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MERE MORTAL

CHAPTER 1

Avi and I are on watch today in the east tree house. Well, I’m on watch, and Avi’s busy keeping his sleeping bag warm. He just got back from an overnight ranging, so I’ll let it slide, this time.

The first snow fell last night, and the world is eerily quiet. A few lazy flakes twirl past our treetop lookout, dancing their way to the ground far below. I dangle my feet over the edge of the sheltered hide and inhale, savoring the sweetness of the pine-infused Colorado mountain air. It’s an invigorating cold, not a bone-chilling one.

Leaves rustle behind me. I turn in time to see Isa land catlike on the platform, a pleased grin on her face. “Hey-hey, Mila.”

I lift my hand in greeting. “Yes, yes. You’re very sneaky.”

She smiles mischievously at me and rolls her eyes at the unconscious Avi.

“Brought you breakfast.” She tosses me a bag.

I try to catch it one-handed but miss, and it lands on the floor.

Isa shrug-smiles an apology and flips her black braid behind her shoulder. She’s my best friend. We’ve been inseparable since she lost her parents to the Immortals seven years ago and came to live with my family.

“Are you scouting today?” I prop my rifle against the tree before picking up the parcel.

She nods. Isa knows the area better than anyone. “I’ll probably head up to the pass and back. Maybe check the ruins for refugees.” Three weeks ago, a Nomad site to the north was discovered and sacked by the Immortals. People have been wandering into our camp for days—cold, wounded, and hungry. “Speaking of scouting, did you turn in your applications yet?”

I bite my lip and shake my head. “Just for ranger.” My sister is a ranger, and I’ve wanted to join her on a ranging for as long as I can remember. I’d turned that application in on the first day, just like I had every month since I turned sixteen.

“Better hurry up. Today’s the deadline for this selection cycle. You’d like scouting.”

I nod. “I will.”

“You better.” She moves away. “Catch you on my way back.”

“Good luck. Be careful.”

“I always am.” She gives me a wave and heads back down the way she came. I watch her for a minute, envious of her coordination.

My rumbling stomach soon turns my attention back toward breakfast. The bread is still warm, and the toasty smell that wafts up when I break it is enough to pull Avi out of his sound sleep.

“Oh, I see—you’ll wake up for food, but not for your watch shift. Nice.” I pop a bite in my mouth.

He grins sheepishly, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “What time is it?”

The sun is just cresting over the horizon, but I still double-check my watch. “Just before seven.”

I did more than half our shift solo. I pass him some bread with a hunk of cheese. He devours it in two bites, then climbs down the tree for a quick look-about and, I suspect, to pee.

I pace. I can’t even relax while I eat; if I don’t keep up my rep for keen eyesight and overall hypervigilance, the chiefs might decide I’m only good for latrine duty. I scan the fading golden-pink horizon as I chew my last bite of breakfast.

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

The snippet of ages-old poetry centers me, giving shape to what I’m feeling. For a moment, my tension eases and I sag against the railing, relishing the sunrise.

A movement on the eastern ridge catches my eye, snapping me back to myself with a jolt. Straightening, I reach for my rifle and focus the scope in the general direction of the movement. Under the ridge sits a suspicious-looking patch of leaves that rustles with no regard for the wind direction. I look over the scope. The area around it seems clear. A little game path trickles down the mountain beside it. I put my eye back to the lens in time to see a decent-sized jackrabbit hop from the leaves and sprint across the slope. I could use some target practice, so I track it with the scope.

“Gotcha!” Avi grabs my leg, startling me from my chase. I glare at him over my shoulder, then turn back to my scope. The ladder creaks under his weight as he pushes the trapdoor fully open and climbs through. The rabbit is long gone.

“Sorry, didn’t see you were hunting.” Avi settles on the floor beside me.

I straighten and scowl at my friend. “I guess you don’t want fresh meat anytime soon.”

Avi chuckles, his eyes crinkling in a way that makes the corners of my mouth twitch. “Well, your safety’s on, so I wouldn’t be eating rabbit anytime soon anyway.”

I look at my rifle and grunt at my own stupidity. “Hmpf. I would’ve taken it off.”

“Keep practicing, you’ll get it.” He stands and dusts his hands together.

I inspect the eastern horizon again before pulling out my knife and sharpening it absently on a whetstone to keep my hands busy. When I look up, I catch Avi regarding me thoughtfully.

A strand of dark hair has fallen into his eyes, and I want to tuck it back into place. Instead, I blush, my cheeks flaming for a moment before I look away. Avi has the good grace to pretend not to notice.

“Here, let me show you.” He pulls the knife from my hands and begins sharpening it in smooth, circular movements.

“Maybe if I had a better teacher, I wouldn’t need you to correct me so often,” I retort, punching him lightly.

“I am an excellent teacher,” Avi says, affronted. “All my students love me.”

“Eight-year-olds are easy to impress.”

“Not all of them are young. Some learn weapons and tactics quickly, and some are still sharpening knives incorrectly at sixteen.” He gives me a pointed look.

I glare right back. Avi’s always expected a lot of me. After my older sister passed her weapons proficiency at eleven, everyone wanted me to do the same. I wanted me to do the same. Unfortunately for me, Maiwen inherited all the coordination and combat skills. I’m about as useful as a one-legged bunny in a fight.

Avi hands my knife back. “Maybe if you stopped trying to be someone else, you’d be more teachable,” he says, using his friend radar to zero in on my thoughts, as usual.

I punch him hard this time—I want him to know it hurts.

“Hey!” He rubs his arm. “I’m just trying to help. Maiwen has her own flaws, you know.”

“Oh yeah?” I stick out my chin. “Name one.”

“Well,” he flounders, “she’s difficult to talk to.”

I bark out a laugh. “That’s it? I feel so much better.”

“Well, you should. When you aren’t punching me, you’re a good confidant.”

I sigh. I know he’s trying to help. At least he treats me like a friend and not a way to get in good with my sister.

By midmorning, the snow is melting, and Avi’s restless. He already took apart, cleaned, and reassembled both his weapons. When he’s not asleep, he’s a very active person.

“I’m going for a walk,” he announces. “If you see anything, yell.”

I nod. Avi’s a ranger. He’d rather be anywhere than babysitting a trainee on guard duty. He lowers himself through the trap door and climbs quickly to the ground. I try not to look too long at his sculpted shoulders as he heads off through the trees.

The woods grow quiet. The steady drip of snowmelt off the aspens lulls me to sleep. My head falls forward and I jerk awake. Damn Avi. I’ve been up all night.

Determined not to doze off again, I stand and pace the length of the hide, then lean against the railing, gazing out to the east. Trees span the horizon. The remnants of their late autumn leaves hang still in the cool morning. The patch of leaves from before is rustling again; the rabbit must be back. Farther up the trail along the ridge, something else slips between the trees. I lean forward, trying to peer through the thin winter foliage. Someone is coming down the path. Two someones.

I reach for the binoculars.

“Avi!” I yell-whisper into the forest, zooming in on the trail. The figures come into focus, and I breathe a deep sigh of relief. I should’ve recognized Isa’s fluid, feline grace and Maiwen’s ready-for-anything tension a mile away. They’re heading home, so my shift must be almost over. I focus on them casually talking and joking. A rare smile breaks out on my sister’s face, and she flicks her chestnut hair behind her shoulder. I finger my frizzy locks and deny the twinge of jealousy that threatens. We share our mother’s bright blue-green eyes, but she’s petite and curvy while I’m tall and make a beanpole look voluptuous. It’s little wonder people are often surprised to find out we’re related, let alone sisters.

Maiwen and Isa skirt a large boulder and approach the problematic leaves. Isa points at the ground, brow furrowed. She squats down and studies the path, then raises her gaze to the pile of leaves.

I smirk. “Congrats, Isa. You’ve discovered a rabbit.”

I lower the binoculars. Then, to my horror, the leaves stand up and raise a gun. I grab my rifle and look through the scope as Isa crumples to the ground. The attacker is a man in heavy camouflage. Maiwen disarms their assailant with one swift kick and smashes her elbow into his face, knocking his leaf-covered helmet to the ground. He sprawls backward. My heart slams wildly against my ribs. I slide off the safety, trying desperately to get an open shot, but Maiwen blocks my line of sight. She grapples with him, pinning him with her legs while aiming a flurry of blows at his head and side. From my vantage point, I see what she can’t—he is pulling a hunting knife from his ankle sheath.

“Maiwen!” My warning cry whispers from my parched throat. She wouldn’t hear me anyway. He hooks her ankle and rolls her over, using his size and strength to his advantage. Her eyes widen, and she grabs his wrist with both hands. Still, he’s stronger, and the knife inches slowly toward her exposed throat. He’s speaking to her, but she isn’t paying attention; she bucks violently to free herself. The knife rakes across her ribs. She arches her back and cries out in pain. Fear roars through me unchecked. I have a shot. I have to take it. I can’t lose her.

I draw a shaky breath and aim. My hands tremble. My everything trembles. I exhale. Just before I squeeze the trigger, Avi is beside me. With perfect focus and calm, he lifts his rifle, aims, and shoots the man right in the head. The body collapses on top of Maiwen.

Avi breaks my vise-like grip on the rifle and leans it against the rail, gripping my hands. “Was he alone?”

I don’t respond. I can’t. This is the problem with feelings—they make me weak when I need to be strong. I couldn’t even save my own sister.

“Mila! Was he alone?” Avi repeats, shaking me a little. I scan the forest, then the sky.

“Yes,” I gasp out.

“You’re sure?”

“I’m positive. No drones, no bots.”

“Let’s go.” He scrambles down the tree, and I follow, scraping my shin in my clumsy haste. When we reach the spot a few minutes later, Maiwen’s already tending to Isa. Blood trickles steadily from my sister’s side and drips crimson in the whitesnow. Maiwen either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.

“Is she okay?” Avi asks, nodding toward Isa.

Maiwen holds up a dart. “Tranquilizer.” She tosses it to Avi, who looks it over and tucks it in his jacket, then searches the man for weapons.

I glance at Maiwen. I expect her to be frightened. My heart’s still trying to escape my chest. But she’s calm and manages to look collected even with leaves in her hair—as if nearly dying is a daily occurrence. Maiwen’s a pro at handling her emotions; even if she was afraid, she wouldn’t show it.

“Was he an Immortal?” My voice wavers, and I clear my throat to cover it up.

Maiwen glances at the lifeless body. “Apparently not.”

“You know what I mean, Min.” I use her nickname, a subtle sister-hint for how vulnerable I’m feeling. I’m still imagining what might’ve happened if Avi hadn’t shown up.

Her face softens somewhat. “Of course he was, Mila. I cut cut out his chip already.”

Avi looks up sharply. “Did you destroy it?”

I bend over to look at the body more closely. I’ve never seen an Immortal before. He looks just like one of us. Except for the memory chip and neural net, he is one of us. I shake my head. I’m not supposed to think like that. Instead, I try to find something in his face that shows him to be the inhuman monster I’ve been taught about. He has dark brown hair, cut close to his head, and his hazel-blue eyes stare up at the heavens. His flawless skin is just a shade lighter than his hair, marred only by the bullet wound above his left eyebrow. I look away. He doesn’t look inhuman—he looks scared. I’m suddenly grateful I didn’t shoot him.

“I thought Tibs might want to look at it.” Maiwen’s voice sharpens, cutting me from my thoughts.

I swallow hard and glance at my sister. It’s dangerous keeping an active chip. If it comes in range of a sync tower or drone, all his memories will automatically upload to IC-7’s supercom. His next incarnation will remember everything, including our location.

“Too risky,” Avi says, folding his arms firmly across his well-muscled chest.

Maiwen turns to face him, jaw set. “Oh? How else do you intend to find out what he was doing here? How he found us? Why he didn’t just kill Isa?” She waves an arm at the dead man. “How can we defend ourselves if we don’t know what’s coming?”

Silence stretches between them.

I glance between my sister and my friend. He’s technically her superior, but that hardly matters to Maiwen.

I don’t expect my opinion to sway either one of them, but I have to say something. I clear my throat. “If we can look at his memories, Avi, we can know what they know.”

Avi rubs the back of his neck, but keeps his eyes fixed on Maiwen. “How far to the nearest active sync tower?”

“About forty miles.” Maiwen destroyed two on her last ranging. It’s the part of her job she’s best at. At least of the parts she’ll talk about with me. She’s such an overachiever, she probably threw in a few backflips for good measure.

“Fine.” Avi runs his fingers through his hair. “But Mila keeps the chip until you get it to Tibs. Eagle eyes here will spot a drone a mile farther out than you will.”

Maiwen presses her lips together but doesn’t argue, just pulls the chip from her pocket and hands it to me while maintaining a scowl in Avi’s direction. The chip’s red lights glow at me urgently. I take it gingerly and tuck it in my jacket.

“Mila, you keep your eyes on the sky. Any sign of a drone, and you destroy that thing.” He nods at Maiwen. “We’d better get you and Isa to the medic.”

She shakes her head. “I’ll come in a bit. Want to make sure this threat is neutralized first.” She gestures toward the Immortal.

Avi rubs his eyebrow. “Fine. I’ll send sanitation to dispose of him after Isa is situated.” He hefts Isa with a grunt and picks his way down the hill. Maiwen and I search the area first—no bots—but the Immortal has two portable transmitters on him. We destroy both. Maiwen inspects his weapons.

“What did he say to you?” I ask.

“What?” She slides the clip from his pistol and pockets it.

“When he had the knife out. He said something.” I draw a circle in the snow with the toe of my boot. Nobody I know has ever talked to an Immortal before, so obviously I want to know what he said.

“Oh. Nothing. It was nonsense.” Maiwen shoulders the tranq gun and pistol belt before standing up. “He apologized, then I think he said our words. Like he was performing my last rites. Then, ‘Do not die softly—’ right before Avi shot him. It seemed like a recitation. Maybe some kind of Immortal ritual?”

“Do not die softly.” Although it is my mouth that says the words, it is my mother’s voice I hear. They strike a chord deep inside that resonates in my bones. I shake myself. “Weird.”

We head back to camp, and I pause at the lookout to warn the next shift to be extra vigilant.

“Let’s get you to the medical site.” I slip my arm under Maiwen’s.

“I’m fine, really, Mila.”

I stop and give her a quick once-over. “No, you aren’t. Your side’s sliced open, and you already got blood on my favorite jacket. If you keep bleeding, my super cool pants and sweet hand-me-down boots are in danger too.”

She’s quiet, so I push on, leading her toward camp. “Besides, this is my fault and if anything happens to you, Dad’ll never forgive me. I won’t mind, of course, you’re a pain in the ass, but Dad would be mad.” My family tactic of using sarcasm to hide our emotions is in fine form today.

Maiwen gives me a sad smile, and my heart twinges. I squeeze her shoulder and whisper, “You can’t protect everyone, you know.”

Maiwen flinches, and I know she’s remembering the last time she saw an Immortal—when they took our mom from us.

“I don’t want to protect everyone.” For a moment, desperation fills her eyes. “Just you.”

I shake my head. “That’s not your job. Just like it wasn’t your job to protect Mom.”

Her gaze goes cold, and she shakes her head. “You’re wrong. It’s my only job. If it weren’t for me, she’d still be here.”

“That’s not true, and you know it.” Maiwen looks about to protest, but lets it go as we stagger up the steps to the medical tent. I give the supply shelf a onceover and shake off a twinge of guilt. Our medical supplies are woefully insufficient, way worse than my last rotation through med clinic. Isa is already sleeping peacefully in a bed when we arrive, though neither of the medics knows how long the tranq will last. I ease Maiwen into a chair and turn to go.

“Hang on, Mila. I’d like to be there when you talk to Dad. He’ll take a lot of grief for a border breach, so he’ll want a full report.” She’s right—as guard chief, he ought to know first, but I have other concerns.

“I was going to see Tibs,” I say, holding up the chip. Tibs is the tech chief. At fifty-five, he’s easily the oldest person I know.

“Tibs will want to talk to both of us, too.”

“Fine. I’ll wait.” I stand just outside with the flap open, watching for drones.

They give Maiwen a willow bark decoction, which she tosses back in one swallow as the medic dabs her wound with alcohol. I crinkle my nose at the astringent smell. She grits her teeth and inhales sharply as the medic starts stitching.

Maiwen stands as soon as they finish, and we make our way to the low concrete tech building. Most of the buildings of Glenwood site stand empty and are older than the Immortals. We’ve rebuilt a few for our tech lab, library, and community meetings, but our people are Nomads at heart.

Maiwen takes the tech building steps two at a time and knocks about a hundred times on the steel door. With a last look at the skies, I follow her up the stairs, chip clenched in my fist, and knock a few more times for good measure. A young guard opens the door a crack.

“Yes?” He narrows his eyes at me through his lank blond hair.

I’ve been up all night and I need a shower. I’m not in the mood for narrowed eyes and useless questions.

“I need to see Tibs.”

“He’s busy.”

“Tell him Mila is here to see him.”

“Why?”

“I have some tech he needs to analyze.”

The guard holds his hand out. “I’ll give it to one of our guys.”

“Not one of your guys. Tibs—”

“You mean Chief Hobbs.”

Maiwen steps around me. “Tell him Mila and Maiwen Greenwood are here to see him. It’s about an Immortal chip. Please, Chris.”

Chris flushes a deep scarlet and steps back. “Oh. Hey, Mai—, uh Min. I’ll run get him right away.” He scurries off, leaving the door open a crack.

“Nice security.” Maiwen taps the door with her toe, her face impassive, but she remains on the porch. I’m having trouble keeping my composure.

‘My Min’?” I laugh. “Possessive, isn’t he?”

She rolls her eyes at me, but I see her mouth twitch a little to conceal a smile. The tension I’ve felt all day drains away with that twitch-smile.

In a minute, Chris returns with Tibs. Tibs is one of the few people Maiwen likes. I grin when I see him. He sports his usual mishmash of oddities: a colorful handkerchief around his head, dark socks with sandals that don’t bother his arthritic toe, and a beaded leather vest Isa and I made him when we were twelve hangs crookedly over his shoulders. I love him for wearing it.

“Hey, kiddos,” Tibs coughs, pushing up the thick glasses that magnify his eyes. “What’s this I hear about Immortals? Don’t tell me you found one.”

Maiwen lifts her shirt a little to show her bandaged side.

“More like he found us. But I made him sorry.”

“We got this off him.” I hold up the chip between my fingers then extend it toward him.

Tibs tsks at Maiwen’s wound as he examines the chip. When he realizes what it is, he stands straighter, and a frown tugs his lower lip downward. He looks up, searching the clouds.

“Mila, keep watch. Any hint of a drone and you send Chris running. Min, come with me.” He beckons her inside, and they disappear down the hall, Tibs’s long silver-gray hair flapping behind him like a flag signaling retreat.

I lean against the railing, gazing up—a not-so-subtle message to Chris that talking will be awkward.

“So . . .” Chris props the door open. “Mila. You’re Min’s sister?” He rakes his fingers through his hair and moves onto the porch opposite me. He’s good at reading signals, this one.

“All my life,” I say, still scanning for drones.

“I didn’t know she had a sister. She kind of stands out in a crowd, you know.”

“I know.”

“She has such great hair and she’s so . . . fit.”

I roll my eyes. “Yes, she’s very pretty. I’m aware.” Maiwen’s general hotness has always been the only conversation boys my age are willing to have with me, but I’m used to it by now.

“I’d never guess you were sisters. You guys don’t look alike.” 

I look at him directly for the first time. “Gee, thanks. Good to know I don’t resemble my hot sister.” I lean back and fold my arms, scanning the clouds again. His embarrassment is so intense I can hear the blood rush to his cheeks. 

“That’s not what I was trying to say.”

“Look, dude, being nice to me won’t get my sister to notice you.” I press my lips together to conceal that I’m smiling at his discomfort.

Chris rubs the back of his neck. “What, uh, what would get Min to notice me?”

I arch an eyebrow at him. Try being less male.

“Nothing comes to mind,” I say, looking back at the sky. “And don’t call her Min. That’s what her friends call her.”

Chris stammers and backpedals rapidly. But I’m not listening.

I’m staring at the drone that just came over the horizon.