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 (3 page)

Or maybe he’d send her something in the most unflattering shade ever, just to spite her.

That’s what you get, Elliot, for abandoning me.

Of all the wonders of the Post enclave, the oddest of all, and the one that took Kai the longest to adjust to, was the lack of Reduced. Where he’d grown up, on the North Estate, Luddites and Posts together were completely outnumbered by the Reduced labor force. Not a day in his life had passed without seeing them around, mute and simple and helpless. Broken inside, for all that they looked like normal humans. Now that he was in Channel City, Kai had to rid himself of the habit of assuming everyone he saw was Reduced. People took offense if you made any of the Reduced hand signs at them, but after a lifetime of doing so, he often had to clench his hands at his sides to keep from making them as he first spoke.

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But there were no Reduced in Channel City. He supposed here, where all the Posts had escaped to live, it was just as easy to hire Posts for scant pay as it was to keep a Reduced decently clothed, fed, and sheltered. If a Reduced servant had a baby, its master was obliged to care for it, but if a hired Post servant had a baby, well, that was the Post’s own responsibility.

So many Posts had migrated here, hoping for something better than they’d had back on their estates. How many found it? Some, of course, had come from appalling places like the Miner Estate. But Kai had always had enough to eat growing up. He’d always had clothes on his back and a warm place to sleep. His father had taught him to read, and Elliot, the lord’s daughter herself, had given him books. Elliot had been his friend. A month ago, they’d imagined living here together.

Now, he couldn’t picture it. Elliot, living in a single room that smelled of fish? Elliot, eating nothing but bread and bean butter, and cheese if they could get it? Elliot helping him limp up and down the streets and the stairs to their tiny flat—tinier even than the loft above the North barn?

Elliot, in the same dress, day after day, working for ten hours sewing clothes like the girls in Bartholomew’s shop? Elliot, with no servants and no family and no one even knowing that her father owned half the farmable land north of the ruins? No, it was impossible. She never would have fit in here.

Kai told no one in his new life about the Luddite girl he’d once loved more than any other person in the world. No one would believe it anyway.

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Five

Dear Elliot,

I thought I’d left you behind me. I haven’t written you a letter, even in my head, in months.

But I don’t know what else to do. I’m afraid, and I have no one to turn to. Maybe writing it
down will help me. Even if you aren’t ever going to read this, thinking that we’re still in it
together, figuring out solutions—maybe that will be enough.

It had started when Kai was working on some improvements to the loom and was heading out on his lunch break. When he came into the front part of the shop, he saw a strange man in the center of the room, arms crossed over his chest as he surveyed all the workers. Bartholomew, standing behind the counter almost as if it was a shield, glanced in Kai’s direction and gave a quick, almost imperceptible shake of his head.

“Who’s this?” the stranger asked.

“New sweeper,” Bartholomew mumbled. “Pretty lazy, actually.”

The man snorted. “Lazy, huh? Don’t oversell him.” He beckoned to Kai. “Come here, boy.”

Kai stepped forward, but remained out of the man’s arm span. He didn’t like the way he was standing, didn’t like the way every worker in the shop was keeping one scared eye on him. It reminded Kai of how the Reduced acted whenever Baron North was close, how the chickens in the barnyard behaved whenever the cat came near.

“Name’s Pen,” said the man. “Heard of me?”

As it happened, Kai had. He nodded.

“What’s your name?”

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“Kai.”

“And you’re a sweeper here? On your feet all day with that leg?”

Kai looked at Bartholomew. There was a reason his employer had lied about him to Pen, and Kai was pretty sure he knew what it was. “Yes.”

The bigger man leaned forward, letting his gaze drop to the oil still smeared on Kai’s knuckles. “That’s not what I heard.”

Kai remained silent. The man rocked back on his heels.

“I heard the gimp working here’s a mechanic. Pretty good one, too. Not … lazy at all. And that’s what I like to see in my workers. I’m down on the docks. Some of my people seen you coming and going. Got a room down there?”

Carolina let out a strangled squeak, but Kai saw the trap for what it was. There was no point lying to this man. He already knew everything. Lying was only going to make this situation worse.

“Yes I do. And I am a mechanic, of sorts.”

“Want a better job?”

Kai stared into Pen’s mean little eyes and remembered Bess’s letter to Jin.

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.

“What kind of job?”

“A job with me. I’ll pay whatever Bart here’s been giving you.”

“Then what is the benefit of me moving?”

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Pen’s voice dropped low, and he stretched out his neck toward Kai. “The benefit, boy, would be you’re working for
me
.”

Kai highly doubted that would be a better situation. “I’ll have to think about it.”

“No you don’t,” Pen said with a shrug. “I made you a better offer.”

Same money—if he was telling the truth about that, which Kai doubted—and working for a bully and a murderer?

“I like where I am.”

Pen stared at him, long and hard, like he was used to staring folks down. But Kai refused to look away, and at last Pen snorted again, and turned to go.

“Not for long, you won’t.”

Oh, Elliot, what am I going to do?

I knew things would change. I didn’t know how soon. Two days later, I came home to find my
few belongings thrown out in the street. The money and food I’d been storing up? Gone. I
know. I shouldn’t have been so naive as to think it would have been safe in my room, but I
was much more worried about being robbed on the street. The enclaves can be a dangerous
place.

My landlord wouldn’t tell me why he kicked me out, but the rates for my room have tripled.

At least, the rates he’d let me rent them for. I spent the night in the streets, and the next
morning, when I went into work, Bartholomew said he had to let me go.

“Why?” Kai asked.

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The tailor wouldn’t meet Kai’s gaze. He stood at the door, eyes downcast. Inside the shop, Kai could see the others watching him, eyes wide and wary. “You know why.”

“Pen?” Kai kicked at the stoop with his bum leg. “I’m not afraid of him.”

Now Bartholomew did raise his head. “I am. I know what he can do. What he has done. I got no choice. I’m sorry, son, I really am, but you’re going to end up there sooner or later, so it might as well be sooner. I tried my best, but I got family to look after.”

Kai clenched his jaw. He hadn’t traveled all this way to be forced to work for another bully who thought people were his pawns to move around at will.

“That estate you come from,” Bartholomew said. “Was it very bad there?”

“No,” Kai admitted. He hadn’t known how very not-bad it had been until he saw the state of affairs in the fire fields.

“Maybe you ought to go back.”

I’m not going back, Elliot. First of all, I don’t know how I could even get back on this leg.

Navigating the fire fields once was bad enough, and I was healthy through most of it.

But more than that —there has to be another way. I can’t go back now. I can’t look you in
the eyes and let you know I’ve failed. I’d rather work for Pen. I’d rather I died in the fire
fields.

Well, maybe not that. At least I’ve seen Channel City, had my own room, held my own
money. At least I’ve had those things. And I can’t give up now. I won’t!

Sometimes I wish you were here so I could ask for your advice. But then I think about poor
Sid, and Bess, and their baby, and I realize it’s better you’re not here. You’re safe at home,
where a man like Pen will never be able to touch you.

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I had so many dreams, Elliot, and you knew all of them. If they die here—if Pen kills them—it
will be a comfort to know that they’re still alive somewhere up north. That they’re still alive
in you.

Yours,

Kai

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Six

Seven days. Seven days since Kai had started sleeping on the streets.

Five days since he had run out of things to sell … or buyers willing to cross Pen.

Three days since his last meal.

One day since Pen had come to him again.

“You needn’t make this difficult, boy,” the man had said when he caught Kai looking through rubbish bins for food. Kai wondered if Pen had set people to watching him. He couldn’t imagine their meeting was an accident. “I don’t know what folks told you, but I’m not that bad.

Not to people with skills like yours.”

Kai didn’t need to talk to anyone. He’d read Bess’s letter and, what’s more, he’d seen the truth with his own eyes. The day after he’d been turned away from Bartholomew’s shop, he’d gone down to the docks to see Pen’s people himself.

Pen was an appropriate name for the man, Kai had decided, since he kept his workers as if they were animals in a zoo. Kai had walked through the filthy, rusting metal boxes the people who labored for Pen called home. It didn’t take long. Even the huts on the Miner Estate were nicer than these. He’d seen things that looked like these in books, long ago. Before the Reduction, they were used as shipping containers, back when humankind had lived all over the world and had crossed the ocean in boats the size of cities. He was shocked any had lasted this long.

But now, as Kai wandered down a strange street in an unfamiliar part of the enclave, he realized that, even in those shipping containers, the people had food. An empty belly counted for quite a lot, a fact he was sure Pen was counting on.

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Kai had been born a Post-Reductionist. He thought he knew hunger well. All his life he’d hungered. Hungered for more than growing old on the estate he’d been born to. Hungered for more knowledge than he could find in the books Elliot had given him. Hungered for the things humankind had possessed before the Reduction, for the places beyond the islands that now only existed on old maps or in forbidden books. More recently, he’d hungered for Elliot herself. For years, he’d felt these hungers like physical needs, gnawing away from a place deep inside.

Now he knew—that was nothing. True hunger tears you up, bends you double with cramps, gives you headaches, clouds your mind, makes you weak. True hunger was a weapon stronger than any of his abstract desires. It’s what toppled countries and made men desperate. It’s what gave Pen power.

Ahead of him on the path, a boy several years younger than Kai played in the dirt. As Kai drew closer, he saw that the boy was messing with a string box. Kai smiled in spite of himself.

He had some experience with those. Back on the North Estate, he and Elliot had started a campaign to make enough string boxes for every Post on the farm. They’d created quite the little orchestra before he’d left.

The boy on the ground was trying to string his, but whatever cord he was using looked flimsy and fraying. Every time he tried to wrap a string around a turning peg, it snapped. As Kai approached, another string broke and the boy let out a shout of frustration and slammed the box against the ground.

“Having trouble?” he asked.

The boy looked up at him, blinking furiously the way you do when you’re trying not to cry.

“I can’t get the strings back on this stupid thing.”

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Kai crouched beside him, wincing a bit at the pressure on his wounded leg. “These are bad strings. Are they all you have?”

“Yeah.” The kid shrugged.

Kai could understand that. He looked at the leftover strings, and then put one in his mouth, moistening it with his tongue, and then winding it over on itself so it was doubly thick. The string tasted oddly sweet, and he had to resist the urge to swallow it. It was nothing but a hallucination, brought on by his hunger.

Kai picked up the box and started stringing it with the new, stronger cord.

“Hey!” came a shout from above. “You leave him alone! He’s not for sale.”

Kai looked up to see a young woman bearing down on them both. She had the same blue-green eyes as the boy, though her hair was lighter. She was dressed in a shirt nearly open to her waist and a skirt that skimmed her thighs. But it was her expression that caught Kai’s attention.

There was murder written all over her heavily made-up face.

Kai straightened and held up his hands. “I was just helping him with this instrument.”

“That’s what they all say.” She looked him up and down. “You don’t look like you have money, anyway.”

Kai blinked at her in shock. He raised his head and looked over her shoulder, at the building she’d come from. There on the porch stood several other girls dressed in the same peculiar fashion. Some of them were leaning on the rails, watching the commotion. Others were lounging on the steps or the benches. Almost all had shadows under their eyes and garish colors smeared across their mouths.

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