After Atlas

Gov-corp detective Carlos Moreno was only a baby when Atlas left Earth to seek truth among the stars. But in that moment, the course of Carlos’s entire life changed. Atlas is what took his mother away; what made his father lose hope; what led Alejandro Casales, leader of the religious cult known as the Circle, to his door. And now, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Atlas’s departure, it’s got something to do why Casales was found dead in his hotel room—and why Carlos is the man in charge of the investigation.

To figure out who killed one of the most powerful men on Earth, Carlos is supposed to put aside his personal history. But the deeper he delves into the case, the more he realizes that escaping the past is not so easy. There’s more to Casales’s death than meets the eye, and something much more sinister to the legacy of Atlas than anyone realizes…

In After Atlas, Emma Newman returns to the captivating universe she created in Planetfall—available November 8th from Roc.

 

 

Chapter 1

It’s times like these, when I’m hunkered in a doorway, waiting for a food market of dubious legality to be set up, that I find myself wishing I could eat like everyone else. I watch them scurry past, hurrying back to their warm little boxes with their bright lights and distractions, a hot meal just the press of a button away. They’ll stand there in front of their printers, watching that artificial shit being spurted out of dozens of tiny nozzles with clinical precision to form lasagna or something, and their stomachs will rumble and their mouths will water and, oh God, just the thought of it is making me nauseous. As much as it disgusts me, I envy them.

It’s cold and damp, the November sun is setting in the middle of the afternoon and I am beyond tired. The satisfaction of finishing my latest case didn’t last long in the face of my hunger, and I just want the truck to arrive, to buy what I need, to get home and to shut the door on it all. I’ll make a casserole, I promise myself, like a parent promising a grumbling toddler he’ll get a toy if he behaves. There’s some beef left in the freezer. And if there’s flour (I try not to get my hopes up) I’ll make dumplings, stodgy and crisped on the top like the Brits make them. I haven’t eaten since an early and inadequate breakfast, and just imagining what that casserole could smell like makes me close my eyes and smile to myself, just for a moment. I turn my collar up and tuck my hands back into my pockets. I’m hoping that here in this little nook no one will see me and feel they’re entitled to come and talk to me just because they’ve seen me on the news and docu-feeds.

A woman walks in front of the doorway and looks straight at me, pausing midstride as if she’s listening for something I’m about to say. I pull back into the shadows when she laughs, worried that she’s recognized me, before realizing she’s talking to an avatar projected by her chip. She’s experiencing walking with a friend, chatting and laughing away. When I shift to the other side of the doorway she blinks with a yelp, seeing me for the first time, and mutters an apology in Norwegian.

I rest my head against the door behind me, waiting for my pulse to settle again.

“Would you like to play a game while you’re waiting?” Tia asks.

“No.” Now I’m the one looking like I’m talking to myself. Not that it matters. Most of the people I can see in this dingy London backstreet are talking to either projected avatars or, like me, just the voices of their Artificial Personal Assistants, delivered directly into their brains via neural implant.

“We’re next to a node for a new urban-enhancement game with a free trial to—”

“No.”

“Would you like me to stop making urban-environment interactivity suggestions when you are off duty?”

“Yes. Why are you making them anyway?”

“A recent change in the licensing agreement between—”

“Save it, Tia. I don’t need to know.” It’s the first rule of any change to a licensing agreement: it’s not for the benefit of the end user, no matter what they say.

Where the fuck is the van?

I check the time and it’s only five p.m. It feels like two in the morning. There’s a steady pounding throb at the back of my head, and my hunger has moved from gnawing, through occasional bouts of light-headedness, to making me want to kill someone. Then I hear the low whine of the van’s engine and step out as it parks, pulling my small wheeled case behind me, ready to muscle my way to the front when it opens its back doors.

Everyone in the loitering crowd has their public profile set to private, as do I. I recognize some of them from other markets. There’s the man with the tiny dog that bites anyone who goes near, the little shit. There’s the woman with the umbrella that’s almost taken my eye out several times, and she knows she’s doing it but has no fucks to give for a rival consumer. There’s the old dear who looks like she could be the sweetest grandma straight out of a department store Christmas mersive advert, but I know she’s just as willing to grind her bootheels into someone else’s toes if they push too much from the back.

The driver gets out, moves to the side of the van and slides the side door across just enough to pull out the folding table, while his passenger jumps out and scans the street. They’ve just made a delivery to a supermarket down the road, one that’s—like all of them—too expensive for most people to shop in. It has aisles filled with perfect vegetables and a counter with the freshest meat—actual real meat cut from real animals—all sparkling and brightly lit. I only know about it because of the mersive adverts that weasel their way in every few months or so before Tia closes the loophole they’ve exploited to get to me. Cooking with real, fresh food is the province of the rich. Rich enough to buy it, or rich enough to have the space for dirt to grow it, or rich enough to hire space and equipment to have other people grow it just for them.

This impromptu market is a testament to mankind’s ability to exploit every possible consumer niche. The driver has come from a wholesaler who has realized that there are people willing to pay good money for the stock that the supermarkets won’t take. So all the rejects get put into boxes and loaded onto the last delivery of the day, to be sold in a backstreet that smells of piss and misery. Now it’s filled with people who are doing well enough to spend money on food items considered luxuries, but not quite well enough to afford to do it in a nice building with beautiful staff and real champagne given at the door.

I’m not doing well enough to have the money to do this. I’ve made greater sacrifices to get this food. I doubt any of the others have given up years of freedom to be able to buy a few misshapen vegetables every week. I frown to myself, trying to stop thinking that way. I try to reframe it, the way Dee would. “It was a shitty choice,” she’d say. “But at least it was one you got to make for yourself.”

It doesn’t have the same effect when she’s not here with me. No matter how much I try to spin it into something else, it doesn’t alter the sheer injustice of it all. But as much as I want it to, my sacrifice doesn’t give me a place at the front of the jostling throng that is slowly, reluctantly morphing into a queue. In moments I find myself behind the old woman and take care where I’m putting my feet. The man with the dog is farther back, his irritation expressed perfectly by the tiny, vicious snarling of the overgrown rat in his arms. There’s a sharp, painful tap on the top of my head and I twist to see the woman with the umbrella.

“So sorry,” she says with a fake smile.

“It’s not raining,” I say through gritted teeth.

“Oh, has it stopped?” she pretends not to have noticed and still doesn’t fold the damn thing away. There’s a slight narrowing of her eyes as she stares at me and I face front again, worrying that she’s thinking she’s seen me somewhere before.

I turn my collar up as if against the wind, but it’s more to cover as much of my face as possible. Crates of produce have been hauled out of the van and the driver has cranked one open already. He scoops out a few carrots, all huge, malformed things, looking like fetishes from some ancient magical ritual. He holds one up for the crowd, who laugh when they see how much it looks like a man running, with its split root and arm-like offshoots. Turnips are dumped next to them, then onions. It’s as if the universe knew I wanted to cook a casserole.

“No need to push,” the driver calls. “Plenty for sale tonight. Cooking apples too, when this doughnut”—he jerks a thumb at his assistant—“digs ’em out for ya.”

Tia informs me that the seller’s APA has made contact and the handshake has been successful. All I need to do is pick what I want and our APAs will handle the rest. I swipe away a notification warning me that the ingredients I plan to buy will amount to an extra three hours on my contract to pay off the credit required.

The queue shuffles forward as the first purchases are swiftly made. Only four people away from the table, I’m already earmarking the ones I hope will still be there when it’s my turn. The seller glances down the line, sees me and winks. A recorded audio message comes in from him moments later and I give Tia permission to play it to me.

“I got some flour in the van for you and some sugar. You need to sieve ’em ’cos they was spillages, but it’s all good ’cos it’s a clean processing plant. No charge. My boy’ll give ’em to ya round the front of the van after you got your veggies.”

Has it been sent to me in error? The message continues.

“I know you was the copper who got that bloke who was killin’ the babies up north. Saw it on the ’feed. I know ’im, I thought, he’s the one who buys me veggies. So there’s extra for you whenever you come. Just don’t tell no one. Next time I’ll bring some beef if I can sneak it out. I got a baby grandson, see? Same age as that young lad, the last one that bastard got.”

The message ends, and for the first time in years I choose to seek out eye contact with another real human being because I genuinely want to. He meets my gaze and nods and I smile. I actually smile at someone I don’t know. He looks away to serve the next customer and I’m left reeling from the body blow of the first act of kindness I can remember in years.

The queue moves forward again, and even though the umbrella hits my head once more I don’t have any anger left in me now. I ignore it and wait with newfound patience. There will be something left for me by the time I get there; I know it now.

Minutes pass and then the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. I have the distinct impression someone is watching me. It’s not the woman behind me—I can hear her arguing with the man behind her, who’s also been hit by the umbrella. It’s someone else. I tuck my chin into my coat and whisper to Tia.

“Who’s in this crowd?”

“All profiles within a ten-meter radius, with the exception of the driver and sales assistant, have their public profiles set to private.”

“Read them anyway.”

“You are not currently assigned to a case. Please state your justification.”

I can’t give the real reason so I need to lie. If I push it too far my breach of their personal privacy will be flagged in the system. “Possible criminal activity in progress.” I pause, hoping that’s enough.

The gamble pays off; I’m in good standing at the Ministry of Justice and there’s nothing in the system to suggest I ever abuse my privileges, so it gives me the benefit of the doubt. Tia pulls in the information that all the people around me would display about themselves if they had their profiles set to public, overlaying it across my vision as if the text is floating above the tarmac next to me. Before I even have the chance to scan the list, Tia highlights one and pulls it to the front, in line with a command I programmed years ago. That profile is now larger than the rest with a single keyword flashing.

Journalist.

Oh JeeMuh. Oh fuck, no. Not now.

The omnipresent paranoia ratchets up a gear and my palms start to sweat. He must have followed me from the train station, old-school style. I read his profile and select the link to his portfolio. He’s written several pieces about the Pathfinder. Of course he has; half of the journalists alive now have written some bullshit about that crazy woman who built a spaceship called Atlas and took the faithful off into space to find God. His most recent piece is an article on the capsule they left behind to be opened forty years later that will soon be opened, the one I’ve instructed Tia to remove all mentions of from my feeds. The grand opening is less than two weeks away and the speculation about its contents have gone from occasional and irritating to constant and unbearable.

I force myself to appear calm, telling myself that I overreact to these people, and if I don’t get a lid on this soon, it could be reported to my psych supervisor.

“Show him in the crowd, Tia.”

A small blue arrow appears at the right-hand edge of my vision and I twist until the arrow disappears and a bald black man in a heavy gray overcoat is outlined in blue. He’s staring right at me and just a second of eye contact is enough to send my heart rate high enough to flash a notification from MyPhys. I look away as fast as I can, silently hoping he’ll stay where he is.

It’s a ridiculous hope.

There’s only one person in front of me now, and the vegetables I’ve got my eye on are still there. I want to run but I need the food. I add a “Do not disturb” to my personal profile but I know it won’t make any difference to that parasite. If anything, it’ll probably make him even more keen to bother me. Journos are twisted sods.

He’s walking over and I ball my fists in my pockets. I fix my attention on the table ahead, tucking my nose beneath the top rim of the turned-up collar, even though it won’t do a thing. I have to satisfy this primal urge to duck and hide somehow.

“Mr. Moreno,” he says, even though his APA will be reminding him of the DND notice on my profile.

“I don’t have anything to say.”

“I don’t want to talk to you about the case.”

I channel my contempt into a long sideways glance. “I know.”

“It’s just a—”

“Leave me alone,” I say as the person in front of me finishes her transaction.

“That’s not very polite.”

“Neither is harassment,” I reply, and point out the vegetables I want, furious at this asshole ruining my chance to give the vendor a personal thank-you for his kindness. I pass over the small canvas bag I’ve brought with me and watch the carrots, onions and turnip being put inside. Even though it’s gone out of fashion, I extend my hand to the seller and he shakes it firmly. “Thank you,” I say to him as our APAs handle the transaction.

He winks at me again. “You need to queue properly if you want to buy,” he says to the journo. “These good people have been waitin’ a while.”

“You pushed in right in front of me!” umbrella lady says, sparking protests from the others behind her. As the journo extricates himself, I nip round the side of the van and collect two small sacks that I put straight into my case with more thanks to the seller’s son.

I manage to get a few meters away before the journo catches up. “Mr. Moreno, I’m not like the others. I want to work with you. Surely you want some control over what people say about you? About your mother?”

“I deny permission to use any footage of this interaction or any recording of this conversation. If it’s published online I’ll use every fucking contact I have in the Ministry of Justice to—”

He smiles, holds up his hands as he puts himself in my way, forcing me to stop. “There’s no need to threaten me. I’m not stupid. I’m not going to fuck with an SDCI, am I?”

“You already are.” I move to go around him, mindful of the fact he’s taller than me.

“I just want to explore the impact of—”

“Piss off.” I push past him, but he follows. “I’m recording this,” I say, even though he knows I will be. I still have to cover my ass.

“There are a lot of people who want to know who you are, Mr. Moreno. They want to know how you’re doing. The network had more than three million messages after that first documentary was shown about you and your father. Three million people who cared so much they got in touch. Thousands sent cards and gifts. Did you know that? Just because of that documentary. Imagine what a second one could do.”

That documentary. I stop, struggling to control the rage as a string of warnings from MyPhys scroll down the left hand side of my vision. It details elevated blood pressure, increased cortisol and high adrenaline levels, forming a cold report of my need to punch this fuck into next week.

“Those people want to love you, Carlos. They want—”

I round on him, the bag slipping from my fingers, the case handle dropping into a puddle. “They want whatever the fuck you tell them to want,” I spit through my teeth. “Let’s tell the fucking truth for once. You want me to make you money. You’re not interested in me or my story.”

“On the contrary,” his teeth are bright white against his dark brown skin. “I’m very interested in why you spent all that money on a few shitty vegetables. On your pay grade? Bit indulgent, isn’t it?”

I can hear Dee telling me to back off, just like she did on the first day I met her, when I almost hit the hot-houser who’d tried to make out that kidnapping us was an act of mercy. Even when Dee’s hundreds of miles away, I carry her with me. I push down the rage, telling myself over and over again that he’s not worth it. This journo isn’t the first to harass me and he won’t be the last. I can’t risk a black mark on my file. “I’m going to walk away now, and if you follow me, I’ll call in a team that’ll make the counterterrorism forces look like the Boy Scouts.”

I pick up the bag and the handle of my case and I force myself to walk away from him. I listen for his footsteps and breathe again when I realize my bluff has worked and he is walking in the opposite direction.

“MyPhys is reporting elevated stress levels,” Tia says as I start to shake. “Would you like to play a game to calm you down while we walk to the station?”

“No, Tia. Call Dee for me. I… I need to talk to Dee.”

 


Chapter 2

I wouldn’t call myself a violent man, but there are few things more satisfying than pulling off a perfect head shot from more than a hundred meters away and watching the can’s metal head split open. That’s when the tentacles come out and I switch to a laser cannon with a broader beam, because those things fly around so fast it’s impossible to hit one at a time. When I’ve got a couple of good shots in, the whole creature comes out of the can to scuttle off across the red dust, but I shoot a grenade into its gelatinous rear end before it can get behind cover. Another stain on the surface of Mars and another cheer from Dee. I grin at her and holster the cannon, feeling like the fucking Don of New London, and turn to watch the scientists I’ve saved crawl out from the transporter.

One of them, a woman, comes over to me. I can’t see much of her figure through the thick environmental suit, but she’s pretty. I can’t help but smile at the admiration in her eyes, blue and huge with wonder at my evident skill.

“That was an amazing shot,” she says in a British accent far crisper than mine. “If you have a minute, I’d love to tell you about the new-season selection on offer at Abeline and Colson.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” I say, and a dialog box pops up on the right hand side of my vision.

Would you like to remove in-character ads?

They’re not even in character. How do those gimps in marketing even think this shit works? I’m pumped up from ending a fight that’s lasted at least twenty minutes, and the last fucking thing I want the character—who’s obviously going to give the next bit of plot—to ask me is about whether I want to look at hand-knitted jumpers. I select the “yes” option with a flick of my eyes and confirm the micropayment.

We’ve noticed heightened levels of irritation from in-game ads. Would you like to remove all ads from this server connection?

Oh, I would love to, but I look at the cost and even though it isn’t that much, I know I can’t keep pissing away a few pounds here and there like I have been tonight. That’s the trouble with these violent mersives; once the limbic system gets involved my higher cognitive functions are screwed.

“We carrying on, Carl?” Dee asks.

“Yeah,” I say, dismissing the offer and its accompanying dialog box. “Sorry.”

“There’s another transport that was due to reach the outpost, but they haven’t checked in,” the scientist says, back to the game dialog, as if nothing has happened.

“We’ll look into it,” Dee says, and she gives me that smile, the one she always gives in between fights, the one that promises violent fun.

“Take our ’porter,” the scientist says. “We can make it to the bunker from here. And then maybe afterward…” She looks me up and down and then fires a lustful smile at Dee. “Maybe you could both come back here for a debriefing.”

“Yup, we’ll do that,” Dee says, and heads for the transporter’s driving seat as the last of the scientists jump out the back and head off to safety.

“Did you change the settings?” I ask as I strap myself into the passenger’s seat. “I thought the whole sex-starved martian-scientist stuff pissed you off.”

She shrugs. “I just fancied a change. I think the shitty dialog is funny. It’s like those ancient horror classics—you seen those? They were just pr0n, really. And I figured you might need to blow off some steam. No pun intended.”

“Bollocks,” I say, and we both laugh.

She’s right though: I did need this. When I finally got through to her I was almost home, munching on a bag of roasted chestnuts from the only street-food vendor in London that I trust. By then I couldn’t talk about what had happened; I’d already pushed it down too far. She could tell I was upset. “Wanna shoot some shit on Mars?” she’d asked, knowing I needed some way to vent. There’s nothing better than an ultraviolent with a thin-ass plot and great rendering to help me unwind after a case. “Do you think the scientists on Mars know about this game?”

“Are you joking? Half of them probably made a stack of cash recording environmentals for the game company.”

“I wonder if they play it.”

She doesn’t answer, focusing instead on getting the transporter over some difficult terrain. She always drives, because she’s better at it than me. I don’t mind, but usually there’s a turret I can man to keep me busy. These are nothing more than armored jeeps and there’s nothing for me to do but wait until we reach the next set piece.

I look out of the window at the orange sky, the browns and dusky reds of the martian landscape. Even though I know I’m not really here, it’s not enough to stop it seeming real. I know that what I see is simply a clever combination of images displayed into my lenses and data streamed to my chip, all conspiring to make me see and hear things that are, literally, a world away and not real anyway. The real base on Mars has been in operation for more than ten years and the planet has been studied for the past sixty-odd, and not once has there been any evidence of aliens or indigenous robots or aliens inside robots, as this game has decided upon. The only thing realistic about this is the way it looks and my brain just laps it up, happy to be tricked as my body lies on my sofa, home at last.

If I could, would I jack it all in, sell all my stuff and apply for a secondment to the Mars station? What kind of person would do that?

Someone like my mother. But she didn’t go to Mars. I shudder, forcing my thoughts away from her, a flash of irritation at the journo for stirring that shit up again. I have no desire to leave Earth, no matter how many people and news feeds say I must be desperate to. I’m not the abandoned, tragic figure they want to make me, staring up at the night sky, wishing I had been taken too. Fuck that shit. I’m not what they want me to be.

“You’re quiet,” Dee says.

The orange glow from outside shines through the plasglass visor of her helmet, highlighting stray blond strands around her eyes with bronze and making her pale skin look like it’s being warmed by the light of an ancient forge. I almost tell her about the journo, but I don’t want to say the words he said. If I do that, they’ll feel too real. And anyway, she’s heard me moan about this shit for years; she doesn’t need to hear it again.

“Must be tough at the moment,” she says. “All that talk of the capsule is bad enough but that documentary on top? That’s tough shit for anyone to deal with.…”

I turn away from the fake martian scenery to look at her, feeling the stress and dread that I’d been trying so hard to escape seeping into this world too. “What documentary?” Had the journo chosen to leave out the fact it had already been made? Or is this another one?

“Shit. You didn’t know?” She bites her lip.

“What documentary?” There have been several over the years, each one a punctuation mark at the end of some tenuous anniversary. The first was when I was ten. After Atlas it was called, and the researchers who made it harangued my father into a nervous breakdown. And that fucking journo had the gall to try to make out that it was a positive thing.

“Well, it’s forty years since they left, and with the capsule being opened and…” She doesn’t need to finish the sentence. “I saw it come up on the schedule at work. I didn’t know whether to tell you or not. I thought they might have been in touch. “

I draw in a deep breath. “Someone hassled me on the way home tonight.” I don’t mention the food market. Dee wouldn’t understand. “He said something about a documentary, but it didn’t sound like it had been made yet.”

“Oh, it’s definitely been made already,” Dee says. “They didn’t even e-mail you?”

“They probably tried.” My job is tough and I didn’t choose it, but one perk is better than most at my pay grade: I can buy top-level personal security for only a fraction of its market value. It’s enough to keep the bottom-feeders from finding where I live and hacking my stuff in the cloud and making my life even more hellish. They always find a way to my public in-box though, the one I have to have by law. And at every shitty anniversary or reminder of the day Atlas carried its crew off to follow that lunatic to find God, the in-box is bombarded by interview requests. My APA filters it as best as its algorithms can, but there’s always someone who manages to get through to me. If it wasn’t for Dee and her kindness, I wouldn’t even have this break. I can’t afford a private gaming server, and Christ knows how she can on her pay grade. No, I’m not going to cast my professional eye over that puzzle. I’m just glad it’s only the in-game ads bugging me and not some twat trying to get a sound bite in the middle of a firefight.

“But don’t you want to make sure they tell the truth?”

“They’re not interested in that, Dee. They’re interested in a narrative.”

“But don’t you want that narrative to be true?”

I frown at her, but she’s keeping her eyes on the dust and rocks ahead, steering the transporter toward a bright dot on the horizon. “I don’t give a shit about what anyone thinks.”

“Yeah, but the last one said you had ongoing problems as a result of—”

“Show me a person who doesn’t have ongoing problems and I’ll show you an AI. What’s it to you, anyway?”

She glances at me, smiles a little, but something about this is making me uncomfortable. “I just worry about you. Look at you. You’re skinny as hell. You eating properly?”

I let my raised eyebrow express how unimpressed I am. “Dee, I always eat properly.”

“You’re too thin. It must be the stress. I’m not having a go, Carl—I can only imagine how awful it must be. Shit, the things they say about your mother—I mean, that would upset anyone.”

The things they say about my mother. They did upset me when I was a child. I believed them. Before I had the means to filter the news feeds like I do now, I saw what the world thought of a mother who left her baby behind to travel on Atlas. There were chat shows dedicated to decrying her decision, and features on the worst mothers in history in which she was always in the top ten. It didn’t matter that others on that ship had left children too. Five toddlers, ten teenagers, many more adult children. As a baby, I was singled out. And all the other children had been left behind by their fathers. It was as if the media had so much more outrage to pour upon an absent woman than all those absent men.

Everybody judged her as the worst of humanity. I wasn’t old enough to realize that those fucking leeches didn’t have a clue what my mother was thinking when she left on that ship. And just as much as they hated her, they pitied me. I was incapable of understanding that, to them, I wasn’t a person but rather a character in a melodrama of their making. Nothing more.

“Carl?” Dee’s voice is as gentle as it always is, but she wants me to say something and there’s nothing I want to share. “Don’t you want people to know what their bullshit can do to someone?”

I don’t even want to think about this anymore. I scan the surroundings for anything hostile, hoping for something to pop up that I can shoot. I don’t understand why the level designers have allowed such a huge gap between action. The next station still looks miles away, a tiny cluster of lights in the distance. Surely something is about to land and open fire or roll out from behind a rock and take out the engine? It’s like it wants me to sit here and be bored while Dee…

While Dee interviews me.

I don’t say anything for a moment, getting a handle on the anger. I can’t believe Dee would have anything to do with those parasites. It’s us against them, surely, like it’s always been. Right from the moment I met her.

A flash of the inside of the shipping container all those years ago, dark save for a single bright coin of blue sky in the roof at the corner. The smell of vomit and urine. The sound of someone weeping in the corner; others muttering to each other in a language I didn’t understand. Hands were wrapped around my fist, holding it still.

“I could have had him!” I yelled into the darkness, the face in front of me nothing more than a glint of light from watery eyes.

“He would have killed you.” Despite the circumstances, I was elated to hear someone else speak English. “Calm down. We haven’t been shipped out yet.”

“So we need to get out before that happens!” I was a teenager, still bruised and bloodied from trying to escape and being rounded up and thrown into the container with the other nonpersons. We’d been tricked into going somewhere with a rumor of paid work off-grid, then rounded up like stray dogs and treated just the same. The woman in the darkness had stopped me from hitting the man who’d thrown us in there. I had almost punched her out instead.

“No, it’s a good thing. I heard what they’re planning to do. We’re going to be hot-housed. If you mark yourself out as violent, it’ll be worse for you.”

“Hot-housed? What does that even fucking mean?”

The hands tightened around my fist and her voice lowered. “It means we have to be smart. You’ve played games, right? Mersives?”

“Yeah.” I lied.

“This is no different. You keep quiet, learn the rules, do the right things at the right times. We get it right, we’ll win the game. Understand?”

“No.”

“Willing to learn?”

“I guess.”

The hands shifted until only one held mine. I uncurled my fist and she shook my hand, mingling our sweat. “My name is Dee.”

“Carlos.”

She pulled me closer until I could feel her breath on my ear. “I’ll watch your back if you’ll watch mine.”

Excerpted from After Atlas © Emma Newman, 2016

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