The first chapter of my new YA, Jem of Skye

Posted: December 17, 2017 in Uncategorized
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ONE

And then there was only Jem.

Of the others, Oldpa had gone first, then Oldma, followed by Ma and then Pa. Of them all, losing Ma had been the worst. Afterward the ceremony, and after Ma had made the drop, Jem’s father, who came home seldom, had heaped on Jem all of his frustrations, as if Jem were the cause of all of the death that surrounded him. Those six weeks of his father’s leave from service to mourn his wife had been the worst days of Jem’s twelve years of life.

When Jem had heard through the Chan that his father had gone down from the sky alongside the rest of his crew during an engagement with the navies of Horn, he had cried his eyes out for a few hours, but this was less from his loss than from the fact that he was all alone in the sky, even though in Cirrus he was surrounded by tens of thousands of Cirrans, though few of whom he actually knew.

Jem had turned thirteen shortly before his father, Olwen, died in a firefight with the murderous Horn. This he knew even though his birthday had come and gone uncelebrated the way Ma used to, with a small party and a special present. He knew his birthday had passed because the Bright Star had come directly above Cirrus in the night sky. The Bright Star, as his mother had always told him, was Jem’s star.

From school, Jem had learned that Cirrus was exactly fifty-two thousand feet above Land, no more and no less. It had always been that distance, and would forever remain so.

Jem waited at the entryway to his home near the southern, poorer edge of Cirrus for the wardens to come and take him away. He was never going back to school because with the death of Olwen the family had no money. It was a rather stupid fact that he was now a family of one, and that one—himself, Jem—was to be taken and integrated in with the Janus: the orphans of Cirrus. But his father had been a Janus, and so it all made sense to him now as he waited, his small pack of clothing beside him in a buoy rig: everything is always the same. Nothing changes.

He had expected a phalanx of wardens to come for him, but instead a lone warden drifted out from between two nearby dwellings, stopped, turned his head left and right, his polished helmet flashing in the fading sunlight, then focused in on Jem in the only open doorway along the street. The warden floated slowly toward him. Everything floated in Cirrus: the buildings, the people, the few scattered outside light sources, and with the exception of the trader ships coming in beneath the city or to the edge, everything in Cirrus floated slowly.

“Hey, kid,” the warden said. His visor was up, and the face was less young than Jem had expected. They warden, in fact, looked familiar. “Are you 355721? Are you Jem? Olwen’s son?”

Jem nodded to the man.

“Hmph. You probably don’t remember me. Your dad, Ollie, used to be in my outfit in Janus together. He ever tell you stories about him and Vic and some of the stunts we used to pull?”

Jem shook his head.

“That’s me. Vic.”

Jem nodded.

“Don’t say much, do you?”

Jem shook his head again.

“Just like your old man. Come on. Get your rig. I’m to take you to Janus and make sure your billeted in. The least I can do for Ollie.”

Jem reached over and tapped the tow button on the rig that contained all of his worldly possession, tapped the stud at the juncture of his breast bone, and floated out the door, the rig in tow behind him.

When he got even with Vic, the man put out his hand and stopped him.

“Look, it’s not so bad. There’s lots of kids where you’re going. And just think—no more school. Not a lot of rules like there are outside Janus. The only thing is you’ll have to learn to fight, to stick up for yourself, or they’ll kill you. You understand that, right? I mean, surely you’ve heard all about Janus.”

Jem looked up at the man. His face was broad and his cheeks were nearly outside of his helmet.

“I understand.”

“Good. Let’s go.”

Jem had only ever twice before been to Centro, the Cirrus city central district. He and Vic moved along the Strofe, the main open thoroughfare, and passed hundreds of small shops and dozens of gargantuan, towering buildings. There were more people than Jem had ever seen before, and they all seemed to be going someplace.

There were parents with their children as well, but a glance told the tale. There were few poor children along the Strofe, if any—their clothes were stylish and clean, their float rigs were of the latest style. None of these kids had ever risked taking the drop because their rigs weren’t right. The drop, of course, being the end. The final and early death. A one-way ticket to the Land, fifty-two thousand feet below.

After maybe twenty minutes, Vic turned off the Strofe to the left and they passed through the industrial district.

The last vestige of day had retreated and night had fallen.

Jem looked up and the Bright Star was there, far off center. The factory walls, in fact, blotted out most of the star-filled night sky.

Another warden passed them by, his rig outlined in light, and Vic and the man exchanged nods.

One day, Jem knew, he would become a warden, and when he did, he would never push people around nor kill them the way he had witnessed so many times in the past. A warden had the power of life and death. He or she could shut off a float rig if they happened to have a Key, and there was nothing for it but to take the drop.

Upon thinking of the drop, Jem looked down and saw a massive trader moving beneath them, several hundred yards distant. If Jem flicked off his rig, he would likely fall down directly on it, and the ship might take his broken body off to one of the other Major Cities he had learned about it school. Perhaps Cloisteros, or Metros, or maybe even Garden or Citadel. Or possibly even Horn. Naval vessels, his father had once told him, never attacked a trader, unless the trader had turned pirate. Then, if a trader had done so, it was their duty to blast them out of the sky and send them down to the Land far below, where the savage demi-humans lived. It was thought that anyone surviving the drop was doomed anyway, because no one could live among the demi-humans. It just wasn’t possible.

They turned again and made their way around a large, drab-looking edifice, and across a yawning space of several hundred yards.

“That’s Janus.” Vic pointed to the large, ugly, multi-storied building set far apart from the rest of Cirrus.

“Don’t like it.”

“Of course you don’t. What’s to like?”

In school there had been pictures of a place called Alcatraz. Janus reminded him of that place. First of all, it was large and blocky, with numbers of seemingly separate buildings attached to the one, grim, main building. Second, there were few windows. Low down in front there was a wide, pillared porch with twin double-doors thrown open. There was, however, not a soul in sight.

“You’ll get along fine in Janus. You just have to watch yourself, Jem. I’ll come around from time to time and check up on you. I made a promise to your dad, you see. He made me swear that if anything ever happened to him, I was to keep watch on you. Make sure you made it to adulthood. I aim to keep that promise.”

Jem felt that the man was looking at him, awaiting a response, but as Jem turned to look at him, Vic, the only friend of his father’s of which he had ever been aware, looked away.

The came to the porch.

“Jem.”

Jem turned around to face the man.

“Your rig.”

“Huh?”

“You can’t have a rig in Janus. It wouldn’t do for anyone to be able to leave whenever they wanted to, now would it?”

“I—”

“I’ll make sure it comes back to you. Go ahead. Take it off now.”

Jem couldn’t recall ever being without a rig. Quite suddenly, he burst into hot tears.

“Now that’s enough of that, my boy-o. You can’t walk in there crying like that. It’d be like walking up to the Horn and turning yourself in for being a sub-Horn, which is the way they think of everybody. What I’m saying is, they’ll tear you to pieces, so it’s best to dry those eyes, square your shoulders and walk in there.”

Jem nodded and wiped his eyes with his sleeve.

“In fact, if I were you, I’d pick the meanest looking kid in the place, walk up to him and punch him right in the face and keep punching him to somebody pulls you off of him. It’s the only way you’ll earn any respect, and for damn sure, it’s the fastest way.”

Jem nodded and Vic touseled his cornsilk blonde hair.

“You look like your dad, Jem, and that’s saying a lot. You’ll do fine.”

Jem unhooked his rig and the harness came free. Before they both could lose it to the sky above, Vic punched the stud and it dropped into his arms.

The tow rig settled down to the steps behind Jem.

Vic floated in space in front of him, and then Jem could see it all quite clearly: the vast space between Janus and the other buildings on the edge of Cirrus made Janus an island unto itself, if one didn’t have a float-rig. Janus, for all intents and purposes, was Alcatraz.

And Jem hadn’t committed any crime, other than losing his parents.

It stung. Jem was trapped. The only direction for him lay through the doorway at his back.

Vic floated off several yards, turned, gave Jem a smile, then floated away across the impassable gulf of sky.

Get your copy here!

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