MY NAME IS 13 – Excerpt

My Name is 13 is a YA Fantasy novel set in two parallel universes. Enjoy!

New Victoria, 2170 AD

CHAPTER 1 – Disobedience is the true foundation of Liberty. The obedient must be slaves – Harry David Thoreau

I don’t have a name. Well, I’m called something, but it’s not a name. Invisibles don’t get names. I go by Thirteen, just like the number tattooed on my inner wrist. You know, since I’m property and not a “Natural” human – apparently being created in a Petri-dish makes me a commodity. I still remember when I was bought on my twelfth birthday, and how bad the needle hurt as it bit my flesh with that dark ink.

The wrinkly and decrepit Naturals say “13” is bad luck and won’t take food from my trays at parties, which is obnoxious, because that means less points on their tabs. Unfortunately they all seem to love Victoria. Vacationing in a pretend version of Victorian England reminds them of the books they used to read about Ancient Britain. I personally don’t get their fascination, but hey, what do I know? I’m just a slave, and a damned lucky one at that. I’ve heard about the other resorts – and there’ s no way I’m cleaning up horse stalls or working in some god-forsaken ice palace on the North Pole.

I’ll take lace doilies and feather dusters any day over that, thank you very much.

“Thirteen, run and get me a hot iron. Hurry up!” Anika snaps. Born here seventeen years ago, Anika Avery is one of the main attractions for the rich tourists here at Avery Manor. She’s also a complete bitch. Spoiled beyond belief, Anika loves nothing more than to take points from me. Especially in front of the guests. But I’m her property, and I do what I’m told. It’s either that torment, or be repurposed for parts.

Thankfully she can’t hear the running commentary in my head, or I’d be in little hacked up pieces right now.

“Do you think that this will do, my lady?” I ask in my mock-British accent. She snatches the hot iron before I can stop her, and burns her hand. She drops it on the carpet, sending up little swirls of smoke. Great. If she just let me do her hair with a simulator, this would all get done a lot quicker. It’s the only way I’m able to style my long brown hair like the pictures in the protocol books.

“Bloody hell! You’ve burned me! I ought to take a few points away from you,” she mutters, sucking on her thumb. Of course. This is just what I need today, isn’t it? I calmly pick up the iron with a towel, and start doing her hair myself. She eyes me in the mirror. “I suppose you’re almost to your points limit?”

I smile, and this is a real smile. It’s true. I’ve almost reached my points limit. But why does she care? I choose each of my words carefully, since I’m trying to avoid whatever trap she might be laying to snare me. I feel like that’s my full time job, and not this whole hair-styling, bedroom cleaning thing.

“Yes, my lady. I should be at my limit by the end of next year.” I finish the last curl and step back to examine my work. It’s spectacular – her pile of honey-gold curls and sparkling aqua eyes are a perfect match to her pale blue dress. She looks even better than the images she pulled from the historical docs this morning on her DigiCom. She doesn’t seem to mind that little piece of technology. I try not to roll my eyes.

“I guess that will have to do. Hopefully no one looks at it too closely.” She stands up and is about to head for the door before stopping. She turns back, a creepy smile pulling at her cheeks.

“Hold out your wrist.” The smirk doesn’t reach her eyes, and my heart shudders because I know what’s coming. I step forward and do as I’m told, the black 13 facing up. She presses her thumb to the darkened flesh and says, “Five point deduction for burning my hand and not apologizing. You should be more careful, slave.” She says the last word with a quiet relish, knowing that it was never to be uttered in polite company. Technically, it was best to avoid referring to me at all.  “I suppose you’ll need a bit more time to reach your points limit now.” Her smile is Cheshire slick, knowing this setback means more time to torture me.

As I listen to her period-accurate lace-up boots echo down the hall, I bite my bottom lip hard enough to taste the iron of my own blood. It’s no use wondering why Anika hates me so much, because there’s nothing I can do about it. Head down and work hard – that’s my mantra. I’ll do whatever it takes to get to my points limit, buy my freedom and get the hell out of here.

I scurry up the back staircase used for Invisibles that lead to our rooms. My bunk is in room two, a dingy five foot square to be shared by four Invisibles. It sits below the eaves of the house, and I have to crouch to avoid smacking my head on the roof girders. I grab my black evening uniform from the neat pile on the floor, brushing off a wayward spider. I think they like our cramped rooms more than I do.

My three roommates have already made it downstairs, and their gray day uniforms are tossed into untidy heaps on the floor. Move it, Thirteen. I can barely stand the thought of losing  five more points today for being late to cocktail hour.

I pause for a moment, slipping my hand under my thin mattress, and pull out my little treasure. The paper twist is worn and almost crumbling, and made smooth by my constant handling. But, even though I’m seriously late, I can’t help it. It reminds me that someday things might be different, and that I’m working toward a goal. In this whole world, it’s the only thing that’s really mine, and thankfully it looks, and is, a little piece of garbage. No one’s ever noticed it or questioned it. I put it away, knowing that I’ll just take it back out tonight and think of the day I got it.

After all, it was the last time I was really happy.

I grab a lace hairpiece and run down the stairwell, hurriedly tucking pins in to my bun as I finally make it into the hall. As I round the corner, I run face-first into a man’s chest, sending him flying back onto his butt.

Wow. Even scrambling to get up, I can’t help but notice how handsome he is, making this so, so much worse. Why couldn’t he at least be hideous? Maybe some nice growths bulging over his face?

“I’m very sorry, Sir,” I reach out to help him up. Thankfully he smiles, and I hope that he won’t report me. Losing points for bumping into a hot guy would definitely ruin my day. But he brushes off his pants, laughing. I hate that I notice how his cheeks form perfect, charming dimples.

“Well, they said your resort was fun, but I didn’t think I’d get knocked over by a pretty girl on my first day,” he says. I blanch and step back. I’m an Invisible. He can’t notice me – it’s forbidden. Even if I’ve noticed him, which is hard not to do. I avert my eyes and try to skirt around him in the narrow hall. I’m not the kind of Invisible that goes to back bedrooms with Natural men like him, and I can tell by his thick hay-colored curls and bright green eyes, he’s used to getting what he wants.

“Again, so sorry. Please excuse me,” I whisper, rushing away. I can sense he’s standing in the hall, watching me, as I close the door. My heart races at the thought of his eyes trained on me. Come on, Thirteen.

The party has already begun, and Miss Driver gives me an icy look that pierces my skin. She nods to a tray of drinks without comment, touching her wrist to indicate that I’ve lost more points for being late.

Great. Absolutely great.

I take them to the cluster of men near the fireplace. Ms. Driver is an Invisible too, but at least she has a title. I’d heard some of the Invisibles whisper about how she had reached her points limit ten years ago, but chose to remain at Avery Manor anyway. Which is just another tick on the checklist as to why I think she’s the craziest, most evil Invisible I’ve ever met. She has to be completely mad to choose to stay here when Liberia is just a boat ride away. She must love to torture us. I mean, who would stay and be a slave when they could be free?

See? Complete Mad Hatter.

“Ah, here we go. Perfectly preserved Scotch, more than two hundred years old,” Mr. Avery, a self-appointed Duke of Victoria, takes the antique crystal glass from my tray and holds it to the light. The other men follow suit, before hesitantly sipping the dark amber liquid. I step back, waiting for them to finish. Tourists always finish their drinks too quickly, and I happily wait for them to need a refill. I finally feel myself start to relax. You’ll earn back those points. Just breathe.

“It’s very strong, don’t you think?” the man to my left says. I dare a glance up, recognizing the man’s long fingers and easy smile. I feel his eyes sliding toward me, and look down at the carpet again as a hot tingling sensation works its way down my arms and up my neck. Keep it together! He’s not the first hot guy to visit.

               “Puts hair on your chest, young Mr. Wolf,” Mr. Avery says, slapping Mr. Hot Guy on the back. I think momentarily that this lithe, handsome young man is not so accurately named. Mr. Colt, perhaps, or Mr. Gazelle. I try not to notice as he gently places his empty glass on my tray, taking just a moment too long to pull away. Okay, he’s not the first guy, but he just might be the hottest. I try not to sigh audibly at the injustice of it all, watching his graceful hand pull slowly away as if wants to let it linger near mine.

I might do pretty well as a Natural, I smirk to myself. Except you were born a slave, so deal with it, the rational part of my brain butts in. Right. How could I forget?

The other men finish their drinks in hearty gulps and place the glasses back on my tray. I hurry off to grab another round and happily mark the drinks on their tabs. Ka-Ching. I can practically see the points added to my tally. I’ll make up the points Anika took from me in no time. I cast a quick hot glare in her direction, knowing full well she will neither notice, nor care. But if looks could kill, or at least injure, I’d be giving her a nice smack across the back of the head.

“I could see living and working in a place like this,” Mr. Wolf says as I arrive back with full glasses. Mr. Avery smiles the same way he does when Japanese tour groups book their vacations. “Especially with such enchanting company,” Mr. Wolf says, throwing a glance at Anika. She’s sitting on a small settee made of pink silk and overly-polished mahogany with her mother, an equally demure Doe-eyed  beauty. Anika even has a fan fluttering beneath her eyes. If I didn’t know better, she could easily be mistaken for an elegant lady-in-training.

But Anika’s no lady. I have to hide a smile as I think of her late-night entertaining. Her torrid, though somehow secretive, affairs keep her quite busy. A fresh group of tourists always bear at least one fit young man for Anika’s…admirations. I’ve spent too many nights pacing outside of her room, under strict orders to distract her parents if they should start snooping. Though how I could cover up the near violent sounds of Anika’s sex life is a mystery, even to me – the perfect servant.

I busy myself picking up empty glasses and eavesdropping. Mr. Avery has been hunting for a match for Anika for nearly a year. I know he could never bear to see her move away to some other state. She could end up working on an old Western horse farm in New Texas, or heaven forbid – as a regular person with a normal job in New York pushing papers. Snapping up Mr. Wolf as a husband might mean keeping her here indefinitely, and keeping this picture-perfect Victorian household together.

As Mr. Avery and Mr. Wolf saunter over to the ladies to chat, I quickly survey the room. Time for hors de oeuvres. I hustle back to the kitchen.

I’m hit with a blast of steam from the dishwasher as I rush to the gleaming steel line, where trays of carefully prepared treats sit on tiny gold doilies. Seven, the head cook, rubs his hands together as he inspects each tray. He’s tall and remarkably handsome, with dark ebony skin and close-cut hair.

“Do you think they look enough like the pictures?” he asks, and I glance at the elaborate hors de oeuvres on his ComScreen imbedded in the wall. The titles roll by under each picture: canapés of smoked salmon, crème fraische and caviar on toast points, puff pastry with goat cheese and chives, seared foie gras and apples. How the heck am I going to remember all of this?

“They’re lovely, don’t worry,” I say, giving him my best fake smile. A girl, number Twenty-Two, leans dangerously close to a shrimp toast. She inhales, as if she can taste the forbidden food through her nose.

“They’re passable,” I hear, and I snap to attention. Twenty-two jumps up, hands behind her plump back and turning almost as pale as her blonde hair. Ms. Driver inspects the trays as if they’re dog food, her lip turned up ever so slightly. “Hurry up, all of you,” Ms. Driver commands, and we take our trays. She looks so out of place in the ultra modern, shining kitchen. Her severe gray bun, broad shoulders wrapped in the stiff black fabric of her Head Housekeeper uniform and antique silhouette broach at her throat make her look like a perfectly preserved English doll. A doll that’s like, eighty. I let out a little snort, covering it with a cough as Miss Driver’s gaze bores as if she’d love to see my head on a pike.

Luckily for me, we’re not in a Medieval resort.

I pass her on my way out, locking eyes, knowing that she’s going to yell at me tonight for my point deduction. I can’t wait to reach my points limit and get the hell out of here. As I walk past the mirror set by the door, I pause to adjust my hair with my free hand. My long brown hair is in a braided bun, hopefully stealing some attention from my wide gray eyes.

“You’ll unnerve your owners with those big eyes, girl. Don’t stare at Naturals like that, or they’ll think you’re scheming about something,” my Purposing Room teacher had said. Until then I had never noticed them. I catch Miss Driver still keeping an eye on me, and push my way through the door. Let her think I’m scheming something, I think. Only five hundred more points to go.

As I swing back in to the room, I notice Mr. Wolf is standing by himself near the fireplace, examining the perfectly correct period clock. As no one has offered him a canapé yet, I sigh and walk over. On the one hand, he is nice to look at. On the other, he’s completely off-limits, an I’d rather not torture myself.

“Canapé, sir? The caviar is the Chef’s favorite,” I murmur. I know that there’s no way it’s Seven’s favorite, but it makes the squishy-looking fish eggs more appetizing. With the highest price on the menu, I’m hoping to push them all and go back for more. He turns to me slowly, seeming to watch the room before finally, ever so calmly, settling his eyes on me. His gaze smolders and he barely smiles. I catch myself staring at his mouth as he runs his tongue slowly over his bottom lip. As if he’s trying to tempt me.

“I’m so sorry about…earlier. I had no idea you were-” and he stops short. I see the heat rising to his cheeks. I shrug and hold up my tray, trying hard not to stare again at his perfectly rounded pout.

“Caviar?” I press. He’s a Natural, and he doesn’t need to apologize, though I appreciate the sentiment. I catch him glancing at the black ink peeking out from my lace-covered wrist. He bites his lip again. I clear my throat. It’s all very awkward, and I wish it was over so I could go on pretending none of this ever happened.

“It’s just that, I’m not used to the idea of, well, you know,” he shrugs toward my number. He must not be from as much money as Mr. Avery thinks. That, or he’s new money. They seem to have the hardest time with us Invisibles because they weren’t raised in rich households that own them. Apparently some people think owning other humans, even if we were created for it, is strange. Maybe even wrong.

Can you imagine? Thinking everyone is equal? To think that I might not have to work to buy my freedom was a heady, tortuous thought that was best left alone.

“It’s perfectly fine, sir. Please, take a canapé. You’ll like it.” He gingerly takes one, letting his hand graze mine. I look aside as a tingle floats up my arm, and then hurry away. What is wrong with me? It’s not like he’s the first hot guy to visit Avery Manor. But something about him is just…different. Intriguingly different. Like he’s trying to get to know me, and not just get some side slave-action. Which I would never, ever do. Being an un-human human is bad enough without debasing myself.

“Over here,” Anika mock whispers, beckoning me with a flick of her wrist, catching the light with her polished faux pearl bracelet. I set my face to a vacantly neutral look and bring over the tray. Anika is happily gossiping with a few girls that look nearly our age. I bend down and offer them the tray, carefully reciting each canapé’s name with a crisp British accent. I refuse to falter in front of Anika again because I know she’s hoping that I will.

“And this one?” Anika asks, pointing to a small tart near the edge of the tray. I feel my insides squirm, realizing I have no idea what it is. I don’t remember seeing it on the screen in the Kitchen.

A brown, pocked texture and crisp, buttery crust? It has to be a mushroom tart. Seven must be getting sloppy if he’s accidentally adding unlisted hors de oeuvres on trays. I’ll have to mention it to him before Ms. Driver notices. He’s so kind, I’d hate for him to lose points.

So I risk it.

“A mushroom tart, my lady,” I whisper. She smiles, since she loves mushrooms, and pops it into her mouth. The other girls take the last caviar canapés, and I mentally add up their tab with excitement. So many points, I tell myself. Absolutely brilliant.

Then I hear it. Before I can take another breath, Anika has dropped the rest of the tart on to the floor and is clutching her throat.

“My God, what’s wrong?” the girl next to her cries. Her shiny black ringlets bounce as she scoots away, horrified by the guttural sounds coming from Anika. Anika is coughing, her face turning bright red as her lips swell before my eyes.

No, no, no. NO. Not this.

I drop my tray and run to the kitchen as the other Invisibles rush to her aid. But I already know what’s happening.

“Remember, if you ever see Miss Anika having an allergic reaction, simply grab this syringe and give her a shot,” Ms. Driver had said, holding up the syringe of orange goo. “They’re in these medical supply kits in most rooms of the house, except the living room. His Lordship doesn’t like to have things that aren’t period correct,” she said. I had never heard of a nut allergy before. It was just one more thing that made Anika so rare and delicate – allergies were almost extinct in babies born to Naturals in the past fifty years. The Purposing rooms hadn’t even trained me for it.

I skitter around the corner and burst in to the kitchen, pushing an Invisible carrying dishes out of my way. He flies in to the wall and sends ceramic plates shattering across the floor. Even while running, I mentally subtract the points that will be deducted for that mistake. Of course, accidentally poisoning a Natural would mean-

No. I won’t let her die.

I reach the medical emergency kit in the back of the kitchen and rip the door open, only to find that the spot for the syringe is empty. I gulp down my breaths as I pull everything out and fling it on to the floor. It has to be here. Why isn’t it here? I reach the back of the cabinet, hopelessly pawing at the plastic backing.

Her room. I realize my only chance is to make it to her room and find her personal stash of syringes. As I dart up the stairs and tear through her bedroom, I can’t think. If anything happens to Anika – and that’s where my mind goes blank. It’s a recording that skips every damn time I try to tell myself what could happen to her, and to me, if. I rip the syringe from the case by her bed, rush down the stairs and burst in to the most horrifying scene of my sheltered, boring little life.

Mrs. Avery is sobbing on the floor, holding Anika’s lifeless body in her arms. Her cries are like a wild animal, deep and guttural and painfully loud. Mr. Avery is on his knees, holding an empty syringe. I’ve no idea where he got it. He watches Anika’s face as he shakes his head. Her ringlets, which I worked so hard on getting right, bounce and shine in the candlelight in time with her mother’s sobs, more beautiful than the protocol movies could have imagined. But her eyes are glassy, and her jaw is slack, twisting what’s left of her beauty.

“No Anika, wake up. Wake up sweetheart,” he says, his British accent nowhere to be heard. I don’t even recognize his voice. It’s jagged like broken glass. The guests have started backing away from the all too-real family. This was their vacation. This was their escape from the war and genocide of the outside world.

This wasn’t supposed to be real.

I stand stupidly with the syringe, opening and closing my mouth like a fish. I feel a warm hand close around my wrist and pull me back. I can’t take my eyes off of the horrible tableau, and I drop my useless syringe. I want desperately to hit rewind, to do it all again. I can be better. I am the best. I didn’t mean anything I thought earlier – I would never hurt her. I think I’m going to be sick.

My eyes squeeze shut involuntarily, as if shutting out the visual will somehow mute the sobbing.

“How did this happen?” Mr. Avery wails. I feel someone tugging on my shoulders, leading me away. I dare one more peek at Anika’s wide open, lifeless eyes.

I’m pulled out of the room before I finally turn around. It’s Mr. Wolf. “We have to get you out of here,” he whispers.

“What? No!” I yell, pushing him away. He grabs me by the shoulders and pulls me so close I can see the beginnings of his five o-clock shadow.

“Don’t you know what they’ll do to you? You poisoned her!” he whispers.

“It was an accident! I have no idea how that tart got there! We don’t serve nuts in this house! It’s Ms. Driver’s rules!” I frantically whisper back. I’m batting him away as he pulls me farther down the hall. “Let me go, they’ll believe me!”

His eyes are sharp as he snaps me to his chest.

“Don’t be a fool. You’ll be blamed, and you know what that means,” he says. I stop struggling, letting his words wither my hope like rain on crepe paper

“But, it was an accident,” I say weakly, in my real voice. I can’t think hard enough to form my accent. “It’s the truth.” He nods.

“I know, but it doesn’t look that way. A slave poisoning her rich owner seems just a little too perfect, right? Let me help you,” he says.

I want to run back to the room and show them I didn’t mean it. Show them the syringe I ran to get – show them I would do anything to keep Anika alive. I would never kill my owner.

“Thirteen? Thirteen?!” a voice echoes through the hall, and it’s getting closer. It’s Mr. Avery, calling for my blood. I hear the sound of rustling dresses and smart leather shoes stampeding from the living room. The door to the hall bursts open, and Mr. Avery’s eyes cut through me like one of his antique rapiers that I polish every Tuesday. “You!” he screams. A small line of spittle drips from the corner of his mouth. “You jealous bitch! You did this to her!”

“I’m sorry, it was an accident,” I say. I shake my head and hold out my hands. “Please, you have to believe me. I would never hurt her!”

“Come on,” Mr. Wolf says, and I turn to him. He pulls a wide silver bracelet from his pocket and snaps it onto my wrist.

“What are you doing?”

“Saving your life,” he says, hurriedly touching his bracelet. I turn back to Mr. Avery and am shocked by a sharp silver object in his hand.

“You’ll die for this, slave,” Mr. Avery says. I barely have time to pull away as he slashes at my throat with a kitchen knife. A woman screams, and I’m pretty sure it’s Twenty Two. She always did seem to like me, and I have the strange thought of her eating stolen shrimp toast tonight in her room. I hope she likes them.

I stop breathing and clutch my throat, slamming myself back in to Mr. Wolf to avoid the next swipe of the blade. He pulls me to his chest, and I feel myself slumping to the floor at his feet as warm blood oozes over my hands.

“Hold on,” Mr. Wolf says. I look down as my body disintegrates, like an ice sculpture melting on the hot summer lawn. I’m dying, I think, though I know some would argue that lab-created humans don’t really live.

Then, everything goes black.

CHAPTER 2 – Man cannot explore new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore. – André Giden.

I land flat on my back with a loud whack. I feel like I fell from a third-story balcony, but miraculously I am still alive. I keep my eyes closed, counting my breaths and waiting for Mr. Avery’s knife to slice deep and finish the job. Isn’t that how the world was in Old America? People slaughtering each other in the streets? I gasp as my hands slip over my bloody wet throat. That’s how it still is now, outside of our safe states. I am lucky to be created to serve in a safe place like New Victoria. Well, I was lucky.

“Calm down, it’s alright. Just don’t move,” Mr. Wolf says, and I hear him run off. I slowly open one eye, and see that I’m in a room that seems to be made entirely of shining stainless steel. I try to move my head to find Mr. Avery, but the room is empty. Mr. Wolf runs back in, carrying a medical supply kit, and kneels beside me.

“Where are we? We have to leave or he’ll…” I can’t finish the sentence because of the searing pain, and Mr. Wolf shushes me.

“I promise, everything’s going to be alright. Just relax,” he says, taking a small silver cartridge out of the box. He presses it to my arm.

“He’ll kill me,” I whisper, even though my life is worth nothing but the amount he paid for. But I don’t want to die.

Darkness.

Chirp. Bing. Bing. The sound of medical equipment pierces my haze, and I force my eyes to open. I see Mr. Wolf standing over me, staring at my throat. When he notices that I’m awake, he smiles.

“How are you feeling?” he asks.

“I,” I cough, “I’m fine,” I say, surprised because it doesn’t hurt at all. It feels like I’ve been asleep for both mere minutes and several hours, and I rub the back of my sore head.

“Good. We’re lucky you leaned back or he could have killed you,” he says. “We’re safe here, don’t worry,” he says. “I promise, they can’t get to you here.”

“Where are they? I’ve got to go,” I start to rise and the room sways like I’m on a ship. I fall back and smack my head on the metal table, blurring my vision with stars.

“Hey, slow down,” he says, placing a gentle hand on my arm. “I told you, they’re gone. Well, actually, we’re gone.” As the room stops swaying, I can finally focus. I’ve never had such a horrible headache, but I can’t help but stare in awe around me. I sit up, slowly, and take in the room. This lab looks just like the steel tables I remember from the Purposing Rooms, and that makes me come to my senses – apparently being almost killed drowned my survival instinct. Because there’s only one reason I can think of that an Invisible would return to a lab like this: Repurposing.

“No, no, I won’t be Repurposed!” I yell, suddenly terrified and stronger than before. This time when I move and the room starts swaying, I bite down and swallow the bile from my stomach. But Blake’s arms are tight around me and he’s so close I can smell soap and sweat on his neck.

“You’re okay, really!” He yells over my struggling. But I’m so weak that my arms grow limp as he pins me down, holding me close to his chest. “You’re okay. Everything is going to fine. God, I’m not going to Repurpose you. Just calm down.”

“You say that, yet, here I am in a lab.” My voice is slightly muffled against his shoulder, and he gingerly backs away. He holds his hands up.

“I promise. I’m here to help you. We’ve escaped, and no one is going to hurt you. I brought you here to fix your throat,” he says, motioning to my neck. I gently touch the thick bandage and frown. “The healing machines did all the work for me.” He points to the giant metal contraptions suspended from the ceiling.

I give him a dubious look, hoping that my face is crystal clear – he sounds like a crazy person. However, I can’t help but notice that Mr. Avery hasn’t burst in to finish me off.

Alright. I’ll listen.

“So why on Earth would you help me? I’m just an Invisible. What’s in it for you?”

“That’s a hell of a way to say thank you for saving your life,” he says, going to work on the IV needle in my arm. I watch as he pulls the metal from my skin, fascinated and disgusted at the same time. Needles make me kind of want to throw up. “What’s in it for me is doing the right thing. Since when is that so hard to believe?” He gives me a hesitant smile that I do not return on principle.  What kind of insane Natural would help a slave like me?

“Fine. Let’s pretend for a moment that I believe you. So where are we?”

“My lab. You can call me Blake, by the way,” he says.

“Blake,” I repeat. “Alright Blake, where is your lab?”

“We’ll get there,” he mumbles, leaning forward and pulling off the gauze from my neck. He makes a patient clucking noise as he prods my skin with his gloved finger. “Okay, well, your neck’s looking a lot better.” He removes the bandage completely and rubs a thick cream over my throat. “This should make the scar look less red.”

I look in to the small mirror he hands me. My eyes look a bit tired, but my hair is clean and neatly braided back away from my face, and my neck looks miraculously healed. If I didn’t feel so completely out of my comfort zone, I’d consider thanking him for taking such good care of me. But, I’m not there yet.

“So now will you tell me where we are? Or am I going to have to ask a fourth time?” I’m not normally this rude, but I don’t like how terrified I feel. I’m the best Invisible to be created and sold in the last twenty years, and I’m always in control of the situation. This situation, however, is about as far out of my league as…well, I can’t even finish that thought. That’s how far.

“We’re in the In Between,” he says, smiling. I squint at him.

“In between what?” I ask.

“Not in between, the In Between,” he says, “The In Between is the space between two parallel universes. In this case, yours and mine.” He smiles, like he’s telling me directions to the corner market or about the latest flick playing on the ComScreens. “I’m serious!” he says, laughing when my tell-tale eyebrow arches high. “It’s true. I’m a scientist.”

“I thought you were a rich financier here to marry Anika,” I say, and immediately feel a sickening lurch in my stomach. I had forgotten, if just for a moment. As I choke up, he reaches out and kindly strokes my arm.

“It’s alright. It was an accident, I believe you.” The room is silent as we lock eyes. I’m trying to stare through him, like I do with all the tourists. I can usually measure a person up fairly quickly. He doesn’t flinch, and smiles widely.

“You sure do smile a lot,” I mutter.

“What?”

“Nothing.” I take a moment to look around, avoiding his too-steady gaze. “It really was an accident, you know. I mean, I hated her, but I have no idea how that nut tart got onto my tray.” As the words escape my mouth, guilt wracks my body. I’ve never talked badly about my owners before, even if I had thought it. “I wish I could take it back, all of it.” I’m surprised by a few tears sliding down my cheeks, and brush them away in embarrassment. “No one deserves that.”

“I know. But you’re here now, and you’re safe. I built this place, I should know.” He smiles so genuinely at me, with such warmth, I find myself smiling a little in return. But only a little. “You’re not a slave anymore. You’re…my guest.” I shake my head.

“You may have saved me, but I’m still an Invisible,” I say, showing him my wrist. He shakes his head and picks up a small silver tool from the counter.

“I couldn’t believe it when I got to your Earth. Where I’m from, well, let’s just say we don’t have anything like slavery anymore. Speaking of which, let me see your hand.” He takes my hand and flips it over, revealing the dark-inked “13.” “You certainly don’t deserve to be branded like cattle.” He pushes a button and a dark red laser lights up my wrist. I can feel it burning, so I look away.

“I don’t understand,” I whisper. A Natural has never talked like this to me before, and it’s strangely intoxicating. I can feel my defenses slipping down, bit-by-bit. Keep it together, Thirteen. You have no idea what this guy is up to.

“Like I said, we’re in what’s called the In Between. This is a station in between parallel universes – different versions of Earth.”

“You’re joking, right?” I glance down at my wrist and see that only the numeral three is left. Fascinating.

He’s concentrating so hard that he doesn’t even answer, which I suppose is fine. I’ve got no idea what kind of damage that laser would do if used improperly, and I’d very much like to keep my hand attached to my arm. It’s like a heavy shroud is lifting from my shoulders as each bit of black ink disappears. When it’s gone, he finally meets my eyes.

“No, I’m completely serious. You’re from one version, and I’m from another.” He smiles up at me as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, and I remember again why he was so distracting. Maybe smiling a lot is part of his charm. He’s certainly not bad to look at.

“Here, come and see.” He brings a rolling office chair over to the table and helps me down. As I sit, I realize I am naked underneath my thin green hospital gown. But, I have nothing to be embarrassed about. In the Purposing Rooms we were regularly inspected every year after our final academic examinations. Even Mr. Avery had inspected me before he signed the paperwork. After all, as an Invisible I have no right to privacy like a real person. And visual inspections are the least of my worries.

Still, the thought of Blake seeing my naked body makes my cheeks burn furiously. Okay, maybe I’m a little embarrassed. Or a lot.

Blake pulls me to a long desk in front of the largest ComScreen I’ve ever seen with row after row of tiny glowing buttons. He types maniacally, pushing buttons here and there in some sort of crazy pattern.

“I’m from an Earth where we proved that there are infinite versions of our planet. Yours, mine,” he pauses, and the giant screen lights up, flashing a picture of the dark skies full of stars. The picture zooms in on planet Earth, spinning on its lonely axis just like I learned in the Purposing Rooms during Astronomy class. He hits a button, and then there are three versions of Earth, side by side, all slowly spinning on their axis.

“We always think that time is linear. First one thing happens, then another, and another,” he says, drawing a straight line with his finger on the desk. “Instead, we proved that time veers off in different directions, like the branches of a tree. With every decision there are at least two possible outcomes. Soup for lunch, or a steak? Do I go left, or do I go right?” He points to the screen. “In this version of Earth, I go left and continue on,” he points to the planet Earth in the middle, “in the other, I go right.”

I let what he says sink in while simultaneously trying not to let my massive skepticism show on my face.

I can tell it isn’t working when he nods, egging me on to agree. “It makes sense, doesn’t it?”

“So you’re saying that every decision creates a new branch on the tree? That there’s more than one version of Earth’s timeline?”

“Yes, exactly,” he says, nearly bouncing off of his seat. “I knew you’d understand. There isn’t just one version of history – there are infinite versions of life as we know it. Versions where the Earth is prosperous and good. And versions where…” he trails off, looking at the screen. His face is suddenly somber. “This one on the left is your version. If I zoom in, we can see what it looks like,” he says. He touches a circle above the keyboard and spins it clockwise, magnifying the planet until I can see the disfigured battlefields of Old America, far away from my home in New Victoria. A giant golden bridge sits in a bay, broken. I can see the ravaged buildings in the distance. “Your version is still there, spinning away, waiting to eventually expire. That’s what happens to most versions, you know. Humans kill their whole planet.”

“So if what you’re saying is true, in some versions of Earth, we all die?” I ask.

“Yes. Every single person is wiped out. Humans are so shortsighted.” He presses his lips into a tight line while reversing the magnification until the three Earth’s are on screen again. The second planet is less vibrant looking than the other two. He zooms in on it, down until I can see the barren wasteland. Dust hangs in the stagnant air, fogging up the view.

“That’s horrible,” I whisper, leaning forward. I think I can make out the remnants of a skull in the distance. I hope it belongs to an animal, and the idea that it may not makes me nauseous.

He looks drawn as he nods. “It’s more common than you’d think.” He stares at the screen for nearly a minute before pulling back to our original view of the three rotating orbs.

“And this one here, on the right, is where we are going. It’s where I live now. It’s not perfect, but it’s home,” he says. “And now it’ll be your home too. You don’t have to be a slave anymore.” He smiles, as if turning everything I know about life and the universe upside down is no big deal.

“Wait,” I whisper, finally understanding. A dark cloud descends over me, and for the first time I actually hear what he is saying. It’s not like this hasn’t been the most confusing hour of my life or anything.

“Are you saying I can’t go back? But I have to!” I’m starting to panic now, and I push myself up by leaning on the desk. My arms are shaking, and I feel like I’m going to faint. “I’m almost to my points limit! They’ll take pity on me, I know it. Just let me go back,” I look for an exit, lurching forward. “How did you do it? How can we get back? Where are those silver bracelets?” I wobble toward the wall and lean against it. There are no doors here; no windows show the outside. I frantically run my hands over the smooth steel, looking for a trace of some hidden escape hatch to the outside world.

My life – my friends, if you could call other slaves friends, my bunk, my little day-to-day existence – it’s all gone.

               “Please, I have to go back. Please,” I whisper, leaning my head against the cold metal wall and banging on it with my fists. Because although some might think my life was horrible, it’s all I have ever known. And I’m ashamed to admit it, but the unknown world that Blake is offering me is terrifying.

“You can’t go back,” he whispers. “You can’t go back, or they’ll repurpose you and you know it,” he says. My hands slowly stop, and I slump on to the floor. “You’d rather be cut up and used for parts than try something new?”

“I could petition for a trial. I had so many points, and I was the highest in my graduating class ever,” I whisper. “I’m the best, and I was almost free. I was almost ready for Liberia.”

He shakes his head. “What’s Liberia?”

“It’s where Invisibles go when they reach their points limit. It’s sunny, warm and beautiful,” I quote the CHAPTERs on Liberia that I studied in class back in the Purposing Rooms. “It’s paradise for freed slaves. I was only five hundred points away!” I sniff, furious. “I was almost free, until you came along!”

I think of my tiny, sad little paper twist back in my bunk room. What will become of it now that I’m gone? Everything I had hoped for, all of the memories of him that the stupid little paper represented were gone, poof, like smoke. My fantasies of he and I will never be, and that makes me sick.

Blake slides down on to the floor beside me and gently takes my hands.

“But you are free now. No points required,” he says. “I came to find you, and when you were in trouble, I had to rescue you. I had no other choice. You had no other choice,” he says. His palms are warm and dry, tempting me to trust what he says is honest, but I pull my hands away. I still can’t quite trust him. Everything in me begs and screams to go back.

To what? I think. To certain death by Repurposing? Do you really want to be used for parts?

“In my world, your double – that is to say, the version of you in our world – was killed in an accident. She was a princess, and without her, our life will be destroyed. There will be chaos. We need an heir to the throne. You can take her place, and everything will be fixed.”

“Well, I’m glad that we’re so lucky it worked out for you,” I mumble with more acid than I realize, a trail of tears wending their way down my cheeks.

“Not luck. This is more than that. This is fate. The Universe meant for us to find each other,” he says, gently reaching out and wiping a tear from my cheek.

This time, I don’t pull away. I’m exhausted and scared and about a million other terrible things right now, including weak. I am the highest rated Invisible in recent memory, and I’m scared of losing it all.

But it’s already lost, isn’t it? It was lost the moment I accidentally served that tart to Anika and watched her die.

I’m not sure what I ever did in a previous life to deserve being born a slave, and then accused of murder. Maybe nothing. Maybe this is all some big cosmic joke, but I’m tired of being the mark.

“Alright,” I say, as if I have any other choice. “Alright. Let’s do this.”

 

CHAPTER 3 –       The future for me is already a thing of the past –
You were my first love and you will be my last.
– Bob Dylan

My first, and only, kiss happened back in the Purposing Rooms when I was eleven. I had the dreaded dish duty with another training Invisible after dinner. Classes were long that day, but as usual I had sailed through each exam easily. It had been all about World History and Mathematics, I think.

I was both terrified and excited to be alone in the same room with this boy, which made dish duty seem like climbing Mount Everest. The likelihood of him talking to me outside of dish duty was about the same as me climbing that mountain, too. As in, zilch.

I vigorously scrubbed a pot, and sudsy water splashed on my face.

“What was your answer to number three on the Trigonometry test?” he asked. Like me, he was required to take needless mathematics in case our would-be owners required mechanical engineers or something equally ridiculous.

“3.28 radians,” I said. He let out a low whistle.

“Damn, guess I missed that. Hey, you got some on your nose,” the boy had laughed, and I blushed furiously hot, scraping off the offending soap bubble with my sleeve.

Great, now I was a geek and looked stupid all at the same time.

I had been watching him for months, noticing every tiny thing he did, as infatuated tweens will do. He probably didn’t even realize I existed until he saw me scrubbing those stupid grimy pots.

This was definitely not the setting I had imagined for our first conversation.

“Have you ever kissed a boy?” he asked, a sarcastic smile spreading across his face. I, of course, was ridiculously unpopular, as top students usually are. Beating everyone else’s test scores guaranteed a lonely existence. So of course I hadn’t kissed a boy. I mean, who would want to kiss me? And what was the point, if we were just about to be sold off in a few months on our twelfth birthdays?

“Yeah, I have,” I lied, scrubbing the soup pot so hard that my knuckles turned white.

“Who?” he asked in a knowing voice.

“None of your business,” I grumbled, growing furious that he was humiliating me. He knew I hadn’t been kissed and was just being mean. I thrust the clean pot at him to dry, smacking him in the chest with it.

He reached into the sink and threw soap bubbles on me again, and as I sputtered indignantly, he kissed me. The warmness of his lips on mine was surprising and sweet, guaranteeing my infatuation with him forever and ever. My anger and embarrassment melted away, and I didn’t move from that kiss until he finally pulled away and whispered, “liar.”

And when he disappeared a few days later, I knew that we truly had no choice in where life took us. Because if I had any choice at all, I would have gone with him to the ends of the Earth. Instead, we humans are drifting ships, sailing unhinged across the ripples of time.

And here I stand in front of a giant steel wall like some kind of idiot, preparing to travel to the ends of the entire Universe with some man I just met. Where’s the cosmic fairness in that?

“So this wall. It turns into a portal that will lead us to your version of Earth? Is that right?”

“I know it sounds crazy, but you’ll just have to trust me,” he says, typing away. That’s the rub, though, isn’t it? It sounds completely crazy and I don’t really trust him. I mean, he saved my life and now is offering me what any slave could ever want. Not only freedom, but the life of a real princess. I mean, come on.

It seems just a little too good to be true. I cross my arms, bitterly thinking, it’s not like you have any other choice. I suppose it’s better to die trying something new than to go home and get hacked up.

“Here, put this on,” he walks over and hands me a thin black chain necklace. A large silver whale tail pendant sways from it. “This was hers. I think she’d want you to have it.” I turn it over in my hand, and I swear it feels momentarily hot. He takes it from me and puts it around my neck. “Everyone will believe you now. Plus, it distracts nicely from that little scar,” he says, nodding to my throat.

I look at myself in the reflection of the shiny computer screens, and then catch sight of something odd.

“Who’s this?” I ask, pulling out a strange photograph that had been stuck into a seam on the metal desk. There’s no color lighting up the image. Everything is shades of gray  and black and white. Blake stops typing, slowly turning his chair to me. “She’s beautiful,” I say, tracing a finger over her high cheekbones and wide eyes. Even without color, she’s still breathtaking. Curling tendrils of hair fall out of her ponytail in casual elegance. Blake takes the picture and stares at it, unblinking, for a full minute. “Um, Blake? Everything alright?” I ask.

“What? Oh, right, of course. I just…haven’t seen this picture in a long time. I forgot all about it.” He continues to stare at her face, swallowing hard. “Yes. She is beautiful, isn’t she?”

“Were you friends?” I ask. A funny, fleeting emotion crosses his pretty features before he rearranges them into his usual smile. “Or something more?”

“Yes. No. I mean, we were just friends. She was a scientist here at one time.” He goes back to the desk and continues typing, the picture casually tossed aside. After a moment of awkward silence, he pulls out the same silver bracelets we used before. “Here. Put this on. I’ve already entered our coordinates into the computer.”

“Why are you in such a hurry?” I ask as he puts on his bracelet. I twirl the heavy, cool silver of my bracelet around my fingers.

“Time moves more slowly here. You can think of it as stalled.” He takes the bracelet from me and snaps it onto my wrist. I barely recognize my own skin without my missing tattoo. “And life has to move forward,” he says. “If you don’t move on, your heart just…stops. Humans can’t stay in the same moment forever, no matter how much we want to.” He sounds almost bitter.

It’s odd because I’ve never had a moment that was so wonderful I would always want to stay in it. I was always looking forward, waiting for my turn for happiness. What’s it like, to love your life now, while you’re in it? Maybe I’m about to find out.

“So where are the others? The people who helped you build this?” I ask.

“They died,” he says, looking back to the wall. “They just sat down and were absorbed by the In Between. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude. It’s just hard to talk about. What if everyone you knew died?”

Okay. Apparently this is a touchy subject. I’d hate to burst his bubble and tell him that lots of people I knew died, especially if they failed in the Purposing Rooms. Repurposing was not the selfless act they pretended it was. So I decide to try a different angle.

“You seem pretty young to be a scientist. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” I ask, and this time he laughs out loud, his dark mood completely lifted.

“Yeah, you could say that. Our society was really advanced. A famous scientist in my version of Earth once said, ‘If I see further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ My team in school just connected the dots others had plotted. They trained a bunch of us kids to replace the scientists who had disappeared in previous tests.”

“They forced you to do the experiments?” I say in disbelief.

“Yeah, of course. After the first few teams disappeared, the government started recruiting from orphanages. No sane adult would volunteer, so they sent us. If we got back, they promised us anything we could want. Unfortunately for me, I never went back to collect my reward,” he says with a laugh.

“And what was your reward going to be?”

“A mountain bike,” he says, and I give him a questioning look.

“You risked your life for a bicycle?”

“I was eleven at the time. What can I say?”

“Well, I guess I wouldn’t go back either. That’s insane.”

He puts a hand on my shoulder. “Not more insane than people creating you to use you as a slave, right?”

“Oh. Yeah, that’s true,” I mumble. That thought had never occurred to me.

“Look, I’m just some overgrown kid from an orphanage who got really good at hopping parallel universes, okay? All of us were. I’m just the only one who survived.”

“Even Anabelle died?”

“Yes, even Anabelle.” He clears his throat awkwardly, and I’m pretty sure I can read some sort of major regret there. I can’t imagine losing everyone I knew and going to a whole new world.

Oh wait. Yes I can.

“Look, I sent a communication from her room saying she was sick. They’ll only leave her alone for a day before they come looking for her. We need you there so that no one grows suspicious.” He clears his throat and smiles reassuringly. “Are you ready?”

“Yes,” I say with more confidence than I feel. I touch the symbols winding around the bracelet. I know for sure that I’d rather be alive somewhere else than dead in New Victoria, or absorbed in the ether that is the In Between, or whatever the heck else happened to a girl like Anabelle. Liberia is no longer an option. I have to let that dream die. Blake is giving me the chance at a brand new life, and he’ll help me. I know that makes me the luckiest slave in the history of Earth. Or, my Earth. Whatever. The point is, I just have to grab on to this opportunity and never, ever let go.

“You’ll be perfect,” he says. “I promise.”

He pushes a secret button on his bracelet and the wall opens. A howling, whirring sound fills the room as the wind screams around us. He takes my hand, and I force myself not to pull away. It still feels strange to have someone touch me. Especially someone whom I have to admit is so handsome it almost hurts to look directly at his chiseled face.

“Remember, just keep holding my hand. Don’t stop moving, no matter what,” he says. He smiles reassuringly. “Ready?”

“Ready.” He squeezes my fingers and I feel warm inside. Just as he says, “go,” I see our hands dissolve. It’s as if we are made of dust, and are being blown away in the winds of space. I can’t breathe.

I. Can’t.

We step through the wall and I’m solid again, standing on the bridge, just like he described, only it’s so much more breathtaking than I could ever have thought. The bridge out of the In Between is full of light. Actually, a better description would be that it is light – a tunnel of light that envelops you and makes you feel warm. I feel a tug on my hand, and realize my feet are planted firmly. Blake pulls me on, and I stumble behind him.

Without the station protecting us, the pull of the In Between is inescapably strong. It feels alive, eating away every desire, relieving every pain. As my feet touch the light, my mind is freed. It couldn’t be so wrong to stay and sit, if just for a minute. I can see why his comrades laid down and died here. I look to the sides and see that around the tunnel is darkness. If I stare hard enough through the walls of light, I can see the total, all consuming emptiness around us. It’s not so much that it’s dark, as the skies are when the sun is missing. It’s as if the sun never existed, and I am staring in to a great eternal nothing. If our society still believed in God, I would imagine he would live here, just beyond our tunnel of light.

“Keep moving,” Blake says, and I realize he’s still here, pulling me along. I nod, though a strange sound piques my interest. It sounds like the wind whispering through the autumn leaves on the Avery estate.

“What is that?” I ask, though as the words leave my lips, I’m not sure I spoke them. I feel empty.

“It’s the voices of those who’ve been absorbed. They’re naming their desires,” he says. “Please, keep moving. Don’t listen to them,” he says, but it’s too late. I already am.

I’ve wanted her since the third grade, when I pulled her braids at recess…

He left me all alone, sitting here-waiting to die. I wish…

I should have kept it to myself, and then this would never have happened…

She stole him from me, and I need him…

I shudder as the voices grow louder, until they are beating against my skull with the pulses of my blood. Want, need, wish. WANT. NEED. WISH. I try to pull my hand away and cover my ears.

“We’re almost there! Just a few more steps,” Blake yells, yanking on my hand. I’m shaking my head, trying to drown them out.

“I want a new life! I want to be free!” I yell, but I’m not sure why. “Stop it! Leave me alone!”

“It’s alright,” Blake says, pulling me to him. His warm, broad chest seems to block out some of the noise. “Just a few more steps. Can you do it? Can you be strong enough?” I look up in to his face, and the voices fade back in to the shushing sounds of brittle leaves. He steps forward and I am disappointed. I follow him and realize we’ve reached the end of the tunnel. He looks down and I peer tentatively over the edge. It’s as if the light of the tunnel was a waterfall, cascading in to the infinite abyss below us. I can make out the tiniest pinprick of blue at the bottom, and for the hundredth time this hour I could smack myself for being so stupid. We’ll be infinitely crushed if we jump, won’t we?

“We’re safe, I promise,” he says as he sees my face. I heave a deep breath and nod. “One more step,” he says, pulling me close again. I look out, beyond the waterfall of light, and see the gaping maw of the inky black universe. I know that this last step will be the hardest. “Ready,” he says, wrapping his arms around me. I nod, and hesitantly hug him. I close my eyes, and as he whispers, “go,” we fall off the face of the universe.

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