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The sun shone brightly on the train depot. No trash gathered along the bases of the four-story buildings. No graffiti marred the white paint coating the cement walls. Shrubs flourished in manicured shapes. Grass grew to a regimental height. Even the towering pines seemed to shed their needles into trash receptacles.
Dark Hope was as perfect as Nattie remembered.
Only, she no longer fit.
Sure, the doctors had lasered her scars, and the dentists had replaced her rotten teeth with shiny white implants, but nothing could fix the rot deep inside her.
Rot she had nurtured.
The line slowed to a stop and the Mag-Lev doors eased silently open. Medical personnel rushed out, accompanied by the thump of wheels. Small bundles shook and moaned atop the gurneys. Pinch-faced parents chased after the nurses, orderlies, and patients. Words of encouragement and hope came from the folks in homespun clothing waiting in line.
Nattie alone remained silent. Cheeks burning, she stared at the flagstone under her feet. A crack ran along the reddish stone, heading toward the train. It was best that she leave. She should never have come home again.
She no longer belonged.
Maybe she never had.
Outbound doctors, nurses, and orderlies waved to the line as they rushed on board. The Outlanders applauded some and gave a shout-out to others. Former patients with bands on their wrists tossed flowers. The medical personnel stooped to collect them. Orderlies bent and gathered stray leaves, tossing them in the compost collectors before boarding the train.
The line surged forward.
Cool air wafted from the cars, teasing her exposed ankles. Yellow cranes hummed as they lifted food rations, extra clothing, and medical supplies from the warehouses and loaded them on the West-bound train. Just a little farther… Ten meters then she would leave this world behind.
Forever this time.
She pinched cold plastic between her thumb and index finger. The clip of her ID badge held firm for a moment then gave under the pressure. Her photograph stared back at her. Short, white hair, wrinkles pleating her tanned skin, over-bright false teeth. So different from her last ID. She stuffed it into her pack.
The lights inside the train car blinked as she stepped on board. No Outlanders paid any attention, but Dark Hope citizens did. They pressed against the windows to watch the solar radiation dance in sickly green waves across the magnetic bubble around the city. Through the tinted glass, she noted the line of dying vegetation where the protection ended.
Not even Dark Hope, with its great technological advances, could save everything.
But folks like Nattie could save the city of her birth.
Her nose pricked with unshed tears. She scrubbed her hand down her face. It wasn’t like her to be maudlin. Alone, she walked down the aisle, heading for the private compartments.
People quickly filled the plush, high-backed chairs on both sides. Children gripped stuffed animals, gifts from Dark Hope citizens. The toys’ brown eyes shone brightly, the fur stood up proudly. Mothers and fathers talked of the future, sparkling on the horizon. They bandied about words like school, education, and freedom. Young men and women held hands in isolated corners, an unthinkable act six months ago when the Breeder Laws were in effect.
With all the new changes, did they feel out of place, too?
Nattie shoved open the door connecting two cars.
People filled the seats, leaving only one or two unoccupied on either side.
Near the opposite end, a husky man stood, grinning down at someone hidden by the seat. Sunlight glinted on the gray striping his sandy hair at the temples. Brantlee Neville.
She stumbled, caught herself on the seat back, and apologized to the elderly occupant for disturbing him. Swearing inside her head, Nattie steadied herself. She should have realized she wouldn’t be able to leave without seeing someone she knew.
Lee glanced up. His hazel eyes locked with hers. With a smile curving his lips, he waved her over.
Nattie gritted her teeth. Social niceties were harder without a rock in her hand. Adjusting her hold on the pack, she threaded a path through the aisle.
A few doctors nodded at her. More nurses acknowledged her—a prodigy of Dark Hope, lost then restored to them. She was no longer the elitist snob, believing that humanity had evolved into something better. She knew the darkness lurking inside the most privileged, educated, and pampered of them. Fortunately, none engaged her in conversation.
She stopped next to Neville’s seat just as the doors slid closed. Widening her stance, she swayed as the train glided forward. The knife in her boot pressed against her shin. The weight was familiar but alien. “Neville.”
Neville pointed to the empty seat in the row of three chairs. “You’re welcome to keep Sammy and I company on the ride to Abaddon.”
All eyes, knees, and elbows, a pixie child glanced at Nattie from behind a curtain of dark hair. A white band on her bony wrist gave away her recent illness.
“Are you well now?” Images replayed inside Nattie’s head. Faces that would never be seen again because she’d met them. Her stomach cramped. So much killing to atone for.
“They cured me of the leu-Leukemia.” The little girl, Sammy, nodded then tucked her face into the crook of her arm.
She was smart to fear Nattie. Others might still be alive if they had feared her ‘Vider family. Feared her. Nattie’s attention cut to Neville. “Are you returning to Sanctuary?”
He, too, had blood on his hands. Of course, he’d killed to stay in power and save the life of his granddaughter. Many thought that was acceptable. Perhaps he could return to his hometown.
Neville nodded then shook his head. “Dawson drafted me as liaison between Sanctuary and Tricity. He wants us all under the Dark Hope umbrella before the ‘Viders show up.”
“Probably a good idea.” Of course, if no one faced the cannibals in battle, the gathering of so many people would just be that much more meat in one location. Still…
Dawson, Dark Hope’s Security Chief and her childhood friend, hadn’t stopped tilting at windmills. He believed the descendants of those who attempted to kill his ancestors could be redeemed.
Some folks were beyond redemption.
Neville adjusted his tunic over his paunch. “Sammy and I will be staying in Abaddon. We’d be pleased if you would call upon us.”
Sammy’s nose scrunched.
“I’m afraid I have to pass.” Nattie ruffled the girl’s hair. The little one wanted Nattie to visit as much as she wished to invite the boogeyman to tea. The boogeyman was safer company.
Neville’s hazel eyes darted left then right. He dropped his voice. “Are you on a mission for the old man?”
“For everyone.” She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, barely. The man was from a village descended from actors—all of them bad.
Neville puffed up his barrel chest. “You know where to find me, if you need me.”
“I appreciate the offer, but raising a granddaughter is more important.” Nattie patted his hand. Fighting corrupt mayors was a far cry from taking on the ‘Viders. A person could survive the former, but not the latter. “I need to prepare.”
Leaning forward, Neville kissed her left cheek then her right. “Break a leg.”
“Thanks.” But breaking bones would be just the beginning.
Turning on her heel, she headed out the connecting doors, crossed the platform, and entered the small foyer of the private cabins. She jogged around the wall, then strode down the corridor. Bubble lights above the doors indicated all but one cabin was occupied.
She headed for the empty compartment.
Desert vistas pressed against the outside windows. A coyote with raw, bald patches on his hide stood near a scraggly piñon. On the inside, most of the cabins had blinds drawn over their indoor windows, shielding the occupants from those in the corridor. Through others, she saw men and women. Worry deepened the lines on their faces and isolated them from the healed Outlanders in the other cars.
Slowing, she approached her target. A brief walk-by revealed its empty benches. She palmed the brass knob and twisted. The door opened silently and she slipped inside. She reached for the lock then paused. A small bathroom took up space in the square room. She should check for unwanted company.
The door flew open at her approach.
She dipped and rose with her nine-inch blade in her hand.
Joseph Dawson, Security Chief of Dark Hope, stepped out. Bushy salt and pepper eyebrows hung low on his brow, like gathering storm clouds. “Didn’t figure you for a coward.”
“Didn’t figure you’d want your throat slit.” Tossing her pack on the bench, Nattie sat next to it then returned the knife to her boot.
Dawson dropped onto the cushion opposite her and folded his arms across his chest. His black uniform tunic stretched taut over his muscles. “I forgave you for leaving the first time. Your airship crashed and you were stuck with the ‘Viders. But you’re leaving of your own free will this time, and nada, nothing, zip from you.”
She stared out the window. A lump formed in her throat. Of course, he would know she planned to leave. It was his job to know. He was also concerned about her. Friendship could be the cruelest form of torture…
He sighed. “Did you at least take a radio to contact me when you find them?”
“Stop with the scattered victim act, Natasha. It’s me, Joseph. I endured too many disciplinary acts from my parents because of your antics. The ‘Viders didn’t break you. You survived.”
If only he knew…
He had to know.
Tell him. It’s the only way to convince him to leave you alone. To let you do what needs to be done. The scenery swam in the blur of tears. Her chest tightened, making every breath an effort. She had hoped to avoid him, to not lose the one good thing left in her life.
He set his hand over hers. His touch was warm, solid. The rough calluses hallmarks of a life spent as a warrior.
She had other marks, badges branded into her skin. She pulled her hand out from under his. Tell him. “I’m not Natasha. I’m Nattie.”
He pursed his lips. “Fine, Nattie. A rose by any other name.”
He didn’t understand.
She had to make him. “Natasha died when the dirigible crashed over the Great American Desert.”
She could still smell the burning flesh, feel the heat of the fire, and hear the survivors with blackened skin begging to be put out of their misery. Ice Queen Natasha Wilson had ignored them all until she found her husband—naked in the bed and arms of another woman. If his neck hadn’t already been broken, she would have killed him.
As it was, she’d had her handheld. It had been her talisman as the ship had dropped from three thousand feet to the ground. It had crushed the skull of her husband’s lover in two whacks. The woman’s blood had splashed on the screen, across Natasha’s wedding photo. Something inside her had snapped.
Nattie had been born, baptized by rage and injustice.
“Nattie?” Dawson tapped the toe of her boot like he had when they were younger.
But they were nearly fifty.
And she was far from innocent. Definitely not worth saving. She pushed up her sleeves. Vines of black tattoos climbed both arms before dropping down her back and chest. Each leaf marked a kill. She’d stopped counting at a hundred. “I was an excellent ‘Vider.”
“You did what you had to do to survive.”
She shook her head. “I enjoyed the hunt, the kill.”
It had taken away the pain eating at her, dulled the ache from knowing her friends had kept quiet about her husband’s infidelities and had pitied her.
The ‘Viders had encouraged her, cheered her on, accepted her as she was. They’d admired her skill, her prowess, and her cunning. The Head Provider had given permission for his son to claim her, train her, and focus her rage. In her twisted grief, she’d become an instrument of justice. Every infraction was a capital crime.
Dawson’s jaw thrust forward. “Are you trying to disgust me?”
She didn’t have to try; he would be before she finished. And it would be true. Every word of it.
“It won’t work, you know.” Dawson leaned back in his seat. “I’ve killed, too.”
It wasn’t a stupid contest. She ripped off her tunic. The blue tank clinging to her torso revealed most of the ink on her body. “This many times?”
“Nope. You win that pissing contest.” He shrugged. “But it’s what we did to survive.”
She chucked her tunic at him. “I enjoyed it. The warmth of their blood on my fingers. Watching the light die in their eyes.”
He snorted. “That guilt you carry is eating you up faster than the cancer.”
“I love you, too.”
He thought he knew everything. Could explain her actions away and wash her clean of the blood. But she’d bathed in it too long. It had soaked into her pores, poisoned her from the inside out. “I killed the ‘Viders in Neville’s hometown of Sanctuary. I’d found the cyanide years ago in the remains of an old farmhouse. I divided the bottle between the communal stew pots, knowing I’d kill Tribute and children, pregnant women and innocent victims. And I don’t regret it.”
Dawson yawned. “So why didn’t you kill everyone earlier?”
Why? Why? She resisted the urge to yank her white hair out by the roots. What was wrong with him? She’d just admitted to mass murder, and he looked bored.
“Want me to tell you why?”
She glared at him. “I know why. Mirabelle Westminster.”
Harlan’s sister was supposed to turn into a ‘Vider like Nattie had. She’d watched her parents die brutally for each other. Her brother had been tortured in the worst possible way in front of her. Her friends, neighbors, and relatives had been eaten one by one. She’d even been forced to weave their hair into a shirt for her owner to wear.
And still Belle hadn’t broken.
She should have broken and reformed into a ‘Vider.
Nattie had watched her, waiting for the moment that never came.
And then there was Belle’s brother. Harlan had searched for ten years without giving up. Ten years until he found her.
Nattie had checked how long Dark Hope had looked for her. Three days. Three days after the crash they found the wreckage, scanned for life signs, came up empty, then never looked again.
Of course, Dawson had returned time after time, using his family connections to hitch a ride to search for her or her body.
It was a wonder the ‘Viders hadn’t found him.
As for Harlan Westminster, he’d racked up almost as many kills as Nattie during his guerrilla war against the ‘Viders.
Fools had the damnedest luck.
“Belle Westminster.” Dawson scratched the stubble on his chin. “She needs you to help her adjust back into society.”
Nattie jerked back to the compartment. “She needs me to eliminate the ‘Vider horde, so she can raise her remaining children in safety.”
Bile soured her throat. Her two sons and three daughters had been gone for twelve years, six months and three days, and still she smelled them on the sunshine and heard their laughter on the wind. If one of them had lived, just one of them, she never would have left.
“Safety is a mirage.”
“So is thinking Dark Hope will get their act together in time to mount a defense against the horde. The citizens have already voted to disband the ruling council. No one is in charge. They’ll be helpless when the ‘Viders get here.”
A muscle ticked in his jaw. “I’ve got things in hand. Plans are being drawn up. My security team hasn’t stopped looking for them.”
“Plans?” Picking up her shirt, she stuffed her arms back in her sleeves and pulled the garment over her head. “I hope it doesn’t include other cities. You’d be gutted, roasted, and devoured before the Consortium believes any more ‘Viders exist. Everyone is happy to believe the horde either never left their homes in the south or died from exposure to radiation.”
Dawson’s blue eyes narrowed to slits. “So you did bring a radio?”
“Radios can be found, taken away.” She tugged her collar to the side, exposing the right side of her throat. A small lump bulged from her jugular. “I’ve inserted a GPS chip. You’ll find the ID number carved in the bottom of your right-hand desk drawer.”
“If they find it…”
“I’ll be dead anyway.” This way it would be quick.
“How will you find them?”
“There are ways.” She didn’t elaborate. The neat piles of rocks were primitive but effective. She’d taught them the language she’d learned as a child. She wondered if the horde still used it. She wondered…too damn much.
A cityscape bristled on the horizon. Bright white buildings with sparkling blue roofs towered over squat dirt-colored ones. The train decelerated.
Dawson smoothed his eyebrows. “Any way I can talk you out of this?”
“No.” She double-checked her knife then shrugged on her pack. “We both know I’m dying. I want it to be for something. Something good.”
And if she could wipe a little blood off her slate between now and then, so much the better.
Rising, Dawson thrust his hand at her. “When this is over, I’ll find you. Don’t make it so hard this time.”
Nattie ignored his hand and hugged him. He smelled of soap, of cleanliness, and righteousness. She stunk no matter how often she bathed.
“Don’t look for me.” Releasing him, she stepped away and turned to the southwest where the main ‘Vider horde had to be. Where she had to go. “I’ll find my own grave.”