[SNEAK PEEK] Hero: The Hero Rebellion 1 – Chapter 1

Hero: The Hero Rebellion 1

Chapter 1

It was windy on the foredeck, and cold, but the air smelled like freedom and Fink was warm against Hero’s back.

The ruc-pard purred, a rumble that vibrated from his giant chest into hers, and all the way down to her toes. She snuggled deeper into the hollow between his fore and midquarters, enjoying the feel of his thick winter coat. Golden-red and silky, she sank into it, the hairs brushing her bare arms with every giant breath he took, the longer, coarser hair on his ruff tickling her cheek. Fink’s black, hairless tail wrapped around them both, the heavy weight of it draped across her feet, warming her toes.

Lazy images swam through her mind, carried on the distinct pink and mawberry of Fink’s thoughts – the taste of them sweet, the touch of them a soft fizz winding through her brain. She might have stopped and played for a moment in his memories, if the huge skytowers of Cumulus City weren’t spread across the horizon.

She’d seen all the holotours, interrogated all of the guides, but she’d never thought the city would be so… there wasn’t a word big enough to describe it. Surrounded by its sprawling mass of satellite ‘burbs, Cumulus City rose thirty thousand feet through the atmosphere, an endless patchwork of grey and green connected by the silver threads of bridges and the restless movement of the skylanes.

Below, spires shot planetside and massive generators kept the city and its ‘burbs aloft, while giant tethers prevented it from drifting with the winds.

The city was her ticket, her chance, to see Jørn, to explore the planet’s surface without minders or gadgets or her mum looking over her shoulder. She rubbed the dull plasteel bracelet wrapped around her wrist. Or so she hoped.

She breathed deep and hugged her bare arms against the chill as freedom came closer and closer on the horizon.

‘Hero.’ The Lamb, the latest in her bevy of minders, stood in her peripheral vision clutching a heavy coat, the wind flattening her white-blonde curls against her head. Her mouth was pulled tight and her big green eyes were wide, almost swallowing her face. The way she eyed Fink looked to Hero as if she were waiting for him to flash his fangs and pounce. She held herself like one of the Old Terra creatures Hero had named her for, stiff and tense, leaning away from the ‘pard as if the extra millimetre would save her if he did. A brave lamb, wary but not scared.

Hero wondered at where Tybalt – butler, tutor, substitute parent – had found someone who didn’t quake before six-hundred kilograms of genetically engineered ruc-pard, bigger at the shoulder than Hero was tall, and twice as long. This woman wouldn’t be as easy to get rid of as the others.

‘Hero, you need to come in.’ Determination gathered on the Lamb’s face, in the firming of her jaw and the tiny crinkle at the corner of her eyes. When she stepped forward, Hero let herself be mildly impressed.

Fink flipped his thick, hairless tail, letting it land with a solid thwack on the deck not two feet from the tips of the woman’s shoes.

The Lamb stopped, her gaze locked on Fink.

It was hard to tell which characteristic people found most intimidating about him. It could have been the teeth, the claws, the sheer six-legged bulk… or it could have been the reputation: the stigma of a species mixed in a lab by not just a crackpot but The Crackpot – Woolsey. 

They’d all been crackpots back then, those first-gen colonists, but Woolsey had topped them all. No one else would have thought to mix a little bit of rat with a little bit of leopard and a whole lot of alien to create something big and strong and scary enough to walk the surface with impunity.

Hero wished she could be like that: big and strong and scary instead of just strange and small and special. Old Terra, how she hated being special.

The Lamb cleared her throat. ‘Hero, come back inside, you’ll catch your death out here.’

She’d catch her death in there too, swaddled in comfort and care and her own bloody good.

‘Don’t make me ask again.’

‘Or what?’ She pinned the Lamb with a look that promised trouble. 

The Lamb’s lips firmed. ‘I’m just doing my job.’

‘Get a new one.’

‘And let you freeze to death?’

‘I can take care of myself.’

‘Is that why your lips are blue?’ The Lamb took another step forward, and this time when Fink swished his tail, she barely flinched. ‘You can see the city just as well from the port-side lounge.’

But she couldn’t smell it there, couldn’t feel it in her wind-chilled bones.

‘At least take the jacket.’ The woman was close enough to touch; the jacket brushed Hero’s arm as she thrust it forward. ‘Tybalt’ll kill me if you’re an icicle by the time we reach the dock.’

An unpleasant smile crossed Hero’s lips.

For a moment, the Lamb said nothing, just looked at her, a stupid, stunned expression of her face, before the jacket dropped to her side. ‘Really? You’re going to freeze just to make trouble?’

Hero smiled wider. That hadn’t been the plan, but now that she’d mentioned it… 

Behind her Fink shifted, a liquid movement of muscle and tawny fur, and planted his cold, wet nose against the back of her neck.

She jerked forward and spun around. ‘Fi-iink.’ 

He rumbled and fixed her with his black gaze, popping an image into her mind of her standing before him, lips as blue as the Lamb suggested, her dark shoulder-length hair a wind-snarled mess, and goose-pimples the size of mountains covering her bare arms. Then another image: one of him lounging inside while she shivered on the foredeck, alone.

Her expression grew dark. ‘You wouldn’t.’

‘Wouldn’t what?’ A line of confusion marred the space between the Lamb’s brows.

She spared the minder a look of disgust. ‘I wasn’t talking to you.’

‘I’d forgotten Woolseys could do that.’

Just like everyone else. Most people never got past the claws or the teeth to the thing that made all of Woolsey’s creations so special, and so dangerous: their ability to communicate without sound. Most companions had some sort of psionic abilities, but only Woolseys could talk to their humans.

In her mind, the image Fink projected grew. A fire and a large bowl of triple-chocolate marshmallow ice-cream appeared in the scene, held between his forepaws. Leisurely the real Fink, the one on the foredeck, rose to his feet and stretched before ambling towards the forward cabin.

‘Traitor,’ she said.

He barely flicked an ear.

At her side, the Lamb coughed.

She looked at the Lamb, glaring when she caught the vestiges of a smile hidden behind a politely raised hand. 

‘Looks like Fink agrees with me,’ the Lamb said.

Hero growled and snatched the coat from the Lamb’s grip before following Fink inside. The airship’s sliding doors didn’t slam but she’d spent a few moments fiddling with their DNA – jacking into the biological goop that was their brain and adding her own little twist to the genes that controlled the locks – and, with a twitch of her little finger and a thought to the biocomp on her wrist, they jammed beautifully.

The Lamb stared at Hero from the other side of the porthole, wide-eyed, mouth agape, the wind ripping at her thin jacket as she tugged uselessly at the door.

Shrugging her heavy coat over fading goose-pimples, Hero smiled at the woman and turned away.

Fink had her pinned with that gaze again.

‘What?’ she said.

He cast a look over her shoulder at the Lamb.

‘You let her in then.’ She brushed past him, heading for the galley. ‘I’m going to find that ice-cream.’

Fink lay sprawled in front of the holofire, the flames silhouetting his ears as he twisted to lie half on his back, bathing his belly in the heat from the friction of solid light. The only sounds were the lazy swish of his tail across the carpet and his purr, the vibration filling the room. On the other side of the lounge, curled up in an enormous chair, Hero watched as the city drew closer. An empty tub, the only remnant of the ice-cream, sat on the table at her elbow.

The view from the portside lounge was as good as the Lamb had suggested, filling the floor-to-ceiling plasglas with traffic and the brown, green and grey of the satellite ‘burbs.

Large and small, the ‘burbs circled the city, connected by slender bridges and pipes, held together by the relays that connected them to the mag-web – the network of magnetic energy that kept the city aloft. On the web’s furthest edges, the outer ‘burbs, lacking the stability of their inner cousins, moved up and down in a slow-motion bob.

There were farms down there, crops and orchards and all the other things the city needed to function. They still grew food on the surface as well, in huge biodomes with filtered air and filtered water and filtered dirt, safe from the Pollen.

As they joined the skylanes, the throng of hover-sleds and barges swallowed the private airship with nary a thought and the farms below gave way to industry. After the ring of industry there were houses, single-storey at first, with yards and grass, and then double-storey and triple-storey and even larger, until the towers of the inner ‘burbs – great spears of plasteel and steelcrete piercing the sky – rivalled the city itself.

The airship flirted with the edges of the metropolis, moving higher and higher, heading for the docking towers near the city’s peak. After four days cooped up on her mother’s airship with nothing to do but watch holos and avoid her tutors, the docking towers couldn’t come fast enough.

She didn’t notice when the lounge door silently slid to one side, but Fink did. The downturn of his ears and the way he curled his thick, hairless tail over his nose told her louder than words who it was. She sank low into the chair, wishing she too had a tail to flick over her nose. Tybalt had that effect.

She watched out of the corner of her eye as he set a glass on the table between them and sat, loosening his coat and flicking out the ends in one smooth movement. A point of light flashed just under the skin, where his ear met his jaw, but he didn’t open his palm and answer the call. Instead, he propped his chin in one large-knuckled hand and waited like an Old Terra monk, dark and patient.

He wasn’t her dad, or even an uncle, but she knew him better than either. She knew that he could sit there, as if he didn’t need to blink or breathe, for the rest of his life.

Tybalt shifted, swinging his leg over his knee. ‘Imogen’s nice, you know. I hired her myself.’


His mouth firmed. ‘Ms Lambert.’

‘Oh right, the Lamb.’ She kept her gaze on the window. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll make her quit so you don’t have to fire her.’

‘Hero.’ She didn’t have to look at him to see the lines between his brows crinkle in a frown; she could practically hear the flesh fold together. ‘We had an agreement.’

‘One that didn’t include the Lamb.’

‘You promised to behave.’

‘Who says I’m not?’ 

The expression on his face was more pained than angry and his eyes were tired. Unbidden came the mawberry-flavoured memory of the corners of Tybalt’s black eyes crinkled in a smile instead of a frown. She glared at Fink. Sprawled before the holofire, the ‘pard just flicked an ear.

‘Locking your minder outside does not constitute good behaviour. Neither,’ he said, ‘does skipping your meds.’ 

‘Did the Lamb tell you that?’

‘No, but I did find these.’ He held up two small green pills.

She stiffened, clenching her hand against the urge to check her pockets. The dreaded things must have fallen out when she palmed them at lunch.

He placed them on the table next to the glass and sat back, looking at her expectantly. ‘When you’re ready.’

She crossed her arms. ‘I don’t need them.’

He sighed, a long-suffering sound. ‘It will only be worse later. If we have to give you another injection you’ll be straight back to the estate and you can kiss the academy goodbye for another four years.’

The thought of the small green capsules made her shudder, but the ‘stick… The memory of the cold, thumb-sized nozzle pressed against her neck, the way it hissed when it shot the meds into her bloodstream, made her stomach clench until she thought she might be sick. It was bad enough hearing voices, answering questions that no one asked, and having every friend she’d ever tried to make give her that look, the special look. It wasn’t fair that they tried to stuff her brain with green goo as well, tried to make her stupid and numb with those tiny capsules. She crossed her arms and wished that if she threw them into the holofire, they’d burn.

‘As you wish. I’ll leave them here in case you change your mind,’ Tybalt said. ‘As for Imogen, give her a chance. The city’s not like the estate; it’s bigger and busier and until we know how that will affect your health your mother has insisted upon greater supervision.’

‘Mother can go stuff herself,’ she muttered.


‘What?’ She whipped to face him. ‘I have you, four freaking tutors and this.’ She thrust out her wrist; the biocomp, a thick bracelet, gleamed dull silver in the afternoon light. ‘Counting my every breath, making sure I sleep right and eat right and do my homework. What do you need another minion for? Unless you think I’m going to crack it while you’re blowing your nose?’

Tybalt took the bracelet in one hand, twisting and turning her wrist as he inspected the concoction of metal and biogel. ‘You’ve been tinkering.’

She jerked her wrist back. ‘So? The stupid thing was a clunker; it couldn’t even query the Library.’ In fact, the only thing it had done was report her every movement and transmit enough medical data to crash an AI. Besides, she’d only made a few small modifications, it wasn’t like she’d fiddled with the locator. Not after the last time; they’d been on her like fleas as soon as she’d tickled the genetic coding. ‘You could have at least made it sub-dermal this time,’ she said, glancing at the light dancing behind his jaw.

‘You’re too young,’ he said. As she opened her mouth to argue, he added, ‘You’d already be trying to grow an upgrade. At least this way I can slow you down long enough for your parents to change the encryption on their credit lines. They don’t appreciate you spending their money.’

‘Well, that makes us even then, ’cause I don’t appreciate being my parents’ deep, dark secret.’

He sighed. ‘That’s not what this is about.’

‘Yeah.’ She turned back to the window. ‘Sure.’

‘You need to trust me.’

‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t.’ Not after he’d spilled the Terra-damned beans. No one would have known she’d been hearing the voices again, that her old meds had stopped working, if he hadn’t opened his big fat mouth.

At first, she hadn’t noticed the meds not working. It had happened slowly, slowly enough that the voices slipped through without her noticing, and when she did… Well, they hadn’t seemed as scary as they had before.

She’d stopped taking the meds then and everything had been going well, until she slipped up and answered Tybalt’s question before he’d even asked it. When he hadn’t insisted she take her meds right then and there, she’d thought that he’d keep her secret. She should have known better.

That morning, she’d known something was wrong when she woke up and Fink wasn’t sunning himself on the veranda outside her room. She’d learned later that they’d locked him in the stables, just in case she panicked and he ate the doctor.

She had panicked when she found the doctor sitting at the breakfast table, his big black bag beside the fruit bowl and a green-filled hypo-stick next to his plate. She would have run straight back out, except Tybalt was there, blocking the way.

He was meant to be on her side; he’d always been on her side – until that morning when he’d held her down while the doctor shot her up with green goo.

Another sigh. ‘You’re going to make this difficult.’

She smiled grimly. She was going to make his teeth hurt.

‘Do as you like then.’ Pressing his hands to his knees, Tybalt rose until he loomed, straight-backed and stiff-shouldered, over her. ‘We’ll be docking in half an hour. Have your bags ready.’