Standing on the hill overlooking the city, Sera checked her watch. The emergency alert system had sounded nearly an hour before this morning’s new had predicted. Her grip tightened on the picnic basket handle.
“How are we supposed to take the alarms seriously, when they sound all the time?” Belle tightened her hold on the daughter in her arms and reached for her oldest girl, Cat.
Standing protectively over his nephew, Harlan scanned the white and green city five blocks away. “Hey, I’m sure the girls will enjoy eating our picnic in the shelters.”
“Come on.” Sera led them down the path toward the city. No one panicked in Dark Hope. They depended on the technology to take care of them, keep them safe. And it did. But soon it wouldn’t be enough. A traitor lurked on the clean streets.
“Citizens of Dark Hope.” A feminine voice boomed out of speakers hidden under the LED gumdrop lamps in the park’s walkway. “This is not a drill. Please listen to the following instructions for your continued safety and well-being.”
Below the hill, the people on the streets of the city began neatly filing indoors.
Maneuvering Cat in front of her, Belle moved close to her brother. “Is it the ‘Viders?”
Sera shuddered. She’d met the ‘Viders once, been their tribute. The cannibals and their brutal ways still haunted her nightmares.
“No. They’re far away.” Pushing the stroller with one hand, Harlan set his other on the small of his sister’s back.
Looking over her shoulder, Belle quickened her pace. “But they never found North.”
“Sire is coming?” Cat stumbled as they walked off the path into the grass. “I can’t wait to show him my room.”
Belle cleared her throat and blinked rapidly.
North was Belle’s owner-slash-husband, father of her children and second-in-command of the now dead ‘Viders. The few survivors she and Harlan had rescued claimed the couple shared real affection.
Sera bit her tongue. How could anyone love a cannibal? Especially one who killed your parents and brother then forced you to weave their scalped hair into clothing?
The Security Forces hadn’t found any trace of the ‘Vider leaders in the twenty-four hours since the clan had been poisoned and died. God forgive her, she hoped they never did.
“Not your father, sweetie.” Sera settled the basket into the crook of her arm and reached for Cat’s free hand. The white stuccoed restrooms shimmered in the warm sunshine a hundred feet away. “The alarm is about the radiation.”
The five-year old turned her face to the sky. “Radiation?” She dragged out the word as if testing it. “Do people fear Rad’ation?”
“Yes.” Smart people knew that the deadliest things could be unseen. Like radiation, like the one-two punch of a virus and bacteria that nearly wiped out all life on Earth over a hundred years ago. Deadly things worked without anyone noticing. Like the traitor sabotaging Dark Hope by providing weapons to the Outlanders.
Just how many deadly stun-guns had made it into enemy hands?
Cat nodded and her long black braids slapped her thin shoulders. “I’m gonna call my daughter Rad’ation then.”
“Cat, we don’t—” Belle stumbled.
The emergency alert siren wailed again, drowning her words.
Harlan set two hands on the stroller and shoved it over the grass. He waited for the alarm to fade before speaking. “Why don’t they just tell us what is going on instead of deafening us with that racket?”
“Studies have shown, citizens pay more attention to information after three attention gathering warnings.” Sera smiled. Harlan stated the obvious, but unfortunately studies had proven otherwise. Dark Hope was big on studies. Everything had to be examined in minute detail before any action could be considered. Ditto with the course of action.
The process nearly drove her mad.
“Citizens of Dark Hope.” A voice boomed out of speakers hidden under the LED lamps clinging to the restroom walls. The lights flickered to red with the end of the second alarm. “This is not a drill. Please listen to the following instructions for your continued safety and well-being.”
Harlan stuck a finger in his ear and wiggled it. “I don’t suppose they could just get to the message for those of us who are paying attention.”
“It’s a computer program. It doesn’t know who’s paying attention.” Sera motioned to the utility door at the far end of the rectangular building. “That’s our entrance.”
“At least, we still have our lunches.” Belle raised her voice despite the silence then blushed. “Sorry. I don’t think I can handle being this close to the alarms. They’re very loud.”
And they’ll be louder standing under them. Checking the biometric pad next to the jamb, Sera spotted the green light and twisted the knob. “Let’s get below.”
The door opened on silent hinges, revealing a small grated platform and stairs leading to a lower level. Cool air swirled around them and the faint hum of electronic equipment mingled with the swoosh of water in pipes. Strings of fiberoptic lights twinkled red and white along the ivory stone walls.
Belle ushered her daughter inside before they stopped on the landing. “What is this place?”
“The arteries and veins of the city.” Pushing the door all the way open, Sera leaned against it. “The conduits carry electricity, water, wastes, food, crops and everything else to the processing facilities. Nothing is wasted; everything is reused, recycled or repurposed.”
Harlan maneuvered the stroller inside. “Be right back.”
“Wait!” Warm cotton fabric rasped against Sera’s fingers. Where was he going? Didn’t he hear her telling him about the radiation? Maybe he’d been too busy calculating how much gold it would cost him to see Ms. McAdams’s enormous breasts.
He had far too much gold.
He dashed across the grass just as the third siren split the air.
The infant inside the stroller scrunched up his nose. His face turned red then he screeched.
Ears ringing, Sera eased the door closed. The thick stone muffled the outside alarms, but not the tiny human one.
“I can’t wait until you teach him not to cry.” Cat slipped free and climbed onto the railing surrounding the platform.
Looking at Sera, Belle adjusted her hold on her three-year old daughter, who buried her face in her mother’s neck. “Would you mind?”
“Uh.” Sera glanced at the squalling baby. So small and fragile. Only a few days old. Wracking her memories for anything useful from her child development class, she strummed her bottom lip through her teeth and set the picnic basket down. She wiped her damp palms on her slacks. She could do this. She’d had the training. Of course it was her only B. Ever.
Fists flailing, baby John bonked himself on the cheek and screamed louder.
Belle shifted closer. Her lips twitched. “Do you want to take Soledad, and I’ll take John?”
“No, I can do it.” Sera’s fingers twitched. This was silly. She’d had all the classes, even read a few extra books on child rearing. She slid her hand along the blanket. Tiny feet kicked her forearms. Cupping his bottom, she cradled his head and lifted.
Arms and legs splayed to the side. The babe’s blue eyes narrowed, and he sucked in a quivering breath.
Sera’s lungs seized. Such determination, such irritation. “He reminds me of your brother.”
Belle squinted at her son. “How so?”
Baby John drew his arms and legs against his body and yelled.
Sera’s eyes nearly rolled back in her head. She swung the baby gently up and down. “They’re both grouchy when they don’t get their way.”
The door opened. The drone of the fading siren ushered in Harlan. Two bulging green napkins hung from each hand. After kicking the door shut, he jerked to a stop at the sight of her. “Like all men, he’ll be happier close to your chest, Peaches.”
Heat seared Sera’s cheeks. The man had a fascination with breasts. She swung the infant and he hiccoughed.
Setting the bulging napkins on the basket, Harlan eased the baby against her torso. His fingers caressed her neck before he swept her hair over her shoulders. “Feeling safe is often a full-contact sport.”
Baby John snuffled against her peach shirt, leaving wet marks behind. His hands opened and closed against her chest.
Unfortunately, he didn’t scream.
Once more experience outweighed book knowledge. Sera’s sigh ruffled the fluffy hair on the infant’s head. At least, it explained why she kept Harlan around.
“Citizens of Dark Hope.” A voice boomed out of the tunnels Public Address system. “This is not a drill. Please listen to the following instructions for your continued safety and well-being.”
“I’m really beginning to find that voice annoying.” Harlan set the basket in the stroller then added his extra bundles. Gingerbread men spilled across the seat.
Sera’s stomach growled. She really wanted a cookie but didn’t dare let go, least she drop the baby. “Come on. We need to show Belle the way to the approved shelter, check in and then make our escape.”
Cat descended the stairs, pausing to place two feet on each riser.
“We’re escaping?” Clasping the stroller, Harlan lifted it. His muscles rippled under his shirt as he clomped down the metal staircase.
Resting her elbow against the cool tubular railing, Sera slowly followed. The view from behind descending the stairs couldn’t beat the one when he climbed in front of her. Of course, she wasn’t so crass as to offer to pay him to view his gluteus maximus. “Yes, we’re escaping. You promised to help me find the traitor, remember?”
She accidentally kneed him in the behind. The jerk had better not go back on his word.
He glanced over his shoulder. “I remember. But I didn’t plan for our getaway, Peaches.”
At the bottom of the steps, Belle tapped her foot. “Really, Harry, do you think you’re the only one who can plan things?”
“Yep. Especially, if I want them to succeed.” He dropped the stroller with a thump and scooped up a cookie. “Neither of you thought to rescue these from the big, bad radiation.” He tore off a head and chewed. “Now, we’ll have sustenance on our journey into the Outlands.”
“Do you really think we need such a big basket of food for a picnic?” Belle caught her daughter’s hand before she snatched up a cookie. “Don’t spoil your appetite.”
“They’ll have food stores laid in at the shelter.” Sera gestured to the hallway directly in front of them. “Straight ahead and second tunnel on the right.”
“Citizens, our satellites have detected dangerous levels of solar radiation penetrating the weakened magnetic field directly overhead. Cancer risk is high. Please report to the nearest shelter and check in. Security personnel please stand by for a list of unaccounted citizens near your station.”
Harlan snorted. “That’s the danger? Cancer? Everyone gets cancer.”
“Not everyone needs to. The shelters reduce everyone’s exposure and minimizes the risk.” Wet seeped through Sera’s shirt. The infant’s face scrunched up as he suckled. Baby John was hungry.
“Not everyone, Peaches.” Harlan turned the cookie in his hand and held up an unbitten leg to her lips. “I don’t think the folks in the Outlands got the message.”
The cookie turned to ash in Sera’s mouth. No, the folks outside of the Consortium of cities like Dark Hope, lived in primitive conditions and under the steel boot of thugs. She’d gone there to document the Outlanders’ humanity before stumbling onto the weapons smuggling operation and Harlan.
She’d returned without finishing her documentary or finding the traitor. But she still had Harlan. She slogged toward the muffled voices. Or maybe she only rented him.
Harlan nudged her shoulder as they rounded the corner. “We can warn folks on the outside once we escape.”
Sera opened her mouth and closed it. The embassy in Abaddon had radios that could pick up the warning. Maybe her uncle wouldn’t notice a few of the radios missing. Ideas whirled inside her head. With Harlan’s help, she could actually visit more of the villages, document their oppression and willingness to help.
“Sera, dear, we were looking for you.” Ms. McAdams waved from beside the closed door. Her jaw opened just a little at the sight of baby. “Oh, you look so natural with that child in your arms. Why it won’t be long now, until you hold the next generation of natural-born Dark Hope citizen. You are nearly thirty, aren’t you?”
Oh, good gravy. Sera’s skin flamed red. The head of the busy-body club was warning Harlan away. She had to get him out of here before things got out of hand.
“Thirty?” Harlan choked on a cookie, spraying crumbs over Ms. McAdams pristine emerald tunic.
Ms. McAdams brushed them off her massive chest, flicked them in Harlan’s direction, then slowly polished her brooch. “The Tahomas don’t have children before then. Or get married. It simply isn’t done.”
“Thank you for your worry, but as you can see we’re fine. Just a little hungry.” Her deflection fell short as Harlan and Ms. McAdams stared each other down. Juggling the baby with one hand, Sera pressed her palm to the biometric key. She stepped between the two. “Belle, if you and the children will just set your hand on the black box, you’ll be accounted for.”
People filled the gathering room beyond the double doors. Some gathered around tables and talked. Others watched their favorite programs on the holographic projections. More sat around square cubes and opened up the game menus.
Belle hustled forward. Her gaze darted from her brother to the older woman. “I do hope there’s food. The children are very hungry.”
“Can I have a cookie later?” Cat set her small hand on the display.
“Yes, of course.” Belle tugged the stroller out of her brother’s grip. “Harry, check in.”
“Thought Dark Hope was about freedom, not mindless obedience to someone else’s opinion.” Harlan skimmed his fingers across Sera’s back. Instead of stepping forward, he leaned over her and placed his palm on the black box. “Perhaps I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in Backward Podunkville run by a bitter old crone.”
A wall of solid muscle crowded Sera forward.
Ms. McAdams stiffened, and crimson suffused her square jaw. “Well! I never!”
“You have. You forgot a couple of minutes ago in the park.” Stepping to the side, Harlan bent down and kissed his nephew on the head.
His warm breath cascaded down Sera’s front. Her insides tightened. He was deliberately being impossible. Sure, he’d been provoked but still…
“Belle, we’ll go to the family room so we can rest a little without worrying about the children.” Sera gestured to the door across from the community room.
Baby John let out a soft cry.
Harlan wrapped his arm around her shoulder and guided her after his sister. “I think we had better see to feeding him, don’t you?”
He blew past Ms. McAdams like dried leaves.
Still purple from indignation, the woman fanned herself and collapsed against the door. “My son is over in the corner, Sera. Call if you need assistance in taking out the trash.”
Harlan’s grip tightened.
“Just ignore her. Please.” God. When had the people of Dark Hope become such snobs? When had some started to matter more than others?
Belle and her daughters headed for the first door.
“The second one.” Sera cleared her throat. “The private rooms on the sides are the first to fill.”
He clucked the baby under his wet chin. “Relax, Peaches. I’ve seen the competition and it ain’t impressive. I bet old pasty boy doesn’t have an ounce of gold on him.”
She jabbed him in the gut. “I am not for sale.”
Releasing her, he rubbed his flat stomach then opened the door. “No, but you’ll be begging me to share my…cookies later.”
Sera rolled her eyes. He’d be the one begging once he’d seen how she’d prepared their escape. “They’re not your cookies. They belong to everyone.”
“Come here, sweet boy.” Belle took her son as soon as Sera entered.
In the small room, Sol lay curled up on the top bunk bed, sucking her thumb. Her eyes fluttered close. Cat sat next to her sister, swinging her legs and walking two gingerbread men across the rumpled blanket.
Harlan wiggled his fingers at Ms. McAdams as he closed the door. Turning, he surveyed the room. His grin faded “I hope your grand escape plan doesn’t include me charming the guard at the gate. I don’t have that much gold on me so I may have to resort to tactics that neither of us want.”
He closed his eyes and shuddered.
Sera snorted. How did he and his ego fit in the known universe? “Keep your charms to yourself.” She flicked open the picnic basket. Blue filled the left side. She tugged out the backpack. The worn canvas caught on the side and ripped an inch. “Damn.”
Harlan poked his finger though the tear. “It’s not so bad.”
“Stop that.” She pulled his finger out before he widened the opening. This was her prize backpack. The carabineers clinked together. She shrugged into the harness and fastened the straps under her breasts.
He lifted the other lid and sorted the square sandwiches wrapped in aluminum foil. Unwrapping one side, he handed it to his niece, Cat. “So what is the escape plan?”
Sera handed him the fattest sandwich, gave one to his sister then set one aside for the sleeping girl. “We sneak out.”
Ripping a bite off his sandwich, Harlan eased the door open a crack and peered out. He shut it with a click then swiped a blob of mayonnaise clinging to his chin and pushed it into his mouth. “She called in reinforcements. So unless you’re gonna let me stun ’em with one of your fancy guns, we ain’t going anywhere.”
“Have a little faith.” Crossing the square room, Sera sidestepped his sister’s legs to reach the wall of shelving. She ran her fingers under the waist-high shelf until she found a latch. With a click, the unit slid forward. Water dripped in the darkness. She reached around the side and flicked a switch. Lights blinked on, pushing deep into the tunnel.
“That’s so neat.” Cat leapt off the top bunk and landed silently on her bare feet. “Where does it go?”
“To the suburbs.” Sera inhaled the dank, cold air. Memories stirred in her head. Stifling family obligations and duties and this—the pathway to freedom, where she mattered no more than anyone else. Where people told new and exciting stories. Where they didn’t expect anything.
And she hadn’t yet let them down.
Munching on her sandwich, Cat stepped forward.
Harlan reeled her back. Crouching, he looked her in the eye. “You can’t go this time, but you can help.”
The little girl thrust her jaw forward. “I want to play.”
“And you will. Didn’t you see all those kids out there?” He jerked his thumb toward the door.
Cat’s green eyes narrowed. Nodding, she took another bite, tilted her head and chewed.
Sera rubbed the goosebumps from her arms. The cunning in that look belonged to jungle cats she’d once seen.
“Well, I bet they’d just love some cookies and a game of Tag in the corridor.” Harlan pulled two napkins brimming with gingerbread men out of the stroller.
Cat hooked her finger through the knotted fabric. “What’s Tag?”
Perched on the bottom bunk, Belle adjusted a blanket over her nursing son. “Chase the Tribute. But with hands only, no weapons. And absolutely, no bloodshed.”
Sera sucked in a deep breath. Good God. How young did the cannibals train their children in the ‘Vider way? And how could Dark Hope defeat such brutality without sacrificing the peaceful foundation of their entire civilization?
Cat pursed her lips then shrugged. “Okay.”
Adjusting the baby over her shoulder, Belle patted his back until he burped. “You two go ahead. Do what you have to do. Just…” She clasped her brother’s hand and held tight. “Just be safe. I don’t want to lose you now.”
A hard knot formed in Sera’s chest. There was always a desperation when Outlander families touched. Her family’s gentle affection seemed lacking by comparison.
“Nothing’s going to happen.” Harlan patted his pants pocket. “I’ve got my lucky charm.”
Belle’s attention cut to Sera. “Yes, you do.”
“I’ll take care of him.” Sera tousled Cat’s hair. “Thanks for helping.”
The little girl took out the second half of her sandwich before tossing her foil down the rubbish chute. “When your baby comes, I want to name him.”
Belle chuckled and looked away.
Sera choked on her bite of egg salad and stumbled into the tunnel. Water dripped from the cut rock tunnel ceiling. A fine mesh caught the droplets and funneled them to side channels for processing at the treatment plant.
Harlan’s laughter followed her in. “Can we call him Rad for short?”
“No, Uncle. Radiation is a girl’s name.”
Still chuckling, he eased the shelf closed behind him. His footfalls sounded softly on the hard ground. Finishing his lunch, he licked his foil wrapper before carefully folding it and stuffing it into his pocket. “You thinking of including my niece naming our son in your breeder’s price? Should be worth an extra ounce or two, but I think your mom won’t like it.”
“You can’t pay me to carry your child.” Sera handed him the remains of her sandwich and swallowed the wad in her throat. One day, she’d shock the boots right off him and name a price. It would be worth it to see the look on his face.
It might just be worth it.
He carefully wrapped the sandwich in foil and tucked it into her backpack. “That’s right. I have to wait… How many years until you’re thirty?”
“Three.” Deflect the questions. Change the topic. She clasped her trembling hands together and hurried down the tunnel. “And you?”
“One. Give or take.” He held up his index finger. Scabs and red skin marred his knuckles. Black tattoos peeked out from under the cuff of his homespun shirt. More inky swirls climbed his throat and flirted with the white scars webbing his jaw. “We can split the difference and make it two.”
Change the subject. Now. “We’re not negotiating.”
He tugged on her pack then dangled a faceless human shape in front of her. “Cookie?”
She reached for it then pulled back. “What will it cost me?”
“One truthful answer.”
Don’t do it. You can’t let anyone know. She grabbed the cookie and bit off its head.
He smiled and devoured his own snack.
Stomach cramping, she followed the lights around a curve. Metal crates rusted along the sides of the tunnel. Discarded weapons formed bristly art heaps of decay. Why didn’t he ask already?
He licked the crumbs from his lips before winking at her. “Ready?”
“You promised to answer truthfully.”
Oh God, just get it over with. “Ask.”
He clamped his lips together then sighed. “Alright then… I’m dying to know… And you promised to tell me… What is this place? Is it like the Dark Hope dungeon for bad little smarty pants? Or is this where all the naughty kids go to shed your ever clean uniforms and run naked through the tunnels?”
He hadn’t asked. Her knees wobbled. Just a bit. She stayed upright. “This is part of the original Dark Hope gold mine. During the radiation part of the Redaction, my ancestors lived here.”
He stumbled. “Your ancestors lived in a gold mine. But your people hate gold, practically run screaming into the night, simply hearing the word.”
Sera shook her head. Either he hadn’t watched the orientation videos on Dark Hope and her sister cities, or he’d not been paying attention. Probably a little of both. “The community was just getting started when a man named Gavin Neville and his cronies discovered a gold vein. They nearly collapsed the mine and killed everyone living inside it, to get the gold.”
Harlan scratched the stubble on his chin. “The Nevilles that live in Sanctuary where the weapons had been dropped?”
“Those are his descendants. And Gavin swore his children would return to wipe out Dark Hope once and for all.”
“Pity the ‘Viders didn’t wipe out the town before someone poisoned them.”
A chill ran down her spine. Death couldn’t be the only solution, could it?
They slowed as they approached a room tunneled into the rock. Rats nested in a decaying mattress, poked their twitching noses from rotting boxes, then disappeared with a whip of their pale tails.
“I’m glad it wasn’t destroyed. It’s not a bad place to live.”
She shuddered as a few rodents waddled into the tunnel. “The Dawson quarters, dining hall and first cabinet meeting rooms are carefully preserved. Many of the old bedrooms are available, if you want to spend the night.”
She clamped her hand over her mouth. Geez, her subconscious must be working overtime for her to leave herself wide open. A heartbeat passed then another.
“You know some smarty pants traitor could make a nice pile of gold by selling off these beauties.” He ran his hand down the barrel of an M-4 then yanked it back. Blood beaded in the cut on his palm.
“He wouldn’t make much.” She caught his hand before he sucked on the cut. Stopping in a puddle of light, she held it up. No visible splinter. Good thing she’d insisted he get a tetanus shot. “Nearly everyone who came in those first years had weapons. The cabinet wanted to confiscate them, but the people weren’t willing.”
“Did they force them?”
“No, although some folks wanted to.” She dipped his hand into the water channel and rinsed out the cut. Cold water stung her fingers. “Most people didn’t have any bullets left anyway. So the guns were pretty much useless.” She angled her body so he could see her backpack. “Get the first aid kit. It’s in the right side pocket.”
“The guns would make effective clubs.” His thumb skimmed her ribs.
Her breath caught in her throat, but she kept her attention on the wound. Any moment now, he’d want to open negotiations. Any moment… White flashed in her peripheral vision. The first aid kit.
“Need anything else, while I’m inside your pack?”
“No.” After shaking the water off her hands, she dried them on her pants then accepted the kit. She jumped when it popped open. Any minute now, he’d start up. Any minute.
“So how did they acquire such a large collection of weapons if no one wanted to give them up?”
“After a while, people realized that the fight for survival no longer involved guns but brains, determination and cooperation.” They seemed to have forgotten the cooperation part, but she’d fix that after she dealt with the traitor. She set the kit on an old munitions box and pulled out an antibiotic wipe. Tearing open the packet, she ran it in long swipes across the hills and valley of his palm. The white pad quickly turned pink.
“Your people will need to unlearn that lesson if you expect to triumph over the ‘Viders. They only speak violence and death.”
“And you need to remain still if you expect to live.” A man called out.
Sera’s heart stopped when she turned. A dozen men in black face masks trained shiny stun-guns on her and Harlan.