Alight is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Scott Sigler
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
DEL REY and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
eBook ISBN 9780553393163
Book design by Caroline Cunningham, adapted for eBook
Cover design and illustration: David G. Stevenson, including images © Denise Crew/Getty Images (face) and © Shutterstock (vines)
The Birthday Children
Part I: Beginning and Belonging
Part II: Walls and Wonders
Part III: Legacies and Language
Part IV: Hauntings and Hatreds
Part V: Destiny and Doom
By Scott Sigler
About the Author
THE BIRTHDAY CHILDREN
A stabbing pain jolts me awake.
I open my eyes to darkness. Total darkness.
My head feels thick, my thoughts clogged.
The pain is where my neck meets my shoulder, but it’s already fading. I remember a sting just like it, but much worse. That day…was it my birthday? Yes, I think so. My twelfth birthday.
A chill floods me—this has happened before.
I am in a coffin.
A monster is coming for me, a rot-black thing with one ravaged eye.
No…that’s not quite right. It’s different this time. I can move my hands…last time they were held down. My fingers rise up through the darkness. I feel a lid, so close it’s almost touching my face and chest. I need to escape before the monster destroys me.
I need a weapon.
The spear…where is my spear?
I punch at the lid, I scream and I hammer at it with fists and knees.
A noise, a whir of machinery; I feel the coffin lid start to slide down toward my feet. Light hits me, burning my eyes even through tightly scrunched lids—I can’t see.
I lash out wildly, blindly, punching and clawing.
Hands grab my wrists.
“Em, it’s okay!”
A girl’s voice. I recognize it: Spingate.
“Calm down,” she says. “Everything is fine.”
Her hand takes mine. Our fingers clasp tightly. Her skin is warm and soft, her grip strong and confident.
“We’ve landed,” she says. “You’re safe.”
Safe. That word is an illusion. And yet, I feel my body relax a little. I recall something big and silver, something that gave me hope, but the image evades me.
“Landed? What are you talking about?”
Her other hand strokes my hair. It comforts me, takes away some of my fear.
“You’re still groggy from the gas in your coffin,” she says. “The effects should wear off pretty fast.”
Even as she says this, I feel my head clearing. The fog drifts away. Memories rush back.
Waking up in a coffin. The needle driving into my neck. Fighting my way out. Not knowing who or where I was, my entire past gone save for a few wisps of someone else’s life.
Saving Spingate. Then O’Malley. Then Bello, Aramovsky and Yong.
The hideous, cracked skull of a little boy, skin dried tight to his bones, clothes too big for his small body.
The skeletons. The dust. The endless dungeon hallways. Our long walk.
My knife sliding into Yong’s belly.
Finding Bishop, Gaston, Latu and the rest. The vote, where I became leader—two tribes merging into one.
The pigs. Latu’s death. The Garden. That’s where I last felt safe, when I still believed that childish concept existed.
Bello’s terror-wide eyes when the monster’s wrinkled black hands dragged her into the Garden’s underbrush. Those monsters—the Grownups—with their red eyes and spindly limbs, their gnarled skin, fleshy folds hanging where their mouths should have been.
The shame of that moment hammers me. I left her. For the greater good, my head tells me, but my heart calls me a coward.
Meeting Brewer. Discovering that we weren’t underground, that we were on an ancient spaceship called the Xolotl. The Grownups were creatures that should have died centuries ago. They wanted to wipe our minds clean and take over our young bodies as easily as someone might change their clothes.
Learning about Omeyocan, the planet we were made for.
Then, my decision to attack. Harris, dying somewhere in the Garden. Capturing Matilda. Finding the big silver shuttle. And when we were almost away, El-Saffani—the boy and girl twins who finished each other’s sentences—charged an army of withered, walking corpses and were blown to pieces.
We escaped the Xolotl, but at such a price.
“Let’s stand you up,” Spingate says.
She helps me rise and step out. My legs immediately buckle—Spingate holds me, keeps me from falling. I think of an almost identical moment when I was the one comforting her, telling her to be calm, helping her out of a coffin.
My eyes don’t sting as much. I blink them open, and see the face of my friend. Spingate’s curly red hair is a tangled mess. Her green eyes are sunken, ringed by skin so dark it looks bruised. I’ve never seen her this pale; the black, circular gear symbol on her forehead stands out in stark contrast.
“I think I can stand on my own now.”
Spingate kisses me on the cheek, lets me go.
We’re in a long, narrow room. Red walls and ceiling, gleaming black floor. Two rows of thin white coffins lined up side by side run the length of the room. Wide aisles run along each wall, as well as one down the middle that leads through a curved opening. Just past that opening and to the right is the door we used to enter the shuttle. Past that door, the strange
room of light where Gaston and Spingate glowed like angels.
These coffins are simple and plain. Designed just to let people sleep, I think. They aren’t like the big, carved coffins that tended to us while we grew from babies into the bodies we have now.
My coffin is open—the lid rolled down somewhere into the foot of the thing. The other coffins remain sealed tight. The one to the right of mine holds O’Malley; the one to the left, Bishop. I held their hands until the lids closed.
A boy walks through the curved opening, shuffles down the middle aisle toward us. It’s Gaston—he’s holding my spear.
He’s still wearing his red tie, which is embroidered with a yellow and black circle of tiny images, the word MICTLAN in white letters at its center. His white shirt is mostly clean, mostly untorn. I glance at my own too-small shirt, ripped in a dozen places and splattered with blood. My shredded plaid skirt barely covers me.
Gaston offers me the spear. I take it, then he clutches me in a hard hug.
“Em! We did it!”
I return the hug. It feels so good to hold him.
“You did it,” I say. “You flew us to Omeyocan.”
He steps back. His smile—part charm, part arrogance—is as wide as ever: Gaston is impressed with himself.
Despite his joy, it’s clear he also has had no rest. His black hair hangs down his face, partially hiding his eyes.
“It was amazing,” he says. “Once the pilothouse lights hit me, I remembered my creator’s training from when I—I mean he—was little. Some of my blanked-out areas seemed to clear.”
I don’t know how that’s possible. I have “blanked-out areas,” too. We all do. When our brains search for memories we know should be there, they usually return only whispers and echoes. We were never meant to know anything for ourselves. We are receptacles, shells, created to house another person.
If he can “remember” how to fly, maybe our blank areas aren’t permanently blank, like Matilda told me they were.
Gaston and Spingate look exhausted. I’m sore and scratched, bruised and beaten, but I don’t feel tired at all.
“How long did I sleep?”
“Only the two hours it took us to land,” Spingate says. “The shuttle told us the coffin gas does something to our brains, lets you sleep far deeper than you could on your own. We can take it in the pilothouse, too. You’d still be sleeping if I hadn’t told the shuttle to give you the wake-up injection.”
That sting in my neck. Not a knife, not a snake, not a bite…just a needle. I think about Brewer, how he tried to use a coffin needle to murder me, then I push that thought away. We don’t need to worry about him anymore—we’re home.
“What’s it like outside?”
Gaston’s little hand reaches over to Spingate’s. Their fingers lock.
“We don’t know,” he says. “It was dark when we landed. The shuttle had a preprogrammed landing path that took us down a big, circular hole of some kind. Maybe to protect us from wind, I’m not sure. It was nighttime when we flew in, and there was heavy cloud cover.”
He says cloud cover like he’s proud of the words, like it was an obstacle that not just anyone could overcome.
“So you haven’t been outside at all?”
Spingate shakes her head. “You deserve to be the first.”
They waited for me, out of respect. I don’t know what to say.
“I’ll go with you,” she says. “The shuttle says the air is safe for us.”
For us, but not for the Grownups who made us. We were designed to be able to survive down here. And in that lies our safety; even if the Grownups could reach Omeyocan—which they can’t, because this was the last shuttle—this planet’s very air would kill them.
Spingate holds up her left arm. Her forearm is wrapped in a sheet of gold, intricately carved and studded with black jewels. It reminds me of the bracelets the Grownups used to kill El-Saffani, but somehow I know it’s not a weapon.
“Gaston found this in storage,” she says. “It’s called a bracer. I can use it to scan for things that could hurt us, things like microorganisms or toxins.”
She speaks those words the same way Gaston said cloud cover—new, important words that she is proud of knowing.
There’s no reason to wait any longer. We have nowhere else to go. The Birthday Children will survive on Omeyocan, or the Birthday Children will die here.
My stomach lets out a loud growl. An instant later, I wince at the pain—I’m so hungry it hurts.
“We have food,” Gaston says. “The deck below has storerooms full of tools, clothes and lots of food.”
“What’s a deck?”
“A floor,” Spingate answers. “Except on a ship, it’s called a deck.”
It never occurred to me this shuttle had more floors.
“Show me,” I say.
We walk to the rear of the coffin room. The back wall is red, like the side walls. Up close I see the thin, almost invisible outline of a door. In that door is the faint shape of a handprint with a gear symbol in the palm.
Gaston presses his hand to the print. The door silently swings inward, revealing a metal staircase spiraling down. We descend. Ten stairs below is another door—the handprint here is also a gear. Spingate leads us in.
The corridor looks long, perhaps as long as the shuttle itself. There are doors on my left marked STORAGE 1 through STORAGE 6, and on my right labeled LAB 1 through LAB 3. At the end of the corridor is a door marked MEDICAL. The storage rooms have handprints with gears and half-circles. The labs, only gears. Medical’s handprint is a circle-cross.
“We didn’t have time to look at the labs,” Gaston says. “Just the”—an eye-scrunching yawn pauses his words—“just the storage rooms.”
The first storage room holds floor-to-ceiling racks of black bins. Gaston opens one: black coveralls made from heavy cloth. I think back to the Xolotl, to the hundreds of mutilated, tortured bodies dressed in similar outfits. It would be nice to change out of my torn rags, but the black clothes are some uniform of the Grownups, and right now I don’t want to think about the Grownups.
Four rooms hold racks of green bins. Gaston opens one of the bins; it’s full of small white packages with black letters that spell out GRAIN BAR. A second bin’s packages are labeled CRACKERS.
“All the bins are full,” Gaston says. “There’s enough food to last us—all of us—for about thirty days. Isn’t that great?”
He thinks thirty days is a long time? It will go by very quickly.
The final room holds neat racks of tools. One of Matilda’s memories rushes up, where she first saw pigs—these are the kind of tools people use on a farm. Other racks hold bins filled with smaller tools, the kind used to fix things, to make things. I see another bracer, like the one Spingate is wearing.
I’m sure there will be a need for all of these tools, but until we know what awaits us outside the shuttle, there is something we need even more.
“What about weapons?”
Spingate shakes her head. “No bracelets. Nothing.”
“As soon as you get some rest, learn about the labs,” I say to her. “Are there more floors? I mean decks.”
“Two more,” Spingate says. “But they have half-circle handprints on the doors. They won’t open for us.”
A half-circle: the symbol on O’Malley’s forehead.
“We asked the shuttle what’s down there,” Gaston says. “It says it doesn’t know.”
I can tell it bothers him greatly that he can’t access those decks. I heard the shuttle call him Captain Xander—how can there be parts of the shuttle that won’t open for him?
We can worry about that later. I’m consumed by my need to get outside, see Omeyocan.
“Spingate, wake up the circle-stars. And O’Malley.”
She nods. “Right away. Anybody else?”
“Smith,” I say. “Tell her to learn all she can about that medical room.”
Smith seems to know
how to treat cuts and scrapes. I think it has something to do with her forehead mark: a circle-cross. She’s the only one our age with that symbol. Two of the younger kids have it, though, so maybe soon Smith will have help healing our sick and wounded.
Gaston and Spingate look like they might pass out at any moment. I will make sure they rest, just not right now.
“I know you’re both tired, but I need you a little while longer before you can sleep.”
“Whatever it takes,” Gaston says instantly.
Spingate simply smiles at me, as if to say, I will always help you, no matter what.
I’ve only been alive for a few days, yet I love these two so much it hurts. Spingate and Gaston—my friends.
“Spin, you’ll come with me outside. Gaston, while we’re gone, wake up everyone else and also prepare a meal. We should all eat together.”
I lift the spear slightly, let it fall back to the hard floor with a soft clomp.
“It’s time to see our new home.”
We gather just inside the shuttle’s main door.
My circle-stars: Bishop, Farrar, Visca, Coyotl and Bawden. They wear nothing but filthy cut-off pants. On the Xolotl, they covered themselves in a paste that made them all the same color—gray. Now that material is flaking away, showing the different skin tones beneath.
We don’t have bracelets like the ones Grownups used to kill El-Saffani, but the rack of farming supplies means we are not completely unarmed. In our hands, tools have once again become weapons.
“Maybe you should stay here, Em,” Bishop says. “You could help O’Malley explore the rest of the ship.”