Serendipity Tahoma stiffened in Harlan’s embrace. Sera glanced, over the heads of the dozen security operatives, at the Mayor of Tricity. Had she heard correctly? “You’ve found a body that’s been eaten?”
Mayor Scott rubbed his mushroom-shaped nose. “Not me. A pig farmer on the outskirts of town.”
Grid marks divided up the screen of the mayor’s handheld. A red star flashed in the center of the map.
Officer Thackery hustled across the control room of the Tricity Security Forces. “I’ll take that, Mr. Mayor.”
Mayor Scott held it out of reach. “The Raider will, son.”
Static burped on the screen at the front of the rectangular room. The men and women inside ignored it, focusing instead on the biplay between the mayor and Thackery.
Sera held her breath. Was she a horrible person because she wanted someone to be eaten?
Harlan tightened his embrace. He nuzzled her neck before whispering, “Gotta drag air into your lungs sooner rather than later, Peaches.”
Peaches. He knew better than to use that endearment while they were at work. It was bad enough that male Outlander officers only accepted her because she wore Harlan’s gold. Thankfully, those she’d bested during training had learned to respect her. She jabbed Harlan in the gut and filled her lungs. “Behave yourself, Harry.”
He winked then released her. “Mayfair, activate a team.”
The blond security officer scuttled out from behind the server near the front screen. “Just one?”
“Just the one.” Harlan skimmed his finger across her spine as he headed to the back of the room. “Corpses don’t usually got much fight in ’em.”
Red spotted Mayfair’s cheeks. “But the ‘Viders…”
Sera hustled after Harlan. No way would she be left out of this, not when they were finally on the verge of finding irrefutable proof that the cannibal horde had survived and was eating its way here.
Harlan paused near the last row of desks and waited for her. Furrows appeared in his forehead. “Ain’t likely to be ‘Viders about. Once they’re done butchering the carcass, they move on.”
The hair on the back of Sera’s neck stood on end. She hated when he went all iceman on her. He talked about hacking up a person, a human being, in the same tone he discussed the weather. “Both you and Nattie said the ‘Viders leave the bodies to the elements.”
“Yeah.” Harlan kept his arms loose as they walked side-by-side toward the mayor. “Food doesn’t deserve burying.”
Mayor Scott relinquished the handheld then folded his arms over his burly chest. “But this body was thrown to the pigs as if to dispose of it, to hide it.”
Harlan paused in front of an active console. “‘Viders ain’t likely to care about anyone finding their handiwork. Most want it to be found. Heard tell, that fear makes the meat sweeter.”
“God.” Reaching around Harlan, Sera intercepted the handheld and inserted it into the docking station of the desk. “Next thing they’ll be publishing a book on improving the flavor of their food.”
“Nah, most ‘Viders don’t read.” Standing to the side, Harlan stared at the screen.
Images waded through the static. Rectangular and square buildings lined narrow streets. Dust devils skipped from the road onto the cracked sidewalks. Nothing stirred in the town.
Mayor Scott scratched his bald head. “Looks like the warning siren is still sounding.”
At the front of the room, Mayfair looked up from the tablet computer jacked directly into the server. “The solar flare has passed. Not that the EMP should have stopped us from receiving the satellite’s signal in the first place. I know I buffered the damn thing.”
“No one is blaming you for the satellites being down.” An ache pulsed at the base of Sera’s skull. He’d been repeating the same thing since the interference first started two hours ago. She plugged the relay into the handheld, connecting it with the workstation. Lately, the low tech ways had proved more reliable.
Harlan set his hand over hers.
Her finger hovered above the LED button that would transmit the handheld information to the screen and glanced at the satellite image. What did Harlan see?
His eyes narrowed. “Is there any way to keep our people on patrol during the flares?”
Thackery snorted. “Not if they ever want healthy offspring.”
Sera’s leg twitched. She resisted kicking him in the shins. She and Harlan already struggled to convince people the ‘Vider threat was real. They didn’t need mockery in the ranks.
Harlan drummed his fingers on the desk.
How he had the patience in the face of such stupidity, she’d never know. “What do you see?”
His lips twitched and his blue eyes cut to her. “I see a town blind to any incoming threat and no one standing guard to give warning. Ten ‘Viders could take that village while everyone hid inside.”
Sera bumped her hip against his. Small wonder that she loved him. His thoughts were diabolically brilliant. She sent a query to Dark Hope’s research team, asking for a solution.
Thackery shook his head. His freckles stood out against his pale skin. “The radiation levels are lethal. There’s practically no magnetic shielding in that part. It’s why the vegetation is dying.”
“Radiation kills slowly. An axe doesn’t.” Harlan scratched the leaf-tattoos climbing his neck.
“But ten ‘Viders?” Thackery frowned at the screen. “There’s over a thousand people in that town. Surely—”
Harlan arched a black eyebrow. “You kill the right folks, and the rest will meekly obey, if just to live another day.”
Scott sighed. “Think of it this way. You get rid of Westminster, Sera, me and two others, and there ain’t nobody in position to prepare for the ‘Viders arrival.”
A chill washed down Sera’s spine. With Dark Hope’s ruling council disbanded because of corruption, no one would be able to make a decision to act. With that kind of pressure, she wouldn’t be surprised if all the carbon in her body didn’t change into diamonds. “I’ve sent a request for personal protection against the radiation. If we’re to meet the ‘Viders on the battlefield, we should have armor to protect us as much as possible.”
Harlan nodded. His fingers caressed the inside of her wrist before he pulled back.
Sera’s heart fluttered. He knew what that did to her, yet he touched her like that in the control room of all places. She owed him one. She stabbed the LED button on the work station.
The screen in the front of the room blanked. A second later, a map of Abaddon stared back at them. Hashmarks marked the Mag-Lev tracks. Green rectangles replaced the patches that used to be farms. Red ones indicated green houses still under construction. Along the blue line denoting the river, orange boxes stood for new schools while purple and brown boxes designated public buildings and community housing. Dashes outlined the center of the city where the crumbling security wall once stood. Beyond the improved zones, a red star noted the corpse’s location.
Harlan clasped his hands behind his back. “Overlay satellite imaging.”
Mayfair ducked behind the server. “I’m bringing up imaging now.”
The screen fuzzed out then the resolution sharpened. Metal rooftops glinted in the afternoon sunshine. People strolled along the streets. Workers in red uniforms paved outlying roads with solar panels. Others supervised the pouring of concrete into wall forms. Children played on the playground. Their ant-like bodies darted around the canopies shading their swing sets and other equipment.
Harlan pinched his bottom lip. “Zero in on the crime scene.”
Sera circled a four block radius around the area. The images blossomed on the screen. She knew what he was looking for. Tapping the tool bar, she activated a red pen and drew a line connecting the foothills to the body’s location. “They could have brought it to the pens from this direction.”
“Bodies are heavy.” He cocked his head. “And they’d had to walk by these homes.” He highlighted the double row of shacks with X’s. “Someone would have seen something.”
Scott set his hands on his hips. “What are you saying? That this ain’t a ‘Vider kill?”
“Ain’t likely to be.” Harlan fingered the scars on his neck, hidden under his tattoos.
Sera’s shoulders bowed. No proof of ‘Viders. Oh, Harry…
A security officer sniggered. “‘Vider pigs. Does that make us cannibals when we eat them?”
The trio around the officer giggled.
Sera gripped the desktop so tight, her knuckles flashed white. “Do you think this is a joke?”
The giggling group sobered. Each studied their workstation.
Harlan tugged on the back of her tunic. “We’ll check it out, but I doubt we’ll find proof of ‘Viders.”
Scott ran his hand along his bald scalp. He winced when he encountered the pink scar tissue on his black skin. “We need it to be ‘Viders. I’m already takin’ flack every time I mention ’em. Folks who’ve spent the years secure in the cities got no notion of the way of things in the Outlands. No notion atall.”
Sera stiffened. That wasn’t fair. She knew what was out there. She unplugged the handheld and returned it to the mayor. “Some of us believe in the mission.” Unfortunately, they were in the minority. “Between the solar flares, radiation exposure that’s killing crops, corruption in Dark Hope’s government, and assimilating everyone into society, people have enough problems.”
Scott tucked the computer into his pocket. “They should be thankful they haven’t encountered the ‘Viders, not mocking.”
His black eyes stuck on Harlan.
He flashed his palms. “Been there, done that, got the tats to prove it. Folks’ll believe when they’re good and ready. And afore you ask, I ain’t doing any more public speaking.”
Sera clamped her lips together. He’d been heckled in Abaddon’s opera house when he’d presented his case for the ‘Vider horde’s existence. She’d wanted to lock the jerks inside and set the place afire as soon as Harlan had finished his speech. “They should at least be informed.”
“Most folks ain’t a lot of help in a fight anyway.” Harlan splayed his hands across the small of her back and pushed her toward the side exit. “We’ll focus on those who can fight and train the rest to round up everybody and hide ’em when the ‘Viders attack.”
Sera plucked the handheld from Thackery’s hand as she passed. The red star blinked the body’s location. “So what are the signs of a ‘Vider feeding frenzy?”
“Depends on the ‘Vider. Each likes to leave their own mark. After a while, you get to know ’em by the cuts against the bone.” Harlan nodded to the mayor when they passed him. “Mayfair, you’re in charge. Thackery, you’re with us.”
Scott frowned. “I still want it to be ‘Viders.”
Harlan’s fingers spasmed on her back.
Sera caught her breath. He was worried. Why? What had he seen that he hadn’t shared?
He opened the door and pushed her into the secure underground garage. “Nah, Scott, you really don’t. If it’s the horde, then they’re gonna eat us alive.”