Long before Outpost Three…

Before battles,

Before journeys….

Before the shattering of old worlds…

…And the building of new ones….

Long before Eden and Jonas…

there was…

Jason and Lily.

This is the dangerous book. Don’t read it unless you’re sure.

 

You’re here. You’ve gone to some length to find it. You’ve done this despite my warnings.

 

You must think you’re sure.

 

I ask you one more time. Are you?

 

Here’s the thing: You can never unread this. Not knowing it is a gift. If you want to know for curiosity’s sake, it’s not worth it. If you think knowing your past will fulfill some deep need, will make you whole… you are dead wrong. You want to know me? Then I tell you this. Trust yourself. Live, and find happiness. Out there. Not in here. In here, you will only find pain.

 

There is only one reason to read this book. Do not turn the page unless you’ve brought it back.

 


 

 

Once, his name was Jason.

 

This is the last time I’m going to warn you. If you haven’t found him, you have to stop reading now. If you haven’t found him, reading this is a complete betrayal of everything I’ve done for you.

 

If you haven’t found him, you will regret this. Turn back. Burn this book. Do it before you lose the will.

 

I promise you. There is only one reason.


 

 The Meeting

OK, then.

For a long time, I thought about where to begin. Should I tell you about growing up? About Mom and Dad? About Kade? Maybe you know something about that already now. Or maybe you want to know. This story is not really about all that. There is only one beginning that makes any sense. Only one that matters.

It was a hot afternoon in August. I was eleven. All arms and legs. Still very much a child.

I scampered across the rooftops after Kade. In case you don’t know, he’s my brother. Or was. When he heard what happened, there was a letter that said, Lily, come home. For a moment, I considered it. But as I have said, there is no turning back.

There was only one path for me, after it happened. And now there is you.

How strange to think of you reading this. A fleeting hope. In truth, I believe these words will sit in the dark until time destroys them. Moisture. Rot. I have so little hope. Hope, you see, invites more pain. I’ve had enough.

But you’ll see, soon enough.

The story was a hot day in August. I was young. I had no idea. The things that lay ahead of me were more beautiful than I could imagine. But only for a time.

They say everything must end.

Some endings are soft like feathers. Some fade into silence that in itself is beautiful. Some are gentle. You see them coming. You are eased to a slow. Your body has time to adapt to the change. Are they easier? I don’t know.

My ending was like suicide. Too soon.

My ending was a brick wall in the face.

Mind. Body. Soul. I was robbed.

There was nothing left.

But it was August. It was hot. I was young. I had no idea.

I scampered across the rooftop after Kade. Each of his steps were like two of mine. Behind me were West, Sam, Razor, and Charlie, all in a line. They were tall, and built, and tireless. I’d been running for blocks to keep the pace, but I didn’t mind. I loved to run.

Kade finally stopped in the center of the roof and nodded to the edge. West and I assembled at his side. The others spread out to the edges, steady, prowling, checking everything out. They were there to protect us.

I stood and looked up at Kade and West. Both of them were slick with sweat, skin glistening. West was wearing a hat that shaded his face, his blonde hair spilling out from under it. He was sensible. Not like Kade and me. I touched my head, where my hair was hot above my little ponytail, and thought of Mom. I could hear her voice telling us we were going to fry our brains. Kade glanced down at me, and I could see in his eyes that he could hear her, too. West, as much as he knew us, was oblivious to this subtle communication between siblings. I looked away from Kade and smoothed back the strands of hair that had escaped. I adjusted the strap on my sungoggles. I fidgeted. I had to get the fidgeting out before they got there.

Now West looked down at me and ruffled one hand on top of my head, undoing everything I’d just done. “Ready, Lil?”

“I’m always ready,” I said, pushing his hand away.

Kade made a noise in his throat. But he said, “She’s right. She always is.”

Looking over the left edge, Charlie made a hand signal. A pause. Another signal. They were coming.

“C’mon,” Kade said, leading us fifteen paces across the roof. Razor and Charlie flanked the door that led up from below, and Sam moved behind us, nodding to me. He wore mirrored sungoggles. The shimmer of summer played between the silver of his goggles and his glistening chocolate skin. Sam, my mentor, always made intimidating look beautiful. I wanted to be just like him. His fingers twitched, but did not reach for the gun tucked into his waistband. I looked away, toward the door, confident that he had our backs. He had always protected us, ever since the fire. Razor and Charlie were good, but Sam was our real lifeline out there in the No-Man’s.

Silence descended on us. I counted backward from a hundred, like Dad had taught me. I thought of the numbers and the silence, and fixed my eyes on the door. Footsteps moved up the stairs behind it. They did not pause. The door opened suddenly, and a tall, bald man came through it, weapon slung diagonally in his hands. He stepped to the side. More came after him. Three, bearing weapons, fanned to the sides with their backs against the wall. Then two like Kade and West. Younger, but intimidating. Fit, alert, and guarded. Leaders.

I studied them as they moved toward us. One was blonde and blue-eyed, like West. He swaggered. The other was wearing sungoggles, mirrored, like Sam’s. His face was a perfect, blank mask. Olive skin. Strong jaw. Not a lick of emotion. Not a single nervous twitch. Not a sign of tension. His dark hair curled gently around the strap of the sungoggles. He moved with an easy confidence. I’d never seen him before, but I knew him right away.

I tapped my foot twice, for right.

Kade fixed on him. “Jason,” he said, nodding.

If it fazed him, he didn’t show it. They stopped a few paces in front of us, and Jason nodded back, once. He was still. His lips were relaxed. His goggles were already driving me crazy because I couldn’t tell where he was looking, or who he was studying. I knew, right then, that I’d met my match. But I didn’t understand the half of it. I was frightened and fascinated. I felt challenged, and I was determined to come out on top. But that day, Jason was no more than an interesting problem. He was as old as Kade– fifteen. I was a little girl who expected to be overlooked. That was always my advantage, being overlooked. There was a distance between us. Neither of us had any idea how that distance would fall away.

On that day, I was busy worrying about Kade and West. Neither of them were very good at these things. West was too honest. Too transparent. Kade should have left him at home, but he never did. And Kade… he had more of Mom in him than Dad. He was a nurturer. A builder. He was great at home, and confident. But not here. He didn’t deal well with unknowns.

“We were told you’d be willing to trade,” he said, jumping in ahead of himself, as usual.

Jason didn’t answer. He just looked at Kade. Or at West. Or Sam. Who could tell? After a moment of silence, he finally said, “You have aether?” His voice was as disinterested as his face– rich, and dark, and distant. I couldn’t pull anything meaningful out of it.

“Yes,” Kade answered. He made a good attempt at the same distance, but underneath, there was tension.

“How much?” asked Jason.

“How much do you have to trade?” countered Kade, too quickly.

Now Jason’s eyebrows flicked up, nonchalantly. I squinted behind my glasses, trying to get a fix on him, but nothing. “Enough,” he said. Still nothing.

Kade avoided looking at me. He was learning. “Enough,” he repeated impatiently. “And exactly how much is that?”

“Depends on exactly how much aether you have to trade,” said Jason in the same level voice.

I tried not to sigh. This could go on and on. None of us wanted to reveal exactly what resources we had. This trade had huge potential, though, at least, for us. We had plenty of aether, and it couldn’t be trapped forever. What Jason had would be of far more use than an energy abundance that would soon evaporate. And since we weren’t exactly on trading terms with Mendoza right then, and since the Hides were leaderless, in flux, and unpredictable, this trade was far more important than we could let on. We didn’t know Jason, though. We had no reason to trust him. We weren’t even sure we believed that he had what he claimed.

“Let’s start with proof,” Kade said, switching gears. He produced a small trap from his pocket and held it in his palm. “You can see the quality of the work.” He held it out to Jason.

Jason took it and turned it over in his hand. His face remained frozen.

I wanted to lean closer, but I didn’t. Inside, I was chaos. I couldn’t figure him out. It was eating at me. I only had moments, and I needed to make a decision. But I had nothing. He’d given me nothing.

Jason held out his hand, and his blonde companion– Specter, I’d later learn he was called– reached into a pocket. He pulled the thing out, and placed it in the waiting fingers. Jason rotated his wrist, displaying it casually. It gleamed round and colorful as the sun, too vivid for our world. He raised it to his nose and sniffed, his eyebrows lifting, saying to us you really want this. We did. He tossed it to Kade.

My brother caught it without taking his eyes off of Jason. But he sniffed it. He’d been sucked in. At least he didn’t smile. I could see he wanted to, though, and I was certain that Jason did, too.

“Can you do two hundred bushels?” Kade asked, jumping in ahead of himself, yet again. He was too eager. His eyes were lit with greed– not for himself, but I didn’t like the expression on him, anyway.

Jason, infuriatingly, showed no reaction. “Two hundred,” he said. His voice was still the same level tone. “How much aether do you have? Enough to fuel the whole city?”

Anger flashed across Kade’s face, but he stowed it away quickly. “I’m told you need aether,” he said. “I’m told half the ground in Wynwood has gone dead.”

Jason said nothing. For that comment, there should have been something. A twitch of the fingers. A tightening of the jaw. But Jason was still perfectly composed. “I’m told aether doesn’t keep forever,” he said, as if any of us had to be told that.

He had a way. Even as an opponent, I could appreciate it. I forced my breath in slowly through my nose to keep the corner of my mouth from curling.

“I’m also told,” he went on, in the same easy voice, “that the Hides might not sort themselves out for some time.” He didn’t have to say the rest.

Kade’s jaw worked. I could sense it from his side without even looking. He said, “That must be problematic for you.” Sometimes I didn’t give him enough credit.

Jason smiled– a cold smile. What did it mean? I was suddenly aware of tension in my shoulders. I released it. But I was running out of time.

“So do we trust each other?” Kade asked, laying the question out before us. Out before me.

Silence stretched on. I had no answer. Panic flitted around inside me, a caged bird.

“Do we?” Jason finally echoed.

I felt myself working up to a scream. I always knew. I always had answers. But here, there were none. I could feel it building, worming its way up my throat. Instead, I crossed my arms, cocked my head, and said, “Why do you wear those glasses?” I shouldn’t have said it, but I was desperate. I was angry. And I was curious.

Jason’s head moved the slightest bit, his gaze switching to me. I thought it was for the first time, but it wasn’t. In a moment, he threw my challenge back at me, soft as it was. “Why do you, kitten?”

“I have sensitive eyes,” I said, lifting my chin.

The slightest pause. “Me too.”

“We could go inside.” I flicked one finger toward the door.

“Maybe next time.”

We stared at each other across the roof, and I did the best I could to look the part of the impertinent child. But I had a suspicion that I’d blown it. I’d been caught out.

“Then let’s start small,” said Kade, possibly catching on to the fact that I didn’t have a verdict, or possibly forging forward without caution. He wanted this trade, and he was going to get it, whatever the risk.

“I don’t do small,” said Jason. “Do you want to trade or not?”

Kade’s eyes narrowed. “How much are you talking?”

I turned my face to him casually, hoping he would notice my dissent. If he did, he ignored me.

“Can you provide 17,000 KVWs?” Jason still sounded as if none of it mattered.

I could see Kade bite down on his reaction. He said, levelly, “Do you have enough oranges to feed the entire Core?”

Jason’s mouth curled in amusement, but I couldn’t tell if it was real or contrived. “I’ll give you three hundred bushels for that.”

There was the slightest contraction of muscles under Kade’s eyes. He was taking the bait. But he said, “It would have to be four, at least, for that kind of energy. I mean, we’d have to cut into our own stores for that.” It wasn’t true, but it sounded good.

“Same here,” said Jason, not missing a beat. “It would be the last of our crop. I can’t go that high.” It was a lie. I suspected it, then, but I didn’t know it.

The rest was haggling. Kade did a decent job of it, even if Jason bested him in the end. We settled, after ten minutes of discussion, on three hundred and thirty bushels for 16,500 KVWs of aether. Not a small trade. I didn’t like it at all.

As we picked our way back through the No-Man’s toward Brickell, I told Kade so. “We’ve never traded with him before,” I said. “And you want to throw sixteen-five out where he can get it? What if he’s lying?”

“You really couldn’t tell?” asked Kade. “I thought you would have stopped me….”

I shook my head. I was nervous right down to the pit of my stomach. I didn’t like not knowing. But it was too late. We were going to find out, one way or another, and all we could do was hope to hell that it didn’t go bad.

In all fairness, it was the way that most leaders struggled through business. We just weren’t used to it. We had me. It was my first true taste of uncertainty– a taste I would start to get used to. It would be a long time before Jason really let me see behind that wall.

 

***

 

On the night of the trade, Kade left me at home, despite my protests. I spent the entire time pacing the meeting hall at the top of the tower, gnawing on my fingers, and casting occasional hard looks in Nina’s direction. Nina, one of Kade’s “close friends”, had been left behind as well, to babysit me. I resented it– resented being treated like a child. You’re too little, he’d said. I don’t want you to get hurt. But what he had meant was that he didn’t need me. I hated how easily he could forget who I was. I hated how well he kept the secret. I was my father’s successor. Not him. He was sick– he’d always been sick– and he wasn’t fit for the responsibility. No one else knew either of these secrets, and it wasn’t time to tell them yet. I bore the burden on my shoulders every day, though. I spent my childhood mediating meetings and settling disputes. Everyone thought I did it because I was Kade’s sister. They didn’t know that he pretended to lead us because he was my brother. Kade was very good at pretending.

But for the time being, I was technically too young to lead. That’s why Kade had taken on the mantle after our parents’ deaths. It had been my idea, after all. I felt ready to lead my tribe, though. Beyond ready. And I hated waiting for it.

I stopped halfway down the long table that ran the span of the room, and placed my hands on the back of one of the chairs that lined it. I glared at Nina, who was slouched and spinning back and forth in a chair on the opposite side, and said, “My brother is an idiot. He’s going to come back as a corpse.”

“Is that so,” said Nina, raising one eyebrow at me. She looked totally bored.

“It is,” I snapped. Worry was making me crabby. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all.” Of all my brothers “friends”, I disliked Nina most, for thinking her age made her superior. For liking Kade for what she thought he was. What he wasn’t. What I was.

“Well I guess you know everything,” Nina drawled, picking her nails.

I shoved the chair in and resumed my pacing. A wash of starlight spilled through the windows. Back and forth. I counted. I thought of Jason. Was he lying to us? Was Kade walking into a trap? I picked apart everything I could remember and found, still, nothing. I worried extensively over Kade, who was the only family I had left. If something happened to him– if something happened to West, and Sam….

There was a shriek from below. My blood curdled. I ran for the door. More noises came from outside, from down the stairwell. Voices, shouts. Whoops and whistles. I stopped with the door to the landing thrown open and let my shoulders slump. Relief washed over me, and embarrassment.

They poured out of the stairway, the lot of them, buzzing, high on victory. I got out of their way as they flowed into the room, a blur of excited motion.

“Three hundred and thirty bushels,” Kade whooped, raising two fists to the sky, both of them clasping oranges.

Razor set a heavy box on the table and opened its flaps. The rest were reaching in, helping themselves.

I crossed my arms and leaned against the wall by the doorway.

Kade didn’t notice. He had his arms around Nina, whispering something to her while she grinned up at him, her curly black hair spilling halfway down her back. Sam, and Razor, and Charlie were in a huddle around a scrap of paper where they had worked out the distribution earlier. It was West who leaned against the wall next to me and silently held out the orange. Always West.

“Thanks,” I told him, taking it, but my voice was flat even though I didn’t mean it to be.

West nudged me in the ribs with his elbow, bent a little closer, and said, “You could have come.” He straightened and wandered toward the others.

“I could have,” I muttered, slipping out the door. I descended the stairs, flight after flight, to the tenth floor. I ignored the greetings of a group entrenched in a game of poker at a table in the corner of the upper lobby, and yanked the bridge-doors open. Brickell was built of bridges. That was our thing. We put them everywhere. All our buildings were connected.

I marched out onto the span between buildings, ignoring the creaks of protest and the gusts of damp wind that promised another monsoon rain. I meant to keep going, but I stopped there, halfway between, and leaned into the railing. I was little– the railing touched my ribcage. The wind blasted into my face, fresh, and salty with ocean air. Before me stretched the dark swath of the bay, open and mysterious. Far in the distance was a single point of light. I remember wondering who was up and using aether in South Beach. It didn’t matter. I turned my back on it, and looked instead toward the mainland. The better question was why did Jason need sixteen-five?

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