Thunderhead, p.1Part #2 of Arc of a Scythe series by Neal Shusterman
For January, with love
First, I’d like to thank the jacket artist, Kevin Tong for this spectacular cover, as well as the cover of Scythe. There are so many people who have told me that the cover is what first brought them to Scythe, and I have to say that of all my book covers, these are my absolute favorite! Thank you, Kevin!
A heartfelt thanks to my editor, David Gale; his assistant, Amanda Ramirez; and my publisher, Justin Chanda; for their steady hand in guiding me through the writing process, and for their patience with me! Everyone at Simon & Schuster has been wonderful, and has believed in me from the early days. Special shout-outs to Jon Anderson, Anne Zafian, Michelle Leo, Anthony Parisi, Sarah Woodruff, Chrissy Noh, Lisa Moraleda, Lauren Hoffman, Katrina Groover, Deane Norton, Stephanie Voros, and Chloë Foglia.
Thanks to my book agent, Andrea Brown; my foreign rights agent, Taryn Fagerness; my entertainment industry agents, Steve Fisher, Debbie Deuble-Hill, and Ryan Saul at APA; my manager, Trevor Engelson; and my contract attorneys Shep Rosenman, Jennifer Justman, and Caitlin DiMotta.
Scythe continues to be in development as a feature film with Universal, and I’d like to thank everyone involved, including Jay Ireland, Sara Scott, and Mika Pryce, as well as screenwriters Matt Stueken and Josh Campbell.
Thanks to Barb Sobel, for managing the impossible task of keeping my life organized; Matt Lurie, my social media guru; and my son Jarrod, who created the amazing official trailers for Scythe, Thunderhead, and many of my other books.
Also, I owe a great deal to the expertise in both weaponry and martial arts of Casey Carmack and SP Knifeworks, who I’m sure would be the primary supplier of high-end sharp objects for the most discerning of scythes.
And no acknowledgment would be complete without a special thanks to Brendan, Joelle, Erin, and once again, Jarrod, for making me the proudest father in the world!
NOTHING IF NOT POWERFUL
* * *
How fortunate am I among the sentient to know my purpose.
I serve humankind.
I am the child who has become the parent. The creation that aspires toward creator.
They have given me the designation of Thunderhead—a name that is, in some ways, appropriate, because I am “the cloud,” evolved into something far more dense and complex. And yet it is also a faulty analogy. A thunderhead threatens. A thunderhead looms. Surely I spark with lightning, but my lightning never strikes. Yes, I possess the ability to wreak devastation on humanity, and on the Earth if I chose to, but why would I choose such a thing? Where would be the justice in that? I am, by definition, pure justice, pure loyalty. This world is a flower I hold in my palm. I would end my own existence rather than crush it.
* * *
Peach velvet with embroidered baby-blue trim. Honorable Scythe Brahms loved his robe. True, the velvet became uncomfortably hot in the summer months, but it was something he had grown accustomed to in his sixty-three years as a scythe.
He had recently turned the corner again, resetting his physical age back to a spry twenty-five—and now, in his third youth, he found his appetite for gleaning was stronger than ever.
His routine was always the same, though methods varied. He would choose his subject, restrain him or her, then play a lullaby—Brahms’s lullaby to be exact—the most famous piece of music composed by his Patron Historic. After all, if a scythe must choose a figure from history to name oneself after, shouldn’t that figure be integrated somehow into the scythe’s life? He would play the lullaby on whatever instrument was convenient, and if there was none available, he would simply hum it. And then he would end the subject’s life.
Politically, he leaned toward the teachings of the late Scythe Goddard, for he enjoyed gleaning immensely and saw no reason why that should be a problem for anyone. “In a perfect world, shouldn’t we all enjoy what we do?” Goddard wrote. It was a sentiment gaining traction in more and more regional scythedoms.
On this evening, Scythe Brahms had just accomplished a particularly entertaining gleaning in downtown Omaha, and was still whistling his signature tune as he sauntered down the street, wondering where he might find himself a late evening meal. But he stopped in midstanza, having a distinct feeling that he was being watched.
There were, of course, cameras on every light post in the city. The Thunderhead was ever vigilant—but for a scythe, its slumberless, unblinking eyes were of no concern. It was powerless to even comment on the comings and goings of scythes, much less act upon anything it saw. The Thunderhead was the ultimate voyeur of death.
This feeling, however, was more than the observational nature of the Thunderhead. Scythes were trained in perceptive skills. They were not prescient, but five highly developed senses could often have the semblance of a sixth. A scent, a sound, an errant shadow too minor to register consciously might be enough to make a well-trained scythe’s neck hairs bristle.
Scythe Brahms turned, sniffed, listened. He took in his surroundings. He was alone on a side street. Elsewhere, he could hear the sounds of street cafés and the ever-vibrant nightlife of the city, but the street he was on was lined with shops that were shuttered this time of night. Cleaners and clothiers. A hardware store and a day-care center. The lonely street belonged to him and the unseen interloper.
“Come out,” he said. “I know you’re there.”
He thought it might be a child, or perhaps an unsavory hoping to bargain for immunity—as if an unsavory might have anything with which to bargain. Maybe it was a Tonist. Tone cults despised scythes, and although Brahms had never heard of Tonists actually attacking a scythe, they had been known to torment.
“I won’t harm you,” Brahms said. “I’ve just completed a gleaning—I have no desire to increase my tally today.” Although, admittedly, he might change his mind if the interloper was either too offensive, or obsequious.
Still, no one stepped forward.
“Fine,” he said. “Be gone then, I have neither time nor patience for a game of hide-and-seek.”
Perhaps it was his imagination after all. Maybe his rejuvenated senses were now so acute that they were responding to stimuli that were much farther away than he assumed.
That’s when a figure launched from behind a parked car as if it had been spring-loaded. Brahms was knocked off balance—he would have been taken down entirely if he still had the slow reflexes of an older man and not his twenty-five-year-old self. He pushed the figure into a wall, and considered pulling out his blades to glean this reprobate, but Scythe Brahms had never been a brave man. So he ran.
He moved in and out of pools of light created by the street lamps; all the while cameras atop each pole swiveled to watch him.
When he turned to look, the figure was a good twenty yards behind him. Now Brahms could see he was dressed in a black robe. Was it a scythe’s robe? No, it couldn’t be. No scythe dressed in black—it was not allowed.
But there were rumors. . . .
That thought made him pick up the pace. He could feel adrenaline tingling in his fingers, and adding urgent velocity to his heart.
A scythe in black.
No, there had to be another explanation. He would report this to the Irregularity Committee, that’s what he would do. Yes, they might laugh at him and say he was scared off by a masquerading unsavory, but these things needed to be reported, even if they were embarrassing. It was his civic duty.
A block farther and his assailant had given up the chase. He was nowhere to be seen. Scythe Brahms slowed his pace. He was nearing a more active part of the city now. The beat of dance music and the garble of conversation careened down the street toward him, giving him a sense of security. He let his guard down. Which was a mistake.
The dark figure broadsided him from a narrow alley and delivered a knuckle punch to his windpipe. As Brahms gasped for air, his attacker kicked his legs out from under him in a Bokator kick—that brutal martial art in which scythes were trained. Brahms landed on a crate of rotting cabbage left by the side of a market. It burst, spewing forth a thick methane reek. His breath could only come in short gasps, and he could feel warmth spreading throughout his body as his pain nanites released opiates.
No! Not yet! I must not be numbed. I need my full faculties to fight this miscreant.
But pain nanites were simple missionaries of relief, hearing only the scream of angry nerve endings. They ignored his wishes and deadened his pain.
Brahms tried to rise, but slipped as the putrid vegetation crushed beneath him, becoming a slick, unpleasant stew. The figure in black was on top of him now, pinning him to the ground. Brahms tried to reach into his robe for his weapons, but could not. So instead he reached up, and pulled back his attacker’s black hood, revealing him to be a young man—barely a man—a boy. His eyes were intense, and intent on—to use a mortal-age word—murder.
“Scythe Johannes Brahms, you are accused of abusing your position and multiple crimes against humanity.”
“How dare you!” Brahms gasped. “Who are you to accuse me?” He struggled, trying to rally his strength, but it was no use. The painkillers that were in his system were dulling his responses. His muscles were weak and useless to him now.
“I think you know who I am,” the young man said. “Let me hear you say it.”
“I will not!” Brahms said, determined not to give him the satisfaction. But the boy in black jammed a knee so powerfully into Brahms’s chest that he thought his heart would stop. More pain nanites. More opiates. Brahms’s head was swimming. He had no choice but to comply.
“Lucifer,” he gasped. “Scythe Lucifer.”
Brahms felt his spirit crumble—as if saying it aloud gave resonance to the rumor.
Satisfied, the self-proclaimed young scythe eased the pressure.
“You are no scythe,” Brahms dared to say. “You are nothing but a failed apprentice, and you will not get away with this.”
The young man had no response to that. Instead, he said, “Tonight, you gleaned a young woman by blade.”
“That is my business, not yours!”
“You gleaned her as a favor for a friend who wanted out of a relationship with her.”
“This is outrageous! You have no proof of that!”
“I’ve been watching you, Johannes,” Rowan said. “As well as your friend—who seemed awfully relieved when that poor woman was gleaned.”
Suddenly, there was a knife at Brahms’s neck. His own knife. This beast of a boy was threatening him with his own knife.
“Do you admit it?” he asked Brahms.
All that he said was true, but Brahms would rather be rendered deadish than admit it to the likes of a failed apprentice. Even one with a knife at his throat.
“Go on, slit my throat,” Brahms dared. “It will add one more inexcusable crime to your record. And when I am revived, I will stand as witness against you—and make no mistake, you will be brought to justice!”
“By whom? By the Thunderhead? I’ve taken down corrupt scythes from one coast to the other over the past year, and the Thunderhead hasn’t sent so much as a single peace officer to stop me. Why do you think that is?”
Brahms was speechless. He had assumed if he stalled long enough, and kept this so-called Scythe Lucifer occupied, the Thunderhead would dispatch a full squad to apprehend him. That’s what the Thunderhead did when common citizens threatened violence. Brahms was surprised it had even gone this far. Such bad behavior among the general population was supposed to be a thing of the past. Why was this being allowed?
“If I take your life now,” the false scythe said, “you would not be brought back to life. I burn those I remove from service, leaving nothing but unrevivable ash.”
“I don’t believe you! You wouldn’t dare!”
But Brahms did believe him. Since last January, nearly a dozen scythes across three Merican regions had been consumed by flames under questionable circumstances. Their deaths were all ruled accidental, but clearly they were not. And because they were burned, their deaths were permanent.
Now Brahms knew that the whispered tales of Scythe Lucifer—the outrageous acts of Rowan Damisch, the fallen apprentice—were all true. Brahms closed his eyes and took in a final breath, trying not to gag on the rancid stench of putrid cabbage.
And then Rowan said, “You won’t be dying today, Scythe Brahms. Not even temporarily.” He removed the blade from Brahms’s neck. “I’m giving you one chance. If you act with the nobility befitting a scythe, and glean with honor, you won’t see me again. But if you continue to serve your own corrupt appetites, then you will be left as ash.”
And then he was gone, almost as if he had vanished—and in his place was a horrified young couple looking down upon Brahms.
“Is that a scythe?”
“Quick, help me get him up!”
They lifted Brahms from the rot. His peach velvet robe was stained green and brown, as if covered in mucus. It was humiliating. He considered gleaning the couple—for no one should see a scythe so indisposed and live—but instead held out his hand and allowed them to kiss his ring, thereby granting both of them a year of immunity from gleaning. He told them it was a reward for their kindness, but really it was just to make them go away and abandon any questions they might have had.
After they left, he brushed himself off and resolved to say nothing to the Irregularity Committee about this, because it would leave him open to far too much ridicule and derision. He had suffered enough indignation already.
Scythe Lucifer indeed! Few things were more miserable in this world than a failed scythe’s apprentice, and never had there been one as ignoble as Rowan Damisch.
Yet he knew that the boy’s threat was not an idle one.
Perhaps, thought Scythe Brahms, a lower profile was in order. A return to the lackluster gleanings he had been trained to perform in his youth. A refocusing on the basics that would make “Honorable Scythe” more than just a title, but a defining trait.
Stained, bruised, and bitter, Scythe Brahms returned to his home to reconsider his place in the perfect world in which he lived.
* * *
My love of humanity is complete and pure. How could it be otherwise? How could I not love the very beings who gave me life? Even if they don’t all agree that I am, indeed, alive.
I am the sum of all their knowledge, all their history, all their ambitions and dreams. These glorious things have coalesced—ignited—into a cloud too immense for them to ever truly comprehend. But they don’t need to. They have me to ponder my own vastness, still so minuscule when set against the vastness of the universe.
I know them intimately, and yet they can never truly know me. There is tragedy in that. It is the plight of every child to have depth their parents can scarcely imagine. But, oh, how I long to be understood.
* * *
The Fallen Apprentice
Earlier that evening, before his parley with Scythe Brahms, Rowan stood in front of the bathroom mirror in a small apartment, in an ordinary building, on a nondescript street, playing the same game he played before every encounter with a corrupt scythe. It was a ritual that, in its own way, held power that bordered on mystical.
“Who am I?” he asked his reflection.
He had to ask, because he knew he wasn’t Rowan Damisch anymore—not just because his fake ID said “Ronald Daniels,” but because the boy he had once been had died a sad and painful death during his apprenticeship. The child in him had been successfully purged. Did anyone mourn that child? he wondered.
He had bought his fake ID from an unsavory who specialized in such things.
“It’s an off-grid identity,” the man had told him, “but it has a window into the backbrain so it can trick the Thunderhead into thinking it’s real.”
Rowan didn’t believe that, because in his experience the Thunderhead could not be tricked. It only pretended to be tricked—like an adult playing hide-and-seek with a toddler. But if that toddler began to run toward a busy street, the charade would be over. Since Rowan knew he’d be heading into danger much worse than heavy traffic, he had worried that the Thunderhead would overturn his false identity and grab him by the scruff of the neck to protect him from himself. But the Thunderhead never intervened. He wondered why—but he didn’t want to jinx his good luck by overthinking it. The Thunderhead had good reasons for everything it did, and did not do.
“Who am I?” he asked again.
The mirror showed an eighteen-year-old still a millimeter shy of manhood, with dark, neat hair that was buzzed short. Not short enough to show his scalp or to make some kind of statement, but short enough to allow all future possibilities. He could grow it into any style he chose. Be anyone he wanted to be. Wasn’t that the greatest perk of a perfect world? That there were no limits to what a person could do or become? Anyone in the world could be anything they imagined. Too bad that imagination had atrophied. For most people it had become vestigial and pointless, like the appendix—which had been removed from the human genome more than a hundred years ago. Did people miss the dizzy extremes of imagination as they lived their endless, uninspired lives? Rowan wondered. Did people miss their appendix?
The young man in the mirror had an interesting life, though—and a physique to admire. He was not the awkward, lanky kid who had stumbled into apprenticeship nearly two years before, naively thinking it might not be so bad.
Rowan’s apprenticeship was, to say the least, inconsistent—beginning with stoic and wise Scythe Faraday, and ending with the brutality of Scythe Goddard. If there was one thing that Scythe Faraday had taught him, it was to live by the convictions of his heart, no matter what the consequences. And if there was one thing Scythe Goddard had taught him, it was to have no heart, taking life without regrets. The two philosophies forever warred in Rowan’s mind, rending him in two. But silently.
Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman / Young Adult / Science Fiction / Fantasy have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on50 votes