The Queen's Army Page 1

They came at the end of the long night, when the manufacturing dome had not seen sunlight for almost two weeks. Z had crossed his twelfth birthday some months ago, and just enough time had passed that he’d stopped imagining glimpses of gold embroidery on black coats. He’d just stopped questioning every thought that flickered through his brain. He had just begun to hope that he would not be chosen.

But he was not surprised when he was awoken by a tap at the front door. It was so early that his father hadn’t left for the plant where he assembled engines for podships and tractors. Z stared at the dark ceiling and listened to his parents’ whisperings through the wall, then to his father’s footsteps padding past his door.

Muffled voices in the front room.

Z balled up his blanket between his fists and tried to pour all his fears into it, and then release them all at once. He had to do it three times to keep from hyperventilating. He didn’t want his brother, still asleep on the other side of the room, to be afraid for him.

He had known this was inevitable.

He was at the top of his class. He was stronger than some of the men his father worked with in the plant. Still, he’d thought that maybe his instructors would overlook him. Maybe he would be skipped.

But those thoughts were always flitting. Since he was a little boy, he had been raised to expect a visit from the queen’s thaumaturges during his twelfth year, and knew if he was deemed worthy, he would be conscripted into the new army she was building. It was a great honor to serve his crown. It would bring pride to his family and his sector.

“You should get dressed.”

He lifted his head to find his brother’s eyes shining in the darkness. So he wasn’t asleep after all.

“They’ll ask for you soon. You don’t want to make them wait.”

Not wanting his brother to think he was scared, he swung his legs out of the bed.

He met his mother in the hallway. Her cropped hair was sticking up on one side and she had pulled on a cotton dress, though the static of her slip had it clinging around her left thigh. She paused from adjusting the material, and, for one crushing second, he saw the despair that she’d always hidden when they talked about the soldier conscription. Then it was gone and she was licking her fingers and desperately trying to soothe down Z’s unkempt hair. He flinched, but didn’t fidget or complain, until his father appeared beside them.

“Ze’ev.” His voice was thick with an emotion that Z didn’t recognize. “Don’t be afraid.”

His father took his hand and guided him into the front of the house where not one but two thaumaturges were waiting for him. They both wore the traditional uniform of the queen’s court—high-collared coats that swept down to their thighs, with wide, elaborately embroidered sleeves. However, the woman wore black, denoting a third-level thaumaturge, while the man wore red. Second level. Z didn’t think there were more than a dozen second-level thaumaturges on all of Luna, and now one was standing in his house.

He couldn’t help picturing his home as it must look through the eyes of such high officials. The front room was large enough only for a worn sofa and a rocking chair, and his mom kept a vase of dusty faux flowers on the side table. If they’d bothered to look through the second doorway, they would have seen a sink piled with dishes where flies were buzzing, because his mother had been too tired to clean last night and Ran and Z had decided to play kicks with the other sector kids rather than do their chores. He regretted that now.

“Ze’ev Kesley?” said the man, the second level.

He nodded, clutching his father’s hand and using all his will not to duck behind him.

“I am pleased to inform you that we have reviewed your aptitude tests and chosen you to receive the physical modifications and training in order to become one of the great soldiers of Her Majesty’s army. Your enrollment is effective immediately. There is no need to pack any belongings—you will be provided with all that you need. As it is expected that henceforth you will have no more contact with your biological family, you may now say your good-byes.”

His mother sucked in a breath behind him. Z didn’t realize he was shaking until his father turned and grasped him by both shoulders.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said again. A faint smile flickered, then disappeared. “Do what they ask, and make us proud. This is a great honor.”

His voice was strained. Z couldn’t tell if his father believed what he was saying, or if it was only a show for the thaumaturges.

His chest constricted. “But…I don’t want to go.”

His father’s face became stern. “Ze’ev.”

Z looked at his mother. Her dress was still clinging to her slip but she’d stopped fidgeting. The tears hadn’t yet spilled over onto her cheeks. There were wrinkles around her eyes that he’d never noticed before.

“Please,” he said, wrapping his arms around her waist. He knew how strong he was. If he held on tight enough, they could never force him to let go. He clamped his eyes shut as the first hot tears slipped out. “Please don’t let them—”

Just as a sob tore at his throat, a shadowy new thought slipped to the forefront of his mind.

This was a small, pathetic house in an inconsequential manufacturing dome.

The people here were miserable and unimportant. His parents were weak and stupid—but he, he was destined for greatness. He was one of the selected few to serve the queen herself. It was an honor. The thought of lingering here a moment longer made him sick.

Z gasped and pulled away from his mother. Heat was crawling up his neck—spurred by mortification and shame. How could he think such things?

Worse yet, he was still thinking them, somewhere in his head. He couldn’t shake them entirely, no matter how much guilt they stirred up.

He turned to gape at the thaumaturges. The woman had a smile toying around her mouth. Though he’d first thought she was pretty, this new expression made him shudder.

“You will be given a new family soon enough,” she said, in a voice that lilted like a nursery rhyme. “We have means of making you accept this and come willingly, should we be inclined to use them.”

Z cringed, repulsed by the knowledge that she had seen these horrible thoughts. Not only seen them—she had created them. She had been manipulating him, and it had been so seamless, had intertwined with his own emotions so effortlessly. When his peers practiced mind control on one another or an instructor prodded him with thoughts of obedience, it felt like a new idea being etched into his brain. It was recognizable and, often, he found that with enough focus he could defy it.

This was a different level of manipulation, one that he couldn’t resist so easily. He knew it then. He would be forced to go with them, and he would become a puppet of Her Majesty, with no more willpower than a trained dog.

Behind him, he heard his bedroom door opening.

Ran had come out to watch—pulled by his curiosity.

Z tightened his jaw and tried his best to stifle his mounting despair. He would be brave—so his brother would not see his fear. He would be strong for him.

Some of the terror and dread did begin to fade once the decision was reached. Empowered by the knowledge that it was his choice—that the thaumaturges had not made it for him—he faced his mother and stood on his tiptoes to kiss her cheek. She grabbed at him before he could pull back and crushed him against her, pressing a frantic kiss against his hair. When she released him, just as quickly, the tears had begun to fall and she had to turn her face away to hide them.

He embraced his father too, just as brief and just as fierce so he would know how much love was put into it.

Then he squared his shoulders and stepped toward the thaumaturges.

The woman’s grin returned. “Welcome to the queen’s army.”

They said the anesthesia would give him such a deep, empty sleep that there would be no dreams, but they were wrong. He dreamt of needles burrowing into his skin. He dreamt of pliers gripping his teeth. He dreamt of hot ashes and smoke in his eyes. He dreamt of a white tundra, a cold he had never known, and a hunger barely satiated by dripping meat in his jaws.

Mostly, he dreamt of howls in the distance. Forlorn cries that went on and on and on.

The waking came slowly, like being pulled up from a pit of mud. The howls began to dim as he pried open his eyes. He was in the same room that he’d been in when the nameless nurse had stuck the needle into his arm, but he knew instantly that he was changed. The walls around him were a brighter, crisper white than he’d ever known. The sound of every machine and contraption reverberated in his skull. The scent of chemicals and ammonia invaded his nostrils, making him want to gag, but he was too weak.

His limbs were heavy on the exam table, his joints aching. He wore an oversized shirt that made him feel vulnerable and cold. There was a lump beneath his neck. Forcing his fumbling arm to move, he reached behind his head to find bandages there.

As his awareness sharpened, he struggled to recall what little information the nurse had given him.

All soldiers were modified to increase their effectiveness as members of the queen’s army. He would wake up improved.

He took in another breath and this time picked up on a new scent. No, two scents.

Two individual odors made up of pheromones and sweat and soap and chemicals. Coming closer.

The door opened and a man and woman entered. The woman wore a white lab jacket and had spiky auburn hair.

The man was a thaumaturge, but not one who had taken Z from his home. He had dark, wavy hair that he’d tucked back behind both ears and eyes that were as black as the sky. They matched his tailored, third-level thaumaturge coat.

And Z could pick out every unique odor on them—lotions and cosmetics and hormones.

“Good,” said the woman, pressing her finger against a pad on the wall. The exam table began to hum and Z was raised to a seated position. He grasped at the thin blanket around his chest. “Your monitor informed me that you were awake. I am Dr. Murphy. I presided over your surgeries. How are you feeling?”

Z squinted at her. “I’m not…am I—”

He hesitated as his tongue found something foreign in his mouth. He clasped his hand over his lips, then reached inside. The pad of his thumb found the sharp point of a fang and he jerked it away.

“Careful,” said the woman. “Your new implants will serve as some of your most effective weapons. May I?”

He didn’t resist as she pulled his jaw open and examined his teeth. “Your gums are healing nicely. We replaced all of your teeth, otherwise there wouldn’t be room for the canines. We’ve also reinforced your jaw for additional leverage and pressure. You’ll likely be sore for another ten to fourteen days, especially as we wean you off the pain killers. How are your eyes?” She pulled a contraption out of her pocket and flickered a light across his pupils. “You’ll likely notice increased pigmentation—it’s nothing to concern yourself with. Once your optic nerves adapt, you’ll find that your eyesight has become optimized to detect and pinpoint motion. Do let your thaumaturge know if you experience any dizziness, blurred vision, or dark spots. I trust you’re already experiencing heightened senses of hearing and smell?”

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