Chapter 1: Alouette - CHAPTER 1 - ALOUETTE
ALOUETTE IMAGINED IT WAS LIGHT from the Sols. Beautiful flares of cobalt blue, golden white, and scarlet red. As the blinding spark pierced her vision, she bit back a scream, reminding herself that it was an illusion, a trick of the brain, nothing more than electrical signals telling her this was even worse than the last time. It was all in her mind. The light. The pain. The fire that burned her face. That’s why they did it. They were trying to break her mind. But they would not. The last thing Alouette would allow them to break was her mind.
The scream broke instead.
It charged out of her like a voyageur breaking atmosphere, like a planet exploding. Until all she could hear was that scream and all she could see was that light and all she could feel was that fire.
Then, she vomited. And it was over.
The inspecteur lowered the device and took a step back while Alouette caught her breath. She knew to take her time. It was the only reprieve she had—these precious moments between being unable to speak and being expected to.
“Where is he?” asked the cyborg in that chilling monotone. Even though it was the same question the inspecteur asked every day, it still sent a shiver of fear through Alouette. She wasn’t afraid of more pain. She’d almost gotten used to the pain. It was the fear that her body would eventually betray her. Her tongue would move on its own. Her lips would foolishly give away the only thing that was keeping her alive.
“Where is Marcellus Bonnefaçon?” the inspecteur said, raising the device again and waving it ominously toward Alouette’s neck. Alouette flinched and immediately reprimanded herself for it. The circuitry embedded in the left side of the cyborg’s face flickered with satisfaction. “This can all be over. This can all end tonight. All you have to do is tell us where he is and the pain will stop.”
Alouette gritted her teeth. The device moved closer. Alouette pressed her toes against the tops of her shoes and her wrists against the metal restraints, bearing down.
“Relax,” came a familiar voice in her mind. “The pain is worse when you fight it.”
The sharp prong of the device brushed her skin, and Alouette let her body fall limp against the chair. She heard a sizzle as the electricity hummed through her skin, locating the nerve at the base of her jaw.
And then it happened.
Her forehead exploded in flames. A million tiny daggers stabbed at her eyes. Her cheekbones felt as if they were being crushed by a droid’s unyielding metal fist. And inside her mouth, her tongue turned to scorching molten lava.
This time, however, Alouette was somehow able to contain her scream.
And the meager contents of her stomach.
The inspecteur stepped away, taking the pain with her. “Where is the general’s grandson?” she asked. If she was getting tired of the same routine day in and day out, she didn’t show it. Then again, cyborgs rarely showed any emotion.
“Don’t let them see the truth,” the voice reminded her. “Or they’ll have no reason to keep you alive.”
Alouette closed her eyes, gripping desperately to the clarity and comfort the voice brought her. She was so grateful to have it back in her life, even if she had to use her imagination to make the words sound real.
“Give it to me,” someone snarled from the other side of the room, and Alouette’s eyes shot open to see a figure emerging from the shadows. Had it been there the whole time? Watching?
“This farce has gone on long enough,” the figure said. “Who is running this facility, Inspecteur Champlain? You or her?”
The cyborg looked momentarily stunned by the rebuke. “I’m sorry, Monsieur. I’ve been trying. Every day. But she won’t talk.”
The figure snatched the device from the inspecteur’s hand and stepped into the single shaft of light affixed over Alouette’s head. But Alouette didn’t need the light to recognize him. She would recognize him in a dark room, with her eyes sewn shut, and her ears covered. She would recognize the feel of him. His energy was unlike any she’d ever known. It filled every centimètre of the room, forcing out all of the air.
“Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t actually know anything,” General Bonnefaçon said, his cool hazel eyes focused intently on Alouette. “Perhaps she’s been playing us for fools this whole time.”
And then, he was there. Towering over her. Glaring down at her like a hungry lion standing over an injured lamb.
No, Alouette reminded herself. I am the lion. He is the prey. He is more afraid of me than I am of him. That’s why I’m here.
The inspecteur took three paces back, as though Alouette might implode and she was afraid of getting hit by the debris. The general lowered himself into the chair opposite Alouette, his eyes never leaving hers.
She hadn’t seen him since the night he’d found her at the base of the Paresse Tower. She remembered the blow that came to her head, extinguishing all the stars in the sky. Then, she’d woken up here, in this dark place that knew no stars, no light, no hope of rescue. They were on an island not drawn on any maps, not marked on any TéléComs, invisible even to satellite imagery due to Laterre’s thick cloud coverage. Up until a few months ago, she hadn’t even known it existed.
“Madeline Villette,” the general began in a cold, chilling tone. It was the name her mother had given her. An unfamiliar name. A name that conjured up a past of running, hiding, of pretending to be someone else without even knowing it. “I am not pleased to be here today. There are so many other worthwhile things I would rather be doing. I had hoped this little problem would have been solved by now.” He flashed a look at Inspecteur Champlain, who was now hiding in the shadows. “And yet, here we are, more than three months later.”
Alouette felt something heavy and ominous slink into the pit of her stomach. If the general was here, if he was the one holding that device, that meant it was all over. She had strung them along for months and now her time was up.
“Sometimes,” the general went on, straightening the cuffs of his pristine white uniform, “it’s the small pebble in your shoe that ends up causing more disturbance in your life than the largest of boulders. You have been an inconvenience since the day you were born. And I see now that time hasn’t changed you at all.”
He stood up and began to pace behind his chair. “You should be resting with the Sols right now. You know it and I know it.” He stopped and snapped his gaze back to her. “But I think Inspecteur Champlain has underestimated you. I think you know exactly what you’re doing and why you’re still here.”
The chill of his words sent shivers of dread through Alouette. It was all over. He was onto her. Somehow Alouette had been able to fool the inspecteur all this time, but she couldn’t fool the general. Not anymore. He knew now that she didn’t have the slightest idea where Marcellus Bonnefaçon was. He knew that every well-timed hesitation and subtle hint she’d given the inspecteur over the past three months had all been a ruse to keep her useful. Keep her alive.
Because Marcellus Bonnefaçon was a dangerous threat. He was one of the few people left who knew the truth about the general and what he’d tried to do at that banquet. With those Skins. And every day that Alouette pretended to know his whereabouts was another day she got to live. Another day she got to rot away in this cell, thinking about Marcellus, and all the other people she prayed were still alive. Still safe. Chatine and Gabriel and Cerise.
Alouette’s chest squeezed at the memory of the last time she’d seen her. Fighting, screaming, twisting in the grip of those guards who had dragged her down the hallway of the Ministère headquarters. Had she managed to escape them? Or was she now…
Alouette shoved the thought from her mind. She had to keep hold of her hope, no matter how thin and flimsy it had become. It was all she had left in here.
That and the voices in her head.
“So, how about we make this clean and simple?” the general said. “No more pain. No more games. Do you actually know where my grandson is?”
Alouette said nothing and the general gestured to Inspecteur Champlain, who hurried over with a hologram unit and switched it on.
Seconds later, Alouette’s face was bathed in light of every color: the warm browns of the Bûcheron Mountains, the inky dark blue of the Secana Sea, the luscious greens of the Forest Verdure, and the stark whites of the Terrain Perdu. The whole of Laterre spread out before her, a world unfurling. And Alouette saw her home. Not just the Refuge she grew up in or the exploit city she was born in. But all of it. It was all her home. A planet that lived in her blood and pumped through her veins. A people whom she’d set free. This was the hope that breathed inside of her. That kept her from giving up.
“I’m giving you one last chance,” the general said. “Tell me where he is, and I might even be merciful and let you live out your days on Bastille.”
“Lies,” said the voice in her mind.
As Alouette stared at that hologram map of the planet—her planet—it was like she was staring at a blank page of the sisters’ Chronicles, just waiting to be written upon. Just waiting for the next page of history to be recorded.
And she would have a say in that history if it was the last thing she did. Even if it killed her.
Alouette glanced up from the map and forced herself to hold the general’s steely gaze. Then, in a voice ragged with time and neglect, she said, “The people will never follow you. They will never trust you. And as long as Marcellus Bonnefaçon is still out there, he will make sure you never win.”
The general’s jaw tensed and his grip around the metal-pronged device tightened. Alouette braced herself for more pain. But the general only laughed. “Stupide girl. You’ve been in here a long time. The planet is a different place than you left it. A better place.”
He rested his hands on the back of his chair and leaned toward her, close enough that his energy, his menacing presence, was everywhere, covering her, chilling her, seeping deeper into her nerves than any torture device. “They already trust me. They already follow me.” Then, after glancing over his shoulder to ensure the inspecteur was out of earshot, he whispered, “It’s better than following the daughter of a worthless blood whore, just because her father is the Patriarche.” His mouth broke into a sinister smile as his hazel eyes flashed in the single shaft of light. “Sorry. Was the Patriarche.”
The general turned and stalked toward the door of the cell. All the while, Alouette’s mind was spinning, struggling to make sense of this new information.
Is the Patriarche dead?
But her thoughts came to a jarring halt as something sparked across her vision. At first, she thought it was the device again, sending blinding, searing light through her skull. But she felt no pain. That’s when she realized the light was coming from Inspecteur Champlain. Something was happening to her circuitry. It was flickering erratically, like someone had hacked the signal. And her face had gone deathly still, her jaw hanging slightly ajar and her eyes fixed on the empty space in front of her. Alouette glanced at the general, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Inspecteur,” he said brusquely as he reached the door.
The word seemed to free the cyborg from whatever was happening to her. The flickering stopped. Her eyes snapped into focus. “Yes, General?”
“Don’t make me regret giving you this promotion.” He thrust the device back into her hand and nodded dismissively to Alouette. “Make sure this is taken care of, or you’ll be back rounding up scum on the streets of Lacrête.”
“Yes, General,” the cyborg replied. She clutched the device in her hand and stepped toward Alouette, the metal prong glinting in the overhead light.
Alouette winced, once again bracing herself for the pain. But again, the pain didn’t come.
“Forget that,” the general barked as he yanked open the door of Alouette’s cell. “She doesn’t know anything. It would seem the decision to keep her alive has been a waste of time.” His gaze settled on Alouette once more, and she could see the finality in his eyes just as clearly as she could hear it in his voice. “Obviously, she’s worth more to me dead.”