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Soldier boys emerged from the darkness. Guns gleamed dully. Bullet bandoliers and scars draped their bare chests. Ugly brands scored their faces. She knew why these soldier boys had come. She knew what they sought, and she knew, too, that if they found it, her best friend would surely die.
In a dark future America where violence, terror, and grief touch everyone, young refugees Mahlia and Mouse have managed to leave behind the war-torn lands of the Drowned Cities by escaping into the jungle outskirts. But when they discover a wounded half-man–a bioengineered war beast named Tool–who is being hunted by a vengeful band of soldiers, their fragile existence quickly collapses. One is taken prisoner by merciless soldier boys, and the other is faced with an impossible decision: Risk everything to save a friend, or flee to a place where freedom might finally be possible.
This thrilling companion to Paolo Bacigalupi’s highly acclaimed Ship Breaker is a haunting and powerful story of loyalty, survival, and heart-pounding adventure.
Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of The Doubt Factory
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CHAINS CLANKED IN THE darkness of the holding cells.
The reek of urine from the latrines and the miasma of sweat and fear twined with the sweet stench of rotting straw. Water dripped, trickling down ancient marble work, blackening what was once fine with mosses and algae.
Humidity and heat. The whiff of the sea, far off, a cruel, tormenting scent that told the prisoners they would never taste freedom again. Sometimes a prisoner, a Deepwater Christian or a Rust Saint devotee, would call out, praying, but mostly the prisoners waited in silence, saving their energy.
A rattling from the outer gates told them someone was coming. The tramp of many feet.
A few prisoners looked up, surprised. There was no stamping of the crowd, no soldiers shouting for blood sport coming from above. And yet the prison gate was being opened. A puzzle. They waited, hoping the puzzle wouldn't touch them. Hoping that they might survive another day.
The guards came as a group, using one another for their courage, urging each other forward, jostling their way down the cramped passageway to the last rusty cell. A few had pistols. One carried a stun stick, sparking and cracking, the tool of a trainer, even though he had none of its mastery.
All of them carried the reek of terror.
The keymaster peered through the bars. Just another dim, sweltering lockup, straw strewn and molding, but in the far corner, something else. A huge shadow, puddled.
"Get up, dog-face," the keymaster said. "You're wanted."
No response came from the mountain of shadow.
Still there was no response. In the neighboring cell, someone coughed wetly, a sound heavy with tuberculosis. One of the guards muttered, "It's dead. Finally. Has to be."
"No. These things never die." The keymaster pulled out his baton and rattled it against the iron bars. "Get up now, or it will be worse for you. We'll use the electricity. See how you like that."
The thing in the corner showed no sign of hearing. No sign of life. They waited. Minutes passed. More minutes.
Finally, another guard said, "It's not breathing. Not a bit."
"It's done for," agreed another. "The panthers did the job."
"Took long enough."
"I lost a hundred Red Chinese on that. When the Colonel said it would go up against six swamp panthers…" The guard shook his head ruefully. "Should have been easy money."
"You never seen these monsters fight up north, on the border."
"If I had, I would've bet on the dog-face."
They all stared at the dead mass. "Well, it's maggot meat now," the first guard said. "The Colonel won't be happy to hear it. Give me the keys."
"No," the keymaster rasped. "Don't believe it. Dog-faces are demon spawn. The beginning of the cleansing. Saint Olmos saw them coming. They won't die until the final flood."
"Just give me the keys, old man."
"Don't go near it."
The guard looked at him with disgust. "It's no demon. Just meat and bone, same as us, even if it is an augment. You tear it up, you shoot it enough, it dies. It's no more immortal than the warboys who fight for the Army of God. Get the Harvesters down here. See if they want its organs. We can sell the blood, at least. Augments have clean blood."
He jammed the key into the lock. Reinforced steel squealed aside, an entire grate specially designed to hold the monster. And then, a second set of locks for the original rusting bars that had been good enough for a man, but not enough to hold this terrifying mix of science and war.
The door scraped back.
The guard started for the corpse. Despite himself, he felt his skin prickling with fear. Even dead, the creature harbored momentous terror. The guard had seen those massive fists crush a man's skull into blood and bone fragments. He'd seen the monster leap twenty feet to sink fangs into a panther's jugular.
In death, it had curled in on itself, but still it was huge. In life, it had been a giant, towering over all, but its size hadn't been what made it deadly. The blood of a dozen predators pumped in its veins, a DNA cocktail of killing—tiger and dog and hyena, and Fates knew what else. A perfect creature, designed from the blood up to hunt and war and kill.
Though it had walked like a man, when it bared its teeth, tiger fangs showed, and when it pricked up its ears, a jackal's ears listened, and when it sniffed the air, a bloodhound's nose scented. The soldier had seen it fight in the ring enough times to know that he would rather face a dozen men with machetes than this hurricane of slaughter.
The guard stood over it for a long time, looking at it. Not a breath. No hint of movement or life. Where the dog-face had once been strong and vital and deadly, it was now nothing but meat for the Harvesters.
Dead at last.
He knelt and ran his hand through the monster's short fur. "Pity. You were a moneymaker. Would have liked to see you fight the coywolv we was lining up. Would have made good ring."
A golden eye flared in the darkness, full of malevolence.
"A pity, indeed," the monster growled.
"Get out!" the keymaster shouted, but it was too late.
A shadow exploded into motion. The guard slammed into the wall and crumpled to the floor like a sack of mud.
"Close the gate!"
The monster roared and the bars clanged shut. The keymaster frantically tried to relock the cell, then leaped back as the monster hurled itself against the cage, snarling, tiger teeth bared.
Iron bars bent. The guards yanked electrical prods from their belts. Blue sparks showered as they beat at the creature and the bars, trying to keep it away while the keymaster fought to close the reinforced second gate. They fumbled for pistols, hardened killers reduced to gibbering terror by the monster's snarl. The creature slammed against the bars again. Rusted iron cracked and bent.
"It won't hold! Run!"
But the keymaster held steady, reworking the locks of the more powerful cage. "I almost got it!"
The monster ripped a rusty bar free of its mooring and lashed through the gap. Iron smashed into the keymaster's skull. The man collapsed. The other guards fled, plunging down the corridor, screaming for help.
The monster tore more bars free, working methodically. The rest of the prisoners were all screaming now, shouting for help and mercy. Their cries echoed in the prison like trapped birds.
The first layer of bars gave way, allowing the monster access to the second cage. It tested the gate. Locked. Growling, the creature crouched and slid one huge fist through the bars, reaching, stretching for the keymaster's foot. It dragged the man close.
In another moment, the monster had the key in its hand and the key in the lock. With a click it opened. The gate screeched aside.
Carrying the iron bar of his prison, the creature called Tool limped down the cellblock to the stairs, and climbed into the light.
TOOL COVERED MILES. He was built to do so, and even wounded, he moved with a speed that would have exhausted a human being within minutes. He forded algae-thick canals and limped through bean fields and soaked rice paddies. He passed farmers with wide broad hats who stared up from their sweating work and fled in fear. He circled and doubled back through bomb-shattered buildings, confusing trail and scent. Always, he moved farther from the Drowned Cities, and always the soldiers pursued.
At first, he had hoped his pursuers would give up. Colonel Glenn Stern and his patriotic army had more than enough enemies to keep them occupied; the Drowned Cities were full of fighting factions, perpetually tearing at one another's throats. A single escaped augment might not be worth the Colonel's attention. But then the panthers had caught up with Tool, and he'd known that the Colonel would not let his prized fighting monster slip free so easily.
Pain lanced through Tool's body as he limped onward, but he ignored it. So what if he'd torn his shoulder from its socket in his mad attack on the bars? So what if the hunting panthers had laid long, deep gashes down his back? So what if his one eye was blind? He was moving and free, and he was trained to ignore pain.
Pain held no terror for him. Pain was, if not friend, then family, something he had grown up with in his crèche, learning to respect but never yield to. Pain was simply a message, telling him which limbs he could still use to slaughter his enemies, how far he could still run, and what his chances were in the next battle.
Behind him, the hounds began to bay, picking up his scent.
Tool growled in irritation, unconsciously baring teeth as cousin creatures called for his blood.
The hounds were perfect killers, just as he. They would throw themselves mindlessly into the fight again and again until they were torn to pieces, and they would die content, knowing that they had done their duty for their masters. Tool's dog nature—spliced into his genes by scientific design—knew their mastiff urges. They would never stop until they were dead, or he was.
Tool didn't blame them. He, too, had been loyal and obedient once.
Tool reached a new thicket of jungle and plunged into its shadows, tearing through tangling vines. He moved like an elephant through the vegetation, crashing and crackling. He knew he was leaving a trail that even a stupid human being could follow, but it was all he could do to keep moving.
Well-fed, with all his limbs working, he could have run these sad dogs and soldiers for days, doubling back and destroying them one by one in the jungle, whittling dogs and humans down to a huddled fearful tribe around a solitary campfire. Now he doubted he could kill more than a few. Worse, after the last ambush he had set, they had become clever to his ways. They understood—now—how easily their bones snapped.
Tool stopped, panting, his tongue lolling from his mouth, chest heaving. He sniffed the humid air.
Somewhere north there was an inlet. If he could make the sea, he might escape them still, might dive into the ocean and become one with the marine world. He could swim. It would hurt, but he could do it.
He turned north and east, pushing on by force of will. Behind him, the dogs followed.
Tool almost wanted to laugh. They were such good dogs, and because of it, many of them would die. Tool, on the other hand, was a very bad dog. His masters had told him so many times as they beat him and trained him and molded his will to match their own. They had forged him into a killer and then fit him into the killing machine that had been his pack. A platoon of slaughter. For a little while, he had been a good dog, and obedient.
Platoon. Pack. Company. Battalion. Tool remembered the Red Standard of General Caroa, waving in the breezes above his encampment in the Kolkata Delta when the Tiger Guard came down on them.
Tool had been such a bad dog that he still lived. He should have been dead on those muddy tidal flats outside of Kolkata, where the waters of the river Ganges met the warmth of the Indian Ocean, and where blood and bodies floated in salt waves as red as General Caroa's flag. He should have been dead in wars on foreign shores. He should have been dead a thousand times over. And yet always he had survived to fight again.
Tool paused, chest heaving, and scanned the forest tangles. Iridescent butterflies flitted through beams of reddening evening sunlight. The forest canopy was turning dark, emerald leaves becoming muddy as night came on. The black tropics, some people called this place, for its winter darkness. A sweltering humid environment where pythons and panthers and coywolv stalked at will. Killers all. It galled Tool that he was now prey, and weakening.
The guards had been starving him for weeks, and his untreated wounds oozed pus. Only his massive immune system kept him on his feet at all. Any other creature would have succumbed weeks ago to the superbacteria that coursed through his veins and seethed in his wounds, but his time was running out.
When he had been a good dog, an owned dog, a loyal dog, his masters would have stitched and treated wounds like these. General Caroa would have worked hard to protect his battle investment, showering Tool with trauma care so that he could once again become the apotheosis of slaughter. Good dogs had masters, and masters kept good dogs close.
Behind him, the hounds bayed again. Closer.
Tool stumbled forward, counting the steps until he would fall, knowing that flight was hopeless. A final stand, then. One last battle. At least he could say that he had fought. When he met his brothers and sisters on the far side of death, he would tell them that he had not yielded. He might have betrayed everything that they had been bred for, but he had never yielded…
Salt swamps opened abruptly before him. Tool sloshed into the water. Huge snakes slithered away in ripples, pythons and cottonmouths recognizing that they wanted no traffic with a creature like him. He waded farther and suddenly found unexpected beckoning depths. The swamps here were deep, many meters deep. A welcome surprise. This landscape hid sinkholes of water.
With a sigh, Tool sank into the swamp, feeling bubbles forming around him.
The slits of his nostrils tightened, sealing in his breath. A translucent membrane slid across his remaining eye's iris, protecting his vision as he sank into the depths of the swamp, down amongst crawdads and mangrove roots.
Let them hunt me now.
Above, soldiers came crashing close. The voices of men, and others, younger. Some of them small enough that Tool could easily eat one in a day. But all of them armed and all of them adrenalized by the hunt. They shouted and called, their voices twining with the barking and stampeding of their dogs, all of it filtering down through the waters to Tool's listening ears.
Splashes in the shallows. Dogs swimming about, their legs windmilling above him, baying in confusion, trying to find Tool's direction. He could see them up there, canine shanks cycling madly. He could swim up and yank them down, one by one…
Tool resisted the urge to hunt.
"Where the hell did it go?"
"Shhhhh! Hear anything?"
"Shut your dogs, Clay!"
Silence fell. At least as much silence as pathetic human beings and dogs could summon. Even through the waters, Tool could hear their attempts at stealthy breathing, but they were trying, in their childlike way, to hunt.
"No spoor," one of them muttered as footsteps stalked through the grasses. "Tell the LT, we got no spoor."
Tool could imagine them all on the edge of the swamps, staring out at black waters. Listening to the pulse and scratch of insects and the far cry of a wild panther.
They were hunters. But now, as night closed in on them, and the swamp became black and hot and close, they were becoming prey.
Tool again shook off the urge to hunt. He must still think like prey and take advantage of their failures. He could lie below the surface for as long as twenty minutes, slowing his heart rate, slowing his bulk so that he needed almost nothing at all.
Without exertion, he might even be able to lie there longer, but twenty minutes, he knew for certain—much as he knew that he could run for five miles without rest amongst the high passes of Tibet, or for three days without pause across the blistering sands of North Africa's Sahara.
He counted slowly.
The hounds paddled and circled as the soldiers tried to figure out what to do.
"You think it doubled back again?"
"Could be. It's crafty. Ocho can take a squad—"
"Ocho's all ripped up."
"Van and Soa, then! Go back along the trail. Spread out."
"In the dark?"
"You questioning me, Gutty?"
"Where the hell's the LT?"
The ripple and bubble of the swamp flowed into Tool's finely tuned ears. He let them spread wide like fans, cupping the waters. Listening.
The flash of tiny pike. The skitter of crawdads. The distant womblike slosh and surge of salt water as it blended with cousin waters on the shore, where swampland and surf smashed together and sought ever higher tide lines.
"It'll head for the ocean," one of the soldiers said. "We should put another squad up on the north side."
"No, it will hide here, in the swamps. It'll stay right here. Safe enough."
"Maybe the coywolv will get it."
"Not likely. You saw how it did those panthers when it fought in the ring."
"There's a lot more coywolv out here."
Deep in the waters, something dark and hungry stirred.
Tool startled, then froze.
A monster was easing through the waters, vast and silent, a shadow of death. Tool stifled a growl as it passed, fighting to keep the rhythms of his heart slow, fighting to save precious oxygen. Meters and meters of leathery hide slid past him, a great king of a reptile. The creature was bigger than the largest Komodo dragons of the equator. A massive horror of an alligator, tail and legs moving easy, propelling it through darkening waters with a predatory grace.
It circled, attracted by the frenetic hounds and their foolish splashing.
The first dog sank before it could yelp. The next went under in a snap. Blood filled the water.
The soldiers yelled and gunshots flashed. Automatic weapons. Shotguns. Sparks of fear as the soldiers peppered the water with their bullets.
"Get it! Get it!"
Heavy impact. A sharp pain blossomed in Tool's shoulder. He flinched at the bad luck but held still. He'd been shot before; this was not the worst. The bullet had smashed into the meat of his body. He could survive the wound.
"It's not the dog-face! It's a damn gator!" The soldiers unloaded more angry shots into the water. Whistled back their hounds. "Heel!"
Blood smoked from Tool's shoulder. He pressed his fist to the wound, trying to staunch the flow. There was enough blood in the water that Tool's own blood might not be the bait that it would have been, but he smelled of wounded sickness.
The soldiers remained at the edge of the pool, shooting at whatever moved and cursing the alligator. The monster circled in the water, finishing the remains of the hounds, unperturbed by the powerless soldiers above.
Tool watched the alligator, measuring this new variable in the equation of his survival. He felt no brotherhood with this beast. Reptiles, if they were any part of his blood design, were deeply buried in the helixes of his DNA. This creature was nothing other than an enemy.
Above, the soldiers' voices finally faded, seeking their prey in other places.
Trapped in the deepening darkness, Tool continued to study the alligator. If he moved, the monster would sense him, and now his lungs were beginning to heave, demanding air.
Tool clenched his jaws and waited, hoping that the alligator might still move off.
Instead, the lizard sank to the bottom of the pool, sated.
If Tool was fast, he might make it out of the water in time, but he would have to be quick. He knew that he had only two hundred heartbeats of air before he became too weak to fight. The blood thudded in Tool's ears, counting down his death. He could slow the beat of his heart, but he could not stop it.
Tool reached up and took hold of a thick mangrove root, preparing to propel himself upward.
The alligator whipped about. Tool had been about to kick for the surface, but now, if he let himself float free, he would be easy bait. The alligator flashed toward him, jagged mouth hungering. Tool levered himself aside, using the roots to maneuver. Teeth snapped, missing.
The alligator came around. Its tail slammed Tool into the mangrove roots. Tool's vision went bloody. The alligator arrowed in again, and Tool grabbed for a weapon. He tore at the mangrove roots, but the wood ripped free with only a stub.
The alligator's maw gaped wide. Vast oblivion.
Tool lunged for the monster, the chunk of splintered root clenched in his fist. With a silent roar, Tool rammed his fist into the monster's mouth. The alligator's jaws snapped shut. Its teeth crushed Tool's shoulder, piercing flesh. Pain like lightning.
The monster rolled and dove, dragging Tool with it. Instinctively, the alligator knew it needed only to suck the air from its enemy. It was born for this fight, and in its decades of life, none had ever bested it. It would drown Tool, as it had drowned so many other unwary beasts, and then it would feed well.
Tool struggled, trying to pry open the monster's mouth, but even the half-man's strength was no match for the alligator's bite. The teeth were clamped like a vise. The alligator rolled, slamming Tool into the mud, pressing him down.
Panic swept through Tool. He was drowning. He barely fought off the instinct to breathe water. Again he pried at the lizard's jaws, knowing it was pointless, but unable to surrender.
The reptile is not your enemy. It is nothing but a beast. You are its better.
A foolish stray thought, and small comfort—killed by something with a brain the size of a walnut. Tool's teeth showed in a rictus of contempt as the alligator plowed him through more weeds and mud.
This dumb beast is not your enemy.
Tool was not some brute animal, able to think only in terms of attack or flight. He was better than that. He hadn't survived this long by thinking like an animal. Panic and mindlessness were his only enemy, as always. Not bullets or teeth or machetes or claws. Not bombs or whips or razor wire.
And not this dumb beast. Panic only.
He could never break free of the alligator's jaws. They were perfect clamps, evolved to lock down and never release. No one pried free of an alligator's bite. Not even something as strong as Tool. So he would no longer try.
Instead, Tool lashed his free arm around the beast's head, locking it in a bear hug, and squeezed. His grip forced the alligator's jaws tighter around his own arm and shoulder. Its teeth pierced deep. More of Tool's blood clouded the water.
In the dim recesses of its tiny brain, perhaps the alligator was pleased to have its teeth sink deeper into enemy flesh. But Tool's other arm, engulfed in the monster's maw, was free to work. Not from the outside, but from within.
Tool turned the shattered chunk of mangrove root and began methodically ramming it into the roof of the monster's mouth. Ripping through flesh, driving the wood deeper and deeper.
The alligator, sensing something was wrong, feeling the tearing within itself, tried to open its jaws, but Tool, instead of letting go, now clamped the monster tighter.
Do not run away, he thought. I have you where I want you.
Blood misted from Tool's shoulder, but battle fury strengthened him. He had the advantage. He might be running out of air and life, but this ancient reptile was his. The alligator's bite was deadly, but it had its own weakness: It lacked the muscle strength to open its mouth easily.
The mangrove root ground to dust, but Tool continued, using his claws, ripping deeper and deeper.
The alligator thrashed wildly, trying to shake free. Decades of easy killing had never prepared it for a creature like Tool, something more primal and terrifying than even itself. It writhed and rolled, shaking Tool the way a dog shook a rat. Stars swam in Tool's vision, but he held on and tore deeper. His air ran out. His fist found bone.
With one final heave, Tool rammed his claws through the lizard's skull and tore into its brain.
The monster began to shudder and die.
Did it understand that it had always been outmatched? That it was dying because it had never evolved to face a creature such as Tool?
Tool's fist crushed the lizard's brain to pulp.
The great reptile's life drained away, victim to a monster that should never have existed, an unholy perfection of killing, built in laboratories and honed across a thousand battlefields.
Tool's claws carved out the last of the brain meat of the ancient lizard, and the alligator fell limp.
A rush of primal satisfaction flooded Tool as his opponent surrendered to death. Blackness swamped Tool's vision, and he let go.
He had conquered.
Even as he died, he conquered.
"THAT'S ENOUGH, MAHLIA." Doctor Mahfouz straightened with a sigh. "We've done all we can. Let her rest."
Mahlia sat back on her heels and wiped her lips of Tani's dying spit, giving up on breathing for the girl who had already stopped breathing for herself. Before her, the young woman lay still, empty blue eyes staring up at the bamboo spars of the squat's ceiling.
Blood covered everything: the doctor and Mahlia, Tani, the floor, old Mr. Salvatore. Ten pints, the doctor had taught Mahlia in her studies; that was what filled a human being. And from the look of it, all of it was out of their patient. Bright and red. Rich with oxygen. Not blue like the placental sac, but red. Red as rubies.
What a mess.
The squat stank. Burned vegetable oil from the lamp, the iron spike of blood, the rank, sweaty smell of desperate people. The smell of pain.
Sunlight speared through cracks in the bamboo walls of the squat, molten blades of day. Doctor Mahfouz had asked if Tani and Mr. Salvatore preferred to do the birth outside, where it would be cooler and they'd have better air and light, but Mr. Salvatore was traditional and wanted privacy for his daughter, even if she'd been anything but private in her love life. Now it felt as though they were swaddled in the smell of death.
In the corner of the squat, tucked under a pile of stained blankets, Tani's killer lay quiet. The infant had nursed for a second, and Mahlia had been surprised at how happy she'd been for Tani that her little wrinkled baby was healthy and that the birth hadn't been as long as she had expected.
And then Tani's eyes had rolled back and the doctor said, "Mahlia, come here, please" in the way that told her something was really bad but he didn't want to scare the patient.
Mahlia had come down to the doctor where he knelt between Tani's legs and she'd seen the blood, more and more of it, his hands covered with it, and the doctor had wanted pressure on her belly, and then he'd wanted to cut.
A 2012 Kirkus Reviews Best of YA BookA 2012 VOYA Perfect Ten BookA 2012 Los Angeles Public Library Best Teen BookA 2013 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults BookA 2013 CBC at Bank Street College Best Children's Books of the Year Book
A 2013 Capitol Choices Noteworthy Titles for Children and Teens BookA Junior Library Guild SelectionA 2014 Tennessee Volunteer Book Award Nominee
* "Beautifully written, filled with high-octane action, and featuring badly damaged but fascinating and endearing characters, this fine novel tops its predecessor and can only increase the author's already strong reputation."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
* "The novel's greatest success lies in the creation of a world that is so real, the grit and decay of war and ruin will lay thick on the minds of readers long after the final page.... Breathtaking."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
* "Bacigalupi writes with a furious energy that makes this brilliant depiction of an all-too-believable future impossible to forget."
—Booklist, starred review
* "Bacigalupi's intense, action-filled novel is a heartbreaking and powerfully moving portrait of individual resiliency amidst extreme circumstances that rivals, if not surpasses, the excellence of its predecessor."—The Horn Book, starred review
* "Bacigalupi brings to life a post-apocalyptic America that thrills the mind."—VOYA, starred review
"A compelling read, this engaging book does not glorify war and violence, but shows its true nature."—School Library Journal
"A new Paolo Bacigalupi novel is reason to celebrate--no matter how old you are."—The Associated Press
- On Sale
- May 7, 2013
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers