It was the same shape the guards all wore on their arms: two circles, a larger one with a thinner one inside it. The symbol of the Razor.
"Went out of our way for you, Maddox," Reed's voice told him. "Don't want you feeling lonely. Made sure there'd be old friends where you're going."
Jericho brought the superheated iron closer and closer. Maddox gritted his teeth. In the dark, the two circles burned into his vision.
Reed leaned in so he could look Maddox in the eyes. "You had it all once, boy. Sometimes I wonder if you even knew. But you threw it away. And for what? I mean, you gotta wonder what the point of it was. Right?"
Maddox stared at him, breathing hard. He could feel the heat of the iron near his neck now, could see it glowing hot in the corner of his eye.
"The only thing I wonder about," Maddox answered, his voice hoarse and raw, "is what the fuck took me so long."
Reed nodded, seemed to accept the answer. "Fair enough." The only thing Maddox could see was a faint orange glow from the branding iron.
"Welcome home, Maddox."
Maddox screamed as the brand sizzled into his neck, searing his skin into flakes.
It lasted only a few seconds. That was a plus.
The beatings, though, they lasted longer. All four of them worked him hard.
As the blackness began, in that moment he had anticipated for so long, Maddox saw exactly what he expected.
He saw the woman, dark black skin, dreadlocks, eyes like coals. Saw her in that storage container with all the others when the air lock sealed it tight.
Everything he'd done after that had been because of her, but it had all been too late. And now he was here. Where he belonged.
Maddox passed out as the blows rained down.
The only time Flynn had ever tried to kill a man was with his father's gun. Jeremiah was on the ground with a knife to his throat, and Flynn grabbed his pistol from the dirt and aimed it at the man holding the blade. That was a long time ago, back during the Outlier Revolution, when smugglers were raking in credits supplying colony "revolutionists." The rebels were still being backed by the Autonomy then, which meant their credit was good, and that's all that mattered to gunrunners like Jeremiah,
Flynn's old man.
The rebels tried to dupe Jeremiah when he landed, tried to take their merch without paying. Complications ensued.
Flynn had never held a gun before. His fingers barely reached the trigger, his arm shook as he tried to keep the barrel up. He could only faintly hear Jeremiah snarling for him to fire.
The man on top of his father, the one with the knife, he'd locked eyes with Flynn then. And the man froze.
Flynn always wondered what prompted someone who could overpower his father (not an easy task) to freeze at the sight of a small boy holding a gun. The reality of just how low his life had managed to spiral? Or the fact that he was looking at a kid he was either about to make an orphan or a killer?
Either way, it was the distraction Jeremiah needed. The man's throat got slit, and the other rebels ran. The fight had been beaten out of them long ago.
When it was done, Flynn's father struck him across the face so hard it rocked his head around.
"If you draw," Jeremiah said, a thin line of blood where the blade had rested under his chin, "you pull."
Flynn opened his mouth, but his father hit him again. "If you draw, you pull. Say it."
All Flynn could do was nod; he was too scared. His face stung again, another hit. "Say it."
"If you draw, you pull," Flynn said in a quivering voice, tears starting to form. Jeremiah stared down at him, the contempt clear in his eyes, then shoved him back toward the ship.
He'd never gone on another run with his father again. Two years later, Flynn booked passage on a freighter to Earth, paid for his ticket by modifying the ship's engines to an efficiency rating that equaled something like a two-generation upgrade. Flynn was fifteen. Even then, his talents were starting to become apparent.
And now, as he marched with the other prisoners, it occurred to Flynn that he was right back where he'd come from. His father's world. And he wasn't in any better a position to survive it.
This excerpt ends on page 20 of the hardcover edition.