Home > Secondborn (Secondborn #1)(9)

Secondborn (Secondborn #1)(9)
Author: Amy A. Bartol

He looks up at the ceiling. “What would be the point?” He turns to me with an incredulous look. “Pleasure, Roselle. Pleasure is the point. We both take a pill before the date starts so there’s no chance of offspring.”

“So you pay for the privilege of having a . . .”

“The word you’re looking for is girlfriend, and no, no one gets a girlfriend. We aren’t allowed to have an ongoing relationship. The next time I have a date, it will be with someone new.”

I want desperately to change the subject. “Have they located any of the Gates of Dawn soldiers? There was one soldier with a night-sky visor. It had a swirling black hole on it”—I drag my hand in front of my face from my forehead to my chin—“here. He confronted my hover.” My cheeks are on fire, and I want to slap the arrogant grin off Hawthorne’s face.

“I don’t know. No one is speaking to me at the moment.” He taps the ear of his headset.

“How do we find out?” I try to wipe dust off my sleeve, anything not to have to meet his eyes.

“I’ll probably be briefed on the status of the investigation later. You, more than likely, will be questioned for what you know about the attack. What do you know?”

“I saw the first soldier not too far from the Heritage Building.”

“But the attack happened farther from there. Why didn’t you alert someone to their presence sooner?” His cocky smile has evaporated.

“I wasn’t sure what I saw.”

His eyes dart around to see if we’re being observed. He covers the microphone of his headset. “Don’t tell anyone what you just told me,” he whispers.

“Why? He had a golden sun mask—”

He hushes me, looking over his shoulder before turning back to me. “You didn’t report the soldier immediately. It could be seen as aiding the enemy.”

My voice drops several octaves. “I was confused. I’d just left my home—it was traumatic—I wasn’t thinking.”

He reaches out and touches my wrist. “I know what that moment is like—when you realize you’ll never see home again.” He stares into my eyes, and I see my pain reflected back at me. “But you can’t tell them anything about that soldier. Just start at the point you were attacked. Trust me. I’m trying to protect you. Do you understand?” I nod. “Good.” He drops his hand from the microphone.

Hawthorne continues to watch me with worry in his eyes. Our troopship descends in a rush of speed that makes my stomach flip. It touches down in the middle of an airship pad on the outskirts of a military Base. The door of our aircraft opens, exposing us to an overcast sky. Tall, gray pillars rise up from the ground in front of us like tree trunks in a stone forest, tapering the higher they go into the clouds. Each must be a few city blocks in diameter. Docked to each structure’s tree branches are kidney-shaped airships, each large enough to harbor a few thousand troops. They’re mobile barracks designed with sleeping quarters, mess hall, and training facilities that can also airlift troops to war zones and other military Bases. Assessing the stone forest of ships, I see there must be hundreds of thousands of soldiers at this Base alone.

Hawthorne rises from his seat. He takes the warming pack from my hands and disposes of it in a bin. “C’mon.” He waits for me to stand. “I’ll get you where you need to be.” Holding his rifle close to his body with the muzzle pointed at the ground, he gazes around at the Base outside before exiting the aircraft. I follow him.

“Why didn’t we just dock in there?” I ask. “It looks as if the grounds surrounding the Base have been cleared.”

“You’re not allowed in there until you’re processed. They try to make it appear as if you’re being indoctrinated into a secret society of knights.”

“And you don’t believe that?” I study his profile as I walk beside him.

Hawthorne scowls. “I know what’s on the other side of the wall now, Roselle.” When he was brought here and processed at the age of ten, he probably believed he was here for a noble cause.

“Do you think I’ll still have to give my speech?”

Hawthorne looks up and frowns. The air is filled with troopships launching from their docks on the stone Trees. They resemble falling half-moon leaves being torn by the wind into the sky. “I think your press conference is canceled. There are no drone cameras here, and I’ve never seen so many air-barracks mobilize at once. They must be mounting a retaliatory strike. I’ve never seen the grounds empty like this before either—especially not on Transition Day. It’s as if we’re the only ones out here.”

“What’s it normally like?” I ask.

“Usually there are thousands of children lined up waiting to be processed. Some are crying, too young to be separated from the only home they’ve ever known. But some are ready—maybe they hope to fit in here like they never did with their families.”

“Were you the former or the latter?” I ask softly.

“The latter.” We cross the landing pad to a wide paved path that leads to an ebony wall that surrounds the gigantic forest. I have to crane my neck back to see the top. Set in the center of the wall is a gate comprised of three golden metal broadswords at least as large as five-story buildings. The center sword is ancient in design, from an era before fusion was reality. It’s taller than the two that flank it by a story. Mystical gates to an enchanted forest, I think.

Hawthorne pauses by one of the armed soldiers stationed along the walkway. “Chet?” He offers the soldier a small white stamp wrapped in cellophane from his pocket.

The soldier looks around as if to check whether anyone is watching. “Thanks.” He casually takes the offered stamp and shoves it inside a compartment on his gun belt. Scanning the grounds, Hawthorne asks him, “Where are all the Transition candidates?”

“Gone. We turned them away. No one gets inside the walls today except the secondborn Sword—orders from The Sword.”

“Why just her?” Hawthorne frowns at me.

“They’re worried about vetting. Monikers were coming up mysteriously inoperable. It’s making everyone nervous. We can’t vet candidates, so we can’t take them. Anyone could show up at our gate saying he was a Sword. No one can verify it if the identifier isn’t working. It’s a Census problem now.”

Hawthorne nods his head, looking on edge himself. “Thanks.” He resumes walking.

“What’s a chet?” I ask, following him.

“It’s for when you need to relax and you can’t. You put it in your mouth, let it melt on your tongue, and everything is okay.”

“You mean it’s a drug?” I frown at him.

“No, it’s a chet—it’s not addictive like a drug, and don’t look so condescending. There may come a day when you need one. If you don’t, then you can count yourself lucky and just use them for getting other things you want.”

“Like information?”

“Yeah, like that.”

The closer we get to the wall, the more defensive features I recognize. An iridescent shield ripples over the surface of the dark wall that surrounds the Base. The shield is more than likely fusion-powered. I cringe. This defense is useless against an FSP. “Are all our fortifications fusion-powered?” I ask.

Hawthorne pauses, turning to look at me. “Why do you ask?”

“Are they?”

“Most.”

“Can they be converted to another energy source? Say—hydrogen cells?”

“Why would we do that? Hydrogen has less than a tenth of the capacity and life that fusion has.”

Suddenly a drawbridge opens ahead of us. It drops from the center of the tallest sword before the Golden Circle inlaid on the ground. Sword soldiers on the other side of the threshold draw their fusion-powered rifles on us.

We enter the beautiful Golden Circle in front of the doors. In the center, an ancient broadsword rises from the ground. Hawthorne removes his black glove, exposing his moniker. He holds it to the golden light of the sword’s hilt. It scans his silver sword-shaped moniker. A holographic image of Hawthorne projects from atop the hilt of the golden sword, detailing his unit, rank, and other information in flashing readouts. “Handsome devil, isn’t he?” Hawthorne whispers.

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