Authors: L. Stoddard Hancock
Cruel & Beautiful World
Deryn Leon awoke suddenly as the van came to a halt, her heart racing as she looked out the barred window to see where they were. She knew the house but not well. It was just on the outskirts of Middle City in Utopia, and the Guardian who resided there liked his slaves fresh.
She hadn't been fresh in a long time.
A girl in the seat across from her whimpered. Deryn looked at her unmarked skin and sighed. She was young. She was beautiful. He would love her.
The door to the back of the van opened.
"There aren't many this time," said the driver as his face appeared in the bright shaft of light. "The president's been disposing of more and more lately. Been in one hell of a mood since they lost track of that damn Leon boy again." He caught Deryn's eye and smiled wickedly.
The Guardian named Wenton Pace poked his head in and thoroughly scanned the goods. He paused on Deryn for a moment. She stared back at him with cold, unafraid eyes that made many of the president's Guardians, the highest form of guard, look right past her since they feasted on fear.
As expected, he quickly moved on to the whimpering girl, not even taking notice of the four other beaten and bruised women or the two men who were also in the van.
"What's this one?" he asked, pointing at her. "Resistance?"
"Don't think so. A group of 'em were caught outside, not sure how they got out. Thought it'd be fun to breathe the toxic air. After they were quarantined the president had the others executed but Barath requested to keep this one. This is her first run since."
"Yes, I can tell. She's certainly in better condition than the rest," said Wenton, glancing at Deryn. "Bring her out. It's been a long time since I've had such a pretty one in my home." He licked his lips.
The girl struggled and screamed as the driver climbed inside the van and dragged her out by her bound wrists. He slammed and locked the door behind them. The other prisoners listened in silence as she continued to scream all the way to the house.
Deryn looked out through the bars and watched her until she was gone. She'd learned a long time ago that it was a waste of energy to struggle like that. The collar they wore would zap them dead if they traveled more than two-hundred feet from the van. She had seen it happen many times before. There was no means for escape. Of course, some might argue that death was the better option. She certainly thought about it often enough.
"Such a shame."
Deryn turned. The old woman sitting beside her was also staring out the window.
"Only in these dark times could being so young and beautiful ever be such a curse."
Deryn nodded but didn't speak. It was best to keep friendly words and names out of these drives, since there was a fairly decent chance she would never see any of these people again.
But this woman she actually recognized from several drives before. She'd been a slave for years, just like her.
The doors burst back open and the driver shoved a different girl inside. She was bloody and beaten, her left eye so swollen that it was barely visible behind a large, purple mark. She must have been a member of the Resistance, since Wenton always treated them the worst.
The newest arrival settled in a seat and sobbed into her hands. The van started again and pulled back on the slick road.
"Looks like we're headed for Inner City," said the old woman, still staring out the window. "That means you have at least thirty minutes to rest." She smiled at Deryn. "Come here, child and place your head on my lap. Out of all our times traveling together, I've never seen you look so weary before."
Deryn glanced hesitantly at the woman's lap and then into her blue eyes, which still shined bright even after all she'd been through. She tried to smile back but it fell short. How long had it been since she'd genuinely smiled? And then she remembered. It was the last time she'd seen Dakota. When he'd told her he loved her.
"Thank you," she said weakly, lying down and resting her head on the woman's lap.
The old woman stroked Deryn's hair, the gentle touch soothing her enough to drift into a shallow sleep. She didn't know how to sleep deeply anymore.
Deryn wasn't sure how long it had been since she was first enslaved. Definitely several years, but she'd stopped keeping track after the first. Mundane things like time only made her life more miserable.
They had these slave trades every three months or so. A gift to the Guardians for their loyal service and to keep those still fighting in the Resistance from ever finding their loved ones. Two birds, one stone. It was Elvira, the president's demon spawn's idea to use the slave trade like this. Deryn was there when she'd came up with it. In fact, she'd been the inspiration. It was her penalty for being the daughter of the Resistance's leader.
Sometimes Deryn would hear stories about the Resistance breaking into Utopia and bombarding places she had once stayed, supposedly looking for her, but they were always too late.
It had been a long time since she'd heard about any of these rescue missions. The rumor was that her father had forgotten about her. Her last owner told her that President Saevus was considering disposing of her, preferably through a very public execution. She had meant to scare Deryn, but she'd only found relief in her words.
It was hard to believe that not too long ago the world had been such a different place. While many Utopians did believe the outside air was toxic, they would never have fought those who wanted to live there. Not until the day President Saevus took over, voted into power through a rigged election following his father, the former president's death.
At first, the change was subtle. Outsiders only being allowed in certain parts of the city, then they were only let in at all if they agreed to be quarantined first. It was troublesome but nothing they couldn't handle.
And then the kidnapping began.
That was when everything had truly changed, and Deryn had been taken from her home to train and become a guard of Utopia. Of course, in retrospect, that hadn't been so terrible. Not like now, where she was forced every day to do things unmentionable. And all because her father had come for her, but failed to set her free.
Several Years Earlier
Deryn ran into the large room at Eagle Training Center and searched frantically for her father. It was overrun by battling Guardians and Outsiders, their guns roaring and blood spilling at every turn.
She found her father Godfrey in a heated battle with President Collin Saevus. The two were cousins, though they never knew each other, kept apart by siblings with different views of the world.
Deryn beelined for Godfrey, but was knocked onto her back when a guard's weapons set off a blast that exploded against the wall. It was Saevus's loyalist follower, his daughter Elvira, and she had been aiming for Kara Triggs. Kara was like a mother to Deryn, always taking care of her after she'd lost her real mother at a young age. And she was here fighting. For her.
They were going at it roughly and Kara only had a primitive gun while Elvira had an Element. It was a special weapon designed solely for guards and had everything from powerful explosions to protective shields. Some attacks were fatal, others simply incapacitated their enemies.
Still, Kara knew how to fight and she was ready to finish this woman once and for all.
Deryn waited for her head to stop spinning and got back on her feet. She couldn't believe this was real. This whole battle was happening because of her. To save her from becoming a guard the next day, on her eighteenth birthday.
It had been three years since she'd last seen her father. Not since the night she and several other Outsider children were taken from their homes by Saevus's guards to become one of them. And here she was, one day away from her sealed fate and the Outsiders had come for her, invading Eagle Center and armed to fight with their ancestors' rusty weapons to set their children free. To stop this cruel recruiting process once and for all.
Deryn couldn't let this happen. She couldn't let people die for her.
She scanned the room for Kara, making sure she was safe before aiming her Element at Elvira. But she never got the chance to fire before Elvira noticed her. She switched the setting on her Element and sent a large gust of wind in Deryn's direction, knocking her back off her feet.
Kara was livid. She tried to retaliate by shooting several bullets at Elvira, but they bounced right off of her protective dark-blue Guardian trench coat. It was better than any body armor. The only way to kill a Guardian with the Outsiders' old guns was to shoot them in the head, straight on. Even in the back would never work since they wore hoods.
Having had enough of this, Kara pulled a dagger out of her boot and lunged at Elvira, knocking the other woman off her feet. The two of them wrestled on the floor for a while, Kara trying to find a weak spot in Elvira's coat while Elvira tried to regain control.
Deryn ran for them again, attempting to aim her Element but afraid she might hit Kara by mistake. Elvira's Element was still set to let out a powerful gust of wind. She pulled the trigger, holding it long enough to knock anyone within a five foot radius on their backs.
Kara flew off of her, her knife falling from her hand as she hit the floor hard. Without hesitation, Elvira grabbed the knife, lifted it high and jammed it into Kara's heart.
Deryn watched in horror as blood poured from Kara's chest, her body convulsing and eyes bulging as she had a small moment of clarity before turning her head to look at Deryn. Then all movement ceased, and Kara was no more. Her eyes wide open and lifeless, and aimed right at Deryn.
Loud laughter echoed from across the room. Deryn looked and saw President Saevus glancing around joyously as so many Outsiders fought for their children and their lives. Elvira hurried to be by his side. Godfrey was no longer near him.
Kara's son Dakota ran towards her, wearing his steel-blue guard trench coat but having torn off Saevus's crest from the sleeves.
"Dax! Your mom! I'm so sor -"
"I saw," he said, cutting her off as he held back tears. He grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet. "Where's your dad?"
"I don't know."
She scanned the room frantically. It was large and crowded, and it took her a while before she finally found her father, who was near Saevus once more. He was circling him, hatred pouring from his very soul as he stared at the man who had taken his children from him.
Collin Saevus was not a man. He was the enemy.
He and Godfrey had their weapons aimed, her father now holding an Element.
"It didn't have to be this way," said Godfrey, pressing a button on the top of his Element.
The president laughed. "I believe it did."
"Our request is simple. Give us back our children and we'll leave Utopia forever."
"You know, I don't think I will," said Saevus, his smile unnerving.
A large gust of wind shot through the room and they both wobbled on their feet. Elvira's husband Soren had knocked three Outsiders into a group of guards, who were ready to attack. Then he turned and shot another Outsider in the face, his finger so quick that no one knew the blast would be powerful enough to make the man's head explode. Deryn and Dakota were close enough that his blood splattered on them.