Home > Their Fractured Light (Starbound #3)

Their Fractured Light (Starbound #3)
Amie Kaufman, Meagan Spoone

THE DAPPLED SUNLIGHT THROUGH THE grass is beautiful, though I know it’s not real. The light casts no warmth on my skin; I’ll suffer no burns, no freckles. The grass doesn’t bend under my feet, though they sink through it to the marble floor beneath the holographic images. A year ago I would have gasped aloud at the sight of sun and blue skies, even holographic ones, but today I find they just make me miss home. What I’d give, now, to lift my head and see bruise-colored clouds sweeping down to meet the marsh, a vastness to the horizon that no holographic lobby in an office building could hope to replicate.

The holosuite is full of people, and while many of them seem to be employees here at LaRoux Industries Headquarters, others are harder to pinpoint. Some carry old-timey briefcases in a nod to ancient vintage fashion from 1920s Earth, the current fad among the upper crust. Others sport only their palm pads; the affectation of carrying purses and cases is absurd, when everything that would’ve gone inside—money, documents, telephones, identification cards—was digitalized hundreds of years ago.

But the trend does make it easy to carry around everything I need without anyone asking questions. Only a couple years ago I would’ve been stuck in pseudo-Victorian garb if I wanted to be fashionable, hiding the tools of my trade under an unwieldy skirt. As it is, my tea dress is light, easy to run in if necessary, and—most importantly—an airy, innocent ivory lace that makes me look even younger than seventeen. I tuck my handbag close to my body, taking a deep breath and scanning the throngs of people.

There’s a tension in the air that makes my pulse quicken. It’s subtle—those hiding here in plain sight are doing so flawlessly. Almost. But I grew up on Avon, and I know how to read a crowd. I know how quickly a protest turns into a riot—I know how quickly a peaceful town becomes a battlefield.

I don’t know if the vast security network at LaRoux Industries is aware of the underground protests scheduled to occur today. I only know about them because I was told by one of my contacts in Corinth Against Tyranny—a ridiculous name, but it’s a romantic notion to fight the good fight against the oppressors. Looking around the holosuite outfitted with lemonade dispensers and sodas whizzing here and there on hover trays, the air littered with conversation and laughter, I can’t help but think that these people don’t know what oppression is. I tear my eyes away from a couple indulgently watching a child of five or six chasing a pair of holographic birds through the air. There’s a reason LaRoux Industries tops the “best places to work in the galaxy” list every year, and if I’d been the one organizing today’s protest, I certainly wouldn’t have chosen the new twentieth-floor holosuite as the setting.

Free for employees, and available to the public for only a small charge, the holosuite is part of LaRoux’s new outreach program. “See how generous I am?” he’s saying. “I’m dedicating whole floors of my headquarters to providing safe, fun places for you and your children.” His campaign to make the galaxy love him, to make people forget the accusations leveled at him in the Avon Broadcast, is enough to turn my stomach—not least because it’s working.

The people here do seem happy. No one here cares that people were dying on Avon before Flynn Cormac’s now-infamous speech a year ago. Nobody cares that Roderick LaRoux is a monster—mostly because only small pockets of people here and there actually believed a word of Flynn’s broadcast. These people are here because it looks good on their media pages to say they were at a protest. Some of them are probably hoping to get arrested so they can later post their mug shots on the hypernet.

But it does make a great distraction for what I’m here to do.

I have only a name for the contact I’m meeting—Sanjana Rao—and though it speaks of family roots in old India, it’s just as likely she could be blond-haired and blue-eyed, given the way all the races and bloodlines from Earth have been jumbled up over the centuries. She’ll ping my palm pad when she’s here, but I can’t help but look for her anyway.

I find my gaze creeping toward the elevator doors, cleverly concealed in this park simulation as the entrance to a carousel. This is the closest I’ve been to LaRoux himself after a year of chasing him, and all I want to do is break into their secure elevators and climb to the penthouse floor. A year of burned identities and isolation; of painful tattoo removal surgeries that still haven’t completely erased my genetag; of keeping all traces of myself, all remnants of my old life, with me at all times in case today, this moment, is the one where I’m going to have to pack up and run again.

But LaRoux himself is nearly impossible to reach. If he wasn’t, someone would’ve already killed him years ago—for all that the galaxy at large loves him, enough of the people he’s trampled on his way to power see him for what he is. No, a head-on approach will never reach him. Taking out LaRoux requires subtlety.

I glance at my inner arm, a habit I still haven’t broken. Someone clever could guess at what the look means—no one born on Corinth or any of the older planets is given a genetag at birth—and yet I do it anyway. The faint remnant of my genetag tattoo is safely hidden, though I have to take care not to rub against my dress and risk transferring a telltale smear of concealer to the fabric. I want to grab for my palm pad, to check it to see if I could have missed Dr. Rao’s ping, but standing here repeatedly checking my messages would be a clear sign of nervousness, if anyone was watching me.

It’s only when I lift my head that I realize I do have an audience. And that it isn’t my contact.

A young man’s seated on the floor, his back against a tree—a tree that isn’t really there, of course. His back is against a marble pillar, but the holographic skin of the room makes it look like he’s relaxing in a park. Except, of course, that he’s got a lapscreen and it’s plugged into the side of the tree. There’s a wireless power field here, so I know he’s not charging his screen. It’s a data port, which is odd enough, given that any info accessible in a public place like this would be on the hypernet. But that’s not what makes me stop, makes my heart seize. It’s that he’s wearing the green and gray of LaRoux Industries, and that there’s a lambda embroidered over his breast pocket. He works here—and he’s watching me.

My mouth goes dry, and I force myself not to jerk my gaze away. Instead I tip my head as if puzzled, trying my absolute best to seem intrigued, even coy.

A grin flashes across his features when I catch him watching me. He makes no attempt to pretend he wasn’t, just flicks his fingers to his brow and then away as though tipping an imaginary hat. He doesn’t look like a typical office worker, with longer hair of a shade hovering somewhere between sandy blond and brown and a lazy, almost insolent cast to his body as he leans against the pillar.

I take a breath to settle, hiding any trace of fear that he knows I don’t belong here. Instead I smile back, settling easily into the façade of shy and sweet; to my relief, his grin widens. Just flirting, then.

He winks, then presses a single button on his lapscreen. A holographic bird with brilliant red plumage swoops across my path and then freezes in midair. Abruptly, all the background sounds halt: birdsong and rustling leaves and even some of the laughter and conversation—all gone. Then, without warning, the entire holopark vanishes, leaving us in a vast white room.

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