The gauntlet, p.1
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       The Gauntlet, p.1
 

The Gauntlet


  DEDICATION

  For all the readers who have followed this series across the stars.

  This is for you.

  CONTENTS

  Dedication

  1. Cora

  2. Cora

  3. Mali

  4. Cora

  5. Cora

  6. Nok

  7. Cora

  8. Cora

  9. Leon

  10. Cora

  11. Cora

  12. Rolf

  13. Cora

  14. Cora

  15. Mali

  16. Cora

  17. Cora

  18. Leon

  19. Cora

  20. Cora

  21. Rolf

  22. Cora

  23. Cora

  24. Mali

  25. Cora

  26. Cora

  27. Cora

  28. Nok

  29. Cora

  30. Cora

  31. Leon

  32. Cora

  33. Cora

  34. Mali

  35. Cora

  36. Cora

  37. Rolf

  38. Cora

  39. Cora

  40. Leon

  41. Cora

  42. Cora

  43. Cora

  44. Mali

  45. Cora

  46. Cora

  47. Cora

  Acknowledgments

  Back Ad

  About the Author

  Books by Megan Shepherd

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  1

  Cora

  DUST ROSE ON THE horizon.

  Cora shaded her eyes against the unnaturally large alien sun. The approaching truck began to take shape as it cut through the thick dust clouds, tearing across Armstrong preserve’s scrubby desert landscape toward the patch of bare land where she and her friends stood. Beside her, Rolf held Nok’s hand tightly. Leon paced a few feet away, sweat streaming down his brow. Whoever—whatever—was in that truck, the four of them, alone and unarmed and malnourished, couldn’t possibly be much of a match.

  She tossed a look over her shoulder. Barely visible through the dust, Bonebreak’s ship crouched like a dented green beetle on the horizon. The Mosca black-market trader had brought them to Armstrong preserve and then run away at the first sign of trouble. Coward. He was probably fleeing back to his ship right now, but he’d never get off the moon. Mali was on board, guarding the controls along with Anya. And the last time Bonebreak had tried to screw them over, Anya had telepathically taken over Bonebreak’s mind and made him dance like a puppet. He wouldn’t dare try to betray them again.

  “I have a seriously bad feeling about this,” Nok muttered.

  The truck was getting closer. They only had a minute, maybe two, before it reached them. Cora’s heart thundered so loudly, she could hear it over the whine of the approaching engine. They could run, but they would never get to the ship in time. They could hide—but where? The clapboard town was too far away. The only other structure was the transport hub the Kindred used for docking, but it would certainly be locked.

  “Look.” Leon pointed to the horizon. “There’s more than one.”

  As the dust settled, Cora made out three vehicles roaring toward them. They were small and compact, a cross between lunar rovers she’d seen on television and good old-fashioned pickups, complete with black lines of exhaust billowing out the back. One of the trucks veered sharply in the direction of Bonebreak’s ship, but the other two continued toward them. Outlines of a dozen people lined up along the truck beds, jostling over the bumpy terrain. The people wore objects that looked unsettlingly like rifles strapped to their backs.

  “Let me do the talking,” Leon said. “Whoever these people are, human or not, they’re not going to listen to a pretty blond girl asking them to play nice.” He gestured toward the town, indicating the tallest building. “These are the creeps who have piles of slave chains in the sheriff’s office.”

  Cora eyed Leon closely. With the fierce tattoos on his face and the dirt caked on his clothes, he looked older than seventeen. He stood straighter than he had before. His hands were calm by his sides, not defensively flexed into fists, ready to leap to violence at the first sign of trouble, as he’d been when she had first met him.

  “No,” she said. “I got us into this. I’ll get us out.”

  The trucks were close enough now to see outlines of faces looming behind the windshield.

  Leon nodded.

  Just weeks ago, Cora thought, he would have been more likely to abandon them or sell them to the highest bidder than offer to lead. That had been Lucky’s job. Lucky had been their leader, their moral compass.

  But now . . .

  Cora glanced again at the squat green ship on the horizon. A sharp, vivid pain pulled at her insides. Lucky’s body was on board. He’d died just after the escape. She’d spent nearly two days in the tight quarters of Bonebreak’s ship with Lucky’s cold body beneath a tarp. The boy who’d died for her.

  A sudden burst of light emanated from beneath Bonebreak’s ship. She straightened. A low rumble began, making the ground shake. Slowly, the ship started to rise.

  Cora sucked in a tight breath.

  “Do you see that?” Nok grabbed Cora’s shoulder, pointing toward the ship. “Bonebreak is leaving!”

  “He wouldn’t,” Cora breathed. “Anya and Mali would stop him.”

  She stared with wide, disbelieving eyes as the ship kept rising. It rose a hundred feet high above the moon’s surface, then five hundred, then even higher. With another burst of light, the ship was gone.

  “That bastard!” Leon growled.

  The ship had vanished high into space where they couldn’t see it anymore. The four of them stood in the parched desert on the outskirts of the town, heads pitched toward their last hope, which had just abandoned them. Cora squeezed her eyes closed.

  Anya, she urged with her mind, trying to communicate telepathically as the two of them had done on the Kindred station. What’s going on? Where are you going?

  There was no answer.

  A truck revved its engine as it approached. Cora whipped her head around. Abandoned or not, trouble was still coming their way, fast. The third truck, which had been headed in Bonebreak’s direction, now circled back to join the others as they barreled into the patch of desert. The trucks’ wheels skidded and whined as they surrounded Cora and her friends. Nok pressed her arm against her mouth, coughing.

  The trucks didn’t cut their engines. Fears flashed in Cora’s mind. We’ll be enslaved. I’ll never leave this moon, never run the Gauntlet, never even find out if Earth is still there! And Cassian . . . Cassian will die strapped to that table. Tortured. And all because he tried to free us.

  The faces behind the windshields were clearly visible now. Grim-looking men and women of all ages with ragged hair and even more ragged clothes. At least they were human—hopefully they’d be more lenient to their own kind. A woman in the passenger’s seat of the closest truck pointed toward them and then pounded twice on the inside roof of the cab.

  “Um,” Leon said, glancing at Cora. “You sure you got this?”

  A dozen soldiers flooded out of the backs of the trucks. The soldiers surrounded them, grunting calls to one another, swinging rifles off their backs, and aiming. They wore handkerchiefs tied around their noses and mouths to keep from breathing in the dust, revealing only sunken eyes and sharp cheekbones. It gave them the air of bandits.

  Cora braced herself. She looked toward the sky, praying that Bonebreak’s ship would suddenly reappear.

  But the sky remained empty.

  Why did they leave?

  A thin man with a handkerchief over his face stepped down from the
truck. His clothes, like all the soldiers’, were tattered at the edges and faded, but something about the cut of the clothes caught her eye. The outfit was shaped like a uniform with piping down the sleeves. When the piping caught the sunlight, it glittered gold. On the pocket, there was an insignia that looked like the lion embroidery from the Hunt uniforms.

  Impossible.

  The man pulled down the handkerchief, revealing a young face that made Cora start with recognition.

  “Dane?” she sputtered.

  It had been just days since she’d last seen him, but it felt so much longer. The time spent in Bonebreak’s ship had passed in a blur as she’d grieved Lucky’s death, and before that, Dane had already been dragged off in disgrace to rot in some cell.

  Now he looked like a shell of his former self. Skin blistered from sunburn, a dullness to his eyes. Leon twisted around with a questioning look. He had never met Dane, Cora realized, and neither had Rolf or Nok. In the Hunt menagerie, Dane had been the Head Ward and had colluded with the Kindred to keep the rest of the human staff obedient. When she’d first met him, he’d had a smug air of privilege, and she hadn’t at all regretted framing him for a crime he hadn’t committed.

  But this isn’t where he was supposed to end up, she thought with confusion. Why was he on Armstrong? Supposedly only good, obedient humans were sent here.

  “Hello again, songbird.” He gave his trademark smirk. Cora felt like she was going to be sick.

  Another truck door slammed. The woman who had signaled to the soldiers came around the front of the truck. With the cloth around her face it was impossible to guess her age, but she moved with authority, though she was smaller than the rest of the soldiers. Her dark hair was pulled back in a messy bun at the nape of her neck, a few tangled strands falling around her face. She folded her arms and studied the four of them. “You know these humans?” she asked Dane through her handkerchief.

  “Only the blond one.”

  The woman eyed them as though appraising merchandise. “They’re kids. They don’t even look nineteen yet.” She jerked her chin toward Cora. “You came on that ship we saw taking off?”

  “Yeah,” Cora answered quickly. “A . . . star-sweeper pod,” she added, remembering a vessel Cassian had once told her about, figuring it was best not to mention Anya or Mali or Bonebreak. “We . . . stole one from the station and overrode the controls. It took off automatically once we landed—it must have had a preprogrammed return protocol. No one else was on board.”

  The woman raised a doubting eyebrow as she studied them closer. “Is that so? In any case, you aren’t marked with any ownership tags, so you must be free humans.” She smiled grimly. “Not that it matters. No one stays free for long here.” She turned back to the soldiers. “They seem healthy enough. We can get some decent work hours out of them. Take them to town for processing.”

  Cora’s heart thundered. She thought of the chains stacked in the sheriff’s office. Of the ledger with the categories marked: slaves, wives, dead.

  A soldier started toward her.

  “Back off!” Leon shoved the soldier away. It caused a sudden scramble of activity and a click click click of cocked rifles. In the next instant a dozen barrels were pointed at them. A soldier reached out to grab Nok. Rolf threw a punch toward his jaw and Nok screamed. It all happened so fast, like a shift in the air. Leon lunged for two of the soldiers, grabbing their rifles by the barrels and slinging them to the ground. A cry clawed up Cora’s throat—No, this is wrong, fighting will get us nowhere—but it was too late. Leon hurled himself at the crowd, the tough Mosca shielding that was sewn to his shoulder letting him plow through the soldiers like a battering ram.

  Two hands snatched her from behind.

  “You shouldn’t have come,” Dane whispered, digging his fingers painfully into her shoulders. She spun around. His eyes were hooded, haunted. What had happened to his claims that Armstrong was a paradise? And his dreams of being a king here? He seemed like nothing more than a servant to that dark-haired woman.

  Leon roared as he knocked out two more soldiers and twisted a rifle away from another. He aimed it straight for the woman’s head.

  “Put your rifles down!” he yelled. “Or her brains go up in fireworks.”

  The soldiers paused, uncertain. The rifles remained aimed high.

  The woman’s eyes were steady, unafraid of Leon’s rifle aimed directly between her eyes. She walked slowly in a circle, appraising the captives, eyes lingering on Rolf’s twitchy hands, on Nok’s long legs, on Cora’s short hair. Then she turned to Leon and pulled down her handkerchief.

  “Rifles on the ground,” she said calmly to her soldiers, then motioned to Dane. “Let that one go.”

  Dane released her, reluctantly. Cora stumbled a few steps away, rubbing her arms, throwing him a glare.

  The woman looked to be in her fifties. Something metallic in her jaw caught the sun, and Cora peered closer and then recoiled. A six-pointed brass star like a sheriff’s badge, but sharp at the ends, was soldered to the woman’s skin. It looked almost sinister in the way its clawlike edges dug into her cheek.

  The woman eyed Leon with an amused air, ignoring the rifle, and then turned to Cora. I’m Ellis, the sheriff, as you can see.” She cocked her head so the sun caught the star-shaped badge again and made it gleam gold. “These are some of my deputies. It’s my duty to keep order in Armstrong. Dane says you’re a troublemaker. If you thought you’d find sanctuary here, you’re mistaken. We’ll sweat the rebellion out of you in the mines.”

  Leon inched the rifle closer to the woman’s forehead. “You’re forgetting that I’m the one with the gun, lady.”

  Ellis raised an eyebrow. Suddenly she swept her hands high like conducting an orchestra, and Cora stumbled backward in surprise. The dozen rifles resting on the ground rose into the air in unison. Click. Click. Click. The sound of a dozen unmanned weapons being cocked. Cora gasped.

  “What the . . . ,” Leon started.

  “She’s like Anya,” Nok whispered. “She’s telekinetic.”

  Ellis gave that flat smile again. “Deputies, take them away.”

  “Wait!” Cora said. “We’re human, like you! We’re on the same side. It’s the Kindred who put all of us here, who abducted us from our homes. It’s them we should be fighting against, not each other. We could work together to make a place for humans in this world—a fair, free place. You have perceptive abilities yourself, so you know we’re just as intelligent as any other species.” She took a deep breath. “If you’d just help us, I can make it happen. I have a way.”

  She thought of Cassian’s laser-light model of the Gauntlet and its twelve puzzles that she would have to run. Solve them all, and humanity would be deemed an intelligent species. Captive humans on Kindred stations would be freed, and everyone on Earth, who had no idea there was life beyond their planet, would have a future in which they and their children would never be imprisoned.

  “Just hear me out,” Cora said. “You won’t regret it.”

  Ellis stepped forward slowly. Dane turned away, as if he didn’t want to watch whatever came next. A sense of fear rose in Cora’s stomach with every step the sheriff took closer.

  “Work together?” Cruelty laced Ellis’s voice. “On the same side?” She laughed and tilted her head so sunlight gleamed off the badge and blinded Cora’s eyes. “I don’t want a fair world. I don’t want freedom. You think because some DNA links us, that makes us loyal to one another?” She tugged the cloth back up over her mouth. “On this moon there are only two sides that matter: the side that has the guns, and the side that doesn’t.”

  She plucked a rifle out of the air and signaled to her deputies to do the same.

  “And unfortunately, girl, you’re on the wrong one.”

  2

  Cora

  THEY WERE LOADED INTO the trucks like cattle.

  First the deputies bound their hands with cord—securing Leon’s twice to be sure—and forced them to march to
the truck beds. They pushed Rolf and Leon into one and Cora and Nok into the other. Nok’s knees connected hard against the truck bed.

  “Ow,” she said with a grimace, and met Cora’s eyes. “I’m worried about the baby—”

  Cora shook her head sharply. It was better if the deputies didn’t know Nok was pregnant. Her growing belly was more than five months along, but the frilly apron she’d taken from Serassi’s dollhouse experiment hid the bump.

  The truck roared to life. Two deputies climbed in the back and tapped the side of the truck. A second before it took off, Dane jumped in too.

  He locked eyes with Cora as he settled in the truck bed across from her. The engine hummed, and the truck started bouncing toward the town. Dust flooded the air, making Cora wish she had one of the cloths around her nose. She squinted out over the scrubland. Even if they got free, where would they run? They didn’t know this moon. She pitched her head skyward, once more scanning uselessly for Bonebreak’s ship.

  After a moment, she felt Dane’s eyes on her. He glanced at the deputies, who were staring toward the town, and moved close enough so that they couldn’t be heard over the engine’s roar.

  “Why are you really here, songbird?”

  “Why are you?” she shot back angrily. “This hardly looks like the paradise you told us about.”

  He rubbed his chin anxiously. “Unfortunately, I have to admit you were right. I shouldn’t have believed the Kindred. They told me that if I obeyed them I’d be richly rewarded. That was a lie—well, you know how they are. They don’t lie, but they don’t tell the full truth, either.” His gaze turned to the dry, empty horizon, broken only by the Kindred’s transport hub, tall and boxy, like a small power plant. “The good humans are brought here when they turn nineteen. But so are the bad ones. Everyone ends up here when they turn nineteen. The Kindred strip you of any of the markings they tagged you with, put you through processing there in that transport hub, and then dump you here so that Ellis can decide if you’re a slave or a deputy.”

  “I don’t see any iron chains around your wrists,” Cora said. “So you must have done something right.”

  He smirked. “I was supposed to be a slave. Sentenced to the root mines, just like you’ll be. But within hours of arriving, I overheard Ellis saying she wanted a drink, and if I learned anything in the Hunt, it was how to mix a good cocktail. She made me a deputy instead, right on the spot.”

 
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