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Scorched

by

Mari Mancusi

To my parents, who instilled a love of fantasy and imagination at an early age by reading me the Narnia series, Lord of the Rings, and countless Choose Your Own Adventure novels. I promise to pay it forward with Avalon someday.

They came at noon, black shadows dancing across the sky, drowning out the sun. Their cries echoed through chambers and courtyards. Their fire blazed down narrow streets.

Some dropped to their knees in prayer. Others tried to flee. But in the end, they all fell down—ashes choking their lungs, flames singeing their flesh.

There was no place to run. No place to hide.

They would find you.

And when they did…you would surely burn.

—The Scorch, by Julian Bachman, year 54 PS

PART 1:

ICE

Chapter One

SCREECH!

Connor’s eyes flew open. Blinding white lights barreled toward him at breakneck speed. No time to think, he hurled himself to the side, adrenaline igniting the reflexes he’d honed in boot camp. A bright blue metal monstrosity shot past him, wailing an angry protest in its wake.

That was close. Too close. Sucking in a breath, he crawled up onto a nearby platform, trying to gain his bearings. Shiny hunks of metal machinery—like the one that had nearly crushed him—lined the road, dark and silent, while others cruised by, determined white lights chasing brilliant red tails. They reminded him of something he’d once seen on the Surface Lands. Cars, his father had called them. Of course they looked a lot different when living, breathing, and not caked with rust.

But that meant…A smile crept to his lips.

It had worked. It had actually worked.

“Well, what do you know,” he murmured, drawing in a lungful of the freshest air he’d ever breathed in all his seventeen years, with zero smoky aftertaste. It was crisp. Colder than they’d predicted for August in Texas. So cold, in fact, he could see his breath reflected in puffy clouds as he exhaled. Shivering a little—his travel jumper was definitely not made for this kind of weather—he found himself gazing up into an open sky littered with stars and anchored by a bright, full moon. The vastness of the universe unabashedly spread out before him made him a little dizzy.

Maybe I should make a wish, he considered, remembering the old rhyme his mother used to sing. Star light, star bright…

Wish my supplies would arrive all right, the soldier in him finished, reminding him he wasn’t on some pleasant stargazing holiday. His eyes reluctantly left the sky, scanning the ground below, searching for his canister. One couldn’t travel with one’s belongings, they’d told him in the debriefing, except for specially designed clothing. Something about splitting up different types of molecules. The essential items they’d sent to aid his mission would be arriving separately. In a titanium pod. Right about—

A large metal cylinder shot through the sky, almost knocking him out before bouncing harmlessly to the ground.

—now.

“What in God’s good name was that?”

Connor whirled around to find the largest woman he’d ever seen exiting one of the nearby apartment buildings. He tried not to gape at her immense frame, wrapped securely in a black, puffy coat. What rations must these people be allotted in order to gain such girth? As three equally well-fed and well-dressed young boys filed out behind her, his mind flashed to the orphans of Strata-D. Their rail-thin frames, their hollow, hungry eyes…

He set his jaw. Just another reminder of how important this mission truly was.

As he watched, the three boys scrambled past their mother, eagerly circling the titanium capsule, eyes shining with interest. One reached down, daring to touch it…

Connor swept in, neatly scooping up his belongings. As the children squawked in protest, he held up his free hand. “It’s okay,” he tried to assure them. “It’s just my—”

“Get away from my kids, you freak!” Mom was now on the scene, waving one hand threateningly at Connor, the other fumbling at her coat pocket. For a split second, he feared she was reaching for a weapon. Instead, she pulled out a small, black plastic device. Some kind of primitive transcriber?

“See something, say something,” she muttered to her children, waving them behind her, as she frantically started pressing at the screen. “That’s what they say to do. Can’t let the terrorists win.”

“Please,” Connor pleaded, taking a few steps backward, his mind desperately searching for a rational explanation for the canister falling from the sky. Preferably one that didn’t require prior knowledge of quantum physics. He was supposed to be blending in, not making a scene. He wasn’t exactly off to an auspicious start.

His eyes lit upon an open window, two stories up, red-checkered curtains fluttering in the night sky. “My… girlfriend,” he stammered, his mind reaching for the proper terminology as he waved his arm in the direction of the window. “She tossed me out.” He gave the woman his best sheepish smile, then held up the canister. “Told me to take my gear and never come back.” The woman narrowed her eyes, staring at him for a moment, then up at the open window. Connor realized belatedly that she could very well know the girl who lived in the apartment above or know that there was no girl to begin with. This wasn’t like back home; people here knew their neighbors, shared cups of sugar—that sort of thing. Had he just made a huge mistake?

Believe me, he pushed, in a feeble attempt to try to bend her will. Believe me and walk away.

But it was no use. The trip had left him completely depleted. And he had no idea how long it would take to regenerate his spark. He’d be forced to do things the old-fashioned way—at least for the foreseeable future.

“What’s her name?”

Connor startled. “What?”

“Her name,” the woman repeated. “Your girlfriend who threw you out. Does she have a name?” She gave him a pointed stare, as if daring him to answer, her fingers still hovering dangerously close to her transcriber.

“Oh right. Her name is…”

His mind went blank. Completely blank. Come on, Connor. A name! Any name! He could feel her eyes upon him, sharp, assessing, as they took in his strange clothes with growing suspicion. He had to do something—say something—and fast. Before it was too late. “Her name is…”

With one fluid movement, he ripped open the capsule, his fingers diving for his gun. Before the woman could even grasp his intentions, he had the weapon trained on her face. “Her name is get the hell back!” he growled. “And I suggest you do as she says.”

The woman’s eyes bulged and a small squeak escaped her lips. Staggering back, she held up her hands in

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