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Text copyright© 2014 Patricia A. Doherty/Kate Wrath

All Rights Reserved

Cover art copyright© Patricia A. Doherty

All Rights Reserved

Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version™, NIV™. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™

For Pol,

God of the Sun,

Sharer of Dreams,

Destroyer of Excess Words…

Among other things.

[*

Chapter 1: Iron Womb*]

I WAKE UP in a box of iron. I know nothing, remember nothing. There is one thought imprinted on my consciousness: You have been erased.

Disoriented, I’m swimming in warm darkness. Tepid air. Tepid metal. The inability to move. Limbs pressing outward, ineffective. My ribcage curled in on itself. No room to breathe. The back of my skull smashed against the box. Neck and spine aching. Heavy limbs. Not enough space. Not enough air. Suffocating. Dying.

Panic.

There’s no way out.

I scream. It’s a girl’s voice. Am I a girl?

Flailing. Pounding. Hot blood under torn nails. Dry, shredded throat. I scream until everything stops.

An eternity later, I awaken in the warm darkness.

Again.

It’s happened so many times I’ve stopped counting. I’ve stopped asking why. Dry snot on my face. Hollow insides. Despair. I decided long ago to give up and die. But it continues. Now I lie still in the dark. Floating. Drifting. Time malfunctions. My body winds down. I’m fading.

Nothing.

Erased.

***

Cold air wisps across my cheek. The touch of death? I open my eyes and shut them as the light skewers my brain. Tentatively, I crack my lids open again. The image sharpens with each blink, a water-blurred lens coming into focus. Brown dirt in a vertical plane bisecting my vision. Eventually I realize I’m lying on my side. My cheek presses into cold earth. My right shoulder is crushed under my body, my limbs sprawled haphazardly. Who knows how long I’ve been like this. I lie blinking, unable to move, strangely fascinated with the colors and textures of the ground. Small stones and twigs rise dramatically out of the landscape from this perspective. Beyond them, only a few paces away, is a concrete wall.

I struggle to upright myself. Three attempts later, I manage to sit up, which I immediately regret. Starbursts chase black spots across my eyeballs. My stomach turns over. Heaviness sits on my chest. Each breath takes the efforts of my entire body. I’m certain I’ll fall over, but it passes, resolving in a dizzy, drifting haze. I blink and cast my eyes around, wondering where I am and how I got here.

Dirty walls of buildings, rusted corrugated steel panels and splintered, rotting boards make up most of my surroundings. An alleyway leads away from this enclosed area. Trash whirls across its opening and collects in a huddle against one wall. More is piled against a building next to a dumpster. A few feet away from me, the bleak grey sky is reflected in a puddle, oily patches on the water’s surface obscuring the shapes of the clouds. I scramble for the puddle on hands and knees, moving faster than I imagined I’m capable of. Thrusting my hands into the dirty water, I scoop it up and drink. Some of it runs down my chin and neck, soaking whatever garment I’m wearing. It tastes foul, smells of something wrong, but I don’t care. It’s liquid. I drink handful after handful, then sit back on my knees, my shoulders slumping, hands dropping slack to my sides. I pant, then take deeper breaths. I sigh, a long, trembling sigh that releases all the tension from my body. Tipping my face to the open sky— as dark and cold and uninviting as I can possibly imagine it— my heart embraces it as a thing of utmost beauty. Open air, the ability to move— I am utterly thankful for these things.

There’s a noise from down the alley. Fear coalesces out of nowhere, seizing hold of me, compelling my body to move despite its weakness, its stiff joints. I thrust my feet under me and will myself to standing. Reeling against the dizziness, I throw my arms out and widen my stance to keep from falling. I have to get out of here. Now.

I’m only beginning to move when my mind starts translating what I hear. Footsteps. Male voices, low and laughing. There is nowhere for me to go. I force down a scream. My eyes fall on the trash piled next to the dumpster. I hike up the brown shift I’m wearing and wade into the heap of boxes and rags, sharp-edged tin can lids, moldy coffee grounds, greasy bones, and other rotten, rancid things. Sinking down in the filth, I draw it over my head. Something cold and slippery hits the skin of my neck, its stench filling my nostrils. I make myself still, hold my breath. And then the voices are right there, a few paces away from me.

Their cheerful conversation ceases.

“Nothing again today,” one of them says.

There is the sound of a boot scuffing the pavement, then the faint splash of water as it hits the puddle.

A second voice answers darkly, “Matt’s gonna think we’re slacking or something. Take the loss out of our pay.”

What loss? In the silence that follows, I feel my face turning red, my lungs wanting to explode. The sensation of suffocating seizes me again, the sharp memory of metal walls closing me in. I need to breathe. Need to scream. I have to dig down into the fear and extract every drop of willpower to remain still and quiet. The beginnings of a whimper stir in my belly, but I shut them down. Only a moment more. Only a moment.

“Nah,” a third voice finally says. “He knows we don’t miss any. If they haven’t dropped here in two days, we’ll surely get something tomorrow.”

The others make noises of disgruntled agreement, and the footsteps move away, down the alley.

I try to last as long as I can after they’re gone, but they’ve barely left when I lose the ability. Gasping in air, I gag at the smell that assaults me. I launch to my feet, trash falling from my hair and shoulders. Scrambling from the pile, I press myself hard against the wall, farthest from the alley. The ragged breaths I rake in are thick with a stench that clings to me. My back is wet. My skin crawls at its own filthiness.

Forcing my disgust away, I plunge into the puzzle amassing in my mind. These men were looking for something that wasn’t here, though they expected it to be. Something that would be dropped here. Something that would profit them, or the man they work for. What could possibly be dropped in an alley? What kind of coincidence is it that I am suddenly here? Dropped here. Me. They’re looking for me. Slavers.

I repress another scream, clenching my fists, squeezing my eyes shut. The darkness sends my mind involuntarily back to the box. My body convulses. As my eyes fly open, the words appear in my brain, burned there, like the ones before them: You have been warned. With them, a gate opens in my mind. I can place myself in this world. I know its laws. I know its ways. As for myself— everything that was me— it is gone. Forever. I have been erased.

I run my fingertips lightly over the center of my forehead, exploring the mark there, its edges swollen and raised, my skin tender and stinging with the newness of it. My hand trembles. I take it away from my face to look at it— long, slender fingers. Pale skin. Fingernails blackened with blood. My palms are blue and bruised from pounding against the metal. But it’s a young hand. That’s one strike against me. Please, please, don’t let me be pretty.

I tear into the pile of trash until I find a piece of broken glass. Wiping it with the hem of my shift, I notice my long, shapely legs. Does my face even matter? I tilt the glass in the grey light, repositioning until the surface collects my image. I stare at it— a transparent rendering of myself. Large, dark eyes. Clear skin. Full lips. I hurl the glass away from me with a cry of frustration. It splinters into a thousand shards against the concrete wall.

I’m shaking from my core. My body and mind want to collapse in on themselves. That is the last thing I can allow.

I find myself counting slowly backward from one hundred. Ninety-nine. Ninety-eight. I must calm myself. I must think. Ninety-five. Ninety-four. If I do something stupid now, I’ll regret it, probably for the rest of my life. Ninety-one. Ninety. Eighty-nine. I must form a plan. Eighty-seven. I need food, and shelter. A place to hide until I can regain my strength. Eighty-two. Eighty-one. Anyone who sees me could sell me out as likely as help me. Slavers reward handsomely for pretty girls like me. Seventy-two. Seventy-one. Seventy. Sixty-nine. I need to disguise myself. Need to make myself unappealing. More trouble than I’m worth. Sixty-five.

I stop counting and consider the pile of trash. Before I can balk at the idea, I begin pulling out any rags I can find. There’s a good mess of them, stained with things I’m sure I don’t want to identify. They are damp in places, stiff in others. I find a large piece— it looks like a torn and stained bed sheet— and make a sort of robe out of it. Smaller bits I wrap about my head, catching my hair up in them. As I do, my fingers pause, briefly rubbing one silky lock. It falls just below my shoulders. I hold it in front of my face. Dark brown, the color of coffee beans, or bitter chocolate. I wrap it up tightly in the piss-scented rags, carefully covering the mark on my forehead, then smear my face and pale arms with dirt. At the bottom of the pile I find something sticky and red. I paint blotches on my exposed skin. On my face. On my long fingers. There are slight calluses along my fingertips, running all the way down my pointer finger, and across the top ridge of my palm. I will never know how those calluses got there.

Grief hits me for the first time. But I cannot afford it now. Later, it can come, when I’m away from here. I’ll allow it then. The sorrow curls up inside me and settles down to sleep, waiting for its time. I focus on this moment, this task, checking myself. My brown shift is covered. I cannot see my face, but my hands look positively frightening. Small strips of rags are all that’s left in the pile, so I tie them around my legs, stacking them to make fake pant legs. I add dirt and gunk to my feet, then drape an extra piece of rag over my head like a hood to hide my face. Cocked head. Crooked posture. Surely anyone who looks twice at me will find themselves moving in the opposite direction. I practice a wet, throaty cough to go along with the blotches. When I’m happy with it, I steel myself to move on. I step toward the alley looking a hundred years old. I feel a hundred years old. Yet, I am born today from an iron womb.

[*

Chapter 2: Savage Garden*]

HUNCHED OVER, I scuttle down the alley. Halfway to the end, I pick up a metal bar that must have once been part of a balcony rail. I lean on it like a cane, but it will give me a weapon if I need one. At the open mouth of the alleyway, I hesitate. My feet don’t want to go any farther. My thoughts and my heart race each other. Go back. Go back. People wrapped in coats and shoulder blankets hurry by, intent on getting quickly from one place to another. Are they cold, or fearful? I’m not sure. Their gazes are downcast, hoods pulled across faces. They don’t greet each other. They don’t smile. I shiver, and my mind keeps whispering the same words. Go back. Just go back. You can still go back.

But where, exactly, would I go back to? The drop zone? I work up what saliva I can in my dry mouth and hack and sputter as I hobble down the street. I’m right. People give me a sizable berth, alarm showing in the widening of their eyes. A woman clutching the hand of a small boy crosses the road to avoid me. I shuffle along in the shadows under stoops, around corners, putting some distance between me and the drop zone.

The pavement is crumbling, like everything else. Old papers skip along the street or soak in puddles near gutters that eject foul-smelling steam. As I shuffle, a splinter of glass burrows into the pad of my foot. I don’t care; not yet. But I will. I’m sure I’m leaving bloody footprints behind me, but I don’t want to look back to check. I’m debating with myself whether or not it’s better to stop and have a look at my foot, when I freeze.

Ahead of me in the intersection looms a thick, metallic body. Chunks of steel, reflecting the grey sky, worked together in semi-humanoid form. It sees from a single curved pane of black mirror that comprises its void face. Perfectly still, framed in aether’s characteristic blue-tinged heat shimmer, the Sentry takes in everything around it. The people passing by. Bone-level facial features. The rapid beating of my heart.

I draw a ragged breath and tell myself there’s nothing to be afraid of. I’ve done nothing wrong. Or at least, I’ve already been punished for what I’ve done. The Sentries are here to protect us. To enforce justice in a way that humans cannot. They uphold the Ten Laws of the New World Covenant. Impartial. Blind to diversities. Without feeling. They are our government, and beyond that we’re free to make our own choices. Our own mistakes. Our forefathers, strangling in red tape, frozen by eternal debate and endless committees, eventually, out of desperation, made a sharp turn to this drastically simpler system. They meant for us to live in a world that balanced basic protections with freedom of choice. But they underestimated mankind’s ability to adapt, to commit atrocities in new ways that defy computerized logic. Those who are brought to ‘justice’ are often the desperate, the destitute, and the helpless. Our world is thinly disguised chaos, and the scales of justice have been replaced by guillotines with legs. A shiver runs through my body as I realize what I’m thinking— as I realize that I am even capable of thinking it.

Erasure should have removed every part of my personality— every opinion, dissension, every thought that is me. Political views violate the Second Law. To have them is dangerous. To have them after erasure is unthinkable. Is it possible they were embedded so deeply within my basic understanding of the world that they passed, unchecked, into my new life? And if so, what else could have come with them?

My eyes fix on the Sentry. Now I’m afraid. I take a deep breath and start counting backward. I hobble into the street, cross in front of the machine. Ninety-nine. Ninety-eight. Ninety-seven. Its jointed, steely toes enter my peripheral vision. I move into its shadow. Eighty-two. Eighty-one. I step onto the opposite curb. The metal monster has not moved. Seventy-eight. I’m OK. I’m safe. Seventy-six. Shifting metal behind me. I glance back. Its head has turned toward me. It makes no other move. I duck my face and shuffle off, trailing bloody footprints behind me.

***

Long minutes later, I find the beginnings of the bad part of the city. Not that this is really a city, after all. By now, I’ve realized there are no skyscrapers crumbling in the distance. There are not enough people. And judging by the cold, the icy drizzle that has begun to sink into my rags, it’s either getting toward winter, or I’m in the north. One of the Outposts, I guess. I consider what’s happened to me as I make my way slowly past lean-tos and shanties, past people with sunken-in faces, vacant, bloodless stares. Some of them don’t bother to avoid me, but neither do they pay me any attention.

I ignore them, swimming in the black memories of the box, my mind prodding, obsessed with poking the wound despite the pain it brings. People don’t talk about the torture. Maybe no one knows. No one who is able to speak about it. You emerge from the box half-mad and paranoid, unable to function. Unable to pretend that life is the same. It’s supposed to be a humane punishment. Supposed to erase a person’s criminality and give them a second chance. If they break the Covenant a second time, then they’re considered to be intrinsically flawed and are simply ‘removed’ from the system. But no one ever mentioned sticking you in a tiny metal box until you crack.

You have been warned. I shiver again. Is it meant to compel me to an honest start in my new life? I don’t feel honest, wrapping myself in rags and pretending to have the pox. I feel hardly anything more than fear, and I have the strangest feeling that this fear will compel me to dishonesty.

***

When I reach my destination, I know it at once. The bottom of humanity’s barrel. Two fires in identical, rusted-out trash cans. Black smoke trails spill into the damp air, an acrid infusion of burning waste. A scatter of frail bodies swathed in layers of rags hover listlessly nearby. Further out, leaning against a chunk of concrete wall, more are slumped— broken, or drugged out, or damaged enough to keep from drawing closer to the fire. One man has puckered, pink stumps where his legs should be. A grey-haired woman stares through eyes filmed over with a thick layer of milky white. Here and there, piles of rags identify bodies that may or may not be alive. But surely if they were dead, the others would have stripped them of their belongings by now.

As I approach, I work up a rattle in my throat— subtle— just enough to convince anyone paying attention. Keeping my head ducked, I shuffle into the ranks of the condemned and try to find a spot where the fire’s heat can touch me. I start to settle against the concrete wall, but I’ve not so much as bent my knees to sit, when another bundle of rags standing by the fire barrels turns and eyes me wildly.

It makes a noise of rage and frustration, moving toward me. Dirt obscures the twisted face, filthy hair frizzing into the eyes, but I think it’s a boy— young, skinny, but taller than me. From the distorted expression and insistent, wordless sounds of grievance, I surmise that I’ve angered someone unbalanced. He rushes toward me, arms flailing. I fall back a step. My fingers grip my metal stick. I make my own noise of rage as I swing for his head.

He skids to a stop, his feet slipping in the rubble. He falls backward. My stick cuts through the air. I take a step toward him, and he scrambles back on his elbows. He flips over and claws his way to his feet, retreating to the furthest barrel of fire, where he glares back at me nervously. I stand my ground a moment, then adjust myself and sit against the concrete wall, eyeing him. My fingers cling to my piece of metal.

No one else challenges me. I scan my surroundings, trying to sum up any other potential threats, but really, I’m so tired that my mind wanders. An old woman catches my eye despite my efforts to avoid her. Her hands are so gnarled they’re twice their normal size. I look away, at the ground, at the dark spots where rain drops are hitting the packed earth. I hunch down and pull my rags tighter. Face in knees. This fabric smells like piss. I would recoil, but exhaustion has taken over. I’m weary in every part of myself, inside and out. Before I know it, my eyelids sink shut. I mean to open them, but I don’t. Not for a long time.

***

Dead of night. Everyone is still, lying in piles— some closer to the fire barrels than others. Only the scurry of disease-carrying rodents and broken rustle of cockroaches disrupts the silence. In the broken light of the fire I inspect the slash between my toes. A little prodding and I feel the hard chunk of glass in my foot. Grinding my teeth and refusing to make a sound, I try to get at it with my fingers, but I can’t get hold of it. I dig and dig, but in the end I only make the wound sting like fire and restart the bleeding. I sit and watch the fat red drops fall, sucking down to black spots in the dirt. There’s nothing to do for it. I wind some of the rags from my legs around my feet, which at least will keep more glass from cutting me tomorrow. A rat skitters between bodies and runs past me. I retract my limbs, shivering in repulsion. A sort of shell-shock hits me as I realize fully where I am. Drops of rain start plopping into my lap. Only, it’s not rain; it’s tears. And once I realize I’m crying, there’s no stopping it. I rock forward, grabbing my knees, and weep silently.

When dawn’s light spills through the ruins of the overpass, I calm my breathing and wipe my palms over my eyes. I cannot show any weakness.

Movement. It’s the old woman with fingers twisted like tree roots. She’s holding something, and when she’s about ten feet away, she flings it toward me.

I flinch as the object skitters across the broken concrete and hard dirt. Then I see what it is. I scramble for the bread crust and seize it, stuff it greedily into my mouth. It sticks in my throat, but even the mold tastes good. The old woman hobbles off, studying me over her shoulder. Now, she looks away.

I tremble, moved by her act of kindness. Some day, I will repay her.

I head into the heart of the Outpost to find a way to survive. My foot is far more tender than it was the night before. I step on my heel only. I need to remove the glass, sooner rather than later. That means I need some sort of tool. But before that, I need more food, and water.

The water turns out to be the easiest part. I find rain collected in an old tire leaning against a wall. Food is more difficult. I wander the back alleys, looking for scraps, but the only thing I find in the trash is clearly unsuitable for consumption. A chicken carcass with some meat on the bones sprays a load of tiny flies into a black cloud when it’s touched. White maggots writhe in and out of the flesh. I drop it and move on. In another trash barrel, a scoop of beans smells like shitty death.

Surely there’s a better place to look. After some wandering, I find a row of buildings that, though still dilapidated, are larger, at one time dignified. I avoid a Sentry and move toward a side street. Just as I turn away, something small and pink runs across the street. A pig? I do a double-take, and see nothing. Perhaps erasure damaged my brain. The alley in back hosts a row of ragged beggars, hunched in a line like carrion birds. Their presence here means I am right. Food will be discarded. And it’s right about lunch time. I grip my metal cane and go to join their ranks. I’m about two-thirds of the way down the alley when one of them springs into motion. Jumping from his perch, he draws something out from under his rags, winds his arm back, and hurls the object at me. I dodge sideways. The rock just misses my face. My shoulder slams into the alley wall. I stumble, trying to stay upright. While I do, the other beggars fling more things toward me. Chunks of metal. Broken bottles. More rocks. I spin away, folding in on myself. My back takes the brunt of the assault. Something heavy strikes above my hip, just to the side of my spine, sending a jolt of pain and a wave of nausea through me. I run, though every step is like a dagger in my foot. Though doing so exposes more of me as a target. Trash pelts against my back. I’m almost to the end of the alley when I hear their attacks turn against each other. I glance back. Blood spurts from an exposed arm. The victim screams. Just around the corner comes the sound of metal footsteps. I almost faint. Almost freeze. Instinct alone drives my body into motion.

I shoulder through an old back doorway, slamming it behind me. Inside, in a dusty grey half-light, I huddle down, and don’t breathe. Outside, the Sentry’s footsteps move by. More screams join the first one. I can’t listen. I scramble away, limping further into the dilapidated structure. Bursting from room to room, I find an external door on the opposite side. I slam through it into the open air, running. Crashing by people, sprinting for all I’m worth, I’m halfway down the street before I realize I’m losing my costume. I force myself to slow, grabbing at my rags. Ducking my face, I rewind them carefully about my head. I take one alleyway, then another, wanting to lose myself. Wanting to hide. For hours, I glance behind me to see if anyone is following. I cannot shake the feeling of being stalked.

By mid afternoon, I’m weary and feeling hopeless. I’ve convinced myself that I’m being paranoid, but I can’t make the feelings go completely away. Wandering through the marketplace, something catches my attention.

In one corner is a raised platform where slaves are paraded for auction. “Captive Laborer Auction” a banner reads. Slavery is illegal, and Sentries apparently don’t get synonyms. A young girl— thin, bare-skinned, with cerulean blue eyes— turns slowly under the audience’s speculation. She does not seem afraid. Only subservient. Her eyes are respectfully downcast, her face smooth. Every aspect of her manner shows that she’s been trained to behave perfectly. Maybe she’s been a slave forever. But she’s marked. Maybe her training was highly effective.

Most of the others are marked as well, though not all of them. Erasure makes you a target, but so do other things. No one is exactly immune from the threat of slavery. I watch for only a moment more, shifting my eyes to the groups of men gathered before the platform. There are at least two distinct packs who must be outsiders. They’re watchful of what’s happening around them, projecting an air of separateness. They stay together with their companions. None of them socializes outside their main group. They carry with them a predatory air.

Shivering, I turn away and move on. I’m almost to the end of the marketplace when I notice a man with boxes of items piled all around him. Inside is trash. There’s a young boy handing him a satchel. He dumps it into one of the boxes, tin cans tumbling in to join others of their kind. He hands the boy two small coins. A recycler. Of course!

As I pass, I eye the boxes to determine their contents. Tin, plastic, paper, leather, cloth, and glass. I hurry off into the back alleys to see what I can find. There’s no shortage of trash in the Outpost, but collecting it is not an easy task. I start out boldly, plucking cans out of a dumpster. Within ten minutes, a pack of feral children chases me away, hurling things, running at me, screaming loudly enough to draw any Sentry within two blocks. I retreat away from them, though a few dog me until I get to the busiest streets. On the northern side of the Outpost, two men threaten to gut me for picking up a piece of paper. I’m lucky enough to be within a Sentry’s line of sight at the time. After this, I’m more cautious in my approach to foraging. I size up a few areas and decide against taking anything. Eventually, I wander along the southwestern wall of the Outpost in the red light district. Everyone here is too busy thinking about other things to worry about trash. It’s a creepy area, and full of unpleasant scenes. The trade of flesh. Human desperation at its worst. I keep my head down, stay away from people, and only pick things up when I think no one is looking. I’m careful about what I take. Sheets of metal leaned against buildings, bottles placed outside a door in a box— these are things I don’t dare touch. But when I see the shed door hanging open, a pair of needle-nose pliers visible on the wall within, the temptation is too much. Taking them could cost me my life, but how am I going to live without a foot? I tuck them into the folds of my rags and slip quietly away.

In the marketplace, the recycler is folding the lids of his boxes shut. I walk up within a few paces, careful not to come too close. I clear my throat, keeping my head down and face hidden. He takes a small step backward when he turns and sees me.

“I don’t deal with the poxy,” he says, turning back to his boxes. There’s a coldness in his voice that makes me feel numb. He packs everything up in a cart. I’m shaking with rage. I want to hit him with my metal bar, make him take the items I’ve worked so hard to find. But, helplessly, I watch him leave.

***

As night pulls its dark hood over my eyes, I crouch against the broken wall once again. A deep sadness stirs within— not exactly self pity. I don’t cry. I’m beyond crying. Is my face starting to look like some of the faces I’ve seen? Are my eyes hollow, hopeless? Or is that still to come?

I press my makeshift bag close to my side, as if the items within still have some worth. In the middle of the night, when I’m not sleeping anyway, I unbind my foot, rummage through my bag, and pull out a piece of glass. Ironic. From the folds of my rags, I take out the stolen pliers. The wound on my foot is already sticking together. I have to reopen it by slicing my flesh with the glass. I bite down so hard I expect my teeth to crack, but keep sawing the wound open until blood runs freely down my heel. I press the pliers in, deeper and deeper, going after the fragment with the tenacious savagery of a shark. Through the handle of my tool, I feel the metal hit the hard glass. I have to worm around it, wriggling in sideways, to get any purchase. My teeth grind against each other, caging the scream. I get the blunt nose of the pliers under the glass, and pry. A whimpering protest sneaks up my throat. I force it into a low growl. I dig deeper, use more pressure from underneath. The pain is nerve deep, stabbing, pulling. All at once, with a sickening sound of suction, the glass comes up. It pops out of my flesh and splats on the pavement in a gooey red puddle. I slump against the concrete. Breathe. It’s done.

Done, except for the free-flow of blood. When I feel it start to drip off my toes, I make myself sit upright and pay attention. I dig around in my bag and bring out some rags. A whole handful is soaked red in a frighteningly short amount of time. Swearing softly, I pinch the wound closed. The skin surrounding it is hot to touch. I suppress a groan as the weight of that fact sinks in. My mind flutters to the man maybe twenty feet down the wall— the one with stumps instead of legs. Did his problems start with a simple piece of glass in his foot? I immediately dismiss myself as being overly dramatic. I’m tired, hungry, and frustrated. I need to rest. I hold the pressure on my wound for a while, then bind it tightly in more rags. I stow the pliers and glass. Time to sleep. Sleep will make everything better. I’m sure of it.

Only, I dream about the box.

***

Once true starvation starts to set in, I’ll have little hope of survival. I have to get food today. I hoist my bag and my metal stick, and limp toward the marketplace. The slave market in the distance seems to offer another option— trading freedom for food. Bile rises in my throat. I am not a slave. I will never be a slave. Not even if it means death. Freedom has to come before food. I have to remember that, even when weakness tries to make me forget.

I approach the recycler. This time he sees me coming. He lifts his chin in disbelief. His jaw sets, eyes narrow. I stop a few paces away and hold out the bag.

He turns his back on me. He doesn’t even say anything, just turns his back.

I will not let him do this. But what option do I have? I can’t tell him I’m not poxy. I can’t trust him with that.

For a while, he makes himself unnecessarily busy organizing the contents of his boxes, and I stand there like an idiot, chewing on my lip. Anger and frustration stir and swirl inside me. I move closer, just a touch. He glances nervously over his shoulder, catching the movement. My eyes narrow. I do have power over him. I just need to use it without getting into trouble.

Stubbornly, I hold out the bag. He goes back to his sorting. I shuffle a step closer. He keeps sorting, but I can see the muscles in his back tighten.

Someone approaches from the side— two older women carrying a few bags each over their shoulders. They’re preoccupied with conversation at first, but when their eyes finally fall on me, they stop short. They hesitate, glance at each other, then turn back the way they came. The recycler’s eyes flick to me. I step closer and plant my feet. I can stand here all day if I need to.

But it only takes one more ruined transaction to convince him that I mean to do just that. “Fine,” he barks, and whirls on me, pointing at the ground in front of him. I toss my bag to his feet. He upends its contents with the toe of his boot. He eyeballs the loot, then kicks my bag back toward me and flings two coins— not the same ones I saw him give the boy yesterday— purposely past me. I scramble to pick them off the ground. I am victorious. Shiny metal pressed into the palm of my hand, I’m going to eat. I can think of nothing else.

I hurry down the street, remembering a peddler I saw yesterday selling small cakes to people who looked hardly less ragged than me. I’ve limped one full block and turned into an alleyway when she catches up to me.

“You,” she hisses, a few feet behind me. I stop in confusion at first, then, glancing back, recognize the old woman with knotted hands. I meet her gaze as she approaches fearlessly, like I don’t have the pox. There seems hardly any point in pretending I do. Maybe I don’t have to be completely alone. The thought is warm inside me. I might be human. I’m about to offer to share a cake with her when she sticks out her hand, palm up.

I eyeball it, then her face, my own twisting in confusion.

“Don’t make this harder, girl,” she says stiffly. “Hand it over.”

I gape at her stupidly, then with dawning horror. As I shrink away from her, she grabs my wrist with her bony, lumpy hand, her yellow nails digging into my skin. I try to pull away, but she holds tight.

“Give me the money,” she hisses, “or I tell the slavers you are no poxy old woman.”

I stammer, then yank my hand angrily from her grip. I glare at her and consider my options. Forcing myself to breathe evenly, jaw clamped, I place one of the coins in her talons.

She frowns at me as though I’ve done something she disapproves of.

“I’ll give you another tomorrow,” I say, and hear my own voice shaking. Has she really just threatened to give me over to the slavers? I’m so angry, and so terrified. My whole body is trembling out of control.

“You most certainly will,” she agrees. “And you’ll give me this one, too. And you’ll give me some the next day.”

My eyes go wide, realizing the full extent of her blackmail. This could go on forever. I have no real recourse. Not unless I’m willing to kill her right here in this alleyway. I glance past her at the people on the street. Noise of movement at the end of the alley behind me makes my skin prickle. An accomplice? No, I can’t kill her. Not here.

Her clawed hand is still outstretched, waiting for its pay.

“Not if I die of starvation,” I snap at her. “If you want something tomorrow, you’ll let me keep enough to eat something. Otherwise, you won’t get a damned thing.”

Her eyes narrow, the lines around them deepening until her face looks like tree bark. She says, “Maybe you don’t understand, you little bitch. I gave you food. You’re mine now. [_This _]is mine.” She seizes my hand and rips the last coin from it, her jagged nails tearing my skin, clamping down. Her spittle showers my face as she barks her final threat: “Learn it fast, or you’re dead.”

I bare my teeth at her, rage welling within me. Death is nothing compared to this. But she reads my mind, and goes on, before I can challenge her.

“The slavers pay a good price for the right information,” she sneers, revealing her own twisted, mottled-ochre teeth. “I can get my money out of you that way. But I can’t imagine you’d like it, being some greasy old man’s pet. Of course, you wouldn’t care. They have ways of taking that out of you.” She turns and marches away, and, glancing back at me over her shoulder, adds, “There better be more than this tonight.” Then she’s gone. My money— my hope of food— is gone. And I’m still shaking. I lower myself slowly to the ground and take a few moments to calm myself. I try to accept what has happened and move on, but even as I pull myself up and start walking, my teeth are grinding, my fists clenched. I’m consumed with anger. How dare she threaten me like this. How dare she take away something I’ve worked so hard for. How dare she make me trust her only for the sake of manipulation. Piled on this is anger at myself for not seeing it coming.

Two things I am thinking as I pick my way through the alleys looking for safe bits of trash to steal: The deceptive, by their nature, can appear to be trustworthy. And information is deadly valuable.

[*

Chapter 3: Kindred*]

STALKING THROUGH THE streets, seething over the old woman’s betrayal, my mind settles into the realization— the sum of her power is knowledge. That same source of power is available to me, but I have to go find it. I become a different kind of scavenger— one who collects information.

This new awareness transforms the Outpost into something entirely new, a swamp of hidden possibilities and dangers. I explore new places to pick trash. I sift through filth in gutters, invisible in plain sight. All the while I’m listening. All the while, my eyes, shaded beneath my rag hood, are watching.

Matthew. The name is everywhere. Mentioned by men exchanging a heavy bag of coins. Whispered by a group of women ducking out of the way of two burly, armed thugs who stride down the street. Exulted by small boys mock-brawling in an alley before being chastened by their mothers. And the slaves— a large proportion wear cuffs on their wrists bearing the insignia “M”. I suspect that other insignias were sold from Matthew’s stock. I remember the name. I remember the voice, in the alley where I was born, saying “Matt’s going to think we’re slacking.”

His henchmen are the easiest ones to spot. They’re the ones that prowl the streets without fear. Their eyes scan and take everything in, feral cats choosing their next meal. They’re visibly armed, with knives in their belts, holsters peeking from under their jackets or strapped around their waists or legs. They go wherever they want, do whatever they want. No one challenges them.

These men include the slavers I’ve been avoiding. Now, I dare to follow after them from a distance. I scavenge the drop zones quickly, after they make their rounds, and am rewarded with half a bag full of loot. Wanting to fill the rest of it, I head toward the red light district.

I snatch bits and pieces, making sure no one is looking when I do. I am a thief of trash. My load is ever increasing. But no one else is scavenging here. That makes me nervous. Still, I keep on. I need to survive.

I pick my way down an alley. I have just stooped to swipe a stray bit of paper blowing on the wind, when I hear a hissing noise behind me. I glance back.

She runs up, not close, but within a few feet— this rail of a woman. Skimpy clothing identifies her as a prostitute. Her eyes are wild and moving unnaturally in her head. My fingers tighten on my metal stick, but her posture is non-threatening.

“No, no, no,” she whispers, desperately. “Don’t do that. You can’t do that here. She’ll worse than kill you. Don’t mess with May Deth.” She runs off as quickly as she came, staggering as she goes. I wonder what she’s on.

I stuff the paper in my bag, and stride off. Her warning chills me, but I’m still tempted to go on about my business. I walk in the neighborhood, and look closer at its people. A shadow of fear lingers over their faces. No. She’s right. I can’t forage here.

On my way back to the main street, I pass a shack with a sign that reads “Isaiah Bones, Chemist”. Hard to believe there’s a real chemist in the Outpost. Voices come from within, arguing. A man and a woman. Before I’m past, a young woman bursts from the building and flees down the sidewalk, tears streaming her face. She clutches a vial in her hand.

I go to the main street and pick the gutters. Three men with horizontal red stripes painted across their foreheads walk by, engaged in conversation.

“I can’t afford my dues and something to eat,” one whines. “Canson tried to charge me three times what he’d charge anyone else for a bag of rice.”

“Try Sumter’s,” another one says. “He’s got some of the discount sausage.”

The third one laughs.

The first says, “They say eating people makes you crazy.”

“Not eating makes you crazy, too.”

Fighting down a sick feeling, I move on. I don’t doubt it’s true. It’s a man-eat-man world. Big fish, little fish. Predator, prey. Which am I, I wonder. Do I have the teeth?

As I wander, and gather, and listen, I try to determine how people manage to move up the food chain. The quick answer is… they don’t. Poverty and desperation are cyclical, and self-perpetuating. The less you have, the more you need. The more you need, the more you have to give to get it. The more you have to give up, the less you have. It could go on and on, but it is a cycle that rots out quickly. The lives of the poor are leprotic, consuming themselves in painful and ugly ways.

I focus on those who are not exactly poor… the next step up. Like the men with the red stripes. A much smaller group of people. They seem to be healthier, thin but not emaciated. They perform odd jobs— running messages, hauling goods, repairing clothing or shoes.

After people-watching on the main street for a while, I discern three distinct and separate groups. Each has its own identifier— something worn to show belonging. One group wears a shoe-lace in bright orange. Another group has a small, ratty badge stitched to their left pant legs. And of course, the stripes. I consider the conversation I heard, and remember one of the men mentioned paying dues. As I scout for more safe places to gather trash, I consider how it might work. I wonder if I might be able to pay some dues, and live a better life.

Then, in an alley, I walk in on two Orange Shoelaces beating up a third. The man being beaten pleads, “Please, please. I couldn’t afford the payment.” The other two leave the old man bleeding in a huddle on the ground, yanking his shoes off as they flee the crime scene. I want to help him, but self-preservation kicks in. I run away in the same direction as his attackers, needing to be gone before a Sentry shows up. When I feel that I’m far enough, I sit with my back against a wall in an alley, putting the pieces of the puzzle together. It’s pretty straight forward, really, making me wonder why I didn’t guess it before. The sheep pay the flock. The flock pays the wolf. The wolf doesn’t eat the sheep, but still makes a profit. Not everyone can be a slave, after all.

Hope rises in me. Could I somehow come up with the money? But the more I wander the streets, I notice commonalities between members, even across the three groups. They’re all plain, mediocre in every way. Unskilled. Not very bright. The slaves, on the other hand, are mostly cut of a different mold. They’re either strong from hard work, skilled in some way, or simply beautiful. There’s a reason they are kept when others are not. Value. Reasoning it through, tithing to one of the groups is risky business. Most likely, the sheep happily sacrifice the best of their flock to the wolf… for a profit, of course. My hope deflates. I don’t know much about myself. I’m made weak from hunger. Erasure will have deleted any skills I may have had. But I’m pretty. And beyond that, there’s something else I am certain of: I have value. There will be no safety in one of those groups for me.

For the rest of the day, I scan the streets and listen to conversations. It seems there is a sprinkling of people who are not slaves, not group members, but who still manage to make a living. They’re well-off, as far as the Outpost is concerned. They’re clearly eating regularly. They sleep indoors, and are dressed in warm clothing with few holes. They own things. They are merchants, or businessmen. Or employed by Matthew. I’m beginning to think this is the entire scope of life within the walls of the Outpost, when I notice two young men walking along the broken sidewalk. At first, I think they’re more of Matthew’s, but they’re not. I realize this because they pass three men who I’ve already identified as Matthew’s thugs. As they pass, there’s no greeting or acknowledgement, just a brief meeting of eyes. All five faces are blank. No one displays aggression, but there is something in it all— something of a challenge. The two continue on into Canson’s corner grocery store. One of Matthew’s men glances warily after them, but Matthew’s group keeps moving, too. As for me, I scramble into position to find out more.

I’m fishing a tin can lid out of a gutter on the opposite corner when the two men finally come out, one of them carrying a cloth sack with something lumpy weighting the bottom. This one wears a dark blue knit cap pulled down to his eyebrows. From under it spills shoulder-length golden hair, thick and wavy. He’s handsome, with a strong jaw, straight nose, and broad shoulders. Classic good looks. He could be a sun god. He’s dressed in black pocketed pants and a military-style jacket over a tee shirt. His clothes are not particularly dirty or torn. Neither are his companion’s.

The other one is wearing a zip-up hoodie, with the hood drawn up over his head. They turn away from me quickly, so all I really see of his face is olive skin and a cap of dark, wavy hair. I’m oddly disappointed to miss out on the rest. As they walk away, I note his lean, muscular build. His movement is fluid and feline, full of masculine grace. I can’t stop watching him. I have to force my mind back to its analytical side. I consider the way that they walk, and the way that people move around them. These two are definitely dangerous. How do they fit into the scheme of things? I follow them.

I keep at least half a block between us at all times. People continue to make way for them, water parting around boulders. They stroll leisurely down the main street of the Outpost. They don’t stop to talk with anyone. For that matter, they don’t even seem to be talking between themselves. They just head down the street like they know exactly where they are going, sharp and alert, but with a sort of nonchalance. The one wearing the hoodie glances back over his shoulder. I keep my head tucked, keep hobbling like it has nothing to do with me. But when they turn onto a quieter street, I know I cannot follow them— not without revealing myself. So I continue until I find an alleyway vacant enough that I dare snatch a few bits of trash before moving on.

When I head toward the market square with three full bags to sell, the late afternoon sun just touches the top of the concrete wall on the west side of the Outpost. I’m hobbling along, trying to ignore the persistent pain of the wound in my foot, trying to will it away. Sometimes, I forget it’s there. Then sometimes, the endless needling sensation works its way into my consciousness. I become aware of every muscle in my body, tense with agitation. It’s the kind of pain that drives people crazy— not from its intensity, but from its constant, incessant jabbing. Grinding my teeth, I try to think of something else— anything else. A way to keep some of the money I will make. The possibility of food. But I can focus on nothing other than the pain.

Then I hear it, and I stop walking. I stop, before I even know what I’m doing. The pain in my foot is nothing. My hunger is a distant unpleasantness. There’s nothing in my world but this sound pulling at me like a current dragging me under water.

“Roses and lilies, roses and lilies!” There are two of them— old women peddling flowers, crying out in this off-key sing-song. ”Roses and lilies,” they cry over and over.

I am frozen. I will my heart to start beating again, tell myself to start moving. But I stand there and look at them as they wander across the market place singing their pitch. I’m incapacitated, but I can’t say why. Only that there is something so horribly familiar in their song. My insides feel like they’ve been whisked into a froth. I try to calm myself, try to breathe. I start counting backward. After two beats I forget to count. My mind races with questions. A chilling certainty creeps into me. This has something to do with who I am. Who I was. I’m suddenly desperate to know. But the Tenth Law of the Covenant states that it is forbidden for an erasee to make any attempt to discover their previous identity. If I did this— if I was caught doing this— it would mean death. Was I a flower peddler in my previous life? Bitterly, I force the question away. It is impossible, I reason with myself. I could not retain self-knowledge or memories. This has nothing to do with me. It’s something else. Flowers. Who buys flowers, anyway, when they could buy food? There is no place for such things in this world. Flowers are for the dead.

I make my way to the recycler. He sees me coming, but my victory from this morning continues. He only makes a face of disbelief. He upends the contents of my bags, and flings a handful of coins at me. I rush to pick them out of the dirt, and beat a hasty retreat toward the cake-seller, determined to eat before everything can be taken from me. I mentally tally my profits and consider their unstolen potential. I need food, but I also need to do something about my foot. I’m sure now that the wound has become infected. There’s a woman farther down from the cake-seller, who peddles herbal medicines and teas. I think I can probably just afford to buy a poultice for my foot and a cake for my stomach, and have two coins left over to pay off that blackmailing hag. Surely two coins will be enough to forestall her wrath for another day.

Conjured by the thought, she appears about ten yards in front of me. My stomach turns at the sight of her, but I change my course into the mouth of a nearby alley where I can give her the coins privately. I know that if people see us talking they’ll be suspicious. No one talks to the poxy. So I retreat deep into the alley until the people in the marketplace disappear from my view. A moment later she follows after me.

Infuriatingly, she knows exactly how much I earned today, and she demands all but one coin, which she sees as a generous gift. Resist as I may, in the end she snaps, “Do you know how much Matthew would give me for you? Do you know how long you’ll have to pay me coin-by-coin to make that up? I’m showing you a great kindness, girl, and you don’t appear to be thankful at all.”

I thrust the fistful of coins at her, restraining a punch. I force my fingers to open one by one and drop the coins into her greedy, wrinkled palm. I swallow down bile and say nothing. If I say anything, I will explode.

“More than this tomorrow, if you want to keep one to eat with,” she scolds as she trudges off. “Work faster. You can make more.”

A single coin to my name, I must make the choice between eating and treating my wound. I take a moment in the alley to inspect the red, swollen gash on my foot, and decide it has to be the wound. My stomach rolls over in protest. I limp out of the alleyway and locate the herb peddler. She’s a middle-aged woman with graying hair and a square face. There are fine lines around her eyes and mouth, and a mark like mine on her forehead. Something about her is deeply sad. She sits cross-legged on the edge of a blanket that is covered in little bundles of dried plant matter, all neatly labeled. I stop warily a few feet off, keeping my hood pulled down across my face as I try to read the labels. Her gaze flicks up to me, but she shows no other reaction. I see the bundle I want, point to it, and hold up a coin for her to see. What if she refuses to sell to me? I steel myself to dig in my heels and be stubborn again if it’s necessary.

It is not. She rises to her knees to reach the bundle and tosses it to me. I toss the coin onto the blanket in front of her. Her fingers scoop it up and pocket it while I retrieve the poultice that landed at my feet. I tuck it into my clothing and hobble away. A lump rises in my throat as I go. I am so grateful that something was simple. Just one simple thing.

Rather than return to the fire barrels, I follow the back streets into a more deserted part of the Outpost and find a vacant alleyway that has a sizable puddle of water. I soak the bundle of herbs in the water, then lean against a wall and press the poultice against my wound. After only a moment I feel some relief. I didn’t realize exactly how painful my foot has been until now, with some of the torment fading. I sigh, and close my eyes. I’m exhausted. I could fall asleep easily, but I can’t sleep here. There is a kind of safety in being with the other beggars that doesn’t exist here, alone in this alley. I’ll need to make my way back before darkness comes completely. But even in the lengthening shadows of the evening, I feel a vague sense of peace at being alone, away from everyone. A rare moment of privacy. Sharp on its heels is a feeling of profound loneliness.

Bitterly, I think of the old woman who is blackmailing me. Despite the rage and disgust I feel at what she’s doing, there is also a tug of nostalgia as I think back on our conversation. She’s the only person who has really spoken to me. Ever. She’s the only one who sees me. I laugh— a short, sharp laugh. How pitiful have I become? Surely I was never like this before. Again, I remember the cries of the flower peddlers. I tremble. Something dangerous occurs to me. Why not find myself? Is death so much worse than this? For the briefest moment I entertain the idea, as though it could really be that simple, then push it away quickly. Focus on rearranging the poultice. Poke at the gash in my foot. Concentrate on the pain. Feel the aching weariness in my body. The deep, unsated hunger in my stomach. There will be no food tonight, I tell myself, and hold fast to the unpleasantness of the thought.

In the dipping shadows I hear first, and then see, a small, darting movement. I yank myself back against the wall as the rat runs by me. It stops at a pile of trash only a couple of yards away, picking through the filth. Its eyes are tiny circles, its belly fur wet with something unpleasant, its tail a pink, dragging tentacle of fleshy rings. I recoil automatically, but then, something else takes over. Something entirely unpleasant, but necessary. My fingers ease around my metal bar. I raise it slowly, ever so slowly. My eyes are on the rat. Its eyes are on me. But it is hungry too, and busy eating something clutched in its tiny hands, crumbs clasped in the stretched skin between its bony, clawed fingers. I can see that it doesn’t realize how long my reach is. Before it can move on, I bring my weapon down hard.

I close my eyes and turn my head away as I strike. There is a crunch and splat. The rat squeals. I peek, teeth clenched in a grimace. It is thrashing, rolling on its back with its legs in the air. My aim was bad. I want to puke, but I lift the bar and hit it again, making sure to get the head this time. The rat goes still. Blood oozes into a puddle around its body, mixing with a grey spatter of brains. I stare at it in revulsion.

By the time I make myself move again, the puddle has stopped growing and the blood at its edges has started to dry. I stash my poultice in my bag and rewrap my foot, avoiding thinking about my next task. Then I poke the rat’s body with the end of my metal stick. It’s limp, blood clotting in the brown fur. This is food, I tell myself. I try to think of it as something anyone would be happy to eat. A bird of some sort. A chicken. Only, chickens don’t have fur. I grit my teeth and glance around for something to cut it with. Broken glass is everywhere. I find a large piece and use it like a knife. I cut through the fur on the belly of the rat and pull it outward, like I’m removing its jacket. There’s a horrible tearing noise as I do. I gag, but refuse to let myself stop. I skin the whole thing, struggling with the crushed head. My stomach heaving, I hack it off completely, and follow by lopping off the tail. Then I cut deeper into the belly, open it up, and try to empty the guts out. Some come out easily, but not even shaking does much to detach the rest. I have to use the glass to scrape the inside, the smell of blood and partially digested garbage rising into my face, my fingers slipping in the gore. Again, I gag. The whole process is entirely vile. I’m no longer in the least bit hungry, which makes me laugh out loud. If nothing else, I’ve made my hunger go away. But I will eat this disgusting creature. If I don’t, I’ve put myself through this for nothing. I’ve wasted its meager life for nothing. And though I can’t say I like rats, I can’t help but empathize with it. We’re too much the same, this rat and I. It could be me that someone whaps with a metal bar, guts, and eats. Couldn’t it?

I return to the fire barrels with the edible portions tucked into my clothes. When I get there, I take up my spot along the concrete wall and pretend to nod off. But I watch and wait until everyone seems to be asleep. Then I jab the carcass onto the end of my metal bar and quietly sneak up to one of the barrels of fire. I half expect to be discovered and chased off, but being a scavenger is tiring work, and everyone sleeps soundlessly through my rat-roast. Everyone, but that crazy boy that ran at me when I first got here. He watches me, wide-eyed and trembling, from the place he crouches about fifteen feet away. I don’t feel sorry for him until I see his mark. Then, something human, something compassionate, stirs inside me. When I think the rat is fully cooked, I go back to the wall and pick the meat from the bones. There’s not a lot of it. It’s tough and rangy, but it’s protein. I pull off one small chunk, sit forward, and toss it to the boy, who is still watching me. It lands directly in front of him on the pavement. His eyes turn to it. He tenses, but he does not move. The meat stays on the pavement. Of course. He’s crazy, but he’s smarter than me.

Trying not to feel its loss, I turn back to finish the small portion I have left. I gnaw on the bones then lick my fingers clean. I throw the remains in the fire, return to my spot, and fall asleep with food in my stomach at last.

***

I am woken at the crack of dawn by the sounds of a scuffle. Exclamations of discord. Boots scraping the pavement. I pry my eyes open and locate the source. One ragged figure hits another over the shoulder with a metal lid, causing him to fall sideways and scramble away. Still others are tugging on opposite ends of a jacket, each trying to take it from the other. The fabric starts to tear in the middle. Another grave robber is running away with old shoes, being chased by more beggars. Two are stripping the corpse of its pants. As one of them peels the pant legs off of the stiff appendages, another one is already rifling through the pockets, searching for anything of value. I sit up with a start, wondering if I should jump into the fray, but whatever there was of value is already long gone. So this is what happens when someone dies.

I realize quickly that I don’t want to know what happens to the body. I struggle to my feet and hobble off, leaving the chaotic scene behind me.

I spend the day collecting refuse once again. This time I decide to make the extra effort of taking several trips back to the recycler in the hopes of concealing my income from the old woman. However, on the first trip I realize the futility when I notice her sitting in the mouth of a nearby alleyway, where she can see what happens in the marketplace. She must sit there all day, a jackal watching for prey. This is how she knows exactly how much money I make. And probably how much money others make as well. I try to think of an alternative way to sell my goods, but there is none. I have to make peace with the idea that I cannot hide my income from the old woman. She will take everything from me, except for that one coin, if she is feeling generous. This will happen every day. One coin is all I will ever have. One coin to buy a small, crumbling, stale cake that will not make up the energy I’ve lost trying to find things to sell.

I can’t stand the idea that, after all my effort, I’ll have no more than I have now. I will have nothing to save. No way out of this life. This is unacceptable. I cannot continue down this path. I have an alternative. I don’t like it, but it’s better than rotting in this rut.

I take to the quietest back alleys in my search for things to sell. I walk silently. I pause and listen. Hunting vermin is not easy, but the rewards are better than any I’ve found so far. I reserve one of my sacks for rat meat, and fill the other two with trash. When I return to the camp that night, I eat three rats. I feel almost full for the first time I can remember. And I have one coin tucked into my clothes. The next night I have two coins. The night after that, three. I reuse the poultice on my foot. It’s not as potent, but it still seems to help, and the swelling is going down, the redness disappearing. On the fourth day, I realize that rat hunting does not bother me as much as it did before. It’s becoming normal. I can almost ignore the smell of blood.

During this time, I continue to keep my eyes and ears open. I catch occasional glimpses of the two mysterious young men I saw walking together, and sometimes— probably too often— I follow them. They seem to have a deal with some of the merchants in the marketplace. But I learn that they are not the only exceptions to the rule. There are other small groups of loners that walk the Outpost untouched. They also look dangerous, and probably are. This is how they survive. They’re too much trouble to be worth the effort. One day I watch a group of three sit on the edge of the sidewalk sharing a lunch of bread and cheese. All three of them are armed to the teeth. Two of them seem to defer to the third. She is young, built broad and stocky, and I think she could probably take a boy in a fight. There’s a fierce glow in her eyes that reminds me of the old woman. I immediately dislike her because of this. But I watch her as much as I can. I study her actions and her body language. I wonder, could I do that? Could I pull that off? Look scary enough that everyone would leave me alone?

My stash of coins slowly builds up, and as it does, I begin to think of my long-term plan. What exactly will I do when I have enough? How much will I need to buy a new life? There are no certain answers to these questions. But one day I sit on the curb in the cold, in front of the Rustler, a bar that reminds me of an old-style cowboy saloon. The bar is a hub of news and gossip, so it’s worth hanging around out front, but I don’t spend a lot of time here because the place is usually crawling with Matthew’s thugs and other scary characters. As I pause for just a moment today, I can see through the open front doors to a table where a group of men are playing cards. I watch them briefly, and as I do, something clicks inside me. I can see the cards of the man whose back is to me, can read the faces of his opponents. I know exactly what I would do if I held those cards. He does something different. The others take his money.

My heart skips a beat. My body turns, unconsciously, toward the door. I watch them deal the cards for the next hand. The man’s cards are good this time. Bet more, I’m thinking, but he doesn’t. He wins, but he could have taken a bigger pot. My mouth is hanging open as I watch them deal the third hand.

This time, his cards are decent, but he doesn’t know what to do with them. The others’ faces are stern, set, but a glance here, a shift of weight there, gives away their uncertainty. He could bluff his way to a win. Instead, he folds. Wrong again. I’m sure now, beyond all doubt, that I could have played it the right way, if those had been my cards. If.

My mind reels. Some of Matthew’s men appear around the street corner and walk toward the saloon. There’s a pig trailing along behind them— wearing a silver necklace! I do a double-take, get to my feet and hobble away, but my thoughts are racing. I have to get in on one of these games. There’s no question of it. I simply have to. But how?

The following days are filled with a sort of feverish madness in which I’m consumed with the idea, plotting and planning, but never exactly figuring out how to accomplish it. I consider and discard a number of plans. I can’t walk into the Rustler as a poxy beggar. I can’t simply discard my disguise. This struggle between who I really am, and who I have to be, has consumed the whole of my existence since I woke up in the Outpost that first day. I begin to despair that I will never be able to move on. That I will always be like this. Every plan I can conceive of is full of risk. Every plan could end in disaster. I am frozen by inaction. Afraid, always, of being watched.

Then I remember the idea I once had. I am far more afraid of remaining like this than I am of losing my life. Even the threat of slavery does not seem all that much more horrifying than being like I am. Perhaps because I’m already a slave, in so many ways. I feel relieved— soothed, even— when it dawns on me that I am not beyond doing something desperate.

Embracing the madness, I form a plan. It will take far longer to enact than I would like. I have to make myself wait, force my own patience. I will only have one chance, and I can’t screw it up.

I continue to save my coins slowly. Hanging around the fringes of the marketplace, I price a new set of clothing. It will take me at least a month more to save for the cheapest thing I can find, and I’ll need some stake money on top of that. I feel sick at the thought of waiting so long, but what can I do?

Then one afternoon I’m collecting trash as usual when I hear a scream from an adjoining alleyway. I can’t stop myself from peeking in to see what the source of the scream was.

As I look into the cross-alley, I see a dark figure running away. And lying with her head in a growing pool of blood, a woman’s body. My eyes go wide as I gape at her. Her own eyes are open and staring, lightless, dead. I want to turn and run away. I know I should. If a Sentry comes now, drawn by her screams, it will kill me. But my feet move toward her, seizing the opportunity Fate has granted me. My hands tear her leather jacket unceremoniously from her dead body. She doesn’t need it anymore, I tell myself. It doesn’t matter. She flops out of it, her face dropping into the blood. I yank off her boots, peel off her pants, stuffing it all into my bag as I do. Her shirt is soaked with blood, so I leave it. I only just have time to take these items before I hear the clank of metal on pavement— a Sentry’s footsteps in the street beyond.

Instinct screams at me to run. Logic laughs that I am too late. If I run, the Sentry will track me by my heart rate. If I stay, I am as dead as the corpse I’ve just robbed.

I sling my bag over my shoulder and stride away, forcing down the urge to bolt. My heart throws itself repeatedly against my ribcage. No. No, no.

Ninety-nine. Ninety-eight. Ninety-seven. I make the corner at the same time the Sentry makes the alley. Did it see me? Ninety-five. Ninety-four. Sit on the curb. Ninety-two. Breathe. Ninety. People walking by. Eighty-eight. Deep breaths. Slow heart. Is it coming? Eighty six. Movement from the alley. Oh god, it’s coming. Eighty-four. Heat shimmer tickles my back. Eighty two. It’s behind me. Scanning. Taking in everything. Eighty. I can’t stop myself. I look. Seventy-eight. Void face. My fingers clutching my bag. Seventy-five. What if there’s blood on the clothes? Can it see through my bag the way it sees through me? I’m going to die. Seventy-three. No. I will not allow fear to be my killer. No. Seventy-one. Slow. Seventy. Heart. Sixty-nine. Even. Sixty-seven. Breaths. Sixty-five. No. I did nothing wrong.

Sixty-three. Sixty-two. Sixty-one….

It walks past me and moves away.

Fifty-nine. Fifty-eight. Fifty-seven. Fifty-six. Fifty-five. Fifty-four. Fifty-three. Fifty-two. Fifty-one.

I throw my head back and laugh.

[*

Chapter 4: A Game of Chance*]

FATE, IT TURNS out, is not an entirely merciless bitch. As I kneel by a puddle scrubbing blood spots from the collar of the jacket, three coins tumble from its pocket. They are not like the ones I have earned, but are thick, shiny silver. I spirit them into the folds of my beggar’s clothes, not that there’s anyone around to see. My heart races. I am ready. I can do this. Every moment I wander the streets with these coins in my pockets is a moment that someone could take them away from me. I dive headlong into my scheme.

The evening sun sinking away, I walk into the heart of the Outpost, toward the Rustler. My eyes search through the windows, down the street. They never come. I stand in the shadows, lingering until the darkness is far too deep, and then, hopes dashed, I scurry off.

Disappointed and relieved, I wander toward the beggar encampment. Someone scuffles in the shadows of an alleyway. Footsteps sound on the pavement, but I cannot tell if they are following me or just headed in the same direction. Paranoia grips me. I need to find safety. The encampment is too far away.

A pool of light looms from an open window in an alleyway, warm and inviting. Around the window’s base are a mass of huddled bodies, hunched against the walls on both sides. I hurry to join them, and sink down a few paces from the nearest beggar. Whoever was behind me goes on by. Quiet faces are touched here and there by the yellow lamplight. A voice from inside the building rings strong and clear into the alley through the wide-open window. It’s a sermon.

The Third Law of the New World Covenant states that any organized religious or spiritual practice is banned, with the exception of those within the confines of a private dwelling. This open window is set in someone’s house. Inside, they may practice whatever religious rites they want. If their window happens to be open, and beggars happen to gather outside, well, it’s not like the one has anything to do with the other. There is no preaching going on here. Not that a machine could see.

I’m content to have a place to sit, within the safety of numbers. I relax against the wall and think of my failed plans. A temporary setback. I’ll try again tomorrow. I close my eyes and rest, the words of the sermon drifting in and out of my consciousness. Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, eating the forbidden fruit, discovering their own nakedness. The voice, thick and heavy, drones on….

[_ The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. _]

I feel myself slipping into the dark drift of sleep, but for a moment there is an in-between space, not here nor there. The words of the sermon spin in my brain, and though I’ve never given it thought before, in the space of one breath I know my name. My new name. Not Eve, who was cast out for her sin. I may be an outcast, but I refuse to accept that fate. I will rebuild my world, reclaim what I have lost. I am Eden. Everything I need is within myself. I will become my own garden.

***

The next night, I drop enough coins into the haggard old woman’s claw— enough to keep from arousing suspicions. I head again to the Rustler. Tonight I’m not disappointed. Just as evening is settling into darkness, the two young men I’ve been waiting for appear and go inside. They will not stay long. They never do. I’m working on a time limit now. I hurry into a nearby alleyway— one with a puddle.

In a frenzy of movement, I peel off the rags that have become my second skin. I scrub myself violently with a rag dipped in the puddle, erasing my painted-on blotches. My face, my hands, my neck, my arms. With my fingers, I comb some hair over my face, then take a piece of glass from my bag and cut off the locks at the level of my eyebrows. It’s not exactly straight, but it will cover my mark. Quickly donning the clothing and boots I looted from the dead woman, I stuff my rags into my bag and stash it in the alley. I straighten and adjust myself. The shoes feel strange on my feet. They are a touch too big, and they press on the gash in my foot uncomfortably. The other clothes don’t fit well either. The woman who wore them previously was proportioned like a child, and I am not. The pants are snug on my hips, and not long enough, but the boots make up for the missing length. The jacket fits in the shoulders and waist, but the buttons across the chest have to be forced. I would prefer to have a shirt underneath it, but I can’t wear the rags, and I dare not wear the shift I woke up in. I double-check that all my coins are safe in my pocket, then I step into the world feeling completely, nakedly exposed.

I stay in the dark parts of the shadows and set my feet down quietly. There’s a place under the stoop of the building next to the Rustler, where I think I can stand outside of the light and no one will see me. It is here that I take up my watch.

Every minute drags out endlessly, every small noise making me jump. My nerves are twitching, my foot silently tapping out my anxiety in code. How different I feel in these clothes. How foreign it is to stand up straight. But it also feels right. Liberating. I grind my teeth, and wait. How long could they possibly take? I begin to second guess myself. What if I took too long? What if they came and went quickly? I’ve missed my chance again. Acid rises in my stomach, burning, eating at me. Maybe I’ll never really do this. Maybe I really am just a street rat.

Two men step out of the Rustler into the crisp night air. I narrow my eyes, peering, trying to focus. My heart skips at least two beats. It is them. I gulp air, try to steady myself. It is them. It is time.

They walk toward me, not seeing me. They’re silent except for footsteps on the sidewalk. The scrape of dirt and glass between boots and concrete. The even thud, thud, thud of solid steps placed confidently into the darkness.

When they’re a few paces off, I clear my throat and say as calmly as I can, “Want to make some money?”

They stop short and squint into the dark shadow where I stand. There is a long pause, then at the same time they answer.

“Doing what?” asks the blonde.

But the dark-haired one says, “Who are you?”

I swallow, press on before I give away my hesitation. I’m thankful for the darkness that hides my face. “No one,” I answer. “I just want to play some cards and I need someone to watch my back. I can pay you fifty each.” I want to let this sink in, but I don’t trust them. Hastily I add, “I’m not stupid enough to carry it on me, so don’t even think about it.”

The blonde one makes a noise in his throat. Arms crossed in front of his chest, cocky stance, he looks amused. The other one has not moved. His face is in the shadow, and I can tell nothing of his reaction.

I shift my weight, nervous despite myself. My offer is an absolute lie at the moment, but if all goes according to plan, I will pay them as advertised. I only hope that they will not see through me.

“Sure,” the blonde says lightly, surprising me with the ease of his agreement. “Just so long as you don’t do anything stupid.”

His companion’s face turns toward him, but I still cannot make out his expression through the darkness. There’s something in the movement that is not entirely approving. I brace myself for his protest, but he remains silent.

Seizing the opportunity, I say, “Deal then?”

“Deal,” Blondie says.

Neither of us make any move to shake on it.

He nods his head toward the Rustler, the corners of his mouth tugging sideways as if it is all very entertaining. “Lead the way.”

I step out of the shadows and make a wide circle around him, heading toward the entrance. Glancing back, I see the dark-haired one’s head is ducked, hands tucked in his pockets. Blondie is looking at me. His smile has gone, and his eyes are a touch wide. He looks almost startled. My breath catches as I realize I’ve missed one of my blotches. I force my eyes toward the door and wipe surreptitiously at my face with my sleeve.

Before I can walk inside, he steps in front of me, displacing me. “I’ll go first,” he says, and he does, before I can answer.

The inside is a wash of lamplight and tobacco smoke. Amber liquid glints in shot glasses and round-bellied bottles. A few patrons slump on stools at the long wooden counter. A man sleeps in the back corner. Arthur Adner, the balding barkeep, wipes water and crumbs from the bar. The action is around a single table. A scatter of silver and gold fills the center, like a pirate’s treasure chest spilled open. My eyes fix on it hungrily.

My body guard leads me toward the table, where the cards are thrown down and one man is raking in the pot. The others glare at him murderously. “Gentlemen,” my companion says, his hand clamping down on my shoulder, “my friend would like to play. Do you have room for her?”

They eyeball me. It’s an unpleasant feeling, being looked over by these men. They’re trying to decide whether I’m worth their time. I’m a bug. Should I be eaten, or squashed, or ignored entirely? But they grunt, and move over, and pull up another chair. I’m in.

As I sit down, trying not to shake, Blondie walks away toward the bar where his friend has already taken up a seat, watching. I glance back at them. Blondie pulls off his hat. His companion has already thrown his hood back. My eyes freeze on the marks on their foreheads. The dark-haired one catches me looking and returns my gaze steadily, expressionlessly. His eyes are green, like oak leaves, like alligators. I’ve never really gotten a look at his face before, and now that I do, I find myself staring. I think I’m drawn by his mark— by this thing that names us kindred in some way— but I am not looking at his forehead. It’s his eyes.

I turn deliberately back to the table and study the faces surrounding it. The men are not really strangers to me. I’ve been watching them, and others. I know the names of a few, and the faces of all. There’s Pete Sumter on my right, who owns the cannibalistic butcher shop. And across the table is Lloyd. He forges metal tools in a stall on the east side of the Outpost. Jacob and Taylor Lane are brothers who sell odds and ends in the marketplace, and supplement their income through gambling. They’re probably the best players here. But the man who won the previous hand is definitely to be watched. I’ve not seen him here often. When I have, he’s usually had plenty of coins in front of him. Other than that, he’s a mystery. I don’t like the unknown, so I’ll be watching him closely as we play. The others are nameless. I’ve seen them come and go. They may be decent players, but nothing to worry about.

The ante is a full silver. I toss mine in quickly, carelessly, because I want to hide the way my hand is shaking. Jacob Lane deals the cards. I scoop mine up and fan them discreetly. They’re not what I hoped for. I study the faces around me, place a small bet, and exchange three cards. The replacements are no better than the originals. I toss my cards down rather than call.

The second hand is equally discouraging. I fold right away, after noting the glint in Lloyd’s eye. A few moments later, he takes the pot with three bosses.

Parting with another piece of silver makes my stomach turn over, but I keep my face passive and toss it in. My cards are still terrible, and I’m getting desperate. I bluff and raise the bet, but apparently everyone got bad cards this time. No one takes the bait. I end up with the pot, but there’s not much in it. Enough to fund a few more rounds. I press on.

My luck continues in this manner. Fate must have used up all her goodwill on me already. I’m on my own. For quite some time I manage to just scrape by, only winning enough to stay in the game. I’m worrying that I won’t be able to maintain it. And what will I do when my two lovely assistants demand to be paid? The rest of this night could be a fight to stay alive. I’m trying to make an escape plan in the back of my mind. Then the right cards come up.

I almost choke on my own saliva, but somehow manage not to. Not to even make a face. Deadly calm takes over my body. I cast my eyes around the table and feel good about what I see. When I have a chance, I raise the bet, putting the last of my coins in the pot. Sadly it’s not enough to yield a dramatic increase, but it is everything I have. The problem comes when the nameless man— the one I have been keeping my eye on— sees my bet and raises considerably. I’m almost certain he’s bluffing, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t have any money to stay in the game. The world lurches around me as my heart jerks into a run. I feel the color drain from my face. I feel like I’m going to vomit.

“Did you need the rest of your money?” says a voice from behind me. I take a slow breath, turn, and look at Green-eyes, still perched at the bar. His eyebrows are raised, questioning. But there is something else on his face that I can’t read. All I know is that he’s seen through me like I’m made of glass.

I manage a curt nod. He gestures to Arthur Adner, who accepts his money and brings it to the table. Nodding to Arthur, I toss the coins into the pot. “Call,” I say.

There is one excruciating moment where the cards are descending toward the table in slow motion, where I second-guess myself and imagine what I will do if I lose. Then they’re down, and I’m laughing. I’m laughing as I throw my forearm around my money and pull it toward me. No one else is laughing, but I don’t care.

The floodgates open. I play two more hands and win them both. I’m about to throw another ante in when my two friends show up at my sides.

“Time to go,” Blondie says, tapping my shoulder.

I give him a look of annoyance. He shrugs apologetically at me and grins at the rest of the card players, but there’s something else in that look. A warning. Don’t do anything stupid.

I climb to my feet, gathering my loot. Before I can scoop it all up, Green-eyes covers my hand with his. “Twenty percent for Matt.”

I use my best card-playing skills to not make a face, and count out the twenty percent. Arthur Adner is hovering at my shoulder, waiting for it, so I put the coins in his expectant hands. He nods at me, and goes back to the bar. A glance reveals a string of disgruntled faces around the table. Green-eyes takes my forearm and pulls me toward the exit. I’m still shuffling coins as we go. I pause at the door to give him his loan and the fifty I promised him. I give Blondie fifty as well and put the rest into my pocket. But neither of them are paying attention to the coins. They rush me out the door.

The street is black, lightless. I mean to say a quick thank you and do a runner for my disguise in the alleyway, but both of my companions have my arms and are dragging me along the street.

“Stop,” I hiss at them. “I paid you. Let me go.” I dig my heels in. It does no good. We’re still moving.

Blondie says in a dark voice, “I don’t think you want to do that.” He glances back over his shoulder as we make the corner. I catch a glimpse of light flashing into the street— the door of the Rustler opening. I quit struggling and go along, but neither of them let go of me. We jog down the street and make another corner, take an alleyway. We keep moving, and turning. Soon, I am completely lost.

“OK,” I say, trying to shake them off my arms without making it an actual fight. I have a single piece of glass tucked into my jacket pocket. My fingers twitch as I consider reaching for it, but they still have my arms. The further we go, the more certain I am that I’m going to have to fight my way out of this. Should I attack first, use the advantage of surprise? Which one of them should be my first target? I can make a quick swipe and run for it. Which way will I run? Have we passed any good hiding places? Before I’ve sorted it all out, we go by a short wall of piled debris. Just beyond it is a small, ramshackle building. They push me forward, open the door, and shove me, stumbling, inside. A wash of light blinds me. While I’m blinking, trying to see, I hear the sound of a lock sliding into place behind me.

[*

Chapter 5: Politics and Religion*]

ONE STEP INSIDE, I whirl on them. Black dots swoop across Blondie’s face, where the bright light has blinded me. He’s leaning on the door. Green-eyes has moved to the side.

“Move out of the way,” I say. My voice is unsteady. I squint at Blondie, and try to watch Green-eyes in my peripheral vision at the same time.

“I thought you paid us to protect you,” Blondie says, eyeing me.

“Your job is done,” I say. “Get out of my way.” My fingers squeeze the glass in my pocket until it cuts into my flesh.

“That would fall under ‘doing something stupid’,” Blondie says, looking annoyed. I’m not sure if he’s figured out I have a weapon, or if he’s still talking about leaving. “Look,” he says, shifting slightly, “just sit tight for a while, and then we’ll walk you back to your people.”

Green-eyes makes a soft noise. He peels off his hoodie and tosses it on a chair by a small table. “She doesn’t have any people,” he says.

I glance at him in alarm. He’s figured out too much. If they know I’m completely alone, what’s to stop them from taking the rest of the money in my pocket? What’s to stop them from anything? I open my mouth to protest. To lie. But it’s too late. I can already see it.

I glance at Blondie. The wheels are turning in his head. If I had anyone, I wouldn’t have needed to hire them. His eyes narrow on me, then he opens his mouth to speak.

“Oh, no, no, no.” The voice behind me makes me jump. It’s female. I careen my head around as she slides off the end of a huge mattress suspended on cinder blocks. There are two more people on a dilapidated sofa with one semi-attached, sagging arm. An older woman, and a small boy. They’re frozen, looking at me. I am entirely surrounded.

The speaker, a girl, young like me, moves closer. If I step away from her, it will put me closer to Green-eyes. There’s no room to retreat, and no way to keep my eye on all of them. I stay where I am, where I can watch Blondie and Green-eyes, but I’m on the balls of my feet, ready to move.

Blondie and Green-eyes exchange this look— this semi-pitying glance. Inside me, rage is building. I’m shaking, but the urge to run is changing into an urge to strike out.

“Let her go,” the girl demands, gesturing at Blondie to move. “She doesn’t want to be here.”

“She doesn’t want to die, either,” Blondie says. He raises his eyebrows at me questioningly. “Do you?”

“I want to leave,” I say very calmly. I’m shaking from head to toe, but somehow my voice is steady.

Green-eyes sits down. “No one here is going to hurt you,” he says softly. “But if you go back out there right now, your chances aren’t good.” He glances at Blondie. “We can’t really make that choice for you, though.”

Blondie rolls his eyes and steps sideways away from the door. In an instant, I’ve taken his spot. I have my back to the door, and I can keep my eye on all of them. There’s still the issue of undoing the lock, though. My instinct has me focused on escape, but Green-eyes’ words are worming their way through my mind. After everything I’ve learned about the Outpost— about people— I have no reason to trust them. But something makes me pause. Something makes me scrutinize these people, like each one of them is a card in a hand that could determine my fate.

I can look at them all now. The older woman on the sofa has a mark, like me, Green-eyes, and Blondie. I recognize her now. The herb peddler from the marketplace. She was decent to me even when she thought I was poxy. The other two are unmarked. The boy is skinny and small, probably not more than seven. His brown eyes are wide, his hands frozen on the dog-eared book in his lap. The girl is pretty, and annoyed. Hazel, almond-shaped eyes, hair halfway down her back in fifty shades of brown and gold, tiny waist and plenty of curves— she’s the kind of girl guys go for. Her jaw is set. Her lips curl down at the sides. She’s glaring at me. Waiting for me to go.

I consider the outside. I can slip down an alley and find a place to hide. I can wait it out until morning if I need to. I am about to reach behind me for the lock when the herb-dealer stands up. She walks to a wood-burning stove, removes a lid from a pot on its top, and stirs the contents inside. The shack fills with the aroma of those contents, a mouthwatering smell.

She begins ladling soup into bowls. Three of them. She passes one to Green-eyes, one to Blondie, and holds one up, looking at me.

The younger girl flounces, now. “Everyone contributes,” she says, as if it’s a deal-breaker.

Blondie fishes in his pocket and tosses her the fifty. “This should do.”

Her eyes go wide on the coin in her hand, her mouth in a small ‘o’. She looks at me again. I don’t like the way her gaze is picking me apart, analyzing me. Anger washes across her face. “Did you steal this?” she demands, holding the coin out as evidence. “If—”

“It was a fair game,” Green-eyes says.

She frowns, but she holds her tongue.

I ignore her. I’m looking at the herb-peddler and her bowl of soup. She’s looking at me, too. Her gaze is patient. I know better than to accept food from anyone, now. But this is not the old woman. What she is offering me, she’s offering freely. I know this, even though no words have passed between us. I purse my lips and consider the rest of them once more.

The small boy does not appear to be a threat, and neither does the girl, unless glares could kill. Blondie, as deadly-looking as he is, chugs his soup and considers me with a half-patience. He doesn’t want me to go, but it’s doubtful he would stop me if I tried to open the door. Green-eyes has set his bowl to the side and is picking mud from his boot, ignoring me entirely. There’s just the side of his face, the curve of his back, and one sculpted shoulder. He doesn’t even care if I leave.

Begrudgingly, I take a small step away from the door. “I can pay for it,” I say, but no one answers the statement.

Halfway across the small room, the herb-dealer presses the warm bowl into my hands. Suddenly there’s nothing else in the universe.

I sit next to her on the couch and scoop mouthfuls of hot, chunky broth. There are potatoes and carrots, and small bits of meat that are a combination of tough, chewy fiber and globs of fat. It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted. I pace myself, trying not to have the manners of a starving person. Everyone is watching me. I glance from face to face and see the questions that they are about to ask. Only, they don’t. I finish my soup, use my finger to get every last drop, and sit back, waiting. But none of them utters a single question. I’m so thankful for this that I return the favor, and ask them nothing. It doesn’t make for the liveliest conversation.

When we’re finished, Green-eyes takes our bowls to a bucket of water on the counter and washes them. Blondie steals his chair. Rain starts to patter on the roof of the shack. In only a moment, it is pounding so loudly I think it might beat the walls down. Green-eyes comes back and sits on the end of the bed next to the girl. We listen to the rain for a few minutes.

Blondie suddenly grins at me. “Wouldn’t want to be out there,” he says. I attempt a smile to humor him.

Apparently, it’s enough encouragement. “That’s Miranda,” he says, without formality, pointing at the girl with the glare. Blondie’s finger moves to Green-eyes. “Jonas.” And then the skinny boy. “Oscar.” The sad-looking herbalist. “Neveah.” Then he places his hand on his chest. “And I’m Apollon.”

My eyebrow goes up. I can’t help it. “Apollon?”

“Apollon,” he says, grinning at me. “God of the sun. Destroyer. Among other things.”

I try to restrain a smirk. “I see.”

Miranda clears her throat. “And you are…?”

It feels strange, naming myself out loud. “Eden,” I finally say, wondering if I sound convincing. Parents are supposed to name you. You’re not supposed to have to do it yourself.

But Apollon says thoughtfully, “I can see that.” And no one else comments.

I consider what he means while the rain pours and the wind howls. It sounds like it will never stop. The beggars at the fire barrels must be drenched. Surely the fires are out. I shiver, just thinking about going back out there.

“You can’t go back out in this.” It’s the boy— Oscar. His voice is high and uncertain. His brown eyes turn to Apollon. “Can she?”

Apollon shakes his head.

Miranda groans. Jonas rubs her back soothingly and whispers something to her.

“Fine,” Miranda snaps. “But we’re not staying up all night babying her. We’re wasting oil.”

Everyone shifts into motion, readying themselves for bed. They kick off shoes and turn down the single patchwork quilt on the old mattress. I stay where I am as they douse the lamps and climb into bed. In the dark, I listen to the rain. Outside, the world is cold and unforgiving, but this is the warmest, most comfortable place I’ve ever slept. Still, I only doze. Every noise, every movement startles me awake. Halfway through the night, the rain has stopped. I’m wide awake and considering fleeing. What am I even thinking, trusting anyone? What is it these people want from me? Why are they being so kind to me? I chase these questions all the way to the morning, when light has come, and they all stretch, and groan, and climb sleepily from bed. It’s too late to go anywhere. But, hopping off the end of the bed, Oscar smiles at me. That’s when I realize it. I don’t want to go.

I stand up and stretch, running my fingers through my hair.

Apollon eyes me. He’s looking at my forehead, where my hand has pushed back my bangs to reveal my mark. He meets my gaze now, and the corners of his mouth move— not in a smile, but in a look of understanding. I drop my hand and look away, at the others. The idea that someone may commiserate has its pull, but I’m not ready for it yet. I’m not sure I will be for a long time. Again, I consider leaving, and wonder how I’ll get back to my disguise without being noticed.

Oscar builds a fire in the small pot-bellied stove, and cracks eggs into a pan, swirling them as they cook. Jonas cuts thick slices of bread with his belt knife, laying them out on the stove top to warm. I forget my dilemma as the smells waft toward me. Instead, I’m lingering, watching from the edge of the kitchen, feeling awkward, but not enough to sway my focus.

Miranda seats herself at the table, which is scattered with pieces of metal, and picks up a pair of needle-nose pliers. She begins fiddling. I don’t know what she’s doing, but she clearly does. She and Apollon chat about news in the Outpost, most of which I already know, with Jonas and Oscar occasionally chiming in. Neveah counts bundles of herbs, placing them carefully in the center of a blanket she folds into a parcel. She sets it aside and waits on the sofa for breakfast.

The smell of the food beckons, making my stomach growl. I turn away and sit next to Neveah. She glances at me and offers something like a smile, but it’s the saddest smile I’ve ever seen. I return it anyway. Then I let my eyes wander over the room, over my companions.

Apollon has taken up the chair by the door and is tipping it back yet again. He’s saying something about cats, grinning at Jonas, who glances back over his shoulder, laughing, and replies “Not anymore.” Apollon throws his head back and laughs, his eyes— as blue as the ocean— sparkling.

Meanwhile, Miranda is absorbed in whatever she’s doing. Her forehead occasionally furrows as she makes a twist of the pliers, tests connections with the prongs of a meter, or stops and studies her project. I watch her fit the metal conglomeration onto the end of a blown glass orb. An aether trap. She glances up at me suddenly and scowls. “Hanging around much longer?”

I say nothing. I should go, but then, there’s the eggs. Not to mention I haven’t figured out how to navigate my way through a strange part of the Outpost without my disguise in broad daylight. I should have thought of that, during my deliberations throughout the night. My cheeks flush. I can feel it. I don’t want to be embarrassed, or angry, but I am.

Then Apollon says, easily, “Maybe you should stay, Eden. Maybe it would work out OK for all of us.”

I look at him, but still don’t reply. Why would they want me to stay? What good am I to them? They have everything they need. And more. Miranda is fuming. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. The last thing I need is an enemy.

She thunks down her pliers, leans back in her chair, and fixes Apollon with a look. Her raised eyebrows are a question, but they are also a statement. Apollon still looks perfectly relaxed, rocking on the two legs of his chair.

Jonas turns around silently.

Neveah, next to me, just watches.

Oscar speaks up. As he carefully turns the eggs over, he says, “I want you to stay, too.”

That’s sweet, I think, but he’s a kid. I’m waiting for Miranda to jump on him, to send him to bed without dinner or tell him to go outside while the big people talk, but she looks at him with her analytical gaze, not speaking. Then she glances at Jonas. He shrugs.

At this point, I start to think they might actually let me stay. My heart starts thumping wildly. It’s still up for grabs. They may not agree. Miranda clearly doesn’t like me.

“It’s not you,” she says, reading my mind. “It’s just, I think you’re trouble. I mean, look at you.”

Apollon snorts, that amused look on his face. “As if you’re not.”

She rolls her eyes, looking annoyed, not ditsy.

Neveah reaches for her blanket bundle and sets it in her lap, scooting to the edge of the sofa.

“Let’s vote, then,” Apollon says, eyeing her. “All who want Eden to stay.” He raises his hand.

They’re voting. I wonder if a Sentry would count this as politics. A violation of the Second Law. Into the box, everyone. I shudder.

“Me,” chirps Oscar, taking the pan off the stove.

Miranda just frowns.

Jonas remains stone still, not looking at anyone. Why does that hurt so much?

Apollon, Miranda, and Oscar look at Neveah.

She nods once. Then she stands with her bundle, and heads out the door.

Apollon flashes me a grin and flicks his eyebrows up. “You’re in.”

Joy is exploding inside me, and disbelief at my good fortune. But it’s smothered. “Why?” It’s all I can say. “Why would you want me to stay?”

“That’s a really good question,” agrees Miranda with a sardonic smile.

Apollon gives me a look. “We’re stronger in numbers,” he says. “You proved yourself pretty well last night. I bet you can keep doing that.” He flashes me a grin, then his eyes flick to my forehead. “And everybody deserves a chance.”

I swallow the lump in my throat, unable, for a moment, to look at him. Finally, I raise my eyes and scan his face. Does he really believe that our marks make us somehow kindred? I consider Jonas and Neveah, both of them also marked. Did all of them go through the same struggles that I have? Starting with nothing, and no one?

I shake myself out of my thoughts before I can take them too far, and make a decision. This is solid. I know in this instant that whatever comes I will stick to it. “Great,” I say, though my voice is hoarse and I have to clear my throat after. I attempt to make the rest sound lighter. “Is there a secret handshake?”

Oscar grins and laughs. It’s a quiet laugh for a little boy. “You’re going to like it,” he says. I believe him.

“You stink,” Miranda says, out of nowhere. “If you’re staying, you need to take a bath.” She looks pointedly toward the curtain strung up across one end of the shack, then sets down her pliers. “I’ll show you,” she says, climbs to her feet, and heads that way.

I sigh and glance longingly at the eggs and toast before following her.

The curtain falls behind us. A half-rusted tub sits alone in the middle of the room. A toilet, a table with a bucket, a broken slab of mirror. One crumpled towel dangles from a propped-up rake. A piece of hose, repaired in places with grey tape and unevenly dried epoxy, runs through a hole in the wall, and hangs into the tub. From the other hole springs a dingy hand pump.

Miranda pushes the hose further into the tub, places a stopper in the drain, then goes to the pump and begins to work it.

My eyes widen as the hose sputters and spits almost-clean water. “Running water?” I say, even though the answer is plain.

“Rain barrels,” she says. She finishes with the pump, then grabs a brown sliver of soap that is stuck to the table next to the bucket, her fingers scraping it from the surface. She holds it out to me.

I hesitate, looking at the soap in her hand.

“Don’t worry,” she says simply. “No one will bother you.” There is some small kindness in her voice.

“Thanks.”

She shoves the soap at me and disappears through the curtain.

I watch the water sputter into the tub. From the other side of the curtain are voices, murmuring, blurred. Who knows what they’re saying? I turn away from them, and strip off my clothes, laying them neatly next to the bucket, taking care that nothing spills from my pockets.

I climb into the tub, lowering my body slowly into the water. My skin prickles. The icy metal tub pulls every bit of warmth from the water, and the water pulls the warmth from my blood and bones. My teeth clatter together, compelling me into motion despite the longing to linger.

The piece of soap rubs into a thick lather in my palms. I scrub every inch of my body, examining its smooth, pale skin. The water becomes cloudy. My hair goes rubbery but clean after two washings. It squeaks between my forefinger and thumb. I emerge from the tub, water dripping, feeling like a new person. I’ve shed my skin, grown into something new. The question is, what?

I reach for the towel on the rake by the mirror, but freeze. At first, I actually think there is someone else in the room with me. I should be seeing an old woman, hunched over from years of hard labor and broken by illness— that’s how I’ve felt for so long. The girl who stands before me, though, is young and slim. She’s long-legged, built athletically with broad shoulders on a compact feminine frame. Her face is striking, encircled in umber hair. Long, dark, narrow eyes are surrounded by a flutter of thick lashes. Pale skin contrasts delicately-shaped pink lips. She’s not an old woman at all. Who is she, then? I’ve forgotten her.

I stare at her and wonder, for the first time, if she has family somewhere. Friends. Does someone miss her? Surely someone misses a girl like that. She and I— this girl and me— we have only one thing in common. I trace my fingers along the mark on my forehead. She does the same. We stare at each other, as though we may come to some understanding.

My stomach rumbles and I remember the eggs. I dress quickly, then comb my fingers through my hair, pulling my bangs down over my forehead.

I have to steel myself to leave the bathroom. I’m not used to other people. Something about going back to them is frightening, even if part of me looks forward to the company.

Oscar has saved me a plate of eggs and toast. “Apollon and Jonas are going outside the wall today,” he says as I sit on the sofa to eat. “Maybe they’ll let us come.”

I look from Apollon to Jonas to Miranda. She’s still working with her pliers, but her gaze flicks across to me. It’s not hostile. Something else. She shakes her head slightly.

“What’s outside the wall?” I ask. I already know part of the answer. There’s a twenty foot stretch where we can go if we want. This is an open area, a no-man’s-land. Beyond that, everything is restricted, except for the road. If we wanted to— if we were brave enough— we could travel via the road to another Outpost or city. But surely that’s not what Jonas and Apollon intend, so why do they go outside the wall at all?

“Plants,” says Apollon. “Herbs. We gather them for Neveah.”

This catches my interest. If I go with them, I can learn which plants are useful, where to find them, and hopefully, if I pay attention to what Neveah does, what each of them is good for. And with Apollon and Jonas, I should be safe even without my disguise. I’m a little concerned about their reaction to last night’s card game, but I can’t hide forever, can I? Clearly Apollon expects me to play again. Everyone contributes.

“Sounds fun,” I say, scooping up my eggs with my bread, taking a larger mouthful than I intended. It’s absolute bliss. I can’t help but close my eyes as I chew, can’t help but swallow before I’ve chewed it properly. After the next mouthful, I make myself stop and look at the food, breathing in the aroma.

“You can come,” Apollon says. “But we’re going to the Rustler after. Better if you don’t go there for a while.”

“A while?” I mutter through my next bite. “What about cards?”

“Let ’em cool their heels for a bit and come to terms with the fact that a sweet little girl kicked their asses,” he says, examining his fingertips briefly before licking crumbs and egg juice from them.

Sweet little girl? I want to retort, but I’m busy chewing.

“What he means,” Jonas says, standing in the kitchen washing plates, “is that they probably won’t bother you now that they’ve had a chance to think about the fact that you took them fair and square. It happens. But you could choose safer games than the one last night.”

Miranda narrows her eyes at this, still studying whatever she’s building. “Who was playing last night?” she asks slowly.

Jonas’ gaze flicks to her, but she doesn’t see it. Then he looks Apollon in the eye.

Clearly Apollon is not supposed to say it, but either he doesn’t get it, or he doesn’t care.

“Donegan,” he says.

There’s the briefest twitch of Miranda’s pliers before she bends the next wire. Her face is blank. She says nothing.

“Donegan,” Oscar says, his brown eyes widening as they look at me. I can’t help but notice Miranda’s little twitch as he speaks. She does it again when he says, “You beat Donegan?”

I shrug it off. “Guess so,” I mutter. I shovel in the last of my eggs and follow it up with the remnant of my toast— a piece I probably should have finished in two bites.

Jonas is finishing up the last plate when I walk into the kitchen behind him. He reaches back and takes mine without looking. “It’s getting late,” he says. “We should get on with this.”

Apollon doesn’t hurry to get up as Jonas tromps past him out the door. He pauses halfway out and flicks those green eyes back at me. “You coming, Stinky?”

I feel my cheeks flush bright red as I consider throwing something at him. There’s nothing suitable within reach. Apollon is laughing, so as I walk by, I kick one of his two weight-bearing chair legs. He scrambles to catch his balance. I stalk down the path outside and hear Oscar’s light footsteps running to catch up with me.

“This is so cool,” he says, his voice filled with the excitement of the young. “If you look past the barriers, the trees just go on and on… like forever.”

I glance down at him, softening. “Yeah?”

“Once,” he says, “there was this white doe. She got away from the hunters. They shot her, but she ran away. Just kept running. You could see her going, and then she was gone. Just disappeared. Like a ghost or something.”

“Wow,” I say. I’m not sure what else to say.

“I don’t think she died,” he says. “I don’t think God would let something that pretty die.”

“God?” I say, startled. I glance around to make sure there are no Sentries within sight. “God who kicked us out of paradise? Why wouldn’t he?”

He shrugs, bopping along beside me. “Well,” he says thoughtfully, “if I was God, I wouldn’t.”

My hand is on his head before I realize it, ruffling his shaggy brown hair. “You’ve got my vote in the next election,” I say.

He grins up at me.

[*

Chapter 6: Hunters and Gatherers*]

THE CONCRETE WALL that circles the Outpost gapes open, and hanging from its mouth is a long grey tongue of a road, lolling away into the distance. There are Sentries stationed about a hundred yards down the road, and near them is another small encampment of men. They have large guns, a tent shading their heads, and a battered old pickup.

“Who are they?” I say, nodding toward them as we emerge.

“Matthew’s,” Apollon says.

We take a sharp turn to the left and walk along the wall. The first thing I notice is that Oscar is right. Beyond the neatly spaced line of scanner posts, the trees look like they could go on forever. The second thing is the hunters. The area is filled with them. Red stripes, orange shoelaces, badges. The occasional unidentified loner. They’re all armed with guns. They lean up against the wall, their eyes searching the tree line beyond the barrier. The wall curves around, disappearing away from us, but just where we’re walking, I must count about a hundred of them.

“Surely there can’t be that much to hunt out here,” I mumble.

“There’s not,” Apollon agrees. “And it’s not worth it. But these people are desperate.”

“I know where they can get a lot of rats,” I say.

He glances at me as we walk.

“If you hear any shots,” Jonas says, “just hit the ground. Don’t stop to see where they’re coming from.”

I warily exchange looks with Oscar. “Right.”

A strange sound makes its way across the cleared area and into the trees— a deer call.

“They won’t shoot unless it’s really close,” Oscar informs me, sounding like he’s trying to be reassuring. “You’d probably see it before they start. Not that many come into the free zone.”

I nod. We walk on. We’re quite some distance from the gate when we stop to do our harvesting.

“These ones,” Apollon says, bending down to show me the stem of some weed. It has small clusters of yellow flower buds, and is not very attractive. “The stems are woody, so you’ll have to cut them. Try to cut as close to the bottom as you can.”

“OK,” I say, glancing around. There are plenty of them. They’re growing… well, like weeds. Jonas and Oscar are already busy at work, slicing through the stems with their knives. Oscar spreads a cloth bag open on the ground for us to pile our harvest into.

I take my piece of glass from my pocket and begin cutting on the nearest weed. Apollon is right. I practically have to saw it off. I’m finally working on my second one when I realize he and Jonas are watching me.

“You don’t have a knife?” Apollon says.

I shake my head.

He and Jonas exchange glances. We go back to work, and no one talks. We harvest the entire area then gather up the bag and move further on. Oscar’s just setting it down in our new spot when Apollon, eyeing me, says “How long?”

The question, I think, is phrased specifically vaguely, so that, if I wanted to avoid it, I could. But all three of my companions are waiting for an answer. They’re my family now, right? They’re as much as I’ve got.

“A couple of weeks,” I say, wondering how my voice is so much quieter than I intended it to be.

“A couple of weeks?” Oscar asks incredulously. “You mean—” But Apollon’s hand comes to rest lightly on Oscar’s head, silencing him. He closes his mouth and looks at the bag, then at the sky. It’s like a signal to all of us, and we get back to work.

We’re just finishing that area, when Oscar hisses, “Look.”

I follow his gaze to a young buck wandering fearlessly at the edge of the barrier. For just a second I watch it in awe before I hear Jonas whispering ferociously, “Get down.”

I drop to the ground like my more-experienced companions, and, prone, just have time to maneuver around to see the buck before the first shots fire. The deer makes a terrible noise as blood erupts from its far side. It rears, turns, and falls right on the barrier line, between posts, kicking.

Hunters stampede toward it, leaping over us to get there first. Someone steps on my hand. Their bodies crawl over the buck, looking like an anthill, but there’s a tug-of-war going on here. Fists and knives fly out in different directions. Men grunt and fall away, scramble back into the fray. I grit my teeth, sure someone is going to die here. I’m looking at Jonas, to my left, wondering if we should run, when I hear the footsteps. Heavy, clanging, inhuman footsteps, headed toward us. I feel myself go white. I freeze.

The Sentry stalks toward us. Most of the hunters are too busy fighting to notice. Those who do shriek and take off running. I stare as it moves in, closing the distance. In some far-off way I’m aware of a hand gripping my wrist, dragging me backward, but I do nothing. I don’t even breathe.

These people have had it, I think. They’re trying to kill each other.

Eden,” Jonas hisses at my side. He’s fallen backward, dragging me through the dirt. His fingers dig into my wrist. I look down at it, dazed. His sleeve has come up and there’s a white scar on his wrist. Three lines at different angles. If they intersect above the part his sleeve still covers, they could make a star. He pulls at me, climbing to his feet, and says my name again.

The shock clears suddenly and I look around. Apollon and Oscar skid to a halt down the wall and turn back to look for us. I jump up and run with Jonas toward them. I expect us to keep running when we’re all together, but Apollon is just standing, looking wide-eyed back where we came.

The scuffle has spilled over the barrier line. As the Sentry reaches the pile, its metal arm swoops down from above and plucks up the hunters who have accidentally breached the boundary. Not enough arms? No problem. One by one it bashes them over the head and tosses them into an unconscious heap. There are seven bodies awaiting justice when it is done. The remaining members of the scuffle have frozen, looking up at the thing with grimaces of terror. None of them are moving.

The metal monster picks up the bodies, slinging three over its shoulder. It carries the remaining four, dangling two-each from its hands. The clanging footsteps fade away as it walks back toward the gate with its prey.

Apollon lets out a long, shuddering sigh and sinks down against the wall. The rest of us follow suit. We sit there for the longest time in silence. The remaining hunters filter away, a few of them dragging the body of the buck, and the area is quiet. Truly quiet. I know that Apollon, Jonas, and I are all sharing the same vivid nightmare. We stare into space, each of us entirely alone, despite the fact that we’re together. I can’t make my body stop shaking. Horror consumes me. Relief only comes when a small hand covers mine. I blink. Oscar gazes at me with a worried expression. His other hand is over Apollon’s.

Apollon and Jonas look less freaked-out than I imagine I do. Their faces are almost blank, bearing only the slightest curling of disgust. They look like they might be sick, but are trying hard to swallow it down. I wonder how long it’s taken them to become this strong. How long have they been out of the box?

I push my legs out, suddenly feeling that I can’t stay here any longer. “Our weeds got trampled,” I say. My voice comes out in one big wobble. I sound like a turkey. I climb to my feet and rub my upper arms. It’s cold, the sky darkening with clouds. It might rain.

Jonas stands up and offers a hand to Apollon, who takes it. As his friend climbs up, Jonas says, “We’ll make do.”

Oscar beats us to the bag and gathers it all into a bundle. We start walking toward the gate.

It’s a long walk, and none of us are moving too fast. Maybe we just don’t want to pass the Sentries posted there. I try to think of something else.

“You really think I should avoid the Rustler for a while?”

“Yes,” says Jonas immediately.

“Because I beat them. And I’m a girl.” The words come out bitterly.

“Because you beat them and you’re a hot girl,” Apollon corrects.

I blink. Did he really just say that?

He eyes me, then says, “No offense, Eden, but you could really have made things easier for yourself.” He goes on. Apparently Apollon doesn’t self-edit a lot. “I mean, did you heat-shrink those clothes on or what?”

I turn red again. “It’s not like I had a choice,” I splutter, turning on him. “I got them off of a body I found in an alleyway.” I’m miffed, but I’m feeling everything from a weird distance right now. “It’s not like this dead girl asked me if I would prefer the modest cut or the plunging neckline.”

He crosses his arms and grins down at me. “I have to say,” he lulls, “I’m with the dead girl on the plunging neckline.”

I go from red to white in the span of one second. I cross my arms over my chest, but from the glint in his eye, I can tell that only magnifies my problem. I turn my back on him.

Jonas, sounding completely reasonable and removed from this madness, says “You need a lot of things. We should stop by the marketplace before we take you home.”

My anger flees. Not because Jonas was reasonable. Not because he made sense. But that one word. Home. It hits me like the whap of a Sentry, and I suddenly feel myself being unreasonably emotional. I blink tears away.

“Good idea,” agrees Apollon, as though he has no clue that he’s offended me. “We’ll check on Neveah, too.”

“Can we get lemon drops?” Oscar asks hopefully. As I remember his presence I feel doubly embarrassed.

Jonas ruffles his hair. “We’ll see,” he says.

We start walking again. I decide not to be offended. It’s easier. As we stroll on without speaking, my mind wanders. We’re almost to the gate when I ask softly, “How long?”

There is silence for a few more steps. Then Jonas says, “Three years.”

I glance at him, and then at Apollon.

Apollon just grins again and says, “Me, too. We’re twins. Don’t you see the resemblance?”

As we pass near the Sentries and wander through the gate, I shake my head and firmly say, “No. No, I don’t.”

***

We stop by to see Neveah first. Oscar shows her the bag full of trampled plants. She nods and shrugs. He slings it back over his shoulder. She surreptitiously passes some coins to Apollon, who pockets them and murmurs something to her. Jonas squeezes her hand as we turn to go.

Meanwhile, I’m looking nervously around for that old hag, expecting her to leap out at me and start screaming for the slavers. As we walk away, Apollon bumps my shoulder with his. “Don’t worry,” he says. “No one’s going to bother you when you’re with us.” I take a deep breath. The exposed-nerve sensation begins to dull, but the nausea remains.

“How come you two aren’t slaves?” I ask. Sure, they’re big and badass, but wouldn’t that make them all the more sellable?

Apollon shrugs. “We have an understanding with Matthew.” Decidedly vague. He flashes me a grin.

I eye him as we walk.

There’s a tent-covered stand near the center of the marketplace that has a rack of hanging garments. Apollon and Jonas are on friendly terms with the man who tends it. We rifle through the items, and eventually it’s Oscar that finds my new jacket. It’s worn black leather, and there’s a hole in the left sleeve, just below the elbow, but it’s a touch bigger than the one I wear now and it zips all the way from waist to chin, with a high collar that will keep my neck warm. There’s a blanket hung up to partition off a changing area. I try the jacket on and I’m hooked. I feel like I can breathe again. We have less luck as far as pants are concerned. For the time being I’m stuck with what I have. But we find a soft, worn t-shirt for cheap. Of course, it’s the peddler who comes out way ahead in the end. He takes my current jacket— which happens to be in better condition than the one I’m getting— and another silver coin on top of it. As far as I’m concerned, though, I’m getting a bargain.

We make one more stop before going home— a knife dealer. Rows of gleaming metal are arranged neatly on a blanket that’s spread over a line of upside-down crates. There’s a broad range of products, from salvaged metal spikes taped onto makeshift handles, to the real thing— weighted and balanced blades with carefully sharpened edges. Apollon and Jonas peruse the knives for me, taking only a moment to examine the goods. They narrow it down quickly to three different knives, then stand mumbling to each other, passing them back and forth, testing the weight in their hands. They discard the third choice, and turn to me.

“Try these,” Jonas says, holding one out.

I don’t know what it is I’m trying, but I take the knife, wrap my fingers around the hilt, and attempt to look like I know what I’m doing.

Apollon crosses his arms and smiles at me.

I frown, ignoring him, and pass the knife back to Jonas. He hands me the second one.

As soon as I take it, I’m sure. I look down at the gleaming steel of the curved blade, the soft brown leather wrapped around the hilt. “This one,” I say.

“Don’t choose it because it’s pretty,” Apollon says.

“I didn’t,” I answer. I look at the knife-dealer, who has been watching us the whole time.

“It’s a good choice,” he says. He has these weird, keenly blue eyes that make me think of a wolf.

“How much?” I ask, figuring we will be here for a year bargaining on this knife, and then I’ll need to choose one that I can actually afford.

He shrugs. Again, something in his body language seems not quite human. I’m fascinated by it, really, but I try to look bored. He glances from the knife in my hand to my face. “A special knife like that should have a special owner,” he says, winking. OK, maybe a coyote. “I’ll give it to you for four silver. Hardly making a profit at all on that. Especially if you consider the time I put in.”

I glance at Apollon and Jonas. They look dumbfounded. I consider the knife in my hand.

“We’ll take it,” Apollon says firmly, jumping on the moment. He’s already holding out the coins to the dealer.

The man takes them, but looks at me as he pockets them. “Make sure you oil it regularly,” he says, and glances at the sky. “Especially in this weather.”

I nod, eyeing him. “Thanks,” I say.

Apollon, Jonas, and Oscar are already starting to walk away, but I pause.

“You made this?” I ask, looking from the knife to him.

He nods.

“Nice work,” I say.

He looks pleased, but says nothing.

I’m thinking about catching up with my friends, but my eyes fall on the makeshift table. He sells belt sheaths as well, and I need one. I point to something suitable. “How much?”

“Four silver,” he says, the same price as my knife. This is his normal price, I can tell, because they’re definitely not of equal value.

I toss him a five, pick up the sheath, give him a nod and head off.

My friends have stopped a short distance away to wait for me.

“I thought I should have somewhere to put it,” I explain, showing them the sheath.

“I thought we should get the hell out of there before he changes his mind about the price,” Apollon grins.

“Guess being a girl’s not all bad,” I say, giving him a look. He narrows his eyes at me as we turn and walk toward home.

A high-pitched, blood-curdling shriek from somewhere far away makes me reconsider my position.

***

The day breezes away. For the first time, I feel myself start to relax. At the end, there’s food, and shelter, and laughter. It’s more than I can ask for. It’s more than I ever hoped.

Come bedtime, Oscar scoots over and makes a spot between him and Miranda. “Right here, Eden,” he says sweetly. “There’s room for you.”

I only hesitate a little before I smile and laugh. My feet move toward the bed.

In the end, we all pile in, and miraculously but snugly, fit. Neveah sleeps against the wall, then Oscar, then me, tucked between him and Miranda, who sleeps with her back to me. Jonas is next to her with one arm draped over her, and Apollon on the outside. As I lie there, very still, aware that my every movement will disturb someone near me, I think how ridiculous we all are. We’re like a pile of puppies, or something in a children’s song, though I can’t think exactly which one. I close my eyes and try to relax, but I feel as stiff as a corpse. In the darkness, the feeling of closeness is stifling. I have an urge to flee, to be where I can move freely. It takes me a long time to sleep, but eventually the softness of the mattress wins out against everything else. My last conscious thought before I drift off is that this all seems too good to be real.

Again, I’m in the box. I can’t see, or breathe, or move. I’m suffocating. Dying. Has everything been a dream? The thought brings the ultimate wash of terror, sweeping me away as though I’m nothing. I scream and flail, and I can’t get out.

A hand presses firmly on my shoulder. A voice, murmuring. My mind is spinning cartwheels, trying to make sense of things. I can’t tell up from down or side from side.

“It’s OK. You’re OK,” the voice says, quietly. “It’s just a dream.”

The tide of reality swoops in. I’m sitting up in bed. I remember. It’s Jonas’ hand on my shoulder, his fingers pressing in just enough to bring me to the present. Miranda is quietly cussing as she settles in on his other side. Light glints off of Oscar’s wide, dark eyes on the other side of me. I must have frightened him. I want to apologize, to sooth him, but my brain is swimming, heavy. I’m so tired. My head slumps. Jonas pushes me back and I sink into the bed. I’m asleep before I hit the mattress.

I sleep like the dead for the rest of the night. When I wake, with light filtering through my eyelids, I feel the removal of an arm from around me. When I sit up, I see Jonas scooting to the end of the bed, his back to me. No one says anything about my nightmares. We simply start another day.

[*

Chapter 7: Of Pigs and Gods*]

I’M AROUND BACK in a small space that’s wedged between our shack and the Outpost’s concrete wall. The sky is a slab of grey stone. The ground is slick with mud. Sitting against the shack’s wall, I wrap my arms around myself and close my eyes against the restless feeling.

I want to run, but I don’t know why. Not to flee, but to get… somewhere. Here is wrong. Doing nothing is wrong. I’m overwhelmed by the need to fulfill some unnamed task. My fingers press into my arms, as though I could hold myself back. I make myself breathe. I count backward. I’ve gone through the cycle from ninety-nine to zero three and a quarter times when I hear the front door creak. Footsteps head in my direction. Small, light footsteps.

“Eden?” Oscar says as he comes around the end of the junk wall. He knows I’m here. There’s no use in pretending.

“Hey Oscar,” I say, shifting.

He squints into the shadows, then smiles and joins me. Without reservations, he sits in the mud beside me. “Why are you out here?”

I shrug. “Just thinking.”

“About what?” he asks. He’s a kid. He hasn’t learned when not to ask things yet.

“I just feel weird,” I say. “Like… like bored or something.”

He turns and eyes me, but says nothing. We sit there. After a long while he says, “You’re playing cards tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you worried?”

“Nope.”

He nods. “Apollon and Jonas will keep you safe,” he says. “I will, too.”

I look at him and he’s grinning. This big, goofy, toothy grin. I start laughing despite myself. “No offense,” I say, “but you’re like… seven… or something.” I choose the number on the upper side of my estimated range, because I don’t really want to offend him.

“Eight,” he corrects, but he doesn’t sound offended. Just factual.

“Eight?” I ask. “No way. Eight?” Most eight-year-olds could eat him for dinner.

“Yeah, I know,” he says, and at first I think he’s deflated, but then he just seems thoughtful. He pauses, then adds, “Sometimes people underestimate you when you’re small. It’s a good thing.”

“You think?”

“That’s what Apollon says.”

I snort. “Apollon knows a _ lot_ about being little.”

Again, he’s laughing. “He knows what it’s like not to be.” He shrugs. “Maybe he was little, too, when he was a kid.”

Somehow I doubt that. Apollon was probably born with bulging biceps and feet the size of Sentries. Instead of pointing this out, I say, “If you’re small you have less weight to carry around, so you can be quicker. [_That’s _]a good thing.”

“Yeah,” he says. “Apollon says that, too.”

And that pretty much exhausts my wisdom on being small. I change the subject. “So, how long have you been living with these guys?”

Now Oscar hesitates. It makes me wonder if I need to learn when not to ask things, too. His eyes scrunch up and I can see him mentally counting, his little mouth working quietly. He looks at me and says, “A year and seven months. About.”

I want to ask more, but I can’t quite seem to do it. Instead, all I say is, “Yeah?”

But that’s all it takes. Surprising me with his willingness to share, Oscar launches into his story, as if he’s known me forever. Maybe he just needs to tell it to someone, or maybe he’s really this trusting.

“… and we weren’t doing so good. You know. It was really cold out and mom was sick for a while. She just kept getting sicker.”

I feel my stomach curling slowly in on itself, not liking where this is going. “And your dad?” I ask.

He shrugs. Shrugs can mean anything, but this one clearly says “What dad?” He picks up a clump of mud and starts squishing it through his clenched fingers. “I think it was me,” he says after a long pause. “I think she was worried about me. That’s why she did it.”

I swallow. “Did what?”

“Stole a blanket. I guess someone had washed it and set it out to dry. So she just took it.” Silence falls over us again.

He’s really squishing the mud now, his thin fingers opening and contracting again and again. I manage to find my voice, even though I’m pretty sure I know the ending. “What happened?”

His eyes flick to the mark on my forehead.

I put my arm around his back. He leans in and rests his head against my shoulder, closing his eyes. I wonder, is this what it’s like to be a mother? To try to comfort, when you wish you could be comforted yourself? But there is something comforting in it— in sharing someone else’s pain. We sit for a long time and I find myself wondering if my mother ever held me like this. Surely she did, but even the idea of her is an absolute stranger to me. At least Oscar can remember. “What was she like— your mom?”

He lets out a shaky sigh. “I don’t know,” he says. “I guess I remember things like the way she smelled. She had this old apron she wore and she was always wiping everything off on it, even though the apron was dirty. And when I was little, we would make boats out of things, and float them in the puddles. But mostly she just worked as hard as she could to keep us alive. Her hands looked really old. Older than the rest of her.”

Again, we sit in silence for a while. Then I ask, “How did you end up here?”

“Mom knew Apollon and Jonas,” he says. He straightens so he can turn his head to look at me, but he’s still tucked mostly under my arm. “Sometimes she’d sell them things. When they found out what happened, Apollon decided they would look after me.” After a moment he adds, “Jonas didn’t really want to, but Apollon made him.”

“Really?” I ask. “But Jonas loves you. And what about Neveah and Miranda?”

“Jonas loves me now,” Oscar says. “But he didn’t want to be here, in the Outpost. Him and Apollon came here from Outpost One, and they were going to keep traveling. But Jonas thought I was too little to do that, so taking me on meant staying here. And he didn’t want that.”

“They came here from Outpost One?” I ask. I never expected this. “Which Outpost are we in?”

“This is Three,” he replies as though he’s not really thinking about it. “Neveah joined up with us not much later,” he says. “We knew her already, and I guess Apollon and Jonas thought they needed someone to look after me. A girl, I mean.” He shrugs.

“And Miranda?”

Oscar sits up straight and glances at the house. “Jonas rescued her,” he says carefully.

“Rescued her?” I ask. I know this is a touchy subject, but Miranda’s not here, and I want to know.

Again, he looks at the house, but when he looks back at me, his eyes narrow conspiratorially. He leans a little closer, his voice hushed. “Donegan hates her,” he says, “because of her mom.”

I match his whisper. “Her mom?”

“He was in love with her. Well, that’s what they say. But then she ended up with Miranda’s dad. He had a little shop downtown. He was a mech.”

I nod. This explains Miranda’s creations.

“Things were OK for them, I guess. But Donegan hated her. He always tried to make things hard for them. Something happened— Idunno. And Miranda’s dad died. I guess Donegan thought her mom would go to him, but she didn’t, and he just got madder. He kept at her, said he knew she loved him and all that. But she’d quit drugs, see, and she didn’t want to be around that stuff.” Again, he glances at the wall behind us. “So she took up with some supplies-runner and left.”

I blink. “Without Miranda?”

He nods gravely. “Just left her,” he says. “And with her gone, Miranda was the only one left for Donegan to be mean to. He sent his goons after her and they had her cornered in an alleyway. Jonas kind of stumbled into it, but you know Jonas.”

I don’t, really.

“He chased them off and saved her,” Oscar finishes. “And she’s been with us ever since.”

“Wow,” I say. “That explains why Miranda hardly ever goes outside.” But really I’m thinking about Jonas. I’m thinking about how, when I woke up yesterday morning, and everyone else was still asleep, his arm was still thrown over me. How, in that moment, I felt safe for the first time I can remember. I wanted to stay there forever. I had someone to protect me. It didn’t matter that Jonas doesn’t seem to care the rest of the time, when we’re awake. That arm was enough. And it’s been enough to stand between me and nightmares, pushing them away when they come, for the past three nights since I’ve been here.

Oscar is nodding.

“So why does Jonas want to keep traveling?” I find myself asking.

Oscar looks like he’s about to answer when we hear a noise around front. He climbs to his feet. “I don’t know,” he says, but I can tell his answer is lacking due to distraction. “He just wants to go somewhere.” He heads off around the junk wall.

I sigh, climb to my feet, wiping off mud, and follow him.

***

We walk shoulder to shoulder down the street in broad daylight— Jonas, Apollon, and me. I keep quiet, noticing now how their eyes scan the streets, always watching what’s going on. Always ready for anything. I do the same, taking in all the details I can. There are people I recognize from my days on the streets. Others I don’t. One of them, a pretty girl with caramel colored curls, is flouncing down the street unescorted toward us. Seriously?

I detect the change in Apollon’s stride even though I’m not looking at him, which makes me immediately want to. It’s a subtle change, but enough. His gaze is steadily on the girl. As we near her, he makes eye contact and shoots her that cocky grin. He nods and says, “Hey gorgeous.” He winks. I try to contain myself.

The girl, however, blushes and giggles before looking away as she passes, her chin in the air.

Apollon glances back over his shoulder as we keep moving.

After a while, trying to keep the amusement from my voice, I say, “Who was that?”

“That,” says Apollon, “was Elaina Sumter.”

“Sumter as in the cannibalistic butcher Sumter?” I ask.

“His daughter,” Jonas informs me.

I nod. “I see.”

We walk on.

After a time, Apollon says, “What?”

“What what?” I ask.

“What what do you think?” he retorts.

I laugh, but say, “Do you really think it’s a good idea to be hitting on a cannibalistic butcher’s daughter?” In the back of my mind I’m wondering how it is she gets to wander around by herself, and I figure somebody’s probably paying Matthew for that privilege. Either that or Sumter’s scarier than I realize. Cannibalistic butcher. Hmm.

Apollon just shrugs as though he doesn’t really care if he ends up as a plate of sausages. “It’s my personal mission in life to deflower as many virgins as possible before I die.”

I glance at him.

He glances at me, just from the corner of his eye. “Interested?”

I’m turning red again, but of all the things I could say in reply to that, I find myself saying, “What makes you think I’m a virgin?”

Again, he shrugs. “Well,” he says, “do you remember having sex?”

“No,” I say flatly.

He grins. “Close enough for me.”

“You’ll find Apollon’s standards of virginity to be quite flexible,” Jonas adds dryly.

“Convenient,” I say.

We keep walking. All the while, Apollon throws me sly grins even though I narrow my eyes at him more than once. We’re just approaching the market place, when I hear them. The flower peddlers. The muscles in my shoulders tighten.

Apollon beams at me, leaning down to say something, but I don’t catch it. One of them is right in front of us. An older woman, crying “Roses and lilies, roses and lilies.” I slam on the brakes as she accosts us, stuffing a bouquet of lilies in my face.

“Flowers for your lady?” she asks, looking up at Apollon.

“She’s not…” I hear Jonas mumbling, but I’m too busy feeling all the blood drain from my face to catch the rest.

I can’t breathe, until suddenly, almost miraculously, I spit out, “Lilies are the flower of death! Go find a corpse!” I smack the woman’s wrist and the flowers flutter away out of my face, a few petals spilling onto the ground.

The flower peddler doesn’t like this, of course. She clucks and raises a clatter like a chicken about to be eaten.

Apollon soothes her by buying two lilies. I watch incredulously, my mouth hanging open. My fingernails dig into my palms.

“Actually,” says Jonas in a level voice, “they’re a symbol of resurrection.”

I glance at him, and my eyes stick on his olive-skinned face, on his green eyes looking out over the marketplace.

“Eve’s tears,” Apollon says as the woman moves away, taking up her horrible song.

“Hunh?” I say.

“When Eve got kicked out of the garden, they sprang up from her tears,” Apollon says. “They’re just right for you,” he says. ”Eden.”

“Or just exactly wrong.” I eye the lily he holds out to me. Just one of them. Is he keeping the other for Elaina?

“Here,” he says, making a movement like a shrug while holding the flower out. “Take it.”

Reluctantly, I pinch the stem between my thumb and forefinger, and take ownership of the lily.

“It won’t hurt you,” Apollon mumbles. His eyes fall on Jonas.

There’s a split second where Jonas’ face changes, though I still can’t read his expression. He starts shaking his head slowly.

Apollon holds out the other lily to him.

Jonas’ jaw clenches. He looks like he’s going to say something. Then his head tips back just the slightest touch— defiance— but he takes the lily. He looks decidedly uncomfortable doing so. And pissed, too.

Apollon beams.

I’m still trying to figure out what all this means when Apollon takes both of us by the arm and starts us walking again. As we get going, his hands drop to his side. There’s an easiness to his stroll that says he’s quite pleased with himself. I glance at his face. He looks happy. As if things couldn’t get any weirder, he suddenly starts spouting poetry.

“‘The modest rose puts forth a thorn,’” he says, looking at me and my uncomfortably clenched flower, “‘The humble sheep a threat’ning horn.’”

My mouth has fallen open at this point, but he’s looking at Jonas now.

“‘While the lily white shall in love delight, Nor a thorn, nor a threat, stain her beauty bright.’”

Jonas is clearly ignoring him, his eyes scanning the marketplace.

Apollon glances at me. “William Blake.”

I say nothing. I’m just looking at him in disbelief.

After a while he looks at me again. He smiles, touches his chest, and says, “Apollon, god of poetry.”

I already know the punch line. I say it with him. “Among other things.”

That earns me a grin. Thankfully, we’ve arrived at our destination.

It doesn’t take long to determine that something is wrong. We stand in a group with two peddlers under an awning stretched on four metal poles. Apollon and Jonas inform them that they’ll have three sets of nightglasses, with compatible microthermogenors, and at least four, maybe five, aether traps ready for delivery tomorrow. But the peddlers insist the regular price is too high. Apollon and Jonas don’t agree. The price is fair. The parts cost money and they need to make a profit. They haggle for a while, and then it comes out. The peddlers have had another offer. Someone is underselling Miranda. Not only this, but they’re underselling by so much that there’s no way we can match them and make any kind of profit. Apollon is furious. Jonas takes him by the arm and pulls him back, thanking the peddlers and saying we’ll get back to them. But as we move away, Apollon shakes Jonas off.

“This is ridiculous,” he hisses, turning on his friend.

Jonas remains calm and measured, but I can see his anger beneath the level exterior. He opens his mouth to reply, but Apollon talks over him.

“You know what’s happening, right? No one is going to make a profit off prices like that. It’s aimed directly at us. At Miranda.”

The idea makes me shiver. Donegan.

“We can’t assume anything,” Jonas begins.

“Don’t be stupid,” Apollon snaps. “You know exactly who’s doing this.”

Jonas starts to shake his head, but Apollon is already walking away.

“Apollon,” Jonas calls after him, “don’t you be stupid.”

Apollon waves him off. We watch him go.

Jonas sighs. After a moment, he looks at me.

I sigh, too. I glance down at the lily still in my hand, and hold it out to him. “Here,” I say. “I really don’t want this.”

He takes it from me passively, his eyes following after Apollon. Switching it into his right hand with the other lily, he grips the two stems in a fist, swinging at his side as we walk.

“How bad is this?” I finally ask, when we’re about halfway home.

His eyes dart to me, scan my face. “It’s bad.”

I purse my lips. We march on. I try to mimic Jonas’ self-possessed awareness, scanning our surroundings, feigning confidence. My eyes fall on a man mad-dogging us from the end of an alleyway. I scowl at him rather than avoid his gaze. He scowls back. A wooden club suddenly connects with the back of his head from the dark of the alley. He goes down. Hands grab him by the shoulders, dragging him back. His feet disappear.

My steps have faltered. “Wh—” I stammer.

Jonas grabs my arm. “Keep going,” he mutters under his breath.

“Did you see that?” I ask in disbelief. I’m shaking with adrenaline.

“No,” he says, releasing me. “And you didn’t either.”

I swallow, and keep walking. Try to think of something else. Anything else. After a while, I can’t stand the silence. “So, Apollon…” I say lightly, though it takes a good deal of effort to manage it. “What’s with the god complex, anyway?”

Jonas laughs softly through his nose, not looking at me. Finally, he says, “Erasure is harder on some than on others, I guess. If you’re not anything— if you can be anything— why not decide to be a god?”

I consider this for a moment, ponder the choice of my own name. How will it shape me? Is it all there is to me now? After a while, I ask, “Do you think it’s true? That there’s nothing left when you wake up?” The question does not actually break the Tenth Law, attempting to uncover your previous life following an erasure, but it pushes the edges of acceptable conversation. I don’t care. I want to know the answer.

There’s a certain uneasiness in his glance this time. “Do you?”

I hate it when people answer questions with questions. I tell him so, then add, “So is that new, or is it just me?”

He laughs, his face actually forming a smile this time. I like the way that feels. I want to make him laugh again. But he says, seriously, “You’ll be asking those questions for the rest of your life.”

We’re walking down the main street now, coming up on the Rustler. As we start to step off the curb to cross the street, I take a moment to surreptitiously study his face. I open my mouth to say something, when his arm flies out in front of me, making me jerk to a halt.

“Whoa,” he says, but his voice is quiet. He’s looking across the street. I follow his gaze. There are three groups of Matthew’s thugs. Standing at the entrance to the Rustler is another small group, talking and laughing. I know or recognize most of them. Jacob and Taylor, a couple more card players whose names I don’t yet know… There’s a young man standing in their midst. He can’t be much older than Jonas, if at all. He has golden brown hair, an easy manner, and a broad smile on his face. A pot-bellied pig sits at his feet. He’s telling a joke, it seems, and everyone is busting up, including the two beautiful women— one white-blonde, and one a blazing redhead— attached to his arms. Everyone looks like they’re having a great time. Part of me wants to join them.

But Jonas’ fingers are pressing into my arm, pulling me back from the curb. “Not that way,” he says as we turn down the nearest alleyway, which actually takes us in the wrong direction.

“Why not?” I ask, glancing back over my shoulder.

“Matthew,” Jonas says. That’s all.

“Matthew?” I ask, blinking. “You mean, that was…?”

He nods.

We walk in silence. None of this fits. The dreaded Matthew is a guy who looks like he’d be a fun drinking buddy? Really? I find myself shaking my head, frowning.

Jonas glances at me. “Looks can be deceiving,” he says.

And suddenly I remember the old woman who blackmailed me. He’s right. I need to be more careful in summing people up.

We circle around to our previous path. We’re only a few blocks from home, and the streets are quieter. Maybe Jonas will be more willing to talk. Sentries are less common on the back streets.

“So what do you think?” I ask. “About when we wake up.”

He gives me that same uncertain glance. After a moment, he says, “It doesn’t matter what I think. We are all what we are, whether it’s something new, or something old.”

“You think it’s that simple?” I spout, before I even have time to consider his answer. I’m not sure why, but it annoys me. “Don’t you care who you were? Or is that just it, three years and you don’t care. Just get through three years of wondering, and you’ll be fine.”

He glances at me again. I’m really starting to dislike that glance, mostly because I don’t know what it means. If Jonas has some sort of tell, I don’t know what it is. I can’t seem to figure him out. He looks away from me, his eyes scanning the road in front of us. He says, “Some things get easier with time, yes. Not all of them. But enough.”

I stop myself before I reply again without thinking. I take a deep breath, and sigh.

He glances at me yet again.

“What?” I say.

He shakes his head.

We walk on in silence. I fight down my annoyance, concentrating on where we’re going. Soon, we’re walking up to the wall of junk that denotes our front yard.

Jonas stops as we hit the opening in the wall and turns to me. “No,” he says.

I frown. “No?”

He sighs. “No, I don’t think everything is just gone. Not for all of us.” And he heads for the door.

He has gone a few steps before I follow after him.

Oscar and Miranda greet us inside. Without turning toward her, Jonas holds the two lilies out to Miranda. She makes a little noise as she jumps up and takes them, beaming a smile.

Jonas and I exchange glances, and I can’t help but think that she won’t be smiling when she hears about what happened in the marketplace.

[*

Chapter 8: Marked*]

I BEGIN TO feel like a regular at the card table. The others greet me by name, now. Sometimes they laugh and joke with me. I do not mistake this for friendship. As time wears on, I become more and more aware of the growing tension every time I walk into the room. It’s not personal. I win too much. The only reason I’m still playing is because I often make myself lose— lose, and lose, and lose, and then win. I come out ahead, which I had hoped, for a while, they wouldn’t notice. But these guys aren’t the kind who miss things like where the money’s going. And at any rate, playing like this doesn’t offer the kind of gains I would like to see.

Ideally, there would be other games to join. I would move around, win money here and there, but not continually from the same people. However, Apollon and Jonas insist that I only play with certain groups. Never with any of Matthew’s men. Never with Donegan. So I’m usually with Sumter and Lloyd and Taylor and Jacob… many of the same players I sat with on that first night. Sometimes Dan, the knife dealer from the marketplace, joins us. He’s a sharp player, clever and sneaky. I’ve taken to calling him Coyote Dan in my head. Once or twice, he’s even fooled me.

Tonight, he’s sitting across the table from me, studying his cards through slitted eyes. Behind me, Oscar is at the bar with Apollon, laughing. Jonas didn’t come with us. Everyone knows who I’m with, now, and no one bothers me. I could probably even walk down the street all by myself during the day.

Coins chink as Coyote Dan tosses them into the pot, raising Jacob’s bet. Sumter and Taylor fold, leaving me, Lloyd, and a guy named Julian Moore, who only plays once in a blue moon. Lloyd sees the bet. Coyote Dan’s ice blue eyes flick to me. “Your move, darlin’.”

I nonchalantly add my coins to the pile, though in all honesty, I’m not entirely sure he doesn’t have a hand full of bosses or a royal flush. I have three henchmen and a pair of twos. Full house. I glance at Julian, who hesitates, then calls. We lay down our cards. Julian has three bosses, but nothing else. Lloyd has a flush. Coyote Dan has shit all. He gives me a wry smile as I rake in my money.

The next hand is hard not to win. The others get bad cards, and I end up with a royal flush. There’s not a lot in the pot, but when I lay down my cards, Sumter bristles.

“It seems to me,” he says in a low voice, “that you end up with more than your share of good cards, Eden.”

I glance at him. His face is rounded, with extra flesh on his cheeks. A depravity to his eyes. I wonder if eating people takes your soul away. But I shrug as though I’m unaffected. “Lady Luck favors the damned, they say.” I sweep my money in, and as I do, I catch Coyote Dan’s gaze flicking back and forth between us. I let my vision blur so that I’m not really looking at anything. All the movements from my peripheral vision are magnified, now, easier to sense. Sumter, sitting to my left, is moving his right hand slowly toward his hip.

I stand up. My first instinct is to go for my knife. My second is to holler for Apollon. I end up going with my third, so, when I raise my voice, the name I call is “Arthur!”

Arthur Adner, tall, skinny, and balding on top, is standing at the side of the room talking to two men seated at a table. He has a rag in his hand, not currently being used. He looks at me across the room. “Yep?”

“We need a round over here.” I make a swirling gesture at my table.

He leaves his conversation and heads behind the bar. As my eyes follow after him, I notice Apollon’s attention has become sharply focused on us. He adjusts himself on his bar stool so his legs are pointed toward us, his back against the bar. Beside him, Oscar glances up at his face warily.

I sit back down, casually, smiling. “Thirsty?”

They don’t exactly look pleased, but I bet none of them ever passed up a free drink before. When the round comes, they all drink. Even Sumter. And though handing Arthur the coins to pay for it makes my stomach tighten, I tell myself it’s their money, anyway, and I’m about to replace it. I catch Coyote Dan’s gaze from across the table. The corners of his lips are curved into the slightest smile of amusement.

We continue to play, and I pace my winning evenly. Thus I discover the power of a round of drinks. Before the evening’s over, I buy one more, when I win a large pot. Again, no one looks happy about my winning, but maybe it takes the sting off. That, and losing part of the money back to them. I hate doing this, but I can’t make myself unwelcome here. With Miranda’s income gone, we only have Neveah’s herb-selling business and a few odds and ends that Apollon and Jonas come up with. Without my winnings, we would be in trouble.

I’m feeling OK about the way I’ve handled things, but as we walk home, Apollon says, “You’re going to need to sit out a while, Eden.”

I glance at him, frowning, and then look at Oscar, whose fingers are interlaced with mine. I shake my head slowly, meeting Apollon’s gaze. “No,” I mumble. “We can’t.”

His jaw is set. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “I don’t like the feel in there tonight. I don’t want you to play for a while.”

I’m about to tell him that I don’t care what he wants, when Oscar squeezes my hand. His brown eyes reflect the sliver of moon hanging above us. “I don’t want you to, either.” It’s not a statement. It’s a plea.

I consider him as we walk, then sigh. “Maybe for a little while,” I mumble.

Oscar smiles. Apollon nods.

A Sentry strides down the street, two men dangling, skulls grasped in its metal hands. The scent of aether and a warm draft trails in its wake.

A weight drags my shoulders down. A lasso around my vital organs, pulling, pulling earthward. Again, the sense of restlessness comes over me, and I want to run, to be away, somewhere. I extract my fingers from Oscar’s as gently as I can. From the corner of my eye, I catch the movement of Apollon’s hand coming to rest on Oscar’s shoulder. I let myself take longer strides, walk ahead of them, but not run. I’m walking like a bat out of hell as we come to the last block before home. I hesitate at the side street, glancing the way I shouldn’t be going, considering not going home. Considering running and seeing where I end up. The only thing that stops me is the certainty that anywhere I go, it will not be far enough. None of this is right.

This will all stop once I’m inside, I tell myself, continuing. I won’t feel like this. It will just be warm light, and a dinner of real food, and the comfort of family. Like when mothers swaddle their babies tightly, so they can’t flop about. It’s the same thing. There’s comfort in being held so tightly. Home will do that for me. It will hold me so firmly I can’t move, and this restlessness will go away. I won’t want to run anymore.

I turn through the opening in the junk wall and close the distance to our front door, throwing it open and moving inside. Perched on the end of the bed, Jonas and Miranda jump apart, and I only then register that his arms were around her, his lips pressed against hers. She glares at me, turning red, though I’m not sure if it’s embarrassment or anger. I really don’t care. Now, more than ever before, I want to run.

***

For the first time, I have a different nightmare. I’m on a wide, broken street, with tall buildings rising on either side. In the distance is the single white spire of a skyscraper. There are others around it, but I focus on this one. I start walking toward it. Start running. I hurtle myself down the street. All the while, something is behind me, but more than that, I know that if I don’t get to the white spire, I’m lost. It’s not exactly that something terrible will happen, but I need to be there. Every second that I’m not is like someone is chopping random body parts off of me. Soon, there will be nothing left. Just sausage.

I run until my body shuts down, my lungs bursting and muscles melting into disobedient puddles of flesh. The spire is still just as far away. Around me, the buildings have not changed. I try to start running again, but my feet won’t move. I’ve become part of the concrete. The cracks run right up my legs. I scream, and jerk, trying to free myself. But I can’t. I’m trapped. Everything goes black. As the box encloses me again, I’m sure I’ll die from the terror.

Then I’m being shaken awake, the fingers pressing into my shoulder. “It’s alright,” Jonas voice murmurs sleepily, breaking into my nightmare. I open my eyes and peer around in the darkness, disoriented as usual. At first I think he’s in the box with me. Then I realize where we are. I take a deep breath.

His arm goes over me, and a flash of anger seers through my brain. I want to push him away, throw his arm back at him. But I don’t. I let my breath out, close my eyes. My body relaxes and sinks into the mattress. I pull his arm closer, snuggling it like a child’s doll. Somehow, as I drift into the land of dreams, I no longer feel the need to go anywhere.

***

Apollon and Jonas return from the marketplace with sour expressions and a smaller bag of food than anticipated. Miranda scowls at them from the table. She’s been sitting there all morning, working her wires and metal, even though she knows there’s no use. This is her attempt at staying sane. If she didn’t have this to do, what would Miranda be like? I’m going to find out soon. I begin to make plans to keep out of the house as much as possible.

“What?” Miranda snaps at them, squinting at the bag clutched in Apollon’s fist.

Apollon tosses it down on the table. “Not sure. Something’s going on with shipments or something. No one seems to know exactly what, but prices have skyrocketed.”

No one says anything for a while. Finally, because I’m hungry and no one else seems to be doing anything, I stand up and take the bag from the table. “I’ll make lunch.”

Apollon eyes me as I turn toward the stove, but says nothing. I take the meager amount of brown rice from the bag and empty it into the pan.

“Aren’t you going to save some of that?” Miranda asks. She’s still looking at her wires when I glance at her over my shoulder.

“No.”

Now, I feel her eyes on my back. “What about later?”

I add water to the rice. “I’m hungry now. I’ll go play some cards later.”

“Cards,” she says. “I thought that was a bad idea. Apollon said—”

“Somebody has to make some money around here,” I snap, turning my head to toss her a glare. She goes red, then pale. That wasn’t really necessary. I’m considering what I can say to soften it, when Jonas speaks.

“Neveah is doing OK, still,” he says. “People still need what she sells, even if food is more expensive.” He pulls a handful of coins out of his pocket. Squatting down beside the kitchen table, he bends out one of the wall panels underneath it, dropping the coins into a jar wedged into the space in the wall. “There’s no sense in risking yourself, Eden,” he says, glancing at me as he stands. “We should concentrate on gathering herbs. There’s a lot in season right now, but there won’t be for long. We should try to stock up.”

Apollon nods. “Good idea.” But he glances at me uncertainly.

It’s then that I realize I need to play. Even if we stock up on herbs, if things continue to go like this, Neveah’s income won’t be enough. We eat in silence, a heaviness weighing over us. When I’m done, still thinking about our predicament, I take my plate to the bucket where Jonas is washing up. As I reach around him to set my plate down, I see that his sleeves are pushed up to keep them out of the water. On his left forearm, the entirety of his scar is revealed, and it is shaped like a star. Four lines intersect in the middle, with the bottom point extending longer than all the others.

He glances at me and sees that my eyes have gone wide. Sees where I’m looking. His eyebrows pull down in the middle, his eyes narrowing. I look quickly away, turning back to the others. I focus on what I must do tonight.

Later, as Apollon, Jonas, Oscar, and I walk together outside the wall, I give Apollon a look and a sideways nod.

He wanders a little way with me, and as we harvest the yellow-budded weeds, we meet each other’s gaze.

“I have to do it, you know,” I say.

His jaw sets, but he nods. “I will never let anything bad happen to you, Eden.” If he’d said it differently, it could have seemed like some grand gesture; some foolish, self-important proclamation of masculinity. But the way it came out, so simply, so sincerely, I believe him. He’s got my back.

I nod toward Jonas. “Will he be on board?”

Apollon follows my gaze, his eyes wandering over his friend warily. “He will,” he says flatly, and stands, and moves to the next weed.

That evening, as I take a moment to sit in between the rain barrels around the back of our shack, I hear their voices coming from inside, pitched higher than usual, sometimes speaking over each other. I’ve never heard Apollon and Jonas argue, but now, in my mind’s eye, I see them, facing each other down. I can’t make out what they’re saying. I don’t really have to. Every once in a while, Miranda chimes in, but mostly it’s the two of them. I visualize Neveah, sitting quietly on the couch, watching them, listening, but never saying anything. I imagine Oscar snuggled up against her, but then, I hear his footsteps crunching softly in the dirt.

He comes straight to my spot. The sun is behind me, so he shouldn’t be able to immediately see me there in the evening shadows, but he already knows exactly where to find me. He sits next to me, leaning against the wall, and, for a moment, neither of us speak.

“Get tired of the bickering?” I finally ask, turning my face to him. My hands are resting lightly on my knees, my legs bent up in front of me.

He gives me a little smile. But he says, “Neveah brought home lemon drops.” He opens his hand, in the center of which are two candies.

I think about refusing, but I know Oscar would rather share with me than have two for himself. I pluck one from his palm and pop it into my mouth, giving him a big smile.

He takes the other, sucks on it for a moment, then says around it, “They may be the last ones we get for a while.”

I grimace at him, shrug. “We’ll be OK.” I wish I really felt it.

Again, we sit in silence. My mouth is filled with the taste of tart sugar, the fragrant scent of lemon oil. For just a moment, I feel peaceful. I like sitting with Oscar. Strangely, out of everyone here, he’s my closest friend.

His lemon drop disappears in a final crunch and he licks his palm.

I look at him and laugh. He grins at me.

I lean in conspiratorially and say, “Hey, what’s with Jonas’ scar on his arm? Did he mark himself?” This is expressly forbidden by the Eighth Law of the New Covenant. Any permanent alteration of the body is against the law— from piercings to tattoos, to scarification. I know from somewhere that once, a long time ago, people decorated their bodies with these things freely. But now, any kind of mark could help you track down your past if you’ve been erased. This is why it’s one of the Ten Laws.

Oscar’s eyes widen at my mention of it. He glances from side to side.

The way he does it makes me want to laugh, but I hold back. I feel like a kid, sitting here with him, sharing juicy secrets.

He turns to me and scoots forward a bit. “I don’t know,” he whispers. “He never talks about it.” Then he leans forward even more, hesitates.

I wait.

His face goes very serious. “It’s a compass,” he says. “It means ‘south’.”

My eyes flick back and forth as I think about it. It could be a compass, I suppose. And the bottom line extends further than the other points, aiming for all intents and purposes, southward. This seems an astute observation for an eight-year-old. I’m about to ask about it, when Oscar starts explaining.

“Jonas and Apollon came from Outpost One,” he says. “That’s north of here. They came south. Through Outpost Two, and then south again, to here. And whenever Jonas talks about leaving, he always talks about heading toward Outpost Four. That’s directly south. There’s Thunder Bay. That’s east of here. It’s a real city, they say. But I’ve never heard him talk about going there. He wants to go to Four, even though no one really wants to go there. And he wants to go on after that. South.”

“Hmm,” I say, mulling it over. After a moment, I say, “Do you think he did it before or after?”

Oscar purses his lips. “Why would he do it after?” he asks, logically. “Too big of a risk, for what? And it’s definitely been there for a while. The scars look old.”

I nod. This kid is pretty smart, I’m thinking. But I lean in and smile. “That’s crazy,” I whisper.

“I know!” he whispers back. We grin at each other, co-conspirators.

I’m about to come up with some insane plan to get him to ask Jonas about it, when we hear screams somewhere off to the west, and then what sounds like a gunshot. We frown at each other, get up, and hurry inside.

***

Oscar is not allowed to come with us— a decision I’m glad of. Even if Apollon and Jonas are being overly cautious, I would rather Oscar be safe at home. Of course, he’s not happy about this at all, and even gives me a dark look and a pout as we’re heading out. I counter this by wrapping my arm around his shoulders and squeezing. He’s smiling when I glance back at him from halfway down the path.

The Rustler is full tonight, and the card table is already crowded. When Lloyd sees me coming, he bows out and offers me his spot. Since none of the people at the table are on my no-play list, I take a seat and toss my silver in. I glance around at the faces. I’ve played with all of them before, save one. The girl I remember from my days as a beggar. She still looks tough, and her two pets are sitting at the bar not far away from where mine take up their usual spot. I watch as the two pairs greet each other with a nod. No hostility. No friendliness either. I study the girl again, wondering if she’s a decent player. She sees me looking and stares back, obviously trying to psych me out.

“I don’t think we’ve met,” I say, tilting my head. “I’m Eden.”

“So I heard,” she says bluntly. She doesn’t offer her name.

Jacob clears his throat. “Eden, Sarah,” he says, nodding from me to her.

Sarah decides for sure that she doesn’t like me when I win the first hand. Her eyes glint as she watches me take my winnings. Not that anyone else looks excited about it either. I signal Arthur to bring us a round and make sure I lose the next hand, even though my cards are decent. Jonas and Apollon look tightly wound. Jonas is carrying tension in his shoulders. He may have agreed to this, but he doesn’t like it. Convincing him to let me play again soon will be difficult, especially if things get catty tonight. So I have to win. I have to make enough to get us through for a while.

I win with three of a kind, and then a pair of eights when I don’t mean to. I can’t help that everyone else who stayed in the game was bluffing.

Sarah’s eyes narrow on me.

The next hand, I have a straight flush, and there’s plenty of money in the pot. Sarah raises the bet. It’s my turn. I consider folding, but I can’t just pass this one up. I can’t walk away from all that money. “Call,” I say, tossing my coins in.

It’s the wrong decision. The blood drains from their faces as they scan my cards on the table. I reach for my money.

Sarah, twitching, says, “That sure is some interesting luck you have there, Eden.”

But before the sentence is out, Sumter is on his feet with a knife in his hand.

Everything explodes in one simultaneous blur of motion.

I kick my chair back, leaping to my feet. Sarah jumps up, too, and goes for her belt knife. A thin silver blade whizzes by me and sinks its point between the bones on the back of her hand. Behind me, by the bar, is a crash. I grab for my belt knife, free it from its sheath, and bring my arm up to block Sumter’s blow, but I’m thinking I’m too slow. Instead, he crashes backward, breaking a chair as he falls to the floor. Jonas is on top of him with a knife raised in the air, teeth bared. He brings it down hard, slamming it into the wooden floor, slicing into Sumter’s cheek and notching his ear in the process. Thick red blood splashes from the wound. The bar falls silent. Everyone freezes. I glance back. Apollon stands over Sarah’s friends, who are both on the floor on their backs, with their hands up in submission.

Apollon gives me a look. I grab my money, pocket most of it, and back away toward him. Twenty percent I toss to a gaping Arthur Adner.

Jonas eases off of Sumter, wiggling his knife to free it from the floor. “Next time I kill you,” he growls. He takes two broad steps to Sarah and yanks the small blade from her hand with a nasty flick. She yelps, then whimpers. He looks her in the eye as he pours someone’s drink over both the blades to clean them. “Both of you.” He turns his back on them and stalks out the door. Apollon and I follow.

We make it outside and ten paces down the street before people start bursting out of the place, bolting in different directions. No one wants to be there when the Sentries show up. Jonas, Apollon, and I are not the exception. We head home at a jog.

***

Apollon tells the tale of our excitement, embellishing it with words that should probably have stayed in the poems he read them in. Miranda is horrified, Neveah listens with a creased brow, but Oscar responds exactly, I think, as Apollon had hoped. He only seems disappointed that he missed being there first-hand. I thought it would worry him, but apparently since it is over, and we are victorious, it doesn’t faze him at all.

I wish I could say the same for myself. During the actual fight I didn’t have time to think about dying, about being knifed where I sat. Now, it’s all I can think about. I try to stop shaking. It’s no use. My fingers clutch my knees. No matter how stiff I make myself, I can’t seem to stop. So I chew uncontrollably on my lower lip, trying to focus on the pain. The feel of my teeth sinking in, crushing the flesh into a small bulge between my upper and lower incisors. The tip of my tongue pressed against the smooth skin inside my mouth. The first sharp, salty flow of metallic-tasting liquid.

The problem is, no matter what I think of, I end up back at the same place. I don’t want to die. I can’t die yet. There’s something important that needs my attention, first. That same restlessness. I take slow, measured breaths, but I want to scream. To run.

Neveah’s hand touches my shoulder, then pets my arm. So gentle. So soothing. I meet her sorrowful eyes, manage to flick the corners of my mouth into a smile of thanks. She squeezes my arm. I lean against her. Her arm goes around my shoulders, her hands clasping each other just below my throat. I sink back and close my eyes, wondering again if I have a mother somewhere. If she ever held me like this. If I will ever know.

I snuggle against Neveah while Miranda and Oscar cook dinner. When I finally open my eyes, Jonas is sitting across from us looking at me with a blank expression. He’s thinking hard about something, but about what I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read him. He sees me looking and unhurriedly turns his gaze to the others— to the dinner of hot corn porridge oozing slowly out of the mouth of Oscar’s pan onto our plates.

After dinner, I decide to take a bath, an attempt at self-soothing. This time I run water into every pan we have and place them all across the stove top. A warm bath. It sounds heavenly.

Neveah helps me carry my pans of water to the tub and pour them in. She leaves a packet of herbs for me as well— probably another of her ongoing ministrations to ensure my foot heals up properly.

By the time I’ve finished my bath, I’m no longer shaking. I dry myself with the frayed towel, and dress. Looking in the mirror, combing through my dark, wet hair with my fingers, I almost recognize the person staring back at me. At least, I’ve seen her before. My tongue traces the lumpiness where I’ve chewed my lip, still tasting blood. I pull it down to examine the injury and freeze.

Staring back at me, the girl’s eyes go wide. She holds her lip down, pinched between two fingers. A speckling of blood reveals where she’s chewed her mouth. I hardly notice that. It’s the black letters, clearly printed across the inside of her lower lip. One word. One name. “Jason.”

I shiver, taking a step back. I eye the girl warily. She gazes back at me. We’re at a sort of impasse. Her eyes are alarmed, questioning. But this is my lip. Not hers. It’s my secret. Even now, the word is inside my mouth. It has to be upside down and backward, or I wouldn’t be able to read it like this in the mirror. That means it’s not for someone else. It’s for me. Just for me.

I close my eyes and sit down on the toilet, letting out a long breath through my lips. My head swirls. My brain spins. Ideas are screaming so loud I can’t hear any of them. I need a moment. Just a moment. Breathing. I’m OK.

At last I’m able to open my eyes and start to think. A jumble of emotion jostles around inside me, but I can approach it from a distance, halfway logical. The first question is, why? Why would someone risk their life to write a name permanently on their skin? It is hidden, yes. The Sentries missed it. Or is this why I was erased in the first place?

The idea brings bile and anger rising from my stomach. Would I have risked my whole existence for a name? For whose name? Jason. I repeat it over and over in my mind, trying to feel, to suck any meaning out of it. Jason. Jason. Jason. But the name floats far away from me. A stranger. Who was he?

Then it dawns on me, suddenly. This mark proclaims me someone else’s property. Of course I would never have done this to myself. But a slave owner? Why not? The mark is hidden to protect the owner’s property interests, but permanent, final. A mark of ownership. A reminder for those who might stray. No wonder slavery repulsed me so. I’ve been a slave before. But why, then, do I feel the need to be… somewhere? Confusion and emotion overwhelm me.

I hold my face in my hands, and let myself cry.

[*

Chapter 9: Thugs*]

FOOD PRICES REMAIN ridiculously high. The effects can be seen throughout the Outpost. We’re not the only ones eating smaller portions. Even the stale, moldy cakes cost three times what they did previously. The beggars have it worst. In three days we witness the Sentries take five of them for stealing. That’s what we see happen. The real numbers will be much, much higher.

I’m thankful for the decision I made in the game, even if it almost got me stabbed. I know now that we’re going to need everything we can get. But money wasn’t the only outcome of that fateful game. Today, as I walk into the Rustler on my own, I already know what to expect. No one bothers me. Over the last two days, I’ve come here with Jonas and Apollon. There has always been a place for me at the card table. A few people have bought me drinks. People I never knew before try to ingratiate themselves with chatter. No one wants to be on my bad side.

Or more accurately, no one wants to be on Apollon’s or Jonas’ bad side. I suspect my friends have always been this intimidating, but perhaps people needed to be reminded. Or maybe they weren’t sure Apollon and Jonas would put themselves at risk to back me. Now, there is no mistake. Even Sumter, as I walk in today, lowers his gaze, muttering. His left cheek and ear are covered in bandage. He looks nervous, but not dangerous. There’s an empty chair beside him. I know, if I want, I can sit there and play cards.

But I’m not interested in joining the card table yet. Maybe in a while. Right now, I want to sit, and think. Apollon and Jonas are out talking to people in the marketplace, trying to feel out if there’s anywhere they still might peddle Miranda’s stuff. Miranda is storming around our shack, completely out of parts to assemble. She talks a lot more, now that she has nothing else to focus on. She makes me want to hide. But I know if I sit out back Oscar will find me. And as much as I adore Oscar, I don’t want to talk to him right now. I’m shrinking away from everything. Wanting only to be inside myself, deep down where no one else can find me.

I take a seat on a bar stool and place a coin on the bar. I shouldn’t be spending it. The act brings with it a surge of guilt. But I won this money. I can buy one drink if I want to. Then I can sit here as long as I desire, and block everything else out.

Arthur Adner swipes the coin away and replaces it with a shot of cheap whiskey. He says nothing to me.

I’m tempted to down the shot. To let the slow burn move through my chest and then up into my head. But I want to stay here as long as I can, so I sip slowly. My mind presses into the deep well of mixed emotion I’ve been filling up. The white spire is center in my thoughts. I’m always trying to reach it, and never moving. Am I really meant to go somewhere? Really meant to find something? Why would I always dream of it, if it means nothing? Its every detail is so clear in my mind. The sun gleaming off the white plaster. The blue sky, hanging clouds. Surrounding buildings, with broken windows. The shape of the skyline, always the same. Is this place real? Does it exist? Is this where I came from? Or is it a symbol of something else?

I’m so absorbed, so entirely fortified in my thoughts, that I don’t notice the subtle change in noise until much later, when someone leans up against the bar beside me. I look up, the words _ go away_ already forming on my lips. I freeze.

Matthew’s eyes graze over me, tracing my body, my face, almost randomly. Now, up close, there is something in them I couldn’t see when I viewed him from across the street. Something hard and formidable. Something that tells me to be very, very careful. He takes a moment to view me, then smiles. “I’m Matt.”

My mind scrambles. All I manage in reply is, “I know.”

His hazel eyes flick out over the barroom. He leans back casually, both elbows resting on the bar behind him. When he looks at me again, his eyes narrow on me, not malicious, but scrutinizing.

I make myself turn toward him. “I’m Eden,” I say. I think my voice is level. Level enough.

“Eden,” he says simply. Again, he takes a moment to look over the people at the tables. Then he turns toward me, looks me up and down. His fingers brush lightly over my arm. The wheels are turning behind his eyes, though his manner is casual. “Surely,” he says, “I would have remembered someone like you.”

I desperately want to retreat, but I know that would be the wrong thing to do. My mind claws for purchase in this conversation. And then, before I even know I’m doing it, I smile. I withdraw my arm from his touch, but only so I can raise my hand to brush my hair aside from my forehead.

When he draws back, it’s only the slightest movement of surprise. Alarm. His eyes flick back and forth across my face now, reevaluating. Then, quite suddenly, he grins. It’s a broad grin, easy and natural, and I actually feel myself relax in response to it.

“Well,” he says, “slipped right through my fingers, didn’t you.”

I laugh, and there’s a brief moment where I’m thinking he’s really not so bad. Then I remember the old lady. Remember that everyone in the Outpost is afraid of Matthew. Remember that I am not, no matter how natural his smile is, talking to a friend.

But he’s chuckling, clearly amused by me. And I figure that’s a good thing, at least as things go. When he’s done laughing, his smile turns thoughtful. His eyes keep moving over me. “I’ll buy you a drink,” he says, waving Arthur over.

Again, I want to retreat, but I don’t imagine anyone in the Outpost would refuse Matthew’s gesture of goodwill. I don’t like the idea of him giving me anything, though. So I say, throwing him a sly, sideways smile, “No, I’ll buy you a drink.” Arthur Adner is already placing two shots in front of us, and I see that he has poured from the most expensive bottle he has. I scoop the coins from my pocket and place them on the counter before Matt can protest. It’s more than I can afford to spend. In fact, it is everything I had brought with me to bet in the game. But I don’t hesitate or flinch. Matthew’s eyes glance from the coins to my face as he picks up his drink, and I know he’s gotten the message. I’m doing just fine, thank you.

I pick up my drink and swallow a mouthful. This one will go down much quicker than the last. “After this,” I say, as though I’m reluctant, “I have to go. My friends are expecting me.”

He doesn’t say anything. We just sit, and eye each other, and drink our whiskey. It’s smooth and warm, and sweeter than the other. If circumstances were different, I would probably be enjoying it immensely. I pace myself, so I don’t seem too eager to go, but finish within a few moments. I set my glass on the bar with a final thunk, and spin my body around, find my feet. There, I pause, and give him a smile that I hope will be enough to charm, and too little to enamor. “It was nice meeting you, Matt,” I say, and I turn and walk away. The way he watches me go without saying anything— just watching, watching— it’s entirely unnerving.

***

The next time I see Matthew, it’s from a distance, and he is seething. Apollon, Jonas, and I duck back into the doorway of Canson’s store as we spot Matt striding down the middle of the street, flanked on either side by three goons. They’re headed somewhere with long, purposeful steps. He’s saying something to his men. His face, set in a scowl, looks like it belongs on an entirely different man than the one I met at the Rustler. I’ve not mentioned the encounter to anyone, though Apollon gave me an odd look one day, so I wonder if someone has said something to him about it. Me talking to Matthew. Is that news that would travel around the Outpost?

That day put a dent in my pocket. A huge dent. Not only paying for the drinks, but leaving without playing cards. None of my friends have asked where the money went, but it’s two days later and I have yet to make it up. Last night, Donegan was part of the game, and Apollon and Jonas insisted we leave as soon as we walked in. Now, seeing Matthew storm off in the opposite direction, I turn to my friends, about to suggest heading to the Rustler.

Before I can do so, Apollon slips out of the door, gesturing for us to follow.

We trail along at a distance behind Matthew’s crew, keeping pace with them. I’m thinking this is a terrible idea, but Apollon looks intent. Jonas doesn’t protest. So I follow along. They lead us all the way through town toward the Outpost gate. There’s a battered, solar-powered vehicle parked by the wall, its black cells gleaming, but missing in places. Three men stand outside it. They greet Matthew gravely and start talking and gesturing wildly. He listens with crossed arms and a frown. After a while, they bring around one box, and lift some of its contents— a few dented cans, an abused head of cabbage, and a loose scattering of beans and dried corn kernels.

“The supply shipments,” Jonas murmurs beside me. We’re standing about half a block off, under an awning that’s only partially attached to a dilapidated brick building.

I shake my head, wanting to be away. But Apollon says, “Looks like someone’s hijacking the caravans.”

Jonas peers at Matthew’s group. “Maybe,” he says. He and Apollon exchange glances. “Do…”

Whatever he was going to say trails off as Matthew, turning back toward the Outpost, sees us. His frown has not disappeared, and now his eyes narrow on the three of us.

Apollon grabs my arm and pulls me with him, turning to retreat. “Come on,” he says. We start walking quickly away, but all three of us look back over our shoulders at Matt. He’s just standing there, watching us. And it’s my gaze that he meets.

***

Over the course of the next few days, things get even more interesting. I only manage to play a couple of card games, because, for the most part, we’re lying low. I’m not sure if this is because Matthew saw us, or because of the state of the Outpost in general. The beggars are worked into a frenzy of hopelessness, accosting people on the streets in places where there are no Sentries. A sense of desperation is taking hold, boding bad things to come. People are trying to save up what they can, but the exorbitant cost of food and basic supplies means that there’s little left to spare. Everyone is broke. Almost everyone. Even at our card games, the pot is small. Some players have stopped coming all together.

There seems to be an increase in the number of people working for Matt, and every single one of them is well armed. Clearly, he’s been recruiting. But why, exactly, is he building an army? The question makes me shudder.

Finally, during a game of cards, I hear something that begins to explain what’s happening. Taylor and Jacob are now working for Matthew, so it’s them that tell us about Outpost Two. Apparently, a conflict between Grey, the big boss of Outpost Two, and Matt has morphed into a larger mess. It started with the slave trade. No one really knows the full story behind it, but Matthew’s people claim that Grey took offense at something that should have been easily smoothed over. Maybe he wanted to start this fight, they say. Grey has a reputation for being power hungry and greedy. He takes over anything he can. He thinks he owns everyone.

As I listen, I think about Matthew. Aren’t they describing him? Does he really have a right to own the people he sells like animals? And why should we give him part of everything we earn? What does he do for us in return? I think all this, and I say nothing.

Jacob and Taylor continue to tell us about shipments being attacked on their way to the Outpost. These are goods that have been paid for, and they’re being stolen right out of our hands. Matt is furious. He’s trying to negotiate with Grey, but who knows how that will go. So, as a backup plan, he’s recruiting. He needs people who can fight. Jacob’s eyes flick to Apollon and Jonas, at the bar, but I don’t think he’s aware that he’s done it. This sets me on edge, so much that I’m not even paying attention to my cards. When it’s my turn to bet, I have to quickly scan my hand and make a first-instinct decision. I fold. My cards are terrible and there’s nothing in the pot anyway.

The game disbands before it really gets going, players pulling out. I break even, technically, but I have to leave twenty percent for Matt. I walk away worse off than I was when I got here.

Apollon and Jonas don’t say anything to me about it. Their jaws are clenched, their faces set. I feel that I’ve disappointed them— disappointed all of us. But we walk quietly out of the Rustler, no words exchanged. The heaviness of the moment immerses me. What will we do, I’m thinking. We can’t go on like this. Pressure and panic rise in my chest. I want to run. Apollon’s hand touches my shoulder, patting gently. I glance back at him, expecting a sympathetic look, but instead, his face goes deadly still. His fingers jerk away from my back. He’s not looking at me.

“Stay here, Eden,” Jonas mumbles through clenched teeth. He’s wearing the same expression. I follow their gaze across the street to two men I’ve never seen before.

I open my mouth to protest, but Apollon and Jonas are already striding across the street, leaving me behind. They don’t go directly to the men, but to the alleyway. A moment later, the men wander in their direction. I stand there and watch them disappear into the alley, and decide I don’t like them. They have a hardened appearance. A thuggish gait.

I give them two minutes, and I cross the street, ignoring my orders. There’s no way I’m leaving my friends without backup. But by the time I get to the mouth of the alleyway, Apollon and Jonas are coming back out.

Apollon looks annoyed when he sees me. Jonas gives me the darkest of looks.

“I told you to stay there,” he says, as I fall in with them, heading toward home.

I shrug, and glance at Apollon. “What was that about?” I ask, when we turn onto a street with less people.

“Nothing,” Jonas answers.

I study Apollon.

His eyes scan over my face, then he looks away. After a while, he redirects us into an alley. Someone flees the other end as though we’ve caught him out at something. We walk deep into the alleyway and Apollon kicks over a pile of rags, checking it for an occupant. He glances up and down the passageway.

All the while, Jonas is scowling. “Drag her into it, too,” he mutters. “Good idea, Apollon.”

Apollon gives him a look, sneers. “She should know,” he says. “She has a right.”

Jonas crosses his arms and leans back against the old brick wall. He looks like a cat that has been dunked in water and is plotting revenge.

“So, who were those guys?” I ask softly, hoping they’ll forget about each other. The shadows of the alleyway are cold, making me wrap my arms about myself.

“You know what Jacob and Taylor were saying?” Apollon says. He looks away from Jonas and focuses on me. “Well, those are some of Grey’s men. Presumably here for negotiations.”

My eyes flick back and forth between my two companions, considering. Finally, I ask, “And what does that have to do with you?”

Again, Apollon looks at Jonas, and hesitates. He purses his lips thoughtfully, studying the ground. Then his eyes go clear, and he looks up at me. “We’re Grey’s men, too.”

[*

Chapter 10: Qualifying Factors*]

I CLOSE MY eyes and lean against the brick wall. My mind is caught in a dark whirlwind. Finally, I open my eyelids slowly, focus on Apollon. “How could that be?

“We came here from Two,” Jonas spits out softly. “That’s how we made a living when we were there.”

“But, you left there. You’ve been here for a year and a half, at least. You weren’t even going to stay.” My eyes search Apollon’s face, wanting him to tell me I’m right. They have no part in this mess. They knew nothing about it.

But Apollon says quietly, “Grey sent us here to be in place for… when things happen.”

I blink and shake my head slowly. I want to say something, but I close my mouth on the words. I turn to walk away from them.

Apollon’s hand on my arm stops me. “Eden,” he says. “You haven’t heard everything.”

I glance at him warily. There is something more to it. But Jonas’ face is still set in that dark look. He still thinks it’s none of my business. I want to throw something at him.

Apollon’s fingers squeeze my arm. “We volunteered for this,” he says. “It was the only way to get out of Two. And we did mean to move on as soon as we could. Before all this. It’s just…”

“Oscar,” I whisper.

He nods. “And Miranda. And Neveah, even. Travel is dangerous. We couldn’t just leave them. Not knowing—”

I wait for him to go on, but he doesn’t. “Knowing what?” I finally ask.

He swallows. “Grey means to take over,” he says. “He wants to build an empire.”

I turn and face him now. “How?”

He shakes his head. His voice goes even quieter. “I don’t know,” he says. “We only have the general idea. We were supposed to wait for orders.”

I cross my arms. “Well,” I say, “wasn’t that your orders?”

Apollon and Jonas look at each other. I don’t like it. I think they’re deciding what not to tell me. And this makes me wonder if I should have trusted them at all. Are they really my family? Or are they a better-looking version of the old woman?

Surprisingly, it’s Jonas that speaks. “We never wanted to be part of it, Eden,” he says softly. “You do what’s necessary to survive. Sometimes you make choices that you don’t like. But in the end, you’re alive.”

I meet his gaze, and it’s like he has momentarily removed that block that does not let me see inside. He’s sincere. He’s honest. He’s read my mind. A little jolt goes through me, like the kick of a gun. Someone has dropped a hornets’ nest into my skull.

He pushes himself away from the wall, walks to me, and takes my hand. “You don’t need to know any more,” he says. His voice is a caress. “The less you know, the better it is for you.”

I’m staring at him. Staring. This is the Jonas whose arm holds back my nightmares. I’ve never seen him walk in daylight before. Except, maybe, for that one brief moment at the gate to our yard, when he finally gave me an answer. I feel the tendrils of some unnamed tangle of emotions begin to climb up from the pit of my stomach, seedlings reaching for the sun. I’ve forgotten everything else.

“OK?” Jonas asks, his fingers squeezing mine.

I nod. Of course it’s OK. Anything Jonas thinks is OK is definitely OK. I don’t even really consider what it is that we’re OKing.

A little smile flicks across his face. “Good,” he says. He withdraws. His hand, his eyes, his soul.

I struggle not to let out the whimper of protest.

Apollon clears his throat and gestures to the far end of the alley. I turn, in front of them, and start walking, but as I do, I catch the look that passes between them. Apollon— repressed amusement. A toss of the head and roll of the eyes. Jonas— barely hidden self-satisfaction. He sets his jaw. Is it in determination, or to keep from laughing?

My face goes hot. I take large steps to keep ahead of them. The brisk wind sweeps toward us as we emerge from the alley. I let my hair be blown into my face, and do not push it back.

***

Oscar has a slingshot. He’s not bad with it, really. As we wind about the maze of streets in the Outpost, he targets birds, and chatters to me. I try to focus on what he’s saying, but my thoughts slink away. I scan our surroundings for any hint of danger, attempting to stay vigilant and look intimidating. This is the job I’ve assigned myself, though I have no desire to do it right now. I want to walk and be alone. But Oscar wants to hunt birds. And since he actually killed one two days ago— pitiful little piece of feather and bone that it was— I can’t really discourage him. As his latest target flutters away, I consider that it would be easier to hunt rats. We’re not that bad off yet, though, and I’m unwilling to go there. I don’t want to ever have to eat rat again.

We’re coming to a cross street. He aims at a fat pigeon that’s clucking around a puddle. He pulls back his slingshot, closes one eye, and makes a face of intense concentration. Only, the way his mouth is screwed up sideways, the tip of his tongue sticking out— it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. I start laughing. He glances at me out of the corner of his eye, then back at the bird, but that’s it. He’s caught my giggles. I’m bending over with my hands on my knees, laughing, as he tries to be serious enough to make the shot, but his attempts at sobriety only make him look funnier. I laugh harder. His hand wavers as he aims.

“You look like a pirate,” I manage between my giggles, and he starts really cracking up, just as he lets the shot fly.

The stone hurtles itself toward the street, way higher than intended. In the span of an instant, I see it, and hear the rumble. I puzzle over what the noise could possibly be and figure it out. The car bursts into the intersection. The stone goes through the driver’s window. A spider web of cracks appear, springing outward from a hole. The vehicle screeches to a halt. I recognize the car— its solar panels, one missing.

Oscar and I stare. We’re too startled, at first, to run. Then the doors of the car burst open. One of Matthew’s men steps from the driver’s side of the car, looking fiercely in our direction. From the opposite door emerges Matt. His gaze falls on us disapprovingly.

I grab Oscar’s arm. “Run,” I whisper, even though my own feet seem frozen to the spot.

Oscar gives the slightest shake of his head. “No one runs from Matt.”

I’m about to say “Wanna bet?” when Matthew points at Oscar, turns his hand over, and hooks his index finger. Come. Oscar steps forward obediently. I’m at his side. But Matt shakes his head, and the driver moves toward me. As Oscar walks into the intersection, around the car, the driver and I do a little dance a few paces away from each other, him stepping to block my path each time I try to move forward, and me trying to find a way around him without actually making contact. I give up, at last, held behind this invisible fence, and look around him to Oscar and Matt. I’m tense, ready to run. I swear to god if Matt hurts a hair on Oscar’s head, I’ll kill him. My knife hangs heavily in its belt sheath.

Matt sits on the high curb and places Oscar directly in front of him. He’s at Oscar’s eye level, leaning in, talking to him intently. But if he’s angry, he’s doing a good job at holding back. He places one hand on Oscar’s shoulder, making me jump, but he’s not hurting Oscar. He looks like a parent giving his child a good talking-to. Nothing more. Oscar nods soberly throughout the conversation. Only at the end do I hear his voice at all. I think he’s said, “Yes, sir.” Matt looks seriously into his eyes, then nods his head in a dismissive gesture. Oscar turns and walks back to me. Matt’s not far behind him.

My eyes scan Oscar’s sober face. I look at Matt, walking toward us, and say, “Go home, Oscar.” I hate that I sound like Jonas when he told me to wait across the street. Oscar gives me a single look of protest, then does as I’ve asked.

Matt saunters up with his hands in his pockets. “He’s right, you know,” he says, his eyes wandering over me.

I try to look unaffected. I managed to put myself on fairly even ground with him before. I’ll be damned if I’m going to lose turf now. I raise one eyebrow at him rather than ask what he means.

“No one runs from me,” he says.

The nexus of multiple meanings settles into my brain, making my blood run cold. So much for level ground. I try for comedy instead. “Well,” I lull, grinning at him, sweeping one foot lazily at a bottle cap lying in the street, “what would you do if you accidentally put a hole in the all-powerful overlord’s window?”

It works. He starts laughing.

I laugh with him, and it takes a moment for the humor to run down to a soft chuckle. I’m thinking I like this— a villain with a sense of humor. It’s sure got to beat the alternative.

He looks suddenly thoughtful, then says, “I would woo him with my girlish charms. I’m betting that would be very effective.”

My cheeks go suddenly hot. I’m smiling as I look away from him. I don’t mean to, but he is… well, charming. I remind myself who, exactly, it is that I’m talking to. When I look back at him, I say dryly, “Your girlish charms, huh?”

He nods very seriously, crossing his arms. “My girlish charms.”

Now it’s my turn to look him up and down. I frown. “I don’t really see it.”

He’s done joking. He reaches for my hand and traps it in his own. “There’s not a lot of meat on pigeons, you know,” he says. “Probably takes more effort to kill them than it’s worth.”

I shrug. “Oscar thinks it’s fun.”

“I could help you,” he says, looking into my eyes. “If things are going that badly…”

I free my hand as delicately as I can, and wrap my arms around myself, like I’m cold. “Thanks,” I say. “We’re doing fine, though.”

His eyebrows go up a touch in an expression of disbelief. He glances back at the car and his driver.

I look around at the people here and there on the street. We’re not entirely alone, but the population seems to have drastically declined in the last few minutes. That doesn’t make me feel the most comfortable.

He shrugs. “Well, if you change your mind…” He walks away from me.

I feel every muscle in my body go slack. I want to sit down. Instead, I manage to hold myself upright long enough to walk away. The car moves off behind me. I make it to a wall, and sink down against it.

A moment later, Oscar scares the hell out of me by popping up unexpectedly by my side. As I recover from the shock, he slides down next to me.

“It’s so strange,” he says. “You want to like him.”

It takes me a minute to realize that he means ‘you’ in general, not me. “Yeah?” I mumble.

He nods. “He’s like that,” he says. “He doesn’t seem like he’s a bad person.” He’s quiet for a moment, his lips pursed. Then he adds, “Then you remember things, like how he let your family starve, because you weren’t any use to him. Then you remember why you hate him.”

I imagine my little Oscar, sick and starving on the streets. I imagine being able to help him, and choosing not to. My stomach turns and acid rises into my throat. There are things that set us apart. Things that are human. Decent. And humor, alone, is not a qualifying factor.

[*

Chapter 11: Feline Curiosity*]

WE’RE ON OUR way home, and Apollon veers off, saying he’ll catch up with us later. As we’ve been walking, I’ve planned my words, hoping to get some answers once we get into the quieter streets. Now, I’m stuck with Jonas, and getting answers out of him will be like getting orange juice out of a cabbage. A nervous flutter fills my chest cavity. I clench my fingers into fists to keep my hands steady.

We enter an area that’s completely quiet. “Wait,” I say softly.

Jonas keeps walking.

“Wait,” I say again, grabbing his wrist to stop him.

He turns to me, and jerks his arm away. “What?” he says, his voice filled with impatience.

My mouth is hanging, my eyes scanning his face. This isn’t the opening I’d hoped for. And his barely-suppressed hostility sets me off-balance before I’ve even started the conversation. “You know what,” I finally say.

He crosses his arms and rolls his eyes. His jaw sets. “I thought you knew what was good for you.”

“Apparently not,” I counter, tilting my chin up.

He looks at me warily and shakes his head.

Finally, I say, in what I think will be a nicer voice— but what comes out ringing with impatience— “Jonas…”

His eyes narrow thoughtfully. “You’re such a pain,” he says. “Why did we ever take you on?”

The words in themselves are hurtful, but there’s something beneath them that takes away the sting. “Not like you had a choice,” I drawl at him as we start walking again, very slowly. “You were kind of out-voted.”

He snorts. “Just goes to show that democracy doesn’t work.”

I check our surroundings at the mention of politics. There’s not a Sentry in sight, but a few men are walking toward us. I tug his arm and we turn down an alleyway. He eyes me as we walk in silence. We take the next left into an adjoining alleyway, turning back in our original direction. I slam on the brakes. Jonas gropes at me and pulls me back. The beggars are covered in blood. Their hands. Their mouths. They’re hunched over something. Over someone. Their heads turn to look at us, eyes wild. We backpedal and run for the other end of the alley.

On the next street, we turn and walk, forcing our breathing to normal. I’m shivering, fixated on analyzing the glimpse of gore. When they turned toward us… I think one of them was that crazy boy from the fire barrels. I look at Jonas. His answering glance is filled with a warning. We say nothing.

“Anyway,” he says, after we have walked for a moment, “you really are better off not knowing. You know what happens to kittens that get too curious, right?”

I can’t get the image out of my mind. I shove it into its own dark box. Imagine pulse beams erasing it. Jonas. I narrow my eyes, focusing on him and his words. “I guess I’ll just have to ask Miranda, then.”

He shoots me a wide-eyed look of horror. So Miranda doesn’t know.

I smile at him. It feels almost normal, now.

His eyes narrow. “You’re going to get yourself killed. You know that?”

I half-wonder if it’s a threat. When I speak, my voice sounds light. Easy. “What’re you going to do? Eat me?”

Alarm flashes in Jonas’ eyes, so brief I could easily have missed it.

I shrug. “Not like it was my idea to chose sides in a war between bad guys.”

Jonas produces the faintest hint of a laugh— more just the movement of shoulders than any kind of real noise. Suddenly, his eyes are hard on my face. “But you did, didn’t you?” he says. “You’ve already chosen a side.”

I manage to smother the alarm before it shows on my face, but not the confusion. My mind is stumbling over the past few days, wondering if he’s seen me talking to Matthew— if he thinks I’ve chosen that side.

But he says, carefully, like he’s feeding me the ideas, “You chose us. You’re one of us. Our side is your side.”

I stare at him quietly. Finally, I say, “It’s kind of hard to be on your side when I have no idea what that means. What we’re even doing.”

Now Jonas stops again, turning me to him, wrapping his fingers lightly around my forearms. The touch sends little shocks up my arms, even though it’s through the sleeves of my jacket. His face is serious, but his voice is soft, barely audible. “We are getting the hell out of here,” he says. His words, like his fingers, are full of electricity.

Again, I’m gaping, staring up into his green eyes. I don’t want to break that connection. Don’t want the moment of silence to pass. But I whisper, “Leaving?” My pulse is out of the starting gate and running like hell. The idea blazes up inside me. I am consumed.

He nods and looks away, his eyes quickly scanning the street around us, but no one is near.

I find my voice, though it comes in a broken, throaty squawk. “When? How are we going to—”

Jonas silences me with a look. His fingers tighten ever-so-slightly on my arms. He hesitates, then says, “I haven’t told the others yet.”

I frown. “Well,” I say, “you two have never been great at sharing information, have you.”

But he’s shaking his head. “No,” he says. “Apollon doesn’t know either.”

I take a moment to study him, but I can’t quite figure him out. His face is written in a language I don’t speak. Some of the words might look familiar, but the meaning is elusive, just beyond translation. I shift my arms, and his fingers fall away. I say, “So… it’s not really a plan.”

His eyes narrow on me. “It’s a plan. It’s the only plan.”

I wrap my arms about myself and look away, my hair blowing across my face. Now that the idea of leaving has seared itself into my core, I can stand back and look at its smoldering edges. I can analyze its wisdoms and foolishnesses. There are plenty of both. How, exactly, would we manage to get our little group, eight-year-old boy included, out of the Outpost and all the way to… to who knows where? Where would we even go? My eyes flick to Jonas’ wrist, though his scar is covered. I catch myself and look away, but I’m too late. He’s caught it.

His face flushes dark, his jaw tightening.

“I’m all for leaving,” I say, hoping to distract him. The statement is true enough, though I’m worried about the practicalities.

“Yeah?”

I nod, allowing my mind to consider the possibility of going. I imagine myself running, and again, I’m thinking about the white spire that haunts my dreams. Is it real? Could I find it? The hopeless urge to be there washes over me in the wan light of the waking world. I shiver and sigh.

Jonas pats my shoulder and we begin walking again. “Good,” he says. “You can help me convince Apollon.”

“Oh, no,” I say. “That’s all on you.”

***

Whoever said that nothing can ever be easy was absolutely right. Jonas and Apollon spend a good deal of time arguing. Apollon says the journey would be more dangerous now than ever, and he’s right. Miranda vehemently takes his side. Neveah sits calmly, her eyes moving back and forth between speakers. I perch on the end of the bed, a spectator. Oscar leans against my side. We watch, and I say nothing. I’m busy trying to keep my mind away from the memories that I can’t erase. Jonas throws me a dirty look.

In the end, it’s a stalemate. There are a lot of questions, and it doesn’t help that Jonas has not revealed his and Apollon’s involvement with Grey to the others. This annoys me, but I hold my tongue. It’s not really my secret to tell.

My mind drifts away from the conversation, which has gone round in circles so many times that it’s just old. Before I realize the path my thoughts have taken, I’m wondering— if the others decide to stay— will I still go on my own? The idea startles me, but with it comes the need to run. I want to go. I really want to go.

Oscar stays behind when Jonas, Apollon, and I head out to the Rustler. We walk through the streets quietly, and I consider our position. There’s hardly any money left. Every day there’s less, despite the small amount Neveah and I bring in. We cannot sustain ourselves here. Every day the Outpost becomes more frightening. Darker. There’s not really any choice then, except to leave.

We take up our usual spots— Apollon and Jonas at the bar, and me at the game table. I’m sitting with my back to the door, which makes me uncomfortable, but I know my friends are watching out for me. The other players mumble greetings. Most of them look tired, worn down, and for just a moment I feel bad about taking their money. It passes quickly. Only Jacob and Taylor look unworried, which makes me wonder how generous Matthew is being to them for their services. The rest of his thugs certainly appear to be well-fed. But how long can that last? How long can even Matthew feed an army, when our major food source is not functioning? The shipments that flow into the Outpost like its lifeblood are slowly being strangled, cut off. Only a handful of the goods we need are actually coming through. Food has never been abundant. Things are about to get bad here. Very, very bad. I toss my coin into the pot. We have to leave. We have to run.

I half-heartedly place a bet and exchange two cards. I’m still thinking about leaving. I glance at Jonas and Apollon, who aren’t talking to each other. They watch the game silently. Neither of them meet my eyes. By the time it’s my turn to call, I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll have to take Jonas’ side in the argument that will continue at home. I take the few coins I’ve won, imagining what that lively conversation will be like. Miranda already dislikes me enough. She’ll be livid if I speak out for the idea of leaving. Will Oscar be afraid, I wonder? Will he look at me with those wide, brown eyes like I’ve somehow betrayed him by wanting to take him into the dangerous unknown? Or will he jump in with his eight-year-old boy enthusiasm and innocent disregard for peril?

I toss in my next coin, and lose. I toss in my next coin, and win. But the win is less than the lose. I set my jaw and ante again. The next round is intense. My cards are good, but the others are betting higher than usual as well. I don’t think they’re bluffing. I eye my hand and consider. As I’m doing this, waiting on Julian Moore’s bet, the low buzz of conversation around us ceases. I blink, registering the quiet. My fingers tighten on my cards, and very purposely, I don’t turn around. I don’t glance at Apollon or Jonas, whose tension I observe out of the corner of my eye. I focus on the game. On my cards. I watch Julian’s hand deposit his coins into the pot. I consider my own cards. On the edges of my vision, I see them walk around our table— a group of seven. Their solid footsteps are loud on the wooden floorboards. They take their chairs at the table next to us; the table I am facing. And directly above my cards I cannot help but notice that Matt is sitting now, looking quietly at me, studying me. His crew doesn’t talk. They’re all watching our table. I ignore them. I make my decision, and raise the bet. Then I look at Lloyd, who is sitting to my other side. He falters, clears his throat. It takes him a moment, which, I suspect, has partially to do with the fact that Matthew is sitting at the next table. I catch Jacob and Taylor glancing at their boss. He gives them the smallest shake of his head— permission to stay in the game. The turns go round the table, and I am sweating. Matthew is watching me. I have too much invested in the pot. Apollon and Jonas are stone-still, but buzzing. Matt’s gaze flicks to them. The potential for disaster looms over me. I force my breathing to be steady, but I’m suffocating. My brain is awash in a dizzying fog.

Then suddenly, the cards are down, and we’re all scanning the hands on the table. My eyes dart back and forth. Jacob and I both have straights. Mine is one card higher than his. I’ve won by the skin of my teeth. I reach for my money.

“Well played, Eden,” Matt says from the next table.

Now I glance up and meet his gaze briefly before focusing again on my coins. “Thanks,” I say. I catch a shift of movement out of the corner of my eye— Apollon and Jonas, starving dogs that have almost worked up the courage to take a bite out of their master. I toss in the next ante before they have a chance to jump up and drag me away.

Jacob and Taylor leave the table, pulling their chairs up amongst Matt’s crew. This means less money in the pot, and by the time the next hand is through, it’s clear that the stakes are not worth it. Boldly, I plunk Matthew’s twenty percent down on the table next to him. There seems no point in giving it to Arthur when Matt is right here. He looks sideways and up at me, a smug little smile on his face, and says nothing. I turn and head for the door. Apollon and Jonas are on my heels.

We burst into the street. I glance back at my friends. Apollon looks startled, but Jonas is absolutely fuming. I could probably cook an egg on his head right now. I pull my gaze away and keep walking.

“What was that?” Jonas mutters. His voice has a sharp edge to it.

As he falls in at my side, I look him over. Apollon is now at my other shoulder. I shrug.

“When did you meet Matthew?” Apollon asks, slowly and carefully. So he didn’t know. His face, when I look at him, shows a wariness that wasn’t there before. Does he think I’ll betray them to Matt?

I put my hand on Apollon’s arm as we walk. “I ran into him at the Rustler one day,” I tell him. I’d not planned on explaining things, but I don’t want Apollon to worry. “Then Oscar broke the window of his car, but he was nice about it.” I notice Apollon’s eyes flick above my head to meet Jonas’. I add, “It doesn’t matter anyway, because we’re leaving.”

Now Apollon looks at me again, his eyes a touch wider with surprise. He shakes his head slowly. “Not you now, too.”

I sigh and let my hand drop from his arm. “You know it’s the only way. If the others knew what I know—”

He plants his feet and stops walking. We follow suit, but the delay ends us two steps further than him. He shakes his head. “You’ve never been out there, Eden. You have no idea.”

“I have an idea of what it’s like to starve,” I counter. “And whatever is about to happen here, I don’t want to be part of it.”

His eyes narrow. “I see what’s going on,” he says. “Jonas has been converting you to his side. Telling you the grand tales of travel. Well, has he told you about the road crews?” His eyes flick to Jonas and back to me. “Has he told you about the dead-man stretches? The stacks of rotting bodies and skeletons?”

Jonas opens his mouth, clearly about to protest, but Apollon waves him off, already turning away from us. “Tell her,” he says, heading away. “See if she still wants to go, then.”

Jonas and I stand in silence, watching him disappear down the street and around a corner. Finally, I turn my eyes to Jonas and say, “Sounds lovely.”

He snorts softly. His voice quiet, he says, “It is horrible. He’s right. But like everything else, you get through it, and there’s something else on the other side.”

“Something better?” I ask.

He shakes his head, the slightest movement. “Who knows?”

I lick my lips and think about this for a moment. Think about the ashen look on Apollon’s face. He’s afraid. That’s why he doesn’t want to go. I didn’t think I would ever see Apollon afraid of anything. I wrap my arms around myself. “Why didn’t you just go on your own?” I ask. “Just go without him?”

His mouth is slightly open, and he closes it quickly. I think he’s withdrawing, but then, he says, “I couldn’t. I don’t think it’s possible to survive out there on your own. You have to sleep sometime, and without a guard…” His voice trails off as he looks into the distance. I think he’s remembering something.

I shudder. “So if Apollon didn’t agree to go, you couldn’t go,” I say. I suddenly feel very sad for him. I know how much I want to leave, how strong the urge is to be somewhere else. I sense the same restlessness in him, and I imagine what it must be like to stay here and feel that way for what? Years?

He’s still looking away, his face scrawled in muted horror. I don’t even know if he’s heard me, but suddenly he turns to me and says, “We could go.”

“Hunh?” I say.

“You and me,” he says. “We could go.”

Now I’m looking at him like he’s gone crazy. I want to shake my head, but something about the idea is so enticing. At last, I manage, “I’m not going without Oscar.”

Again, he puffs air through his nose. “Oscar,” he says softly.

I’m frowning at him before I know it, my eyebrows pulling down in the middle. “He doesn’t have anyone,” I say. “We’re his family.”

He thinks it over, then says, “Oscar could go with us.”

And like that, I’m really considering the possibility. Fear’s sharp knife sinks into my chest. Me, Jonas, and Oscar, in the great unknown. Only two of us to protect him. What if we fail? My heart flutters, and I think, I am not strong enough. I shake my head. My voice, when it comes out, wavers. “We need to all go. We can’t just leave Apollon, and Neveah, and Miranda.” And I wonder how it is that Jonas is fine with leaving Miranda.

“We may have to,” he says. “We can’t stay here. You can’t stay here.”

I frown in puzzlement. “Me?”

Jonas gives me a hard look.

“Why not?” I ask.

He sighs and looks away. “I saw the way Matt was looking at you,” he says. Anger seeps into his voice again. “I told you to stay away from him. I don’t know why—”

“It’s not like I planned it,” I protest, feeling my cheeks go red. I don’t like the implication he’s making. “It’s not like—”

“Just stay away from him,” he snaps. His gaze catches and holds mine. The cold, calm authority in the glare of his green eyes captivates me. Enough to keep me from protesting.

Finally, I move my head but not my eyes, and say, with equal coldness, “Maybe we should stay.” As I say this, I realize that it is not what I want. That I have only said it to be difficult. And to change the subject.

Jonas doesn’t bite. His gaze softens into amused pity, if I’m reading him right. Which I may not be. He says quietly, “Alright. If you like Matt that much.”

[*

Chapter 12: Friends*]

THE RAIN BARRELS and building hardly shelter me from a wind that whips haphazardly in different directions. I’m cold to the bone. I huddle with my arms around my curled-up legs, and shiver, but try to focus on the discomfort of my body so that I don’t have to think about everything else. A sliver of moon hangs above me, the night’s rictus grin. I’ve been out here a while. Inside, movement. They’re getting ready to turn out the lights. The door squeaks open. I close my eyes against the urge to flee. There are steps. It’s Oscar. But it isn’t. Oscar’s steps aren’t that heavy.

The frame of Jonas emerges around the wall, peers into the darkness. His silhouette is lit by a golden halo of moonlight. “Eden,” he says softly.

I don’t answer. Maybe he won’t see me. Maybe he’ll go away.

He steps into the yard, walking slowly in the darkness. “I know you’re here.”

I sigh. “Then you probably also know I don’t want to talk to you.”

He focuses in on my location and approaches. He brushes the ground and sits down in front of me.

Maybe I wasn’t clear enough. I open my mouth.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

I close my mouth.

He rocks forward, and when he turns his face, half of it illuminates in the moonlight. He looks sincere. Concerned, even. He says, “I was trying to look after you.”

I laugh softly. “Nice job,” I say. But I feel my anger quickly fading.

I half expect him to take offense. He only shakes his head and looks off thoughtfully. The wind swirls around him, and he pulls his hood up. His face becomes lost in the shadow.

After a long time, he says, “We have to leave.”

Is this why he apologized? Because he needs me to be on his side? Isn’t that when Nice Jonas comes out? When he wants to convince me of something? I shrug. “Who cares,” I mumble. “It’s probably all the same.”

His eyes dart to me, catching a glint of light. “It’s not,” he says. “It isn’t.”

Again, I laugh noiselessly.

“I thought you knew,” he says. “That you wanted to… to be somewhere, too.”

I squint to make out his expression in the darkness, but there is only the silhouette of his nose and the spark of light in his eyes. “Where do you want to be?” I ask softly.

A pause. He says, “Somewhere….”

I sigh and close my eyes. “I dream of this place,” I say. “But maybe it’s not even real.”

His face turns to me, and though I can’t see his expression, I know he’s studying me. After a while, he asks, “What if it is?”

My arms tighten around my legs as I shiver. “I don’t know,” I whisper. “Does it even matter? Why can’t we just let go? Be happy to be who we are now?” And I find myself thinking about the name written on my lip. The only clue about my old life— foreign and oppressive. If I walked back into that life, would I ever feel like it had been mine? Would I want any of it, anyway?

“If we could, wouldn’t we?” he says. “We’re supposed to forget, but… but there are these things that remind us. Your dreams. My…” His voice fades into a howl of the wind. I think of the scar on his forearm, but restrain my eyes from wandering toward it. There’s a moment where I think he’s going to abandon the subject all together. His head turns away, his body shifting with a stiffness that betrays his discomfort. But then, he says, “Don’t you believe in Fate?”

I stop breathing. Just for a second. His words catch me up in an unexpected thrall. I’m staring at him in the dark. Fate is the last thing I expected Jonas to be talking about. But here he is, asking me. And Fate, I’m thinking, has been pulling me along all this time. This weird, nameless sense of something moves slowly through my body, sending my head spinning. I put my hands to my cheeks. I swallow, and climb to my feet.

Jonas stands up next to me, his hand reaching out to steady me. I’m not sure if I’m dizzy, if my legs just fell asleep, or if I simply misstepped. I brush him off.

“I’ll argue your side,” I say, feeling the unsteadiness of my own voice. “But we all go, or none of us. That’s how it should be. We’re stronger together. We’re a family.”

He says nothing as I move past him and head around the wall to go inside.

***

The argument lasts more than one session. Two evenings later, we’re eating our meager dinner of brown rice. It seems like Apollon is finally coming around— possibly because his plate is already empty and his stomach is growling loud enough that I can hear it from across the room. We get equal portions, but Apollon is the biggest of us. His body requires more food, which means that he’s feeling the lack even more than we are. I feel sorry for him. Feel sorry that I have to convince him to do something he doesn’t want to do, even though his reasons may be very good.

Miranda, as predicted, is madder than a wet cat. She contains it well, though. I’m the only one who gets the evil glares. She softens when Jonas brings up Matthew. The rest of the time, she’s seething. As for Oscar, he’s taken up a spot next to Neveah, like he doesn’t really want to be part of the conversation. She snuggles him in the crook of her arm, and he sits there pouting. I’ll explain to him later, I think, why I have to take this side. I’ll comfort him, and tell him how we’ll protect him on our journey.

But just when it seems we’re making ground, Jonas stops arguing. I’m still pleading our case, and it takes a moment for me to realize that he has dropped out. His face is ashen, drained. Some of his rice remains on his plate, untouched. He sets it aside.

“Are you OK?” I ask, frowning.

He blinks. “I don’t know,” he mumbles. He staggers to his feet and moves toward the bed, collapsing onto it like he’s dead tired. His body tenses on the bed, shivering.

Neveah’s eyes go a little wider. She goes to him quickly. Her hand brushes back his dark hair and rests on his forehead. Her frown deepens. She goes to her parcel of herbs and starts rummaging.

Apollon, Miranda, and I exchange startled looks. Miranda opens her mouth and stutters, then bolts to her feet. She’s at Jonas’ side in an instant, feeling his forehead, stroking his hair.

He pushes her hand away and groans. “I’m just tired,” he says. “Leave me alone.”

Apollon stands up slowly and wanders to Miranda’s side, looking down on Jonas. His hands are in his pockets, his face set in a thoughtful frown.

All this time I’ve been frozen. Now, I shove myself to my feet, but I don’t go to them. I take a pan from the kitchen and push past the sheet to fill it with water. Then I set it on the stove top, open the iron door, and add a splintered board to the fire. When I’m done, I turn toward them, but remain by the stove. I watch Neveah, analyze the lines of worry creasing her forehead, the downward curve of the corners of her mouth. Something inside me dives sharply toward the floor. Sinking. I’m sinking. I stand there quietly and watch Miranda fuss over Jonas. His eyes are closed now, but I don’t think he’s sleeping. He’s just shutting everything out.

Neveah crumbles a packet of herbs into the water I’ve placed on the stove. She glances up and meets my eyes, and I know for certain that this is going to be the longest night of my life.

[*

Chapter 13: The Longest Night*]

OVER THE NEXT few hours, Jonas’ temperature spikes. Miranda draws the covers away from him, but he clings to them, shivering. Sweat pours off of him. Miranda rubs the muscles of his back. They twitch and convulse under her hands. We debate for a while what this could be. The flu? Fall fever? The dark sleep? Neveah shakes her head again and again. She cradles Jonas and administers sips of her herbal concoction. But soon I begin to realize that her head shaking is not all in response to our inept diagnosing capabilities.

Miranda takes over for Neveah, and I go to fill another pan to put on the stove. When I return, Neveah’s gesturing something to Apollon, who is nodding grimly, mumbling something about the season back to her. Miranda suddenly lets Jonas’ head drop, and moves the cup aside as she sits down on the edge of the bed. She touches her face, her shoulders slumping. Her cheeks are bright pink, even through her golden skin. I go to her, and she shrugs me off.

“Just tired,” she says. “And worried.”

“And hot,” I say, managing to get my hand on her forehead even though she turns her face away from me. I take her arm and help her stand. “Into bed with you.” I lead her around so she can climb in from the bottom. She doesn’t argue any more.

Apollon and Neveah have broken off their conversation and are looking at us wide-eyed.

Apollon grabs his jacket and shrugs it on quickly. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he says.

Neveah nods, and I realize she’s sent him after some herb she needs. Something she doesn’t have. That’s what he was saying about the season. Is it even growing? Will he be able to find what she needs?

Miranda’s sinking into the bed now, her eyes rolling back, but she’s still conscious. “What is this?” I hiss at her, as if she can give me some answer that makes sense, now that she’s sick, too. She groans, her eyes closing, her eyebrows tilted upward in the center of her forehead. I want to help her. I want to help Jonas. But then, I look at her lying next to him, and wonder how she managed to catch whatever this is. I snuff air through my nose and retract my hand. I turn to Neveah, who has Oscar rifling through herb packets. “Is there something else I can do?” I ask. “Are the herbs the only thing that will help? What about medicine?”

Neveah hesitates, then shakes her head. But it is enough. Of course. Of course medicine would help. She’s thinking we have no money for it, and she’s right. Isaiah Bones is notorious for charging exorbitant prices for his chemical medicine, and now that things in the Outpost are going so poorly, the price has probably tripled again. The cost would be far more than what we have, and that would leave nothing to live off of. Frustrated, I turn away. My eyes fall on Jonas and Miranda. Their chests rise and fall silently, rapidly. I turn back to Neveah. Her gaze is sympathetic for just an instant before she gets back to the business of tending the ill.

We dose them with herbs for another hour, and then another. Apollon has still not returned and Neveah is looking on-edge. She cannot hide the frantic worry in her eyes. Jonas is pale— a ghost of himself. If I couldn’t see his shallow breathing, I would think him dead. Miranda looks almost green. She has sweat into the bed so there’s a ring of dampness around her.

Jonas starts sputtering. Neveah clutches him closer, rolling him to his side. I think he’s coughing, but I’m not sure. His body jerks in on itself in a way that just doesn’t seem right. I hold my breath until the moment passes and he goes quiet again. Neveah’s eyes are wide and startled. My fingernails are making deep gouges in my palm. Apollon isn’t back. When will Apollon be back?

I shudder and jump to my feet. “What medicine?” I demand. “Which one?”

Neveah glances at me, eyes widening. She starts to shake her head, but then, she looks down at Jonas. Her gaze wanders to Miranda.

Oscar, looking sleepy and strung-out, blinks at me from the couch. “ No, Eden,” he says. His voice is small.

I give him a look that silences him. He purses his lips and stares at me through those large brown eyes.

I level my gaze at Neveah. She looks at me. A moment later, she signs with her fingers. V2. Probably the strongest anti-viral available. I have my doubts as to whether Isaiah Bones will even have it in his repertoire. I’m about to find out. I squat down next to the table, remove the wall panel and take the last coins from the jar. I secure them in my pocket, and leave without another word.

I wrap my fingers around the hilt of my knife as I stalk through the darkness toward my destination. I know beyond a doubt that the money I carry is not enough. There are only two options. Make more quickly, or do something that will likely get me killed. I’m not really liking my odds either way tonight, but I consider my choice again, keeping to the shadows, and decide that it’s probably the right one. My steps widen as I leave the quieter streets for the ones nearer the center of the Outpost. I walk along the sidewalk of the main drag, casting dangerous glares in the direction of anything that moves, hoping that I look tough enough that no one will risk messing with me. By the time I step through the lit door of the Rustler, my whole body is tense, my muscles hard and stiff. I roll my shoulders and walk toward the card table.

In a way, it’s lucky that Donegan is playing tonight. He looks up at my approach with eyes cold as a basement floor. I repress a reaction, slide out the nearest empty chair, and sit down. Most of the other players are used to my presence at the table, so no one says anything. Lloyd is playing as well, with a meager stack of coins in front of him. Coyote Dan, having folded the current round, winks at me as I glance at his decent pile of money. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him, and now I wonder if he’s been coming to these later games with Donegan because there’s so little profit in the earlier ones. Jacob and Taylor also seem to be holding their own. But the majority of the money at the table sits enticingly in front of Donegan. I don’t look directly at his loot, but I’m estimating value from my peripheral vision, and I think it will do just fine.

The next round begins and I throw in my silver. Coyote Dan deals. My cards slide one at a time across the table toward me. I scoop them up and have a look. It’s not much, but it’ll have to do. I’m taking no prisoners tonight. I need to win the money and be gone. So I let the tiniest flick of a smile curve the corners of my mouth, then make it go away like I let it slip by accident. I bluff my way through the first hand and end up with a small reward. I have decent cards the second round, but halfway through I can tell that they’re not good enough. Whatever it is that Lloyd has, he’ll not be bluffed into folding, so I have to fold before I put more money at risk. I watch sourly as the hand finishes. Lloyd sets down a straight flush at the end of the game, confirming my suspicions. I did the right thing. The next hand, I get shit all, and I can’t make anything of the situation. When the next deal offers me a pair of twos, I’m starting to get nervous. I toss in the following ante thinking that my luck has to break. My friends are sick— possibly dying. Their lives depend on my card-playing skills. I cannot allow myself to lose another hand.

I slide my cards up and my heart nearly stops. I still have nothing. Absolutely nothing. My money has been slowly depleted, and now I’m playing with just less than I showed up with in the first place. If I don’t win this hand, I will have gone too far into the negative to hope to recover. To make matters worse, it’s quickly apparent that both Lloyd and Donegan have fairly decent hands. Maybe even good hands. I put out miniscule signals that will tell my opponents that mine is in fact better than theirs, while, if everything goes according to plan, not arousing their suspicions. Either their hands are that good, or Lloyd and Donegan aren’t buying it. Only the two of them are left in the game with me. I don’t have much to work with, but I need to increase the stakes, make them nervous. So when it’s my turn, I go all in. Carefully, slowly, I slide my belt knife from its sheath and place it in the center of the table. Everyone goes quiet for just an instant. It’s enough, I think. It’s enough.

Lloyd tosses his cards in, but I ignore it. I cannot let Donegan see how happy that makes me. I meet his gaze from across the table. He eyes the pot greedily, considers his cards. I can feel Coyote Dan’s gaze on me, sharp and analyzing. It doesn’t matter. Only Donegan matters now. I allow myself to look slightly tense, anticipatory. I want him to stay in the game, I think, even though it’s not true. I want him to place more money in the pot so I can take it. I will my body to say this to him. To make him think there is no way he can possibly win. He reaches for his coins, his eyes still on me. Then he hesitates. I hold his gaze. Give me that money, I think, channeling what I want him to believe. He pauses for a long time. Then he throws his cards face down. I close my eyes and swallow, despite myself. Then I take my money and my knife. My hands shake as I slide the blade back into its sheath. Clumsy fingers pocket my coins. I stand. There was enough in the pot, and I’m out. Twenty percent goes to Arthur. All I can think now is that my friends may live. The rest of the bar disappears behind a blur until I hear Donegan mumbling.

“You were bluffing,” he says.

I glance at the cards as Coyote Dan swoops them into the deck pile. I didn’t have to show them. They were face down. In my relief, I’ve given myself away, but it doesn’t matter. I’m done. My friends will live. So I just shrug at Donegan as the cards disappear into the shuffle. “If you think so,” I say. I turn and walk out of the Rustler.

***

Sticking to the shadows, I make my way quickly to Isaiah Bones’ little shack, a few blocks from the Outpost gate. I move with purpose, check behind myself often. I take a longer route to avoid the worst of May Deth’s territory. In the end, I arrive at Bones’ residence untroubled.

I hammer my fist on the door, hoping to startle him with the force of it and set him off balance. A curse answers my insistent knock. Something inside crashes to the floor, and in a moment, Isaiah Bones is jerking the door open. It shrieks as its bottom scrapes the uneven cement floor.

The odor hits me first— alcohol and bad breath, sweat and old food. I turn my face away, reflexively holding my breath. Out of the corner of my eye I see the glint of the gun in the moonlight. My heart jerks to a run. His hand wavers from side to side as he staggers. He’s drunk. Good or bad? On the one hand, his reflexes are considerably slowed. On the other, he could accidentally pull the trigger, wobbling around like that.

I say, as calmly as I can, “I came to buy some of your medicine.”

The way he squints at me sideways, one eye narrowing more than the other, makes me think he’s seeing at least two of me. I remain very still, and finally he mutters, “It’ll cost you.”

“How much?” I reply, my voice dead calm. I eye the gun, moving only my eyes. “V2. Two vials.”

He makes a face and stumbles. For an instant I think the gun is going to go off, right into my stomach, but somehow he catches himself against the doorframe and avoids firing. “Thirty silver,” he says as he rights himself. He eyes me, and it’s clear he thinks I don’t have the money.

I have thirty-two and a few coppers in my pocket. Slowly, I draw it out, where he can see it. The coins fill up my hand and threaten to spill over. He eyes them greedily, reaches for them. I draw back. “The meds,” I say firmly.

He stands up straighter, though he’s still wavering. His dark eyes are cloudy in a face lax with drunkenness, lower lip hanging. He waves the gun, motioning me inside. As he moves out of my way, I step through the door, but not far enough for him to close it behind me.

Inside, one shelf is lined with small plastic tubes set in wooden racks. The liquids inside them could make life in the Outpost a lot easier for a lot of people, but few can afford Isaiah Bones’ price. I scan the shelf until I see the telltale pink serum. So he does actually have V2. I count out the coins, placing them on his table. When I reach thirty, I nod toward the vials. But Bones is just standing there, eyeing me. The look on his face is greedy, despicable, and makes my stomach turn over. I glance at the gun that still wavers in my direction.

“Why don’t you stay a while there, girlie,” he drawls, stumbling toward me. He’s too drunk, I think, to do what he intends, but I’m not sticking around to find out. As he teeters, I sweep my arm sideways, knocking the gun from his hand. I balance on one foot and plant the other in his midsection. He crashes backward, arms flailing.

I grab two vials, hold them up so he can see as I head for the door. “As agreed,” I say. And I’m out. I’m running.

I secure the vials in my inside pocket as I go. A rush of excitement floods through me. I’ve almost done it. I’ve almost saved my friends. In a few moments, I’ll be home, and Neveah will administer the medicine. Everything will be OK. I’m zipping my jacket, crossing a street, when I notice the movement ahead. There’s five of them— dark shadows stalking purposely together. We see each other at the same time, and one of them says something. They rush toward me.

I run down a side alley. Even as I am scrambling through the alley, dodging piles of trash, splashing through puddles, I realize that I have little chance of escape. I emerge from the other end and make a sharp right, but before I can get to the next turn, two of them have circled around, anticipating where I would go. I backpedal and skid to a halt. I don’t need to look behind me to know I’m trapped. My fingers close around the hilt of my knife and yank it from its sheath.

They approach me slowly now, cautious as a pack of wolves. I position my back against the wall as they close the remaining distance. The moonlight reveals their faces. Three of them I don’t know, but two of them I have seen with Donegan. So he sent his men after his money. Well, they’ll be disappointed to find I don’t have it.

For a moment, I consider screaming, hoping that a Sentry might be near. But I will certainly draw blood before a Sentry could get here, and that makes me an offender, too. If I scream, and a Sentry comes, it will kill me. So I grit my teeth and prepare to do as much damage as I can.

One of them lunges at me, trying to knock the knife from my hand. I sidestep and slash at him, barely catching his arm with the tip of my blade. His coat rips, but the flesh beneath it is untouched. He jerks back. I bring my knee sideways and toward his midsection. He grunts as I connect. Before I can regain my balance and strike again, the others close in on me. Two of them grab my arms and pull them behind my back while a third punches me in the stomach. I twist as I double over, managing to get one of them with my knife. It happens behind me, so I’m not even sure where the strike hits. Fingers close over my wrist and bend my arm, threatening to break the bone. I cling to my knife until another blade sinks its teeth into the back of my hand. My skin rips, hot blood pouring over it. I shriek. My weapon clatters to the ground, and I’m not far behind it. All I can do now is wrap my arms over my face and curl into a little ball as they kick me. Their feet connect with my ribs, my stomach, my back. Every blow is sharp and new. I’ll black out soon, and maybe never wake up. A brief, clear moment of regret. I think of Jonas. I think of the medicine in my pocket that will never get to him.

Then suddenly, it’s over. Maybe they’ve decided I’m beaten enough to reclaim the coins that must be in my pocket. But their footsteps chase away across the pavement. My first thought is that a Sentry has picked up on the clatter. My body is dead cold, paralyzed by fear. But the footsteps on the pavement belong to people, not a machine. Only a couple of people, I would guess. So why are Donegan’s men running off scared?

My next assumption starts my heart beating again wildly. Apollon and Jonas have come to rescue me. But, of course, Apollon is somewhere outside the Outpost gates, and Jonas is sick in bed, struggling for his life. An image of blood-smeared beggars flashes through my mind, dousing me with fear. I run out of time to speculate. With little tenderness, I’m hauled to my feet. My body doesn’t like this. I scramble to keep my legs underneath me. In reality, I’m mostly being held up by the two men on either side of me. I blink through the haze that tries to claim me as we start moving. We pass into the open intersection and better light. I know these men. They are Matthew’s.

“Thanks, I’m fine,” I mutter, trying to brush them off, but they aren’t having it. Their fingers press into my arms as they bear me along through the dark streets. My head levels out a bit after being upright for a while. “You can let go now,” I say, my voice stronger.

The one on my right snorts quietly. “Like hell,” he says, his words dripping with some sort of self-contained amusement. “You’re my ticket to a promotion.”

I’m still blinking, trying to figure out if the dark spots I’m seeing are shadows or visual distortions from the beating I’ve taken. None of it makes sense. “How’s that?” I ask, dragging my feet a little more than necessary. “Matt’s never bothered with me before.”

“You never made it this easy for him before,” the other one answers. “Matthew doesn’t like it when things are overly complicated. But tonight, he’ll have you on a platter.”

The words sink in. Apollon and Jonas have always been a thin veil of protection, along with crowds and daylight. It’s not that Matt couldn’t do whatever he wants. It’s just that it would have been messy that way. Complicated. And I wasn’t worth the trouble. Now, like this, Matthew’s men believe I am. I dig my heels in and try to wrench my arms from their grasp. They’re both a lot bigger than me, hauling me along like it’s nothing. I’m still struggling uselessly when we arrive at our destination— one of the nicer buildings on a quiet street in the southeastern quarter of the Outpost. The man on my right lets go and knocks loudly on the door while the other one holds me. The door squeaks open, and the man behind me shoves me forward. I struggle against his iron grip, which only seems to make my arms hurt. Even though my strength is fading, I try to kick his shins. He easily avoids me. The other one curses something at the girl who opened the door. She stares at me wide-eyed through a face half-covered in puckered burn scars, then suddenly turns to rush off. Her steps fall short as Matthew walks slowly into the room.

The girl stops, open mouthed. We stop, mid-scuffle. Everyone stares at Matt. His face is blank. He crosses his arms casually. The moment stretches on, hanging on what he will do or say.

Finally, he says very calmly, “Let her go.”

The man holding my arms releases me, and the two of them go out the door. I suspect that they’ve not gone very far.

I stand there, trying to calm myself, trying to gain some composure. “Matthew,” I say quietly, nodding. Red blood trails down my fingers and drops silently onto his floor. A puddle is beginning to form there.

He looks at me, his gaze considering. Considering what has taken place? Considering what to do with me, I think. I can feel each beat of my heart under that stare. I want to run, but if I do, I don’t think I will make it three feet past the door.

“Get Alayna,” he says, waving one hand dismissively. The scarred girl rushes from the room. Matt reaches a hand toward me, half turning back the way he came. “Come sit down,” he says. “You look like hell.”

I obey because I don’t think I have a choice. And because I feel like hell. Because, if I don’t sit down soon, I might end up on the floor with the rest of my blood. I follow him through the doorway into a small parlor. Two large armchairs, one with an ottoman, are placed diagonally near a huge fireplace. Flames are leaping and crackling within, warmth spilling out. The pig is curled up at one corner of the fireplace, asleep. There’s a half glass of amber liquid on the side table of the furthest chair. Matt motions me to the other seat, which I take slowly, trying not to look as bad-off as I feel. There’s an awkward silence as he walks to the fireplace and slowly turns on me, but neither of us manage to say a word before an old woman rushes in from a room beyond, bearing a basket under her arm.

Matt waves her toward me.

She kneels at my feet, her eyes going instantly to the gash on my hand. Setting her basket on the floor, she takes out a cloth and bottle of clear liquid. She douses the cloth. The strong smell of alcohol wafts upward into my face. She begins to dab at my wound. A thousand fire ants bite me all at once, but I grit my teeth and try not to pull away from her.

Matt picks his drink up off the side table and sips it as he stands by the fire watching her tend to my wound. Again, that considering look is on his face, making me uneasy. I don’t like the idea of anyone deciding what to do with me, but there’s something particular to this expression that is worse— some easy confidence that whatever is decided will happen. If there were really gods once, I wonder, did they look down on us just like this, deciding our fates with detached amusement?

The old woman— Alayna, he called her— takes out a thin needle and some catgut. I watch her thread the needle, her old hands shaking. My jaw tightens against the urge to draw away. As she reaches for me again, I realize that I’m disturbed mostly by the gnarled old hands, not the fact that they will be shaky as they attempt to sew me up. I think of the old woman who blackmailed me. I swallow and look away from Alayna. I look at Matt.

As the needle sinks into my flesh, Matt sets his drink down, pulls the ottoman over, and sits in front of me. He looks at me again with that same unquestioned authority, but now, in his hazel eyes I can see a glimmer of hunger. His voice, when he speaks, is distant, detached. “Been fighting half the Outpost?”

I shrug, the sense of unease rippling through me. Somehow I manage not to shiver.

“Did you think that was a good idea?” he asks. Now, at least, a trickle of sardonic humor drips into his tone. But there’s still a strange distance in his voice, and that bothers me.

I level my gaze at him, throw him a cocky smile, and, overriding my body’s refusal to do so, kick his foot lightly with mine. “Sounds like something you would do?” I’ve heard some stories, seen the kids playing at being Matthew. I’m going out on a limb, but it’s all I can think to do.

When my foot knocks into his, he flushes red. He stands before I can clock the rest of his reaction, arms crossing, and moves past me. I’m worrying that I’ve crossed the line, feigned too much familiarity with someone who is used to being so far above everyone else. I glance back and catch a glimpse of his face as he paces slowly behind me. His eyes are slightly narrowed, his jaw working. Before I can figure out what he’s thinking, Alayna jerks at my arm, silently reminding me to be still. I turn back to her, and feel the weight of Matthew standing behind me. My mind scrambles for a way out as my eyes watch Alayna’s gnarled hands poke the needle through another bit of my skin.

“You could be dead,” Matthew finally says. “You’re lucky.” His voice is cold— so cold I can feel every word moving up my spine. I’ve angered him, and I don’t know how to undo it. My head rushes with dizziness. The stress, or the loss of blood? I feel like kicking at Alayna, yanking my half-sewn arm away, and running. I barely restrain myself from doing so.

Then, softly, I feel Matt’s fingers touch the right side of my neck, just above the collar of my jacket. Calm descends on me from somewhere far away. I turn slightly, move my left hand across, and cover his hand with mine. I lift my face to him, smiling softly, and say with utmost sincerity, “I [_am _]so lucky… to have a friend like you. Thank you.”

Then I see it. This time, when he flushes, it’s like the spring thaw. The ice melts and slides away. Underneath is something alive and warm. The corners of his mouth curve into a smile. His hand turns palm-up and squeezes mine. “Of course,” is all he says, but the words are soft, almost a concession. He withdraws his hand and walks to the other chair, where he sits and quietly watches Alayna finish her work. His gaze is steady and thoughtful, but my heart rate is leveling out, my nerves dulling back to normal awareness. Some of the tension leaves my shoulders.

“Why are you running around the Outpost in the dead of night?” he asks, finally.

“I had to get some V2,” I answer, patting my pocket.

His eyes scan my face.

“My friends are sick,” I say. “I need to get home.”

His face progresses rapidly through a series of emotions, from wonder, to disappointment that fades to compromise. His eyes go to Alayna’s gnarled hands, watching her push the needle through my flesh, raise it in the air, pull the catgut tight. For a while, he’s quiet. Then he says, “You could have come to me, you know.”

I don’t know how to answer that. So I don’t. I just nod.

He sighs and places his empty glass on the side table. The fire crackles. A log pops. We watch the little shower of vermillion sparks and say nothing. Alayna pulls the catgut tight for the final time, and snips it off with a small pair of silver scissors. She places a strip of cloth around my hand, gathers her things, and retreats from the room.

I shove myself to my feet, and stand still for a moment as the dizziness swirls through my head. My whole body aches, especially my ribs, but I don’t think they’re cracked. Matt takes me by the elbow and walks with me into the front room. The girl with the burn-scarred face is there on her hands and knees, scrubbing at the blood on the floorboards. She glances back briefly, without pause, and I see for the first time that the non-scarred side of her face is quite beautiful. Matt’s eyes, however, are on his bloodied floor. My blood has seeped into the cracks between the wood, and must be removed. If a Sentry walked in now, it is possible that someone would be taken away. The Sentries could read the edge of the cut on my arm, determine it was not made accidentally, match the blood to the cut— and someone might end up boxed. Maybe Matt, maybe Alayna, or more likely, this girl, who now has my blood on her hands. There are ways around the Sentries’ logic, but when blood is involved, it’s not as easy to deter them. So here we are, with Matt ready to let me leave, and now he’s looking at the blood I have unkindly loosed upon his floor. Thinking of the massive inconvenience, to say the least, it could cause him. This can’t be good.

I feel myself go a little pale. Maybe it’s the blood loss. Maybe.

Matthew’s fingers twitch against my elbow. His eyes are slightly rounded, wider with awareness, but not alarm. He doesn’t look angry, though, as he turns and faces me, his free hand coming up to my other elbow. His eyes move over my face, his expression softening. “It’s OK,” he says. “You can bleed on my floor anytime you like.”

My mouth tugs into a smile despite the weariness that the rest of my body feels. He smiles down at me. I have the impression, for a moment, that he’s going to say something. Then I think he’s going to kiss me, instead. I brace myself, which is all I can do. But he squeezes my arms and draws away, opens the front door.

Outside, the two thugs that dragged me here turn toward us. Not surprising. They go visibly pale as Matt’s gaze falls on them. One of them is shaking.

“Did I ask you to bring her here?” Matt says in a voice that is very, very quiet.

They stutter and stumble over their replies. The briefest sideways glance of one of them is filled with suppressed rage. If I let them be in trouble for this, then I might always be a target.

I set my hand on Matthew’s arm, gently, and say to him, “They saved me from Donegan’s men. And if they hadn’t brought me to you, I’d probably be bleeding to death in an alley right now.”

From the way his body tenses, I can tell it annoys him that I do this. He shrugs me off of his arm, but nods, still holding the gaze of his men. They look away and down first. Then Matt turns to me. His voice, though, is for his men. “See that she gets home safely.”

They nod quickly, eager to obey. I step away from Matt, off the walk and into the street between the two of them. Matt nods at them. I throw him a quick smile, and start away. We walk down the dark street listening to the ground crunching beneath our boots. Neither of Matt’s men speaks, nor do I feel inclined to do so. I lead the way, a pace or so ahead of them. Again, my thoughts turn to Jonas. I’m almost home, and I still have the medicine.

Suddenly, I remember the beating I have taken, and the small plastic vials. I’ve not had a chance to check them. A sheet of ice cuts my body in half. I’m tearing at my jacket, fumbling with the zipper so I can reach the inside pocket. I can feel my companions’ eyes on my back. “Just checking something,” I mumble, reassuring them I’m not drawing a weapon. I hardly notice their response. My fingers sink into my inner pocket and touch the smooth plastic. The vials are both, miraculously, intact. My shoulders slump with relief. I tilt my face to the sky, feeling the cool night air against my skin. Everything will be OK.

We turn the final corner and begin down the last stretch before home. The Outpost is quiet here most nights, as if the darkness sucks the noise from the streets into its black abyss. But as we walk, voices float on the night air, penetrating just above the sound of our footsteps. Voices. Shouts. The noise of something crashing. They’re coming from ahead. From the direction of home. I start running.

My bruised body protests against the exertion, but I sprint down the street, ignoring the sharp pain in my knee, the burning of my ribcage. The heavy boot steps of Matt’s men thunder just behind me. As the small shack I call home comes into view in front of me, three figures run from the yard into the street, rushing away in the opposite direction. I skid to a stop at the opening in the junk wall and peer toward the building. Framed against the light of the open door is Neveah’s figure, a metal bar in her hand. She sees me now, and drops into a crouch, placing the bar aside. She bends over a figure sprawled on the front steps. They are black shadows against the light inside, so details elude me. But from the sheer size of the still body, I know at once that it could only be Apollon.

[*

Chapter 14: Dust*]

I’M HOME NOW. Matthew’s men dismiss themselves, uninterested in what has befallen my family. I run to Neveah, to Apollon. His arms are holding his midsection. I put my hand over them and feel the stickiness of blood.

“Oscar,” I shout. Neveah and I begin dragging Apollon inside, her struggling with his shoulders and me stumbling around with his legs and feet. He must weigh as much as the both of us combined, all bone and muscle. Still, we have him halfway through the threshold by the time Oscar joins us.

“Eden,” he says, “Jonas and Miranda are worse. They need me.”

“Go,” I grunt, panting and trying to get Apollon’s feet through the door. He’s limp, and I’m terrified that we’re dragging only a body inside. Blood hammers at the insides of my skull. I’m not thinking. I need to think. I drop Apollon’s feet unceremoniously. Not like bruised heels will do that much more damage. “Here,” I pant, fishing inside my pocket. I thrust the vials at Neveah, who looks at me wide-eyed, frozen, half-falling under Apollon’s weight. She glances down at his face, at the vials, toward Jonas and Miranda. She eases his weight onto the floor much more carefully than I did. Her hand trembles as she takes the vials from me.

As she moves away, I scramble around to crouch beside Apollon’s head. His face is white. His cheek feels cold. We’re halfway inside, and light is spilling over him now. I gingerly move his hands away from his stomach long enough to take a peek. His jacket is slick with blood. “Get me the towel,” I hiss, and Oscar scurries toward the bathroom. In an instant, he’s by my side, pressing the towel into my hand. I wad it up against Apollon’s stomach. He groans, flooding me with relief. He’s still alive, which at least gives us a chance. “It’s OK,” I tell him softly. “You’re going to be OK.”

“Is he?” Oscar whispers beside me.

I want to lie to him, but I can’t. “I don’t know,” I whisper back, hoping it’s quiet enough that Apollon can’t hear.

Tears well up in Oscar’s eyes— tears that I think he’s been holding back all night. Even now, his chin jerks up in an attempt to defy them. But his forehead, then his chin, crinkles. His lips pucker as his chest caves in a little sob. He shakes his head ferociously, breathing in. “What can I do?” he squeaks.

“Hold this.”

He places his hands over the towel.

I move to Apollon’s feet, and try to get his bottom half inside the door. I have to bend him sideways, which can’t be good for him, but the open door is an invitation for disaster. I slam it, and bolt it. Neveah is administering V2 to Miranda. Jonas is lying deadly still next to her, his face paler even than Apollon’s. Has Neveah already dosed him? The question niggles at me. She wouldn’t do Miranda first, would she? Jonas was symptomatic first. He’s worse off. She would have dosed him first.

Focus. Oscar, kneeling beside Apollon, looks smaller than normal as he gazes up at me with his deep brown eyes.

I kneel beside him and carefully unfasten Apollon’s jacket, working it out from under the towel. I don’t have my knife, so I rip his shirt open with my fists. Oscar’s hands move gently away and I push the cloth to the sides, revealing Apollon’s bloodied stomach. The actual wound, when I find it in all the blood, is not very large. Less than an inch long, at the side of his stomach. I take the towel from Oscar and press it against the gash. Not very big, I’m saying over and over again. Not very big. But then, how deep?

Apollon’s chest rises and falls, his breathing quicker, shallower than usual. I have Oscar hold the towel again, and I take off my jacket. I drape it over Apollon. Our only blanket is under Jonas and Miranda. I straighten Apollon’s legs as best I can, and sit on my knees, his feet lifted into my lap. What else can I do for him? I draw a blank. A feeling of hopelessness sinks in as I realize I don’t know how to make him better. Oscar, having bravely fought back his tears, talks softly to Apollon. Telling him it’s OK. Telling him I will take care of him. Suddenly, my own tears are like a spring flood, rushing from me without consent, a thing beyond my control. I bend over Apollon’s feet, my fingers closing around the soles of his boots. I expect to sob, but my body is so tired, all that comes are silent tears. My chest is still, aching with hollowness, as I watch my tears plop like fat raindrops onto Apollon’s pant legs.

A hand touches my shoulder. I don’t look up. Neveah kneels beside Oscar with a needle and catgut in her hands. I watch how gentle her touch is as she removes the towel. Underneath, it is soaked through with shiny red. She turns it over and blots delicately around the wound before beginning her repairs. The needle moves deftly in her hands, each stroke certain and precise. I stare. Her skin is creased, dry, pale enough that the veins in the back of her hands stand out, but her fingers are long and delicate. There’s something soothing about the way they move. I’m hypnotized by them. The world drifts far away, and by the time she has finished sewing up Apollon’s stomach, I’m half-nodding asleep.

Only when she stands do I blink my eyes awake. Oscar looks from her to me, and back.

“Will he…” I begin, but then I’m glancing toward the bed. “Will they…?”

She looks toward the bed, too, and then down at Apollon. Her gaze flickers. She says nothing, and turns away to clean her needle.

Oscar moves suddenly to my side and leans in against me, half sprawling over Apollon’s feet to do so. I wrap my arm around him, and close my eyes. I picture the men running from the pathway. Who were they? Cold sinks into me as I consider the possibility that they were Donegan’s men. That they came here because of me. Apollon may die, and if he does, will it be my fault? Have I failed my only family? Shivering, I glance toward the bed again, toward Jonas, who lies corpse-still. How fragile life is. How easily we can lose everything. Our fingers reach and grasp and claw, trying to cling to what we have, but in the end, life runs through them like water. We cannot hold it.

My arm tightens around Oscar, whom I can hold onto for just this moment. I lean my head against him, and close my eyes, and try not to imagine his little body turning to dust and scattering on the wind.

***

Miranda is out of bed now, which I hate her for, because Jonas has still not moved. He’s opened his eyes, but he has not so much as rolled over on his own. I’ve stayed home to tend to him, Miranda, and Apollon, while Neveah works in the marketplace. So, for days now, I’ve been perched by his side, waiting for some sign that he will be OK. A couple of days ago, when I rolled him over, he looked up at me through eyes that seemed to want to cross. He frowned, and mumbled at me, something like, “Mmflb lilll.” I stroked his face, and nodded, and, since it seemed he thought he was telling me something important, I replied softly, “Yes, you’re very ill. But you’ll be OK. We gave you medicine and you’re on the mend.” He closed his eyes. He hasn’t looked at me since.

My fingers graze his face again now. His fever is mostly gone, but he doesn’t look right. He needs me, and Neveah, and Oscar to do everything for him. To turn him over and move his arms and legs so he doesn’t get bedsore. To try to trickle broth into his mouth, hoping he’ll swallow it. To clean him when he urinates, which is not often, because he has so little fluid in his body. Miranda was the same way, for a day or so. Apollon was as well, but now, surprisingly, he wakes fully, and can help us a bit in our endeavors. He’s sleeping, now, stretched on the couch. How we ever got him there I’m not sure. But he hasn’t been up, and I doubt he will anytime soon. Nor has he been forthright in answering our questions about the men who attacked him. I suspect it’s because he knows how guilty I already feel. It had to be Donegan.

Miranda is sitting in the chair at the table, huffing and puffing over walking to the counter to pick up a piece of bread. I’ve been trying to ignore her, but now I glance at her and she’s a little pale.

“Do you need anything?” I ask quietly.

“Five minutes ago, maybe,” she snaps. “Thanks.”

I turn my face away from her and look at Jonas. His chest rises and falls quickly, making me feel breathless. My back and shoulders burn with tension. I straighten and roll my shoulders in slow circles, press my fingers into the back of my neck. The pressure hurts and feels good at the same time, but raising my arms still makes my ribcage protest with a sharp stab of pain. I look at Jonas again, and sigh. I can’t help it. How much longer will he be like this?

“You don’t fuss over me like that,” comes Apollon’s low voice from around the end of the bed. I have to stretch and lean sideways to see him, but when I do he’s grinning at me. He’s been in a great mood, for someone who’s been stabbed.

“You do too good of a job pretending not to be hurt,” I say, walking to him. I sit on the edge of the couch, careful not to jar him.

He looks up at me thoughtfully, speculatively. But he says, “I thought girls liked the tough-guy thing.”

“We like it better when our tough guys avoid being skewered,” I say, squeezing his hand.

His face stretches into a smile, but he suppresses the laugh. Laughing is not a good thing for Apollon right now. He’s quiet for a long moment, then he mumbles, “I’m bored.”

“I bet.”

“If I didn’t have your pretty face to look at…”

I roll my eyes. “Drink something?”

He shakes his head. We sit and look at each other. In a moment, his eyelids are drooping. He blinks a few times, and he’s asleep. I slide my hand out of his, stand up. There’s really not enough room in our house for pacing. Miranda is giving me a dirty look, so I stop. I consider my perch beside Jonas, but I’m so tired of sitting there. Instead, I crawl up into the bed, and stretch out beside him. Facing him, a couple of feet away, I watch his still features, watch him breathe. I reach out and touch his face, run my fingers down his cheek.

“Stop bothering him,” Miranda says. “He doesn’t like that.”

I grind my teeth rather than jump up and beat her. She’s right. When she did the same thing yesterday, he frowned and twitched away from her. Reluctantly, I draw my hand away. As my fingers leave his face, Jonas moves his hand. It’s a clumsy, tired swipe, but he manages to get his hand over mine, mid-air, and lets it drop. Our hands flop onto the bed between us, and stay there, his covering mine. I look at them, and look at his face. His eyes are closed, but he’s awake. Possibly more awake than he’s been. He seems so peaceful. There’s the vaguest suggestion of a smile across his lips. Amusement lingering under the exhaustion. Does he think this is funny?

The corners of my mouth quirk into a smile and I suppress a laugh. For the first time in so long, I feel like Jonas is here with me. Joy rushes in. Instead of laughing, I sigh, and close my eyes. My body, my tired muscles, sink into the bed. Sleep comes for me quickly, and this time, I don’t struggle against it. I let the dreams take me because I know, if they turn into nightmares, there will be someone to keep them from claiming me.

***

Miranda, of all people, is by my side as we walk toward the Rustler. Jonas has been awake, but groggy, from time to time. Apollon insists one moment that he’s fine. The next he’s in agony. Neveah has managed to keep an infection away by tending him with her herbs, but the healing process will be slow. Neveah is home now, so I’m heading out to try to scrape up some money. I have one silver and a few coppers in my pocket. Once that’s gone, we have nothing. Neveah might be able to make enough in a week to pay for one meal for our family. That means it’s up to me to provide. If I lose this game, I’m going rat-hunting.

“Do you have to walk so fast?” Miranda hisses beside me, shuffling to keep up. She’s not as tall as me, and she’s still feeling the after-effects of the illness. I should feel bad for her, but I don’t.

“I didn’t ask you to come along.” I shoulder my way past two old men. “Why don’t you go back?” It’s true, I don’t want her with me. I was out by myself yesterday, and I was fine. I was more than fine. No one bothered me. No one even looked at me crossly. In fact, most people made a good effort to avoid my gaze entirely. Today I’m wondering if I’ll notice the same effect. I’m pretty sure I will. I’m also pretty sure I know why, even though I don’t want to.

Miranda looks startled at my suggestion. She’s brave enough to insist on coming along in some idiotic but noble attempt at watching my back, but she’s too much of a coward to make the trek back to our house alone. If I ditched her here, she would freak. I glance at her face, considering.

She flushes, but whether from anger or embarrassment, I’m not sure. “I’m trying to help,” she insists. Anger, then.

“Fine,” I say quietly as we reach the Rustler’s door and walk inside. “Help from over there.”

She glares at me as though she might strike me down with just that look. But she takes a seat on a barstool away from the door. I have the feeling that she’s trying to hide herself in plain sight.

I take an empty chair at the card table. The others mumble low greetings. None of them meet my eyes. I look around the table and calculate the pitiful sum of money I might make. There’s not a lot in front of any of the men who are playing. I sigh, and watch the round play out. Jacob and Taylor join us from a table at the back, bringing their whiskey with them. They nod and smile at me, polite as can be. I frown at them in return.

My one silver buys me a bad hand. I bluff my way through. I have the feeling that Jacob has a good hand, but he folds along with the others, leaving me the pot. I narrow my eyes at him as I take the money. He feigns confusion. I consider playing another round, but suddenly, I can’t. I want a fair game, not a favor. Not a favor from one of Matthew’s men. I stand and toss a handful of coins back at Jacob.

“Thanks,” I say, “but I can win on my own.” I head toward Miranda.

Her eyes are wide, looking at me like I’m a crazy person. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing.” I nod toward the door.

“Nothing,” she repeats. “Then why did you give that money to Jacob? And why is everyone being all deferent to you?” She notices more than I give her credit for. She narrows her eyes at me. “Did you do something?”

“Oh yeah,” I say, grabbing her arm and dragging her to her feet. “I slew the giant and all that. Killed the dragon. Nuked the monster. Now all the townspeople are afraid of me.”

She digs her heels in. “They are,” she says slowly.

I roll my eyes. “C’mon.” Again, I nod toward the door.

Matthew walks in. He glances around, sees me, and heads straight for me. I peek at Miranda, only long enough to determine that she’s gone phantom white. I shove her onto one of the bar stools before she can pass out on me, then watch Matt stride across the room. His footsteps are the only sound in the bar now, which adds to the archetype. He is God stepping down from the heavens to punish or destroy, to bless or to smite. We mortals await him, mouths slightly open, bodies vibrating with anticipation and horror.

He stops in front of me, holding something out. “I believe this belongs to you,” he says, smiling cockily. I finally notice the object in his hands. He has carried it into the Rustler and across the room. He held it when he came in. That means he knew I was here. It means he came here expecting to find me. It probably even means he was waiting for his men to report to him that I was here and he interrupted whatever else important godlike business he had, to come and see me.

I eye my knife, then take it. It is mine, after all. It’s not exactly a favor. And I can’t really be without it. Nor can I refuse it. “Thanks,” I say, and leave it at that.

He leans casually against the bar beside me. “Anytime,” he says.

We stand and look at each other. I let my eyes fall on Miranda. “She’s still a bit wobbly,” I say. “I better get her home.”

Miranda’s jaw tightens on what could only be an acid comment. She flushes, but looks a bit unsteady. I’m not even sure if she’s faking it, or if it’s real.

Matt looks at her for the first time, giving me the impression of a lounging cat noticing an ant crawling by. “Of course,” he says, and straightens. He brushes my elbow with his fingertips as I begin to move past him, then catches my hand. He turns it to examine the back, where my cut is no longer covered in bandages. Satisfied, he lets go and smiles at me. “Looks better.”

Miranda peers at my hand now. No one at home has noticed or commented on my wound. We’ve had bigger things to worry about. I ignore her, and toss Matt a smile that will hopefully tide him over. “Almost as good as new,” I agree, though, truthfully, it still has a way to heal. “If you ever need someone to sew you up…” I let the words trail off and saunter toward the door like the world is mine. Like I’m not carefully holding myself back. Trying not to run. I emerge outside, blinking in the midday sun. How is it still so cold with the sun shining like this?

Miranda is beside me, keeping pace as I widen my steps. ”Matthew sewed your hand up?” she sputters. “Are you crazy? Do you have any idea who he is?”

“Shut up,” I say, not kindly. “You can’t hide in your rabbit hole all the time, expecting everyone else to look after you, and then freak out when they do.”

“What?” she says. She’s jogging to keep up with me now. “It’s not—” She stops, midsentence, and sucks in a deep breath. There’s a pause, then she says, “The meds. You went to Matthew for them.”

I glance at her in annoyance. “No,” I say. “Matt just happened to get thrown into the mix. It doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t matter?” she gasps. “Do you—”

“Would you rather I let you die?” I snap. “I can make a note of that, for next time.”

She gapes at me wordlessly. Finally, she shakes her head. Her eyes, fixed on me, are filled with concern. This, coming from Miranda, is unnerving. “Eden,” she finally says, her voice soft, echoing the sentiment in her eyes, “you have to be careful. Matthew…. You can’t just play hard to get with him forever. It might work for a while. Until he gets bored. But—”

I really don’t want to hear the rest. I stop and turn on her. Startled, she throws on the brakes, narrowly avoiding slamming into me. “Look,” I say, “I don’t need or want your advice. I’m not an idiot. I don’t need you to tell me what I already know. Sometimes, you do things because you have to. Because you have to survive.”

She stares at me, and my words echo in my mind. I’ve heard them before, but I can’t place it at first. Then, suddenly, I think of Jonas. I think of Jonas, and here I am looking at Miranda. I don’t want to see her and think of him at the same time. My insides are trying to claw their way out of me. My face flushes red. I can’t untangle my knot of emotions enough to see any of them. I turn, and walk away. She follows me. I try to block her existence out of my world. I try to pretend that there never was a Miranda. But still she follows me, haunting my steps. What have I done to deserve the feel of her always behind me? As I walk toward home, I consider the possibility that I have been, in my previous version of life, evil. What if I was evil? What if I am still? Could a machine erase that from me? Make me whole? Make me something new? Or is my path set forever into darkness?

At home, Jonas is sitting up in bed, talking with Apollon, who is still on the couch. Miranda comes in the door behind me, sees Jonas, and shoves past me to throw herself at him. He shrugs her affection off— something he does a lot, not just when he’s sick. I try to ignore the little feeling of satisfaction that trickles through my veins. But teasing me, in the back of my head, is the fantasy that Miranda has never recovered from the illness, and we’re a little sad at losing her, but… not all that much. I slump into the chair by the table and look away. Yes, I think. I am evil.

[*

Chapter 15: Opinions Can Change*]

I SHOVE A bowl of soup into Jonas’ hands, then take the bowl with broth only and sit carefully on the sofa next to Apollon. Lifting his head, he suppresses most of a groan while Oscar stuffs my jacket under him. His face is pale— too pale. I’m worried that he might be taking a turn for the worse, but he insists he’s on the mend. Neveah, as always, says nothing about it. The others speculate, but I don’t trust their knowledge enough to place any stock in their predictions. Quietly, I spoon the warm liquid into his mouth, and wipe dribbles away with my thumb.

“What [_is _]this?” Jonas asks. He looks down into his bowl and chases the chunks around with his spoon.

“Good for you,” I answer flatly. “Eat up. The rest of us don’t get any.”

Miranda, from the kitchen chair, makes a noise and pouts. I ignore her. It’s my soup. I feed Apollon another bite of broth.

Jonas chews a bite of meat thoughtfully, then says, “It tastes like cat.”

Apollon opens his mouth for another bite. After he swallows, he says, “Tastes like something that rhymes with cat.”

Jonas pauses with the spoon halfway to his mouth. He glances at me nervously.

Apollon winces in pain as he suppresses his laughter. He closes his eyes and doesn’t breathe. Then he takes very careful, slow breaths. He avoids looking at my face. Slowly, the corners of his mouth uncurl and relax.

“That’s disgusting,” Miranda says, recovering from her shocked silence.

I narrow my eyes at her. “I thought you wanted some.”

She makes a face at me, but glances at the bowl. The smell is quite enticing. It’s been a long time since we’ve eaten meat.

“It’s protein.” I look at Apollon, whose mouth is open. I feel like a momma bird feeding her young.

Jonas shrugs and keeps eating. “Protein is protein,” he concedes after chewing.

Miranda, however, proves she’s not to be so easily dismissed. “I’m sure you could get something better from Matthew,” she says lightly. As if it’s some simple, casual thought that just occurred to her.

My face darkens as all three of the boys look at me. None of them comment, so I take the opportunity to snap at Miranda. “Or Donegan, maybe. What do you think he’d give me in exchange for you?”

She pales, mouth open. Tears shine in her widened eyes. She actually trembles.

Guilt rushes at me. I’ve gone too far, but I can’t bring myself to take it back. I turn back to Apollon, shoving another bite at him. He only just manages to get his mouth open in time to avoid the broth spilling down his front. Still, a bit of it trickles over. I wipe his chin with the bottom hem of my shirt.

“Enough,” he mutters, turning his face away.

I set the bowl aside and climb to my feet.

“For god sakes, Eden,” Jonas mumbles, but I ignore him.

I leave. It’s cold outside. Bitter cold. And my jacket is still tucked under Apollon’s head. I don’t have anywhere to go, so I walk around back and stand in the sunshine. The wind whips its chill straight through my bones, and between bursts, the sun makes futile attempts to warm my skin. I stand there and shiver, wrapping my arms around myself, turning my back against the wind. My hair flies in my face, tendrils waving and jerking, dropping briefly before beginning the performance again. I close my eyes.

I don’t hear Oscar coming, but somehow I know he’s beside me. I open my eyes and turn my head toward him, sighing.

He looks up at me, and says nothing.

Finally, I ruffle his hair, pacing a few steps away before turning back. “Is she OK?”

He shrugs, gazing down at his feet. Then he moves his big brown eyes to my face and says, “You shouldn’t have said that.” It’s a simple statement. I shouldn’t have. He means to help me learn to be better.

I cross my arms again, but it’s only because I’m cold. “I know,” I start to lean against one of the barrels, but it’s icy, so I stand straight again. “I was angry.”

“Miranda shouldn’t have said what she said either.”

I blink, studying his face. Sometimes, he understands things I don’t expect him to.

“She was being mean, too,” he says.

I try not to allow the word “too” to sink in too deeply.

“I just wish you could be nice to each other.” He sighs, and looks wistfully away toward the concrete wall that separates us from the outside of the Outpost. Then I see it. He looks tired, and sad. He looks like half of his family has been beaten down by the world and the other half is at each other’s throats.

I purse my lips and nod. “I’ll try,” I say. And I mean it. I think Oscar really does help me to be better.

The smile he beams at me solidifies the idea even as it’s just beginning to form. I smile back. He runs to me and throws his arms around my waist, tilting his head back to look up at me.

I squeeze him back. “Go inside and warm up,” I tell him. “I just need a little time to think.”

He hesitates, but does as I ask. As I watch him go, I shiver from the cold, but somehow, the wind’s bite doesn’t sting as much as it did before.

***

No one talks much that evening, at least not after I come in. Pride makes me wait until I think Jonas and Apollon are dozing, even though it means apologizing in front of Neveah.

So I wander over to Miranda, who is sitting in the kitchen chair, nibbling on a piece of old bread. I stand close to her, which makes her look up at me. Her eyes are a touch wider than usual, like she’s alarmed. Maybe she thinks I’m mad at her. That I mean to threaten her. It makes me feel guilty all over again. There’s no other seats nearby, so I sit on the floor and cross my legs. Now I have to look up at her. She looks wary, and confused.

“I’m sorry,” I say. My voice is hoarse, and cracks as I struggle to push the words out. I force myself to continue. “What I said—”

She turns suddenly away. Before her hair falls across her eyes, the expression I read is full of discomfort and pain.

I hesitate, then consider abandoning the apology all together. If apologizing only makes her feel worse, then what’s the point? To make myself feel better? I rub my hands on my knees and rock forward to get up.

“OK,” she says suddenly, before I can actually climb to my knees.

I settle back down and look at her.

After a moment, she turns back to me, but her face may as well be set in stone, completely emotionless. We stare at each other blankly. She does not apologize to me.

“OK,” I say, realizing that she will not reciprocate. Realizing that I hoped she would. It would have been easier to make amends, then. To do what Oscar needs me to do. My humiliated goodwill turns to hollow gloom. I nod curtly and rise. I want to go outside. Instead, I curl up next to Oscar, against the wall. He gives me a smile that makes the corners of his mouth pucker into holes instead of pulling upward. My return smile probably looks much the same. I sigh, and lean back against the wall, closing my eyes. I want to run. Instead, I hold myself completely still, and barely allow myself to breathe.

***

We’re perfectly civil to each other, but the coldness underneath has not changed. Miranda seems to sense that we can’t allow our petty differences to make everyone else feel bad, so she’s been nothing but polite to me. I think I preferred when she was snapping.

“You’re sure this is entirely necessary?” she asks as we walk toward the Rustler, Oscar between us.

I nod. This is the third time she’s asked, and I’m trying very hard not to say something I will regret.

“We have to eat, right?” says Oscar, sparing me.

Miranda just nods, staring straight ahead as we continue our journey.

The Rustler’s not very full, and there’s no game. Taylor is at a table in the back with two men I don’t know. Lloyd and Sumter sit at the game table alone. Maybe they’re waiting for the opportunity to win some money as well, but when they see me, they shift uneasily in their seats. I wave them off and walk to the bar. Miranda and I sit on stools there, and Oscar stands by us, crossing his arms as he turns toward the barroom.

Arthur Adner is behind the bar. When he sees me, he pulls out a shot glass and a bottle of whiskey. I shake my head at him, but he fills the glass and sets it down in front of me anyway. “On the house.”

Frowning, I down the drink, then twist around and sit with my back to the bar. I scan the faces gathered here, wondering if there’s any money to be had. Things are getting worse. Soon, there will only be rats to eat. We need to leave this place. No question. But we’re not fit to travel. Miranda’s still weak, and though Jonas is recovering quickly now, he can barely walk across the room. Even if Jonas could make the journey, I don’t think Apollon will be able to travel for some time. Perhaps we could make a litter to carry him on, but that would slow us down and make us all easy targets on the roads. Put us all in greater danger. The only other option is to leave Apollon behind. Leave him with his wound to fester or die slowly of starvation. I won’t do that, and I don’t think the others would either.

I consider all this as the burn from the whiskey is still making its way down to the pit of my stomach. Now, with it, is a hollow, semi-nauseous feeling. We have to stay. That means something has to change. We can’t go on like this, scraping life from the ground with our broken fingernails. That leaves very little in the way of choices.

My eyes flit to Taylor, who is talking jovially. He looks well-fed, and in contrast, even Sumter is looking a little lean. Strange, because I doubt there’s any shortage of bodies to butcher. Maybe he’s afraid of the sicknesses that have been passed around amongst the poorest Outposters. I snuff air through my nose and focus on Taylor again, pondering the possibilities. Even Matthew’s men will eventually suffer this fate, if things continue as they’re going. I have no idea what kind of plan Matt has, if any, to restore our food supply and keep us all from starving to death. Considering how expendable most of us are to him, I’m not sure I want to know. Working for Matthew comes along with other unpleasant possibilities, too. I’m only considering it because my options are few. Few, but not solitary. There’s another option. I’ll talk with Jonas and Apollon before I make my decision.

I’m about to swing my feet onto the floor when I notice Coyote Dan in a corner, head bent over with Sarah, the girl who wanted to knife me. Her hand is still a mound of wrapped bandages, resting on the table as she talks. I wonder if she’ll ever use it properly again. Since I don’t exactly feel sorry for her, I discard the automatic pity and make my way to their table. When I show up beside her, she looks angry at first, then her eyes go wide. She goes quiet.

“What’s going on?” I kick an empty chair out and join them.

Sarah shakes her head and abandons her seat in a flash, leaving with only a quick look of alarm.

Dan shrugs it off in his normal easy manner, and grins at me. “What’s up with you, darlin’?”

I level my eyes at him, leaning in. “I asked first.”

He looks mildly amused, and a bit annoyed. He tilts his head back and regards me through half-lidded eyes. “Better you don’t know,” he drawls, “what with your allegiances and all.”

I raise my eyebrows at him, jerking my chin downward. “Allegiances?”

His glance flits sideways to the table where Taylor sits, then back to me. That’s enough.

“Look,” I say, my voice quiet, but edged, “my only allegiances are to my family. To staying alive. So if you have some sort of information, share it, and maybe someday I’ll return the favor.”

He watches me for a moment, then sighs. He leans toward the table. “I’ll tell you what she said,” he concedes, “but don’t take it like the words are mine. I was just listening. Got it?”

I nod, resting my elbows on the table.

He hesitates again, looking off across the bar. Sarah is gone now. She must have left as soon as she fled our table.

“She said,” Coyote Dan begins carefully, “that it’s getting harder and harder to survive.”

I frown. “Really.”

His eyes narrow a touch. As he continues, his words still come out slowly, evenly measured. “She’s not very happy about the way things are being handled. Thinks, maybe, we’re being let die and nobody’s too worried about changing it.”

I roll the words around in my brain, along with their implications. Matt’s not too worried about letting us all die. Is he even doing anything about it? Will he, so long as he has enough to sustain himself? I can’t really answer any of these questions. Instead, I form more questions. Like, is it Matt’s job to look after the whole Outpost, just because he has the most power? He’s not really our leader. He’s just someone who knows how to survive… really well. But the more you have, the more you have to lose. I believe he’ll fight to maintain what he has. The question is, how many of us are necessary for him to maintain his lifestyle? And how many of us are expendable enough to die? Sarah, it would seem, believes the two answers are weighted in the wrong direction.

I lean in closer. “What does she mean to do about it?”

He shrugs. “She never got that far.”

“Dan,” I say softly, as my guts twist around themselves. I have this sense that everything is out of control, falling away from me, spinning wildly. Things are bad, but they’re about to get worse. We’re about to scramble for our lives. I open my mouth to warn him, but he’s looking past me, completely still.

As I turn, adrenaline smashes into my brain. Miranda has retreated to a corner, where she presses her back against the wall, eyes wide, body shaking. Back where we sat, Oscar stands by himself, staring defiantly up into Donegan’s face. He knows he’s little, and he’s not crazy, so there’s something passive about the way he does it. Something that, even though it challenges Donegan’s path to Miranda, makes Oscar’s stance a peaceful gesture. One that asks, instead of tells. Donegan does not register this subtlety. He smacks Oscar hard across the face. Oscar crumples, but does not drop to the floor. Donegan has his fist wadded in Oscar’s shirt, and hauls him back up, growling out a threat. I cannot discern the words, but the sound, animal and violent, is enough. I’m on my feet and halfway across the room. But Miranda beats me there.

She has her knife drawn. It’s about half the size of mine— a slim dagger that’s probably more useful for peeling potatoes than getting in a fight. She stands, feet apart, arms thrown out at her sides, one hand in a fist and the other clenching the knife. She bares her teeth at Donegan, her whole body shaking. But this time, it is not fear, but rage. “Let him go right now,” she says, “or so help me, the things I will cut off of you that you will never be able to sew back on…”

I like Miranda right now better than I’ve ever liked her before. But Donegan looks amused. I pace toward him, to the side, drawing my own knife. My eyes are fixed on him. I can’t look at Oscar, at his little feet scrambling against the floorboards, trying to get under him. I focus on Donegan, and I’m calm. Calmer than I’ve ever been. I will not let him hurt Oscar. I will carve his eyes out of his skull before that happens.

Donegan has two of his men with him, who also have their knives drawn. But when they look at me, they glance at each other behind Donegan. Hesitation. I ignore them. The only thing that matters is getting Oscar free. Once he’s free, he can run. Whatever happens after that, happens. There’s a moment where we all sense the tension of what’s about to occur. Violence about to be unleashed. Donegan’s shoulders tighten as he glares at us. My muscles contract, preparing to move, but then, there’s someone beside me. There are several people beside me. Donegan pales. His hand, still hanging on to Oscar’s shirt, trembles.

I glance to my sides, where Taylor and his two friends have joined us. Coyote Dan is also there. Three of them have knives drawn, but one of Taylor’s friends has a pistol pointed at Donegan’s head.

Miranda’s eyes are wild with anticipation. She licks her lips, waiting for blood.

But I’m not so eager. “Let the boy go,” I say firmly, calmly.

Donegan glances nervously at the mob surrounding him.

“Let him go,” I say again, “and you’ll live.”

That’s enough. Donegan drops Oscar, who retreats behind us.

I sheathe my knife, grab Miranda by the arm and pull her back. Her eyes dart to me, still wide and crazy.

She shakes her head at me. “No,” she protests. It comes out almost a whine. “No.”

I fix her with a hard look and continue pulling until she comes with me. I nod to Dan, and Taylor, and his friends, as we make a wide circle around Donegan’s men toward the door. Oscar’s right behind us. I want to check that he’s alright, but I dare not let go of Miranda. We emerge into the sunshine and stride down the sidewalk. “Put your knife away,” I growl under my breath as we start to put some distance between ourselves and the Rustler.

Miranda is now staring emptily into space as we walk. She twitches, but puts her knife back in her belt. I glance back at Oscar, who looks alright, but worried. We exchange a look, then I put one arm around Miranda’s shoulders and pull her closer, rubbing her upper arm. She looks at me, still spacey and half-startled, but the tiniest smile touches her mouth. I smile back at her— what I want to be a reassuring smile. It feels pretty grim on my face. She surprises me, and laughs. Laughs loudly. I’m thinking she’s actually lost it. But she plants her feet there on the sidewalk, and turns to me with a grin.

“I’ll never say anything bad about Matthew again,” she announces, as though this revelation will bring me great pleasure.

My eyes scan her face, then I nod toward home and we resume walking. I glance around, checking that no one is near us, and I say, quietly, “Good. Then no one will know, if we’re not on his side.”

[*

Chapter 16: In the Shadows*]

NEVEAH RETURNS HOME empty-handed after a long day trying to pedal herbs in the marketplace. She sags into the chair, sets her parcel to the side. She doesn’t meet our eyes. I’m weary as well. Oscar and I spent the remainder of the afternoon hunting rats. Miranda crinkles her nose as she lifts the spoon to her mouth, but she eats the soup. She empties her bowl. We all do.

We sit in silence for a while after, feeling the hunger setting in deeper. It was just enough, really, to remind us how hungry we are. Unable to turn away from that thought, I broach the subject.

“We can’t go on like this.”

Immediately, I have everyone’s attention. They all stare at me.

I glance at Oscar, who has news to share as well. He looks away, now, not wanting to jump in just yet.

So I continue. “We can’t leave anymore,” I say slowly, avoiding Apollon’s eyes. “That means we need a new plan.”

Jonas, sitting next to Miranda, scoots forward to the edge of the bed. But before he can say anything, Apollon speaks.

“We decided we’d leave,” he says matter-of-factly, though I don’t recall ever coming to a solid consensus. I start to shake my head at him, but he pushes on. “The rest of you can still go. I’ll catch up with you when I’m better.”

“No,” I snap at him, grabbing his hand and squeezing hard. I imagine him lying here on his own. He would never catch up with us. He would just fade away. From life. From our memories. “We won’t go without you,” I say firmly.

Apollon stares up at me, his blue eyes passive, but underneath I can see the sense of relief, of gratitude. Softly, he squeezes my hand back. We look at each other for a long moment.

“Then…” says Jonas, quietly, “…what?”

I turn my face toward him. He looks from Apollon to me and back. There’s something on his face I don’t quite get. Is he afraid? I shrug it off. How often do I ever understand him? Instead, I reclaim my hand, brush off my knees, and climb to my feet. “Everything here is about to explode,” I say, and pause to choose my words. “We need to ally ourselves with power if we want to survive. That leaves only two choices. It seems to me that Grey is winning. He mostly has control of the food supply.” Here I glance at Jonas. “How hard could it be to make ourselves useful to him? Maybe he would reward us with some decent pay?”

Neither Jonas nor Apollon miss that I’m asking why they’ve not been paid already. But it’s more than that.

“We lived in Outpost Two for a while, Eden,” Apollon says, as if this is news I didn’t already know. “Grey expects a lot out of you, and his pay is that you live to see the next day. You don’t want to get mixed up with that. Trust me.”

Something in the way he says it suddenly makes the pieces come together in my mind. I narrowly avoid a reaction, but still, my eyes flit briefly to Apollon’s stomach. A punishment for not living up to expectations?

“Grey is evil,” Jonas spits. “He makes Matthew look like a virgin princess.”

I look from one of them to the next. I don’t know what to say.

Miranda relieves me of the necessity. “Guess that rules that out, then,” she mutters.

Jonas glances at her, but does not reply.

I look at Oscar, whose little face is drained, worried. Neveah, sitting in the chair near the door, looks away, her silent thoughts hidden from us. She and Miranda don’t even know the kind of danger that Apollon and Jonas are in. I want to tell them everything, but I’m tired. Should I burden them with it, anyway? There’s too much to explain. Too much to think about. Too much struggle and not enough rest. I sigh, and let it go. Slipping into my mind is the thought that if Grey is as horrible as Jonas says he is— and I believe Jonas— then that means there’s only one option left. Silently, I solidify the decision. It feels like a chunk of concrete in my gut. Something so heavy I will never put it down again. I nod, and take everyone’s bowls to the bucket, and wash them. “Oscar,” I say, my back turned, “tell them what you heard today.”

Behind me, I can hear Oscar’s small voice talking quietly about Matt’s plans to send an army against Grey. It’s all rumor, but it’s the most information we’ve had in a while.

Jonas shakes his head. I see this as I glance back over my shoulder. “That’s insane,” he says. “Outpost Two is twice our size, and they’ve been preparing for war for years.”

***

As I sink into sleep, I’m resolved to my fate. There’s little hope of surviving long-term, but if we ally with Matt now, then maybe we can last until a better opportunity comes up. We’ll change as we go. Adapt. Whatever happens now, it’s only for a while. We can be on Matt’s side. It can be OK. I can be OK. But the panic comes for me even as I drift into the darkness of sleep.

I stand on the street. I am dreaming of this street. I am dreaming. Dreaming. I am dreaming, I repeat, but I’m not sure what that means. My view zooms off to the distance, where a white spire stretches into the sky. As my eyes touch it, my heart bursts into a pounding rhythm. My feet start running, moving toward the tower. It’s all I can see. White. If I can just get there, everything will be OK. White. White. White. I run faster. There’s nothing under me, but I run. I run, and this time it moves closer. A small cry of delight escapes me. Delight, urgency, and surprise. The three feelings blast into me so hard that suddenly I’m lying in bed, blinking up at the dark ceiling. I try to breathe. Slowly. Breathe.

As I calm my body, I realize that Jonas’ arm is still thrown over me. As much as it makes me feel safe, right now it also holds me back. I need to move. I carefully pick up his wrist and move his arm aside, then slide from the covers and off the end of the bed. I open the door slowly, quietly, and close it behind me with the same careful stealth. Around back, I’m pacing, fighting down this need to leave. Right now, it says. Leave everything. Just go. Do it.

It makes no sense, but it’s powerful, and I’m only just holding on to reality when I hear his soft steps.

“Nightmare?” asks Jonas, rubbing his arms to keep warm.

I stare at him, shake my head. I can’t find my voice. The moonlight washes across his face, and from this angle, emphasizes the lines of his nose, his jaw. His face is so perfect, so strong, I think it must belong to an angel.

He looks into the darkness, huddling against the cold. A breath wisps away from his mouth, warm mist hanging on the cold night air.

“I…” I say. I follow his gaze to the darkness, even though there’s nothing to see. Suddenly, I want to tell him everything. “That place,” I say, looking at him again, hope rising inside me. Somehow, meeting him here in the darkness is so different than speaking to him the rest of the time. Here, we’re secret friends. He understands me. I know he’ll understand me now. “It’s a tower. A white tower. I think I have to go there.”

His head turns toward me, and for a moment his eyes wander over my face. “You think it is real.”

I nod. Now that he’s said it, I know it. And I need to go. Now. “I have to—” I start, but in the time it takes to come out of my mouth, he closes the steps between us and seizes me by the arms.

“No,” he says. His voice is soft— so much softer than his grip. His fingers on my arms are grounding me, keeping me from blowing away on the wind, but his words are gentle enough that I don’t want to fight against him. I swallow hard, and look up at him. He whispers to me, “Not yet.”

A moment passes, and the tension leaves me. His fingers drop to his sides. We look at each other.

Finally, I say, “I feel so crazy, sometimes.” I turn away from him. “How did you know… I mean… You made it go away.”

He walks to my side, and we look toward the concrete wall. His right fingers play with the hem of his left sleeve. “Sometimes I feel that way, too,” he answers after a while. Then he’s quiet, still playing with his sleeve. And then he says, “We are going to leave, Eden. Soon.”

I look at him in alarm, wanting to protest, but something stops me. Maybe it’s his expression— passive, but confident. What he has told me is a simple fact.

“How…?” The question trails off.

He shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he admits, tension rising in his voice. “But we can’t stay. And as for Matt…” His eyes move to my knife, then back to my face, “If anyone is forming alliances, it’s not going to be you.”

“You can’t,” I stutter. “Grey. You can’t.”

“Don’t worry about that,” he says. “I’ve got this.”

A little quiver makes its way from my chest into my throat. At the last second, I feel it coming, and I try to bury it, but it emerges into a choked-off whimper. I’m so embarrassed by the sound that I start to turn away, but Jonas’ hand on my cheek stops me. His thumb strokes my skin softly as he looks into my eyes. I gaze up at him, and I would give anything just to know what he’s thinking at this moment.

But all of the best moments are brief, and soon his hand drops and he moves away from me. “It’s cold out here,” he says. “We can figure everything out later.”

Without speaking, I follow him inside.

***

In the morning, Jonas is gone when the rest of us wake. I wonder how he managed to sneak out without me noticing. I clean Apollon’s wound, dressing it with a fresh pack of Neveah’s herbs, and breathe. It’s late morning by the time that Oscar and I start out. We say we’re going to hunt rats, and I’m sure that Oscar believes we are. But instead of heading to the back alleyways, we walk toward the Rustler.

As we turn the corner onto the main road, we see her immediately. Hanging. Oscar and I stop in our tracks and stare. At the intersection in front of the corner store, dangling from some sloppily constructed contraption attached to an old metal pole, is Sarah’s body. Her eyes are open, bulging, her tongue thick and protruding. She’s clearly been there for a while. A Sentry stands in the intersection, but it must not have been there when Sarah was hung. Clearing up after a murder— not its job. Either it has caught and swiftly punished the culprit, or it’s missed its chance and focused on other things. I stand there and gape at the picture of dysfunctional justice before me. Sarah hanging. So I didn’t like her, but I want desperately to cut her down. I wonder what the Sentry would do if I did. I wonder what Matt would do.

Oscar’s fingers, thin and cold on my wrist, stop me from moving. “Don’t,” he says softly. “Eden, don’t.”

I remember him, and I’m clamping one hand over his eyes and hugging him to me with the other.

“It’s OK,” he mumbles into my stomach, making me realize that he’s calmer than I am. How much death has he seen to be this calm?

In the intersection, the Sentry turns its blank face, then takes off down the side street. I let Oscar go, but turn his face away from the horror with a swipe of my fingers on his cheek. “Don’t look at that.” I catch his hand and run for the Rustler. We duck inside the door. I wipe my hands through my hair as we walk to the stools. There are no card games, and even if there were, I don’t have the money to play.

Arthur sets a drink down by me. I ignore it. If I take it, I’ll need another twenty after that. Instead, I try to breathe, and scan the room for Jonas. He’s not here. And if not here, then where? Panic rises in me. I know he’s gone to see Matthew today. That’s why he left before any of us were up. Now, I need to stop him. The panic swells larger. I’m probably too late. I have to stop him.

“C’mon.” I turn toward the door, just as it opens. I fall short.

Eight of Matthew’s men walk in, eyeing the room, followed by Matt himself. Behind him is another five of his crew. They all wander in slowly, like they own the place. They group at two empty tables, except for Matt, who sees me.

“Have you seen Jonas?” I ask as he walks toward me, before he can even greet me.

His eyes narrow briefly, and he shakes his head. “No.”

I look down at Oscar. “Run home,” I tell him. “See if he’s back yet.”

Oscar nods and does as I ask— I think. He has defied me before, after all, but this is the best I can do. I need to know where Jonas is— and if he didn’t go to Matt then where is he— but mostly I want to get Oscar out of here. Out of this bar. Out of this Outpost. I remember Jonas’ promise, that we’ll leave, and I manage to find some vestige of calm inside myself. I look Matt in the eye and say the only thing that comes to mind, glancing meaningfully toward the door. “Nice decorations.”

Again his eyes narrow a touch, but he shrugs and leans back against the bar. “Makes a statement, anyway.”

He’s not even going to deny it. I turn away before I can say something that’ll end up with me and Sarah hanging out together. I never liked her. I cross my arms and clamp my jaw.

“Don’t pretend you didn’t know she was flirting with death,” he says, casually. I’m not looking at him, but I’m sure he’s studying his nails.

As I turn back, I see he is. “She was desperate,” I say, trying to hold back the confrontation in my voice. My words come out carefully, even though I’m fuming inside. “This whole Outpost is desperate.”

He looks me up and down. “That so?”

Try as I might to hold it back, my fingers squeeze into fists. A hot rush colors my cheeks, darkening like the sky.

He shifts, turning toward me. “What I meant,” he says, his voice soothing, “is that if you need help…”

“These people need help,” I snap, before he can finish his offer. “How long are you going to let them—”

“Not very long,” he says, straightening suddenly and closing the distance between us. He puts his hands on my hips and looks down into my eyes, murmuring to me like he’s saying something entirely different. “It takes a while to put together an attack,” he says, in a low voice as smooth as cream. “A few more days and things will be better. You’ll see.”

I blink up at him, start to shake my head. He responds by moving his hands to my face, brushing his thumbs along my cheekbones, smoothing my hair back with his fingers.

“What will you do?” I whisper.

He tilts his head in the tiniest shrug-like gesture, then gazes down at me with half-closed eyes. “Take back what’s ours,” he murmurs. “I’m sending armed escorts for the supply shipments. After that, we’ll deal with Grey himself.”

The feeling of panic is worming its way out again. I consider telling him that Grey has been plotting this for years. That his armed escorts will probably be slaughtered. But instead, I say, “Grey?” He can’t know that I know anything. I can’t trust him with that. I can’t end up like Sarah.

He dismisses my question with a little shake of his head, and leans toward me.

I close my eyes.

A shout from the door makes him pull away. I look past him toward one of his men, who has stepped in from outside. I’m not sure what he’s said, but Matt moves suddenly away from me, toward the table. He’s putting his back toward the wall. Heavy footsteps trample outside the front door. I jump onto a barstool and hoist the untouched drink that Arthur left for me, spilling a little of it down my front. I hunch over the bar and let my hair hang into my face. The footsteps slow as they come inside. I don’t look toward the door, but in my peripheral vision, I count at least fifteen large bodies passing through the opening.

“What the hell is this?” says a voice behind me. It belongs to Colton, Matt’s right-hand-man.

“The answer to your negotiations,” says a voice that has stopped right beside me.

“And?” says Matt impatiently.

It makes me wonder how he’s survived so long. I close my eyes and make myself breathe. Be very still, and get out of here alive, I think. Just be still. Pretend to be some drunk. This is not your business.

“Grey doesn’t negotiate,” the voice next to me says. At first, the clicking sound is foreign, then I recognize it as a hammer being cocked.

Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. I fall drunkenly off of my stool. All hell breaks loose.

My fall comes close enough to distract the guy next to me— the one with the gun. He sidesteps to avoid me. A bullet hits him in the shoulder, sending him stumbling. I recover myself and kick the gun out of his hands. Gunshots explode around the room, making my head hurt, my ears ring. Blood spatters in every direction.

Two men behind me, locked in battle over a knife, knock into me. I almost lose my footing. Almost, because the guy who had the gun is on his feet, grabbing me, and slamming me into the bar. My ribs crunch against the wood. This time, there is a definite crack, and a sharp, throbbing pain. I can’t breathe. My head is an overinflated balloon. Spots swirl around in my vision. He presses me up against the bar and reaches around my belt for my knife.

The pressure eases up. He gurgles. I manage to spin around to see the blood dripping out of his mouth, splattering onto my jacket. He clings to me as he falls, and more blood, like a fountain springing from his stomach, rains onto me, until my whole front is slippery and red.

Matt kicks him away, wet knife in hand, and says, as the light goes out of the man’s eyes, “Don’t touch her.”

The last of the bodies are falling around the room. Four of Matthew’s men are still standing. Blood runs freely between the floorboards. Grey matter peppers one wall. We all wear a uniform of sticky, dark liquid. And we are far from safe.

Matthew grabs me by the arm and hauls me around the end of the bar. I stumble to keep up with him, but I can barely breathe or think. Our survival will only last seconds. Sentries will burst through the door soon. But Arthur Adner is hiding around the other side of the bar. He jerks a dirty rug out of the way and opens a trap door into the floor. Matt shoves me ahead of him into the darkness below.

I roll as I hit the bottom and scramble to my feet. It’s dark and cold. I can’t see. Everything that has happened so far is nothing compared to this. I scream.

Matt grabs me from behind and clamps his hand over my mouth. I bite down, making him swear. I kick and thrash, trying to get away from him. Trying to get away from the darkness. He manages to hang onto me and drags me deeper into the tunnel. I strain against him, clawing, scratching him, hurting myself. My nails dig into his arms, making long, warm gashes. Parts of me twist in haphazard directions as he restrains and drags me. My lungs and head will burst any second. I know it. I will die. I can’t wait to die. I only care about getting away from this— from him— because he has become the darkness itself. He has become the box.

“Somebody get a fucking light,” Matt grunts. It’s something far away that has nothing to do with me. I’ve returned to primal instinct. To chemical fear. He slams me up against the wall— hard— and the light comes on.

I stare at it, small and flickering, and freeze.

Matt lets out a long, frustrated sigh. He looks into my eyes, eyebrows quivering with restrained rage. His hand slides away from my mouth. He glances down at it as if he might be missing some fingers.

All of that happens in my peripheral vision. I’m looking at the light. One of Matt’s men holds up a small flashlight. Its blue aether glow, instead of illuminating, makes everything else seem to fade away to nothingness.

Matt releases me entirely now, and jerks the light out of the man’s hand. He places it in my palm and holds my whole arm out so I can see. “Go that way,” he says. “There’s a door at the end.”

I start running into the darkness. I don’t care that I might trip, twist an ankle, or break a leg. I don’t care about the things that rustle away from my oncoming footsteps. There is a door. I will get to it. My whole body shakes as I run, bouncing the blue light around on the rough-hewn corridor. My knees are not enough to hold me up. I have to get out of here before I collapse. I run faster. My chest aches all the way from the bottom of my ribcage up into my throat. I can barely hold the light, but I cling to it as if there’s nothing else to keep me in this world.

The corridor stretches on, and I begin to think that it’s a trick. I’ll never get out. I have run into my own grave where no one will ever find my body. I have run the passage to my own hell. If I ever find a door, it will only lead into a box. The blue light grows dimmer, its color thickening like a dying star. I am lost. I slow to a stop, and sob, even though the motion of it makes my chest feel like it will break apart. I hold out the light in my palm and watch it fade. This is what death looks like.

I’m standing in black. I want to scream. It’s building in me. But there’s no energy left to release it, so the anguish turns itself inward. The scream works itself noiselessly into my soul, teeth biting down, squeezing, crushing, tearing. I’m falling inward. Turning to dust.

My shoulders slump. I hang my head, stare at the toe of my boot. I stare. I study the way the line of it curves around. Like it exists in another dimension, away from here. A thin ribbon of brown lies across it. My boots aren’t brown. I narrow my eyes. It takes bending down. Touching it. Trying to feel a difference between the brown and black. Trying to decipher it like a code.

Light. A narrow band of light. Now, surrounded in this strange calm, I look up. The door. I feel the wall and find a ladder. I climb it. The pain is now so far away from me. Am I really in pain? Or was it someone else? I push the door open. It makes a deep creaking noise, heavy until I get it past halfway. Then it crashes open with a bang. It bounces and splinters break off of its half-rotted frame. The sound, though, is far away. Everything is far away.

I emerge into a shed made of wavy metal panels fastened together at the corners. Gaps of light leak through the edges. I look out and see no one. A quiet yard with weeds cracking through the pavement. I close the trap door, and open the one to outside. In the street, I recognize this place. I’m only a block from home.

My hands are shaking as I push our door open. I stand on the threshold. Everyone gapes at me.

“Blood,” Miranda shrieks, and leaps toward me. She yanks me inside and slams the door behind me.

Jonas is at her side. “Where are you hurt?” he’s asking, his voice dead calm.

I shake my head. It’s all I can do. Tears start to spill down my face.

Apollon, struggling to sit up, grunts, “the fire.”

Miranda has her knife out. She slashes into my jacket, my shirt, and starts pulling my clothes off. Jonas helps her. The humiliation is a thin and distant thing behind the horror of what’s happened. Oscar runs to the wood stove and throws the door open. They form a line, passing my clothes from hand to hand, until they end as food for the flames. I stand there sobbing, and let them.

“Get the pump going,” Miranda barks at Oscar. Apollon has made it off the couch and to the stove. He takes over there, poking everything down into the embers. As he closes the stove door, Miranda pulls me toward the bathroom.

I climb into the tub and she hoses me down with water so wintry it should be in solid form. I hunch over in the tub, teeth chattering, as she blasts me with coma-inducing coldness, and watch the water run red, then blush, then clear. It’s clear for a long time before she stops. I think I actually have frozen there because I can’t seem to get my body to move. She throws the towel over my back and half-pulls me out of the tub. I manage to make my legs go along with her plan.

I’m still dripping and shivering when we stumble together into the main room. Jonas takes one look at me and pulls the quilt off the bed, wrapping it around me. I’m not sure if it’s the quilt, or the warmth of his arms, but I start to feel, in the tiniest bit, alive. He leads me to the bed and sits me down, tucks the blanket around my feet to seal out the air. I close my eyes, and try to breathe. It takes too much effort, so I give up, and fall over sideways, thinking I’ll pass out.

It is then that the Sentry throws open the front door.

[*

Chapter 17: Gifts*]

THE DARK, INHUMAN face regards us. We stare back, statues chiseled out of fear. The low hum of its internal motors is the smothered screams of a thousand voices. It looks downward. Waves of aether heat distortion slither into our home. My eyes— the only part of me that is not frozen— move to the floor. I must have dripped blood there. I must have dripped blood all the way from the street to our house. I brought it here. Will it know to only kill me, or will it take my whole family?

Neveah is gone, I think. A small concession. Tears fill my eyes and run sideways onto the bed, crossing the bridge of my nose. I want to drown in my own tears now. I want everything to be done. I’m tired of catching what Fate throws at me.

As suddenly as it comes, it goes. The door flaps in the wind. Squeaking. Banging. A spastic percussion of fading metal footsteps and the hanging mouth of our house. Miranda stands up quietly and closes the door. She slides the lock into place, and stands there with her hand on the knob, staring at the floor.

“We cleaned it,” Oscar says softly. “Me and Jonas. We cleaned it.”

I blink tears away and look at the floor where Miranda’s standing. A large black scorch mark gouges into the floorboards. Whatever they did, it could have burned the whole house down. But it worked. The tears return suddenly in a sob that makes me squeal and clutch my chest. Jonas looks at me, but it’s Miranda that moves to my side. She leans against the bed next to me and strokes my hair. “You’re safe now,” she says. But I’m not. There is nowhere safe in this world.

She orders Jonas out to fetch Neveah. He complies. I’m grinding my teeth and squeezing my eyes shut against the pain for what seems like hours before they finally return. Wanting to gouge my eyes out slowly to distract myself from the pain. Then Neveah is back, and mixes up one of her teas, and manages to get some of it in me. I’m certain I’m going to throw it up before I have it even halfway swallowed, but then, suddenly, I’m drifting. My body relaxes, and only then do I realize how tightly clamped every muscle in my body was. It’s like a sigh that happens in each fiber, each cord of my flesh. All at once I breathe out. I’m floating. I’m gone.

I sleep for what feels like the better part of a lifetime, half-aware, sometimes, of voices, conversations. I think the others go to bed and get up again. Maybe more than once. Oscar’s voice, and Apollon’s, filter through the fog. They’re talking about something that happened in the marketplace. And the cost of rice. I want to add something important. I attempt to raise eyelids made of lead. I mumble something about collecting feathers.

“Feathers?” says Apollon, making me realize that I sound like a lunatic.

I grunt and fall back asleep.

It probably happens more than once. My drugged sleep is filled with strange dreams and half-dreams. Every once in a while I catch a glimpse of my white spire, but it never holds. Everything is a wash of impermanence, changing like colors swirling together in a bucket. One thing becomes the next, and the next, and the next. They mix together until they’re indistinguishable. By the time I really regain consciousness, I don’t remember any of it.

I blink against the filtered light that seeps into the house. It must be daylight. My head feels full, and moving makes it throb. I lie very still. Eventually, I focus on Jonas’ face.

He’s sitting beside me on the bed, watching me quietly. “Hey,” he says, like he knows that if he speaks any louder my head will actually explode.

I breathe in. Pain detonates in multiple charges throughout my chest. After that, my breaths are shallower. “We have to leave,” I say, using as little air as possible. The words barely make it out, but he seems to understand me.

He nods. “I know.”

“Matt…” I begin to explain.

He nods again. “I know,” he says. “We heard what happened at the Rustler.”

“No,” I insist impotently. “You can’t work for him.” I try to breathe enough to continue. “He…”

“Hung Sarah? Yeah, I know.” He frowns and touches my cheek. “I couldn’t,” he says. He looks away. “When I saw that, I… I mean, it’s not like I didn’t know. It was just… like a sign or something. Like Fate was saying, ‘don’t do it’.”

That’s when I realize that we’re alone. Jonas doesn’t talk like that when the others are around. I listen, and hear Apollon breathing softly on the couch… asleep. Neveah must be at the marketplace. “Where are Miranda and Oscar?”

He looks at me like the question surprises him. His eyes scan my face, then he looks away again. “Uh… rats, I think,” he says. And he stands up. He gets some water, then helps me sit up— which hurts like hell— to drink. The cold is so soothing on my cracked lips that I almost forget to bother swallowing. When I’m done drinking, I lie down flat again. I let my head stop swimming, and try to continue this conversation.

“Matt’s men are going to die,” I whisper to Jonas. “He’s sending an armed escort for the shipments, but he doesn’t know.” I don’t explain better, because it takes too much effort, and I know that Jonas understands what I mean.

He frowns at me for a moment, then says, “So?”

Talking takes so much work. “I have to tell him,” I say, my lips forming the words with very little voice behind them.

His frown deepens. “Do you want to die?” he asks. “Because if not, maybe you’re just stupid. So which is it, Eden?”

I close my eyes against my anger, which I have no energy for. I say very calmly, “Then tell me about this plan to leave.”

He doesn’t exactly have a plan. But he has plenty of desperation. I can hear it in his voice, even though he tries to keep it level. Jonas needs to leave, and his reasons go beyond mere survival. He wants to leave here the way I want to run and keep running until I find my white tower. He has something he’s looking for, too. Something that calls to him even when he shuts his ears. Something that won’t leave him alone.

So the plan is full of holes, at best. Sell what we can. Get as much of the right supplies as we can. Make a litter to drag Apollon. Make a litter to drag me. I stop him there. I can walk. I can ignore the pain, and I can walk. Apollon says he can, too.

Both of us blink, realizing that Apollon is listening to this conversation. How long has he been awake?

“How you feeling?” I finally ask, staring at the ceiling.

“Great,” comes the voice from the sofa. “How’s that rib?”

“Great,” I say.

He makes a noise.

Well, we’re both great. Jonas rolls his eyes.

“So we’re walking,” I say, not ready to let our planning die down to inaction.

“Matthew has locked the Outpost down after what happened,” Jonas informs me reluctantly. “No one in or out. We’ll have to leave at night. Try to slip out.” He purses his lips for a moment, then adds, “We won’t be ready to leave right away. If things go sour here, we’ll just have to hang on. It doesn’t matter what happens to Matthew’s people, so long as we can stay out of it.”

I don’t like the sound of this— of hanging on. I’m ready to leave now. I’m ready to climb out of this bed and march straight out the door. I try to sit up, and groan, and fall back to the bed. Maybe not. Maybe just a day or so.

That day or so adds up and adds up. I find myself unable to get out of bed. This is only partly because of the pain. I’m tired— tired deep into my soul. I want to close my eyes and sleep the rest of my life away. But when Neveah weans me off of the drugs, I have trouble sleeping at all. When I do, my nightmares return. If it’s not the box, bodies and blood pile up. I flail, which wakes me, and then I can’t return to sleep for long periods of time because I’m in pain. Jonas rests his hand on my hip at nights, instead of putting his arm over me, where it could press on my ribs. His fingers rub lightly over the blanket, soothing in their steady rhythm. They’re like a lullaby sung in touch, and the only reason I go back to sleep at all. If he wasn’t there, I might never sleep again. I want to tell him thank you, but somehow, in the daylight I can’t say it. I look in his face and can see nothing of the tenderness I remember. Have I imagined it? But every night, when I can’t sleep, his touch soothes me until I can.

When I’m finally able to climb out of bed, still clutching my crumpled towel, there’s a pile of new clothes waiting for me. They’re from Matt, Oscar explains. Because my others were ruined with blood. I scowl and Oscar admits to answering Matthew’s questions about my wellbeing.

“You need clothes,” Oscar shrugs innocently, as though he doesn’t understand the harm of accepting a gift from Matt. But then he adds, “It was his fault your clothes got ruined, right?” Maybe he does understand.

There’s a shirt, pants, a jacket, socks, undergarments, and boots, all better than what was burned. The cloth is like a whisper against my skin. The leather is supple, thick, and sweet-smelling. Everything fits perfectly. The jacket is not too tight around my ribs, as if Matt thought of this, too. As if he thought of everything.

Jonas gives me a dark look when he first sees me wearing it. He says nothing, but I can see him think it. I’m stupid. I’m going to get myself killed.

I turn away from him and pretend I don’t notice.

During the days, Jonas slips out to make preparations. He takes a few items to sell or trade, and comes back, stashing new things in bundles under the table. One day, he shows me a compass, its arrow steadily pointing northward.

“But don’t we just follow the road?” I say, wondering if he thought of this. Wondering if there wasn’t something more necessary he could have traded for.

He shakes his head, kneeling at the packs to tuck it away. “There’s one road for a while,” he says. “And then there are others. We’ll need to find our way, once we get past Outpost Four.”

Past it. That’s when I realize. We’re not just going to Outpost Four. We’re going south, where Jonas’ arrow is pointing. Once we start that direction, he’s not going to stop. Our journey suddenly gets much bigger in my head. Following that comes the thrill of excitement. The image of the white spire looms in my mind, clear as in my dreams. “Do you think we’ll find the white tower?” I mumble, before I realize what I’m saying.

Miranda, sitting at the table, looks up. “White tower?” she says. She snorts. “We’ll find twenty if we keep going long enough.” Then she frowns. A deep frown. She doesn’t want to go, and she’s made this clear again and again. I think she’s starting to come around now, but then, looking at that frown, maybe not.

Jonas has tucked the compass into the pack and is still squatting, but he’s turned his head to look at her.

“Twenty?” I say, raising my eyebrows. I’m aware that my exterior must seem very calm, though inside I am chaos.

Miranda looks at me blankly, then grows a small smile. She realizes she knows something I don’t and she’s enjoying it. “There’s one in every city.”

I close my mouth. I breathe. “There’s a white tower in every city?” I ask calmly, curiously. I catch Jonas glancing at me over his shoulder, but I don’t look at him. My eyes are fixed on Miranda.

“Sure,” she says, shrugging it off, looking back at the nails she was picking before the topic came up. She doesn’t add anything for a while, and I hold my breath, wondering if I should ask. Wondering if I should leap up and shake it out of her.

Jonas rises slowly to his feet and stands looking at her, and me. Her, and me.

Miranda glances at me and I raise my eyebrows higher.

“Oh,” she says. “Well, they built one in every city back at the Turn. They were supposed to be meeting places. You know. For everyone. Back when they thought we’d all be having picnics or something.”

I blink slowly and look at my hands in my lap, fiddling with my fingers. Jonas sits beside me on the bed, and looks at my fingers, too. A long silence passes between us.

“Huh,” I say, finally. “Meeting halls.” I stand up, put on my jacket, and walk out the door.

***

We’re finally on the brink of departure, and everyone is running last-minute errands. Oscar and I roast rats over the coals in the stove, carefully wrapping and packing some meat for the journey. It won’t last long, but we’ll want a meal of some sort, and food costs more than we have. Jonas has spent the last of our money on other things we’ll need, and traded off our bigger items for smaller, more usable ones. Our frying pan has turned into a spare knife. Our dishes have become an old leather pack with shoulder straps. We cannot trade our larger items without revealing what we intend to do, so we’ll be abandoning some hard-to-get things like the mattress, and rain barrels, and our shack with running water. This was one of Miranda’s complaints. How can we leave all this behind? Apollon insisted we’ll replace it, and do even better somewhere else. He reminded her that they rigged up the pipes and the pump. Why can’t they do it again?

Miranda just frowned. It’s not leaving these things behind that bothers her. It’s leaving behind the hope that her mother will return for her. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about such things. But as we wait for them to come back, I think about Miranda too much. I think about saying something to her that could make it easier for her. I don’t know what that is.

As we come to the end of the rat meat, I get up and pace. Jonas, Apollon, Neveah, and Miranda are still out, and I’m beginning to wonder what’s taking them so long. Before I can wonder much more, Apollon and Neveah show up. They have a large bundle of herbs with them, and, ducking through the door, Apollon smiles.

His face is flush, and he looks winded. He sounds a little breathy, but pleased. “No sign of Matthew’s men on the road tonight,” he reports. “Maybe they’re busy with something.”

Or maybe their numbers are dwindling. None of us have heard anything about what might have happened to Matt’s armed escort, if he even sent it, but his men have definitely seemed preoccupied with other things lately. That’s perfect for us.

“We’re about ready here,” I say, glancing at Oscar, who nods.

Apollon nods too, and then suddenly goes to the chair to sit down. He doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t have to.

I kneel at his side. “Hey,” I say softly, “it’s not too late for us to drag you.”

This earns me a mocking smile, even though his face is still turned downward. “You did such a great job getting me from the door to the couch that way,” he says. “A few miles would be nothing, I bet.”

He’s teasing, but part of it rings true. And a few miles is a major underestimation of our journey.

I have to brush it off, though, because we need to leave. Yesterday. So I just play along. “If you weren’t so enormous…”

His smile widens. He glances up, like he’s looking at his own forehead. “Yeah,” he says, his grin turning wicked, “My E is for ‘enormous’. What’s yours?”

Before he gets all this out, the door is halfway open and Jonas is walking in. “Embarrassed,” he answers. I’m not sure if he’s talking about himself, or me. Accurate, though, probably for both of us.

I climb to my feet. He’s wearing a scowl and holding tension in his shoulders.

“Everything OK?” I ask.

He makes a noise in answer, then says, darkly, “Got into a fight with that trader. He figured out we were leaving and tried to blackmail me.”

Apollon looks up at him, wide-eyed. Neveah stops and turns to watch him over her shoulder. I look Jonas up and down, and don’t see any sign that he’s been wounded. Somehow I doubt the other guy faired so well.

“Are we ready?” Jonas asks, glancing around the room.

“Just waiting on Miranda.”

He squints, frowns. “Isn’t she back?”

I shake my head slowly. The bad feeling sinks in, as if it was just waiting for his words.

We all sit in silence and look at each other. Look at the wall. Look at the floor. Look at our hands. Look at each other. Miranda doesn’t come home. I begin to wonder if she’s decided she doesn’t want to come with us. But I’m not going to say that.

Apollon does. “She said she didn’t want to come,” he says. The words drop into the silence between us like a brick off a building.

Jonas opens his mouth to say something, but doesn’t. He shakes his head, but the gesture is slow and uncertain.

We would probably sit here and debate it all night, wondering if we should leave without her. But Oscar settles it for us.

“She packed her pliers,” he says. He kneels down at one of the packs, fishes around, and pulls them out. “See,” he says, as if that’s everything we need to know.

It is.

“Shit,” I say, climbing to my feet. Jonas and Apollon are right behind me. So is Oscar, but Neveah puts her hands gently on his shoulders.

Jonas glances at Apollon, who has gone a little pale in between sitting and standing. “Not you either,” he says softly.

Apollon looks like he’s going to protest, but doesn’t. He may have it in him to make it most of the way down the road. Or he may have it in him to back us up in a fight. But he definitely doesn’t have enough to do both. And he knows which one we need from him the most. He sits down, and flushes red. Now his ‘E’ is for ‘embarrassed’.

Jonas and I walk out into the dark of the night. The air smells cold, like snow is coming. Neither of us speak, but we both seem to know where we’re going. To Donegan’s.

Donegan and his men occupy a squat row of old metal buildings not far from the shanties I used to pass every day. We hunker down in the alleyway behind and quietly work our way closer to some windows. They’re boarded up, but there are gaps, so we can hear the people talking inside. There’s a group of men, rambling about things I don’t care about. We listen, and my feet start to feel pins and needles from maintaining my crouch. I want to run away from here and find Miranda. Maybe she’s even made it home by now. But then, eventually they mention “her”. It’s only something about bringing water to her room, but it’s enough. Jonas and I look at each other in the darkness.

We sneak away from the window and lean back against the opposite wall. I shake my legs out, trying to regain feeling.

“I’m going in after her,” Jonas says quietly. “Stay here, and—”

“No,” I say. Now who’s being stupid? We’re outnumbered and out-armed. Miranda’s probably locked up and guarded. We can’t just go in after her. But then, what else can we do? Leave her? I’m struggling with the futility of the plan when I realize there’s another option. Not fun or convenient, but effective. I set my hand on Jonas’ arm. “I’ll go for help.”

He’s silent.

I turn and start away, but then he’s gripping my arm, pulling me back. “Not gonna happen,” he growls through clenched teeth.

I stare at him in the darkness. “Jonas,” I say, but he’s already shaking his head.

“Look,” he says, “if you go for help, I’m going in by myself. I’ll probably be dead by the time you get back. So you could do that, or you could stay here and back me up.”

“By doing what?” This is ludicrous. We’re both going to die.

He glances around. “A diversion?”

I frown and consider. Could I make it all the way to Matt’s and back before Jonas could get himself killed? Would I be willing to risk it? And if it worked, would it screw up our plan to leave? “What kind of diversion?”

He shrugs. “Burn something.” Then his grip finally loosens on my arm. He rubs his fingers up and down lightly before he lets go entirely. “Stay safe.” And he’s gone.

I sag back against the building wall and scowl. “Burn something,” I mutter to myself. I look around for something to burn, wondering how I’m going to make sure that I don’t accidentally burn down Jonas or Miranda in the process. Or the whole Outpost for that matter. Then I realize I have nothing to start a fire with.

I curse and run for the end of the alley.

It’s not the smartest way to go about things, but I need fire. Now. So I race toward the shanty-town, my ribs throbbing. I scoop up a stick on my way. Huddled shapes cry out in surprise as I burst into the middle of the campsite. I dunk my stick into the fire, brandish it at some sickly-looking guy who jumps up in protestation of my intrusion, and head off at high speed. They hurl curses after me, but no one follows. I hardly notice. Nothing matters as much as starting this fire.

I thrust my flaming branch into a shed nearby Donegan’s row, but hopefully far enough away from other structures to keep from setting the whole Outpost ablaze. The fire takes a moment to catch. I drop my torch and run down the alley. Behind me, there’s an explosion of metal and glass. I ditch into the mud, wondering exactly what was in that shed.

After that, everything is chaos. Voices. Shouting. Silhouettes run toward the shed, throwing water and dirt on the fire. I belly-crawl further out of the flickering light, trying to avoid their notice. At the end of the alley, I right myself against the wall. I step around the corner, straight in front of two men headed toward the blaze. They blink at me. One of them levels a gun at my face.

I sigh and close my eyes. Death always comes for me like this, with its mouth open, hungry, ready to devour, and then it slinks away again, just after I make peace with the idea. It’s like a joke, only no one’s laughing. I don’t laugh this time, either. I open my eyes again. I watch the man’s finger tighten on the trigger.

His friend makes an unexpected noise, like a protest. He falls to the ground with a knife sticking out of his back. Jonas sweeps the legs out from under the man with the gun while Miranda kicks at his head. Jonas wrenches the gun away. Miranda keeps kicking. Her teeth are bared. Vicious little growls accompany each kick.

“Who pissed you off?” I ask, as she comes up for air. Her cheeks are flushed red and her eyes wild. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked. I grab her by the arm. “Come on.”

We run down the back streets, toward home. My lungs ache, and an invisible hammer is smashing into my chest, but running feels good anyway. We burst in. Our friends are ready with the packs. Even Apollon is all strapped up, and wearing nightglasses.

“We thought you might want to leave right away,” Apollon says, grinning. He hands the other two sets of nightglasses to Miranda and Jonas, who begin strapping them on. “Was that an explosion we heard?”

Miranda, having expertly adjusted her own glasses in a flash, frowns at Apollon and stands on tiptoes to mess with his.

“Something like that,” I answer, and grab one of the remaining packs, hoisting it onto my back. “Let’s get out of here.”

Jonas nods gravely. Something about the nightglasses on his face is unnerving. His eyes are hidden. Another wall. I have to settle for the fact that he’s not looking at Miranda. Not fixed on her, not awash in relief. He’s ready to get out of here. That’s all.

We’re out the door only a moment after we return.

We stick to the darkest, quietest streets, sometimes circling around lighted or populated areas in favor of less-trodden paths. None of us talk. Our careful steps crunch through the darkness, our breath steaming in the cold air. Our heartbeats throb inside our heads. This is our escape. Tonight, we leave this place behind and head into the unknown. Uncertainty, danger, and anticipation are thick on the air. Excitement replaces fear. Even though I know I could easily die tonight, I feel like laughing. I’m a child playing a game. The possibility of disaster morphs into a rush of adventure. I glance behind me, at Jonas, at Oscar, and see it on their faces, too. Oscar and I grin at each other. As the path widens, he grabs my hand, and we walk together into our future.

[*

Chapter 18: Death’s Door*]

THE OUTPOST GATE is not guarded, at least not by humans. There’s no law against using the roads. Only Matthew’s men are a worry here, and there are none of them about. One thing about travel is that no one can really hide from you on the road. The boundaries can’t be crossed. There may be trees beyond the line of scanner posts, but no one could take cover there. The Sentries would come and take them away. Anyone who might come after us, or go before us, has to be exposed as well.

That doesn’t make me feel any safer as we walk the long, black stretch. My eyes are adjusting to the light of a half moon. I start to make out what’s in front of me, but there are shadows filled with uncertainty. As we move away from the Outpost, we walk in a tight group. Apollon is at my shoulder. I move closer to him. Something about his size is reassuring, even if he is making strangled breathing sounds already. On my other side, Oscar squeezes my hand tightly. I grip his fingers, too, unable to loosen my hand. I’m on edge. This is no longer a game. Somehow, out here, where I should feel safer as we put some distance between ourselves and the Outpost, I only feel more exposed. There are no walls to hold things back, and nowhere to go if we get attacked. I peer into the tree line, wondering what lives out there, in that world with Oscar’s white doe. Maybe there are things we don’t know about. Things that don’t like us passing through their domain.

We walk on, and I sense, somehow, that Apollon’s energy is draining. I grab his hand and he glances down at me. He manages a smile, but I can tell, even through his nightglasses, that it does not touch his eyes. I forget my fears and my own aching ribs, trying to think of a way to help him. Maybe I can manage his pack and mine as well. I’m about to tell him to stop so I can try, when I see something glisten in the moonlight, off in the distance. I squint at it. I stop. Everyone stops.

“What is that?” I whisper.

For a few breathless heartbeats, no one answers.

“Run,” says Jonas. I don’t know where we’re supposed to run to. We scatter in different directions. We can’t go back. We can’t go on. We can’t go past the barriers.

I yank my knife from my belt and stand ready.

Scattering is our only option. It breaks up the target. Now, standing here with the vehicle speeding toward me, I realize the problem with this plan. It assumes that, through luck and strategic avoidance, some of us will make it past the obstacle. Some of us. I flip my knife around and grasp the top of the blade. The car bounces over the broken rubble, gaining air over the roughest bits, propelling itself forward. My feet are planted straight in its path. Some of us will make it. But not all of us. Not me.

I draw the knife back and fling it at the car. Apollon slams into me, knocking me sideways. We sprawl onto the ground and roll. The car screeches to a stop where I was, skidding sideways on the broken chunks of pavement. Dirt billows up around the wheels, mixing with the steam pouring off the rear engine. I stop rolling, head pressed to the ground. The doors open. Men with large guns jump off the back, where they rode hanging on to metal handles. More pour out of the car. There are six of them all together. The driver is bleeding where broken glass has cut his face. Hope surges in me. Maybe we can take them. Clutching my side, I start to roll to my feet, but then, I hear the motor. Down the road, the second vehicle, a pickup truck, is not far behind. Oscar and Neveah are sprinting away. The truck passes them. Someone throws a net. The end is attached to the truck’s bed. My friends go down hard, their feet jerking out from under them. They’re dragged in a tumble as the truck comes to a stop.

I jump up, but one of the men steps forward with a gun leveled at my face. I freeze. Apollon stays put, sitting in the dirt at my side.

My eyes search the darkness for Jonas and Miranda. On the other side of the truck, obscured by the heat waves bending the air around the aether exhaust, the men have their guns trained on something. I’m pretty sure that makes all of us. There’s a body bleeding in the road, too plump to be either of my friends. Jonas has taken one of the men down, but it’s nowhere near enough.

One of the men from the truck walks toward us as the others from his group disentangle Oscar and Neveah and herd them together with Jonas and Miranda. I’m relieved to see them up, even though they’re limping. We’re all alive, for now. It could be worse.

One of the nearby men gestures with his rifle for Apollon to get up. He complies with a groan. His face is turned away from me, his hair falling forward to create more shadows. I can only hope he’s alright. Guilt rises in me for being stupid enough to stand in the road. If I hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t have had to take that fall.

“Well,” says the man who has walked over from the pickup truck. I recognize the voice, and squint to see his face. He’s one of Matt’s men— one of the men who dragged me to Matt’s house that night. He doesn’t look happy to see me. “This ought to be interesting.”

They confer amongst themselves, relieve us of our weapons and packs, and shove us into a group. The car speeds on ahead to the Outpost, while the rest of us partake in a forced march. The pickup follows slowly behind, guns trained on our backs.

Oscar turns his face to me, but says nothing. He looks scared, limping along, forearms and knees bloodied, small chunks of rock still stuck in his elbows. I want to smile at him. Want to reassure him. But whatever happens to us, it can’t be good. I imagine we’re not the only desperate souls who have tried to brave the roads rather than remain in the Outpost. They probably even have a protocol for dealing with this. But not for dealing with me. The first car has likely gone to notify Matthew himself. Whether he’ll give them orders or make an appearance, I can’t say. But trying to leave the Outpost under the cover of darkness is a small act of betrayal. Breaking his windshield, wounding one of his men, and killing another, is a large betrayal. Calling him my friend will not make this go away. I will either end up dead, or wearing a slave bracelet. As for the others, I can only hope that he finds them useful enough to spare.

As we march through the darkness, I picture myself on my knees, begging him for Oscar’s life. I try to imagine his response, but I can’t decide if he would be moved to benevolent pardon, or if his anger toward me would steady the gun in his hand. I agonize over this scenario every single step back to the Outpost, and still, I can’t decide. Would it help? Would it make things worse? I’ve given up on the rest of us, but I need Oscar to live.

The gates of the Outpost come into sight, and there is Matt, standing before them, hands on his hips, foot tapping like an annoyed parent. I look down as I walk. I can’t meet his gaze.

The men get out of the truck and move us up to him in silence. We wait. I’m too focused on the fluttering of my own heart to even look at my friends.

“What were you thinking?” Matt finally asks with a quietness that startles me. His anger will take form in his actions, not his words.

I look at him now and see that anger writhing just below the surface, thinly masked by control. Fear rises unbidden from the pit of my stomach. I’ve gone too far this time. I want to say something to appease him, soothe him. Beyond that, I want to be noble and selfless, take the blame on myself, save my friends. But when I do speak, hot, liquid anger spills from my mouth. “We have every right to leave here if we want. You can’t make us stay and die. We choose to leave.”

Matt narrows his eyes at me and says nothing. Somewhere to my right, Jonas shifts nervously. Miranda shakes her head. Apollon looks up like he’s just becoming aware of his surroundings. Neveah takes a small step back, stopping because of the gun barrel wedged between her shoulder blades.

Matt looks off into the distance and licks his lips, considering. When he looks back at me, he smiles. I feel suddenly cold, like that smile has drained the blood from my body.

He says, “Of course.” He steps toward me, his body language casual, a trace of the smile still there. This is Matt at his deadliest, I realize. He’s completely in control. He knows exactly what he will do. I expect a gun or a knife to materialize. I expect a revelation of my doom, but he draws it out. “I couldn’t call you my friend, and then keep you from something so important to you,” he says, his voice like a foot, twisting, pressing the word ‘friend’ into the ground. He stops in front of me, eyeing me sideways.

When he looks down, his face softening, I realize he has not stopped in front of me, but in front of Oscar. My stomach muscles tighten and bile rises into my throat. I swallow.

He smiles at me again, picking a piece of debris from Oscar’s arm and casting it into the dirt. Oscar flinches. “You can do whatever you want.” His gaze sweeps the others. “All of you.”

Miranda’s shoulders sag in relief, but she’s the only one. Everyone else, like me, is waiting for the catch.

Matt says it like an afterthought: “Of course, you can’t take him.” He sets one hand on Oscar’s shoulder. Oscar’s brown eyes blink up at him. They shine in the moonlight. The start of tears?

“The roads are too dangerous for children,” Matt says softly. “It’s practically a violation of the Fifth Law.”

I open my mouth. He looks at me. I shake my head slowly.

“Don’t worry,” he says. His voice sounds so kind. “I’ll look after him. He won’t be alone.” He squeezes Oscar’s shoulder, turns, and guides the boy toward the gates.

I stand there frozen for just an instant, wavering between freedom and Oscar. There is no choice. Not for me. I think the others will go, but I can’t. I give my friends a small smile. “Go,” I say. “Be safe.” Around them, the men with the guns dissolve. My friends stand blinking, shocked.

I walk toward the Outpost. Toward Oscar, and Matt. I allow myself a few steps to mourn what I’ve lost, but mostly, I’m relieved to have lost so little.

There are footsteps behind me. I glance back to see Apollon, holding his stomach. Maybe the trip would’ve been too much for him anyway. Neveah is behind me, too. She gives me a little smile, and continues on when I pause.

Jonas’ feet are still welded into the same place. Miranda stands by him, clutching his arm. Whatever he chooses, she’ll go with him. Not out of love, or even loyalty, I realize, but out of fear. He is her protector, and she doesn’t know how to be without him. So they will walk off down the road tonight, and I’ll never see them again. My chest aches with the certainty of it.

It should upset me that they will leave and I will not. That my family will be cut down by a third. That I will miss them. Only the last thought carries any real weight, but overriding it is a small sense of victory. Maybe I’ll not ever find my white tower, but Jonas will follow his compass. Maybe he’ll find what he’s looking for. His victory will be mine. It will be good enough. It is good enough. Only, he’s still frozen in place by guilt, by responsibility. I have to set him free.

“Go,” I shout back to him, startling him.

His eyes focus, finding me. He scans the backs of the others, like he’s seeing for the first time, then his eyes fix on me again.

I’m surprised how steady my voice is as I raise it again to bid him farewell. “Find what you’re looking for,” I say. “Find it.” I turn, before the tears can come, and start toward the gate.

Even as I do, I catch movement from the corner of my eye— Jonas reanimating, making the first move toward the fate that awaits him. My heart swells with a mixture of joy and sorrow, both more potent for their intermingling. I mean to keep walking, and not look. I can’t help it, though. I glance back over my shoulder.

Jonas and Miranda are walking toward the gate, not away from it. His head is down, his feet trudging like they’re weighted in iron shackles. Miranda still clutches his arm, her face awash in relief. Does she not understand?

To my side, Matt and Oscar have slowed, distracting my attention. Matt looks at me sideways, his face expressionless. Underneath, he’s gloating. He knows he’s won. I squeeze my teeth together against the anger.

Oscar glances toward me like he wants to run to me. I have to ask Matt for him back. I consider my words, but they fall away in my mind. If Oscar comes with us, he’ll starve to death alongside us. If he stays with Matt, he’ll have food, at least for a while. The two ideas wage war inside me, ripping at a heart already too tender. Could I let Oscar go with Matt? Wouldn’t it be best for him? Only my selfishness keeps me from it. I’m starting to come around to the self-sacrifice, when Oscar turns and says something to Matt. Matt nods, and Oscar runs to me. He throws his arms around me and buries his face against me. All the tears I’ve been holding back pour freely down my cheeks. I sweep my arms around him, and hold on tight. Nothing else matters.

“I’m sorry,” Oscar sobs into my stomach. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” I mumble into his hair. “Don’t be. He only chose you because he knows I could never leave you.”

He pulls away a little and looks up at me, blinking, like he never knew or expected the statement. A small smile works its way onto my lips, then he buries his face against me again, clinging tightly. He mumbles something that I can’t really make out, but my heart translates the garble.

I close my eyes. “I love you, too.”

***

Apollon and Miranda are squabbling about what to do now. Everything we carried in our packs is gone— liberated by Matt’s army. We’ve lost our weapons as well. We have the clothes on our backs, and the items we left in our house, but beyond that, nothing. Some of them can be replaced through foraging, but not all. Their voices drone on, picking at each other, draining what little life is left inside me. I slip outside into the chill morning air, wondering where Jonas went. Maybe he couldn’t listen to any more of it either. Or maybe he needed to be away— to feel the loss inherent in his decision to stay with us. Guilt pushes into my throat. I’m glad he didn’t go. I shouldn’t be. But I am.

A noise comes from the dilapidated shed next to our house. I pause and listen. Someone’s in there, and it better be Jonas.

I peek through the door, then stand against the frame and wait for him to notice me. He must have heard my footsteps, but he doesn’t acknowledge me at all. He has a jagged piece of metal and some scraps of wood. He’s fastening them together to make a crude knife. On the bench that stretches across one wall, there are two the same, already finished.

“At least somebody’s doing something productive,” I say, getting tired of waiting. “Want some help?”

“No.” He doesn’t even glance back at me.

I stand for a moment, wanting to comfort him. The pain of our failure is distressing me, too. I assume that eventually I’ll get used to the feeling. I won’t notice it so much, even though it still cuts me. Or maybe I’ll just be dead. That’s the unspeakable bottom line here. Staying means death, sooner or later. Probably sooner. But that’s not what hurts the most. It’s the thing that’s waiting somewhere else. Being incarcerated here, unable to go after it is like being crushed slowly, feeling the breath pushed from your lungs until they collapse in on themselves.

“I’m sorry,” I say, knowing that the words are not enough. I push on, hoping that somehow they’ll come together to mean something, but they sound pitiful, contrived. “Maybe we’ll still find a way to get through this. Maybe the thing with Grey won’t be—”

“Seriously?” Jonas says, whirling to face me. “We’ll be OK? Is that what you think? Because I really did think you were smarter than that.”

I blink against the harshness of his tone, but I’m still calm. “You didn’t have to stay.”

He laughs as if my words have amused him.

“You didn’t,” I assert. I’m starting to get annoyed now. I tried to comfort him, and all I get back is acid. “I told you to go,” I say. “I don’t know why you didn’t. But don’t act like it’s my fault, like I asked you to stay or something. You made your own decision. Nobody did it for you. And if you really regret it that much, then you should go now, and maybe Matt won’t have changed his mind yet.”

The way he’s seething, I half expect him to march past me and head for the Outpost gates. He does move, toward me, not past, in slow, even steps.

“Is that what you want?” he asks quietly, lowering his head and looking me in the eye. He takes the final step to close the distance between us, and places his hands against the wall on either side of me without touching me. “You want me to go?”

Everything stops with him that close to me. In the silence I feel the weight of his question. I swallow, looking up into his green eyes. I can’t imagine what it would be like to never get to look into them again. He bows his head closer to me, leaning in on his hands. He still doesn’t touch me, but the distance between us closes. A few inches. An inch. His face is leaning down to mine.

I duck my chin and turn my face away, sucking in the breath that I was holding. He pulls away, a little. Back to where he was before he started leaning.

“You think that’s a good idea?” I say, trying to make my voice steady. “Kissing two girls you have to live with, who sleep on either side of you?”

His lips pull into the faintest smile, his eyes narrowing. “Kiss you?”

I gaze up at him with my mouth dumbly open. Heat rushes to my cheeks. He was going to kiss me. What else could he have meant? But now he’s going to pretend like I made it up— like only I was thinking it? Like I wanted it and he didn’t? The embarrassment collects inside me and starts to rise upward. Behind it is a wave of anger.

But Jonas’ smile broadens. He leans in like he’s telling me a secret. “I was,” he says. He retracts his hands and turns away from me, going back to his project. “But you make a good point.”

I suppress a shriek. My hands clamp into fists. I breathe slow, measured breaths through my nose. I want more than anything to kiss him. More than I wanted it when he was leaning close to me. More than when his breath mingled with mine. His withdrawal fills me with emptiness, with desire. He has to know this.

I refuse to be his plaything. Very quietly, I walk away. I go inside, with the others— exactly what I don’t want to do right now. But I won’t give Jonas the satisfaction of seeing me go off to sulk. Instead, I plaster a smile on my face, and do my best to appear entirely unaffected. He might be a closed book, but I’m good at bluffing. I channel normalcy for the rest of the afternoon. Let him chew on that.

***

Apollon and I walk together toward the center of the Outpost. He says he’s going to the marketplace, but I don’t know what money he intends to use there. I, on the other hand, am just getting away for a while. I’ll go to the Rustler, and sit on a stool, and even though Arthur Adner will probably know better than to give me any free drinks, I’ll enjoy the change of scenery. Maybe I’ll hear something about the war with Grey. Give myself something else to worry about. Take my mind off of… off of….

I squint sideways at Apollon as we walk. Why not just ask? I make my voice very casual. “…Jonas and Miranda…” I say. I swallow the lump in my throat.

He glances at me, eyes narrowing.

I make myself go on. “So they’re like…” That’s all I can seem to get out. I can feel my cheeks turn pink. I want to hide my face, but that would just be worse, so I stick it out, hoping he’ll believe it’s the wind.

“They’re not really like anything,” Apollon says, eyeing me. “Why?”

Which is exactly what I didn’t want him to ask. I glance away and shake my head.

“You’re not really his type,” he says, as if it’s a simple fact.

There’s no hiding it now. I just have to pretend his answer doesn’t bother me as much as it does. “Voluptuous?” I say, looking off into the distance.

He laughs. “Shallow.”

I blink at him in surprise. We’ve come to the corner of the main street now, and he stops and turns to me.

“Jonas doesn’t get involved with anyone he could possibly be serious about. Miranda, case in point. He doesn’t even like her,” he says. “He’s too focused on his other thing. You know.” The last of it comes out like he doesn’t really want to say it— like he’s not sure he should. He looks away, and goes quiet.

I just nod in the silence.

He grins. “On the other hand,” he lulls, his eyes flicking past me for a moment, then settling back on me, “you’re exactly my type.”

I can’t help but smile back at him. Apollon has the most adorable dimples when he grins like that. I check behind me. Sumter and his daughter are crossing the street. “I’m flattered,” I tell Apollon. “Try again when you can hit on me without checking out another girl simultaneously.”

He just laughs and looks off down the street, toward whatever destination he has in mind. “I’ll do that,” he says, and he saunters off.

I shake my head as I walk toward the Rustler. For all of two seconds, I’m distracted by Apollon’s teasing. Then my thoughts dart back to Jonas, computing this new information. Sorting. Organizing. Dissecting. There are so many other things to worry about— so many things that really matter— and here I am literally wallowing in thoughts of Jonas. Maybe it’s because everything else is so messed up. Maybe it’s my way of hiding from the real problems. But it feels good, to think of him. To entertain my far-fetched conjectures. To remember. And remembering, even though there’s truly little meat to the memories, has a thickness about it— a feeling of sinking into significance. So, ignoring Sarah’s bird-pecked corpse still hanging from the pole at the corner, I duck into the Rustler, pondering why exactly Jonas decided to stay. Pondering if it could have had anything to do with me.

I make it one step inside before I forget Jonas entirely. The room is frozen as the door bangs shut behind me. Everyone’s eyes have fixed on me, seeing who’s coming in. People around the edges of the room look pointedly away from what’s happening in the center, where a group of men are on their feet, a table turned over. Matthew stands amongst his henchmen. He holds a long knife in his left hand. His teeth are clenched, feet set shoulder width apart. Kneeling on the floor before him is Coyote Dan, half-slumped with one eye starting to swell shut. Colton glares at me from Matthew’s side, a clear warning, but I don’t take it. I bolt toward them and skid into place between Matt and Coyote Dan. Only as I look Matt in the eye do I remember that I no longer have a knife of my own.

Matt gives a little laugh of disgust before fixing me with a look sharper than the blade in his hand. “Get out of the way, Eden,” he growls.

I almost obey. Not quite. I glance at the knife in his hand. The blood drains from my face. “He’s my friend,” I say. My voice is so much smaller than I hoped it would be.

In my peripheral vision, I see Colton’s hand move. He’s reaching for his knife. I flinch in reaction, but Matt is twice as quick. His right fist comes out of nowhere and connects with my chin in an explosion of pain. I stumble backward, tripping over Coyote Dan, but then Matt has me by the front of my jacket, hauling me back to my feet. The pull against my ribcage is like a dagger in my side.

“You take things too far, Eden,” he says, dragging me toward him so he’s staring into my eyes, breathing into my face. “Just because I let you get away with things, don’t take it as given. The fact is, I have plans for you. That is why you’re still alive. But plans can change. Understand?”

I’m still blinking stars away, scrambling to get my feet back underneath me. Blood runs down my chin and drips onto his fisted hand. I want to nod, but I can’t. Behind me, Coyote Dan’s hoarse voice mumbles something that includes the words “let it go”. Tears are stinging behind my eyes, threatening to come out. Instead of nodding, I start to shake my head.

Matt cuts the gesture off by shaking my whole body. He drags me toward the door. As I realize he’s about to throw me out of it, I twist, trying to get my feet on solid ground. He shakes me one more time, stopping me, his eyes piercing in to mine. “Don’t be stupid,” he spits. “You’ll be dead in five seconds.”

It’s not the threat that stops me. It’s something in his look. He kicks the door open and heaves me out of it. I go sprawling onto the sidewalk. For a second, feeling the bruising of my backside, the sting of skinned flesh, the ache of my ribcage, I stay there. Then I roll to my feet and eye the closed door. Two choices. Go back in, or go home. If I leave, Coyote Dan might die. But I don’t think so. I think there was something in that look that Matt gave me, and I’m good at reading people. I take a gamble that Coyote Dan will make it out of this alive. I cover my bloody mouth with one sleeve, and limp toward home.

***

I’m worried about returning all bloody again, but at least the only blood involved belongs to me. The scene this time is far less dramatic, since Jonas is the only one there to witness my arrival. He frowns and squints at me before realizing why I’m holding my sleeve over my mouth. Then he jumps up to check me out, pushing my arm away from my face.

“I’m fine,” I mumble, though it sounds a little funny because my lip is swelling. “Where is everyone?”

“Oscar went hunting,” Jonas says absently. Then I hear the water splashing. “Miranda’s in the bath.”

I don’t really want to know about Miranda taking a bath when she and Jonas are alone in the house together. I glance around for something to stop the bleeding.

Jonas grabs a piece of rag from the table, bats my hands away, and presses it against my mouth. “What did you do this time?” He sounds annoyed.

I try to answer, but the rag is in the way. He makes a shushing noise, as if he didn’t just ask me a question. So we stand there for a minute, not talking.

Finally, he says, “Are you OK?”

I nod as much as I can without displacing the rag.

His brow creases as he looks down at me, clearly pondering what kind of mess I’ve made. It sets me on edge, being scrutinized by him like this. I move my head away from the rag, hoping the bleeding has stopped.

Again, he bats my hand away as I try to explore what’s happened to my mouth. “Let me see,” he says, and dabs at me with the rag. Even though his touch is gentle, it stings. He sets the cloth aside and carefully pulls my lower lip down. I wonder if I’ve put a tooth through it, the way it feels. Trying to be tough, I look up at him expectantly, waiting for the verdict. But he’s not looking at me. He’s just staring. At my lip.

“Crap,” I say, which comes out sounding nothing like the actual word. I jerk away from him, wincing from the sting. I grab up the rag from the table and stuff it to my mouth again, turning away.

“…What…” he says quietly, “…what was that…?”

I glance halfway back— not far enough to meet his eyes— and shake my head. Nothing, I’m thinking. Nothing. But here, with him, the letters tattooed inside my lip have a new sort of significance. Something nameless but heavy. I have a label written on me. I am someone’s property. All this time I’ve been forgetting it, and here, Fate chooses to reveal it. To remind me. I am not my own. I am not anyone. New or old. I feel empty inside, and cold. Tired, and lonely.

“So what happened?” It’s Miranda’s voice as she emerges from the bathroom, clothed, but hair dripping.

I start to frown, but the act is painful. “Matt was going to kill Coyote Dan,” I say, my voice wavering with emotion, muffled as it may be.

Miranda just looks at me.

Jonas snorts. “And you stopped him.”

I nod. “At least—”

“Coyote Dan?” says Miranda, frowning and blinking.

I don’t really feel like explaining the nickname I’ve given Dan in my imagination, so I ignore her.

“Oh my god, Eden,” Miranda protests. “Matt’s going to kill you. You have to stop.”

I waver and nod, mostly to make her feel better. It’s a little late now to be thinking about it.

She shakes her head and walks back behind the bathroom curtain.

Jonas perches on the bed. He’s humming again, his eyes fixed on me. The tune bothers me, but at first I don’t know why— just that I want to scream at him to stop. It fills my head, and I’m standing there, staring at him, counting backward from a hundred. Ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven. I’m at eighty-two when I recognize the tune. The flower peddler song. Roses and lilies, roses and lilies. It grows louder inside my head, chastising me, and Jonas keeps staring at me as he hums, like he means to watch me break down, bit by bit.

“Flowers are for the dead,” I say, nonchalantly, cutting him off. I give him a look. “And I’ll be dead soon. Right?” I figure there’s no better way to deflate his point than to acknowledge it directly like I don’t give a damn.

Jonas just laughs— nothing more than the sound of air coming out his nose. There’s no smile accompanying it. Not even any movement in his face. He hops down off of the bed and walks past me toward the door. “Yep,” is all he says as it clicks closed behind him.

[*

Chapter 19: Buckets*]

THERE’S NOT A lot of meat on rats. Gaming has become virtually non-existent. Neveah’s herbs bring in little income, because people need food more than medicine. Our predicament is clear. Starvation is imminent, unless we find some other means of providing for ourselves. There are few options left to us. Maybe we’re in one of those places where you do something because you have to, to survive. Maybe.

This is the dark track my thoughts have taken as I huddle between rain barrels around back. It’s too cold to be out here, and it’s getting colder every day. Soon, I won’t have this place to escape to, but escape is not what drives me here, now. I sit here because I know that Oscar will soon join me.

His footsteps make me feel warmer inside. He sits down without speaking.

I rub my arms and smile at him.

He smiles back.

Already I feel the loss of this moment, like it’s drifting away from me on Time’s wings. I sense the future, how far away this moment will be, how I’ll look back and feel it as something distant and ethereal. All of life’s moments are like that— snapshots filed away in a box. If we’re lucky enough to grow old, we can look back at them, but we’ll never be in them again. Never live them. We’re only ever out of the picture, looking back. Struggling to recall the details. The moments we are in, like this one, blow out of our hands as quick as leaves caught by the wind.

Oscar’s smile fades. I’m fascinated by the death of it— another small step in the soundless migration of our lives, toward the inevitable. “What’s wrong, Eden?” he asks, the corners of his mouth turning into the vaguest hint of a pout.

I shake my head and rekindle my smile for him. “Just stuff,” I say. “It doesn’t matter. Just… you know. Stuff.”

He nods like he does know, though I’m sure he hasn’t guessed the half of it. He places his hand over mine. “Don’t worry,” he says. “We’ll figure it out. We always figure it out.”

I wonder if his mother used to tell him that, when they were starving on the streets. Or is this his own optimism, grown from youth and inexperience? In that way, maybe I should be optimistic, too. My experience is less than his, at least the part I can remember.

“Yeah,” I say, because I’m not willing to destroy it, wherever it comes from. And we will figure it out. For Oscar, at least, I am figuring it out. Reconciling myself to it. A lash of wind whips around us, and it’s cold, making me want to pull him to me and hug him, hold onto him. Instead, I pull my legs in closer and rub my arms again. “It was kinda scary on the road,” I say. “I’m not sure I would have wanted to keep going.”

He looks at me sideways, his smile stretching into a grin. “Yeah,” he says. “But it was fun, too.”

We laugh together, as children do. When I’m with him, I feel so much younger. I feel like I’m not a hundred years old.

***

Apollon and I part ways in front of the Rustler, but I don’t go in. The half-illuminated afternoon air is cold, and Sarah’s body, which is turning more skeletal with passing time, is still dangling from the pole on the corner. It makes me think of Coyote Dan. I haven’t seen him, but Oscar says he’s still alive, and I believe him. While I wonder what’s become of him, my mind wanders through a myriad of other disturbing thoughts, rather than settle on just one.

I sit on the raised curb and pull my arms around myself, watching two beggars shuffle down the street. Robed in rags, I can’t really see either of them, but one is shorter, frailer, most likely a child. I think of Oscar, of how when I hug him now, all his angles are sharper, pointier. How I can feel his spine under my arm, sticking out of his back like he’s a ridged dinosaur. This makes me laugh. He’d like that image. A dinosaur. But it’s not funny. Our bodies are slowly wasting, and nothing in the Outpost has seemed to change, except that I’ve heard no more whispers of contention. Between Sarah and whatever Matt did to Coyote Dan, people are more afraid of Matthew than of starving. At least for now.

Not me. Not when it comes to Oscar, anyway. I’m not exactly sure how the course of starvation runs, but I think now is the point when it starts to become too real. My own hunger pains, I can ignore. The feeling of weakness in my wobbly legs. The way my stomach seems full of bile, like my body wants to digest itself. The dizziness and tiredness. But hugging that bony little creature. No. It can’t go any further. It simply can’t.

The sound of metal footsteps echoes across the broken pavement. I freeze— don’t even breathe— as a Sentry walks by, trailing blue-tinged heat waves. If I make myself still, make myself smaller, maybe I can be part of the landscape. I have the feeling it will turn and look at me— that whatever else it’s doing, it’s always tracking me. Like, if it looks close enough, it will see through me. I’m suddenly nauseous, trying to hold back the vomit by repeatedly swallowing the saliva that wells into my mouth. Maybe it’s hunger, but my head feels emptied of blood, and then too full. I hear my heart pounding in my ears, like someone is crashing two metal lids together with my head caught in between. I go dizzy, and then my face feels hot, my cheeks heavy. I swallow again. And again. The image of the white tower rises up in my mind, as if I’m seeing it in broad daylight. As if I’m not sitting on the curb in the Outpost, but walking my dream. The weight of the image presses down on me, threatening to crush me. I struggle to my feet, needing to run. To go find it, no matter what else I might leave behind.

“Leaving because of it or me?” Matthew’s voice breaks me out of my trance. I blink. The metal monster moves on down the street to take up its position at the intersection. Matt is walking toward me, with his redheaded slave attached to his arm. The bracelet she wears— the one that bears his mark— is etched silver, a delicate thing that’s more adornment than brand. Up close, she’s even prettier, striking with red curls, eyes more blue than any sky I’ve ever seen, and skin like freshly poured cream. Her features are exquisite, as if her bloodline is full of fairies— creatures too perfect for this world. Matt dismisses her with a shrug, and she slips inside the Rustler wordlessly. I watch her go, the silver bracelet dangling on her pale arm.

It makes me think, for some reason, of the tattoo on my lip. What if, somewhere, tens or hundreds of other slaves are walking around with the same brand?

Matt’s waiting patiently for me to answer. I glance from the Sentry to him. “It,” I say quietly. I have to turn and look at his face to avoid another flush of eeriness that threatens to overwhelm me when I see the machine.

He glances toward the Sentry, then walks to my side, as if my answer satisfies him. “You stupid girl,” he says, but the words have no sting. He sits down on the curb next to me, so I sit with him. “I had to do it, you know,” he says, his voice quiet. “You should have known better than to put yourself between us.”

I just look out into the street and nod. He’s right. I should have known better. I’m lucky Colton didn’t stab me for planting myself in front of Coyote Dan, and really, if I think about it, the only reason he didn’t is because Matt clocked me first. But Coyote Dan is alive, which, maybe he wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t stepped in. Then, maybe Matt wasn’t going to kill him anyway. I look sideways at him, wondering.

He glances at me, then watches some people pass by in the street. It’s my turn to talk, I suppose, but I don’t really know what to say. I know what I want to say, but I can’t just blurt it out. I have to work up to it. I lick my lips, then I say, “So how’s the whole thing going? You know. The food thing.”

His jaw tightens for an instant. “Surely there are more interesting things we could talk about.”

My laugh is small and bitter. It’s hard to be interested in anything when you’re hungry. Weariness pushes me forward, and suddenly I don’t care about working up to things. I blurt it out. “You said you’d look after Oscar,” I say, and I look at him pointedly.

His eyes flash wider, then narrow. He starts to shake his head, rocks forward like he’s about to get up.

I set my hand on his forearm, stopping him. “You said,” I insist softly.

Matt’s eyes are still narrowed on me, but there’s a subtle, slow settling of his face and body. He hardly moves, but I can see him relax. Then a smile, also slow, creeps onto his face. “I’ll look after you, too,” he says, eyes half-closed like he’s basking in the sun.

I withdraw my hand and look back into the street. There’s no one walking by right now, so I’m just staring into space. I consider my words before I say them. Choosing the wrong ones could be disastrous. I speak them softly, and carefully. “I don’t like the idea of anyone looking after me. That’s something I need to do for myself.”

A puff of air is the extent of Matthew’s answering laugh. Next to me, he’s also gazing into the empty street. Silence stretches over us for a few moments, sinking in so deeply that, when he does speak, it feels unexpected. “We’re not so different, you know,” he says, his voice thoughtful and quiet. “You think we are. That you’re so much better than me. That I do things you would never do. But you don’t know that. You could have been exactly like me. Maybe you still are.” Not subtly, he glances at the mark on my forehead. Before I can stop myself, my hand flies to it, my fingers brushing over the letter inked into my skin. I grab a handful of hair and rake it down over my forehead, look away. But all I can think is, what if he’s right?

I try to breathe. Try not to consider his prompt. But my head swirls with questions that make my body suddenly restless. I want to know who I am, what I’m about. But I will never know these things. I’m not meant to know. And still, the yearning has come again. Matt has directed me toward it. This is the real cruelty of his words.

“Oscar,” I say. The word is clipped. I barely manage to get it out. I cannot hide this anger. I can only hold it back from an explosion.

For a moment, I think, he’s considering whether he’ll allow me to be angry. I feel cold and small inside. Powerless. But he sighs, and it passes. He looks annoyed as he climbs to his feet. Nothing more. “Just remember this was your idea,” he says. “You asked me for this.” He turns and walks into the Rustler.

I close my eyes and let out my breath. His words ring with the hint of a threat. Not one that Matt is fabricating and throwing at me, but one that’s inherent to the situation. He’s merely pointing it out. In trusting Matt to take care of Oscar physically, I’m giving Oscar over to his influence. Sending that which is innocent and precious into the den of a wolf. And those who are raised by wolves become wolves. I can only hope that this will be temporary. That eventually, there will be another option. But right now, there’s not. And if I’m really honest about it, none of us might make it that far, anyway. Survival has come down to the moment. In this moment, this is all I can do. Like it or not. Consequences or not. Frightening as hell or not. For now, Oscar has to be Matt’s. This is the way he survives.

***

I find Oscar in one of the alleys where we frequently hunt rats. He’s hunkered down, slingshot in hand, waiting for his prey to emerge into the open. He glances my way when my shadow blocks out the light, but doesn’t move or make a noise. It’s because he’s hungry, I realize. He’s been sitting here for who knows how long, waiting on a measly rodent that may never show up. Well, those days are over. I step into the alley and walk toward him.

The way his mouth turns down at the corners, I know he’s disappointed with my impatience. But he stands up and turns toward me, and pulls a smile out of somewhere.

“I need to talk to you,” I say. My voice comes out strangled, my throat constricted by guilt and grief. My head hurts. My stomach hurts. How can I possibly do this?

Oscar loses his smile immediately. His brown eyes scan my face for answers. “Is…” he whispers, then licks his lips. “Did someone… get hurt, again?”

I shake my head right away and smile to reassure him, but I can feel my mouth stretch out in a straight line across my face, refusing to turn upward. I tousle his hair. “Everyone’s OK,” I say calmly. “It’s… It’s just… you’re not going to like this.”

He turns his head and eyes me cautiously from the side. Before he can start asking questions, I take him by the arm and lead him to a place where we can sit against the wall. We slide down with our backs against cold, crumbling brick, and, for a while, we’re both silent.

It takes some time to make myself form the words. Oscar studies me nervously. I want to get to the point— to just tell him and spare him the suspense, but the words get stuck somewhere between my brain and mouth, and won’t seem to come out. I say them over and over in my head before I’m finally able to produce them verbally. Then, they come out weakly, as though they’re not deserving of air, and volume, and vibration. “I want you to stay with Matt for a while. He says he’ll look after you.”

I’ve never seen Oscar so mad before. He scrambles forward, getting his feet under him, but doesn’t stand. He twists sideways to look me in the eye. “No,” he cries. “Nuh uh. I’m not. I won’t.”

“Oscar,” I say soothingly, reaching out to him. He shrugs away from me. Letting my hand drop, I lean toward him. “It’s the only way,” I say. “There’s not enough food. I can’t let you starve.”

His small face, which was twisted in rage and pain, goes suddenly calm. He lifts his chin and says, “Oh. So you’re coming with me, then.”

I shake my head, mouth open but lacking an answer.

Then his face twists again, a flash of pain before a frown that pulls his eyebrows down in the center, his mouth puckering. “No.” His voice is small, but vehement. “If you think for a second that I’m going to go live with Matt while you keep right on starving, then—”

“Oscar.” I say it sternly this time, cutting him off. I can’t go live with Matt, nor am I willing to explain to him why. But I need Oscar to do it. As much as I don’t want him to, I need him to. So I tell him a lie. Out of my love for him, I lie to him, twisting the truth into something that will work. “You don’t understand,” I whisper. “I need you to do this for us. If you go, you can listen in on what’s happening. Maybe help us figure out some way to get through this. Because, right now, as it stands, we don’t even know what’s going on.”

He stares at me as my words sink in. Stares at me a long time. I begin to think he doesn’t believe me, but then he looks down at his hands, fiddling with his fingers. His young face looks very serious. Finally, looking up at me, he says, “You really believe it could help?”

I nod gravely, swallowing, because I can’t quite manage to get the lie out verbally. I nod twice before I find my voice again. “Just…” I say, “…nothing risky. You know. Just listen when you can is all. No sneaking around or anything. I wouldn’t put you in danger.” Already, I’m fighting down panic at the thought. What if he takes me too seriously? What if Matt catches him doing something he shouldn’t?

Oscar flashes me a smile. He’s either sunshine or rain. You always know where you stand with him. “I’ll be a spy.” His voice lingers deliciously on the last word. He reaches over and grabs my hand. “We’ll be spies together,” he amends. “We should have a secret code word.”

I close my eyes, then open them. “Buckets,” I say. We both start giggling. And so, over the course of the next hour, our secret spy protocol is born. We laugh and laugh, while inside I cry. Every second I love him more, every second that rips itself out of my hands and flies away too quickly, until, in a blink, we’re standing at Matt’s door with my hand on Oscar’s shoulder. The girl with the burned face steps aside to let him in, and he goes without a hug, with only one quick glance back at me, because he doesn’t know that this is parting. In his mind, we’re still together. It makes me cry harder as I walk the empty streets toward a home that is no longer home. I bat my tears wildly away, trying to see. But tears or not, right now I feel as though I will never see again.

***

Jonas and Apollon are still gone when I arrive home, even though Neveah’s back from the market already. First Apollon, then a while later Jonas, returns, and Miranda passes out our meager rations.

Because it’s already getting late, it doesn’t take long before someone asks the inevitable question: Where is Oscar?

“Matt’s,” I say, as firmly as I can. All eyes turn on me. Even Neveah’s widen. I avoid their gazes, choosing instead to look at the single bite of stale bread that comprises my dinner. The sight of it reinforces my conviction. I pick it up and hold it between thumb and forefinger at eye level. “I don’t suppose you all think it’s better for him to live like this.” My voice is all acid, thick with confrontation. My friends stare at me, and I stare back. Apollon curses, gets up, and throws on his jacket.

I beat him to the door.

“Move, Eden.”

“Where are you going?” I insist, pressing my back against the door, tilting my chin up at him defiantly.

“Where do you think?” He takes me by the shoulders and moves me gently but firmly out of the way. “I’m going to get Oscar,” he says as he deposits me to one side and reaches for the doorknob.

I cling to his arm. “You can’t,” I say. “Please. Apollon. Please.”

He’s cursing again as he tries unsuccessfully to claim his arm. He slides out of his jacket to escape me. I prepare to bolt after him out the door.

“For god sakes, Eden,” Jonas says, across the room, “let him go. Did you really think we’d all be like, OK? Sure? Give Oscar to Matthew? No problem?”

I don’t know if it’s Apollon’s leaving, or Jonas’ turning against me, or if it’s something I’ve been holding in all along, but I explode. “Are you going to feed him then?” I shriek at him. Apollon’s very empty plate is on the table beside me. I fling it across the room. “Because he’s starving!” I scream. “Starving! And none of us can help him!”

It’s Miranda, then, that has her arms around me as I find myself sinking into a crouch on the floor, curling into a ball. My face and hair are already wet with tears. “He’s so skinny,” I sob against her. “Like he’s going to break. He’s so skinny.” I can’t stop crying. Miranda’s arms tighten around me, and that small act of understanding wrenches all the pain upward where it spills out in waves of sobs. I no longer have the will to fight it.

Behind us, the door closes. I curl up tighter against Miranda, whimpering at the thought of Apollon going after Oscar. At the thought of failing him, after everything. But a hand that is too large to be Miranda’s brushes briefly over my hair, and footsteps lead across the room followed by the sound of a large body easing down onto the couch. Apollon hasn’t gone, after all. No one speaks. There’s just me and my half-squashed sobs, trailing off until, sometime later, I’m asleep on our floor with my head in Miranda’s lap.

[*

Chapter 20: Sheltering*]

WE’RE WALKING ALONG in bright sunshine. It’s cold, but it’s perfect— the kind of morning where quiet morphs into reverence and a simple stroll can leave you feeling like you’ve never seen the world before. Oscar carefully tears his muffin in half, catching the escaping crumbs in his cupped palm, and hands the largest half to me. I don’t dare refuse.

I hold it to my nose and smell. It’s still warm, pouring moist, sweet steam around my face. I bite into it. The sugary cake melts around my tongue, and in-between is pockets of berry goo, warmer than the rest. It’s absolute heaven. But I look down at Oscar, and he’s grinning with purplish berry juice around his mouth, and I forget everything but him.

“Let’s find some place quiet to sit,” he says, his smile stretching. “I have buckets of stuff to tell you.”

We laugh our way toward a crossroad where the connecting street is quieter. My piece of muffin disappears in a gulp before we get very far, but Oscar’s still working on his when we turn the corner and almost trip on a little girl who’s huddled in a pile on the curb, hugging her arms around her legs. She’s filthy and tattered, like a doll thrown on a trash heap. I step around her to walk on, but Oscar stops. He presses the rest of his muffin into her little hands. She stares up at him, blinking like she’s not sure he’s real. He just smiles, straightens, and skips around her to catch up with me.

I smile down at him, feeling thankful for everything. In a battle of Oscar versus Matt, I’ll place my bets on my little friend any day. I’ve been worried about Matt’s influence, but this is Oscar. How could anyone change him?

We walk along until we’re alone, then sit in the sunshine. “So… it’s not so bad, then?” I say, still wanting the reassurance.

“Nah,” Oscar says, shrugging. “Alayna feeds me every five seconds. She’s really nice. So’s Jess. I don’t really see Matthew that much.”

I’m glad to hear that. Glad that Matt has seen fit not to drag Oscar around with him, to have him there while he’s doing business, which is generally not Oscar-appropriate. I put my arm around Oscar and squeeze, ignoring the ache in my ribs, leaning sideways into him. A smell like honey, or flowers, or both combined clings to him.

“Don’t worry,” he says, turning to look up at me. “I’m going to hang out with Matt more. I’m working up to it. He doesn’t like me much.”

I make myself laugh. “How is that possible?” I say, which earns me a small smile. “And no, don’t hang out with him more. Just whatever you hear when he’s around is fine.”

He fixes me with a thoughtful look, considering. I don’t like it. I can see the wheels turning.

“Why do you smell like perfume?” I ask, changing the subject. “Do I want to know?”

Oscar laughs and looks away. “It’s Leeta,” he says. “She’s always hugging me.” His cheeks have gone pink, now. I’ve embarrassed him.

I want to drop it, but I have to ask. “Is that… the uh… redhead?”

He shakes his head and says, matter-of-factly, “No, that’s Kloe. She hugs me sometimes, too. But she’s not as nice. Leeta’s the blonde.” He raises his sleeve to his nose and sniffs it. “It smells kinda good.”

I’m not sure what to say to that, so I stay quiet.

After a while, Oscar says, “So, Matt’s lost a lot of people. There have been all these little fights, and he keeps losing. I guess we didn’t notice because it’s all been outside the wall.”

“Yeah?”

“We’re always outnumbered, I guess. Matt kept sending bigger groups to go fight for the food transports whenever they were scheduled, but then, every time Grey would have a group like twice as big waiting for them. Like he knew what was coming. So now Matt has a lot less people, and he’s thinking maybe it’s just a bad idea to go out there at all.”

I frown. “But… if he doesn’t go out there… then he’s just giving up. How are we going to get any food?”

Oscar shakes his head. “He thinks Grey wants to take over the Outpost. Like you know. Storm the castle and all that. So Matt wants to just focus on keeping the Outpost right now. He’s starting to reinforce the walls. Adding weapons and stuff.”

“To the walls?”

“Yeah.”

I blink at Oscar, feeling queasy. “So…” I finally say, returning to my previous thought, “what about food?”

Again, Oscar shakes his head. “I’m not sure. It sounds like he’s thinking about how to make the food we have here work. Without bringing anything in.”

“Impossible.” I say it before I even consider. The Outpost is sparse. There’s little in the way of animals— maybe a handful in Matt’s private pens. There’s nowhere to grow anything. It’s all busted concrete and hard-packed earth. And even if there was a place for crops, winter is swiftly approaching. Everything is dying. We’re all dying.

Oscar purses his lips. “You don’t think we could do it?” he finally asks in a quiet voice.

I shake my head. “No. Not feed this many people. There would have to be a lot less before we could sustain ourselves.” I say it absently, without thinking, and then, the chill creeps slowly from the pit of my stomach into my neck. I wrap my arms around myself, trying to ward off the shiver. Is this Matt’s plan? To hold out against Grey, let our population dwindle, and eventually be able to feed the handful of survivors? Or something worse? More immediate? I shouldn’t have even allowed myself the last thought. I want to throw up. But I swallow hard and hold on to the contents of my stomach. I take a few deep breaths, then ask, “You learned all this from hanging around and listening?”

He shrugs. “Leeta told me some of it.”

I nod, thinking about it quietly. Of course. Leeta’s around Matt a lot. She probably knows a ton about what’s really going on. She might even know what Matt’s planning long-term. Oscar could ask her. No. No. If I want to know, I’ll find out myself.

“So, what do we do?” asks Oscar, studying my face.

I shake my head. “Nothing,” I say. “Just stay out of it, OK?”

He frowns.

I frown back. “Seriously,” I say. “Just lay low. Don’t blow your cover.”

His frown moves sideways as he squints at me. Then, suddenly, he shrugs, grins, and hops up. “Let’s go see Neveah.”

He’s already ten paces down the block by the time I climb to my feet.

***

“Where’ve you been?” I ask from the shadows, where I’m leaning against the inside of the junk wall in front of our shack. Evening and night are colliding quickly around me, the dim light waning into a half-grey mist. White stars scatter the gunmetal sky, twins with the first snowflakes of the year, drifting slowly, gliding into a dappled vortex around the self-contained world of the Outpost. The air channels the smell of snow and fire, fresh and smoky and sweet all at once. I am strangely not cold.

Jonas stops one step past the opening and squints to see me. He turns and walks toward me. “You missed me?” he says. His words are a swirl of warm vapor near his mouth. As he draws closer, I can see he’s smiling— one of those smiles that’s half cockiness, half amusement. He stops one step away from me with his hands in the pockets of his hoodie.

I open my mouth to reply that I did not, but I know what his next question will be. Why am I waiting for him? I fast forward, skipping over them both, and looking away from him say, “It’s so stuffy inside.” I normally sit out back when I want to get away, a fact I hope he’ll miss.

The smile tugs at the corners of his mouth before falling away entirely. He looks at the snow flakes, taking their time to meander toward the ground. They’re large and fragile, almost fluttering as they make their slow descent. I watch his green eyes track one, sweeping calmly across and down, and then zigzagging back as a breeze swirls against the wall. When that flake touches down, he looks up and tracks another one. The angles of his cheekbones, his jaw, his straight nose are all perfect, like smooth, carved stone, the strong profile offset by the delicate curve of his eyelids, his long, dark lashes. His eyes move suddenly back toward me, and I’m staring at him. It’s too late to look away.

Neither of us say anything. We just stand in the snow and gaze at each other. The world is quiet, and distant, and soft. What at first is uncomfortable eases quickly into a hushed, ethereal moment. If God is real, he has cupped his hands around us, shielding us away from the rest of the universe. We are two figures in a snow globe, with all the light and sparkle and magic held tightly within. There is nothing else outside our dome.

A sudden tension forms in Jonas’ shoulders. He pulls them forward, such a small movement I barely perceive it. His brow furrows in the same infinitesimal way. I think he’s going to say something, but he doesn’t. My heart beats once, twice, sounding in my ears, moving the rush of blood through my body. Still he says nothing. I feel the slowing of every second, and I’m suddenly trying to catch my breath. I wait, and wait, and wait.

When I think he will never speak, his hand reaches out quickly and catches mine. “It’s freezing,” he says. “Let’s get inside before we catch cold.” He turns and pulls me along toward the door, and I go with him, even though I want to stay.

He drops my hand to open the door and walks inside before me. I follow, the hot air hitting my face, pressing against my skin. The confines of our shack make me miss the airy cold immediately. I pull off my jacket and sit on the end of the bed. Jonas takes a seat on the couch next to Neveah. Our friends are all quiet, into their own things. Neveah has a tray on her lap, and is separating seeds from chafe. Miranda, at the table, appears to be crushing open seed pods. Apollon is bent over a book.

“What are you reading?” I ask, because I don’t like the silence.

Apollon glances up, flashes me a quick smile, and lifts his book so I can see the cover. “Shakespeare,” he says. The cover reads, The Tempest.

“Is that more poetry?” I ask.

“Not exactly.”

He goes back to reading and I swing my feet. Neveah and Miranda are still sifting through seeds. Jonas is watching as Neveah’s hands work away, sorting patiently.

I’m not feeling so patient. “Matt’s not putting his people out there anymore,” I say. “He’s reinforcing the wall.”

They all look at me.

“He wants to try to figure out the food thing with whatever we have here. Inside the Outpost.” Maybe this is why I was waiting for Jonas— because I wanted to talk to him about this. Now, the only way to do it is to talk to all of them. That’s OK, though. They all need to know. Still, I find myself looking at Jonas to gauge his reaction.

He stares at me quietly, and, as usual, I can’t decide what he’s thinking. I lift my eyebrows at him, and still, he just stares.

Miranda squirms in her seat. “But that’s—” she sputters. She shakes her head firmly. “No. There’s not enough. It won’t work. I mean, that’s… it’s crazy.”

I look from her to Jonas, who is still just staring at me. It’s making me uneasy. I glance at Neveah, and Apollon. Neveah is gazing thoughtfully, distantly, at her seeds. I don’t think she’s seeing them. Apollon avoids my gaze and looks at Jonas. But Jonas does not look at him.

“Isn’t it?” I say pointedly, in answer to Miranda’s statement.

The muscles in Jonas’ jaw tighten. He shakes his head. “Where did you hear this, Eden?”

“Oscar,” I say. “He’s been listening…” A brief surge of guilt washes over me for putting him up to it. “It’s true. We need to figure out what we’re going to do.”

Now Jonas and Apollon make eye contact, and there’s something in it that catches my attention. Jonas’ face is still unreadable. I squint at Apollon, trying to put my finger on it. He swallows, and looks down, scans the cover of the book that is now closed in his lap.

My eyes flick back to Jonas. “We really need to do something,” I say again, and note that he does not look at me now.

He looks at the floor, and says, very quietly, “There’s nothing to be done right now. We just need to continue as we are— try to hang on.”

Apollon purses his lips and nods.

“Seriously,” says Miranda. She’s frowning. “Just hang in there?”

Apollon jumps in before Jonas can answer. He sounds very reasonable. Very calm. “We’re better off putting our energy into trying to survive than getting involved in all this other stuff. There’s nothing we could do about it anyway.”

Part of it rings true. Makes sense. What could we possibly do to change things? Miranda nods slowly, coming around to Apollon’s way of thinking, even though she doesn’t like it. For a second, I think maybe he’s right. Maybe this is the only logical way to see it. Then, Apollon glances at Jonas. A quick glance. That’s all. It’s enough.

“I guess that’s true,” I say, making my voice as even as possible.

Neveah’s eyes dart up and fix on my face for the first time. She holds my gaze for a moment, expressionless. She knows they’re hiding something, too.

Jonas is looking at me again now, too, and I think, maybe, I’m seeing a hint of relief. “It is,” he agrees. “I don’t like it either, but it is.”

I nod thoughtfully. “OK,” I say. “Let’s just focus on food.”

[*

Chapter 21: Whirlwinds and Chasms*]

I’M HALFWAY ACROSS the marketplace when I hear my name. Coyote Dan hobbles to catch up with me. A quick scan of him reveals a crude splint strapped around his leg. He’s using a stick like a cane. Something about his face doesn’t seem quite right, like, even though there’s no sign of bruising, maybe it’s a bit swollen. The way he moves suggests more pain than what his leg alone can deal out. I swallow down a quick wave of guilt for leaving him in Matt’s hands.

“I’ve been wondering where you been hiding these days, darlin’“ he says, stopping in front of me, balancing on one leg and the stick.

I just look at him. His face is definitely swollen, puffy down one side of his nose. There’s a gash in his ear, and scabs behind it fading into his hair. His fingers, grasping the stick, are knobby, discolored. Two of his fingernails are blackish blue, jagged, and torn. What other injuries are hidden under his thick coat?

“I’m not that bad off,” he says, reading my mind. “Better than dead, that’s for sure.”

My eyes scan over him again. He doesn’t sound upset, but just looking at the state of him is upsetting me. For a moment I’m fixated on it. Fixated on the fact that I let this happen to him. He grins at me. One of his teeth is missing. But the laugh lines around his blue eyes, the weathered, sun-beaten stretch of skin— it’s all the same. Familiar. Friendly. Suddenly, I’m awash in relief that Dan is alive. Relief that he doesn’t hate me for abandoning him in his crisis. Relief that life goes on. I throw my arms around him, restraining myself enough not to knock him over, and find myself blinking away tears. One of them manages to escape and drops onto his shoulder as I pull away, my hand going automatically to my ribs.

He pats me lightly on the arm. “Aw, now, don’t you go gettin’ your pretty little face all upset on account of me,” he says. “I’m just fine. And if it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be.”

Short on the heels of the last emotion is anger. My jaw clamps. My voice is a low growl. “I can’t believe Matt did this to you—”

“Let’s just leave that alone,” Coyote Dan says, too easily. Like it didn’t happen to him. He takes me by the arm and turns me back the way he came. “I have something for you,” he says. We begin the slow walk back to where his knife stand is, usually. He’s been closed since the incident and today is no exception. His stuff is all packed away inside a small building that apparently doubles as his residence. There’s a cot with a mess of worn blankets shoved against the back wall. Boxes are stacked against one side. An upturned crate near the cot holds an empty plate and a half-full glass of water beside some tools and scraps of leather. Coyote Dan takes a cloth parcel out of one of the top boxes, leans against the stack, and carefully unwraps it. Inside, not surprisingly, is a knife. He picks it up by the blade and hands it to me. The whole thing spans the length of my forearm. It’s a lovely thing, the metal streamlined and gleaming like it’s worked from the stars themselves. The blade is thin, almost delicate, but probably stronger than anything in the Outpost, if I know Coyote Dan. The leather hilt is soft and fits my hand perfectly. It’s not fancy or decorative, but it feels right. It feels right.

I want to keep it, but I shake my head. “I can’t,” I protest, wanting to say that I can’t afford it, but I know he means to give it to me. I didn’t do enough for him, though. I didn’t stop him from getting hurt. A beating, a broken leg… these can be all the difference between survival and death in the days to come. I didn’t help him enough.

“Like hell,” is all he says. He holds out the matching sheath, dangling it on one finger.

I look at him. He looks at me. I sigh, and take it, my hand shaking. I’ll pay him later, I think. When I can.

“You’re a smart girl,” he says, glancing past me out the open door. “Don’t forget where your advantages lie. And don’t let gettin’ mad get in the way. I’ve never seen anyone handle Matt the way you do. Play your cards right, and you might just get through this mess alive.” With that, he looks again at the door.

I take the hint. I nod, and leave. Whether Matthew spared Coyote Dan on my account or not, it’s probably not the best idea to be seen spending too much time with him. I’m guessing that whatever he did, or was suspected of doing, was related to Sarah’s attempt to gather a rebellion. I can’t associate myself with anything of the sort. Especially not with Oscar in Matt’s care. I strap the sheath and knife at my waist as I walk, removing the home-made version and slinging it on my arm. Something about the act makes me sad, even though the new model is vastly superior. The poorly-stitched sheath and ugly, taped-up shank make me think of Jonas, of how he worked hard to make this for me. I look up, where I’m going, hastily reminding myself that it was for all of us, not just me, when I see them— Jonas and Apollon— on an intersecting course with mine. Apollon smiles and waves, though I note that something about the way he walks still doesn’t seem quite right. Like he’s holding himself too stiffly. Like he doesn’t want to bounce or bend.

As we close the intermediate distance, Jonas’s eyes fall on the knife he made for me, then flick to my belt, where they narrow ever-so-slightly.

“Guess getting socked in the mouth isn’t so bad after all,” I say, smiling at them, beating them to the punch line.

Apollon laughs, then makes a low whistle, moving sideways to check out my waist. I draw the knife, flip it around, and hand it to him. He makes an appreciative noise.

Jonas is looking at me. Just looking at me. His face is blank, distant.

“Nice,” Apollon says, bouncing the blade in his hand.

I nod, and glance at Jonas, who’s still looking at me. I feel myself wanting to fidget, and force my body to be still.

Apollon hands the knife back to me. I stow it in its sheath. Then I take the one stringed on my arm and hold it out to Jonas. “This is yours,” I say.

There’s a delayed reaction, enough to make me wonder where he’s been mentally. He shakes his head, a puppet animating after a long stint without a puppet master. “Nah,” he says. “Keep it. You might need it. As a backup or something.”

I retract my offering and nod, looping one end of the old sheath through my belt to free my hands. “So what’re you guys up to?”

Both of them offer something in the form of a shrug, a frown, a head shake. They brush me off. They’re not up to anything. Not Jonas and Apollon. We start walking along toward the center of town, toward home, which is on the other side of the Outpost. I want to call them out, find out what’s going on, but this isn’t really the place. So I content myself with strolling along beside them. I glance at Jonas again, and I’m sure that he’s a million miles away.

Apollon, walking between us, nudges me with his elbow. “Chsh,” he says, smiling down at me, shaking his head. “Sometimes I wish I was a girl.”

He means the knife, but I can’t resist. “Yeah, so you could grope yourself, huh?”

His grin widens. “That would also be a perk.”

“You might not accomplish much else.”

He laughs, and slips his arm around my waist as we walk, squeezing me to him. In a low voice, he says, “I’d rather grope you.”

I laugh, and reestablish the distance between us with a playful shove, knowing that he’s joking, at least mostly, but I’m suddenly uncomfortable for two reasons. The first one is that Jonas’ eyes dart to me. The second is, when Apollon squished me a little closer, I caught a whiff of something like flowers and honey. I know that smell. The blood drains away from my face, but I look away, down the street, still laughing. “You’d grope a goat if it would let you.”

“Depends on the goat,” Apollon says, shrugging.

I make myself laugh again. The conversation trails off into silence. After a moment, I gather the courage to do the next thing. I catch Apollon by the arm, stopping, but look at Jonas. “We’ll catch up with you, OK?” I say. I don’t expect that he can answer anything else.

Jonas, again, just looks at me, but then nods. He blinks, looking rattled, as he turns away from us and continues down the sidewalk.

We watch him go. Then, Apollon’s eyes skim down me, reserved, waiting, but maybe hopeful. I’m about to punch him in the gut when I notice he’s absently rubbing himself where I shoved his side earlier. “Are you OK?” I ask, deflating.

He nods, brushing it off. “Fine.”

“Good,” I say. “Because I’m going to kill you.”

His hopefulness melts into a puddle of frowning confusion. “Uh…”

“And if I don’t,” I continue, lowering my voice to a whisper, “I’m sure Matt will.” I glare up at him meaningfully.

Now he gets it. “Shit,” he says. He spends a moment looking, open-mouthed, from me to the street and back, probably considering escaping. Then he grabs me by the arm and pulls me to the side. We walk to the closest alley, check that it’s clear, and step in. I’m frowning, rubbing my arms against the cold, and he’s pacing away from me, studying the ground. It takes a while before he looks at me again. When he does, he says, “How did you know?”

I raise my eyebrows at him, considering not telling him. But I kind of have to. He can’t be going around smelling like Leeta. “You smell like a hooker,” I say impatiently. Maybe it’s not a nice way to describe Leeta. She’s a slave— presumably a lifestyle she did not choose for herself, but I can’t help disliking her. She’s hugging all over Oscar. My Oscar. And I only get to see him here and there. Maybe I should be thankful for her kindness. But I absolutely hate her.

“Uh…” Apollon says again.

“What the hell?” I ask him, breaking my patient streak. I whap his arm with the back of my fingers. “What are you thinking?”

Mouth still open, blue eyes wide, he barely shakes his head.

Not a satisfying answer. “Well?”

“I uh…” he rubs the back of his neck, “…Idunno.”

My eyebrows crumple downward. “Are you crazy?”

He shakes his head at me properly now. “Eden,” he says, “you don’t understand. Just… just let it go, OK? Don’t worry about me. I—”

“No!” I glare up at him, my fingers clenching down on my crossed arms. “You can’t do this. You have to stop. I won’t let you.”

“I have to,” he says, leveling his blue eyes at me. “So just shut up and leave me alone about it.”

I don’t know whether to be angry, frightened, or what. I’m so confused. I just stare up at him. “What?” I finally manage, calmly. “Do you like… love her or something?”

He snorts. That would be a no. Again he looks away and shakes his head. He’s mulling something over. Keeping something from me. Finally, he looks back and offers a pitiful shrug and frown. “I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe…”

I peer at him through half-closed eyes. “Bullshit.”

His chin jerks away like I’ve hit him. He takes a small step back, clamps his jaw shut, and crosses his arms.

Very softly, I say, “Try again.”

Now he looks at me, and his blue eyes are full of poison. He hates that I’m dragging this out of him. That I won’t fall for his lies. But he’s my friend— my family— and I would rather piss him off than let him get himself killed. I stand my ground, and look as stubborn as I can, and wait for him to tell me the truth.

When he does, I change my mind about wanting to know it.

“She is a fountain of knowledge,” he says condescendingly through gritted teeth. He glares at me, then follows up, without the gritted teeth, but still in the same belittling sing-song, “And Grey likes knowledge.”

I cover my face with my hands, rub my eyes with the tips of my fingers. “Oh, God…” I mumble. Oh, God.

For a moment, we’re quiet. It all sinks in. All of its horror. How did I not realize this?

“Eden,” Apollon finally says, softly, touching my arm.

I lower my hands just enough to look at him, still pressing them over my nose and open mouth.

His look is pitying. He wants to comfort me now. But he doesn’t know what to say. His fingers squeeze my arm as he gathers some sort of flaccid explanation. I don’t want to hear it. Really, right now, I just want to lie down and sleep. Suddenly, I’m so, so tired.

I slip away from his touch and move off.

“Eden,” he says, as I walk to the end of the alley.

I hush him with one arm, fingers spread, held out behind me, and keep walking.

***

I’m lying in bed, wide awake, listening to the breaths of everyone around me. Jonas’ arm is stretched over my waist, heavy and reassuring. Through it, I can feel him breathing, soft and even. I focus on that arm, and try to keep from screaming. The arm. Jonas. Quiet. Warm. Everything is OK. So why do I want to scream? Why is this whirlwind building inside my chest? Then I’m remembering standing in the street, looking at the Sentry. Sucked into that moment. It walks toward me. I stand there. It keeps coming, like the car on the road the night we tried to leave the Outpost. I stand there. I can’t seem to shove myself out of the way.

It walks around me. Like I’m nothing more than an object. Like it doesn’t mean to kill me. Just walks around me, and moves on. I turn and watch it go. My insides are a violent scramble of emotion. I stand there, breathing heavily. Then, all at once, my feet free themselves, and I start running.

I gulp in air, now, holding it in, trying to be still. My throat is thick with pain, tears building behind my eyes. I shift sideways, a touch. Just enough to redirect myself. There’s an empty spot next to me. With all of us in this bed, we should have moved over and taken up the room. But the empty spot is there. None of us could fill it.

I’m so tired. I may never sleep again. I clamp my eyes shut against the tears, but they leak out anyway. Pointless. I open my eyes and lie very still. I can hear each drop hit the mattress. Plunk. Plunk. Plunk. I count tears like others count sheep. Eventually it works. Eventually I fall asleep.

There are Sentries everywhere. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them. I’m on a street, sunken into the shade between tall buildings, and everywhere I look, there are Sentries. Slowly, their heads rotate toward me, their black mirrors glimmering. They leap into motion. There’s no time to scream. I start running. I sprint down the street, dodging them. Every corner I turn reveals more. They join the chase. There is a metal army on my heels.

I turn another corner, thinking I’m going to collapse, and the street before me dead-ends. But there is a door. Rising into the sky above the door is a gleaming white tower. I run toward it, and somehow, in dream time, I have a moment to slowly reach out toward the knob.

Arms grab me from behind. I scream. A hand closes over my mouth. A warm, human hand.

“Shhh,” says a voice, “It’s OK. You’re OK.”

Darkness falls over me. I blink, trying to see. Everything in front of me is so black. I reach out and feel the cold metal of the door. A moment later I realize it’s our door. Our house. I’m awake. I was dreaming.

Jonas lets me go, except for one hand that steadies my shoulder. “It’s OK,” he says softly. “Come back to bed.”

I let out a long sigh, the tension draining from my body. I let him guide me toward the bed. I crawl in. He lies down beside me and places his arm over me. I lie there, and stare into darkness. I’m OK, I think. I’m OK. I try to focus on his arm, and not the whirlwind building inside me.

***

It’s another cold, grey evening. We’ve eaten, if you could call it that, and I’m sitting out back, despite the weather, gazing into the dark, rolling clouds, absorbing from them the heavy feeling of loneliness that they seem so badly to want to communicate to me.

Jonas’ footsteps scrape the ground, but I don’t turn to look at him. It just makes me miss Oscar, and that, in turn, accentuates the isolation. I can only look up at the clouds and empathize with their deep sorrow.

He walks to my side, sits down, and says nothing. The clouds roll and churn, and I think they might weep. They’re always weeping, and no one ever cares to ask why.

“So,” he says. “Sleepwalking. That’s a new one.”

His voice interrupts my reverie, sending me crashing toward the practical. I look at him now, feeling like I’m waking up. Feeling like I’m not sure where I was a minute ago. “I feel really weird,” I mumble half-heartedly.

He frowns, and reaches out, and touches my cheek with the backs of his fingers. “You don’t look so good,” he says. His fingers are cold against my skin, but soothing. I’m glad that he leaves them there a moment before he takes them away.

“I’m fine,” I say, looking down. I almost laugh at my own lie.

“You’re starving,” he says. He reaches into the pocket of his hoodie and takes out a small parcel wrapped in paper. He passes it to me. “Here. Eat.”

I look down at the package he presses into my hands. “Where…” I begin, but he’s already shaking his head.

“It’s for you,” he says. “You’re the skinniest of all of us. You need it. Eat up.”

My fingers, trembling, unwrap the paper to reveal a sizable hunk of bread. There are raisins in it. It’s still moist. Not stale. I look at Jonas. He looks back. Finally, I forget my questions, and turn to the bread. It’s thick and sweet. Almost as good as Oscar’s muffin. I try to make myself eat slowly, but it’s impossible. At least I manage to hold the chunk out to Jonas. He waves me off. I keep eating. For a moment, I forget everything else.

When I’m done, we sit there in the quiet. It wasn’t that much bread, but I feel very full. It’s more than I’ve eaten in a while. The world slows down. I lean back on my hands. I actually feel, for a bit, OK.

When I look at Jonas, he’s already looking at me. Part of me wonders why he’s always looking at me like that, anymore. It’s not an admiring look. It’s far off. Analyzing. Like he’s trying to figure me out. Like he’s not sure he wants to. Uneasiness threatens to creep in, but I refuse to let it. I cling to whatever closeness, whatever security I felt a moment ago.

“It’s that tower, again,” I say, wanting to confide in him. “There was a door in it, and I was going to open it.”

He studies me, frowns. “Wonder what’s behind it.”

“Well, I guess I’ll never know, since you stopped me from opening it,” I joke, absently whapping his arm.

He smiles, just a little. And he’s quiet again. Suddenly I want to curl up against him, rest my head on his chest, feel his arms around me. More than anything in the world, I want that. But I don’t. I look away, feeling wistful, and again, deeply lonely. “There were like… all these Sentries,” I say, because I can’t stand the quiet. “They were chasing me.”

I’m not looking at him, but I sense his shiver. Still, he says nothing.

I sigh. After a while, I glance at him, and he’s looking at me. Again. Still. I’m never good at reading him, but there’s a guardedness in his expression that’s hard to deny. We look at each other across what might as well be a chasm that reaches to the center of the earth. The small space between us is an immeasurable distance. And still sinking into me is the deep, echoing loneliness. I close my eyes, feeling it. It seeps in so far that I’m sure it doesn’t show on the surface. I’m calm, and even. So this time, it’s me that says: “It’s cold out here.” I climb to my feet, already heading away. “C’mon.”

[*

Chapter 22: Delirious*]

THERE’S AN INCH of snow by the time Jonas gets home. As he steps inside I can see footprints past him on the path— his footprints, intermingled with mine. We’ve been waiting on him for dinner, and now, Miranda passes out our bite-sized meals quickly, unwilling to wait any longer. We dine without conversation. My stale, hard bread scrapes the roof of my mouth. When I’m done, I sit there, and skim the tip of my tongue across the skin that hangs down. Prodding at the wound takes my mind off of how hungry I still am.

After a while, I grow tired of the taste of blood and try to smooth the skin back where it belongs. I look at Jonas and say, “So where were you?” I imagine he’ll brush me off. He always does.

Today, he shrugs, still focusing on whatever crumbs are on his plate. “The Rustler,” he says. “Trying to listen in, you know. Hear some news or something.”

“Anything interesting?” asks Apollon absently.

“Nah.”

I set my plate aside and try for the same casual tone as Apollon. “Who was there?”

“Ah…” He takes his plate, and Miranda’s, and Neveah’s to the bucket, though there’s no point in washing them. Apollon is still chasing crumbs. “Not too many,” Jonas says. “Lloyd. Sumter. A couple of Matthew’s guys. Not much going on though. Complaining to Arthur about the price of the whiskey— you know how it is.”

“Yep,” I say. I do. Jonas has described a typical night at the Rustler. Quiet. Not much going on. No one can really afford much to drink. I bite my lip. Tonight at the Rustler was anything but typical. I know, because I was there, not all that long before Jonas came home. The place was packed because Matt was holding court, wooing his army and possible allies with free drinks. Strengthening his hold on what is left. I abandoned ship when things started to get a little too festive. The party will probably still be going when dawn cracks over the horizon. My stomach hurts. Jonas is lying to us. Jonas is lying to me. I say nothing.

In the morning, Neveah sets out for the market, her shoulders slumping. Jonas is next, out the door. I’ve considered following him, but instead I wait until Apollon is leaving, and tag along. I accost him with questions before we’re halfway down the sidewalk. “What’s Jonas up to? Where does he really go? Is he still working for Grey, too?”

His eyes roll sideways to me as we walk, looking wide and nervous. “Could you say that a little louder?”

I narrow my eyes at him. “Do I need to?”

His face hardens. He’s angry again. Well, good. That makes two of us.

He stops as soon as we emerge from the gap in the wall and pulls me to the side. We stand in the shadow of all the piled junk, and face off with crossed arms. The silence builds between us.

I get tired of it first. “Look,” I say, softening my voice, though it still sounds cool and distant, “tell me what’s going on with him. We’re supposed to be working together— all of us. How are we going to survive if we can’t even be honest with each other?”

The look he gives me says that he thinks my question is stupid for multiple reasons, none of which he’s going to share with me. Quickly following it, his face turns to stone. Immovable. There’s not even going to be an argument. He says, quietly, patiently, “If you want to know what’s going on with Jonas, you’re going to have to ask him.” Then he stuffs his hands in his pockets, turns his back on me, and strides off into the snow.

***

Halfway through the day, the sky is so close to the earth it threatens to smother us. Dark and roiling, the clouds press coldness onto the already-frozen world. Most of us retreat homeward and close ourselves inside. Chill air seeps through all the cracks in our little shack. I never realized how perforated it was, until the real cold came.

Miranda and Jonas are discussing pointlessly how we’re going to get through the coming winter. I have the feeling that he’s humoring her, making her feel better by participating in what can only be a futile act. I can’t decide whether he’s being kind or deceitful. I ponder where the difference may be while wondering how I’m going to get him away from her so I can beat the truth out of him. My jaw is working. Neveah, sitting next to me on the couch, gives me a sympathetic look. Sometimes, I wonder what’s going on in her head. I wish she would tell me. I offer back a small combination smile-frown. She makes a noise like a laugh— soft, barely there. We turn our gazes quietly back toward the other two.

There’s a noise outside, and the door is thrown open. Oscar, bundled in coat, hat, gloves, and even snow boots, stumbles inside, brushing white from himself after he closes the door. He peels off the coat and hat, then launches himself toward us, landing in a tumble across our laps. Neveah squeezes him close, pressing her cheek against his. I’ve got his legs and feet, so I just wait until he straightens himself and wiggles into the spot between us. He leans over against me, and now I get to press my face against his. His cheek is cold against mine. I close my eyes, feeling my smile move all the way through me.

Miranda and Jonas greet him with smiles, too. Miranda pours some hot water for him to drink.

“I wanted to see you before the big snow comes,” Oscar says, glancing at me.

“Ah,” I say. “I think you’re a little late.” I look meaningfully at the door.

He just laughs. “It’ll be a while before it’s too much to be out in. And I thought you’d want to know what happened last night.”

“Last night?” Jonas says.

“When Matt got home,” Oscar says. “After—”

“After I saw you guys at the market?” I jump in.

Oscar just looks at me and smiles. “Yeah,” he says. “After that.”

“What happened?” Jonas asks. He leans in as he listens.

“Well, it was pretty late,” Oscar says, “and Jacob and Taylor came to the door. I was supposed to be upstairs sleeping, but I heard the knock, so I snuck out to see what was going on and listened in.”

I’m about to reprimand him, but Jonas says, “And?”

“Someone put a bomb or something in Matt’s car. You know the solar one I hit with my slingshot?” He looks at me.

I nod. Jonas is looking at him, leaning forward.

“Killed Colton, and a couple other of Matt’s guys. I didn’t know them.” He shrugs, like he’s not sure about what he’s telling us. “Didn’t like Colton much. But… wow… I mean, they killed him.”

I put my arm around his shoulders and pull him close.

“What did Matt do?” Jonas asks.

Oscar makes a noise, his eyes going wide. “He was pissed.”

Neveah and I exchange a look over Oscar’s head.

“He kinda went off on one. Grabbed his coat and left. So I don’t know. I don’t know what happened after that.”

“Matt didn’t say what he was going to do?” Jonas asks calmly.

Oscar shakes his head. “Nah.”

“What about when he got back? Did he say anything then?”

I frown at Jonas. This is beginning to feel like an interrogation.

“I was asleep,” Oscar answers.

Jonas just nods slowly, looking down.

Miranda, cautiously forming the words, speaks for the first time since the conversation started. “Who do you think would do that?”

Jonas, still looking down, is shaking his head. Oscar stares at her. Neveah sits very still. Since none of them are answering, I venture my own guess. “Some of Grey’s men, maybe?”

Jonas glances up and meets my eyes, failing to completely hide the alarm in his own.

***

The snow holds us prisoner for days. Tension builds on itself. We’re all on a short fuse. Soon, we don’t talk to each other much at all. Talking takes energy, anyway, and we don’t have a lot of that to spare. Our water pump is frozen so we melt snow to drink. There’s nothing to eat. Not a bite. By the time the snow starts to melt away, I’ve gotten used to being without food. The hunger that demanded attention has faded to something of unimportance. I just feel weak, spacey, and dizzy. Like I’m walking in a dream.

Sometimes, I really am dreaming. My sleep feels drugged, full of nightmares I’m incapable of waking from. Full of other things that pull at me. I can’t remember them when I wake. Then one day, the sun comes out and the sky is a crisp blue. The piles of snow fade into waterlogged concrete. I step outside, pulling my jacket around me, and start walking. My thoughts are scattered, disorganized. Mostly, I’m concerned about Oscar. I’ve been thinking about what the bomb means for him. If Matt’s men are being targeted, Matt is being targeted. Oscar is staying with Matt. This is about as far as I can take the train of thought before it tangents into some other distraction. Always, I return to it though. I know it’s important, but I can’t seem to focus. I’m thinking about it for the thousandth time, wandering down a quiet street, when I look up, and see the white tower in front of me.

I stop. Stop in the middle of the street. Gazing. My mouth is open. I blink, and the tower’s gone. I blink again. There’s nothing. It’s just a street. I’m going crazy. Jonas is right. Starvation is making me crazy. So now, I’m thinking about rats. About finding rats. I stumble down alley after alley, and find none. Maybe they don’t come out in the cold, or maybe I’m a poor rat hunter. Maybe Fate has decided she hates me. Whatever it is, there are no rats to be found. All I find is misery. People who are worse off than me. Bundles of rags, shivering. Moaning. So close to death. One bundle doesn’t move when I walk by. Not the slightest bit. I can’t look. I just keep moving. About a block ahead of me, I see the pig trot across the intersection from an adjoining alleyway. Frowning, I wander toward the place where it disappeared.

This is how I end up in the alleyway where, far ahead of me, I see Jonas. He’s with some other men, and they’re stepping into a doorway. They disappear. I walk toward the place they disappeared from.

Before I reach the doorway, there’s a window. I can hear voices, so I crouch down beneath it and listen. I recognize Jonas’ voice, but I can’t make out the words. I’m straining to decipher them when my head, quite suddenly, jolts through with pain. I blink, or try to blink, but all I can see is black.

The voices swirl around me, nearer, but still muffled and indecipherable. I can’t make sense of them for a long time. I can’t make sense of the darkness. Then I feel myself resolving, like someone is turning a lens to bring me into focus. I become aware of my body. I know to open my eyes. It’s dark inside, wherever we are, but any light at all hurts my brain. I shut my eyes tight against the throbbing.

By my ear, something shifts. Something cold, and wet. I pry my eyes open a sliver, and squint at the person next to me.

“You’re OK.” It’s Jonas’ voice, though his face has not quite swum into resolution. “Just a little knock to the head. That’s all.”

“Psh,” I manage weakly. “Is that all?”

He presses the rag against my head, scooting nearer. He’s sitting on a stool or something, looking down on me. I’m lying on a bed, or cot, or something like that. It’s lumpy, and I’m cold, and the freezing rag is not making me feel any better. I turn my head away from it and sit up all at once, which obviously isn’t the brightest idea since it makes me feel like I’m going to hurl.

“Easy,” Jonas says, steadying me by my wrists. When he’s satisfied I won’t fall over, he rubs his hand soothingly up and down my arm.

I swallow down the nausea and manage to get my eyes open and focused on him. “What the hell is going on?”

He laughs softly without smiling, and looks away. I wait. He’s going to tell me. I won’t let him not.

Finally, he turns back to me, his eyes moving over my face. He must see how angry I am, how stubborn, because a somberness sinks into his demeanor. He swallows. “I’m putting together a force that’s loyal to Grey.” He waits for my reaction.

There are so many things I want to say, most of them in a very loud voice. But I take a deep breath and say very calmly, “The same Grey who makes Matt look like a virgin princess?”

He purses his lips, then licks them. “Yes.”

My fists are pounding against his chest before I even realize what I’m doing. “What are you thinking?” I’m shrieking at him. “Oscar’s with Matt! He’ll kill him if he finds out what you’re doing!”

Footsteps move quickly toward us from across the room, and I realize for the first time that we’re not alone. Jonas waves the men off, catching my hands and stopping me easily. “Listen,” he says patiently, holding me by the wrists, “Oscar will be fine. I’m looking after that. I didn’t forget about him. And anyway, Matt’s not going to find out.”

I laugh at him. I mean really laugh. Tipping my head back, not falling onto the bed only because he still has my wrists. I sound crazy. Maybe I am. When I’m able to speak, I manage, “You think Matt won’t know? Matt knows everything.”

“Not everything.” He releases me, tentatively, like he’s not sure I won’t start beating him again. “Eden,” he says quietly, “we have no choice. If we want to survive, this is the only way. Grey’s going to win this thing, and when he does, we need to be on his side. We need to position ourselves there now.”

Shoulders slumped, I shake my head at him. I want to rebut what he’s said, but I lose the words before they form. I lose his words, too, until I’m left with just the feeling that I disagree and that it’s important. But I blink at him, and don’t say anything.

He takes me by the shoulders and leans in, talking to me softly. “I need you with me on this,” he says. “We’re family, right?” His hand moves from my shoulder to my face, brushing back my hair. His green eyes insist that he’s right. “You’re with me.”

If I wasn’t so tired, I think I would be crying. I move slowly to get up. His hands fall away from me. He stays sitting, while I stand. “I’m with Oscar,” I tell him. “And so help me, you better be, too.”

I walk to the door, and no one tries to stop me.

***

Strangely, Miranda’s out. So is Neveah. And Jonas is so seldom home. Apollon looks up at me warily when I walk in, probably realizing he’s a target without the others there to quash the conversation. I’ve just been with Oscar, and I’m feeling good. Happier, for having been with him, and a little clearer for the piece of bread he slipped to me.

I pull up the chair across from Apollon and lean in with my forearms resting on my knees. “Tell me about Grey,” I say softly. “About Outpost Two.”

For a while, he considers, his eyes slowly scanning my face. Then he sighs. “You don’t really want to know.”

“Is it that bad?”

He nods.

“What will happen? I mean… when he takes over?”

He slowly draws in a deep breath through his open mouth, and holds it until he begins to speak. “A lot of people will die.” An unpleasant fact, but a fact. He has no doubt that what he’s saying is true.

“How?” I say. “I mean, what? Like war?”

“Like, executions.” He looks startled, almost like he’s seeing it while we talk. His voice is a low murmur. “Anyone who could be an enemy…. Anyone without worth….”

I stare at him in the quiet. “We can’t…” I say, “…we can’t just let this happen. We have to do something.”

He shakes his head, frowning. He’s already been over this in his own mind, so he already has the answers. “Stop the snow, Eden,” he says. “Stop a tornado. It would be just as likely. Grey is a force of nature. There’s no going against him. You have two options. Get out of his way, or be on his side. We already tried running, and we failed. It’s down to this. Why can’t you just trust that we know what we’re talking about?”

“Because I don’t want to be on his side!” I cry, bolting to my feet. Anger surges around me. Anger at being lied to. Anger at being forced into a position where I have to choose between survival and the unthinkable. I’m about to continue my tirade when the door opens and Miranda steps inside. I freeze, looking at her.

She looks from me to Apollon, and back. “Don’t want to be on whose side?”

In the grand scheme of things, it needed to happen anyway. I was angry over being kept out of the loop. But I was doing the same to Miranda and Neveah. So, after I tell Miranda the truth— when she processes it and quietly says that we have to tell Neveah— I agree. Apollon looks at me like I’ve gone mad. But this is the way it needs to be. We all need to know what’s happening.

We wait uncomfortably for evening. For Neveah to return home, and then for Jonas. We lay everything out on the table and, for the first time, we have a reasonable conversation about our future. One that includes all of us.

“We were trying to protect you,” Jonas says, attempting to explain what he and Apollon have done. “You don’t need to be part of this. It would only put you in more danger.”

Miranda frowns, blinking. “I thought you said the point was to put ourselves on Grey’s side. How are we going to be on Grey’s side if we sit around and do nothing while you two do all the dirty work?”

It’s a fair question. I nod to back her up, and raise my eyebrows at Jonas.

He and Apollon exchange glances. I clamp my jaw, thinking they’re keeping something from us, but then, he spills. His voice is strained, uncomfortable. “Well… we’re going to have to do something about you, anyway. I mean… it won’t be safe. We’ll have to figure out a place to hide you or something.”

“Hide us?” Miranda’s voice says how shocking and unacceptable that answer is. “Why? For how long?”

Again, the glance between Jonas and Apollon. Each of them is waiting for the other to explain.

Finally, Apollon shrugs and says, “You’re too pretty. Grey likes pretty girls.” He says it so simply, like he can brush off some of its weight by the way he delivers it. He looks from Miranda to me, his eyes scanning down my figure, then shrugs again, glancing at Jonas. “She could be a boy.”

I don’t know whether to take offense at that or not.

Jonas’ face darkens. He shakes his head, straightening from his slouch, his eyes piercing through Apollon.

“It would be better than being stuck in a hole somewhere,” Apollon adds.

Miranda throws her hands up in the air. “And what about me? A hole? Really?”

Neveah puts her hand on Miranda’s back and rubs in slow circles.

“No,” Jonas says firmly. “Not a good idea. She doesn’t look anything like a boy.”

“Baggy clothes,” Apollon says. “Bandages. Short hair. It could be done.”

Jonas looks like he’s about to hit Apollon. Miranda might start to cry any second. This is a disaster. I stand up, and they all get suddenly quiet. They look at me, waiting.

“Look,” I say softly. “I can’t do anymore of this right now. Can we just leave it?”

Their only answer is uneasy glances amongst themselves as I put on my jacket. I head outside and start walking, not even caring where I’m going, or if it’s safe. There’s only one thing I’m thinking right now. There’s no way in hell that I’m going to end up locked away in some box… or hole… or whatever…. Not ever again.

***

Red streaks crawl across the horizon, moving into the black. The fissure of red, then orange, opens up in the pit of ash that is the sky. I stare at it, but not all of it. In front of me, the Sentry blocks out half of the heavens, eclipsing the rising sun. Its metal body is composed of thick black lines and hard shapes silhouetted against the onslaught of dawn.

My legs and feet are numb, like I haven’t moved them in a long time. I’m rooted, though I don’t want to be. I can’t run, though it is all I want to do. I stare up, my body quivering. Its metal face gazes down at me, its void mask looking for anything that could give it a reason to snatch my life. Daybreak progresses slowly toward morning, and we face off— the mechanized demon and I.

The morning is still a cold grey mist when people begin moving around me. I don’t pay them any attention, and they don’t seem to notice me either. At least, not for a while.

My name. I hear my name. It must be droning on a hundred times, like a looped recording, soft, and insistent. There’s a tugging on my hand that goes with it. I blink, and look down. My neck hurts. I stare at him for a bit. Then I mumble, “Oscar…?”

A firmer hand takes hold of my arm and tugs me away. “Come on.” I follow them— Matt and Oscar— away from the Sentry. Matt sits me down on the curb and takes a seat next to me. I feel like I’m waking up. He rubs one hand up and down my arm. I know he’s looking at my face, even though I’m not looking at him.

“…Is she OK?” Oscar asks. He sounds worried.

This pulls me the rest of the way out. I blink, and rub my hands over my face. “I’m fine,” I mutter, still rubbing. “I was just…” I trail off, because I have no idea what the rest of the sentence was.

Matt turns to Oscar. “Run home and get some food. Some of that chicken. Hurry.”

Oscar doesn’t even hesitate. He takes off running.

I groan. “I’m fine,” I say again, not wanting to accept anything from Matt. Drinks at the Rustler, when everyone is there and is expected to partake, is one thing. Food, just for me, is completely different. Especially when it’s worth its weight in gold. Especially when I may be allying myself with his enemy.

“Nonsense,” Matt says. His words are clipped, firm.

I shake my head at him, but his stern look cuts me off.

“Oscar is bringing food,” he says. “And you are going to eat. So help me, if you refuse, I will stuff it down your throat the hard way.”

I feel my eyes go wide, despite myself. He looks like he really would. I fumble for something to say. Finally, I manage weakly, “The thing…” I glance toward the Sentry, still standing in the road. “…It’s not… I mean… I just… I’ve been dreaming. And not sleeping.” I’m making no sense. I press on, anyway. “Walking. Sleepwalking.” I look pointedly at the Sentry.

He follows my gaze. “About those? What, like nightmares?”

I shake my head. “Idunno.”

He gives me a look— a look that says I am delirious. I’m not. I’m pretty sure. But the look is convincing.

I lean over and cup my hands around my face. I’m so tired. I could go to sleep right here. Only it’s cold out. So, so cold.

Matt sits with me and doesn’t say anything until Oscar returns. I hear him run toward us, but I don’t look up. I lean into the darkness of my hands, wishing I could stay there. Even the ache in my ribs feels so far away.

“Here,” Matt says, helping me sit up. He unwraps a foil package and places it in my lap. It’s filled with chunks of white meat, roasted potatoes, and a slice of bread with butter. Oscar has clearly raided the kitchen, demanding a bit of everything. I stare at it. This is more than my whole family has eaten in a week— a feast better than we’ve ever partaken of— and here it is, dropped into my lap. Bread from heaven.

I look at Matt, and he looks back at me with measured patience. Eat, or I’ll make you, says his face. I look at the food again. Deep inside, I want to cry, but wherever that emotion is, it’s buried deep enough that it can’t come out. My hunger must live in that place with it, because I have no urge to feed. All I see before me is some sort of vicious paradox. A meal fit for a king in a land of beggars. Life in the midst of so much death.

“Just try a little,” Oscar pleads, crouching down in front of me. “It’s good,” he says, putting on a hopeful smile. “You’ll like it.”

I reach for the food because of him. Not because I’m hungry. Not because Matt has threatened to stuff it down my throat. But because Oscar wants me to. My hand gravitates to the bread— finer than I’m accustomed to, but still the most familiar thing in the packet. Matt’s hand stops me.

“Eat the meat first,” he says, letting go as quickly as he touched me. “Better for you.”

I sigh and pick up a piece of chicken. I know from the looks of it that it must be tender, flavorful, but it feels like dust in my mouth. I chew and chew. It’s a lot of work for a bite. Finally I swallow it, finishing the piece with a sigh. I look at the rest of the package with slumped shoulders.

Matt and Oscar spend the next hour patiently coaxing each bite into me. I get through maybe a third of the chicken, and I simply can’t manage any more. My stomach threatens to forcefully eject everything I just ate. I close the foil around the package and push it toward Matt, turning my head away.

“Keep it for later,” he says quietly, scanning my face.

When I look at him, his expression is wary, but I shake my head. “Someone would kill me for this before I could get halfway home.”

He opens his mouth, likely to insist on it, and to offer some sort of guard along the way, but I cut him off with another head shake.

“It’s too much,” I say. “I just want to rest.” Even now, I’m rethinking the decision, feeling guilty over not keeping it to share out amongst my friends. But I hate owing Matt anything. And I may be starving, but I’m proud. And guilty about this. About taking from someone who I am in some way betraying.

Maybe he recognizes the stubbornness in my expression, or maybe he’s thinking that food is eventually going to be scarce for him, too. Whatever it is, he withdraws the package, and stands.

“Thanks,” I say, nodding.

He just looks at me, like someone might look at a lost puppy they feel sorry for, but aren’t really convinced they like. He looks, and then he walks away without a word.

Now Oscar and I look at each other. His brow is furrowed with concern. It’s like he’s waiting for me to fall over, or do something crazy. It takes a lot of effort, but I manage a smile. I am feeling a little clearer now, whether it’s from the food, or from being fully awake. I start to get up. He grabs my hand to help me, leaning backward as he digs his heels in. We wander down the street together, and, tired or not, I feel something vaguely akin to happiness.

[*

Chapter 23: Dwindling*]

MORNING HAS THAWED into a sunny day, despite the wind. In between its icy bursts there are small pockets where my jacket gathers the sun’s energy and warms my skin. Our chatter has done much the same for my soul. Oscar is doing great. He’s well-fed and talkative. Happy, even, in the midst of everything else that’s going on. I’m grateful that he’s being taken care of. I don’t regret my decision anymore. It was the best thing for him. Even if I miss him.

We’re walking through the marketplace when Jonas waves us down and joins us. We meander together, through greetings and catching up. But we haven’t gotten very far before Jonas starts with the questions.

“So, what’s happening with the wall?” he asks.

Oscar catches his eye. He shrugs. “They’re still working on it.”

“What kinds of weapons have they built in?”

Now Oscar’s eyes flick to our surroundings, then to me. His eyes are a bit wider.

“Jonas,” I say. I give him a hard look.

He persists, licking his lips and paying attention only to Oscar. “Do you know?”

“Guns,” Oscar says, quietly and carefully. Again, he looks around. “Some sort of explosive thing…”

“Explosive?”

“It like… throws explosives….”

“What about outside the wall? Are they adding anything there? Mines?”

Oscar shakes his head. “…I don’t know….”

“Can you find out?”

I punch Jonas in the arm. Hard.

He scowls at me. “Eden,” he says quietly, “I need to know.”

I grind my teeth as I say it, to keep from shouting at him. “You don’t have to involve Oscar.”

His eyes dart between me and Oscar, finally fixing on my glare. He sighs.

“OK,” he concedes. “Eden’s right. You don’t need to find anything out. But is there anything you can tell me that you already know? Anything that’s going on? Anything Matt’s up to?”

Oscar thinks about it for a moment before he answers. “Just the wall,” he says. “And making more weapons. Lots. He’s got all the recyclers collecting metal for him.”

“He’s forging them?” I ask, unable to stop myself. I bite my lip and look away.

“Dan and Lloyd are,” Oscar replies.

“Coyote Dan?”

Oscar looks at me with a cautious frown.

Jonas’ mouth turns downward as he struggles to control a smile.

I frown at him, then turn a calm face on Oscar. “Coyote Dan is forging weapons for Matt? He agreed to do that? I mean, I know Matt kicked the crap out of him, but still…”

Oscar looks nervous now. He licks his lips, his eyes darting as he thinks. He says, “He didn’t argue. Lloyd was the one who didn’t want to do it. Matt put him in the VR machine. Now he’s forging weapons.”

Jonas and I look at each other.

I turn back to Oscar and say quietly, “How do you know this? Did you see it?”

He shakes his head. “Jess told me.”

“Jess?”

“The girl who answered the door when you took me there.”

The image of the half-burned, half pretty face flits through my mind.

Jonas places one hand firmly on Oscar’s shoulder and looks him in the eye. “Go on home,” he says softly. “Keep out of trouble. I’m going to walk Eden home and see if I can get some food in her.”

I want to tell Jonas that I’ve already eaten, but somehow I can’t. Can’t tell him that Matt fed me. Oscar looks at me, but says nothing. He nods and skitters off down the street.

Jonas turns to me, takes me by the arm, and starts walking. “So it is VR,” he says, like it’s the answer to a question he’s been trying to figure out.

Well, it’s not surprising. Slave masters use all sorts of inventive practices to transform their victims into willing slaves. Slavery is forbidden by the Fourth Law, so slaves have to be absolutely broken to not pose a risk to their owners. The process usually involves torture that won’t leave a mark. Virtual reality is perfect for a slave master who can get his hands on the right equipment. Simulated torture that feels real, but doesn’t leave any physical imprint. Sure, sometimes slaves might be lost to cardiac arrest, but that’s not the point. The point is that the end product is perfectly trained. Like the young girl I saw on the platform at the slave market when I first got here. Thinking about her— thinking about all of it— makes me feel sick. My stomach threatens to reject the meal I had earlier. I swallow repeatedly and try to move my mind to other things. Really, I’m thinking about sleep. I would love to just go to sleep.

But Jonas is talking. Slowly, my mind focuses in on his words part-way through a sentence. “…hope we’re OK. You know… I was worried about you last night.” He glances at me, clearly expecting some reply.

A few beats later, I manage, “Yeah. OK.” I feel like I should say more, but again, my mind wanders toward sleep. I really just want him to leave me alone so I can go crawl into bed.

His eyes linger on me for a second, then drop away. He looks deflated. Disappointed. We walk on in silence. When we come to the gate in our junk wall, he stops, takes something out of his pocket and passes it to me.

I look at it for a moment before I realize there’s food wrapped in this bit of cloth. I shake my head and push it back toward him.

“Eat it,” he says, shoving it toward me. “Please.”

I open my mouth to tell him that I’ve already eaten, and still, I can’t. Sighing, I accept the package. I turn and slink inside. No one else is home. In the quiet, I collapse face-first onto the bed, dropping the packet of food beside me. I am asleep before I can even rearrange myself.

***

The days fly by, bleak and cold. I spend yet another night lying awake. On one side of me is Miranda. On the other, Neveah. There are gaps between us that used to be occupied by the rest of our family. We’re starting to become accustomed to being on our own— just us girls. Neveah and Miranda are starting to become accustomed to calming me when I wake kicking and screaming, or running for the door. This is how we are now. Dwindling.

Apollon and Jonas have started spending the nights away, doing whatever it is they do. Every night I imagine them getting caught. Beaten. Shot in the head. Or cut apart bit by bit. In my mind, I stop on the edge of that cliff, teetering, trying to hold back thoughts of Oscar— of what would happen to him if Apollon and Jonas were discovered. I have to trust them, I tell myself. Have to believe in their competence. But there are so many factors they can’t account for. So many things that could go wrong.

Not Oscar. I won’t think about him. Where he is now, he’s safer from the more immediate threat of starvation.

He brings food to share with me every day. Not part of his breakfast like he occasionally brought before, but full portions for me alone. He says Matt insists. That he says I “had better eat it”. At first, I answered that Matt didn’t have to know whether I ate it or not. Oscar gave me the raised eyebrows, the stubborn face, chin up, jaw set. “I’ll tell him,” he said. He meant it, too. He won’t let me get away with not eating. And, since it’s not so different than how I’ve behaved regarding Oscar, I can’t really argue. All this time I’ve been trying to avoid accepting help from Matt, and turns out I take more and more. I’m in his debt, like it or not. And really, if I think about it, maybe I have been all along. Just one more thing to keep me awake at night.

Now, as I lie here, I clamp my eyes shut against the thought of food. Jonas brings me bits and pieces, too. I’m probably eating three times as much as Miranda and Neveah, and no one really knows. I hate myself for it. I want to give them part of what I have, but I feel like I’m not supposed to. I want to refuse what Jonas brings me, but I don’t. I wonder if my friends are eating extra bits in secret as well, hiding it from me, trying to stay alive. If they are, I’m hurt, for the deceit. If they’re not, my own guilt is unbearable. Surely they are. Surely they come by small bits somewhere. Surely they’re not still subsisting on one bite of stale bread per meal.

I’ve laid here so long that light starts to ooze in through the cracks, dull at first, then insistently brighter. It’s still early, but I crawl off the bed as quietly as I can and slip into my jacket. I drink some melted snow from the pan on top of the stove, open the metal door and add another board to the decaying embers. I’m just about to sneak out of the house when Miranda stretches and sits up.

She squints at me. “Going out?”

I nod, glancing at Neveah, who’s still sleeping soundly.

“Where?”

“To see the boys.” I’ve been keeping my distance from their operation, mostly, but I like to have some idea what’s going on. In a very small amount of time, Jonas has managed to recruit a sizable force. Each time I’ve been to the warehouse hideout there have been different people there. Orange shoelaces, red stripes, beggars and businessmen. All of them seem to defer to Jonas. I don’t know how he’s managed to do it, or what he’s promised them, but Jonas is running his own small army. Meanwhile, Apollon is up to something else, though I’m not sure what. He has his own tight group that is in and out, and always passing murmurs and meaningful looks. I don’t ask what they’re doing. I really don’t want to know.

Miranda grimaces, but climbs out of bed. “I’ll come, too,” she says, as though the task is unpleasant. I’m not sure why she wants to come. Or why I want to go. Maybe we just miss Jonas and Apollon.

As she gets ready, my eyes fix on Neveah. She’s breathing steadily, resting. Part of me is jealous, and part is worried. She’s usually an early-riser.

“She just needs the rest,” Miranda whispers, waving me off. She nods toward the door. We shuffle quietly out and walk down the path through an inch or so of snow. It’s frozen over, crusted and crunching under our steps. I keep my arms extended to keep from slipping on the ice underneath.

We walk briskly toward the warehouse, taking a roundabout route and sticking to quieter streets. Someone disguised as a beggar slumps against a wall by the door, watching for intruders. I glance at him, but don’t say anything. We move past him and open the door. Inside, you’d think it would be warmer. But there are no fires burning to give away a human presence here. No sun coming in to warm the rooms. Shivering, rubbing my arms, we move deeper inside, our eyes scanning the dark for our friends.

Jonas is standing over a table where a group of men are seated, in the middle of some discourse. He looks over and sees us. There are circles under his red eyes. His hair is mussed. He must have been up all night. But more than that, he looks startled to see us. His eyes dart to Miranda, then quickly back to me. He strides toward us— to get rid of us, I think— but he’s too late. The men at the table turn around to see what’s going on. Miranda’s eyes go wide on Donegan.

She lets out a small squeal, but shuts it down, her fists clamping in trembling hands. Her eyes dart from Donegan to Jonas, who is now in front of us. Anger spills over, raw, bubbling with betrayal. She lunges at Jonas.

He tries to catch her hands to hold her back, but Miranda is like a mad cat, clawing at him, beating him. She sounds like a cat, too, her words coming out in wild screeches. “How could you,” she shrieks. “You know! You know! How could you!!!”

I try, half-heartedly, to peel her off him, but really, she doesn’t stop beating him until she’s ready. She moves away from him with a deadly glare, then turns her back on him and marches outside. The door slams shut behind her.

I look at Jonas, who is breathing hard through his nose, jaw tight. At the table behind him, Donegan’s men are stirring, looking uneasy. Jonas will have more problems than just me to deal with. I shake my head at him, turn, and leave him to it. I go after Miranda, who is already long gone.

I track her footprints through the snow until they join the nexus of morning traffic, then wander into the fray. I spot her up ahead. She’s marching along, fists still clenched, each step smacking solidly into the frost-bitten snow. For just a second, I waver. Maybe I should let her work this out on her own. Maybe she just needs some space. Then I remember the night Oscar left us, and I sigh. I trudge onward.

She glances back as I hurry to catch up with her, her eyebrows drawn down in the middle to form short diagonal lines. She’s scowling, fighting back tears. At least I’m not Jonas.

“Hey,” I say, falling in beside her, sticking my hands in my pockets. I’ll let her do the talking, if she wants to. Or we can just walk in silence for a while.

She throws me a look that is definitely not companionable. I pretend not to notice. We crunch onward through the snow.

For a moment, she sputters like a faucet out of water, but finally she spits out, “Donegan? Seriously?”

I snort. “I know.”

Now her glance is calmer. She realizes I’m going to take her side. I’d be stupid to try to convince her that what Jonas is doing is OK. I may not be Miranda, but I hate Donegan enough. He hit Oscar. No way in hell would I consider him an ally. I’m swimming in disgust and disbelief.

Miranda says “I thought Jonas— I thought—” And then she’s sniffling, tears pouring down her face. She bats at them, wiping them with her sleeves. Somehow she manages to stop. Her chin is up, her face smooth. I’ll give her one for composure. “I thought I knew Jonas. I thought I knew he wouldn’t do something like that,” she finishes, calmly.

“Jonas doesn’t seem to want anybody to know him,” I say absently. “He lets you in. He pushes you out. It’s really all about that thing on his arm, isn’t it? We don’t matter to him if we get in the way of that.”

Miranda’s gaze falls on me and sticks. Summing, withering, and oddly understanding. Finally she says, “Well, I’m done with it.”

We’re in the marketplace now. We stop and turn to each other. “Miranda,” I say softly, but her face looks set in stone.

She shakes her head, rubbing her arms. We face each other, but each of us is looking off into the distance.

I’m about to suggest we go home where at least it’s warm, when she speaks.

“I’m going to help Matt,” she says.

I blink. “What?”

“With the wall. I can help with it.”

My mouth is hanging open. This is bad. Miranda wants to join Matt’s side? With all the sensitive information she knows? With all the anger she’s incubating?

“I’m not going to say anything,” she whispers. “So don’t freak out. I just… aren’t we on the wrong side?”

I close my mouth and swallow. I stare off into the distance. “Which side is the right side?” I ask. “Isn’t it the one that’s going to win?”

She frowns at me. “You don’t believe that.”

“I believe in staying alive.”

“Really,” she says. “You’re fine with being locked in a hole somewhere?”

I narrow my eyes at her. She has hit home, and she doesn’t even realize why. Again, I look away. Truth be told, I really don’t want to think about this question. Maybe it deserves an answer, but even considering it makes my insides stir. Closing my eyes, I breathe cold air through my nose. I focus on the way my body relaxes into the deep breaths. The nausea subsides. My head feels lighter.

Luckily, Miranda is done debating. She grabs me by the arm. “C’mon,” she says. “Let’s get out of the cold.”

I’m happy to drop it for now. As we walk home, I do everything I can to put it all out of my mind.

***

Jonas is bristling. His back is turned to me, but I can sense every nerve is charged. Every muscle in his shoulders is taught. “She’s going to get herself killed,” he growls.

I keep quiet, and look at the warehouse’s ancient concrete floor. Dark, and grey, and tired, and cold. A metaphor for everything, these days.

“It makes no sense,” he continues. “Why would she do this? Why would she betray us like this?”

Why wouldn’t she, I’m thinking, still staring at the floor. He’s just used to her following him everywhere like a stray dog.

Now he turns and looks at me. His boots have clots of mud sticking out the sides from under his heels. “Eden,” he says, more softly.

I close my eyes and shake my head.

He walks over to the cot and sits down next to me, turning his body toward me. I open my eyes but only see his lap, his leg crossed over his knee. His boot is pointing at me now. I reach out and flick a chunk of mud off of it, then look him in the eyes.

My voice is tired, wavering, slow, but strong. “The things you are willing to do…”

His eyelids come down part way over eyes full of an intense gaze. He leans toward me. His voice is low and even. “I am willing to do a lot of things you probably won’t like,” he says. “Whatever it takes. That’s how we survive.”

It’s hard to argue with survival as the ultimate goal. But I find myself looking away. My shoulders slump. Again, I feel so tired.

He sets his hand on my knee. “Eden,” he says again. His voice sounds so soft when he says my name. Like a lullaby. Like dying.

I blink and look at his face. His eyes are scanning mine, looking for something. For a sign I, too, won’t betray him?

“I need you with me,” he says. His voice is barely more than a whisper. “I really need you.”

I close my eyes, a long sigh draining from me like blood sinking into the earth. I don’t want to think about this. All I manage in reply is, “Oscar. I can’t be involved in this. It’s not safe for Oscar.”

His brow furrows, emotion playing across his face as quickly as a summer rainstorm. He shakes his head a little bit, then stops. He purses his lips. All the while, he’s looking at me, like he’s going to say something, but nothing ever comes out.

Eventually I grow tired of waiting. “I have to go,” I say, getting to my feet. He looks up at me warily. I feel bad for him. He seems so lost. I try to drum up some words to reassure him, to ease his fears. Something meaningful. Something inspiring. All I manage is, “Don’t worry. Miranda wouldn’t sell you out. She won’t say anything.”

He nods, looking down at that concrete floor.

I turn, and walk away.

[*

Chapter 24: Lilies and Roses*]

OSCAR AND I are sitting on the side of the street sharing a buttered roll. There’s a noise, like a mad hornet. The revving of an engine. Startled, we look down the street and see Matt’s remaining car speed by on the cross-street, people flinging themselves hastily out of its way. Not far on its heels is the pickup truck that followed us back to the Outpost that night. Something clicks in me. Fear. I grab Oscar by the arm. My voice comes out in a whisper. “Come on.”

We start walking. He jogs to keep up with me. “Where are we going,” he asks. “What’s going on?”

There are three gunshots in the distance. A Sentry keeping watch at the side of the road turns toward the sound and takes off, metal arms and legs flashing silver as they catch the sunlight. We’re running now, the opposite way. There are more gunshots.

“I don’t know,” I pant. “Somewhere safe.”

Only, nowhere is really safe. I don’t know what’s happening, but I can’t take any chances with Oscar. We can’t go home. I can’t send him home. We can’t go to the warehouse, either. So we run toward the edge of town and take refuge in an alleyway, hunkered down on one side of a large trash bin. We sink against the wall, catching our breath. It’s a long time before either of us speaks.

“What do you think is happening?” Oscar whispers.

I shake my head. “Dunno.” I’m trying to sort that out in my mind, playing out possible scenarios. The worst one involves Jonas, and by association, me and Oscar. If Matt has discovered his operation, we may as well all be dead. I have to hold myself back from cursing. How could I have been so stupid to not see this coming? Or didn’t I? Didn’t I just let it happen anyway? I glance at Oscar, wanting to tell him something reassuring. He speaks before I can.

“You think Matt figured out what Jonas is doing,” he says, simply. He stares into space for a moment, then shakes his head. “There are lots of other things it could be.”

I snuff air through my nose. He’s right. But that doesn’t make this any less frightening. I put my arm around his shoulders, pull him close. I search my brain for an answer, a way to know. The silence stretches through long moments. Whatever excitement has occurred, it seems to be over with, now. There are no more gunshots. No sign that anything is wrong. Still, we wait a couple of hours before I cautiously move from our hiding place, telling Oscar to remain where he is until I come back for him.

Now, as I sneak through the back streets, trying not to be seen, I start to think about Jonas. About all my friends, but mostly, about Jonas. My mind fixes on the idea that one of the gunshots I heard was meant for him. I distinctly feel the sensation of his life being pulled away from mine. Of the infinite separation between us. The unbridgeable gap between living and dead. He’s fading. Maybe already gone. Maybe I’m too late, and I will never look into his eyes again. I’m shaking, nauseous. A weight pulls down over my face, making my breathing difficult. I stumble through the last alleyway, tears spilling freely, so certain of what I’m going to find. I know, deep inside me, that he’s gone. I know it in a way that I could never feel if he wasn’t.

I make it to the warehouse, where the door is unguarded. I press it open and step into the blackness within.

He turns, and looks at me, breaking off a conversation to do so. His eyes, registering my tears, scan over me. “Are you hurt,” he asks, stepping quickly toward me.

I shake my head. My arms are around him, and his around me. I’m sobbing. All-out sobbing. “I thought you— I thought—” I can’t bear to say the rest.

His arms squeeze tighter, pressing me against his chest. “Shhh,” he says softly. “It’s OK. Everyone is OK.”

I lean into him, amazed and grateful that he’s alive. Disbelieving, almost, that he is. I was sure. So sure. How could I have felt it so sharply? Even now, with my arms around him, I feel as though I’ve lost him. The pain is stabbing, and fresh, and incredibly real. I’ve lost him, and I’m empty without him, and nothing will ever be OK.

He pulls me tighter, and tighter, like he knows what I’m feeling; like he can protect me from this nightmare with his arms alone. His face presses into my hair. “It’s OK,” he whispers, again and again. “I’ve got you, now.”

I cry myself out in his arms. In the end, the emptiness is emptied. I’m hollow and whole at the same time. Whatever had overtaken me has run its course, and left me in wonderment that it existed. I’ve been watching someone else’s pain. We look at each other, from a small distance apart, our eyes meeting as if for the first time. I don’t want to lose the tender intimacy that has been kindled in this moment, but suddenly, I’m thinking of Oscar, huddling in an alley.

Jonas sees the change on my face. He closes his eyes. “Oscar,” he says softly. “Where is he?”

“I have to go get him.” I start to pull away, but his fingers tighten on my forearms.

“I’ll go,” he says. “You go home. Get some rest.”

I want to argue— want to go and get Oscar myself— but there’s something in his wanting to go for me, something that affirms these past moments of closeness. This is the hallowed ground of our relationship. I step quietly, carefully. Jonas is waiting for my reply, so I look into his green eyes and decide to trust him with Oscar. I tell Jonas exactly where Oscar is hiding, to see him home safely, to avoid going back the way near May Deth’s. He squeezes my shoulders again reassuringly, cutting me off. “I know, Eden,” he says. A smile is tugging at the corners of his mouth as he releases me and moves toward the door. “I know.”

A moment later, I’m walking home feeling strangely light. Maybe it’s relief making me giddy with its coming. Or maybe it’s something else. Something naive, and human, and faltering in an endearing sort of way. There’s been no time to feel such things, and indeed they seem foolish in the vast tangle of difficulties we’ve been facing. For a brief second, they glitter golden in my mind’s eye. Then I come onto the main road, near the Rustler, and freeze. My eyes take in the vacant street. Foolishness does not describe what I feel. I’m chasing daydreams, and the pavement before me is a small red lake— the last daydreams of how many, drained into a congealing crimson pool of loss.

***

Apollon says, again, “No, it’s nothing. You don’t want to know.” He rakes his fingers through his tousled blonde hair. “War, Eden. It’s war.”

Neveah and I look at each other, then at him. It’s the three of us. Miranda’s still not home. Apollon is only here to check on us. All I’ve been able to get out of him is that the tragedy I saw was a retaliation for something else that happened outside the wall. No one I know was involved. At least, not involved in the dying part.

I close my eyes and sigh, giving up. Miranda might know what happened. She’ll tell us. “Fine,” I say to Apollon. “Just… be safe out there.”

He gives me a one-armed hug as he leaves.

Neveah and I sit in silence and wait for Miranda. I’m more comfortable when we’re communicating on the same level. We trade sighs, and understanding looks, and nervous glances as the evening pushes onward. I’m just about to get my jacket and go looking, when Miranda finally comes home.

She steps inside quietly, her eyes vacant, and takes off her jacket. Blinking a few times, she walks slowly to the couch and slumps down next to Neveah. Neveah’s arm goes delicately around her shoulders. Miranda leans against her. For an even longer time, we’re all silent.

At some point, Miranda sits up straighter, frowning. “I forgot to make dinner,” she says. She rises, takes the two steps to the kitchen, places our daily bread on our plates, and serves it up. We finish dinner in about twenty seconds, then turn out the lamps and go to bed. Tonight, it’s Miranda that wakes with nightmares. I’m too busy lying awake to bother with them myself. So I comfort her as best I can. Neveah and I wrap our arms over her and try to hold back her terror as she sleeps.

***

Small islands of snow dot the pavement here and there, but mostly, everything is melted, trickling tiny silver streams across the concrete until they find a place to sink in. The air is brisk, but the sun is beaming proudly down on us, like we have done something to deserve its affection. Oscar and I walk together across the marketplace. He’s grinning, chattering. Nothing seems to touch him. Sometimes I think maybe he’s not really part of this grim world.

“Look,” he says. He has his slingshot, poised perfectly, pouch pulled back and ready to release. His rock goes flying, creating a den in one of the islands of snow. He snuffs air through his nose impatiently. “I was hoping it would explode.”

“Too wet,” I say, as we go to retrieve his rock. “But good aim.”

He grins up at me as he scoops the rock out of the snow. “Bet I can do it again.”

I smile and laugh. “I’m not betting against you.”

He does do it again. He’s been practicing. He hits two, and then three more islands, perfectly. As I watch him skip away to get his rock, I’m feeling the smile start to build inside.

“Hey,” comes Jonas’ voice from behind me.

I turn to watch his approach, the way he walks, the way his shoulders form a perfect line beneath his hoodie. He stops in front of me, hands in pockets, and says nothing. After a moment, his eyes flicker behind me, to Oscar, who’s running back to us.

Oscar wraps his arms around Jonas for a sincere, but very brief hug, before he turns and aims again. “Check this out,” he says. He’s already running to retrieve his rock.

“Awesome,” Jonas says, when Oscar comes skipping back. “You’re going to be deadly with that thing. Like… what’s that old story?” He glances around before saying it, and his voice is a bit lower. “David and Goliath?”

Oscar just laughs and aims again.

Jonas turns back to me.

We look at each other. I want to say something, but I’m afraid to. I want him to say something, but I’m afraid he’ll say what he’d say any other day. Inside, my emotions have whipped themselves into an emulsion of confusion— parts hope, and embarrassment, and longing, and joy, and grief, and anger with myself. I’m over the edge, I think. Grasping at things that aren’t there. I should turn my thoughts back. But I don’t want to. Even if I’m being stupid, I don’t want to.

Oscar’s next target is further away. We start strolling to keep up with him. Someone has to talk, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be Jonas, so I manage, in a casual voice, “It almost feels like a normal day.”

He glances at me as we walk. “Nothing’s normal anymore.”

Now I glance at him. “Seems like she’s got it in for us.”

Puzzlement crosses his face as he squints at me.

“Fate,” I say.

A flicker of a smile plays across his lips. “Good ol’ Fate.”

We follow Oscar’s erratic path in silence. After a while, I find myself saying aloud, even though they’re really private thoughts, “We’re not going to make it much longer. It doesn’t matter what we do. Everything is leading toward an ending.”

His glance this time is quickly followed by a solid look that sticks to my face, connects through my eyes, and forms a channel between us. His fingers graze my upper arm lightly. Even through the leather of my jacket, his touch raises goose bumps on my skin. “What if it is,” he says, but his voice is not filled with the appropriate doom. Instead, there’s something urgent, even hopeful in the way he says it.

I open my mouth to answer, but I’m just looking at him, wondering what he’s getting at. His fingers close around my arm and pull me to a stop. We stand facing each other in the middle of the marketplace.

“If this is all there is,” he says, “then why are we wasting it?”

I blink. His gaze is intense, his body leaning in. His eyes scan and scan my face, like they can pull an answer out of me. Only, I’m not sure what the answer is. Part of me interprets what he’s saying, and another part laughs at the interpretation. I’m not right. I can’t be right. I simply don’t understand. “Uh…?” I say, stupidly. I can feel myself going red.

“Uh…” he says, the corners of his mouth twitching with a suppressed smile. He’s making fun of me. I feel my body tense, ready to withdraw, but before I can, he touches my cheek with just his fingertips. No one has ever touched me so carefully, with so much tenderness. His eyes, half-lidded, gaze down into my own. The trace of smile is completely gone. He’s all seriousness.

Not far away, I hear Oscar laughing as he hits his latest target. Jonas and I look sideways, watching him run for his rock. Jonas drops his hand. We turn and start walking again, throwing fleeting glances at each other as we go. My face is still flushed, hot against the morning chill, but it feels good, like the smooth burn of whiskey. My head is drunk and spinning, too. We walk on like this, watching Oscar, sometimes laughing at his glee. We share the morning’s joy without words. With just eye contact, and smiles, and something else, intangible, that flows in rushing currents between us.

We’re at the edge of the market when Jonas says, very softly, “There’s something I have to tell you.”

There’s a weightiness in his voice that makes me look at him, half-startled. He glances at Oscar, then pulls me to a stop. We’re at the corner of an intersection, not far from a Sentry’s post, but it doesn’t seem to bother Jonas, and I’m too curious to worry about it. We stand against the side wall of a building, facing each other, our opposite shoulders leaning into the wall. My eyes move over his face, but I find no answers there. Only a look that I’ve never seen on him before, at once serious and vulnerable and hesitant.

I can’t quite bring myself to ask the question, but I see he’s working up to the answer, anyway. My heart races, afraid of what he’ll say. My mind, trying to keep up with my heart, runs through all sorts of scenarios of things gone wrong. Things that could send this moment crashing down on me like a collapsing building.

He smiles, just a little. Enough to soothe me. I take a deep breath, and wait for him to speak.

“She doesn’t have it in for us,” he says, quietly, like he’s telling me a secret.

My eyes dart back and forth across his face.

“Fate,” he whispers. His smile is soft, tentative, and warm as can be. While I’m still puzzling over his words, he draws his hood up over his face. I shiver. He moves closer, both of us turning so that I’m more against the wall than he is. He places his palms against the brick on either side of me, leaning close. “Lily,” he says softly. “It’s your name. Lily.”

My whole body reacts to the sound of it— electric shivers through my spine, the tightening of my stomach and ribcage, the sense that my brain and heart have had the ground yanked from under them and they’re falling. The flower peddlers are long gone, but I’m hearing their song, feeling that mix of too-intense emotions, and knowing, now, that it has nothing to do with death, or flowers, or anything but me. I remember Jonas humming that tune, and everything intensifies to the point of dizziness. Trembling, wide-eyed, I stare up at him, wanting to ask him a million questions. But he already knows I want to ask them. In that secret world we have created between us, he does his best to answer them. He raises his hands to his mouth, pulls down his lower lip, and waits.

The ‘L’s are inked backward, but the other letters are symmetrical, and require no reversing. “YLIL”. Lily.

My world changes faster than my brain can keep up with. There are so many things to make sense of, and they all come at me randomly, in glimpses. It may take me years to truly process it all. Jonas has this name printed on his lip, and it seems to belong to me. I have one on mine. Jason. Jason, Jonas. Jonas, Jason. I stare and stare at him. He’s looking at me with barely restrained hope, and suddenly I remember the feeling of losing him. How real it was. Because it was real. Tears start to well up in my eyes, but then, he leans in, and our noses touch, and we’re breathing each other’s breath. I am in the eye of the storm. Everything has gone calm, and haunting, and quiet.

“Aw, seriously?” It’s Oscar’s voice, suitably scandalized.

We pull away from each other quickly, though not entirely.

“Can’t you do that later?” Oscar says, and takes another shot at a pile of snow, and runs away.

Jonas and I, watching him go, giggle like children. His face, close to me, is pink from the cold and laughter, his eyes slits, his cheeks smooth mounds at the end of a broad smile. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. I glance at the intersection, at Oscar, who is digging in the snow. A young boy rushes by and bumps into a woman who is carrying recyclables in a basket. They spill and scatter in the street. Oscar abandons his rock and rushes to help pick her items up.

“He’s doing OK,” Jonas says, echoing my thoughts. Joy is beaming inside me. For as bad as the world has gotten, Jonas is right. Maybe Fate doesn’t have it in for us after all.

He turns his green eyes back to me, and the smile, like the world, falls away. He leans closer to me, and our noses touch again. The air from his mouth is like pure oxygen. I want to breathe more of it. I want to breathe him in. His smooth, warm lips ease over mine, and I’m reeling, lost in every sensation. The pressure. The slow slipping of our mouths together. His palms sliding over my waist to the small of my back. Shrieking. “Thief! Thief! Thief!” We pull away from each other, eyes widening.

Oscar, with a piece of cardboard in his hand, looks up at the woman with dawning horror. The Sentry’s mirrored black visage glints in the sun as it pivots toward him. I scream his name, lunging from too far away.

Jonas catches me in his arms. I twist and claw my way free. I have to get to Oscar. Every movement feels like pushing through water. Reaching for him. I’m so slow, and the Sentry is so fast. It will take him from me. Take everything. I move forward. Jonas’ arms around my waist hold me back.

“Oscar!” I shriek, but it comes out a sob. Tears gush from my eyes. My fingernails tear into Jonas’ arms, but he won’t release me.

Oscar’s eyes dart toward me. He doesn’t try to run. He knows. His face is grey with terror, but he finds my gaze. His little mouth forms the words silently. I love you.

I sob the words back. My heart screams them. A thousand times. As if expressing the truth and depth of the emotion could somehow make this stop. As if the Sentry would see that it simply cannot take him. It cannot leave us, who have so little, with nothing.

My soul is tearing to shreds trying to go with him . But I can’t go with him. I can’t protect him. He will be lost, and alone, and he will not remember how I loved him so much.

The Sentry looms over him, the bringer of suffering. Defiler of the innocent. Thief of joy. There is no malice in its blank face. Only apathy. Below it, Oscar’s brown eyes are still locked with mine.

“Let go!” My voice is hoarse, shredded. My feet slide on fragments of concrete. “Please. Please. Please!” Jonas does not let go.

It strikes. Its metal claw closes over Oscar’s face and jerks him upward. His body goes limp, hanging. It turns, and moves away. Oscar’s little legs and feet dangle limply from under the monster’s arm. Every step carries him further out of my life. Every step is a divide that can never be crossed.

I’m hanging over Jonas’ arms, reaching for the little boy who has slipped beyond my grasp. I can’t see the world through my tears. Instead, I see Oscar’s face. The first time he smiled at me— how it melted me. How it made me want to be part of this family. All the silly, toothy grins. His face scrunched up, concentrating on his slingshot. The whispered secrets. Buckets. Our hands, clasped together. I love you.

Jonas’ reigns me in, pulling me close to him. “No, Eden,” he whispers, holding on to me fiercely. “He’s gone.”

I blink the tears away to find him. My Oscar. But Jonas is right. He’s gone.

“Oscar!” His name pours out of my heart, my lungs. I can’t see him. “Bring him back, you soulless piece of crap!” I shriek. People in the street move away from us. “Bring him back or I’ll—”

Jonas’ hand muffles the rest of my words. “Shhh,” he insists, squeezing me to him. “You can’t. They’ll take you, too.”

I don’t care. I shake my head to free my mouth of his hand.

“It’s too late,” he says. “I’m sorry. He’s gone.”

No.

No, I want to say, but the words are gone, too. There is only a noise building inside me. A noise unlike any noise I have ever made before. It comes up my throat, growing, feeding itself. Every cry or scream or shriek I have ever made before pales in comparison. This noise is its own thing. Raw grief unleashed.

I fall backward into Jonas’ arms. He half catches me, lowering us to the ground. He holds onto me desperately, whispering my name, rocking me, trying, somehow, to comfort me. But there is no comfort. Oscar is gone.

There will never be comfort.

I sit in the dirt, my head thrown back to the sky. My wail runs down the streets of the Outpost, searching for a boy who has already been erased.

[*

Chapter 25: Frostbite*]

I SPEND THREE days in bed. For three days, I recall every detail of what happened. I think of all the things I could have done to stop it. All the things I might have done differently. All the choices I made that led to Oscar’s being taken away from me forever. I berate myself for every wrong choice. I hate myself. I hate Jonas. When that pain is not enough, I imagine Oscar, alone and frightened, in a box. Thinking he’s dying. Not knowing who he is. I imagine him waking up in a world that hates him. I imagine all the horrifying, unthinkable things that could happen to him. They’re all my fault. I didn’t love him enough to keep him safe. I failed him in the most terrible of ways. All this thinking and imagining eats away at me, and finally, near the end of the three days, I slip from consciousness with only the image of Oscar in my mind.

When I wake, only Neveah is with me. I could have been asleep for a few hours, or a few days. Whatever has hold of my head is squeezing with exactly enough pressure to cause immense pain without actually crushing my skull. Neveah, having sensed me stirring, is already taking warm water from the top of the stove and sprinkling a packet of herbs into it. She swishes it around with her finger, then brings it to me, presses it into my hands. I gulp the whole thing without asking, hand the pan back to her, grab my jacket, and head out the door.

The streets are filled with slush. Clearly, there’s been more snow, but its purity cannot stand up to the grey footprints of our souls. I slip through the muck and mud, not knowing where I’m going. Not caring. Everything has changed. There is no beauty in this world. No point to it. So I wander, and wander, and my own grey footprints only add to the mess. Everything I see reminds me of Oscar. So I stop seeing. I just stop. And I walk without seeing anything at all.

Sometimes, I’m back at our house, and people are trying to get me to eat things, or drink things, or change out of my wet socks. Sometimes, I’m sitting in near-darkness in alleyways or on street corners. Sometimes I’m walking those winding paths, in daylight or moonlight. Here. There. My awareness skips from one place to another with no logical progression between them. I’m a mangled book, pages torn out and stuck back in the wrong order. Sometimes backward. Upside down. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter that sometimes the sometimes is me staring up at a Sentry. I feel no fear, standing there under its looming iron presence. Only deep, deep hatred. But Sentries do not feel emotions. My hating them cannot hurt them at all.

The days, like autumn leaves, fall away, and around me I see everything slowly dying. I shun the comfort my friends try to give me. I shun Jonas, and his apologies, and his empty words about how strong Oscar is; how capable of survival. He asks if I’m angry with him, and I say no. I don’t want to argue. It’s just easier to stay away. He’s so busy with his little army that he doesn’t have time to figure out I’m lying. It works for both of us this way. Simpler. Less heart-breaking. But being away is heart-breaking. I am angry, but I’m angrier that he doesn’t try harder. I want to be alone, but I’m lonely. So I walk, and fight off the recurring nightmares on my own, and then walk some more. Everything is building inside me, seething. I feel abandoned. Forgotten. Erased.

One day, I’m walking down the main street near the Rustler, and ahead, by the door, I see Matt slip inside. It makes me laugh. Even Matt. But as I draw nearer, he comes back out. His steps are slow, hesitant, as he walks to the edge of the sidewalk, meeting my gaze. He says nothing— just glances briefly down at the object in his hands.

My eyes fall on it and linger. I swallow against the swell of emotion inside me. I want to run away. He holds it out. Before I know it, I’m reaching for it. My fingers graze the band and close around the cold metal where it forks. I turn it over in my hands. Oscar’s slingshot. Matt says nothing. I’m so grateful that he says nothing. Suddenly, I’m clinging to him, and tears are spilling onto his shirt, and his arms are tight around me, squeezing out the grief.

He takes me inside, out of the cold, and sits me on a stool next to Miranda, who has ingratiated herself to him in a very short time. Arthur Adner sets a glass of whiskey in front of me. It takes no coaxing. Unlike food, this goes down quickly and smoothly. I have several before Miranda tries to slow me down. I don’t really care. I just sit there and clutch Oscar’s slingshot— the tiny piece of him the Sentries did not take away.

This becomes my place, my perch, my habitat, as more days slip by. I’m here often, but I’m separate from it. My world has been severed from everyone else’s and there’s no reattaching it. I’m entirely peripheral. Things happen around me. The story of our lives is a river that parts around a rock. I am the rock. They still try to comfort me, to coax me to eat, but I am more stubborn than they are patient. And just like Jonas, Matt is busy with war preparations.

I ignore the long discussions about strategy— aware that once I would have listened eagerly. The names that are mentioned, the details of weaponry, none of it matters now. I have nothing to protect. Even, sometimes, when people are dragged in, threatened, beaten, I only feel like I should feel sad. But I don’t. I feel nothing at all.

This nothing stretches on. The span is too long. My mind comes to know this, but I can’t seem to fix it. Even trying to think about Oscar just makes me tired, like I can’t quite get the energy to remember. It’s like being dead, but still moving. Surely someone has made a mistake and they just haven’t noticed yet that I’m dead. After a while, I really start to wonder. I haven’t eaten in days. I haunt the Rustler, lingering in the background, speaking to no one. It’s too crazy to be true, so it must not be. But then, why am I like this?

I walk barefoot in the snow because I want to feel something. Cold. Pain. Numb. I’m experiencing frostbite of the soul. Pieces of my being are shriveling and falling off. Of course, walking inevitably leads to the Sentries. I face off against one of the monsters again. Its black face turns to me, anticipating. The aether-fumed air around us is charged with what will happen next. But is it real? I wake in the middle of the night, and it was a dream. But it wasn’t, before. And it isn’t the next day. Or is it? How are we really supposed to tell the difference?

When I finally do feel the return of emotion, it is sheer hatred. Not the internalized, seething kind, but hatred that is focused and motivated. I’m sitting outside the Rustler, looking down the street at the Sentry that guards the intersection. My fingers curl, nails slicing the soft flesh of my palms. The rage moves, electric, surging through my body, demanding to be conducted through brute force into the metal construction that is supposed to protect us. Miranda’s hand on my shoulder stops me from acting. “Come inside,” she says, wrapping her arms about herself as she looks down on me. “It’s too cold out here.” She shivers, for effect.

I quell my rage, but take it with me, glancing back toward the Sentry as we move inside.

As I sit, evening moves into darkness. Pieces start to come together in my mind for the first time. My dreams. The Sentries. Oscar. And Jonas. The little bits of my brain that were intact when I woke up from erasure. The white tower. Needing to run. As my mind touches the idea, I feel the need again, like thinking about it has given it control over me. I’m pummeled by a wave of desperation. I need to act. Yet I’m still trapped in this little world where I cannot. There’s no way out of the Outpost without being caught. Winter is closing in on us. Outside, Grey’s men are probably looming. If only I knew why all these things are in my head. If only I could somehow reach in and take them out. I’m sitting here thinking this over and over, when it hits me. I turn and glance around the Rustler, looking for Miranda. She’s standing by one of the tables, talking to a group of Matt’s men. I strain my ears and catch a few technical words. The men are nodding, deferring to her expertise. One of them is jotting down some notes on a scrap of yellow paper. Another one leans closer to Miranda, laughing, saying something in a low voice. She smiles slowly back at him, meeting his gaze.

I sigh, and lean back against the bar. While I wait, I formulate plans in my mind.

***

Holding my breath, I walk the length of tunnel behind Miranda’s bobbing lantern. Fractured shards of flame and shadow play on the wall. I try to focus on the movement instead of on where I am.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Miranda whispers. “I mean, aside from the fact that if Matt finds out…” She trails off, turning to peer at me over her shoulder. “Are you OK?”

I take a deep gulp of air. It tastes like cold earth. Like a grave. I swallow and nod, though inside I’m already screaming. “Just go,” I growl. Miranda scowls as she turns back to where she’s going.

We arrive at a metal doorway set into the end of the corridor. Miranda fiddles with the key in the first lock, but the second turns smoothly. She pushes the door open, sets her lantern down as we come inside, and closes the door quietly behind us.

The room we’ve come into is not large, but it’s enough to alleviate my claustrophobia. A simple square hollowed out of the earth. There’s a second door on the opposite wall, but I really don’t care what’s behind it. We’re here for the VR machine that sits in the middle.

A web of electrodes is worked inside a clear helmet on a swiveling machine arm. Beneath it is a half-reclined chair with heavy nylon straps at the neck, shoulders, lap, ankles, and wrists. The upholstery on the arms, at the very ends, is torn. Clawed. The seat is dressed with concentric stains— whatever body fluids its many victims have ejected in the throes of their distress.

I sit down, trying not to think about the other people who’ve sat in this chair before me. My eyes scan along the machine arm, following its multiple twist of umbilical cords across to the console where Miranda is standing. She’s frowning, but working away, her face lit with the haunting cobalt glow of the aether tank beside her. I can only hope she knows what she’s doing. Her hands move across buttons, and keys, and dials. I watch her face. Her intense eyes. The focused turn of her mouth. The uncertain little twitch of her lower eyelid.

At last, she looks at me. She frowns. “You’re sure?”

I reach for the helmet, swinging it down over my head. “Let’s go.”

Miranda’s frown deepens. She walks across the room and fusses about me, adjusting the way the helmet sits, working a strap across the chin. When she’s satisfied that the electrodes are in place, she tightens a hand-bolt on the swivel. “I wonder if I should strap you in,” she ponders, hand on chin.

I shrug.

“Don’t move,” she snaps. She turns and walks away without strapping me in.

I take a deep breath and try to prepare myself.

“The first part will just feel a little weird,” Miranda says. “The machine synching with your brain or something.”

“Or something?” I mumble.

“Shh.”

I shut up, close my eyes, and consider the fact that if this goes wrong, I might forget my troubles all together.

***

Darkness and light flutter before me, a great black-winged raven flapping wildly in my face. I blink against the vertigo, clamping my eyes shut, then prying them open. There’s a screech in my ears— a high pitched hum that sinks its bit straight into one ear canal, through my brain, and to the other. Louder. Higher. The pressure in my head builds. Blinding light. Whiteness that bleaches my mind free of the stain of reality. Then sudden quiet. The whiteness softens. Blurs. The fuzzy edges bleed with tendrils of color. Floating like seaweed, they reach upward, tangle, weave together.

Oscar is in the grips of the Sentry and I’m trying to beat Jonas off of me. I’m screaming Oscar’s name, twisting away. I catch a flash of his brown eyes, begging for help, but I’m unable to help him. Blocks of myself collapse inward to form a pile of rubble, but still I scream. If I can’t break loose, I will lose everything. I am beyond panic, beyond despair. This is the ultimate crisis. This is the death of the sun. My mouth hangs open as I gape at the Sentry, turning, turning away from me with Oscar in its arms.

Streaks swipe across the image, like someone has clawed it out. It crumbles into a thousand glimmering fragments that fall, then disappear into nothingness. The empty space where they were is a black hole. It widens, growing like it will suck the entire universe in. Soon, it’s so wide that there is nothing else. I look wildly around, realizing I’m alone. Realizing that the blackness of space is six metal walls that are close enough to touch. They move inward, shrinking around me. I flail at them, pressing my hands against the warm metal, but they continue to close in. I’m still screaming. I’ve never stopped screaming.

The invisible claw gashes through the metal easily, and it, too, falls into fragments. I’m spinning in empty darkness. Then I’m falling. Falling out of the sky toward the pavement. Below me, the grey expanse of concrete rushes upward like I am a fly it wants to swat. I tumble and spin. As I do, somewhere against the blue expanse of sky, I see a slash of white. The tower. I clamp my eyes closed and think about it. The tower. The tower.

The pain is dull and stabbing and throbbing and crushing all at the same time. It’s like hitting my thumb with a hammer. Only, my whole body is my thumb. I’m not screaming, now. I’m in too much pain to scream. I lie still. I can’t move. I’m sure that, with pain this intense, I have to be dying. Make it quick, I think. Make it quick. I can’t do this much longer. I wonder what happens when you pass the point where you can handle the pain. Death? Insanity? I feel an earthquake opening inside of me, and I wonder which of these will emerge from the depths of the crack.

My pain dissects itself into stripes, and then fragments. It is gone. I gulp air, amazed at the sweetness of relief. I pull myself up from the pavement, finding myself intact, sit up, and look off into the distance. There it is.

I’m on my feet and running. There are Sentries in the streets. They turn and give chase as I whiz by them. Their metal footsteps pound against the concrete behind me. I run for the door, which I can see now, ahead of me. I run for all I’m worth. When I reach it, I dive straight through it, even though it’s closed. My body sinks through like the door is a plane of water, touching my skin lightly, but allowing me to pass without resistance. Behind me is the crash of metal. The Sentries cannot follow me here.

I’m in a room now— a wide-open space with a wooden floor and beams of sunlight coming in a series of windows along one wall. There are rough columns holding up the ceiling in places, a raised floor at one end, and furniture, like someone lives here. On a table is a pair of broken sungoggles. A sharp stab of pain sinks through me at the sight of them. I think they’re mine. No. They’re someone else’s. A mattress is on the floor, wedged into a corner against the windows and a wall that partitions the space. A book is next to the bed.

I walk to the book and pick it up, turning it over in my hands. The hard cover is bound in blue cloth, the spine exposed, careful stitching holding the pages together. I open it. The handwriting is my own, but the words are indecipherable. Even the letters are a scrawl of alien symbols. As I squint at them, they begin to move, to march around— ants on a page. Rearranging themselves. Looking at them makes me feel dizzy. I wince, blink, look away. My eyes catch a glimpse of city through the wide windows. I’m looking down on it, from high up. Buildings tall and short, pressing together into a mass that falls away to the horizon. Tucked into them is green, deep green, and just there, just at the edge, a sparkling string of silver that makes me stop breathing.

I don’t have time to consider it, because the ant-letters have marched right off my page. They rise into my field of vision. Growing. Joining together. They build themselves into a swarming mass, a writhing nest that flushes to metallic grey. I take a step backward, and it has already become as big as me. But it’s not done growing.

Realizing with horror what it’s becoming, I look around for something— some weapon to fight it with. There is nothing. It’s almost finished. Larger. I can see the shape of the Sentry, but the ants are still wriggling into place. Their bodies have a finality about them that says they will soon solidify. Without waiting, I lunge toward it. It stands more than half a person taller than me, but somehow I reach its chest. I sink my fingers into it, like claws. Like I mean to pull its heart out. The metal creature shrieks and writhes away from me. The ants scatter with a burst of speed, run over my whole body. They sting me. Their bites are black poison, running into me, surging toward my vital organs. Even though I’m in agony, I reach inside myself and watch the poison, the way it moves and pulses, the way it effects each cell of my body. I can see the molecular structure. What it’s doing. How it does it. How it was made.

The unseen claw swipes at my world again, and I’m falling. This time there is no landing. Just dizziness that resolves to a cold day with melting piles of snow spotting the pavement. One of them, near me, has a hole in the middle. My eyes wander over it, then look up, even though they know what they will see.

Oscar’s gaze meets mine as the Sentry moves toward him. I scream his name and lunge for him. The words are on his lips: [_I love you. _]Jonas’ arms hold me back. I thrash, and writhe, but this time I don’t scream. I duck and twist at the same time, and somehow I am free. Somehow I am running toward them. Toward Oscar. Toward the Sentry. Now, I am screaming. A primal scream, filled with interminable fury.

The claw swipes, and everything falls away.

***

“No,” I whisper, as Miranda pulls the helmet from my head. I’m blinking furiously against the onrush of light in my suddenly-functioning eyes. Blurs of color run together, but I can’t make any sense of it. “I’m fine,” I insist, though even the words sound strangled. My whole body is trembling. I’m cold. Exhausted. My head hurts, and the ache is steadily increasing. I consider taking my words back, but I was so close. I can still do this. Why has she pulled me out?

Miranda does not reply. When the colors finally move together to form a picture, I understand. Miranda is frozen, pale and wide-eyed, still at the console. Looming over me, frowning, is Matt. Five other people are behind him in the room. Four of them are his men. The fifth, black-eyed and bloodied, is Donegan.

Matt peers at me, no doubt considering yet again what to do with me. Now would probably be a good time to say something funny, make him laugh, or at least, amuse him. Instead, I look down and away. I’m already thinking about Oscar again. How I was so close to saving him.

Miranda clears her throat, finding her voice. It shakes. “We were just— w— Eden thought maybe we could use it to help her. You know. To forget.”

Matt glances from her to me. His eyes flicker briefly with something before his gaze hardens again. I’m not sure if it’s sympathy or pity. Either will do.

“Get up,” he says.

I move quicker than my body wants to, and end up stumbling into him. He catches me, holds me until I start to pull away, then he lets me slide easily from his grip. I step away from him, brushing my hair out of my face.

“Since you’re here, anyway,” Matt says, studying Miranda, “maybe you’d like to help with this one.” His gaze flicks to Donegan, whose face is draining of blood.

Miranda’s eyes move to her nemesis— hungry, but hesitant. She looks like she’s going to be sick. She swallows, and nods slowly, looking at Matt. “Yeah,” she says, her voice cold. “I would.”

The men strap Donegan into the chair easily despite his struggling. Once they have everything tightened down, he’s motionless, his muscles taut and straining, but ineffective. His eyes are wide and rolling. He grunts and growls as the electrode helmet slides into place.

I watch him from a few steps behind Matt. Maybe I should feel sorry for him, but I’m really just upset he’s chosen this moment to get caught. This moment. I should still be in that chair. I glance at Matt, though I can only see the side of his face. Maybe I can talk him into letting me use the chair when he’s done. I might have to tell him the truth, but I don’t care. I was close. So close to saving Oscar.

In my mind, I am running. A few more steps. Just a few more steps. I replay this moment for an eternity, standing there, not seeing anything. So close. I can convince Matt. I have to. I lean forward to try to see his face, but shadows fall across it, hiding his expression.

Donegan is writhing within his restraints, slobber slipping down his chin onto his shirt. He’s slick with sweat, face contorted. The sight is sickening, but not enough to put me off the chair. I move my eyes to Miranda, whose face is turned downward, focused, intense, anticipatory. She moves her arm, and Donegan stops writhing, slumps against his bonds.

“Shall we try this again?” asks Matt quietly. “Names. Who are you working with?”

My world slams to a halt, leaving me spinning. I manage not to fall over; choke off the noise of protest while it’s still building in my throat.

Donegan gurgles, spittle and blood emerging from his mouth. He coughs, and sputters.

Matt waits.

When Donegan has finally stopped choking, his face scrunches into an expression of despair. “No,” he whines, though it’s more a plea. “No, no, no.”

Matt’s face hardens. He glances at Miranda.

I can’t breathe. Donegan is about to break. She’s about to break him. A vicious delight shades her eyes as they dart across her control panel, deciding how to hurt him, how much force to use. She doesn’t realize what she’s about to do. And I have no way to stop her.

I slip quietly toward the door, move into the darkness of the corridor. The black cell of the tunnel sends panic shooting straight through me, but I keep moving. The fear that rises within me now is a different one, even more potent. It is water filling the hold of a sinking ship. It is the last thing in this world that matters to me, slipping beyond reach.

[*

Chapter 26: All the Pretty Little Horses*]

I TEAR THROUGH the streets, dodging people, jumping obstacles, skidding around corners with my feet sliding in the slush. Sometimes, I glance behind me, but see no sign that anyone has followed. It doesn’t matter, because they’ll know where to go soon enough. I have to get there before them. Have to give Jonas a moment to escape. Even as I run, I try to think where we can go to hide. But no one hides from Matt. Not for long. We’ll have to keep moving, keep changing places. Even so, the odds are not in our favor.

I hurtle into the alleyway, making the guard at the door bolt to his feet, rags swaying. His eyes scan me. “They’re coming,” I wring out of myself in ragged breaths. I throw myself through the door into the warehouse.

Inside, everything is dark, lit only by bleak sunlight that filters through the dirt-fogged windows. I see Jonas right away, standing in one of the only pools of light. He’s talking to a man I don’t know, while others at a table are pouring over a map. They all look at me.

“They’re coming,” I say again, though I’m gasping for breath. “Matt.”

Everyone moves at once. I expect them to scatter like cockroaches in the light. Instead, their movements have a practiced calmness. They move quickly, but not in panic. They’re not abandoning their current location. They’re heading somewhere else.

Jonas strides toward me, his face fixed in a dark look. “Tell me.”

I suck in air and rattle out the general gist of what I know. “We have to get out of here,” I finish breathlessly. “We have to find a place to hide.”

Jonas shrugs away from me, and only then do I realize my fingers are clawing at his upper arm. He looks toward the door, his face set in that even, unreadable expression. “Stay here,” he says, and without looking at me, he walks toward the door.

A gust of cold wind whooshes in as he goes out. The door bangs shut behind him.

Fear seizes hold, freezing me in place. I blink, and try to breathe. An instant later, my feet mobilize, and I’m running after him.

He glances back when he hears my footsteps, flying down the alley behind him. “I told you to stay there,” he says as I fall in beside him. “This is—”

The revving roar of the angry engine rises on the cold air, speeds closer. Wheels screech around a corner. It’s upon us. The car skids to a halt at the end of the alley in front of us, rear engine steaming. The truck blocks the alley opening behind us. We’re trapped in this tunnel between them. But Jonas just keeps walking forward, so I go with him.

The car doors open. Matt, and three of his men, climb out and form up in front of us. The three have their hands on their guns, though none of them have drawn yet. I hear footsteps on the pavement far behind us. There are at least six of them there. And more on their way, for sure.

Matt squints at us. The way he holds his shoulders, the tightness in his jaw, the way he almost starts pacing— he’s fuming, livid. When he begins to speak, I expect him to address Jonas, but he doesn’t. He levels one finger at me. “I’m done with you, Eden,” he says, his voice pained and thick with anger. “I gave you every chance, and you do this to me?”

When I ran here, I knew Matt would want to kill me for it. I expected his wrath, falling from the sky like fire. I expected guns and knives and explosions. My death, probably. But the personal accusation— somehow I missed that in my scenario. And I missed the fact that it would actually make me feel guilty. I look at him, unable to speak. Unable to defend myself. Because Matt has given me every chance. He took in Oscar and fed him, when I couldn’t. He tried to keep me from starving, too. I’ve never given anything back to him, and it looks like I never will.

“She’s not actually part of it,” Jonas says, somehow managing to make his voice completely level and calm. “I’m the one you came here for.”

Matt has his gun drawn and aimed at Jonas’ head in an instant.

Jonas stares back at him steadily. “Not your best idea.”

I glance between the two of them. Matt’s grimace. Jonas’ intense gaze. All I have is my knife. Can I manage to draw and throw it before Matt can kill Jonas? Or should I create a diversion so Jonas can run? Would he? Would he leave me?

“Don’t worry,” Matt says. “You’re going to live at least a few hours more, until you tell me everything you know about Grey. Her, on the other hand…” His gun swings toward me.

There is a click. Lots of them, actually. Matt freezes. Only his eyes move upward, to the roofline.

My eyes follow his, darting up. Standing along the roof, looking down on us, are dozens of armed men. I turn to the other side of the alley, and there are more. Across and behind Matt, still more are silhouetted against the sky like posts in a fence. All their guns are trained on him.

Matt thrusts his gun toward me, but looks at Jonas. “You want to keep her alive,” he says, smiling. “Now don’t you.”

Jonas doesn’t even glance at me. He’s still deadly calm, staring at Matt. “It’s the only way you make it out of here.”

Matt’s eyes narrow, but he backs away, toward the car. In a moment, the doors have slammed shut and the vehicle screeches away down the street. I close my eyes, and breathe.

Jonas’ hand on my arm makes me jump. “Come on,” he says softly, leading me back toward the door. I go with him, but I’m staring at him as we go, wondering who the hell he has become.

We barely reach the door when Apollon comes barreling down from the other end of the alley. “I missed the excitement, huh,” he pants. “Anything good?”

Jonas just shakes his head, guiding me through the door.

Inside, we sit at the table. Some of the others sit with us. I’m starting to recognize their faces, but I don’t know their names. One of them, a redheaded, bearded man with light, light blue eyes, seems to be in charge of security. There are two shaggy-headed, brown-haired men that I can’t seem to keep straight. They’re constantly leaving and coming back, so I never exactly get which one is which. There’s a blonde boy, too, who seems to have a lot of information. At least, I think it’s a boy. But then, after a while, the mannerisms give her away. She might be able to pull it off on the streets, but she’s too feminine to make the disguise work in close company. There’s something oddly familiar about her, too. Finally, I place her. She’s Sumter’s daughter.

I sit amongst the whirlwind of conversation, missing most of it. I’m just watching Jonas, the way everyone defers to him, answering his questions promptly, nodding as he speaks. I’m counting in my head how many men were on the roof, and replaying Matt’s retreat. My body is still shaking, after-effects of the adrenaline, or maybe the VR machine. Soon, my eyelids are heavy, but I can’t give in to the tiredness. We’ll need to move, before long. We’ll need to run.

I’m staring at the floor when the conversation wraps up. People move away from the table, but I stay, frozen in a haze. I tell myself to get up, but it doesn’t happen. I’m pondering whether my muscles are really not listening to my brain, or whether I just don’t want to, when warmth caresses my back and shoulders. Jonas wraps the blanket around my neck and holds it there for just a moment.

I turn my face to the side, though I still can’t see him. “Thanks.” My voice is gruff, a mere whisper.

He leaves the blanket in my hands, and starts to turn away. “We’ll leave as soon as—”

The door opens, and two men walk in, escorting Neveah. Now, I’m out of the chair, running for her, wrapping my arms and my blanket around her. I hold onto her, and try to stop the tears from leaking out of my eyes. How could I have forgotten her?

“OK,” Jonas says, “let’s go.” He ushers us down a hall and into another room, where Apollon is with a group of men, a bundle of packs at their feet. There’s a second door here, that opens into a side street.

As Neveah and I step through it, she squeezes my hand and gives me a questioning look. It takes me a second to understand.

I look at Jonas and Apollon, following closely behind us. “Miranda,” I whisper, as we move into the darkness of the alley. “What about Miranda?”

Jonas presses his hand into my back to urge me forward. “Keep going, Eden,” he whispers. It’s the only answer I get.

***

We move from safe house to safe house, never sleeping in the same place twice. Always, there are others with us. Guarding us. Bringing and sending information. Carrying out orders. I watch this strange, surreal universe from a distance that is created inside myself. It melts and sways and swirls in unexpected patterns. Hypnotic. Moving around me. But still, I feel like I am not part of it.

Jonas sits with me sometimes, and tries to talk to me, but I have nothing to give him. Nothing that he wants. I’m not trying to be far away from him. I don’t even feel angry, anymore. But when he says things, I don’t know what to say back. I don’t know how to form something meaningful. Something beyond a sigh, or a nod, or a one-word answer. He keeps trying, even though he’s frustrated, but that only makes it worse. I feel like I’m supposed to say something. Supposed to be different than I am. The pressure of it fixes me in my pit of isolation. I withdraw further, and further, until one day, Jonas stops trying.

I tell myself he’s just busy running his little army. And maybe it’s true. He goes out, and is gone a long time. The following day is the same. Apollon is gone, too, and it makes me wonder why I’m still here. Instead of watching the small slice of world out the window, I slip out, too. I keep to the alleys, mostly, trying not to be seen. But soon, I forget that it matters. The things I see around me make me forget.

Perhaps the Outpost has passed some sort of milestone, or perhaps Fate has simply grown tired of watching us wallow in our misery. Whatever it is, we have moved past the weakness and into the dying. There are bodies lying in an alley— five of them altogether, three of them huddled in a group. I know they’re dead, because snow has fallen on top of them. Cloven pig tracks wander down the alley past them. One of the corpses’ eyes, half-blocked with snow, are open, glazed with crystals of frost. I move past them, unable to look away, wondering how it is they all died together. Was it sickness, brought on by the starvation, or just the complete loss of hope?

Other alleys reveal other horrors. People so sick they just lie still and groan. A chorus of phlegmy coughs from a huddle of small children. A boy, in the fetal position, his distended belly swelling against his curled-up legs. A little girl, maybe four or five years old, wandering by herself, her steps slow and uncertain, her eyes wide but not seeing. I follow her, but she doesn’t notice me. We wander the Outpost, through quiet that used to be bustle. Across the shadows of the Sentries that “protect” us. Past the sick, the dead. Through the sermon alley, where the voice inside proclaims the coming of the horsemen of the Apocalypse. I stumble over something under the snow, and fall to my knees. In the process of climbing up, I uncover a leg. I scramble the rest of the way to upright, breathing hard. Wiping my hands on my pants, I turn to follow the girl, but she’s gone. Her footprints mix into the mush of traffic-smashed snow. I press on, searching, but she’s disappeared. Maybe she was a projection of myself. Or a metaphor for all of us. How easily we all vanish from the face of the earth. One moment, we live. The next, we are erased.

If I did not feel the depths of the thought at first, its blade plunges deep into me when, heading toward the safe house, I walk into an alleyway where a young woman clutches an infant in her arms. The woman is pale with death, frozen, sinking into a snow drift. The child, however, whimpers in her arms, wriggling, rooting. I freeze, terror gripping my throat like a wolf on its prey. There is an eternity in which I’m unable to act. Then, making myself, I move forward. I pry the baby from the mother’s death grip and cuddle it against myself. I breathe warmth on its face, coo soothing words to it as it wriggles fiercely with hope. We slump against the wall, and I melt snow in one hand and dribble drops into the baby’s mouth. It laps the liquid up, briefly, then falls into a deep sleep in my arms. I hold it close, whispering to it, trying to shield it from the cold.

The baby is no more than a few days old, tiny and wrinkled, still. The rag that wraps its bottom is wet, icy, but everything I can salvage is also soaked in snow. I discard the rag entirely, and tuck the little girl into my jacket, zipping it around her, leaving just her face exposed to the air. We walk the Outpost together, looking for something to help her. There has to be milk, somewhere. Another nursing mother, perhaps, who might take her in. Even as I hope for it, my stomach turns over, knowing how unlikely it is that anyone would take on another mouth to feed at a time like this. I think of Matt— of how he might be able to help. But I can’t go to him. Tears pour down my face. How long can I keep her alive? A few days, maybe? I shake my head, refusing the thought. Jonas can help her. Jonas has resources, now. He can help her. I start toward home, hoping he’ll not be away all night, again. “It’s OK,” I whisper to my little passenger. “You’re going to be OK.” I run my hand up and down my jacket, stroking her back. She’s so sound asleep. She doesn’t respond. I gently readjust her, easing her upward, looking down at her face. Her little mouth is open, still. I jostle her. No response. She’s not breathing.

I flop down into the snow, tearing her from my jacket. I lay her on the cold ground. I can’t see her through the tears, but my hands find her torso, shake her gently. Then fiercer. Insistently. Demandingly. Wake up. Wake up. For god sakes, wake up. Her limbs are limp. Dangling. I keep waiting for her to just take one breath.

She doesn’t wake up. She’s like Oscar. Gone.

I lift my face to the sky and let the tears come freely. Why do we even bother? Life is so fleeting, so easily broken. It comes and goes without asking, and in between is an endless struggle against pain. Do our lives change anything? Or do we just live because that’s what we are programmed to do?

I scoop her up and hold onto her until I can no longer stand to. We sit in the snow, rocking. I cry a lullaby. She’s heavy in my arms, like a doll made of lead. Her death is heavy on my soul—another tragedy I couldn’t prevent. I cannot bear her. I need to move on. Dazedly, I consider what to do next. The ground is frozen, denying a grave. I can’t imagine placing her tiny body into a barrel of flames. Instead, I give her the only resting place that seems right. I carry her back to her mother’s arms. Maybe she was never meant to be taken from there. I lay her carefully in the frozen embrace, and cover them both with a piece of black plastic, which is all I can find. I cry my way halfway across the Outpost, until I realize where I’m going. To Jonas’ new base of operations. I probably shouldn’t go there, but I don’t want to be alone, and I can’t handle Neveah’s silence. I want someone to talk to me. To tell me it will be OK.

Jonas is not there, and no one will tell me where he is. They direct me to Apollon, though, who is working in one of the back rooms.

“Hey, Eden,” he says, grinning, as he sees me in the doorway. He’s got a table full of implements, glass, test-tubes, and jars of things that look like they belong in a witch’s pantry.

I wander in, my eyes scanning over the table. “What the hell?”

Apollon raises his eyebrows at me, then picks up one of many vials of foul-colored liquid. He holds it up carefully for my inspection, winks at me. “Apollon,” he says, “god of the plague.”

[*

Chapter 27: No Need*]

I’M RUNNING IN the snow. Running blindly, without direction. There is nowhere to go, but I have to get away from where I am. Away from this desperate, madness-inducing place. Away from what I don’t want to become. Death’s wormy fingers cling to me, threaten to implicate me in the tainted business of our nonchalant self-destruction. I slip and slide on the packed snow and ice, but manage to keep going, completely shutting everything else out but the wind tearing at my face, the cold air taking away what’s left of my breath, the energy pouring outward, into the world, instead of inward, crushing me under its weight.

This is how I end up a target. I’m running. Shouts. Behind me, in front of me. A pack of Matt’s men, closing in. They have guns, but they don’t fire. Their knives are drawn. They will finish me the quieter way, if possible, rather than deal with the Sentries.

I experience a strange detachment from the idea of dying. Does it really matter? It’s just the inevitable finally coming for me. But I’m angry. Angry about so many things, and now, in this moment, I have someone to take it out on. They don’t want the Sentries to be involved. So that’s exactly what I want. I draw my knife and try to bolt past one group, toward the next intersection, where Oscar was taken. Two men block my path. I slash an arm. One of them nicks my face. Our red blood is striking against the silver of our blades, the white of the snow. Behind me, footsteps rapidly approach. I scream at the top of my lungs.

Everyone freezes. I continue shrieking. The footsteps behind me run in the opposite direction, now. The two men in front of me look wide-eyed down the street as the Sentry comes into view, haloed in a shimmer of aether blue, taking quick, thunking strides toward us. They try to run, which is a mistake, because it goes for them first, moving faster than they could possibly evade. Its metal fist slams into their skulls and tosses them into a pile. It turns to me. I wait for it to come. Its dark mirror registers the blood-dripping blade in my hand, confirming my guilt. My mark is scanned next, deciding my punishment. Death. It moves toward me.

Its metal fingers are peculiarly warm, closing around my waist, my ribcage. I struggle for breath as it scoops me toward it, getting ready to strike the final blow. Adrenaline, fear, and despair riot in my head. The buried rage, the smoldering ember of pure hatred, bursts suddenly to full flame, eager to consume the object of its scorn. I slip my blood-wet blade into a thin crevice between the plates of the Sentry’s chest, using it like a pry bar. I jerk the hilt sideways, throwing my weight into it. Metal grinds against metal, a battle between the strength of my blade and the strength of the Sentry’s armor. There is a pop, and the plating flies open. I sink my fingers into the working of silver tubes and wires beneath, moving around them— moving around things that cannot be hurt. Deeper. Searching. I get hold of the crystal, my fingers scrambling to find the hidden release buttons. I activate all three, in the correct order. My fingers tighten on the crystal, and heave. The metal fist aiming for my head stops mid-blow. We creak, and sway, groaning iron and freezing blasts of winter wind. Then, all at once, everything crumples in on itself. We crash toward the snow-packed pavement in a heap of haphazard metal limbs.

I scramble to my feet, staggering, and look down on the corpse of the thing that took Oscar from me. There is no satisfaction in it. My shoulders slump inward. I have undone nothing. There is no victory, when I can’t have him back. I stare, unmoving, until I hear the sound, still far away, but recognizable. Metal. Way off, at the end of the street, another Sentry is coming, called to this one by whatever brotherhood links their empty lives. I run. I’m not sure why, but I do. I know I will not make it far. The distance closes behind me. I tear down the ice-slicked street toward the Rustler, barrel through the door. I shoulder straight through Arthur Adner, who is too busy gaping to protest, and pry open the trap door to the tunnels. I drop into the dark chill and slam the door shut.

Above me, I can hear metal footprints on the floorboards. Everyone is silent. The Sentry walks the span of the place, and goes out the back door. I close my eyes against the pressing pit of darkness, and start counting backward from one hundred, forcing myself to breathe evenly. When I reach zero, I can climb back out. Find my way to the safe house. I am only at ninety-five when I hear chairs scoot against the wood. Footsteps head toward the trap door. Matt.

I bolt into the void, blade in one hand, crystal in the other. I’m running blind, so I shove my knife into its sheathe and drag my hand on the wall until I find a turn. I take it, and the next, and the next, trying to lose any pursuit. When I can run no more, I stop, and try to catch my breath. Where am I in this dreadful maze of tunnels? Is there any way out? But I’ve really lost myself. I feel around in the dark, one hand still gripping the thing I’ve pulled from the Sentry, and find a deep alcove. This part of the tunnels is unfamiliar. I close my eyes and try to fight down the panic, imagining the open air. I’m not closed in. I’m not in the dark. I can see the blue sky, the way the white puffs of clouds are carried by the wind. That’s when I hear footsteps. I cock my head, trying to determine their direction, but the way things echo down here, I can’t tell which way they are coming from. The piece of Sentry bites into my palm as my fists clench tighter. I have to hide it. I have to get rid of it.

My fingers scramble over the wall, find a loose brick in the alcove. I pull it out, put the crystal in its space, and shove the brick back in. I move away, down the passageway, hopefully in the right direction. It turns out that it doesn’t matter. Light appears ahead of me. I turn around. There is a glow from the other way as well. They’re closing in on me. There is no point in fighting, now. I’m done. I’m standing there, arms crossed, as they move in. Fate wants to kill me today, it seems, and who am I to argue with her? But to my surprise, they don’t kill me. They take my weapon, pat me down, bind my arms and shove me roughly through the passageway. We turn left, then right. I try to remember the way we’re going, not that it matters. Not that I’ll be coming back for the crystal. I focus on every turn, how far we’re going. It keeps me from thinking about the closeness of the tunnel. It keeps me from losing it.

At long last, we arrive at a metal door that’s far too familiar. It’s open, waiting. And inside, Matt is waiting, too. Crossed arms, narrowed eyes, smug little smile. “Probably not the best hiding place,” he says. “My tunnels.”

His men shove me forward until I’m standing in front of him, but I say nothing. I can’t blame him for hating me. I claimed to be his friend, then chose to be his enemy. And maybe I made the wrong choice. Or maybe, it doesn’t matter. We’re all as good as dead anyway.

Matt looks toward the chair, his eyes scanning over it, then turns back to me, studying me in the same way. I feel the shiver work its way slowly up my spine.

“Tell me what I want to know, Eden,” he says softly, “and I’ll make it easy for you. You don’t have to suffer.”

I swallow, shake my head. “I don’t know anything about their operation. Jonas was telling you the truth. They’re my friends. I couldn’t let you just—”

His soft laugh cuts me off. He shakes his head. “The Sentry.”

I stare at him, lips parted, not knowing what to say.

He takes a small step toward me, places his hands on my arms. As always, his quietness is chilling. “Tell me what you did,” he says. “Tell me how you killed it.”

I gaze up at him, registering for the first time the wild hunger in his eyes. The Sentries are the only thing in the Outpost that have kept his power in check. Without them, who knows what he could or would do. He could attack Jonas with no fear of interference. He could make his own laws. Enforce them with an unrestrained hand.

“I- I didn’t,” I whisper. “It just fell. It just— It just fell. Maybe it malfunctioned or something.”

His eyelids flicker, but the rest of his face doesn’t change. His fingers press ever-so-slightly into my arms. He looks, again, at the chair. “It’s very effective, you know,” he says. “I’m sure you have some idea of what it’s capable of.”

We stare at it together.

His fingers slip down my arm to the rope that binds my hands. Hooking his fingers around it, his other hand on my back, he guides me across the room— not toward the chair, but toward the second door set in the wall. “Sometimes, though, I find that the real thing is just… well… better.” He pulls the door open. The blood flees my face, my knees buckling. He pushes me into the box.

I shake my head at him, heart racing, eyes wide. Words don’t want to come, but I try desperately to force them up my throat.

He places one finger on my lips to silence me before I can begin. “I’m going to let you think about it,” he says. “You should know, you will tell me. One way or another. So make the right choice.” He kisses my forehead, his breath warm against my skin, then lets his fingers slip off of my cheek, reach for his knife. He slides it along the rope between my wrists, and the fibers spring away from each other one by one. For an instant, while he works, sadness flickers behind his eyes, but then it’s buried, like the dead beneath the snow. The rope falls to the floor. When he looks at me, his voice is laced heavily with regret. “In a perfect world, we would have died together.” He turns away. They leave. The door behind them closes, the lock clicking into place.

I slump against the wall, my head spinning, my legs shaking. I cannot give Matt free reign over the Outpost, unrestricted by the Sentries. Not even if his reign [_is _]about to come to an end. Matt is a wild card, but Grey is evil. When he takes over the Outpost, if there are no Sentries…. I can’t even bring myself to think about it. I take in the darkness around me, the closed-in chamber. Sacrificing myself to madness will do no good. Matt is right. He will make me tell him. There is only one way to keep my secret. I stare wide-eyed across the room, to the machine that is capable of breaking both minds and bodies.

***

My hand shakes violently as I reach for the controls. Most of the settings are meaningless to me. I flip switches randomly until the board lights up. Anything with a dial or a slider, I move all the way to the right. Power hums through the cording, surging into the metal arm. The electrode helmet rattles. I stare at it, and swallow. Am I really going to do this?

There is only one answer. If I don’t, the balance of power will tip enough for Matt to openly attack Jonas. My friends will die. As for me, I’m dead already. Whatever way this goes, Matt intends to kill me. His words, spoken so softly, come back to me. You don’t have to suffer. I walk around the console, and head for the helmet. Just holding it between my fingertips sends a buzz up my arms.

I take a deep breath. This will be quick. It will. There will be nothing to regret. Simply nothing. I can’t help but think of everyone else, though. Of Matt, finding me. My friends. Jonas. I close my eyes for just a moment and think of his green eyes, his scent; think of all the questions we will never answer.

A noise outside the door sets my heart fluttering. So soon? I raise the helmet toward my head, willing my hands to go faster, but they are as slow as drips of cold honey. I’m shaking so intensely now, I almost drop it, but I grip tighter, and raise it above my head. The door opens. I glance toward it, expecting that Matt will be the last thing I ever see before I drop the helmet into place.

“Eden!” Miranda’s eyes are wide. She has a gun in one hand, and she’s pointing it at the guy who was supposed to be guarding the door. We look at each other with wide eyes. Her mouth opens as she sees the helmet, follows the humming lines back toward the console. “God, no!”

I cast it aside and point to the other door. “Put him in there.”

She nods, and Matt’s thug heads for the box, probably thankful that he’s being confined, not killed. He’ll feel differently when Matt gets a hold of him. We lock him in, then run out the other door, closing it behind us. The tunnel is black. Miranda has brought no light. I swallow down my fear. I’m alive. I may yet live to see the open sky once again. Fate is so fickle. She can’t decide what she means to do with me.

We walk slowly but steadily through the darkness. Miranda leads us a different way than I expect. Eventually, we stop walking and climb up some footholds in the wall. We come up in the middle of an alleyway. It’s dark out, and quiet. The sky is a vast expanse above us, a world without endings. I take deep gulps of the snow-sweet air as we replace the metal grate and cover it with debris. We slip off into the shadows.

Convincing Miranda to return with me to the safe house is not easy, but she has nowhere else to go. Eventually she concedes. Apollon and Jonas will have wanted to move on to a new location, but they will wait for me. We trudge through the snow silently, except for the rubbery crunch of our footprints, and slip through a hole in a wooden fence, then in through the back door. It’s an old structure made mostly of warped boards, with gaps in between that let too much wind come in. There’s no light, and no sound but our footsteps. It only takes a moment to realize that no one else is here.

“Where are they?” whispers Miranda.

I shake my head. Did they leave without me? Did they hear what happened? Do they think I’m dead? Or is this place no longer safe? I grab Miranda’s arm and pull her toward the back way. We jog for the fence, and Miranda slips through first.

“Where will we go?” she asks, turning back as I begin to climb through, then she starts suddenly. A hand over her mouth muffles the scream.

“Quiet,” hisses Apollon, his large silhouette looming behind her.

The tension runs out of my body. “Trying to scare us to death,” I whisper as I squeeze on through.

He glances off toward the end of the fence, where there is movement. This time, I start. Then I recognize the smoothness of the gait. Jonas is walking toward us. I have to restrain myself from running to him. I take a deep breath, feeling emotion wash through me. Life. Being alive. And I have felt dead for so long.

“Neveah thought she saw one of Matt’s men outside. We had to move,” Jonas murmurs as he stops in front of us.

I nod, still floating in the high waters of emotion. Maybe it’s the relief of escaping. Of being found. Being with the people who matter to me. Now is definitely not the time, but tears are pressing against the backs of my eyes. My throat is tight.

“You OK?” Jonas asks, placing one hand on my shoulder.

Again, I nod. It’s all I can do, so I nod, and blink, and start moving, even though I’m not sure where we’re going.

It doesn’t matter, because they fall in beside me, and together, we walk the path to our new safe house.

This one is not much more than a shed, but it blocks the wind, and hides us, and that’s really all I can ask for. Neveah is there waiting for us. There are hugs now, to celebrate our reunion. Miranda is welcomed in without chastisement, no questions. She and Neveah sit against the wall together, arm in arm, looking for all the world like a mother and daughter.

It’s a thought I should not have allowed myself right now, because it brings to mind images that are still too fresh, too raw. I choke off a sob, hand flying to my mouth to try to smother the noise, but it’s too late. Jonas and Apollon, on either side of me, turn to look at me. I press my back against the wall and slide down, closing my eyes, holding my breath. They crouch beside me, touching my arms, saying my name. I clamp my eyes against any further tears, shaking my head. I’m so tired of crying all the time.

There’s a long silence. Eventually, I open my eyes, and stare at my lap. My breaths are even now. I will not cry. But they’re still looking at me, studying me.

Jonas turns his face to Miranda. His voice is soft, dark. “What happened?”

Miranda’s eyes widen slightly, then dart between us. She shakes her head ever-so-slightly, her lips parting.

Jonas’ eyes harden as he looks at her. “What happened,” he repeats. His voice demands to be answered.

“I’m fine,” I mutter, hoping it will be enough. Hoping I won’t have to explain everything. Hoping Miranda will not tell them what she walked in on when she rescued me.

Jonas rubs my arm soothingly, encouragingly. “Where were you,” he asks softly. “We’ve been looking for you since we heard about the Sentry.”

I look up at him, now. He heard? It must be all over the Outpost. I am a giant-killer. But still, I don’t want to tell this story. I’m tired. I haven’t really had time to think about all that’s happened. I just want to sleep it off.

“Matt got her,” Miranda says, matter-of-factly, apparently deciding that she’d better spill. “He thought she killed the damned thing. Like actually killed a Sentry.” She laughs bitterly, wipes her hand over her forehead and down her cheek, rolling her eyes. “Wouldn’t that be great,” she adds. “Imagine if Matt suddenly got rid of all the Sentries.”

Jonas’ eyes narrow as he looks from her to me. “So… you didn’t kill it?”

My face is already turned downward, but I lower it more.

“Of course she didn’t kill it,” Miranda says. “They’re not killable. It malfunctioned, OK? Probably corrosion in the conversion stream or something. Lucky as hell, Eden.”

Jonas says nothing, still looking at me. Finally, he nods. He moves a touch closer to me, like he’s closing the rest of them out. He leans in, touching my face, and asks in a whisper, “Did Matt hurt you?”

I close my eyes, and manage to shake my head. “Just tired,” I say.

He lets go of me. I allow my body to slump to the side, leaning against Apollon, who puts an arm around me. I rest my head on him, letting myself sink into restfulness. On the other side of me, where my feet are now, Jonas sits against the wall, knees up, head back, eyes closed. He’s maybe two inches from touching me, but it feels like he’s on the other side of the world. I long to be leaning against him, instead, but I stay where I am. I stay, thinking I’m going to sleep, but I don’t. So I’m still awake when he gets up and slips out the door, heading off to command his troops, or plan his attacks, or whatever it is that will lead us all to our quickening doom.

[*

Chapter 28: Almost Anything*]

I AWAKE TO the sound of explosions. Scrambling to my feet, I realize I have been sleeping with my face on the cold floor. Apollon is gone. Miranda and Neveah are standing at the door, though it’s closed.

“What’s going on?” I mumble, rubbing my eyes.

“Grey’s men must be attacking the Outpost,” Miranda says, her voice reserved. “They’re battling at the wall.”

I blink for a few seconds and try to focus. I have a headache like a big spike in my head. “What about the Sentries? Won’t they attack anyone in the battle?”

Neveah tilts her head at Miranda curiously.

She shakes her head. “Grey was probably counting on that,” she says. “But I wired the weapons so we could fire them remotely. From under cover. Had to sacrifice our aim a bit, but I think they’ll still be OK. At least, until the wall falls. But by then Sentries picking us off won’t really matter.”

“No wonder Matt let you live even after what I did.”

She shrugs, a modest gesture with no modesty in it whatsoever. “Well,” she says, “that, and I wasn’t finished making the adjustments to his big gun for the gate.”

“Big… gun?”

She nods and frowns. “Damned big gun, really. Lasers, too. Dan built it special.”

“I bet.” I take a moment to lean back against the wall and close my eyes. My heart pounds in my ears, and each time it is like a mallet driving the spike deeper. “So what do we do now,” I whisper. “Wait and see who wins?” I open my eyes, and Miranda is looking back at me. We share our despair for a moment across that open link.

Finally, she shakes her head and looks away, at the floor. “This sucks,” she says. “We’re done for, either way, now.”

She’s right. If Matt wins, we’re on the chopping block. If Jonas wins, we fall under Grey’s control, and things just get worse from here. Living in hiding. Probably just scraping by each day, struggling to eat. To stay alive. I laugh softly through my nose, remembering. It really is pointless. For a long time, we’re silent, listening to the boom and rattle of explosions and guns. We sit against the walls hugging our knees, looking at each other. At first, I expect that all the noise will resolve itself, and then someone will come, and we will know, finally, what our fate will be. But it just goes on and on. For hours, it goes on.

Finally, in a span of quiet between booms, Miranda asks, “Did you kill it?”

I stare back at her. I lick my lips. “Yeah,” I say quietly. “I did.”

Neveah sits forward suddenly from beside me, turning to gaze in awe at my face.

I look from her to Miranda, and sigh. My mind wanders over what happened, as if perusing the pages of a book. I remember sinking my hand into the internal workings of the Sentry, grabbing the crystal. I didn’t know what I was doing, but it was so familiar. Familiar, because I did it to the Sentry that was forming in my mind, when I was in the chair. I remember now, the same feeling, reaching into the midst of the antlike creatures that were still writhing into the shape of the Sentry. They were letters, first, before they were ants. Letters in my own handwriting.

“I don’t…” I begin, and falter, then try again. “I don’t really understand it all. Just… I must know something. I mean, I must have known something. Before. Like, it’s still there. When I was in the VR machine, I saw all this weird stuff. Sentries. And I killed one, but it was different. I was going to…” My voice breaks. “I was going to save Oscar.” I close my eyes. “I was going to save him, but I couldn’t. You woke me up. I mean… Matt woke me up.” I wipe the tears that spill hotly over my eyelids, smearing them into my hair.

Miranda moves from across the room to beside me, and puts an arm around me. “Oh, Eden,” she whispers. “You couldn’t have saved Oscar. He’s gone. It wasn’t real. He’s gone, now.”

I close my eyes and lean into her, stifling a sob. She’s right, of course. He is gone. But it felt so real. I really felt like I was going to save him. Even when the real Sentry had me, even when I pulled that thing from its chest, I thought it was about saving Oscar. But then, it wasn’t. It was just a pile of metal, and hating it could not bring him back.

Neveah moves over, places one arm around me, and one arm around Miranda, and we huddle together, hanging on to each other. I still feel the darkness of what is coming for us, but today, for the first time, I realize that I will not face it alone. It’s a small comfort, but enough. Enough to get through another day.

***

Jonas and Apollon do not come back to us during the long, explosion-riddled night, so the next day we go looking for them. We slip through the back streets quietly, though in truth, Matt is probably too busy with the battle at the wall to be looking inward. The main thing is to avoid the Sentries, which will now have my profile memorized for immediate kill. We stay away from their main posts and walk carefully. We have no problems.

Elaina Sumter, dressed like a boy, is heading down a side street. On request, she takes us to our friends at a tumble of old buildings near the shantytown.

Neither Jonas nor Apollon look particularly thrilled to see us. They’re busy, and stressed, and already overwhelmed without having to look after us. But Jonas says he’s glad we came. He wants us there, with them, where they know we’re safe. So we sit off to one side while they go on with their work. I want to think of something else— anything else— but I find myself listening, despite myself.

They’re coordinating an attack, or a series of simultaneous attacks, from within the gates. Jonas is certain this will tip the balance enough to allow Grey’s army to penetrate the Outpost and take over once and for all. He and Apollon glance nervously toward us, then look at each other. They’re wondering where they’re going to hide us. How they’re going to keep us safe. Miranda, Neveah, and I exchange our own glances. Our time is running out, thousands of grains of sand sinking one by one, by one, until there are only a few left to fall.

I close my eyes and listen to the booming in the distance. Since it began, it has never ceased. As we walked here, there was smoke and dirt hanging in dark clouds against the silver sky. If only there was another option.

My breath catches. I sit up straight, hardly daring to think it. Scooting closer to Miranda, I turn my face toward her shoulder. I whisper, very lightly. “Could you reprogram a crystal?”

“Crystal?” Miranda whispers, her eyes widening. “Is that what you pulled out of the thing?” Her gaze flickers with rapid calculations. We stare at each other. Neveah scoots closer, leaning in to our huddle.

My heart thuds insistently in my chest, but I can barely bring myself to ask, for fear of disappointment. Finally I manage, “Can we… is it possible to rewrite them?” I swallow hard. “Make them do what we want?”

Miranda’s eyes dart from side to side again, her lips moving. “Crystals?” she murmurs.

I nod.

She continues to process.

Neveah and I lean closer, holding our breath.

Finally, Miranda looks up. She gazes from Neveah to me, holds my gaze. She’s hesitating. She doesn’t want to tell me. We can’t do it.

I look down, start to shake my head, but she grabs my hand. I raise my eyes to her face again. She leans forward, mouth open but not saying anything. Then finally, the glaze falls away from her eyes and she grimaces, her forehead working into a deep line.

“There are some things I would need,” she says quietly, darkly.

Neveah and I look at each other.

“What?” I ask, holding up my hands. “Tell me. I’ll get it.”

She’s already shaking her head. “No,” she says softly. “You don’t understand. Only Matt has them.”

Silence falls over us, its weight pushing our hearts toward the floor.

My eyes narrow, my fingers curling into my palms. “If Matt has them, we can take them from him. Almost all his men are on the wall, now. He’s not guarding things. He can’t afford to.”

But Miranda is still shaking her head. “No, Eden,” she says softly. “What I need— it’s on the wall.”

***

Miranda and I slip down the blackened tunnels, looking for the alcove where I stashed the crystal. She has a good sense of the layout. Between that, and what I remember, we find it without much trouble. Still, the walls are too close, the darkness encroaching. Miranda whispers that we’re safer here, away from the fighting, but I don’t feel safe. I barely manage to keep myself moving at an even speed. I want to run until I can find the open sky.

I pull the crystal from its hiding spot and place it in her hands.

She peers at me through the darkness. “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” I say, “but I have to do something. Just do what you can, for now. Try and be ready. We don’t have much time.”

She nods without speaking.

“Will it take you long?” I ask. “I mean, once we get the stuff?”

She shakes her head. “Not long.” But she’s frowning. She doesn’t believe I’ll find a way.

“Just do it,” I growl, and stride away into the darkness.

Taking it out on Miranda is pointless. My agitation is born of the confinement… and knowing that she’s right. I’ve been over it in my head a hundred times. Getting Jonas to rearrange his plans and take what we need by force. Only, I’ve got a better idea of the manpower behind Jonas’ cause, now, and, while they might be a thorn in Matt’s side, they are a long way from equaling him on open ground. They work well as guerrillas, but they’re not suited to a major offensive on a heavily guarded area. Sneak attacks. Surprise tactics. There’s no way we are getting our hands on Matt’s big gun. Miranda insists nothing else in the Outpost will do. So we’re back where we started. Between a rock and a hard place.

I pick my way back to Jonas’ command, feeling like I’ve lost everything all over again. He sees me come in and pulls himself away from his work, obviously reading the unhappiness on my face.

“Everything OK?” he asks, running his fingers down my arms. Before I can answer, he laughs, looking away. “Of course not,” he says. “I know. I just….”

I want to share my disappointment with him, to tell him how close I was to finding a way out for us, but can I distract him with this, when he has so many other things to think about? He’s carrying enough on his shoulders. This little gem I’ve found has turned out to be fake. A waste of time. False hope. Energy channeled into nothing. I lower my eyes and look away.

He takes me by the arm and leads me outside, where the sky is a calico pattern of crisp blue, cloud white, and smoky black. We wander to the side of the building and stand, listening to the not-too-distant sounds of war. Finally, quietly, he says, “We need to prepare. You, Miranda…. I’ve been trying to think of the best place to—”

“To hide us?” I snap impatiently, though I don’t mean to. I take a deep breath, shake my head, and make sure my voice is softer when I speak again. “I hate this, Jonas. I don’t want to hide for the rest of my life. And I don’t want to be a boy, either. None of this… None of it is right.”

He moves closer and again puts his hands on my arms, ducking his head toward me. “I know,” he says. “You’re right. But… we don’t have any choice. We just have to get through this. Then we’ll find a way to deal with whatever comes later.”

I gaze up at him, trying to hold back the emotion rising in me. I want to tell him that we won’t get through it. He may hope to hide us, but realistically, when Grey takes over the Outpost, he will root out anyone who is in hiding, making sure that none of his enemies survive to fight another day. There will be no place to hide. But I can’t tell Jonas this, because he believes that he can protect me. He’s done so much. Risked so much. I can’t tell him that it will amount to nothing. Again, I look away.

Some of the shanties are within our line of sight. Huddled against the side of one of them is a little bundle of rags— another sick or starving child. Before I know what I’m saying, I’m telling Jonas in a choked whisper, “A little baby died in my arms yesterday. I wanted to help her. But I couldn’t. She was just… gone.”

There is nothing but silence for a long time. When I finally look at him, he’s just staring at me, wide-eyed, open-mouthed. I see that little chill of horror, threading through him slowly.

I wrap my arms tightly around myself, looking again toward the shanty and the ragged child. “It’s going to get worse,” I say, my morbid thoughts spilling forth even though I know I should keep them to myself. “When Grey comes, it’s going to be even worse than this.”

Jonas gives a little jerk of his head, his mouth working like he’s going to say something. But he doesn’t, at least not for a while. Then, he manages, “Some things are beyond our ability to change.” His voice is hoarse. “We have to let some things go.”

Too many things. I breathe, and close my eyes. Finally, when I think I can talk again, I say, “What if you could do something to change it? Something drastic. Would you do it?”

He stares at me. I can see in his eyes that he’s imagining the possibility. At last, he says quietly, “I would do almost anything.”

His words settle over me like fallout. “Would you risk my life?” I whisper.

“No,” he says, immediately. “Never.”

But he has answered a different question; He’s told me that no, I cannot tell him the plan that is forming in my head. If he could think it through, chances are he would see it’s the only way. But here, now, pressed for time, exhausted, scrambling for our lives, he will only hear ‘Matt’. I cannot gamble the futures of so many on the possibility that he might understand the necessity of my actions. And when it comes down to it, my life is my own to risk. No one else’s. But can I do this without him? Can I face what might happen if I leave him out?

Jonas said he’s willing to do almost anything. Well, so am I.

A man steps outside the shack and nods to him. Jonas’ brow furrows. “I have to go,” he says, not looking at me. “Find Miranda. Bring her back here. Quickly.”

I nod, already moving away. I will find her, but we’re not coming back. Words of parting struggle to find their way out of my heart, but they never do. There is nothing I can say that will do this moment justice.

***

Miranda and I glance at each other nervously, then I raise my hand and knock. Even as the door opens, footsteps rush up behind us. Two large, armed men, inside the door, level guns at us. From behind, two more press the barrels of their guns into our backs. They shove us inside and shut Matt’s door behind us.

“Boss,” one of them calls, keeping his gun trained on my face, “it’s Miranda, and Eden.”

“Kill them,” says Matt’s voice from the other room.

Miranda’s eyes roll in her head. She might pass out. I might pass out. The one with the gun aimed at my face steps closer.

“Wait,” I say. “Matt! We came to help you! Please—”

His footsteps sound slowly across the wood floor and he appears in the doorway. He’s somber, leveling his gaze at me flatly. Behind him, I can see some of his men. “Help,” he says, emotionlessly. His eyes are red-rimmed. I’m not sure if he’s exhausted, or maybe drunk. “Grey has an army that’s twice as large as the Outpost, itself. We’re holding the wall, but it’s not going to last. We have maybe until dark. Maybe a bit longer. Then Grey is going to come in here and take over everything. Everything. Trust me, you don’t want to be around for that. It’s better this way.” He looks from me, to the man with the gun. His voice lowers. “Make it quick.” He’s already turning away.

“I am about to give you everything you ever wanted,” I protest, sidestepping, though the gun follows me. My eyes stay on Matt, refusing to look at the weapon.

He stops with his back still to me. When he turns around, he wears a grin of wry amusement. A grin that dares me to imagine everything he ever wanted. It falls away quickly as he steps toward me, closing the distance across the room. I back against the wall, but he doesn’t stop until there are mere inches between our faces.

Matt is always intense, but there is a blackness about him now that scares me. “It’s too late,” he says. “You think switching sides will help you? It won’t. Everything is done. Don’t you understand? It doesn’t matter what you do. You could give me Jonas on a platter. You’d buy us a few hours, maybe. What’s the point?”

I find my voice while he takes a breath, and jump in before he can go on. “We can control the Sentries.”

Matt does not move, does not blink. Disbelief washes over his face, but he narrows his eyes, glances at Miranda.

“We can control them,” I continue breathlessly, “but we need your help. Some things you have.”

Matt’s hand is suddenly around my throat. Lightly. Not choking me. But it could. I swallow, and try to breathe calmly. He raises one very serious eyebrow at me.

“I pulled a crystal from that Sentry,” I explain quickly. “Miranda can reprogram it. She’s already written the code.”

Now he eyes Miranda. When he turns back to me, I say the rest, before I can lose my courage.

“Promise you won’t retaliate. You won’t hurt us in any way. Me, Miranda. Jonas. Apollon. Neveah. That’s all you have to do, and I’ll give you everything.”

His fingers press ever-so-slightly against my jugular. He smiles as he leans in. “Why would I do that? Now that I have you, I can make you do anything I want.”

Fear washes through me, all the way from my brain straight into my toes. But I meet his gaze, lean into his hand, and say, “You could. If you had time. But you don’t, now do you?”

His hand drops. He takes a small step back. He stares at me, mouth parted, his cheek muscles lifting slightly, like he’s pleased. A heartbeat later, he breaks into a grin and a laugh. His hand goes to my neck— to the back of it. He pulls me toward him, hooking his arm over my shoulders like I’m his oldest friend. “I guess you’re running this show, then,” he says, and with a wave of his hand all the guns have disappeared. He leads me into the room with the fireplace, where all his higher-ups are gathered in what appears to be a last-minute strategy session.

Miranda sinks into one of the chairs without asking permission, looking like she may throw up.

I reach into my jacket, pull out the crystal, and hand it to Matt.

“Seriously,” he says, eyeing me.

I shrug. “You couldn’t do anything without our cooperation. You need Miranda’s code. And my plan.”

He just shakes his head. Then he’s focused on the task at hand. He splits his men between me and Miranda, telling them to do whatever we ask. Still, there are a few nervous glances when Miranda instructs her group to go pull Matt’s big gun from the wall. Even so, they head out together, Miranda snapping commands.

I explain to my group how we’ll take the Sentries down simultaneously, telling them in detail how to access and remove each crystal they will need to bring back for Miranda. “Remember,” I say, wrapping it up, “you’ll need good quality blades in order to get into the panel. Thin and strong. The best ones that Coyote Dan makes.”

“Coyote Dan,” Matt muses, looking me over.

“Coyote Dan,” I say.

He shrugs. “Has a ring to it.” Then he claps his hands. “Let’s get going.”

The men are up and out the door. I’m hard on their heels. Matt’s hand catches my elbow by the front entrance. “They do the dirty work,” he says. “Not us. We get to sit and watch.”

We step out onto the front porch and look on as his crew disappears down the street.

He turns to me and touches my face. “Besides,” he says softly, “right now, you get to tell me exactly what Jonas is doing, and where to find him.”

[*

Chapter 29: Perfect World*]

I SPUTTER, BLINKING, moving my face away. “No,” I whisper, then clear my throat. “No,” I say louder. “Let me go to him. I can talk him down. It will be better. No fighting.”

He laughs through his nose. Then his face goes suddenly serious. “Let’s just be clear about this,” he says. “What has happened before is the past. I won’t retaliate. I won’t hold all those things against you. But whatever happens from now on, that’s different.” He takes a lock of my hair and rubs it between his fingers, gazing down at me through half-lidded eyes. “Don’t ever cross me again. You’re out of chances.”

I nod once, meeting his gaze. Next time I cross Matt, I’ll make damned sure I can get away with it. “I’ll remember that,” I say. “But this isn’t a betrayal, or a trick. I don’t want my friends to get hurt. I can get them to stop. Jonas will listen to me.”

Annoyance flickers over Matt’s face. He looks away, thinking. After a moment, he looks at me again. “OK,” he says. “Just—”

The boom erases the rest of it. Black smoke billows into the air from the direction of the main gate. Subsequent explosions echo along the wall line, ejecting debris into the air. Ash swirls above us on looping currents. We gaze upward, mouths open. Shivers run through me. Either Grey has gotten through, or Jonas is attacking the wall already. Either of these is a bad turn of events. Matt glances at me, and is about to ask. My glance back at him already gives him the answer. He growls.

A spatter of gunfire sounds far down the street. Out of a cloud of black smoke, there is a screeching noise, and the sound of hooves beating the pavement. That necklace-wearing pig comes squealing at top speed down the street, its hindquarters wet with blood. We watch wordlessly as it runs past us.

Matt turns and goes inside.

I hurry after him. “Where are you going?”

“To get a bigger gun,” he says, marching straight through the parlor into a dining room. He opens what could have been a china cabinet, revealing a slew of weapons.

“I thought we didn’t do the dirty work,” I protest.

“In a perfect world, no,” he says, scanning over the weapons. His hand closes on the barrel of something sleek and black and probably automatic. “In a world where people shoot my pig…” he looks at me as he slings the rifle over his shoulder, “sometimes I shoot back.”

He’s marching out the door. I hastily grab a rifle for myself, and run after him.

We stride into the billows of smoke, moving toward the wall. The grey cloud closes around us like a fist. Like a box. I try to breathe, but the air itself chokes me. I cough into my sleeve for a few steps, then take shallower breaths the rest of the way. “I am not shooting anyone from the Outpost, just to be clear,” I say. “Only Grey’s men.”

Matt levels his gaze at me as we walk. “Just to be clear,” he says, “anyone who is not one of my men is one of Grey’s men.”

I scowl at him, and he scowls right back at me.

What we find at the wall takes our minds off our differences for at least a moment. The concrete is in piles, bodies strewn haphazardly atop the rubble. Gunfire is going in every direction. Some sections are flaming, some just smoldering. It’s hard to see very far past the smoke, but beyond the wall there’s enough movement to suggest a large force assembled in the small stretch before the barrier.

“Why didn’t the Sentries take care of Grey’s army?” I ask, running after Matt. “I know you’ve been firing remotely, but what about them?”

He glances back at me. “There’s no law against destroying property,” he says. “They’ve mostly been targeting the wall until now.”

We scramble toward a jagged chunk of concrete that’s still in place and take cover behind it. It will only stop bullets from one direction, and probably won’t do much of anything against an explosion. My heart is crawling into my throat, struggling upward inch by inch. Far behind us, in between explosions, we hear the unmistakable sound of metal in motion, and screams to go with it. Someone caught fighting, or one of ours?

“Do you know how to use it?” Matt says, glancing at the rifle in my hands.

I hesitate. He reaches toward the safety and flicks it, moves his hand toward the barrel to take it from me. I recoil. “I got it,” I say. I chamber a round and raise my eyebrows at him. Maybe I don’t exactly know what I’m doing, but my hands seem to. The rifle feels right in my grip. Familiar.

“Suit yourself,” he says. He readies his own gun and peeks over his shoulder past the side of the concrete. Bullets spray our barrier from the other side, making it rattle, sending up dust and tiny grey shards.

I close my eyes and count down silently, trying to steady myself. Trying to prepare. I’ve made it from one hundred down to seventy-two, and I think I’m probably just going to keep counting, looping back to a hundred once I get to zero. Sixty-nine. Sixty-eight. Calm descends on me, sudden, and soothing. I can still feel my heart protesting in my chest, but in my head, everything is clear. Everything is in slow motion. As the bursts hitting the other side pause, I whip my rifle into place and start firing. On my left, Matt’s gun rumbles like the purr of a gargantuan tiger. We pop back behind our cover as the return fire ricochets off the other side, then do it all again when we have a chance. We play this game of hide-and-seek for an eternity as explosions boom around us. The sky, already thick with smoke, grows darker, leaking poisonous tendrils of black air all around us. We’re sheltering with our backs against the concrete, catching our breath, coughing, when I glance at Matt and see his grimace.

“We have to move,” he says, catching my eye. “Who knows what’s in this stuff. Chemicals, maybe.”

I glance along the wall line, where black leads to black, but Matt is already up and running. I run after him, keeping my head down, hoping like hell not to get hit. A string of gunfire chases after us, but it’s too slow. We make it behind another pile of debris, then pick our way along the line. There’s not so much open fire from beyond the wall here, but there is haphazard fighting within. I recognize one of Jonas’ people just as Matt takes him down with a quick burst. He keeps moving, and I keep following, but I’m not shooting anyone here. Not inside. I will be soon, though, because it won’t be long until Grey’s men pour into the Outpost.

Eventually, we do find a place where the air is a little clearer. The wall is still standing. We press ourselves against it, taking a moment to breathe and check our weapons.

Matt eyes me as I cough into my sleeve. “OK?”

I nod.

He scans the scene before us, taking stock. “This plan of yours,” he says. “We might be too late.”

I don’t want to think like that, but as I look past him at the mess we are all making, I have to concede that he may be right. “What then?” I ask breathlessly.

His face hardens. “We take out as many of them as we can. And when it comes to it… Well…”

I’m staring at him, frozen. I swallow, feeling ice replace the hot rush in my veins. I shiver. But I nod. There’s no living for us, if Grey conquers the Outpost. It takes me just a moment. I accept it, then I’m OK. Ironically, coming to terms with my impending doom offers me a sweet taste of freedom. [I’m going to die _]makes _I might die far less potent.

We move away from our cover and make our way along the wall. The occasional bullet exploding against the concrete beside my head is not nearly so unnerving, now. We make the curve around a building, and there, sprawled on the ground, is the remains of one of the Sentries.

“Well,” Matt says, nudging it with one toe, “at least we know part of the plan is working.”

I’m grinning, despite myself. Hope is a drug that is hard to get off. “We just have to hold them off long enough,” I say. I’m still smiling down at the metal corpse. Matt doesn’t reply. When I look up, he’s sighting his gun on something in the distance. I follow his gaze down the barrel and see Jonas. He’s running, chasing after someone, firing a pistol off to the side where we can’t see. He doesn’t even notice us.

“No!” I throw myself in front of Matt’s gun just as his finger moves to the trigger.

He glares at me, frozen. “Get out of the way,” he growls.

“No.”

He swings his gun down and tries to step around me.

I move into his way.

“He’s trying to help Grey get through,” Matt says, evenly. “That equals you and me, dead. Now get the hell out of my way.”

I move toward him, instead, into the space he needs for his gun. I set my hands on his arms. “You promised.”

Matt glares at me, and glances beyond me.

I follow his gaze. Jonas is still running, completely exposed to us.

We face off against each other.

“I swear to god, Eden,” Matt grumbles, “this had better be one hell of a victory.” He moves away from me, slinging his gun on his shoulder.

I turn and look for Jonas. He’s gone. I run after Matt, wondering if that’s the only reason he gave in— because his target had already disappeared.

Not far down the wall, we join up with a group of Matt’s men. Jacob and Taylor are with them. Matt asks them if they’ve heard from either of the teams we sent out, but they know nothing. Quickly, he fills them in on our plan. They look at him wide-eyed, and nod. I have the feeling they don’t believe him— not that any of them would ever say it. We backtrack and they see the Sentry lying there. Tentative grins flit around under their shadowed eyes.

“We don’t know where the others are,” Matt says to them, “but let’s at least set up a perimeter around this one. Give our guys a clear shot to get back here and finish their work.”

They nod, and move off to do as he says, but before any kind of perimeter can be established, a roar sounds from down the wall to our left. Bursts of gunfire quickly follow. Through the smoke, enemies rush toward us.

We return fire, but there’s not much cover here. Only a moment passes before we’re forced to retreat. They push us back and back. We lose men right and left, splatters of blood erupting from their chests, necks, arms, legs. Only a handful of us are left. Matt, sheltering behind a wall a few spans away, runs toward me, hunkers down beside me against the trash bin that is my cover. His eyes say everything. We look at each other without speaking.

We’re still trying to find the courage to acknowledge our defeat when an explosion sounds in the direction we’re now facing. We peer through the smoke. I can feel the intensity of my own hope reflected in Matt. We gaze off, not breathing, waiting to see what emerges from the airborne debris.

Everything happens in a blur that is over before it began. Men appear out of the black cloud, running toward us. Silence, then shouting. From the other side of our shelter, standing over us, guns aim at our heads. Soot-smeared men disarm us, round us up with the other survivors, and shove us into a little group against the wall. A few shots are fired in the distance, then everything is silent for the first time in days. It’s over.

A moment later, a group of men strides down the wall toward us, their certain steps carrying the air of command. I know the one in the middle right away, though I’ve never seen him. I know him from the icy chill that moves through me at the sight of him. From the inhuman glare. From the evil that seems to pour off of him. Grey.

They assemble in front of us, summing us up, while the others keep their weapons aimed at our chests.

“Eden.” It’s a strangled whisper. I didn’t even notice Jonas, until he said my name.

[*

Chapter 30: Sound and Fury*]

GREY’S EYES MOVE to me, scanning over me, blue, hollow, and hungry. His voice is as rough and sharp as broken shells. “Yours, Jonas?” he asks. “This pretty little traitor?”

Jonas swallows. His fingers start to tremble, but he curls them into fists. “Yes,” he says. His voice is almost level. “Let her live, and I will do anything you ever ask of me. I swear it.”

Grey’s thin lips press into a line as he regards Jonas sideways. “You are helpful,” he says. “You gave me the Outpost. And now a welcome gift, too.” His eyes narrow on me. “Bring her.”

Two of the armed men move forward.

Jonas goes completely white, his eyes darting between Grey and me, and then scanning here and there through the small crowd of Grey’s men. They fall on a pistol tucked into one of the men’s waistbands. He doesn’t have his a weapon. They’ve taken his gun.

I lean into the wall, trying to press myself further into it. There is nowhere to go.

Matt’s arm slides around me and snatches me in front of him. He’s not going to just let them have me. As thankful as I am for that, the gesture is useless. They have guns and we don’t, and in only a moment they will pull me from his arms. This is my thinking, until his hands slip upward from my waist. Until his fingers slide through my hair and lace over my skull.

The men with the guns stiffen, realizing his intent. “Stop,” and “freeze,” they bark at him, jabbing their guns toward us. But I am in front of him now. To shoot him, they’ll have to shoot me. And that will be OK for both of us.

Jonas has gone as still as a statue, his face a study in horror. He looks like I must have looked, when I saw the Sentry moving toward Oscar. His lips form the word “no”.

“It’s too bad,” Matt whispers into my neck. “It was a good plan.”

I close my eyes, let my body relax into him. I will not fight this. Ninety-nine.

Crack. The noise is small at first, contained in the near distance. It grows into a splintering tumble of debris as a building caves in on itself. Grey’s men turn and look. Matt and I stare. The only one who is not looking is Jonas. He’s running for me. By the time Grey’s men realize what he’s doing, the Sentry has already erupted through the near side of the building and is heading straight for them.

They scatter, fleeing into the smoke, but not all of them make it. The Sentry is a rampage of metal fury, snatching people off the ground, flinging them into the concrete. Jonas is only a few strides away from me when it turns toward him.

“No,” I scream, launching myself at him. We collide in an embrace, but I’m spinning him around, placing myself in front of him. “No,” I command the Sentry, whose mirrored gaze freezes on us. We gape up at it.

It lurches back into motion, reaching past me for Jonas.

“No.” Matt’s voice stops it only inches from us.

We stumble, regaining our balance. Jonas is clinging to me from behind, but his eyes have gone wide on Matt. I can feel his heart racing against my shoulder blades.

Matt points along the wall in the direction that Grey’s men have retreated. “Go after them.”

The Sentry turns and leaps away from us as though we never existed.

Matt and I exchange glances. He grins. “Not bad, Eden,” he says. “Not bad.”

Jonas has me by the shoulders and whirls me to face him, his fingers digging in to my arms. His eyes are full of questions, but he asks none of them, shaking me, instead.

I open my mouth to explain. To tell him what I had to do. To promise him it will be OK. But he lets go of me and starts running after the Sentry, toward the sound of renewed gunfire, crashes, and explosions.

“Jonas,” I call after him. He doesn’t stop. He doesn’t even glance back.

I turn to look at Matt, but he’s not there. No one is.

I rub my hands over my face, taking a deep breath. I want to be with Jonas, but the idea of going back into the fray fills me with unexplainable trepidation. I start walking, trying to convince myself to go a little faster. Weariness or reluctance— one of the two keeps my feet from moving at more than a steady walk. Every step feels like entering the gates of hell. The sky before me is blackened with the ash of our self-immolation.

I move away from the wall, into the streets, where I find Miranda. She’s standing in the middle of an intersection looking toward the worst of the noise. Immobile.

I say her name and she glances over her shoulder. “Eden,” she says. “Thank god.”

I stop beside her and follow her gaze, though smoke blocks out everything else. The noises tell the story of battle. “Why won’t the Sentries listen to me?” I demand.

Her worried glance gives all the answer I need.

After a moment, she says, uncertainly, “What should we do?”

“C’mon,” I say, my feet moving forward, “I have to find Jonas.”

She trails after me. “Jonas is probably smart enough to be hiding.”

I shake my head. “He ran this way.”

Her eyes widen in alarm. “You don’t think he’s… still fighting?”

I want to shake my head again, but why else would he have run toward the battle? Beside me, Miranda curses. Suddenly we’re both jogging toward the chaos.

We make it as far as the next street before a Sentry appears, driving a crowd. People are screaming and running, falling down, trampling each other. The Sentry does not attack anyone outright, but stays on their heels, moving them onward. They swarm over us in an instant, and suddenly we’ve become part of the group. We struggle to stay upright in the mass of terrified bodies, and are knocked, slammed into, and swept down the street with the rest of them. Miranda grabs my hand and we cling to each other. Together, we are flung onward against our will.

I grasp her fingers tighter, preparing to pull her into a side alley as we pass. We make it into the opening, and freeze. Coming toward us is another herd of screaming people, and behind them, another Sentry. We back into the flow , and are quickly pummeled onward. They’re rounding us all up.

We flee until we’re swept into an even larger flow on an adjoining street. I’m so busy running, trying to stay on my feet, trying to hang on to Miranda, that I don’t even notice where we are until we finally pool to a stop on the main street in front of the Rustler. The evening sun sinks into a gap between the looming smoke and the Outpost wall, bathing us in carmine tones and raising a jagged forest of shadows between us.

“Is this everyone?” Miranda cries above the roar. Her eyes search through the mass of faces. We stand back to back, circling, looking for our friends, but don’t find them. All the rushing is coming to stillness. People are standing about, lost and frightened. Around us, in a ring, are the Sentries. The crowd splits into a small chasm as people push by. Elaina Sumter stumbles through, first, and then one of the brown-haired guys, though I still can’t tell them apart. Behind them are two of Matt’s men, with guns pointed into their backs. Matt’s thugs shove their prisoners roughly toward the center of the group and force them to sit. They stand over them with guns ready. Within the next few moments, more are brought to join them. All faces I recognize from Jonas’ rebellion. The other brown-haired guy. The red-headed man with the beard. All Jonas’ higher-ups. The people he surrounded himself with. The people he counted on to make things happen. Matt’s men form a second circle around them, keeping everyone else at bay. At the edge of the ring, friends and family members push forward, but none of them dare to break the circle, or even to speak up.

The chasm the prisoner’s were led through parts suddenly wider, to the sound of a struggle. Miranda and I work our way closer, though we’re trapped on the other side of the circle. The crowd is too thick to get through. Across from us, people shift, sidestepping, trying to move away. In doing so, they reveal Jonas, being held by three of Matt’s men. He’s kicking, contorting, growling, trying to escape. His face is twisted into a grimace of rage, teeth bared. Matt’s men are having trouble keeping hold of him, though between the three of them, he has little chance of getting free. One of them lets go, raises his rifle, and slams the butt end into Jonas’ head. He staggers and falls to the ground. They stand over him.

“Stop, stop,” Miranda is saying. She’s clinging to me, trying to hold me back. I’m screaming Jonas’ name.

“He’s OK,” she says. “Look.”

He pushes himself to sitting, his head hanging. Blood runs down the side of his face, dripping onto his lap. He winces, and moves to get up, but one of the men nudges him with his boot. He looks up into the firing end of the gun. He stays down.

“He’s bleeding,” I whisper, my voice sticking in my throat. I’m trembling violently. “He’s not OK.”

“He is,” Miranda says. She directs me toward the circle, having already realized what I have not. “He’s not there.”

I stare into the circle, where Matt’s men have sat their prisoners in a neat line.

“Neither is Apollon,” Miranda says quietly. I glance at her and she’s scanning the crowd.

I search through the faces yet again. For Apollon. For Neveah. The heaviness of everything pulls down inside me, gravity tugging my vital organs toward the earth’s center. My fingers grip Miranda’s arm, fighting the unsteadiness. “I don’t…” I say, and have to clear my throat, “… I don’t see them….”

She swallows, her face grave, and keeps looking. Everyone is here. If they are not here, are they dead?

Any remaining murmurs die down suddenly as Matt walks past Jonas toward the circle. His stride is effortless, confident, his pistol hanging easily in his left hand as he walks. His men step aside and let him into the circle. He raises his pistol to his cheek, and stands for a moment regarding the line of seven prisoners. His face— sometimes so animate— has gone to stone, his eyes moving over them with the slow grace of a predator.

My fingers press deeper into Miranda’s arm, then let go. I have to push myself off to get moving. I shove Matt’s men aside and stumble into the circle. The same calmness that took me in battle descends again now as he moves only his eyes to look at me.

“We had a deal,” I say, and my voice is surprisingly level. “No retaliation.”

“Against your friends,” Matt says quietly. “These are not your friends.” He turns to the crowd, and all at once, he’s animate again, but not telling jokes, not courting his subjects. He’s the angry god, come back for vengeance. His wrath pours from the bowls of his eyes. From his mouth. “These are my enemies,” he shouts, his voice carrying through the assemblage. He turns to them— to his people— pacing, gesturing with the long barrel of his revolver. “They have conspired against me. Some of you have conspired against me. Put everyone— all of us— at risk. Well, you… have… failed. Grey, and his retreating army have failed.” He gestures off at the horizon, a simple dismissal of his almost-conqueror. Then his gaze sweeps over them, looking them in the eye, one by one. “If you set yourself against me, you will always fail. Because this is what happens to my enemies.” He turns, and places the barrel of the gun against the head of his nearest prisoner. The redheaded man closes his eyes, his face draining to white.

“Matt,” I manage. “You don’t have to do this. Please. Give me the gun.” I reach out as I move toward him.

He pulls the trigger.

Red and grey spatters the ground. The body falls. I stand rigid and shaking, staring at the aftermath, as he moves to his next victim. He does it quickly, stepping around me to move down the line. One by one. He has fired six shots, and paused to reload, before I can manage to make myself turn. My shoulders, my ribs, my stomach muscles, are all pulled inward on myself, making it hard to move or breathe. I feel the need to scream, to cry, but not a single tear nor squeak of voice comes forward to protest the desolation before me.

Matt slides the single bullet into the chamber. His hands are steady. He flips it closed, and places the barrel end against Elaina Sumter’s skull. She looks up at him through teary, blue eyes, her pretty face scrunched into an ugly mask of agony, her chin wrinkled and quivering. A whimper begins to work its way up her throat. The bullet silences it. She falls to the ground. Her blood, the debris of her skull, mingles with that of the others. We stand for a moment in utter silence.

I look down at the blood that is pooling around my feet. Fingers reach toward me to engulf the place where I am standing. My body is not just shaking, but vibrating. All the sensations of dizziness, and sickness, and terror focus inward, sharpening to a point, until all I am aware of is my soul draining out through my feet. I close my eyes and lock my knees, afraid of falling. I am skewered on a pillar of ice. To move is to awaken the intensity of the coldness and pain.

Matt presses the gun into my hand with both of his own, startling me. I gaze at him wide-eyed.

“You wanted this,” he says. “It’s all yours.”

I let out a breath, shivering from my core outward.

He turns to the silent crowd and raises both arms in victory. “Time to celebrate! Drinks for everyone. And food.”

This is something that generates a return cheer even in the midst of the agony we’ve just witnessed. Some of his men move off, presumably to break into Matt’s private stash. The rest of them move around him— move around us— as he hooks his arm around my neck and pulls me toward the Rustler.

I walk with him, because I don’t have it in me to resist. The sun, behind us, dips below the horizon, the last of its orange light masked in smoke. Matt and I track black, bloody footprints across the pavement. At the door, I glance back at them, and I can’t tell which are his, and which are mine.

His arm squeezes me closer, and he smiles down on me, a strange mix of relief, and joy, and sympathy. “Let’s celebrate,” he whispers, just for me this time.

I move toward the bar. There is only one thing I have to celebrate. What Matt has not yet figured out.

End of Book One

[*

Sneak Preview*]

Book 2 in The E Series:

Evolution

[*

Chapter 1: Jane*]

THE SKELETON IS washed white, purified by the sun. She lies exactly as she fell, fleeing their bullets. It took me a long time to find her. Now I sit by her bones, amongst the tall golden blades of frosted grass, and strain to remember his voice— the tone and inflection of it. The sincerity. The wonder. All I hear is the rush of wind through trees too tall— through a forest dense and dark enough to be a passageway to the underworld.

Behind me, the rustle of footsteps in the leaves signals Jacob’s impatience. I ignore him for a moment. For as long as I can. Until he says, “I don’t get it, Eden. It’s a dead deer. Can’t we go yet?”

I close my eyes and take a deep breath, in and out, fighting down my anger. It’s not his fault. He never asked for the privilege of following me around. If I hadn’t freaked out about the Sentry…. I glance back toward the wall, where his brother, Taylor, has taken up a post. He looks just as bored. Just as cold.

Seeing them reminds me how chilled the earth is. Frozen hard, but warmed beneath me just enough to be damp. It sucks the heat from my legs, leaving my flesh frigid despite its coverings. I’ve hardly noticed it until now, though. Maybe it’s because I’m already so cold inside.

I stagger to standing and brush off my pants. Looking at the remains again, at the mere wisp of white fur, I feel like I should say something, or do something. But there is no farewell here. No acceptance in parting. No way to ever say goodbye.

I walk away toward Taylor. Jacob follows me, just like he’s supposed to. My explanation is beyond awkward, but it’s all I have. “She was a white deer, you know,” I say. “There are stories about them. They’re special or something. Holy.”

Jacob glances at me sidelong as we trudge through the grass. “Sounds religious.”

I wave him off. “So,” I say. “There’s no Law in the Outpost anymore.” To make my point, I glance back the way we have come, past the barrier that once confined us.

He just frowns, and I can read it on his face. There’s law. Just different law.

Against my will, I think of Matt.

Taylor falls in with us, and we walk along the wall, which, in many places, is nothing but rubble. Here and there, men are rebuilding it, patching in the holes. It doesn’t matter so much, because Sentries are stationed along the breaches, casting their blocky, inhuman shadows across the heaps of broken concrete. There are two of them standing watch at the gates. Their mirrored faces turn toward us as we approach, making my insides squirm. Conquering them has brought no relief to the feeling of menace. Besides, I am not their master. Matt is.

We pass by the machines, and slowly my heart rate returns to normal. Inside the gates, the Outpost is still in disarray with everyone working hard to put things back in order. A group of men are putting a new roof on a small outbuilding that collapsed in on itself. A middle-aged woman is nailing boards over a broken window. A father and son are loading bodies onto a cart, to haul to the bonfires that have been set up in the shantytown. But no one is scraping the blood out of the mud. No one is going to erase all the signs of our disaster.

A chill wind whips down the street and across us, emphasizing the fact that it would be better to be indoors. I’m not ready to go home yet, which doesn’t leave a lot of options. I stuff my hands in my pockets, duck my head, and stride toward the Rustler. People get out of my way, and it’s not because of the two big guys trailing in my wake. They see me, and move. Some of them offer greetings in the form of uncertain mumbles. I don’t reply. I just keep going, thinking about the warm whiskey, and a barstool where I can turn my back on the world. Ponder my troubles.

I still haven’t figured out exactly how I’m going to drop this news on Matt. I should have brought it up already, but the first day after the executions kept him busy. Not that I was ready yet. Now, I’m running out of time. I’ll need to chose my words carefully, so sitting and nursing a drink for a while will give me a chance to internally rehearse them.

We intersect the main street, and I cross to the far side immediately, walking along the raised curb and its broken concrete. I don’t want to have to cross farther down, where pools of black blood are still frozen in the middle of the road. I don’t want to have to look at it, or think of it. I keep my head down, and walk. We cross an adjoining street, and pass under Sarah’s skeleton, dangling from the post above Canson Morganson’s store. But at least I am used to that, now. It’s not fresh, like the other.

As we approach the Rustler, I close my eyes and trail one hand along the wall to guide myself. I hear someone scramble to get out of my way, banging off of something and cursing. I don’t care. They’re not cursing at me. No one would dare to curse at me.

I shove the door open and get ready to head for my barstool, but Fate has other plans. The Rustler is about half full, and most of its patrons are Matt’s men. At one table, a group of local businessmen includes Canson Morganson, Isaiah Bones, and Pete Sumter, whose daughter was executed the night before last. Lloyd is there as well, and some faces I don’t know. An older woman with a nose like a hawk. Two young men with the same dark hair and golden eyes. A grey-haired man wearing a curious top hat. They are all listening intently to Matt. At least, until he looks up and sees me.

A grin slinks across his face, marking him in an exceptionally good mood. He’s animated, vivid, with light almost pouring from his hazel eyes. It’s the Matt that pulls you in— that makes you feel privileged just to be in his presence. Not the Matt with the gun pointed at your head. Not the Matt with his finger on the trigger.

He kicks his chair back and rises to his feet, abruptly ending the meeting. “As you can see, gentlemen,” he says, arms opened in a gesture like an embrace, “the world is mine.” He then leans his hands on the table and levels his eyes at me from across the room, his smile turning smug. One of his eyebrows goes up just a touch. “Every king needs a queen.”

Their eyes flick to me, some of them half-turning in their chairs. If I was smart, I would humor him. But I’m angry. Stupid and angry. I wave him off with one hand and move toward the bar, where I take a seat, back turned toward them all.

Arthur Adner places a shot glass on the counter in front of me, and pours from the good bottle. He doesn’t greet me or make eye contact. His hands shake just a touch. Behind me, I hear chairs scraping the floor as the group at Matt’s table gets up and heads for the door. Footsteps move slowly toward me. Matt leans one elbow on the bar to my left. His smile now is half-cocked, saying he won’t be so easily discouraged. I glance at him, then turn back to my drink, downing it in one go.

“Bad day?” he asks, as if my disdain could not possibly be directed toward him.

I signal Arthur for another drink. “Bad week.”

Matt laughs softly. If you asked him, it’s the best week of our lives. He shifts and his eyes narrow. “You’re not still mad about the Sentry, are you?”

I give him a withering look.

“Ah,” he says. He hops onto the stool next to me. “I honestly didn’t think it would bother you, now that they’re… you know… ours.”

It’s not the Sentry. Not really. Nonetheless, I turn my eyes on him and say, “You didn’t think it would bother me that you had a giant metal robot stalk me? One of the same giant metal robots that once— that—” I can’t continue. So maybe it is the Sentry. Partly. I grab my new drink, making Arthur abruptly finish pouring, and down it like the first. I set it back on the counter and he tips the bottle toward it again.

Matt eyes the glass as my fingers close around it. I narrow my eyes at him, challenging him to say something.

“Go for it,” he shrugs. “I think I like you better when you’re drunk.”

I toss my head, grab the drink, and pour it into my mouth. As the smooth burn moves down my chest, I realize my head is spinning.

“It was for your protection,” Matt is saying, but I’m already hoisting myself off the stool and heading for the door.

Jacob and Taylor are waiting there for me— my new Sentries. I scowl at them and move past them, out onto the sidewalk, where I turn and look down the street. They collect behind me, waiting to see where I will go. I stand there, and gaze toward Canson’s store. I’m about to get even stupider, but the whiskey has made me bold enough not to care.

I point toward the corner. Toward Sarah’s bird-cleaned remains. “Go take that down,” I say.

Jacob and Taylor are behind me, but I can feel their hesitation. I can feel them exchanging glances.

“Go,” I say, my voice demanding it. “I want her down from there.”

Their feet shuffle slowly into action, but it is as sluggish as a summer’s evening. I’m not even sure if their movement is toward their assignment, or just movement in general.

The door behind us swings open, and they are suddenly still. I glance back, where they’re exchanging mortified, guilty glances under Matt’s glare.

He looks down the street toward what’s left of Sarah. “You heard her,” he says. “Go.”

Jacob and Taylor hightail it toward the corpse.

I turn and eye Matt, and he gazes back at me. How long will he let me get away with this kind of thing, I wonder, before it gets old?

He looks off toward the brothers, who are climbing onto Canson’s roof in an attempt to get at the body, then his eyes scan off toward the west wall, where the afternoon sun is only a foot or so from disappearing. He moves toward me, and puts his arm around my shoulders, squeezing. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s go home.”

E #2, Evolution


  • p=. *Available Now

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[*

Also by Kate Wrath*]

[listed in intended reading order]

Evolution (E, #2)

Eden (E, #3)

Jason and Lily (E, prequel)

Elegy (E, #4)

Endgame (E, #5), coming in 2016

[*

Acknowledgements*]

WORKING ON E has certainly been a journey. This has been an entirely independent project, so I don’t have a lot of people to thank, but I still have a ton of thanks to give.

First, foremost, and always, to my editor (and other half), Pol, who took valuable time away from his own very amazing writing to go through mine with a fine-toothed comb. Who put up with my insistence that “leprotic” is a perfectly valid word. Who spent endless nights listening to my rambles about formatting, and marketing, and traditional versus indie publishing. Who reviewed endless versions of cover art. Who wasn’t afraid to tell me what sucked, and insisted on key rewrites even when I was ready to be done. Who is, basically, dream editor, cheerleader, and superhero all rolled into one. Acknowledgment is not enough. Gratitude is not enough. I owe you like… a lifetime of undying love and affection, or something. (You have it.)

…And to my beta-readers, Mary (Mom), Jordan, and David. Your feedback and insight helped me make the final tweaks to my novel, and gave me the courage to call it done and get it out there. You’ve made all the work worth it, already. Thank you for believing in me. I promise you’ll get to read the next one before anyone else!


E

BOOK ONE IN THE E SERIES Life is harsh. It makes no exceptions. Not even for the innocent. Outpost Three: a huddle of crumbling buildings choked by a concrete wall. Cracked pavement, rusted metal, splintering boards. Huge robotic Sentries police the streets, but the Ten Laws are broken every time one turns its back. Eden is determined, smart, and a born survivor. Stripped of her memories and dumped on the streets of the Outpost, slavers and starvation are only the beginning of her problems. A devastating conflict is coming that threatens to consume her world and tear her newfound family apart. “Absolutely heart-stopping! Grizzly, dark, haunting and gripping in a way that kept me glued in to the very end. If you are looking for a strong and smart heroine in a kick butt dystopian world, this is the book for you.” - Leti Del Mar, author

  • ISBN: 9781310814655
  • Author: Kate Wrath
  • Published: 2016-05-15 03:20:20
  • Words: 112856
E E