Sky Without Stars
- CHAPTER 1 - CHATINE
THE RAIN WAS FALLING SIDEWAYS in the Marsh. It was never a straight downpour. It was always crooked. Just like the people here. Con artists and hustlers and crocs, the lot of them.
Anyone can be a saint until they’re hungry enough.
Chatine Renard was perched high above it all, watching the stream of people churn through the busy marketplace like clotted blood through a vein. She was straddling an exposed metal beam that once connected the old freightship to its roof.
At least, that’s what Chatine had been told—that the Frets were once titanic flying vessels that soared across the galaxy, bringing her ancestors to the planet of Laterre, the coldest and wettest of the twelve planets in the System Divine. But years of neglect and crooked rain had corroded the PermaSteel walls and ceilings, turning the staterooms in the passenger freightships into leaky, mold-ridden housing for the poor, and this cargo freightship into an open-air marketplace.
Chatine pulled her hood farther down her forehead in an attempt to block her face. Much to her dismay, she’d noticed over the past
few years that her eyelashes had grown longer, her chest had filled out, her cheekbones had become more pronounced, and her nose had slimmed to a dainty point, which she despised.
She had streaked her face with mud before coming to the Marsh today, but every time she caught sight of her reflection in a puddle or the metal of a partially collapsed wall, she cringed at how much she still looked like a girl.
The Marsh was far more crowded today than usual. Chatine leaned forward and balanced on her stomach, hugging the beam to her chest as she scanned the countless faces that passed beneath her. They were always the same faces. Poor, downtrodden souls like her trying to find creative ways to stretch their weekly wages.
Or con their neighbor out of a larg or two.
Newcomers were rare to the Marsh. No one outside of the Third Estate bothered with the picked-over cabbages and mangy turnips for sale. With the exception of Inspecteur Limier and his army of Policier droids tasked with keeping the peace, the Frets and the marketplace in its center were normally avoided at all costs by anyone who didn’t live here.
Which was why the man in the long coat immediately caught Chatine’s eye. His wealth was written all over his groomed black beard, matching hair, pressed clothes, and sparkling adornments.
Second Estate, to be sure.
She’d never known the First Estate to ever venture out of Ledôme. The climate-controlled biodome sat high on the hill on the outskirts of the capital city of Vallonay, shielding the First Estate from Laterre’s persistent downpours.
And the slums below.
Chatine’s eyes raked over the man, taking in every stitch and every button. Her gaze expertly landed on the gold medallion dangling like bait from his neck. She didn’t have to see it up close to know it
was a relic from the Last Days, rescued from the burning embers of a dying planet. The Second Estate loved their First World relics.
Five hundred largs easy, Chatine calculated in her head. Enough money to feed an entire Third Estate family for weeks.
But it wouldn’t be long before the rest of the crocs in the Marsh spotted the treasure too and made their play. Which meant Chatine had to move fast.
Gripping the beam with both hands, she swung her legs over the side and launched her body to the nearby catwalk, landing silently in a crouch. Directly underneath her, the man continued farther into the marketplace, weaving around the loose chickens that roamed the stalls searching for scraps. His gaze swept left and right as though he was taking mental inventory of the space.
For a moment, Chatine wondered what he was doing here. Had he gotten lost on his way back up to Ledôme? Or was he here on some kind of business? But then she remembered the annual Ascension happening later today and reasoned he was probably a foreman of a fabrique, come to round up his workers who were skipping out on their shifts to get jacked up on weed wine, all the while hoping to win a new life.
“Win a new life?” Chatine muttered to herself, and let out a bitter laugh.
Deluded fools, all of them.
She crept across the grid of overhead walkways and ramps, skillfully ducking to avoid broken water pipes and leaping over giant chasms in the grated floor. All the while, she kept a close watch on the man, making sure she was never more than a few steps behind him.
He finally slowed near Madame Dufour’s stall, pulled an apricot from his pocket, and took a large bite, the juice dripping into his beard. Chatine’s mouth started to water. She’d only ever tasted an apricot once, when a crate had fallen off the back of a cargo transporteur delivering fruit from the hothouses to Ledôme.
Chatine watched Madame Dufour size the man up with sinister fascination. The old croc was practically licking her lips at the sight of such an easy mark.
It was now or never.
Ducking under the broken railing, Chatine grabbed onto the raised rim of the walkway floor and somersaulted over the edge. She whipped her body forward, fell three mètres down, and adeptly caught the beam below her. She circled around until it rested against her hips and she could balance there.
She was now only a mètre above the man’s head. Yet with the buzz of the busy marketplace, no one even bothered to look up.
“What a pitiful sight,” the man said, taking another bite of his apricot. He didn’t even bother to hide his disgust. The Second Estate rarely did. It was something about being stuck in the middle, Chatine had always noticed—not quite rulers and yet far from being one of the wretched like her—that gave the Second Estate their shameless sense of arrogance.
They were almost more intolerable than the First Estate.
Chatine’s gaze cut to the left, taking in the tower of empty crates stacked up next to Madame Dufour’s stall. She shimmied along the beam until she was directly above them. Then, she tipped forward, rotated around, and kicked both feet out in front of her.
The crash was louder than she anticipated. The crates toppled to the ground, avalanching around the man as he fell to his knees with a grunt.
Chatine moved quickly. She landed in a squat, then crawled through the wreckage until she found the man and graciously helped him back onto his feet. He was so busy brushing dust and cabbage leaves from his coat, he didn’t even feel the medallion being lifted from his neck.
“Are you all right, monsieur?” Chatine asked in her friendliest tone, slipping the pendant into her pocket.
The man barely looked at her as he straightened his hat. “Quite all right, boy.”
“You must be careful in the Marsh, monsieur. It isn’t safe for someone of your rank.”
“Merci,” he said dismissively as he tossed the apricot he’d been eating toward Chatine.
She caught it and flashed him an appreciative smile. “Vive Laterre.”
“Vive Laterre,” he echoed before turning away.
Chatine grinned at the man’s back as she turned on her heel and slipped the half-eaten apricot into her pocket. It took all her strength not to consume the entire thing here and now.
She knew the man would hardly even miss that gold medallion from his neck. He probably had ten just like it back in his manoir in Ledôme. But to her, it was everything.
It would change everything.
The wind picked up, howling through the stalls and biting viciously at Chatine’s skin. She pulled her tattered black coat tighter around her, trying in vain to stave off the chill. But the holes and ripped lining of her clothes weren’t the problem. It was the hunger—the ribs poking through her skin. There wasn’t a single shred of insulation left on her body.
But after that score, she was finding it hard to care.
As Chatine headed toward the south exit of the Marsh, weaving through stalls selling moldy potatoes, slimy leeks, and pungent seaweed dragged in from the nearby docks, there was a new lightness to her gait. A new hopefulness in her step.
But just before passing through what used to be the old cargo ship’s loading bay, Chatine felt a large hand clamp down on her shoulder and she stopped dead in her tracks, a shiver running through her.
“So nice of you to help out a member of the Second Estate,” a cold, robotic voice said. “I’ve never seen such chivalry from a Renard.”
The emphasis he placed on her last name made Chatine squirm.
She closed her eyes, mustering strength, and painted on a blithe smile before slowly turning around.
“Inspecteur Limier,” she said. “Always a pleasure.”
His stony expression didn’t change. It hardly ever did. The circuitry implants on the left side of his face made it nearly impossible for the inspecteur to express any emotion. Chatine often wondered if the man was even capable of smiling.
“I wish I could say the same for you, Théo.” His tone was flat.
Only her parents called her Chatine. Everyone in the Frets knew her as Théo. It was the name she’d given herself ten years ago, when they’d first moved to the capital city of Vallonay and Chatine had decided that life as a boy would be much less complicated than life as a girl.
Chatine clucked her tongue. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Inspecteur.”
“What did you take from the kind monsieur?” Limier asked, his half-human, half-robot voice clicking on the hard consonants.
Chatine refreshed her smile. “Whatever do you mean, Inspecteur? I know better than to steal from the hand that feeds me.”
She nearly gagged on the words. But if they saved her from a one-way ticket to Bastille—the price you paid for stealing from an upper estate—then she could choke her way through them.
Chatine held her breath as the inspecteur’s circuitry flickered on his face. He was computing the information, analyzing her words, searching for hints of perjury. Over the past ten years of living in the Frets, Chatine had learned how to lie. But lying to a human being was one thing. Lying to a cyborg inspecteur, programmed to seek the truth, was quite another.
She waited, keeping her smile taut until the circuits stopped flashing.
“Will that be all, Inspecteur?” Chatine asked, smiling sweetly while pressing her hands against her tattered black pants. Her palms were starting to sweat, and she didn’t want his heat sensors to pick up on it.
Then, slowly, Chatine watched the inspecteur’s gloved hand extend toward her. With a soft touch that chilled her to the bone, he pushed up her black hood to reveal more of her face. His electric orange eye blinked to life, scanning her features. It seemed to linger a beat too long on her high, feminine cheekbones.
Panic bloomed in her chest. Can it see who I really am?
Chatine hastily took a step back, out of the inspecteur’s reach, and yanked her hood back down. “My maman is expecting me home,” she said. “So, if you don’t mind, I’ll be going now.”
“Of course,” the inspecteur replied.
“Thank you, Inspecteur. Vive Laterre.”
As Chatine turned to leave, she felt her entire body collapse with relief. She had done it. She had fooled his sensors. She was a better liar than even she had come to believe.
“I’ll just need to check your pockets first.”
Chatine froze. She quickly surveyed her surroundings. She spotted five Policier droids in her vicinity. More than usually roamed the Marsh, due to the annual Ascension ceremony today. The droids—or bashers, as they were referred to around here—stood at almost twice the size of an average man, and their slate-gray exoskeletons crunched and whirred as they walked.
Chatine wasn’t afraid of them, though. She’d escaped Policier droids plenty of times. They were fast and stronger than ten men, but they still had their limitations. For instance, they couldn’t climb.
Careful not to move her head, Chatine glanced up, thanking her lucky Sols that there was an old pipe running directly over her head. She refused to get flown off to Bastille. A neighbor was currently serving three years for stealing a measly sac of turnips. A First World relic lifted off a Second Estater? She’d be looking at ten years minimum. And hardly anyone lived that long on the moon.
She slowly spun back around to face Limier. “Of course, Inspecteur. I have nothing to hide.”
Flashing another smile, Chatine stuffed her hand into her pocket and felt the medallion cool and smooth against her skin. The inspecteur once again reached a hand in her direction. Then, before he could react, Chatine hurled the apricot the monsieur had given her straight at the inspecteur’s face. His circuitry sparked as his brain tried to make sense of the incoming object. Chatine bolted, scrambling onto a table full of fabric scraps before leaping toward the pipe.
For a second, she was flying, soaring above the inspecteur, the shoppers in the Marsh, and the Policier droids who were just starting to take notice of the disturbance. As she caught the pipe, she used her momentum to circle her legs around until she was straddling the rusty metal pole.
“Paralyze him!” Inspecteur Limier shouted to his droids, peering up at Chatine. His circuitry was going haywire, like someone had hacked the signal. “Now!”
The bashers maneuvered their bulky PermaSteel bodies around one another, assembling into attack formation. Chatine knew she had to move quickly. One rayonette pulse she could dodge, but five? That would be rough.
The pipe was too narrow to walk on, so Chatine shimmied across it on her stomach, weighing her options. The north exit was out of the question. It backed up to the Vallonay Policier Precinct, where she would certainly run into more droids. There was a catwalk about three mètres ahead of her. If she could reach it without getting shot, she could crawl the rest of the way to the east exit, back near Madame Dufour’s stall.
A split second later, she felt the heat of the first rayonette pulse whizz by the side of her face. She sucked in a sharp breath and shimmied faster. A second droid took aim below her, its shot perfectly aligned at her left knee. She braced herself for the impact. But just then, a group of drunk exploit workers stumbled through the fray, arguing about who among them had the most Ascension points
stored up. One of them crashed right into the droid, and the pulse barely missed her leg.
“Oh, excuse me, monsieur,” the drunk worker slurred to the droid, bowing ceremoniously. His friends broke out into hoots of laughter while Chatine took the opportunity to slide the rest of the way across the rusted pipe.
Thank the Sols for strong weed wine, she thought as she launched herself toward the catwalk. She caught the railing with both hands just as a third pulse was fired from below. This one glanced her left shoulder.
It wasn’t a direct hit, but it was enough. The pain was instant. Like someone had scraped her skin with a blazing-hot knife. She bit her lip to keep from crying out. The sound would only improve the droids’ aim.
Within seconds, her left arm started to lose sensation from the paralyzeur now pumping through her blood. She scrambled to swing her feet up over the ledge of the walkway but was unsuccessful. Now she was just dangling there, her feet paddling against the air.
The droids shoved people aside as they zeroed in on her location. More rayonette pulses tore past her, rippling and bending the air. It was only a matter of time before another one found its target.
Chatine knew she needed a distraction. She spotted a crate packed with chickens directly in front of her. She shook out her left arm, trying to chase away the numbness that was spreading toward her fingers, but it was no use. The paralyzeur was quickly working its way through her muscles.
Favoring her right hand, she gripped the railing as tightly as she could and pumped her legs until she’d built up enough momentum to reach the crate. She arched her body and kicked her legs out hard. The crate crashed to the ground and busted open. The chickens squawked and tried to fly away, but their useless wings barely allowed them to get off the ground.
The commotion was enough, though.
People were screaming, the stall owner was desperately trying to wrangle the loose birds, and the Policier droids fought to barrel through it all. But their efforts only managed to rile up the birds even more. They fluttered about, scraping people with their sharp claws.
The droids started firing with abandon. But with all the chaos below, their aim was poor. They hit more chickens than anything else. The birds absorbed the stun of the rayonettes and fell limp to the ground. They wouldn’t be able to move again for a few hours.
With the droids distracted, Chatine was finally able to pull herself onto the catwalk and crawl, one-handed, across the rusty metal plank before shimmying down a support beam next to Madame Dufour’s stall.
She glanced back to see the bashers still trying to push their way through the crowd to reach her. But with the number of people in the Marsh today and the riled-up chickens, it wasn’t an easy task.
Madame Dufour glared at Chatine, her wrinkled arms folded across her chest. “Like father, like son,” she said, making a tsk sound with her teeth. “Mark my words, boy, you’ll be rotting on the moon before the end of this year.”
Chatine flashed her a goading grin before swiping a loaf of chou bread from one of Madame Dufour’s crates and darting toward the exit.
“Arrête!” The old woman’s command sounded like a croak. “Get back here, you wretched croc!”
“Thanks for breakfast!” Chatine called back in a singsong voice.
And then, before the droids could track her or Madame Dufour could catch her, Chatine was gone.
Once she’d put a good distance between herself and the marketplace, she slowed to a walk and massaged her dead arm with the opposite hand. It wasn’t the first time she’d been shot by a rayonette. And it probably wouldn’t be the last. The sensation would return soon enough.
Chatine reached into her pocket and pulled out the pendant she had lifted from the Second Estater. She sucked off the sweet apricot juice and held the medallion in her open palm, studying it. For the first time, Chatine noticed the ornate golden Sol carved into the surface. It was unlike any of the three Sols that hung in the sky of the System Divine. This was a First World Sol. Its brilliant, fiery rays flared out to the edge of the medallion. Chatine reverently clasped the pendant around her neck, a rare genuine smile creeping across her face.
She hadn’t seen the light of a Sol in nine years.
This was definitely a sign of good things to come.