Home > Fortune's Rising (Outer Bounds #1)

Fortune's Rising (Outer Bounds #1)
Sara King

Chapter 1

Anna’s War

The scream of the shift whistle tore through the military razor-wire and punctured the flimsy metal walls of the hut, startling Magali out of a dead sleep.  She braced herself on the cot, heart pounding even though she’d had twelve days to grow used to the gut-wrenching shriek.

Immediately following the shift whistle came the tinny thunder of soldiers walking down the rows of huts, pounding on the doors with their rifles in case the ear-shattering screech hadn’t been enough for the eggers to drag their exhausted bodies out of their cots.

A soldier found their door and made a brief aluminum rumble before shouting, “Two minutes, folks.  Be out here.  Dressed and pissed.”  Then she moved on, assaulting another egger’s hut with her badge of office.

Magali hated them.

Aching from not enough sleep, she climbed out of her cot and pulled on yesterday’s work clothes, still grungy and stiff with Shrieker slime from the day before.  Once dressed, she squatted quickly at the bucket in the corner.  Like most Yolk facilities, Yolk Factory 14 was still too new to have flushing toilets.  They were lucky to have running water at all, considering the camp was little more than a bunch of metal huts haphazardly slapped together over the top of a Shrieker mound, then surrounded by razor wire.  Magali’s sister and their quiet Aquafer roommate had fresh clothes to wear, but only because they had lost two hours of sleep to wash them at the communal facilities the night before.

Magali, who had earned herself three hours of direct Shrieker care for mouthing off to one of the foremen, had been so exhausted from the Shriekers’ constant proximity while feeding the beasts and checking their caves for ripening nodules that she hadn’t even had the energy to eat when the foreman had finally released her that night.

Five more years of this, she thought.  

Eggers didn’t last five years.  They were lucky if they lasted one.  Getting chosen for the Shrieker mounds was a death sentence with no way out.

The United Space Coalition didn’t care.

Shriekers produced Yolk.  A few drops of its concentrate could give even the slowest students a brief burst of high-level thinking and ultra-productive activity…an advanced society’s dream.  For those who had the money to buy it, Yolk paid for its extravagant price tag with productivity hereto unknown before the colonization of Fortune.  It made wise men out of fools, businessmen out of laborers, and orators out of bumpkins.

It also made dead men out of several hundred thousand healthy Fortuners every year, when their minds fell apart with Egger’s Wide—the permanent wide-eyed, drooling look of those who had spent too much time with the Shriekers.

Fortune had been a prosperous, growing colony right up until a government statistician found that Fortuners’ mean IQ fell well outside reasonable bounds.  The subsequent studies found that Fortuners had more brainpower than the heart of the Coalition, which was pampered with every drug, technology, and procedure known to man.  More study revealed that this was not due to a genetic bottleneck created by a handful of particularly gifted original colonists, but rather their custom of augmenting their diet with Shrieker nodules when crops failed.

Once the scientists narrowed it down to the Shriekers, Fortune hadn’t grown a soul in native population since.  The colony had been on the decline for over thirty years, broken only by the infusions of criminals that the Coalition sent them to keep the Yolk farms stable.

That, and the soldiers.

Grimacing as another rattled their door, Magali checked to see that Anna was ready, then hurried to the exit.  To go slow was to go without breakfast.

As soon as she yanked the door open and stopped in the cooler air of the threshold, Magali saw the Fortune Orbital hanging in the early morning sky like a blood-red star.  Beside it and lower on the horizon, the alien Void Ring drifted nearby, a partially-completed silver arc that shone with the same intensity as the moon.  With each day that passed, the half-moon of salvaged alien parts grew closer to a full circle as hordes of government engineers worked day and night to complete the massive structure.  Her sister had told her that in less than a year, the Ring would be functional, and the Coalition would start sending waves of troops through it to start a new government hub on Fortune.

Magali shuddered, fighting down a sudden tightness in her gut.  “Come on, Anna,” she managed, trying to sound upbeat for her sister’s sake.  Glancing over her shoulder into the dim, too-hot interior of the tin shed, she growled, “Get your eight year old butt out here.”

“I’m eight years and a hundred and sixty-eight days old, so technically I’m nine, now.”

“That Standard or Colonial?” Magali asked, only half listening.  The rest of her was still trying to shake off the unsettled feeling that she had been getting every morning since a Coalition crew had dragged the ruined Void Ring into Fortune’s orbit two months before.

Her younger sister snorted.  “Colonial.”

Magali stepped into the two Size-9 slime-encrusted combat boots on the doorstep and laced them as she waited.  “Lazy.  It’d be easier to impress me with Standard.”  She stood and tucked a clean rag into a pocket for cleanup later.  “Now hurry up, okay?”

Anna threw her clean gray coveralls over her slim body and took longer than necessary to tie her laces.  By the time she had followed Magali outside, most of the rest of the eggers were already in the morning formation.  “I’m only seven years and two hundred eighty five days old Standard,” she said as she stepped into the sunlight and shielded her eyes as she squinted up at the Void Ring.  Magali saw her sister’s face darken for just a moment before she pretended to yawn.  “So it doesn’t sound as impressive.”

Magali laughed at her.  “You had to think about it, didn’t you, Anna Banana?”

Anna scrunched her face and dropped her hand from the sky, giving Magali a dangerous scowl.  “Don’t call me that.”

“Okay, Banana.  I’ve got one for you.”  Magali dragged her sister to the line of eggers gathering in the yard, then glanced down at her.  “How old am I, Standard?”

Anna’s face immediately took on a bored look.  “I don’t know.”

Magali lifted her brow.  “Well figure it out.”

“Can’t.”

Can’t?  That gave Magali pause.  The last time Anna had said she couldn’t do something, half a Shrieker mound collapsed.  She frowned down at Anna.  “You can’t?”

“Yeah, can’t,” Anna said, watching the soldiers nudge the last few eggers into line with the butts of their rifles.

“Why not?” Magali demanded.

“Don’t know when you were born.  Never asked, since I know nobody’s ever going to need to write it down on anything other than your tombstone.”

Magali squinted at her sister.  “Why’s that?”

Anna shrugged.  “You’ll figure it out.”  When Magali continued to stare at her, Anna amended, “Eventually.”  She started picking lint from her pristine, khaki-colored eggers’ uniform.  Was it Magali’s imagination, or was the damn thing pressed?  The perfectly starched, ever-present creases in her sister’s garb made Magali wonder just who the little twit had blackmailed to do her laundry.

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