Read Among the Nameless Stars Online

Authors: Diana Peterfreund

Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Dystopian, #90 Minutes (44-64 Pages)

Among the Nameless Stars

Among the Nameless Stars
by Diana Peterfreund

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One

The first week was the hardest.

Kai’s fingers would itch for a paper glider to write down everything he saw and share it with Elliot, just as they always had. The ruins, sprawling and dangerous but utterly empty, even of other travelers. He’d heard that, at its height, the city had been home to a million people. And now there was nothing. By the second week of his journey, Kai had grown used to his solitude, though he still caught himself composing letters in his head.

Dear Elliot,

This morning, the sky was clear and I got my first glimpse of the volcano. It was just like the
pictures in books: an enormous red cone pointing at the sky.

He was a good paragraph in before he realized what he was doing and stopped himself. He’d sworn he’d never write her. Never. If she wasn’t coming with him, she didn’t deserve to know what he saw.

Most Luddites who traveled south of the ruins took horses and the ferry, but that was only an option if you could pay the toll. For everyone else, it was the treacherous fire fields, the sinkholes and geysers, ash pits and crevasses. Even before the wars, the fire fields had been dangerous, desolate, reserved for wilderness lovers who somehow took joy in walking through a burned-out, lava-ridden desert. Now the geologic instability wrought by the wars had turned this entire swath of the island into a ticking time bomb. No one knew when the next eruption would
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scald the landscape clean. Kai spent several days scrambling through the scree, searching for paths—or at least what he hoped were paths and not just trails carved by flash floods or lava flows. He’d come prepared for this, though, knowing that the fire fields would offer him no water to refill his canteen or shelter from the wind and the sun.

One day, at twilight, he heard the sound of hoofbeats. Two men on impossibly large horses, bearing down on him at full gallop. He stepped off the path to let them by, but they veered in his direction. He scooted farther off the raised shoulder of the road, and in the fading light, he could barely see them signal to each other, angling their horses to surround him. One began to swing a long piece of rope with weights on the ends over his head. A bola.

Later, Kai would say this moment—the split second before he realized that the horsemen were chasing
him
—was when he truly became a free Post. Before, it had meant getting out from under the command of Baron North. But as he spun around and started running, Kai realized the truth. He was also free of the Norths’ protection.

That night, he ran faster than he’d thought was possible for humans since the Reduction. But even as he sprinted from the horses, he knew it was pointless. The fire fields offered no ground cover and no trees to climb or caves to hide in. And as slippery as the scree might be for those beasts coming after him, it wasn’t easy on his feet either. He hit a patch wrong and went sprawling.

The bola flew over his head, its weighted tentacles twirling. Had he been upright, it would have wrapped around his throat. But Kai had no chance to feel relief, as the horses were nearly on top of him. One horse reared to a stop in front of him as he scrambled to his feet. He heard the other rider’s feet crunch on the gravel at his back. Kai shot to the left, and the men started running, so he cut right, past the horse—and into nothingness.

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by Diana Peterfreund

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He fell hard against the slope. Pain tore his knee in two, and he raised his hand to protect his head as he rolled, tumbled, rolled, then fell again.

After what may have been a minute, or maybe endless hours, he came to rest on the bottom of the ravine, battered and bloody. He couldn’t rise if he wanted. From far away, he heard the men’s voices.

“Is he dead?”

“Don’t matter. He’s useless now. I’m not hauling him up that scree in the dark just to find every bone in his body broken.”

Kai didn’t move until he was sure they were gone. He wasn’t entirely sure he could. At last, when he could stand his twisted position no more, he dragged himself into the paltry shadow of a rock. With shaking hands, he evaluated his injuries. They were numerous, and serious, and he was trapped at the bottom of a ravine in the fire fields, all alone.

By the next morning, Kai had grown worried. The pain in his leg had mutated in the night, growing from sharp and stinging into a blunt and bitter agony. His head had stopped bleeding, as had the cuts and scrapes on his arms. He had deep gashes on his hands, at least one broken finger, and a few cracked ribs, but they concerned him less at this moment. Who needed fingers if you were going to die at the bottom of a fire field canyon? He had no material for a splint or a crutch, and crawling only netted him a few meters out of the ravine, even after hours of fighting the slide of dust and gravel.

The next day, he felt no better. He also ran out of water. That night, he had fever dreams.

Dreams where Elliot came to him, and laid a cool hand on his burning face, and gave him water to drink, and kissed his battered face, and let the ends of her silky dark hair brush over his dusty skin. He reached for her with broken, bloody fingers, but she slipped through his hands like mist.

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by Diana Peterfreund

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He’d left her there, on the North Estate. He’d gotten her letter, and instead of storming her big fancy house, instead of barging through the rooms he’d never walked through, breaking down the door he’d never seen, marching into the bedroom he’d never entered, and demanding the answers he needed, he’d turned his back on her—on the only friend he’d ever had—and walked away from everything he’d ever known. He’d walked away from Elliot.

And now he’d never see her again.

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by Diana Peterfreund

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Two

To Elliot North of the North Estate,

Dear Elliot,

If you’re reading this, it means I’m dead. I’m sorry. I left for a better life, but now it turns out
I’ll have no life at all. I’m glad, now, that you aren’t here. I’m glad that you haven’t been
dragged with me to the bottom of this awful ravine. I’m glad that I don’t have to look you in
the eyes when it turns out all your fears were well-founded.

I hope this letter will somehow find its way back to you. I hope you know that I’ve always
lo—

“You there!”

Kai looked up from the page toward the lip of the ravine. There, silhouetted against the sun, stood a man leading a mule.

“You write?”

That was not what he’d expected the man to say.

Kai raised his hand weakly. “Please,” he begged. “Help me.” Kai didn’t care if this man was another kidnapper. Better to be enslaved than die here. He’d been born a slave. It didn’t have to be permanent.

The man half walked, half slid down the scree, and when he got to the bottom, he remained a few feet away from Kai, his expression at once wary and calculating. “You look terrible.”

“Please,” Kai said. “I’ve hurt my leg. I can’t move. Can you help me?”

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“Might.” The guy jerked his chin at the page in Kai’s hand. “That real writing?”

Kai nodded, baffled. The guy leaned over and picked up Kai’s knapsack, then slipped his hands under Kai’s arms and hauled him to his feet. They made their slow, huffing way up the side of the ravine, and then the man threw him like a sack of grain on the back of the mule.

“Thought you was Reduced at first, looking so beat-up,” the man said. “They come out here sometimes, wandering away to die like animals.”

Kai wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “My name’s Kai.”

The man grunted. “Teb.” He said nothing else, and Kai did his best to stay upright and conscious as the man led him into who knows what.

Eventually, they reached a shabby gathering of mud huts. Kai collapsed off the side of the mule. Before him, in the dust, squatted a girl about his age. She was wearing a shapeless gray sack and nursing the scrawniest baby he’d ever seen. There were a few other children around, all skinny as sticks and covered in dirt.

“What’s this, Teb?” she asked his savior. “We don’t need no more bellies ’round here.”

“He writes,” Teb mumbled as he took the rest of the packages off the mule.

The girl raised her eyebrows. “For real? Get Jin.” She motioned toward one of the dusty children. “Get this man some water, now, you hear me?”

Kai gratefully accepted the water, and tried to keep his eyes averted from the girl’s bare breasts. She finished feeding the baby, handed it off to one of the other children, and covered herself up. Then she sat back in the dirt, watching him warily.

“How do you know writing?” she asked. “You Luddite?”

“No,” Kai croaked. “I’m Post. My da taught me—”

The girl nodded in understanding. “Ah, your da’s Luddite.”

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Kai didn’t have the energy to disagree with her. The girl seemed to take such relationships for granted, but Kai had ever known only one Luddite who loved a Post. And in the end, love hadn’t been enough for Elliot.

“I’m from the North Estate, originally,” Kai offered.

She blinked at him.

“It’s north of here, beyond the ruins. By the sea.”

“Must be bad there, for you to leave.”

Kai looked around, at the huts, at the bare, rocky earth with no gardens or even grass for the children to play on, at the skinny, illiterate people living here, and said nothing.

Teb returned, bringing with him a woman Kai thought at first must be ancient, due to her weathered face and white hair, but when she came closer, he realized that beneath the creases and the dirt, she was probably closer to forty.

“You Kai? You read?” This must be the promised Jin. She thrust a packet of paper into his hands. “Read this.”

Every one of these odd, dusty Posts had stopped what they were doing and were staring at him. He shifted slightly, and his leg cried out in agony.

“I’ll read it,” he said slowly. “But if I do, you have to help me. I hurt my leg and can’t walk. I need a healer.”

“I can fix you,” said Jin. “But I can’t read. Please, we’ve had the letter for a month. It’s about my son.” She pointed at the words. “That’s him. S-I-D.”

The envelope was labeled:
To Jin, mother of Sid, Miner Estate, Fire Fields.

Kai unfolded the envelope and scanned the letter. He looked up at the woman. “You want me to read this out loud? Here?”

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The woman’s face turned to stone, as if she knew already what the letter contained. “Please,”

she whispered. So Kai read:

Dear Madam,

My name is Bess, and I’m a Post in Channel City. Your son Sid and me worked together on
the docks, Sid mostly digging, me cleaning fish when I couldn’t get any scribe work.

I am sorry to inform you, but last night, Sid was killed in a fight with a Post named Pen. Pen
is a very powerful man here in the enclave. He has a lot of workers of his own, Post though
he may be, and he don’t take kindly to refusals. Sid and me, we refused him.

I’m so sorry to deliver such bad news, madam, but I’m sorrier still for what I write next. Pen
is still after me, and I don’t have anyone here to protect me from him, so I’m going back
home. My old estate is in the South Island, at a place called Mountain Pass. It’s not horrible
there, and I know at least I’ll be safe. I don’t think there’s much of a chance that you or any
of Sid’s people will ever be down that far, but if you are, and if everything goes well, you’ll
have a grandchild at Mountain Pass Estate. If it’s a boy, I’ll name him Sid.

Fare well,

Bess

Jin nodded brusquely and took the paper back. She cradled it in her hands, like something sacred, then turned to Teb. “Get him in my hut, and find me a stick to use for a splint.” She looked down at Kai. “Thank you, boy. I’ll make sure the rest of your journey south’s as safe as can be.”

“Ma’am,” he said, and laid his hand on her wrist. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

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She jerked away from him, her face like rock. “Well. That’s what happens when you leave your estate.”

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Three

Dear Elliot,

Today I leave the fire fields. Once, I thought nothing was more unbearable than those nights
alone in the barn, with you just across the fields in the big house. Once, I thought I’d never
survive another night on the North Estate.

But now I know how much worse it can get. Now I know what it’s like to really face death.

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