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Nophek Gloss

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Nophek Gloss

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Author: Essa Hansen
Publisher: Orbit, 2020
Series: The Graven: Book 1

1. Nophek Gloss

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

Caiden's planet is destroyed. His family gone. And, his only hope for survival is a crew of misfit aliens and a mysterious ship that seems to have a soul and a universe of its own. Together they will show him that the universe is much bigger, much more advanced, and much more mysterious than Caiden had ever imagined. But the universe hides dangers as well, and soon Caiden has his own plans.

He vows to do anything it takes to get revenge on the slavers who murdered his people and took away his home. To destroy their regime, he must infiltrate and dismantle them from the inside, or die trying.


Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

TENDED AND DRIVEN

The overseers had taken all the carcasses, at least. The lingering stench of thousands of dead bovines wafted on breezes, prowling the air. Caiden crawled from an aerator's cramped top access port and comforting scents of iron and chemical. Outside, he inhaled, and the death aroma hit him. He gagged and shielded his nose in an oily sleeve.

"Back in there, kid," his father shouted from the ground.

Caiden crept to the machine's rust-eaten rim, twelve meters above where his father's wiry figure stood bristling with tools.

"I need a break!" Caiden wiped his eyes, smearing them with black grease he noticed too late. Vertebrae crackled into place when he stretched, cramped for hours in ducts and chemical housing as he assessed why the aerators had stopped working so suddenly. From the aerator's top, pipes soared a hundred meters to the vast pasture compound's ceiling, piercing through to spew clouds of vapor. Now merely a wheeze freckling the air.

"Well, I'm ready to test the backup power unit. There are six more aerators to fix today."

"We haven't even fixed the one!"

His father swiveled to the compound's entrance, a kilometer and a half wide, where distant aerators spewed weakened plumes into the vapor-filled sky. Openings in the compound's ceiling steeped the empty fields in twilight while the grass rippled rich, vibrating green. The air was viciously silent - no more grunts, no thud of hooves, no rip and crunch of grazing. A lonely breeze combed over the emptiness and tickled Caiden's nose with another whiff of death.

Humans were immune to the disease that had killed every bovine across the world, but the contaminated soil would take years to purge before new animals were viable. Pasture lots stood vacant for as far as anyone could see, leaving an entire population doing nothing but waiting for the overseers' orders.

The carcasses had been disposed of the same way as the fat bovines at harvest: corralled at the Flat Docks, two-kilometer-square metal plates, which descended, and the livestock were moved - somewhere, down below - then the plate rose empty.

"What'll happen if it dissolves completely?" The vapor paled and shredded dangerously by the hour - now the same grayish blond as Caiden's hair - and still he couldn't see through it. His curiosity bobbed on the sea of fear poured into him during his years in the Stricture: the gray was all that protected them from harm.

"Trouble will happen. Don't you mind it." His father always deflected or gave Caiden an answer for a child. Fourteen now, Caiden had been chosen for a mechanic determination because his intelligence outclassed him for everything else. He was smart enough to handle real answers.

"But what's up there?" he argued. "Why else spend so much effort keeping up the barrier?"

There could be a ceiling, with massive lights that filtered through to grow the fields, or the ceiling might be the floor of another level, with more people raising strange animals. Perhaps those people grew light itself, and poured it to the pastures, sieved by the clouds.

Caiden scrubbed sweat off his forehead, forgetting his grimy hand again. "The overseers must live up there. Why else do we rarely see them?"

He'd encountered two during his Appraisal at ten years old, when they'd confirmed his worth and assignment, and given him his brand - the mark of merit. He'd had a lot fewer questions, then. They'd worn sharp, hard metal clothes over their figures and faces, molded weirdly or layered in plates, and Caiden couldn't tell if there were bodies beneath those shapes or just parts, like a machine. One overseer had a humanlike shape but was well over two meters tall, the other reshaped itself like jelly. And there had been a third they'd talked to, whom Caiden couldn't see at all.

His father's sigh came out a growl. "They don't come from the sky, and the answers aren't gonna change if you keep asking the same questions."

Caiden recalled the overseers' parting words at Appraisal: As a mechanic determination, it will become your job to maintain this world, so finely tuned it functions perfectly without us.

"But why - "

"A mechanic doesn't need curiosity to fix broken things." His father disappeared back into the machine.

Caiden exhaled forcibly, bottled up his frustrations, and crawled back into the maintenance port. The tube was more cramped at fourteen than it had been at ten, but his growth spurt was pending and he still fit in spaces his father could not. The port was lined with cables, chemical wires, and faceplates stenciled in at least eight different languages Caiden hadn't been taught in the Stricture. His father told him to ignore them. And to ignore the blue vials filled with a liquid that vanished when directly observed. And the porous metal of the deepest ducts that seemed to breathe inward and out. A mechanic doesn't need curiosity.

Caiden searched for the bolts he thought he'd left in a neat pile.

"The more I understand and answer, the more I can fix." Frustration amplified his words, bouncing them through the metal of the machine.

"Caiden," his father's voice boomed from a chamber below. Reverberations settled in a long pause. "Sometimes knowing doesn't fix things."

Another nonanswer, fit for a child. Caiden gripped a wrench and stared at old wall dents where his frustration had escaped him before. Over time, fatigue dulled that anger. Maybe that was what had robbed his father of questions and answers.

But his friend Leta often said the same thing: "You can't fix everything, Caiden."

I can try.

He found his missing bolts at the back of the port, scattered and rolled into corners. He gathered them up and slapped faceplates into position, wrenching them down tighter than needed.

The adults always said, "This is the way things have always been - nothing's broken."

But it stayed that way because no one tried anything different.

Leta had confided in a nervous whisper, "Different is why I'll fail Appraisal." If she could fail and be rejected simply because her mind worked differently, the whole system was broken.

The aerator's oscillating unit was defaced with Caiden's labels and drawings where he'd transformed the bulbous foreign script into imagery or figures. Recent, neatly printed labels stood out beside his younger marks. He hesitated at a pasted-up photo he'd nicked from the Stricture: a foreign landscape with straight trees and intertwined branches. White rocks punctured bluish sand, with pools of water clearer than the ocean he'd once seen. It was beautiful - the place his parents would be retired to when he replaced them. Part of the way things had always been.

"Yes, stop everything." His mother was speaking to his father, and her voice echoed from below, muffled and rounded by the tube. She never visited during work. "Stop, they said. No more repairs."

His father responded, unintelligible through layers of metal.

"I don't know," she replied. "The overseers ordered everyone to gather at the Flat Docks. Caiden!"

He wriggled out of the port. His mother stood below with her arms crossed, swaying nervous as a willow. She was never nervous.

"Down here, hon." She squinted up at him. "And don't - Caiden!"

He slid halfway down the aerator's side and grabbed a seam to catch his fall. The edge under his fingers was shiny from years of the same maneuver. Dangling, smiling, he swung to perch on the front ledge, then frowned at his mother's flinty expression. Her eyes weren't on him anymore. Her lips moved in a whisper of quick, whipping words that meant trouble.

Caiden jumped the last couple meters to the ground.

"We have to go." She gripped a handful of his jacket and laid her other hand gently on his shoulder, marshaling him forward with these two conflicting holds. His father followed, wiping soot and worry from his brow.

"Are they sending help?" Caiden squirmed free. His mother tangled her fingers in his as they crossed a causeway between green pastures to a small door in the compound's side. "New animals?"

"Have to neutralize the disease first," his father said.

"A vaccine?" His mother squeezed his hand.

Outside the compound, field vehicles lay abandoned, others jammed around one of the Flat Docks a kilometer away. Crowds streamed to it from other compounds along the road grid, looking like fuel lines in an engine diagram. Movement at farther Docks suggested the order had reached everywhere.

"Stay close." His mother tugged him against her side as they amalgamated into a throng of thousands. Caiden had never seen so many people all together. They dressed in color and style according to their determinations, but otherwise the mob was a mix of shapes, sizes, and colors of people with only the brands on the back of their necks alike. It was clear from the murmurs that no one knew what was going on. This was not "the way things have always been." Worst fears and greatest hopes floated by in whispers like windy grass as Caiden squeezed to the edge of the Flat Docks' huge metal plate.

It lay empty, the guardrails up, the crowds bordered around. Only seven aerators in their sector still trickled. Others much farther away had stopped entirely. There should have been hundreds feeding the gray overhead, which now looked the palest ever.

Caiden said, "We'll be out of time to get the aerators running before the vapor's gone."

"I know ..." His father's expression furrowed. The grime on his face couldn't hide suspicion, and his mother's smile couldn't hide her fear. She always had a solution, a stalwart mood, and an answer for Caiden even if it was "Carry on." Now: only wariness.

If everyone's here, then - " Leta."

"She'll be with her own parental unit," his father said.

"Yeah, but - " They weren't kind.

"Caiden!"

He dashed off, ducking the elbows and shoulders of the mob. The children were smothered among the taller bodies, impossible to distinguish. His quick mind sorted through the work rotations, the direction they came from - everyone would have walked straight from their dropped tasks, at predictable speed. He veered and slowed, gaze saccading across familiar faces in the community.

A flicker of bright bluish-purple.

Chicory flowers.

Caiden barked apologies as he shouldered toward the color, lost among tan clothes and oak-dark jerkins. Then he spotted Leta's fawn waves, and swung his arms out to make room in the crowd, as if parting tall grass around a flower. "Hey, there you are."

Leta peered up with dewy hazel eyes. "Cai." She breathed relief. Her knuckles were white around a cluster of chicory, her right arm spasming, a sign of her losing the battle against overstimulation.

Leta's parental unit wasn't in sight, neglectful as ever, and she was winded, rushed from some job or forgotten altogether. Oversized non-determination garments hung off one shoulder, covered her palms, tripped her heels. She crushed herself against Caiden's arm and hugged it fiercely. "It's what the older kids say. The ones who don't pass Appraisal're sent away, like the bovine yearlings."

"Don't be silly, they would have called just the children then, not everyone. And you haven't been appraised yet, anyway."

But she was ten, it was soon. The empathy, sensitivity, and logic that could qualify her as a sublime clinician also crippled her everyday life as the callous people around her set her up to fail. Caiden hugged her, careful of the bruises peeking over her shoulder and forearm, the sight of them igniting a well-worn urge to protect.

"I've got you," he said, and pulled out twigs and leaves stuck in her hair. Her whole right side convulsed softly. The crowds, noise, and light washed a blankness into her face, meaning something in her was shutting down. "You're safe."

Caiden took her hand - firmly, grounding - and backtracked through the crowd to the Flat Dock edge.

The anxious look on his mother's face was layered with disapproval, but his father smiled in relief. Leta clutched Caiden's right hand in both of hers. His mother took his left.

"The overseers just said gather and wait?" he asked his father.

"Someday you'll learn patience."

Shuffles and gasps rippled through the assembly.

Caiden followed their gazes up. Clouds thinned in a gigantic circle. The air everywhere brightened across the crowds more intensely than the compounds' lights had ever lit the bovines.

A hole burned open overhead and shot a column of blinding white onto the Flat Docks. Shouts and sobs erupted. Caiden stared through the blur of his eyelashes as the light column widened until the entire plate burned white. In distant sectors, the same beams emerged through the gray.

He smashed his mother's hand in a vise grip. She squeezed back.

A massive square descended, black as a ceiling, flickering out the light. The angular mass stretched fifty meters wide on all sides, made of the same irregular panels as the aerators. With a roar, it moved slowly, impossibly, nothing connecting it to the ground.

"I've never ..." His mother's whisper died and her mouth hung open.

Someone said, "It's like the threshers, but ..."

Massive. Caiden imagined thresher blades peeling out of the hull, descending to mow the crowds.

The thing landed on the Flat Docks' plate with a rumble that juddered up Caiden's soles through his bones.

A fresh bloom of brightness gnawed at the gray above, and beyond that widening hole hung the colors and shapes of unmoving fire. Caiden stood speechless, blinded by afterimage. Leta gaped at the black mass that had landed, and made her voice work enough to whisper, "What is it?"

Caiden forced his face to soften, to smile. "More livestock maybe? Isn't this exciting?" Stupid thing to say. He shut up before his voice quavered.

"This isn't adventure, Caiden," Leta muttered. "Not like sneaking to the ocean - this is different."

"Different how?"

"The adults. This isn't how it's done."

Caiden attempted to turn his shaking into a chuckle. "The bovine all dead is a new problem. Everything's new now."

The crowd's babble quieted to a hiss of fear, the tension strummed. A grinding roar pummeled the air as the front side of the angular mass slid upward from the base, and two tall figures emerged from the horizontal opening.

"Overseers!" someone shouted. The word repeated, carried with relief and joy through the crowd.

Caiden's eyes widened. Both overseers were human-shaped, one tall and bulky, the other short and slim, and as he remembered from his Appraisal, they were suited from head to toe with plates of metal and straps and a variety of things he couldn't make out: spikes and ribbons, tools, wires, and blocks of white writing like inside the aerators. They wore blue metal plates over their faces, with long slits for eyes and nostrils, holes peppering the place where their mouths would be. Besides their build, they resembled each other exactly, and could be anything beneath their clothes.

"See, it's fine." Caiden forced himself to exhale. "Right, Ma?"

His mother nodded slow, confused.

"People," the shorter overseer said in a muffled yet amplified voice.

The crowd hushed, rapt, with stressed breaths filling the quiet. Caiden's heart hammered, pulse noosing his neck.

"You will be transported to a clean place," the other overseer said in a husky voice amplified the same way. The crowd rippled his words to the back ranks.

"With new livestock," the first added with a funny lilt on the final word.

"Come aboard. Slow, orderly." The overseers each moved to a side of the open door, framing the void. "Leave your belongings. Everyone will be provided for."

Caiden glanced at Leta. "See? New animals."

She didn't seem to hear, shut down by the sights and sounds. He let her cling to him as his father herded them both forward.

Caiden asked, "Where could we go that doesn't have infected soil? Up, past the gray?"

"Stay close." His father's voice was tight. "Maybe they discovered clean land past the ocean."

They approached the hollow interior - metallic, dank, and lightless - with a quiet throng pouring in, shoulder to shoulder like the bovines had when squeezed from one pasture to another. Caiden observed the closest overseer. Scratches and holes scarred their mismatched metal clothes, decorated in strange scripts. Their hand rested on a long tool at their hip, resembling the livestock prods but double-railed.

Caiden's father guided him inside and against a wall, where his mother wrapped him and Leta in her strong arms and the mob crammed tight, drowning them in heat and odor.

"Try to keep still." The overseer's words resonated inside.

A roar thrummed to life, and the door descended, squeezing out the orange light. The two overseers remained outside.

Thunder cracked underfoot. Metal bellowed like a thousand animals crying at once. Human wails cut through and the floor shuddered in lurches, forcing Caiden to widen his stance to stay upright. His mother's arms clamped around him.

Children sobbed. Consoling parents hissed in the darkness. Leta remained deathly silent in Caiden's firm grasp, but tremors crashed in her body, nervous system rebelling. He drew her closer.

"Be still, hon." His mother's voice quavered.

She covered his ears with clammy hands and muffled the deafening roar to a thick howl. The rumble infiltrated his bones, deeper-toned than he'd thought any machine could sound.

Are we going up into that fire-sky, or into the ground, where the livestock went?

The inside of machines usually comforted him. There was safety in their hard shell, and no question to their functioning, but this one stank of tangy fear, had no direction, and his mother's shaking leached into his back as he curled around Leta's trembling in front. He buried his nose in a greasy sleeve and inhaled, tasting the fumes of the gray. His mother's hands over his ears thankfully deadened the sobs.

"Soon," she cooed. "I'm sure we'll be there soon."

CHAPTER 2

FEED THE BEASTS

The box roared for hours. The standing masses sat to rest shaken bones and cramped muscles. Bodies packed tight: sniffling kids, wailing infants, muttering women, swearing men. Arguments surged and faded. The sweltering hollow stank of sweat.

Caiden - numb from vibration, bruised from sheltering Leta - hugged his insensate legs and stayed alert. He could hardly see anyone in the dark.

But he could smell them. All of them.

Leta balled up next to him and clutched his arm like a buoy amidst the sensory chaos. Exhaustion towed her to sleep, while Caiden, twisted up, stayed still for her despite darting cramps.

His mother depleted weary tears, and her hands found him again, wiping the sweat off his forehead back through his hair. She kissed the top of his head. "Hopefully not long," she whispered, hot by his ear. "Soon. Imagine where we could be going. Green, do you think?"

Caiden recalled his picture in the aerator. Crystalline water. Knotted trees. Sand. "Maybe the place everyone gets retired to?" His hoarse voice broke, hardly cutting the roar.

"Maybe ..."

His only way of marking time was stiffness and pain. He itched to get up and move, but his mother's arms belted him and Leta. "Soon," she whispered drowsily, until the word lost meaning.

There was no way to mark travel distance at all, and Caiden began to wonder if the box hadn't moved. "They wouldn't let us suffocate, would they?"

"No, sweetie, they need us. Who else will care for the animals?"

The animals are dead.

He shifted to rest his head on his other knee. Leta woke, wrung dry of tears. Caiden tilted his shoulder to make a better pillow for her, and winced as the cramp shot through fresh bruises.

Leta pulled away. "You're hurting yourself."

"I don't mind." His spirits lifted at having a job to do still. The crowded bodies, stench, and noise were unbearable for him, he couldn't imagine how they destroyed Leta's delicate senses. Her ribs quivered with each inhale, her body stiff. The best Caiden could do was squeeze her tightly, his pressure a comfort.

"Soon." His mother petted Leta's forehead. "Soon." She muttered until the words merged into a constant, sibilant stream escaping her lips, "Soon, soon, soon ..."

A new stench emerged, worse than the carcasses. Defecation. Urine. The real smell of fear. One person started ranting, many joined, escalating to shouts. The overseers, some said, were taking them to new land, or were cleansing the old and they'd be released into fresh pastures, clean soil, sweet air. We're doomed, others declared, we're in here to die like the livestock, dropped under the Flat Docks.

Leta nuzzled deeper into the crook of Caiden's shoulder and he shifted, enduring torrents of pain. He said, "We'll get out."

"Soon." His mother completed his sentence with the hated word. "Soon, soon." She rocked back and forth, trapping them in monotony until Caiden's father pulled her away, hushing the fear that leaked out of her, the dead promise, soon.

The wails and sobbing lessened as voices grew hoarse, breaths labored and rationed. Puke ripened the muggy air more. Caiden fought back gags, suffocated in a soup of human reek.

Then the roar cut off abruptly.

The vibrations supporting his body vanished, leaving him empty, electric, a wisp. He hugged Leta, then rattled to his feet with everyone else.

A blade of light sliced the darkness, lancing his eyes and skull with fresh pain. The door howled upward and he squinted against radiance vibrating between his eyelashes, edged in every color.

The people closest to the door stood stunned, and the shoving began from the back, rolling into a stampede to the white slit of the exit. A new roar swelled: relief and cries and maddened feet. Twiggy silhouettes careened into the blinding light and disappeared. Caiden's parents struggled as the tide battered them toward the door.

His mother pressed him to the wall and shouted at him to stay out of the masses, then she and his father were lost in the chaos of flailing hands, screeching faces, twisting cloth. Children were trampled, yanked up, shoved. Big men waded forward. Slender women wedged through.

Caiden shielded Leta with his back as he inched along the wall to the farthest corner while the crowd drained into the light.

"You're safe." Caiden made her sit. His heart wrenched as he finally saw her face, wan and bruised, hair plastered to her cheeks with sweat and tears. In her wide eyes, something was shattering, something the travel hadn't already broken. "Everyone's just excited to be out, somewhere fresh, yeah? Stay here, really quiet. I'll come back for you."

His words were whittled frail by his own fear. Speech had left Leta, but she shook her head in protest.

"It'll be calmer here. Close your eyes? Cover your ears. It's all right to shut down." Caiden folded her gently into the corner. "Stay here until I come back?"

Leta nodded, managing a ghost of a smile, and a last tear trickled down one cheek as she closed her eyes tight.

"Brave of you." Something unhitched in Caiden's chest, soothed by the promise that formed a lifeline between them, keeping them connected even as he pivoted and rushed to the light.

"Ma!" The shout chafed his throat, lost in the din. He reentered the stampede and washed up through the blazing opening. Body-slammed by someone, he stumbled to the side of the pouring crowds and fell on sand. Cold sand. He gasped fresh air.

"Up, hon!" His mother shouted by his ear and yanked him to his feet.

Brilliance surged in his head, throbbing with blobs of afterimage. Sand stretched endlessly, studded in rock like scabbed skin. Caiden's head rolled back in shock. The sky was black. The ground and air glowed enough to see, but the sky was black. He'd never seen such a thing; the aerated gray of home had darkened in cycles but never like this. Grains of white speckled it, blurring into streaks as his mother pulled him from the stampede.

"Where are we?" Caiden yelled.

Bodies scattered from the dark transport cube like swarms of stirred insects. Shrieks severed the air and riveted Caiden in place, the raw pitches braiding into a chorus of terror.

Then he saw why. Russet creatures charged through the fleeing throngs. They were at least a meter high, four-legged, stocky and muscular. They leapt on runners and tore, crushed, gnawed. Blood sprayed. Caiden gagged, his stomach heaving with terror.

"Move!" his father bellowed, rushing over to shove them both.

His mother's face was flushed and fierce. She took fistfuls of Caiden, spinning him around.

Caiden's thoughts stuck as his heavy feet slogged into the horror. One of the beasts charged at his side, claws tearing up sand.

"Run!" His father's face shot past. Eyes bloodshot. Mouth wide, screaming.

Caiden's mother thrust him into a sprint. She shrieked his name, hands steering him. He gripped her arm and tried to run on sand slipping beneath his feet.

He swiveled his head back but his father wasn't behind them. Beasts mowed the crowd with giant paws and dagger nails. They snarled at one another and tumbled together on the sand, crushing already mangled bodies.

"The rock!" his mother said, hauling him with her. "Quick!"

Ache stitched Caiden's side. The knot in his stomach rolled up, and he retched, stumbling. He glimpsed a beast in pursuit, its eyes flashing white. Terror balled up but his mother's scream spurred him. He scrambled up and she drove him to a slanted rock just wide enough to squeeze under.

"Get in, in!" Face hard with focus, she jammed him under the ledge, strong arms shoving him as far as she could. Caiden groped handfuls of sand until he latched on to rock and pulled himself deep inside. He tugged his mother's hands but they skated from his, palms slick. "Ma!" he shrieked.

A beast crashed her against the rock. The thud echoed in Caiden's chest.

A wild scream gushed from him as she hit the ground in a spray of sand beneath muscles and jaws that filled the view from under the rock. Each bite was a yanking, crunching tear.

Copyright © 2020 by Essa Hansen


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