Chapter Excerpt

Chapter 1

Finn had been flung on his face and chained to the stone slabs of the transitway.

His arms, spread wide, were weighted with links so heavy, he could barely drag his wrists off the ground. His ankles were tangled in a slithering mass of metal, bolted through a ring in the pavement. He couldn’t raise his chest to get enough air. He lay exhausted, the stone icy against his cheek.

But the Civicry were coming at last.

He felt them before he heard them; vibrations in the ground, starting tiny and growing until they shivered in his teeth and nerves. Then noises in the darkness, the rumble of migration trucks, the slow hollow clang of wheel rims. Dragging his head around, he shook dirty hair out of his eyes and saw how the parallel grooves in the floor arrowed straight under his body. He was chained directly across the tracks.

Sweat slicked his forehead. Gripping the frosted links with one glove he hauled his chest up and gasped in a breath. The air was acrid and smelled of oil.

It was no use yelling yet. They were too far off and wouldn’t hear him over the clamor of the wheels until they were well into the vast hall. He would have to time it exactly. Too late, and the trucks couldn’t be stopped, and he would be crushed. Desperately, he tried to avoid the other thought. That they might see him and hear him and not even care.

Lights.

Small, bobbing, handheld lights. Concentrating, he counted nine, eleven, twelve; then counted them again to have a number that was firm, that would stand against the nausea choking his throat.

Nuzzling his face against the torn sleeve for some comfort he thought of Keiro, his grin, the last mocking little slap as he’d checked the lock and stepped back into the dark. He whispered the name, a bitter whisper: “Keiro.”

Vast halls and invisible galleries swallowed it. Fog hung in the metallic air. The trucks clanged and groaned.

He could see people now, trudging. They emerged from the darkness so muffled against the cold, it was hard to tell if they were children or old, bent women. Probably children—the aged, if they kept any, would ride on the trams, with the goods. A black-and-white ragged flag draped the leading truck; he could see its design, a heraldic bird with a silver bolt in its beak.

“Stop!” he called. “Look! Down here!”

The grinding of machinery shuddered the floor. It whined in his bones. He clenched his hands as the sheer weight and impetus of the trucks came home to him, the smell of sweat from the massed ranks of men pushing them, the rattle and slither of piled goods. He waited, forcing his terror down, second by second testing his nerve against death, not breathing, not letting himself break, because he was Finn the Starseer, he could do this. Until from nowhere a sweating panic erupted and he heaved himself up and screamed, “Did you hear me! Stop! Stop!

They came on.

The noise was unbearable. Now he howled and kicked and struggled, because the terrible momentum of the loaded trucks would slide relentlessly, loom over him, darken him, crush his bones and body in slow inevitable agony.

Until he remembered the flashlight.

It was tiny but he still had it. Keiro had made sure of that. Dragging the weight of the chain, he rolled and wriggled his hand inside his coat, wrist muscles twisting in spasm. His fingers slid on the slim cold tube.

Vibrations shuddered through his body. He jerked the flashlight out and dropped it and it rolled, just out of reach. He cursed, squirmed, pressed it on with his chin.

Light beamed.

He was gasping with relief, but the trucks still came on. Surely the Civicry could see him. They must be able to see him! The flashlight was a star in the immense rumbling darkness of the hall, and in that moment, through all its stairs and galleries and thousands of labyrinthine chambers he knew Incarceron had sensed his peril, and the crash of the trucks was its harsh amusement, that the Prison watched him and would not interfere.

“I know you can see me!”he screamed.

The wheels were man-high. They shrieked in the grooves; sparks fountained across the paving. A child called, a high shout, and Finn groaned and huddled tight, knowing none of it had worked, knowing it was finished, and then the wail of the brakes hit him, the screech in his bones and fingers.

The wheels loomed. They were high above. They were over him.

They were still.

He couldn’t move. His body was a limp rag of terror. The flashlight illuminated nothing but a fist-thick rivet in an oily flange.

Then, beyond it, a voice demanded, “What’s your name, Prisoner?”

They were gathered in the darkness. He managed to lift his head and saw shapes, hooded.

“Finn. My name’s Finn.” His voice was a whisper; he had to swallow. “I didn’t think you were going to stop . . .”

A grunt. Someone else said, “Looks like Scum to me.”

“No! Please! Please get me up.” They were silent and no one moved, so he took a breath and said tightly, “The Scum raided our Wing. They killed my father and they left me like this for anyone who passed.” He tried to ease the agony in his chest, clenching his fingers on the rusty chain. “Please. I’m begging you.”

Someone came close. The toe of a boot halted next to his eye; dirty, with one patched hole.

“What sort of Scum?”

“The Comitatus. Their leader called himself Jormanric the Winglord.”

The man spat, close to Finn’s ear. “That one! He’s a crazed thug.”

Why was nothing happening? Finn squirmed, desperate. “Please! They may come back!”

“I say we ride over him. Why interfere?”

“Because we’re Civicry, not Scum.” To Finn’s surprise, a woman. He heard the rustle of her silk clothes under the coarse travelcoat. She knelt and he saw her gloved hand tug at the chains. His wrist was bleeding; rust made powdery loops on his grimy skin.

The man said uneasily, “Maestra, listen . . .”

“Get bolt-cutters, Sim. Now.”

Her face was close to Finn’s. “Don’t worry, Finn. I won’t leave you here.”

Painfully, he looked up, saw a woman of about twenty, her hair red, her eyes dark. For a moment he smelled her; a drift of soap and soft wool, a heart-stabbing scent that broke into his memory, into that black locked box inside him. A room. A room with an applewood fire. A cake on a china plate.

The shock must have shown on his face; from the shadow of her hood she looked at him thoughtfully. “You’ll be safe with us.”

Finn stared back. He couldn’t breathe.

A nursery. The walls stone. The hangings rich and red.

A man came hastily and slid the cutter under the chain. “Watch your eyes,” he growled. Finn dropped his head on his sleeve, sensing people crowding around. For a moment he thought one of the fits he dreaded was coming over him; he closed his eyes and felt the familiar dizzying heat sweep his body. He fought it, swallowing saliva, gripping the chains as the massive cutters sheared them open. The memory was fading; the room and the fire, the cake with tiny silver balls on a gold-bordered plate. Even as he tried to keep it, it was gone, and the icy darkness of Incarceron was back, the sour metallic stench of oily wheels.

Links slid and rattled. He heaved himself upright in relief, dragging in deep breaths. The woman took his wrist and turned it over. “This will need dressing.”

He froze. He couldn’t move. Her fingers were cool and clean, and she had touched him on his skin, between the torn sleeve and the glove, and she was looking at the tiny tattoo of the crowned bird.

She frowned. “That’s not a Civicry mark. It looks like . . .”

“What?” He was alert at once. “Like what?”

A rumble miles off in the hall. The chains at his feet slithered. Bending over them the man with the cutters hesitated. “That’s odd. This bolt. It’s loose . . .”

The Maestra stared at the bird. “Like the crystal.”

A shout, behind them.

“What crystal?” Finn said.

“A strange object. We found it.”

“And the bird is the same? You’re sure?”

“Yes.” Distracted, she turned and looked at the bolt. “You weren’t really—”

He had to know about this. He had to keep her alive. He grabbed her and pulled her to the floor. “Get down,” he whispered. And then, angrily, “Don’t you understand? It’s all a trap.”

For a moment her eyes stared into his and he saw their surprise fractured into horror. She jerked out of his grip; with one twist was up and screaming, “Run! Everyone run!” But the grids in the floor were crashing open; arms came out, bodies were heaved up, weapons slammed down on the stone.

Finn moved. He flung the man with the cutters back, kicked the false bolt off, and wriggled out of the chains. Keiro was yelling at him; a cutlass flashed past his head and he threw himself down, rolled, and looked up.

The hall was black with smoke. The Civicry were screaming, racing for the shelter of the vast pillars, but already the Scum were on the wagons, firing indiscriminately, red flashes from the clumsy firelocks turning the hall acrid.

He couldn’t see her. She might be dead, she might be running. Someone shoved him and thrust a weapon into his hand; he thought it was Lis, but the Scum all wore their dark helms and he couldn’t tell.

Then he saw the woman. She was pushing children under the first wagon; a small boy was sobbing and she grabbed him and flung him in front of her. But gas was hissing from the small spheres that fell and cracked like eggs, its sting making Finn’s eyes water. He pulled out his helm and dragged it on, the soaked pads over nose and mouth magnifying his breathing. Through its eye grid the hall was red, the figures clear.

She had a weapon and was firing with it.

“Finn!”

It was Keiro, but Finn ignored the shout. He ran for the first truck, dived under it, and grabbed the Maestra’s arm; as she turned he knocked the weapon aside and she screamed in anger and went for his face with her nailed gloves, the spines clawing at his helm. As he dragged her out, the children kicked and struggled with him, and a cascade of foodstuffs was tossed down around them, caught, stowed, slid efficiently into chutes down the grids.

An alarm howled.

Incarceron stirred.

Smooth panels slid aside in the walls; with a click, spotlights of brilliant light stabbed down from the invisible roof, roaming back and forth over the distant floor, picking out the Scum as they scattered like rats, their stark shadows enormous.

“Evacuate!” Keiro yelled.

Finn pushed the woman on. Next to them a running figure was drilled with light and evaporated soundlessly, caught in mid-panic. Children wailed.

The woman turned, breathless with shock, staring back at the remnants of her people. Then Finn dragged her to the chute.

Through the mask his eyes met hers.

“Down there,” he gasped. “Or you’ll die.”

For a moment he almost thought she wouldn’t.

Then she spat at him, snatched herself out of his hands, and jumped into the chute.

A spark of white fire scorched over the stones; instantly, Finn jumped after her.

The chute was of white silk, strong and taut. He slid down it in a breathlessness that tipped him out at the other end onto a pile of stolen furs and bruising metal components.

Already hauled to one side, a weapon at her head, the Maestra watched in scorn.

Finn picked himself up painfully. All around, the Scum were sliding into the tunnel, encumbered with plunder, some hobbling, some barely conscious. Last of all, landing lightly on his feet, came Keiro.

The grids slammed shut.

The chutes fell away.

Dim shapes gasped and coughed and tore off masks.

Keiro removed his slowly, revealing his handsome face smeared with dust. Finn swung on him in fury. “What happened? I was panicked out there! What took you so long?”

Keiro smiled. “Calm down. Aklo couldn’t get the gas to work. You kept them talking well enough.” He looked at the woman. “Why bother with her?”

Finn shrugged, still simmering. “She’s a hostage.”

Keiro raised an eyebrow. “Too much trouble.” He jerked his head at the man holding the weapon; the man snicked back the trigger. The Maestra’s face was white.

“So I don’t get anything extra for risking my life up there.” Finn’s voice was steady. He didn’t move, but Keiro looked over at him. For a moment they stared at each other. Then his oathbrother said coolly, “If she’s what you want.”

“She’s what I want.”

Keiro glanced at the woman again, and shrugged. “No accounting for taste.” He nodded, and the weapon was lowered. Then he slapped Finn on the shoulder, so that a cloud of dust rose from his clothes. “Well done, brother,” he said.



Excerpted from Incarceron by Catherine Fisher
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