A Free Preview of Heart of Smoke
After the craziness of the past week (is 2021 still within its return period?), I decided to offer everyone a bit of an escape. So, please enjoy the first chapter of Heart of Smoke, which will be released this month!
Stay safe out there!
The scent of ash blew in through the window, joining the stench of burning oil that always filled the factory. The foreman had been pushing the machines faster for the past week, so a hint of scorched rubber added its stink, too.
I tightened the bandana that covered my face as I waited for the next rack of syringes to rumble down the line.
The outside doors banged open, letting in a fresh plume of smoke.
The foreman greeted the next shift of workers by shouting at them.
I let the hum of the machines drown out his words.
The new rack of syringes slid toward me. I flipped them all into the tray, moving quickly so the heat from the glass wouldn’t burn my hands. I patted them all flat as the belt carried the tray past my station, waiting until the last moment to slip one syringe up my sleeve.
The packaging machine ate the tray, hiding the gap I’d created. I reached up to tighten my bandana again, letting the syringe fall farther up my arm. I gritted my teeth as the heat stung my elbow.
With a rumble, the next batch headed down the line.
Three solid taps on the shoulder and I stepped out of my place, gladly giving my station to the worker for the next shift.
I stretched my arms toward the ceiling, letting my back crack as the hot syringe slid down to the base of my spine, landing where my shirt tucked into my pants.
I’d only managed to snag six during my shift. Not a great day’s work by any means.
Better than any of the others could manage.
“Check out,” the foreman shouted, like he thought we didn’t know what we were supposed to do at the end of our shift. Or worse, he was foolish enough to think we wanted to stay.
All of us rushed toward the booth by the door. I didn’t run. I couldn’t risk a sharp ear catching the faint clinking of my hard-won treasure. By the time I joined the line, there were already six others waiting to be checked out by the foreman’s wife.
Mrs. Foreman sat in the booth, scanner in hand, frowning at each person who dared ask for their belongings back and to be paid for their time.
Or maybe it wasn’t our wanting to be paid for our labor that she found so offensive. Maybe it was our dirty faces and rounded shoulders. Or the stink of sweat and rubber that had gotten permanently stuck in all our clothes. Maybe she didn’t like the reminder that her husband’s factory really produced two products―syringes and broken people.
I leaned out of line, peeking through the door to the courtyard.
The smoke hadn’t fully blocked out the sun, but the ash came down thick. The fires were burning close to the city again.
A knot of panic twisted in my stomach as the line shifted forward. My nerves sent tingles from my fingertips to my toes.
Don’t panic. You can’t afford it.
I pressed my shoulders back and stood tall, making sure not even Mrs. Foreman’s keen eyes could spot the lumps on my back from the pilfered goods.
“Trip Benson.” Trip held out his wrist, offering his chip band.
Mrs. Foreman narrowed her eyes at him, like she wasn’t sure if he was the same Trip Benson she’d been checking out after his shift six days a week for a dozen years.
“Trip Benson.” He held his wrist right in front of her face, like he wanted her to lick the tarnished metal bracelet instead of scan the chip it held.
Mrs. Foreman turned in her chair, taking her time gathering Trip’s bag and jug, before handing them over and finally scanning his chip.
“Thank you.” Trip snatched his things and strode out the door.
I took a deep breath, filling my lungs till they ached, pulled off my bandana, and stepped up to the counter, holding out my wrist.
“Name?” Mrs. Foreman pursed her lips at me.
I leaned over the counter, holding my chip band right under her scanner.
I held her glare even as my lungs started to tense.
Mrs. Foreman made a sound between a growl and a sneeze before turning to grab my bag and three jugs. She lingered, enjoying tormenting me, lining the jugs up perfectly on the counter and trying to balance my bag so it wouldn’t tip over. When my lungs had started to burn and my brain had started to scream that I needed air, she finally scanned my chip, transferring over my credits and ration for the day’s work.
I grabbed my things, making myself walk calmly to the bare patch of wall where I could set everything down. My fingers fumbled as I tied my bandana back around my face. I took a deep breath, and the familiar stink of the thick fabric pummeled my nose. My head spun as oxygen raced through my veins, leaving bright spots dancing in my eyes. Snatching my things back up, I headed out into the square.
My shoulders relaxed as soon as I stepped outside, though walking through the square between the four factory buildings was hardly more cheerful than working the belts.
Litter and ash stirred with the chill wind that swept between the brick buildings. A crumpled, blue pamphlet rolled across my foot.
I grabbed the paper and tucked it into my pocket as a wave of laughter came from the men smoking in the back corner of the square.
They were right to laugh. There was no use in reading the kep-made pamphlet. Even if I was foolish enough to trust anything the glass guards said, weak words of comfort wouldn’t offer me any protection.
I glanced up at the sky. To the east, evening light peered down, but to the west, thick, gray smoke blocked out the sun.
“Dammit.” I bolted across the square toward the most rundown of the four brick buildings.
The ash must have been falling the whole day. The thick layer of it muffled my footsteps and puffed up around my boots.
“Where’s your coat, honey?” one of the men in the corner called.
I tossed up my favored finger rather than waste air shouting back.
The men laughed again.
I flinched as one of the men’s laughs dissolved into wracking coughs that made me wonder how much longer I’d have to deal with his daily taunts.
The sound of his hacking followed me into the kids’ factory.
There were no machines to offer a blissful, mind-numbing hum on the kids’ work floor, where they scrubbed and sorted bolts and scraps. Everything had to be done quietly so the teacher standing on the scaffold could be heard as she shouted her lessons to her three hundred students.
I stood on my toes, trying to catch a glimpse of Mari’s shiny, black hair.
A kid started wailing in the far corner.
The foreman strode toward him, but the teacher didn’t pause her lesson on the decimation of the oceans.
I tried not to wonder if the kid was wailing because he’d cut himself or because he couldn’t stand the misery of knowing that something as beautiful as a sea turtle had once existed and he’d never get to see one in real life.
One of the minders finally caught sight of me. “Mari Sampson.”
I gave the minder a nod of thanks as Mari hopped up from her place at one of the back tables and ran toward me.
“Slower, Mar,” I whispered, though I knew my sister couldn’t hear me.
“I thought you’d never come.” Mari grabbed the jugs from my hands, setting them on the ground while I dug through my bag.
“I come at the same time every day.” I pulled out Mari’s hat, coat, and gloves.
“But some of the other kids have already been collected.” Mari spoke so fast she sucked a bit of her bandana into her mouth and had to spit it out before continuing. “I got stuck on bolt scrubbing today, so you’ll have to dig the metal bits out for me.”
She held up her hands. Slivers and scratches deep enough to bleed marked her fingers.
I shoved down my sympathy and held out her coat.
Mari sighed before letting me dress her.
I didn’t blame her for hating the coat. The ratty outer and inner layers hid the dense material that was worth its weight in credits and would make any decent thief drool. But knowing you were lucky to have a bit of protection from the lethal sunrays and liking to wear the damn thing were two different matters.
I fastened her coat and held out her gloves.
“My fingers already hurt.” She tucked her scratched hands behind her back. “I won’t get burned. The sun’s almost gone, and the sky’s filled with smoke. I don’t want to wear them.”
“Hmm.” I tugged Mari’s wide-brimmed hat onto her head and tied the rope beneath her chin. “I heard a rumor that someone’s been hoarding peaches. I was going to nab them as a treat for you, but if you don’t want to wear your gloves―”
Mari snatched her gloves away from me and tugged them on.
Biting back a smile, I pulled my own layers from the bag and dressed myself in a quarter of the time it had taken me to dress Mari. I slung my bag on and passed her one of the jugs, keeping two for myself.
“We’re going to jog today,” I said.
“Why?” Mari tipped her chin up so I could see her eyes below the brim of her hat.
“Smoke’s coming in from the western side of the city.”
“Oh, reef bleachers!” Mari cursed, grabbing my hand and running out the door.
I let her set our pace as we cut through the litter-strewn square and out onto the street beyond the factories.
The streets themselves had been kept clean of trash―the kep laws made sure of it―but not even the sweepers could keep up with the ash coming down from the sky.
Most of the people we passed had covered their heads, trying to keep the falling grit from settling into their hair. Some held cloths over their mouths or had tied rags around their faces. All of them wore the same painful air of resignation.
We all knew the city could drown in ash, and there wasn’t a damn thing any of us could do about it. But watching hopelessness smother us when the ash was only a few inches thick…it almost seemed worse than letting the whole city burn at once.
I glanced up. The smoke had drifted farther in, close enough to coat the western edge of the city. I ran a little faster as we reached Generation Way, trying not to grip Mari’s hand tight enough to make the scratches and slivers any worse.
The thumping of a club’s music pounded through the air as we rounded the corner onto Endeavor Avenue. The handful of daytime bars that had been allowed to stay open had all been packed into the same few blocks with the shops that still sold non-essential goods. Cheers came from the nearest bar as a singer started a new song.
Mari took the lead, weaving a path through the customers eager to spend their credits.
Before we managed to break through the shoppers, I caught sight of the end of the line. It already stretched a block back from the tanks.
We dodged around a few of the slower people carrying jugs and claimed a place in line behind a man who stank with a tang exclusive to chem plant workers.
“The line’s too long.” Mari gripped my hand.
“We’ll be fine,” I said.
“What if the fires get too close and they call the kep away? What if the smoke stays in tomorrow?” She stood on her toes, trying to see between the adults in front of her. “What if they can’t push the fires back?”
“Everything is going to be fine. We got here in time. We’ll make it to the front.” My guilt at lying to my little sister crashed into the hunger rumbling in my stomach.
“Two tanks,” a woman a few people ahead of us shouted. “Smoke’s coming in, and they’re only running two tanks!”
I caught a glimpse of the start of the line as we all shuffled forward.
The woman was right. They were only distributing from two of the three tanks. The kep had only bothered to send twelve glass guards in fancy black uniforms to deal with the thirsty masses.
“Keep to a single line,” a kep guard shouted. “If you all keep to a single line, we can get you through faster.”
We won’t all make it.
I turned my gaze up to the edge of the overhang that protected the tanks, choosing loathing over worry. Years of smoke and soot hadn’t managed to destroy the image some idiot had painted to loom over the masses.
Pictures of a happy family and a blooming tree flanked the words For the Future of Our Children. Like the kep cared about Mari’s future or mine.
I kept my gaze fixed on the painted family until Mari started bouncing.
There were only five in line ahead of us.
“Come on,” Mari muttered. “Come on.” She pressed her cheek to my waist, tilting her hat.
I unfastened my coat and draped the side over her, covering the bit of her neck the hat had left exposed.
I glanced west.
The smoke had shifted again. The entire western side of the city would be covered.
One jug. If we can fill just one, we’ll be fine.
A grating beep came from the front of the line, near one of the two working green tanks.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. Your chip shows no ration.” The guard with the scanner turned away from the rationless woman.
“That’s not possible.” The woman stepped in front of the guard, holding out her wrist. “I did my day in the factory. They added my ration to my band, I know they did.”
The chem worker walked past the woman to the other running tank.
“Check it again.” The woman shook her wrist at the guard. “I have a ration.”
“The factory may have placed the ration on your chip,” the guard said, “but fresh fires sparked to the west. Water was diverted from this station for the protection of the city. We have to make sure everyone is provided for.”
“I’m part of everyone.” The woman edged closer to the tank. “I need my ration.”
“We’ve had to prioritize, ma’am.” The guard held up his hand, blocking her path. “You are not in the approved group.”
“I will die.” The woman clutched her jug. “You are throwing my life away.”
“Difficult decisions had to be made,” the guard said. “We thank you for your sacrifice.”
The woman threw her jug at the tank and leapt toward the guard, reaching for his neck like she thought she could choke him.
Another guard lunged forward, cracking the woman over the head with his club before her fingers had even grazed his fellow’s neck.
The woman crumpled to the ground and lay still. She wasn’t even breathing.
Mari started to shake as the woman’s blood stained the ash on the street.
“Next,” the guard called.
I held Mari close, guiding her around the growing patch of red sludge and to the tank. I raised my wrist for the guard to scan my chip band. My heart froze as I waited for the beep.
“Cleared for three jugs,” the guard with the scanner said.
The other kep took Mari’s jug.
My heart didn’t start beating again until he turned on the tap and water began filling the container.
I let go of Mari to open the other jugs.
The guard passed the first back to Mari and had started filling the second before all the kep tipped their heads to the side at once, as though listening to a voice only they could hear.
I reached forward, bracing the still-filling jug the moment before the guard let go of it and bolted for the side of the overhang.
Mari squeaked as I caught the jug, managing to keep it upright so it wouldn’t spill. I twisted the top back on, taking the second to protect the slim bit of our ration we’d claimed before grabbing Mari’s hand.
“Run.” I didn’t have to say it.
Mari darted for the corner of the overhang as the high whine of the closing gates began. We slipped into the narrow alley beside the tanks before the crowd still waiting in line started to shout.
The water station would be closed while the glass guards hid, or fought the fire raging to the west, or whatever it was the kep in black guard uniforms did when they abandoned their petty attempts at helping the city scum.
Everyone left in line would have to go without.
Thank you for your sacrifice.