I woke to the cold kiss of steel on my throat.
Though I’d grown accustomed to sleeping safely since our arrival in Salvation two months ago, I’d lost none of my edge. Before my attacker realized I was awake, I knocked the knife away and tumbled him over my head. While Stalker recovered, I rolled to my feet and scowled. Momma Oaks would skin us both if she caught him in my room. People took reputations seriously, and mine was already bruised, due to my insistence on being myself.
“Good work, dove.” Stalker’s grin flashed in the moonlight.
“What are you doing here?” It was the middle of the night, but he loved his little tests.
“We’ve got incoming. I heard the second bell.”
My ire cooled. He wasn’t just checking my reflexes in spite of our precarious situation. Belonging to no one, we had to make sure we didn’t wear out our welcome or anger the townsfolk by flouting their rules. Most seemed designed to discourage unauthorized breeding, and they didn’t like it when I went off to spar with Stalker. It hadn’t taken me long to figure that I wasn’t a normal girl—at least by Salvation standards. So we trained in secret these days, no daylight matches.
“Let’s have a look. Turn around.”
With minimal fuss, I dressed in Huntress attire and strapped on my weapons, which I hadn’t permitted anyone to take, despite complaints of how “inappropriate” it was for me to carry them. Most of those came from women who dropped by the Oakses’ house to whisper their disapproval of my heathen ways. Savages raised me in a cave, to hear them tell it, but as I’d informed Momma Oaks, I earned my scars and blades. They could pry the latter from my cold, dead hands. Respecting the teacher’s sensibilities, I did wear long-sleeve blouses to school to hide my Huntress status.
Stalker slid out the open window, the same one he’d climbed in a few moments before. If I didn’t look forward to our nighttime matches so much, I’d latch it, but only those fights made me feel like a Huntress these days. Following him, I leapt to the branch of the tree and then swung down into the quiet yard.
It was a warm night, bright moon patterning the ground with silver. Each blade of grass felt heavenly beneath my feet. Once, I’d walked on broken stones and hard cement, deep in the belly of the earth. It had been a noisy place, full of echoes, soft moans, and whimpers in the night. But that world was gone.
Now I lived in Salvation, where the buildings were sound, white-washed, and clean, where men had their work and women did different tasks. I struggled with that reality. Down below, my sex hadn’t mattered much. Most of our titles there were neutral with the exception of Huntress, and we retained that one because in the early days—before we realized females could fight as fiercely—only male Hunters protected the enclave. When the first Huntress changed everything, she wanted an acknowledgment of her achievement … and so the distinction remained, unlike the Builders and Breeders who had always been both genders.
They treated their young differently in Salvation as well. Regardless of the threat, brats weren’t allowed to fight … but I’d spent too long defending the enclave to feel comfortable about lying abed while others battled on my behalf. They had built the town like a wooden fortress with strong fortifications and a sturdy gate; a protective wall with walkway and sentry towers kept the Freaks out, safeguarding the populace, but I wasn’t sure it would hold forever. Both Stalker and I had asked to assess the numbers Salvation faced, and how well the guards drove them off. It seemed like a reasonable request, but the folks in charge—elders who were actually old—preferred that young people spent their time puzzling how to read and cipher numbers. There were also history lessons and endless tests on information that nobody in his right mind would ever be required to know.
I found it insulting. If someone already knew how to weave cloth, why would anyone waste time making him learn how to bake bread? It was a waste of effort, but they had rules for everything in Salvation. Breaking them had consequences, which was why I had to be careful.
Along with Stalker, I stole through the darkened town, avoiding dogs that would set up a racket. I found it curious that people kept animals for companionship and not food. When I’d asked Momma Oaks when she planned to cook the fat creature that slept in a basket in the kitchen, her eyes almost popped out of her head. Since then, she’d kept her pet away from me, like she suspected I meant to turn it into stew. Clearly, I had a lot to learn.
“I smell them,” Stalker whispered then.
Lifting my head, I sniffed the night wind and nodded. Anyone who had encountered Freaks—or Muties as they called them Topside—wouldn’t forget the stench: rotting meat and oozing sores. Once, a long time ago, they had human ancestors … or so the stories said. But something bad happened, and people got sick. A lot of them died … and some of them changed. The dead ones were lucky, Edmund claimed, but Momma Oaks always shushed her husband when he talked like that. She had some idea that we needed to be sheltered. Her protective instincts made me laugh, considering I’d fought more than most town guards. I paused, listening.
Weapons weren’t quiet in Salvation, so if the fight had started, I’d hear the boom of their guns. That gave me time to scramble up to the southernmost sentry tower, where Longshot stood watch. He wouldn’t run me off with angry words about how I ought to be in bed. Over the past weeks, he’d showed great patience with my questions. Other men said it was none of my business and reported me for unfeminine, improper behavior; more than once I’d found myself in trouble with Momma Oaks over my nocturnal jaunts.
As usual, Longshot didn’t protest when we slid up the ladder and joined him. From this vantage I saw by flickering lamplight the land unfolding before me. If I pushed past, I could gain access to the walls, but then his fellow guards would yell at me for getting in the way. I didn’t have a gun, so I couldn’t shoot Freaks anyway. Plus, Momma Oaks would hear about my misdeeds again, which led to extra chores and a lecture about how I wasn’t trying to fit in.
“You never miss a fight,” Longshot said, cocking Old Girl.
“Not if we can help it,” Stalker answered.
“It doesn’t feel right … I’m used to helping. How many are there tonight?”
“I counted ten, but they’re hanging back, just out of range.”
That information sent a cold chill through me. “Trying to draw you out?”
“It won’t work,” he assured me. “They can prowl outside all they want, but if they get hungry enough, they’ll charge, and we’ll put ’em down.”
I wished I shared his confidence in the power of walls for keeping bad things out. Down below, we had barricades, of course, but we hadn’t relied on them exclusively. Patrols went out to keep our territory clear, and it made me uneasy to think of Freaks gathering. Who knew how many were out there? I remembered Nassau’s fate; that was the closest settlement to where I’d lived down below. When Silk—the commander of the Hunters—sent Fade and me to investigate, the reality was worse than anything I’d imagined, Freaks feasting on the dead after they annihilated the living. It scared me to imagine such a fate here, where citizens weren’t as tough. They had more guards, of course, and not all of them hunted, as we did down below. More citizens lived in Salvation, so they could spread the work out.
From the other side of the wall came the distant bark of someone’s gun, and then the bell rang. Just once, which meant a kill. Two bells indicated incoming. I’d never heard more than two bells, so I didn’t know if there were other warnings.
“How many signals are there?” I asked Longshot.
“Twelve or so,” he answered, raising his weapon. “It’s based on some kind of old military language, dots and dashes.”
That didn’t clarify anything, but before I could ask, movement in the perimeter caught my eye. As two Freaks ran toward the wall, Longshot sighted with Old Girl and dropped the first. It didn’t seem sporting when the creatures had no ranged weapons, but most of the citizens here weren’t trained to fight, either. A breach in security would be disastrous.
As I watched, the surviving Freak knelt beside its fallen friend and then shrieked as if we were the monsters. The sound echoed in the trees, full of grief and loathing. I glanced at Longshot, who was holding fire. The thing didn’t run, although it could have. Its eyes glittered in the lamplight, showing madness and hunger, certainly, but tonight I saw something more. Or thought I did.
It’s a shadow, playing tricks.
“Sometimes they sound like they have minds in their rotten heads,” he said, as if to himself.
Then he took the second shot, so the other died beside the first. Afterward, Longshot rang the bell once, paused, and then once again, reporting his kills. The townsfolk had learned to sleep through the racket. This information was for the guards, so they could track how many bodies surrounded the town. In the morning, they would send an armed crew to drag away the corpses, far enough that if they attracted other Freaks, they could feed without the good folks of Salvation having to watch. I approved of the practice; fortunately, the people here didn’t have to be lectured on the importance of proper hygiene.
That was the only thing Salvation had in common with College, the enclave where I had been raised. Up here on the safety of the wall, my knives couldn’t do any damage, and I hated being useless. Stalker took no better to being cut out of the action. He had a valid point when he’d said, months ago:
You, you’re like me.
I’d replied, You mean a Hunter?
Yes. You’re strong.
It was true … but here, physical strength didn’t matter. Neither did training. They wanted us to learn new roles and forget that we’d once led different lives. I found it tough, as I’d loved being a Huntress. Yet Salvation offered no similar role for girls; I couldn’t even wear my own clothes.
For some time, we listened to the gunfire, until the bell stopped tolling death. Gradually the night noises resumed—and that was another way you could tell Freaks had retreated. When all the animals went still and silent, an attack had to be imminent. Now the hush filled with the peculiar churring of a bird whose name I didn’t know.
“What is that?” I asked Longshot.
He always had the utmost patience for my questions, and this was no different. “Nightjar. They come for the summer before heading south again.”
Not for the first time, I envied the birds’ freedom. “Thanks. We’ll get out of your way before someone catches us here.”
“Appreciate it.” Longshot kept his eyes fixed on the trees.
Stalker glided down the ladder with the grace that made him such a phenomenal fighter at close range. We took every opportunity to keep our skills sharp because, deep down, I couldn’t believe the guns would last forever. Life down below had taught me to believe in nothing as much as my own abilities; Stalker’s upbringing in the Topside gangs had given him a similar philosophy.
They’d placed Stalker in a different foster home, where he could do valuable work—therefore, they apprenticed him to the blacksmith—and Stalker said he didn’t mind learning how to make weapons and ammunition. Tegan stayed with Doc Tuttle and his wife; it was a long month while she fought infection. I stayed with her as much as I could, though after the first few days, they made me go to school. Three weeks ago, she joined us in the schoolhouse. In the afternoons, she assisted Doc with patients, cleaned his instruments, and generally made herself useful. As for Fade, he went to live with Mr. Jensen, the man who ran the stables, and he cared for creatures like the ones that towed Longshot’s wagon.
Of us all, only I remained with Edmund and Momma Oaks. She kept me busy sewing, though I had little aptitude, and it annoyed me to be saddled with Builder work. They were wasting my potential. I didn’t see any of my old friends as much as I once had, and I hated that too. Sometimes I missed the house by the river, where nobody told us what to do.
These musings carried me through our silent progress away from the wall. By tacit agreement, Stalker and I didn’t head to our respective beds. Instead, we had a secret place within Salvation, as we were forbidden to go into the countryside, a half-finished house near the north side of town. They’d gotten the roof on, but the interior hadn’t been smoothed out, nor had the second story progressed past beams and slats.
Some young couple had planned to live here once they married, but the girl took a fever and died, leaving the boy wild with grief. Momma Oaks told me he went out into the wilderness without so much as a weapon. It was like he was asking them to kill him, she’d said, shaking her head in disbelief. But I reckon love can do strange things to a body. Love sounded terrible if it made you so weak, you couldn’t survive without it. Regardless, their misfortune left Stalker and me with the perfect place to hide and talk—and spar.
“We don’t belong here,” he said, once we settled in the shadows.
I didn’t think so either, not in the roles they intended us to play. They couldn’t accept that we weren’t stupid brats who had to be supervised. We’d seen and survived things these folks couldn’t imagine. Though I hated to judge people kind enough to take us in, they weren’t very worldly in some respects.
“I know.” When I finally answered, I kept my voice soft.
People already said this place was haunted; that was why nobody had continued the construction. I hadn’t even know what that meant until Longshot explained it to me. The idea of a ghost was foreign; that part of a person could live on outside his body made no sense on the surface, but sometimes I wondered if I had Silk’s spirit in my head. I’d asked Longshot if people could be haunted like places, but he’d said, I’m not even sure places can be, Deuce. You’re asking the wrong man if you want esoteric knowledge. Since I didn’t know what esoteric meant either, I let the matter drop. Topside had lots of foreign words and concepts; I was digesting them as fast as I could … but so much strangeness made me feel small and stupid.
I hid those moments as best I could.
“We could leave,” Stalker said.
In the dark, I studied my fingers as if I could see the tiny marks from the needle I wasn’t accustomed to plying. “And go where?”
We’d almost died traveling from the ruins, and there had been four of us. Tegan wouldn’t leave Salvation, and I wasn’t sure about Fade. For all I knew, he was happy working with the animals. I hadn’t talked to him to say more than a handful of words in weeks—and that was another reason for my quiet unhappiness. Sometimes I tried to bridge the distance, but Fade avoided me at school, and his foster father was a brusque, impatient man who shooed me away from the stables on the occasions I had visited. Go on, Mr. Jensen would say. The boy doesn’t have time to wag his jaw.
“There are other settlements.”
He’d passed through the same wreckage as I had while we pushed north. Most towns and cities had been overrun. In all these months, Longshot was the only human we’d seen in the wilderness. Even if we didn’t like our lot, it made sense to stick it out until we were old enough to have some say in town decisions. Unfortunately, that could be a long time. That was incredibly frustrating because I wasn’t a brat anymore; I’d passed my trials and become an adult. The things I had survived had moved me beyond childhood, and I had wisdom to offer, no matter how many years I had.
“Enough of this.” He pushed to his feet and fell into a fighting crouch.
And that was why I met him in secret. He understood. Stalker wouldn’t let me forget who I was. Momma Oaks had suggested I disregard my old life and try to become a “regular” girl. My first week in her home, she explained how females were expected to behave in Salvation. She made me long-sleeve blouses to hide my scars, and put my hair in neat braids. I hated the clothes, but the hairstyle was practical for fighting, at least.
He lunged; I blocked. Even in the dark, I could tell he was smiling as my fist slammed into his torso. Sometimes he let me land a few hits early on, but he would never admit it. We circled and sparred until I had no more breath, and several new bruises. Good thing my foster mother insisted on modesty, or I wouldn’t be able to hide this night’s work.
“You all right, dove?”
I wasn’t; I longed for Fade and I hated lessons and I missed being valued for my skill. As if in consolation, Stalker tipped my chin up and tried to kiss me. I sprang away with an aggravated sigh. Though I wasn’t interested in more than training, he had great determination that he’d change my mind someday. I couldn’t see it happening. If he thought I’d ever breed with him, he’d better be ready for an argument that ended with my knives in his gut.
“I’ll see you at school,” I muttered.
After confirming the path was clear, I left the little house and headed for the Oakses’ place. Climbing back into my room was more challenging than getting out. First, I had to shimmy up the tree, inch along the branch, and then leap over to my window. It wasn’t too great a distance, but if I landed wrong, I’d fall, which would prove impossible to explain. This time I managed without waking the household. Once on my return, I had Momma Oaks in my room demanding to know what I meant by that racket. I’d pleaded a bad dream, which led to her poor lambing me, and hugging me to her ample breast for intended comfort. This always left me feeling awkward and unsure.
That night, I lay awake a long time, remembering times long gone, and people I would never see again. Stone and Thimble, my two brat-mates … they’d acted like they believed the charges against me—that I was capable of hoarding—and that still hurt. I missed so many people: Silk; Twist, the elder’s right-hand man; plus the little brat 26, who looked up to me. In a fever dream, Silk told me that the enclave was no more; I wondered if I could believe that knowledge, but I didn’t see a way to confirm it. I’d lost nearly everyone I cared about when I left home. Now it felt as if I’d lost Fade too. Up on the wall, when Longshot had killed its companion, the surviving Freak cried out, and that protest made me wonder if the monsters felt, like we did, if they could miss the ones taken from them. Wrestling with that uncomfortable possibility, I fell at last into an uneasy doze.
The nightmare began.
My flesh crawled with the smell as we made the last turn. I’d long since gotten used to the darkness and the chill, but the stink was new. It smelled like the time when the Freaks had surrounded us in the car, only a hundred times worse. Fade stilled me with a hand on my arm. I read from his gestures that he wanted us to stay close to the wall and move very slowly on the approach. He got no argument from me.
We came upon the busted barricade first. There was no guard posted. Inside the settlement, Freaks shambled about their business. They were fat in comparison with the ones we’d encountered on the way. Horror surged through me. For a moment I couldn’t take it all in; the silence of corpses drowned every thought.
There was no one here to save, and our elders had killed the sole surviving Nassau citizen. That meant our nearest trade outpost lay four days in the opposite direction. Fade put his hand on my arm and cocked his head the way we’d come. Yes, it was time to go. We could do nothing here but die.
Though I was tired, terror gave my muscles strength. As soon as we gained enough distance through stealth, I broke into a headlong run. My feet pounded over the ground. I’d run until I buried the horror. Nassau hadn’t been prepared; they hadn’t believed the Freaks could be a large-scale threat. I tried not to imagine the fear of their brats or the way their Breeders must have screamed. Their Hunters had failed.
We wouldn’t. We couldn’t. We had to get home and warn the elders.
My feet moved, but I went nowhere. Running, as the earth opened, trapping me. Openmouthed, I tried to scream, but no sound emerged. Then blackness swirled in, carrying me away. Everything shifted.
The enclave sprawled before me, filled with a hateful crowd, their faces twisted with condemnation. They spat on me as I passed through the warren toward the barricades. I lifted my chin and pretended not to see them. Fade met me there. We stood mute while they rifled through our things. A Huntress flung my bag at my head, and I caught it. I hardly dared breathe when she stepped close.
“You disgust me,” she said, low.
I said nothing. Like so many times before, Fade and I climbed across and left the enclave behind. But this time, we weren’t heading on patrol. No safety awaited us. Without thinking, without seeking a direction, I broke into a run.
I ran until the pain in my side matched the one in my heart. At length he grabbed me from behind and gave me a shake. “We’re not going to make it if you keep this up.”
The scene changed. Pain and shame melted into terror. I had no choice but to leave my home. The unknown would swallow me up.
Soon the shadows devoured us and I could only see the vague Fade-shape nearby. “I’ll go up first.”
I didn’t argue, but I didn’t let him get far ahead of me either. As soon as he started to climb, I did too. The metal was slick beneath my palms; several times I nearly lost my balance and fell. Grimly, I continued up.
“Almost there.” I heard him feeling around, and then the scrape of metal on stone. He pulled himself out of what looked like a small hole. Diffuse light spilled down, a tint different from any I’d ever seen. It was sweetly silver and cool, like a drink of water. With Fade’s help, I scrambled up the rest of the way and saw the world above for the first time.
It stole my breath. I spun in a slow circle, trembling at the size of it. I tilted my head back and saw overhead a vast field of black, spattered with brightness. I wanted to crouch down and cover my head. It was too much space, and horror overwhelmed me.
“Easy,” Fade said. “Look down. Trust me.”
Morning came after a night of devastating dreams, most of them true, and with it a dull, throbbing headache. Still shaking, I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Everything had a price, and this was mine. During my waking hours, I could be calm and in control, but at night, my fears crept in on quiet feet, haunting my sleep. Sometimes my past felt like a heavy chain about my neck, but a Huntress wouldn’t let it prevent her from moving forward and taking action.
Exhausted, I crawled out of bed, washed up in cold water, and got ready for school. As I trudged down the stairs, I shook my head at the waste. What did I need to learn that I didn’t know already? But there was no convincing anyone of that. Apparently, it was a rule that I had to attend until I was sixteen—at which point I could remove myself. If Momma Oaks had anything to say about it, I would work with her full time, making clothes.
Sometimes I’d rather go back down below.
Copyright © 2012 by Ann Aguirre