Read This Shattered World Online
Authors: Amie Kaufman
McBride’s brows lift a little. “Taking action, Cormac,” he replies, lips curling. From a distance, it might look like a smile. “Glad to hear it. What’d you learn?”
I can’t tell them I saw a facility that was gone a few hours later; they’ll think I’ve lost my mind. “Nothing concrete yet.” I try not to wince at the weight of his hand on my shoulder. He’s a head taller than I am, and strongly built. If he ever wanted to take me out once and for all, he’d have the upper hand and then some. “But as long as we know nothing’s changed on the base, we know they’re not coming for us. And we can keep looking for a way out of this.”
McBride squeezes my shoulder. “Sometimes the only way out is through,” he replies, raising his voice a little to make it carry farther.
I turn away, using the movement to wrench my shoulder free of his bruising grip. It’s not the time to dance this dance with him, the same steps, the same push and pull. I have a bigger problem in the form of the trodaire in my currach, who I need to move before she wakes up under that tarp and makes a noise. Because one thing is certain: if McBride’s people find her, Captain Chase will be dead by tomorrow.
The energy in the crowd has shifted—with me standing here, the immediate need to fight is gone, but they’re slow to come down, not sure where to turn. I can’t let them latch on to me, not until the trodaire is stashed somewhere safe.
I catch Turlough Doyle’s eye, then jerk my gaze toward McBride, who’s regrouping and turning back for the platform, no doubt figuring out a way to use my return in his rhetoric.
Turlough steps forward before he can get there. “While we’re all here,” he says pleasantly, “perhaps we can talk about the sleeping quarters.” He uses that same encouraging tone when he’s teaching new Fianna how to lay tripwires.
I ghost back into the crowd, slipping out the back to go in search of my cousin Sean.
I find him in the classroom, which is little more than a cavern softened by handmade rugs to sit on and a chest containing some toys and a few precious, battered textbooks from a time when we were still allowed to barter with traders. It’s Sean’s domain—he teaches when he’s not out on patrol or helping plan a raid. I knew he’d be here, keeping the children away from McBride’s anger and the talk of violence in the main cavern. He’s in one corner with his five-year-old nephew, Fergal, in his lap. He’s surrounded by a gaggle of children—and a couple of girls far too old for story time, but the right age for Sean—faces turned up to him.
“Now, as you know, Tír na nÓg was the land of eternal youth, which most people think sounds like a fine thing. But Oisín wasn’t so sure. Do you
how many times you have to tidy your room when you live forever? His girlfriend, Niamh, lived there, and she was the one who’d invited him to stay. He’d moved in pretty quickly, and a decision like that, well…He should have asked a few more questions before he jumped on in. Turns out their gravball teams were arch-enemies, and they both hated doing laundry.”
I recognize the tale, if not Sean’s unique embellishments. We were told these stories as kids by our parents, who heard them from our grandparents. I bet Jubilee would be surprised to find out we hand down our myths and legends, Scheherazade and Shakespeare and stories from a time before men left Earth. The suits from TerraDyn and their trodairí lackeys think we’re all illiterate and uneducated. I only have hazy memories of comscreens and the bright, dancing colors of shows on the HV from my childhood, and it pains me that these children can’t even imagine modern technology. We may not have the books and holovids anymore, or the official schools the off-worlders have, but the stories themselves never go. Right now, I want nothing more than to linger in the shadows and listen.
But instead, I step forward and catch his eye before tilting my head toward the corridor.
Wrap it up, I need you.
His mouth drops open, the relief clear on his face. Even some part of Sean thought McBride might be right and I might be in danger. He nods, and I lean against the wall to rest my leg while I listen to the end of the tale. “So Oisín slips away home on a shuttle to Ireland for a quick visit, and Niamh warns him that if he gets out of his ship and touches the ground, he can never come back. It’s the only thing he has to do, is make sure he doesn’t touch the ground. So what does the fool do? He might be too lazy to pick up his own laundry, but he can’t resist showing off. He forgets—or he wasn’t listening, like some people we know, right, Cabhan?—and he jumps out of the shuttle to help these guys move a rock. The second he hits the grass…” He pauses, and the kids lean in, then jerk back when he claps his hands. “Bam! Three hundred years catch up with him, and he’s dead as a soldier on a solo patrol. So the moral of the story is, never pick up after yourself, and
never pick up after anyone else. It could be fatal. Now, off with the lot of you, before I ask who’s done their homework.” They scatter, and he hoists Fergal up into his arms with casual confidence to wade free of them all. He’s had him a year and a half now, since his brother and sister-in-law died in a raid.
“I’m almost sure that wasn’t the moral when we learned it,” I say.
He grins, unrepentant. That’s Sean—always grinning, smooth as silk. “Should have been. I take it you ruined McBride’s latest tactic?” Fergal reaches up to grab at Sean’s face, trying with great determination to inspect the inside of his nostrils.
Sean leans down to pick up his nephew’s favorite toy, a strange, pudgy creature with wings and a tail called Tomás. I’ve never been sure what Tomás is, but I know he’s sewn from one of Sean’s brother’s old shirts, and Fergal won’t go anywhere without him. Placated, Fergal rests his head on Sean’s shoulder as his uncle speaks. “I tried to hail you, but you didn’t answer. Figured there was too much interference today.”
Our radios almost never work due to Avon’s atmosphere, but that wasn’t why I didn’t answer. “Thanks for trying. Don’t worry, I can handle McBride.”
“Clear skies, cousin.”
he means. There are never clear skies on Avon, no blue, no stars. But we don’t give up hope, and we use those words to remind ourselves. Clear skies will come, one day.
I turn a little so he won’t see the bloody bandage over my pants leg from Lee Chase’s hot-pink souvenir; I’ll get him to pull it out later, but for now we’ve got a more pressing concern. “Forget good fortune. We don’t have time to wait for clear skies.” I duck my head to catch his nephew’s eye. “Fergal, go get into bed for your nap, and we’ll come and tuck you in soon. I need your uncle’s help.”
Sean stares down into the bottom of the currach, voice hushed in horror. “Flynn Cormac, you never did. McBride is going to throw a party and use her head for a punch bowl.”
“This is an opportunity, Sean. If the military will ever trade for anyone, it will be her. If we play this right, we could exchange her for medical supplies, perhaps some of our people they’ve got in their cells—maybe even leverage for the planetary review in a few months.”
“Or she could tell everybody who you are, and what you look like, and where to come calling if they feel the urge to visit.”
“She doesn’t know.” I let myself grin. “Fair to say she didn’t exactly volunteer to help steer the currach home. She saw nothing, and we can make it that way when she leaves.”
“You’ve got to be joking. That’s Lee
, Flynn. We can’t let her go back. You think she can’t tell them plenty about
“What, you think I let her scan my genetag?” I cut in over him. “I didn’t tell her my name.”
“They’ll never trade for her. They don’t trade. McBride would say asking will make us look weak.”
Why is it weakness to want to talk before I kill someone? “McBride won’t know.”
“You seriously think there’s a chance they’ll listen to us?”
“I seriously think we’re going to ask them. Now help me get her somewhere out of sight, before she wakes up.”
We muscle her out of the bottom of the currach together, draping my jacket around her shoulders to hide her uniform. I thought she’d be stirring by now, but whatever dropped her out in the swamp hit her even harder than the fumes from my gas can did. As we navigate the corridors toward the disused caverns below, I keep having to catch her head before it can loll against the stone walls.
Sean huffs softly, shaking his head at me for taking the trouble. This is the guy who has a collection of photos tacked up on the stone wall next to his hammock, women from brightly lit worlds laughing and smiling and pouting for the camera. Wives or girlfriends or lovers, I suppose. Pictures he takes off the bodies of the soldiers and pins up as morbid trophies. This is what the fight does to people. To someone like Sean, who devotes his time to teaching our children, but can’t bring himself to see the soldiers as human.
There are a number of caverns at the bottom of our network of tunnels that we don’t use anymore. Too damp for living space, and there are far fewer Fianna now than there were during my sister’s time. Sean binds the trodaire while I keep watch at the door, scanning the empty passageway, waiting for someone to round the corner and discover us. He’s tying her down, looping the rope tightly through a post drilled into the stone that was once used to stabilize shelving. At one time this had been a storeroom for weaponry. “You really think there’s any chance this works out at all?” he asks, finishing off a knot and stepping back to inspect his work.
I can hear the doubt in his voice, and the long, exhausting night I’ve had crowds in on me all at once. I need a moment’s respite. I need Sean, of all people, on my side. “Lecture me later,” I say, as pain pulses through my leg again. “I need a little first aid before I can take any more.”
Sean’s initial alarm fades when I unwrap my makeshift bandage to reveal the miniature stab wound in my leg. Leaning close to inspect it, he frowns and asks, “What is
I lean against the wall, taking the pressure off my leg. “A cocktail garnish,” I mutter.
Sean’s head jerks up so he can look at me—my expression prompts a burst of laughter as he realizes who’s responsible for the plastic sword in my thigh. The bands of tension around my chest ease a fraction. Sean leaves me there as he goes off in search of a pair of pliers; no sense risking anyone else discovering Lee Chase nearly bested me with a cocktail sword. By the time he comes back, Sean’s still grinning.
“You’ve had worse luck with girls,” he points out, widening the rip in my pants leg so he can get at the plastic with the pliers. “Remember that time you tried to sweet-talk Mhairi and she laughed at you?”
I wince as he loses his grip on the remnants of the cocktail sword. “I was thirteen, shut up.”
“Or Aoife? Or Alejandra?”
“What are you talking about? Alejandra and I—”
“Poor girl felt sorry for you.” He huffs, pulling the thing free and holding it up for us both to take a look at it. It’s annoyingly small, the hot pink still visible beneath the darker red of my blood. He starts laughing again and grabs at the wall beside him for support. “No wonder you were able to capture her, if this is all she had to work with.”
“Just bandage it up, Sean, before I start listing your romantic failures. We’ll be here all day.”
By the time he’s done, his smile has faded. The laughter couldn’t last forever, but it was enough of a rest to let me breathe a little easier. Sean’s my pressure valve, my best friend as well as my cousin, but he’s as fierce a fighter as we’ve got. We lean against the rocky wall for a little, side by side, eyes on the unconscious soldier tied up near the far side of the cave.
“What the hell, man?” Sean breaks the silence, his voice quiet. “What were you even
on their base?”
I hesitate. If I tell Sean about the facility I saw, he’ll insist we send scouts, and how can I tell him there’s nothing there anymore? “I got itchy, I was scouting. Things are getting tense, and I wanted to know what’s in the wind.”
He groans, tipping his head back to let it smack gently against the stone wall. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I
you know what happens if you of all people get caught. McBride’s just waiting for the chance to move while you’re off following a hunch. He nearly did tonight, without you there to speak against it. Where does the trodaire come into this?”
“She spotted me. I spotted an opportunity.”
“To bring her to our home? To risk discovery?”
“She has information we need, and think what we could trade her for.” I grit my teeth. “You think I should’ve killed her?”
he replies, exasperated. “Yes, I think you should have killed her.”
“And set them panicking about an assassination on their own base?” I can hear the snap in my voice and I swallow it down, carefully even out my tone. The idea comes so easily to Sean, one of the best, gentlest guys I know. Maybe it seems natural to him because it
natural. Maybe I’m as mad as McBride thinks I am, trying to settle a decade-old conflict with words.
Or maybe Sean’s good nature, the sweetness in him that’s been there since we were children, is fading. Maybe it’s one more casualty of this war.
The image of the secret compound is right there when I close my eyes—a wire fence, a small collection of prefab buildings built into the gentle slope of the island. I want to tell him I saw it. I want to tell him I went back and it was gone. But it’ll only convince him I’m losing my mind. He’s my greatest ally—my closest friend. I can’t afford to alienate him.
Sean sighs, eyeing the trodaire again. “What are we going to do about your girlfriend?”
“I’m going to get Martha to send word to the base. Lee Chase is valuable to them; they’ll trade for her. It’ll show McBride that my way gets results too, without bloodshed.”
“And if they refuse to trade?” Sean raises an eyebrow.
I square my jaw. “I don’t want her killed.”
“You’re too soft, cousin. If you were their prisoner, she’d never spare your life.”