p=. [* *]
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the creation of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
All rights Reserved
© 2015 by Jo Schneider
No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews. The reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or part in any form whether electronic, mechanical or other means, known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written consent of the publisher.
First Edition: 2015
For Dad, who watched Aliens with me on TV.
My imagination has never recovered.
The blue sky struck a beautiful contrast against the ragged tops of the mountains. Evergreen trees reached up their branches, trying to get a little closer to the sun. A crisp, but not too chilly breeze rustled the leaves of the other trees, and in the distance a bird chirped.
If not for the three children, sick and dying in the medical cabin, it might have been a promising day.
Wendy hurried toward the front gate, her boots crunching on the gravel path between cabins. The watch to the west had sent up a signal. It could be more Skinnies, or it could be Pelton and his scavengers returning with supplies.
The grid pattern of buildings and paths usually worked to her advantage, but this time they betrayed her. She’d been hoping to avoid more questions she couldn’t answer from concerned parents.
This was worse.
“There you are,” Kenzie said with her usual excitement. Wendy’s older sister stood a head taller than Wendy, and sported the body of a woman, unlike Wendy who still looked like she was twelve. Kenzie’s dark hair spiked out everywhere—she called it fashionable. Of course, if fashionable meant that Wendy had to take as much time to do her hair as it would to check on the nearest guard posts outside the compound—or the Den as most people called it—she would stick with just pulling her long, dark hair into a ponytail.
“The west watch sent up a signal,” Wendy said, hoping the information would distract Kenzie.
The two sisters walked next to one another, Wendy had to take more steps to keep up. As usual. Fifteen log cabins—cobbled together from old-style carpentry and bits and pieces of technology they had scavenged from the deserted cities—stood like a checkerboard with dirt paths going in between them. Sizes varied from a small cabin that could sleep nine on three tier bunk beds to the mess hall that doubled as the meeting point for the compound, which could hold two hundred people, if they got cozy.
“I know. I figured you would be headed this way. You were supposed to meet me for breakfast. Did you forget?”
Wendy resisted the urge to sigh. Kenzie was always trying to bond, something Wendy simply didn’t have time for. “I was checking on the kids.”
Kenzie’s face fell into an expression of concern. “How are they?”
“Not good. I spoke with the doctor, and he says the little girl has maybe a day. The two boys, three days left at the most.”
The sisters took a right, past the last set of buildings before the clearing in front of the wall.
Wendy could feel the comment coming even before Kenzie cleared her throat. “Ronald.”
Wendy shot Kenzie an annoyed look out of the corner of her eye.
“The doctor’s name is Ronald.”
Wendy didn’t respond.
“He’s been with us for over a year. Don’t you think you should learn his name?”
Wendy’s hands balled into fists, and she spoke through clenched teeth. “His name is Ronald Taylor. We found him, his wife Janice and their two-year-old daughter Sarah wandering around in the woods, mostly dead. You brought them in yourself. Janice died a month later from complications of her pregnancy, and Sarah died of the flu four months after that.” She turned her head to glare up into Kenzie’s eyes. “The sick little girl is Charlene. She’s six and loves to draw. Rick and Hob are brothers, just two years apart. Their mom died last year.” Wendy knew about everyone, but she hadn’t taken the time to build relationships with anyone since her mother had died. Life was fleeting, and it hurt too much when people left.
Kenzie held Wendy’s gaze. “I’m just saying he has a name. He’s not just the doctor.”
“He’s the doctor because that’s what he does.”
Kenzie’s eyes lost a little of their enthusiasm before she swallowed and looked away.
The two girls crossed the twenty feet between the outer buildings and the massive, log wall separating them from the surrounding forest. The wall stood three times as tall as Wendy, and could withstand an assault by everything that had ever come against it. Wendy’s family and the few others who had started this place had felled trees two feet across and dragged them here. Granted, there weren’t tanks or anything like that left in the world, but a hoard of over a hundred Skinnies had once tried to take the gate out. They hadn’t gotten far.
A small ledge ringed the wall on the inside, so guards could walk around and defenders could have a place to hide. Three men were gathered on the west side of the gate, all looking out.
“Has there been a follow-up signal?” Wendy asked.
One of the men, Grant, turned to look at Wendy. “Not yet.”
Kenzie looked over her shoulder. “Where’s Dad?”
Wendy moved to the nearest ladder and climbed up. Kenzie followed.
“How long has it been?” Wendy asked.
“Four minutes,” Grant said after he checked his watch—one of those that was supposed to last a hundred years.
“Too long,” Wendy said under her breath. Watchers were supposed to send a second signal within two minutes. Was it friend or foe? She had to stand on tip toe to see over the sharpened ends of the logs.
“Who’s on watch?” Kenzie asked Wendy, who organized the watch and patrol rosters.
“Liz and Hector.” Both were reliable. Both had been here for over a year. They knew the protocols. Why hadn’t they signaled?
“Five minutes,” Grant said.
Wendy shifted her weight from foot to foot. She risked a quick glance over her shoulder to search for her dad. This should be his call. A handful of faces looked up from below, but none of them were Ed’s.
Kenzie leaned over and whispered, “We should send someone.”
For all of Kenzie’s girlie manners and bonding tendencies, she was a good tactician. Better than Wendy.
Wendy studied the woods with the eye of a hawk, looking for small movements contrary to the wind, rustles of bushes that normally stayed still or a foreign sound.
“Six minutes,” Grant said.
The group of five continued to watch. The sun, which only a few moments before had brought warmth and cheer into the world, now beat down on Wendy like a hammer. The breeze disrupted any sounds they might hear, and the clear sky allowed dark shadows where anything could be lurking.
It only took five minutes to get here from the watch point, and that was if you were walking. Wendy could run it in three.
Which meant something was wrong.
Wendy swallowed. Skinnies usually came in large groups, and they let you know they were coming by moaning and yelling.
Starving to death was very painful.
Wendy turned to Grant. “Grant and Rhett, come with me.”
Kenzie’s hand shot out and grabbed Wendy by the elbow. Her usual smile had turned into a hard frown. “What are you doing? Send someone else.”
“I’m the fastest.”
“Dad will kill you.”
“Dad isn’t here,” Wendy said.
Kenzie didn’t let go.
The three men—not much older than Kenzie—shuffled their feet and tried to ignore the sibling squabble.
“Seven minutes, Kenzie,” Wendy said. “We can get there and back in six more. If there’s anything out there, we’ll send up a flare.” Wendy’s eyes bore into her sister’s. Their green eyes and high cheekbones were the only familial resemblance they shared. That and their bull-headed stubbornness.
Kenzie held her ground.
So Wendy pulled out her final stop. “I’m in charge of security. This is my call.”
Before Kenzie could argue, Wendy twisted her arm and stepped away. Kenzie’s fingers slipped off of her elbow.
“Come on,” Wendy said to Grant and Rhett. She didn’t give anyone the chance to argue as she slid down the ladder and jogged toward the door.
Two sets of running footsteps followed her.
“Open the man door,” Wendy yelled to the guards.
The two men scrambled to pop the small hatch near the ground—just big enough for a single person to get through.
Grant and Rhett caught up to Wendy just as she reached the wall. They grabbed knives and guns from the stash in a log. She pulled out a bandolier with two long knives and buckled it around her waist. Grant snatched up the flares.
“If anyone but us, the guards or Pelton and his crew come into the clearing, seal this,” Wendy said, pointing at the hatch.
The guards nodded.
Wendy led the way. Her shoulders didn’t even touch the wood on either side of the hole. One benefit of being so small.
The others followed, and Wendy wasn’t surprised when Kenzie brought up the rear. Hector, the guy on watch, was Kenzie’s boyfriend.
The four of them ran to the trees and started down the path. As soon as they reached the woods, they slowed, but not to a walk. Kenzie moved to the front—she and Hector were the best trackers in the Den. If there was something in the woods, Kenzie would find it.
Wendy moved to the rear, her eyes roaming the area around them for threats. This was Wendy’s world. She dealt with problems, she kept everyone safe, and she made sure others didn’t have to worry.
The familiar trail was thin, but easy to follow. Bushes became hiding spots, and shadows became enemies. Branches reached for them, but didn’t quite have enough length to snatch at their clothes. The light from above cast irregular shadows that twisted and shook in the breeze.
Grant, who was right in front of Wendy, held the flare ready. One sign of a Skinny or people they didn’t know, and it would go up. The compound would go on lock-down. Those who couldn’t fight would be put into the tunnels, and the rest of them would go to the walls. The evacuation routes were clear—Wendy had checked them herself the night before—and the leaders of each group knew how to get to the rendezvous point.
Everything would be fine, even if their world came crashing down around them. They would survive.
The snap of a twig brought everyone to a halt. Kenzie held up her hand and they all crouched down.
Wendy’s senses expanded. Every shift of a shadow caught her attention, and every noise was suspect.
Skinnies weren’t quiet. Other people were quiet. And other people were just as dangerous as Skinnies. Skinnies relied on sheer numbers to get what they wanted—raw meat. Other people employed strategy. They didn’t want to eat anyone else, but they would take whatever they could get their hands on. And they would kill anyone who got in their way.
A deep breath cleared Wendy’s thoughts. Her body readied itself for a fight. Another noise sounded, this one behind her. They were surrounded, which meant it was her responsibility to make a hole they could exit through.
At some point she had drawn both knives. The light coat of sweat on her palms slicked the leather on the handles.
More wind, more shadows moving, more noises that didn’t belong. Wendy’s hands clenched around her knives, and she turned to walk with her back to the others, ready for a fight.
A rock came falling from above, and hit the ground a few feet away from Wendy. She turned toward it, then back as fast as she could.
But it was too late. A man jumped out of the shadows and came straight at her.
Wendy didn’t hesitate; she shot forward, knives out.
But the accompanying roar of laughter caused her to falter.
The light moved, and she recognized Pelton’s tall, thick frame. His blonde hair was covered with his customary baseball cap, his vest loaded with lumps from scavenging and his jeans newly stained with blood and dirt.
Wendy didn’t bother to stop her attack. She landed close and crossed her knives in front of his neck.
Pelton, who stood a head-and-a-half taller than Wendy, looked down at her with a grin. “Boo,” he said.
A range of emotions rushed through Wendy. Pelton was her fighting instructor—the best fighter she’d ever seen. But he was never serious about anything. They’d sent him out to get medicine for the kids. He should have been back three days ago, so why the charade?
Before she could move, he reached out and grabbed one of her wrists. His hands were strong, but he never managed to keep her trapped for long. Wendy twisted and kicked at his groin. Pelton jumped back but kept hold of Wendy’s wrist.
Wendy moved with him, going under his arm and coming up on the other side. He finally let go, but not before Wendy punched him hard in the kidney. Maybe a little harder than she needed to.
Pelton didn’t even let out a grunt; instead he came straight at her, fists and feet flying. He didn’t have a weapon, he didn’t need one. Wendy had to give ground, and in the tightly packed trees she didn’t have much of a chance to leap to the side.
“Can’t tiger a tiger,” Pelton said as he tried to overwhelm her with his size and strength.
Wendy ducked and tried to dart around his left side. He blocked her knives with a lazy slap and grabbed her around the neck.
They’d done this move a hundred times, and nothing Wendy could do short of chopping his arm off would let her out of it.
He’d told her to figure out how to beat him, she still hadn’t been able to.
The others stood watching and laughing.
“Nice try, baby girl,” Pelton said. “You almost had me.”
“Let me go” Wendy said. This was not the time for games.
Pelton released her and looked down, his brown eyes twinkling. “You almost got around that time.”
Wendy ground her teeth together.
He smiled. “Come on, wasn’t that fun?”
Wendy put her knives away and opened her mouth to rebuke him, but before she could Kenzie jumped between them. With a huge grin she said, “Surprise!”
Everyone said, “Happy Birthday!”
Birthday? Wendy looked around and found her dad emerging from the woods. His tall, thin frame moved almost as smoothly as Kenzie. He wore his usual brown pants and blue shirt with a green leather jacket. His once black hair was now a salt and pepper gray.
“I told you she would fall for it,” Hector said as he put an arm around Kenzie.
Wendy’s dad, Ed, stepped toward her. The two of them had an interesting relationship. Ever since Wendy’s mom had died, Wendy and Ed had immersed themselves in the compound, each taking on as much responsibility as possible in an attempt to keep from letting grief overwhelm them. They could talk about business for hours, but personal conversations never went very far. They loved one another, but Wendy wasn’t sure how it actually worked.
“You forgot, didn’t you?” Ed asked. His dark eyes tried to smile, but failed.
How could Wendy forget? Sure, this was her birthday, but it was also the fourth anniversary of her mother’s death. No, she hadn’t forgotten, she had hoped everyone would ignore it.
“Turning sixteen used to be a big deal,” Ed said. “You’d get your driver’s license.”
Her dad was trying, she could see it, so Wendy said, “We ran out of power cells for the hover bikes two years ago.”
A genuine smile cracked Ed’s face. He pulled a small bundle wrapped in a red bandana out of his pocket and handed it to her. At the same time, Pelton fished a book out of his vest.
Wendy took both. The book was the third in a series she’d been reading. He must have found it in the city.
An unexpected lump rose in Wendy’s throat. She swallowed it down and smiled at her dad.
“Open it,” he said.
Wendy shoved the book into her pocket and pulled the leather band that held the red bundle shut.
The cloth fell away. The lump in Wendy’s throat returned.
“I thought you might want something special,” her dad said.
Wendy reached out a trembling hand and stroked the top sugar cookie. How in the world had he managed to make these? And who had gone without rations?
“Do you like it?” Kenzie asked.
Wendy managed a nod. Her mind told her she didn’t deserve the cookies, or anything else anyone might give her, but she knew it would be futile to try to refuse them. They all expected a response, so she said, “I love them, thanks.”
Before Wendy became more uncomfortable, she turned to Pelton. “Do you have the medicine?”
Pelton looked her over, pity in his eyes. “You know it’s okay to smile. Maybe even laugh sometimes.”
“Did you find it?” Wendy asked. She was finished with this game. Those kids were going to die.
“Hmmm,” Pelton said as he poked her shoulder. “You do have an impressively hard shell. If you tried to squeeze some happiness into it, it might burst, and the rest of us would get caught in the shrapnel.”
Wendy turned away from him and addressed the others. “Today is my birthday, thank you, everyone for coming, but we have three little kids that won’t live to see the end of the week if Pelton didn’t get the medicine.” Wendy held out her hand
He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small case. “I have it here.”
Wendy snatched it from him and turned away. Kenzie tried to catch her eye, probably to rebuke her for being rude, but Wendy didn’t care. She took off at a run and headed back toward the compound.
The woods fell beneath her feet as she ran, bursting into the clearing a minute later. She waved the door open, crawled through and started for the medical cabin.
She was halfway there when the alarm sounded.
“Red flare!” someone yelled.
“East watch!” another voice yelled.
A red flare meant Skinnies.
A girl her own age, Rene, was jogging past. Wendy grabbed her. “Hey, go give this to the doctor.”
Rene took the box. “But I have to get to my post.”
“The kids need that,” Wendy said. “Your sister needs that.”
The world they lived in made people hard fast. Wendy hadn’t cried since her mother had died. Rene was tough, but tears sprung to her eyes as she nodded and ran off, clutching the box to her chest as if it were the most precious item in the world.
Maybe it was.
Wendy ran toward the east wall and scaled the ladder.
“How many?” Wendy asked the man on watch.
Wendy looked hard at him. He nodded.
That meant at least a hundred and fifty Skinnies. Another flare went up from a different direction. How many of them were there?
Wendy glanced over at the clearing and saw everyone from the woods running in. She yelled down at the gate guards, “Get my dad and the rest in here, and then seal it up.”
She turned away, already searching the forest for the oncoming hoard.
Wendy dreamed she was flying. The wind rustled her hair, and she moved over the forest like a bird. Sunshine warmed her back and gave life to the world beneath her. Then a dark shadow blocked the light, and she plummeted toward the ground.
The phantom impact jerked her awake. Her hand twitched, and scraped against wood. No light met her eyes.
The crate. She was still in the wooden crate Pelton had shoved her into during the fighting. She barely fit. Her arms were trapped beneath her, and all her attempts to kick herself free had only ended with sore heels and no luck moving the lid. The bottom of the container scraped her nose.
No sounds came from outside. How much time had passed? She must have blacked out.
Wendy kicked out with her heels again—the only part of her body that could get any leverage. Pain turned out to be her only reward. Pain to match the broken ribs and sword slash she’d sustained on her arm during the fighting. If Pelton hadn’t shoved her into the crate, she might be dead.
If he was alive, he would have come back for her.
Wendy wanted to scream, but panic constricted her lungs, and she couldn’t gulp down enough air to do so. The wooden box couldn’t be getting smaller, but it felt like it. Like splinters were tearing her skin apart as the sides closed in around her.
The box kept squeezing. Wendy’s heart hammered harder against her broken ribs. It felt like someone had wrapped her in a blanket and dropped her into deep water. The longer she was in the box, the farther she sank, and the more pressure pressed against her sanity. The slight tremor in her stomach blossomed into a full-blown twitch. Her muscles filled with adrenaline, and as the spasm ran through her, the lid of the crate moved.
Not much, but enough to give Wendy a spark of hope. She put her weight on her elbows and knees and pushed up with all the muscles in her back.
The lid to the box rose an inch. The spark caught fire in Wendy, and she pushed harder. She got her hands underneath her body. More air. More light. More freedom.
Her new-found strength started to wane, but Wendy refused to let the lid fall. Instead, she gritted her teeth and screamed as quietly and as passionately as she could. Her shoulders heaved with the effort, her injured arm gave way, but she kept pushing. She had to get out. She had to make it to the rendezvous point before the others left without her.
The lid to the crate tilted. Something slid off. The sound of cloth scraping across wood was followed by a sickening, wet thud.
Wendy used her good arm to pull the lid off her back. Sweat poured down her face and neck. She gripped the edges of the box with her shaking hands.
An inhumane growl came from far too close.
Above her, a single light bulb flickered weakly, as if telling her both of their times were almost up. Bodies littered the small alcove. None of them moved.
The growl grew louder. Wendy shook herself. She still had a knife in her right hand, though blood had seeped through the dressing on her left arm. It mixed with the scents from the alcove, filling the air with a metallic tang that forced Wendy to gag, but she didn’t throw up. She’d done that already.
The bulb flared, and Wendy saw the source of the growl.
His filthy, tattered shirt hung open revealing the myriad of scars that covered his whole chest, both fresh and old. They had been carved into the pattern of a scorpion. She’d watched other Skinnies stop during the battle to mark themselves each time they killed—as if keeping track for later. A chunk of flesh for each death.
The strobe effect leant the approach of the Skinny more horror than it should have. They were just dying people. Wendy had killed her first when she was ten years old.
The Starvation came when a person ate bad food. After a few months the person’s body would stop taking in nutrients. They could eat until they burst, but they would still slowly starve to death. Raw meat was the only thing that curbed the hunger. This usually led to insanity and packs of Skinnies roaming around looking for anything they could find to eat, including other people.
But those that had attacked the Den were different.
A normal Skinny would be eating the people on the floor, but this one looked at Wendy and spoke. “Join us, and become a believer.”
Wendy’s legs trembled as she rose to her feet. The knife felt heavy in her hand, but she gripped it tightly, unwilling to let it go.
“Who are you?” Wendy asked as she climbed out of the box.
Wendy snorted. They had killed her friends. Her family. She was their angel of death.
“If you come quietly, I can show you the way,” the Skinny said.
The light flared, exposing the scene with horrifying clarity. It also gave Wendy a good look at the fastest path to the Skinny. Wendy ran toward him. Before he could react, she swept his good leg, and he fell on the ground. Wendy’s own legs buckled, and she followed, landing next to the Skinny.
She stifled a cry. Two broken ribs, maybe more. Breathing almost didn’t feel worth the effort.
The stench of his body overpowered the blood and death around her, and Wendy had to hold back her gorge as the taste of rotting flesh filled her mouth.
The light waned. Wendy had to get out if she was going to make the rendezvous point. But she had to know. Blood squelched beneath her as she scrambled to her hands and knees and pinned the Skinny down with a knife to his throat.
“Who let you in?” Wendy asked.
“Your people chose their destruction,” the Skinny said.
The Skinnies had come through one of the secret escape tunnels. The same tunnels she had been trying to get the kids out of. She wondered how many of them had made it out into the woods, and if Kenzie had found them.
Thoughts of the kids caused Wendy’s arm to shake, and the knife bit into flesh. The Skinny stared at her.
“Who was working on the inside? Tell me who let you in and I’ll kill you quickly. Keep it from me and I swear you won’t die for days.”
Their eyes met. The Skinny laughed, and the sound sent a shiver up Wendy’s spine.
“You think you can do anything more to me?” the Skinny asked. “I live in hell.”
Rage welled up inside Wendy, and she punched the Skinny in the face. A crunch sounded as his cheekbone broke, and his head rebounded off of the ground. “Who let you in?” Her scream echoed down the tunnel.
The Skinny laughed again. This time Wendy rose and kicked him in the side of the head. He finally stopped laughing as his body went limp.
The echo of the laughter died, but a new sound replaced it. Metal on metal. A gun.
Wendy’s heart leaped. Maybe someone else was still down here. She glanced around and found her pack half hidden under another Skinny. She had expected to see Pelton’s body, but he wasn’t here. Maybe this was him coming back. She pulled her pack free and shouldered it.
The adrenaline started to fade, and pain roared in Wendy’s ears as she moved slowly through the sea of bodies. Blood mixed with the dirt floor while spatter patterns adorned the stone walls. About half of the light fixtures overhead had been broken.
Wendy got to a main tunnel and began making her way toward the noise. As she turned a corner, she came face to face with a stranger. A short, thick man with white hair and bushy eyebrows.
The look of shock on his face matched her own. In one trained movement, she pulled him toward her and punched him in the side of the head.
The man stumbled back with a grunt. Faster than she thought her body could move, Wendy grabbed him, got behind him and wrapped an arm around his neck. She tightened her grip like a vise. He struggled weakly, but stopped after a few seconds, and she lowered him to the ground—not an easy task with someone who weighed twice as much as she did.
Wendy blinked. Why hadn’t she killed him? She didn’t recognize him, which meant he was with the Skinnies.
She should have killed him.
But his surprised eyes had held kindness in them, not blood lust. Human kindness.
Wendy had never killed another person, just Skinnies. Her dad had taught her the difference at a young age.
Voices came from further down the tunnel.
“He went that way, looking for survivors.”
“You’re expecting survivors?”
“You know Doc.”
“Follow him. He’s sure to get into some kind of trouble.”
Wendy stepped away from the man—Doc she presumed—and turned. She couldn’t take on a bunch of people. She had to get out.
The quickest way up top was through the medical building. Wendy started in that direction.
The light continued to flicker on and off, providing enough illumination that she didn’t need a flashlight. The closer she got to the exit, the fewer bodies she encountered. The short tunnel leading to the trapdoor lay empty and dark. Wendy moved to the ladder—the rungs clean and unscathed from the fighting—and climbed up. The trapdoor was heavy, but Wendy managed to get it pushed up a crack. She had to squint against the bright light that streamed in.
She pressed her cheek to the rough wood and looked through the small space. Nothing moved.
Wendy shoved her knife through the gap and then used her body to force the door open far enough to squirm through. A grunt escaped her as she finished extracting herself through the gap. The movement almost made her pass out. She felt a rib crunch and dark spots danced around the edges of her vision.
The moment she got clear of the door, she saw why it was so heavy, and why there were no Skinnies below. A man’s body had been on top of the door. The doctor, but his name wouldn’t come to her mind now. Maybe it was better this way. Names would only make things harder.
The little back room housed a table, a cot and an old shelf full of medical supplies. The supplies were all over the floor, and the table had been overturned. Two more bodies—the sick kids—lay on the bed.
She rose and took two steps forward before the room began to tilt crazily. She stumbled, her good arm reaching out to touch the wall.
How much blood had she lost? What about her ribs? Even an unyielding desire to live couldn’t stop the cold march of death from internal wounds. Wendy had seen it too many times. She needed help. Tears blurred the faces of the bodies, but she didn’t let them fall. There was no time for crying.
She had to get to the rendezvous point. No matter what.
Not realizing she’d doubled over, Wendy pulled herself upright. She reached out to grab the knob of the door that led into the rest of the building. If there were any supplies left, she should take them.
More voices stopped her cold.
“Doc found someone.”
Wendy crept to the broken window next to the back door and peered out.
Five people stood outside: four men and one woman. All wore nicer clothes than anyone Wendy knew, and they all had weapons. Mostly guns. One of them—a dark man who moved like a tiger—supported the white-haired man she had knocked out in the tunnel.
A tall man with a thin face and glasses perched on the end of his nose spoke. “Are you alright? Did a Skinny do this?”
“No, a young girl.” Doc said. He looked shaky on his feet. “I’m fine, but Mike, she’s hurt.
“How bad?” Mike asked. “Could she be a plant?”
“I don’t know, she knocked me out before we got the chance to talk.”
“What else is down there, Riggs?” Mike asked. He seemed to be in charge.
Riggs—all dark skin and tiger-like appearance—frowned. “They made their last stand somewhere over there.” He shook his head and pointed back toward the barracks. “I recognized some of Ed’s men.”
An invisible hand reached inside Wendy and tightened around her heart.
They knew Wendy’s dad. They had betrayed him.
They had brought the Skinnies.
“This is their medical building,” Mike said to Doc. “You should see if they have any supplies we can use.” Mike’s thin arm rose, and a slender finger pointed right at Wendy.
Wendy didn’t move. Could they see her through the window? She watched as Riggs’ keen eyes glanced over. His gaze didn’t linger, but his shoulders stiffened. Had he seen her?
The moment Riggs looked away, she slunk back and headed for the front door of the building. If the route was clear, she’d be able to dart between cabins and get to the hidden gate that led to the docks without anyone seeing her.
Silently she slipped through the inside door and into the main room of the medical cabin. The beds had been overturned. Flies buzzed. Wendy picked her way through as fast as she could, doing her best to not look too closely at the carnage around her.
The front door lay on the ground ten feet away from the building—discarded like trash. Wendy bolted through the doorway and down the stairs. She drew a second knife from her pack.
To her right, the blazing yellow sun dipped toward the horizon. The mountain peaks reached up to welcome it, inviting the day to rest and the night to begin. Fresh air floated past her, washing away the smell of the dead and the horror that lay around her. A bird chirped from somewhere nearby. Its abrupt silence was the only warning she got.
Wendy turned, knives out, and found the man Riggs only a few feet away. His dark eyes bore into hers, assessing her.
Wendy regarded the man, and without looking away from his gaze, darted toward the nearest building.
When she rounded a corner to the next cabin, yet another man stood waiting for her. Wendy spun around him. He turned and tried to grab her from behind. She spun again, and he got a knee to the groin and an elbow to the face for his efforts. Blood showered them both. Like the wind, Wendy found the gaps and flew away. A woman appeared and tried to trip Wendy from the side, but she easily evaded, and in the blink of an eye the woman landed on the ground with a grunt. Two more men stepped out from behind the nearest trees.
“Grab her,” someone yelled. “Don’t hurt her!”
Her body screamed at her to stop, her injuries too much for it to handle, but Wendy wasn’t about to give up. She would never stop fighting.
The man on the right stepped in, so she went for him first. Before she got there, someone caught her shoulder from behind. She and Pelton had run through this scenario a thousand times. She ducked, swiveled around behind the man, wrapped her arms around his neck and had both of her knives at his throat before he could do anything.
“If anyone moves, he dies.” The harsh tone of the words surprised even Wendy. So did the steadiness in her voice.
“We’re not here to hurt you,” Mike said, walking into view. His blue eyes watched her curiously through his glasses. “Do you live here?”
“I said, no one moves.” She let one of the knives cut into the side of Riggs’ neck.
“My name is Mike,” the tall man said, eyes flickering to Riggs. “I came to meet with Ed. We were supposed to talk. What’s your name?” Mike asked.
Wendy’s mind raced. There were at least six of them, probably more. Could she get away? Did they know about all of the tunnels? Had they let the Skinnies in? She cursed Pelton for putting her in that crate. At least down in the tunnels she knew who the enemy was.
The expression of kindness on Mike’s face faded. “Let my man go.”
“Move aside and let me out the front gate. I’ll let him go when I reach the woods. If you follow me, I’ll kill you all.”
“You’re in no shape to kill anyone,” Mike said, looking her over. “We can help you.”
Wendy wanted to rage at them, but knew her waning strength wouldn’t last much longer. She had to get to the woods so she could at least hide.
A tremor wracked her body.
They sensed her weakness. Wendy felt Riggs completely relax.
Normally she would have been a match for his speed, but not today.
He took hold of one of her wrists, and one of Wendy’s knives bit deeply into the flesh under his cheek while he wrestled the other away from her. She let him have it—it was in her bad hand anyway. Wendy stepped back and kicked him in the side of the thigh as hard as she could. Riggs went sprawling to the ground, right at Mike’s feet.
Mike’s eyes met Wendy’s. His rage matched her own.
She turned to go, ready to fight her way through, but arms wrapped around her stomach and Wendy screamed. Screamed in anger, frustration and fear, but most of all, in pain.
She bucked and kicked, sure she could get out of the hold, but her strength had finally failed. Dark blotches gathered at the edges of her vision, and no amount of teeth clenching determination could keep it back.
A woman, the one she’d thrown on the ground, grabbed at Wendy’s injured arm as Wendy punched at the man holding her. The pain in her body went from the yellow of sunlight to the blazing white of a lightning storm. It shot from the wound straight into her brain, where it settled in like a hot poker. She screamed again.
“Don’t kill her!” Mike said.
The darkness continued to gather—a tunnel closing in. Wendy’s arms and legs felt like dead weights.
“Put her down,” Doc ordered.
Wendy’s vision cleared slightly as they set her on the cool ground. The cloudless blue sky looked serene. Wanting to feel that peaceful, she started to close her eyes.
“Not yet,” Doc said. An ugly, purple bruise had already blossomed on the side of his face. She thought for sure he would hit her, but instead he knelt next to her and put a hand on her head. “Hold her down,” he told the others.
More hands pushed her limbs into the dirt. Wendy tried to struggle, but got nowhere.
Doc’s fingers ran up and down her arms and legs, pausing to look at the blood soaked bandage on her left arm. He left it and pressed on her torso. Wendy couldn’t help the hiss that escaped when he got to her broken ribs. He pulled her shirt up and frowned.
“Well?” Mike asked.
Doc sighed and looked straight at Wendy. “I don’t know. These are pretty bad.”
“We’ve seen it before.”
“I need to see what’s going on inside.”
The hands released her. Wendy tried to shake her head, but the action sent waves of pain through her skull and down into the rest of her body. She tried to sit up, but couldn’t get her arms to move. She willed her body to obey, but it ignored her. The darkness made a final assault.
Mike’s voice filtered through her fading consciousness. “Will she live?” he asked.
“I won’t be able to tell you until we get back.”
“Keep her alive. We need to talk to her.”
Wendy tried to read Mike’s face as he spoke, but the world blurred and the darkness covered her like a snow storm.
Wendy’s body and mind drifted through oblivion. She was content in the nothingness. Here, alone, she knew she was safe. She couldn’t even think of what she needed to stay safe from, and it didn’t matter. The drifting continued—had there ever been anything before this? She wondered if it would always go on, thinking it might not be too bad to linger here forever, until she heard a low, persistent noise. She tried to ignore it, but it poked at her mind like a determined insect. As her mind digested the possible implications of the noise, the black curtain of the void parted.
A soft buzzing, like a nearby swarm of bees, invaded her conscious. The curtain retreated, and the drifting abruptly stopped. A fist grabbed her insides and squeezed. Pain shot from her middle, through every nerve in her body and out into the dark. Like wet clothes, the agony weighed her down, and instead of floating, she plummeted back into life.
Her eyes fluttered once, but refused to stay open. A thousand needles poked at her from inside, causing her to gasp. The shaky breath she took did nothing to ease the agony.
Where was she?
Instead of cool, moist air, she found herself breathing in warm, dry air. Moving air. It brushed her face, her neck, and her eyelashes. Not the gusting winds of outside, but a slow, steady breeze. A breeze that only caressed her face and neck. The rest of her lay warm and protected. Under a blanket? Beneath her lay a soft surface. Not outside then. Maybe a bed.
The buzzing that had pulled her out of oblivion still hummed in her ears. The tone hung in the air like sunshine on a hot day. She wondered what it could be, then it stopped.
She tensed. What had happened?
Someone muttered a curse.
Who was with her?
Fear began to worm its way into her mind. She couldn’t think clearly, like a blanket had been placed over her thoughts. She shoved the fear back and focused on opening her eyes, but there may as well have been boulders sitting on her eyelids. The first attempt resulted in a spiral of pain that cascaded through her entire head.
A succession of dull thuds sounded, followed by a clink. The person she was with uttered more words she didn’t catch.
Was she in her bunk? Had she been injured? Had Pelton spiked her drink again?
She would not be the butt of yet another of Pelton’s practical jokes. Wendy forced her eyes open.
A set of pipes ran along the length of the ceiling. Flickering, yellow light tried, but failed, to reach to the corners of the room. Above her, an electric bulb hung, now dark.
Humming filled her ears. A song.
No one in her family sang.
Wendy sent all the energy she could muster into her neck muscles. Slowly—slower than she thought humanly possible—she turned her head to the side. It could have taken a minute, or it could have been an hour. Each tiny movement shot daggers of misery through her neck and shoulders, and her skull began to throb like it might explode.
The room was small. It held the bed Wendy lay in, two chairs—one on each side of the bed—a sink and a toilet. A shelf was on the wall above her. A small window in the door opposite the bed gave her the only view outside of the room.
When her head almost rested on her ear, she saw the reason for the noises.
A woman, tall, broad and dark, wearing a long, thin pink coat, stood fussing over a basin in the corner of the small room.
Wendy didn’t recognize the woman’s silhouette.
Where was she? Who was she with? What the hell had happened? The last thing she remembered was…
Going over the rosters. Had she fallen asleep? Where was she now?
Wendy’s fingers twitched for a weapon, which is when she noticed that she was tied to the bed.
The urge to panic rose, but Wendy forced it back. Pelton always said to wait to panic until you knew it was going to help.
What would happen if she spoke to this woman?
She could go back to sleep—that would be easy, but information was key to any situation—so she prepared herself, and chose her first question carefully. Keep it personal and act as innocent as possible.
The breath it took to fill her lungs caused black spots to blink behind her eyes. The rasping whisper that came from Wendy’s lips surprised the woman. She jerked around, a hand flying to her chest. Their eyes met, and the woman’s dark orbs turned from fright to warmth in a heartbeat. “Goodness, child, you scared me.”
Wendy tried again. This time actual words made it out. “Who are you?”
“My name is Elle.” The woman stepped to the side of the bed and laid a hand on Wendy’s forehead.
A knee jerk reaction pushed Wendy’s head back from the woman’s touch and deeper into the pillow.
Elle removed her hand. Concern etched into the lines on her face. “Are you in pain?”
Better stick with the truth. “Yes.”
“Poor thing, they brought you in here all beat up,” Elle said.
The words and the woman’s expression felt and looked sincere, but Wendy knew any of those things could be faked.
“Let me go get Doc.” Elle turned to leave, and Wendy’s hand tried to shoot out from under the blankets and grab Elle’s coat. She seemed kind, but what if Doc wasn’t?
The metal restraints clicked on the bed frame and kept her from reaching Elle’s arm.
“No!” Wendy said. “Please. Just…my name is Wendy.” She poured on as much innocence as she could muster. “How did I get here?” Wendy couldn’t tell this woman that she had no recollection of getting injured or the fight that surely accompanied the story. “I don’t remember arriving.”
Elle’s eyes softened again. “Dear, you were out cold when you got here. Doc said you’d been that way for three days. You’re lucky you survived at all. The Skinnies almost killed you.”
Skinnies? Wendy did her best not to let the fear or dread that was starting to set in show on her face. “How long have I been here?”
A week. Wendy had lost a week of her life.
She had to figure out what had happened. “Everything is a little fuzzy. Am I the only one they found?”
This time pity etched into Elle’s dark face. Her hand moved to Wendy’s and squeezed. “I’m sorry, you were the only survivor. But don’t worry, you’re safe here.”
It didn’t take any acting skills for the blood to drain from Wendy’s face. Her hands trembled. Pelton. Kenzie. Her dad. All gone?
How had the Skinnies gotten into the compound? The outer wall could hold back a thousand of them. She searched, but a black curtain stood between Wendy and any memory she might have of the day.
“Goodness, you’re shaking like a leaf.” Elle disentangled herself from Wendy. “Let me go get Doc. He can help you.”
Wendy’s mind whirled. Should she try to get out of here right now, or should she wait and see what happened?
Or should she break down and cry?
Could everyone really be gone? How could that be? They had evacuation plans, they had back-up plans to those plans.
No words came as Elle looked over her shoulder one last time before she slipped out the door and into the hallway.
A cold ball of ice had settled in Wendy’s stomach. There was no way any group had killed everyone. Others may have gotten out, but Wendy wouldn’t know for sure until she got out of here and made it to the rendezvous point.
But she didn’t even know where she was. What did these people want from her?
It had been a long time since Wendy had been truly frightened. Her mouth went dry. She couldn’t swallow.
Voices sounded from the hallway, and a moment later the door swung open.
Elle came first, followed by a short, stocky man with white hair and bushy eyebrows. Behind him trailed a tall thin man with wireframe glasses perched on the edge of his slender nose and a dark skinned man who immediately put Wendy on edge. The lines in the dark man’s face spoke volumes of what he had seen in his life, and the large white bandage across one cheek meant that he was still in the thick of the fray.
“She just woke up. Be nice,” Elle said.
Doc snorted and moved past Elle. His blue eyes were firm, but not unkind. For now.
“Elle said you were in pain. Where?”
Apparently his bedside manner wasn’t the most gentle.
Wendy took a shallow breath. Being tied down to a bed with serious injuries didn’t give her many options. For now, she would play the victim.
“It really hurts to breathe.” Wendy put a little bit of Kenzie’s whining in her voice.
Doc grunted. He pulled a stethoscope out of his white lab coat and put the pronged end in his ears while he pressed the flat disc at the other end gently into Wendy’s chest. “Breathe in.”
Wendy did so, trying not to cringe. She had never known just how much ribs could hurt. She’d cracked one or two before, but nothing a good wrap for a few weeks didn’t fix. This felt like someone had rolled a tree over her middle.
“Sorry about the restraints, you were thrashing around. “ Doc stopped listening and undid her arms. “Can you sit up?” He moved one hand behind her back to help.
It hurt enough to turn her stomach, but she did it.
The stethoscope moved to Wendy’s shoulder blades—she realized that she was wearing a thin gown that opened in the back. “Breathe.”
It took Wendy a few seconds before she could comply without crying out. She balled her fists and took the breath and prayed that he wouldn’t make her do it more than twice.
Doc’s eyebrows had at some point moved together. After the second breath they went back to their separate sides, and Doc let out a grunt. “Sit back.”
Wendy did so, feeling as if she’d been running uphill all day.
Doc draped the stethoscope around his neck and looked at Wendy. “No fluid in your lungs. That’s good.”
“How’s your arm?” Doc asked. “Can you flex your fingers?”
This action brought more pain—a dull roar down her arm rather than knives in her stomach—but her fingers did move.
“Good. Good.” Doc’s hand went to Wendy’s stomach and began to press gently but persistently. “Tell me when it really hurts.”
It all hurt, but when he got to her floating ribs, she hissed and tried to press herself away and into the bed.
Doc moved his hands and kept probing.
Wendy tried to ignore most of the pain and get a reading on the other two men. The man with the dark skin and bandage on his face looked at her as if he wanted to strangle her. With his bare hands. Multiple times. The tall, thin man kept his face neutral, almost serene. His eyes held the cold look of someone who had seen too much but had dealt with it.
The dark man was dangerous, but the other guy was the one who worried her.
Doc hit another sore spot and Wendy let out a little squeak of pain.
“Sorry,” Doc said. “I sewed a lot of things back together down there. We gave you a healer. If it all holds, you should be good as new in a few weeks.”
Healers? Wendy had heard of them. Supposedly they were super drugs that sped up the healing process of the body tenfold.
Why had they used one on her? What did they want?
Doc pulled a flashlight from his pocket and shined it in Wendy’s eyes. “How’s your head?”
“It hurts,” Wendy said. “Did I get hit there?”
Doc stopped with the light and frowned. “Yes, why?”
“Everything feels a little fuzzy.” Wendy was taking a chance here, but if they were after information it might give her a few days to get a plan worked out.
“I’m not surprised,” Doc said. He took a step away from the bed. “What do you remember?”
Wendy didn’t miss the way the other two in the room leaned in to hear her answer. She shook her head and prayed she wasn’t about to give herself away. “I remember being at the Den. I remember the attack. Skinnies were everywhere. There was a lot of fighting. A lot of bodies.” Wendy allowed her voice to break. “So many dead…” She broke off.
No one seemed to object to this recollection.
“You’ve been through a lot,” Doc said. “Your mind will clear with some rest.”
Another chance, but Wendy had to know where she stood. And she needed to do it fast, because she could feel oblivion pulling at her. “I…I remember being alone. Am I really the last person? Am I really the only survivor?”
That got the others’ attention. The tall, thin man stepped forward. He smiled in a fatherly way Wendy didn’t quite believe. “I’m Mike. What’s your name?”
“Wendy,” Mike said, “when we found you, you were alone. We hoped you could tell us if anyone else got away.”
He was probing. “I don’t know. I was…I was in the tunnels.” That had to be right. Her assignment was to make sure the kids got out of the evacuation tunnel and into the woods.
“How did you survive?”
That was a good question. Wendy used her small stature, her innocent face and the most logical thing she could think of and said, “I hid.”
Mike’s expression didn’t change, but the other man shifted his weight.
He didn’t believe her.
Wendy tried to save it. “I fought, and then I had to hide. There were too many of them.”
Elle, who had been standing to the side, let out a gasp and put hand over her mouth. “You poor thing.”
Wendy turned her best pleading face to Mike. “You didn’t find anyone else?”
He shook his head. “Only you. We were supposed to make an exchange. Good food for information about the region. Do you know anything about that?”
The cold ball of ice in Wendy’s stomach started to churn. These people could have been the ones to attack the compound. Information about the region? They wanted her dad’s map. But why? And why bring her back here? What else did they want?
Wendy didn’t have the strength to face this now, so she closed her eyes. “No, I don’t know anything about that.”
Doc cleared his throat. “Get some more rest. We’ll get you up and moving tomorrow. It will help.”
Panic tried to rise to the surface of Wendy’s mind. She took a breath in, and then pushed it out. It hurt, but the pain kept her focused on something besides the fear that she had been captured by the people who had attacked her compound.
What did they want, and what would they do to her to get it?
Wendy found herself in the tunnels beneath the Den. Dark shadows pressed at the edges of her vision. She looked around for her dad or Kenzie, but saw neither of them.
This was a dream. Wendy had had it every night since she woke up. As soon as she opened her eyes it would fade back into the recesses of her mind.
Leering, emaciated faces floated by Wendy’s eyes, like ghosts. The flash of a sword caught in dim light, and blood splattered the stone wall.
Pelton came out of nowhere, shouting words she couldn’t hear, and pushed her forward. Then he too disappeared, and only blackness remained. The tang of blood filled Wendy’s senses, as did the simple truth that she was alone. An invisible weight pressed her down. She struggled to rise—not sure when she had been put into a coffin—but no matter how hard she fought, she couldn’t lift the lid.
A gasp pulled Wendy out of the fitful sleep. She found herself sitting up, her hands shaking. Sweat covered her body, and her vocal chords were raw from screaming. She gulped down great breaths of air. Her arm throbbed, her ribs ached, and her senses remained dotted with the stench of death and dark figures with flashing swords.
She’d been through this enough that she knew where she was. She tried to hold onto the dream—even a small detail could be helpful—but it slipped away like water down a hill.
Gone, just like everyone she knew.
Wendy raised a shaking hand to brush a strand of hair out of her eyes.
The only illumination in the room came from the light from the hall, leaving a glowing rectangle of white on her floor. It was bright enough that it must be morning.
There were no widows to the outside, but they kept the lights on a cycle that followed the sun.
Wendy got her breathing under control and swiveled her legs off the bed. She slipped off the mattress and gently put her feet on the floor. Even though she was now able to walk for an hour without passing out, she’d learned the hard way to be careful with the first few steps.
For a moment, a dark tunnel with leering, smeared faces flickered over the sink in the corner. She blinked and shook her head, waiting for the residual effects of the dreams to fade.
Five mostly steady steps took Wendy to the white porcelain bowl. She turned the handle and pushed her hands into the stream of water. Cupping her hands, she waited until they filled up with water, and splashed her face. The cold always helped. Tiny rivulets formed down her cheeks and neck, and Wendy imagined them taking the horrible images in her mind with them, going down the drain where they would disappear.
Too bad the dreams always came back. Too bad she couldn’t remember them.
Wendy placed a hand on each side of the basin, and her fingers tightened around the edges. She raised her head and looked at her reflection in the small mirror.
Dark green-brown eyes stared back at her with hollow uncertainty. She looked about two days from death. The lines in her face didn’t come from age, but from injuries and lack of food. A white scar sliced along her right cheek—a lasting memory from when she and Kenzie had gotten into a fight with pine cones.
Her dark, haunted eyes told a story of horror, sadness and pain, but despite all her efforts Wendy still couldn’t remember the attack. She stared for a long time, trying to break into the vault of her mind. Maybe it was better left forgotten.
A week had gone by, and Wendy only saw Doc and Elle. Neither of the adults had asked her any probing questions, for which she was grateful. On the other hand, it meant Wendy still didn’t know what these people wanted.
Surely they didn’t drag her all the way back here just to heal her out of the kindness of their hearts. No one did that. Why waste the resources on someone who may or may not be of use?
Why waste such a precious resource on her?
They had to want something from her. Sure, maybe they were the type that brought strangers in and let them heal, but using medicine that couldn’t be replaced? Wendy’s own compound was so strapped for supplies that sometimes all anyone got were clean bandages and some herbs. Which occasionally worked better than actual medicine, if you could find uncorrupted plants—the Starvation didn’t just affect the plants humans ate.
And yet, these people had. Doc came twice a day to check on her progress. Wendy got out of bed and walked around on her own as much as she could. The pain in her ribs had dulled from feeling like she’d been made into a knife throwing target to a monotonous throb. The sharp ache in her arm had started to go tingly, like a limb after it had fallen asleep.
Doc and Elle had told her a little about the complex she was in. They called it Shelter, and it was big enough to house 400 people, but was currently only about 2/3 full. They had clean food, used thermal geo-something power and everyone had at least two responsibilities. But they wouldn’t give her any other specifics.
Wendy understood, but it was driving her crazy.
The restraints had been gone since the first time she woke up, but they still locked the door from the outside. Wendy had thought about trying to force it, but where would she go? She knew next to nothing about this place, and even though she was feeling better, she knew her body wouldn’t make it very far.
The small window in the door to her room taunted her, but she could only see a dozen feet in each direction down a bland, medical ward hallway. There were two doors she could see, but neither had opened since she’d woken up.
For the first two days she’d slept, but now she was restless.
Instead of drifting into a deep depression, as she’d seen so many others do, Wendy had begun to push her body. Each morning she paced the room long enough to start to feel tired. Just as she got there this morning, a shadow went by the window.
Wendy glanced over her shoulder, expecting to see Doc or Elle walking by. Instead she found a tall, gangly teenage boy looking in at her.
His curly, red hair refused to be tamed, his long face complemented his tall frame—he had to stoop just a little to look in the window—and his clear, blue eyes regarded her with curiosity.
If Wendy had to judge, she would put him in the nice guy category, but she wasn’t dumb enough to believe his looks meant anything.
He’d probably heard about her from Elle and had come to take a look.
Wendy kept walking, expecting him to move on. She almost jumped back when she heard the lock snap open.
For a moment, Wendy felt like a rabbit in a cage—nowhere to run and nothing to defend herself with. She rubbed her palms on her thin pants, and took a breath to steady her nerves.
The latch turned.
Wendy stopped, and her eyes rose to the boy’s.
He smiled, then he pushed the door open.
Broken ribs do not take kindly to a pounding heart. Sweat broke out on Wendy’s palms, and it took all of her control not to step back. She stood in the middle of the room, and she held her ground.
The rest of the boy came in through the door. Wendy had been right, he was tall. A bright yellow shirt showed through a handful of threadbare spots on his light blue lab coat. Both hung limply on his thin frame, and broad shoulders suggested that he wasn’t quite finished growing into his own body.
He stepped into the room and flipped the light on, but didn’t go beyond arm’s reach of the door, which he let shut behind him, but did not lock.
Was this a test? Now Wendy wished she hadn’t tired herself out with so much pacing.
The boy spent a good five seconds just looking at her, which made Wendy want to shift her weight around, but she refused to show weakness.
After the longer than necessary pause, the boy cleared his throat and smiled again.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Matt.” He took a step toward her and thrust his hand out in front of him.
Normally Wendy was a cool customer, but the gesture and the sudden movement caused her to step away from him. A small tremor went through her hands.
Matt stopped. He looked down at his hand and then back up at Wendy. “You don’t do handshakes?”
Wendy swallowed, making sure she would have enough moisture in her mouth to speak. “No.”
“Oh.” Matt’s hand retreated, and he brought it to his head where he ran his fingers through his hair. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. It’s a gesture of greeting here. From the old world.” He laughed, but it sounded forced.
“Oh,” Wendy said. “I’ve never…I mean I’m not sure what it is.”
Matt shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”
Silence descended. Wendy was unconsciously assessing his reach as well as his fighting abilities. She was tense, but he was totally relaxed. Which meant he either had no fighting ability, or he was very, very good.
She filed him into the dangerous category.
“I, uh, Doc sent me,” Matt said.
Wendy raised her eyebrows. “And?”
This time a real laugh came out of Matt. “Sorry, I’m not very good at meeting new people. I’m Matt. I work in the medical ward. I’m supposed to help you with some physical therapy.”
“Some what?” Wendy asked.
“Physical therapy. You know, where you work muscles and tendons that have been injured in order to help them heal.” His hands waved around as he spoke.
“Oh.” They called that recovery in the Den. “Like what?”
“I see you’ve already started,” Matt said, pointing at her feet. “Walking is really good. How long can you go?”
The hairs on the back of Wendy’s neck bristled. Again, she suspected a test. Had Mike sent this kid in here to be nice to her and help her in the hope she would divulge information to him?
Wendy decided to play the innocent card, and she kept her true strength to herself. “About thirty minutes. But there’s not a clock in here, so it’s hard to be sure.”
“That’s good,” Matt said. “Really good. How do you feel after you’ve walked around for that long?”
Wendy thought about it. “Tired enough to go to sleep for an hour or so.”
“You might be pushing yourself too hard,” Matt said.
A snort worked its way out of Wendy’s throat before she could stop it.
Matt grinned. “Yeah, I know what you mean, but I have to tell you that. If you’re like me you’ll try running up and down the halls tomorrow and kill yourself.”
Wendy decided to take the initiative. “So if I’m walking, what else are we going to do?”
“Work your shoulder and arm.”
That didn’t sound like fun.
“Trust me,” Matt said, “it’s better to be in pain now than to never have your arm be the same again.”
The words “trust me” grated at Wendy. Why were they putting this much energy into her? Of course, Matt could simply be a means for Mike to get in with her without actually being here. Lull her into a false sense of security. With his sheepish grin and the mild manner, Matt would be the perfect person for the job.
“We’ll just do some easy stuff today,” Matt said. He pointed at the bed. “Please, sit down.”
Wendy’s internal danger alarms started going off as Matt came to stand beside her. She sat on the bed.
“Give me your good arm,” Matt said.
Wendy did so. She watched intently as Matt bent her fingers around, then her wrist, then her elbow and then her shoulder.
“That’s how much motion we want to get back into the other one,” Matt said. He reached for Wendy’s bad arm. With more trepidation than she thought she would have, she surrendered it to him.
The pain started with the finger wiggling. She gritted her teeth.
“Hurts?” Matt asked as he gingerly pulled her fingers back.
“Tell me if it gets to be unbearable.”
Matt met her eyes. “If you feel like punching me in the face, please let me know before you do it.”
“Has that happened before?”
“Twice,” Matt said. “And they were big guys.”
A hiss got out as he started to manipulate her wrist.
“So, I’m Matt,” he said as he worked. “Your name is Wendy, right?”
Wendy cursed herself for letting her paranoia override the manners she’d vowed to demonstrate. “Yeah.”
“Rumor has it that you survived a Skinny attack.” He pushed her wrist the other way, which didn’t hurt as bad.
Matt eyed her as he started to bend her elbow. “Yes. I don’t get out of Shelter much; how bad is it out there?”
He was certainly innocent about probing for information. “It can be bad if you don’t have anyone to protect you.”
“There’s the truth.” The direction of the stretch changed.
“Stop,” Wendy said, her good hand balling into a fist.
“What about here?”
“Not as bad.” The pain throbbed, but it faded a little.
Wendy channeled Kenzie and tried to make polite conversation. “Did you grow up here?”
“Press against my hand,” Matt said. As she did so, he answered. “No, I’ve been here for six years, so quite a while, but I remember what it was like. I lost a lot of family members and friends before we found this place.”
The tone of loss in his voice made Wendy want to believe him. Could he be that good of an actor?
Now he straightened her arm. “Push.”
It only took three seconds before Wendy started to shake due to a combination of unused muscles and sheer pain.
“Were you alone?” Matt asked. “Because you seem pretty young to be alone.”
This. Wendy almost lied, but decided the truth was more distracting. “I’m sixteen.”
Matt blinked. “You are?” He immediately held a hand out in front of him. “I didn’t mean…I mean. You just look really young.”
“Yeah, I know. I get it a lot. Don’t feel bad.” But secretly she wanted him to feel bad. Off balance. “And no, I wasn’t alone. But I am now.” An unexpected rise of emotion accompanied the words, and Wendy’s voice caught in her throat.
Matt placed a hand on her good shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
Wendy nodded, holding back a tide of despair with the strength she had left.
Pelton’s smiling face switched off with Kenzie and her dad as they each flashed through her mind.
“Let me change that bandage for you,” Matt said. He rose and went to the little cupboard above the sink. They kept bandages and cleaner in there. Nothing else. Wendy had checked.
Matt grabbed the supplies and looked at her. “Come over here. Doc said we could actually wash your arm today. That should feel pretty good.”
It did sound good. Wendy rose and walked to the sink. With practiced hands, Matt untied and unwound the existing bandage. Mostly clear fluid was all that leaked from the wound in her arm now. Matt examined the wound, poking a few places but stopping when Wendy flinched away.
“That’s quite the cut,” he said. “What did it?”
Wendy had been thinking about this. “A sword.”
“Ouch,” Matt said. He pulled out a sponge and got it wet. “Let me see it.”
Wendy surrendered her arm and watched as Matt gently cleaned the adhesive and old herbs off. The care he used made her feel as if her own mother were there. A lump rose in her throat, but she swallowed it down and focused on her arm.
The water flowed over her entire lower arm. One minute it was clear, and the next it was red.
A roar filled Wendy’s ears, and her vision blurred. Sounds of a fight invaded her mind. Gunfire, the clanging of metal weapons and screaming. Lots of screaming. The room around Wendy dissolved into a blotchy scene of flashing, black spots and people running. People she knew, but their faces wouldn’t come into focus.
She felt water dripping off her arm, and looked down. The liquid had been replaced by dark, sticky blood. The gash in her arm cut to the bone. The fingers of her other hand tried to hold it together as someone wrapped a bandage around it. Before they finished, a sword flashed, and the man’s faceless head flew out of her vision.
“Wendy?” A voice cut through the vision—the memory. “Hey, are you okay?”
The man’s body fell away, and as it did so, the memory disintegrated. She tried to keep it together. She wanted to know what had happened, even if the truth was too much to bear, but it slipped away like soft dirt between her fingers. The dark blotches resolved once again into her room.
“Wendy?” Matt asked.
Wendy found herself on the floor, curled up into a ball. A sob threatened to claw its way up her throat, but she stuffed it back down.
“What happened? Did I hurt you?” Matt’s voice went up I pitch. “Wendy?”
A shudder ran through Wendy’s body. She swiveled her eyes toward Matt.
“Are you okay?” he asked. One of his hands pressed on her shoulder, the other lay under her head.
Wendy blinked. “I…” She trailed off and had to swallow before she could speak. “I’m not sure.”
“Are you hurt?”
Wendy uncurled and sat up. Matt kept a hand on her back. She took inventory; she must have hit her head on the way down. Other than that, everything felt normal. “No, I’m not hurt.”
What had that been?
“Did you pass out?” Matt asked.
“No.” Wendy shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
Matt helped her to her feet and then to her bed. “Get some rest. Maybe you pushed yourself too hard today.”
An intense desire to see her dad, Kenzie and Pelton rushed through Wendy faster than her blood. The thought of staying in this room—this windowless, claustrophobic room—for one more day pulled rage from a place Wendy didn’t even know existed. Her body continued to shake. The walls seemed to press in around her, and she pushed Matt away.
“I’m tired of resting,” she said with venom in her voice. “I’m tired of being in this little room. Don’t you people ever go outside? Don’t you miss seeing the sky?” The air seemed to get warmer.
Matt didn’t step away, but he scratched his chin. “I know what you mean. We’re underground here. Sometimes it’s hard.” He paused.
The faces and smiles of her family and friends continued to taunt her.
Tears threatened to pour out of Wendy’s eyes, but she held them back. No crying. She hadn’t cried since her mother’s death. Now was not the time.
Matt continued to speak. “Tell you what, we have a greenhouse. I can’t take you outside, but maybe Doc will let us visit there tomorrow.”
Wendy barely heard the words. The hole in her heart didn’t go away. Instead it got bigger and bigger. She waited until Matt cleaned up and left before she curled up into a ball and squeezed her eyes shut as hard as she could.
Maybe she would wake from this nightmare.
Or maybe this nightmare would keep going for the rest of her life.
Early the next morning, Elle dropped off some clothes and told Wendy to get ready. Matt had received permission to take her to the greenhouse.
Matt arrived just a few minutes after she changed. He knocked on the door, and then stuck his head in. “How are you feeling?”
The look of concern in his eyes almost caused Wendy to tell the truth.
“Are you sure?”
Wendy tried a small smile. “I’m sure. Elle said we’re going to the greenhouse.”
He grinned—which put an end to his questioning. “If you want to.”
“I want to,” Wendy said. She took a step forward then hesitated. She hadn’t been outside this room since she’d been brought here, and although she needed to get a better idea of what this place was all about, she suddenly felt that safety only resided here, in this little spot.
Matt reached out and grabbed Wendy’s wrist and tugged her forward through the door. “Come on, before Elle comes and gives us a lecture.”
The invisible threshold of the door hit Wendy like the shock of a cold stream. Her heart sped up, and her body tensed. Her mind began thinking of three different ways she could get out of the hold Matt had on her wrist, and only one of them left him mobile enough to walk.
If Matt noticed her discomfort, he ignored it. He pulled her forward and they started down the hall. “We have two hours before we have to be back, so we need to hurry.”
Wendy’s internal alarms started to wail. The hallway was deserted—lined with a handful of closed doors like hers. Most of the rooms were dark. The floor consisted of beige tile and the walls were dirty white. No pictures hung to provide a splash of color.
Matt looked down at her with a stern expression. “You have to promise to tell me if you’re not feeling well. Elle and Doc will have my head if you come back in worse shape than when you left.”
They moved down the hall, around a few corners until they came to a set of heavy metal doors. A card reader and a keypad hung on the wall nearby, but Matt simply pushed on the doors and they opened.
Before them stood a hallway almost twice as big as those in the medical section. Cinder blocks painted white made up the walls, while cracking, yellowing tiles that should have been replaced years ago lined the floor. Out here the air smelled musty.
“That was the medical wing,” Matt said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “It’s not very big, but Doc has turned it into a real hospital.”
Matt spoke as if he’d given this speech a few times. “This is where most of the people here sleep.” He gestured at the doors lining the walls. Ahead of them two men emerged from a room, laughing. When they saw Matt they waved and said hello.
They kept walking and Matt kept talking. “Each person here has at least one assignment. This is where our electrical team is housed. They keep this place going, and are situated near the center of the complex so they can get anywhere quickly.” He pointed out where the farmers lived, the kitchen staff, those who ran the marketplace and about a dozen other occupations.
Wendy had to appreciate the organization.
“How many people do you have here?” Wendy asked.
“Almost three hundred.”
The resources alone to keep that many people fed, clean and healthy meant this place was big. She wondered how extensive the greenhouse was.
The hall ended, and as they turned a corner Wendy saw a bright light before her.
“This is the marketplace,” Matt said, leading her out onto a balcony. It overlooked a huge cavern, dotted with work stations, tables, booths, a large open space at one end. The space could easily hold five hundred.
“Wow,” she said.
“This is the social hub of the complex. A lot of the daily tasks get done here, and twice a week it opens up for business.” He gestured with a hand.
“Well, we don’t have currency. No money,” he added.
Wendy nodded. She knew what that meant.
“We share everything we need.” He looked over the edge and pointed at a nearby table covered with shoes in various stages of old. “If you need a new pair of shoes, you just go ask Brach.”
Below, a grizzled man with long, blond hair was stacking shoes by size. Farther down the same aisle two women folded clothes. A machine shop took up the far corner. More booths than Wendy could count stood in a maze-like pattern. Dozens of people were already inside.
In the Den, they had also shared everything, but not on this scale.
“It’ll be open in an hour or so. We’ll come back for breakfast after we go to the greenhouse.” He led her over to a set of stairs and down onto the main floor.
Wendy took in the cavernous space. Smooth walls ran up to a rough ceiling. The stone floor shone in places where thousands of feet must have walked over it. Mismatched materials made up the tables and booths: wood, plastics, stone and even some metal. There were a lot of places to hide, and four ways out that Wendy could see from here. Good to know.
Wendy took a breath and inhaled the scent of tanned leather. “How long has this place been here?”
“I’m not sure. Before the Starvation, at least.” Matt led them through a corner of the marketplace, through a wide archway and into a low, squat hallway.
The smell of food filled the air, and Wendy’s mouth started to water.
The hallway came to a T intersection. The sound of clanging metal on metal came from her left.
“The kitchen is right over there,” Matt said. “They’re gearing up for non-rationed day.” He walked beside her, not going fast. He swiveled his eyes to look down at her every dozen steps or so.
Only every third light was on in this section of the complex. It was enough illumination to see by, but the slow, strobe effect caused Wendy’s vision to blur. Faces that weren’t there swam before her eyes. She shook her head. Now was not the time for another meltdown. After a few steps, the vision faded. Wendy glanced at Matt and found he wasn’t watching her.
After two left turns, Wendy saw a bright light coming through a small window in a doorway. Just like the square of light that came into her room from the hallway, only much brighter.
“Here we go,” Matt said. A small pad with numbers on it sat nestled in the wall. Matt keyed in a five number code. A click sounded. Matt reached out, twisted the metal handle and pulled. He gestured for her to go first. His blue eyes sparked as if he knew a secret she didn’t.
Wendy stepped through the door and into the large, bright room beyond.
The space had to measure sixty feet in each direction. Far overhead, a combination of skylights and plant growing bulbs provided the bright light she’d seen from the hallway. The floor remained tile. The walls looked like glass or plastic. Ten feet from the door, wooden boxes—six feet square and a foot high—were laid out in a grid pattern across the floor. Green and red and yellow leaves and stalks poked out of the boxes, reaching for the light coming from above.
The rush of air hit her, and Wendy inhaled the combination of stale, recycled air from her room, and the earthy tang of dirt and plants. She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed the smell of outside. A deep breath pulled the scent in through her nostrils, filling her with a thousand memories of working and training in the woods.
“Do you like it?” Matt asked. The excitement in his voice was almost contagious.
Pelton had always said that smells held a close relationship to memories. He was right. The dark earth and the green leaves combined to bring back a sunny day so long ago Wendy hadn’t even realized that she still remembered it.
Kenzie had decided it would be fun to climb the tallest tree they could find. Never one to be outdone, Wendy had taken up the challenge. They’d spent all morning getting to the top of a pine tree that shouldn’t have held their weight. But kids didn’t care about that stuff.
Their mother had come looking for them. A good thing too, because both girls had gotten stuck. Up was easy, down not so much.
It had taken three men and Wendy’s mom to talk the girls back down. And in the end they’d had to get a blanket and had Wendy jump into it.
The feel of the wind through her hair, the scent of her mother as she had scooped Wendy up in her arms.
Wendy’s throat tightened up. The weight of the memory caused her to stumble.
Matt’s smile faded, and he placed a hand on her back. “Hey, are you okay?
She didn’t like to think about her mother. Now she couldn’t think about the rest of her family either. Too much pain.
“Do you want to sit down?” Matt asked.
Wendy nodded. It took her a second to get her legs working. Matt guided her to a nearby wood bench and they sat.
“It’s always so quiet here in the mornings,” Matt said.
Wendy pulled her mind from sorrow and distracted it by asking Matt questions. “Do you come here often?”
“Sometimes. It’s faster than going outside, and until the morning crew gets here, it’s always quiet. A good place to think.”
“Do you grow crops here year round?”
“We do. It’s the only way to keep fresh fruits and vegetables coming in all the time. If we don’t, then people start to get sick.”
“Yeah, we had that problem too,” Wendy said.
“What was your home like?” Matt asked.
The innocent question roused Wendy’s suspicions. More probing. But she’d already come up with the generalities she could share that wouldn’t give them too much information.
“We were in the forest, up pretty high in the mountains, so our growing season was short. I never really worked with the growers, but I did help harvest a lot.”
Matt frowned. “Did you have problems with your food becoming corrupted?”
“Yes,” Wendy said. But the stuff in the small greenhouse they had mostly came out okay. It was true that she hadn’t been involved with the growing, but she heard all of the reports. “We had a simple test that we could do to check it.”
“A test?” Matt shifted to face her more directly. “To check for the Starvation?”
“Yeah,” Wendy said. “I’m not sure what was in it, but I know we always checked every batch of food we cooked with or ate.”
“I’d love the list of ingredients,” Matt said. He rubbed his hands together.
Wendy knew exactly what was in the test, and she needed to get it all together so she could use it on the food here. She assumed if they’d wanted her to be a Skinny they wouldn’t have bothered to save her. Which meant that the food she was eating now should be good. But what if it wasn’t all good?
“So what do you grow here?” Wendy asked. Her legs had stopped shaking, so she stood.
Matt followed suit. “This room is separated into different areas. Right here are our underground vegetables. Over there we have tomatoes and peppers—stuff that grows on vines. Sort of.” He started to walk while he pointed. Wendy tagged along, noting a few plants she didn’t recognize.
“The bigger crops are on the other end.” Matt led her into the grid of plant boxes. Some had stalks and leaves that almost touched one another. The soft hiss of her shoulder brushing a leaf sounded as she negotiated between the larger plants.
“Back here we have some wheat. We tried rice, but it’s hard to keep enough water on it.” Matt pointed to some larger boxes. “But we have had a great deal of success with barley and corn.”
Wendy’s feet stopped moving, receiving a command from her brain before she consciously sent it.
“Corn?” Wendy asked out loud, before she meant to. Her mouth went dry, and she wanted to pull her shirt up over her nose.
“Yeah, it’s over here.” Matt walked away from her.
Wendy didn’t follow. Her feet stayed riveted in place.
In the ten years Wendy could remember at the Den, they’d never managed to get a strain of corn clean of the Starvation. Every single one had been poison. They’d even tried to get it to grow in the greenhouse, but in the end it started corrupting the other crops, so they gave up.
Corn was the first plant that had mutated. It had killed over half of the world’s population.
Sweat coated the inside of Wendy’s palms.
Why did they have it here? Corn only lead to one thing: Skinnies.
Which meant Wendy had been right. She was trapped with the people who had destroyed the Den and killed everyone she had ever loved.
Matt looked back over his shoulder. “Hey, are you coming?”
The tingle of danger filled Wendy’s mind and body. She wanted to run. To find the quickest way out of here and back into the world outside.
But she knew she didn’t have the strength to make it far. Not yet.
It could have been her imagination, but the sweet scent of corn teased her mind. She shook her head. “I’m not feeling great. Maybe we should go back.”
Matt, always brimming with concern and kindness, moved back to her side. “Okay. Sure.” His countenance had fallen.
“Thanks for bringing me,” Wendy said around the scream she wanted to unleash. “It’s really nice in here. I’m just not sure I’m ready to be up and about this much.”
That seemed to placate Matt. “Okay, we’ll go to the marketplace and get some breakfast. You can sit down there for a few minutes before we go to medical. Is that okay?”
“Sure,” Wendy said. She just wanted out of this room.
Matt obliged, and they retraced their steps back through the door and out into the hallway. Matt filled the silence with idle chit-chat that only required Wendy to respond with grunts or a nod.
The smells from the kitchen had increased in both volume and potency. It should have been comforting, but now all Wendy could smell was the sweetness of corn.
What was Mike doing? What was this place about?
“Here we go,” Matt said.
Once they reached the end of the archway, they dove into marketplace proper. Matt called out each area as they went through it: bakers, shoe makers, clothing suppliers, machinists, weapons, and a few others. The number of people had quadrupled in an hour, and the whole place made Wendy feel claustrophobic.
They went by the stall with warm bread and steaming potatoes. Matt stopped, and the man standing there gave him a plate.
“You have a friend today?” the man asked. He wore jeans and a brown shirt under a stained apron.
“Brett, this is Wendy, she’s new.” Matt took a second plate from Brett and handed it to Wendy.
“Good to meet you,” Brett said. He smiled—like so many others did here. “Take as much as you want.”
Matt went first, piling his plate high with potatoes. “Market day is a non-rationed day until the food runs out.”
Wendy took very little. If anyone asked, she told them her stomach still ached, and eating a lot didn’t help. After the greenhouse, she studied the bread. Was it corn based? She tried not to think about it as she followed Matt when he moved away and toward a set of rectangular tables where a teenage boy wearing a dark purple shirt sat.
Wendy could tell the other guy was tall, even though he was sitting. Dark, unruly hair sat on his head, and a bandage covered a cut or a scrape over his right eye. Papers topped most of the table before him, as well as a heaping tray of food which he was shoveling in as if it might disappear if he didn’t eat it fast enough.
The vast amount of food made Wendy’s stomach churn. These people lived without real fear. Without real problems.
“Hey, Jeff,” Matt said as they approached. The shoveler looked up and stopped mid-chew when he saw Wendy.
“You got a second?” Matt asked.
Jeff’s dark eyes—guarded and sad—looked Wendy over before he finished chewing and swallowed. “Sure.” He stood and offered Wendy his hand.
Matt made introductions. “Wendy, this is Jeff. Jeff, Wendy.”
Jeff’s sizable hand engulfed Wendy’s. He gave her a respectable squeeze, but didn’t try to break her fingers.
“Have a seat, “Jeff said, indicating the two chairs next to him.
Matt took the far seat, leaving Wendy between them. She wondered what this was about.
Matt started to fidget, so she turned her eyes to him.
“I, uh, well.” Matt cleared his throat. “Yesterday, you sort of freaked out.”
Wendy felt her face harden, but she didn’t say anything.
Matt’s eyes swiveled to Jeff’s for a second before they came back to Wendy. “I, uh, well, you had some sort of a flashback. Am I right?” He paused, searching Wendy’s face, which she tried her best to keep impassive.
Matt continued. “Jeff here has been through it. I thought he might be able to help you.”
Wendy turned toward Jeff. She knew she was giving him a look that might kill, but she didn’t care.
Jeff didn’t seem fazed. Instead, he nodded. “Matt told me what happened. That you’re the only survivor of a Skinny raid.”
The hair on the back of Wendy’s neck rose.
“I came here alone too. Everyone I knew died in an ambush. I had nightmares about it for months. I still do.” He paused. Wendy didn’t say anything. She didn’t breathe.
“How much of the attack do you remember?” Jeff asked.
Wendy kept her eyes on him, but she had already mapped out an escape route. She may not be able to get out of this place yet, but she wasn’t going to allow these two to dredge information out of her. “Some, not all of it.”
Jeff nodded again. “And something happened yesterday that triggered some sort of flashback?”
“I’m really not sure,” Wendy said.
Before Jeff could ask her any more questions, an alarm blared. Both boys shot out of their chairs to look around.
“Over there,” Matt said, pointing to his left. “Come on.”
Both Jeff and Matt took off at a run. Wendy followed. She wished she knew more about this place—it would be a perfect time to try to get away—but not yet. She had to escape, not get turned into a Skinny.
They moved toward the maze of crates Wendy had seen earlier. As they ran, Wendy’s tired body forgot its fatigue, and her other senses reached out. The boys pounded on, but a voice caught Wendy’s attention.
“Ben?” The tone in the woman’s voice told Wendy that she was looking for her child. Wendy had heard the edge of worry and anguish many times before.
Wendy slowed and listened.
Wendy turned into the piles of boxes and crates.
A handful of kids, who looked as if they’d been playing a game, were in the maze of crates. Most were now headed toward the nearest adult; the older ones helping the younger.
The woman’s voice sounded again, this time louder and more anxious. “Ben?”
Wendy kept going through the small city of containers. She cringed back from the larger ones, not sure why. As she got near the edge of the room, movement caught her eye.
This wasn’t a child, as she had expected. No, instead two, tall and extra thin figures burst from a doorway that had just barely come into view. They didn’t have shirts on. Their ribs pushed at their skin as if they hadn’t eaten in weeks.
Dread pulled Wendy to a halt.
A little boy, standing only a dozen feet from the Skinnies, screamed and pointed. A girl and a redheaded boy stood nearby as well.
One of the emaciated men turned his head and spotted the screaming boy. He lunged, eyes hungry.
The second Skinny smiled, exposing broken teeth. His cold eyes took in the scene around him with relish. The lights bounced off his balding, scarred head.
Wendy knew the signs. They’d had a few people get the Starvation in the Den. These two were clearly in the late stages, when all reason vanished and everything looked like food. Most Skinnies would start to hurt themselves to keep their mind off of the constant pain in their bellies.
The second Skinny spotted the girl and went straight for her.
Wendy ran forward and grabbed the little red-headed boy, shoving him behind a big box.
A yell came from the door to her right as the Skinnies grabbed the two kids.
Three men in red shirts burst through the door while Jeff and Matt sprinted toward them from a different direction. None of them would make it in time. The Skinnies each had a child by the neck. Hostages. Or food.
No, the fighters wouldn’t make it, but Wendy might.
“Stay here,” she said to the boy, whose eyes looked as if they might bulge out of his head.
She surveyed the space between herself and the Skinnies. The Skinnies had their attention riveted on the fighters. Good. Perfect. Wendy darted around a large, rusted machine and under an unoccupied table. Once on the other side, she ran behind a row of crates, coming around behind the Skinnies, snatching up a length of wood the size of her arm as she ran.
To their credit, the two children screamed, wiggled, kicked and in general did everything in their power to force the Skinnies to let them go. As Wendy got to the end of the crates, she watched as one Skinny punched the little boy in the face.
Rage welled up inside her—more than she thought possible. Cold determination rose, pushing her protesting muscles to go faster. Harder. The Skinnies would not kill these children. She wouldn’t let them. Never again would a Skinny kill a child if she could help it.
The fighters shouted at the Skinnies to stop. The Skinnies ignored them and focused on the kids. Neither party noticed Wendy darting in between obstacles.
Adrenaline coursed through Wendy’s veins, and she used every ounce of it to jump off of a box, fly through the air and hit the Skinny who held the little girl as hard as she could in the back of the neck with the make-shift club.
The Skinny crumpled to the ground, burying the little girl beneath him. Good, she’d be safe there.
The wail of the siren changed pitch.
The other Skinny turned, surprise on his face. Excitement lit in his eyes, and he dropped the wailing little boy and lunged at Wendy—she was obviously a bigger meal. She took two steps away. The Skinny followed. She used the boxes to get airborne, and whipped her leg around at the Skinny, aiming for his neck.
He was too close. She got him in the shoulder with her shin, lost her momentum and landed badly on the ground. Fiery pain erupted along her arm. The Skinny staggered, but didn’t go down. By the time Wendy got back to her feet, he was coming straight at her. She met his wild, insane gaze with a hard stare.
The Skinny advanced with an inhumane cry, arms reaching out as if to embrace her. Light gleamed off of his chipped teeth. His head angled toward Wendy’s neck.
She waited. Waited until his grimy fingers brushed her arms, and his putrid breath filled her nostrils. Then she dropped, curled up in a ball and rolled between his legs. She got a vicious kick to the back for her efforts, but managed to spring to her feet before he turned.
Ignoring the pain now screaming inside her, she slashed out with the piece of wood as the Skinny came around to face her. The stick cut into one of the Skinny’s eyes.
Bright red blood blossomed from the side his face. The Skinny howled in pain and fell to his knees, both hands covering his ruined face. Wendy grabbed the little boy, who stared in wide-eyed horror, and shoved him behind her. She turned to get the girl, but found herself face to face with a third Skinny. This one a woman.
Cold eyes regarded Wendy. The Skinny held the redheaded boy in front of her, a sharp piece of glass at his throat. The glass had already cut into the Skinny’s hand—blood dripped down from the shard on to the boy’s chest. He whimpered, and his eyes begged Wendy to help him.
“One move and he dies.” The Skinny spoke in a raspy voice.
Wendy knew the fighters were coming, but couldn’t tell if they would make it in time to help. She heard the wounded Skinny getting to his feet. She had to stall, because there was no way to get to the boy before the Skinny killed him.
So she tried something else. “No,” Wendy pleaded, dropping the club and putting her hands up. “Please, don’t.”
Wendy felt the skeletal frame of the Skinny come up behind her, blood from his wounded face dripping onto her shoulder.
“Let me kill her,” he said in a ragged voice. Wendy wondered how he could move at all. A normal person would have passed out, or would still be on the ground screaming in agony. In that moment, Wendy realized that in some way she was like these Skinnies. She didn’t stop because of pain. Not even when she should be dead.
“Take her as a hostage,” the woman ordered.
Perfect. Wendy’s body tensed like a snake—coiled and ready to strike. The moment she felt the Skinny’s bloody hands touch her neck, she stepped back and drove her elbow into his groin as hard as she could. A groan of pain escaped him as he involuntarily doubled over. Wendy grabbed one of his arms and pulled him tight to her back. Using every ounce of strength she could muster, she kicked her hips out and tossed him over her shoulder.
Hip throws weren’t easy under the best of conditions, and Wendy’s body wasn’t ready for it.
The Skinny managed to grab hold of her hair, and they both went down. Wendy used the momentum to take them into a roll. One of the Skinny’s knees hit her in the chest. She screamed as they both barreled into the woman and the redheaded boy. Legs and arms entangled, and they all ended up in a heap. Wendy couldn’t move. She thought her middle might explode.
Pandemonium erupted as the other fighters appeared. People began to yell orders while mothers called for their children. Wendy raised her head enough to see the redheaded boy on his hands and knees nearby. Only a small trickle of blood came from his neck. Relief released the tightness in her muscles.
Someone pulled the Skinny off of her. Oxygen filled her lungs, and Wendy took a couple of good breaths before she tried to sit up. The Skinnies were each being held by two men while another tied their hands.
Blood dripped in her eye, and she wiped it away. Her blood-covered fingers trembled as she glanced down at her own body. No new cuts. At least not that she could see.
“What the hell happened?” a booming voice asked.
Wendy turned to see Riggs—the dark skinned, dangerous man from her first day here—coming through the crowd. His eyes took in everything, including her.
Matt was with the little girl who had gotten buried by the first Skinny Wendy had knocked out. He glanced over at Wendy and caught her eye.
“Are you okay?” he mouthed.
“I’m fine,” Wendy said. She waved a hand and only then thought maybe she shouldn’t have used her blood covered fingers.
“How did they get out?” Riggs demanded.
One of the fighters answered. “We’re not sure, but they’re locked down now.”
Jeff, who had been securing one of the Skinnies, moved to Riggs and whispered in his ear. Both of their eyes landed on Wendy. After a moment of scrutiny, Riggs nodded.
Wendy rose to her feet and repressed a groan as pain pulsed from her arm and abdomen. She had to reach out and touch a nearby fighter to keep from stumbling to the side.
Jeff moved toward her and pulled a green bandana out of his pocket. “Here,” he said, pressing it to her forehead. “Just a cut, but it’ll bleed like crazy for a bit.”
It took a great deal of self-control not to step back from his touch or his proximity.
The woman who had been calling for Ben burst through the circle of fighters and snatched up the little redheaded boy in a hug. The woman didn’t speak; she just held her son close and cried.
Wendy swallowed down the rising emotion. No one would ever hug her like that again.
“Are you hurt?” Jeff asked. “Besides that.” He pointed at her head.
“Just beat up,” Wendy said. She raised her hand and took over pressure on the bandana. She had to look way up to meet Jeff’s eyes.
“Good.” Jeff studied her for a moment. “That was fast thinking, and good fighting.”
“I’m just glad the kids are okay.” Wendy didn’t regret helping them. No one should die like that, especially kids.
Jeff cleared his throat. “Listen, I’m in charge of trainees. If you’re really that good, I’d like to invite you to join us.”
“What does that mean?” Wendy asked.
“Each group of teenagers goes through fighting and tactics training. Everyone here can fight, although many of them choose not to. We could use someone with good hand-to-hand skills. There are some exceptional fighters in this group, but your style is very different from theirs.”
“I just got here. I’m still in medical,” Wendy said.
Jeff’s eyes swiveled over to Riggs for a split second, before returning to Wendy.
“I just saw you take down three Skinnies twice your size. You didn’t even flinch. We could use that kind of quick thinking and skill with the other trainees.” He smiled. “We could use it in general. Normally Mike has people wait six months before they’re invited to training, but I can get you in now. There’s no reason for you to go to work in the kitchen or something and waste talent like you’ve got.”
Wendy knew she was a good fighter, and she needed to know more about this place. Could she use this to her advantage? Infiltrate them from the inside? If she could learn enough, then she could take them down.
Wendy nodded as she pulled the bandana away from her forehead and looked at it. She made a face, folded it and returned to putting pressure on the spot. This was her way in. Mike had corn here and she’d just encountered a few of his rogue Skinnies. The closer she got to these people the more information she could gather to wipe them out.
“Sure,” Wendy said. “I like fighting.”
Jeff huffed out a breath. “Good,” he said. “Now let’s have Matt give you a couple of stitches.”
A week later, Doc pronounced Wendy free to leave the medical wing and ready to go into training. Even though Doc hadn’t given her any more healers, Wendy felt good. Sore ribs aside, mending after bruises hadn’t taken nearly as long as putting her body back together the first time. Wendy had already been exercising, and she could tell her body wanted more.
The night before, Elle had taken Wendy to a room in the probationary hall. It felt strange to have a space she could call her own, even for just a little while. A clean, warm bed with blankets lay on a frame in the middle of the room, a dresser for clothes sat to the right. The doorway to the left led to her own private toilet and sink. All luxuries she had never experienced before.
She placed her only possessions on the dresser: three little hand-made thank you cards complete with thick-lined illustrations the kids from the marketplace had brought her a few days before.
The cards should have softened her demeanor toward these people, but instead they stood as a bleak reminder that Mike and his band of Skinnies were willing to kill whole families. Wendy vowed to make sure it didn’t happen again.
She pushed off her bed and stood. This morning would be her first meeting with the other trainee fighters. She’d been ready for half an hour, and still had a few minutes to spare. Sitting on the bed made her fidget, so she paced the room.
She’d never had friends, and now she was about to try to make some. Kenzie had been the ultimate example of being everyone’s friend. For the hundredth time, Wendy tried to remember what her sister did to make everyone like her—smiling, asking how they were, actually caring how they were, sometimes offering advice, but most of the time just listening. Things Wendy always thought of as a waste of her time, and here she was about to try to be liked. Should she act tough or more helpless? Coy or aggressive?
She’d tried different strategies out on Matt over the past few days, but he seemed to like her no matter what. Which wasn’t helping.
A knock sounded at her door. Wendy froze in place, heart racing, palms clammy.
Before she opened the door, Wendy took one last look at herself in the small mirror that hung next to the dresser. Still scrawny, Wendy now appeared to have a few weeks between herself and death, as opposed to a few days. Eating regular meals for the past two weeks had done wonders for her sunken eyes and cheeks. Her collar bones stuck out, jabbing at her shirt, but the dark pants and light jacket almost didn’t look too big anymore. Her long, dark hair hung down her back in a single braid. When she got to her haunted green eyes, she turned.
Time to go.
Before the knock could come again, she closed the distance to the door and opened it. As he had promised the day before, Jeff had come to take her to the meeting. He stood like a soldier—stiff and straight. “Ready?”
Wendy shoved her doubts and fears aside, and dredged up a smile. “Do I need anything?” Not that she had anything to bring. Just a few changes of clothes and the purple trainee shirt Elle had brought her.
“No,” Jeff said. His posture relaxed a little. “Not this time.” He glanced down at his watch. “We should go.” He stepped back, motioning her into the hall. Wendy tugged her door shut.
Jeff started walking, his long legs eating up the tiles far faster than Wendy’s. Doubling her speed, she caught up after a few strides.
They walked in silence to the end of the probationary corridor and through an unlocked gate. Jeff slowed his pace, maybe noticing her shorter legs.
He broke the silence first. “How have you been?”
It felt like a loaded question, so Wendy just said, “I’m okay.”
“Any more flashes?”
Wendy let a sigh escape. She didn’t want to answer these questions, but she needed Jeff to like her. “No. Just dreams that I don’t remember much of. And waking up screaming.”
“Sounds familiar,” Jeff said.
Wendy didn’t answer.
“We didn’t really get to talk the other day. Matt is worried about you. I’ve been through it. If you want to talk about it, or ask me any questions, I’d be happy to spend some time with you.”
“I’m not sure what I want right now.” Wendy didn’t hide the bite to her words.
Wendy cleared her throat. Kenzie always asked people about themselves. “So you’re the leader of all the trainees.”
“Yeah,” Jeff said, shoving a hand in his pocket.
“What does that mean you do?”
They moved through the mostly deserted marketplace and to a hall on the far side, down a set of stairs and to an intersection of four hallways. Jeff led her left. The rigidity came back into his shoulders, and his voice took on a business-like air.
“Yan and Riggs are in charge of the older fighters. I basically do the same job with the trainees.”
“Which is?” Wendy prompted. She made a mental note to find out who Yan was.
“Organize rosters, set up training teams, keep the meetings straight and make sure no one kills anyone else.”
“Is that usually a problem?”
Jeff let out a small chuckle.
Wendy felt a small swell of pride that she’d just made a little joke.
“We’re a bunch of teenagers learning to fight. People get heated sometimes.”
“What does Matt do?” Wendy had been wondering about this. He wouldn’t tell her.
A handful of closed doorways lined the hallway. No light came from underneath them. None had windows. Wendy added to her mental map as they took a right.
“Matt went through training with the last group and came out as a mechanic, but he decided he’d rather fix people, so he’s going through again as our medic.”
The ease and familiarity with which Jeff spoke about Matt made Wendy wonder. “Are you guys friends?”
Jeff nodded. “Neither of us had families, and we became friends during our training.”
Wendy let that process, and then kept going with her original line of questioning. “How many people do you have in your training group?”
“Right now we’ve got eighteen.”
“How often do these training groups start?”
Jeff waved a hand. “There isn’t a set schedule. They start one as soon as there are enough people to join. Mostly they just have to wait for kids to grow up.”
“That doesn’t take long,” Wendy said.
“No, it doesn’t.”
Silence. Wendy could see Jeff stealing glances at her as they walked. It looked like he wanted to say something, but couldn’t get it out. Finally he spoke without her prompting.
“Thank you for helping those kids in the marketplace,” he said.
Wendy’s face settled into a mask of stone. “No little kid should have to experience a Skinny, let alone get attacked by them.”
More silence. Wendy decided to take a chance. She hoped she could make the question sound innocent. “Why do you have Skinnies here? Did you capture them?”
Jeff’s eyes swiveled down to Wendy and then back to the hallway ahead. “No. Some of our food was poisoned—no one noticed until it was too late.”
Wendy’s stomach twisted. “You mean you know those people?”
“But…” Wendy trailed off. Why didn’t they just kill the Skinnies? They were going to die a horrible death anyway.
Jeff must have thought the same thing. “There are some here who think that taking any life is wrong. So we lock them up until they die.”
“That’s inhumane.” People who joined the Den had sometimes thought the same thing. But her dad never tolerated it. It felt like a great excuse for Mike to keep Skinnies around. Wendy’s stomach churned.
“Some people agree with you. Mike has made this concession to keep the peace here, but after the other day, I have a feeling that mandate might be altered.”
Wendy suddenly remembered why she had volunteered to do all of the day-to-day stuff for her dad. She hated politics. She understood the need for it, but the lack of common sense it involved made Wendy want to punch something.
“We’re almost there,” Jeff said. His hand lightly touched her back as they went around a corner. His fingers didn’t linger, but Wendy could feel the warmth of him through her jacket. They moved in thoughtful silence—Wendy ignoring the flutter in her stomach as she tried to compose herself for the meeting—until they came to the end of the hallway.
The doorway led into a large room. Maybe a mess hall. Benches and tables had been pushed back to make space for the twenty-five or so miscellaneous wood or metal chairs that sat in a box formation in the middle of the room.
Talking, laughing young adults filled most of the chairs. A tall Asian kid sat perched in the middle of a gaggle of girls, his feet on the seat while he sat on the back of the chair. The whole group roared with laughter at something he said.
Wendy had never seen a group of teenagers this big before. They were talking and laughing—the energy in the room reminded her of Kenzie.
“Have a seat,” Jeff said. “I’ll introduce you once we start.”
Wendy chose a chair in the back. One with two empty seats on either side of it. She tried to look calm. Collected. Like she belonged here.
Should she talk to someone?
A group of young adults in front of her had their heads together. Wendy, not really eavesdropping, but having nothing better to do, listened.
“He always wins,” one boy said, shaking his head and glaring behind Wendy.
“He’s good,” a girl said. The way she had her dirty blond hair spiked out everywhere reminded Wendy of Kenzie.
The girl shrugged. “Naw. He’s got a mind like a steel trap.”
“But you outflanked him this time.”
“Sure.” She shook her head. “But he won’t let it happen again.”
“And now look back there, Gessica’s got a hold of him.”
Much to Wendy’s chagrin, all their heads popped up and looked behind Wendy. Before she could turn away, the girl with the spiky hair met her eyes.
“Oh, hey,” she said with a smile that lit up the room. “You must be the new girl Matt told us about. I’m Arie.” She held out a hand to Wendy, who shook it. They seemed to use the gesture for everything here.
“I’m Wendy.” She managed a smile, but knew it couldn’t compete with Arie’s. The other girl had the kind of smile everyone wanted to sit next to.
An extra muscular guy, who had just walked in, pushed through the pack toward Wendy. The way he pressed the others aside and sauntered over reminded Wendy of the pictures she’d seen of a rhinoceros—big and always ready to charge. The angle at which he held his chin told Wendy he was pretty full of himself. Of average height, he had his hair cut so short it looked like someone had painted a dark-ish spot on his head. The brown of his eyes could have been warm, but they were not.
“Hey,” he said to Wendy as he sat down beside her. “I’m Dennis”
“Hi,” Wendy said. She forced a smile. She was supposed to be nice.
“This is the new girl,” Arie said.
Dennis leaned down toward Wendy and smiled, and she found it softened his otherwise haughty face. “Welcome. You know how to fight?”
It only took those few words to plop him down into the bully category. Wendy hated bullies. It was one of the reasons she’d learned how to fight so well. She gave him a bright smile. “A little.”
“Give it a rest, Dennis,” Matt said, coming up behind her. “She just got out of medical, don’t go challenging her.”
Dennis’ smile turned into a mischievous grin. He spoke to Wendy, his eyes exploring. “I guess I’ll wait until you’re not injured before we dance.”
“Dance?” Wendy asked. Her mind went through how easy it would be to grab him by the throat and slam his face into a chair before he even knew what had happened.
“Are you so desperate that you’re challenging little kids now?” the tall, Asian boy asked as he walked toward them.
Dennis straightened, foiling Wendy’s plan to break his nose, and looked at the guy. “Well, Kev, I figure she can’t be any less of a challenge than you.”
Arie and the other girl—a blonde with pink tips on her hair—let out a synchronized “Oooh.”
Kev grinned and elbowed the guy next to him—another tall, spindly boy with reddish blond hair who looked like he was still growing into his impressive height. “He talks tough, doesn’t he, Cal?”
“Sure does,” Cal said. “We’ll see if he can put his money where his mouth is later today.”
Before Dennis could answer, Jeff walked to the front of the room.
Between his height and his commanding stride, Wendy could see he was a leader. Conversations immediately wrapped up, and everyone scrambled for a seat. Matt took the chair on Wendy’s other side.
“Good morning, everyone,” Jeff said, setting a pile of books and papers on the podium. “I trust you are all rested from your labors?
A bizarre cacophony of grumbling and chuckling came from the teenagers.
As Jeff smiled, his gaze fell on Wendy.
“We have a new trainee with us this morning.”
Those who hadn’t noticed her before turned around, and suddenly Wendy felt pinned to the back of her chair by almost twenty pairs of eyes. She forced the corners of her mouth up into a smile.
“Will you stand?” Jeff asked.
Wendy flexed her legs—her body felt five times heavier than it had a moment before—and stood. With disgust she noticed that even on her feet, some of the guys’ heads still rose above hers.
“Everyone, this is Wendy. She hasn’t been with us for long, and Doc just cleared her for training. Try to make her feel welcome.”
Wendy still had the forced smile on her face. She knew she should say something. “Thank you, it’s nice to be here.” Bland, but it worked. Jeff nodded and she sat down, surprised the velocity at which her butt hit the chair didn’t shatter the creaking wood into a thousand pieces.
Jeff spoke again. “Yan thinks we’re almost ready for our first outdoor exercise.”
This elicited a rumble of whispering through the crowd.
“But he wants us to do one last week of indoor stuff.”
Grumbling accompanied that announcement.
Jeff held up his hand. A small grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. “You will get new teams. You will practice in these teams until the final exercise one week from today.”
“He’s moving us through extra fast.” Dennis leaned over and whispered in Wendy’s ear.
Kev raised his hand. “And what is the final exercise?”
“Indoor operation, up top.”
The grumbling was drowned out by excited chatter. Wendy caught bits of whispered conversations.
“They never do that one this early.”
“Dennis is probably bored of the other stuff.”
“I want Kev on my team. He and Cal know this place better than anyone else.”
“My older brother said this is the best exercise there is.”
Jeff paused before he said, “We’ve added Wendy to the list. Three teams have five, one has four. Team leads are Matt, Arie, Sven and Dennis.”
All four teenagers moved to the podium. Wendy shifted her legs as Dennis stood and climbed out over her. Jeff handed each team lead an envelope. All at once, the four team leads pulled rosters out and started calling names. Chaos erupted as people began to stand, cat call, jeer and move toward their new team leaders. Some of the guys slapped each other on the back, while others looked longingly over at a girl in a different group.
Her name. She looked up to find Arie smiling at her. “You’re on our team.”
Wendy let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, and pushed herself up out of the chair. By the time she got there she saw only two other people had joined Arie. The small group.
Wendy turned her gaze toward Jeff and found him watching her. His face gave nothing away—neither did hers. If he wanted to play tough, then so could she.
Besides Wendy and Arie, the group consisted of the Asian kid and his buddy.
“What do we do now?” Wendy asked.
Arie tossed a frown at the boys. “We’ll get to that in a minute. First we should do some official introductions. These two are Kevin and Calvin. We call them Kev and Cal.”
“Welcome,” Kev said. Instead of a simple hand shake, he did a complicated routine of hand shake, slip out, knuckle bump and a snap. Wendy didn’t get it the first time, but when Cal used the same technique, she caught on. These two probably worked as a team better than any other pair in the room.
Arie went on. “This group has never done a mission together before, so don’t worry about being the new girl,” she said to Wendy.
Kev took a moment to look Wendy up and down. “You specialize in hand-to-hand combat?”
“Yeah,” she said with a shrug. She knew she didn’t look impressive.
“If Jeff says so, then it must be true,” Cal said. “That guy never exaggerates.”
“We can certainly use you,” Arie said.
Jeff moved to Arie and tapped her on the shoulder. “Can I borrow Wendy for a minute?”
Arie rolled her eyes. “Fine, if you have to.”
Jeff motioned for Wendy to follow him. The other teams left the room with their envelopes in tow. Jeff and Wendy sat back down on the front row.
Jeff studied her for a moment before he spoke. “I’m glad you came.”
Jeff shifted in the seat. “I just wanted to tell you, that if you experience anything like a flash, let Arie know. She’ll get Matt or Doc. I’ve had the flashes, and they don’t always pick good times to come.”
He pressed the issue. “You will tell Arie.” It wasn’t really a question.
Wendy produced a smile. Another lie. “Of course.”
“And if you want to talk, I’m willing to listen.
“Okay.” Wendy wondered how many times he would make the offer.
The answer seemed to satisfy him. “Good, your team is waiting.”
Jeff rose and gestured for Wendy to join her team.
“About time,” Kev said, grinning.
“Yeah,” Cal said, “you don’t plan to have special talks every day, do you?”
“Shut up,” Arie said. “Come on, guys, we need to get to the combat rooms.”
“Do we get to fight today?” Cal asked.
“No,” Arie said. “Not today.”
Cal snorted. “Bummer. Dennis needs something to get excited about.” He turned to Wendy. “That guy never gets excited.”
“I saw him laugh once,” Kev said.
“Was he asleep?”
Arie broke the rhythm. “Hey, can we focus here?” They continued to move through new hallways.
“I’m just saying, the guy’s good,” Kev said. “I’ve been on his team a couple of times.”
“We all know he’s good,” Arie said, looking around. “But he’s not unbeatable.”
“Close enough,” Cal said.
Wendy took the first step in her friend-making plan. These three seemed to be as good a place to start as any. “He’ll slip up.”
“He never slips up,” Kev said.
Wendy turned her gaze on the tall, Asian boy. “Everyone slips up. It will happen.”
Arie met her eyes and nodded. “I agree.”
“Big words from the shrimp,” Kev said, grinning.
“Better than little words from the tall guy,” Arie said. “Now hurry up or we’ll be late.”
“But I missed breakfast,” he said, placing a hand on his stomach.
“Go by the kitchen,” Arie said. “Maybe someone will take pity on you.” She patted Wendy on the shoulder. “Meanwhile, we’ll go get you some workout clothes.”
“What’s a combat room?” Wendy asked, following Arie.
“It’s where we train for hand-to-hand stuff. We do at least two hours of it a day.”
An uncomfortable wiggling started in her stomach. Or was it excitement? This was something she was good at.
The two girls took a different route to the marketplace. Wendy mapped it in her mind as they navigated the hallways and emerged close to the clothes area.
“Over here,” Arie said. They approached one of the clothing booths, but before they got there, Wendy felt a pair of small arms tackle her knees. She almost fell, but Arie reached out a hand to steady her.
Wendy looked down. The little boy she’d saved from the Skinnies stood there, arms encircling her legs, looking up with a smile.
“Endy!” he said.
“Hey,” Wendy said, ruffling his hair. His sister, Grace, arrived a moment later.
“Ben, don’t run away like that!” she said, waggling her finger at him.
He only grinned and said, “Endy.”
Grace looked shyly at Wendy, twirling a lock of red hair in her fingers. “Did you get our cards?”
Wendy ignored the faces of all of the children from her home as they flashed through her mind. Disentangling Ben’s arms, she squatted down and looked at them both. “I loved your cards.”
Both children grinned. Ben said, “Oo aved us.”
Words from a familiar voice caused Wendy to turn and look. “Well, I see they finally let you out.” Elle’s dark, smiling face greeted Wendy.
It felt strange to see someone she knew. To have someone greet her. Wendy rose and pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. “Hi, Elle.” Then the question popped out. “Don’t you work in the medical wing?”
Elle laughed as she negotiated the maze of tables and boxes of clothes. When she reached Wendy, she pulled two small pieces of candy from her pocket and handed one to Ben and one to Grace. “Why don’t you two go over with your mom?” Elle pointed.
Grace’s eyes lit up as she took the candy. “Thanks, Elle.”
Elle gave the kids one of her motherly smiles as Grace grabbed Ben’s hand and hauled him off. He waved to Wendy the whole way.
Elle’s attention returned to Wendy. “I help out down here when there’s no one in medical.”
“Doing what?” Wendy asked. For some reason she could only picture Elle bullying patients in medical.
“I’ll have you know that I can fix clothes just as well as Doc can fix bodies.” Elle folded her arms across her stomach. “Now, what can I get for you?”
“Workout clothes,” Arie said, pointing at Wendy. “We’re going into the combat rooms.”
A frown crossed Elle’s face, and creases appeared between her eyebrows.
“It’s only practice,” Arie said. “We’re not going to break her.”
Elle waved her hand. “Follow me.”
The girls trailed along behind Elle. Wendy could feel Arie’s eyes on her.
Arie sped up to walk closer to Wendy. She lowered her voice and said, “You’re the one who saved the kids?”
Wendy nodded, stealing a quick glance at Arie’s face. The other girl looked intrigued.
“I only heard about it. Nice work.”
“Thanks,” Wendy said.
Elle stopped walking and started rifling through piles of clothes. “It might help if you weren’t so little,” Elle said under her breath. After a few seconds, and some more muttering, Elle emerged with a small bundle of clothing. She handed it to Wendy. To Arie she said, “They have the suits down in the rooms, don’t they?”
“Yes,” Arie said.
“Then you’re good to go.”
Wendy remembered her manners. “Thank you, Elle.”
“You’re welcome, child.” Elle gave Wendy a pat on the shoulder as she walked away.
Arie leaned close to Wendy. “You’ll have to tell me about beating the Skinnies.”
“I saw kids in trouble and had to save them.” Wendy said. “I’ve seen a Skinny try to eat someone, it’s not something I’d want anyone else to experience.”
Arie snorted. “There’s the truth.”
Wendy decided to push it a little. Hopefully Arie and Jeff didn’t talk much. “How did Skinnies even get in here?”
A soft growl came from Arie’s throat. “It’s a stupid policy.”
“Policy?” Wendy raised her eyebrows.
Arie shook her head. The other girl’s smile faded into a thin line. “It’s something they do here. If someone gets the Starvation, they put them in a little ward until they die.”
Wendy frowned, once again amazed that this was happening. “But they’re just going to suffer. I’ve seen it.”
“Me too,” Arie said. She cleared her throat. “My mom actually got the Starvation right after Mike brought us in. She asked my dad to kill her, but there is a faction here that thinks taking any life is wrong, so they locked her up and waited for her to die.”
Wendy’s chest tightened. For a moment she couldn’t breathe. Her own mother hadn’t gotten the Starvation, but she’d suffered in a different way. “I’m sorry, that’s horrible.”
“Yeah, they made me go see her right before she died. Worst day of my life.” For a moment a cloud passed over Arie’s face.
Wendy felt a little bad for bringing the whole thing up, but this was good information. “Sorry to pry, but are you alone now?”
Arie’s eyes brightened. “No. I’m with my dad. He’s a fighter, so I don’t see him a whole lot, but he’s around.” She looked at Wendy. “Are you alone?”
“Yes,” Wendy said. She’d practiced this so she would stop choking up. “A big group of Skinnies overran our compound. I was the only one who got away. Mike found me and brought me in.” The words tumbled out, but she got through it without getting emotional.
“Sorry,” Arie said.
What would Kenzie say? “I’m sorry about your mom. Isn’t there anything you can do to change the policy?”
“Oh, there is,” Arie said. “I’m working on it.”
They made their way back through the fighters’ quarters, where Wendy took a moment to change in a bathroom, and through the mess hall. Tables and benches had replaced the chairs, and twenty or so people sat in there, either eating or talking. A few of them waved to Arie, one calling her by name as Arie dragged Wendy out the door and down some stairs.
“It’s an off day for most of the fighters, so there are a lot of people around this afternoon,” Arie said as they descended.
Wendy wondered about the schedule the fighters kept, but didn’t get a chance to ask about it before the stairs ended and they came to a wide, double door.
“Here we are,” Arie said, pushing the door open to expose a viewing room. “The combat rooms.”
Shaped roughly like a crescent moon, large windows lined the inner wall, giving the people in the viewing area plenty of opportunity to see the four combat rooms. Opposite the windows, three tiered benches ran the length of the wall. Fighters, some laughing or talking, but most watching through the widows, filled the benches and half of the rest of the room. Wendy clicked her teeth together so her jaw wouldn’t drop open.
One group of fighters gathered around the second window, cheering loudly. Her lack of height made it impossible for Wendy to see much of anything past the crowd.
“Why don’t we go stand in a far corner until it’s our turn? We’ve still got a few minutes before we start.” Arie pulled Wendy by the elbow, through the crowd and to the window of combat room four, as indicated by the blue number four on the glass door. A group of eight people—both men and women—emerged into the viewing area.
“Nice move there,” one of the men said. “You almost had me.”
“I did have you, but your friends are better than mine are.”
The fighters all laughed as they passed Wendy and Arie.
They all wore loose fitting, gray body suits, complete with hoods that covered everything but their hands, feet and faces. Most people had green tinted glasses on.
“That’s part of Riggs’ team,” Arie whispered as the group sat on the bench and began to pull off their hoods and unzip their gray suits. Underneath they wore the same style of light shorts and t-shirt Wendy had on.
“They must be pretty good,” she said.
“The next group is better,” Arie said with a twinkle in her eye. She jerked her head.
Wendy turned and saw more people coming in through a door on the far side of the room.
“I love watching these guys,” Arie said.
Right away Wendy could tell this group really knew what they were doing. They moved like a pack of graceful, beautiful cats.
A short, Asian figure trailed at the end of the group.
“Who’s that?” Wendy asked.
“That’s Yan. He’s in charge of our hand-to-hand training, and he’s the guy we all wish we were. He’s always got the best group.”
Wendy turned to watch them go in the door, when a familiar voice cut through the din.
She swiveled her head back and found Matt, dressed in a gray body suit, trying to tuck his red curls into the hood.
“Hi,” she said. First Elle, then Matt. She was slowly becoming part of this place, but she wasn’t sure that she liked that. Too many emotions involved.
“Glad to see you made it,” he said. His eyes moved past her to the combat room and back. “Are you here to watch?”
Someone called Matt’s name, and he stuffed the last of his hair back. “I, uh, gotta go.”
“Good luck,” she said in unison with Arie.
A grin split his face, and Wendy could have sworn that Matt skipped a little as he jogged away.
“He’s in Yan’s group?” Wendy asked.
“Don’t let the bumbling, shy act fool you,” Arie said. “Matt’s good.”
Wendy watched him go into the combat room and pulled the door shut behind him. “So, what are we watching?”
Arie stood up straighter. “There’s only one rule—don’t break anyone beyond repair. But,” she held up a finger. “The point is to win. Every fighter has a stat chart that records their wins and losses in the combat rooms. At the end of each month, the highest ranking fighters get together and have a tournament.”
“So it’s all for show?” Wendy frowned, looking through the glass. Matt and three others stood huddled in a corner, heads together. She couldn’t fathom training for some sort of tournament. If you did that, then when the time came to be in a real fight, you might not go all in.
“No, not for show. For training.”
Wendy filed that away and studied the room beyond. The eight fighters filled about a third of the space, but with nothing but open air in there, she didn’t understand the point.
“Do they just fight to the last man standing?”
Arie made a face. “It’s easier to watch than to explain. They’ll start in a second. For now just know that those four guys are on one team and everyone else is on the other team. You see how Yan’s team already has a plan? They’re ready. The team Matt is on doesn’t usually fight together, so they’re at a disadvantage.”
“If Yan is so good, why don’t they put him at the disadvantage?” Wendy frowned.
Arie grinned. “The odds are stacked different each time. You’ll see.”
A low buzzer sounded, and the eight figures in the combat room came to stand with their backs against glass windows. A few seconds later, Wendy saw a handful of shelves, big enough to step on, but not deep enough to stand on, slide out from the wall at different levels. Through the legs of the combatants, she saw a thick slab of the floor rise from the middle of the room until it stood three feet tall.
Three squawking honks sounded, and before the third faded away, all eight people scattered. Running, jumping and diving, they looked as if they were part of an intricate dance. Yan, by far the shortest, ended up on top of the raised portion of the floor. He dodged everyone who tried to attack him, twirling like a top and keeping them at bay with a whirlwind of punches and kicks. Two of the members of the other team attempted to divide his attention, but Yan easily kept up with them as they circled. He blocked, parried, punched, kicked, jumped and even did a cartwheel, looking neither rushed nor concerned. Wendy couldn’t take her eyes off him. He flowed like water, and like the wind.
“Watch Matt,” Arie said.
Wendy blinked and tore her eyes from Yan. Two men had Matt boxed into the far corner. They both couldn’t attack at once, Wendy saw that, but Matt would have a much better position if he moved.
“He should get out of there,” she said.
“Wait for it.” Arie’s voice sounded gleeful.
Matt’s face split into a grin as he turned from one man, only to be confronted by a hook punch from his other assailant. Matt waited until the last moment, just before another buzzer sounded, then ducked as he used a hand to guide the man’s fist into the wall.
Wendy flinched. That would leave a mark. But to her surprise, the man’s hand didn’t break on impact. Instead it sank into the wall like he’d pushed it into bread dough.
Matt popped up behind the trapped man and went after the other in a flurry of punches.
“What just happened?” Wendy asked.
“The walls, the shelves and the platforms are all on timers. They start out hard but get soft and then go back again. If that guy can pull his fist out of the wall before it goes hard he’ll be able to move, if not he’s stuck there. Basically a non-threat.”
“They’re on timers?”
“Matt has some kind of clock in his head; I swear it’s like a computer, because he always knows when they change.”
With renewed interest, Wendy watched as people scrambled around the room, dodging one another and those now stuck. One man dangled by his foot from the highest shelf.
Yan, on the other hand, had jumped off the platform, and managed to get two people’s hands stuck. In the process, a tall man grabbed Yan in the same hold Pelton was always putting Wendy in.
“He’s in trouble,” Wendy said.
“Who?” Arie asked.
“Yan; that hold is impossible to get out of.”
Wendy’s jaw hinged open as Yan wiggled and used his other arm to create an opening in the hold. A moment later, he was free.
How had he done it?
Yan moved fast, and Wendy noticed he avoided Matt. Matt hung back for a little while before springing forward at his next opponent, jumping on him like a crazed animal. One woman got her hand free from the platform before it went hard, but everyone else remained stuck.
Nearly all the people in the viewing area stood gathered around room four. Most cheered, a few talked tactics. Wendy and Arie had moved to the glass at the beginning, so they could still see. Everyone laughed as Matt tossed someone into the windows, who landed with his back to the crowd and slid down to the floor.
Wendy looked at Arie.
“Obviously strong glass,” she said with a grin.
Dennis’ voice cut through the crowd as he said, “Matt and Yan need to have it out. There’s no point to the rankings if the two of them won’t fight.”
Wendy bristled at Dennis’ arrogance. Part of being a great fighter was that people didn’t know you were that good. Every element of surprise helped.
Wendy leaned close to Arie. “Is Dennis really that good?”
Arie snorted. “Unfortunately.”
The fight continued to rage. Within minutes everyone except Yan had some part of themselves stuck. Even Matt, but Wendy suspected he may have done it on purpose to keep the higher ground against Yan.
The buzzer went off, and the spectators broke out into wild cheers.
“Now it will all go soft and they’ll pull themselves out.”
“How do they keep score?” Wendy asked.
“You get points for not getting stuck, for getting someone else stuck, for getting out of being stuck, for how many good strikes you get in. There are a bunch of categories.”
Wendy watched as people pulled feet and hands free. “So the gray suits make it so nothing but your hands and feet stick?” she asked.
Arie nodded. “Yup.”
“So technically your face could get stuck?” Wendy asked.
A laugh sounded behind her, and Wendy turned to see Cal and Kev standing nearby.
“You planning on face planting, shrimp?” Kev asked.
Arie answered. “No, just wondering if we could get you to run into one of those shelves. Stop your mouth for a few minutes.”
“Oh come on.” Kev draped an arm over Arie’s shoulders. “You like it.”
“Let’s see how much I like it while we’re in there.”
“Wait, are we going in there?” Wendy asked. It looked fun, but potentially painful with her still healing ribs.
“Not with the sticking,” Arie said. “We’re working on fighting in tight places and using our surroundings. Probably just drills. But any of the fighters, or us, can sign up and come down here whenever there is free time. The really good guys come late one night every week. ”
Kev opened his mouth to say something, but snapped it shut when Yan and Matt came through the glass door. Matt’s smile could have encompassed the entire room.
“Did you see?” he asked Wendy.
Wendy nodded. “Looks fun.”
Yan pulled his hood off and shook out his dark hair. “Get dressed, trainees; we’ll be in room two in ten minutes.”
Cal handed Arie and Wendy each a gray suit as they headed for the changing room. The cloth felt as light as air next to Wendy’s skin, not hampering her movements at all. She noticed that Arie didn’t pull her hood up, so Wendy left hers down. When they walked back out into the viewing room they found the place full of the other trainees.
Yan stood in one corner, talking to Matt and Jeff. Matt spotted Wendy and gave her a little wave. Jeff’s gaze followed the gesture, and his eyes met Wendy’s for a moment. Wendy didn’t get a chance to respond, because Cal and Kev stepped in front of her.
“You should stick with us,” Kev said.
“Why should she do that?” Arie asked, placing a hand on her hip.
“Because,” Cal said, “people fear us.”
“There are several reasons for that,” Arie said, “and none of them have to do with your mediocre fighting skills.”
Kev put a hand over his heart. “Shots fired.”
Wendy shook her head and smiled, turning away as the banter continued. The others from the meeting that morning gathered in groups, talking or waiting. Wendy expected to hear Dennis bragging, but instead he stood by himself, a look of concentration on his face. Maybe he wasn’t all bluster.
Footsteps approached. Wendy knew it had to be Yan—she could practically feel danger coming up behind her.
“Wendy,” Jeff said.
Wendy turned to face both him and Yan.
“This is Yan, our melee fighting instructor.”
Wendy held out her hand, as she’d seen everyone here do. “Nice to meet you.”
Yan’s hand wasn’t huge, but it was warm and strong as he squeezed just enough to be comfortable. He only stood a little taller than Wendy. Thick, black hair lay combed on his head, while his almond shaped eyes regarded Wendy with interest. “Wendy, Mike told me about you.”
Good to know Yan and Mike were buddies.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m good,” Wendy said. “Just a little sore in a few places.” She could feel his eyes assessing her.
“Well, we’re not doing anything too physical today. If the contact gets to be too much, just tell your partners.”
Wendy smiled. She was getting good at it. “I will, thank you.”
The door to room two popped open, and a voice over an intercom said, “Ready.”
“Everyone in,” Yan said.
Wendy, who happened to be close to the door, stepped in right behind Kev and Cal. They moved to the far end of the room, and she followed. The space filled quickly, and when the door closed behind Yan, Wendy saw there couldn’t be more than a foot between any two people. Arie had said something about working on fighting in close quarters. Is this what she’d meant? Wendy’s feet suddenly became restless, and she started to sweat.
“Everyone line up, tallest to shortest, starting at the door,” Yan said.
Kev and Cal towered over Wendy, so she stepped into the middle of the room and waited for the line to form, knowing she would be at the end. People darted around her, trying to get into place. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and looked up to find Jeff next to her.
“The far end will be right there,” he said pointing and giving her a push.
Wendy stepped forward, and kept going. Sure enough, Jeff was right. She moved to the wall and stood next to another girl, who had an inch on Wendy. Arie was third shortest, which surprised Wendy, because she wasn’t that short.
Jeff and Matt took the unoccupied corner and leaned up against the wall to watch.
“Good,” Yan said, standing in the middle of the room, surveying his students. “Today we are going to continue working on fighting in tight quarters. We’ll start with partners of the same size, and then we’ll mix it up.” He motioned to Dennis, whose body type closely resembled Yan’s, though Dennis sported more muscle. Dennis ran the three steps to Yan and bowed. Dennis might not respect any of his teammates, but he did respect Yan. Yan returned the bow.
Hours and days and weeks of training with Pelton came back to Wendy, settling in her stomach like a stone, a feeling that was becoming all too familiar. She took a breath to steady her emotions.
“We’re about the same size,” Yan said, “so there is no obvious advantage here for either of us.”
Someone, Wendy suspected Kev, snorted.
Yan smiled. “For the sake of argument,” he said, “let us presume that the two of us don’t know one another. We don’t know the fighting skills of the other, and we meet in a hallway, or in a dense forest. What do we do first?”
“Attack,” someone said.
Yan’s head swayed back and forth. “Maybe, but with what?” He pointed at the four tallest people. “Come out here and surround us.”
They did so, forming the corners of a square around Yan and Dennis.
“Now, step in,” Yan said.
They did, forcing Yan and Dennis so close together they could easily touch each other’s shoulders. Dennis’ jaw twitched. Wendy understood. Any safe space had disappeared, and now he stood in Yan’s range.
“Do you attack now?” Yan asked.
“May as well,” someone said. Wendy silently agreed.
Silence hung for a moment before Arie said, “A short punch.”
“Good,” Yan said, nodding. He motioned to Dennis, who sent a flurry of short-ranged punches at Yan’s face. Yan kept his guard close, turning his body in order to block. After six or seven punches Yan retaliated, using his speed and alternating his targets to force Dennis to get tangled in his own arms. Yan backed him up against Cal, who didn’t budge.
Wendy watched the movement. What would she do if someone had her backed up in a corner?
The image of the bloody sword flashed through her mind. Her arm came up to block. Then it was gone, faded back into black. Wendy shook the memory away.
Yan stepped back and motioned everyone back in line. “What else?” No one answered. He looked around the room. “What won’t work?”
“Kicks,” Jeff said.
Yan nodded. “Kicks are no good. What else?” He turned his attention to the rest of the group.
“Guns,” Sven said. Wendy hadn’t taken much notice of the other team leader. His impressive broad shoulders and muscular arms faded into the background as he somehow made himself as unobtrusive as possible. Blond hair topped his head, and his eyebrows were so light Wendy could hardly see them against his fair skin.
“Very good,” Yan said, pointing. “Unless the weapon is in your hand, pointed at the other guy, you won’t get it out and aimed before he’s on you.” He looked around again.
“Clubs,” someone said.
“Right, long weapons would be more of a detriment than a help in close quarters.” He continued to turn, looking at his students. “So if we can’t use our feet, guns or long weapons, what do we have left?”
Again, no one spoke.
Wendy imagined herself backed against a wall by someone bigger than her. Maybe someone with a knife. What would she use?
“Knees,” she said, voicing the thought before she meant to. “And elbows.”
Yan looked at her. His eyes twinkled in a way that reminded her of Pelton just before he took her apart in a sparring match. “Why?”
Every eye in the room trained on Wendy, and she chewed the inside of her lip for a second before she spoke. Time to impress people. “Because they have a short range of motion.” She added, “And they hurt.”
Pointing to Wendy, Yan nodded. “Very good.” He started to turn again, addressing the room. “Elbows and knees can only go so far, but they’re powerful from short range.” His eyes settled on Wendy. “Would you please?” He pointed to the spot next to him.
Wendy swallowed and glanced over at Arie, who gave her a quick nod. Wendy jogged the four steps to stand in front of Yan, who bowed. Wendy did the same. He motioned for the tall guys to come out again. They closed the gap, leaving Wendy just inches from the best fighter in Shelter.
A deep breath cleared her mind, and she put one foot out and slightly ahead of the other. Her lead arm came up to guard her head, and the other stayed down, protecting her ribs. She shifted her weight to the balls of her feet. A wave of relaxation rolled over her—years of training and fighting taking control. The only part of her that remained tense was her jaw as she tightly clenched her teeth together. The last thing she needed was to bite her tongue off.
Yan adopted a similar stance, mirroring Wendy. “I’ve got a size advantage here,” he said, “but Wendy is fast, and she knows what she’s doing. Let’s say she goes for my face, and then moves in with an elbow.” He nodded.
Wendy went. Her lead fist shot out toward Yan’s face. He blocked it, leaving one side of his ribs open. Wendy stepped in and drove her elbow toward his solar plexus like a battering ram.
She expected him to block, or step aside, but instead he took the blow, exhaling with a grunt and retreating a step.
Wendy froze. She blinked, swallowed and then moved back. Should she say sorry? Her eyes rose, only to find Yan smiling.
“Good,” he said. He addressed the others. “Did you all see how she snuck in under my guard with that driving elbow? She’s small, but even the biggest guy here would feel that blow, and it would give her enough time to follow up to the face, the groin or whatever target she chose.”
Yan waved the human walls closer. Wendy focused on Yan.
“Now we’ll see what a few seconds of tight brawling will bring. Wendy, be the aggressor.”
Wendy refastened her teeth together before she began. She punched to Yan’s face, he blocked and tried to come in at her ribs. Dropping her arm, she used her elbow to knock his hand out of the way. His other fist flew toward her face, and she ducked, squatting down and punching at his groin. A knee intercepted her strike, and she jumped to the side, bouncing off of Cal. Her own knee came up, blocking a rising back kick aimed for her chin. She pushed off Cal and punched for Yan’s head. He used his forearm and stopped her fist, turning to avoid another elbow. The turn continued, and he spun around so fast Wendy didn’t have time to do anything but throw an arm up to keep his elbow from hitting her in the skull. The blow forced her off balance, her ribs wailed in protest, and she knew she was in trouble.
Before she could counter, or regain her balance, his turn took him behind her and he grabbed her around the neck. She did get an arm up, but it didn’t matter—she’d be dead. And now Yan had her from behind, with one of her arms tucked up next to her head.
“You see,” Yan said, keeping a tight grip on Wendy, who had to stand on tip toe to keep from being strangled, her body protesting loudly. “Elbows and knees are very effective while fighting in tight quarters. We did get in a few longer punches, and some rising kicks, but if you’re any taller than we are, you wouldn’t be able to pull them off.”
Wendy caught Arie’s complete look of surprise as Yan turned her around, still talking to the others. Cal and Kev stood with their jaws hanging open, and even Jeff blinked a few times, furrowing his brow.
Wendy mentally smacked herself. She’d just got beat, and for something stupid too. She knew better than to let her opponent get behind her.
“And now if Wendy wants to get out of this hold, she’s going to have to sacrifice a joint. Probably a separated elbow or shoulder.” Yan slapped Wendy on the arm and let her loose.
“Everyone back in line. Break up into groups of four by height.”
Wendy ignored the urge to rub her sore muscles and jogged back to her spot. Those in her group looked at each other, looked at Wendy, and then all shook their heads.
“That was incredible,” one girl whispered so soft that Wendy barely heard.
The boy nodded. Arie looked at her through narrowed eyes.
Yan’s instructions kept Wendy from having to ask Arie what the problem was.
“You will rotate, so everyone gets to try against everyone. Two people will stand facing one another, their fingers out, touching the wall, with the other hand held forward, touching each other, forming a square. The other two people in the group will have to fight in the space provided.” Yan’s voice took on a teacher-like quality. “Try a few punches, use your elbows and get your knees into it. Start slow and work up to a good speed. No injuries today, please.”
Wendy got nominated to stand touching the wall while the first pair of her group fought. The girl, Monica, moved her arms and legs like a dancer—graceful but lacking in power. The boy, Chase, closed in with an unimaginative, but effective, straight attack. They exchanged a few blows before one of them ended up backed against either the wall, Wendy or Arie. By the end of the minute Yan gave them, both had discovered a move or two that worked for them.
Arie and Wendy switched places with the fighters and stepped into the box. Arie’s face settled into a mask of concentration while her body relaxed into what looked like a very familiar stance.
Wendy chided herself for not noticing it before—Arie also knew a thing or two about fighting.
Arie moved in first, going straight for Wendy’s head. Everyone did that. Wendy blocked and turned. She grabbed one of Arie’s punches and pulled her off balance and into one of their corners. Arie recovered quickly, and came again, this time faster and harder.
Yan obviously wanted them to learn something from this, so Wendy did her best to try something besides her first thought. Arie got faster after each punch, and Wendy found it challenging to keep up. While Arie’s frustration pulled her face further into a frown, Wendy felt herself relaxing.
Thus far Arie hadn’t gotten a single good hit on Wendy. Wendy threw a few things at the other girl now and then, but mostly went on the defensive. Until Arie decided she’d had enough and simply charged. In the small space it probably looked more like a flop than an actual attack. The thought of getting squished against the wall, and the pain in her ribs that would follow, turned Wendy to the side. She grabbed Arie and none too gently guided the other girl into the wall. Arie got her hands up in time and managed to avoid a face plant.
“Up,” Yan said.
Wendy stepped back. She expected Arie to turn around and be angry, but instead the other girl had a grin on her face.
“That was fun,” Arie said.
Yan had them rearrange to let the next pair fight.
“Good,” Yan said when everyone had finished. “Now let’s change things up. Jeff and Matt, mix up the groups. No need to be fair.”
Jeff and Matt put their heads together, and then started grabbing people. Matt pulled Wendy to the other end of the room, where Kev and the tallest boy in the line were standing. Dennis joined them a second later, facing Wendy. Wendy couldn’t decide if she should hit Matt or thank him.
“You two again?” Dennis asked.
Kev grinned. “I think I still owe you for last time.”
Dennis leaned in and whispered, “You’ll always owe me.”
“Maybe.” Kev winked and turned his attention to Yan.
“Looks good,” Yan said, after surveying the new groups. “Do the drill again.”
He came directly to Wendy’s group, giving the boys a hard stare. “I want control from this group,” he said, looking mostly at Kev and Dennis.
“Sure, boss,” Kev said with a shrug.
Yan turned to Wendy. “Except you. You can hit these three as hard as you want.”
“Go!” Yan yelled as he turned away.
Wendy and Dennis stood as a wall first, and she almost got bowled over when Kev drove the taller guy into her. Kev gave her an apologetic shrug as he waited for the guy to get back in the ring. He fought in large circles that seemed to come out of nowhere, while the taller guy picked away at Kev like a snake. Neither strategy worked well in tight quarters.
Next Kev went against Dennis, and Wendy could see why Yan reminded them about control. The two of them fought well, but the speed of their blows quickly escalated, and both grunted as they got hit in the ribs, stomach and chest.
After twenty seconds, Dennis came around with an elbow aimed at the back of Kev’s neck. Kev didn’t get his guard all the way up, and Dennis didn’t do much to pull the strike. Kev fell to his knees, shaking his head.
“Switch,” Yan said.
Kev used the wall to pull himself up, keeping a hand out for support.
“Looks like you owe me another one.” Dennis said.
“Yeah, yeah.” Kev waved a hand. He hid his anger well, and didn’t retaliate, but Wendy could tell by the thin line of his lips that Kev wasn’t happy with the outcome.
“You forget the meaning of the word control?” Matt asked Dennis as he approached Kev and looked into his eyes.
“He can stand,” Dennis said in a deep, smug voice.
Kev waved again. “I’m fine.”
Tension rolled off of the two boys, and Wendy wondered how often Jeff had to enforce crowd control.
“Be a wall,” Matt said to Kev after looking at his eyes. “You’ll be fine in a second.”
“But I think I can take the shrimp.” He pointed at Wendy.
“We don’t want you to embarrass yourself.” Matt said. He pointed at Dennis. “That’s one extra garbage duty.”
Dennis grunted. He seemed neither surprised nor upset.
Kev took Wendy’s place, and she stepped into the square. Dennis stood almost a head taller than she, but the obvious disadvantage didn’t bother her. She searched his stance for weak spots, and the moment Yan said go, she attacked.
Unlike with her first group, she didn’t have to go slow for Dennis. He moved fast, dodging her initial blows and going for her head. Of course. Wendy ducked, rose, sprang forward and went for his chin with a rising elbow. Dennis backed away. She missed him by less than a finger width.
She had to admit, Dennis was good. He used a straight-forward pattern that worked for his thicker body and quick arms. He didn’t mess around with anything fancy and always struck to hit, not just fake.
But Wendy was faster.
They exchanged a few more blows—Wendy always a step ahead, always the aggressor. She saw in Dennis’ eyes that he had come to the same conclusion, and with a growl, he tried to take control. Taking advantage of his greater size, he pressed her back, trying to trap her against the wall. She danced around and maneuvered out of his way and landed a few hits to his ribs. He grunted.
With so many shots taken at her, some of them started to land. She got one to the shoulder, a few to her back—which hurt—and one to the side of her head. The head shot dazed her, and she had to retreat, backing into Kev.
She felt Kev’s hands on her shoulders, keeping her in the square. Dennis’ leering face loomed right over her.
The room around her faded, replaced by dark shadows and flickering lights. A man grabbed her from behind and pulled her out of the way of a club-wielding skeleton. No, not a skeleton, an emaciated man who should be dead.
A roaring sound filled Wendy’s ears, allowing nothing else through. The man who held Wendy turned her and shoved her down a dark hallway. But instead of safety, another skeletal figure rose before her. He leered down at her as if she were nothing more than an insect.
Anger filled Wendy. She would not die here. Too many had died already.
She surged forward, striking the man in the stomach before he could get his knife around. A groin shot followed, and as soon as his face was in range, Wendy kicked the side of it. The man went down. Wendy pounced. She grabbed his arm and forced his face into the floor. Thoughts of ripping the limb off filled Wendy’s mind. He didn’t deserve anything less.
The scars on his face and neck caught the light. The tail of a scorpion.
Where was her knife?
When Wendy turned her head to find it, the vision dissolved. The combat room reappeared, as did Jeff, whose face sat inches from hers.
“Wendy?” he said.
Wendy blinked. An arm squirmed in her hands. She looked down and found Dennis, his face pressed against the floor, blood pooling beneath his head.
Jeff looked into her eyes and held her gaze as he reached out and gently tried to pry her fingers from Dennis’ arm. “That might have been a little hard.”
Horror filled her. She didn’t remember taking Dennis to the floor. What had she done to make him bleed? Control was one of Wendy’s biggest concerns while fighting. Jeff continued to work on her fingers, and she released them. Dennis pulled his arm down and placed his hands on the floor.
Everyone in the room stood frozen.
“Hey,” Jeff said, using his hand to swivel her head toward him. “Look at me.”
Wendy couldn’t. Her hands started to shake. What had just happened? Is this what going crazy felt like?
“Inhale,” Jeff commanded. Wendy did. “Good, now exhale.” She did that too. “Again.” He rubbed her back with his hand as he continued to guide her breaths. The combination helped. Her vision cleared.
“What happened?” Yan asked.
Wendy raised her eyes to Yan’s, expecting him to kick her out. He said nothing, but waited for Dennis to get to his feet.
Dennis didn’t say anything, just held his cheek, where the blood was coming from. The cold look in his eyes sent a shiver down Wendy’s spine. Sure, she could beat him in a fight, but now she would have to watch her back. She hadn’t even meant to do it. She didn’t need any more enemies.
Matt ran over and pulled Dennis’ hand away from his face. The blood seeping from the cut made him look even more murderous.
Wendy couldn’t breathe. Jeff still had one hand on her back and the other around her shoulder. He was ready for her to attack someone. Which could apparently happen at any moment.
Yan stepped toward Dennis. He looked the young man up and down and grunted. “You apparently need to learn to guard your face.”
The muscles in Dennis’ cheeks flexed as he ground his teeth together.
Yan turned to Wendy, his knowing gaze piercing as he said, “One extra garbage duty for you. And try not to get any more blood on the floor.”
The next morning, Arie came early to pick Wendy up. After all the nightmares about swords and Skinnies, Wendy would have loved to sleep in. But she didn’t have time for frivolity.
Wendy opened the door to find Arie in her usual cargo pants and long-sleeved shirt. She’d spent enough time to make her hair perfectly messy.
“Hi,” Arie said with one of her smiles. “Did you sleep well last night?”
“Yeah,” Wendy said, and stepped into the hall.
Arie peeked around Wendy and into her room. It wasn’t much to look at, with the small stack of dirty clothes, the only decoration being the three cards from the kids in the marketplace.
“We need to get you out of these probationary rooms,” Arie said.
Wendy pulled the door shut behind her. “It has a clean bed, an attached toilet, it’s warm and it’s safe. I’m good.”
A look of pity went across Arie’s face. “I guess I forget how bad it can be out there.” They started to walk toward the mess hall.
“I was in a compound before, but it was never really clean. Sometimes not warm either, so this is nice,” Wendy said.
“Just dull,” Arie said. “We’ll have to get you some pictures or something when you move.”
Did these people even know what it was like on the outside? Wendy wanted to chastise her for being ungrateful, but she was trying to make friends. So instead, she thought about what Kenzie would say. “You have an art gallery in here somewhere?” Wendy asked.
Arie let out a little laugh. “As a matter of fact, we do have an art gallery. I happen to run it. There are quite a few people who like to draw or paint. They trade their work for other things. It’s kind of fun.”
The pure luxury of this place astounded Wendy. These people were safe enough for leisure.
All because their leader raided other compounds.
Wendy ordered herself to let it go. “What do you do, paint or draw?”
“Both. Materials are scarce, but Kev is always looking out for art supplies for me.”
“Kev?” Wendy asked. So far the Asian boy had struck her as the prankster of the group.
“He’s tight with the people who go out to find stuff. Sometimes he’ll ask for specific items and they’ll bring them back for him. He loves it.”
Pelton had felt much the same way.
The conversation flowed easily as the two girls traversed hallways Wendy had never been through before. She added it all to her mental map of the building.
Arie kept looking at Wendy out of the corner of her eye and rubbing her fingers together as they walked. She finally spoke. “Jeff told me you’re having flashes.”
There was no use in denying it. Wendy wondered who else Jeff had told. “Yeah.”
“Is that what happened with Dennis yesterday?”
“I know Doc and Elle are annoying, but if you’re having a problem, let me know. I can at least put you in a corner for a minute.”
Wendy didn’t answer.
Arie didn’t’ press.
In truth, the flash had put Wendy more off balance than almost anything else so far. Control over herself was one of the most important aspects of her sanity, and her control was crumbling.
They reached a set of metal doors, and Arie buzzed them open. The two girls went into the main hallway, but didn’t go toward the normal training rooms.
“Where are we going?” Wendy asked.
They went up three flights. Wendy hadn’t realized there was this much building above them. Just how deep did it go?
As they ascended, the tiles on the stairs started to show more wear. Cracks appeared. Stains of water and other things slid down more than a few. A large hole had been blasted in one wall, leaving the charred edges of tile and plaster—a mouth waiting to be fed.
The smell in the complex below didn’t bother Wendy, but as they went up, the scent of mustiness and decay got stronger.
“What is this place? I mean, what was it?” Wendy asked.
“I don’t know,” Arie said. “This section up here is full of offices. Almost there,” Arie said. She was breathing a little hard.
Wendy’s legs begged her to stop, but she refused. Her body was slowly but surely getting stronger.
The stairs ended in a room that was long enough to fit two of the cabins from the Den. Racks full of clothing lined the left hand wall, while empty shelves stood opposite. Sunlight streamed in from an open door on the far end.
Arie led Wendy toward the door. A shiver went up Wendy’s spine as the sunlight lit and warmed her legs. Another step and it rose to her waist, then her chest, and then as they emerged from the building it settled on her face. Four concrete stairs with a rusted out railing on each side led down to a patch of gravel measuring twenty feet square. Beyond that, Wendy saw fields of crops—different colors laid out in a patchwork of green and gold.
“Come on,” Arie said as she left the stairs behind. “We’re over here.”
Wendy followed. Her feet crunched against the gravel, and the sun warmed her from the outside in. It felt like a greeting from an old friend. She never wanted to go inside again.
They paralleled the first square of crops, staying close to the building which was a simple, squat cinder block box with no clues as to what lay below. Wendy wondered again what this place had been before the Starvation.
Arie took a left into the crops. A chill from inside overpowered the sun and Wendy shivered at the memory of the greenhouse. She silently breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t corn. They must keep that hidden down below.
The top half of a man approached through the crops. He floated two feet above the ground, and he moved twice as fast as he should have been able to run.
“What in the world?” Wendy asked.
Arie looked, and then laughed. “Oh, that. We’ve got a few pairs of rocket boots—at least that’s what they call them—hanging around. They’re solar charged, and don’t even last a whole day, but they use them up here when they’re short hands.
Wendy watched as the man zoomed by. He gave Arie a wave as he passed and disappeared into the vegetation.
“How high can they go?” Wendy asked.
“Ten feet, I think,” Arie said.
Kev’s voice rode along the sunshine. “Oy! Arie! Where are you?”
Arie grabbed Wendy’s elbow and started to jog through the crops. “Come on.”
A few seconds later they broke out of the vegetation and into a clearing where most of the trainees stood.
Kev approached them with a mischievous grin on his face.
Arie gave him a skeptical look. “What?”
“You owe me,” Kev said.
“For what?” Arie asked.
Kev pulled a small box from his pocket. It was flat and about the size of the palm of his hand.
“What is it?” Arie asked.
Kev took it back and held it up. “Price.”
“The usual,” Arie said. The other girl was almost bouncing on her toes.
“Not good enough,” Kev said.
“What?” Arie glared.
“It’s worth it, trust me.” He handed the box to Wendy. “Take a look.”
Wendy glanced back and forth between the two.
“Open it,” Kev said.
The box felt heavier than it looked. Wendy found the edge and pulled one side out, it slid free with a hiss. Inside she saw two, small plastic bottles—one pink and one yellow.
“Totally worth it,” Kev said.
Wendy shook her head. “I, uh…Not sure about that.”
Arie went for the box, and Wendy let her have it.
“Hey!” Kev said in protest.
Arie looked in the box and her eyes went glassy. A grin split her face and she looked at Kev. “They found it.”
“Both of them,” Kev said. He folded his arms across his chest.
“Double price,” Arie said.
“Always a pleasure,” Kev said. They bumped knuckles, then he started toward the others.
“What is it?” Wendy asked.
“Paint,” Arie said. “Colors I need.”
“And what is the price?”
“Extra rations.” Arie slipped the box into her jacket.
“He’s open to that sort of bribery?”
“Both he and Cal. They’re eating machines.”
“Good to know.”
“Come on,” Kev said over his shoulder. “I know you both have short legs, but leave earlier next time.”
“Shut up,” Arie said.
A quick scan of the area showed Wendy woods on her right, a ravine on her left and six, round, paint splattered bales of hay at the base of a small hill twenty yards away. They joined the others, who stood in a clump facing three guys.
Yan, who had been talking to Jeff and Dennis, jumped up on a rock. “Okay everyone, today is target practice.”
This sent an excited ripple through the crowd.
“We’ll start with an hour of shooting, and then go to an exercise. Stay with your teams, pick a target and myself or Riggs will bring you some weapons.”
“Do you know how to shoot?” Arie asked.
“Sure, a little,” Wendy said.
“What is your weapon of choice?” Kev asked. “Your left fist or your right fist?”
Wendy was reminded of how Kenzie and Hector bantered all the time. That thought hurt, so she said, “I prefer knives.”
“Long or short?” Kev asked.
“As long as my forearm.”
“We’re over here,” Cal said, leading the group to a spot opposite the third target. A small crate sat on the ground, filled with clips of ammunition.
Wendy wanted to ask how they could possibly waste this much ammo, but Yan arrived with a cloth sack full of guns that he put on the ground. “Everyone should use each of the different styles. Riggs and I will come around and check on you.”
Wendy swiveled her eyes, trying to spot Riggs. He made her extra nervous. If anyone saw through her ruse, it would be him.
“Here, try this one,” Cal said.
Wendy reached out to grab the weapon, but a voice interrupted her.
“Wendy,” Yan said, “the others have already had some experience with these weapons. You don’t. Come with me.”
Both Kev and Cal said, “Ooooh.”
Yan shook his head at the two boys as he gestured for Wendy to follow him. As they walked to the far target, she passed Dennis. He stood with his team, talking in low voices. When they saw Wendy, Dennis fell silent and watched her as she went by. The cut on his cheek had a bandage over it. Wendy stared back, unwilling to allow herself to be intimidated.
“Hey.” Jeff’s voice swiveled her attention forward.
Wendy’s heart sped up, and she wasn’t sure why. “Hi.”
Yan stopped. “Jeff is one of our best marksmen. He’ll be taking this first hour to familiarize you with the weapons. They’re not standard, so even if you have experience with guns, this will be different.” He nodded to both teenagers, patted Jeff on the shoulder and walked back toward Dennis’ group.
Alone with Jeff. Wendy couldn’t help but notice just how much taller he was than her. Or the brown of his eyes as he studied her.
“How are you feeling?”
“Okay.” Wendy’s eyes drifted toward Dennis.
Jeff followed her gaze and snorted. “Don’t worry about him. He’s fine.” Jeff paused, cleared his throat, and then reached down into the canvas bag at his feet. He drew out a short rifle and held it out for Wendy to see. The black surface gleamed in the sunlight.
“It’s a live weapon, but we don’t use real ammo in training.” Jeff grabbed a clip out of the crate. “We have an unlimited supply of these paint bullets, which fly almost as straight as the real thing for twenty yards or so. After that we have to use actual bullets to get the targeting right.”
Jeff paused, then continued. “How much experience do you have with guns?”
“Enough to know where that clip goes and that you’ve got the safety on.” She pointed.
“Good. But I’ll give you the tour anyway.” His hands demonstrated and moved over the weapon as he spoke. “Shoulder strap is nice if you’re on the run, most people wear them like this. The scope goes here. The clip goes in here. You switch the safety off with this latch.” After the whirlwind tour, he handed her a headband with ear mufflers on it and then the rifle. “Try it out.”
While the weapon didn’t feel completely foreign, it didn’t feel as natural as a knife did. The Den’s guns had always gone to those on watch or on the walls. Wendy took the stock in one hand and the handle in the other. It felt heavier than she had expected.
All around her, the others had started firing at the targets. Splashes of fresh paint began to cover the old stains.
Wendy raised the rifle and pointed it at her target. The long barrel made it hard to aim.
“Go ahead and shoot a couple of times,” Jeff said.
Wendy flicked off the safety and took three quick shots.
None of them hit the target. Instead, they buried themselves in the loose dirt beyond, causing small geysers to erupt in soil and paint.
“You’re being too shy,” Jeff said. “Here.”
The space between them disappeared, and Wendy felt the heat of Jeff’s body right next to her. He leaned down and put his cheek on hers, his stubble scratching Wendy’s face. Her stomach did a little flip flop.
Was Mike sending Jeff to seduce her?
Jeff went on, oblivious to Wendy’s conflicted feelings. “First you have to pull it in tighter. Especially rifles and shot guns, they’ll kick back on you.” His arms went around her. His hands found hers and he pulled the butt of the gun into her armpit. “Feel the difference?”
Wendy swallowed. She didn’t like her emotions running amok without her permission. Besides, she was going to take these guys down. She didn’t have time for feelings. “Not really.”
“You will. Close your left eye and look straight down the barrel. Line up the aiming stripes. Notice how the barrel isn’t floating around anymore?”
“Yes.” Wendy kept her voice steady, even as her heartbeat sped up.
“Good. Hold it there, and shoot.”
Jeff didn’t move. His advice worked, because Wendy hit the target two out of three times. “Good. Make the weapon an extension of you. Like a knife, just with a longer reach.”
“She ever use a gun before?”
Wendy jumped. She’d been so focused on Jeff and shooting that she hadn’t noticed Riggs coming up behind them.
Jeff squeezed Wendy’s shoulder before he moved away from her to face Riggs. “I’d have to say yes.”
Wendy turned and looked up at Riggs. The cut on his cheek had resolved into a long welt. His eyes bore into hers—almost challenging her to do something crazy—but his voice came out steady. “How does the weapon feel to you?”
Wendy thought about it. “Heavy.”
Riggs turned his attention back to Jeff. The older man’s voice softened, almost like he and Jeff were friends. “Let her use them all until she finds something she’s comfortable with. She’s going to need one for the obstacle course.”
“On it,” Jeff said. He gave Riggs a wave and the man moved to Dennis’ target.
Something about Riggs’ face or his eyes caused Wendy to tense up. It wasn’t like the flashes of the tunnels—she didn’t see anything this time, but her body reacted to a fear she didn’t remember. When Jeff put his hand on her shoulder, she pulled back.
“Whoa, what’s wrong?” He looked down into her eyes.
Wendy watched Riggs. “That guy. He creeps me out.”
Jeff laughed. “He has that effect on a lot of people. Don’t worry, he’ll warm up to you.”
“I kind of doubt it.
“Try the rifle again. Even if we give you something else, you’ll want to be able to use this.”
Wendy raised the weapon to her shoulder and fired. She hit two out of three times.
“Good, now try this one.”
Jeff went through an array of guns—most big but a few small. Wendy noticed that Jeff took every opportunity to set off her personal space alarm.
Once she found a pistol that felt natural, Jeff had her work with it for fifteen minutes or so. He started to chat.
“Have you been having nightmares?”
Wendy decided to be honest. “Yes.”
“Was that a flash yesterday in the combat rooms?”
Wendy’s hands shook, and she had to take a breath to steady them. “You know it was.”
“It’ll get worse before it gets better.”
Wendy lowered the gun and looked at him. “What do you mean?”
“I told you, I have the same problem. Mine have faded over the last six months, but for a while they got worse and worse. Little things set me off, and until I figured out what was messing with my head I had flashes all the time.”
“You’re not making me feel better,” Wendy said.
“Sorry.” Jeff reached out as if he wanted brushed her shoulder with his hand, but he stopped himself. “I just want you to know what to expect. I’ve been reading up on it in Doc’s library, and they say that once you know your triggers you can either avoid them or bury yourself in them in an attempt to relive it until your mind accepts it.”
Wendy raised the gun and started shooting again. “I’m not really liking that idea.”
“I didn’t either, until the flashes drove me to feel crazy all the time. Matt helped me delve into it until my mind stopped freaking out whenever I heard water dripping. Among other things.”
Wendy clenched her jaw together as she shot again.
“Look, I’m not saying you should have people beat you up until you crack. Just think about it as another option.”
“Maybe.” More shooting. She seemed to be getting better. Maybe anger helped her aim.
“I’m not trying to upset you.” Jeff sighed.
Wendy stopped and looked at him.
He ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m just saying that if you ever need help, you can come to me. I’ve been through it. I kind of know how you feel.” His hand reached out and settled on her shoulder. He squeezed. “You don’t have to go through this alone.”
Wendy studied Jeff’s expression. Either he was telling the truth, or he was a good liar. So she said the words she knew he wanted to hear. “Okay, thanks.”
Jeff smiled. “You’re lying through your teeth.”
Wendy raised the gun.
Riggs’ voice sounded through the meadow. “Everyone grab a weapon. Huddle in.”
Jeff handed Wendy three clips for her hand gun. “Take these.”
Wendy did so and noticed Jeff had selected the first rifle she’d used. She waited for him to grab his clips, and then followed him toward Riggs.
Riggs started talking before everyone got there. “Hunting is one thing, but if you ever have to use a gun against a person attacking you, you’ll find it may not be as easy as firing at a target. Most likely you’ll be running away or toward them. So we’re going to go through a little obstacle course.” Riggs pointed. “Jeff, you’re up.”
Gravel crunched under Jeff’s feet as he slung the rifle over his shoulder and jogged to the center of the group. The others watched him with curiosity. This must be a new exercise.
When he reached Riggs, Jeff turned to address the teenagers. “Today is simple. We’re going to go down the hill, shoot, crawl through a pipe, shoot and then run for the trees over there while Yan, Matt and I try to shoot you. Your goal is to aim well enough to make us back off. The team who gets through with the least amount of paint on them gets light garbage duty.”
“I knew this was going to be a good day,” Kev said.
Riggs raised his eyebrows at the comment. “Okay, happy guy, you go first.”
Kev’s face split into an evil grin. “I’d love to.”
The group moved to the edge of the hill. Wendy saw the two targets and the pipe, which Kev could easily fit through. She might not even have to get on her hands and knees.
Matt and Yan were already in place. Jeff jogged to join them. Riggs waited until he was past the pipe before he signaled Kev to go.
The rocks on the slope tried to trip Kev up, but his feet floated over them. He followed a zig-zag path to the bottom, and barely paused to shoot the target. Right in the center. The pipe swallowed him for a moment before he crawled out the other side and shot again. Very close to the middle. Then he rose from his knees and ran. He wove back and forth as Jeff and his crew fired at him. Kev returned the favor, and paint balls flew everywhere.
The cool demeanor Kev carried impressed Wendy. He’d managed to get Matt and Yan to duck with shots close to them. By the time he reached the other side, he didn’t have a single paint splatter on him.
Most of the boys in the group hollered in appreciation. Kev raised his hands in triumph and let out a yell.
Riggs motioned to the teenagers. “Arie.”
The girl didn’t attack the course as aggressively as Kev had. The targets didn’t pose a problem. Neither did the obstacles, but she got shot twice by Jeff and his crew before she got to Kev.
Four others went. Their success ranged from one to five shots from Jeff and company. Everyone hit the targets, but not everyone hit in the middle.
“Wendy,” Riggs said.
Her grip tightened on her pistol. She took a single breath and bolted down the hill. With her body getting stronger, Wendy found that the zig-zag pattern was actually fun. She leaped over a few rocks and reached the first target. The urge to fire without aiming tried to overwhelm the advice Jeff had just given her. She pushed it aside, aimed and fired. Paint spattered the target. A smile threatened to break free, but she held it back.
The distance to the pipe fell behind her as she ran ahead. She had been right; she didn’t even have to get on her hands and knees to go through, just crouched down and started forward.
The first few steps went well. The next two brought a sensation that made her want to throw up. The inner surface of the pipe constricted. She could swear it actually got smaller. Blood began to rush through her ears, and sweat coated her palms. The pipe was only about ten feet long, but when she looked toward the end she could have sworn the exit had stretched to a hundred feet away.
Her mind wailed at her to curl up into a ball and stay there. The only solution she could come up with was to bolt, and Wendy ordered her legs to get her through as fast as they could. For a second the end didn’t look as if it was getting any closer, but then she burst out into the sunlight.
Wendy gulped down the air as if she’d been underwater. She stood shaking as the world slowed around her, getting darker. She still wanted to curl up into a ball.
The whiz of a paintball by her ear brought her out of it. Wendy shook her head to clear it and saw Matt aiming right at her.
She ducked and found her next target. She ran there and hunkered down. Matt whizzed two more bullets by her as she got her shaking hands under control and fired. Paint from her gun hit the very edge of the target.
At least she’d hit it.
Kev’s run came to her mind. She raised her gun and fired in the general direction of Matt as she took off, weaving back and forth.
This distance had looked a lot farther from above. She was halfway there in a few seconds; before the first paint ball hit her in the side.
It smacked her hard, like a tiny punch backed by the power of a large man. Yellow paint blossomed on her clothes. The impact hit her mid-stride, and teetered her off her feet and onto the ground. She rolled—she would never get up before they hit her again. But then she remembered that she could return the favor, so she pointed her feet toward them, took half a second to aim, and fired off a few rounds.
Jeff and Yan were forced to dive for cover. Matt hesitated. Wendy jumped to her feet and bolted for the group on the other side of the clearing.
“Run!” Kev yelled.
Wendy did so. She was almost there when one paint ball hit her in the back. Then another.
Kev waved her in. By the time she crossed the line she had three strikes on her. Not the best, but not the worst. She could live with that. She’d finished.
What she couldn’t live with was the way her hands were shaking. What the hell had that been about?
“Not bad, shrimp,” Kev said. He slapped her painted back. “Then again, you do present a smaller target to hit.”
Wendy gave him a flat stare.
“Sheesh,” he said, “it was a joke. You should maybe try laughing sometime. You might like it.”
Wendy didn’t answer. She didn’t feel much like joking.
In the end, Dennis’ team won the exercise. He gave Kev a wicked smile of triumph as he passed them. “Looks like you kids will be busy tonight.”
Kev turned his eyes to Arie, and when Dennis was out of earshot he said, “You know what, I’d really like to beat that guy.”
“Literally?” Arie asked.
“In every way possible.”
That night, Wendy joined the others in the mess hall for dinner. All of the tables and chairs had been pulled out from the walls. Men, women and teenagers sat in random configurations. Some talking, some laughing, some reading and others simply eating. Wendy caught sight of Kev and Cal immediately. Kev was, as usual, perched on the back of a chair, surrounded by a small flock of people. Whatever he was talking about, his hands might be telling more of the story than his mouth was.
When he spotted Arie and Wendy, he waved them over. The two girls grabbed some food and took a seat near the boys.
The amount of food—even though it was much less than the day in the marketplace—still astounded Wendy. She wanted to shake everyone and make them realize how lucky they were.
After dinner, they had garbage duty.
“Come on,” Arie said. “We’re doing floor three. The boys are going to do the rest.”
“Hey,” Kev said. “After garbage duty, why don’t you girls meet us back down here? We’ll show Wendy around a little.”
Arie looked at Wendy, who shrugged. “Sure.” The more she knew about this place the better.
“Great,” Kev said.
Wendy followed Arie, and let her talk about mundane things. Arie led them into the residential section of the complex. Large red barrels sat at the end of each corridor. When they got to the first one, Wendy saw it was full of garbage.
“What do we do with them?” Wendy asked.
“We haul them to the chute and toss the garbage down into the incinerators. Then we collapse the barrels and put them away.”
“The incinerator?” Wendy asked.
“Yup. We have geo thermal something or other power. It’s spotty sometimes, but at least we have it. Burning the garbage helps feed something. At least that’s what they tell us. I’m pretty sure they just want to keep us from complaining about hauling it.”
They each grabbed a handle on the hip-high barrel and lifted.
Wendy was surprised how light it was, and said so.
“They have little repulsors in them,” Arie said. “My dad and I actually thought it up a few years ago. This way even the kids can do garbage duty.”
“Smart,” Wendy said.
The two girls carried the barrel down three halls before they got to the chute.
“Right here,” Arie said when they got to a yellow circle painted on the floor. “There’s one on each level.” They put the barrel into the circle. With her free hand, Arie punched a code on a keypad.
Wendy jumped when a small section of the wall opened and a hose came out. The hose started out as big as her arm, but the end expanded and sealed over the mouth of the barrel. A sucking sound preceded a lot of rattling. The hose swayed back and forth as the garbage got sucked up and into the wall.
A few seconds later, the hose let go and retracted.
Arie reached out and twisted one of the handles. The barrel fell in on itself until it stood just taller than Wendy’s ankle. Arie pulled it up and it hung at her side like a duffel bag.
“And now we put it away,” Arie said. “Five to go.”
Wendy decided she should share something about herself. Kenzie did that. “This is a lot easier than how I had to take the garbage out.”
“We recycled everything, so someone had to go through it all. It was horrible. That’s one reason I convinced my dad that I could do the duty rosters. It got me out of separating garbage.” Wendy felt a small bit of pride in the memory.
“Nice,” Arie said.
Wendy kept the conversation going. “Did you and your dad get the idea for the barrels from the boots?”
Arie nodded. “We did. Although the air boots have all of the controls inside, which is really amazing…”
It was almost comforting to be walking through the halls with Arie, talking about normal things and not worrying about who was on duty, or if the food supply was going to hold out until the next harvest, or if they had enough weapons for everyone, or if they had to have a funeral and burn a body.
It was almost enjoyable. Is this what a teenager’s life should be like? Wendy had never wondered before, mostly because she’d never had time.
She corrected herself; she’d never taken the time.
The two girls made their way back down to the mess hall and only had to wait a few minutes before Kev came in.
“Come on,” he said.
“Where exactly are we going?”
“Cal’s got something for us. Do you have any treats in your room?” he asked the girls.
“A few,” Arie said.
“Uh, no,” Wendy said. “Wait, Elle gave me some hard candy the other day.”
“We’ll drop by and get it.”
“Why, what’s going on?” Arie asked.
“It’s a surprise.”
“Is this the kind of surprise that is going to make me want to shoot you?” Arie asked.
Kev led them out and through the halls. “Seriously, you want to be on the leadership for this place with an attitude like that?”
“I get things done,” Arie said.
Kev looked at Wendy. “Maybe you can teach her some manners.”
Arie smacked him on the shoulder, and Kev clutched at his arm like he’d been cut wide open. “Why?” he asked.
“You deserved it.”
Kev looked at Wendy again. “Did not.”
Wendy held up her hands.
They dropped by both girls’ rooms and picked up a few little treats. Kev seemed pleased, and led them back toward his and Cal’s room.
“You’re not going to make me play games again, are you?” Arie asked.
“Don’t knock the games,” Kev said, waggling his finger. “But no, not this time.”
The look Arie gave Wendy suggested she’d rather lose a limb than ever play the games again.
When they got to Kev’s room, he ducked inside and grabbed a bag. With that, he took them deeper into the complex. As they moved, Wendy could tell this section was used less than the others.
After two flights of stairs up and two left turns, Kev said, “Here we are.” He opened a door and waved them in.
“Nope, not going before you,” Arie said. “I fell for that once.”
“Honestly,” Kev said, going through the door. “I’m not sure where this deep distrust comes from.”
“Too many pranks to list,” Arie said.
“She’s exaggerating,” Kev told Wendy.
Wendy followed Kev through the door, and found a long room with six mismatched chairs, and a low table inside. Near the door Cal was fiddling with a piece of machinery she didn’t recognize. It was some sort of box with two round discs attached to it. A light-colored blanket hung at the far end of the room.
“We’re here,” Kev said.
“About time,” Cal said. He finished with whatever he was doing, and turned toward them. “Did you bring treats?”
“Have a seat,” Cal said.
Arie and Wendy exchanged one last look before each of them sat in a chair.
“What’s that?” Wendy asked, as Cal began once again fiddling with the machine.
Cal laughed. “Of pictures.”
Wendy had seen computer screens, they showed pictures, but she’d never seen one of these.
“Where did you get it?” Arie asked.
“I asked one of the scavenging crews to bring one back if they found one,” Kev said.
“It’s huge,” Arie said. “How did you get them to bring it?”
“The price is that we all have to take a turn cranking it,” Cal said. He indicated a handle under the projector. “My arm can only take so much.” He pointed at Kev. “Lights, please.”
Kev moved to the door and flipped the light switch down.
The dark had never before bothered Wendy, but now sweat broke out on the back of her neck.
But the darkness didn’t last long. After a couple of seconds, a deep, clicking noise started, and the blanket at the end of the room came to life.
At first only bright white light shone, then the people appeared.
Wendy’s dad had told her about movies, but she never thought she’d see one.
“This is a short one,” Cal said as he cranked.
After another second, the people started to talk.
Wendy watched as a story began to unfold before her. A family that lived together—obviously before the Starvation—needed to be three places at once. The son sneaked out and got in trouble when his sister caught him, and then he had to make it up to her by covering for her. The parents didn’t want to go to a social obligation, and asked their kids to lie for them.
After a few minutes, Kev relieved Cal, and a few minutes after that Arie and then Wendy took a turn cranking.
The comedy didn’t at first appeal to Wendy, but when Kev kept bursting out in laughter, she started to get it. The pure delight at watching the movie took her breath away as she marveled at the carefree life of the family.
Is this what it really felt like to be normal? Before everything had happened, had life been this easy?
In the end the whole family had to apologize to one another for their faults. Even the dog got a small story.
Wendy was the last to run the machine. When the names of the people who had acted for the production scrolled by, Cal had her stop.
Kev switched the lights on. He was still wiping tears from his eyes. “That one kills me.”
“How many do you have?” Arie asked.
“Thirteen,” Cal said. “But I found two more the other day. Hopefully I can restore them.”
Wendy shook her head. “Why do you look for them?”
Cal shrugged, turning a knob back and forth as he spoke. “This world is mostly horrible. I just want to add something good.”
“Who has time to come and see them?” Wendy asked.
She regretted the words as Cal’s face, which had been bright, immediately darkened. He lowered his eyes to the ground. Wendy opened her mouth to apologize, but Cal beat her too it.
He looked up at her and said, “I know it’s frivolous, and I know it’s basically a waste of time, but doesn’t everyone deserve some happiness? A chuckle?”
“Of—of course,” Wendy stammered. “I didn’t mean it like that.” This whole making friends thing wasn’t going so well.
Kev saved the moment. “I love it. It takes my mind off of the stress of being here and now.”
Wendy hadn’t realized Kev might be feeling stress. He always seemed to be relaxed.
“It’s great,” Arie said.
Wendy tried again. “Do you want to show everyone?”
Cal nodded. “I haven’t talked to Mike about it yet. I’m not sure he’ll let me.”
“Then we’ll keep showing other people. Mike doesn’t have to know about it,” Kev said.
“Won’t Mike find out somehow?” Wendy asked.
“He knows a lot,” Kev said, “But not everything. He didn’t even know about this part of the complex until Cal and I came in here.”
“You discovered it?” Arie asked.
“We sure did, right?” Kev asked.
“We did,” Cal said. “We get bored easily, so a few years ago we started crawling through the vents and found all sorts of interesting things.”
“Like what?” Arie asked.
Kev motioned Cal over to sit with the others. He then handed everyone a piece of candy. “Secret ways into the control center, a way out of the complex that isn’t guarded, a way into the kitchens and a way to get up top.”
“Why?” Arie asked.
“Mostly we were looking for these,” Cal said. He pointed at the round discs on the machine. “I found one under the bed in my room and wanted more.”
“I wanted to figure out how to get into the kitchens,” Kev said.
Silence fell, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. Wendy popped the piece of candy in her mouth and began to suck. The round orb immediately started to melt in her mouth. A sugary explosion accompanied a fruit flavor that she couldn’t identify. She’d never had one before—had actually forgotten about them until Kev asked.
Cal broke the silence. “Have you ever wondered what you would have been if the Starvation hadn’t happened?” He posed the question to the whole group.
Kev nodded. “I’d invent something and then sell it to everyone.”
“Like what?” Arie asked.
“I don’t know, but it would be awesome. What about you?”
Arie thought about it. “I’m not sure. Maybe become a real painter. I’d paint entire buildings.”
For once neither boy made fun. They all turned their eyes on Wendy.
Her mind froze. She looked between them and had to lick her suddenly dry lips. “I, uh, I have no idea. I’ve never thought about it.”
“Never?” Cal asked.
“No.” Wendy shook her head. “I—life was really hard where I came from. I never really thought much further ahead than next week.” She didn’t want to keep talking, so she looked at Cal. “What about you?”
He gestured toward the projector. “I would make films.”
“What kind?” Arie asked.
“All kinds. Funny, sad, action. All of them.”
The simple fact that Cal had thought about this astounded Wendy. Her dad had said she missed out on a lot of her childhood. She was starting to see what he meant.
“What about now?” Arie asked. “What do you want to do here after training?”
Kev answered first. “I’m going to join the scavengers. I want to see if I can talk Mike into trading with other complexes. We know they’re out there, if we can gain their trust, then everyone will be better off.”
“That’s pretty dangerous,” Arie said.
“Yeah, and so is walking up the stairs,” Kev said. “Life would be better if we didn’t have to be so isolated. I get why we do it, but I don’t like it. You?”
Arie smiled. “I want to get onto the governing council for Shelter. They need some new ideas.”
Kev laughed. “And you thought my idea was dangerous.”
Arie held up her hands. “Hey, at least I’m not Matt. He’s looking for a cure for the Starvation.”
“That guy is crazy,” Cal said.
Wendy made a note to ask Matt about that. He might have what she needed for her test. However, right now she had to once again reassess Arie. The girl had ambitions. “So why did you join the fighters?”
“Because Mike told me it would be a good learning experience. And my dad is a fighter. I really respect what they do. I’m not sure if I’ll stick with it for long, but at least I’ll know about what goes on with the fighters.”
It was a good plan.
Arie turned to Cal. “What about you?”
He shrugged. “I’m pretty good with computers and math. I want to see if we can get some of the internal systems in here back up. I’ve already found a few books on it.”
Kev grinned at Wendy. “What about you?”
Wendy could answer this question. “I want to find whoever destroyed my compound, and I want to make them pay.”
The others nodded. No one told her it was a stupid plan. No one rebuked her for wanting revenge.
“I can see that,” Kev said.
“Me too,” Cal said.
The rest of the week went much the same way. Arie would pick Wendy up in the morning, they would go through a variety of practice drills and skill learning until the final day of the week. This was supposed to be the big exercise. Wendy wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Arie arrived, and the two girls once again made their way to the top floor of the complex.
It felt good to go up the stairs. Wendy’s legs were stronger, and she didn’t get winded as quickly. A crowd was gathered around Jeff, who stood in the entry room on a crate.
His brown eyes spotted Wendy and Arie. “Are you two the last?”
Arie jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Not quite.”
Kev joined the girls while Cal stepped in on their other side. Like an honor guard. Or a trap.
“You trying something new?” Kev asked Arie.
“What are you talking about?”
Cal looked at Wendy. “Arie is the fashionably late one of the group. You’re a good influence.”
“Just because I’m not here early like everyone else doesn’t mean I’m late,” Arie said.
The two boys looked over the girls’ heads at one another. The knowing glance that passed between them reminded Wendy so much of something Kenzie would do, she almost laughed out loud. It was hard to remember she had to infiltrate this place—use these people—when Kev and Cal were so funny. And real. She wasn’t sure they could lie.
Wendy mentally shook her head. Anyone could lie.
The last of the trainees made it up the stairs.
Wendy looked around. “Where’s Matt?”
“He got called out on a mission,” Arie said. “His first real medical assignment.”
“I thought he was training with us,” Wendy said. She missed seeing Matt’s smiling face.
“I heard Doc make the call.” Arie turned her attention to Jeff.
“Today is all about speed and coordination,” he said.
A few people groaned.
Jeff’s face held an expression Wendy had never seen before on him. Excitement. Like a little kid with a toy.
“Why is Jeff so happy?” Wendy whispered to Arie.
She leaned closer. “He loves this stuff. It’s his favorite part of training.”
“What’s your favorite part?” Wendy liked hand to hand the best.
Arie grinned. “Long outside exercises.”
Jeff’s voice cut them off. “Each team will get a starting point, a destination, rooms you must go into and a rendezvous where you will need to meet other teams and exchange flags. I have papers for each team. Instructions are on the paper. Some of the maps are a little old, so use caution, be ready to think on your feet.” He looked around at the teams. “There’s no fighting on this one, so no injuries, please. You’re all working together, but you can’t talk until you reach the rendezvous.”
“What’s the goal?” Dennis, who stood on the far side of the group asked.
“To accomplish the objectives in the time allotted.”
“Are there traps?” The other team lead, Sven, said.
Jeff raised his eyebrows. “You have to ask?”
Jeff grinned and started handing out papers. Cal reached right over Wendy’s head to grab theirs.
“You have five minutes to come up with a plan,” Jeff said. “No talking to another team.”
Arie grabbed Wendy by the shoulders and steered her toward one corner of the room. Kev and Cal followed with their heads together, looking at the map.
“I think we can get through there,” Cal said.
“You know Jeff blocked that off. Besides, we have to go into that room. There’s a red flag in there.”
“Yeah, but there’s this vent he doesn’t know about.”
“Can you still fit through there?” Kev asked.
“I didn’t eat that much for lunch.”
Arie stopped and motioned them all down. Cal put the map on the floor.
Wendy studied the crisp piece of paper and wondered how Jeff had found a way to make an actual copy. The lines were far too clean to be anything else. Except for the thick, red line that meandered through the rooms. “What do the different colored flags mean?”
“Each color is worth points. Some more than others,” Arie said. “If the group gets 25 points collectively, then we don’t get extra chores.”
“I hate chores,” Kev said.
“Looks like we start in this room and end up in this room,” Arie said. She glanced at the two boys. “It looks too easy. What will be blocked?”
Cal pointed to a set of three rooms. “There is a blockade here for sure. Maybe here. There’s a little vent that will let us go through here. We’ll miss this room all together, but it will save us a lot of time.”
“Does Jeff know about the vent?”
“Don’t know,” Kev said. “That guy always knows more than I give him credit for.”
“But we’re the experts up here,” Cal said.
Arie pointed. “We meet Dennis or Sven here, we can’t afford to miss that.”
“That’s why we take the short cut,” Cal said.
Wendy spoke up. “Do we have to stick to the exact route?”
“The point is to get the flags and meet the other team. Plus, we all have to get out alive.” Arie said. She traced a path with her finger. “Pretty much Jeff wants everything.”
The boys nodded.
Arie glanced around the little circle. “Cal, you’re on point. Kev, bring up the rear. I’ll go second with Wendy behind me.”
“What do I do?” Wendy asked.
“Just follow along. This is fun. There are trip wires, booby traps and anything else Yan and Jeff can think up.” A crooked smile lit up Arie’s face. “Having fewer people to set off traps is going to help us out in here. Plus, Cal and Kev really do know this place better than anyone else.”
“One minute,” Jeff said over the din.
The group moved to their assigned door. Black grime covered the tiles at their feet. It looked as if a puddle was oozing from the next room into this one. Cal poked at it with his toe, and when it moved, he made a face and pulled his boot back.
“Don’t look too close,” Kev said to Wendy. “This place is pretty old, and no one has lived here for a long time. There are some skeletons and stuff. I hope you’re not squeamish.”
“Ten seconds,” Jeff said.
Wendy turned to look at Jeff. Their eyes met. Excitement still filled his expression, and he smiled at her before he spoke.
Kev grabbed the tarnished silver door handle and turned. The wood and steel gave way with a screech that had Wendy’s hair standing on end. Kev pushed the door open, and Cal went through. Arie followed Cal. Wendy gave it two seconds and joined the train.
A large counter ran the length of the first room. Beyond that were walls that didn’t go to the ceiling. Some leaned like a tower of falling cards. Broken picture frames hung on the walls, and a low table sat to Wendy’s right. A rusted, free-standing coat tree stood in one corner near a couple of piles of junk that may have been chairs. The black goo covered a good portion of the floor. Wendy stayed away from it, afraid it might ruin the traction on her shoes. Or that she might lose her shoes altogether.
Dust coated all but a two foot wide swath in the middle of the counter. Cal ran, jumped and slid over the surface, landing smartly on the far side. That would explain the clean spot. Arie moved to the end and went around. Wendy went with Arie. Kev followed Cal, landing with a satisfied grunt.
Cal made his way through the leaning partitions. A green flag dangled from a broken picture frame, and Cal snatched it as he went by.
No one spoke. Instead of feeling jovial like the rest of them, Wendy’s palms started to sweat. Her fingers itched for a weapon.
Beyond the cubicle walls, they found a small space filled with three desks and more bits of office furniture. A rat skittered across the floor. Arie jumped.
“Easy, just my buddy Rob,” Kev said from behind Wendy.
“Shut up,” Arie said.
A closed door—this one draped in dark, peeling paint—stood beyond the desks.
“Anyone see more flags?” Kev asked.
Wendy glanced around and shook her head.
Cal got to the door and stopped.
“What is it?” Arie asked.
“There,” Cal said, pointing to a small, clear wire. It ran up the edge and disappeared through the top of the door.
“Nice,” Kev said.
Cal got closer to examine it. His eyes followed the wire up the side of the door and through the hole at the top. “It’s all on the other side. We’re going to have to set it off.”
“And hope I don’t get buried in black sludge like last time?” Kev asked.
“Pretty much,” Cal said.
“Everyone but Kev back,” Arie said.
Cal complied. Kev made a face. “Oh boy.”
“What is it?” Wendy asked.
Cal glanced at Kev. “Wonder boy over here isn’t the best at spotting them, but he’s great at setting them off. Most of the time he’s quick enough to get away with only a little paint on him, but sometimes he sets them off in a truly spectacular fashion.”
“I hate you guys,” Kev said.
“Know anything about traps?” Arie asked Wendy.
Wendy shook her head. “So they expect us to just go through and get hit with whatever is behind the door?
“Well, we're supposed to avoid them. If you get more than 30% of your body covered in paint then you're out.” Cal said. “Setting them off is easier than going around, and faster.”
“Grab that coat hanger in the other room and use it to pull the door.” Wendy waved her hand back the way they had come. “That way no one gets slimed or whatever. It shouldn’t take long.”
“Good idea,” Kev said, and turned to retrieve the coat hanger.
“You’re ruining my fun,” Cal said.
“Step back,” Kev said when he pushed the foot of the coat hanger toward the knob. Cal guided it in, and at the exact moment he stepped back, Kev pulled.
A splash of bright, purple paint spilled from above, engulfing the entire doorway. Kev grinned at Wendy when only got a little on his shoes. “The shrimp is good.”
Arie rolled her eyes. “Keep moving.”
The next two rooms held rusting desks and broken chairs. A few filing cabinets—something Wendy had only seen in pictures—sat in the corner of the second room, their drawers sagging open and empty. A few desks still harbored dust covered personal items that lent a hint of color to the drab brown and white atmosphere.
Wendy’s eyes swept each new room in turn, taking in everything and searching for flags.
“Right there,” Wendy said, pointing under a chair.
“Go get it,” Kev said, giving her a shove.
Wendy did so, careful to look for wires and even more careful not to disturb anything. The green cloth felt gritty in her fingers.
“Here,” Kev said. He held out his hand. “I’ll put it with the others.”
They found three more booby traps, Cal having spotted all but one.
Kev examined the dingy sign next to a door. “This way.”
“Whoa,” Cal said. His hand shot out to stop Kev from touching the handle. “That says 110, not 101.”
“Oh, right,” Kev said. “Sorry.”
“Two more rooms,” Cal said, “then the shortcut.”
“Keep your eyes open,” Arie said. “You know how—”
The lights—dim anyway—went out.
“Oh hell,” Kev said.
“Why?” Cal said, sounding sincerely upset.
“Because you hate it,” Kev said.
Wendy’s already sweating palms curled into fists. Her body froze.
“Who has the light?” Arie asked.
The space around Wendy got darker, and the same roar that had sounded in the combat rooms filled her ears.
“I got it,” Cal said. A second later, a weak light clicked on.
The shadow from one of the chairs slid across the floor, and Wendy jumped back, hands up and on guard.
“Whoa, easy,” Cal said. “Just the chair. Nothing is going to attack us.”
Wendy forced her hands down, and her voice to be calm. “Right, sorry.” It didn’t stop the tight ball of fear in her chest.
Jeff’s voice from the combat room came into her mind. “Inhale.”
Wendy did, ignoring the stale, stagnant taste of the air. Then she exhaled. She rubbed her thumb on her index finger in a circle and forced herself to focus on the motion. Her heart rate went down to a manageable level, and the roaring in her ears diminished.
“Hey,” Kev said as he gave her a little shove from behind. “You going to stand there all day or what?”
The others had gone through the door into the next room. Wendy didn’t answer. Glass crunched beneath her feet and the air around her felt thick, but she put one foot in front of the other just like she’d been doing a minute before.
Cal found two more booby traps while the rest of them spotted three more flags—including the white one they were supposed to trade. Wendy continued to focus on breathing and the feel of her thumb on her finger.
She could do this. She would not break down. She would not attack anyone. She would walk forward like nothing was wrong. Because nothing was wrong.
If only her mind would believe it.
“Here we go,” Kev said as Wendy entered the last room before the shortcut. A barricade of desks and chairs stood before the door they were supposed to go through.
“Told you,” Kev said. “Blocked.”
Cal went to a filing cabinet that looked as if it hadn’t been moved in years. Kev joined him, and together they lifted it straight up. A hook on the wall, which should have been used to hang a picture, held the weight of the cabinet as Kev and Cal hung it.
Curiosity overrode Wendy’s anxiety, and she squatted down with the others to look underneath.
A hole just big enough for Kev’s shoulders to get through had been punched through the wall.
“Our shortcut,” Kev said.
“You sure you can get through there?” Arie asked.
“Yeah, I just did it last week.”
“Why?” Arie asked.
“To get to the farms. You help up there for a few hours and they’ll let you pick stuff off the vines.” Cal’s eyes went glossy. “It’s delicious.”
“You two and food,” Arie said. “Let’s go. Kev better go first in case he gets stuck.”
Kev screwed up his face. “What are you going to do, push me out?” He put a finger to his lips. “Oh, I get it; you want to touch my bum.”
Arie gave him a flat stare. “Why don’t we have Wendy go first? She’s small and fast. She can tell us if there are any traps.” She looked at Wendy and raised her eyebrows.
The more Wendy studied the hole, the smaller it got. And was Cal’s flashlight was getting dimmer?
She mustered her courage. “Okay. Is that the only light?”
Cal nodded. “I’ll go second and shine it for you.”
“How long is this vent?”
“About twenty feet,” Kev said. “It’s a straight shot, so don’t take any turns.”
Wendy squatted down in front of the hole. Cal’s arm reached around her as he shone the light into the vent.
The illumination didn’t reach to the other end.
The light glinted off the clean metal. Wendy had expected dust and grime, but most of it had been wiped away. Probably by Kev and Cal. Wendy steeled herself, ordered her mind to behave, and started forward.
A chill ran up Wendy’s arm as she slid her fingers beyond the threshold of the hole. She gritted her teeth and moved her other arm in. Then her head. Her body didn’t take up half of the space, so light got around her, but instead of brightening the way, it brought the vent to life. The dust turned into stone and the shiny bits transformed into cutting swords aimed for her head.
Wendy told herself it wasn’t real and kept going. If she got to the end, then she could get out. Simple.
She just had to get to the end.
Silver flashed, darkness leered in toward her. Wendy kept crawling, fighting back the urge to growl. Once again, her fingers itched for a weapon. Her right hand even reached down to grasp a knife she didn’t have.
But it was there. The tunnels, the emaciated people, the crude weapons. They were all in her mind, ready and willing to act out a scene in her head as if she were watching a play.
Kev may as well have been sitting on her chest for all the good her lungs were doing. The cool air became hot, and sweat started trickling down her neck.
“Are you almost out?” Cal’s voice somehow broke through Wendy’s delusion.
Wendy squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. She’d just passed an opening on her right. She wasn’t in the tunnels.
She opened her eyes. “I—” The light reflected off a tiny strand of thread. Wendy stopped cold.
“What is it?” Cal asked.
“Shine the light down my right side,” Wendy said in a raspy voice.
Cal swore. “Did you trigger it?”
Wendy swiveled her eyes to follow the thread. “I’m on it.”
“Don’t move,” Cal said.
Wendy gritted her teeth.
“Can you tell where it goes?”
Wendy took a deep breath and followed the string. “Looks like it goes down this vent on my right.” She couldn’t hide the tremor in her voice.
“Told you Jeff found it,” Kev said.
“How?” Cal asked. “There aren’t even any footprints in here.”
“What about the other vent? Where does it come from?” Arie asked.
“The bathroom next door. The one we can’t get to.”
Kev spoke. “I bet we can get there if we go upstairs.”
A murmured conversation followed. Then Cal said, “You might be right.” He stuck his head back in the vent, Wendy could tell because his voice echoed through her feet. “Sit tight, Kev and I will be right there.”
Cal’s voice pulsed in Wendy’s head. She tried to shake it away, but instead of clearing her head, the action brought more memories.
The dark, lights going on and off, those scarred and horrible faces. The sword.
Part of Wendy’s mind knew she was in a vent, not a tunnel, that she was surrounded by the other trainees, not enemies. But the other part of her mind, the damaged and much louder part, kept trying to convince her to scream and run away as fast as she could.
After just a few seconds, all Wendy could hear was the ragged sound of her own breathing, which quickly turned into a buzz that got louder and louder until she could no longer think around it.
The vent dissolved and the tunnels appeared. The smell of sweat and fear filled her nostrils, along with the rich scent of blood and the less subtle but no less horrible smell of death. Until that day, she’d never known that the last moments of someone’s life changed their smell. It was something Wendy wished she had never found out.
A long knife appeared in her hand. A glance over her shoulder showed a line of little kids—all wide-eyed and shaking. Some were covered in blood, somehow Wendy knew it wasn’t theirs. Wendy had killed the Skinnies that had followed them. But there were more everywhere, and if she didn’t get these kids to the next tunnel they would all die.
Her dad had told her to…
A voice cut through the thought. It came from the direction of Wendy’s head.
“Arie? Where the hell are you guys?” The vision crashed down around her, and the buzzing in her ears subsided.
“Dennis, we’re here,” Arie said.
“Wendy’s stuck in the vent. She’s on a trap. Kev and Cal went to disarm it.”
A light swept down the vent, causing Wendy to close her eyes and turn away.
“Is this on your route?” Dennis asked.
“No,” Arie said. “We had to go around a blockade. Wendy’s on a wire.”
Dennis snorted. “Figures Kev and Cal would let that happen. Do you have the flag?”
“Yes,” Arie said. “I have it.”
“Send it through.”
Wendy didn’t miss the moment of hesitation before Arie spoke. “Wait until we get there. Kev and Cal will disarm it in a second.”
“Do you know where it triggers? We want to keep that flag safe. Send it through and we’ll make sure it doesn’t get hit with paint.” A sneer entered his voice. “Just in case Wendy here twitches.” Wendy couldn’t see him, but she could tell he saw her fear.
Another delay before Arie spoke. “Okay. Wendy, can you reach down and grab this without moving?”
“Sure,” Wendy said. Blood pumped in her ears, and the scene around her started to dissolve again. The pressure in the vent changed as Arie crawled to Wendy’s feet. She handed Wendy the flag. Wendy took it with her unoccupied hand.
“Toss it this way,” Dennis said. “I’ll have Jordy crawl in for it.”
The light from Dennis’ lamp made it past Wendy and hit Arie’s face. Wendy glanced at her team leader and raised her eyebrows.
“Do it,” Arie said after a second. “It’s part of our objective.”
One of Dennis’ minions, Jordy, stuck the top of half of his body into the vent. Wendy tossed the flag past her head. It landed just a few inches from Jordy’s fingers.
“Nice throw,” he said with a leer in his voice.
“Got it?” Dennis asked.
Dennis shoved his head back in. “So long, ladies, we’ll take it from here.”
“What?” Arie asked. Her voice rose. “Dennis, we’re all supposed to get out.”
“That’s not what Jeff said. He said completing the objective was the number one priority.” He waved the flag at Wendy. “Too bad you guys didn’t make it.”
“Dennis!” This time Arie yelled. “It’s always a priority to get your people out.”
“You four are not my people.”
Dennis’ chuckling faded, along with the light.
The dark closed in around Wendy again. She buried her face in her arm and did her best to breathe. The vent constricted. The sides reached for her and the top pressed down on her back, eliciting screams of pain from her ribs.
It took years for Cal’s voice to interrupt her mental breakdown.
“Wendy, we disarmed it. You can move now.”
The brush of someone’s fingers on her arm caused Wendy to scream and press herself into the wall of the vent.
“Whoa, what’s wrong?” Cal asked. He had gotten into the vent Wendy had passed earlier. His light shone in Wendy’s eyes, and she turned away, burying her face in her hands.
“Hey,” Cal tried again. “Talk to me. What’s wrong?”
“I—” A gasp interrupted her own voice. Pelton’s face overlapped with Cal’s. Wendy squeezed her hands into fists until her arms throbbed.
“Hey, are you afraid of the dark?”
Wendy couldn’t answer, her teeth were clamped shut so she wouldn’t scream, and her whole body shook.
“Yeah, me too.” Cal reached out again, this time gently putting his fingers on her arm. “You should have told us. We never would have put you down here without a light.”
Wendy continued to shake. She was terrified, but she didn’t know why. It wasn’t the dark. It was what lurked in the dark. Or maybe it was the confines of the vent. Or the flashes of light.
“Close your eyes and think about the show we watched the other night.”
The idea seemed silly, and Wendy managed to give Cal a look that told him so.
“I know it sounds dumb, but trust me. I hate the dark, and this is how I get through it. Close your eyes, picture something that makes you laugh or somewhere you love. Try to smell the place. Feel it under your hands.”
A picture of the woods outside of the Den came into her mind. She could almost hear gravel crunching beneath her. Wendy nodded. Cal gave her a little push. It helped get her started. She could crawl forward. She could, and as she did, the tunnels and the scent of death started to fade.
“Good, keep going. Don’t open your eyes or stop until you drop out the other end.”
Cal kept nudging her as she went by. When he gave her foot a little shove, a breath of fresher air filled her nostrils. The mere hint of freedom propelled her forward.
A few squirms later, and her right elbow met the edge of the vent. She took Cal’s advice, and didn’t open her eyes until half of her body was out. Wendy pulled herself free and crashed to the floor a foot below.
“You out?” Cal asked.
“Yeah,” Wendy said. It sounded like she’d just seen a ghost—her voice was hollow and trembling.
“Coming through,” Cal said.
Wendy made sure she got out of the way as Cal extracted himself from the small space. He came out with the light, but immediately tossed it back for the others.
The brief moment of illumination showed that the room was only about ten feet square and completely empty except for a single table in the far corner and an open door opposite the vent. Wendy’s hands wouldn’t stop shaking, so she clasped them together.
Kev came out a moment later, followed by Arie.
“I can’t believe Dennis left us,” Kev said.
“If we hurry we can catch him,” Cal turned to Arie. “Do we follow him, or go along our route?”
Arie shook her head. “Doesn’t matter.”
“What do you mean?” Kev asked.
“There were instructions on the back of the map,” Arie said. “They said we all had to get out. I wasn’t supposed to say anything. Jeff might be testing Dennis, and I say we let him burn. Jeff will take him apart for not getting us out.”
Wendy looked at the floor. This was her fault. If she couldn’t keep the flashes from happening, she would have to give up training. Maybe they could still salvage this. Wendy cleared her throat. “Are you sure we can’t catch him? If the point is to get everyone out, we should help ourselves, right?”
Kev scrunched up his face and gave her a glare. “Why do you have to be logical about this? I really want to see him in trouble for once. He’s a bully, but he never does anything bad enough to get more than a few extra garbage duties.”
“You’re sinking to his level,” Wendy said. She always did her best to stay out of politics, but she’d watched her dad face these situations plenty of times. “Can we get out in time?”
Arie looked at her watch. “I doubt it.”
“We should at least try,” Wendy said. Sweat still trickled down the back of her neck. She shivered again, and was grateful no one looked too closely at her face.
“Oh fine,” Kev said. To Arie he said, “Should we track him, or follow our path?”
“He’ll have taken out all of the traps. Jeff said to be ready to think fast. I say we track him.”
Kev nodded and headed out the door.
Wendy followed Arie. Her legs felt like weights, and her vision blurred as she walked. Right now she didn’t really care about winning this exercise, but she did want to get out of these dark halls.
They traversed a handful of rooms and then started up a long flight of stairs.
Kev picked up the pace, and they started to jog.
The floor tilted beneath Wendy’s feet, and she had to reach out and touch the walls to keep from falling over.
They were almost at the top, when the lights came back on.
Kev groaned. Arie cursed.
“What does that mean?” Wendy asked.
“It means that the exercise is over. We missed the deadline,” Arie said.
“We’re almost there,” Kev said, breathing hard.
He was right. Less than a minute later, they burst through a door that led them back into the entry hall where they started.
The other teams had gathered at the far end, Jeff standing in the middle. His eyes turned to Wendy and her team as they came through the door.
“You’re late!” Dennis said.
“And you’re dead,” Arie said. She pulled the map out of her pocket and strode across the floor. “You were supposed to get us out.”
Dennis sneered. “Mine didn’t say that.”
“Check again.” Arie’s usual smile had been replaced by a flat stare.
Dennis’ expression faltered. He held out his hand, and Jordy placed the map in it.
Silence descended. The tension in the room thickened as they moved toward the rest of the group. Wendy was still trying to blink away the remnants of the tunnels.
“On the back side,” Arie said.
Dennis turned the paper over. A frown creased his face. His eyes flickered up to Arie before going back to the page. He read, then looked up and turned his attention to Jeff. “You didn’t say we had instructions on the back.”
“I said your instructions were on the paper.” Jeff’s dark eyes remained steady.
Wendy could see Dennis trying not to explode. His nostrils flared as he ground his teeth together.
“If we had stopped to help them, we wouldn’t have made it. Wendy had frozen in a vent they weren’t even supposed to be in,” Dennis said.
“She was on a trap,” Kev said.
“She was scared to death,” Dennis said. “And you weren’t supposed to be in the vent.”
“The vent saved us time, and didn’t cause us to miss a single flag,” Kev said. He stepped toward Dennis, pulled the bundle out of his pocket and waved it around. “We are supposed to think on our feet.”
Dennis took a step toward Kev. “I did. I got the white flag out.”
More distance evaporated between the two boys. No one interfered. This confrontation had been brewing for a while.
Wendy saw it before it happened. Kev closed the last of the distance and put his nose to within an inch of Dennis’. “You messed up.”
“That’s all you do,” Dennis said. Quick as a thought, Dennis’ fist shot out and hit Kev in the gut.
Kev took it and doubled over, but not before Wendy caught the grin on his face.
“Enough,” Jeff said. He placed himself between the two boys and pushed Dennis back. “That’s a week of KP for you. Along with a reprimand. Riggs will decide what to do about that.”
Jeff turned his eyes on everyone else. “Look at your instructions again. You all lost—either you were late or you missed something important.” His gaze rested on Wendy. She’d never seen him upset before, but at that moment, she realized he was not a person to mess with. “That’s an extra twenty laps for each of you. Anyone who isn’t here on time and ready to run tomorrow morning will be out of the program.”
For once no one groaned. Silence reigned as Cal hauled Kev upright, and everyone filed back down the stairs.
After a hard day of obstacle training, Arie and the boys dropped Wendy off at her room. No one said much, but Kev’s grin didn’t fade.
Wendy finally broke the silence. “I’m sorry I tripped that trap.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Arie said. “You saw it before you triggered it. That’s good.”
“Yeah,” Kev said, “we for sure would have lost if you’d gotten doused in green paint.”
“Still, it won’t happen again.”
“Wendy,” Cal said, “you’re allowed to be afraid of something. I hate the dark too. It totally freaks me out.” He pointed at Arie. “And see what happens if you toss a snake at this one.”
“Don’t even think about it,” Arie said.
“See?” Cal patted Wendy on the shoulder. “It’s fine. We’re here to watch each other’s backs, right?”
Wendy looked at each member of her team.
“Right?” Kev asked.
Arie raised her eyebrows.
“Fine. Yes. Right.” Wendy said.
Ever since the movie, a part of her heart had been working its way loose. Now it broke off, leaving a small hole. Wendy hadn’t wanted to like these kids, but she did. They were her friends—the first she’d ever really had. Now she understood why Kenzie had spent so much time trying to bond with her. It felt good to have people to rely on, to laugh with and maybe cry with. People who actually liked her, not just respected her because Ed was her father, or because she could take them apart piece by piece in a fight.
“Good,” Kev patted her on the head.
They reached Wendy’s room. Arie met her eyes. “Get some sleep. Jeff will run us all hard in the morning. If you puke easy, don’t eat anything beforehand.”
“Sounds fun,” Wendy said in a flat voice.
Cal chuckled. “You are twisted.”
“As twisted as me?” Kev asked.
“No,” Arie said.
Wendy wanted to laugh, but instead cleared her throat.
“Okay, I’ll get some extra sleep then. See you guys in the morning.”
“Bye,” they all said.
Wendy opened her door, went into her room, flipped on the light and shut the door behind her. The voices of the others faded as they walked away.
She’d just messed up an entire exercise. Her weakness was going to cause everyone pain and suffering. And yet, she felt happy. A smile pulled at her lips as her memory of the grin on Kev’s face when Dennis had punched him played through her mind over and over again.
Wendy let out a chuckle. It was the first sincere laugh she’d had since she’d woken up here.
These kids couldn’t know about Mike and his Skinnies. There was no way. Which meant she had to convince them to join her. To help her. To help everyone here get free of the monster that was Mike.
Matt had asked her about the food test. If she could gather most of the ingredients, he might help her. But he wasn’t in the complex right now. However, before she did anything, she needed to get her hands on some corn.
Wendy waited until the lights dimmed before she crept out of her room and into the hallway.
There were no rules about being out of bed after dark—Wendy had asked—but she didn’t want to meet anyone, so she took the most convoluted path she could to get to the marketplace.
The marketplace was almost deserted. She didn’t sneak through—afraid she might draw undo attention to herself—but she kept behind tall booths and did her best to remain inconspicuous. The quiet put Wendy on edge. The soft scrape of a shoe on the floor sounded.
She was being followed.
Did Mike know what she was up to?
Should she go to medical? Act like she wanted to ask Doc a question, or should she go back to her room?
The second would look suspicious, so Wendy took her next left and went toward the stairs that led up to medical.
She moved through the weapons section and spotted a couple of gas balls within easy reach. She pocketed them.
Clothes loomed ahead. Wendy’s heartbeat sped up, along with her feet as she turned another corner, and came face to face with Dennis.
His broad, imposing figure stopped Wendy in her tracks. Her hands automatically came up on guard as she took a step back.
“Boo,” he said. His lips were smiling, but it wasn’t anything like Kev or Cal’s.
It was useless for her to feign innocence, so she kept her guard up and took another step back. “What are you doing?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” Dennis said. “Sneaking through the marketplace after dark. Kind of suspicious if you ask me.”
“What do you want, Dennis?” She could barely hear her own words above the warning alarms in her mind. He had to have back up around here somewhere.
“Hey, I just wanted to talk.” He spread his hands out.
“About what?” Wendy shifted her weight to the balls of her feet.
“We’ve never had a conversation. I thought now would be a good time to start.”
Wendy stared at him. “At night? In the marketplace?”
“I came to your room, but you weren’t there.”
That comment didn’t help to quiet Wendy’s pounding heart.
“Can we do this later?” Wendy asked. “I was headed up to talk to Doc.”
“About your little meltdown earlier?”
Wendy didn’t allow her expression to change as her mind considered the best way to take him down.
“Because that was what it was, wasn’t it? A meltdown.”
He would spring at her any moment. He was trying to get her riled up and angry before he did so, in the hope that she would make a mistake. She wanted to strike first, but assaulting someone wasn’t the best way to stay under the radar. Besides, Mike would take Dennis’ word over hers. Jeff might not, but he didn’t have any actual power here.
Dennis continued. “You should take yourself out of the training program. You’re not fit. Not if small, dark spaces mess you up that bad.”
He waited for her to answer. Wendy didn’t even breathe
Dennis flicked a finger, and she twitched to one side. Just as a small, two-pronged metal object connected to wires flew out of the pile clothes to her right.
Wendy tried to dodge, but didn’t get her body out of the way in time, and the needles bit into her shoulder. That didn’t hurt. What did hurt was the jolt of electricity that followed.
Pain had become commonplace for Wendy, but this was different. It felt as if every nerve in her body fired at once. Her scream cut off as her muscles seized up.
Dennis caught her before she fell. A sinister, teeth baring smile replaced the friendly manner he had manifested a moment before.
“Nice catch,” Jordy said as he moved out of the pile of clothes.
Dennis’ eyes met Wendy’s as he stroked her cheek with a finger. “You really are a tiny thing, aren’t you?”
Wendy’s mind raged—she wanted to fight back—but her body remained disconnected from her mind’s commands.
“Is it ready?” Dennis asked.
“This way,” Jordy said.
He went to the stairs and started up. Dennis followed, cradling Wendy in his arms like a small child.
Wendy couldn’t move. She was helpless. Dennis could do whatever he wanted to her—there were plenty of options—and she could do nothing to stop him.
She should have taken him out when she had had the chance.
Jordy opened a door and they moved into a dark hallway.
A spasm rocked through Wendy’s body, and Dennis lost her feet. They dragged behind her on the floor as Dennis hauled her through another door.
“Right here,” Jordy said.
Wendy couldn’t see. The dark had closed in around them when the door shut.
Dennis’ lips brushed her ear. “You’ve been hiding something from all of us. I know it. Mike knows it. I’m going to let you think about it for a little while, and when you come back out, we’ll chat.”
Wendy’s stomach dropped. They knew.
Jordy grabbed her feet. The flashlight in his hands illuminated a thick, dust covered, wooden cabinet just big enough to stuff Wendy into, but not big enough to allow her to move once she was inside.
Panic clutched her heart.
Wendy tried to say it. She tried to twitch or move, but nothing happened. She couldn’t even speak.
The two boys gagged her before shoving her into the cabinet and turning her so she faced them.
Dennis held up a thick padlock. “I hope you’re comfortable.”
A gurgling sound came out of Wendy as her first scream forced its way through.
Dennis laughed and kissed her on the cheek. “Sweet dreams.”
The sound of the metal lock sliding into place sent a surge of adrenaline through Wendy’s entire body. Her senses went into overdrive, and she heard the ragged breathing of someone close by.
The brush of fingers on Wendy’s arm caused her to shrink back from the far wall. Was someone else in here?
A growl sounded. Not animal, but not quite human.
Wendy brought a trembling hand up and found a small opening big enough for a thin hand to get through. The fingers continued grasping for her. The ragged nails raked her arm, drawing blood.
The stench of unwashed bodies and human waste came through the hole.
Skinnies. The smell of death.
The tunnels. Fighting. A sword flashed, biting into her arm. Pelton found her. They had fought alongside one another, a force to be reckoned with, even with Wendy’s bad arm.
But then they’d gotten trapped. Pelton had led them down one of the supply tunnels. There was no way out.
Pelton knew better. Why had he brought them down that hall?
The Skinnies had swarmed them. At first the two of them had driven the Skinnies back. Wendy had thought they would break through, but Pelton had grabbed her and tossed her in a crate. The lid crashed down, and Pelton had started dropping dead Skinnies on top of it.
Blood had seeped through the wood. She could smell it. She could practically taste it. What she couldn’t do was move. The crate was too shallow—the lid pressed her nose into the wood beneath her as each body hit.
Her arm was useless. Her legs couldn’t get enough leverage to kick.
Trapped. Trapped with no way out. If she screamed, they would find her. If she cried, they might hear her.
Hell opened up and ate her alive. Her mind begged for space, her lungs cried for air.
At some point she had started yelling out loud.
No one came.
Everyone was dead.
Wendy’s sanity fled. Her mind slipped, and she let it go into the darkness to witness her death again and again. Eventually her exhausted limbs stopped struggling.
The rattling of the lock jerked her back into reality.
Bright lights hit her like a hammer. Wendy threw an arm over her eyes.
The door opened, allowing Wendy’s exhausted body to fall to the ground. Fear had sapped her strength, and only the thought of slowly killing Dennis kept her from curling up into a ball to cry.
Four dark silhouettes stood around her.
They were laughing.
Dennis’ voice came from one of the shadows. “Are you ready for our little chat? Are you ready to tell the truth?”
The tunnels faded, but her emotions did not.
Dennis came forward and grabbed her by the hair, forcing her head back. With the lights all around her, she couldn’t see his face.
“Are you ready?”
Weeks of pain and anger, hate and sorrow blazed in her mind as Dennis became the focus of Wendy’s rage.
Wendy mumbled incoherently through her gag.
Dennis leaned closer, his nose only a few inches from hers. “What was that?”
He removed the gag. She could finally see his triumphant, pride-filled eyes.
She leaned closer to him, her body shaking with fury and anticipation.
“You should have tied my hands.”
Pelton had always joked that Wendy would be a force to be reckoned with if anyone really got her mad. He’d been right.
Wendy’s mind cleared of the flashes and the fear and the comfort she thought she’d had here. Mike had sent Dennis to interrogate her. Her cover was blown, but she could still get out.
After she hurt someone.
Thoughts stopped, and rage took over. Wendy grabbed Dennis by the head and twisted. Not enough to break his neck, but enough to force him to turn and fall. Before he hit the ground, she kneed him in the spine.
His yell of surprise and pain was music to her ears.
Wendy didn’t wait for the others to approach. Two steps brought her to the nearest silhouette. This one was tall, so she went for his knees first, then his ribs. When he doubled over, she elbowed him in the face. He didn’t make a sound as he hit the floor.
A quick glance to the side told Wendy that Dennis was slowly getting to his feet.
Good. She wasn’t finished with him.
Another of the shadows stepped toward the light. The fourth had retreated.
Wendy recognized the short, stocky frame, but his name didn’t register. She didn’t care about names anymore.
He came in swinging for her head. She silently thanked him. A quick duck and a step forward got her into range. Using her momentum and strength, Wendy punched him in the stomach. All of the air in his lungs came out with a gasp, and he stumbled back. Before he could get away, Wendy kicked him in the back of the knee. Before he hit the ground she chopped him in the back of the neck. He joined his friend—unmoving on the floor.
Dennis had come to his feet, and he thought he had the upper hand as he approached Wendy from behind.
He was wrong.
Wendy let him get close enough to kick her before she turned and blocked his shin with her elbow. The collision sent a jarring pain through Wendy’s arm, which only added fuel to her anger.
The confident look on Dennis’ face faltered as Wendy followed up with three punches and two kicks. He blocked the first two, but after that Wendy’s strikes started to get through his guard.
Dennis grunted and lunged forward, catching Wendy’s ribs with a solid hit. “Riggs said you were unstable.”
“You have no idea,” Wendy said.
A flicker of movement caught Wendy’s attention. The fourth shadow. It had to be Jordy. Wendy circled to put Dennis between them.
“Why are you here?” Dennis asked.
They exchanged more blows. Dennis got Wendy in the side of the head hard enough to set her ears ringing.
“Mike brought me here, why don’t you go ask him?”
Jordy had moved so that he was perpendicular to the two fighters.
Wendy had to finish this. Every fighting instinct she had screamed for her to back up as she let Dennis get close enough to grab her.
His hand shot out and snatched her elbow. Wendy let him have it. She turned her back to him and let him get her into a choke hold.
Hopefully this would work better than it had with the Skinny.
The moment he thought he had control of her, he said, “Do it.”
Wendy grabbed Dennis’ wrist and pulled him close to her. She let out a yell as she threw him over her shoulder.
Bigger guys never expected her to be able to throw them, which is why she’d practiced it so much. Dennis’ feet left the ground, and he came over her hip just in time to get hit by the little pronged machine Jordy had used on her earlier.
Wendy let gravity do its job and let go, afraid she might get caught up in the shock.
“Damn it,” Jordy said.
Wendy sprung over the now twitching Dennis and got to Jordy before he could move. She grabbed his wrist and twisted. The machine clattered to the floor. Wendy continued to turn his hand, locking up the whole limb to his shoulder. A pop sounded, and Jordy yelled out in pain.
Wendy wished she had time to do more damage, but she had to get out. She kicked him in the side of the head, and he went down in a heap.
Dennis continued to twitch, apparently still receiving electric shocks. Wendy picked up the machine and walked over to him.
She squatted down and pointed at the knob. “I’m just going to turn this up a little.”
He didn’t answer. He couldn’t even move, but Wendy clearly saw the increased fear in his eyes.
Wendy turned the knob. A gurgle came from Dennis’ throat, and his body convulsed. She set the little box down just a few inches from his hand. “Enjoy.”
The room didn’t extend much beyond the light, and the only thing in it besides unconscious teenagers, was the cupboard Dennis had put her in. The glint of metal caught Wendy’s attention, and she relieved Jordy of his knife. Wendy found the door and slipped out. The hour must still have been late, because the lights were low. Wendy had expected a guard, but the hallway was empty.
She didn’t know where she was, so she went to her left. Adrenaline and anger filled her to the point of busting, and Wendy’s whole body shook as she walked.
Why didn’t Mike have someone here to guard them? Had he been watching somehow? A camera she hadn’t seen?
She had to get out.
The sound of approaching footsteps jump-started Wendy’s heart. She ducked into the nearest room—grateful to find it empty—and waited.
Familiar voices spoke.
“Where could she be?” Cal said.
“I don’t know. Arie said it didn’t look like her bed has been slept in.” That was Kev.
Wendy’s mind clicked into action. They’d said they knew how to get out of the complex. Just after they passed, Wendy jumped out after them.
Kev was the better fighter, so she went for him. Neither of the boys saw her coming, and a moment later she had Kev by the neck, her knife at his throat.
She met Cal’s shocked eyes. “Get me out of here and he lives.”
Kev was tense under Wendy’s hand, but he didn’t move. He knew better.
“Get me some supplies and get me out of this place.”
“What’s going on?” Cal asked.
Maybe he didn’t know anything. Maybe he did. No time to figure out the truth. She tightened her grip on Kev. “Get me out of the building and past the shield and the two of you go free.”
Cal took in Wendy’s appearance. “What happened?”
“Mike isn’t who you think he is.”
“Who is he?”
Wendy gave him a flat stare. “Show me the way out.”
Cal met her eyes. “Where will you go?”
Wendy ground her teeth. “Away from here.”
“Once you leave, Mike will hunt you down.”
“Let him try.”
Silence settled on the group. Wendy waited, ready to do whatever she had to, to get out.
After a few long seconds, Kev spoke. “Show her the way.”
Cal gave Kev a look of confusion, but it quickly resolved into a nod. “Follow me.”
“If you try to trick me, Kev will die,” Wendy said and adjusted their position so Kev was standing in front of her, her knife a hairsbreadth from his back. “Even if I don’t have the knife at his throat.”
“We all know how deadly you are,” Cal said in a tense voice.
Wendy almost felt bad for using Kev and Cal like this—they had been her friends—but she had to get out. Mike kept Skinnies. If she stayed, he would give her bad food. She would either become a Skinny or she would refuse to eat and starve to death anyway. Wendy didn’t like either of those options. If she could get out, maybe she could find one of the other groups her dad had been working with and take these guys down. They had a nice setup here in this complex. If she could find a group to take them out, people could be safe.
They didn’t encounter anyone else as they traversed the maze of hallways toward the marketplace.
Wendy kept the knife at Kev’s back as they walked. When they reached the marketplace, she looked at Cal.
“You have five minutes to get me a bag, food for three days, a canteen, two knives, two gas bombs, a change of clothes and a med kit.” She could really use new boots—hers were too big—but they didn’t have time.
Cal gave her one more glare before moving off to get her supplies.
Wendy and Kev crouched behind a pile of crates near where she had taken down the Skinnies. Kev said nothing. Wendy could feel the tension coming off of him, but he kept his cool.
Wendy’s mind raced as she watched Cal move away. Why had Mike sent Dennis after her now? What had changed? Why the rush?
Suspicion blossomed in Wendy. Kev and Cal coming by at that moment could not be a coincidence. Mike was going to let her go. He wanted the map, and he figured she would go back for it, then he would follow her. It was a brilliant plan. What he didn’t know about was the rendezvous point. If any of her people had gotten out, they would have left a clue to where they went. The map wasn’t going anywhere. She would find her people and then they would come back for Mike. It might take a few years, but she would do it.
People died every day, but to take out an entire community of people was unforgivable. Mike had done it, and Wendy would make sure he paid.
“Cal’s right, Mike will hunt you down,” Kev said.
“I wish him luck with that,” Wendy said.
“Wendy, why are you doing this?” Kev turned to look at her. His eyes were narrowed, but still more confused than angry.
Wendy sighed. “Mike isn’t what he seems. I know about the Skinnies. I can’t be here. Not with them. Not after what he did.”
Kev blinked and shook his head. Maybe he didn’t know the whole story, but then again, maybe he did.
Cal reappeared with the supplies.
“Here,” Cal said, handing her the bag. It had a long shoulder strap as well as back pack straps.
“You carry it until we get out.”
“Fine.” Cal shouldered the pack and looked around. “It won’t be light for another three hours. Our best bet is to go out through the bottom.” He looked at Kev for confirmation.
“This way,” Cal said as he took off down a nearby hallway. His long legs ate up the distance, and Wendy had to rush to keep up.
The only sound came from their footsteps on the tile floor as they made their way through two unmanned and open gates.
“This way,” Cal said after they got through the second gate.
“What part of the complex is this?” Wendy asked. She had never been this way.
“This goes to the hangar,” Cal said.
Wendy slowed. “What?” There were bound to be people watching the vehicles.
Kev sighed. “There’s a small door that only a few people know about. We found it by accident about a year ago. Mike doesn’t even know we know about it.”
Sure he didn’t.
“We can get you out there.”
“And through the shield,” Wendy said.
Kev’s eyes narrowed again. “How do you know about the shield?”
Besides, it was the only explanation for this place still being safe. Pelton had told her about a complex surrounded by a shield that he’d broken into once. He said if you touched it from either side, you’d get fried. It would be too easy for the boys to let her loose outside and then have her get killed before she found the opening.
“You do know how to get out of it, right?” Wendy said.
“Of course,” Cal said, his voice even.
Cal led her through a door, down a hallway that had dust on the floor and into a small supply room. She could hear sounds from a hangar—transports taking off and the clinking of metal on metal—but didn’t get a glimpse of it.
“Here,” Cal said, following the walkway to yet another door.
“That leads outside?” Wendy asked. Rust stains ran down the metal surface of the door like tears. There was no indication that it had been opened in the last year.
Cal didn’t answer, but he moved forward and tugged the handle. The walkway provided just enough room for the door to pivot inward.
“This way,” Cal said.
Beyond lay darkness. For a moment Wendy’s feet wouldn’t move, but Kev kept going, and dragged her along with him.
Cool, mountain air greeted her, the smell invigorating. The door led to a small cave. She followed the boys around a corner and into the night.
Around her, everything shimmered.
According to Pelton, shields bent light and looked like whatever you programmed them to from the outside. Wendy took a quick glance over her shoulder, and had to make a conscious effort not drop her jaw open at the straight wall of the plateau rising into the air above. The entire complex must be hidden in the rocks.
The shield must have been here before the Starvation.
And very hard to get into.
Wendy’s eyes fell back to the ground, and she eyed the forest around her with trepidation. Would Cal actually lead her out?
“This way,” Cal said. “The guards are on rotation right now, so we won’t be seen.”
How convenient, Wendy thought.
Nighttime was usually filled with the noise of animals, but silence reigned here. She wondered if the shield kept sound out.
This forest closely resembled the one around the Den. They must be close, or at least near the same latitude.
A few well-worn paths lead into a stream.
This way no one would leave a distinct path through the shield, and the shore of a stream was a hard place to track anything.
She wondered if she could find the opening again.
The shield only lay about fifty feet from the bottom of the cliff. Cal jumped into the water, which came almost to his knees, and started wading upstream.
“Wendy, you don’t have to do this,” Kev said as he followed Cal. Wendy still had a knife poking at his kidney.
“Yes, I do. Don’t worry, soon I’ll be out of your life.”
Cal turned to look over his shoulder. “And what if that’s not what we want?”
Wendy shook her head. “Mike is a monster. He killed everyone I know. I can’t stay here.”
Cal didn’t respond, just kept wading. The cool water shocked Wendy’s system, and she became even more alert.
“Here’s the tunnel,” Cal said.
“You go through first,” Wendy said.
Cal complied, followed by Kev. Wendy went last.
She expected to feel a change in temperature or pressure, but didn’t. Instead, she heard a buzzing noise, followed by the normal sounds of the forest at night.
Wind lifted the boughs of the trees. An owl hooted in the distance and something ran through the brush at her right.
Cal climbed out of the stream. Kev followed, and so did Wendy.
“You’re out,” Cal said. He held the pack out for her to take.
Wendy reached into her pocket, and grabbed one of the gas balls she’d picked up in the market before her encounter with Dennis. She moved so Kev and Cal were right next to one another, then ran a few steps away. Neither of them followed.
“Sleep tight.” She took a deep breath and threw the ball at them.
The thin, outer shell shattered, and white gas filled the air.
Three seconds later, they collapsed. She made sure they didn’t end up face down in the stream, and then turned to the woods.
A voice immediately drew her into a crouch.
“I saw something over here.”
Wendy swore under her breath. Someone was coming in from the outside. That probably wasn’t part of Mike’s plan.
She ducked into the brush surrounding the stream and moved back as far as she could without making too much noise. The moon was either dark or behind the clouds so they might not spot her.
Wendy almost jumped out of her shoes when the voices came from above her.
“Isn’t that Kev?”
Wendy turned her eyes upward and found two men in repulsor boots flying overhead.
They didn’t see her, but turned their attention to Kev and Cal.
Wendy had forgotten about the boots. If she could get a hold of a pair, she could not only outdistance Mike’s men, but leave virtually no trail.
The two men landed. Wendy slipped her knife out and let it settle into her hand. A single breath later, she rose and charged.
The men didn’t know what hit them. Wendy took one out with an elbow to the head. A moment later, the second man collapsed into the mud at the edge of the water with a squelch. She dragged the two men over next to Kev and Cal.
The boots came loose with the snap of a latch. It took her a moment to get the man’s feet out, and she began to sweat with every second of delay.
As if fate were laughing at her, Wendy’s laces tangled in twelve different places. She sat down in the mud and finished the process, cursing under her breath and looking over her shoulder to see if anyone was behind these two.
She shoved her own footwear into her pack and stood. The repulsors were too big, but she should still be able to use them.
According to Arie, the controls were mostly inside: curl your toes to go up, lean to go in the direction you want, and tap your toes together to go down. Wendy got comfortable with her balance before she took a breath and curled all of her toes.
A gentle but reverberating thrum pulsed through Wendy, and she rose six inches off of the ground. The weight of her pack pulled her back, and she started to lean. Every muscle in her body tensed as she fought to keep her balance. She tapped her toes twice, and came crashing back down to the ground, hitting hard and sprawling into the mud.
“Great,” she said to herself. The sounds around her had gone quiet. Was that because of her, or something else?
One of the men groaned.
Curl toes to rise, lean to go in a certain direction. Lean more for increased speed. Since she didn’t have another option at this point, she got to her feet and tried again. The tops of the boots tightened around her calf muscles, and Wendy felt herself stabilize.
The ground fell away. Once she was a foot up, she uncurled her toes and leaned forward. The movement was slight, but it worked. The boots started in the direction she had indicated.
A grin split her face. Once the sun came up, she would get her bearings and then make her way to the rendezvous point.
She veered out over the stream, and found the boots worked just as well there as on land. It didn’t take long for her feet and legs to cramp up. Her arms kept pin-wheeling despite her increased stability and she veered back and forth enough that her dad would have accused her of being drunk. But she kept going. Forward. Away from Mike and his Skinnies and the people she had almost called her friends.
The clouds parted, revealing the stars above and providing Wendy just enough light to see. After at least an hour, she spotted the silhouette of a large ridge line, and headed that way. The air remained cold and crisp, the world around her felt alive. She felt alive.
Each human-shaped shadow she passed made her believe Pelton was lurking nearby, trying to catch her off-guard. A fish jumping made her think of Kenzie, who loved to get away for the afternoon and fish. Their dad had often taken them both, before their mom got sick.
Wendy sighed. She didn’t care what Mike had said, her people were smarter than that. Someone had to have gotten away. Someone was still alive.
The stream started down a steeper hill. Wendy needed high ground, so she abandoned the stream and made her way through the woods.
This proved to be much more challenging than staying over the water. The trees made visibility all but impossible, and there wasn’t a clear path to follow. A quarter of an hour later, the boots sputtered.
Out of charge.
Wendy lowered herself to the ground just as they whined to a halt.
Should she stop here? The ridge line was still a few miles off, but she might be able to get there before sunrise. Wendy swapped out boots and started to hike.
A few early-morning- or late-night animals swished through the underbrush. None of them took more than a passing notice of the human.
Wendy reached the base of the ridge line and started to climb. Her leg muscles groaned in protest, but Wendy reveled in the pain. It meant she was not only alive, but alive and well.
The hike up this slope slowed Wendy down more than she would have liked, but she coerced her body to keep going. When she reached the top, enough light had risen to caress the eastern horizon.
A memory—not of the tunnels—surfaced. Something Wendy hadn’t thought about in years. A few months before her mom had died, Wendy’s dad had taken her and Kenzie up to the top of a nearby mountain peak he called Howling Wolf. She had only been eleven years old at the time, and could barely carry her own gear for the night, but she’d done it.
They had arrived well after dark, and both girls had curled up in their sleeping bags and immediately dropped off. Their dad had shaken them awake a few hours later to watch the sunrise.
Wendy only remembered living in the Den, so she was used to nature and the wonders it held, but this had been different.
A line of high, puffy clouds spotted the otherwise clear sky. Rays from the sun hit the clouds first, resulting in a striking array of orange and pink that reached from horizon to horizon. The peak they stood on towered above the rest. Wendy had been sure that they were on top of the world—they could even see the start of the dangerous plains.
Wendy had said as much to her dad. He had laughed, and then told the girls about the world before the Starvation. This was a tiny part of it. A mostly safe part. They were working to make things right again, but it would take time. He had said the responsibility to rebuild would fall to the girls someday. Wendy hadn’t understood what that meant until now.
A breeze came through the forest, rustling the branches and making the whole world below move. Wendy sat where she wouldn’t be easily seen, pulled out the roll and cured meat Cal had stuffed into the pack and ate it as the sun rose.
Today the sky was crystal clear. The rays of light reached up from the east like a crown, before fanning out and touching everything.
A new day. A new beginning.
The light tipped the tops of the trees like frosting, and then moved down. Wendy sat with her face to the sun, soaking in the energy and warmth. She stayed that way for a long time, eyes closed and breathing deep.
Once the landscape had been illuminated, Wendy stood and got her bearings. Howling Wolf stood on her right. The deep gorge left by a glacier a million years ago cut its way down the front face. Which meant Wendy had to go halfway around to reach the rendezvous point.
A glance between here and there showed Wendy some landmarks she should stick to. The climb had taken a lot out of her, so she found a dense copse of trees, put the boots in a sunny spot where they would recharge and curled into a blanket. With the warm sunshine coming through the branches, Wendy fell to sleep almost immediately.
The sun was directly overhead when Wendy roused herself from the best sleep she’d had in weeks. It was time to go. It only took her a few seconds to pack her gear and eat a quick bite.
The boots’ indicator light now shone green instead of red. She put them on, and spent a good half hour studying the land below her, watching for any of Mike’s people.
Nothing. She started back into the valley.
Muscles Wendy had never known she needed protested as she found a rhythm with the boots. The process soon became familiar.
With the boots, a journey which should have taken the better part of three days only took one. Moving during the day was dangerous, but Wendy decided that taking advantage of the boots while she could see and they would charge was more valuable. Besides, she was going in a direction Mike didn’t expect.
Wendy was halfway there before she spotted any signs of human life. Animal skeletons. No one had cut them apart to preserve the meat, and there were enough of them that a simple pack of animals could not have taken them down. Something that might have been a wolf still had bits of dried skin and hair sticking to it. One of its legs had been broken in half.
Wendy approached with caution. She circled and found tracks from bare feet. A human body—now mostly rotted away—lay near the outskirts of a large trampled down area.
It had to be the Skinnies. The Skinnies that had attacked her camp. They had trapped the animals and devoured them. Like a pack of wolves, only they had once been people.
Wendy remembered hearing her dad say the Skinnies that existed now were different than they were at first. They were more intelligent, less feral. But looking at this spot where they must have camped for the night Wendy wondered how it could be true. The very air around her felt heavy.
Wendy prowled the perimeter until she found their path in and their path out. One led toward Shelter.
Her hatred of Mike blossomed anew. She would destroy him.
Wendy hoped the human skeleton had been a Skinny, and not someone she knew. She swallowed down her fear and loathing and began moving toward the rendezvous point. Howling Wolf loomed to her right, and before she got there, the sun had settled behind it.
Wanting to approach with more caution, Wendy took the boots off a mile before she reached the hill, and stashed them under some bushes.
The path from the Den to the rendezvous site included two secret tunnels. Those who got out on the boats could get close and hike up to it, unseen by most of the surrounding area.
As Wendy ascended, a cliff kept her hidden from eyes below while trees obscured the view from above. The setting sun also helped keep her concealed. Unfortunately, it also kept her from seeing as much as she would like. Once she reached the top, she would have a better view.
Reason told her to wait until morning, but Wendy was anxious. She had to know. Who had made it out? Which way had they gone?
Dirt hissed beneath her feet, and she did her best not to make any noise as she went up.
Wendy’s heart sped up in a way that had nothing to do with the climb. Her hands shook from both exhaustion and excitement. She hadn’t realized how alone she felt until now. Like most of her emotions since her mother’s death, she’d kept these at bay. Her heart seemed to stop as she came to the top.
The copse of trees stood just as she remembered it. The setting sun still allowed her enough light to see by. Wendy slowly approached the little grove of a dozen trees, looking for any sign someone had been there. She wasn’t surprised when she didn’t find tracks. It had been weeks, and the rainy season had just ended.
Wendy found herself wringing her hands as she approached the first tree. Six trees held the possibility. The group was supposed to have marked two of them to indicate which direction they had gone.
The first held nothing. No surprise there; it was a hard path. The second was also unscathed.
She rushed to the third, then the forth.
They must have used the last two. With trembling hands, Wendy took the dozen or so steps to number five. She reached out and touched the pristine bark of the tree.
No mark. No sign.
“No,” Wendy said. Her voice caught in her throat. She ran to the last one. The light faded completely. Not caring that someone might see, she pulled out a lamp to check the last tree. Desperate for any sign, she went around it twice.
“It has to be here,” she said. She went back to the others, stumbling on the roots and rocks. She must have missed something.
The copse around her blurred, and Wendy’s world tilted. She checked each tree again. Then again. Her heart pounded, her mouth went dry. The strength in her legs gave way, and she went to her knees. The lamp clattered to the ground illuminating the long, bright path leading back the way she had come.
No one had made it.
Mike had been right. She had been the only survivor.
He had killed everyone.
Tears came. After years of holding them back, they came. Like a dam under assault, Wendy’s barriers fell. Reason and hope drowned under the crush of reality. Wendy’s heart turned to stone.
She’d betrayed the last promise she’d ever made to her mother.
Wendy had lost her family.
She was alone. Truly alone.
She buried her face in her hands and wept.
Wendy’s mother’s death had been a long time coming. Wendy had seen people get sick from the Starvation. They had died, or been killed, quickly—within a matter of weeks at the most. But her mom didn’t get the Starvation. This had been different.
The strange behavior had started when Wendy was ten. Her mom would tell her the same story twice in the span of a few minutes. Kids didn’t always pay attention, so at first Wendy thought her mom was simply making sure she and Kenzie had heard her.
Then their mom started forgetting what she was doing. For a long time, they made a joke of it. Sometimes Wendy and Kenzie would pretend to forget too, just for a laugh.
Laughter had been important. Wendy’s mom had laughed all the time—there had always been a smile on her lips. Which in turn caused the crooked grin of her dad’s to sneak through his tough exterior. Wendy had watched her parents love and support one another for ten years. Then she had to watch as her mother’s mental health deteriorated one tiny step at a time.
First the stories, then forgetting what she was doing, then forgetting people.
Nothing could help her. Some people thought it was a rare form of the Starvation, but Wendy’s dad said it was an old person’s disease that had attacked her mother early in life.
“I’m afraid we can’t do anything about it but love her,” he had said.
Wendy had tried. The mental deterioration was more brutal to watch than a quick or violent death. For two years Wendy and Kenzie had done everything they could to hold their family together. Their dad had also delegated his own responsibilities so he could be with them more.
The day before Wendy’s mom had died, Wendy had been sitting with her, reading a book. It was an old kid’s book—paper and everything—with pictures of monsters and forests and a little boy dressed in white pajamas.
For some reason the monsters had captured her mom’s attention. She had yanked the book from Wendy’s hands and started to tear out the pages, screaming that the monsters were coming and she had to stop them.
Then her mother had turned to Wendy. Wendy still remembered the words.
“Wendy, I’m turning into a monster.” The hurt in her mother’s eyes had broken Wendy’s heart. “I can feel it, trying to get out of me—growing every day. I want to hurt people. Don’t let me become a monster. Kill me.”
Wendy had been twelve. She’d backed away. “No, Mom. Let me get Dad.”
The memory was a blur. Wendy’s mother had lunged for her. Wendy hadn’t been expecting it, and before she knew it, her mother had grabbed the knife on Wendy’s belt. Wendy could have gotten it back, but the fear in her mother’s eyes had stopped her.
The last words her mother had said to her were, “Keep your dad and Kenzie and the Den safe.”
Wendy had fled. She’d gone to find Kenzie, who brought the doctors. By the time they got back, Wendy’s mom had taken the knife to both her wrists.
The next twenty-four hours had been the worst of Wendy’s life. No one had blamed her. Her dad had hugged her and told her he loved her. Kenzie had sat with her in Rene’s cabin as the girls tried to play games to keep themselves distracted.
But nothing could keep the pleading look of her mother’s eyes out of Wendy’s mind. Wendy could have stopped her mother, but she hadn’t. She still wondered if she’d done the right thing.
The moment Wendy’s dad’s boots had clomped up the steps, Wendy had known her mother was gone.
The worst part of it was that Wendy had felt more relief than despair.
They had buried her mother’s body the next morning. No pomp, no circumstance. Almost everyone came. Wendy’s dad had gone on patrol that night.
Wendy’s eyes followed the light back toward the path that had brought her here. She had been so sure someone else had gotten away. The tunnels were a blur, but a persistent voice in her mind assured her she wasn’t alone.
But the voice had lied. The voice—all this time trying to make her feel better—was nothing more than a twisted version of her mom’s disease. Wendy’s mind had been playing tricks on here.
The lamp kept shinning, as if showing her the way out. Wendy reached out and plucked it off the ground.
Her mind had betrayed her, but it would do so no longer.
There were other people on the plains. People who would help her get Mike, if only to get to the complex they lived in. Now she knew how to get in, she could take them down.
Anger fueled her limbs, and Wendy rose to her feet. She stumbled toward the path and started to descend. It didn’t take long to get back down to her pack. She grabbed everything and headed toward a place she could safely camp.
Her mind was already churning through possible scenarios on how to take Mike down.
The more she thought about it, the more she believed he must have had someone on the inside of her compound. She could use the same trick, and get someone on the inside for her.
The woods fell beneath her determined strides, and a buzz of thoughts filled her mind. So much so that she almost missed the crack of a twig to her right.
She stopped, her breath speeding up.
A rustle from her other side.
For some reason her mind flashed to a moment in the woods when Pelton and the others had tricked her.
For what? Her birthday?
His smiling face, a book, cookies, Kenzie and Hector grinning like idiots. And her dad.
They were all there.
The flash took over her senses, and by the time she shook herself out of it, another crack had sounded.
Wendy stepped back, only to run into the chest of a man who was three times her size.
Before she could turn or fight or yell or even duck, a hand smacked down hard on the side of her head.
The pressure of the blow stunned her, and Wendy’s balance gave way. She stumbled. Long arms reached out and grabbed her around the middle, pinning her hands to her sides. Someone else put a bag over her head.
Wendy finally got an inch to fight with, and pulled her heel up as hard and as fast as she could. Her captor grunted, but his grip tightened. The hiss of gas sounded near Wendy’s head. She tried not to inhale, but someone punched her in the stomach. The urge for oxygen overpowered her caution, and she took a great breath.
The gas smelled sweet, almost like fruit.
It was the last thought she registered before she slipped into oblivion.
The combination of being swung back and forth and having a bag over her head caused Wendy to wake up nauseated and very, very angry. Her hands and feet were tied to a stick, while her butt hung down, once in a while hitting a rock or a root.
Was she about to be fed to the Skinnies?
She’d come too far to have that happen now.
She couldn’t see, but she was willing to bet that the men carrying her were tired and not really paying attention. So she explored the knots around her hands.
The ropes were thick. She might be able to get out of them, if she was willing to tear the skin off of her wrists. Which she would be okay with if she knew for sure she could get away.
“How much farther?” A gruff voice asked. “She’s heavier than she looks.”
“Just up and over this hill,” another voice answered. This one a woman.
Wendy doubted they had a woman carrying her—her body felt too parallel with the ground to have one end of the stick balanced noticeably shorter than the other. So there must be three of them.
Maybe she could make a deal with them. Trade information for her life?
The dark, rough sack over her head rubbed her skin. It felt like a small animal was trying to claw its way into her mouth through her cheek. The fabric reeked of dead things and vomit. Wendy understood why, vomiting sounded pretty good right about now.
She mentally shook her head.
What could she offer them that would keep her alive?
If these guys were controlling some Skinnies, maybe the promise of more people. Or maybe they already had a quarrel with Mike.
This wasn’t Wendy’s preferred field of play. She liked the much more straightforward stick-her-knife-in-the-problem approach. But she’d watched enough politics going on at the Den to know she could probably hold her own.
And if she could get her wrists and feet free, she could probably fight her way out of almost anything.
First thing was first: Who were these people and what did they want with her?
“Hey,” Wendy said. “Hey, I think I’m going to throw up. Can we stop?”
“I thought you said you gassed her, Clayton.”
“Are you sure you didn’t sniff it yourself?”
“Come on, Nara, you know I ain’t like that.”
Wendy cleared her throat. “Really, I think I’m going to throw up.”
“Go for it,” a new voice said. This one was deeper than Clayton’s voice. “Just keep it in the hood.”
The two men laughed. Wendy didn’t hear the woman respond.
So just three of them.
If her feet hadn’t been tied, Wendy might have tried to get away. Then again, maybe these people were just who she needed.
“Yeah,” Clayton said. “Skinnies don’t much care how you smell.”
The mention of a Skinny sent Wendy’s mind right back into the tunnels. The smell of death and blood caused her to shake. She clamped her teeth together and tried to think about something else.
“Whoa, what’s wrong with her?” Clayton asked. “She’s twitching.”
“Just hold on to her, we’re almost there,” Nara said, impatience in her voice.
Wendy wanted to ask them more questions—keep them talking—but her mind continued to flash back to the dark tunnels.
Shivers ran up and down her spine. Enough sweat broke out on her wrists that she might be able to slip out of the ropes.
“Here we are,” Nara said.
“‘Bout time,” the deeper voice said.
Snarls filled the air.
“They look hungry,” Clayton said.
“Hey,” Wendy said again. “I’m more useful to you alive than dead.”
“That’s what they all say.”
The light from what Wendy presumed was the rising sun struck her, giving her a little bit of visibility through the hood.
“I’m serious. Let me talk to whoever is in charge. I have information I think you guys are going to want.” Wendy didn’t want to get involved with anyone else who used Skinnies, but she would do whatever was necessary to survive.
The swaying stopped. The snarling got louder.
“Hey!” Wendy yelled this time. “Listen, idiots, I know where the band of people who has been sending Skinnies at everyone is hiding. You kill me and you’ll never find them.”
More light gave Wendy the faint outline of people. They lunged toward her but abruptly stopped sort. Maybe chained to a tree.
“Shut her up,” a new voice said. This one growled with menace. He had to be in charge. It was now or never.
“If you kill me, you’ll never find them. I know where they are. I know how to get into their complex. They have power.”
The thump of rubber on dirt sounded as someone approached. Wendy turned her head and saw the shadow of a tall man.
As they often did, Wendy’s fingers twitched for a weapon. However, this time she was going to have to talk her way out of the situation.
“Quiet.” One of her carriers reached out and boxed Wendy in the ear. She didn’t see it coming, and groaned as pain ripped through her skull.
“Where did you find her?” the new voice asked.
Wendy almost recognized it, but with the ringing in her ears it was hard to tell.
“Up on the peak.”
“And you were about to feed her to the Skinnies?” Anger laced the voice.
Wendy’s head stopped pounding just long enough for her to say, “Let me talk to the person in charge. I have information you’re going to want.”
The leader squatted down next to her, his face just inches from hers.
“I know the location of a complex with power. The people there are using Skinnies to raid the countryside.”
“And just why would you give that information to us?” His breath bent the cloth into Wendy’s lips.
“Because they killed my family.”
Hands reached out and started to untie the sack around Wendy’s neck. “A lot of people die out here.” Fingers grabbed the sack along with some hair. The fabric scraped her skin as it came off. Wendy flinched as some of her hair went with the hood.
The man kept talking. “How do we know that you’re not here to—” He stopped.
Wendy blinked against the sun now shining in her eyes. She squinted until the man moved between her and the morning light.
She would have recognized his silhouette anywhere—baseball hat and all. A weight fell off of her soul, breathing life back into her heart.
The snarling to Wendy’s left broke the shocked silence.
She couldn’t take her eyes off of Pelton. He looked thinner. His eyes had sunken farther into his skull. A deep scar adorned his right bicep, and dirt covered him from head to toe.
But underneath all of that, his blue eyes still sparkled. For a moment, Wendy only saw confusion, and then he blinked and sank to his knees.
“Wendy?” he asked again. He brought a trembling hand up to her forehead. “Is it really you?”
A lump formed in Wendy’s throat.
Pelton’s eyes searched hers for another moment, before he stood and took a knife from his belt. He started cutting the ropes around her feet. He turned to Nara. “Get her something to eat.”
Wendy’s feet came free before she expected them too. They crashed into the ground with enough force to make her grunt.
“Sorry,” Pelton said. “Sit.”
Wendy did. Pelton cut her hands free as one of the men held the stick.
The circulation returning to her feet caused Wendy’s legs and toes to burn. She wiggled them and tried not to flinch.
The same thing happened with her hands. She rubbed her wrists and bit back a growl of pain as she tried to flex her fingers.
“Come on,” Pelton said. He grabbed her under an arm and hoisted her onto her feet. “Can you walk?”
It took a second for Wendy to get her legs working. She stood for a few heartbeats before she decided she could. “Yeah.”
Pelton put his arm around her and led her toward a nearby fire.
The growling of the Skinnies pulled at Wendy’s attention. Four of them strained against chains that tethered them to a tree.
“Why do you have Skinnies?” Wendy asked.
Pelton sighed. “It’s a long story.”
Four people sat around the fire—all as dirty as Pelton. Wendy recognized none of them. One of them had her pack open, and pulled out the boots.
Pelton looked down at her. “Where did you get those?”
She looked up at him and almost smiled. “It’s a long story.”
This brought a wry grin to Pelton’s filthy face. “Did you just make a joke?”
Wendy scowled. “It really is a long story.”
Pelton laughed. Wendy felt it in his chest as he pulled her close. They got to the fire. “Sit, eat something.” Nara offered some bread and dried meat. The woman’s long limbs complimented her lanky figure. Her red hair was tied back into a ponytail.
A quick look around at the camp told Wendy these people didn’t have much, but it also told her that they weren’t here permanently. The tents were light and easy to haul. The rocks around the fire had only been put there a few days before. No paths marked the way in and out of camp.
“Thank you,” Wendy said. She sat on a rock next to Pelton and took a small piece of bread and some meat. Before she ate, she gave Pelton a steady stare.
“Did anyone else make it out?”
A dark look crossed Pelton’s face. “No. I don’t think so.”
Anyone else would have padded that answer. Wendy hadn’t realized just how much she missed this man.
Wendy’s appetite faded. “What happened?”
Pelton cocked his head to the side. “We were attacked by the Skinnies.”
Wendy looked away.
“What is it?” he asked. He placed a hand on her back. The pressure gave her the courage to admit her weakness to him.
“I…I don’t remember anything about the day of the attack.”
Pelton let the silence between them grow comfortable.
Wendy pointed to her head. “It’s gone.” She turned to him. “Tell me what happened.”
The clear blue of his eyes faltered, and he sighed again. His hand moved to hers. “You don’t remember us surprising you for your birthday?”
He almost chuckled. “We drew you out with a false alarm, which you were not happy about. You took the medicine for those kids. Just as the rest of us got back to the compound two watches sent up flares.”
Pelton paused, letting it sink in.
Wendy took a moment to search her mind. “I don’t remember.”
“There were more than two hundred Skinnies. Someone was commanding them. They must have had someone inside, because they got into the tunnels before we did.”
Doc’s kind face tried to smile in her mind, but Wendy brushed it aside. How many Skinnies?
“You don’t remember any of that?”
“No,” Wendy said. “I’ve had a few flashes of fighting in the tunnels. I think you were trying to protect me. I almost got my arm cut off by a sword. But that’s it.”
“The last time I saw you, we were trying to hold the tunnel by the medical cabin. They swept you off. I thought you were gone.” He paused. “I tried to get the kids out. Some of them got into the woods, but I never found any of them after that.”
Tears threatened. Wendy sniffed and blinked. “My dad?”
Pelton shook his head. “He fell in the tunnels. Kenzie too.”
“How did you get out?”
He let out a harsh laugh. “Luck. They left me for dead. I woke up and I could move, so I crawled out one of the back tunnels and into the woods. I used some of the emergency supplies to patch myself up. I had a fever for a week and almost died. But these guys found me.” He jerked his head to indicate their current company.
Wendy’s eyes darted back and forth between those who had gathered around to listen. There were only ten of them. And the Skinnies.
“How did you get out?” Pelton asked.
Wendy took a breath. “The last thing I remember was falling asleep at my desk doing rosters. Then I woke up in a complex with people I didn’t know.”
She went on to tell him the basics about Mike, her suspicions, her plan to take them down from the inside and then how she had gotten away. She left out names and specifics. No one needed to know that. If she stopped thinking of Jeff, Matt, Kev, Cal and Arie as people, it would be easier to kill them later.
“And he wanted the map?” Pelton asked
“Yes. It was one of the first things he asked me about. I don’t know what happened, but something must have changed, because he let me get out.”
“Is he following you?”
“I haven’t seen anyone, but I’m sure they’re out here somewhere.”
Pelton squeezed her hand. “You did good getting out.”
Pelton stood and started to pace. “I never thought that whoever attacked us wanted the map.”
“You knew about the map?” Wendy asked.
“Yeah, I helped your dad verify some of it. But even I don’t know where he kept it.” He stopped and met her eyes. “Do you?”
“I know where it is,” Wendy said.
“Have you ever studied it?”
“Not really. He never let me very close to it.”
“Me neither. I wonder, what’s so important about it that this Mike would go through such a long ruse with you to get it?”
“I don’t know, but he really wants it.”
Pelton started to pace again. His eyes flickered to Wendy in a look she knew all too well. He was about to ask her to do something that would make her very uncomfortable. Normally a new fighting move or a match against someone who would take her apart. This time, however, she knew what was coming. She let him ask.
“Do you think you can go back?”
“I…” Wendy trailed off. She couldn’t even remember what had happened. In her mind, the Den was still standing and full of life. She rubbed the scar on her arm. “Do we really have a choice?”
“There’s always a choice,” Pelton said.
“Well,” Wendy said. “You tell me why you have Skinnies with you, and I’ll go back.”
Pelton sat back down. He leaned in close. “The Skinnies are family members of the people here. They’re looking for a cure.” His eyes told her not to argue.
She nodded. These people had rescued Pelton, no need to upset them now. “I understand.” She even ventured to look around the circle at the rag-tag group of followers Pelton had found. It was clear he was in charge, even if they didn’t realize it.
“Can you head out today?” Pelton asked. The light had returned to his eyes. His mind was already formulating a plan of attack against Mike.
“Sure,” Wendy said.
The thought of going back scared her, but with Pelton at her side, she could do it.
She could do anything.
The summer sun shone down on them through the trees. Wendy avoided the fallen leaves as she, Pelton, Clayton, Nara and two others hiked through the woods.
“How are you doing?” Pelton asked. He had positioned himself behind Wendy.
“Feels good to be outside again,” Wendy said. Little things kept reinforcing the statement—the sound of the wind through the trees, birdsong in the morning, and the way the sun filtered through the branches and played with the shadows on the ground. Mike’s complex was comfortable, and far safer than out here, but Wendy preferred this. To be free. To know she could run at any moment if she needed to.
Pelton snorted. “I’d love a shower and a clean bed.”
“Yeah, that part was nice,” Wendy said. “But try to imagine living under the same roof as the people who did this to the Den.”
“You lasted a lot longer than I would have,” Pelton said. “I would have started killing them right off.”
Wendy thought of Dennis. “I got around to it.”
Pelton snorted again. “Another not joke?”
The words flowed so freely, Wendy almost smiled. It felt good to be with someone she knew so well. No, it felt good to be with someone who knew her so well. She didn’t have to explain anything about herself or wince when people assumed she was thirteen.
When the sun sank behind the mountains, they camped for the night. It was still dark when they started out again the next morning.
The trails began to be as familiar to Wendy as her own limbs. Wendy noted subtle changes that had taken place in the few short weeks since she’d left. Trees had lost limbs—a storm must have come through. There were more animal tracks than usual—she tried not to think about what that meant.
Without her knowing, her feet slowed, and gravity required they double their efforts while going uphill. They reached the path that lead to the main gate and followed it in.
Clayton turned them into the bushes as the tall spires of the wall came into view.
“Let’s watch for a bit,” Pelton said.
Wendy crouched down next to him and waited.
Minutes passed. The only movement they saw was a bird flying overhead. Wendy’s tired but exhilarated muscles started to complain.
The clear area around the compound both lured and repelled Wendy. She almost didn’t follow when Pelton stood and started them toward the front gate.
The sun shone on the scene as if nothing had happened, if you could ignore the huge wooden gate dangling from one set of hinges. Some of the buildings were intact, others had been reduced to charred ruins. Lumps adorned the gravel and the grass. Wendy knew what they were, but didn’t want to think about it.
But she had to go through here to get to the tunnels.
Wendy wanted to square her shoulders and walk in like it didn’t matter what had happened, but caution won out, and she skulked behind the others to the wall and through the front opening, darting behind the nearest buildings and listening for any noises that didn’t belong.
More waiting. Nothing. Not even the buzz of flies. Wendy risked a glance at Pelton. His lips were pressed into a tight line, and his fingers encircled his gun as if he were about to strangle it.
The hair on the back of Wendy’s neck rose, and she re-checked the area around her.
Nothing. No one alive. Just the dead. She averted her eyes as they made their way across the compound.
Death didn’t usually bother Wendy—she had seen her first body at the age of two or three—but this did. Maybe she wanted to live in denial for just a few minutes longer. Seeing someone she knew—and she knew everyone—would be the final nail in the coffin.
A prickling sensation sent chills down her spine, but the only thing she found watching her was Pelton.
She dredged up a weak smile. If it looked half as forced as it felt her face probably resembled a skull.
The small band of people reached the mess hall. The place had been gutted. Once again, Wendy tried not to look too closely.
“Where to?” Pelton asked.
The map was in a secret compartment in the tunnels on the north end of the compound. Only three people knew where it was: Wendy, Kenzie and their dad. For some reason he’d never disclosed the location to anyone else. Wendy closed her eyes and plotted the fastest course.
“This way,” Wendy said. She led the group across the compound and into the medical building—one of the only structures that remained mostly intact. Broken glass lay outside the back door. Blood stained the gravel nearby. A door from a neighboring building had been ripped off and tossed aside like garbage. The scene felt eerily familiar—like she’d seen it before, exactly as it was now.
Wendy pushed the feeling away and went inside. The trap door on the floor lay open. Darkness greeted her from below.
“Here,” Pelton said, handing her a small flashlight.
Wendy squatted down. A musty smell rose to greet her. A memory stirred. Running. Fighting. Dying.
A shiver ran up her spine and chilled her bones. The black called to her, but her mind recoiled. Her muscles froze. The Skinnies. The sword. Everyone dead.
Sweat broke out on Wendy’s forehead and on her palms.
Pelton gently put a hand on her shoulder. She jumped and shifted away from him. He didn’t pursue her, but said, “You don’t have to go down there. Tell me where it is and I’ll get it.”
A faraway roar—like a distant waterfall—began in Wendy’s ears. Darkness gathered at the edges of her vision, just like it had in the vent.
Wendy shook her head. This wasn’t the vent. This had been her home. She knew what was down there. She could face it. She had to.
She swung around and put her foot into the darkness. It hit the first rung of the ladder. She turned and her other foot found the second rung. Muscle memory took over, and she climbed down into Hell.
Wendy had expected the smell, and she wasn’t disappointed. She pulled her shirt up over her nose and swept the flashlight back and forth as the others came down after her. The supply closet next to the ladder had been raided. A broken club sat on the floor along with a small knife. Habit took over, and she reached down and plucked the knife off of the ground.
The rock and dirt floors and walls felt more fragile than they ever had before. A metal conduit ran along the ceiling, leading to light fixtures every twenty feet. The generator must have failed, because the only illumination besides Wendy’s flashlight came from the door above.
Pelton wrapped a rag around his face and said, “Which way.” The tone of his voice told Wendy he didn’t want to stay down here any longer than they had to.
“Here.” She started down the tunnel on her left. For the first two turns they encountered nothing amiss. If it hadn’t been for the smell, she wouldn’t have known hundreds of people had died down here.
Then they went around a corner, and the real horror began.
Her eyes slid over the bodies. Specifics didn’t register, but numbers did. Five Skinnies, three of her people.
They came to a T intersection. The map was to the left, but she felt drawn to the right. Toward the barricade, where she knew her dad would be. Against an invisible hand, she turned away and kept going.
Skinnies and her people littered the tunnels. Wendy felt a grim satisfaction that the dead Skinnies always outnumbered her people.
Pelton’s flashlight hit something that sent a reflection straight back into her eyes. Wendy winced, and had a flash of the sword cutting into her arm. She unconsciously rubbed the scar.
“How much farther?” Pelton asked. No one had grumbled yet, but Wendy could feel it coming.
“Just through here,” Wendy said. She led them farther into the dark. Three tunnels came together, and she took the one that led north. It was a dead end.
She stopped and started sweeping the ceiling with her light.
“What are you looking for?” Pelton asked.
Wendy didn’t answer until she found it. “That.”
Pelton craned his neck to look. “Is that an arrow?”
“Yup,” Wendy said. The small arrow carved in the stone pointed at the wall. With her light, she followed it down. The pock marks in the stone wall looked completely natural. Wendy moved toward it and stuck her fingers in three indentations. She also kicked a spot near the floor with her foot.
A clunk sounded, and then a hiss as the compartment behind her popped open.
The group turned. A section of the wall—from what looked like completely natural cracks—had pulled away from the rest of the stone by almost an inch.
Pelton moved through the others and reached for the little outcrop.
“Wait,” Wendy said.
Pelton froze. Wendy slid past him and probed the bottom of the door. Her fingers found a small button, which she pressed, and then pulled.
The section, about the size of her head, swung toward her.
“If you don’t push the button then it collapses.”
Pelton leaned forward over Wendy’s shoulder.
A wood box the size of Pelton’s hand and measuring about three inches tall sat at the bottom of the small compartment. “Is that it?” Pelton asked. He looked at Wendy. “Are there any traps on the box?”
“Not that I know of.”
Pelton reached past her, and trembling visibly, grasped the wooden box and pulled it out.
He eyed the box with suspicion. “Let’s take it outside, just in case.”
“Good idea,” one of his men said.
“This way.” Wendy led them farther into the graveyard the tunnels had become. Wendy forced her eyes to slide past the faces of those who were entombed here, afraid she might see Kenzie or Hector.
The route took them past areas where some heavy fighting had taken place. Wendy turned, thinking she would go past the big room where they usually kept supplies, when the world around her stopped. Whispers drew her attention to the room. She moved toward it.
The main door stood open. Wendy gingerly stepped through and shone the light around. A lot of fighting had happened here. She could hear it. Wendy closed her eyes. She breathed the air and willed her mind to release the lock it had put on the day.
“Wendy?” Pelton’s voice sounded a mile away.
Wendy let her mind go. A picture formed there. She opened her eyes and followed the light to the tiny door near the back of the room. This is where the kids were supposed to sneak out if something went wrong. The door was bolted shut.
“Wendy, what is it?” Pelton asked.
Wendy didn’t want to interrupt her train of thought, so she picked her way through the room to the other side. There were no bodies of children in here. A small door, almost hidden in the corner, led into the tunnels. Wendy had been here. She’d sent the kids out the door.
Pelton and his crew followed her. None of them spoke.
Where would she have taken the kids?
The far chamber. Closest to the evacuation tunnel that led to the docks.
Excitement pumped blood through her veins. She jogged toward her destination.
A flash—a memory—superimposed itself over what her eyes were seeing.
The kids were ahead of her. Screams erupted from behind. Wendy glanced over her shoulder and instead of Pelton, she saw three Skinnies fighting with two men from the Den. She blinked and the image was gone.
She had come this way.
Determination pushed her legs harder. More flashes came—just momentary glimpses of what had been.
Wendy reveled in them. She saw herself turn, and did the same. They’d nearly gotten to the far chamber before a Skinny loomed up before her.
A cry escaped her lips, and she lashed out at the figure who wasn’t there. But when she turned her head, she found what was left of the Skinny on the floor.
She looked up. The phantom kids were still running. She followed.
Another Skinny came from her left. How had the Skinnies gotten into this section of the tunnels? There were only two ways to get here, and guards from both areas should have been on alert from the alarm.
Had someone let them in?
There was one other way out, and only a handful of people knew about it. Wendy shouted for the kids to take the next turn. If Wendy could get them out, then maybe Kenzie would find them.
If not, Wendy was sending these kids to their deaths. It just wouldn’t happen in the tunnels.
The kids in the front screamed as one of the older boys took the Skinny down with an axe. A sense of pride filled her. Wendy had taught him that move.
The scene became disjointed for a few minutes. Wendy kept moving down the tunnels, and at each turn she could see what had happened there.
She saw herself shove the kids in the door that led to the exit, then she bolted it shut and turned to fight the band of Skinnies who had been following them.
The woman with the club hit her in the ribs. Pelton appeared. It was strange to see him both in her memories in real life.
The sword flashed. Wendy was injured. Pelton had fought his way to her, and together they had moved back toward the center of the compound.
Wendy found herself following the path, past the bodies of downed Skinnies who lay like felled trees.
The tunnel ended. Wendy had told him so. Why had Pelton brought her here? He had said he was trying to give them some breathing room.
She turned a corner, and her flashlight hit it.
The wooden crate.
All of the sounds in her head instantly stopped. She stayed perfectly still. Only her breathing filled the alcove before her.
Pelton’s body should be here. He’d shoved her into that crate so she wouldn’t die.
But he was standing behind her.
“Wendy?” Pelton asked. He moved next to her. Tension rolled off of him in waves as his feet shuffled ever so slightly. “What is it?”
Wendy’s mind went back. Pelton had shoved her into the crate. She’d expected to hear more fighting, but instead she had heard Pelton’s voice.
“Keep her here. We might need her later.”
Pelton put a hand on her shoulder. “Did you remember something?”
Anger, fear and confusion shook Wendy’s entire body. Tears welled up, and for once she let them come.
“No,” she said. She turned to look up at Pelton. His eyes should have held concern, but instead they were steely. “I—” Her voice broke. She thought fast. “Just flashes. Lots of fighting. I thought that my dad would be here. I don’t know why. I’m sorry.”
Pelton relaxed. In an uncharacteristic gesture, he reached out and pulled her in for a hug. “It’s okay.”
Wendy had to melt into him, even though she wanted to kill him.
He’d betrayed them. He’d brought the Skinnies.
And she’d just given him the map. The thing he’d been after all along.
Pelton kept his arm around her as they traversed the tunnels, only letting go when they ascended a ladder.
The Skinnies in the tunnels hadn’t just been monsters. They’d come and attacked under someone’s orders. But whose? And why?
“Let’s get back to camp,” Pelton said to the others. “We should be able to get there before dark if we hurry.”
“Right,” Clayton said. He took the lead, leaving Wendy with Pelton.
Clouds had rolled over the sun, casting a shadow over the scene. They moved through the compound and back into the trees, where the diminished light brought Wendy’s spirits down even farther.
Pelton remained silent, but had stayed close to her.
Did he suspect she knew?
But what did she know?
Pelton had shoved her into that crate and left her for…what? Later? To die? Or had he thought she would be able to take him to the map?
Why was the map such an important item? Why did everyone want it?
Wendy diverted her thoughts away from Pelton and toward the map.
Her dad had said he found it in a broken-down complex. He’d never told her what kind of complex, but Wendy had figured it was most likely military. There were specific sites marked on the map. Wendy knew her dad and Pelton had personally gone to at least three of them. She wasn’t sure how many there were—she’d never seen the whole map. No one had except her dad.
Whenever a patrol came back from one of the sites, they always returned with a better scavenge than any other time. Medicine in particular. If Wendy’s memory served her correctly, they’d visited the first one before her mother had died. Four years ago.
Why had her dad not explored them all? If there were good supplies, why wait?
Unless people were in them.
Why did Pelton want it so badly?
Had he and the Skinnies attacked the compound just for the map?
Wendy’s dad would probably have given it up if Pelton had threatened to send in the Skinnies to kill everyone.
So why the show of force? Why the need for secrecy?
The path meandered through the forest, and Wendy simply followed the woman in front of her. Pelton never left Wendy’s side. He kept glancing down at her out of the corner of his eye. She didn’t have to fight to keep the upset look on her face. Her emotions were understandable, considering what she’d just seen, but Pelton knew her well. He knew she rarely let her emotions out.
Did he suspect?
They hiked hard and fast. Wendy’s thoughts wouldn’t stop leaping ahead of one another. Nothing made sense. And yet here she was, with the traitor who’d killed everyone. The one man she had utterly respected. The one man she never thought could have done it.
She wanted to kill Pelton even more than she’d wanted to kill Dennis.
A breeze rustled the world around them, and Wendy jumped. All the colors had faded to gray. The sun sank toward the horizon, and what little light they had, began to wane.
Pelton broke the silence. “What’s on your mind?”
“Just thinking about how much I want to hurt the people who did this,” she said. Pelton couldn’t see through words that weren’t a lie.
“You always were a fighter. Ever since the first time I met you.” He pulled a grin out. “Do you remember that?”
Wendy repressed a snarl, and instead nodded. “Yeah, I remember.”
“You were what? Ten years old? You bugged your dad so much about being in the fighting class that he let you come in two years early.”
They’d had this conversation dozens of times. Wendy had to give the expected answers. “I was bored.”
“You were dying to kick that boy’s butt. What was his name?”
“Jack,” Wendy said. She kept putting one foot in front of the other.
“Oh yeah, Jack. He was pretty good.”
“He was a baby.” Wendy wondered if she could take Pelton down by surprise and then get away before his buddies could catch her. But there were four of them and one of her and they had projectile weapons while she only had knives.
“He was after you threw him on the ground. On his head.”
There was a nice clump of rocks coming up, she could use those as cover. “He didn’t land on his head.”
“You almost broke his neck.”
No, it was almost dark. She didn’t have any supplies. “He bullied everyone. He thought I was an easy target. He never dreamed a ten year-old girl who weighed pretty much nothing could take him down.” She could go back to the Den, but they’d find her there.
“After thirty minutes of training.”
“After thirty minutes of training.” Wendy dredged up a fake smile and gave it to Pelton.
He could tell she wasn’t being sincere, but the exchange seemed to placate his need to test her. He squeezed her shoulder, and they kept walking.
Pelton was a good teacher. Wendy had learned faster than anyone else, and by the time her mother had died, she had been better than any of the other kids. She’d started sparring with the adults when she was thirteen—and the same size she was now.
Her stomach twisted into a knot.
Why had he betrayed them?
Pelton and her dad had been friends for a long time. Pelton had been scavenging for them for at least six years. He was gone a lot, but he had called the Den home.
So what had brought him in contact with the Skinnies and whoever was controlling them?
How long had he been preparing to take them out?
Why had he saved her?
Others in the Den had said she was his protégé. That in a year or two, her dad would have relieved her of her other duties and let her go scavenge full time with Pelton. At one point she’d had a big crush on him, but her mother’s death had driven any of those thoughts away.
She didn’t deserve friends or anyone who loved her. Not after she’d let her mother kill herself.
Pelton had been the one person who had helped her forget all of that. He didn’t worry about anything but scavenging and fighting. She thought he’d cared about her—as a little sister at least—but now she didn’t know.
No one spoke as they made their way back to the camp. Darkness surrounded them fully now. No moonlight came through the clouds. The curtain of black they walked through could have been the tunnels again.
Wendy heard the snarling of the Skinnies before she smelled the small fire or saw the flicker of light through the trees.
“What’s got them so riled up?” Clayton said.
Wendy’s danger senses started to go off. Something was wrong.
For the first time since they had left the Den, Pelton moved away from Wendy’s side and jogged ahead.
“Come on,” Clayton said to Wendy. He sped up his pace.
If Wendy held back, she might be able to get one of them alone. She could at least get a gun. They were all big, but none of them looked fast. Plus, they probably didn’t realize how good she was, even if Pelton had warned them.
Everyone underestimated her. Everyone but Pelton.
Wendy slowed a little. Clayton sent an irritated scowl over his shoulder, and he stopped to let her catch up.
Wendy calmed her mind and decided she could get the gun in his pack if she could get him to kneel down. She might even be able to do it without him realizing.
The growling from the Skinnies grew frenzied, and laughter peeled out through the night. A yell of anger and frustration sounded.
Wendy knew that yell.
Clayton’s attention had been drawn forward, and he started jogging toward camp.
Wendy could get away right now. She could slip into the night and there was a good bet that she could hide from Pelton and his gang.
But he had the map.
And now he had Kev. If he had Kev, he had Cal. What were they doing here?
She couldn’t leave them to Pelton’s mercy. He’d feed them to the Skinnies.
Maybe that was what he was doing right now.
Wendy bolted after Clayton, almost overtaking him before they burst out of the trees and into the clearing around camp.
The Skinnies were still tied to the tree, but they were all lunging at the same thing.
Wendy’s throat went dry. Kev and Cal sat on the ground, tied up, not far from the Skinnies. But they weren’t the object of the Skinnies’ attention.
Two of Pelton’s men held Arie just inches from the snarling, reaching monsters.
Blood ran down Arie’s face, and she looked dazed. She eyed the Skinnies with puzzlement, like she wasn’t quite sure whether she should be afraid of them or not.
Kev and Cal were filthy, but other than that seemed to be unharmed.
One of the Skinnies lashed out, and his ragged nails tore at Arie’s shirt. She jerked back.
Pelton’s men gave a roar of approval.
“Let it loose,” one of them said.
“Let them have her. They haven’t eaten in a while,” another voice said from the crowd.
Arms pressed Arie forward. Arie wiggled and tried to get free, but her hands were tied behind her back and there was no way she could escape.
Wendy searched for Pelton. He stood a dozen feet away, watching.
Could she save them?
She could fight, but she needed that map.
Arie’s shoulder got in range of a long-armed Skinny, and blood welled as he raked at her.
The men and women roared in approval.
Wendy couldn’t let this happen.
Pelton had betrayed her, not these kids. Not her team. Not her friends.
Wendy ran forward, straight for Arie. “No!”
Clayton tried to grab her, but she side-stepped and threw herself in between Arie and the Skinny. The Skinny lunged for her. Wendy grabbed his wrist, stepped back and twisted. The Skinny’s shoulder separated with a loud pop.
“Wendy!” Pelton said. He pulled her away. She let him. “What in the hell are you doing?”
“These are kids from the complex.” Wendy gave Pelton a hard look. “I know one way to get in and out, these kids know a lot more.”
Two of Pelton’s men had flanked Wendy—she could practically feel their hot breath in her hair.
Pelton held up a hand and kept Wendy’s gaze. “How much do they know?”
Wendy pointed. “Those two have explored every last inch of the place, the girl is on the medical team. They have access to weapons and medicine. They know how things run, things that I never got to see.”
When Wendy said Arie was medical, the other girl narrowed her eyes.
Did she maybe understand?
Wendy wanted to free them, but she knew any suspicious action would get them all killed. They would suffer now, but she might be able to save them all later.
“Do you think they came alone?” Pelton asked.
Wendy’s stomach churned as one of the men smiled at Pelton. “You could ask one of them.”
Pelton returned the grin. “Which one should we start with?”
Wendy believed in justice. She had always felt that the world or the universe or God would at some point work out all of the horrible things that happened in this life.
After watching Pelton and one of his guys beat her friends for an hour, Wendy wanted to be bringer of that justice. But she couldn’t. Instead, she had to stand by and watch as Pelton tried to extract information out of Cal, Kev and then Arie.
Pelton was good at friendly persuasion—Wendy had seen him manipulate people dozens of times—but she didn’t know he had a special knack for hurting people.
Now she understood how he always knew where to hit her to make it hurt the most.
Control had always been one of Wendy’s biggest points of pride in herself. When she heard the crack as Pelton broke Arie’s arm, Wendy almost wished her control wasn’t so good. Her hands balled into fists, and she ground her teeth, but didn’t move or say anything.
In the end, Kev had been the one to talk. He only did so when Pelton threatened to break Arie’s other arm.
“We came alone,” Kev said through bloody lips. The eye that wasn’t swollen shut turned on Wendy. “We thought she was having a flash or an episode of some sort when she left. We came to help her.”
The words lashed out through the night and surrounded Wendy with guilt, but she didn’t let it show on her face.
Pelton laughed. “You thought Wendy needed help?” He moved to Wendy’s side and patted her on the back. “Wendy is my best student. She doesn’t need help from anyone.”
“So it seems,” Kev said.
Pelton removed his hand from Wendy’s back. Her shirt tugged with it, and she imagined the handprint that now resided there—a physical representation of her betrayal, written in Kev’s blood.
“String them up,” Pelton said. He twirled a finger, and his men jumped to follow the command.
His next words he addressed to Wendy. “Why don’t we get a bite to eat?”
What Wendy really wanted to do was slit his throat, but instead she smiled and said, “Sure.” She turned away from her friends and moved with Pelton toward the fire. One last glance told her Pelton’s men were tying Cal’s feet together and hoisting him up to dangle upside down a few inches from the ground.
The mood around the fire was jovial. Conversation didn’t stop, but the tone changed as Wendy approached. The only words she caught were, “The Primate will be pleased.”
She sat and watched as Clayton offered Pelton a small plate. Pelton, in turn, passed it to Wendy.
She swallowed. She needed to get the map back and escape. Only now she had to get her friends out too.
Wendy held up a hand. “You know, I’m not hungry.”
“Are you sure?” Pelton asked. His frown told her he was suspicious.
“Yeah. I’m still having those flashes from the tunnels.” Wendy dredged up the most helpless look she could muster. “Do you have my pack? I’d like to be alone for a little while. Maybe get some sleep.”
Pelton studied her for a moment, before he snapped his fingers.
Clayton brought the pack. As Wendy took it, she noticed it didn’t weigh enough to have the boots in it anymore.
“Find a spot over there,” Pelton said, pointing in the opposite direction of Arie and the others. “Get some rest. We have a lot to talk about tomorrow.” He met her eyes and smiled.
“What?” Wendy asked. She always hated it when he gave her that look.
“I’m so glad we found you,” he said. “We can get revenge for everyone they killed.”
Wendy didn’t answer.
“That’s what you want, right?” Pelton asked.
She swallowed and made a show of nodding and looking overwhelmed and helpless. “Of course. I’m just…this is all…hard.”
“I understand,” Pelton said.
And he did. She knew he did. So why had he been the one to take the Den down?
“There are guards posted in six directions. If you have to get up in the middle of the night, come toward the fire first.”
“Got it,” she said. With sagging shoulders, Wendy stepped over the log and moved toward the area Pelton had indicated. There were already three sleeping bags out. Two of them were occupied. Both held women. At least she probably didn’t have to worry about protecting her honor with this group. Not with Pelton in charge.
Unless he suspected her.
Wendy found a spot near a rock. Muscle memory took over, and Wendy pulled her own sleeping bag out of her pack. It didn’t weigh much, but the material was high-tech and would keep her warm in a blizzard. There was a little bit of food in her pack. Food she didn’t remember seeing before. Had Pelton’s people put it there? Was it bad? She crawled into her bag, put her pack under her head as a pillow, and curled up with her back to the fire.
Wendy lay a long time without moving, her breathing slow and steady. These people were monsters, but they wouldn’t bother her until morning. And if one of them did, she was more than ready to defend herself.
Brief scenes from the tunnels flashed through her mind, but they didn’t stay. She turned her thoughts to Arie and the others. And Mike. What was his role in all of this?
No answers came, only more questions. Hours after she heard everyone else go to bed, and about an hour after a guard change, Wendy opened her eyes and looked around.
The clouds had retreated somewhat, leaving her a tiny bit of light. Two of the women’s bags were occupied. The last lay empty. Wendy shuffled around in her sleeping bag, as if she was trying to get into a more comfortable position, and waited.
No one moved. Neither of the women opened their eyes.
Wendy sat up to look around.
The soft glow of the fire sat mostly hidden behind a rock, just as she’d planned. No one sitting there would see her.
Wendy slipped her hand into her pack and came out with her knife.
Time to get her dad’s map back.
Wendy didn’t bother to pick up her bag as she moved out of the little clearing. Bushes and grass covered most of the ground. The lack of light made moving silently difficult at best.
The air had turned chilly and crisp, and it felt as if each and every brush of a leaf could be heard for a hundred feet. Wendy’s fingers turned clammy around the hilt of her knife, and she wished she’d found one with a handle wrapped in leather.
She kept the fire to her right, circling slowly. The snap of a twig from about twenty feet away stopped Wendy in her tracks, but after a minute a rustle came from the same place, then a cough.
One of the guards.
Wendy let out the breath she’d been holding and started moving again.
It took an age to get around the fire. She finally spotted the clearing where the men were sleeping. As she got closer, one of the men snorted. The normal noises of the forest stopped, and Wendy almost jumped back. The man snorted again, rolled over and went back to his heavy breathing.
It took a while for Wendy’s heartbeat to slow.
Pelton never slept with the rest of his team. He always kept his bag and his pack a little way apart. Wendy found a spot to search and studied the area until she found where she thought his pack would be.
She hoped Pelton was actually on watch.
The path took her through a set of tight rocks and under a tree. Wendy found Pelton’s favorite green pack and his sleeping bag near the trunk. Based on its location and temperature, no one had slept in the bag since it had been rolled out.
Wendy crept closer and crouched down in the dark shadows beside a bush.
She waited again. She had to get the map back, or at the very least destroy it.
After a few quiet minutes, Wendy crawled to Pelton’s things.
She started with his sleeping bag—patting the bottom, hoping to hear the crunch of papers being creased.
No such luck. She found nothing, not even a weapon. She always left a weapon in her sleeping bag.
Wendy silently moved across the pine needles to Pelton’s pack. A quick squeeze of the pack told her the box wasn’t inside. She unzipped it as slowly as she could.
Pelton wanted the map to be safe. He wanted it to be intact. She slipped her hand down the very back of the pack, thinking it might be the best place to conceal it. Her fingers brushed the edge of paper. Her breath caught in her throat. But it was only a few sheets of paper. Not the whole map—it wasn’t nearly thick enough.
Disappointment sent her hopes plummeting, but did not extinguish them completely. She withdrew her hand and tried a different section of the pack. Then another.
Each time she her fingers brushed against something hard her breath would catch in her throat, but none of her discoveries was the map.
As her frustration level began to rise, Wendy had a hard time going slow enough to remain silent.
The final pocket, the little one on the front, held nothing of interest. Wendy let out a sigh and sat back. Where would he have put it?
“Looking for this?”
Pelton’s voice rang out just a foot from her head.
Wendy jumped to her feet and spun around to face him, knife in hand.
Pelton stood holding the bundle of papers that was the map.
Anger coupled with the suicidal thought of simply charging him.
Then the bright beam of a flashlight hit her in the face.
At the same time, something hit her on the back of the head.
By the time Wendy woke, the sun was up and shining in her face. Her hands were tied and dangling a foot from the ground. She hung upside down by her ankles. Blood throbbed through her head, accentuating the lump she could feel on the back of her skull.
An involuntary groan escaped her lips.
“Well, look who’s finally decided to join us.”
Wendy blinked and turned to locate the voice. The action sent unpleasant waves of nausea through her.
Kev’s swollen face hung only a few feet away. A twist in the other direction showed her Cal. Arie must be behind her.
The Skinnies were still tied up to a tree nearby. Pelton and his goons sat on the far side of the fire, eating.
“How long have I been out?” Wendy asked.
“Just a few hours,” Kev said.
Guilt gnawed at her insides. “Why did you follow me?” Wendy asked
“Because Mike was mounting a manhunt to come after you. Jeff snuck us out before they left so we could find you first,” Kev said.
“Why?” Wendy asked again.
“We found Dennis.” That was Arie’s voice.
A lump formed in Wendy’s throat.
“Why did you leave?” Kev asked.
One of Pelton’s goons glanced over and saw them. He motioned for Pelton’s attention.
Wendy talked fast. “Because I thought Mike sent the Skinnies to destroy my compound.”
“Which isn’t true.” Kev said.
Pelton rose and walked toward them. Wendy watched him come.
“No, Mike didn’t. He did.” Her eyes bore into Pelton.
“The guy coming this way?”
“Who is he?” Arie asked.
“His name is Pelton. He was my trainer. I thought he was my friend.” She paused. “If any of you get the chance, kill him.”
The speed of his strides told Wendy that Pelton was either excited or upset. Probably both. He reached her and squatted down.
She said nothing.
He pulled the bill of his baseball hat around to the back and cocked his head to the side. “So tell me, how long have you been lying to me? Because you’ve gotten pretty good at it.”
Wendy still said nothing. She wasn’t surprised when his hand came out of nowhere to box her in the side of the head. The action sent her spinning as the little bones in her ears wailed in protest. She was suddenly glad she hadn’t eaten anything recently.
A hand reached out and stopped Wendy’s momentum, turning her toward Pelton.
“How much of your story was a lie?”
“All of it,” Wendy said.
He shook his head. “Now you are lying to me.” He hit her again, this time in the stomach.
A gurgle came out instead of a scream. Wendy wanted to curl up, but couldn’t.
Pelton smiled. “Well, I see from the map that there’s a big question mark where you say Mike’s compound is. I’m going to say that that part of your story was true.”
Wendy began rubbing her hands together to get out of the ropes. No luck, they’d used some sort of plastic tie. She’d have to break her wrists to get out. And if she did that she probably wouldn’t be able to get her feet free.
“Protocol says that we should kill you, but you have information the Primate is going to want.”
This was the second time she’d heard that term. “The what?” Wendy asked.
“The who,” Pelton said. “The Primate is a man.”
“Not a monkey?” Wendy asked.
Pelton’s lips pressed together, and the look in his eye went more serious than Wendy had ever seen it.
Pelton had always been a jokester. He’d often told her to lighten up and laugh more. He said it would make her life better.
Now all of that joviality slid away, replaced by a combination of expressions she’d never seen on him before. Awe. Respect. Worship.
His hands suddenly launched for her neck, and before she could take a good breath, his fingers tightened around her throat.
It didn’t take long to make someone pass out if you cut off the blood supply to their brain. Suffocating them was an entirely different, and a much more personal experience.
Pelton had taught her that. Now he finished his lesson with a practical example.
“One does not speak ill of the Primate,” he said in a harsh whisper. His voice broke. His eyes bulged.
Wendy’s vision started to go black. She tried to knock Pelton’s fingers away from her neck with her tied hands, but her muscles didn’t have the strength to do it.
Pelton had choked her out loads of times during their practice sessions, but this was very, very different. He wasn’t going to stop. Wendy could see it in his eyes and feel it in his muscles.
If she wanted to die, she could let him finish the job.
Wendy considered it. What did she have to live for?
But her dad’s voice came into her mind, uttering the words he always asked her when she was having a hard time. “What, are you giving up already?”
He’d said them to her so many times she still remembered the inflection his voice made with each syllable. The look in his eyes as he provoked her to keep going.
For years she hadn’t realized he had been manipulating her. When she had figured it out, she had been grateful to him. That determination had saved her life more than once. It had brought her to Pelton’s fighting classes two years early. And even now, as the darkness closed in and she was about to die at the hand of her teacher, she didn’t regret it.
Her life had had meaning, even after she’d killed her mother. All because her dad had taught her not to give up.
Her stomach lurched as her feet slid in her boots. Her heart leaped into her throat.
They’d tied her up with her shoes on. The boots that were too big for her feet.
Pelton was getting sloppy.
Wendy let a spasm shake her whole body. Her feet slipped again.
She could get away. But not if she was dead.
So she started to flail and tried to talk. Tried to pull his hands away again. Her eyes met his as she did her best to plead for him to let her go, swearing she would tell him everything.
“Pelton,” Nara said from behind Wendy.
Wendy had never seen Pelton obey anyone before. His face remained enraged, but he loosened his grip.
The black that had gathered in front of Wendy’s eyes received a whisper of oxygen. Wendy inhaled, and the dark retreated. Slowly.
Pelton took a couple of deep breaths before he let go completely and stepped back.
Pride didn’t keep Wendy’s eyes from watering or her lungs from gasping for breath.
“We need information out of her,” Nara said.
Wendy decided to start the ball rolling as she tried to discretely wiggle her feet free. “Who is the Primate? You’ve never mentioned him before. He must be important.”
His answer surprised her. Stupid was never a word Wendy would have associated with Pelton. On the contrary, he was one of the brightest people she’d ever met.
“He’s going to save us all,” Pelton said. He still had that strange light in his eye.
Wendy took a minute to digest that. Had Pelton eaten bad food? Was he in the beginning stages of the Starvation?
“Why do we need saving?”
Pelton cocked his head to the side again. “Because, we are weak. We need to be pure. The Primate purifies us.” He moved so his face was just inches from hers. His breath, which had never smelled before, filled Wendy’s nostrils with the stench of death. “I was going to ask you if you wanted to join us.”
“That’s why I tried to save you.”
In the tunnels. Pelton had shoved her in that crate.
“You didn’t just want the map?”
“The map is for the Primate. I wanted to save you. You’re the only person who might understand.”
“Understand what?” The blood in Wendy’s head continued to pound. She started to feel nauseous again, but she kept wiggling.
“That together we can be more than we can be apart. And that the Primate can make us even more than that.”
Wendy mentally shook her head. “I don’t understand. Who is the Primate and why does he want the map?”
Pelton licked his lips. “So he can lead everyone to his destiny.”
At that moment she knew the Primate was behind the attack on her compound. He may have used Pelton to carry it out, but this Primate, whoever he was, was the one who had organized it. His idea of destiny included slaughtering everyone who…what? Didn’t follow him?
Pelton studied Wendy, his eyes darting back and forth between hers. The look of hope on his face quickly dwindled away. “You’re not a believer.”
“I certainly don’t believe in this Primate,” Wendy said. She almost had one foot free. “Can I meet him?”
The fanatical gleam in Pelton’s eye had been replaced by his normal, shrewd expression.
“I need you to tell me where this complex is.”
“Why, so you can kill everyone there too?”
The blunt answer caught Wendy off guard.
Pelton continued. “Unless they believe.” He brushed her cheek with his fingers. “You’re not going to tell me. I can see it in your eyes.”
“You have the map, find it yourself.”
“Oh, I think I can persuade one of them to tell me.”
Wendy’s friends had been silent throughout the exchange, and the urge to kill Pelton had driven them from her mind. Desperate, she dredged up the religious lessons her mother used to teach her.
“If this Primate is some sort of savior, why doesn’t he know where the unbelievers are?”
Wendy’s last comment got to him. Pelton’s hand once again came out and whacked her on the side of the head—she may never be able to hear out of that ear again.
The spinning returned. Wendy thrashed and cried out, as if she were truly hurt.
Wendy’s feet finally came free, and she fell.
The ground rushed up faster than she had been anticipating. Wendy didn’t quite get curled into a ball before she hit. The landing knocked the wind out of her, but at least she didn’t land on her head. Just her shoulder. Which popped.
Wendy rolled into Pelton, taking him to the ground. She grabbed his knife and kept rolling into Nara whom Pelton had obeyed so completely. In a move she had performed a thousand times, Wendy rolled on top of the woman and pressed the knife to her throat.
“One move, and she dies.”
An expression of uncertainty crossed Pelton’s face, another emotion he rarely expressed
Nara stayed perfectly still beneath Wendy.
“Hold on,” Pelton said. He put his hands up. “There are ten of us and only one of you.”
He was stalling.
“Let them loose,” Wendy said, indicating her friends with a jerk of her chin.
“Okay,” Pelton said. He gestured to one of his men, who moved toward Arie.
Wendy knew the look in his eyes. “If you hurt her, this woman dies.”
The man stopped and gave Pelton a questioning glance.
Before Pelton could answer, a bullet whizzed through the air, hitting the man in the chest. He crumpled.
A booming voice sounded. “No one moves.”
Wendy never thought she’d be so happy to hear his voice.
Of course after what she’d done, he might shoot her too.
“Hold them off,” Nara said to her cohorts. Wendy didn’t get a chance to move before Nara twisted under her. The woman took a long slice to her cheek as she got her hands up and shoved Wendy away.
With her hands tied, and her ears still ringing from being boxed, Wendy couldn’t keep her balance. She had to catch herself before she face-planted.
Nara got to her feet and ran toward the fire. She said one thing to Pelton. “Get the map out.” To the others she said, “Hold the line.”
Like a well-oiled machine, Pelton and his people dove for cover as the shooting started in earnest.
Wendy rolled over the man Riggs had shot and stole his gun.
“Wendy!” Cal yelled. “Pelton is getting away.”
Wendy took in the scene. Nara and the rest had moved behind a line of rocks Wendy hadn’t even realized was a defensive barrier. They shot at Riggs, but only a few people shot back. Her eyes drifted back to Kev and the others. Because he didn’t want to hit them.
Pelton ran through her friends and into the forest.
She had to get her hands free. Wendy squatted down and began to cut at the bindings on her wrists. They were, as she had suspected, plastic, and not terribly susceptible to a knife. But it was all she had, so she sawed away.
The process was excruciatingly slow, and the odd angle she had to cut from caused her to drop the blade once. She reached down to retrieve it, and a wave of heat exploded and rushed up behind her.
Her friends cried out. A wall of fire ten feet high blazed between her and the rest of the fight.
They really were willing to sacrifice everything to get Pelton and the map out.
Wendy gritted her teeth and finished with the bindings. They were so tight she cut up her arms as well, but right now it didn’t matter. Pelton was not going to get away.
As soon as her hands were free, Wendy gripped her knife in one hand, and the gun in the other. She had to get Pelton. A quick sprint took her through her friends and on the trail Pelton had used.
A shot rang out, and bark exploded right next to her ear. A dozen pieces embedded themselves into her arm as she covered her face. One of Pelton’s men was guarding his retreat.
She stuck her head out once, and just after another shot rang through the air, she bolted.
Small geysers of dirt erupted at her feet, and more bark flew off of trees as shots continued to fire. Wendy leaped over a large rock to find another of Pelton’s men there, waiting to ambush her.
Wendy’s dad had always said life was precious and should be preserved as much as possible.
But he also said that when your life was threatened, you should defend yourself.
Wendy brought the gun up and shot the man in the chest. He fell back and hit the ground with a thump.
The cracking of twigs behind her told her someone else was after her too. Wendy kept going.
The green of Pelton’s vest darted between the trees ahead.
When Pelton finally stopped, Wendy ran to catch him.
He heard her coming and glanced up. The normally jovial look in his eyes had been replaced by cold anger.
Wendy knew exactly how he felt. She stopped ten feet from him and brought the gun up. “Don’t move.”
Pelton met her eyes. Her floating boots sat at his feet. “You would have been a great addition to our group.”
The sincerity of his words frightened Wendy. He meant it. Whoever this Primate was, he had Pelton wrapped around his finger. Brainwashed. Something horrible. Because this was not the man that Wendy had come to admire so much. That man, it seemed, was gone.
“Give me the map,” Wendy said.
Pelton laughed. “Not a chance.”
The pursuer finally came through the trees. Clayton—now bloodied and somewhat unsteady—attacked Wendy from behind. She kicked his gun out of his hand, but he grabbed for hers and sent it flying.
Clayton tried to entangle her and take her to the ground. She punched him in the throat, which hardly seemed to faze him.
How did these people have such a high tolerance for pain?
Clayton growled and pulled a knife from a sheath.
Wendy side-stepped and pushed him off balance. Clayton compensated, and came for her again.
The straightforward charge showed Wendy he lacked any sort of creativity, but it was also keeping Wendy busy. So Pelton could get away.
Tired of the game, Wendy put her hands up, leaving her stomach exposed. Clayton tried to impale her. Wendy waited until the last possible moment before she stepped away, knocked his knife hand down with two blocks, and then kicked him in the side of the knee. Even with her slight weight, the force of her blow sent his kneecap into the ground with a crack that echoed through the trees. Before he could do anything but howl, Wendy grabbed his head and slammed her knee into his face. He slumped to the ground.
Pelton was gone.
Wendy took Clayton’s knife, and chased after Pelton. It was only then she remembered she had no shoes on, and her socks were now coated in blood from running through the forest. Each step hurt, and her damaged equilibrium caused her to stumble.
Pelton fled down into a ravine and up the other side. Wendy slowed enough to make sure he wasn’t going to shoot her. Wendy’s ragged breathing filled her ears, and she knew her body was close to finished.
The smell of blood sent a quick flash of the crate in the tunnels through her mind, and she shivered.
Pelton would pay.
Wendy followed Pelton’s course, keeping close to the ground and peered through the trees.
Pelton was nowhere to be seen.
Which meant he was behind her.
Wendy darted through the bushes and came out on the other side, weapons ready.
But Pelton didn’t come from behind, he came from the side. Wendy dove to the ground, narrowly avoiding one bullet as another grazed her shoulder.
A cry of pain escaped her lips. She’d never been shot before. It felt like someone was running a hot poker along her shoulder, searing the muscles and boiling her blood.
“I should have known you would be too stubborn to see the truth,” he said.
Wendy gritted her teeth and got to her feet, grabbing some dirt on the way up. It was the oldest trick in the book, but she’d never used it against him before so he wouldn’t be expecting it. She flung the dirt in his face.
Pelton growled and threw his hand up to clear the dust from his eyes. This gave Wendy just enough time to close the distance between them and knock the gun out of his hand. She tried to grab it, but her muscles still twitched from the pain in her shoulder, and the gun flew through the air and landed ten feet away.
Pelton jumped back. “You’ve learned a few new tricks.” Pride filled his voice.
Fighting with Pelton had always been fun. He was better than she was, but he only ever had to show her something once. After that she would not only remember it, but use it against him. She’d overheard him telling her dad that she was always pushing him, always forcing him to learn more.
But he was still the better fighter.
She was faster—she had to be because of her size—but he knew more, had more experience. He also knew all her moves. After all, he had taught her almost everything.
This didn’t stop her from attacking him.
He managed to pull a knife out of his belt and got it up to block just before Wendy’s knife neared his throat.
Wendy punched low, forcing Pelton to jump back. He countered with a slash at her face as he kicked at her knee.
They’d been through this same dance a thousand times. Never once in those sessions had Wendy thought she would have to use all he had taught her against him.
This was her worst nightmare come true.
Pelton used his size to push Wendy back. She dodged to the side and got a kick to the ribs for her efforts.
She grunted and spun in an attempt to get around Pelton.
He saw it coming and cut her off.
They both stepped back, breathing hard. They’d exchanged punches, kicks and a few slashes. Both had taken at least a few hits.
Wendy remembered the one thing Pelton wasn’t good at—talking and fighting at the same time. Kenzie had driven him crazy with her incessant chattering.
“Give me the map and I’ll let you go,” Wendy said. She slashed at his face then went for his neck.
Pelton jumped back. “That look in your eye says otherwise.”
“You know I’ll keep my word.”
“Forgive me if I don’t trust you.” He came at her with a combination kick, which she dodged—taking the opportunity to elbow him in the shin.
“How long have you been with the Primate?” Wendy asked. She tried another slash, but Pelton grabbed her knife hand and hit the outside of it with his knuckles. The knife flew from her fingers, and Wendy backpedaled.
“Since your mom got sick.” He believed the words would hurt her. He didn’t know Wendy’s emotions were already so raw, another poke didn’t even register.
“How long were you planning the attack?”
“Ever since your dad proved he would never be a believer.”
Wendy had to dodge Pelton’s knife, but after a few strokes, he let his guard down and she grabbed his hand and twisted until the blade fell to the ground.
Yelling sounded from behind them. Maybe Riggs was breaking through.
Pelton would run. She had to get the map from him before that happened.
Wendy changed her stance, giving Pelton an opening he couldn’t resist. He overpowered her with a punch combination, grabbed her shoulder, twisted, and caught her in a choke hold.
The hold Wendy had never been able to figure out how to escape. She punched with one arm and squirmed. With the other arm, she searched for the map.
If she found it, she could get out of the hold. She’d have to break her own arm, but it would be worth it.
“Before I kill you, I think you should see this.” Pelton turned her back toward the camp. “Your friends will be Skinny food in just a minute.”
It took Wendy a few seconds to find them. When she did, her stomach turned to stone.
Arie, Cal and Kev were still dangling from the trees. A few dozen yards away the four Skinnies were making their way toward her friends.
Wendy’s heart somehow found a way to speed up.
“Let’s watch, shall we?”
Wendy continued to flail. Finally, her fingers brushed a flat, hard spot in the small of Pelton’s back.
Then came a flash, but not of the tunnels. Of Yan. In the combat rooms. And the hold Pelton had her in right now.
She twisted and shoved her hand through the tiny hole it made in Pelton’s grip. Yan had hit his attacker in the stomach, Wendy aimed a little lower.
Pelton’s grip gave just enough for Wendy to get her arm all the way up. Her fingers drove toward his eye.
No one wanted to lose an eye. Pelton pushed her away from him, giving her enough time to wiggle free. She dropped to the ground, grabbed her knife and slashed up at Pelton’s head.
He moved, but not far enough. Her blade bit into his ear, nearly cutting it off.
Wendy jumped forward and slipped her hand into the back waistband of his pants, grabbing for the map.
Surprise instantly replaced the pain in Pelton’s eyes as he brought one hand down and grasped the map.
Somehow the two of them managed to get hold of opposite corners. The map unfolded into a square the width of Wendy’s arm span. Smaller papers flew everywhere while Pelton tried to yank it free, and Wendy held on. They both went down as the map tore roughly in half.
A scream filled the air.
The now familiar roar filled Wendy’s ears. Darkness from the tunnels closed Wendy’s vision. A Skinny grabbed one of the kids and bit into his shoulder. Wendy had thrown her other knife and hit the Skinny in the eye—the only time that move had ever worked for her. The Skinny had dropped the boy, but before he got the knife out of his skull, Wendy had sprung forward and finished the job.
She could not let her friends get eaten by the Skinnies. At that moment she saw Kev’s stupid grin, Arie’s radiant smile and Cal’s eyes as he’d coaxed her out of that vent.
They cared about her. And somehow she’d grown to care about them.
A yell came from her left. Riggs was making his way around the wall of fire.
Pelton rose to his feet and ran to the edge of the trees.
Wendy rose to follow, but another scream from Arie—this one even more terrified than the last—rent the air.
Pelton looked as if he was doing a little dance. Wendy realized he had activated the rocket boots, and was about to get away.
His gun lay on the ground just ten feet from where she stood. Wendy dove to get it.
Wendy checked the rounds. Only four left.
Four Skinnies or one Pelton?
The world slowed.
Riggs and his men wouldn’t make it in time.
The Skinnies were almost on her friends.
Pelton was going to get away.
The blood of her family and the rest of the Den cried out for revenge. Then something her dad had said came to her mind:
“Wendy, having people you trust at your back is one of the most important things you can find in this life. Friends, family, it doesn’t matter. Just find them.”
He’d said that after her mother died.
Wendy turned away from Pelton, who was just rising into the air, and aimed.
She took a breath and relaxed, just like Jeff had showed her. The sights on the pistol lined up, and she pulled the trigger.
She’d been aiming for the Skinny’s head, but hit his leg instead. Still, he went down, taking one of the others with him. Maybe the other three Skinnies would see the blood and eat the injured one.
Wendy ran forward and into the ravine. The two unhindered Skinnies hadn’t paused to eat their fallen friend.
Wendy fired once while running and didn’t hit anything. So she stopped and aimed again, compensated for the fall of the gun, and fired. She shot twice, but only hit one of the two upright Skinnies in the head. The dead Skinny stumbled and pulled the one other down, buying her some time.
Wendy ran forward again. It was only then she realized she didn’t have a knife. Just an empty gun.
Wendy reached down mid-stride and picked up a rock.
The first two Skinnies were coming to their feet.
Wendy fell on the closest one, smashing him in the head with both her weapons as hard as she could. A sickening crunch filled the air, and the Skinny crumpled to the ground.
“Look out!” Arie yelled.
Wendy spun and found an uninjured Skinny right on her.
Rage took over her body, and Wendy kicked the creature. It doubled over. Reality merged with fantasy and Wendy saw a kid die in the tunnels, another crying because the dead one was her sister. Wendy fought in her mind and in the real world, no longer able to separate the two.
All of the fear, hate and anger poured from her as she continued to fight. They’d killed her dad. Kenzie. All of the kids she was supposed to protect.
And Pelton had let them in.
Her mother had asked her to protect everyone. She’d failed.
Kenzie’s smiling face filled her mind, then her dad’s wry grin. Even her mother’s sad eyes took their turn reminding Wendy how much she had failed.
The Skinnies in the tunnels kept coming, and Wendy kept fighting. The roar in her ears kept going, and she kept hitting. She saw Pelton’s betrayal again and again. She saw kids die. But mostly she saw Skinnies die.
The sound of her name pushed back the dark.
Light filtered into her mind. Wendy blinked and found herself on her knees. Her hands were covered in blood and gore, and before her lay a body. Or the remains of one.
One of the Skinnies.
She’d beaten him to death.
Her name again. She looked around—the world tilting and spinning as she did so—and saw two other Skinnies on the ground, unmoving. Then her eyes fell on Jeff—covered in dirt and blood—squatting next to her.
“Can you hear me?” His dark eyes held concern. His voice distorted in her mind. “You can stop. They’re safe.” He pointed.
Wendy followed the gesture with her eyes and found Arie, Cal and Kev being cut down from the trees. They were alive.
A wave of relief flooded her.
Then she glanced down at the remains of the Skinny lying at her feet. At the sight, her stomach contracted, and she doubled over. Bile rose, and Wendy retched as her body tried to expel all of the horror at once.
Jeff put hand on her back. “It’s okay. You’re okay,” he said. “You saved them. You saved them.”
Once the vomiting stopped, Wendy shivered and uttered the same words her mother had. “I’m a monster.”
Jeff pulled Wendy into him. His arms wrapped tightly around her. “Shhh. You’re not a monster.”
A tear trickled down Wendy’s cheek. “Yes I am.”
“No, they’re the monsters.”
The next hour was a blur. Jeff helped Wendy up the hill back to the clearing. He put her down near the fire pit, and then he used some water and a rag to wash the gore off of her hands.
Matt—whom Riggs had forced to stay behind the fighting—wrapped her feet and put dressings on her shoulder and face and arms, after removing the bark embedded in her skin.
“Anything else?” he asked in his soft voice.
“No,” Wendy said.
“Are you sure?” His blue eyes searched hers.
Matt didn’t usually let silence settle, but this time he took her at her word. Wendy was grateful. He leaned forward and kissed her forehead before he moved off to help someone else.
It took her mind a long time to completely come back into reality. When she did, she found herself sitting with her legs to her chest and her arms wrapped around her knees. Everything hurt, both physically and emotionally.
Riggs had captured two of Pelton’s men. They were tied up by the tree where the Skinnies had been kept. Three people lay on stretchers to her right. Two were dead, the other was Arie. Her arm was in a sling, and she looked like she was asleep.
A small hope had burned in Wendy that one of Riggs’ men would get Pelton, but as far as she could tell, it hadn’t happened.
Footsteps rustled the leaves on the ground, and Wendy watched Kev’s boots approach, Cal right behind him. She kept her eyes down.
“So do you think if you ignore us that we’ll just go away?” Kev asked.
“Because you know that won’t happen,” Cal said.
Wendy didn’t answer. She didn’t know what to say.
As usual, Kev took the situation into his own hands. He turned and sat down next to her while Cal did the same on her other side.
Kev broke the silence first. “You look horrible, by the way.”
This was not the reaction Wendy had been expecting. She raised her head and looked at him. Half of his mouth was swollen so much his lips looked like sausages, and one eye was completely shut. He was also cradling one arm with the other. She snorted. “Have you looked at yourself lately?”
Cal laughed. Not just a chuckle, but an outburst of laughter that turned everyone’s head toward them.
“What?” Kev frowned.
“Wendy just made fun of you,” Cal said. “I think that’s the first joke she’s ever made.”
Kev’s lips twitched. “You know, I think you’re right.
“Shut up,” Wendy said, lowering her head back to her knees.
“On the bright side,” Kev said, “Doc said that it’s going to take Dennis at least a week to recover from the beating you gave him.”
“And he might never quite be the same,” Cal said.
Wendy swallowed, not sure how to feel about that.
Riggs and Jeff made their way toward Wendy. Kev and Cal stopped talking, and Wendy steeled herself.
Whatever Riggs decided to do with her, she deserved it.
When he arrived, she raised her head to meet his eyes. Instead of the anger she expected, his expression held concern, and a little bit of apology.
“Pelton got away,” Wendy said. It wasn’t a question.
“I’m sorry,” Riggs said. “These guys told me he’s the one who let the Skinnies into your compound.”
“But you got half of the map,” Riggs said. He pulled the ripped and folded paper out of his pocket and held it out for them to see. “Do you know how to read it?”
“Some of it.”
“What’s on there?” Kev asked.
Riggs squatted down and lowered his voice. “Among other things, all of the military installations like ours in the area.”
“Whoa,” Cal said.
“How did you get it?” Kev asked Wendy.
“My dad had it. I’m not sure where he found it.”
Riggs held her gaze. “Why is Pelton after it?”
Wendy’s eyes didn’t leave his. “Why are you after it?”
“Supplies and technology,” he said.
Wendy sighed. “He didn’t tell me why he wanted it, but I suspect it is for the same reason.”
“Who is he?” Riggs asked. His voice was gentle, not accusing.
“He’s the man who taught me everything I know about fighting.” The words still felt heavy rolling off of Wendy’s lips.
No one spoke. She went on.
“He’d been with us since I was eight years old. He would go scavenge for us and bring stuff back. My dad trusted him. I trusted him.” A lump formed in her throat.
“Did he say why he betrayed you?” Riggs asked.
“He’s following someone called the Primate.”
Riggs’ normally impassive or mildly irritated expression twisted into one of anger. The only other time Wendy had seen him so upset was the first time they’d met.
“Do you know who that is?” Wendy asked.
“I’ve heard of him,” Riggs said in a low, growling voice. “A religious fanatic of some sort. There are only whispers of rumors.” He looked at the boys. “You heard him mention the Primate?”
“Yeah, he seemed to revere the guy,” Cal said. Kev nodded his support.
“What does it mean?” Jeff asked.
Riggs sighed and rose. “It means we’re going to have to be very careful from now on. You kids take it easy until the transport arrives.”
Wendy reached out and touched Riggs’ arm. He stopped.
“Is Arie going to be okay?”
His eyes swiveled to where the injured girl lay. “Matt’s not worried. He’s got her sedated. Besides, if Doc can bring you back from the brink of death, he can surely keep Arie alive after an arm break and a few bruises.”
Wendy gave Riggs a weak but grateful smile before he moved away.
Jeff stayed. “Matt is worried about you. Can I tell him you’re with us?”
Wendy still felt disconnected, but she nodded. “Yes.”
“Good.” He squeezed her knee, then rose and followed Riggs.
Cal let out a big breath. “Sheesh, you’re making things really stressful.”
“I knew you were trouble, from the first minute I saw you,” Kev said.
“Whatever,” Wendy said.
Kev slipped his good arm around Wendy’s shoulders. “Well, since you got me all beat up, I think you owe me some fighting lessons.”
Cal’s arm went around her waist. “And you owe me a new shirt.”
“What?” Kev asked.
Cal pointed at the tattered remains of his shirt. “This one was my favorite.”
“You two are dumb,” Wendy said.
“Get used to it, shrimp.” Kev mussed her hair. “You’re stuck with us for a while.”
A Note from Jo
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Also By Jo Schneider:
Babes in Spyland
First I must acknowledge my subconscious for the dream that inspired this story. Probably resulting from a combination of a Jakes-Over-The-Top shake and watching science fiction way too late at night.
A big thanks goes out to all of my beta readers. We’ll do lunch. I should specifically mention: Shandra, for pointing out I’d made a promise that I didn’t keep, PD, for looking at me over the bloodied copy of my manuscript and saying, “But I really liked this one.” and Aulorah who was like, “What’s up with this character? She’s boring.”
My adorkable husband deserves a shout out. I used his hyper-thinking brain to expand this story from a clunky one-shot novel to a rich, full world that is now waiting to be explored.
Kudos also to the folks at DDD for the awesome cover. The rest of you need to thank Jen Hendricks for her mad editing skills. Dennis suffered more because of her.
My favorite moment in this journey was hearing that Marilee and Kara got into a fight over dinner as they were answering the questions I had given them for the beta read. I wish I had been there. Dinner and a show!
About the Author
Jo Schneider grew up in Utah and Colorado, and finds mountains helpful in telling which direction she is going. One of Jo’s goals is to travel to all seven continents—five down and two to go.
Another goal was to become a Jedi Knight, but when that didn’t work out, Jo started studying Shaolin Kempo. She now has a black belt, and she keeps going back for more. An intervention may be in order.
Being a geek at heart, Jo has always been drawn to science fiction and fantasy. She writes both and hopes to introduce readers to worlds that wow them and characters they can cheer for.
Jo lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her adorkable husband, Jon, who is very useful for science and computer information as well as getting items off of top shelves.
Sixteen year old Wendy never knew the world before the Starvation. She’s learned to put her trust in her knives, and her confidence in her fighting ability. When the Skinnies attack her compound, she's the lone survivor. Injured and near death, Wendy is rescued and nursed back to health by mysterious strangers. Her saviors offer her a place among them, but trust has never been one of Wendy's strengths, and suspicion soon leads to evidence that these people might be the group who killed her family. The decision to get her revenge, and take the settlement down from the inside out is easy. Keeping her distance from those she must befriend in order to make it happen proves to be much more difficult.