Duff Roman woke to the screeching death of a swamp bug on the zapper in the rafters far above his head. Poor guy. The bug didn’t belong here anymore—and neither did he.
He’d just turned eighteen and this was his last day in the orphanage. Resignation tightened his shoulders. If he tried to stay past sundown, the Company would confiscate his belongings and banish him into the jungle outside of Wolf Haven. No gear in the jungle was a death sentence. Even if the demons didn’t get him, the other indigenous life didn’t generally like humans.
A slight sound drew his gaze to the closest of five other occupied beds in the middle of the room. In the darkened room he could only see the vague outline of Simon on his bed. The darkness hid the rest of the kids’ beds and the pile of scrap beds in the corner.
Were the other kids awake? He held his breath, but heard nothing else.
It would be easier for everyone if he left before they woke up. Sheila was still too young to understand why he had to leave. Matilda would understand, because she would be the next one forced out. Simon and the twins, even though they would hide it, would be hurt that Duff hadn’t gotten into one of the Family caste and brought them along. They didn’t understand that if he’d gotten into a Family he’d have to prove himself first. And that might take years. No, he was much better off leaving before anyone woke up. It would be one less meal against the orphanage account and would make the money last a little longer.
If Duff was quiet and fast, he might be able to leave his bed. When he moved, the bed creaked. Once he was gone, they’d probably add his bed to the growing pile of unusable beds in the corner. If they got more kids, they’d have to build a bed from the broken parts.
He reached under his pillow for his tool kit and snapped it onto his belt. His dad had said to always keep his tools handy.
Even with the windows darkened so they could sleep, Duff only had a minute or two to get up before he was caught. He slipped out of his bed, hooked his finger in his boot leather, and tried to sneak out of the room before anyone else woke up. His bag was already packed and by the front door.
A light flipped on. His heart jumped and he gasped, nearly blind.
“Happy birthday.” Little Sheila grinned her broken-toothed grin. She danced on her toes. Her too-big nightgown hung on her slight frame. She’d been even tinier when she’d first come to the orphanage. Affection and pride warmed him.
“Birthday! Birthday!” Matty, one of the twins cheered, his skinny arms up and dark bed-head hair up too. He’d miss the twins’ mischief.
“Awww. It’s a birthday, can’t we stay in bed?” Marty, the other twin, threw the covers over his head.
“Did you want to be abed when demons break into town?” Simon made a face, sticking out his tongue. He was always a bucket of sunshine. Always so serious. He was the third oldest.
“That’d never happen, the town has protections.” Matty frowned, glancing at Duff. “It does, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, but Kalecca doesn’t like us humans so we should always be prepared,” Duff said. He knew firsthand how dangerous the planet was. They all did or they wouldn’t be here.
Matilda squinted. Her honey-colored ponytail swayed. “But this is his eighteenth birthday. You know what that means.”
Duff’s stomach plunged. Yup, he sure did. Even though Matilda was a year younger, she acted like the pragmatic older sister he’d never had. Once he left, it would be up to her to watch out for the kids.
Sheila’s cold little hand wrapped around his finger. Her other thumb reached toward her mouth. “What does it mean, Duffy?”
Matilda met his eyes. She knew what it meant. Simon too had seen previous kids leave. He looked away from Duff, his shoulders slumping. The three youngest were too young to remember.
He cleared his throat to get rid of the lump lodged there. Sheila gazed at him expectantly. Even though life had been rough on her, she was still so innocent of the world. What fact could he tell her? He was now too old to be their protector because he was too old to live in the orphanage. He couldn’t tell them that none of the Families wanted him. If a Family didn’t want an orphan, the orphan’s odds of survival were dismal. Someday, just a few years away, this would be all of their fates.
Unless a Family wanted them. If he’d been a girl he would’ve had better odds of getting into one. The only orphan he’d known that had gotten into a Family had been a pretty red-headed girl.
And there would always be new orphans for the Families to choose from as the still wild planet fought for its freedom.
He opened his mouth to release the cold hard truth of being an orphan on planet Kalecca.
Sheila must have seen something in his face because she paled and stuck her thumb in her mouth, sending his heart tumbling. She’d know soon enough; there was no reason to break her heart today. Besides, one Family still hadn’t responded to his formal request. He knew the odds were against him, but he still had hope. He’d done odd jobs for this Family, so they knew something about him.
“It means everyone gets cake,” Duff said, his voice gruff.
Shrieks and high-pitched chatter pierced the air, shattering the somber mood like crystal. The thought of what would happen to each of them pushed back for the moment.
That last Family had to want him. He could offer them his tech repair skills. He was good.
“The first one to be cleaned and ready with no fighting gets the biggest piece,” Duff said loudly so he could be heard above the din.
Sheila jumped up and down, her brown pigtails leaping in counterpoint. The joy in her bright blue eyes eased some of his unease. “Me! Me!”
The kids tucked blankets on their beds, dressed, and raced down the stairs. In a few minutes, only Matilda and Duff were still upstairs.
“What will you do today?” Matilda stood by her bed. She meant would he take a non-Family job. She meant where would he sleep tonight.
He didn’t really want to consider an independent crew. Once you joined a crew, a Family wouldn’t touch you. Most of the crews starved just as much as the people who stayed in town. Z-crew was the only independent crew that made out well. Rumors flew about what that crew did to survive. Everything from slavery to bushwhacking other crews. Once someone joined Z-crew, they were even more of an outcast than an orphan.
“I have one more application out,” Duff said.
“No Family is going to want any of us.” Matilda straightened out her bed and tucked the corners. Her hands smoothed down the worn blanket. She didn’t look at him. “Well, maybe the twins because of twin luck.”
“Not after what happened to their family.” He made sure his voice was low so there was no chance that the boys would overhear.
Chants of “Cake! Cake!” floated up from downstairs.
“We’d better get down there before they try to use that replicator you wasted your company credit installing.” Matilda’s gaze darted to his face, maybe testing the truth of her statement.
Duff froze, but then forced himself to fold his blankets instead of making his bed. “That was donated.”
“No one cares about us.” Matilda crossed her arms. “I know you’ve been doing odd jobs for years so that we get cake on our birthdays.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His gut twisted.
“You’d have been better off using the money to buy yourself equipment.” Matilda moved on to tuck in the next bed in the line. “That might’ve gotten you on one of the better freelance teams.”
He did know that, but he also knew what it’d been like growing up in this orphanage. Every person he saw in town, including the Seers, were better off than he’d been. It seemed so wrong that those time-torn crazy Seers were treated better and had better food than the orphans. There’d been nothing to keep his spirits up with kid after kid leaving and never coming back.
When he’d been old enough, he’d decided he could change that. His dad had taught him how to fix electronics. He’d done the disgusting jobs, like cleaning the Seer hut, to get a base set of tools and then, once he proved he actually could fix stuff, he’d moved on to slightly better paying jobs.
The lump lodged back in his throat. He shook his head. “Should I see if I can get into Z-crew?”
“Anyone but them. Z is gonna get his whole crew killed.” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “You are a good man. A fool, but a good man.”
Being a good man was important. It was hard to say if she thought he was a fool for considering Z-crew, the most notorious of crews, or a fool for caring about his family. Probably Z-crew. Matilda hated Z for some reason.
He distributed his blanket to Sheila’s bed. She got cold at night. He placed his pillow on Simon’s bed, even though Simon was a pain. Simon’s pillow was even flatter than the one Duff was about to give him. He could’ve taken his blanket and pillow with him, but the kids needed them more.
Matilda stood by the bed, staring at the wall of windows. Once the sun was high enough, the blackout pane would slide away and let the light in. Matilda’s arms wrapped around her middle. She wasn’t thinking about windows. Or him probably. She was probably thinking about whatever had put the dark circles under her eyes.
Duff tilted his head and listened. “It’s far too quiet.”
Matilda grabbed his arm. “When you get out there, remember to stay true to you. And if you find your place, come back for us.” She leaned over and pressed a small, closed mouth kiss on his cheek. “For me?”
Warmth radiated to his chest. Matilda almost never touched anyone.
“I will. I’ll figure out how to save us all.” He reached to pull her closer into a hug, but, as always, she fled. This time to the top of the stairs.
“You’re right. They are far too quiet.” She gave a nervous titter, her face lost in the shadows, and she disappeared down the stairwell.
He ran his hand along Matty’s bed. His finger caught on a hole in the worn fabric. This would be the last time he’d ever sleep in this room. The room blurred with the next blink. No matter what happened today, this room, with the dozen beds and creaky floors would be in his past. He would sleep somewhere else tonight. Worst case, he’d find someplace to hide for a night or maybe someone would take pity on him.
He clenched the blanket in his fist and took a deep shuddering breath. No, the only way to survive this was to stick to the plan. The last Family had to respond by today, so it was possible he could be in a compound by nightfall. He’d get in with a Family and find Relics.
Only two things had value to the company: company credits and Relics. If he were lucky enough to find a Relic he could sell it to the company and have enough money to live for half a year. But they were hard to find in the wide swaths of jungle. Only the Seers were able to hone in on them. He’d overheard it had something to do with the fact that both Seers and Relics had traveled through time. If he could find a Relic, he could prove himself to a Family and he’d find a way to save the orphans.
He moved his bed away from the wall. Behind the bed frame, was a small cubby hole that held a picture of a slim dark-haired couple holding a baby. The woman grinned with sparkling eyes and teeth showing. The man’s nose had been busted many times, but the picture captured his dad looking at his wife with a warm and worshipful expression.
He’d been told he looked like his dad with the frown and worry-lines, but his brown eyes were from his mom. This picture was the last thread that linked him back to when he’d been wanted. If he took it out, wherever he went it would be with him. If he left it behind it would be safe, but he wouldn’t see it again.
Finally, he decided he’d keep his past here and hope someday he’d be able to come back and claim it when he was settled.
He hid the cubby hole with his bed frame, put his forehead against the wall.
“Bye, guys, I would rather you stay safe.”
He had to be tough and smart. If he made the wrong move he’d end up dead. Right now he was the only adult to care about the kids. The orphanage would revert back to the place he remembered as a kid. A place filled with starvation and no hope of anything better. He took one last glance around and then he walked down the stairs.
The kids were gathered around the simple wooden table. The low hum of the replicator seemed like a sonic boom in the quiet room. The twins held hands, white knuckled. Even Sheila had her hands fisted in her dress. Unease thrilled through him, running up his back. When Sheila stepped toward him, he saw a white envelope on the table. It was the response he’d been waiting for. This envelope was his answer from the final Family.
His heart dropped and he walked forward. The kids parted before him until his thighs bumped the table.
“Do you think they said yes?” Sheila whispered, giving voice to what they were all thinking.
“Let’s get cake.” Duff didn’t want to touch the envelope. He’d fantasized too long and this was his last hope. If this was a rejection, he’d have to decide his second plan. Every other plan he could think of left him destitute and the orphanage with no hope of protection.
“No, we want to know,” the twins said in unison. They still held hands.
“If you get into a Family you might be able to get us in.” Simon gnawed his fingernail.
Duff picked up the envelope. It fluttered back to the table. He clenched his hands for a moment to control the shaking. Then picked up the envelope again.
He tried not to look at the expectant faces around him. The clasped hands, upturned faces, wide hopeful eyes that were bound to be disappointed. The envelope was too light. His stomach twisted. The nineteen other rejects had felt the same way. He didn’t want to open it here. He’d need time to school his expression so as to not frighten the kids.
The replicator beeped and emitted a flash of blue light. An elaborately tiered cake with light green frosting appeared in the middle of the table.
Matilda stepped up and set a stack of plates on the table. The chipped blue one was on top. Each color and even which way the crack aligned could send a message. She must have known no matter what the letter was, he wouldn’t want to open it in front of the kids. The last letters he’d opened in private. “Who was the first one down?”
“I was. I was.” Sheila jumped up and down, waving her hands.
“No, me.” Marty jumped between Sheila and Matilda.
Soon all the kids jumped around as they argued and pushed about who should get the biggest piece. Duff tucked the envelope into his shirt.
Matilda didn’t have to wave him away; the blue plate on top meant she was sorry. She’d probably guessed it was a rejection by its weight. The crack pointed at the door was their private sign for “She had this, go do what he had to do”. If the crack had been pointed to the stairs it would have meant she’d left something for his eyes only upstairs. If it had been pointing to the replicator it would have been a reminder for a forgotten treat. If the plate were ever upside down or red, Matilda was in trouble and needed help.
He stepped out of the kitchen into the small back porch and leaned against the wall. The humidity hit him like a wet sock. He had about five minutes before they devoured the cake and came looking for him. They’d find him instantly unless he fled out of their little fenced yard. Their small bit of safe space.
Duff took a deep breath. Slowly he pulled the envelope apart bit by bit, until the flap was opened. All he had to do was take out the slip. His stomach clenched. Another deep breath and he pulled out the folded piece of paper. The harsh sound was his breathing. This was it. He just needed to open it to find out. The paper seemed to open at a jungle slug’s pace. Then the words focused.
A rejection. The last Family had rejected his application.
His lungs squeezed and he couldn’t catch his breath.
What could he do? The odd jobs wouldn’t cover a place to stay. He could no longer help support the orphanage. The small amount of money they got in donations barely covered food for one person at the company’s prices. That left Matilda with few options. There were plenty of men who’d looked at her. She hadn’t seemed interested. Would she have to make a choice she didn’t want to make to support the orphanage? Guilt made it hard to breathe.
Maybe he did need to look more closely at the independent crews. They were dangerous. He’d have to hope he could find a reputable one and that they’d find Relics. His heart raced and the world grew warm. Neither option pointed to him surviving long.
He crumpled the note and shoved it in his pocket. Just as he stood up, a sharp buzz pierced the air. It took him a moment to realize that the buzzing that surrounded him wasn’t just in his head.
The town alarm. The town was under attack by demons.