Rampion had the bulk of a whale but the sleekness of a shark, and it appealed to him. Also, there was something nice about a ship that was purely utilitarian. Not flashy, not overdone, not luxurious. Not like every single thing his parents had ever purchased.

  It was just … useful.

  “Presentable?” he said, scruffing Boots on the back of her neck. The cat ducked her head in a way that was almost realistic and purred louder.

  Grabbing the gray uniform blazer off the door handle, he headed downstairs. His parents were both at the breakfast table (as opposed to the formal dining room table in the next room), all eyes glued to their portscreens, while Janette, one of the maids, refilled their coffee mugs and added two sugars to his mom’s.

  “Good morning, young captain,” Janette said, pulling his chair out from the table.

  “Don’t call him that,” said Carswell’s father without looking up. “You can call him ‘captain’ after he earns it.”

  Janette only winked at Carswell while she took the blazer from him and hung it on the back of his chair.

  Carswell smiled back and sat down. “Morning, Janette.”

  “I’ll bring your pancakes right out.” She finished with a silently mouthed captain and another wink before drifting toward the kitchen.

  Without bothering to look up at his otherwise-engaged parents, Carswell pulled his book bag toward him on the floor and removed his own portscreen. Just as he was turning it on, though, his father cleared his throat.

  Loudly.

  Intimidatingly.

  Carswell glanced up through his eyelashes. He probably should have noticed an extra layer of frost sitting over them this morning, but really, who could tell anymore?

  “Would you like a glass of water, sir?”

  As a response, his dad tossed his portscreen onto the table. His coffee cup rattled.

  “The school forwarded your status reports this morning,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect before adding, “They are not up to standards.”

  Not up to standards.

  If Carswell had a univ for every time he’d heard something wasn’t up to standards, his bank account would be well into “beginning investor” status by now.

  “That’s unfortunate,” he said. “I’m sure I almost tried this time.”

  “Don’t be smart with your father,” said his mom in a rather disinterested tone, before taking a sip of her coffee.

  “Math, Carswell. You’re failing math. How do you expect to be a pilot if you can’t read charts and diagrams and—”

  “I don’t want to be a pilot,” he said. “I want to be a captain.”

  “Becoming a captain,” his dad growled, “starts with becoming a great pilot.”

  Carswell barely refrained from rolling his eyes. He’d heard that line a time or two, also.

  A warm body bumped into his leg and Carswell glanced down to see that Boots had followed him and was now nudging his calf with the side of her face. He was just reaching down to pet her when his dad snapped, “Boots, go outside!”

  The cat instantly stopped purring and cuddling against Carswell’s leg, turned, and traipsed toward the kitchen—the fastest route to their backyard.

  Carswell scowled as he watched the cat go, its tail sticking cheerfully straight up. He liked Boots a lot—sometimes even felt he might love her, as one does any pet they grew up with—but then he would be reminded that she wasn’t a pet at all. She was a robot, programmed to follow directions just like any android. He’d been asking for a real cat since he was about four, but his parents just laughed at the idea, listing all the reasons Boots was superior. She would never get old or die. She didn’t shed on their nice furniture or climb their fancy curtains or require a litter box. She would only bring them half-devoured mice if they changed her settings to do so.

  His parents, Carswell had learned at a very young age, liked things that did what they were told, when they were told. And that didn’t include headstrong felines.

  Or, as it turned out, thirteen-year-old boys.

  “You need to start taking this seriously,” his dad was saying, ripping him from his thoughts as the cat-door swung closed behind Boots. “You’ll never be accepted into Andromeda at this rate.”

  Janette returned with his plate of pancakes, and Carswell was grateful for an excuse to look away from his dad as he slathered them with butter and syrup. It was better than risking the temptation to say what he really wanted to say.

  He didn’t want to go to Andromeda Academy. He didn’t want to follow in his dad’s footsteps.

  Sure, he wanted to learn how to fly. Desperately wanted to learn how to fly. But there were other flight schools—less prestigious ones maybe, but at least they didn’t require selling six years of his life to the military so he could be ordered around by more men who looked and sounded like his dad, and cared about him even less.

  “What’s wrong with you?” his dad said, swiveling a finger at Janette. She began to clear his place setting. “You used to be good at math.”

  “I am good at math,” Carswell said, then shoved more pancake into his mouth than he probably should have.

  “Are you? Could have fooled me.”

  He chewed. And chewed. And chewed.

  “Maybe we should get him a tutor,” said his mother, flicking her finger across her portscreen.

  “Is that it, Carswell? Do you need a tutor?”

  Carswell swallowed. “I don’t need a tutor. I know how to do it all; I just don’t feel like doing it.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “It means that I have better things to do. I understand all the concepts, so why should I waste whole days of my life working through those stupid worksheets? Not to mention”—he gestured wildly, at everything, at nothing. At the light fixture that changed automatica
lly based on the amount of sunlight that filtered in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. At the sensors in the wall that detected when a person entered a room and set the thermostat to their own personal preferences. At that brainless robotic cat—“we are surrounded by computers all the time. If I ever need help, I’ll just have one of them figure it out. So what does it matter?”

  “It matters because it shows focus. Dedication. Diligence. Important traits that, believe it or not, are usually found in spaceship captains.”

  Scowling, Carswell sawed at the pancake stack with the side of his fork. If his mother had noticed, she would have reminded him to use a knife, but she was far too busy pretending to be at a different table altogether.

  “I have those traits,” he muttered. And he did, he knew he did. But why waste focus and dedication and diligence on something as stupid as math homework?

  “Then prove it. You’re grounded until these grades come up to passing.”

  His head snapped up. “Grounded? But mid-July break starts next week.”

  Standing, his dad snapped his portscreen onto the belt of his own uniform—the impeccably pressed blue-and-gray uniform of Colonel Kingsley Thorne, American Republic Fleet 186.

  “Yes, and you will spend your break in your bedroom doing math homework unless you can show me, and your teacher, that you’re going to start taking this seriously.”

  Carswell’s stomach sank, but his dad had marched out of the breakfast room before he could begin to refute him.

  He couldn’t be grounded for mid-July break. He had big plans for those two weeks. Mostly, they involved an entrepreneurial enterprise that began with sending Boots up into the fruit trees on his neighbors’ property and ended with him selling baskets of perfectly ripe lemons and avocados to every little old lady in the neighborhood. He’d been charming his neighbors out of their bank accounts since he was seven, and had become quite good at it. Last summer, he’d even managed to get the Santos family to pay him sixty-five univs for a box of “succulent, prize-winning” oranges, having no idea that he’d picked the fruits off their own tree earlier that day.

  “He’s not serious, is he?” Carswell said, turning back to his mom. “He won’t keep me grounded for the whole break?”

 
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