It had taken everything in Lira not to dive down the stairwell and stick a blade in Dex’s back as he led Andi away through the halls of their ship. Even his posture had been smug. Lira couldn’t fathom—save for the possibility that he might have a stick up his backside—how or why anyone would walk that way.
“We wait,” Breck said.
“We wait,” Gilly echoed.
And so the girls waited.
For hours, it seemed, until Gilly, sufficiently bored, fell asleep, her snores echoing through the hallway. Until Breck’s stomach began to growl and Lira stopped counting the minutes since Andi had been gone. A thousand scenarios ran through her mind.
A thousand solutions, too, soon followed by reasons why they wouldn’t work. They bit and tore at her as her scales lit up, dimmed, then ignited again.
Useless. So incredibly useless, this ability.
Lira nearly succumbed to the exhaustion of wasted energy. Her eyes were just beginning to close, sleep tugging at her like a poison, when a voice pierced the darkness.
All three of them snapped to attention.
The ladder below them clanged as someone began to climb up.
“Protect Gilly first,” Breck whispered to Lira.
“At all costs,” Lira agreed.
Then a creature appeared, stopping about halfway up the ladder. It held a lantern in its fist, the light casting a strange, otherworldly glow on its face.
Its body was made up of metal and gears and blinking lights behind a clear casing, like a skeleton clock. Its face was stark white, with strange, unblinking eyes.
“Who the hell are you?” Gilly yelped.
“My name is Alfie,” the creature responded, his voice clear and clipped. Diplomatic. “I am the personal assistant to General Cyprian Cortas, an Artificial Lifeform Intelligence Emissary, Version 7.3.” As he pulled himself the rest of the way up the ladder and into the hallway, Lira noticed a shining silver key clutched in his other fist.
She could make her move now. She could set the girls free with the help of this strange new arrival, this fateful turn of events. The creature’s white face turned to Lira. “Captain Androma Racella has agreed to a deal with the great General Cortas.”
“A deal?” Lira asked, not taking her eyes from the key. Her body tensed, ready to spring. Andi hated General Cortas. He was the only person she feared in all of Mirabel. “What are the terms?”
“Soon to be discussed, Lira Mette.” The AI tilted his head, as if staring at something he could not quite understand. “But first,” he said, lifting the key, the movement strangely smooth, “my orders are to set you all free.”
“Well...hell,” Breck said. “That’s unexpected.”
Lira could only stare as the strange AI stopped before her, dropped to a metal knee and slipped the key into her cuffs.
Chapter Eleven (#u2c495123-a205-5bed-8b1b-b7611314f030)
XEN PTERA WAS DYING.
Queen Nor Solis had known it for years, had witnessed her planet’s pain with her own eyes—but knowing the truth didn’t make facing it any easier.
For years, she’d known it was coming.
She felt it in the tainted air she breathed, the sting of pollution scraping its claws against her lungs as she stood on the balcony of the Nyota Room, overlooking the once-beautiful remains of her kingdom.
She and her advisers had tried to restore beauty to Xen Ptera since the end of The Cataclysm, but radiation had left the ground barren. Crops withered the moment they tried to sprout from seed. Streams dried up. Creatures became extinct, while others mutated, their blood becoming acidic, impossible to eat.
Xen Ptera was once a prosperous planet, rich with varillium mines that brought trade and wealth to the Olen System. But as more mines were exhausted and sealed up, the future of Xen Ptera began to look bleak.
Businesses collapsed. Trade between Olen and the other systems ceased as the varillium ran out. Xen Pterran homes fell to starvation, which gave way to weakness, which allowed filth and disease to spread more with each passing year.
Nor’s father had turned to the other systems for help, but the Unified Systems refused to offer enough.
And so The Cataclysm began.
Now, fifteen years later, the fighting had long since ceased, but despite everything she had done, Nor was out of options.
Until recently, Xen Ptera had been relying on food and water sourced from Iv21, a small neighboring planet. But Iv21’s resources were far from sufficient to sustain the population of Xen Ptera for an extended period, and the limited food stores harvested from that planet had run out months ago.
Death filled the void left behind.
Mechanical noises hummed across the bustling city. From her vantage point miles above the ground, Nor had an unobstructed view of the land. Black plumes of smoke billowed over the gray landscape. Buildings, ranging from a few stories tall to some towering miles high, suffocated each other in the claustrophobic capital of Nivia.
Flowers ceased to bloom, and real water was now a dream as artificial water tablets took its place. The burnt orange sky rained acid, the kind that burned both flesh and metallic skin.
Nor grasped the railing as the ground beneath her gave a great shuddering breath. The quakes were near constant, cracking open the ground and devouring anything in their path. Her people used to mourn the lives lost to the molten crust, but over the past few years, the quakes had become too regular for anyone to care.
The Xen Pterrans were growing numb to the destruction around them.
Nor heard the chorus of death in the cries of her starving people, saw it in the green fog that burned their skin as it swept its way through the crumbling city streets with each bitter gust of wind.
For years the suffering of her people, her planet, had torn her apart.
But she knew, deep in her soul, that soon she would have the power to stop it all.
Nor stiffened at the sound of a girl’s voice behind her. She turned from her spot on the balcony, abandoning the view of her capital city and the pain it struck in her chest.
Like a poison.
A cyborg girl stood in the doorway, patches of metal spiraling across her burned skin, a whirring gear where her heart should be. She was one of the few who had been saved from radiation exposure even after it had done its damage.
“You dare approach me in my private quarters?” Nor said. The wind howled in from the open balcony doors, whipping at her midnight waves of hair. “What is the meaning of this?”