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Marked by Jenny Martin

 

Overview: Mad Max meets Firefly in the exhilarating sequel to the sci-fi novel Tracked

After an escape gone wrong, Phee barely made it out of Castra alive. But Cash, the leader of the rebellion, is still missing--and Charles Benroyal is to blame. Caught between grief and blinding thoughts of revenge, Phee fights for the resistance, gaining new allies and, perhaps, making new enemies, too. Meanwhile, Phee can't control her growing feelings for Bear, her best friend since childhood, and she's forced to make a choice--between the boy who has always been there for her, and the one who might never return. As Benroyal's attacks grow bolder, Phee and her team embark on a daring mission to defeat the Sixers and save the planet. But no one is prepared for the sacrifices Phee will have to make to win this war once and for all.

With nonstop action and a wholly original science fiction world, Marked will have your heart racing until its breathless conclusion. 

 

Marked by Jenny Martin Chapter One

 

I DON’T SLEEP MUCH ANYMORE. MOST NIGHTS, I GET THREE or four hours of real shut-eye. Maybe five. If I’m lucky, and exhausted enough, I don’t even dream. No nightmares, just a quick, merciful blackout.
I’m not lucky very often.
Today, I wake up disoriented. I roll over and haul myself up. I sit on the edge of my bunk in the field barracks, and my body twitches, forgetful. Every cell in me thinks I’m back in our old apartment in Capitoline.
I suppose it’s no wonder. Here, my bed’s just as narrow and lumpy as my cot at the Larssens’. The concrete floor’s just as bare, so it’s easy to forget I’m on another planet altogether. That I’m on Cyan-Bisera, at a rebel camp, instead of back home on Castra. It’s only after a few rapid blinks, a hazy sweep of the tent . . . the tiny kick of adrenaline, that I remember. Cash is gone. My uncle James is gone, and right now, I don’t have a home at all.
What I have is a rebellion. A handful of Cash’s allies and friends, hiding out in the middle of the Strand, amidst an impossible forest of giant white poppies, their stalks as thick as trees. Here in our little valley, under a quiet moon, we hold our breath and wait for war.
It’s the waiting that consumes me.
I sit in the cool darkness, and I sense it. War is coming. There’s no denying that now. I’ve watched the feeds. And not just the official news, but the bootleg footage the flex net hackers send us. You can see it in the raw clips of soldiers, putting down the riots in Capitoline. The people wanted answers after my disappearance. Instead, they got sirens and boot stomps and beatings and screams. Fifty-six million miles away, my planet teeters on the edge between martial law and chaos. And Bisera—Cash’s home—isn’t far behind.
So I roll up, awake before sunrise, and play the familiar game, even as my feet first hit the soft grass outside the tent. As I walk to the showers, I imagine my enemy. It doesn’t matter that Charles Benroyal is on Castra, and that we’re millions of light-years apart. I scrub my face, and he stands in his penthouse in the Spire. I drag a comb through my black tangles, his tailors fit him for a new suit. I brush my teeth, he signs a contract. I zip into refugee blues, he prepares another ten thousand soldiers. But when I pull on my boots, the vision becomes more than a game. I know, even as I tighten the laces, that Benroyal is looking for us. Looking for me. I’m not just the street racer turned circuit star, the girl who ran away. I am the pawn who slipped through his fingers, and there will be a price to pay. King Charlie will see to that.
Clean and dressed, I head for the center of camp. The pre-dawn sky is caught between light and dark, and it’s like I’ve stepped into a blank world that’s waiting for color. Mismatched uniforms move across the makeshift courtyard. Soldiers head for the bunks to sleep after a night’s watch. The day crew hustles toward the mess hall, and I fall into the drift.
Even in the chow line, you can read the quiet tension—the little ripples of movement, as formal units break apart and rebels sort themselves into predictable groups. It’s mostly Biseran volunteers here. Cash’s people outnumber everyone else three to one, and they answer to Captain Nandan. Among the rest, there are a few Castran renegades like me, and a handful of Cyanese friendlies. But even after fighting side by side, it’s an imperfect alliance. People still tend to cling to their own—their friends and family, reminders of the country they came from. Thrust together, we get along. Mostly. If nothing else, at least we have a common enemy.
I scan the crowd. Among the familiar faces, I see the one that matters most. Bear is a dozen yards ahead, and I rush to catch him.
“Hey,” I say. “Wait up.”
He stops. His voice is as gray as the sky. “Morning.”
When he turns, the crowd breaks around him, forking like a river against a rock. I scan his face. The shadows under his blue eyes, the careless spikes of blond hair. He is six-five, two hundred forty pounds of exhausted.
I frown. It’s not even a question. “You picked up another shift.”
“Hank was short-handed. Someone’s got to man the watch towers.”
“You can’t keep doing this, Bear. You can’t burn every daylight hour in a simulator, then run patrol all night, and still have time for physical therapy.”
“I don’t need physical therapy anymore.”
“Maybe not, but Mary says it’s still a good idea to take it slow.”
He answers. “You don’t have to worry about me, Phee.”
I read the subtle shift in him. Polite. Formal. Painfully neutral. That’s the deepest cut. To watch the way he relaxes—honest grins and gentle swagger—with everyone else.
“I know,” I say. “It’s just—”
“My back is fine. I’m fine. Everything is fine.”
There’s no point in pushing Bear. At the moment, ours is a fragile truce. For a dozen years, our shadows were attached, but when I took the circuit deal and signed with Benroyal, everything unraveled. After I fell for Cash, all the seams so carefully stitched—by time, by friendship, by love—were pulled apart. Now there’s only one knot left, tied up in duty. So I’m quiet, unwilling to test the cord.
Zaide, another would-be pilot, joins us. Like Cash, she’s Biseran. They share the same dark skin, sharp smile, and golden eyes. Bear angles her way, and just like that, he’s at ease again. I stand in his shadow as they talk over the day’s work—flight simulations and squadron duty and gear inspections. All the things I won’t be doing, since Hank won’t allow me to train at flight control. Unlike Bear, I haven’t become an officer.
“You up for two more runs in the sim?” Zaide asks him at last. Bear nods.
“Find me after drills,” she says.
They trade salutes as she walks away. I force a smile and wave, even though I’m glad to see her go. Bear’s not the only one who can play polite and formal.
We’re just stepping back in line when a noise takes me by surprise. The whir of vacs overhead. The tang of burning fuel sap overpowers the almond-sweet haze of the poppy fields and I tense. Even though this happens nearly every day, and Cyanese aircrafts deliver supplies from the west all the time, I can never get a grip on the unease. Most of us barely survived the ambush that drove us here, the one that nearly killed Bear and took Cash. We might have escaped Benroyal, but he’s left us plenty of scars.
I don’t relax until all three vacs touch down, their engines dying to a less-than-deafening hum. The usual blue and silver stars painted on their cargo bay doors tell me that these are Cyanese aircraft. Stand down, I tell myself. Bear’s eyes soften, but he doesn’t reach for me or tell me it’s okay to exhale. He doesn’t know the rules. The little routines I keep just to survive here. The Pearl Strand is supposed to be our thousand-mile strip of safety. Between two countries, it’s both no-man’s-land and holy ground, a refuge for renegades and monks. But I don’t feel safe. Not anywhere, not since the ambush. So I do what I have to do to get by.
I avoid shadows and sharp sounds. I steer clear of the north end of the field range, where the echoes of practice fire land hardest, like dull, knuckled jabs against old bruises. I keep moving all the time, to chase off the constant fear of getting cornered and captured. The bustling launch yard is the worst, because I can’t completely avoid it. But no one can know how it gets to me, how the hot whir of landing aircraft drags me into a blinding, black-brained pit of nausea. If I could just keep a lid on it, I could get past this on my own. I know I could.
A few deep breaths, and Bear and I fall back in the chow line. We make it all the way to the mess hall doors, when the wind picks up and a jolt of chatter pulses through the yard. I look up again. As the sun rises, another vac speeds our way, a black streak against the blooming sky. This one is nothing like the others before it. It’s not Cyanese military or anything else I recognize. The sleek box hurtling toward us is unmarked, and from the sound of the shouts around me, it’s coming unannounced. From the east, where our enemies have been lying in wait.
Benroyal. Another attack.
Panic thrums in my veins. Bear reaches for me, but I break away. Automatically, I lunge through the crisscross of soldiers on high alert. Even as my legs carry me to the nearest guard station and my hands seize a weapon, I’m outside myself. The powerful rifle slung over my shoulder should be heavy at my side, but I am lighter than air, a senseless engine charging.
I have a sense of movement around me. Dully, as if through a locked door, the sound of shouted orders and charging weapons reaches me. Incoming transmission. They have a landing code. Hold your positions. Wait for my order. But the shriek of the airborne vac rings so much clearer. The sight of it, hovering over camp, presses like a blade and it’s the only thing I can actually feel now.
Around me, my comrades respond, their eyes fixed on the lone aircraft. I’m still pushing my way through when one of them turns and commands me to halt. I hear Zaide, shouting my name and begging me to stop. But I cannot kill the motor inside me. Pumping harder, I swing right, past the courtyard, toward the first line of stalks, where the poppies begin to encroach. The rifle thumps my shoulder as I race up the nearest stalk. As I climb, again and again my body slams into the blunt, tree-knotty buds, but I keep going, until my fingers are slick with nectar and sweat and blood.
I reach the top, the last viable foothold. But I’m close enough now. I don’t even have to be that good of a shot. Shaking, I anchor myself, the barrel of the rifle leveled over the waxy, white bloom of the poppy. I power the gun, dialing it up to maximum charge. A second later, the vac begins to descend, but I have it in my sights. With this much heat, only two or three shots will take it down.
From the ground, more voices call to me, but the memories in my head are so much louder. I hear the sound of enemy transmissions, right before the ambush. Razor, this is Gold Lion . . . Target is designated. Eyes on. Eyes on. Eyes on . . . A thousand eyes were on us, ready to strike and scorch and kill. I’m there now, back at that rendezvous stand, and it’s happening all over again. In my head, I hear the swarm of IP fighters. Artillery fire. Screams, after the IP attack from above. They shoot Bear in the back. They shoot Cash. He is wounded and he is gone and there is nothing left.
No. This isn’t happening right now. I twitch, then wipe my forehead against my shirt. Blinking, I try to focus, but it’s useless because I am trapped in a bad dream with claws long enough to reach me here. I sight the lone vac once more. My finger hovers over the trigger.
They’re coming for us. They’re coming and they won’t stop . . .
I hear the shouting again. One voice rises over the rest.
“PHEE!”
My eyes sweep the ground. Below, more than forty feet down, Bear is calling to me. Beside him, a dozen rebels bark at me as the vac lands without incident. Hank rushes to the root of my perch. “Stand down, Van Zant!” he calls. “That’s an order!” He’s trying to wave me down, but it’s Bear who draws my gaze.
Calmly, he looks up. I’m paralyzed, my hand tight around the rifle. His voice isn’t hoarse and pleading. There’s a steady lilt of command I’ve never heard before. “Come down, Phee. Come down. It’s okay.”
Over and over, he says it, until the words take hold and I start moving down. Halfway, I start to sway. The panic drains away, leaving me clumsy and hollow. I’m practically sliding from thorn to thorn. Still, Bear keeps talking, coaxing me to the ground.
Lightheaded, I lose my grip too soon. I drop the rifle and fall the last few feet, but I’m caught up in strong arms. I close my eyes, and this time, the bad dream is gone.
“It’s okay. I’ve got you,” Bear whispers.

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