e-Pub ISBN: 978-0-9984702-0-7
Excerpt from "The Book of Miseries" by the Office of World Affairs
Death has always stalked us, but back in the Bright Times, the Era of Machines, Death and Man joined hands and did their best to destroy the earth.
They nearly succeeded.
Science was a mad thing then, a rabid dog running loose, and there was no way out of its path. People designed machines, and machines designed ever more lethal robots and beans and peppers and bombs. Elegantly scripted diseases escaped from vials to worm their way into human cells, and turned our population inside-out.
Our waters frothed with poisons. The skies soured. Rain fell either nonstop or not at all. Babies were born withered, missing hands or toes or hearts; mothers and fathers dropped dead in factories or in the dunes. And still the machines burned on.
When the sane few protested, laws were passed to protect not the people, but the technology.
And that is why now, the only law we have so binding as those from the days before is that of Magic.
Magic will be obeyed. It is our absolute and all.
903 Years Earlier
I’m building a snowman.
Well, it started out as a snowman. It has a good, traditional snowman base, nice and round and solid, but that part took me about twenty minutes to complete, and I’m not wearing gloves. I couldn’t find any in my rush to leave the house and I’m not going back inside yet, so my hands are cherry-red frozen. No longer good for packing snow. I keep them tucked under my armpits when I’m not working on the snowman; I sort of forgot my coat, too.
Once upon a Mom-was-still-here, I would have been yelled at for going outside without a coat. These days, Dad or Mason would just bring one out to me. Anyway, none of them are here right now, are they?
Like catching a cold is going to kill me. Ha ha.
I’m building a snowthing. It has a misshapen head and two odd little snow arms (good luck finding twigs or branches buried under three feet of summer snow) that stick straight out from its body, as though it’s trying to find its balance.
Its face is blank. I don’t have rocks or marbles or anything else to give it an expression, so I use my finger to carve out eyes and a smile. I know for a fact there’s a package of carrots back inside the cottage, but God help me if Dad finds out I used one for a snowthing nose.
It’s a long trek down the mountain to get more carrots.
Fresh powder dusts my creation, altering its shape yet again, smoothing us both. It falls from the sky in huge static flakes that come and come and come, and everything around me is gray and pearly and mysterious.
If my life were a fairytale, I’d be the banished orphan/princess/misunderstood monster, surviving in a world of hushed isolation, waiting for rescue.
Except I’m not an orphan (only half). Definitely not a princess. The monster question is a little hazier, and misunderstood implies that someone’s around trying to understand me.
I’m not waiting for rescue. Not any longer. I’m going to spend the rest of my days in the sifting flakes and the pearly light, and there’s no surviving any of it. I already know that.
Snowfall coats the empty bone forest that hugs my home. Snowfall devours the high-altitude silence. Our cottage squats smothered in virgin drifts, no smoke sighing from the chimney, no steam rising from the eaves. The path I broke from the front door to the yard is the only visible evidence that anything alive up here still resists the weather.
That, and my snowthing.
We are the final two creatures left standing at the top of the world.
I squint at it, carve the smile deeper. But now it looks more ghoulish than happy, so I blow a frost sigh and scoop up another handful of snow and plaster it over the face, ready to start over.
That’s when I hear it—the swoosh of air gliders above the clouds.
Gliders, of course, cross over the Sangre de Cristo Range all the time, but at a safe distance above the storms. Most of the time you can barely hear the whir of their engines, but these don’t sound that high. I tip my face to the sky and even as I’m thinking, Wow, they’re cutting it close, a glider breaks through the bubbly pewter bottom of the cloudbank above me, sinking so swiftly that I instinctively jerk back a step.
It’s a personal craft, not a commuter. But even for one that small, the only good place to land is along the crumbled old highway fronting the cottage, so it settles there, right the freak there on the highway, and it’s followed within seconds by about ten more.
Not like the highway’s going to get plowed anytime soon, but still.
I forget about my snowthing. I forget about my deadened hands and the flake-spackled cold. I stand there open-mouthed as the glider doors open and people burst out into the drifts and the pearly gray day and begin to clamber awkwardly toward me.
This is astonishing for a variety of reasons. The only people who tend to venture this far up the mountain anymore are my father and my brother, and only because they live here, too. They go down into town for work and for school; I’m the sole permanent resident of these ghost woods. In all the time we’ve lived here, not a single stranger has risked getting this close to the house.
I certainly don’t know these people, yet they seem to know me. Most of them are juggling vid cams and lightrings and mics, and all of them are shouting my name.
“November! November Duval! Are you November Duval?”
I go back another step and my foot meets a hidden patch of ice. I hit the ground so hard my teeth clack together, barely missing my tongue. My snowthing topples and breaks into lumps.
“November! Can you give us a statement, November?”
They’re mediaheads. I recognize a woman from the local evening newsfeed; a man who hosts a highly caffeinated morning show. They’re wearing heavy cosmetics and wraps too fashionable for snow this deep. There are even a couple of journo bots in the mix. Everyone’s struggling to get closer.
A floating mic zooms up to my face, followed by a spinning lightring that blinds me. I want to slap at them but I’m afraid to because floating anythings are expensive and I can’t afford to replace them if I break them. So I duck my head and find my feet again—the vid cams are recording my every tentative, achy movement—and when I look up there are cams everywhere, and the mediaheads still hollering questions at me, and at least three holo projections that show a girl with rippling, snow-wet blond hair and red hands and no coat and white crusting the entire left side of her body. She looks stupefied.
This is not happening. How can this be happening? Am I hallucinating? This is not—
A fourth holo of me pops up, this one just of my face. The cam for it must have some sort of special filter: my skin is pale and flawless; my eyes are huge and intensely greenish blue; my hair looks so golden it’s almost metallic.
My bottom lip is painfully crimson. I must have bitten my tongue, after all.
I taste it now, too, the unpleasant rust taste of blood, so without thinking I wipe at my mouth and spit.
Everyone gasps. The people nearest me slog hastily backward.
One person is rushing toward me and my blood, not away. One person here calls out my true name. Mason is supposed to be in class right now, but apparently, he’s not. I see him on his solar skis, slipping easily through the strangers crowding our yard.
(My brother has always been able to move like that, even without the skis. Like water, or the wind. In this way, he’s my opposite; someone who knows how to flow around impediments instead of ramming through them.)
“Ember,” he says again, quieter now because he’s reached me. He jabs his poles into the snow and grabs my shoulders. I barely feel it; I think I’m made of cold.
“Ember, you won,” Mason says. In the holos he’s ruffled and smiling, slightly winded. He towers over me because I’m still up to my knees in drifts and he’s not.
He bats away a lightring and says, “You won the ticket to the Time Train. You’re going to live.”
And I think, Oh, hell no.
Two and a half years ago, I woke up and got dressed for school and ate lukewarm oatmeal for breakfast and Dad gave me a curt nod goodbye from his chair at the table, and everything smelled like oatmeal and beer. Mason was already out the door so I had to hurry to catch up with him; even though we’re the same age, he’s always been taller. He has long legs, crane legs, that eat up distance.
We’d lived out on the plains then, hearty fields of wheat as far as you could see, and I had no trouble running to his side. I wasn’t even out of breath. It was nearly Christmas and the temperature had finally dropped from scorching to reasonable. The morning air felt wonderful, crisp as an apple, tangy as leaves. The sky blazed with that perfect sapphire sharpness that only came with this time of year. Sapphire sky; golden wheat. I loved autumn.
We caught the school tram together, found seats in the back and strapped in. Mason was instantly joking with one of his buddies, but I’d pulled out my LitPad and was busy finishing my assignment on The Tempest because Shakespeare always gave me a headache and I’d put it off until the last possible moment.
I didn’t even notice the girl sitting next to me until the tram stopped in front of the school; we both stood up at the same time and bumped shoulders. I threw her a sorry look, but she only kept her face downturned.
It’s funny how your memory can play tricks on you. Later on, I kept thinking about all the things about her I must have missed during that ride. Obvious things, like what she was wearing, or if she was reading or listening to music or just watching the mud dry on her shoes. If she smelled. My mind would fill in those blanks for me (she was looking down at her lap; she was tapping at her homework; she was staring out the windows; her dress had cat hair on it, or dog hair, or rabbit; she was pale and listless and never moved), but none of that was real, I think. Just my mind, being tricky. Nervous about the blanks.
I am certain I remember her hair right. It was lavender and frizzy with mousy brown roots. She needed a trim.
We were the last two leaving the tram. I was ahead of her, distracted because I was trying to shove my LitPad back into my pack. I’d made it all the way to the door when I heard this deep, gasping cough erupt right behind me, right in my ears. It didn’t seem possible it could even come from the girl, it was so huge and wet.
I hunched my shoulders and hurried out to the curb. Paisley Goodwin from the class ahead of mine pointed at me and squealed, “Gross!” and at first I thought she meant me, because her dad was a lawyer instead of a farmer and she was cute and popular and basically an overall bitch.
But she didn’t mean me. Not just me. The lavender-haired girl had hacked up pink foamy blood and chunks all over my hair and back.
The tram driver caught the falling girl in his arms, and then she was flat on the floor of the tram and not coughing or convulsing or doing anything at all any longer, or ever again.
Turns out you need to breathe to stay alive, and you need your lungs to breathe.
It was about a month after that when the mediaheads—so calmly at first, so pleasantly—began to mention the words TB-3.
Caffeinated Morning Host comes over first. He ignores the splotch of crimson tainting the snow between us, leaning near (no touching!) while at the same time angling his face and shoulders toward his vid cam. We’re not even breathing the same air.
He speaks to the cam in a booming, jolly voice. His teeth are mercilessly white.
“November Duval! The Brain just chose you as the winner of the sole free ticket to Time Train Three, TimeTech’s most revolutionary and exclusive new spacecraft! Tell us, how does it feel to know that in one week, you are going to board that train, head to your very own luxurious compartment and then,”—he pauses for effect; this guy is so hyped it’s like he won the ticket—“travel forward in time to your very own cure?”
I shake my head. I don’t know how it feels. I don’t how to say anything. I’ve brought both hands up to cover my mouth and I’m holding them there hard because I’m not sure what might happen otherwise. I have a maniacal urge to laugh, but my eyes are stinging.
The light from the ’rings splits into prisms through my tears; for a moment, I can’t see the cams or the forest or anything else. All I see are rainbow smears.
“She feels honored,” my brother covers for me, still by my side. “She can’t believe it yet.”
A journo bot has picked its way through the snow to end up right in front of us. It has five shiny cam eyes and a mic antenna that comes close enough for me to kiss. The logo pulsing across its front indicates it’s from the Total World Newsfeed, Total News for Your Total World Today!
Someone back at the Total World Newsfeed headquarters—many thousands of miles removed from me and my pesky disease—uses the bot to ask the next question.
“According to the TimeTech Corporation, there were over six million final entries for the ticket to the Time Train. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s six million certifiably sick people from all around the globe who met the rigorous criteria for the lottery, all vying for that single slot. November, are you surprised you beat them all?”
Mason gives my elbow a sharp squeeze. I drop my hands and force my lips into an upward curve.
I will not say:
This is not happening.
I will not say:
This isn’t what I wanted.
And I won’t say:
Why do you think I’m out here freezing my ass off, instead of inside my house watching the live lottery draw on our holofeed? Why do you think I’m standing out here in the snow, dumb and numb and speechless?
Because I couldn’t stand to win, and I couldn’t stand to lose.
Mason crushes my elbow again and I pull free of him, flick my fingers across my eyes. Maybe it’s the last of the tears, but in the holos now, my smile appears dazzling.
“Sorry,” is what I say, and I feel that crazed laughter climbing back up my throat. I shove it down again. “Sorry, I’m just . . . I’m amazed.” This seems like a safe word to offer to the audience, to anyone at TimeTech who’s watching. “Awed,” I add for good measure, but my voice cracks.
I wipe my mouth with my sleeve again.
Caffeinated Morning Host nudges the journo bot out of the way. He has a wide, fleshy grin. “And would you say that you’re very, very lucky to win the TimeTech lottery today, November Duval?”
“Yes,” I agree immediately, understanding his prompt. “I am very, very lucky.” I blink into the artificial glare of the lightrings; my eyes won’t stop watering.
All around me, the fat flakes fall. I am a smiling liar against them.
“I’m the luckiest girl in the world,” I say.
903 Years Later
It was widely acknowledged that Taza Sullivan had been born with a hole in his heart. Not a literal hole, but the shadow imitation of one; it stretched the breadth and depth of that unspoken space, the seat of his soul. The hole remained despite the many blessings sprinkled like rose petals, like cherry blossoms, all through his life: firstborn of a sovereign, alight with power, handsome and charismatic and smart. Even as a child, all that he touched appeared to prosper with the luxuriant ease of the innately adept.
But the emptiness inside him never ceased gnawing; quietly, cunningly. As he grew older it compelled him to dark, silent places—hollow lands, parched fields, deep deep spells—where he knew no one else could or would follow.
His grandmother declared it to be the price of his gifts. His father publicly agonized that this lack would become his son. That Taza would spend his mortal life incomplete, forever yearning for the ineffable something (even the most accomplished scryers could not foresee exactly what) needed to fill him.
But no one could argue that Taza could cast as others could not. Taza crafted sorcery as others did not. And that, at some point in his twenty-third year, Taza was destined to rule in his father’s stead.
He was clever, he was calm, and he could be kind. As he had not yet reached his eighteenth birthday, it was thought that there was sufficient time still for his heart to become whole.
All in all, matters might have been worse.
And then, one morning, they were.
In the Fortress of the Sky, there was only one rule: don’t look down.
Actually, there were many more rules than that, but don’t look down was the only one Taza bothered to follow since it was the only one that would have a potentially permanent outcome should he forget it.
If he looked down, he might fall.
He was not a bird, he could not fly, so he had no desire to fall.
The base of the Fortress was, of course, solid. Solid as could be, in fact, made of granite and pine and a sort of rosy-pink brick forming all the arches. The Fortress had been born of these densely forested hills and it showed; the uninitiated seldom even glimpsed it between the trees. It took at least three years of hard study before the Fortress would suggest its own outline. Another two before the door could be found. And even then, all that got you was an invitation to roam the bottom floors. If you fell there, no one cared.
It was the clear ladders at the top—the complex, invisible spires composed of hexes and enchantments and the essence of falling stars—that offered not only the best view of the universe imaginable but also the most perilous. Only the most advanced casters (the most harebrained, Imogen would say) even attempted it.
Taza was not harebrained. He never looked down when he climbed the spires. He looked outward. That was what they were for, after all.
For seeing into the Beyond.
He clung with both hands to the top of the spire he’d climbed in these small, dark hours before dawn, his feet hooked firmly into a faintly humming lattice. The magic up here was so thick it raked through his hair and prickled along his skin. Occasionally it gathered into sparks, which would crackle and float like dying embers down to the living earth.
The sparks hurt, much like a rubber band snapping back against your skin would hurt. Usually he ignored them, but he’d only been up here a few minutes so far and already his hair danced on end and he glimmered with light.
Nature was the text and subtext of his existence. Nature was birth, death, and the sorcery that thrived in between; it did not give without taking. And so, for every power, there came sacrifice.
Taza understood that as far as sacrifices went, this one wasn’t too bad.
He focused his attention upward, scanning the heavens, the rhinestone ribbon of the Milky Way. A pinprick of yellow crept a slow path across it: one of the Remnants of the Bright Times, a derelict ship or satellite doomed to orbit the planet until gravity decided its end.
There were clubs of spellcasters (mostly scions of the First families, bored and boring) devoted to pulling the machines downward until they burned, but he didn’t belong to any of them. Privately he thought them frivolous, which worried him some since it seemed like the sort of opinion his father would approve of. But the truth was, the destruction of the long-dead technology of a long-dead people held no interest for him.
Taza lived for the now. For the power and potential of today.
For revelation, not destruction.
He released the knob of the spire he’d been clutching and lifted his hand, fingers spread. Sparks arced between them, pink and green and orange and gold. Mostly orange, that rarest of colors, which meant a twisting of paths. Travel. Unintended consequences; unexpected fates.
Strange. He hadn’t been planning to go anywhere.
He heard a clap! above him, sharp as thunder. A deep, sizzling whoosh that shivered like gravel down through his joints.
Taza looked up.
A shooting star ripped toward him, a major one, searing a line of flame and smoke across the heavens. It was so bright it obliterated the Milky Way and the stars and the amethyst bleed of eastern light that preceded the sunrise. He was thinking he’d never seen one so big when he realized it wasn’t a shooting star.
It was . . . something else. Something long, snake-like.
From far, far below, he thought he heard a horse begin to scream.
All the spires of the Fortress lit to fire, all the ladders, every enchantment suddenly, astoundingly visible. The matrix supporting him went cold as ice against his body. The wind tasted scorched on his tongue.
The snake-star tore overhead, still sizzling, and vanished beyond the black line of the western hills.
He felt the destruction of its landing ricochet through him. The lattice supporting him trembled.
As omens went, it could hardly be more portentous.
Taza Sullivan did not look down. He began, instead, to descend hand-over-hand, returning back to the solid floors of the Fortress of the Sky as rapidly as his aching arms would take him.
Excerpted from Starcaster by Shana Shaheen. Copyright © 2017 by Five Rabbits, Inc. Excerpted by permission of Five Rabbits, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.