Under the Never Sky Extract

Under the Never Sky Extract

Posted by in Book Excerpts, Book News

We are absolutely thrilled that Veronica Rossi's Under the Never Sky will be hitting shelves tomorrow! To celebrate the launch of Atom's biggest dystopia of 2012 we've got a week of apocalyptic awesomeness on our site… There'll be everything from an author guest post to a twitter competition, but first up we've got an extract to whet your appetites.

 

 CHAPTER 1

They called the world beyond the walls of the Pod "the Death Shop." A million ways to die out there. Aria never thought she’d get so close.

She bit her lip as she stared at the heavy steel door in front of her. A display screen read AGRICULTURE 6-NO ENTRYin flashing red letters.

Ag 6 was just a service dome, Aria told herself. Dozens of domes supplied Reverie with food, water, oxygen—all the things an enclosed city needed. Ag 6 had been damaged in a recent storm, but supposedly the damage was minor. Supposedly.

"Maybe we should turn back," Paisley said. She stood beside Aria in the airlock chamber, nervously twisting a strand of her long red hair.

The three boys crouched at the control board by the door, jamming the signal so they could exit without triggering an alarm. Aria tried to ignore their steady bickering.

"Come on, Paisley. What’s the worst that could happen?"

Aria meant it as a joke, but her voice sounded too high so she tacked on a laugh. That came out sounding mildly hysterical.

"What could happen in a damaged dome?" Paisley counted on her slender fingers. "Our skin could rot off. We could get locked out. An Aether storm could turn us into human bacon. Then the cannibals could eat us for breakfast."

"It’s just another part of Reverie," Aria said.

"An off-limits part."

"Pais, you don’t have to go."

"Neither do you," Paisley said, but she was wrong.

For the past five days, Aria had worried constantly about her mother. Why hadn’t she been in touch? Lumina had never missed one of their daily visits, no matter how engrossed she was in her medical research. If Aria wanted answers, she needed to get into that dome.

"For the hundredth—wait, thousandth—time, Ag 6 is safe," Soren said without turning from the control board. "You think I want to die tonight?"

He had a point. Soren loved himself too much to risk his own life. Aria’s gaze rested on his muscled back. Soren was the son of Reverie’s Director of Security. He had the kind of flesh that only came with privilege. He even had a tan, a ridiculous upgrade considering none of them had ever seen the sun. He was also a genius at cracking codes.

Bane and Echo watched at his side. The brothers followed Soren everywhere. He usually had hundreds of followers, but that was in the Realms. Tonight just five of them shared the cramped airlock chamber. Just five of them breaking the law.

Soren straightened, flashing a cocky smile. "I’m going to have to talk to my father about his security protocols."

"You did it?" Aria asked.

Soren shrugged. "Was there ever a doubt? Now for the best part. Time to turn off."

"Wait," Paisley said. "I thought you were just going to jam our Smarteyes."

"I’ve been jamming them but that won’t give us enough time. We need to turn off."

Aria brushed a finger over her Smarteye. She had always worn the clear device over her left eye and it was always on. The Eye took them to the Realms, the virtual spaces where they spent most of their time.

"Caleb will kill us if we’re not back soon," said Paisley.

Aria rolled her eyes. "Your brother and his theme nights." She usually cruised the Realms with Paisley and her older brother, Caleb, from their favorite spot in the 2nd Gen Lounge. For the past month, Caleb had planned their nights around themes. Tonight’s theme, "Feeding Friend-zies," began in a Roman Realm where they’d feasted on roasted boar and lobster ragout. Then they’d cruised to a Minotaur feeding in a Mythology Realm. "I’m just glad we left before the piranhas."

Thanks to her Smarteye, Aria had kept daily visits with her mother, who had followed her research to Bliss, another Pod hundreds of miles away. The distance had never mattered until five days ago, when the link with Bliss broke.

"How long are we planning to stay out there?" Aria asked. She only needed a few minutes alone with Soren. Just long enough to ask him about Bliss.

A grin broke over Bane’s face. "Long enough to party in the real!"

Echo pushed his hair out of his eyes. "Long enough to party in the flesh!"

Echo’s actual name was Theo but few people remembered it. His nickname suited him too well.

"We can shut off for one hour." Soren winked at her. "But don’t worry, I’ll turn you on later."

Aria made herself laugh, smoky and flirtatious. "You better."

Paisley shot her a suspicious look. She didn’t know Aria’s plan. Something had happened to Bliss, and Aria knew Soren could get the information from his father.

Soren shifted his thick shoulders like a boxer stepping into a ring. "Here we go, Glitches. Hold on to your pants. We’re shutting off in three, two—"

Aria startled at a shrill ringing that came from deep within her ears. A red wall crashed over her field of vision. Hot needles of pain stabbed into her left eye and then spread over her scalp. They gathered at the base of her skull and then shot down her spine, exploding through her limbs. She heard one of the boys swear stiffly with relief. The red wall vanished as quickly as it had come.

She blinked a few times, disoriented. The icons for her favorite Realms had disappeared. The messages in the queue and the news crawl in the lower part of her Smartscreen were gone as well, leaving only the airlock door, which appeared dull, filtered through a soft film. She looked down at her gray boots. Middle Gray. A shade that covered nearly every surface in Reverie. How could gray seem less vibrant?

A sense of loneliness crept over her despite being in the crowded little chamber. She couldn’t believe people lived this way once, with nothing but the real. Savages on the outside still lived this way.

"It worked," Soren said. "We’re off! We’re strictly meat!"

Bane hopped up and down. "We’re like the Savages!"

"We’re Savages!" Echo yelled. "We’re Outsiders!"

Paisley kept blinking over and over. Aria wanted to reassure her, but she couldn’t concentrate with Bane and Echo blasting around in the small space.

Soren spun a manual release bar on the door. The chamber depressurized with a quick hiss and a rush of cool air. Aria looked down, stunned to see Paisley’s hand clasped to hers. She had only a second to absorb the fact that she hadn’t touched anyone in months, since her mother left, before Soren slid the door open.

"Freedom at last," he said, and then stepped into the darkness.

In the shaft of light that spilled out of the airlock chamber, she saw the same smooth floors that ran everywhere in Reverie, but these were coated with a layer of dust. Soren’s footprints stamped a trail into the gloom.

What if the dome wasn’t secure? What if Ag 6 crawled with outside dangers? A million deaths in the Death Shop. A million diseases might be swimming in the air rushing past her cheeks. Inhaling suddenly felt like suicide.

Aria heard beeps from a keypad coming from Soren’s direction. Tracks of lights flickered on with a series of loud clicks. A cavernous space appeared. Farming rows stretched back as even as stripes. High above, pipes and beams crisscrossed the ceiling. She saw no gaping hole or other signs of wreckage. With its dirty floors and solemn quiet, the dome simply looked neglected.

Soren jumped in front of the doorway, bracing the frame. "Blame me if this turns out to be the greatest night of your life."

The food grew from waist-high plastic mounds. Row after row of decaying fruits and vegetables spread out around her in endless lines. Like everything in the Pod, they were genetically designed for efficiency. They had no leaves, and needed no soil and little water to grow.

Aria plucked a withered peach, cringing at how easily she’d bruised the soft flesh. In the Realms food still grew, or pretended to grow virtually, on farms with red barns and fields under sunny skies. She remembered the latest Smarteye slogan, Better than Real. It was true in this case. The real food in Ag 6 looked like old people before aging-reversal treatments.

The boys spent the first ten minutes chasing each other down the aisles and leaping over the farming rows. That turned into a game Soren dubbed "Rotball," which consisted of pegging one another with produce. Aria played for a while, but Soren kept aiming for her and he threw too hard.

She took cover with Paisley, ducking behind a row as Soren changed the game again. He lined Bane and Echo against the wall execution-style and then fired grapefruits at the brothers, who just stood there laughing.

"No more citrus!" Bane yelled. "We’ll talk!"

Echo put his hands up like Bane. "We give, Fruit Reaper! We’ll talk!"

People always did what Soren wanted. He had priority in all the best Realms. He even had a Realm named after him, SOREN 18. Soren’s father created it for his eighteenth birthday a month ago. Tilted Green Bottles played a special concert. During the last song, the stadium flooded with seawater. Everyone had transformed into mermaids and mermen. Even in the Realms, where anything was possible, that party had been spectacular. It had set off the underwater concert craze. Soren had made caudal fins sexy.

Aria rarely meshed with him after school hours. Soren ruled the sports and combat Realms. Places where people could compete and be ranked. She normally kept to art and music Realms with Paisley and Caleb.

"Look at this messy thing," Paisley said, rubbing at an orange smear on her pants. "It won’t go away."

"It’s called a stain," Aria said.

"What’s the point of stains?"

"There isn’t any. That’s why we don’t have them in the Realms." Aria studied her best friend. Paisley wore a pinched expression, her brow overlapping the edge of her Smarteye. "Are you all right?"

Paisley waved her fingers in front of her Eye. "I hate this. Everything’s missing , you know? Where is everyone? And why do I sound so pseudo?"

"We all do. Like we swallowed megaphones."

Paisley lifted an eyebrow. "A what?"

"A cone people used to make their voices louder. Before microphones."

"Sounds mega-regress," Paisley said. She scooted around, squaring her shoulders to Aria. "Are you going to tell me what’s going on? Why are we with Soren?"

Now that they were shut off, Aria realized she could tell Paisley her reason for flirting with him. "I need to find out about Lumina. I know Soren can get information from his father. He might already know something."

Paisley’s expression softened. "The link is probably just down. You’ll hear from her soon."

"The link has only dropped for a few hours before. Never for this long."

Paisley sighed, leaning back against the plastic mound. "I couldn’t believe it when you sang to him the other night. And you should’ve seen Caleb. He thought you’d broken into your mother’s medicines."

Aria smiled. She usually kept her voice private, something strictly between herself and her mother. But a few nights ago, she made herself sing a sultry ballad to Soren in a Cabaret Realm. In minutes that Realm had reached full capacity, with hundreds of people waiting to hear her sing again. Aria had left. And just as she’d hoped, Soren had been chasing her since. When he’d proposed the idea for tonight, she’d jumped at the opportunity.

"I had to get him interested." She flicked a seed off her knee. "I’ll talk to him as soon as he calls off the fruit war. Then we’ll get out of here."

"Let’s get him to stop now. We’ll tell him we’re bored . . . which we are."

"No, Pais," Aria said. Soren wasn’t one to push into anything. "I’ll handle it."

Soren leaped on top of the farming row in front of them, making them both jump. He held an avocado, his arm cocked back. His grays were covered in blotches of juice and pulp. "What’s wrong? Why are you both just sitting here?"

"We’re bored with Rotball," Paisley said.

Aria winced, waiting for Soren’s reaction. He crossed his arms, his jaw working side to side as he stared down at them.

"Maybe you should leave then. Wait. I almost forgot. You can’t leave. Guess you’ll have to stay bored, Paisley."

Aria glanced at the airlock door. When had he closed it? She realized he had all the codes for the door and for resetting their Smarteyes. "You can’t trap us in here, Soren."

"Actions precede reactions."

"What’s he talking about?" Paisley asked.

"Soren! Get over here," Bane called. "You need to see this!"

"Ladies. I’m needed elsewhere."

He tossed the avocado into the air before he jogged away. Aria caught it without thinking. It popped open in her hand, becoming a slick green mess.

"He means we’re too late, Pais. He already locked us out."

Aria checked the airlock door anyway. The panel didn’t respond. She stared at the red emergency switch. It was wired directly to the mainframe. If she hit it, Reverie Guardians would come to help them. But then they’d also be punished for breaking out and probably have their privileges in the Realms docked. And she’d lose any chance to speak with Soren about her mother.

"We’ll stay a little longer. They’ll have to go back soon."

Paisley pulled her hair over one shoulder. "All right. But can I hold your hand again? It feels more like being in the Realms."

Aria stared at her best friend’s extended hand. Paisley’s fingers were twitching slightly. She took her hand, but fought the urge to pull away as they walked to the far end of the dome together. There, the three boys stepped through a door Aria hadn’t noticed before. Another set of lights clicked on. For a moment, she wondered if her Smarteye had reactivated and she was actually seeing a Realm. A forest loomed in front of them, beautiful and green. Then she looked up, seeing the familiar white ceiling above the treetops, run through by a maze of lights and pipes. It was a huge terrarium, she realized.

"I found it," Bane said. "How champ am I?"

Echo jerked his head to the side, his shaggy hair shifting out of his eyes. "Champ, man. It’s unreal. I mean, it’s real. Zap, you know what I mean."

They both looked at Soren. "Perfect," he said, his gaze intent. He pulled off his shirt, tossed it aside, and ran into the woods. In the next moment, Bane and Echo followed.

"We’re not going in, are we?" Paisley asked.

"Not like that."

"Aria, be serious."

"Pais, look at this place." She stepped forward. Rotten fruit was one thing. A forest was a true temptation. "We’ve got to see it."

It was cooler and darker under the trees. Aria ran her free hand over the trunks, feeling the rough textures. Pseudo-dark didn’t grip like it might bite into her skin. She crushed a dry leaf in her palm, creating sharp crumbs. She stared at the patterns of leaves and branches above, imagining that if the boys quieted down, she might be able to hear the trees breathe.

Aria kept track of Soren as they headed deeper into the woods, looking for an opportunity to speak to him, while trying to ignore the moist warmth of Paisley’s hand. She and Paisley had held hands before in the Realms, where touching happened. But it felt softer there, unlike the constricting grip she felt now.

The boys were chasing one another through the woods. They’d found sticks, which they carried as spears, and they’d rubbed dirt on their faces and chests. They were pretending to be Savages, like the ones that lived on the outside.

"Soren!" Aria called as he darted past. He paused, spear in hand, and hissed at her. She jerked back. Soren laughed at her and ran off.

Paisley pulled her to a stop. "They’re scaring me."

"I know. They’re always massive scary."

"Not the boys. The trees. It feels like they’re going to fall on us."

Aria looked up. As different as these woods felt, she hadn’t thought of that. "All right. We’ll go wait by the airlock," she said, and began to backtrack. A few minutes later, she realized they’d come to a clearing they had already passed. They were lost in the woods. She almost laughed at how unbelievable it was. She let go of Paisley’s hand and rubbed her palm against her pants.

"We’re going in circles. Let’s wait here until the boys come by. Don’t worry, Pais. It’s still Reverie. See?" She pointed up through the leaves at the ceiling and then wished she hadn’t. The lights above dimmed, flickered for a moment, and then came back.

"Tell me that didn’t just happen," Paisley said.

"We’re leaving. This was a stupid idea." Was this the part of Ag 6 that had taken the damage?

"Bane! Get over here!" Soren yelled. Aria spun, catching a glimpse of his tanned torso jogging through the trees. This was her chance. She could talk to him now if she hurried. If she left Paisley there alone.

Paisley gave her a shaky smile. "Aria, go. Talk to him. But hurry back."

"I promise."

Soren was hoisting a stack of branches into his arms when she found him.

"We’re going to make fire," he said.

Aria froze. "You’re kidding. You’re not really . . . right?"

"We’re Outsiders. Outsiders have fires."

"But we’re still inside. You can’t, Soren. This isn’t a Realm."

"Exactly. This is our chance to see the real thing."

"Soren, it’s forbidden." Fire in the Realms was a rippling orange and yellow light that gave off a gentle warmth. But she knew from years of Pod safety drills that real fire must be different. "You could contaminate our air. You could burn down Reverie—"

She broke off as Soren stepped closer. Water beaded on his forehead. It cut clear trails through the mud on his face and chest. He was sweating. She’d never seen sweat before.

He leaned in. "I can do anything I want in here. Anything."

"I know you can. We all can. Right?"

Soren paused. "Right."

This was it. Her opportunity. She chose her words carefully. "You know things, don’t you? Like the codes that got us here. . . . Things we’re not supposed to know?"

"Of course I do."

Aria smiled and slipped around the branches in his arms. She rolled up onto her toes, inviting him to whisper. "Well, tell me a secret. Tell me something we’re not supposed to know."

"Like what?"

The lights flickered again. Aria’s heart gave a lurch. "Tell me what’s going on with Bliss," she said, making her best attempt at sounding casual. Soren stepped back. He shook his head slowly, his eyes narrowing. "You want to know about your mother, don’t you? Is that why you came here? You’ve been playing me?"

Aria couldn’t lie anymore. "Just tell me why the link is still down. I need to know if she’s all right."

Soren’s gaze dropped to her mouth. "I might let you persuade me later," he said. Then he pushed his shoulders back, shifting the branches higher. "Right now I’m discovering fire."

Aria hurried back to the clearing for Paisley. She found Bane and Echo there as well. The brothers were building up a pile of branches and leaves at the center. Paisley rushed over as soon as she saw Aria.

"They’ve been doing this since you left. They’re trying to make fire."

"I know. Let’s go." Six thousand people lived in Reverie. She couldn’t let Soren risk everything. Aria heard the clatter of sticks falling just before something struck her shoulder. She cried out as Soren spun her to face him.

"No one’s leaving. I thought I made that clear."

She stared at the hand on her shoulder, her legs softening beneath her. "Let go of me, Soren. We’re not getting involved."

"Too late." His fingers dug into her. She gasped at the shock wave of pain that ran down her arm. Bane dropped the large branch he’d been dragging and looked over. Echo stopped midstride, his eyes wide, wild. The lights shone off their skin. They were sweating too.

"If you leave," Soren said, "I’ll tell my father this was your idea. With our Smarteyes shut off, it’s your word against mine. Who do you think he’ll believe?"

"You’re insane."

Soren let her go. "Shut up and sit down." He grinned. "And enjoy the show."

Aria sat with Paisley at the edge of the tree line and fought the urge to rub her throbbing shoulder. In the Realms, falling off a horse hurt. Twisting an ankle did too. But pain was just an effect, sprinkled in to boost the thrill. They couldn’t actually get hurt in the Realms. This felt different. Like there was no limit to the pain. Like it could go on forever.

Bane and Echo made one trip after another into the woods, bringing back armfuls of branches and leaves. Soren directed them to place more here, more there, as sweat dripped off his nose. Aria eyed the lights. At least they were holding steady.

She couldn’t believe she’d let herself—and Paisley—get into this situation. She’d known going into Ag 6 meant risk, but she hadn’t expected this. She had never wanted to be part of Soren’s clique, though he’d always interested her. Aria liked looking for the fissures in his image. The way he watched people when they laughed, like he didn’t understand laughter. The way he curled his upper lip after he said something he thought particularly clever. The way he glanced at her occasionally, like he knew she wasn’t convinced.

Now she realized what had intrigued her. Through those fissures, she’d seen glimpses of someone else. And out here, without Reverie Guardians watching, he was free to be himself.

"I’m going to get us out of here," she whispered.

Tears pooled in Paisley’s bare eye. "Shhh. He’ll hear you."

Aria noticed the brittle crackle of the leaves beneath her and wondered when the trees had last been watered. She watched the pile grow one foot high, then two. Finally, with the pile at nearly three feet, Soren declared it ready.

He reached into his boot and brought out a battery pack and some wire, handing them to Bane.

Aria couldn’t believe what she was seeing. "You planned this? You came here to make fire?"

Soren smiled at her, his lip curling. "I’ve got other things in mind too."

Aria sucked in a breath. He had to be kidding. He was just trying to scare her because she’d led him on, but she’d had no choice.

The boys huddled together as Soren muttered, "Try it like this," and "Other end, stupid," and "Just let me do it," until they jumped back, away from the flame that flickered up from the leaves.

"Oh, zap!" they yelled in perfect unison. "Fire!"

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

Magic.

That was the word that came to Aria’s mind. An old word, from a time when illusions still mystified people. Before the Realms made magic common.

She moved closer, drawn by the gold and amber tones in the flame. By the way it changed shape constantly. The smoke was richer than anything she had ever smelled. It tightened the skin along her arms. Then she saw how the burning leaves curled and blackened and disappeared.

This was wrong.

Aria looked up. Soren had frozen in place, his eyes wide. He looked bewitched, just as Paisley and the brothers did. Like they were seeing the fire without really seeing it.

"That’s enough," she said. "We should turn it off . . . or get water or something." No one moved. "Soren, it’s starting to spread."

"Let’s give it more."

"More? Trees are made of wood. It’ll spread to the trees!"

Echo and Bane ran off before she’d finished speaking.

Paisley grabbed her sleeve, pulling her away from the burning stack. "Aria, stop or he’ll hurt you again."

"This whole place is going to burn if we don’t do something."

She glanced back. Soren stood too close to the fire. The flames had nearly reached his height. The fire made sounds now, pops and crackles over a dull roar. "Get sticks!" he yelled at the brothers. "The sticks make it stronger."

Aria didn’t know what to do. When she thought of stopping them the ache in her shoulder flared, warning her of what might happen again. Echo and Bane ran up with armfuls of branches. They threw them onto the fire, sending sparks into the trees. A surge of hot air blew past her cheeks.

"We’re going to run, Paisley," she whispered. "Ready . . .go."

For the third time that night, Aria grasped Paisley’s hand. She couldn’t let Paisley fall behind. She wove through the trees, her legs churning, as she tried to keep them on a straight course. She didn’t know when the boys started chasing them, but she heard Soren behind her.

"Find them!" he yelled. "Spread out!"

Then Aria heard a loud wailing sound that brought her to a halt. Soren was howling like a wolf. Paisley’s hand clamped over her mouth, stifling a sob. Bane and Echo joined in, filling the woods with wild, keening cries. What was happening to them? Aria broke into a run again, tugging Paisley so hard that she stumbled.

"Come on, Paisley! We’re close!" They had to be near the door leading back to the farming dome. When they reached it, she’d trip the emergency alarm. Then they’d hide until Guardians came. The lights overhead flickered again. This time they didn’t come back. Darkness slammed into Aria like something solid. She went rigid. Paisley rammed into her back and cried out. They tumbled blindly to the ground, their limbs crashing together. Aria scrambled upright, blinking hard as she tried to orient herself. Eyes opened or closed, what she saw didn’t change.

Paisley’s fingers fluttered over her face. "Aria! Is it you?"

"Yes, it’s me," she whispered. "Quiet or they’ll hear us!"

"Bring the fire!" Soren yelled. "Get some fire so we can see!"

"What are they going to do to us?" Paisley asked.

"I don’t know. But I won’t let them get close enough to find out."

Paisley tensed at her side. "Do you see that?"

She did. A torch wove toward them from the distance. Aria recognized the solid tromp of Soren’s stride. He was farther than she expected, but she realized it didn’t matter. She and Paisley couldn’t move without crawling and feeling along in front of them. Even if they knew which way to go, moving a few feet would hardly help. A second flame appeared.

Aria groped for a rock or a stick. Leaves disintegrated in her hands. She smothered a cough against her sleeve. Every breath tightened her lungs more. She’d been worried about Soren and the fire. Now she realized the smoke might pose the worst danger.

The torches bobbed across the darkness, drawing closer. She wished her mother had never left. She wished she’d never sung to Soren. But wishing wasn’t going to get her anywhere. There had to be something she could do. She turned her focus inward. Maybe she could reset her Smarteye and call for help. She reached for commands as she always had. Even in her mind, she felt as though she were fumbling in the dark. How did you restart something that had never been turned off?

It didn’t help her concentration to see the torches closing in, or the fire burning brighter and louder, or to feel Paisley quivering against her side. But she had no other hope. Finally she felt a tap in the depths of her brain. A word appeared on her Smartscreen, blue letters floating against the smoldering woods.

RESTART?

Yes! she commanded.

Aria tensed as hot nails dragged across her skull and down her spine. She gasped in relief as a grid of icons appeared. She was back on, but everything looked strange. All the buttons on her interface were generic and in the wrong places. And what was that? She saw a message icon on her screen labeled "Songbird," her mother’s nickname for her. Lumina had sent a message! But the file was stored locally and wouldn’t help her now. She needed to reach someone. Aria tried contacting Lumina directly. CONNECTION FAILUREflashed on her screen, followed by an error number. She tried Caleb and the next ten friends who came to mind. Nothing went through. She wasn’t linked to the Realms. She made a final attempt. Maybe her Eye was still recording.

REVIEW, she commanded.

Paisley’s face appeared in the playback square on the upper left of her Smartscreen. Paisley was hardly visible, just the contours of her frightened face and the glint of the fire catching on her Smarteye. Behind her a glowing cloud of smoke seeped closer. "They’re coming!" Paisley said in a frantic whisper, and the recording ended.

Aria commanded her Eye to record again. Whatever happened, whatever Soren and the brothers did, she’d have proof.

The lights flashed back on. Squinting at the brightness, Aria saw Soren scanning the area, Bane and Echo at his side like a pack of wolves. Their eyes flared as they spotted her and Paisley. She jumped to her feet, pulling Paisley up once more. Aria ran, holding tight to Paisley, tripping over roots and pushing through branches that snagged her hair. The boys’ shouts were loud, rumbling in Aria’s ears. Their feet pounded right behind her.

Paisley’s hand tore from Aria’s grip. Aria spun as she fell to the ground. Paisley’s hair splayed over the leaves. She reached for Aria, crying out. Soren lay half on top of her, his arms wrapped around her legs. Before Aria could think, she slammed her foot into Soren’s head. He grunted and fell back. Paisley twisted away but Soren lunged for her again.

"Let her go!" Aria stepped toward him, but he was ready for her this time. His hand shot out, clamping onto Aria’s ankle.

"Run, Paisley!" Aria yelled. She struggled to get free but Soren wouldn’t let go. He rose to his feet and grabbed on to her forearm. Leaves and dirt stuck to his face and chest. Behind him, smoke tumbled through the trees in gray waves, moving slow and fast at the same time. Aria looked down. Soren’s hand was twice the size of hers, rounded with muscle like the rest of him.

"Can’t you feel it, Aria?"

"Feel what?"

"This." He squeezed her arm so tight she cried out. "Everything." His eyes darted around, not settling anywhere.

"Don’t, Soren. Please."

Bane ran up, holding a torch and panting for breath.

"Help, Bane!" she cried. He didn’t even look at her.

"Go get Paisley," Soren said, and Bane was gone. "Just you and me now," he said, stroking a hand through her hair.

"Don’t touch me. I’m recording this. If you hurt me, everyone will see it!"

She hit the ground before she realized what had happened. His weight crushed her, driving the air out of her lungs. He glared down at her as she gasped, struggling to draw a breath. Then his focus moved to her left eye. Aria knew what he was going to do but her arms were trapped, squeezed between his thighs. She closed her eyes and screamed as his fingers dug into her skin, prying up the edges of her Smarteye. Aria’s head snapped forward and then slammed back to the ground.

Pain. Like her brain had been torn out. Above her, Soren’s face looked red and bleary. Warmth spread down her cheek and pooled in her ear. The pain lessened and became pulses, beating in time with her heart.

"You’re crazy," someone with her voice slurred.

Soren’s fingers clamped around her neck. "This is real. Tell me you feel it."

Aria still couldn’t pull in enough air. Spears of pain shot into her eyes. She was fading, powering off like her Smarteye. Then Soren looked up—away from her—and his grip loosened. He cursed and then his smothering weight lifted.

Aria pushed herself to her knees, gritting her teeth at the piercing shriek that erupted in her ears. She couldn’t see. She swiped at her eyes to clear the murkiness, her legs quaking as she rose to her feet. Framed against the roaring blaze, she saw a stranger step into the clearing. He was shirtless, but there was no mistaking him for Bane or Echo.

He was a real Savage.

The Outsider’s torso was almost as dark as his leather pants, his hair a blond Medusa’s snarl. Tattoos coiled around his arms. He had the reflective eyes of an animal. They were bare eyes, both.

The long knife at his side flashed with firelight as he came forward.

 

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