Author Jay Kristoff introduces an action-packed excerpt from his new YA novel LIFEL1K3.
LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff (co-author of The Illuminae Files) is a story of secrets and buried memories, in a world drowning in junk. Desperate for cash to keep her grandfather’s medicine in supply, 17-year-old Eve turns to bot-fighting, where a dangerous match exhumes a terrifying and confusing new ability.
But that’s barely the beginning of Eve’s problems. When she discovers the ruins of a beautiful android boy named Ezekiel buried in the scrap pile she calls home, Eve’s entire world is turned upside down. With her best friend and her robotic sidekick in tow, she and Ezekiel will trek across deserts of irradiated glass, battle cyborg assassins, and scour abandoned megacities to save the ones Eve loves… and learn the dark secrets of her past.
Jay Kristoff on ‘LIFEL1K3’
LIFEL1K3 is a love letter to a future I never want to see. It’s like Romeo & Juliet had a love child with Mad Max: Fury Road, while Bladerunner cheered from the sidelines. In this opening chapter we meet Eve — a mechanic and robot pilot living in the post-apocalyptic ruins of California.
She’s about to have a VERY bad day.
Exclusive excerpt from ‘LIFEL1K3’ by Jay Kristoff
The Three Laws of Robotics
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
YOUR BODY IS NOT YOUR OWN.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
YOUR MIND IS NOT YOUR OWN.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
YOUR LIFE IS NOT YOUR OWN.
A machine with no intelligence of its own, operating on preprogrammed lines.
A machine that requires a human operator to function.
A machine with its own onboard intelligence, capable of independent action.
Almost everybody called her Eve.
At first glance, you might’ve missed her. She wouldn’t have minded much. Hunched on the shoulder of a metal giant, she was just a silhouette amid the hiss and hum and halos of glittering sparks. She was tall, a little gangly, boots too big and cargos too tight. Sun-bleached blond hair was undercut into an impressive fauxhawk. Her sharp cheekbones were smudged with grease, illuminated by the cutting torch in her hands. She was seventeen years old, but she looked older still. Just like everything around her.
A black metal sphere sat in the socket where her right eye should’ve been. Six silicon chips were plugged behind her right ear, and a long oval of artificial flesh ran from her temple to the base of her skull. The implant obviously wasn’t made for her—the skin tone was a little too pale to match her complexion.
It was just about the right shape for a nasty exit wound.
“Testing, testing . . . y’all hear me out there?”
The girl almost everyone called Eve clamped a screwdriver between her teeth, glanced at the monitors across from her work pit. A high-def image showed the arena above her head, three hundred meters wide, littered with scorched barricades and the rusting hulks of previous competitors. The EmCee stood in the spotlight, wearing a sequined jacket and a matching bowler hat. There was no need for a mic. Her voice fed directly to the PA via implants in her teeth.
“Juves and juvettes!” she cried. “Scenekillers and wageslaves, welcome . . . to WarDome!”
The crowd roared. Thousands of them clinging like limpets to the Dome’s bars, humming, thrumming, feet all a-drumming. Most were the worse for stims or a bellyful of home brew, drunker still at the thought of the carnage to come. Their vibrations sank into Eve’s bones, and she couldn’t help but smile. Tasting her fear and swallowing it whole.
“Show time,” she whispered.
“In the blue zone,” cried the EmCee, “the condemned! A fritzer, fresh from the border of the Glass, with the murder of seventy-two accredited citizens on its head. Brought here tonight for a taste of oldskool justice! All y’all give this fug a warm and fuzzy Dregs welcome. Some volume, if you please . . . for GL-417!”
Blue floodlights arced at the Dome’s north end, and the floor panels rolled away. A hulking lump of robotic menace rose into view amid a hail of spit and jeers. Eve’s insides turned slippery cold at the sight on her monitor. Her cutting torch wavered in her hands.
Hard to swallow your fear with no spit, isn’t it?
The robot in the blue zone loomed ten meters high. Bulky as a battleship, it looked like a high-speed collision between an earthmover and some armored knight from the history virtch. It was a heavy-combat model, Goliath class, and the thought of a bot that lethal throwing down under the Dome lights sent punters lunging for their pockets and bookies scrambling for their tabs.
This was going to be a fight. . . .
“This is going to be a massacre,” said a tinny voice in Eve’s left ear.
Ignoring the warning, she finished her welding, her dark goggles held up to what she thought of as her good eye. Talking true, the glossy black optical implant that replaced her right peeper saw better than her real one — it had flare compensation, a telescopic zoom, low-light and thermal imaging. But it always gave her headaches. Whirred when she blinked. Itched when her nightmares woke her crying.
“How’s that, Cricket?” she shouted.
“Targeting only shows a thirteen-point-seven-percent improvement.”
Cricket peered out at her from the pilot’s chair with his mismatched eyes. The little robot’s face couldn’t show expressions, but he wiggled the metal slivers that passed for his eyebrows to show his agitation. He was a homunculus of spare parts, forty centimeters tall, the color of rust. There was no symmetry to him at all. His optics were too big for his head, and his head was too big for his body. The heat sinks on his back and across his scalp looked like the spines of an animal from old history virtch. Porcupines, they used to call ’em.
“Well, it’s show time, so it’ll have to do,” Eve replied. “That Goliath is big as a house, so it’s not like it’s gonna be tricky to hit.”
“This might sound stupid, but you could always back out of this, Evie.”
“Okay, now why would you think that’d sound stupid, Crick?”
“You know better than this.” Cricket scrambled down to the floor.
“Shouldn’t even be throwing down in the Dome. Grandpa would blow a head gasket if he found out.”
“Who do you think taught me how to build bots in the first place?”
“You’re punching too far above your weight on this one. Acting a damn jackass.”
“Grandpa’s gonna wipe you if he hears you swear like that.”
Cricket placed one hand on his chest with mock solemnity. “I am as my maker intended.”
Eve laughed and scaled across to the cockpit. The fit was snug; her machina stood only six meters high, and there was barely enough room for her beside the viewscreens and control sleeves. Most of the machina competing in Dome bouts were salvaged infantry models, but Eve’s baby was Locust class, built for lightning-quick assaults on fortified positions during the Corpstate Wars. Humanoid in shape, what it lacked in bulk, it made up for in speed, and it was customized for bot wrecking — serrated claws on its left hand, a jet-boosted pickax on its right. Its armor was painted in a violent camo of black and luminous pink. Eve dropped into the pilot’s chair and shouted down to Cricket.
“Does my butt look big in this?”
“Do you want the truth?” the little bot replied.
“Do you want me to disable your voice box again?”
“Seriously, Evie, you shouldn’t go up there.”
“It’s an opening spot, Crick. We need the scratch. Badly.”
“Ever wonder why you got offered first swing against a bot that big?”
“Ever wonder why I keep calling you paranoid?”
Cricket placed his hand back on his chest. “I am as my maker–”
“Right, right.” Eve smiled lopsided, running through the start-up sequence. “Jump on the monitors, will you? I’ll need your eyes when we throw down.”
Eve was always amazed at how well the little robot sighed, given he didn’t have any lungs to exhale with.
“Never fear, Crick.” She slapped her machina’s hide. “No way a bot this beautiful is getting bricked by some fritzer. Not while I’m flying it.”
The voice piped up through the speaker in Eve’s ear. “Right. Have some faith, you little fug.”
“Aw, thanks, Lem.” Eve smiled.
“No problem. I can have all your stuff when you die, right?”
The engines shuddered to life, and the four thousand horsepower under her machina’s chassis set Eve’s grin creeping wider. She strapped herself in as the EmCee’s voice rang out through the WarDome above.
“And now, in the red zone!” A roar rose from the spectators. “A fistful of hardcore, homebuilt right here in Dregs. Undefeated in eight heavy bouts and swinging first bat for Lady Justice here tonight, get yourselves hoarse for Miss Combobulation!”
The ceiling over Eve’s head yawned wide. Winking at Cricket, she spat out her screwdriver and slammed the cockpit closed. A dozen screens lit up as she slipped her limbs into the control sleeves and boots. Hydraulics hissed, engines humming through the cockpit walls as she stepped onto the loading platform for the WarDome arena.
As she rose into view, the crowd bellowed in approval. Eve shifted her legs, her machina striding out onto the killing floor. Gyros hummed around her, static electricity crackling up her arms. She raised her hand inside her control sleeve, and Miss Combobulation gave a soldier-boy salute. As the mob howled in response, Eve pointed to the two words sprayed in stylized script across her machina’s posterior:
Eve’s opponent stood silently, the microsolars in its camo paint job giving it a ghostly sheen. Unlike her machina, the Goliath was a logika — a bot driven by an internal intelligence rather than human control. If all were well in the world, the First Law of Robotics would’ve prevented any bot raising a finger against a human. Trouble was, this Goliath had fritzed somewhere along the line, ghosted a bunch of settlers out near the Glass. Wasn’t the first time it’d happened, either. More and more bots seemed to be malfunctioning out in the wastelands. Maybe it was the radiation. The isolation. Who knew? But bot fights were serious biz now, and execution bouts always drew the biggest crowds. Eve didn’t have a problem beating down some fritzer if it meant scoring more creds.
Truth was, a part of her even enjoyed it.
Still, despite her bravado, Cricket’s warning buzzed in her head as she took the Goliath’s measure. It was easily the biggest bot she’d rocked with, tipping the scales at eighty tons. She chewed her lip, trying to shush her butterflies. Her optical implant whirred as she scowled. The artificial skin at her temple was the only part of her that wasn’t slick with sweat.
If I didn’t need this fight purse so bad…
“Now, for the uninitiated,” crowed the EmCee, “Dome bouts are true simple. The convicted logika fights until it’s OOC — that’s ‘out of commission,’ for the newmeat among us. If the first batter gets OOC’ed instead, another batter steps up to the floor. You beautiful peeps have sixty seconds until betting closes. We remind you, tonight’s execution is sponsored by the stylish crews at BioMaas Incorporated and the visionaries at Daedalus Technologies.” The EmCee pointed to her two-tone optical implants with a flirtatious smile. “Building tomorrow, today.”
Logos danced on the monitors above the announcer’s head. Eve watched the big bot on her screens, calculating her best opening move against it. The tinny voice in her ear spoke again — a girl’s tones, crackling with feedback.
“I got a bookie here running four-to-one odds against you, Riotgrrl.”
Eve tapped her mic. “Four to one? Fizzy as hell. Hook us up, Lemon.”
“How much you wanna drop out them too-tight pockets, sugarpants?”
“Are you smoked? That’s our whole bank. If you lose–“
“I’ve won eight straight, Lemon. Not about to start losing now. And we need this scratch. Unless you got a better way to conjure Grandpa’s meds?”
“I got a way, true cert’.”
“A way that doesn’t involve me getting up-close and sticky with some middle-aged wageslave?”
“…Yeah, then I got nuthin’.”
“Make the bet. Five hundred.”
“Zzzzzz,” came the reply. “You the boss.”
“And remember to get a receipt, yeah?”
“Hey, that happened one time…”
“Thirty seconds, your bets!” cried the EmCee.
Eve turned to her readouts, spoke into her headset. “Cricket, you reading me?”
“Well, not reading you, no,” came the crackling reply. “I can hear you, though, if that’s what you mean.”
“Oh, hilarity. Grandpa been adjusting your humor software again?”
“I’m a work in progress.”
“I’ll tell him to keep working.” She squinted at the Goliath, looming on her monitors. “I’m gonna fight southpaw and go for the optics, feel that?”
“Right in my shiny metal man parts.”
“You got no man parts, Crick.”
“I am as my maker intended.” A metallic sigh. “He’s such a bastard…”
Lemon’s voice crackled in Eve’s ear. “Okay, we good to go. Can you see my fine caboose? I’m over by the Neo-Meat™ stand.”
Eve scanned the crowd. Scavvers and locals mostly, letting off steam after a hard week’s grind. She saw a Brotherhood posse, six of them in those oldskool red cassocks, preaching loud over the Dome’s noise about genetic purity and the evils of cybernetics. Their scarlet banner was daubed with a big black X — the kind of X they nailed people to when the Law wasn’t looking.
Down by the arena’s edge, Eve glimpsed a tiny girl in an ancient, oversized leather jacket. A jagged bob of cherry red hair. A spattering of freckles. Goggles on her brow and a choker about her throat. A small hand in fingerless gloves waved at her through the WarDome bars.
“I got you,” Eve replied.
The inimitable Miss Lemon Fresh jumped on the spot, threw up the horns.
“‘Kay, bet is onnnnnnn, my bestest,” she reported. “Five hundo at four to one. Let’s hope you didn’t leave your mojo in your other pants.”
“You got the receipt?”
“That happened one time, Evie…”
Eve turned her attention back to her opponent, fingers flitting over the enviro controls inside her gloves. She’d heard a rumor that the Domefighter rigs in the big mainland arenas were all virtual, but here in Dregs, WarDome bouts were strictly oldskool: recycled, repackaged, repurposed. Just like everything else on the island. A confirmation message flickered on Eve’s display, signaling environmental control had been transferred to her console. She tilted the deck beneath the Goliath a fraction, just to test.
The big bot stumbled as the panels beneath its feet shifted. Eve wondered what was going on inside its computerized brain. Whether it knew it was going to die tonight. Whether it would have cared if it wasn’t programmed to.
The crowd bellowed as the floor moved, the interlocking steel plates that made up the WarDome floor rippling as Eve’s fingers flexed. The EmCee had retired to the observation booth above the killing floor, her voice still ringing over the PA.
“As you can see, environmental controls have been passed to the first batter. Under standard WarDome rules, she’ll have five wrecking balls to throw, plus surface modulation. For the newmeat out there, this means… aww, hells, ask your daddy what it means when I send him home in the morning. Ten seconds to full hostile!”
A countdown appeared on the monitors, Daedalus Tech and BioMaas Inc. logos spinning in the corners. The mob joined in with the count, palms sweaty on rusted bars.
Eve narrowed her eyes, a razor-blade smile at her lips.
Miss Combobulation coiled like a sprinter on the blocks.
The Goliath stood, still as stone.
“Stronger together,” Lemon whispered.
“Together forever,” Eve replied.