Light flared from Zak’s gun, racing to its target fifty yards away. The bullet hit the edge of a gray sphere, florescent paint clinging on contact, before deflecting to hit the back wall harmlessly.
“You’re going to embarrass House Praeven if you shoot like that tomorrow,” Milo said, shoving his hands into his pockets. Zak spun, eyes wide. Seeing that Milo was alone, he breathed a sigh of relief.
“Krip, Milo. I thought you were dad,” Zak said, grabbing a fresh round of ammo from a nearby table.
“You shouldn’t curse, Zak,” Milo said with a frown, although he wasn’t offended by the language, only the underlying sentiment.
“Mom’s not around to hear.” Zak raised his gun again, holding it firmly and squinting to focus on the target. “Watch this. I’ll hit it square this time.” Milo obliged his brother, waiting patiently as Zak took a good three minutes to find the perfect stance and be certain of his aim. Finally, he fired. The glowing contents of the bullet splattered onto the right edge of the sphere, a good attempt but certainly not ‘square’. Despite the imperfection, Zak beamed and pushed out his chest. “Pretty good, eh?”
“Good enough to last the first round maybe,” Milo said.
Zak raised his gun, taking his time once more before firing. “What do you think Mom will say once her son is a Kinetika champion?”
Snorting, Milo shook his head. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, Zak.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “If she finds out about it tomorrow, she’ll probably kill both of us.”
Zak shrugged off the warning and fired. His bullet hit the bullseye of the sphere, leaving the frontal surface of the globe aglow. Throwing his hands in the air, Zak’s smile grew. “And the crowd goes wild for Zak Praeven, beloved prince of House Praeven!” He waved his arms, the gun pointed straight at the ceiling, and imitated the cheering of crowds.
Milo rubbed his neck. Perhaps Zak wasn’t under the same pressure that Milo was, as the heir, but he would still need to learn some discretion. As far as Milo knew, no one in the monarchy had ever been allowed to leave their House to pursue other careers. But maybe Zak would be the first, and Milo hated to discourage him. One of them deserved to dream about the future. He clasped his hands down on Zak’s shoulders. “Calm down. It’s just recreational tomorrow. No one’s going to be watching. Hopefully.”
Zak rolled his eyes, stepping away. “Yeah, yeah. I know.”
Milo wondered if they should go over the plan one more time. This all had begun as nothing more than a fun idea Milo’s best friend Gavin had put into Zak’s head: sneak out and play a little Kinetika at a local arena. Milo and Gavin went often enough, and Milo should have known that once Zak found out, he would be begging to tag along. The Vicereine, their mother, was very strict about where and when Zak and Milo were allowed to go, for the sake of the House’s reputation, and for their own safety. And public Kinetika arenas were out of the question. Once Milo was Viceroy, perhaps he could make things better for Zak. Unfortunately, even as Viceroy, Milo likely wouldn’t change the way things worked, not while the other Houses remained loyal to tradition.
The door at the back of the shooting range hissed open. Zak ignored the sound, focusing on his next shot, but Milo was quick to turn. Agent Ducote entered, his head held high and his arms stiff at his sides. “The Heir’s presence is requested for a dispute by request of the Vicereine.”
Milo took a deep breath. “What kind of dispute?”
“A criminal infraction, sir, from within the House walls.”
That caught Zak’s attention, and Milo wished he hadn’t asked the question. “Krip, what happened?” Zak asked, his mouth twisting into a curious smile.
“Zak, language.” If Milo had to deal with this situation, he didn’t want Zak there. Praeven leaders were taught to be blunt and unforgiving, focusing on the black and white issues. But, to Milo, there was almost no issue that was truly black and white. He turned toward his brother, forcing a smirk. “If I were you, I’d stay and get another few rounds in before dinner. It’s probably not as exciting as Agent Ducote makes it sound.”
“Yeah,” Zak said, suspicious of Milo’s intentions, but then his face softened. “Yeah, okay. But if gets really interesting, you better ring me.” Zak raised his gun, not needing an answer from Milo.
Swallowing hard, Milo walked swiftly to the door, not bothering to acknowledge Agent Ducote as he passed. He really hoped this would be simple, but when the Vicereine was involved, things were rarely simple.
“Let’s get this over with,” Milo muttered as he entered the small detainment room. He still thought it was ridiculous that his home had a detainment room at all. Milo scratched his neck before crossing his arms and pressing his lips into a firm line. He hated being pressed into these kinds of situations, but he never had a choice. His eyes went to the black table with a gray jacket laid on top, and a man seated just behind it. Milo’s eyes snapped wide as his heart dropped.
Sitting with cuffed hands was a young man with black hair, and a cocky grin, one that never seemed to leave his face. “Gavin?” Milo’s gaze shifted to the door, making sure Agent Ducote was still stationed outside, and then took only two long strides forward. He wanted to slam his palms down and yell, but instead he leaned forward on the table, shaking his head.
“Hey, Milo. You know, this wasn’t exactly how I planned the day to go,” Gavin said, his voice shaking and betraying his lack of confidence.
“What have you gotten yourself into?” Milo’s mind began to race. If it was something small, he could get Gavin off without being tarred, maybe just a restraining order. Milo wiped away the sweat beading on his forehead.
“You know, we have plans tomorrow night and-” Milo shot Gavin a look of caution. “Well, I know you and Zak will be on flex so-”
“Krip, Gavin.” Milo groaned and stood laboriously. He stared at the blank back wall, as if it would provide him with a solution. While Foresight was legal for authorized law enforcement personnel and House members, Gavin was neither and could easily be charged with possession of an illegal drug. It would be tough to have the penalties excused.
“Well, luckily you’re in charge of my case so just pull some strings, yeah?” Gavin suggested, overly optimistic.
“You know it’s not like that,” Milo said, holding his fingertips to his lips as he began to pace. If he got Gavin released without any punitive measures, Milo knew that would not be the final verdict. He was a pawn of the House, and if he made the wrong decision, his mother would be right behind him to override. Gavin could end up in a worse situation than if Milo had just had him sentenced and sent away. The glint on Gavin’s pinky reminded Milo that this would not be his first offense, and it was already hard enough for Gavin to participate in Kinetika tournaments with that single infraction. “Agent Ducote!”
The agent turned and stepped through the doorway. “Yes, sir?”
“What were the circumstances surrounding this arrest?” Perhaps Milo could find a loophole.
“He was found leaving your quarters in possession of several syringes filled with Foresight.”
Milo knew he would regret showing his friend where his personal storage of flex was the moment he did it. It was stupid mistake, and he should have known that Gavin would take advantage of the knowledge. If only Gavin had asked, this whole ordeal could have been avoided. “A more detailed account, Agent Ducote.”
“It was in my-” Gavin began to answer, but Milo cut him off with a wide-eyed glare. Gavin smiled weakly and shrunk into his seat.
“It was in his jacket pocket.”
Milo picked up the leather jacket, recognizing it immediately as Gavin’s favorite. “This jacket?” The agent nodded. Milo looked hard at the agent, hoping his words would sound convincing and commanding. “This is my jacket, agent. I left the flex in my pocket.” Agent Ducote’s eyes fluttered, caught unaware. “Gavin Volante is a close friend and his family trusted members of House security. I was lent him the jacket and forgot the flex was there. This is hardly a criminal incident.” Milo lifted his head high, holding his hands behind his back, sweaty fingers clutching the jacket.
“My apologies, sir,” Agent Ducote said, his eyes clearly searching to understand the situation. “I will inform the Vicereine.”
Milo’s confidence faltered. “No,” he said, and he hoped Agent Ducote didn’t hear his voice waver. Milo swallowed hard, trying to calm himself. “This matter no long concerns the Vicereine.” Agent Ducote hesitated and then nodded curtly. Spinning on his heels, he strode out of the room without a word. Milo ran his hands through his hair and let out a long breath.
Gavin laughed like a madman. “Krip! I thought I was going to get tarred again.” Milo threw the jacket at Gavin, hitting him squarely in the face and causing him to choke on his elation. Punching a switch on the wall, the cuffs binding his friend’s hands unclasped and shriveled away.
“You can’t do stuff like that,” Milo said, knowing his anxiety wouldn’t relax until Gavin was out of the building. “You should probably stay out of the estate for a while.”
Gavin tugged the jacket on as his stood, his face bright, as if he hadn’t just been arrested. “We still on for tomorrow night, then?”
Milo sighed and shook his head. He wanted to call off the plan; it seemed more risky than it was worth now. But then he envisioned Zak’s disappointment and couldn’t bring himself to let his brother down like that. “Yeah.” It’ll be fine, he told himself.
“Bring me some flex, yeah? I don’t want to be out-matched,” Gavin said, delivering a playful punch to Milo’s shoulder. Milo nodded but didn’t respond. “See you later.” His friend exited with a wave of his hand, smacking the top of the door frame. He never did take things seriously enough. Resting his hands on his waist, Milo took a deep breath as his heartbeat began to slow. At least it was done with, but that trick wouldn’t work more than once.
Voices from the hall drifted into the room and Milo realized he had been standing still for too long. He cracked his neck and stepped forward, the approaching voices becoming clearer. A frantic voice belonging to Gavin suddenly pierced reverberated the air with an “ouch!” followed by “hey, I’m innocent!” Moments later, Gavin was shoved back into the detainment room. Milo’s anxiety returned as Agent Ducote entered next, stepping aside to reveal a frowning Zak and the stone-cold face of the Vicereine.
“Agent Ducote, if you would,” Vicereine Calista Praeven said. Milo was unable to look away from her piercing eyes. It was the same look that she always seemed to have on her face: harsh, intimidating, and disappointed. Perhaps that was just the way her face was; Milo had long ago stopped trying to figure out how to make her expression soften. Nothing ever impressed her, and she was impervious to entertainment of any kind.
Agent Ducote pulled at Gavin’s arms, roughly forcing cuffs around the young man’s wrists once again. Gavin looked to Milo for some sort of rescue, but with the Vicereine involved, Milo would have to be careful. His mother guided Zak into the room, a firm hand on his shoulder,as Gavin was forced back into the chair, his hands uncomfortably secured behind his back.
“Gavin?” Zak muttered. His face scrunched up with confusion, looking to their mother for answers, but she had yet to pull her gaze from Milo.
“What is the punishment for theft, Zak?” she asked. Milo felt his posture straighten instinctively, as if they were suddenly in an exam.
“Silver dipping,” Zak began, turning his focus to Gavin, as he frowned. He straightened, wanting to be make their mother proud, as if it was possible. “With the possibility of fines, detainment, and retributions.”
“What is the punishment for illegal possession of Foresight?”
Zak recited the answer, his eyes hardening. Milo took a deep breath as his heart began to pound faster and faster. The last thing he wanted was for Zak to get involved in this situation. “Copper dipping, detainment and conditioning, with the possibility of fines and retributions.”
The Vicereine nodded curtly as her hand slid from Zak’s shoulder. She stepped forward, the sound of her heels echoing through the room. Milo’s eyes shifted to Gavin, thankful his friend had the presence of mind to keep his mouth shut. As it was, his future was looking dimmer with each passing moment. Milo approached his mother, blocking her path toward the table. “It was a misunderstanding. The situation has been dealt with.”
“By letting a criminal go free?” His mother raised an eyebrow.
“He’s not a criminal,” Milo said, clenching his fists to restrain himself. His mother wouldn’t be swayed if he lost his temper. He needed to be diplomatic. “It was my mistake.” Milo folded his hands behind his back and lifted his chin up. She always needed someone to blame, so Milo was ready to take responsibility if that would lighten Gavin’s punishment.
“How long have you been supplying him with Foresight, then, Milo?” his mother asked, crossing her arms over her chest and narrowing her eyes.
Milo sucked in a breath. “I haven’t been.”
Without a word, the Vicereine looked to Ducote. It took the agent a moment to read her mind, but once he figured out what she was waiting for, he hastened to obey. Opening a cabinet door on the wall, he took out a small rectangular device with a needle sticking out of it. He approached Gavin swiftly, pushing his head to the side, and shoving the needle into his jugular. Gavin grunted and clenched his fists at the sudden pinch. Ducote pulled out the needle and examined the reading on the screen. “There is a small trace of Foresight in his blood, but it isn’t strong. Most likely a dose from at least three or four days ago.”
“So he needed another fix?” The Vicereine looked back to Milo for an explanation. While Milo was telling the truth, he knew that his mother was simply looking to teach him a lesson now. “What kind of example are you setting for your brother? That the Viceroy can pardon convicted criminals if they are his friends? That you are above the law?”
Milo’s eyes shifted to Zak, who was still standing awkwardly beside their mother. He was trying to look stone-faced, but his uneven breathing gave him away. ‘Shouldn’t a Viceroy be merciful?’ Milo wanted to say, but he knew that the word ‘mercy’ wasn’t a part of Praeven vocabulary. The situation was becoming bleaker by the moment, and Milo was starting to think he wouldn’t be able to save Gavin from this one. The Vicereine would do much worse than tar Gavin if Milo didn’t bend to her will soon. “When there is justice, there is order and prosperity,” Milo recited the family motto coldly, and he saw his mother’s lips twitch, as if she might smile. It made his stomach churn
Zak’s eyes dropped to the floor as his posture slumped. Was Milo doing the right thing? He was letting down his brother and his friend, just to please his mother; was that fair? Was that justice? Taking a deep breath, Milo turned towards Gavin, hoping his eyes communicated the words he couldn’t say: ‘I’m sorry’. “Gavin Volante, for the theft and possession of the drug Foresight, you will be given both a silver and a copper sentence to warn others of your misconduct.” Milo paused when Gavin’s gaze fell to his fingers. Wasn’t that enough? Three dippings would make it hard for his friend to get a decent job anywhere; was a fine really necessary? His mother cleared her throat. “You will be required to pay a fine of one thousand chips within three months, and attend weekly conditioning for a month. Your access to the Praeven Estate will also be revoked.” Maybe he would be able to secretly get Gavin the funds, but that was the most help he could offer without the Vicereine noticing. “Agent Ducote, if you would deliver the sentence to Mr. Volante and escort him from the palace.”
Milo started for the door, but he wasn’t quick enough. “Milo,” his mother called out. Milo balled his hands into fists, pausing, but didn’t turn to face her. “Don’t you think you should stay?”
Hadn’t she tortured him enough? Milo had given Gavin a punishment that would affect him for the rest of his life, and now he had to watch it happen? But he couldn’t defy her. Milo turned slowly, his heart racing, and forced his eyes to stare blankly at the back wall. He wished there was a way to prevent Zak from having to watch as well, but their mother had placed an iron grip on his brother’s shoulder.
Agent Ducote pressed a button at the edge of the table, and a plate slid away, revealing four boiling basins of liquid. Gavin’s left arm and legs were bound to the chair and his right hand freed. Gavin swung his free hand at the agent, grimacing. “Gavin, don’t make this harder than it has to be,” Milo pleaded. Gavin glared at his friend, but complied as he was stuck with a syringe in his arm. He relaxed as the fast-acting numbing agent did its work. After pulling on rubber gloves, Ducote raised Gavin’s hand, folded back all but his ring finger, and lowered it into the metallic, silver liquid.
Milo’s lip quivered, and he had to force himself not to look away. Gavin put on a brave face, but Milo could see every one of his friend’s hopes and dreams slipping away as his hand was pulled up and the remaining drippings wiped away. What remained, was a silver fingertip, genetically changed forever. Then his next finger was prepared. Milo finally looked down, finding he was having trouble breathing. He wanted an excuse to leave the room, to be freed from the consequences of his decision. But there was no escape, not for Milo and certainly not for Gavin.
Was this what the rest of Milo’s life would be? Bending to the rules and regulations and watching those around him suffer? It wasn’t the kind of leader Milo wanted to be, and yet, it was the leader he would have to be. Rebelling against tradition, against his parents, would not only result in his own disownment, but then Zak would be forced into his position. Milo would do what he could to protect those around him, but a single question nagged him: could he do enough to make a difference?