Everyone had told him not to do it. Although everyone really meant his family because in Jaffrey’s world, that was everyone. They were the only ones who knew his secret, who knew what he had to lose. They’d each come to him alone—haltingly, like his father had, or hands wringing like his mother, or, in little Astrid’s case, tearfully.
Don’t put in for Watcher.
Ben had been the worst. “Grubs don’t get assignments, little bro. Lyze me, just try for something easy, hey?” Jaffrey had punched his older brother in the shoulder, a friendly blow but one hard enough to remind Ben he was no munchie. This was his life, no matter how short that life might be. And he’d do what he wanted with it. No matter the consequences. The blow had gotten him a wrestling match, a wrenched shoulder, and cut rations for a week.
But none of it mattered. Because now—
Out of the corner of his eye: movement. Jaffrey didn’t hesitate. It’s what made him such a good player and a better captain.
Mid-bolt between obstacles, he twisted. Gasps went up from the crowd gathered on the overdeck surrounding the bridge to watch the last game of the season. Enemy fire streamed past Jaffrey’s absorption uniform, missing him by inches as he hurled himself sideways in a spinning fall.
His unchecked rotation brought him face to face with the Dragon, who was still shooting, but surprise had made the kid’s last few shots go wide.
Jaffrey dropped to the floor and fired.
He grinned. With the direct hit, the other boy’s wristbands, designed to activate during play mode, went gray. The Dragon’s bodysuit froze him in place, from neck to toes, despite his agonized expression, and the red light at the tip of his gun faded out.
Damn. Wish he would’ve dropped the gun before frying.
But Jaffrey didn’t have time for wishful thinking. He barely had time to lunge behind an absorption pillar and flatten himself against it before he heard the zing of stunner ray and boots charging past in pursuit of—he edged out to look—Sarah Henschied.
He grimaced. She was one of his best, but ten minutes into overtime, she was flagging. They were running his team down, having learned from past games to keep them separated and on the defense.
Jaffrey tried to quell his breathing.
Tried to forget about the announcement that morning, about the fact that he had, against all odds, actually done it. Dared to put in for it. Dared to hope.
His gaze drew downward, as if magnetized to the ground. Down, through the bridge floor, which was made of the same substance as the walls, a portmanteau called glaphene: diamond-hard plexiglass, fully transparent, with an atom-thick coating of conductive graphene. Down, down, down.
Five hundred feet below lay the grub camps, a green patchwork quilt of farmland. Black shapes moved like ants among the fields.
You’re one of them, his fear whispered. You belong down there.
No, I don’t, he shot back. I’m top of my class. I belong here.
You’re a grub. A Proset.
But I got in. I’m a Watcher shadow.
Shut up! This is my life!
However long that is.
Jaffrey tightened his grip on the stunner gun, forcing his gaze away from the camps. Steeling his mind from its merciless reminders.
The game. That’s what mattered now. They were down to four players, and twelve Dragons still prowled the bridge.
He caught a gleam of red on white among the crowd of spectators and knew what was riding on his performance. He might’ve landed a Watcher’s slot during this morning’s assignment ceremony. But they could take it away at any time. And they would in a heartbeat if they knew what he was.
Jaffrey wouldn’t give them the excuse.
“Situation,” he whisper-rasped into the com embedded in his left wristband. He toggled to listening mode, letting his twin earpieces momentarily shut out the cacophony of the game. The clicks of stunner guns, the stomp of boots, and the echoing cries of battle dissolved into the belabored breathing of his teammates.
One of his mates managed to activate their camera, which gave him visuals on the court from the player’s vantage. He tapped the control on his wristband to open the vid as a holo issuing vertically from the band. Sarah Henschied was far left and downfield from him. Her player icon was moving bridge center, though, and fast, which meant she hadn’t shaken her pursuit.
“Henschied, safety corridor, wait for orders,” he murmured, his voice clipped and strained with tension.
“Copy!” she squeaked, breathless.
“Streep, what’s your position?”
“Cap, heads up!”
Jaffrey swiveled. Travis Weaver was in the air, making an impressive leap over a stream of rebounding stunner ray only to hurl his gun at Jaffrey as three enemy shots connected with his suit almost simultaneously, freezing him in place.
Travis’s gun, still active, landed with a crash several yards toward bridge center.
Jaffrey dove for it; another Dragon was doing the same. They collided head-on, and then Jaffrey was grappling with the older girl, who was kicking and clawing and writhing beneath him, trying to get off a shot.
She was a better wrestler. A hooked leg, a twist that made his hip flexor scream, then the back of his head hit the deck with a crack. Dreg it, this was it. Straddling him, she bared her teeth, hefting her gun.
And a ray of stunner light hit her square between the eyes.
She froze, fury hot on her face.
Jaffrey pulled himself out from under her, grabbing Travis’s gun, and spun to find Parker Streep zigzagging through obstacles, herding Dragons away from Jaffrey, whose position near bridge center made him vulnerable, open to fire on all sides but one.
Around him, opaque holograph obstacles hung suspended in space, calibrated to either bounce or absorb stunner ray. Jaffrey counted five Dragons in pursuit of Parker before he lost sight. A questioning ping of his coms confirmed that Sarah had made it to the safety corridor, which lay near the bridge entrance to the overdeck.
So, ten to three. Not good odds.
Jaffrey scrambled back into a more protected position, panting and wracking his brain for an idea. It was no surprise to anyone except his family that the two best stunner tag co-captains in all of Area history had both earned Watcher pre-assignments. He’d proven himself worthy. But if he lost this game? Or worse, if he simply hid out and let Parker take the credit for saving him in that last play...
No, he couldn’t just hide. He had to do something.
Through the transparent walls of the bridge, Jaffrey had a good view of the overdeck. Black rubber ran along a vast track that ringed the Area and connected the various towers of his small, isolated world. The bridge stretched out into the center of the giant cylinder of sterilized air that made up Area 7. Fifty floors up, the bridge was held in place by tensioned buttresses. Far above, the holo sun shone down with a heatless golden light.
Jaffrey, crouched between three reflection pillars, was nothing but a fly trapped and waiting to be crushed.
He tapped his coms. “Streep? How many guns do you have?”
A ping in his earpiece. Then, gasping: “Two.”
“Sarah?” Jaffrey pressed.
“Ankle’s tweaked,” came Sarah’s voice. “But I got two. Time for the ace?”
“You read my mind.” A thrill of excitement coursed through Jaffrey’s circuitry. He stood. “Let’s do this.”
The crowds crushing the overdeck had thickened. Trainees dismissed for the half-day pressed splayed fingers to the bridge’s graphene-coated plexiglass walls. The glaphene fogged with their bated breaths. Their excited shouts had dwindled to murmuring. Then silence.
And then Sarah started running.
Jaffrey could hear when she bolted from the safety corridor. Not because he could hear her running but because the crowds started to scream her name.
Jaffrey’s pulse shot up.
Seconds later, Parker made it to his side, his face sweaty and fierce with excitement. “Sarah’s faster than I’ll ever be, even with a bum ankle. Impressive, that girl.”
“Ready for this?” asked Jaffrey quietly. “We won’t win. Not ten to three.”
“Ten to two when she fries.”
“I saw the Area Chief.”
“He’s here?” gulped Parker.
“Incoming,” came Sarah’s growl over the coms.
They locked eyes. Jaffrey’s brown ones and Parker’s fiery red ones. “Out with a bang,” said Parker, teeth gritted. “No better day to die.”
The words sent a jolt through Jaffrey’s core. His hand crawled up to the back of his neck where a thin film of prosthetic skin obscured his Proset ink. A black strand of DNA had been stamped on him at birth. His hair was getting long. That and the sweat from the game had made the skin patch peel up a bit.
Parker’s eyes narrowed, but Sarah’s shout into their earpieces—“Company in five, four”—made them both wince.
They bumped fists.
“—three, two, one!”
Then, firing ceaselessly, Jaffrey and Parker dove into the open, back to back, arms outstretched, counting on the Dragons’ survival instinct to give them the edge they needed, that little bit of extra time, those half seconds of surprise.
And hoping Sarah had managed to lure them all into the open before they took her out.
The crowd, shocked into holding its breath, now issued a deafening roar.
It was a complete gamble.
It was over in moments.