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As poisonmaster to the Oligarch, Tryg Sant knows a lot of things others shouldn’t. But when he discovers his family’s darkest secret, his brother tries to kill him.
When Tryg’s lover pushes him out of a helicopter and into the poison-filled Exclusion Zone, Tryg finds himself trapped in a dangerous new world, entirely different from the one he expects. Now, Tryg has to learn to survive nearly-feral humans and his own disintegrating mind. Luckily, he’s found an ally in Riot, one of the victims of the Green Death…
Everything felt muffled. My injuries, my emotions, my thoughts, the sounds from outside. The heavy, rhythmic, mechanical thumps from somewhere above me were so loud they radiated through my chest. My mind barely registered the noise, even if my sternum did—maybe because there was something strapped over my head, digging into the top of my skull and trapping warm, sweaty air over my ears.
All I cared about, in the moment, was that I wasn’t being hit.
The ground shifted under me, tilting just slightly, shooting my equilibrium all to hell. The only things that kept me from toppling over were a wall on my left, propping me upright, and straps across my shoulders and chest and hips. They dug into my bruises with a steady, fuzzy, ache.
I tried to tug at the straps, hoping to release the pressure, but my arm didn’t work right.
I should have hurt a lot more. I was pretty damned sure I ought to be screaming from just trying to move my arm, but all I felt was thick haze and a low heat over almost every inch of my skin.
“Tryg, wake up.” The headpiece I wore transmitted the words directly into my ears, but even with the amplification, I could barely hear it over the whump whump whump coming from overhead.
I opened my eyes. Well, my left eye, since the right lid didn’t seem to work.
I tried looking around, but my neck didn’t want to move either. So far, the only thing responding to me was a single eyelid.
Someone had given me something—a drug or a poison of some sort. That was the only reason I wasn’t writhing on the ground, screaming. I could feel my injuries, the places my brother had cracked bones or ripped into my skin with his obnoxiously large ring, but only a little. Like a wad of cloth had been shoved somewhere between the injuries and my brain, so the signals from my nerves couldn’t make it through at full strength.
I tried to focus, tried to direct my wandering mind to the list of substances Vodayn had requested from me over the last ten years I’d run the laboratory.
Nothing. Probably just strong painkillers, unless he had outside sources for a new poison.
Outside sources. My blood ran cold. Is that what Arris had been talking about, when I overheard them a few days ago? This pricked at my pride. For a moment, it didn’t matter that my brother had starved and kicked the shit out of me and was sending me to my death. I was angry at him for going elsewhere for poisons when I could make him almost anything he wanted, a hundred times better and far more discreetly than anyone else.
But I’m not his poison master anymore. The thought came crashing down around me, heavy on my shoulders. I slumped forward, though the straps kept me from folding in half.
And then realization struck me, harder than any of my brother’s blows had.
He’d always planned on getting rid of me. Even before I’d found the damning documents. If he was looking elsewhere for poisons, he’d been looking for a replacement. That’d been what Arris’s comment to him had been about.
“Come on, Tryg. I hate that I have to do this job, but it’s a damned good thing for you. Anyone else would have just pushed you out by now. I want you to be functional.”
Arris. My whole body started to shake. Arris was here. He’d save me. He’d make sure I was okay. He cared about me, as much as anyone ever had. More than anyone, since Dad died.
I finally managed to twist my neck a few inches. Arris’s scarred, tanned face slowly resolved before me, headset obscuring his short black hair.
He was frowning just a little. It was the most emotion I’d seen on him, outside of sex.
“There we go. Welcome back.” He leaned forward and brushed his thumb over my cheek. Searing fire ran though my face. I hissed and tried to jerk back, but most of my body still didn’t want to obey my directives.
My words slurred. Apparently my lips worked fine, though my tongue was taking its sweet time catching up. I hoped the drug didn’t wear off too soon. I wasn’t prepared to face the damage done to my body. Not until I knew what in the dark depths of hell Arris was planning.
Arris watched me with soft eyes. He never had soft eyes. Passionate while we were fucking? Yes. Inquisitive? Rarely. Ice cold when in his official capacity? Always. But never soft.
“This is occurring because Vodayn demanded that you die. Telling him what you found was a stupid move. The stupidest. He’s been increasingly paranoid over the last year. Surely you haven’t missed that, as smart as you are?”
“Paaa…noy?” My half-numb tongue fumbled over the word. I shook my head. I hadn’t had time to notice anything.
For the last year, Vodayn’s requests of me had gone down, yes, but when he did give me a project, he had been making obscure and incredibly difficult demands I’d worked hard to fulfill. A substance that, once ingested, made hair change color permanently, with no other effect. One that made the victim cry irrationally for days. One that mimicked a heart attack’s symptoms perfectly. I’d succeeded in crafting them all, though the crying draught lasted for only thirty-six hours.
I’d been proud of my success. I’d managed everything he asked.
Arris hummed a little. “Very paranoid. You always were a bit too focused when you were working.”
The lines between his brows grew deeper. “Know what?”
“What I told him.” Words were slowly becoming easier to pronounce.
“Because I was there when he received your report. I only got a glimpse of it while he read it, but I know what it means. We suspected that the Sants had been behind the poisoning ever since it happened. There’s a reason I was stationed in the household, and my father before me. I was supposed to find proof. And you hand-delivered it to him.”
The words Arris spoke now did not match up with what I’d known of him over the last few years. My heart seemed to think that now was a great time to start thundering as fast as it would go. “Who’s we?”
“The resistance.” Here, Arris smiled, and the deepest scar, the one that ran over his cheek, pulled and wrinkled in a dozen places.
He’d been my brother’s right-hand man and main assassin for almost three years, and never once had I seen him smile. It scared me more than anything else. I wonder if all his victims got to see this horrible, wonderful expression.
Because that’s what I would be. His victim. He was letting me see another side to him, now, and that meant I was a dead man.
And then the meaning of his statement filtered into my mind. The resistance. That’d been wiped out with the bombing, hadn’t it? Or tainted with the poison, at least, and driven crazy?
“The resistance survives? Truly?”
He nodded. “We have been trying to find justice for almost a hundred years. The exclusion zone is still the center of it. Most of us had family there, when it was poisoned. My great-grandfather’s entire family got walled inside, except for him. He’d been at a friend’s for a sleepover during the bombing.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Did any of them… survive?”
“A few, for a while.” He looked away from me, and then his face tightened, the smile vanishing. “We’re almost there. You’re getting dropped in. I pushed for this, instead of using the Black Daydream on you until you were crazy enough to cut your own throat. Vodayn wanted you to die in agony, and I argued this would be the most effective and ironic way. He came around to my line of thinking eventually.”
“Where? Dropped in where?”
He reached past me and tapped on the surface to my right.
I turned my head, my neck still protesting the motion. I suspected that without the painkillers I’d been given, the movement would hurt a lot more.
A window. And beyond it, the sky. Clouds. We were high. I’d never been so high. I never had permission to leave the Sant compound, much less go somewhere that required air transport.
Then again, if all air transport was like this strange, rusted, rickety, noisy vehicle, I doubted I’d missed much.
Arris leaned forward. “You’re wearing a parachute. Do you think you can pull the ripcord yourself once you’re out?”
My heart clenched. I tried to flex my hand, and then lift it. All I managed was a finger-twitch. “I don’t think so.”
“Yeah. What is it?”
“Just a mid-level painkiller from Professor Marita’s lab.”
“Oh.” Marita—there was that name again. Professional jealousy twisted through me. “Thanks.”
“I’ll pull your ripcord for you when you jump, if you’re not up to it now. We’ll be so low nobody will notice the parachute, thanks to the poison.”
“The—oh green-damned hell, the poison.” Arris’s statements finally sank into me. He’d asked my brother to dump me into the exclusion zone. And my brother had agreed, even before he’d started to beat me senseless.
“Here. Hang on to the handles if you can.” He lifted my arms up, his grip gentle, and hooked my hands over smooth, cool plastic. “This will steer you once you’re in the air, if you can find the strength. Pull which way you want to go. Try and land in a flat place, but close to the taller buildings. You won’t be able to get out of the exclusion zone and go back to regular life, but you’ll have a good chance to survive down there if the right people find you. I’ve already put out an alert. I can only hope you make it, Tryg. I don’t want you to die. You’ve been the closest thing to a friend I had in that mansion. Please believe that.”
Arris looked so damned serious, giving me my death sentence with such care. I knew I wouldn’t last. I wasn’t a fighter—not without my poisons, anyway.
“Don’t pull the chute,” I said, holding his gaze. “Let me fall. It’s kinder.”
Arris shook his head. “I can’t, even if I agreed with you. You have to live. You’re our best hope now. I didn’t want to do this to you, but it’s the only way for Vodayn to leave you in peace.”
A blast of static filled the compartment, and Arris scowled and leaned back. He tilted his head. Whatever he listened to, it didn’t repeat in my headset. I tried moving my neck again, and this time I was able to turn maybe an inch farther to the right. More glass and sky.
The transport vehicle had to be well over three hundred years old, if it still had glass windows and rotors that made this much noise. The Eastrend military forces had used these to monitor the huge political protests, way back before the Green Death happened. They’d been passed on to other government agencies, like the one that monitored the poison levels here. Nobody would think this air transport looked out of place. At least not until I got pushed out of it. And Arris seemed to have already thought of that.
I pressed against the window and looked down. The only thing below us was a foggy haze, the green color lurid against the gray of the surrounding city. It was the hue present on some of the creatures in the Menagerie, almost acid-bright.
We were over the exclusion zone. A dozen small drones in a variety of styles hung just over the fog, film crews focusing on the action down below. There had to be another riot, if so many drones were out here. I hated watching the news on the nights they focused on Greenies fighting, but the rest of Eastrend seemed to love eagerly watching the violence, treated like war footage from somewhere unreachable.
All around the green air, a tall wall—bleak and gray and three city blocks thick at its narrowest point—rose a hundred feet higher than the fog, trapping the Green Death into what had once been a hotbed of political resistance. The place where Arris’s family had once lived.
I looked away. Seeing the exclusion zone—really seeing it, not just on a documentary or the news—made me want to scream. My great-grandfather had singlehandedly caused it. All the pain and agony, all the rage, all the violence—he’d created the chemical that caused it. And I might have, in another life, been able to create a way to neutralize it.
“I truly am sorry, Tryg. You’ve been the only reason I still have my sanity, working for Vodayn.” Arris tilted his head, gaze sharpening, and then turned to the window next to me. “The fighting has died down. The drones are moving out. Three minutes and we start moving too.”
“Won’t the drones catch me getting pushed in?” I stared up at Arris. My lower lip wobbled in an embarrassing fashion, and I dropped my gaze. I was twenty. I didn’t need to cry. Especially not in front of him.
“The drones will be over the wall by then. Any remaining behind will already have their cameras off or pointed away. The fight’s over. They have their news clips for the day. If Vodayn tells them not to talk about it, they won’t. But if an unregulated source does draw attention to your drop-in, the story is that you’re a researcher sacrificing yourself for data on the Green Death and what it’s doing to the environment. It wouldn’t be the first time an idiot has gone in willingly and can’t get permission to go through the wall. Researchers never get permission.”
“Oh.” I shuddered. Vodayn was probably the reason for the research block. The darkness of our family secrets bled into so many other people’s lives.
Arris frowned, and then he dug something out of his belt. He held up a small, black handgun, the kind that shot little bursts of plasma—the same weapon he’d dug into my back days ago, when arresting me in the lab.
“It’s fully charged, but the safety is on. Red’s dead.” He flicked the little lever back and forth, showing me a red dot beneath it. “Only use it if you absolutely have to. The sound will call all the wild ones to you if you don’t watch out.”
“They’re the most violent Greenies. They have no tattoos on their faces,” he said. “I’m tucking the gun in your back pocket. I really do want you to survive. I know you haven’t fired one often, but you’re smart. You’ll figure it out. I’ll do my best to check in on you when the Oligarch isn’t watching my every move again, okay?”
He kissed me, bruising, no more than a clash of teeth and lips.
That, more than anything, broke me. We’d never been kissers. I didn’t mind the denial, despite desperately wanting to feel what a kiss was like, mostly because I’d never imagined him being the kissing type. And now, when my banishment and potential execution was so near? Now he gave me what I wanted for so damned long.
When he pulled away, his face was a blank slate, and the chill in his gaze reappeared.
I repressed the urge to scream, to grab at him, to beg to stay in the transport. He might have been my lover, but right now, he was my brother’s top assassin.
These well-wishes and the gun would be the best I’d get from him.
“It’s time” he said as he shoved the gun into the back pocket of the torn, filthy protective work pants I still wore. “There. Brace yourself.” Arris hunched over and fiddled with the metal panel below my window. He grabbed the straps across my chest, and then a great whooshing noise filled the cabin, and the thumping of the rotors above us increased to an alarming volume. Air buffeted my face, ice cold against my cheeks.
And there was no longer any glass between me and the Green Death.
Arris shifted my weight until I sat just on the edge of the seat, tilting out into the nothingness around the transport. The haze hung just below us, the cloudy surface broken in a few dozen places by narrow metal tubes.
“Live, Tryg. Fight for it.” His words rang loud in my ear. Then he yanked my headset off. The noise beat at my eardrums, nearly pounding me senseless.
He shoved, and I was flying.