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Excerpt

Excerpt

Across a Star-Swept Sea

The history of the human race pivots on two points: the development of agriculture, which created civilization, and the Reduction, which destroyed it.

Before the Reduction, the few impoverished or dissenting peoples who didn’t genetically engineer their offspring had been the object of scorn and pity. But a generation later, when these “perfect” children could only produce mentally and physically impaired Reduced babies, it proved what a colossal mistake had been made. The bulk of humanity affected by this tragedy—the Lost—did not accept defeat lightly. Instead, they turned on those who’d escaped unscathed, making them the targets of envy, hatred . . . and, with the Wars of the Lost, utter annihilation.

After the wars were over, the survivors looked with horror and dismay upon what they had wrought. There was hardly any place left on Earth to make a life, and few untainted by Reduction left to live one.

In desperation, two poor servants defied their Lost masters. Out of the wars’ most terrible weapon, they terraformed a new home, an oasis in the wreckage of the world: New Pacifica. There, they declared, they’d rule forever over those responsible for the Earth’s destruction.

It didn’t work out that way.

—“Human Rights in Albion: A Term Paper by Lady Persis Blake”*

 

* Note: Though Lady Blake received an A– on this essay, her instructor saw fit to send a flutternote to her father, Lord Torin Blake, regarding the propriety of a young lady using such incendiary language.  Lord Blake responded: “Actually, that sounds about right to me.”

 

 

One

If the Wild Poppy dared return to Galatea, Citizen Cutler was ready. He’d stationed armed guards at the entrance to the estate and placed an additional ten soldiers around the perimeter of the taro fields. Though no Reduced could even attempt escape, Cutler knew the real danger came from outside. The flowery Albian spy had “liberated” at least a dozen enemies of the revolution in the last few months, but it wouldn’t happen on Cutler’s watch.

During the better part of the morning, a sea breeze had moved across the sunken fields, stirring the taro leaves and making the water shiver and ripple like the skin of a snake. The Reduced prisoners moved slowly and methodically through their plots, following an ancient and, frankly, unnecessary tradition of cutting each root by hand and replanting the stalk to be ready for the next harvest.

The former lord of the estate—his name was Lacan, though Cutler doubted the man remembered it after being Reduced—sloshed and stumbled through the field, hacking away at the taro stalks with a knife entirely too dull for the purpose. His gray hair was matted to his neck with sweat and mud, and his once-haughty mouth hung slack and stupid. As Cutler watched, the man’s grip slipped, and the blade sank deep into his thumb.

Lacan wailed, and the guards began to hoot and holler. Cutler didn’t budge from his position, leaning against one of the unused harvesting machines. Let his soldiers have their entertainment. It was boring enough out here on the rural east coast.

“Shouldn’t we help?” asked his newest recruit, a girl who hardly looked old enough for basic training. Her name was Trina Delmar, she’d arrived this morning, and she never shut up. “Looks like he cut himself pretty bad.”

Cutler shrugged and spat into the swamp. Silly girl. It was always the girls who got weepy over watching the prisoners. “That’s the former master of this plantation. Do you think his kind ever cared for the thumbs of your ancestors, back when they kept Galatea in their grip?”

“Grip’s not so good anymore!” cracked another guard.

“Don’t feel bad for these aristos, Citizen Delmar,” Cutler went on. “Had they ever cared about us, the cure for Reduction would have been discovered long before it was.”

That’s why it took a reg to make the Helo Cure, two generations back. For hundreds of years before the cure, most people who weren’t aristos were born Reduced, sickly and simpleminded. They said only one in twenty had been a natural-born reg, with a regular brain and intellect. The Helo Cure stopped Reduction in a single generation—after the cure, every baby born was regular.

And now, thanks to this new Reduction drug of the revolutionaries, the aristos would have their turns wallowing in the muck. Out in the field, the old lord was wailing and clutching his wounded hand to his chest. Cutler gave him a week—two at most. Reduction wasn’t designed to be a death sentence, but sharp knives and idiots rarely mixed.

“But Lord Lacan actually fought to distribute the cure to the Reduced,” Trina said, “back when he was young. I’ve seen a picture of him with Persistence Helo—”

Cutler glowered down at her. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Citizen. If he’s here, it means he’s an enemy of the revolution. An enemy of regulars like us.”

But Trina was still casting pitiful glances at Lacan. The recruit had been an annoyance ever since she’d shown up, questioning the pill dosage and schedule, as if it mattered that Cutler handed out the pink Reduction pills slightly more often than required. Once they were Reduced, it wasn’t like a few extra pinks could make them stupider. Plus, Cutler liked to watch the aristos writhe a little. Not much else to do all the way out here.

Now that idiot recruit was out in the field. She was approaching Lacan, who’d returned to ineffectually swiping at the taro stalks with his uninjured hand. That was the Reduced for you. They’d work until they collapsed.

“Back to your post, Delmar!” Cutler cried. He wasn’t about to be shown up by some freshly cooled recruit.

The recruit ignored him and smeared some ointment on Lacan’s injured thumb before wrapping it in a bandage.

“Did I tell you to administer aid to this Reduced slime?” Cutler said, churning into the field and slamming the butt of his gun into Lacan’s side. The old man fell into the taro, and Trina winced. “You’d better watch it, Delmar. I’d hate to give a bad report to Citizen Aldred.”

Trina didn’t even look up. Good. Maybe he’d scared her back into line.

“You’re not here to help them. You’re here to keep them away from the Wild Poppy. Every time we lose a prisoner to Albion, it undermines the revolution.”

“What undermines the revolution,” she snapped back, “is—” but she ducked her head and went silent when she saw the dark look on his face.

Just then, a skimmer zipped down the path between the fields, dust clouding up from its lifters. There was an empty caged platform behind the cab. “Officer!” called the driver, a young man wearing a military uniform.

Cutler waded back to the edge of the field and squinted up into the cab. Trina trailed after, to his further irritation.

“Transfer request,” the driver said, holding out his left hand. His oblet sparked to life in his palm, revealing a hologram of Citizen Aldred’s face.

“All Reduced on outer plantations are to be transferred back to Halahou city prison,” came Aldred’s voice from the image.

“I’ve heard nothing of this.” Cutler pulled out his own oblet, and its black surface glinted in the sun like the obsidian pebble it was named for. No new messages from Halahou. No new messages at all.

The boy shrugged. His military cap shaded his eyes. “Figures. I get crummy reception out here in the middle of nowhere, too.”

Cutler snorted in agreement. “So what’s the problem?”

“I think—” The boy jiggled his oblet, as the message fizzed in and out. “It’s the Wild Poppy,” he explained as they waited for it to reload. “Citizen Aldred said even the increased guard isn’t sufficient to keep the spy from stealing our prisoners.”

“I’ve taken care of that.” And if Aldred would leave the comfort of Halahou occasionally and come see what his lieutenants were doing out here in the country, maybe he’d know it. But Cutler would never say that aloud. Citizen Aldred had liberated them all—first from their uncaring, foolish queen and now from the aristos who had followed her lead.

“Here it is,” said the driver, as the image of Aldred began speaking again.

“All Reduced prisoners to be fitted with nanotech collars to prevent removal from Galatea by foreign forces.”

The boy leaned out of the cab and dropped his voice. “I heard the collars will choke ’em to death if the Poppy takes them off Galatea.” The boy smirked, and Cutler grinned. This was the type of recruit he needed around here. Tough-minded and right thinking.

Nanotech collars. Now that would be a sight to see. If only Cutler could get rid of all his idiots so easily. Then again, maybe he could. “Delmar, you help this boy load up the prisoners and accompany him back to the capital.”

“That’s not necessary—” the boy began.

“Oh, but it is,” said Cutler. “I haven’t kept these prisoners under control all this time just to have the Wild Poppy break my streak on their last trip across the island. Her recruit form says she’s good with a gun.” He nodded at Trina, who was already gathering the aristos. “And it’ll do her good to see how the revolution wants these prisoners handled.” It would also get the aggravating recruit out of his hair.

The boy scowled, but Cutler shrugged it off. Trina Delmar could be his problem now.

 

If asked, Persis Blake would have agreed with the odious Citizen Cutler on precisely one point: the young recruit was indeed her problem. But it wasn’t an insurmountable one. After all, Persis had just single-handedly scooped up the Lacan family right from under the nose of ten soldiers and their officer. Persis could handle one more revolutionary, even if this Citizen Delmar was sitting in her skimmer.

And though the increased guard presence was a nuisance, Persis couldn’t help but feel a jolt of pride that, after six months of missions, the revolution was finally recognizing that the Wild Poppy was a real threat. Now, she just had to figure out how to get out of this predicament without ruining it all.

Think, Persis, think.Her long hair itched, shoved up under her Galatean military cap, but she ignored it, focusing instead on the girl sitting quietly by her side as Persis maneuvered the skimmer down the raised path that crisscrossed the swampy taro fields. Citizen Delmar looked too young to be a soldier; but then again, at sixteen, Persis was far too young to be her country’s most infamous spy, so she knew well how deceiving looks could be.

And whoever Trina Delmar was, she’d gotten on that officer’s nerves, which alone was worthy of more investigation.  Persis had easily pegged the officer as the sort of petty, sadistic man who wouldn’t even bother to double-check his orders as long as Persis promised to inflict yet more cruelty on the prisoners. Her new palmport app was working wonders—with it, she could remix syllables from any of Aldred’s propaganda speeches to create  whatever message she desired.

“I didn’t realize we recruited so young,” Persis said, as they crossed the old wooden bridge that separated the Lacan estate from the main road. She’d left the jammers she’d used to block incoming messages to the officer’s oblet on, just in case someone on the plantation figured out the truth and tried to message Trina. “How old are you?”

“Eighteen,” the girl said so quickly Persis knew it must be a lie. “And you’re one to talk. Your voice hasn’t even changed yet.”

Perhaps this was a bad topic. She adopted a slightly gruffer grumble. “So you’re good with a gun?” Best to know, especially since Persis’s one weapon was concealed beneath the gloves of her disguise, and the supplements she’d taken were only good for a single shot.

“Very,” said the soldier, and her tone was more matter-of-fact than defensive this time, so it was probably true.

“Well, that’s a relief,” Persis said though she was thinking the opposite. “We wouldn’t want to be caught by the Poppy without any defenses.”

The skimmer picked up speed as it left the sunken maze of taro fields and hovered along the road bordering the northern coast. To the right sat cliffs and, far below, the black sand beaches that formed the boundary of Galatea. Beyond lay the glittering sea separating them from Persis’s home of Albion. The two islands were shaped like crescents about to kiss, but this far east, the distant shore was a bit too far to make out with the naked eye.

The guard was not enjoying the view. Instead, she cast a quick look back at the pathetic lot of prisoners huddled on the bed near the intake fans. “Careful with your speed. Those prisoners have had a tough enough day already.”

Persis raised her eyebrows. Sympathy from a revolutionary guard? Well, that was unexpected. She decided to press. “There was a Reduced—a true Reduced—living near me when I was very young. Probably the last one left alive. But he wasn’t like—this. Mute, yes, stupid, yes. But not these clumsy, broken people.”

There were people throughout history, and especially before the wars, who had believed in gods, immortal beings meting out punishments and rewards to humans based on some rarefied score sheet. Some believed that Reduction was retribution by these gods for humankind’s attempt to perfect themselves. Of course, that was silly.

Humans had been attempting to perfect themselves since the dawn of time. They created tools because they had no fangs or claws. They created clothes since they had no fur or scales. They invented eyeglasses to see and vehicles to make them travel faster; they protected their bodies from diseases and did surgery to cut out things that could hurt them. They’d genetically engineered themselves before and after Reduction. It hadn’t been a punishment—it had been an unfortunate genetic mistake.

It shouldn’t be a punishment now, either. And Persis wouldn’t rest until she’d stopped it.

“They say it’s exactly what real Reduction was like.” Trina was parroting the party line.

Persis pressed harder. “Who says?”

“Everyone!” Trina snapped. The medics who made it . . . and Citizen Aldred, of course. You’re going to get charged with insubordination if you keep talking like that.”

Persis rounded a curve and began to climb the bluff to the promontory where Andrine lay in wait. This Trina was a mystery Persis didn’t have the leisure to unravel. As she straightened the steering wheel, she began to loosen the fastening of the glove covering the palmport on her left hand.

“Oh, I can do better than that. Want to hear?” Persis asked.

“No,” the girl lied, even as she leaned forward.

“I think Reducing aristos is cruel and unusual punishment,” she stated, yanking the glove off as she drove. “I think that instead of changing things for the regs in Galatea, the revolution’s just punishing aristos.”

The girl’s mouth was open in shock, which was convenient for Persis’s purposes. She’d need a direct hit for the knockout drug to work. She lifted her hand and summoned her focus. . . .

“I think it might be, too,” the girl said, and Persis stopped.

She lowered her hand back to the steering wheel. “You do?” Maybe she had this girl all wrong. A Galatean soldier could be a true help to the League of the Wild Poppy—particularly if she was good with a gun. That was one area where Persis’s expertise was lacking. After all, they didn’t teach combat at cotillion.

The girl nodded. “But I’m not stupid enough to say it. You’re as bad as my brother. I swear, everyone around here is asking for trouble. Now, you keep your eyes on the road and I’ll keep a lookout for the Wild Poppy.”

Persis sighed. At the top of the bluff, a large, bare rock jutted out from the cliff, the remnant of some old explosion from the island’s fiery birth. Persis clenched her jaw, readying the command to her palmport even as she steered the skimmer to a steady stop.

“What are you doing?” Trina spluttered, straightening. In the caged bed, the Reduced prisoners were watching them with wary eyes.

Persis opened her hand, but the moment Trina caught sight of the golden disk set in her palm, she lunged at Persis and they both careened out of the cab.

“Who are you!” she screamed as they landed in the dust. Even as she fell, Persis withdrew the mental command to her palmport, halting the app. She couldn’t afford to waste it unless she had a clear shot.

Trina was reaching for her gun, and Persis kicked and slapped, trying desperately to dislodge the soldier’s grip. The pistol thumped against the ground and slid beneath the skimmer’s lifts.

“Stop!” Trina cried.

“You stop!” she shouted back, struggling to fight the girl as they each lunged toward the gun. Where was Andrine? She could certainly use backup right now. The Reduced watched silently from the cage. She wished any of them still had a mind.

At the same moment, both their hands closed tight around the gun barrel and they wrestled in the grass. Trina raked her nails across Persis’s face and knocked off her cap, then reeled back in surprise as hair the color of frangipani came tumbling down on them both. Persis used the opportunity to wrench the gun from the recruit’s grip.

“You’re a girl?” Trina spluttered.

Persis stood, gun trained on Trina. She sighed and swept her yellow and white ropes of hair out of her face with her free hand. “This surprises you? You’re a girl.”

The girl’s face was filled with disgust. Persis shook her head and shrugged. It was disappointing, really. They were almost in agreement.

Trina, her face contorted with rage, kicked out and swept Persis’s feet out from under her. Persis felt the girl’s fingers on her gun, and everything was a cloud of dust and hands and white and yellow hair.

Out of nowhere, she heard a chittering, and a red streak darted between them, sinking sharp little teeth into the Trina’s shoulder.

She screamed and again pulled away, and Persis scrambled to her feet. “Slipstream, heel.”

The sea mink let go of Trina, trotted obediently to Persis’s side, and wiped his whiskers with his flippery paw. His long, sleek body was damp from his latest swim, and the soldier’s blood hardly showed against his deep red fur.

Still holding the gun on the girl, Persis caught sight of Andrine racing up, her ocean-blue hair trailing out behind her. “So good of you to show up,” Persis said to her friend.

“Sorry for the delay.” Andrine unlocked the cage and began unloading the prisoners. “You didn’t mention you were bringing an enemy combatant.”

“Last-minute addition,” Persis replied lightly. Trina was still crouched on the ground, holding her bleeding neck with both hands.

“I know who you are,” she said with a sob. “You’re the Wild Poppy.”

“What a brilliant deduction,” Andrine said, as she helped the last of the victims off the truck. “Exactly how long did that take to put together?”

Persis gave her friend a quick look. Now, now, there was no need to be smug. They were pointing a gun at the poor girl.

“And you’re finished,” the girl spat angrily. “You have no idea who you’re dealing with. You have no—”

Now Andrine chuckled. “Awfully high-and-mighty for a girl who was almost a snack for a sea mink, isn’t she?”

The soldier’s eyes were wide and wild. “I’m going to tell Citizen Aldred everything.”

“Oh, really?” Persis said tilting the barrel of the gun toward the girl’s face. “How do you plan to do that from beyond the grave?”

At once she felt a hand on her elbow. At first, Persis thought it was Andrine’s, though she knew her friend had more faith than that. Persis wasn’t actually going to shoot the soldier. After all, she still had her palmport dose—she could just knock her out. She risked a glance out of the corner of her eye.

Lord Lacan stood there, silent, an expression nearing clarity in his somber old eyes.

Persis lowered her arm. “It appears you have made a powerful friend, little Galatean.” She sighed. “But what to do with you? You have no idea what it is you’re fighting for.”

“Of course I do,” said Trina. “My country.”

Persis stared at her for a moment, then laughed. “I was going to say you were very foolish, seeing how outnumbered you are. But I’ve decided you’re in fact terminally brave. And that should never be snuffed. Besides, I like your style. That move with your foot there almost had me. Very well, then. I will let the Lord Lacan decide what will happen to you.”

Trina looked baffled. “But he’s Reduced. He can’t even help himself.”

“Don’t worry, little soldier,” Persis said, as something began to spin out of the golden disk set in the center of her palm. The girl’s mouth had opened again, which was remarkably convenient. “We take care of that part, too.”

A moment later, Trina Delmar collapsed on the ground.

Another mission accomplished.

Across a Star-Swept Sea
by by Diana Peterfreund