Chapter One

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He dreams of her again. The familiar images are ticked off one by one as he slowly surfaces from sleep: a strand of blonde hair comes loose from the black band she always wore, she ignores it hanging in front of her face. "...always safe," she says. Just like she always says in his dream.

Her breath is sour, but she smiles at him, warmly, protectively. He feels a coolness against his palm. Then her chapped hands work his fingers to make a fist. Black dirt is crusted into her fingernails.

The edges of the scene begin to blur. He whispers a curse, knowing he'll wake soon. Desperate, he tries to stay in the dream, stay with her longer. He reaches out, trying to keep hold of the image, knowing it will fade as soon as he...

"Ouch!" There is a sharp pain across Sinter's forehead. His breath comes in short bursts. He blinks against the complete blackness, listening for any tendril of dream, hoping her voice might come through again so that he might hear her last words. But there's only silence.

He tries to sit up again, but his head bangs against something hard. "Fuxing sake!" The spot on his forehead is throbbing now. Fully awake, Sinter's instinct kicks in. His hands feel around him, but instead of the thin cot mattress and flimsy bed sheets, he feels smooth metal. His feet can only raise a few inches before the toe of his boots clank against the cool steel above him.

With his heart hammering out a panic alarm, Sinter focuses on calming his breathing. He is inside a fortified box, a coffin maybe. Although the scream is close to the surface, he pushes is away, focusing on escaping.

Escaping?

Maybe I've finally done it, he thinks. Maybe I finally ran away.

"Obviously a wrong turn was taken," Sinter mutters, using his voice to organize his thoughts. It is a trick he learned long ago to normalize the cruel situations his step brothers terrorized him with. Keeping calm to think of a plan has always been an asset—especially when he wakes in predicaments like this after one of his blackouts.

Sinter mentally goes backward to the last thing he remembers before the dream.

The shop comes to mind first: shelves lined with jars of various tiny clips and fasteners, his workbench with the drawers of tools neatly organized, the apron hanging off a nail, it's once white colour now unrecognisable under layers of grease and sint from years of repairs.

Sinter breaths in, but there is no hint of metallic scent like that of the shop. He is someplace clean. Someplace new. His fingers feel along the sides for a seam in the metal. Surely they didn't solder him inside!

There is a momentary panic as he pictures Drake, bulging arms and low forehead, grinning while brandishing Sinter's mini torch to seal up his step brother. Then Anton, fighting the grimace that pulled at his pale features, standing behind his older brother, staring at the scene without comment—just like always.

Sinter listens again. There are no snorts of laughter. This is different than their usual pranks, he realizes. They didn't put me in here.

A calmness brings order to his mind. "Everyone loves a good mystery," he whispers. He tilts back his head, feeling his chin brush against the lid. A sliver of light breaks the darkness near the top. He smiles in the darkness. Pressing his knees into the hard surface above him, Sinter flexes his leg muscles and pushes. There is a slight give, then a sudden release as the lid flips open. A flood of light blinds him as a resounding echo clanks.

Sinter slowly sits up, feeling his back muscles groan in protest. His temporary relief of freeing himself is quickly followed by terror.

He is inside a small ship, a twin jet cruiser by the looks of the small control panel. But it's the coat of arms displayed on the doorway that makes his blood run cold. "How the fux did I get into the Queen's Guard patrol ship?" he whispers, equal parts awe and trepidation.

With his heart pounding, Sinter eases his way to the cockpit. Through the glass he can see the hanger is quiet, ships of many sizes are stationed side by side. Sinter rubs the edge of his thumb along lower lip, his mind doing backflips to come up with a strategy.

Then he pauses. His fingernails and clean. Even though he's stringent when it comes to washing after work, the dusty black sint from the shop is permanently etched into his hands, the result of years of tinkering with robots and small machines. This isn't the only change though, his clothes are new too, almost uniform like, and hardly the worn and ill-fitting wardrobe he inherits from his much larger step brothers.

A prickly panic begins to set in. Sinter claws at the stiff collar of his shirt, frantically unbuttoning the top. Then his hands feel the chain and the smooth disc—his medallion. Sinter lets out a slow breath. He touches it and closes his eyes. His mother's voice echoes inside his head. "Always safe," he recites by heart.

With this new calmness, Sinter takes in his situation. "All right you beautiful machine," he says to the control panel. "It seems you and are destined to have an adventure." He claps his hands together and stares at the various switches and buttons.

The general setup was similar to the smaller dashboard of the two seated gliders he fixes in the shop so he's certain he can start the ship. But fly it? Er...fux no.

This ship had ten times the maneuvering capability of his own beat up sky dodger he skims over the tree tops of pirates' canyon.

Sinter rubs his thumb along his bottom lip again. He pictures his step father, glowering at him from the doorway of their cottage as Sinter arrives home without any explanation of where he's been. The blows would be fast. Maybe enough to keep both eyes swollen this time.

Perhaps he's finally escaped for certain this time? There is only one course of action.

"Machines are simple," Sinter says to the control panel, hoping to sound confident. He zeroes in on the red power button. "Just tell it to do what you want..."

He presses button. Blue and white lights flash outside. An alarm suddenly pierces the air. The computer generated voice of the ship is serene. "Prepare for launching. In T minus ten..."

There is a violent shudder, knocking Sinter off his feet. "Oh fux!" The back of his head bounces off the hard floor. The ship vibrates under him as darkness begins to creep around the edges of his vision.


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