On corporately controlled Castra, rally racing is a high-stakes game that seventeen-year-old Phoebe Van Zant knows all too well. Phee’s legendary racer father disappeared mysteriously, but that hasn't stopped her from speeding headlong into trouble. When she and her best friend, Bear, attract the attention of Charles Benroyal, they are blackmailed into racing for Benroyal Corp, a company that represents everything Phee detests. Worse, Phee risks losing Bear as she falls for Cash, her charming new teammate. But when she discovers that Benroyal is controlling more than a corporation, Phee realizes she has a much bigger role in Castra’s future than she could ever have imagined. It's up to Phee to take Benroyal down. But even with the help of her team, can a street-rat destroy an empire?
- Pages: 400 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Dial Books
- ISBN: 9781101616703
An Excerpt From
TO CHRIS AND CONOR,
FOR BELIEVING IN IMPOSSIBLE THINGS.
FOR THAT, AND FOR INFINITELY MORE, I LOVE YOU.
I pace the garage like some crazy-eyed wind-up girl.
It’s too late to back out of the race, but I can’t afford this. The extra fuel. The new wheels. The trouble if we get caught tonight and get picked up by the jackals policing the streets. Or even worse, if Hal and Mary find out we’re blazing right through the middle of town . . . I can’t believe I let Benny talk me into this.
My crew boss is probably upstairs right now, his belly pressed against the desk while he approves every bet and rakes in all the credits. Sure, he’s got his hands full too. I’m not the only one risking my neck tonight. Somebody has to keep the Domestic Patrol quiet and off our backs. Someone has to manage the web of bribes and favors that keeps the garage doors open and all our engines running.
For the moment, all that dirty work has paid off. It’s packed. Benny’s shop has become the biggest hive of lawless gear-heads and gamblers in Capitoline—their flop-sweat stink taints the familiar, welcome tang of leather and fuel and degreaser. Seems everyone’s itching to hang around and get a taste of the odds. There are always credits changing hands in the dingy betting stalls, but right now, the garage is so busy, you’d almost think this was an actual interstellar circuit race, with pro drivers and corporate stocks on the line.
It’s enough to put me on edge. There’s too much money floating around over this race, and like Mary always says, where there’s money, there’s Sixers. And where there’s Sixers, there’s trouble. At least for the likes of me. Like most South Siders, I don’t care too much for the six corporations who helped colonize this planet for profit. The Sixers might as well rule Castra, and the squeeze they put on the rest of us makes it pretty hard to breathe. Break their laws, complain about working for next to nothing, and you’re blotted out like a stray drop of fuel sap. I swear, one false move and . . . If Benny hasn’t paid off their hired goons in the DP . . .
I can’t think about that right now. I have to escape the noise and get on the road. Before I change my mind.
I move back and forth across the length of the place, past my crew-mates and rivals, between the bay doors and the crowded odds booths and the rickety stairs going up to Fat Benny’s office. I don’t stop to talk to Eager or Harkness as they slouch against their spit-shined rigs. No high fives or friendly trash talk before we gear up to run against one another. We’re past that now—too close to go time. At this point, all I can do is count down the last few minutes in quick steps and shallow breaths. I don’t stop moving because I can never shake the bone-deep tremble in my limbs before any race, let alone one this big. If I win tonight, outrunning every decent street rig on this side of the planet, I get double my usual share.
Benny’s never split the take fifty-fifty before. I’ve been racing for him for two years now, since Bear and I turned fifteen and could quit school for good, and he’s never offered this kind of cut. And I haven’t questioned it, because every driver knows the deal. You pay your dues, running for the best crew boss who’ll take you on. You start out sweeping floors and cleaning parts until they let you behind the wheel. If you’re lucky, you work your way up and out and maybe someday you save enough to build your own tin-roofed shop. That’s the way it works. Benny Eno gave me his best rig and a choice spot in his garage, and in return I’m supposed to keep handing over the biggest cut of the winnings for another two years.
I can live with that if it buys Bear and me a chance for something more, a real shot at making a living on Castra, this dust speck of a planet. And if it puts a little more food on his parents’ table and keeps the landlord from rattling their clinic doors, that’s more than good enough. That’s all I’m asking for. A little less trouble for my foster family.
I walk to the center of the garage, where the floor is permanently sticky, sap-stained by all the fuel that’s been loaded into rigs over the years. My sleek black Talon’s up on the lift and Bear is standing underneath it, double-checking adjustments on the vehicle and noting everything on the razor-thin flex screen in his hand.
Suspension sensors calibrated. Check.
Fuel cells loaded. Check.
High speed triggers set. Check.
If I squint, his face softens and it’s as if we’re six years old again, sitting in emptied surgical supply crates, pretending to race circuit rigs and fly fighter vacs. Even then, he was always the navigator, and I was the pilot. That much hasn’t changed. I drive. He paces the routes, squawking through the headset and watching out for me at every turn. I guess you could say we’re still playing that game.
Bear withdraws, quietly tying himself into the kind of knots only I can untangle. When he turns on me, I catch the twitch rippling through his shoulders. My own satellite, he drifts closer than anyone else is allowed, and I have to look up to meet his ice-blue eyes. But it’s not so bad to stand in his shadow. Most days, it’s a pretty safe place to hide out.
“Everything looks tight, Phee. You’re good to go . . . if you still want to do this.” His last few words curl like a question.
I don’t answer, for the same reason I’m ignoring the pile-up of Mary’s frantic texts on my flex card.
ML: WHERE ARE YOU? WHAT TIME ARE YOU COMING HOME? HAL AND I ARE WORRIED.
I tune it all out because it costs too much to argue. I don’t want to hash this out with Bear again or lie to his parents. So I stuff the blinking flex deeper into my pocket and jerk my chin at the lift. “Bring her down. Let’s roll out.”
Bear nods. He starts to answer, but stops when my flex buzzes once more. I don’t need to pull it out to know who’s sending the message.
“You have to tell them something,” Bear says. “They’ll figure out we’re here, anyway. You remember the last time you ignored her texts?”
“All right,” I say. I don’t need a reminder. I remember exactly what happened. Mary wasted forty precious credits on a cab, rode all the way over here, and pounded on the bay doors until her knuckles split and every one of Benny’s goons had a good laugh at her expense.
But like it or not, she knows nothing will keep me away from the shop. We need the money. The waiting room’s overrun with the throwaway poor, the people who can’t afford the fortune it costs to get even the most barebones care at a Sixer hospital. And if you’re a protester who needs patching up after the DP knock you senseless? Forget it. Walk into any emergency room and you’re as likely to get arrested as get stitches. Better to take your chances at a back-room clinic like the one the Larssens run.
I look at Mary’s latest message.
ML: BE CAREFUL. BE SAFE. TELL ME WHEN YOU’RE COMING HOME.
I start to delete the message on the tiny screen, but the blink of the words reaches something in me. Hal and Mary will always worry. And I will always disappoint them. For better or worse, I am still my father’s daughter. He may be gone, but I can’t resist racing any more than he could. Even so, the least I can do is give the Larssens, my almost parents, one night’s peace. I can pretend nothing’s at stake and I’m not in any danger.
I swipe my thumb over my flex to reply.
JUST RUNNING SOME TEST LAPS OUT AT THE DUNES. WON’T BE TOO LATE. DON’T WAIT UP.
Out on the street, I am small.
My legs aren’t long enough to win a sprint and I’ll never have enough meat on my bones to scrap my way through a fair fight. Good thing Bear stays close. Anywhere this side of the Mains, his six-five frame is enough to scare off trouble. It’s enough to make most guys think twice about wolf-whistling or grabbing at me as I move through the crowd. It doesn’t really matter that Bear doesn’t have a taste for violence. With his broad shoulders and his stoic face of doom, he looks like he does, and that is enough.
My crew has done their job. Ahead, my Talon’s polished, parked, and ready to go. After pushing through the last of the bystanders, I snap on my gear, slide into the driver’s seat, and buckle the six-point. Here I don’t need to be tall or strong. My hands are just right to grip the fuel triggers and my reflexes are quick enough to burn off the competition. Behind the wheel, I am fierce at last.
Bear steps back from the car, but his voice fuzzes through my headset. “I still say watch out for Eager, maybe even One-Eye.”
Eager may be a worthy crew-mate, but he lost his edge three match-ups ago, and I’m certainly not scared of One-Eye, the stupid alias Matias Kirk has taken to street race. He can try to look tough and wear that patch all he wants, but we all know he’s still got two good eyes and half a brain. Lame new nickname, same old pain in the exhaust.
As little kids, Matias and I tangled plenty, but I’ve never seen him behind the wheel before. Bet he’s just a sellout, another wannabe driver angling for a corporate circuit contract. Doesn’t matter. Most of the pro-racing hopefuls flame out or disappear soon enough, too scared to run anymore. I give ole One-Eye two weeks. He’s no threat. He won’t be any different.
Besides, no one on Castra—nobody on this whole planet—has a ride that matches my sweet black Talon. With no restrictor plate and the right burst of fuel, I’ll blow past the other cars like my wheels are on fire. I know when to drop the hammer. I’ll let Eager lead until the last mile, but once we clear Merchant’s Plaza, once we near the docks, I’ll whale on him, leaving him far behind.
“I’m on it,” I say.
“I’m just saying, I think you should—”
“Got it. It’s fine.”
“When you’re safe, when you cross the finish line in one piece? That’s when it’s fine, Phee,” Bear says. “Eyes open, okay?”
I try not to growl at him, and I’m not very successful. He laughs, but I know he’s still on edge. Bear worries more than enough for the both of us. I can practically see him raking his fingers through his blond hair right now. As baby fine as it is, it’s a wonder he doesn’t yank it all out. “Yeah,” I say, pressing the ignition. “Go time in five. Pulling up now.”
I weave through a couple of side streets. I pass too many boarded windows and burned-out storefronts. There’s been so much unrest on the south side of Capitoline, more than ever before. You can hardly suck in a deep breath without tasting the choke of desperation. The Sixers are safe, tucked away in their penthouses and gated compounds. But here, in my neighborhood, people are on edge, anxious for decent jobs, better options—the promise of anything that might buy them out of hard times.
Things nearly slid into chaos last month. A three-day labor-protest-turned-riot blazed all the way to the edge of the Mains. Shut down Benny’s garage for almost two weeks. Canceling races cost him a bundle, but the howl and clash brought too much attention here. Now the streets are hushed. With Domestic Patrol cracking down so hard, there’s an uneasy silence, a forced quiet bought with tear gas and closed fists.
The newsfeeds buzz with talk of splinter cells and enemies of the republic—renegades who want to steal our precious fuel. They warn of terrorists, but they never show the ones wearing DP badges.
It’s a gamble to run tonight. I tell myself I’m doing it for the money, that I’m driving to pay off my rig and to put more food on the table, but I know Bear’s folks won’t accept tonight’s winnings. It’s dangerous taking this kind of race, right through the heart of Capitoline.
For me, I guess that’s the whole point.
After making the last turn, I roll into position and wait alongside four other cars. No fanfare. No dropped flags, like in the circuit arena. Out here, at midnight, on the wrong side of the city, racers get a signal flare. I look up and wait for the burst of light, the starry impostor that doesn’t belong in the smoggy sky.
On my mark.
I need this moment, the split second in which my body strains against the harness after I hit the first fuel trigger. I slam against the seat, and I’m rocketing forward even as the signal flare burns spots in my vision. My gauge screens are filled with rapid blinks, rising numbers, and climbing lines. My Talon is a sleek, three-thousand-pound cage and I’m rattling the bars.
“Hope you can make up the distance.” Bear has to shout through the headset. The fuel is still screaming. The whistling won’t let up until I hit 150 mph. “No one else is taking your route.”
I don’t answer. Of course they’re not. Oh yeah, the race is off to a predictable start, and I’m already grinning. I can almost taste the win. My rivals Eager and Harkness break right immediately. They’ll zigzag a few streets, cutting toward the Mains, the long, straight shot through Merchant’s Plaza. One-Eye and the last contender, some nobody in a boxy red Corona (who races in that kind of clown car?) are surely going straight ahead, breaking for the industrial park.
And that’s not a terrible idea. The industrial route requires maneuvering, but only fools go for the plaza. Even this late, after the last glittering skyscraper goes dark, there are always stragglers working late. Eager and Harkness think building up honest speed early on the straightaway and pacing their fuel bursts will buy them victory, but it won’t. Forget all the bribes Benny’s handed out tonight. The surveillance cameras, the Domestic Patrol, the stray civilian rigs—the smoothest road just isn’t worth the risk.
I take the rough road.
A curve to the left. At 120 mph, I take it, savoring the careening jolt when all four wheels grab the pavement again. Curb check. There’s a skid from concrete to gravel, and I’m off road, a hurricane blowing through a bare stretch of under-developed land.
“Get over. You’re too far to the left,” Bear says.
I know he’s gripping the oversized flex screen, tracking my progress and reading the pace notes. He’s terrified I’ll smash into a bulldozer or worse. I course correct and now I’m roaring down the rutted bottleneck between construction sites. With the dust clouds I’m churning and the lack of traction, I should be terrified too, but instead I’m riding a raging, sweat-slicked adrenaline rush.
Every cell is charged, every part of me is flying high save one—there’s a knot the size of a fist in my core, a dull center of gravity. It reminds me of the race’s toll, the stupid risks I take just to feel a pulse. I hate that I can’t breathe without this. I hate that I have no weight or substance anywhere else. I hate my father for giving me this fuel-driven addiction, for I’m as trapped as any black sap addict who’s got to score a fix to live.
Bear’s voice sharpens my focus. “Big pothole ahead. Nudge right.”
My nudge is not good enough. My teeth clack and the laws of physics punish me with a jarring leap and fall. My now battered, beloved Talon rocks and rebels against my steering. Still giddy, I dig in and dodge another hole, desperate to avert a full spin. I fishtail, but I’ve gotten through the worst of it. I must be near the end of the gravel by now.
“How much farther?” I yell.
“Mile and a half. Start—”
I read his mind and anticipate the upcoming tilt. I hug the lazy curve to the right on this makeshift road. I’m at the end of the boomerang-shaped route, so I should cross paths with the other racers in a minute or less. It’s point to point, get there whichever way you can, and I pray I’m not behind them all. The gravel may have cost me.
This time Bear reads mine. “Clown car is way behind you. You’re nose to nose with One-Eye, it’s going to be close for second.”
“I’m in second?”
“Wait, One-Eye just blinked out. I can’t see him on the screen.”
“What?” I’m furious now. “Did he cross the finish line?”
“No. I . . . He . . . His marker’s just disappeared. Wait. It’s back. He’s way off course, flying off in the wrong direction.”
Something is very, very wrong.
“Harkness. Eager,” I spit. “Where—”
“Harkness is out.” Bear’s words are fast and pitched too high. “Patrol bike zapped his machine halfway through the plaza. Eager had to burn all his triggers just to outrun and escape. He’s still got first place locked, Phee. I don’t like the way things are looking. Pack it up for the alternate rendezvous point. Don’t do anything . . . ”
I tune Bear out when I catch the scream of another engine. It’s Eager; his bright yellow Evenstar is parallel on the good road and he’s running hard. A nose ahead of me. As is, the curve will end and I can safely swerve and duck right behind him.
Unsafely, I can pull two triggers at once and rocket the hell past him and the finish line. Sure, I’ll probably overshoot and smash into next year, but when I free-float and the six-point harness snaps me back, I’ll rock the biggest rush of my life.
Or it will kill me.
I grip the stick and pull both fuel releases in one hard- fist clench.
I surge forward. Two seconds of delirium before g-forces kick in and I’m pinned against my seat. It’s the sweetest blowback, but I can’t hold on to it. The moment slips through my black-gloved fingertips. I’m the cartridge in the gun, the scorching round left in the chamber after the trigger fires.
I’m not the hollow shell. I’m the bullet now.
Peak acceleration. I gasp as the fuel stops screaming, kindling the silent burn of maximum velocity. The world outside the windshield loses color, everything blurs into black and white. I’m tearing through, the wet streaks and bright splatters of light blind me. The night is bleeding.
“Phee! Phee! No!” Bear screams. His voice snatches me back, and I’m just a girl again. “You’ve overshot. I’ve got a visual of the pier. You’re headed straight for them!”
Reflex. I strangle the throttle, but it’s too late. I brake, but I’ve gone too far. I know I won’t be able to slow down in time. I’ve lost any chance to turn away from the docks.
“DP are everywhere.” Bear chokes. “Bikes. Two armored cars. Blitz Birds are on me. Rust it, Phee. They knew. It’s a trap. They’ve got m—”
Thump. Static. He’s gone. Bear—my safety, my reason—is gone. He’s been shot, stunned, or snagged into the air by one of these jet-packed, badge-wearing vultures. The DP must have him now, and they’re waiting to arrest us all.
And Bear was right about the pier. I see the ambush, the nest of cops, their silver speeders parked in a row. It’s a flimsy barricade, but they have me. Why . . . why are so many of them here, already waiting in the perfect place? Who tipped them off? Rearview mirror. The flash of yellow paint. Eager’s trying to spin around, but there’s no escape for him either. DP swarm to box him in. I’m next.
My Talon wails; it doesn’t like my foot on the brakes. Rust it. I don’t like it either. I shift, my foot slams back on the accelerator. No surrender. I’m dead, but at least they won’t bag me for jail.
The whiplash stings, but the twist and snap of metal satisfy me. I cut through, mowing down the patrol bikes like they’re tin can ten-speeds. I roar past all their sirens and shouts and flashing lights. The end of the pier. Foot to the floor. I’m flying.
I lie and say the soaring will last. The landing won’t hurt, the water won’t kill me. I will swim away. I will win.
I am wrong.
The dash screens blink out and I’m flailing for the harness buckle and the door handle. Nothing will open for me. The windshield’s already cracked. Water pours in and I don’t know which way is up. There’s not much light—my helmet comes off, but I can’t get loose. For once, I can’t run or race my way out.
I’m trapped. Gulp the last of the air. My heart and lungs and brain are on fire. Completely under the water now. I feel the buckle snap open, but it’s too late. Can’t breathe. My arms free float and I feel a hand grab me. But the hand can’t put out the fire. I close my eyes. I drift and scatter like ash.
Clean. The blankets. The bed. Everything feels clean.
But it smells like the Larssens’ clinic. Bleached sheets scorched too many times in an industrial dryer. I lift my head a little, but it’s a mistake. The movement, the stink, the sting at the nape of my neck—it all makes me want to throw up. I open my eyes.
There are no windows, and everything from the walls to the floor to the plastic pitcher of water on my bedside table is white. There’s only one door and it looks locked and the red eye of a surveillance camera blinks from the far corner of the ceiling. Rust this. I’m out of here.
My bruised body aches and my neck is sore. There’s a numb spot back there, below my hairline, but a rim of pain, a shifting tidal wave of hurt surrounds it. Even so, the discomfort does nothing to slow me down. I move, ready to jump out of bed and get out of this hospital or detention center or whatever it is. But I can’t. I can only pull against the restraints on my ankles and wrists.
“Let me out!” I half scream, half growl at the sight of the IV needle taped against my left arm.
All my noise, all my rattling of the bed rails only accomplishes one thing. I shake the bed hard enough to topple the pitcher off the nightstand, but I don’t stop until a bolt snaps and my door is open.
Once I see the horde of pastel-scrubs-wearing medical types, I think this might actually be a regular hospital. They don’t look like mad scientists or Domestic Patrol officers. I have to get them to take these straps off.
I start to bug out again. One of the doctors tries to fake me out with an everything-is-going-to-be-all-right smile. Then I see the syringe in his hand.
“Don’t you stick me with that rusting needle!” I fight the restraints so hard, I feel a trickle of blood drip down the inside of my wrist. I’m not afraid to die, but I don’t want to be put down like a rabid dog. Something breaks inside of me, and I hate myself for letting the words pass my lips so easily. “Please. Please don’t stick me.”
Two orderlies pounce and hold me still. I’d bite someone if I could, if they’d lean in close enough. But they know what they’re doing. They have me all locked down, ready for the good doctor to do his thing. I still struggle, but I turn away.
“Phoebe,” he says. “This is a sedative. I don’t want to use this. But I will if I have to.”
They have to believe I’m cool and calm. I cannot slip this snare any other way. “Let me go,” I plead.
“That’s not for me to decide, Phoebe,” he says. “I’m Dr. Poole and you’re at Capitoline General North. I’m here to patch you up, but if you keep going, you’ll tear your stitches.”
Stitches. Explains the scorch and numbness at the back of my neck. And I’m at CG North? I’m so far from my side of the city, it’s not even funny. I don’t understand why an ambulance would bring me all the way up here, where the rich people hole up. I’m not some Sixer’s daughter. I’m not here for a nose job or a fat transfer or a rib removal. I don’t belong in this hospital.
“My friend Barrett Larssen, is he here?”
He points to a sore spot on my waist and lifts up the arm of my hospital gown. I flinch at first, but then I realize what he’s trying to show me. I twist and see the bruise on my shoulder. The handprint is huge. I don’t know how he pulled me out, but I know who left the mark. The cool hand in the water. My savior in the dark deeps. I should’ve known.
My throat closes up. Bear hesitates. He worries. He talks me out of stupid ideas. He doesn’t pull suicidal stunts. The marks on my shoulder and my waist grow warm. Maybe it’s the drugs, but I can almost feel him reach for me. Somehow Bear—my would-be bodyguard and best friend—saved my life.
“Where is he?”
Dr. Poole ignores my question. A DP officer steps just inside the doorway. His coal-black uniform makes him an inkblot, a stain in this spotless room. “Phoebe Van Zant, you’re under arrest.”
I frog the second orderly, knuckle punching him near the groin. For a second, I think my thrashing will break the cords at my wrists. “I want a lawyer! Cut me loose. I want out of this place!”
I hear Dr. Poole sigh. The needle sinks into my hip. I drown again.
With a chin-snapping nod, I wake up in the back of a moving transport. I’m groggy, but upright, locked into a seat between two DP officers. When I blink and swallow and try to shift my feet, I realize . . . they put me in sync boots. Rigid, heavy, evil red-toe-light blinking sync boots.
“You can’t just haul me off like this,” I plead. “I’m a minor, and you haven’t even notified my guardians.”
“Oh that’s right,” the officer mocks. “How did we forget about that? Just say the word, and we’ll be happy to bring in your whole family for questioning.”
He smiles, and I catch the glint of perfect teeth. He knows the threat’s enough to gut me. Across town, a world away, Mary’s probably out of her mind, bent over a sterilizer panel, cleaning instruments and pretending to keep it together while Hal paces the floor and texts me a thousand times.
No, bringing up my ties to the Larssens would be asking for trouble. Their medical supply business is a good front for the clinic—it lets them operate on the edges of the system, without interference from the Sixers. Any of the Six would probably love to swallow another black-market clinic like so much krill. Especially one that patches up the protesters who shout down their names on the streets.
Transcorp. Agri-tech. Benroyal Corp. Yamada-Maddox. AltaGen. Locus Informatics. I know they helped build Castra from nothing, but it’s like they think they own the whole rusting planet. If I coughed up the Larssens to the DP, they’d be shut down inside of eight hours. I can’t let that happen.
We slow down. Through the windows, fire-bright colors catch my eye. So many knots of orange and red and yellow leaves. Castra’s a desert world, one made for scrubroot and hackweed, but there’s a whole grove’s worth of Earth-imported oaks lining the gated courthouse drive. What a waste of water. So much effort to keep withered roots alive.
The officers tense as we come to an abrupt, curb- skimming stop. We’ve arrived. The bone-pale courthouse looms and I’ve never felt smaller.
Inside the courthouse, I’m herded through a gray-walled warren of holding cells and intake stations. I’ve never been booked or processed before. Two years of racing under the radar and they’ve never been able to catch me, so I’m not exactly sure what to expect.
My escort pulls out a flex card remote and fumbles with it. Arrows appear on the floor, illuminating the black-and-white tiles. My soles start to slide across the floor and I flail to keep my balance, but as soon as I surrender, moving toward the arrowed path, the pull relents and I’m free to walk normally. Or at least as normally as I can in these rusting things.
I’m pushed through the booking stations without stopping. I don’t get scanned or strip-searched or zipped into a baggy lock-up jumpsuit. The DPs don’t even interrogate me. I was so sure that as soon as I got here, they’d toss me in a holding cell and start grilling me about Benny Eno’s garage/black-market betting operation, but they don’t. They only ask who I belong to. I don’t answer.
I’m not selling out the Larssens. Not when they’re all I’ve got.
My real mother split when I was little more than a baby. I barely remember her face, a perfect oval so much paler than my own. And even that image is counterfeit. My father used to store a picture of her on his flex, but now I’ve only got the memory. My case manager says she got into black sap, and I can only guess my dad didn’t want me to know that my own mom became a sunken-eyed junkie. So I carry an image less painful, frozen in time, of someone whole and young and pretty.
And my father? The great Tommy Van Zant, the six-time Corporate Cup champion, the circuit rally racer who couldn’t lose? When I was five, one day he up and disappeared. Crossed a finish line and drove away, leaving me and his latest trophy behind. Maybe he couldn’t deal with the pressure. Maybe he was burned out. Maybe he was just plain bored.
The only thing he left me is his itch for adrenaline and this hell-on-wheels need to race. Come to think of it, I guess he’s the reason I’m standing here in the first place. I should text him a message and thank him.
But of course, I won’t. I can’t.
Maybe I had real parents once. I’ve forgotten what that means.
I’m hustled around a corner, down the last stretch of tile. We pass more holding cells; I catch my reflection in their safety-glass windows. My hair looks darker in here. Almost black. And unlike the other prisoners, I’m wearing oversized hospital scrubs that have been bleached so many times, it’s hard to tell if they were once purple or actually blue. Swallowed up in this threadbare getup, I look like a walking bruise.
The cells are full of rough-faced prisoners, but there are no clean-cut Sixers here. They never seem to get arrested. Plenty of Cyanese rebels and Biseran drug dealers, though, and plenty of South Siders like me. I can guess what’s in store for them. The worst of the lot will be shuttled to prison and exile on Earth, while the petty offenders will get deported or sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor on Cyan-Bisera.
I glance at one of the Cyanese detainees, the man closest to the glass. He’s gotta be nearly seven feet tall. Bet he thinks he’s really cute with the Cyanese Army flag plastered across his T-shirt. Rebel stars, pale silver, on a field of blue. I imagine the DP got one look at that and tossed him and his friends in here just for looking like fuel-stealing terrorists.
Public menace. For the first time today, I smile. At least I’m really guilty.
“Keep it moving,” my guard snarls.
We make it down to the end of the hallway. My ears catch the splashdown roar of water in the lobby fountain as the double doors swing open. A flex screen message scrolls above: Enjoy improved, hassle-free judicial proceedings. These new, expedited services are brought to you by Locus Informatics. We’re innovating justice for you!
I’m pretty sure this means my fate has just been outsourced.
“Phoebe Van Zant?” The judge looks up at me.
I’d expected him to look scary. All imposing and serious. Instead, he just looks tired. He’s not even perched behind the grand bench at the back of the courtroom. Here we are in this fancy, marble-pillared hall and he just sits there behind an ordinary wooden desk on the periphery of the room. He wears a fine black robe, but it looks too big for him.
My public counsel stands beside me, as silent as the statues lining the walls. I don’t recognize the empty, ivory-eyed figures, but I’m sure they’re more dead guys—twenty-third-century colonials from Earth.
“Answer yes or no, and say Your Honor,” the guard orders.
I clear my throat. “Yes . . . Your Honor, I want to—”
“You are charged with six counts,” the old judge interrupts. “Reckless driving. Illegal vehicle. Illegal racing. Resisting arrest. Destruction of public property. Mayhem.”
I stand very still and try not to laugh out loud. Mayhem. What the rust is Mayhem? The judge says something else about the damage I caused, but he’s mumbly. I’m insulted he doesn’t even try to sound intimidating or even make me feel guilty about what I’ve done.
This place is a joke. All of us, the judge, his bailiff, even my sad little entourage—we’re packed in a small corner of this vast, opulent room. Everything is so . . . unused. I look up. There’s a faded mural on the dome above. Before a majestic sun, a white-robed angel holds a scale. I recognize the three planets—a much larger Earth hangs in the balance against arid Castra and lush Cyan-Bisera. If the angel could whisper, I bet she’d tell me she’s been watching this room shrink for a long, long time.
“How do you plead?” the judge asks.
I’m silenced by the dull thud of the judge’s gavel. “You have been found guilty. The sentence of this court is that you will remain in juvenile custody at the House of Social Rehabilitation, until you reach the age of eighteen . . .”
One year in juvie. This is happening so fast. I don’t know what I expected. The judge takes a breath and I realize he’s not done.
“Upon turning eighteen, you shall be remanded to the Labor Corps on Cyan-Bisera until you earn out. Or for the remainder of your life, whichever comes first.”
I gasp. One year and I’m done for, exiled to an uncivilized planet crawling with sap miners, terrorists, and drug lords. Hard to imagine anything worse. If I were a murderer or political prisoner, the judge would put my name on the next deportation list, sentencing me to some hellhole penal colony on Earth, but still. I’ll never earn out of the Labor Corps. No one ever earns out the cost of “rehabilitation,” the steep room and board fees charged to every inmate. My leg starts twitching and I need to run. I need to run away and find a rig and just start driving.
The guard grabs me and spins me around before I can think twice about it.
“You are dismissed.” The judge waves me away.
My counsel never says a single word.
In a daze, I stumble out of the courtroom. It takes all of six seconds for sharp-clawed panic to sink its hooks deep enough to wake me up. I am going to juvie. Then hard labor in the fuel mines on Cyan-Bisera. I can’t move. I can’t think.
I’m free-falling. Away from midnight races at the dunes. Away from lazy Sundays at the garage. Away from my life with Bear.
I start scanning the room, desperate for an exit. I taste the curse words before they fly off my lips, ringing in this echo chamber of a lobby.
“This is bull-sap, you mother-rusting sons of—”
A hundred heads snap my way. From the corner of my eye, I see the elevator doors open. The prisoner inside. He’s so far away. The elevator is packed with guards. His back is turned and the crowd between us is so thick.
There’s this foolish hope—I carry this fragile ember inside me—that it’s him. I’m so, so stupid to think it could be, that I’ll ever see my best friend again. The surge of adrenaline thrums like a distress signal. Please. I need to know it’s him and that he’s all right and that I’m not alone in this terrible place.
In these boots, I can’t stand on my toes, but I will every muscle and tendon to stretch. The effort buys me an inch or so, and I squint to get a better look. He turns, and it’s no mistake. Bear is here. The ember stirs and I’m on fire. Before the guard can react, I rabbit-punch him with both fists, then snatch the boot remote from his hand.
Stunned, his partner reaches for me, but I duck. Twice. I flick my thumb over the flex card to turn the boots off. In a blink, I’m running as fast as my boots will let me, launching away from the fountain’s edge, zigzagging and cutting through breaks in the crowd.
I’ve probably got a handful of seconds at best. Already, half a dozen DP are onto me, pushing their way through the long lines of detainees.
“Bear!” I scream.
He looks my way. When he sees me, his slumped shoulders lift. “Phee?!”
Bear’s escorts had been leading him slowly toward the courtroom, but the moment he hears me, he wrenches free. The force is strong enough to knock two of his captors on their exhausts. They scramble back up, and the other two try to catch Bear, but it’s too late. A beast off the chain, he’s halfway across the room, running like I’ve never seen him.
Someone must have another sync remote. My boots force me to halt. I’m ten yards short, but nothing stops Bear. He practically tackles me, folding me into his arms. I can barely breathe. Not because he’s crushing me (he is), but because I can’t believe my best friend on the planet is alive and well.
I look up, craning to look into his face. Not quite. I reach up and run my thumb over his right cheekbone. For a moment, he takes my hand and holds it there, over a faded bruise. The protective fury—I can feel it roll off him in waves.
“I pulled you out,” he rasps. “Jumped in the second they dropped me at the docks. But they took you away. I thought you were dead. They told me you . . .” he says. “I wanted to die.”
I think of a million things, but my mouth can’t form a single word. I just stand here, wide-eyed, holding on for as long as I can. His grip on me is fierce, but there’s a special tenderness in our meeting too. The kind that comes from years of scouting each other’s routes before turning any corner. Bear has run alongside me all my life.
Circling, the guards have come to separate us. I hear the thump of their footsteps. I feel the pull of my boots. I’m being dragged away, by unfeeling hands and ruthless physics. I see the pain flash in Bear’s eyes, but all I feel is rage.
The DPs take him by the arms.
“Leave him alone!” I say as they drag me away.
No matter how hard they strain, Bear won’t turn his back. One of the guards pulls his stun stick, swipes it to half power and jabs him in the ribs. Bear’s face twists in pain and fury, but the warning jolt isn’t enough. Again, he breaks completely loose.
The unrest is contagious. In the lines, prisoners murmur, a breath away from insurrection. More guards flood the room, pulling their weapons and barking orders. Lock-down sirens blare and blast-proof doors slam into place, blocking the main exits. Our little rebellion has sparked something far more dangerous.
Quickly, four DPs drag me out of the lobby and into a hallway. A glass door slides open and then shuts behind us. I twist toward it. Through the chaos, I can still see him.
I lunge and strain, knocking my forehead against the glass. “Bear!” I scream.
He is coming for me.
I reach for the door, but the guards swarm. One of them bats my hand away. “Back down,” she warns. “Or else.”
I ignore her, fighting hard. There are three DPs on me, and from behind, I hear more running to assist. Bear slams into the door, his palms out, fingers splayed against the shatter-proof surface.
I mimic his stance. All four of his guards pounce on him. When they stun him again, I scream and choke and pound on the doors. Two more jolts, but Bear holds his ground. The tendons in his neck tighten and rise. His jaw is locked and his teeth grind with every puff of strained breath.
“Behave.” The guard tries again. “Stop or we’ll do it.”
“Do what?” I snap, breaking eye contact with Bear.
She taps the glass and nods at a DP on the other side of the door. He acknowledges, reaching into his pocket. My joints loosen and melt. I know what’s in the guard’s fist before he pulls it out.
“Get him to back down,” the woman says. “Or it’s the needle. We’ll pack him off to juvie unconscious.”
I lean as close to the door as I can. These tears are only for him. “You have to stop, Bear. Please.”
He still won’t back off. I have to lie. I have to get angry. “Stop it. Right now. If you don’t go with them now, they’ll hurt me, Bear!” The pain and surprise shows on his face. When the muscles in his arms go slack, when his head drops and he stares at the black and white, I let my palms slide away from his. Limp, I let them drag me away.
The room they shove me into doesn’t look like any holding cell I’ve ever seen. I’d thought it’d be some kind of steel box with a table and chair, maybe a sad, lone lightbulb hanging over our heads. I did not expect a polished glass table with built-in flex screen interfacing. The DPs nudge me into a chair and I sink into the plush velvet. There’s a wet bar at the other end of the room, for crying out loud.
This whole room screams corporate. The crystal vases, filled with bloodred Biseran poppies. The chroma-climate paintings that change color with each variation in air temperature. The thick carpet on the floor, sculpted into squares of ebony and cream. It’s a Sixer’s boardroom, not an interrogation cell. I glance back at the door, ready to run at the first sight of a stun stick.
Two men walk in. Both are middle-aged, but one of them is dressed to kill. Black jacket. Kid gloves. Silver tie. Sparkling ruby cufflinks. Never mind the traces of gray at his temples, he is fit and well-fed—a smooth-skinned, golden-haired suit who is so handsome for his age, it’s unsettling. Like he’s not himself at all, but a digitally perfected version.
The other guy is probably almost the same age as his boss, Mr. Sixer, but this one is completely different. At first, I think he’s nothing special. He’s not very tall and his brown hair is common as the coffee grounds on the bar.
It’s the man’s glasses—his specs—that throw me.
Corporates don’t wear them, unless they’re for show. Who needs lenses or shades when your eyes are surgically perfected, enhanced for Castra’s unforgiving sun? Sure, I’ve seen Sixers and celebrities wear them for looks, but these black frames are severe and thick; they do nothing for his who-knows-what-color eyes. I can’t understand why he’d hide behind them.
And if he’s security, I’m the Biseran queen.
They carry no weapons, but I’m no more relaxed. The older Sixer has gloves on and for all I know, his lackey’s briefcase is filled with instruments of torture. Maybe an IV line, ready to pump some especially toxic brand of black sap into my veins. I’d trip out on happy hallucinations until my heart pumped hard enough to actually burst. On the streets, I’ve heard rumors about that kind of thing. What a great way to die. Dosed on the narcotic runoff of the same sticky stuff that fuels my rig.
I don’t say a word. I stand up and move to slip past them, but Mr. Specs shuts the conference room door. I hear the lock click. My fate is sealed.
After slumping back in the seat, I cross my arms. Bring it.
Without a word, they both study me. While Mr. Sixer sits and begins to pull his gloves off, Specs sets the briefcase on the table and opens it. His boss smiles placidly.
No stun sticks. No syringes or interrogation tools.
Specs pulls out a single sheet of paper.
Paper. Not a flex screen, which is strange. Hardly anyone actually uses paper anymore. People only buy it for off-the-wire business. Or because they’re nostalgic. And I don’t think Mr. Sixer is the nostalgic type.
Specs lays the paper on the table and slides it across to me.
I’m cautious, but I don’t lie to myself. I want to know what it says. Without touching so much as the edge of the table, I lean over to look.
REGISTER OF CAPITOLINE, SOVEREIGNTY OF CASTRA
CERTIFICATE OF LIVE BIRTH
CERTIFICATE NUMBER: 401-57-410180