Sixteen-year-old Gorin, a collector of curious artifacts left over from the pre-plague civilization, is on the verge of perishing from that deadly epidemic. And his last wish is to find a way to visit the rulers’ reputedly magnificent, off-limits mansion.
Up against the clock, he and his friend Stausha steal into the mansion and discover a secret more horrifying than they ever could’ve imagined—a secret that holds the key to the survival of the whole human race.
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I raced up the stairwell pretty fast for someone in my awful condition. My empty backpack bounced on my shoulders, my feet landing just in front of the steps’ worn, chipped edges. Sunlight leaked through the dusty windows at the top of each landing, enough to light my way to the decaying apartment building’s eighth floor.
The rest of the Valuable Objects better still be there.
No way I was losing the Tournament of Prestige this year, and the VOs could be worth just enough prestige points to finally push my faction into the top spot. But if someone else found them while I was gone…
At last I made it to the eighth floor. My chest heaved as I sucked in breath, my burning legs threatening to crumple.
You’ve gotta be kidding me.
The second door on the right lay wide open. My heart banged against my ribs, making it tough to breathe, as I crept to the door as quietly as only I could.
I peeked inside the room. My gut clenched, even though I’d seen it coming.
A boy about my size—taller than average with good-size muscles—stood in front of the old wooden cabinets on the left side of the room. He had blotchy, dark gray skin, so was about sixteen years old like me. His back looked a little crooked, like his spine wasn’t quite aligned right. Mine was probably in similar shape.
Even from the doorway I could see through the cabinet doors’ inlaid glass. Empty, except for one measly glass bottle. Sure enough, the boy started to turn away from them. I jerked my head back into the hallway, then peered back in. He made his way to the right side of the room.
He stopped at the faded loveseat wedged against the wall. Patches of peeled leather formed large, complicated shapes that looked like continents on a globe.
Get away from there.
Then again, this room had been scoured countless times over the past fifty years by generations of supply hunters like us, and none of them had found the short, tiny closet behind the sofa. Chances were slim this kid would.
Please, Power, this is my last year, my last chance. Please don’t let him find the VOs.
He walked to the side of the loveseat and put his hands on it. He was about to push it!
I yanked my flashlight out of my pocket, snapped open the battery compartment as quickly and quietly as I could, and hurled a battery across the room. Wasn’t like I needed it. Our faction got fresh batteries every week from the mansion, and could probably get more if we asked.
The battery smacked the back wall by the open window—I felt a light breeze, even from where I stood by the door—and hit the floor with a thud. The boy stopped pushing the sofa. Thankfully, he’d only moved it a couple inches. Not enough to reveal any of the closet.
“What the…?” He watched the battery roll across the wooden floor a bit and stay still.
He walked toward it.
He picked it up and headed toward the window, his back to me. Probably thought someone had thrown the battery through it.
I crept toward the sofa as quietly as I could, so there was no chance the kid could hear me. Few people had feet as soundless as Gorin of Faction 235.
I navigated around the squeaky floorboards. Good thing I’d memorized them during my first two trips to this room, after I’d found the jackpot of a closet this morning. Could never be too careful or prepared for a situation like this. Every VO counted, especially ones worth as many prestige points as DVDs.
When I made it to the loveseat, I shoved it aside as hard as I could and burst into the closet.
“Hey!” the boy cried as I lifted the lid of the plastic blue bin inside and started to stuff the last of the whopping stash—a stack of plastic DVD cases coated in thick dust—into my backpack. Not sure exactly what they were or what they did in the Old World. Us supply hunters weren’t trained to know stuff like that, annoyingly enough, though I’d give all my limbs to be given one hint.
Feet shuffled toward me. “Get your filthy paws off those. They’re mine.”
I turned my head toward the boy. He towered over me, at least by a foot. Thick, muscled arms framed his sides. Okay, so I was wrong—he was bigger and stronger than me. He dug his gaze into mine with pebbles for eyes on his overly broad forehead. A large, beak-like nose jutted from his face.
“Sorry, you know the rules,” I said. “I got to all of these before you, fair and square.” Which meant I got to keep them. Actually, I’d gotten to them way before him, but I had no proof of that, so no use mentioning it.
He folded his meaty arms across his chest. “Sorry, punk, but I don’t play by the rules.”
Chris von Halle has had many different lives in many different worlds—the near and distant future Earth, other planets, and even other dimensions—and his books recreate his childhood memories of such outlandish locations. In this world and life, he lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and enjoys such extraordinary activities as playing videogames, tennis, and basketball, and writing the occasional comic strip.
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